The three ‘wise’ women?

Who’d have thought three women in saris would have caused such a stir on Christmas Eve….

As if there wasn’t enough excitement this year with all the family together in our new Devon home, some special Indian gifts were handed out on Christmas Eve. Our daughter, who had just returned from four months volunteering in Northern India, was hopping from one foot to the other keen to hand out her long planned presents.
“Let’s do the Indian presents now, before we eat?” She suggested.
Her brothers frowned… “It’s not Christmas yet…”
But she wouldn’t be put off and there was dressing up involved.

A few minutes later three ornately embroidered saris were laid out beneath the Christmas tree,  gold thread glistening under the fairy lights, amidst ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘thank you – how beautiful’. The next step was for three of us to dress up in them, which involved a lot of careful folding and draping and fixing a few well placed safety pins. Some time later we paraded down the stairs in our finery and enjoyed a delicious meal together.

We usually attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and this year we were planning to join the little parish church in the village. However, due to clergy staffing problems, the 11.30pm service had become a 9pm event and suddenly we were in a rush.
“We can’t go in saris!” Someone exclaimed as others pulled on coats and boots and set down half full glasses of wine.
“Why not?” said the driver – who does a lot of dressing up in uniforms for his day job.

And that was how it happened. Scooping up our colourful skirts, we piled into the minibus still slightly unsure about the wisdom of our attire on a dark December night in deepest Devon. On arrival outside the church we managed to negotiate the stone steps towards the lantern lit pathway to the church. Another family all wearing bobble hats arrived at the entrance at the same time and looked slightly surprised to see us in our finery.
“We’re Indians!” I said in explanation, which confused people even more and made everyone giggle (or was it just the wine?).

As we traipsed into the candlelit church and filed into pews, there were plenty of smiles and whispers of admiration.
“I didn’t know it was fancy dress…” Someone behind us mumbled.
Even the vicar announced she was looking forward to finding out about the mysterious costumes after the service and then spent the rest of the time dropping her books, announcing the wrong carols and searching for her sermon notes in a very thick bookmarked folder.

At the end of the service there just wasn’t time to explain to everyone why we’d worn saris, although our in-house chaplain had already announced we were ‘the Three Wise Women from the East’, which left people even more confused.

By Christmas morning the saris had long been folded away and we headed down to the beach clasping bottles of fiz and smoked salmon sandwiches to join in the traditional ‘Christmas at the Beach’ celebrations with the locals. As we met more of our neighbours in a huddle beside a ruined tower, sheltering from the wind, one lady said how much she had enjoyed the Christmas Eve service.
“But what was very strange,” she said, confidentially, “some people came dressed in saris. They looked lovely, but I don’t know what it was all about.”
It certainly was a mystery. And a much-discussed event for the village.
I chuckled into my glass, as someone sidled up and said, “It was you in the saris wasn’t it?”

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Some garbled explanation was begun, but minutes later another kind of costume became the focus of attention as some of our children and their friends stripped down to bikinis and boardies and ran into the freezing grey water. There were shouts and cheers from the Champaign swigging onlookers. There’s nothing like a Christmas Day dip in the sea!

Now, the big question for 2018 is, what shall we wear to church on Christmas Eve?



even more important than a Sunday roast…

Apparently Sunday roast dinners for the family are dying out in the UK (Mail 3rd Dec). As upsetting as this is, it also signals something even more disturbing, if it’s true. It could also mean the end of ‘eggy tea’ as we know it!

This has been a long tradition in our household, passed down now to our children, who even since leaving home, send messages to say they are just having ‘eggy tea’ with lots of smilies. ‘Eggy tea’ in case you hadn’t guessed involves soft boiled eggs – that is dippy eggs – and piles of toast. This event is usually enjoyed around the table or on special occasions in the lounge in front of the fire, when the toast tastes even better cooked over the fire with a fork. A pot of tea is also an essential and marmite and honey or jam for extra slices of toast.

Somehow this mini custom helped ease our family more gently into the semi-gloom of Sunday evening – when Monday morning loomed and homework needed to be finished, school bags packed, those forgotten ingredients found for DS lessons, gym kit unearthed from the dirty washing and general prep for the working week.

Sitting down to a Sunday roast meant that ‘eggy tea’ was on the cards and there were long faces if the main meal was put off until the evening, as there were cries of, “what about ‘eggy tea’?”. It didn’t really matter if it was a roast or a casserole just as long as it had vegetables and could be classed as ‘dinner’, to ensure ‘eggy tea’ with toast could follow on – sooner than later.

Even here in Cyprus, I have had that cheery feeling as I prepared Sunday lunch, realising there was an option for ‘eggy tea’ later. Last Sunday I left for church with the roast pork sizzling in the oven, and as I drove back home an hour or so later, I found myself looking forward to ‘eggy tea’ by the fire – a highlight of the weekend.

