Saturday, July 09, 2016

Laundering Lego...

As I have mentioned before, from time to time, on Tuesday mornings my friend Sheila comes over for a couple of hours, bringing one or more of her daughters. We started this when the 'Mums and Tots' group which she belonged to and where I helped stopped meeting on a Tuesday, many years ago now. The girls are a great deal older than 'Tots' age, but are all educated at home. So we've continued the tradition, and mostly enjoy it very much.

Sometimes they spend most of their time colouring or drawing, sometimes we play board or card games, sometimes we read a lot of books... and sometimes they spend their time with the Lego. I always considered Lego one of the most important educational tools: it teaches construction skills, various maths concepts, and also exercises the imagination. My sons had a lot of Lego as children, mostly sets given by generous relatives. They would always start by building the relevant objects or scenes, but would then quickly adapt them, and eventually incorporate them into other imaginative play. For some years they had a huge Lego city, which led to many hours of play with their friends.

We've gradually given away most of their childhood toys, but the Lego has remained. The boxes and instructions are long gone, but it doesn't matter at all.

A couple of weeks ago, H (7) decided to build a straw house, so she used a lot of yellow:

E (6) meanwhile had her king and queen feasting:

This 'forest' seemed a bit sparse....

K (10) had built this house, and was creating inside scenes:

E asked for some yarn, and then created a carriage out of what had been a ship:

After a couple of weeks of intensive Lego, I started thinking about the rest of our collection which was stored in our guest flat. From time to time we've gone down and gathered a few extra pieces - mostly dragons and horses - but I knew it was a muddle of pieces, some of which could potentially be useful.

So I went downstairs to fetch it. And the girls were delighted, and found several things they wanted to use....

Unfortunately, it had been stored for some years in an old trunk which had begun to disintegrate. While it was now in a more hygienic plastic box, it smelled very musty. So when Sheila and her daughters had gone home, I decided that it would be a good idea to wash it.

It was a pity I didn't think of that sooner, since a lot of the musty pieces had become mixed up with the Lego we previously had upstairs, meaning that ALL of it had to be washed. And this proved to be a major task, which took me most of the rest of that day, and almost all of Wednesday.  There were several times when I rather regretted having started, since the temperatures were quite hot - then again, it did all dry fairly quickly.

I used crates to wash pieces, a few hundred at a time, in the sink with a bit of washing-up liquid, then spread everything on a towel to dry.

As I did, I started some rough sorting, including finding parts of 'people' which, in many cases, were muddled up with other pieces. The heads, round and yellow, were fairly easy to spot but some of the leg pieces were hidden until I spread them out and began to go through every piece.

It didn't all dry quite as fast as I hoped, so the kitchen was a complete muddle for a day and a half, with scenes like this:

As well as sorting people, I made a box for trees and foliage of all kinds, and was surprised at how much there was:

Another box took wheels and the pieces that held them together.

The girls had told me that they didn't need many of them, so the big 'space' and 'snow' wheels went in a box to go downstairs, along with some of the basic bricks and all the 'technic' lego which is really intended for older children and teens. They never play with the 'space' lego either, so when I found something that obviously belonged to that, I put it aside for downstairs too.

One of the 'people' we had upstairs was a skeleton, and I knew there must be another one somewhere, probably in parts, as we had a spare arm or two.  To my astonishment, I kept finding more skeleton pieces, and Tim told me that the 'Pharaoh' masks were supposed to go on some of them, as they were part of the Egyptian explorers sets which they had at some point.

Eventually I put together six of them, three to keep upstairs, and three for downstairs:

The girls were coming back Thursday morning, so Sheila could go and help at the Oasis refugee centre, so it was a useful deadline.  And sure enough, with a great deal of sorting - it became compulsive, somehow! - I managed to get everything back in the cupboard by nine o'clock Thursday morning:

I even managed to find three stacking blue crates, one of which I allocated to each of the girls, so they can keep their current projects in them rather than having them muddled in with the main box.

As well as Lego in the downstairs box, I found the boys' old Meccano, which has gone downstairs again:

I also found several pieces of K'nex, which I added to the larger box of that, also downstairs currently:

And this miscellaneous box of bits, which I might sort one day:

Or maybe not. Most mysterious of all are three purple knobbly square plastic objects, about a centimetre across. I've put them with the K'nex for now, although I think they belong to something else. But despite asking around, and even putting a photo on Facebook, I still have no idea what they are, or what toy - or game? - they belong to:

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Ten years in this house - and yet more minor improvements

I'm not very good with dates.

