Sunday, August 30, 2015

Summer in Cyprus

It was a wet and cold June in Amsterdam. Just as the wind and rain were abusing the windows of our downtown apartment and the temperature rarely raised above 14 C I could not help myself but count the days the customary Cyprus holiday. 
Finally July came and our winterly pale selves have been promptly installed back in our Cypriot lifestyle. It’s hard not to like the later when on daily bases one can: go to the beach, spend majority of the day outside, meet friends spontaneously, eat out, buy fresh  delicious and incredibly cheap fruit and vegetables, hire inexpensive help, send the kids to daily swimming lessons, daily dancing lessons and several other activities without breaking the bank, go to gym and park the car for free right outside.

The 6 weeks of vacation bliss passed incredibly fast. It was very much involved around the kids and from what I sense so will be any summer holiday going forward until they turn the appropriate age when spending time with your parents becomes utterly uncool. But you know what, I am totally fine with that age ;) I fact when is it again?? 

The strawberries, age 5, learned the basics of swimming, riding a bicycle, had their first hiking trip, first vacation with other families, first sleep over and mastered the skill of communicating without speaking the language. That’s right, I find it incredible how adaptable children are. In the summer school all children spoke pretty much only Greek. Yet they made friends incredibly fast. The social climbing tendencies of the one quickly kicked in. From day 1 she started arriving home with “presents” and braids made by one of the older children. The other one did not stay much behind, having difficulties to convince her to get back home at the end of the day as playing with hide and seek with the boys seemed so much more fun. 

One of the many reasons I really like Cyprus is our home there. I have always been so much against holiday homes because I like to travel and the thought of having to go to the same place all the time seemed burdening. But that concept entirely changed after having children. Traveling with the little ones is a very expensive exercise: it’s 4 plane tickets, 2 hotel rooms, rental car, lots on food and entertainment.The maximum we could sustain is 2 weeks at best. Besides the hassle is so much bigger having to pack and discovering where everything is on arrival. All of a sudden having a fixed place to go to sounds like a fantastic  idea. The packing is limited as there is everything on arrival, including cloths, toys and other children paraphernalia. There is a car waiting outside. The grocery store, the bakery, the pharmacy, the doctor etc is all located nearby . There is a thrusted nanny on call, who also cleans and irons. The apartment is big, not a tiny crammed hotel room. Basically there is nothing to do except enjoy, and for good 6 weeks, not 2. Besides the place rents out easily pretty much over the entire year when not in use, so it ends up bringing money, not costing. The only down side is that it’s a bit far, 4,5 hours on the plane. But that’s also why the climate is so great. Cyprus is closer to Lebanon and Egypt than to continental Europe. 
And its home. I have mentioned that before but it gets more and more home each and every time. Even now I can close my eyes and stroll around dreamingly the sun drenched streets of old town Larnaca, taste the sweetest ever freshly squeezed orange juice from Finikoudes beach avenue, and drink it under the palm trees while the warm wind plays with the locks of my hair and the satin of my summer dress. I am in love, deeply and for ever. I want to grow old in this town and one day my ashes be spread over the waves that wash its shore. 
If you ask me should you visit Larnaca I would say don’t. There is really nothing special about it. It’s small, a bit dull especially in winter, it’s not particularly picturesque, the beaches lack the azure color of the ones in Napa and Protaras. I don’t think you will feel the child-like excitement I have. It would be just another holiday destination for you, and probably not the most memorable one. 
But to me it is haven on earth.  There are memories coming in from every corner. Its beauty shines trough from the history it has and the history I have with it. I adore its beach promenade, the old churches, the ever changing sea, the covered with fruit orange trees, the flowery bushes that cover the old houses, the warm wind and not to forget, the Sun the mighty Sun. To me Larnaca is a bright sunny day when every color shines at it’s very best and one must be blind not to see the endless beauty of the world. 
I told you I am in love, I was not kidding :) 

But like all good things, the holiday came to and end and with a heavy heart I had to say goodbye to the island. It was a bit depressing really. Netherlands welcomed us with a bucket of rain in the face. 16 C, wet and plentiful of that adorable piercing cold wind that makes you just love your life. Luckily more school holidays are coming and therefor more Cyprus trips. If it wasn't for that I would have been crying, literally. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Democratic Republic of Congo, not your usual cup of tea