Unfortunately, last Sunday didn’t go quite as planned as a break in a pipe (I discovered later) left us with no mains water for more than 24 hours.

It may seem no big deal, but having no water in the taps very quickly becomes a nuisance. Buckets had to be filled from the swimming pool to flush the toilets and jugs of water left by the sinks to rinse hands. You never realise how many times you run a tap, until it doesn’t work. Washing up became a nightmare of filling kettles and pouring in the right amount of cool water from the huge container on the table. Every drop was suddenly precious, as there was a limited supply to last us. When the water eventually started flowing – a shower felt like a luxury and filling the washing up bowl with hot water from the tap was also a treat!

Domestic problems always seem to arrive as soon as one particular person disappears on a course or a deployment. Apart from the water being cut off, the next day one of the toilets stopped working properly and immediately after our friendly elf-like plumber left having fixed it…the other toilet broke. I decided it couldn’t be very hard, as Billy the plumber had made light work of the problem in just 10 minutes….an hour or so later, bubbles, rubber pipes and little bits of plastic shaped like butterflies had all been tampered with, but it still wouldn’t flush properly. So I thought I’d look for an answer on google – surely google has all the answers?

It turns out there are too many different types of toilet cisterns to be practically helpful, and a lot of the paraphernalia was under water or upside down, so Billy will have to be summoned again! In the meantime, I’ll leave the lid off the cistern and pour in buckets of water to flush the toilet… why do I feel like I’ve been here before?

Despite all this hassle, I am consoling myself that it will be the weekend soon and in this household Sunday roast and ‘eggy tea’ are staying on the menu.

photo egg

expecting the unexpected

‘Expect the unexpected’ should be part of the advance information handed out to future military spouses. Just as life was beginning to settle down, one phone call was all it took. Now further separation looms with an unplanned deployment on the horizons. The winter nights in Cyprus will be chillier and the bed will feel too big again.

Yesterday the river of poppies over the altar in church was a poignant reminder as we all reflected on the lives lost in war. Some of the stories were of the horrors and trials from soldiers in the First World War, but the face of a much-loved husband, father and friend who died in Afghanistan a few years ago was etched in the blur of red for me. The cost and sacrifice paid by so many hundreds is vividly portrayed in the river of poppies at the Tower of London.



A few weeks ago we edged our way round the crammed sides of the moat, gazing at the hundreds of unique flowers gently swaying as rays of sunshine lit up their ceramic petals. With eyes half closed the shimmer really did resemble a river of blood, made up by so many completely unique poppies. Yet each one a life cut short – an individual who never came home to their loved-ones.

Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday are special days in the year, especially when you are married to a soldier. The poppy looks back, but also to the future, because none of us know what lies ahead in the line of duty.

I am usually happy with my own company and as a couple we’ve survived a fair bit of separation, but when the ‘enemy’ is a deadly virus rather than the Taliban, I can’t help harbouring doubts about any military ‘training and preparation’ being a full-proof deterrent.

After the Remembrance parade tomorrow, I will unpin my poppy for another year – but this time I’ll be leaving it out by my mirror as a reminder. A reminder that none of us know what lies ahead and what our lives will hold, but also to remember the sacrifices all those in our military continue to make every day – whether flying over the middle east or working in a hospital in West Africa.

A bend in the road

I’m waiting for winter. I thought it had arrived a few weeks ago when we
were hit by a cold snap with temperatures below zero at night. Now the sun
is shining again, the birds are singing and I’m wondering when the rain will
come. The landscape around the house has changed a little in the last few
weeks and although I can still see the tropical line of palm trees
silhouetted against the horizon, instead of fields of dry earth and yellowed
patches of grass and scrubland, a few green fields have popped up and the
road is edged with bright green grass.

I’ve also been walking again. The tracks across the fields that were too hot
to venture onto in the summer heat, now offer a pleasant walk. Although it’s
not quite Nottinghamshire’s rolling fields and hedges, there are different
things to look at. The houses dotted around the landscape can fairly be
described as scruffy, painted in shades of yellow and ochre, with numerous
outbuildings, lean-to shacks and machinery lying all around. Sheep have been
pulled into ramshackle pens beside farm buildings and there’s a lot of
baa-ing and bleating mixed in with cockerels crowing and dogs barking from
behind wire fences. Fruit that should have been picked in the summer is now
fermenting on the trees and a few deep brown over ripe pomegranates hang in
an abandoned orchard next to the track. But oranges and grapefruits are just
becoming ripe and they provide a splash of colour in the greenery of nearby
gardens and fields.