I know all the family's birthdays, but if it weren't for my Google calendar reminding me in advance, I might well forget about them until too late to send a card or gift. I often don't even notice dates that other people celebrate - Valentine's Day, for instance, or Mothering Sunday. Facebook is quite good at letting me know when we, and other nationalities mark an occasion, so I spotted that yesterday was Independence Day in the United States.

But I had entirely forgotten that today, July 5th, is quite an important anniversary for us. Happily, Facebook told me that I'd mentioned it a couple of times in previous years... and so, this blog post is to celebrate that it's ten years today since we bought our house in Cyprus.

I would have been a bit sad if I'd missed it this year, though I'm sure I don't always notice it. That's partly because of it being a round ten years, and partly because in the first six months of this year we've done a great deal to the house, in recognition of our having owned it for ten years. It was looking tired; we had done very little before this year, and some of the paintwork was looking terrible.

I've written at length about the damp proofing system which we had installed back in March.  We won't know how effective it is until next winter, but the guest flat already smells less musty.

Before that, we had employed our teenage friend Jacob to do some painting; many of our window frames had lost all the paint, and some were quite rotten. So he sanded and painted, and repaired, and then painted the places where the damp proof course was installed, and the front of the house downstairs, which spruced it up nicely.

Then in April we had our bathroom replaced, something we had talked about for many years, but finally did this year. We did the last few bits and pieces for that in May, and are still extremely pleased with it.

But one thing that Jacob kept putting off was painting the railings on our front patio. We weren't surprised; it's something we kept putting off too. It looked like a very fiddly and time consuming job. However, our good friend Sheila (Jacob's mother) said that she would like to do it for us, so she came over early in the morning several times, and did a great job. I didn't take many 'before' or 'after' photos, but did manage to get this one, right after she had painted one half of the gate:

The difference is stunning.

When it was finished, we realised how very tatty the postbox looked. Like in the United States, people in Cyprus don't have slots in their doors for mail, but have little boxes outside. We have a PO Box at the Post Office where we get most of our mail, but there are vast amounts of junk mail advertisements for shops and eateries which arrive regularly, and it's a legal requirement to have a post box near the street.

This is what the box looked like:

The lock was a bit rusty, and it looked terrible on our newly painted fence. We thought about painting it to match, but it would have been quite a task, and almost impossible to hold the flap and the opening door out of the way while the paint dried. It was held on the fence by ancient pieces of wire.

So when we had to make a trip to the local SuperHome Centre, for a couple of things, I had a look at the mail boxes. There were dozens of them in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours. I nearly gave up when I spotted a small black one, at a good price, which would meet our needs perfectly. We bought a metallic number to affix, and Richard installed it... with cable ties:

On the same trip to the DIY store, we saw some mosquito netting that could be fitted to the window sections that open at the top of some of our doors. We thought it would be ideal for the one in the dining room, which we like to keep open in Spring and Autumn, but have had to close in the evenings to keep out mosquitoes.

So we bought it, and Richard installed it immediately:

It took a little getting used to, and now the weather is so hot that we mostly keep it closed if we want to be in the room in the evening, so we can use the air conditioning. But it should be very useful in the Autumn.

There are still a few small things that need to be done: the last bit of plastering and painting on the wall outside our bathroom, a new fitting in one of the loos, re-tiling in the guest flat bathroom. Our friendly local builder said he should be able to come some time this week. It will be good to have these last few bits done. There are still other more major jobs that the house needs, but we've had enough of house maintenance for now, and will leave the rest until next year.

Happy anniversary, house!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cyprus, the EU and Brexit

As my family and friends know, I am not a night-owl. Far from it. I like to be in bed by around 10pm (earlier if possible) and asleep soon afterwards.

I am also not a fan of big crowds, or loud noises, or cheering, or fireworks. I keep away from most of the major festivals and other celebrations in Cyprus which are exuberant, full of colour and cheering.

But twelve years ago, I went with my family to the sea-front at midnight. There were more crowds than I had ever seen before; there was scarcely room to move. People were excited, and in Cyprus that means LOUD.

There was patriotic music too.

Our older son was playing in the municipal band at the time (though we couldn't get a photo that included him), so he had to be there.

But I didn't. I was tired, but this was one celebration that I could not miss. It was the entry of Cyprus into the European Union.

At midnight, the fireworks started:

We went home elated. Not just because life would become so much easier for us: now we had the right of abode in Cyprus, whereas previously we had to spend many hours applying for visas, supplying different paperwork every year. Not just because it meant the start of better relations with other European countries; not just because it would help Cyprus economically, and improve the standard of living (or so everyone had been told...).

No, there was a sense of rightness about it. At last we could feel that Cyprus was truly 'home', part of what we - in our forties at the time - saw as our cultural and ethnic heritage.