Not long ago my adventurous self got the travel itch and booked a trip to Congo. I did not think about it much, I saw Air France had a direct flight, the travel advisory said the political climate is calm and so I thought, why not. I have never been to Africa before, let's just see the "real Africa".
And Real it was. Congo is one of the least developed and poorer countries in Africa and the world. It's also one of the least travelled as it has been rampaged by disastrous politics. After I booked the ticket I did a little research and all I found out about visiting Congo was rather concerning. First of all as it's not touristy, if you do find a tour or so to join is ridiculously expensive, accommodation in hotels is either in a 5 star hotels of which they have 2 in Kinshasa for which you pay dearly, or cheaper hostels and the likes where safety and bugs is a major concern. Strangely enough though they do have a few private accommodation and I booked one of those via airbnb. That meant I had to share an apartment with a couple but what the hell I thought, it's an adventure right.

And so one dark evening in June I arrive to this house. This is a upper middle class neighborhood in Kinshasa with "proper" two level houses, canalization, electricity, a generator when the electricity stops  working, which is often, security guards. They all look like prisons from the outside. The main streets are paved but not the side streets which are covered with sand and because of that sand tends to be everywhere, in your room, bed, shoes. Not far from the house there is a western style supermarket which makes the neighborhood a desirable place to live, as it's pretty much the only one of that sort in town. Options for getting food were very limited. Either you buy food from the store, which made sense for breakfast, or go to a restaurant which was a very expensive ordeal. From what I gathered it is like that because the country is so corrupt and inefficient that it takes me 5 times as much resources to produce anything. Restaurants are for the most quite empty except the occasional expat or Congo-elite.
There is of course street food. I have never seen this before but I know all my vegetarian and vegan friends would have nightmares for eternity watching a lamb being skinned and cooked right in front of you.
For the rest Kinshasa is practically one big ghetto. There is nothing beautiful in that town except the eye-opening experience that human beings can survive and even be happy in the worse of circumstances.
Just a brief lesson in history. What sets Congo apart from most other African countries is the fact that during colonial times they had the worst of luck to be ran as Belgium King Leopold's private estate where for years he just drained the country resources and treated it's people inhumanly. Things got not much better after Belgium took over and practically did nothing to develop the country or "teach" the locals how to run their own country. Independence came and after a brief political havoc Congo's infamous gen. Mobutu took over and for over 30 years fucked the country up. Corruption is what it seems the most thriving part of the economy, poverty, famine, rape, illiteracy, secret police, lawlessness, off the scale child mortality,  you name it, they have it. Last few years civil wars were added to the mix causing all sort of disasters on it's own.
Basically if you believe in reincarnation, you may think you have done really awful things in your previous life to be born in Congo at your next one.

But there is hope.
I had to do something to get out of Kinshasa and pretty much the only place around worth visiting is the Bonobo monkey sanctuary. Those are the very famous monkeys that solve all their disputes with sex and are bisexual, incest-prone and do masturbate. All in all interesting characters.
But just as any of these places during summer, this one was also visited by school kids.
Here they are, funny, shy, curious, pushing each other around, laughing. Children are hope. They don't know any better than what they have and, as long as they are safe and loved, they are all full of joy and hope, same as all over the world. It really was a breath of fresh air to see the energy of those school kids in the jungly after couple of days in the chaos of Kinshasa.

And it was time to go. I could not even push the whole week so booked a d-tour back via Casablanca after 4,5 days in Congo.
What would I say about if you want to visit Congo. I think if you are crazy enough that you thought that's a place for you to go, then do it. Because you are obviously out of your mind and that's what is great about the world. Just beware to get your yellow fever certificate as that's a moment just after arrival to immediately face corruption, you will be harassed until you pay money, 20 USD in my case.
Also beware there is departure tax at the airport and you need to bring cash. Generally speaking the airport is a dodgy place and if you get the chance someone to help you out, someone that you thrust, go for it. If you have money to spend, you will. Prepare for that too. For the rest, when I went, June 2015, it felt relatively safe and relatively friendly and I must say, they know how to cook chicken. I don't think I have ever had such a good grilled chicken ever before. And brush up your French, you will need it.


