Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Two weeks ago, my children and I extremely fortunate to walk away from a pretty serious car crash.
 I was stationary, waiting to turn right off a busy A-road, en-route to taking the children on the customary school run- a journey I had taken countless times without incident.
 February 5th decided to be different, however, in that, as I stood there waiting, a car hurtled up behind and ploughed into the back of us. I saw it coming, but only split seconds before impact. It seemed, however, to take forever before it hit us. In reality, there was no time to react, no time to think, just the abject terror of knowing something really bad was about to happen. I had no plausible thoughts, no ‘life flashing before my eyes’ all I felt was raw, instinctive fear, directly wholly at the fact that my two children were behind me, where the car was about to hit, and I was utterly powerless to protect them.  The children said I screamed, but I have no recall of that. I remember the resounding crunch and splintering of metal as the two vehicles met, and my next memory is looking behind and the overwhelming relief of seeing my two dear children unhurt. But the relief was only momentary as the sheer fear I saw reflected in their innocent eyes propelled me out of my car, and over to the other driver, miraculously unhurt but shaken nonetheless, in a fit of blind fury that I had never felt before. I was a lioness, a rabid she-devil willing to viciously kill or maim the predator who threatened the safety of her young. I am grateful that all my angst was only verbal, but inside I was willing to tear the head off my ‘attacker’. It was terrifying, enthralling, enraged, adrenalin-fuelled meld of emotions. And it was only when the dust, literally settled, that I was able to take stock and realise how fortunate we had been. Yes, both, cars were written off, but my children, myself, and the driver were all in one piece. Quite miraculous, really.
And, so began my list of many reasons to be grateful.
The next few hours were a bit of a blur of Police statements, hospital visits, phone calls to insurance companies, recovery services and the school. It was a pretty stressful time, but through it all shone the powerful remedy of Human Kindness. That day, and over the few to follow, so many people showed such thoughtfulness and compassion, extending offers of help both practical and emotional. From the School Mum who rapidly whisked my children from the terrible roadside scene and took them into the caring arms of the school headmaster and secretary;  to the unfortunate house-owner, outside whose home  the incident occurred, who offered a warm living room, cups of tea and a safe place  to manoeuvre the battered cars; The emergency services staff who brought calm and sense to a chaotic and frantic situation, especially the Police Constable who personally called me a few days later to see how I was bearing up; Hospital staff and doctors, even the employees of the ‘parasitic’ insurance companies whose efficiency and sympathetic telephone manners made a difficult task a little less onerous.  The concerned friends and colleagues who called, emailed and texted when the news reached them, all these and more had me counting my blessings in so many ways.
Most of all I am grateful for my husband, who came rushing to the scene when I called him, his peace equally as shattered as if he had been in the car with us. I am so grateful to have a shoulder to sob on, a chest to bury my face in when the flashbacks refused to leave, a loving, patient soul who stood by as I raged with the unfairness of it all, and, occasionally took the emotional blows with good grace and compassion when I had nowhere else to direct them. My rock and soulmate, who cared for our bewildered children in a way I simply did not have the resources to do so, who helped them in coming to terms with the scenario, and who supported me in picking myself back up again. I really am very, very lucky indeed.
Well things have settled down now, the car is due to be replaced, the bumps and bruises have faded, and I’m back driving in the car again, albeit a little nervously. I attempted to go back to work but found that the office chairs caused a great lot of discomfort to the whiplash injuries in my neck and shoulders, so my employer advised that I be signed off work medically for two weeks until the muscle pain eased off.
And so, here I am now, languishing in the bosom of my family, a little sore but otherwise content.
And it is here that I have found another thing to be grateful for. I am actually, now, grateful that the car accident actually did occur at all. Really?? Glad to have had a terrifying moment, a terrible inconvenience and residual pain? Let me explain.
Little did I know, that just days before the crash, |I was already on a collision course, heading at 100mph towards an emotional brick wall that I would never have seen coming.