A little history for those who read this from across the Pond:

The UK went into the European Economic Community in 1973. I was a young teenager then. I didn't understand most of the implications. I was aware that there might be some new - possibly over-the-top - regulations, but I very much liked the metric/decimal system (adopted in 1971, prior to this). It's great deal easier to use than the old style imperial one with its variety of complex units.

The 1975 referendum saw a two-thirds majority of people in the UK wanting to stay within Europe, and thus when the EU was formed, the UK became part of it. Brits did not want to take up the common currency, which was an important part of the EU formation, so they insisted on an opt-out clause. That's why the UK still uses pounds sterling (I fail to understand why it matters, but that's another issue entirely).

The Single European Act of 1987 created "an area without frontiers in which the free movement of goods and persons, services and capital is ensured." 

I'm only just old enough to recall anything about life before the EEC. But for our children - indeed, for anyone under the age of about 40 - European membership is all they've ever known. They have European passports. They have had the freedom of travelling and working anywhere in Europe, without the need for visas. We have been able to choose to live anywhere in Europe; we can transport and buy goods from other European countries without paying extra taxes.

Then on Thursday last week, the UK voted - by a narrow margin - to leave the EU.

The exit (dubbed 'Brexit') hasn't happened yet, and is likely to take many months, perhaps two years or more, to take effect. But still, it left us in a state of shock.

We had been following the campaign, at least on the news websites and social media, and it appeared that there would be a majority (albeit small) voting to remain, at least for now.

But the polls were wrong. The results became clear first thing Friday morning: almost 52% of those who voted wanted to leave the EU.

On Friday and Saturday we tried to understand what had persuaded so many people to vote that way.

Unfortunately, as is the way with the media (both the normal and social forms) extremists came to the fore. We saw articles about hate crimes from a tiny minority in the UK who are xenophobic, who somehow thought that leaving the EU would mean that all immigrants could be sent away. An interview clip went viral, showing a man insisting that he had no problem with Europeans in the UK, but had voted 'leave' so that all the Middle Easterners and non-whites would have to leave.

Assuming it was not satire, he had missed the point entirely. I hope someone explained to him that it's only Europeans who will find it harder to come to the UK as they'll no longer have right of abode. It won't make any difference to the refugee intake; indeed, it may lead to MORE refugees from the Middle East and other parts of Asia, as the EU border controls will no longer be relevant to the UK.

There was also an outbreak of 'ageism', which was unpleasant; charts showed that younger people mostly voted to remain in the UK, older people (including my generation) were more likely to vote to leave. Statuses and articles were being shared in the initial anger and deep hurt that so many, particularly those in their teens and twenties, were (and are still) feeling.  No longer will they have the freedom of travel, study and work that we have enjoyed for the past thirty or so years.

Europeans - particularly Eastern Europeans from former Soviet countries - in the UK often take low-paid jobs that Brits don't want. It's true in Cyprus, too.  Some euro-sceptics twelve years ago insisted that crime would rise when Cyprus joined the EU, and there was, for a while, a slight increase in burglaries. But violent crime in Cyprus has remained at the lowest percentage in Europe.  There's xenophobia here, but it's nowhere near as damaging as it was even twenty years ago.  We Brits and other Europeans have had to be treated the same as Cypriots legally speaking. It hasn't always happened in practice, but we've had the law on our side.

This will no longer be the case.

On Saturday evening, after spending far too much time on social media, feeling confused and upset by the result, and even more by the angst and negative feelings that were arising, I wrote this on Facebook:

"I honestly thought I would accept whatever the result was; indeed, though I was shocked and a bit numb at first, that's what I said when I heard the news first thing yesterday morning. But then, through the morning, the numbness gave way to an immensely deep sadness, which I compared to a bereavement. And no, that's not hyperbole. It honestly felt that way. 
When we lived in the US in the early 1990s, we realised how very European we were. We love being part of this big continent, both geographically and politically. We were thrilled when Cyprus joined the EU 12 years ago, as it made life so much easier for us as ex-pats, and there were a lot of benefits to this little island too. Around 10% of the population are ex-pats, many of them Brits. 
So the EU, despite its faults and bureaucracy, has felt like an extra guardian for decades. Now we're going to have to give it up, and it is deeply distressing. Not just to me: I've seen dozens of other people express exactly the same thing. There's a sense of grieving; those who wanted to leave may find it difficult to comprehend, but we're in a period of mourning. 
Normal expressions of grief, according to experts, involve feeling distant from others, feeling as if nobody understands, shock, numbness and anger. I've seen a lot of these things floating about and inevitably those who are not mourning are feeling attacked. I don't think it's intended."