Casablanca was the creddle of civilization after Congo. I saw the famous Mosque, roamed the market streets  in old town, had wonderful inexpensive food and even went to the mall and had my hair done.
If it wasn't for Congo before, I would probably find the city and bit dirty and chaotic and the locals a bit too intrusive. But since I did come from the darkest heart of Africa, I couldn't care less.
To me Morocco is a bit like visiting Turkey. It's a light, beginners version of their parts of the world. Very user-friendly for the most. What I found particularly pleasant is that most people speak at least basic English and usually fluent French. Visit by all means.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The big bad Repatriation

As I wake up in this gloomy Dutch morning I can't believe it's february in 2015! Where did the time go? They say the years between 35 and 45 are the most productive and surely the whirlpool of productivity has gone on to me. 2014 was a year of R&R: read Relocations& Remodeling. Nothing much to do with  Rest and Relaxation mind you.

2014 was one hell of a intense year. In April hubs moved from Moscow back to the Netherlands.  His commuting schedule changed from flying to Cyprus from Russia every weekend, to flying to Cyprus from the Netherlands. That added another hour to his 3 h flight time one way, not to mention far less flexible flight schedule. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

We decided that the kids and I will stay in Cyprus August, so that we can enjoy the summer in our Mediterranean paradise and they will continue going to their English school. There were virtually no schools available in Netherlands in April on such a short notice. Apparently for most schools you need to sign you children up since birth, virtually impossible concept for people like us, since how would we know where we will live in 4-5 years.

As we realized we might spend couple of years in the Netherlands, we decided that we want to have a permanent place to return to in Cyprus for holidays. I have been looking already for years but finally we found The one. It was a total wreck but I had a vision. When I mean total, I mean it. New doors, windows and redoing all the walls and floors as the leaky roof has damaged them all. We pretty much stripped the place down to the bones and rebuilt it again.
The living room "before"

And so that was Remodel No 1. Most of the time I was left alone with it and the two children. I only know few women that will take on something like this, and I think that's simply because we are a bit crazy:) It took 6 excruciating weeks and another 2 to put all furniture in place, shipped from our storage in the Netherlands, but finally in May 2014 we moved in.

Most thanks to my project manager who has been a true visionary and perfectionist and patient enough to deal with my own perfectionistic demands. And to my husband and friends who kept my sanity and joined me countless times in Leroy Merlin and all the DYI stores on the island. The result was the penthouse of our dreams.

gotta miss those sunny breakfasts outside
We knocked out the small windows in the living room and replaced them with floor to ceiling huge ones giving a 180 degrees panorama of the Salt Lake and the mountains, true wow-factor together with the 80 sq m sea-view rooftop terrace.

The summer went on and it was time to move to the Netherlands. (Deep sigh here). As you may understand, leaving Cyprus where I have been living for 2 years was a very hard thing to do. I grew to like this place so much and it has became a home to such an extend, that I suffer true as if it was a love-sickness. But we had many plans to return, all school holidays and even a weekend trip here and there, so I braised myself and on to the next adventure:

Repatriation i.e. Relocation back to the Netherlands
Back in the "matrix" in Utrecht

If you have ever experienced a true Repatriation, you probably know that going back to the country you left is probably one of the hardest things you ever had to do. It has been 7 years since we left first for the USA and then Russia and then Cyprus and we have learned and experienced so much. And what it feels like when you get back is that things haven't changed together with you. In fact it's almost like revisiting your past, but not as an observer, no, as a transplanted into your old self unwilling participant.

Living in Western Europe, especially in the Netherlands has it's indisputable advantages, high-level of organization in society, lack of poverty, thriving economy, architectural beauty, culture, tolerance to a lot of of other things I value. But it also has things I can't stand, for instance bad weather and traffic jams. To add to the rising nationalism, judge-mentality and "burgerlijkheid" ( in english something like small-mindess). If society is something that you can learn to accept by creating your own sub-society or likeminded people, bad weather and traffic jams are there to stay.

Dec 26 2014 in sunbathing in Cyprus
Bad weather meaning from over 300 days of sunshine in Cyprus on to 300 days of overcast in the Netherlands. Let me tell you that, you may find charm the the rain, you may see overcast as romantic and even mysterious, but that ware off really fast when the S.A.D. settles down. And there is no escape, unless you leave the place, either for holidays or permanently. Once you have lived at the sun and you know what it means to be able to run, hike, eat, sit, drink and do whatever outside, year round, then you know that everything else is a compromise. Maybe if you are born with the bad weather and you don't have anything to compare it with, then maybe you are alright. But all those scandinavians flocking Southern Europe whenever they can, well, I rest my case.

