Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Say no to bonfires

When I immigrated to Israel at age 9, I had to get used to the local traditions. Many things I found strange and incomprehensible. At Lag BaOmer, my class used to get together in the afternoon, "take" (= steal) a shopping trolley (cart) from a supermarket, and go around "collecting" wood for the bonfire. Sometimes there were dry branches lying around in a park, but usually this meant stealing wood planks from building sites. The parents and teachers knew about this stealing and turned a blind eye to it.

In the evening, the celebration itself involved lighting a bonfire in an open area, usually a sandy patch not far from buildings and roads, and sitting around, roasting potatoes, singing, telling stories, and toward the end of the bonfire someone would usually try to throw a spray can into the fire to see if it would explode. The smell of smoke lingered and stuck to everyone and everything for days.

The whole thing, from the stealing, to burning a precious resource, to creating air pollution, to the risk of injury and of the fire spreading, to various other types of irresponsible behaviour, seemed alien to my English sensitivities.

I have always disliked the smell of smoke, and two major fires in my city, Haifa, in 2010 and 2016, have made the whole issue of deliberately lighting bonfires particularly traumatic for me. So I was very pleased to read that this year the Haifa municipality, along with those of a few other cities, has banned bonfires for Lag BaOmer. The immediate reason for this is the current hot, dry weather, with strong dry winds blowing from the east, increasing the risk of the fire spreading. As we saw last week, ignoring weather-related risks can cost lives.

I would like to see a permanent end to all bonfires within residential areas. Just because something is traditional doesn't mean it has to persist. We can evaluate the cost versus benefit and change our minds.

Friday, April 20, 2018

How we ended up adopting three kittens

At the beginning of March, we said goodbye to our 18-year-old cat, Eleni. She had been unwell for a long time, and so we had known the end was coming and had thought about our next cats. We decided it would be best to adopt a pair of bonded siblings. Two cats can keep each other company when alone, which is important for indoor-only cats, but we wanted to ensure that they would enjoy each other's company. I also knew from watching kitten cams that cats who have been in foster care are better socialized than many rescue cats who have only lived in shelters.

In the past, all our cats have been rescues who came to us. Percy was a pet abandoned by his owners when they moved. Eleni and Pandora were both kittens we found in our garden (not at the same time). So we knew that when the time was right, a cat or cats would appear.

A few days after Eleni's death, my sister's friend Jennie posted on Facebook that she had a feral mother cat and four kittens in her garden, and was looking for adopters for the kittens once they were old enough. We had already arranged to go on holiday, and the time we were going to come home would be about the right time for these kittens to be adopted, so we said we would take two of them. We followed the family's story. The mother cat started neglecting the kittens, so Jennie took them into foster care, kept them warm, and started bottle feeding them. Sadly, two of them didn't make it, but the other two kittens survived and developed well. While it was sad that they were no longer in their mother's care, having the kittens fostered by a human really helped in socializing them and reducing the feral instincts they would have learned from their mother.
Artemis and Cassandra, adoption day

When we returned from our trip, we adopted the two sisters, Artemis (tortoiseshell) and Cassandra (tabby-calico), probably aged 6-7 weeks. The kittens were friendly with us and quickly adapted to their new home. They went to the vet and received the typical deworming treatment and flea drops, and we gradually transitioned them from eating canned kitten food to dry kitten food, which is often considered more nutritious and is easier to manage as it doesn't spoil as rapidly as canned food.

A week after we adopted them and were happy at the way they were settling, I went out in the afternoon to buy a new cat tower. I heard a kitten meowing, and saw a young girl looking at a kitten that was under a parked car, and she was talking on the phone. When I got home, she was with her father and they were giving the kitten food and water outside our building. I saw that the kitten looked like Eleni, and felt a twinge of sadness, but I assumed the girl and her father were adopting the kitten, so I went home.