The last few months have not been easy ones, not by anyone’s standards particularly traumatic, but, for reasons I can’t even fathom myself, I was not handling them very well. When the crash occurred it seemed like the final straw in a category of incidents beset upon breaking me down to my most vulnerable and pathetic. In December, my mother had a stroke, and for a while came to live with us. Other family issues and dynamics meant that I felt the need to take the burden of care, a role that I did not in any way resent, and that I executed through a strong love for my Mum. However, it was an exhausting and emotionally draining time. She, amazingly, has made an incredible and astounding recovery and that, too, is another reason to be grateful. However, as soon as she was well enough to care for herself, I returned to work, in a job that |I neither understand nor hold any passion for. To add insult to injury, I failed to secure a job I had applied for –twice. A job that both I, my colleagues, my boss and even my husband all firmly believed I was ideal for. Sadly, the faceless individuals who assessed my application did not hold the same belief. It was quite a blow, as I must admit |I had set my heart upon the job, hoping, possibly too much, that it would rescue me from the drudgery and boredom my present post offered.
The final nail in the coffin for me at that time came a few weeks later when I was made to attend a training course on a subject that I had no prior knowledge of, where I was sat every day for a week becoming more bewildered at facts that made sense to everyone but me. Information that I was expected to process, learn and then apply to an examination, upon which, I was told,  my future career depended. Every day I left the classroom, choking back tears, feeling lost and confused and unable to make sense of the senseless.
I was utterly miserable.
Now I know, very much so, that my tribulations are small-fry to those who have experienced real hardship and grief. And, in fact, |I used that very stick to beat myself with- unable to justify the misery whirling around my head, knowing that I had so much to be thankful for, yet, somehow, genuinely unable to see life in any other shade than dull grey. These really were dark days indeed.
|I tried to struggle on, and battle through the fog but, I failed abjectly. Unbeknownst to myself, I was distancing myself from my loved ones, so focused on my own misery that I was unable to see the damage it was doing to those who cared about me. Sadly those looking on were all too aware of the havoc I was wreaking, and, just as I was powerless to prevent the car behind from smashing into me, they couldn’t stop me hurtling into what would be an inevitable collision. An almighty smash that would wipe out my relationships, my self-respect, my career.
And then something fantastic happened – I got involved in a car crash!!
So back to the insanity of that statement.
Sometimes a series of events happen, that, at the time, seem nothing but negative and detrimental. However, after a while the mists clear away and the sunshine peeps through and you realise that a potentially nasty incident is actually the catalyst that starts the good times rolling.
This last week I have been signed off work because of the aforementioned whiplash pain being exacerbated by office furniture. It  is a genuine problem but also a happy coincidence that  my time off work falls at the same time, not only that my children are on Half Term holiday but also my husband has been rostered  off-shift most of this week. Due to my aches and pains, I have not exactly been able to go  off-roading with the kids, but I have been afforded the opportunity to really connect again with those that really mattered to me. Happenstance has provided me with the time to slow down, smell the flowers, take a moment to appreciate what is truly important. And not to get caught up in the stuff that can  destroy relationships –stress from outside that pervades and poisons our souls.
So had, I not had the accident and been subsequently signed off, I would not be in the position to stop, think, slow down and manoeuvre safely back on life’s highway.
I truly believe, that, had I not had the crash, and been forced away from the issues that were distracting me, I would have continued careening down that self-destructive path, taking innocent bystanders with me, and destroying all of our lives.
Just like the driver who hit me I had taken my “eyes off the road” and was on a collision course to disaster.
But, life, fate, God, call it whatever you wish chose to give me a non-life-threatening bump. Admittedly a terrifying one, but sometimes we need a bloody great shock to shake us out of our self-induced madness.
And, so, I am grateful that the car hit me. I survived, my children survived, my life goes on. Better, and with a new understanding of how important it is to slow down, stop, take stock.
And pay attention, to what is going on around us. Great Road Sense. Fantastic Life Sense.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Repost - Silence Is Golden

This was first published last year, and I have been asked to post it again, today on 11/11/11 - a Remembrance Day made all the more poignant by the unique date. Lest We Forget.....

Yesterday I attended my first Remembrance Service at Akrotiri
I’m ashamed to say that, because I have lived here now for nearly four years. I could make the usual rationalisations- kids, commitments etc, but, frankly, these don’t really hold up to scrutiny.
The truth is I’ve always felt awkward, like a gatecrasher or an intruder to a private funeral, an imposter in a world where ‘Remembrance’ holds a significance I cannot and do not really want to understand. Never more than on this one Sunday each November do I feel the conspicuousness and inadequacy of my Civilian status amongst the souls that wear their medals with much deserved pride.  And so, usually, I hide in the safe cocoon of my home, listening to the notes of the Last Post drifting across an eerily silent camp.