And then there are the traffic jams. And I don't mean it literally even-tough a human being trapped in a motorized metal cage, stuck immobile together with herds of other entrapped human beings it's a really sad thing to see or endure. I mean life in the Netherlands is one big traffic jam. It's no secret that this is one of the most overpopulated country in the world. 17 million sharing a very small territory with no mountains, under sea level, like a giant human pot with a lid of overcast. And all those 17 million need to go places such as work or school, buy food, cloths, go out, go to the cinema, the museum, pay bills, go for a run, to the park, sign your children for sports classes etc etc. And all of these is a fight, a queue, a waiting list, a struggle, a few hundred other people to share it with, a number you need to call to, a person you need to talk to who only works 3 mornings a week and is on a sick leave.

It's an overpopulated country, and all the good things you need to share with a lot of other people. Comparing to the abundance of space and resources of the USA or Russia and the ultra relaxed Mediterranean island lifestyle, the Netherlands is a whole different cup of tea. The society there works like this: In NL you can count on the basics and they will be better than pretty much anywhere in the world. You will never starve, you will have a place to live, a job to do and if worse happens the life hits you hard, there will be bunch of NGO's jumping on to help. From then onwards it will be a struggle for any improvement of your life you want to achieve. You are punished for earning good money because the taxes model is a bit like Robin Hood, stealing from "the rich" to give to "the poor". And even if you have any money left to afford certain things such as for instance owning a car, they government after taxing it heavily will regulate that you can't park it in front of your home, because oh God, you live in the city center and that means at least 2 years waiting list. But there are people with children like us living in the center, what would you suggest? Drop the 4 years olds at home alone and go park the car 15 min bike ride away? It's even struggle to buy groceries, queues, ridiculously overpriced fruits and vegetables that taste all the same (like water), lack of parking, inflexible opening hours. I almost can hear some of those Burgelijk people I mention before "So if you don't like our beautiful country why are you still here" and exactly that kind of mentality can really tip you off at the end of another day of various struggles.

Flatlands, view from Utrecht's Dom tower
And then it comes where you live. The truth is there is only one place for people like us in the Netheralnds and that's Amsterdam. Only within 2 months of landing at Schiphol I knew we had to move from out Utrecht canal house to the "big city". Amsterdam is what New York is for the USA and Moscow for Russia. It's just another city in the Netherlands, it's a bit of a different place, city with it's own lifestyle and subculture, very liberal and expat-friendly.

new place
And the bank made it very easy for us, we could not renegotiate our mortgage deal for our house in Utrecht without paying a huge penalty so the best way was to sell and buy a new one. And so it started. After couple of intense months of looking and pure struggle we found just the right place downtown Amsterdam in De Pijp, which is something like the Latin Quarters in Paris. The apartment though was also in need of thorough renovation. Most people do one or two in their lives. I did two in one year (fixing Cyprus And the house in Utrecht that was rented for 7 years and needed some serious work) and getting ready for the third one. Funny enough though, it's a bit like running a marathon. It's hard when you do it and question your sanity, but after you are done it's such an invigorating feeling that makes you feel you can do it again. And now we are in process of knocking it all down and creating proper two bedroom with two-bathroom proper family place from what it was a big one bedroom bachelor hut. I think we will move there in April 2015. It basically took one year since we first "moved" to start an actual life in the Netherlands and the question is always, for how long.

People often ask, so how do you like to be back in the Netherlands. It always puts me into the dilemma wether to say what I think or lie not to offend them. So I usually make a weather joke and avoid straight answer.
the girls waiting for Sinterklaas to arrive in a typical gray december day

A good thing I started this year is that I sort of created a job for myself. I am simply renting out our places when we are not using them but in such a way that I made far more money in the last 4 months as I would have with a full time job. It's a short term renting and it means quite some work to organize it, especially remotely with checkin/checkout, the cleaning etc. I have the Cyprus penthouse in 3 websites and it requires a good follow up to avoid overbookings. But it's flexible hours and pays great.
It has gone so well, that I am thinking to invest more in it and make it a bit more of a business, but more to come on that in the next year. The older I am getting the more I value having free time as one of the essential parameters of how well you do professionally. It's not only the satisfaction and the money you earn, but the combination of the satisfaction and the time you spend versus the money you earn. For instance doing renovations has been really paying off as it's very intense work for a few weeks but the time vs. money earned ratio is fantastic, besides it really pays off later to have a modern latest/greatest outfitted home to rent out.