In the evening, when Ivor returned from work, I sent him a message saying that the cat tower was in the car and we would need to carry it up the stairs together. A few minutes later, he called me and asked me to come downstairs. I already knew that this wasn't about the cat tower, and I had a premonition about what was going to happen. This was the way our cat Pandora had adopted us. Ivor had found her in the garden and called me to come down, and that was how we took her in. I went out and found Ivor with the kitten. I was sad that she hadn't been adopted earlier, but also thrilled that we would have another Eleni-lookalike. I called her over, checked to see that she was female, and we chose her name, Penelope. She was about the same age and size as Artemis and Cassandra, and they had only been with us for a week, so we felt confident that they could all get along together.

As we were taking her up the stairs, one of our neighbours came out and saw her. He said he'd found her in the morning inside his car, and hadn't been sure how she had got in there. He seemed happy that we were adopting her. Later, when we carried the cat tower up the stairs, another couple of neighbours saw us and asked what we were doing, and they told us about the kitten who had been around in the garden all day, and were very happy when we said we had adopted her, saying we'd done a mitzvah.

The next day I took Penelope to the vet, and while there was some initial surprise that we had taken in a third kitten so soon after the other two, when they saw that she looked like Eleni, they all understood. In the days that followed, the kittens got to know each other, and after some hissing at first, they seem to have accepted each other quite easily. Artemis and Cassandra are still closely bonded, and Penelope is a bit older and larger, and enjoys pouncing on them playfully. Sometimes their play-fighting seems a little rough and I separate them, but they can also sleep together in a pile. They will all get their first vaccinations this week.
Cassandra, Penelope, Artemis

The way Penelope arrived was one of those coincidences that feel like fate. However much I like to see myself rational, I have to admit it felt like it was meant to be. We haven't encountered a friendly kitten outside since we adopted Pandora 16 years ago, and she arrived at just the right time, was just the right age, the right sex, and looked so much like our beloved Eleni. All these factors made it inevitable that we would want to take her.

We never intended to have three cats. My reluctance was partly because of my experience having to evacuate the building during the forest fire. I carried Eleni in a carrier for 4 km, and at the time I was aware that it would have been difficult to carry two cats in two carriers, and now I wonder what I would do in such circumstances with three cats. At the moment, the three kittens could fit into one carrier, but they will soon all be adults. Three cats also cost more to feed, and the litter box needs scooping more often. But we take our responsibilities seriously and we know we are capable of providing them with a good, loving home for the rest of their lives.

We are grateful to Jennie for rescuing and fostering Artemis and Cassandra, and that fate or coincidence brought Penelope to us.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Holiday in Thessaloniki 2018

We spent nine days in Thessaloniki, longer than we usually spend in one city. Our experience was influenced by being out of season (end of March to early April), and I imagine some things are different during the summer. We also had the pleasure of meeting a long-time friend and her husband, so we were able to spend time with them and see things from a local perspective.

We stayed at the Queen Olga Hotel, which is a comfortable 3-star hotel that provided everything we needed without the sort of luxury we don't need and don't want to pay extra for (things like a swimming pool and spa). We asked for a room with a sea view, and it was absolutely worth paying a bit more for this. The balcony faced the sea, and on clear days there were views of Mount Olympus in the distance. We had some beautiful sunsets, and it was interesting to see the ships passing by. The hotel is located slightly east of the city centre, within reasonable walking distance of most of the sites and attractions.

Queen Olga Hotel

View of Mount Olympus from the seafront

We got into a habit of going to see museums and sites in the morning, having lunch somewhere, and usually resting in the hotel during the afternoon, sometimes going out again in the evening. Because we did such a lot of walking, it was necessary to pace ourselves and not get too exhausted. We hardly used the buses, which were very crowded.

Thessaloniki is a large, busy city. It is not designed primarily to cater for tourism, and the places of interest are scattered among everyday businesses and streets. This makes it interesting to explore and observe. The traffic can be heavy and some drivers are aggressive, so pedestrians should be extra vigilant when crossing the street, even when they have right of way. Without wanting to be too critical of a place I loved, I must mention that the air tended to be polluted, from both traffic and industry. The city metro is currently under construction, and when it opens this may reduce the level of traffic and improve the air quality. Also, many Greek people smoke, even in places where smoking is forbidden, such as inside restaurants. 