This year my daughter had joined the Brownies and was invited to attend today’s service in uniform. Her excitement and pride was such that I was my motherly instincts over-rode any misgivings of my own and so, on a bright sunny Sunday morning she and I strolled peacefully to the Akrotiri Chaplaincy Centre to join the masses of military and civilian folk united in their desire to commemorate  the casualties of war.
We were greeted with the humbling sight of a multitude of men and women in their full military regalia, caps and shoes shining, buttons glinting. But what shone the most was the air of quiet honour and pride that each wore. The scene was breathtaking in its dignity.
As the service began, to the objective eye and ear it was like many others I have attended, the same hymns were sung as I have heard at countless civilian ceremonies before;  the readings were not unique; the wreaths looked like the many hundreds I have witnessed placed at cenotaphs and church altars.
It was when I looked around the congregation that I finally understood the gravity and austerity of the day.
Previous ceremonies I have attended – at school, at church, as a Brownie or Guide always followed the same format. Old men bearing long forgotten medals and a sense of tired wistfulness would hover at the back of the crowds as the only reminder of the reason we laid the wreaths. The two minute silence would begin with good intentions, but I would soon find myself shuffling or fidgeting, my mind wandering to trivial matters, mental shopping lists, easily distracted by small noises or movements.
Not yesterday.
When the time came to hold our tongues and thoughts for the trifling 120 seconds I was overwhelmed by a new and disturbing emotion. Looking around the crowds I saw strong men and women with reddened eyes and constricted throats, battling against demons I couldn’t comprehend. Not for them the distant memory of battles consigned to the history books. Not for them the honour and glory, that age old lie used to soften and justify the atrocities of war.
 Amongst these good people stood those who had witnessed first-hand the living hell of conflict.
I am sure some were remembering good friends and comrades whose lives were cruelly torn away. Among them, too, were, no doubt, those whose loved ones were, that very moment,  battling against an unpredictable and remorseless enemy whilst they stood to attention under the bright blue Sunday morning skies. What was in their thoughts? How did they maintain their inner strength and show such a united front of compassion and solidarity? It was humbling to witness.
So in those two minutes, I gave my thanks. 
Thanks to those heroes and heroines that we commemorated that day.
Thanks for the fact that, through their bravery and selflessness I possessed the freedom to live in safety.
And thanks that my eyes had finally been opened to the truth, no matter how painful, that wars still rage on and the list of lost souls will grow longer with every year. But  that as long as they have the courage to fight, so will grow too the indestructible force of human spirit as epitomised by the silent souls I had the honour to stand amongst that day.
We WILL remember them.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Back to Basics

We have now been officially living without our own furniture for two weeks. Just a fortnight ago, our home was raided by a small army of cackling Cypriot ladies armed with cardboard boxes, packing tape and marker pens. For four hours our home resonated with the rustle of brown packing paper and the unmistakeable teeth-scraping wrench of rolls of tape being unravelled, sliced and adhered to boxes. The arrival of the Pack of Packers was the culmination of several prior days of preparation during which our worldly goods were categorised into one of three piles – Keep It, Bin It or Sell It.  This may have been a relatively straightforward exercise had Fate not thrown us the sly curve-ball of scheduling the first phase of our house move to occur during the Half Term school holidays. Yes – Half Term – two words which strike fear and trepidation into the heart of any parent, let alone those faced with the arduous task of placing our lives into a series of cardboard boxes. After all, what more could a parent ask for when faced with an exhausting and complicated house move than to be beset with endless requests for chocolate biscuits, frequent bickering matches and complaints of boredom?
And so, eventually, my darling children devised a way to entertain themselves......
As my hubby and I embarked upon the categorical removal of the mountains of tat and bric-a-brac which seemed to emerge from our wardrobes as if being continually replenished from the other side by some compulsive hoarding resident of Narnia, our offspring were set upon another task. Their challenge appeared to be some kind of reverse version of Jenga, whereupon they would nominate the most concealed and inaccessible object spotted amongst one of our three, carefully constructed piles.  The object of the game then appeared to be to extricate said item, whilst creating the largest avalanche of possessions. Extra points would be gained if the three piles became so inextricably confused that the whole process of categorization would have to begin again, and a further special bonus was awarded to the child who succeeded in traumatising the cat in the process.