Well, besides all the intesity of the R&R there was time to relax and enjoy and do some of my favorite things, paraglding, travel and hiking. We started the year with a trip to Paris and kept on roaming Europe the whole year, I missed it when I was away and learn to apprecaite the old continent so much more. We finished up with a great "romantic" holiday to Israel and Jordan for hubs and I and fullfilled a childhood dream of mine to see Petra. Paraglding was basic in Cyprus but in got a week in Italy and that was absultely amazing. And did a quick trip in the Dominican Republic in Jan 2015 to ditch the winter gloom a bit. It was not really flyable there which was a shame but had a great time with a really nice group of new/old friends. I have never thought it was so much fun to take a ride of the back of a pickup truck, the views, the wind in your hair on some dusty Dominican road... ah:) Now "enjoying" the Dutch overcast. Can't wait for next long haul holiday with hubs. Since we have lots of  air miles we booked a trip pretty much for free to Jakarta and we see from there. I am absolutely in love with Southeast Asia, really can't wait.

And then over the last year I hiked Cyprus left right and center. The amount of time one can spend outside in here is simply amazing and I take full advanatge of it. I don't think there is a trail I havent done, mostly I have done them few times. I love being in the nature and the smooth combination of physically challenging activity combined with fantastic views, fresh air, mountain smells. Each time I come back from a hike I feel I rebooted the system, it all starts flowing again just the way it should. I really miss that in the Netherlands and replacing it with running only partially solves the problem. I hit the gym in hubs work but I need a gym closer to home. in Amsterdam the gym is 5 doors down the street, one more reason to look forward the move.

All in all, 2015 is going to be another intense year. I will keep you posted on my Dutch whereabouts :)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Life in Cyprus

Since the big news is already out, I can share it in here as well. In couple of months we are moving back to the Netherlands. It has been 7 years on the road: 3 in USA, 2 in Russia and 2 in Cyprus. During that time we also considered time in Canada, Belgium, Singapore. Those were intense, fun, happening 7 years in which life changed with acquiring children, learning to speak a new language (Russian), started running and ran 4 marathons, got back into paragliding, travelled the world (55 countries and counting), climbed one of the seven summits and last but not least, found a place to call home - Cyprus.
Although the Netherlands is officially a home base, unofficially, by choice, Cyprus became the destination to come back to and to eventually settle for retirement when the times comes.

Every time I land in Cyprus I have this undeniable feeling of coming home.
It has been nearly two years now and simply put, I Love this place.