The seafront contains a promenade and bicycle lane running along the sea. At all hours of the day and night, people walk and cycle along, some walking their dogs. East of the White Tower there are several parks between the road and the seafront. We particularly enjoyed the Water Garden, with its ponds, frogs, turtles, koi fish, and bathing birds. West of the White Tower the road runs alongside the promenade, and on the other side of the road there are many cafes and restaurants and various shops. Parallel to the seafront in this area is the main shopping street, with many department stores and international chains. Further west you reach the port, which seems to be very active at all hours.

Water Garden
Turtles at the Water Garden

Thessaloniki contains many impressive museums and sites, and there's something for everyone. 

The White Tower: a 15th century tower by the sea front, also used as a prison for a while. It contains an exhibition about the city's history, and the view from the ramparts is impressive. Around the tower is a pleasant park, and nearby you can take a boat for a short trip around the bay.

The White Tower
View of Thessaloniki and the White Tower from a boat

The Archaeological Museum contains many impressive treasures from the region, from prehistory to late antiquity. Anyone interested in archaeology could spend many hours looking at the exhibits. As usual, I looked out for images of lions, and also enjoyed many other items. There is a gift shop, but no cafe.

The Museum of Byzantine Culture explores the early Christian era up to the Late Byzantine era, and contains elements of architecture, art, artefacts, and manuscripts. It is an interesting and well-designed museum, and while the gift shop was closed, the restaurant was well worth a visit.

The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, unlike most other museums and sites, was open on Monday (but closed on Saturday). It is a relatively small museum focusing on the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. This community made up a significant proportion of the city's population, at some times around half, and contributed to the local economy and culture, particularly during the nineteenth century. However, during the Holocaust about 49,000 Jews from Thessaloniki, around 96% of the city's Jews, were sent to concentration camps and killed. Their names are recorded on a monument on the ground floor. Photography was not allowed in the museum. The signs on the exhibits include Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli visitors.

The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle showcases the struggle of the Macedonian Greeks for freedom from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th and early 20th century. It demonstrates that issues of national identity and statehood should not be taken for granted. Macedonia became part of the new Greek state in 1912.

The Folklife and Ethnological Museum features pre-industrial technological items and traditional costumes. It is housed in a beautiful house, with an impressive stained-glass window. 

We visited the Ano Poli (the old upper town), and saw the old city walls, the Trigoniou Tower (16th century), Vlatadon Monastery (14th century, with a peacock farm), and the Pasha Gardens (strange early 20th century decorative rock formations). We also saw the Roman Forum or Agora.

Trigoniou Tower

Vlatadon Monastery

Among the churches we saw: Saints Cyril and Methodus Church, located just outside our hotel, so we could hear the bells ringing. Agios Dimitrios Church, dedicated to Thessaloniki's patron saint. The current building was restored in 1948, and incorporates elements of earlier churches on the site. We were unable to visit the crypt, which is closed on Mondays. Agia Sophia Church is a 7th century copy of the famous Agia Sophia in Istanbul, but smaller, and contains beautiful mosaics, but photography was not allowed. The cathedral is the metropolitan church of Agios Gregorios Palamas, 20th century, with neo-classical and neo-Romanic elements.

Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius

Agios Dimitrios Church

Agia Sophia church

Agios Grigorios Palamas

Thessaloniki is full of statues and art installations. Along the sea front we saw the famous umbrellas, the statue of Alexander the Great, which was impressive and imposing, and a statue of Karamanlis. Elsewhere, the Lambrakis monument and a few memorials to Macedonian freedom fighters and Greek soldiers.

Umbrellas, by George Zongolopoulos
Statue of Karamanlis

Alexander the Great

Lambrakis Monument

We took two day trips out of the city. The first was an organized tour to the sites of Pella and Vergina. At Pella we first saw the museum, with its impressive mosaics and other works of art, then toured the ancient site, where that day a children's choir was rehearsing for the opening torch-lighting ceremony of the Thessaloniki Marathon, to be held the next day.

Then we visited Vergina, where the site of the tombs has been turned into an underground museum shaped like a tumulus. The museum was dark and no photography was allowed, but seeing the finds so close to where they had been discovered created its own impact.