I took a break yesterday. I didn't read any news articles, although inevitably we discussed the issue, yet again, at home. We hope the implications for us won't be too bad; Cyprus has issued a statement that Brits living here are still welcome, and if we have to start applying for visas again every year, it's an annoying inconvenience, but in the scheme of global tragedy and suffering, not much of an issue.

But what still concerns me is the huge divide amongst thinking, intelligent adults around the UK. If we exclude the extremists and those who voted in ignorance of what the EU is, people have taken the same facts, presumably seen TV news and read media articles, removed the inevitable bias one way or another, attempted to ignore the spin... and yet have been about evenly divided with two such different conclusions.

Nobody knows what the future holds now. Legally speaking the Referendum doesn't mean an inevitable exit. The government has to ratify it (as they have had to do with all EU regulations) and will have to make an official request to the EU for the exit, if they decide to go ahead. Many are calling for a further Referendum, since the margin was so narrow in the recent one; EU law itself suggests that, for such a big change, there should be a rather bigger majority wanting to leave than just under 52% of those who voted.

There are extra legal complications in that although the UK is a country, it is made up of three separate countries and a province (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Is it the UK that is part of the EU, or the individual countries? The Scots, in the recent Referendum, voted overall to remain in the EU. So did the Northern Irish. Does this potentially mean the end of the UK, or can Scotland force the Referendum results to be overturned?

The British Prime Minister has resigned, and there does not appear to be any clear plan for the way forward. At present, the UK is still part of the EU, although the pound sterling has dropped from 1.3 euros last Wednesday to 1.2 euros today. Share values have dropped, too. Perhaps this will change - perhaps not.

My impression is that the majority of 'Leave' voters have a stronger feeling for the UK than they do for the EU, while the 'Remain' voters are the other way around. Patriotism is a strange thing, something I have never really understood until the past few days, when I realise that yes, I did - and do - have a very strong allegiance to Europe as a whole. I visit the UK because family and friends are there, but if they all moved to Cyprus, I would have no reason ever to go to my country of birth.

I understand the dislike of 'big' government. I'm all for smaller city councils, with people who care about their local schools and hospitals and so on, rather than all decisions coming from bureaucrats who have never been to the places concerned. But those still exist. As do the individual country governments and parliaments.

So what puzzles me most of all is the claim that the EU makes 'most' of the UK laws. The EU does not make any UK laws. I checked an independent fact site and it said that EU regulations do affect about 13% of UK laws, and in addition there are a significant number of trade and travel details related to EU requirements.

There are, of course, some regulations which countries have to follow in order to trade within the EU (such as extensive labelling of food products, and various health/hygiene standards) but if the UK wants to continue to trade with European countries, they'll have to continue following those rules. And when I look at specifics of EU regulations, either they don't actually affect the UK directly (such as fishing rights in Scandinavian countries, or the processing of olives...) or they're helpful in maintaining standards of living, equality for minorities, treatment of animals, importing of products from elsewhere, and so on.

Since Cyprus entered the EU, quite apart from making it easier for other Europeans to live here, we've seen increased quality of restaurants and other food preparation places, the first few years of the major task of putting sewers everywhere in the island, full European style labelling of all food products (essential for those with allergies and intolerances), a much wider range of goods available from other European countries, laws requiring motor bike helmets, requirements of MOTs for cars, ramps and other facilities for the disabled, and introduction of no-smoking policies in many public places.

That's just off the top of my head.

And while smokers might disagree, I cannot think of anything negative about any of those laws.

Perhaps the Cyprus government might have passed some of these laws without being in Europe, but somehow I doubt it. They still had to ratify them although some were a requirement of receiving EU funding, some are necessary for trading. People still get around them if they can, as they do with any law, European or otherwise. But as far as I can tell, with my admittedly limited perspective, being in the EU has been overwhelmingly positive for Cyprus.

So I'm now wondering: what specific laws in the UK, originated in Europe, do people object to....?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Summer heat-wave and forest fires in Cyprus

I mentioned at the end of my last post that we started using our air conditioners on Friday, very thankful that we had them cleaned in advance. It's not unusual to become warm enough for air conditioning towards the end of June (anything over 30C counts) and occasionally we've had heatwaves this early in the year, but they're not usually as lengthy as the one which the island is still coping with.

This brief article about Cyprus in summer, written nearly a week ago, explains that the usual temperatures for this time of year are around 35C inland, and just over 30C at the coast. However there was a low pressure system, and it was a great deal hotter already, with predictions of 41C inland by Tuesday.

All of which is inconvenient, but I am very grateful for the ability - mostly - to keep cool. Far worse are the horrendous forest fires which are blazing in parts of the mountains of Cyprus. Started by careless people burning rubbish, over 15 square km of land has been destroyed, and at least two fire-fighters have lost their lives.