I mentioned before why I like it but there are some new thoughts to share

  • Cyprus is the most relaxed place I have ever been to. Favorite Cypriot expression is "slowly, slowly", used to describe any sort of activity, including how to approach an intense gym class. In summer most offices and stores close at 3 PM each Wednesday and remain closed the rest of the day. Over the whole year most businesses practice 2 hours "siesta" in the middle of the days, which leaves the work-life balance in a very desirable place. 
  • In general Cypriots seem obsessed with moderation, expect when it comes to food. As a general rule Cypriots don't drink much, don't work out much, don't travel much. Food is another story. A typical thing to have is a meze, selection of small dishes ranging from starters like olives and dips, over to several main courses and ending with a range of deserts. Good luck with that diet of yours;) I didn't gain any weight here, but I work out daily and am still just as far from that six pack as before. 
  • Most Cypriot men seems obsessed with watching football and supporting one of the local teams, which are, to my knowledge, barely known outside of Cyprus. 
  • Cypriots are, generally speaking, on the conservative side. Strong religious affiliation, family oriented, conservative values-driven. Yet the society is tolerant and acceptant and as a rule confrontation is to be avoided. Unless that Mediterranean hot blood starts boiling that is. Just an example: a couple splits up in not-so-friendly terms. The lady goes on and places an add in the newspaper on behalf of the guy, about looking for some gay fun... Who does that?? 
  • Cyprus is a safe place, especially comparing to any big continental city. At barely over a million people population, it's not hard to understand. I used to live by myself with two kids in a small village at a very dark road with very few neighbors and I never really felt very concerned about it. I had a flat tire once on a remote country road and in a matter of seconds two drivers stopped to help me put the reserve. 
  • For a small island as it is, the amount of expats is very high and social life is fairly happening. I was very lucky to have discovered InterNations which is a great place to start when new in town.   There is a month get-together one in Nicosia and one Limassol and I met a lot of great people, the young professional type. I also met people via sports, namely paragliding, skydiving, trekking, the gym and also a few moms via the Larnaca Parents Network which is also a great resource for finding things to do with children. 
  • Weather in Cyprus is Fantastic. July and August are very Hot. Besides the humidity makes you very easily tired. I had to quit running because even at 8 am it's already 28 C. January and February are a bit rainy and "cold", about 15 C. But even then you often have bright sunny and warm days. All in all, at least 8 months a year weather is nearly perfect, warm, sunny, light winds and not terrible humidity.
  • In the summer most people including myself spend a lot of time at the beach. Beaches in Cyprus are really good (if you are willing to drive to Ayia Napa and Protoaras area, 45 min) or acceptable (if you stick to Larnaca and Limassol). Since I live about 10 min drive from the Larnaca's famous Makenzie beach I spend a lot of time there and don't complain. 
  • The proximity to nature and opportunity for outdoor activities is in abundance. Only 2 min walk from home is an 8 km nature trail going around the Larnaca Salt Lake and fantastic for running or cycling. 20 min drive away there is the Savrovouni mountain which is great for a quick, yet fairly intense trekking and fantastic views from the monastery which is located on the top. For more serious trekking Troodos  mountains  offer several trails with various degree of difficulties and once again, fantastic views along the way. In the Northwest part of the island, Akamas peninsula is where you can take probably my favorite, Adonis trail and experience the complete tranquility of looking at empty rugged coast line throughout. Besides, there is obviously the sea, and all water sports: sailing, diving, windsurfing, snorkeling, kitesurfing etc. I am here already couple of years and feel I have not yet explored even a small part of all the outdoor activities. But trying skydiving and obviously continue with paragliding already sold it for me. 
  • I love the intense amount of history the island has. This is not Ibiza or the Canaries. Not that they don't have history, but in Cyprus it goes to what I was brought up with, the Ancient Greek mythology. After all it's the birth place of Aphrodite, my favorite of the goddesses. It's absolutely fantastic experience to do paragliding above the ruins of ancient Kourion where B.C people were watching ancient greek sports and later on gladiators lived or died. Or to end up that same Adonis trail right at the Aphrodite's baths, a surreal little waterfall with a natural pool, dream-like beautiful. 
  • But just as I said this is not Ibiza, well, if you are looking for a nightlife, especially in summer, there is no need to look far. It's a tourist destination after all and beach parties are everywhere and  they are just as fun and happening as anywhere in Europe. 
  • I Love to shop food in Cyprus. Since I really like to cook, food-shopping is generally speaking great recreational activity for me, but in Cyprus I enjoy it far more. All the produce is fresh, tastes fantastic and you can feel how the route from the root to your plate has been a very short one. And not to mention, it's very inexpensive. I could tell that despite the difficulties of living apart and acting pretty much like a single mom, I am looking and feeling healthier, happier and overall in great spirits just due to mainly two things, lack of urbanized stress (traffic, pollution, overpopulation etc) and eating well. Well, that, and the sun of course. But most of all, it just feels great to feed your kids with fruit and veg that are just as good as when you were a child and the local farmers don't even understand the term "organic" because it's all organic. 
  • and now that I mention it, one of the biggest advantages of life in Cyprus which I didn't realize until only recently is the lack of traffic jams. It just feels so great to be able to go to the bank, the hairdresser, do your groceries shopping, drop all at home and make it to the dentist appointment all in 2 hours. Cyprus is the opposite of overpopulated and I am loving every minute of it. For a person that used to love the big cities, this is a huge revelation for me. In fact I don't like That many people that much. Not that I would miss on an opportunity to live in a metropolis again. Of course not, but I will never want to spend retirement age in a city like New York on Honk Kong or even Amsterdam. 
  • and about the dentist. One of the things I love the most here is how interconnected everyone and everything is. For instance, my doctor is the brother in law of a good friend of mine who was also our Real estate agent. The dentist is also her dentist and we got our first rental car from the company of a guy who plays football with my husband every weekend. And so on. At first I thought I would never like that as it seems to me a bit too claustrophobic, but in reality it's absolutely fantastic to be able to thrust a person even before you met them. 
  • real estate prices are another great plus for Cyprus. it's amazing what you can rent or buy here for the same amount you will only get a one car garage in Amsterdam. And rumor is, prices will go down even more. 
  • diversity, another of my favorite things about the island. The population is mostly local people, yet there are the so called British-cypriots, raised in the UK, but decided to move back. Next biggest group is British expats because of the colonial past as well as the fact that pretty much everyone speaks English. Then there are the Russians and Ukrainians and then smaller group of other Eastern Europeans including very many Bulgarians funny enough. The Dutch community is pretty small, yet big enough so that there is a Dutch school. And the domestic help is primarily from the Philippines, fallowed closely by Sri Lanka. And of course there is a whole little Turkey in the occupied side. Overall, great diversity and overall pretty nice blend of tolerance and inclusiveness. 
  • opportunity to hire help is yet another great positive side. Cyprus is still one of those places where you can hire help to live with you and work full time and it will not break the bank. I personally prefer to hire help only when I need it, but the Philipino ladies that come to babysit, clean, iron etc and both very good, reliable, friendly and not terribly expensive. 
Have I sold it yet?? :) Just kidding. But as you can understand I feel very attached to Cyprus. So attached that I feel this is home.
The notion of home was something unclear for me only few months back as wrote here. But now, I am set. We are leaving shortly, but we will be back over and over again. I never thought I will be living in one place only anyway. And it's not that I am most committed to move in Cyprus and stay here for ever. Not yet. But it's a great feeling to know that there is a place in the world where sun always shines and the mountains are always green and the Mediterranean looks magnificent from every spot along the way. Home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi 2014 Olympic games