There was more than one occasion where I looked wistfully at the larger child-size packing boxes whilst mentally calculating what size dose of Calpol would have the significant sedating effect to last a six-week container-ship journey.....Thankfully, on the day the packers arrived, some very kind friends of ours offered to have the kids at their home, thus saving our sanity and a lengthy explanation to Customs at the other side
And so, eventually, all the possessions we had deemed valuable enough to take back to the UK  had been placed in bubble-wrap and cardboard and our living room more closely resembled the underside of Waterloo Bridge than the place we had called home for the past 5 years.  It was then that it hit home to me that, yes, we really were doing it – we were going back home to the UK. It was a real moment of mixed feelings – sadness to be leaving the place that we have loved for so long and happiness that we were soon to be reunited with family and friends eagerly awaiting our return back to Blighty. Oh, and relief that the hard work was over, tinged with concern that all our valued possessions were to be trusted to burly removals men, who would toss our goods into a big metal box bound for a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
So we are now in the Eye of the Storm, that eerily quiet moment between two tempestuous events, in our case – the packing and then the unpacking on the other side. Right now, we are suspended in Limbo, although as I survey our woefully empty house filled only with stuff we need to dispose of and the dreaded MOD-issue furniture and “Get You Out Pack”, perhaps our predicament is more akin to some form of Purgatory. I know I should be grateful for the provisions that have been offered us, but if the cushions fly off the highly-combustible nylon sofa one more time, generating enough static to power a small generator, I swear there will be blood. (and try getting those stains out of the ‘tasteful’ terracotta covers!).  And don’t get me started on the bed! Having temporarily exchanged our lovely, firm orthopaedic King-Size mattress and divan for a double-sized trampoline, my sleep-deprived sensibilities are a tinderbox requiring minimum provocation. I can’t even console myself with my statutory huge mug of coffee as all we have are dolls-house size teacups more suitable for a shot of espresso. Still, I should be grateful that the RAF have offered us anything at all as the dip in the temperatures here would not suffice for camping  (oh bugger, we packed the tent anyway!).
When the portentous Big Red Vans arrive outside your house here in Cyprus, you suddenly discover you have more friends than you initially realised, for word soon spreads that you are leaving. And, of course, the departure of folks heralds the possibility of freebies, as the occupants of the rapidly emptying house struggle to dispose of everything that couldn’t be fitted into their cubic metre allocation. It is not unusual to find yourself being approached by acquaintances who sidle up to you and skilfully steer the conversation to the items of garden furniture that they happen to have observed idling in the back garden, or the rusty tumble dryer that is conspicuously the only object remaining in your garage. Some folks will offer you money for your items, but the canny ones play the long game, waiting till you are desperate to shift the last vestiges of your Cyprus home-life, and are too weary to spend yet another hour on Facebook uploading pictures of unwanted possessions onto sales pages.  They then pounce ‘offering’ to ‘take that thing off your hands’  and you are simply so grateful to tick another item off the list, that you are past caring that you could have pocketed a sneaky 20 Euros if you’d held out a bit longer. But that is the Akrotiri way of life, some items of furniture have seen more homes than Kirstie  Allsopp, as family after family pass on the dubious herilooms of a sunshine posting.
So here we are now, on the five week countdown to D-Day, sitting in a house which echoes interminably, on a nasty sofa, listening to the kids storming around obstacle-free bedrooms. The next chapter of our adventure awaits, once the conundrum of the March-Out has been tackled.
But that’s for another day......

Friday, 14 October 2011

Our Last Summer

The day before yesterday, the Cyprus summer officially came to an end. It’s demise was heralded by an almighty thunderclap, a violent flash of lightning and  a torrential downpour, which, although brief, yielded a substantial amount of water, enough to wash the majority of the summer dust down into the gaping storm drains. It also succeeded in soaking the hoardes of delighted children who took to the streets in awe of the strange phenomenon of water falling from the sky, which Cyprus-raised kiddies rarely experience and consequently relish. Much excitement abounded as little persons stood in sodden clothes and splashed knee-deep in flash-formed puddles.
The rain has been in the post for some time, and ‘winter’ has come late this year, as we have struggled under oppressive humidity and have anxiously cloud-watched for a few weeks now, only to witness the ominous black formations over the Troodos mountains dissipate as they reach the balminess of the Akrotiri peninsula coastline.