Fires are still raging, and volunteers are being asked to help, as it spreads towards some of the villages. Aeroplanes from Cyprus and several other countries are using sea-water to quench the flames; inevitably the salt will damage the forests further.

Back to everyday life... I didn't get my walk by the Salt Lake last Saturday, due to Alex being stuck on a neighbouring balcony, and yesterday I didn't wake until nearly 6.00. It already felt warm by then; but I wanted to see how empty the lake had become, so suggested Sheila and I walk at least a little way.

Last year was cooler overall with quite a wet winter, but we haven't had nearly so much rain this year, and Summer has come earlier. So this is what we saw:

There's still a little water some way out, but if this heat continues, it will have dried out entirely by the end of June.

I was struck by how very tall some of the weeds had become. Sheila kindly agreed to be in the photo too, to give an idea of scale:

They're already looking brown, however, as is much of the other foliage.

We walked less than a kilometre, and I was already feeling too hot. We still had to go and feed my son's cat, as he was in the UK, so we made our way back; it was probably a bad idea to go at all as I felt very headachey by lunch-time, and unbelievably tired.

Our house is much cooler than outside but the thermometer on the kitchen scales was showing 32C by 8.00 in the morning.  I realised that although the humidity is still relatively low, it's a problem that the heatwave has come early, as it's the Summer Solstice period, meaning it's light before 5am, so the sun warms everything up much earlier than it does in August, when we expect higher temperatures.

The heatwave is predicted to continue for at least another week. The humidity is 'only' at around 39% at present, which means that evenings and nights are not as unpleasant as they can feel in July. But even 39% humidity means that the temperatures feel hotter than they actually are. According to this chart, we're at 'yellow' alert (great discomfort) as far as heatstroke and other dangers are concerned. Inland, where the temperatures are due to rise to 40C or higher, it will be 'orange' alert, defined as dangerous.

So as far as possible I am estivating.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Another Adventure for Alexander....

For his first year living with us, our cat Alexander kept his own blog. With a little help, of course. As our two-year-old grandson realised today, while having a conversation with me on Facetime, cats don't have hands. That makes it remarkably difficult for them to type.

Around the time he was a year old, Alex discovered how to get out of the house from our utility balcony (where the cat litter is kept), leaping over a metal roof and down. There was no longer any way of keeping him in, and we decided to install another cat flap over our spiral staircase, so that the other cats could get in and out relatively easily.

With Alex's increased explorations of the neighbourhood, I had far less idea of what he was doing and his blogging ceased. It had been fun, but - we thought - he was turning into a more sensible cat who was less likely to do anything silly.

Then just before Christmas his sister Joan disappeared, and Alex - we assume - was in some kind of accident. We weren't sure he was going to survive, at first, but with a lot of TLC, and some pain relief from the vet, he pulled through and by the end of January was back to his normal self, going out and about, trying to follow us when we walked places, and generally being a likeable, if sometimes demanding cat.

We had an incident in February, when our damp proof course was installed, and Alex got stuck up a tall pine tree. He made a great deal of noise but resisted all attempts to tempt him down, and struggled to get out of Richard's arms when he put a long ladder rather precariously up the tree in order to rescue him.

Then he was sensible for a while, lulling us into a sense of false security.

When I woke this morning, around 5.30am I realised that Alex had not been in the room all night. My toes had not been bitten, and I had not been woken by any scrabbling at the door. With the much warmer weather, he's been sleeping all day and going out at night, so I wasn't too worried at first. I got up, went to feed Cleo, and texted my friend Sheila to say that I was about ready to go for our usual early morning walk.

I didn't have a reply at first, so I thought perhaps she was still sleeping, and decided to see if I could find Alex.  As I went down the stairs I heard his mew, loudly and clearly.

I looked all round, and it took me a few moments to locate him... on the upstairs balcony of one of the neighbouring houses:

I assumed he could get down, since he had evidently got up there, and walked along the front of the house, calling to him. At one place there's a gap before another balcony, and there's a ledge below which is quite wide enough for Alex. It's less of a jump than he makes regularly to get out from our utility balcony.

But he wouldn't do it. He jumped to the other balcony and back again, mewing the whole time. I began to wonder if the neighbours had gone away, as nobody was appearing from the house. This is Kataklysmos weekend - the Eastern and Orthodox Pentecost - and Monday will be a major public holiday, so I wouldn't have been surprised.

I wondered if he would do better if I stopped watching him but when I went back into our house for a minute, he stopped mewing and started howling. I was worried he might wake the entire street! So I went back outside.