We made it! 
It has been now 3,5 years since I first moved to Moscow and at the time the Winter Olympics in Sochi seemed really far away.  In fact I never thought I would stay in Moscow that long, and I turned out to be correct.
But we made it! 3,5 years of Moscow-Cyprus ups and downs which finally led to this merry event which was a practical but also mental goal for my husband and I.
This last weekend, co-exsiting not entirely unintentionally with V-day, hubs and I landed in Sochi in the midst of the Olympic events ready to witness Russian Olympic joy and sorrows firsthand.
Hot Water sign in the hotel bathroom. Gotta love the irony
Tons of criticism leaked from the International press about the unfinished Olympic venues, hotels and the lack of basic facilities. I honestly think people don't travel enough. If the did, they will know that in big part of the world disorganization, corruption and lack of "basics" such as potable tab water are part of everyday life.  In my view in Sochi things were actually pretty good. To everyone that asked me, there was hot water and plenty of it. Also a very good breakfast in our soviet style hotel in downtown Sochi. The fact that it was sunny and 17 C spring like weather certainly contributed to the olympic mood.
view from the room at Marins Park Hotel Sochi
But since this is Russia and things in Russia are either really really good or really really bad, there were moments of frustration. Let me get to that later.
One of the definite positives about the overall organization of the Games was the transportation. The Russians know their trains as much as they know their subway which in Moscow transports nearly 10M commuters a day!
Free of charge brand new trains were running every 10 minutes between Sochi, Adler and the rest of the villages around. In peak hours it was a bit crowded, but also great opportunity to strike a conversation with fellow spectators and feel the atmosphere.
And what an atmosphere that was. Seeing the Olympic fire for the first time made my my heart skip a beat. Huge beautiful futuristic buildings around, palm tree sand snowy mountains, and the mighty sun. It looked like a scene from Elysium.

Since we had limited amount of time, our choice of events was very much focused on skating where the Dutch had the most chances to win medals. The first competition we saw was 1500 m Men's speed skating.
Speed-skating is a very strategic sport and has a lot to do with psychology which is one of the reasons I like it. It's in a way sort of running on ice and since I am big on running, one more reason to enjoy watching it so much. It was a rather dramatic event for the Netherlands.
Each country is allowed to have no more than 4 skaters and of course the Dutch had 4. The first 3 guys started earlier on and did very well, but towards the end there outperformed. The forth Dutch skater, Koen Verweij was the last chance for a medal for the Dutch team. And man, did he give Everything in that race! He was focused, fast, determined and just set straight for the gold. The final result was at the screen and yes, he was first. And then.... the disappointment came. With 0,0003 of a second he was apparently slower that then Brodka, the Polish skater. I felt very sad for Verweij. As a sportsman he must have trained his entire life for this event and knowing you have missed by this incredibly small difference. Sometimes I feel that technology progress such as producing a device that can determine speed in such a precision doesn't actually do us any good when we can't act from a purely human perspective and just admit that the Pole and the Dutch both deserved that medal just as much.