Our second day trip was to Ancient Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle. Entry to the site is free during opening hours, and we happened to be there alone with my local friends. The ancient remains were not all that impressive, but the location was particularly beautiful, a hill overlooking the sea, with blossoming trees all around and the sound of birdsong. 

Thessaloniki is full of good places to eat, with various types of cuisine and different price ranges. We can particularly recommend Garcon Brasserie on the sea front (sit on the balcony overlooking the sea), the B Restaurant at the Byzantine Museum (a classy place with excellent service), Elia Lemoni and Elliniko for authentic Greek food, and we even had an enjoyable Chinese meal at Huang's restaurant near the YMCA building. 

This was a particularly enjoyable holiday, and we hope to return one day and see even more of Thessaloniki.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Eleni 10.10.1999-6.3.2018

We found Eleni as a feral-born kitten in November 1999. She was an only kitten, or only surviving kitten, a tuxedo black and white short hair, with an unfriendly tabby mother. Eleni and her mother were among a group of feral cats we were feeding in our garden. It soon became clear that Eleni’s mother was unwell, as her fur was covered in fungal infections. She was starting to reject Eleni, who was afraid of the other cats and often had trouble getting any of the food we were putting out for them. She must have been about six weeks old in December 1999 when we decided to adopt her.

It had been a few months since we had lost our previous cat, Percy, an indoor-outdoor tabby male who turned out to be older than we had realized. He died of kidney problems, and the vet said he must have been about 15 years old. He had been living with us for 5 years, since his previous owners moved away and took their dog but abandoned him. At the time I felt ready for the commitment of having an indoor-only cat, and wanted to have a kitten that we would know from the beginning.
The moment of deciding to adopt was very special. I had brought down food for the feral cats and I took Eleni aside to feed her away from the adults. She let me touch her, pick her up into my lap, and she ate and let me stroke her. She looked into my eyes with such a look of trust that I knew the time was right. I promised her she would be my cat forever, and took her home. 

The first night we kept her in the kitchen, with her food and water, and access to the balcony with the litter box. We wanted to be sure that she would use the litter box, and she knew immediately what to do with it. The next day she went to the vet. She had the expected fleas and worms, and also a bit of the fungal parasite that her mother had. She also had some sniffles. The vet gave her an injection of antibiotics, treatment for the fleas and worms, and her first vaccination. We were given a cream to put on her fungal infected areas, mainly her ears and her paws. She recovered quickly and gradually became a happy indoor kitten, playing with toys, climbing on everything, and sleeping in our bed.
Eleni was an anxious kitten who imprinted on us and became very attached to us. She moved home with us and quickly adapted to her new surroundings. She grew into a contented adult, was spayed, of course, and enjoyed playing and climbing on her cat tree. She preferred dry food and a closed litter box. She liked watching birds outside the window, but never really tried to hunt.

When Eleni was two years old, we thought she was getting bored and kept asking her if she wanted a kitten. We thought if we had two cats we would get one sitting on each lap. Around that time, Pandora came along and we adopted her because she was obviously looking for a home and we couldn’t say no. We knew we should take the introduction slowly. At first, we kept Pandora in a separate room, with her own food and litter box. Eleni was very anxious about having another cat in the house. She often vomited when she saw or smelled Pandora. When they finally met, Eleni was fearful, while Pandora just wanted to play with her. It was quite upsetting to see how Eleni could be troubled by such a small, fluffy kitten. After a while, they learned to tolerate each other, but never really became friends. They had the bed as a safe zone, but Pandora liked to ambush Eleni and sometimes chased her around the house. They had no problem sharing a food bowl and the litter box, and sometimes sat quite close to each other, or on two different levels of the cat tree. When there were birds outside the window, they both watched them and chattered at them. Eleni usually slept between our pillows or cuddled under the covers in my arms, while Pandora slept at the foot of the bed. Having Pandora around was good for Eleni, as she became playful again and seemed less bored, though perhaps more anxious.
We moved home another couple of times, and the well being of our two cats was always important, so we always chose homes close to a vet. We soon had to accept that Eleni was a lap cat while Pandora wasn’t, and at most would sit next to one of us. While Pandora was a challenge, Eleni was always very loving and intimate. I could spend hours holding her and stroking her and enjoying her purring. When she was anxious, I could calm her down and make her feel safe again.

