Scars with a story

I am scarred, bruised and a little bit achy today. It’s been caused by a combination of activities on boats and bikes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Were you one of those children whose knees were always bleeding or scabbed? I was. I also remember standing by the sink on numerous occasions and that awful sting when someone tries to dab them with a paper towel. Most people grow out of this. But my legs and arms chart a tale of adventures over the years, which have included a long white scar on my arm from being caught on the anchor chain of a yacht, an angry red mark on my shin from a mini cycling accident and more recently another deep scar on the other shin from tripping on ancient stone steps in Cyprus.

There have been a lot of these kinds of incidents over the years. The most memorable or dramatic from my childhood was on a cycling expedition in Kent with my brother and some friends. We were hurtling down narrow winding lanes, screaming with excitement, when suddenly a Tjunction appeared in front of us and my breaks failed to stop me. I flew off the bike and wound up with my chin impaled on a barbed wire fence and quite a lot of blood around. After being lifted off the fence, dusted down and told to ‘man-up’, I cycled slowly home and went to find my mother at the bottom of the garden. She was doing something with vegetables and I was looking for sympathy and shock. I told her the dramatic tale. She chuckled, barely glanced at my rapidly healing chin, and said it didn’t look too bad. This must be where I get my sympathetic maternal approach.

Last weekend I tested out my sailing skills in a little dinghy, which turned out to be great fun but very slippery. After sliding around in the bottom of the boat as I tried to tack the bruises were accumulating and then on a rather unplanned speedy arrival at the shore I tried to jump out neatly and grab the boat before it hit the side. After slipping on the mud and rocks as I slid out and spectacularly failing to stop the boat, I found both my knees were bleeding when I stumbled ashore.

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Yesterday two of us cycled round the path on the edge of the island. It was bumpy and very narrow at places – there was even a section a bit like a velodrome where we had to cycle fast to stay upright on a concrete bank which sloped away to the water. I thought like an Olympian, looked straight ahead and kept peddling fast. I hadn’t fallen off for several miles until we reached a gate by a marina where we had to push the bikes for a few metres. After inspecting the boats for sale I got back on as the gravel path widened and within a few seconds the wheels skidded from beneath me and I was lying on the ground with the bike on top of me. My cycle buddy was standing a few feet away holding his bike and laughing. “I saw the gravel and decided to get off,” he said… More matching scars and scrapes on my shins to join the bruises and scabs on my knees.

Now what shall I do today to make my arms blend in… mowing the lawn or cutting trees?

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sea addict

I have to confess. I’m addicted. I can’t go a day without it and I’m afraid I may get a little shaky if I don’t see it. I didn’t realise it could be so addictive or I’d have been a bit more careful. Photographs don’t do it justice – they don’t capture the smells and sounds that make it such a wonderful ‘drug’.

I never imagined moving to live beside the sea would be so delicious and leave me craving for a sight of it every day. This afternoon I ‘ran’ to the beach (not the kind of running you do when being chased by hungry lions – just the kind that keeps pace with a slow cyclist). I knew it was going to be beautiful when I noticed golden blades of grass casting sharp shadows on the sand in the dunes. A bright white sun was starting to slide towards the horizon across the channel lighting up the ripples in the muddy coloured sand as the rays danced across the water. There were shallow dark pools on the wide expanse of empty beach. In the distance a solitary sailing boat bobbed mid channel and high up in the distance a flock of migrating birds swooped and swirled in a cloud, before disappearing out to sea.

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This is a special place. The only sounds were some strange sea bird noises and what I think might have been baying seals on the sandbanks. This afternoon it was as quiet as a nature reserve. I had the beach to myself. The light was unreal in a golden ethereal way. It felt like it was going to be the kind of night for smugglers to pull up their boats and haul their contraband up the beach…the kind of night for stories and secrets to be shared around a fire on the cool sand while the waves creep closer.

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I’m not sure how or why I’ve developed this addiction to ‘see the sea’ over the past few weeks. I could also describe it as a love affair because no matter what the state of the water – dark and stormy, grey and choppy or calm and blue – I can’t help but love the view. I even love it when the tide is out and messy dark green sea plants are left exposed, with the channel a remote blue strip beneath the boats. There is a reassuring rhythm to the tides. I’ve been waking up trying to remember what state the tide will be at – we can’t go far around here without noticing if it’s in or out. Now we’ve stuck a tide chart up in the kitchen and most days someone checks out the tide times and heights.