Understandably Verweij was really upset when the announcement was made. For a while he sat alone on the side of the ice ring until he got a warm hug from another Orange-clad member of the team. He was soon surrounded. I can imagine that everyone shared the same sentiment. 1/3000 of a bloody second!!! Anyway, Koen manned up and showed his brave face at the flower ceremony that followed immediately after the race. I didn't see him next day at the Women's 1500 m despite that most of the others skaters was there to support the ladies. We are all human after all.

After the race we met an old friend of mine, American lady living in Moscow who volunteered at the Games. It was great to see an insider's view and hear some great stories. Also to remember the our marathon on ice we ran together in Siberia on the Baikal lake of which I mentioned before. We learned that that same morning she interviewed for the Today show, link  here. We also met the coach of the American Women Hokey team, who turned out to be a lovely company and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in a quirky Russian restaurant among athletes from just about everywhere in the world and their families.
The next day we managed to watch part of the Russia vs Slovakia Hokey Game in our Russian Hokey jerseys (picture above) and then quickly changed in orange for the finals of Women 1500 m speed skating. You gotta be fast at the Olympics ;)
The event was packed and atmosphere fantastic. The Russian spectators were rather loud but not overwhelmingly and the other well presented nations were of course the Dutch but also the Americans and the Canadians.
The event went like this: Ter Morse raced, 4 second faster than anyone, left no room for assipration for the gold medal. Then the other 3 Dutch ladies lined up at number 2,3 and 4. The rest of the world followed. Made me so very proud.
Also I partially lost my voice to cheer for Ireen, Marrit and Lotte.
Jorien Ter Morse, the number 1, was too fast, I did not have time to cheer for her...

All in all, amazing experience to watch all the  going to the Dutch skaters. Here is a selfie of our happy orange cheering duo.

And now let me mention a few points of frustration. 
First of all the security solutions. Only in Russia you will be presented with only one point of entrance in the Olympic Park albeit a pretty big one. Imagine, a huge area of probably about 10 sq. km with only one entry point for spectators. Right next to the Skating venue was an exit which we badly needed to use to catch the plane to Moscow but they won't let us because it was staff only. 
But this is an Exit people! And exit means that one already had passed security and has been in the venues so if a terrorist would mean to do any harm they would have long done it! So we had to sprint with our travel bags 3,5 km to the exit to catch a taxi, arriving at the airport soaked in sweat and still pounding. Fact is in Russia the comfort of the individual is easily dismissed as unnecessary and a nice-to-have rather than a must and examples of that are plentiful as I already mentioned

Then there was the queue for  the visitors pass which took 1,5 hour of valuable time in the best case scenario. You know that you will have a huge event and people need to register (btw, is this really necessary when one fills out all info already when buying tickets). But say you do need a visitors pass. Why not organize it so that there is no waiting.
Let me try to explain. Because the Russians are the most stoic people I have ever seen. They will patiently wait in any queue, or in their cars in a huge traffic jam when Putin needs to go to the airport, or for food or a drink on a Saturday afternoon in the park, or at Ikea, or for parking, basically for anything. It probably has something to do with the training they got during the Iron curtain when people had to queue for groceries all the time due to the food shortages.
And so they are used to and they are patiently waiting where my used-to-better self is trebling on the inefficiency and lack of pro-activeness of who-ever-was-responsible for that mess.

I am only going to mention one more thing with regards to critisism. Catering, namely places to eat or have a drink. In Russia is really tricky with alcohol, but at a major even like that not to have a proper Beer Hall is like going to a movie and not having any popcorn for sale. Come on! There are other ways to prevent people of getting trashed drunk.
Food wise, in short was expensive and shit. On the left is a picture of the only good thing I ate in 3 days, namely spinach-mushroom salad. All the rest was not worth mentioning. Food in Russia is generally not that great, but given the fact that Sochi is at the Caucasus, you would expect some local food which generally speaking pretty amazing. 
All in all great experience Amazing Good Bye Russia party for my husband and I. 
Let's finish with a joke. Below is the sign in the hotel bathroom. As you can see in English it just says "towel". The Russian version means something like "A towel for your beautifully scented body". The Russian clearly think the English speakers can't quite grasp it ;)