Guns and turtles

I’ve been to some strange places, but this week must be one of the weirdest. We went to the beach, that’s not weird…but this was a bit of a different beach. After parking by an unremarkable hotel we followed a trail of people down a little path between two scruffy buildings. On one side there were a lot of signs with images of soldiers and a camera crossed out. The beach opened out to an absolutely stunning golden sandy expanse, with palm leaf umbrellas in rows, and beyond these a sparkling turquoise sea, framed by a strip of rocks in the distance, which the waves were gently crumbling against. The beach curved slightly to the right and a spur of sand reached out into the bay. A group of boys were taking it in turns to run straight off the beach and summersault into the water. It was a typical holiday scene. Almost.

Settling ourselves down on the sand, and creating shade with an umbrella, we gazed out at the travel brochure view in front of us. But behind us was another story. The scene at our backs was a stark reminder of the conflict that still rages in Cyprus. A tall green wire fence was the beach backdrop and beyond that hundreds of bombed out crumbling hotels looked bleakly out to sea. An abandoned construction crane was visible between two partially destroyed buildings. Some of the hotel names were still legible, with various letters hanging down sadly out of line. Most of the front of the buildings had gone, so you looked straight into room upon room, just the same, where people will have holidayed in the past and enjoyed the same crystal sea view. On the far right there was a concrete lookout tower, where uniformed soldiers with guns occasionally appeared and they could also be seen with helmets and binoculars silhouetted against the bright blue cloudless sky.

There is something rather chilling about basking in the warmth of the sea, feeling the sand between your toes, and yet never able to forget what is behind you and what stories lay buried in the rubble.

Later in the afternoon we picked up our flippers and snorkels and headed into the water towards the line of rocks. The sea was like a warm bath and I saw plenty of fish, one was as long as my shin bone, completely white with a very long pointy noise, which was basically most of its body. I’m going to call that a Pinocchio fish. To be honest we weren’t looking for fish because we wanted to see ‘Dude’. Finding Nemo lovers  – you know who I mean. After a lot of time spent adjusting and readjusting my mask, so that it wasn’t full of water, I eventually began searching properly. Apparently the mask was too wide for my face – which is good because it proves I haven’t got a fat face! We had been told turtles like eating the sea grass, so I was concentrating my search where I’d spotted grass waving at me from the ocean floor. I also tried a little singing, through my snorkel. This was because whales and dolphins like to sing, so I thought turtles might like it too. I was humming a bit and calling out his name, just in case. It came out rather gurgled, but it seemed to do the trick because it wasn’t long before I spotted a lovely little turtle, a bit bigger than a large pizza, just below me. He was flipping along, dipping down to take mouthfuls of grass and then paddling his way up to the surface for a breath. He didn’t seem bothered by us. And continued to appear from different directions in his search for ‘grass’ – ah Dude – it makes sense.

It may be a weird place with a poignant story that lives on, but the turtles are a beautiful sight and they will take us back.

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bird food

Wood pigeons were my morning wake-up call at home in the UK, amazingly they have followed me here, but joined by rather a lot of other birds and crickets – well they might be crickets. With fields all around and pine trees opposite, flying things are busy going here and there. But the crickets make it sound like a jungle. They are so loud and make a noise a bit like the buzz of electric wires, although I never see them… Well that’s what I thought, until the other day when I was lounging somewhere in the sunshine (a very rare occurrence, of course) and I felt something on my leg. Looking down I saw what looked like a massive piece of tree on my leg, grey-brown and alien-looking. I didn’t scream (just quietly whispered something under my breath) and shook my leg, it didn’t move. It wasn’t dead because its antennae were moving scarily. I had to flick it off in the end and it flew onto the path. It was probably as long as my hand, so maybe it wasn’t a cricket…I think they are green and not so large. It reminded me of a heavily armoured stick insect. We had a battalion of those in a tank for a number of months, until the children got tired of them. We couldn’t give them away, no one else wanted them, and so in the end I emptied them into the privet hedge in our garden in Catterick. That sounds a bit like a Simon Mayo confession…what will have happened to them? Could they have weathered the Yorkshire winter and adapted into hardy locusts that will eventually feed on privet hedges? And are our privet hedges now under threat? But that would be a good thing, surely, and therefore my evil dead should be forgiven!