The sea here gives me a sense of space and freedom as its wide-open skies wrap around the island. It’s a sea of possibilities. A reminder that there are so many stories out there as people set sail or launch into open water – a lone fisherman inspecting his nets, an anxious sailor battling against a retreating tide, or a man on a motorboat heading into the deep. It’s a place of inspiration too. There are mysteries here to unravel and stories to be told… even crimes to be solved. I’m going to indulge my addiction for now. After all it’s not expensive or unhealthy and I have a suspicion the sea has something to tell me. And most of all – we live here…

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a turtle for company

It was 6am and the sun was creeping up the horizon with a smudge of pink appearing behind the trees lining the bay. Yesterday, I was the lone swimmer crossing the calm waters to the far side… well I thought I was. As I peered down to the ripples of sand on the sea bed I was very happy to spot a friendly turtle munching his way along just below me and a few moments later I watched him pop his head up for air as he checked out my front crawl style. Ploughing on from one salmon pink buoy to another it was comforting to think that there was someone or some thing out there with me.
   
 It’s that time of year again, when a few mad swimmers prepare for the island’s Bay2Bay swim. Friday morning will be a 4am start for those of us travelling from the other side of Cyprus for the open water swim of 1 nautical mile around from one cliff lined bay to another. We’ve been told to take breakfast and a pillow. I’m worried I will be even slower than last year, despite mastering front crawl, I find myself needing to break into breast stroke to calm my breathing… so ‘mastered’ probably isn’t the right word. But whatever my ‘time’ I’m determined to enjoy it – it will definitely be a lot warmer than swimming in the English channel or even the Solent. Something I will have to adjust to very soon.
The imminence of our move back to the UK this September was brought home today as I passed the first set of folded packing boxes at the top of the stairs along with some giant reels of sellotape. I remember this well – my life of ‘packing boxes’ – which is exactly where this blog began more than two years ago. Now the next adventure begins.
It’s not quite as exciting as a foreign posting, but I am looking forward to coming ‘home’ to be nearer friends and family and moving to our very own small Island… which we will share with a few hundred other army families and personnel!

As much as I love the UK I know I’m going to miss:

  • looking up at the stars while floating in a sun-warmed pool
  • never worrying about the weather for a BBQ
  • clothes – not wearing many
  • living life outside
  • mediterranean food – especially bags of free oranges and grapefruits
  • palm trees in the garden and crystal blue waters in the sandy bays
  • our view of the mountains
  • the sound of crickets buzzing day and night
  • visits to the numerous cafes, bars and restaurants we love
  • But more than all this I’ll miss the friends we’ve made, some of whom are moving on too, but others who we hope will give us the perfect excuse to return and visit in the future.

So packing boxes can wait a few more days because the sun is shining, the crickets are singing and there’s swim training to be done!
   
 

rock climbing in flip-flops?

Rock climbing in flip-flops wasn’t what I had in mind when we planned a trip to Crete, but sometimes it’s good to have surprises…

Last week we went island hopping for a few days – swapping our lovely Cyprus for Cretan village life. The third night was spent on the lower slopes of the island’s highest mountain, where we sat gazing across a vast panorama of hills and sparkling lights, with the sea a dark blue haze in the distance. At our backs there were rock-strewn mountains, while the sound of bleating sheep and the tinkle of goat bells were the only noises to break the silence. It was perfect. Made even more so since we had returned from the village laden with food and wine… some of which was free!

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On an early evening sortie up the canyon next to us, we wanted to see what was around the corner. The corner proved elusive and after a series of hairpin bends, where we spotted broken barriers above the sheer drops below and hard to negotiate rock falls across the road, someone was all for turning back, except there was no safe place to turn. At the top of the canyon, there were fields full of fruit trees, which was surprising in such a desolate landscape. We hunted for gaps in the fences or overhanging branches so we could scavenge some of the tempting green and red apples that were lining the road, but just out of reach. There were none. Slightly deflated we turned around and headed back down the treacherous road. As we started to skirt round a white truck parked by the field loaded up with crates of apples, a man stepped into our path with his hand raised signalling us to stop. A young girl at the back of the truck, smiled and said, “wait please.” We did as we were told and seconds later the man, appeared by the car his hands holding out huge red and green apples. What an unexpected gift! We took them and thanked him and he went off to fetch more… loading us up with a good supply. Munching on the fresh fruit while we negotiated the bends, we felt well rewarded and very grateful for the farmer’s unexpected generosity… but there was more to come.

In the village down the road half an hour later, we went in search of two essential ingredients: pizza and wine. After a few false starts we found a little cafe-come-shop and asked if they had bottles of wine. “Yes of course’” they guided us to the back, where two locals were sat on high stools watching the football on a TV screen above the bar. Bending down the barmaid filled a small glass from a large box with a tap, just in front of the counter. “Oh, we really wanted a bottle though”…we said uncertainly, feeling a bit like secret alcoholics.
“Taste first”, she ordered.
We sipped. It was very pleasant. We nodded our approval and said, “Do you have a bottle?”
An empty plastic water bottle was found behind the counter and this was filled with the red nectar…until we said ‘stop!’ That will be 3 euros.
Wine. Check.
Now for pizza.