At that point Sheila appeared and we discussed what to do. I'm not at all good in a crisis of any kind; I was prepared to keep walking up and down and encouraging Alex to try and jump down, but Sheila is better at taking action.  She went to try and get a ladder that we keep at the back of the house, but realised that it was impossible to get at currently.

So I went to ask Richard where our step-ladder was, and then found it in our guest flat. It wasn't really high enough but Sheila went into the neighbours' front yard and climbed to the top, then reached up... and Alex pulled away from her grasp. As when he was in the tree, it appeared that he didn't want to be rescued, or didn't trust his rescuer.

Sheila then managed to climb onto the ledge itself. I was holding the ladder, which was wobbling precariously, so couldn't take any more photos...

Then a door on the other balcony opened, and a tousled head looked out. Sheila spoke to someone in Greek - there are new tenants in that part of the house, whom we don't know - and they opened another door for Alex to go in, and let him out of the front door. We thanked her profusely and she said it was nothing; that she had heard the mews but had not realised it was so close!

Alex was rather subdued, and we didn't go on our walk; perhaps just as well as there's been a major heatwave today with shade temperatures up to almost 40C. We are very glad that the air conditioners were cleaned a few weeks ago, and started using them, when needed, yesterday.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A glut of soft fruit

One of the things which, on balance, I like about Cyprus is that fruit and vegetables tend to be quite seasonal. Most of what we find at the fruitaria is locally grown; there are imported apples, bananas, and potatoes much of the year, but soft fruit such as peaches and plums, and the huge inexpensive watermelons only appear during the summer months.

Of course, this is how it always used to be all around the world. People used to use the months of plenty to preserve fruit for the leaner winter months. And while I've always made jam using fruit in season when it's good value, it's only in recent years that I've started lightly stewing and freezing soft fruit, which I use instead of cans.

Soft fruit starts appearing in May, but it usually seems to be about the 10th-12th June when there's so much that it's available remarkably inexpensively. I have enough Scottish in me to like a bargain. I thought I might make apricot jam yesterday, before the weather gets too hot even to think about jam-making, so on Friday, when we do our weekly shopping, we made sure that we went to the outside fruit stall around 9.00, before all the best buys had been taken.

Sure enough, there were tubs of apricots, each around 1.5kg according to the woman selling them, marked at two euros. I thought that wasn't bad value, then she told me that they were actually one euro each. I said we would have two, and she gave us a third tub for nothing.  Then I chose a 2kg tub of plums, also at a euro, and then spotted an entire small crate of peaches at the same price - weighing them later, I discovered that there were over 5kg of them, all perfectly ripe.

So we bought around 12kg soft fruit for four euros.

We did the rest of the shopping and then I had the task of trying to fit everything in the fridge. I didn't have time to process the fruit on Friday, and I knew from experience that even one night left out would mean that the fruit would start to go bad.  We have quite a big fridge for two people, but it was a tight squeeze:

On Friday night I stayed up too late, and then woke very early Saturday; I don't do well with only five hours sleep but knew I had to deal with the fruit. So I started with the apricot jam and made nearly eight jars, using 2kg of the apricots:

I counted the other jars I made earlier in the year, and the few left from last Autumn, and there are around twenty so that should be plenty to last until next March when I will make more strawberry jam.

Next thing was to stew the plums. I might have dried them - dehydrated plums are delicious! - but they were the kind that didn't easily give up their stones, so I cut them in half, stuck them in a pan with a little water, and stewed them for about half an hour. Four 450g tubs resulted, and I've labelled them as 'plums with stones'.

Since I couldn't dehydrate the plums, and didn't much like dried peaches when I tried with those a year or two back, my next task was to put another couple of kilograms, or so, of apricots in the dehydrator, which then ran all day:

I don't dry them completely, but freeze them in little pots. The total was about 400g. A large part of any soft fruit is water.

Most of the rest went into another pan to be stewed; since I wanted to make a dessert the following day using stewed apricots, I only froze one tub and put the rest in the fridge overnight.

I did keep a few for eating during the week. I hope to buy more apricots next Friday so I can stew and freeze some more.

Finally the peaches.  Thankfully they were not 'cling' peaches, so it was easy to halve them and remove the stones, and then roughly slice them for stewing. I kept the best ones for eating, and stewed the rest; here are some of the resultant tubs ready for freezing:

Those Flora spread tubs make perfect containers for around 450g stewed fruit, making them a perfect substitute for the (less healthy) canned equivalent, for cakes and puddings and pies.

It took me most of the day, off and on, to do this, but none of it was particularly strenuous and it was most satisfactory to have so much fruit processed and stored for the future. I don't think I had to throw anything away.