There’s a bend in the track which leads through a darkened area lined with
tall pines. The first time I walked this route I hesitated about walking on,
wondering what would be around the corner and if I wanted to walk below the
overhanging branches such a long way from the main road. Having walked for
whole days in Italy on my own without meeting a soul, I ploughed on, and the
towering pines were soon behind me, giving way to familiar olive groves and
a tumbled-down stone house perched on a rise above the track. I had a
destination in mind. In the distance I had spotted a wood on a small hill,
where I knew there was an ancient church I’d visited before. Taking that
unknown curve in the road meant I had eventually reached my goal and around
another bend on a small hill, a tiny stone church came into view nestled in
amongst the trees.

Leaning against the stone walls warmed by the sun, I thought about the path
and the bend in the road. I wasn’t sure it led to where I wanted to go and
it could even have been a dead end, but I would never have got there if I
had turned back or stopped walking because I wasn’t sure. Now I’m thinking
curves in the ‘road of life’ are exciting….you never know quite what’s
coming and that’s the beauty of it.

in search of treasure

I love treasure hunts and this past week I’ve been introduced to an alternative sort of pursuit. In fact I’m not sure it is really treasure hunting at all, but it did involve clues, searching and finding things or sometimes not finding things.
We have prided ourselves in knowing quite a few of the major ‘must see’ visitor spots round and about and also some of the hidden gems, but suddenly last Saturday afternoon we found ourselves guided to places we had never been to before by my visiting sister-in-law and an iPhone app. At first this was a case of making unplanned detours on our journey to hunt out special locations which led us to an area called ‘ground zero’. First stop we found ourselves in a children’s park by an ancient medieval church. While some were intent on a hunt for a hidden canister, I wandered over to the pretty stone building and drew back the heavy bolt on the ancient wooden doors and stepped inside. It was lit by a soft glow of candlelight from small tea lights on a rough table with bowls of charcoal and bottles of incense and oil piled around in a homely state of untidiness. In front of the pale stone walls there were easels and tables scattered around with gilt framed icons, while some paintings were fixed on the walls. Further in I noticed ancient crumbling frescoes in blues, greens and reds still visible on the walls. In a darker area of the church, not penetrated by the candlelight, a pair of frescoes were just visible through the gloom. We all spent time peering at the worn paintings and images, captivated by this little ‘jewel’ on our doorstep. It was a fascinating little church and it is only about a mile or so from our house, but we probably wouldn’t have gone there without the ‘treasure hunt’.

The next day we ventured into our favourite walled city for a ‘frappe’ and a wander and here too were new discoveries. Following the arrows on the iPhone we climbed the mountain of steps without a hand rail to the top of the ancient Venetian-built walls. Here they were as wide as two cars parked end to end, and at the far corner there were views across the city and out to sea. It was beautiful and there also happened to be another hidden cache somewhere up there amongst the gaps in the walls.
church 3 church 2
Other searches involved looking underneath medieval canons and picnic tables, peering below low hanging branches and just generally scanning locations for clever hiding places. It’s probably obvious to some of you that I’ve been learning about ‘Geocaching’…it’s been fun and frustrating at the same time. I’ve enjoyed the way it’s taken us off the beaten track to a sunken church on the edge of a reservoir and remote paths to surprising viewpoints. But I’m slightly disappointed by the ‘treasure’ at the end of the hunt. At the very least I was hoping for a message in the hidden cache pots.

We found a message in a bottle once. We were on an island at the time and it was very exciting when we first spotted it bobbing near the shore. We waded out into the water to rescue it very intrigued about what might be inside and what secrets it would reveal…when we fished it out we saw there was a message inside. I thought it must be from a shipwrecked sailor and was all set to dial 999, but in fact it was a bit dull….so dull I can’t remember what it said, except that no one was in danger and I think someone had just thrown it in the sea to see if anyone would pick it up. We scrawled our own message and threw it back in the water further round the coast and tried to make the message slightly more dynamic.

Geocaching is a bit like this unsatisfactory experience…there are no mysterious messages to solve once you find the little box or container, you simply sign the paper inside and move on. The biggest excitement is finding a ‘travel bug’ which is a trinket that can travel round from cache to cache, so you don’t even get to keep it! Rather like a lot of things in life – the hunt was more exciting than the end result. Now if geocaches contained clues or maps to a small pot of gold or hidden jewels I could get into it… and then it really would be treasure hunting.

no go area

I’ve never been very good about ‘no go areas’ it must be something to do with my rebellious nature. Put a sign up saying ‘private: no entry’ and I just wonder what’s in there and what they are trying to hide. ‘Off limits’ areas at school were just the same – we all deliberately played in the ‘out of bounds’ basement of the old building and found a way into the ‘forbidden’ gardens of the White Lodge on the edge of the school grounds. I also contemplated scaling the walls down into the gardens of the Martello tower in the school grounds – but that never happened. I still think it would have made a brilliant party venue though. So given the rule breaker that I am today’s trip up the mountain to a ‘men only’ monastery at the top was looking tricky.

