Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lazarus and his amazing farting goats

I know I bang on a lot about having worked in Cyprus, but it was such a fun time in my life.  I was working for the MOD settling compensation claims, mostly from Cypriot farmers whose crops or livestock had been damaged by members of our armed forces doing their military training.  A good deal of the work was generated by RAF helicopters flying low across the training areas in the Cypriot outback, known as the ‘bondhu’. The effect of the helicopters was sometimes crop damage because of the downdraught from the rotors, but usually it was that livestock would be made to panic and either injure themselves or abort their young.

In the Summer months the bondhu was a hot, dusty, sand coloured wilderness, relieved here and there by olive groves and carob trees, whose seed pods could be picked and chewed when they’d turned dark brown.  The pods looked like huge sycamore seeds and had a bitter-sweet taste; indeed carobs are harvested for the manufacture of various foodstuffs including a type of chocolate.  The other most visible life form were the goats.  They do have cows, pigs and sheep in Cyprus, but you rarely see them, and goats are the order of the day.  Many a family makes a modest living on their ‘mandra’, a word which generally describes a simple goat enclosure.  The farmers often live in the local village; the mandra usually has no living quarters, just a rudimentary kitchen and maybe an old bed under a makeshift sunshade for an afternoon sleep.

The goats are bred for their milk, used in particular to make halloumi, which is the only cheese I’ve ever seen barbecued.  On average I used to visit a couple of mandras a day in order to verify farmers’ claims.  For much of the year there was a searing dry heat, and as Cypriots tend to be very hospitable I would be pressed to stay for fruit juice, coffee or slices of water melon.  It was not the done thing to turn down an invitation; some farmers would feel insulted if you declined.

One such farmer was Lazarus, a large and loud man who looked like a well-tanned Shrek.  He would often greet me with anger and threats to shoot at the next helicopter to fly over his animals (most Cypriot men seem to have access to firearms).  Having got that off his chest, within minutes he would be calm and polite, and official business having been concluded, we would sit down with his wife and my colleague Demetris in the shade of a tree to drink coffee.  Lazarus would tell me in broken English (which was nowhere near as broken as my Greek) about his animals, the price of feed, and the problem with the government.

It would have been an almost idyllic setting, sitting under blue skies with the Mediterranean sparkling away in the distance, had it not been for the goats.  They are inquisitive animals, and being separated from us by only a wire fence, they would approach in numbers and stare.  That would have been easy enough to ignore except for their incessant farting.  Many creatures break wind, and God knows I’m no saint in that department, but Lazarus’s did it so noisily.  You may be old enough to remember Harry Secombe, whose act at one time used to consist of a fine singing voice and the ability to blow long, fruity raspberries, which yet retained a melodic quality (indeed he wrote an autobiography called “Arias and Raspberries”).  But even Harry would have been blown off stage by Lazarus’s goats, whose accompaniment to our refreshments and conversation was thunderous and apparently unnoticed by anyone but me.

On finally taking my leave from Lazarus I would invariably be offered a gift of cheese or a bagful of fruit, or if he had nothing else to offer, a can of coke.  As a civil servant I wasn’t permitted to accept gifts from claimants, and in any event they often hardly had two pennies to rub together, so it would have felt wrong to do so, but without fail Lazarus and I would argue about it, during which he would look hurt that I would take nothing from him.  Like most claimants, he wasn’t trying to influence my decision on his claim; it was simply a question of good manners that a guest should not leave empty handed.  My grandmother used to do the same thing, always pressing her visitors to take a bit of rhubarb or something from her garden as they departed.  I have always found such good manners in one so rough and ready as Lazarus rather touching.  What a pity the same couldn’t be said about his flatulent goats.

Carob tree

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