As Eleni grew older, she began experiencing some bladder infections. They happened every year or two, and we had to give her antibiotics to clear them up. She did not enjoy taking pills, and we had to adopt the purrito method of wrapping her in a towel to do this. Eventually the vet realized that the problem was associated with a degeneration in her lower spine, just above the tail. This caused pain in her lower back and made it uncomfortable and sometimes painful for her to squat in the litter box. She often cried before, during, and after using the litter box, or had to go to the box several times until she was able to overcome the pain and do what she needed to. The vet prescribed a pain medication that we gave her twice a day. Fortunately it was a liquid, which was easier to give than a pill. The spinal problem sometimes caused her rear legs to straighten without her volition, and so she would suddenly slip while walking. Her rear legs also sometimes twitched or kicked out, and she was as surprised by this as we were. 

Since we started having to give Eleni medication twice a day, we decided not to travel or even spend a night away from home. We didn’t feel that she would let someone else give her the medicine, and we were willing to make this sacrifice for her sake. Some people might not understand how we could do this for a cat, but she was a family member and greatly loved. When we travelled in the past, I always missed my cats so much and sometimes felt worried about them. This is one disadvantage of having cats. It is difficult to take them travelling with you, even just overnight, and you have to leave them with a cat sitter or in a cat pension. When you are particularly attached to a cat, this is one of the costs.

During Pandora’s illness, Eleni was rather confused. Pandora started smelling of vet, and eventually spent a few days with a feeding tube and a cone of shame, and we had to keep giving her medication and feeding her through the tube. Then Pandora left and didn’t return. We were not clear how Eleni reacted to Pandora’s disappearance, but at the time I was happy to have Eleni, both as a source of comfort for me and as another cat who needed my devoted care. Because Eleni never really got on well with Pandora, we decided not to adopt another kitten and to let her enjoy her final years as an only cat. She was fifteen when Pandora died.

We had promised Eleni we wouldn’t have to move again, but unfortunately we had an unexpected adventure in November 2016. There was a major forest fire near our home and we had to evacuate. This involved taking Eleni in her carrier, walking for about 4 kilometers to a safe evacuation centre, and then staying overnight with friends. The friends had dogs, but were very considerate and took their dogs to stay with relatives so Eleni could be comfortable. We returned home the next day and found our house undamaged, and Eleni very quickly returned to normal. This was just another example of how she was attached to us and could adapt to new surroundings because we were there to keep her calm.

Eleni is by far the cat I have had the longest, and the closest, most intimate friend. While Pandora accepted affection on her own terms, Eleni delighted in physical contact and craved cuddles. She was a lap cat, though in the summer it tended to be too hot for her to sit on a lap for very long. Cat people will understand the special bond that forms between human and cat and know what it can mean.
I learned from the foster kitten cams the importance of tracking a cat’s weight, and after weight loss was one of the first clues to Pandora’s conditions, I bought a baby scale and we weighed Eleni every day and kept a record so we would know if something started changing. Her weight gradually declined and she ate less and less, despite our efforts to find food she would be willing to eat.
Three weeks ago, Eleni had another bladder infection and spent another night in hospital. They did an ultrasound and found a growth in her liver, which could have been a tumour or a cyst. Obviously, at the age of 18 the risks of surgery outweighed any possible benefits. She was given antibiotics and appetite pills, which we gave her for a week. She seemed a bit better after that, but still ate very little and kept losing weight. Last night, she was in constant pain and cried for hours. We knew it was time to let her go and release her from the pain we could no longer alleviate.
I always knew that losing Eleni would be one of the hardest things I would have to experience. She was my constant companion and my close friend for a long time, and while I loved Pandora and had a special type of closeness with her, it was not the same as with Eleni. Having Eleni in my life made me a better person, and saving her life was one of the best things I've ever done. Letting her go was the right decision, caring more about removing her pain than about the pain of loss I am experiencing now.