I’m not a member of the RSPCB but the birds are a bit of a concern. There’s been talk of air rifles and other lethal weapons, a stuffed owl to frighten them away and all manor of unsuitable ways to stop them using our gazebo as a toilet. They do make a lot of mess as they sit on the electric wires across part of the terrace, where they like to chat, sing a bit, relax and to be frank crap… Someone is getting very upset and even though he isn’t having to sweep up the mess, clean down paths and wash patio furniture, he is the one planning awful ends for these poor little birds. The other day we heard the locals catch them in nets and cook them. In fact a restaurant we went to recently had a special dish set in the middle of the table from which a group of diners were spooning out large dollops of what looked like a kind of stew. You could hear them laughing and joking, drinking and making crunching noises…someone asked them what they were eating. “The birds…” they said, smiling and crunching some more…”delicious.” The crunching noise was – you guessed it – the little bones in the small birds! Help, I must find out the name of this dish and never order it.

I’m not sure what offends me so much about eating sparrows and small birds, as I will happily cook a chicken. Eating and crunching small bones is a big part of it, but it also seems a bit like eating rats and mice… like them birds eat a lot of junk and they really are a bit like skin and bone, so to me eating them would be akin to eating worms and beetles – one step on. And however much we see celebrities choking their way through a meal of disgusting looking insects on TV, it can’t be healthy or Tescos would stock them.

Time to sort out some meat for the BBQ – and I’m not cooking it unless I’ve seen the wrapper and checked it against my list of edible food.

Highs & lows

If life is a series of highs and lows, a significant low was last Monday night, when I had that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach as I listened to snatches of a phone conversation between No.1 son and his father. The words, ‘accident’, ‘hospital’, ‘burns’ and ‘operation’ have an immediate chilling effect…a week on and many phone calls later, progress is being made, but I am noticing how far away Cyprus is from the UK and how frustrating communication can be when you really need to be there. One of the worst afternoons was spent in a phone shop, talking on a helpline and trying to get texts through to certain UK mobiles. Farmer boys excelled themselves last Monday, as they both made appearances in different A&E departments, their sister was warned about not making it a hat-trick.

So low points and injuries apart, there have been some highs as well. The last of the items to be unpacked were our bikes, which we eventually re-assembled last night. This involved re-attaching brakes, turning handle bars and fixing pedals…and this took some time. I did a great job of holding the bikes steady while the Major did all the main repositioning and adjustments – phew! After several false starts…flat tyre, no pump, no thing that attaches to the pump, no helmet, saddle too high – we set off just before sunset and toured the village slow time. Cycling past houses you see a lot more that driving. There were glimpses of families sitting down to meals outside with the table all set and Grandma carrying out a tray of glasses. Little painted bungalows, with doors wide open, revealing paintings of saints on the walls, heavily draped furniture, pots adorning terraces and tumbling with pink, blue and orange flowers. The men smoking on the tables at the bar on the corner, all gave us a long hard stare – that must have been the Major’s lycra! But a high point was watching a stunning pink sun slide behind the mountains in the distance, framed by fields with rolls of hay and the pine trees across the road. It’s good to be here.

Banking is also a very different experience here in Cyprus. When we arrived to open a new account at the little bank in the village, we were greeted by our unforgettable bank manager. While an amenable chap called George filled out the onerous forms on-line, the manager offered us a bowl of juicy plums from his garden. Delicious. Ah, then there was a series of jokes..mostly about priests! Each time he returned there was a new one. Then, as the minutes ticked by, he wandered out to the kitchen to make us coffee himself. Here the thick black coffee comes with a glass of iced water on the side…but he hadn’t finished there were more jokes – actually quite funny ones too. Then we were treated to the liquor….made from some kind of oranges. But only a single miniature glass – this is strong stuff. I have never been made to feel so welcome at the bank! Barclays eat your heart out – the Cypriots know about hospitable banking. I know what you’re thinking. Crisis…what crisis?