Now that we have had the break in the weather i can consider breaking my beloved jeans out of the mothballs again and spare my fellow residents the horrors of my dimpled thighs for the last time. I will also now have to consider exchanging the Factor 50 for the Mossie Cream as the damp weather brings with it the legions of flying, biting beasties. I secretly harbour a belief that the Salt Lake by Akrotiri is actually the HQ of a Jurassic Park style project, where the DNA of local mosquitoes has been forged with that of prehistoric pterodactyls. It is the only sane explanation of the sheer size and aggression exhibited by these winged terrorists. The mosquitoes here seem to thrive to epic proportions and are undeterred by any form of clothing short of chainmail. Denim jeans prove no challenge to them, as I have witnessed when the angry red welts start to itch unbearably under the perceived protection of my bootlegs. These guys are the ninjas of the insect world, and seem to survive the all but the onslaught of a heavy-duty volume of War and Peace applied to the area of wall to which they have momentarily settled. It is the only reason that I might regret purchasing a Kindle and consequentially donating all my paperbacks elsewhere. The application of the expensive e-reader with the required amount of force to a nearby wall would highly likely result in a less than satisfactory outcome and a frustrated return to the sales pages of Technology on the whole is great but does not cut the mustard in stealth execution manoeuvres against blood-sucking marauders.
The return of clouds to the clear, blue skies over Cyprus now have cause to remind me that the Lundies have just experienced our last summer on this island. And it is with a fair bit of sadness that I turn to contemplate that I have recently experienced, and will continue to notch up over the coming weeks a succession of ‘Lasts’. The perennial events and festivities that I have enjoyed and appreciated will be no longer mine to witness and so many of the amazing and exciting community activities that I have had the privilege to participate in will soon be rendered to fond reminiscence.
But what a hell of a ride it’s been! In my time here I have had so many incredible opportunities to see and do things that would normally have been way out of the scope of my average little life in the UK. I’ve ridden dodgem cars in a ballgown, strutted my stuff on a catwalk, broadcast my faltering voice across the island’s airwaves. I’ve been whisked up through the skies in a helicopter and a light aircraft, brandished automatic weapons and bayonets, camped under a sheet on the rough ground overnight, swum in the Med at midnight. I’ve danced under waterfalls, and explored abandoned hotels; I’ve even played in snow and then picknicked on the beach on the same day. I’ve witnessed baby turtles emerge from their eggs and then make their first perilous, moonlit journey to the sea. I’ve swum in balmy waters amongst shoals of silvery fishes, I’ve been pampered to within an inch of my life at spas with infinity pools that overlook the azure blue Mediterranean. I’ve seen flying fishes, met snakes and shared a home with venomous spiders and jewelled Praying Mantises. I’ve witnessed the most spectacular storms, watched hurricanes out to sea and lived through (but not felt ) at least four earthquakes. I’ve watched the most impressive Mardi-Gras style carnivals and had the privilege of thrice-daily Red Arrows displays from my own back garden, where they flew so close I could see the pilots. And I’ve had the dubious pleasure of partying till dawn with those very-same aerial acrobats. I’ve shared with my children the living history of ancient caves and Roman ruins that stand within yards of my home.
And that’s just some of the Big Stuff!!  As well as that has been the considerable pleasure of being part of a vibrant, cohesive community that value and support one another in a way that only a bunch of individuals flung together on a small island 2000 miles from home would know how. People arriving here really do hit the ground running and it is testament to their spirit and resilience that they thrive and prosper as they do.  We’ve been through some tough times, in 2007 a family was tragically wiped out by a house fire, a year later a young girl drowned in a pool in her garden and a year after that a young boy suffered horrific consequences of a similar accident, which, although he survived, have left him and his family facing difficult challenges in dealing with the disabilities that he now suffers. The close-knit sense of belonging to the community has meant that very few individuals are unaffected by such tragic occurrences and the challenge of coping with the ripple-effect of living in a place where everybody knows each other so well is a tough one. But it is a challenge that the people of Akrotiri have risen to, and met with admirable courage. The sad death of the Red Arrow pilot earlier this year also had an effect on the folks here who feel a strong connection with the Reds who visit us for six weeks each year to practise their moves before moving on to public displays Europe-wide. It is with a sense of pride that I can attest that the community here was swift to act in offering condolences to the bereaved family and friends and in providing a fitting and dignified tribute.