Alas for my pride. I had made the decision not to make a batch of granola yesterday, while I was dealing with all the soft fruit. It would be more efficient, I thought, to use the oven which would be on for our Sunday lunch. So I put the oats in about fifteen minutes before our roast potatoes were ready, and turned the oven off while we ate, not wanting anything to scorch.

After lunch, I turned the oven on again, added the seeds, nuts and coconut (etc) to the oats, along with the oil and carob syrup, mixed it up, and put it back in the oven.

Then I saw the vast array of dirty dishes around the kitchen. It felt daunting. Richard and Tim had both had to go out to do other things, so I decided to sit down for ten minutes to check email and one or two other things on my computer.

BIG mistake.

With the warm temperatures, we have lots of windows open and ceiling fans going, so the scent of my over-cooking granola did not reach me in my study, where I remembered something else I needed to do...

.. it was an hour and a half later when I went through to the kitchen with a sigh, knowing I had to sort out the mess. My nose was instantly alerted to the granola, which I had completely forgotten about.

So much for being more efficient with the oven usage. I was particularly annoyed because there's an 'off' timer on my oven, which I could easily have set. It might have been slightly over-done, but it wouldn't have been completely un-rescuable.

It actually looked worse than it does in this picture:

Nothing was edible. If I'd needed charcoal I might have been able to use it.  As it was, I had to wait until it was cool enough to pour into a plastic bag and throw it away.

I hate throwing food away.

So I felt suitably humbled, and made another batch. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Preparing for the Onslaught of Summer in Cyprus: cleaning curtains and air conditioners

Here's what I had been saying to various people:

- Every year since we moved to this house (almost exactly ten years ago) we have cleaned our air conditioners before using them for the summer.
- We had not, however, had them properly serviced, even though one is supposed to do so every three or four years, so they were well overdue.

Apparently, however, memory - as so often - is faulty. Searching in this blog for previous posts about air conditioners, I discovered:

- We didn't even find air conditioner fluid in the shops until the Autumn of 2008, and then only sporadically used it for the next couple of years
- We DID have our air conditioners - most of them, anyway - properly serviced in the summer of 2009

I wrote a lengthy post about the service, including the way we use air conditioning, and mentioning that a couple of them were very dirty and full of gunk, so we were glad that we did have them serviced. The one in what is now Richard's study was not working well, and was topped up with gas. The one in Tim's room had not been very effective, and had to be cleaned very thoroughly.

But although I remembered the study one being topped up (subsequently we replaced it with one from Richard's office when that closed) I didn't remember that we'd had any of the others serviced.

Still, that was seven years ago, so it was more than time for a repeat. And this time Richard knew of a firm that does this kind of thing regularly. He phoned on Friday, and they arranged to come yesterday morning at 8.00am.  We said that we would do the initial cleaning, so on Monday we went around the house, including our guest flat, taking out the filters, washing and spraying them, and running them to check if they were working. If anyone reading this would like to know HOW to clean air conditioners at home, then I wrote a post about that four years ago.

We have eleven air conditioning units in all, which might seem rather excessive for two people, but we both have studies, and our guest flat has two bedrooms, and is used extensively, plus an edit suite for Richard's work, so it's not unreasonable. Some are used far more than others, of course: the ones with computers in use are often on for several hours per day in July and August, and we run our bedroom one for an hour or so each evening during those months too.

Since this post is getting rather wordy, I thought I'd pause for a moment to show a picture of the air conditioner in my study:

...and the one in the living room:

...and the one in the dining room:

Yes, that's three entirely different designs. The one in the kitchen and in the two upstairs bedrooms are the same as the dining room one; the one in Richard's study, and two in the guest flat are yet another kind.  We have no idea if some are better than others, but several of them are considerably more than ten years old, so we wondered if we might need to replace some of them.

The men arrived promptly and set to work with a kind of power washer, catching the liquid (and dirt) in a trough which they strapped to each unit in turn. It looked a bit worrying (and we did ask them to cover the TV when they were near that) but was surprisingly non-messy.

We have no idea what chemicals were used, but the smell was quite overpowering at first. We opened all the doors and windows, and have done so today too, but it still lingers. It's not unpleasant, but gave me quite a headache yesterday afternoon.

We were surprised to learn that the air conditioner in Tim's room was very dirty and full of fungus, since it's not been used for the past couple of years, and not extensively before that. It was so bad that the service guy asked if we smoked in there! (No, we don't, and nobody in the house smokes). The one in the guest flat front bedroom was also very bad, but that's the room where we've had mould on the walls. We hope to have solved that problem by installing the damp proofing that I wrote about a few months ago.

Happily, none of the air conditioners needed to be replaced, and the only one that had to have some extra gas added was the one in our bedroom, so evidently the others are well-sealed and seem to be working well.