Ant aware

Ants are a bit like terrorists. They work in teams but often can’t be seen and you have to be in a state of constant vigilance to stop them attacking.
I am becoming very ‘ant aware’ after 7 days in Cyprus. But it’s a constant battle involving sweeping and wiping up any crumbs or particles of food which may drop (hello cleaning therapy – thought I was done with you), then wiping every jar after use, sealing cereal boxes with clips, frequent washing up, putting packets of sugar and flour, even when unopened, into Tupperware boxes. Tupperware is back in fashion here – it’s fantastically ant proof.
The major has been calling my anti-ant tactics ‘extreme’ at best and at worse ‘paranoia’. Of course he is so wrong, if only he knew the awful consequences of an ant attack on our food cupboards. Ant-battle-weary as I am, I vividly remember the black butter I discovered after a night raid by ants in South Africa. But he was very upset that the runny honey, which is sealed inside a Tupperware for extra precaution – because I know they can smell it from across the road – had gone solid in the fridge and was no longer pouring onto yoghurt and muesli. “Well, spread it instead”, I suggested. Luckily we found a solution and now the honey and various other ‘ant vulnerable’ products are safely sealed in the microwave.
The ants are definitely on the move though. I’ve spotted several very large scouts at various points around the terrace/garden. We can’t really call it a garden as there’s no grass. I’ve also seen a whole train of them streaming back and forwards over the white painted wall into the garden next door – obviously marshalling troops for an imminent attack. But I’ll be ready for them. Have bought 2 cans of Raid spray… and there is a zero tolerance policy on any ant appearing in my kitchen. So ants beware.

Tree climbing & fresh grapefruit

So handy I did a lot of tree climbing when I was younger trying to keep up with two elder brothers. It turns out it’s a necessary skill for living in Cyprus.

Sitting on a plane 48 hours ago I was thinking most of the hassles were over. Having negotiated the main obstacles like cleaning, handing over keys, leaving ‘do’ with cake and mini speech. Then that boozy leaving lunch, when all of us became embarrassingly honest about…well that would be for another time! I thought I was tired then, but throw in squeezing our kit into too many bags and cases, more goodbyes and the flying visit to the bank to change our address. There seemed to be no end to what needed doing before we left the UK. Oh no, the phone needs unlocking – more phone calls! Anyway, once we were on the motorway, surely we were nearly there. Apparently not, arriving at the Oxfordshire RAF base, we discovered ‘check-in’ was the night before now and I found myself scrummaging on the floor in the lobby of the accommodation block looking for sharp objects amongst make-up bags in hand luggage. Why were my hands now sticky and purple? Smells like….nail varnish…yes, leaking bottle in here somewhere. Glancing over my shoulder the gaggle of female soldiers with massive camouflage Burgens, who were also trying to sort out weight problems (for their baggage I mean), would they be discarding nail varnish remover? Maybe not.

In fact the rest of the journey and even the arrival at our new house late on Saturday night was fairly pain free. We were beginning to settle into a new mediterranean-style laid back life, which for us involved chicken salad, a little shifting furniture around, some gentle unpacking and then a swim to cool down. At breakfast we’d enjoyed a fresh grapefruit, which we’d found on the terrace outside. It was slightly bruised in one place and we wondered how it had got there – perhaps someone had dropped it by mistake or it had been thrown over the fence…we ate it anyway. Later that afternoon I happened to look up into a small bush in the middle of the terrace and saw something large and yellow, on closer examination there were a lot of large yellow balls – grapefruits! We have a grapefruit tree in our garden and today I enjoyed a freshly picked juice-filled grapefruit for breakfast. Delicious.

But last night grapefruits were the last thing on my mind. I had sauntered outside for a few minutes to look at the night sky and enjoy the novelty of being outside without layers. Earlier I’d locked up careful as we popped out for a drink in the village. The Major followed shutting the front door behind him with the keys on the table inside. Oops, or words to that effect. Surely we’d left a window open somewhere or even one of the several other doors? No, I was far too efficient in security measures…slight panic that we had no phones – also locked inside the house – and one of us wasn’t wearing shoes. It was a fair walk to anyone who might help and it was also after 11pm. Would we have to sleep on the sun loungers all night and face the Mosquitos? Another slightly more desperate search revealed a tiny toilet window could be opened. There was hope again. But the 6ft 7inch Major’s shoulder’s wouldn’t fit through the gap – so it was down to me to climb on a slightly dodgy object at shoulder height and slide through the half of the window we could open, but backwards and on my stomach. Time to take off the new dress and thank goodness underwear was matching for a change. I’m not sure what any neighbours looking out at the view would think as I ran round the house in my bra and knickers with mission accomplished to retrieve my dress draped elegantly on the washing line. So scraped elbows and knees – but the tree climbing experience had proved useful.