Eventually after trying three more small shops, we found one with pizza in the freezer, while we chose tomatoes, cucumber and debated over onions, the lady at the till said, “please,” offering us freshly harvested grapes piled on a plate, that a little group of them were tucking into. They were all sat around the counter – a lady in black with a big smile nodded and a man in a long blue robe and a grey beard was smiling and munching cheese. I took a grape, but she shook her head and handed us each a whole bunch with a napkin.

Tucking into our pizza and wine, followed by grapes and apples under a starry sky, we decided we liked Crete very much and we were touched by the generosity of strangers. The next morning we watched half a dozen eagles soaring just above us, which was an extra treat. The place we were staying translated as ‘the observatory of the eagle.’

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The trip was full of little adventures, mostly on narrow switch back roads without barriers and steep drops below. After a particularly harrowing journey like this that seemed to go on forever, we arrived at the top of some cliffs above a wide sandy beach. There was a way down via a steep sandy bank which turned into a sand dune and took us neatly down to the crashing waves and lots of what turned out to be naked people sunbathing or charging into the water. Ignoring the big-bellied men strutting proudly down the beach swinging their wares, we enjoyed a refreshing swim further along the bay. An alternative way back, was partly up a sandy bank, which then turned into a steep rocky scree slope. A couple had headed up it a few minutes earlier and I was told it would be easy. Bag slung over my shoulder and carrying a straw hat, the hot sand was a doddle, but as we trailed up the rock slope slithering to find a foothold in flip-flops, I was instructed not to look down. Mistake. What looked steep from below looked terrifying from half way up and although someone thought there was a path – there wasn’t. As going up was definitely easier and safer than going down, I carried on putting one foot in front of the other, my arms trailing monkey-like ahead of me to grasp any rock that looked sturdy enough to hold…and eventually I reached the ridge at the top. Thank goodness I was wearing clothes.
Rock climbing in flip-flops. Tick.

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Other Cretan highlights included a rainy gorge walk and a boat trip to a former leper colony. It was a fun week but as we touched down on our own Mediterranean island and drove on the familiar roads back, it felt good to be coming ‘home’.

Cypriot harvest

I feel like I want to reach out and give Cyprus a great big hug today. Driving past ploughed fields of red soil, gazing across at parched olive groves and stony hills scattered with limestone rocks and scrubby green bushes, I’m beginning to feel connected to this barren part of the island.
There are friends here now – in the villages we pass – people we share a joke with or who subtly hand me baskets of fruit grown in their gardens and nearby orchards. We’ve been enjoying the delights of local fruits for the past week which has included succulent and sweet smelling guavas. Every time I open the fridge the scent is a reminder they need eating.
Last Sunday we came back laden from the Muktar’s house (like a village mayor), where we had joined in the special event to mark the 10th anniversary of his father-in-law’s death. His mother-in-law is a beautiful Cypriot lady. By beautiful I mean she is someone who spreads welcome, hospitality and care and it is this inner beauty that shines out. Small, with dark hair, olive skin and a smile that creases across her face right up to her twinkling brown eyes, she is often dressed in black and whenever I see her she is always bustling off to fetch food or drink. Even on this sad day remembering her husband’s death she had time for a joke, asking if I would be jealous if she sat by the Major! We were late arriving, but treated like honoured guests as dish upon dish was bought to the table from a pastry roll filled with olives to Cyprus delight (a kind of gelatine sausage made from grapes) and even a refreshing but strange dish of pomegranates and bugler wheat. The hospitality was amazing and we listened as they explained some of the Orthodox church traditions and how the different festivals and occasions were celebrated. The Muktar told us ‘name days’ are celebrated more than birthdays…people don’t know when their birthdays are, it doesn’t matter, but they all have a ‘name day’ when they celebrate the saint of their particular name. This could be a slight problem if you aren’t named after a saint! Anyone heard of Saint Rachel?
We talked about the war and the village and the struggles for local people and we laughed as different ones around the table were teased. Then we talked about Jerusalem, which his mother-in-law had visited over a number of Easter trips. There was talk of miracles, visions and strange happenings, and we listened enraptured by her obvious faith and assurance that God is very much at work, even in the midst of strife and conflict in that sacred city.
We left laden with various dishes wrapped in kitchen roll, a massive bag of grapes from her sister’s garden and as if we couldn’t carry anymore, she picked pomegranates from a tree in the front garden and these we’re bundled into our already full arms. It wasn’t just the food I was full from; it was how they had filled up our hearts, welcomed us into their home and made us feel part of something. I don’t belong here, but gradually I am feeling more connected with both the land and the people… and I’m looking forward to breaking open those pomegranates, since a knowledgeable friend told me the best way to deal with them.