So that’s where I am now, still moving slowly through my list of ‘Lasts’ and still determined to enjoy life to the full, right up to the moment we board our homebound aircraft back to our ‘old life’ in December. Except it will no longer just be our old life, as the experiences we have had here, the lessons we have learned, and the amazing friends we have made during our five year stay have definitely made us into better people, hopefully able to spread as little ray of Cyprus Sunshine into the dreary winter months in England. Akrotiri, I will never forget you, and thanks for the fun!!

Friday, 7 October 2011

We Gotta Get Out of this Place

This weekend the Lundie family are due to embark on “Operation Bin It, Sell It or Pack It”. It is not an exercise I relish, in fact I suspect I have been in deep denial for some time now. However, despite my protestations, time is racing on and the calendar tells us that we have only nine precious weeks remaining on this island. And our furniture only has three!!!!
And so the hysteria begins....Already my head is starting to fill with lists and the pressure is starting to show on the family relationships. Our usual post-work marital exchange of “how are you?” or “how was your day?” has been replaced with a salvo of questions such as “did you go and see...?” “have you sorted out...?” and “why haven’t you arranged...?". Oh the joys of matrimony!
Every day I enter my house a moment of dread envelops me as I survey the reams of rubbish and mountains of tat that we have unwittingly accumulated over the past 57 months. Most daunting of all is the childrens’ bedrooms, a veritable cornucopia of tatty old bears, back-broken books, dismantled cars and foot-piercing Lego. Most shameful of all is the shocking amount of toys whose origins cannot be denied as any other than the ‘gifts’ accompanying McDonald’s Happy Meals – an embarrassing testament to my failure as a nurturing mother.
The children have already been briefed that a severe and relenteless cull of their toyboxes is due to take place, however I suspect that most of the removal of unnecessary toys will have to be done in stealth. Children not only have a remarkable talent for suddenly developing a hitherto unprecedented attachment to abandoned toy, they also have specific super-hero powers akin to x-ray vision which allows them the ability to identify the mere half-silhouette of one of their forgotten, but suddenly unforesakeable, possessions, even when double-wrapped in the dreaded bin-bag.
Therefore, I suspect that hubby and I will have to adopt SAS-style tactics, sweeping in the bedrooms under the cover of darkness eliminating the enemies whilst our  cherubs sleep on in blissful ignorance. Any later query about the whereabouts of any missing toys will then be met with the stony-faced “Cannot Confirm or Deny Policy”. It’s for their own good, you know. Honest....
Once the obvious crap has been disposed of and we are left with items which will either sail away across the Med in a big metal box, or will find themselves posted contantly on BFCBay until we’ve been beaten down to a price short of paying the purchaser to take it away, it will be time to embark on the March-Out clean. At this point I start to hyperventilate as I look around a quarter that has been occupied for nearly five years by two filth-terrorists in the guise of my own offspring. Some folks dream of a home with a self-defrosting freezer or a self-cleaning oven, I would have been content with self-flushing toilets. I won’t go into detail on the horrors of the smallest rooms in the house, but many years of abuse by little people, combined with some severely hard water and limescale issues have left the porcelain receptacles in a state less than satisfactory. I am currently Googling the best solutions, some have suggested denture tablets, others flat coca-cola, but I suspect nothing short of a courtesy call to our local Bomb-disposal squad will do the job. And even then, for their own sakes, I might suggest they send in the Remote robot device. It ain’t gonna be pretty!
So that’s where I am right now. I haven’t even touched on the other issues we have to contend with, the Bureacracy Barrier, the re-entry into Civvie Life etc, but that’s for another blog where I will, no doubt share the triumphs and horrors of going back to the UK, whether you asked for them or not!!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

And so this is Christmas...

So here at Akrotiri, Christmas is very nearly upon us. The snow may be fake but the sentiments certainly ain’t. There has been a hive of activity in the past couple of weeks as units, schools, clubs and families prepare for the festive season. Not a day goes by without the tinny festive tunes emanating from one building or another as folk celebrate in their unique ways. Christmas in the sun always seems a little odd, especially as we are regaled daily with woeful stories of issues caused by the horrendous snow conditions back in the UK. There has certainly been an air of panic here as those due to fly back to join families in Blighty are wringing their hands and biting their lips, hoping that the planes due to spirit them home will be permitted to fly. Those remaining here have their own concerns that the postal system will not fail them and will provide the much anticipated presents and toys ordered weeks before, and that Santa will come up with the goods on the day.