StavrovouniThe Stavrovouni Monastery is one of the oldest in Cyprus, founded in 327, and was pointed out to us on our arrival in the country by a talkative Cypriot bus driver, who delighted in mentioning that women were not allowed in. The imposing building can be seen from miles around as it sits on the top of a lone peak which rises out of the plains towards Larnaca. It was an English bank holiday so what better idea than a trip up to the Monastery…. Did I want to go with the guys? Well, apparently there was a great view at the top and I could go in the church by the gate, so I decided to join the party.

As the car chugged its way up the winding road towards the Monastery we reflected on why women were not allowed.
“Obviously they lead the monks astray and are a distraction…and I don’t blame them!”
Hum…I was feeling uncomfortable about this and the thought that I would have to remain outside the gate while the others were welcomed in.
“I could get in if I wanted of course. I could go in disguise – I could dress as a man, they wouldn’t know.” But The Major wasn’t convinced…”that’s against the spirit of it….anyway, they’d sniff you out!” Well I wouldn’t wear perfume of course – but he might have been right because on the way back he told me the monks considered showers evil, so they all smelt very bad.

Suddenly we were at the top and the road was barred by a big brown solid metal gate – with a cross on it. That felt a bit contradictory – Jesus arms spread wide on the cross, with no-one excluded? There were buildings either side of the gate, one a kind of gatehouse beyond that I could see a little cobbled path which lead enticingly up towards the building perched on top of the mountain’s peak. It was slightly like a castle in pale stone with a look out area that almost looked like turrets on a tower, but was in fact a terrace overlooking the valleys below – but I didn’t see the monks doing much sunbathing up there. The rest of the building was a series of pitched roofs butted together with little windows, which I later discovered were the monk’s cells, looking blankly out into the distance.

Just in case I had any doubt about the no women policy, a large sign on the gatehouse wall stated women were not allowed and men must be fully clothed. This caused a bit of shuffling outside the car as shorts were swapped for trousers and there was a brief debate about whether short sleeved Tshirts would be classed as fully clothed – well at least they had the sex right! Ironically the Monastery was founded by a woman – St Helena – who brought a piece of the Holy Cross to Cyprus from Jerusalem and apparently part of this cross is now in the chapel inside. According to my sources you can’t see this very old piece of wood because it is covered in silver and ornate stuff….but nice to know it’s there. A friendly gesture would be to let anyone with the name Helen in once a year. I resolved to put it in the suggestion box, when I found it.

Once the men headed off through the gatehouse, I was left in the car park to reflect on what it means to be a woman…50 seconds later I was on my iphone, thinking how much I had in common with suffragettes and women priests, or at least would-be anglican women bishops. The car park did have its compensations, there were a few trees for shade, some toilets (yes, for women too actually!) and panoramic views across to the south coast of Cyprus and in the other directions towards to the Troodos mountains, which were shrouded in a grey-blue heat haze. Glancing at one or two other lone women left to wander the carpark like outcasts, including one particularly chunky lady on a quad bike, I decided solitude was the answer and made my way towards the little church. Inside it was a typical Orthodox scene, with the small space lined with icons and wall paintings in deep shades of blue, red and green and so much gold paint everywhere. There were a few wooden seats with very high arms. These are not designed for very tall people, but for people to lean against as standing is very much part of the Orthodox church tradition. I looked up at the images of Jesus, Mary and various bearded saints and thought how they all seemed to have the same sad brown eyes…had they been shut out of somewhere too perhaps? I wasn’t cross with the monks really, I admire them for giving their lives to prayer and God in this way, but I am in favour of equality, so if they don’t want female visitors, don’t have any, that way no-one gets upset.

It was very cool but airless in the church and I was quite alone – but I couldn’t get those rebellious thoughts out of my head. I looked at the gilt carved eagles and swooping angels and gold bunches of grapes. I had a sip of water and thought it might be nice to have something to eat. This was probably forbidden in the church…’all the more reason to do it’…said the little voice in my head. I fished about in my handbag and felt that familiar crinkle of a sweet wrapper. Out came a green chewy sweet. I gingerly turned my head to see if anyone was coming in, or worse still hiding in the alcove behind my chair. Coast clear, I tucked in and enjoyed the fruity flavours filling my mouth – so much more tasty because it was probably not allowed.

A few minutes later the men returned. They had been shown round by a young monk and heard stories of monks gone by. They told me the current Abbott (chief monk) joined Stavrovouni (which means mountain of the cross in greek) when he was 15 and is now 88 years old. He has spent his whole life in the building on the hill, longer than I’ve been alive, and only venturing down for food occasionally or to see family who could come twice a year to the gatehouse to meet him. Mind blowing as this all sounded, the nearest I would get to the inside was an illustrated booklet with the monastery’s history, which had been donated to the penniless Major (who forgot his wallet!). I’ll read that later and maybe repent of my sweet eating in church.