With that job out of the way, I decided to start my annual curtain-cleaning.  Probably more necessary than usual this year, due to our recent bathroom renovation. I don't know why I usually do this in June; perhaps it's an in-built need to spring-clean when it's clear that Summer will soon be upon us.

So today I laundered, hung out on the line, and then - about an hour later - re-hung back in place, all our main floor curtains:

Tomorrow I hope to do the upstairs ones. It's not a major job, though it felt that way when I first started doing it. It takes a couple of minutes to take each curtain down, slightly longer to re-hang them at the end, and the washing machine does most of the work. They don't need ironing at all, which is good because I don't iron in general.

On Monday I sprayed the soft furnishings with 'biokill', against summer insects, something I do once a month from the end of May until the end of September.

About two weeks ago I switched from jeans to shorts for the summer, and started drinking lunch-time frapp├ęs rather than hot coffees.  And yet my coconut oil still hasn't fully melted; the temperature in the house is around 24-26C during the day, and there's almost no humidity.  We haven't even put our duvet away for the summer yet, and I'm still - so far - going out for early walks.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A few more additions to our house...

In this, the tenth anniversary of our selling our UK house and buying one in Cyprus, we have done a LOT of renovations and repairs. Some of them should really have been done years ago, including repairing some of our rotting windowsills and frames, but we're not very good at making decisions or at getting around to this kind of thing.

So we started by employing a teenage friend to some painting, and he did such a good job that he's done a great deal of sanding, repairing and more painting, and even some plastering.

In the middle of that, we had a damp-proof course installed. While it's still early days, and hard to tell now that the weather's warmer, we do think our guest flat seems to smell less damp and the kitchen and bathroom cupboards are a lot less musty.

Then we did the most major work of all, having our bathroom renovated. I'm still glad I was out of the country while that was going on, and am very much appreciating the new bathroom. It was basically complete about a month ago, but since then we've done a few extra bits and pieces - I bought a wooden toilet-roll holder in the UK, and Richard put that in.

We replaced the bathroom bin and loo-brush holder, both of which were ancient, and even bought some new scales when Lidl had some on special offer.

We spent a lot of time looking for towels, either in cream or peach, but couldn't find any at all despite searching in several shops locally.  The towels we had been using were ten years old and getting rather scruffy as well as having lost any hint of fluffiness. They were cheap ones and served us well, but having spent a significant amount on the new bathroom, we thought it deserved new towels.

We also realised that there was a bit of a gap in the corner next to the toilet, and that we needed somewhere to store toilet rolls. So after much pondering, we decided to buy another Ikea unit, in the same range as our sink cabinet and mirror.

The shelf in the middle clearly needed a plant, so we spent ages looking for one that would survive in partial shade and would not need too much attention, and are happy to report that, four weeks later, it's not just alive but has some new leaves:

Any time we go to Ikea - which is just outside Nicosia - we seem to find several other things we weren't expecting to buy... and in this particular trip, we found some rather nice brown towels, both large bath sheets and some hand towels that would fit perfectly on our towel rail...

... and even a matching bathmat.

Bathroom complete, we didn't want to do anything else major, but we realised we had a new problem. For the last few years we have used an upright fan in our bedroom overnight, from about May through to October.  In the hottest weather, when the humidity is high, we use our air conditioning too, but right now the heat is dry, and a fan is all we need.

The trouble with the fan was that in order for it to be effective, it had to be in a place where Richard tripped over it or bumped into it almost every night. So he thought about affixing a wall fan in a corner, out of the way. I don't think wall fans look particularly nice and didn't know if it would work well enough, so for a few days recently we put the upright fan on top of the chest-of-drawers, and angled it with a couple of books underneath... far from ideal.

The obvious solution is one we had thought about ten years ago... a ceiling fan. We even bought one at Kleima, but it had the wrong kind of fitting so ended up in our guest flat. We had thought that nice ceiling fans, such as we have in our living areas (bought second-hand just before we moved in, from friends leaving the island) would be very expensive new.

But Leroy Merlin, a big hardware/DIY store in Nicosia (not far from Ikea) sells ceiling fans at very reasonable prices. So we went there yesterday, and bought ourselves a ceiling fan, of very similar style to our others. It's perhaps twice the price of an upright fan, but the ones we have elsewhere have lasted well over ten years, whereas upright ones tend to stop working after three or four.

Richard and Tim, between them, put the ceiling fan up yesterday afternoon....

I think it looks good - and more importantly, it was absolutely wonderful overnight. I felt pleasantly cool, Richard even complained of being cold this morning.

As I write this, the ceiling fan in my study is on, providing a pleasant breeze; they are wonderful inventions, and I am so thankful we now have one upstairs too.