It is at times like these that many parents breathe a collective sigh of relief at the lack of advertisements shown on BFBS. Not for us the heart-stopping moment when our little darlings announce at 5.25pm on Christmas Eve that they really, really, really hope that Santa remembers to bring them the must-have, sold-out-by-Halloween, going-for-a-hundred-quid-on-ebay latest toy that they just happened to glance at on a commercial break 30 seconds ago. The kind that forces you away from your mince pies and into the Baltic air to fight it out in frenzied retail establishment for a gift that you can guarantee will either be broken or discarded before the Christmas Pud has even been lit.  I am more than grateful that my offspring are content with whatever surprise that the Jolly Red Fellow bestows on them, and that the nice Mr BFPO has delivered on time. Aah, the magic of Christmas.
So much changes here at Akrotiri at this time of year, including the demographic  age profile. As the lucky few escape to loved ones in the UK, so they are replaced by visitors to Cyprus, especially the grandparents. The young, lithe childminders so frequently seen in the play areas around camp are transformed into greyer, wrinklier, slightly less mobile but no less loving and dedicated individuals. They are easily recognised, not just by the obvious signs of seniorship, but also by their dress. Vest tops, shorts and flip-flops are the order of the day unlike the locals who are now donning jeans, boots and jackets and making the customary ‘brrr’ noises as the sun beats relentlessly down.
The Cypriots do Christmas in their own inimitable loud and garish style. The streets are festooned with millions of twinkling lights and the roundabouts in the town centres adorned with tableaux and enormous decorations. One such roundabout in the centre of Limassol bears a humungous rotating Santa, not all of him but just the head, bearing a smile which I’m sure is supposed to be jolly and benign but actually corners the market in malevolence. He scares the bejaysus out of children to such an extent that many parents have been forced to make a complicated diversion to the shops to avoid major hysterics. Supermarkets sport the most enormous trees which would put Trafalgar Square to shame and PA systems blare out seasonal carols and tunes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the Cypriot version of Cliff Richard singing his heart out with “Kreezmazz taime, meezletoo and wayayan”.
Culturally, there, thankfully, aren’t a huge number of differences and the Cypriots have come to accommodate a great deal of UK traditions so the likes of turkey and stuffing are not too hard to find. I’ve yet to track down a pot of Brandy butter but, no doubt, there will be a little corner of expat land that will be able to oblige. Either that or a puzzled but willing local shopkeeper will be happy to douse my tub of Flora with a generous splash of Keo VSOP.
One of my favourite aspects of the run-up to Christmas is the school nativity plays. I’m sure there is many a primary teacher who has made a significant dent in the secret staff room drinks cabinet over the past few weeks who would beg to differ, but for me they are a joy. Nothing says Christmas like the annual parade of tea-towel and tinsel wearing small persons, each desperate to depict the events of the Holy Night in their own unique way. My holidays wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of a shouty shepherd, a nose-picking angel and a sobbing donkey. It really makes my day to watch the misty-eyed, camera-clicking parents (one of whom I admit to be) jostle for position as their own little cherub stops the proceedings to wave at Grandma, theatrically nudges a word-shy school mate or , in a fidgety bored moment, lifts a silvery robe to display a distinctly un-angelic set of underwear. I take my hat off to the teachers who work hard each year, stage managing and conducting, trying to put an ever more entertaining, contemporary  and unique spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told. No matter what, each year is a triumph of sheer cuteness and heart-wrenching adorability.
So all that remains for me to do is to wrap a few remaining presents and contemplate the mammoth vegetable peeling session that awaits us on Christmas morning. Amidst all the frenzy of stockings and wrapping paper, cracker pulling and silly paper hat wearing, I hope many of you will join me in sparing a thought for the hundreds of military families for whom this traditional time of happiness is a sore reminder that there is one empty chair at the table this year. I hope we all take a moment to give thanks for the souls that are fighting for their lives, and for our freedom, as we merely struggle to leave the dining table. I remember stories of the First World War where one battlefield ground to a halt on Christmas Day and enemies called a truce to emerge from the trenches to exchange gifts and play football. I only wish that life in Afghanistan were that simple, but, sadly, I very much doubt it.
To all of you I wish a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, but to some I wish more – a peaceful and safe 2011, and to those who have lost loved ones true tidings of comfort and joy.