Thursday, 4 December 2008

Voyagers Triumphant

After the war my family lived in Ayia Phyla, just north of Limassol, until things back home on the east coast settled down. Or, to put it differently, people fled for fear of the Turkish army, and kind of settled where they found refuge, found jobs and homes and found it hard to return immediately. They were torn between a foreign place where there were jobs, a flourishing harbour and industries, and home where there was very little to sustain them. I was only a few months old when the war happened in that hot summer of '74. Grandad Kostis took Mum, my older brother Costas, myself (Petros was not to arrive for another 3 years), and my aunts and drove us all to Limassol where we had relatives and where things were safer. Dad was in the army, a reservist called to do his duty who thankfully managed to make it back safe and in one piece.

When he joined the rest of us, we rented a house owned by Mrs. Mariò. We lived there for a couple of years, which I can't really remember, before we moved to Ayia Phyla, to another rented house. That's where my first memories take me. It was a poor street, with old houses, next to some British-period water tanks, abandoned semi-circular structures with metal doors which provided perfect hideouts for our long, playful afternoons. My younger brother was born at this house, but soon we moved to another place, Mrs Loullou's house, north of the village. Mrs Loullou and her husband were shepherds up on the hill, and their daughter Petroulla was Mum's friend. She'd sometimes come with some lovely anari cheese, hot and fresh, which we devoured with bread and honey. The house was opposite Shiatis' bakery; I remember the smell of the fresh bread early in the morning until today, it will never leave me. Loullou's house was a poor one. Dad had found a job at the Co-op in Kapsalos, a Limassol suburb, and Mum stayed home to raise the three monsters. I suppose that this was all the family income could afford, a little, two-bedroom house with an outside toilet. No bathroom. The family took its baths in a tin tub in the kitchen. I remember being terrified of the dark, so any foray to the toilet at night was beyond consideration. We boys had to do our job in a little bucket which Mum emptied in the mornings (well, it magically vanished so I'm assuming she did). The house backed onto an olive grove, another extension of our playground. Dad soon filled the place with cages for his favourite pastime: keeping birds of all kinds and sizes. We had pigeons, quails, chickens, most of which went a long way towards subsistence. The garden had a couple of lemon trees, essential in a Cypriot home.

The large pigeon cage was right next to the outside toilet, and in front of both stood a tall loullouthkià tree, a tree which produces little white flowers which turn into round green balls (useful for throwing at each other) which then turn brown and soft and smell horrible. No use to the tree whatsoever, apart from the fact that thrushes like it. I used to climb the tree, hop onto the roof of the pigeon cage and then the roof of the toilet where Dad kept all sorts of junk. There was this strange contraption he'd made: It was a plank of wood with a long, rusty nail sticking out of it; it had a handle and Dad used it to make springs for his partridge traps. Mum, always cautious and looking ahead to the next mischief us little ones would get up to, warned me: "don't go on the toilet roof, you'll hurt yourself". Alas, when did listening to ones mum ever sound like the thing to do? Once, twice, three times and that nail found its way through my flimsy flip flop (it was summer) and through my foot. I cried from the pain and ran straight down the tree and towards the house screaming "I stepped on a nail! I stepped on a nail!". There were two things that had to be done. Firstly, Mum made sure she gave me a good hiding for disobeying her and impaling myself on the spring-machine. Secondly, we had to go to the hospital, so off we went, for the all-necessary (and painfully familiar) tetanus injections and all the rest of it.

Another time I hit my head on the corner of the corrugated iron sheets that formed the roof of one of the cages. Running was too exciting to stop and pay attention to hazards. Five stitches and that's my scar for life, I still have it to show for my troubles. Loullou's house was not far from the mountain. A few minutes walk north and you'd be in the heart of it. We loved to explore the mountains, play there and go hunting with Dad and his various contraptions. We used to go meet our friends Christakis and Yiangos, refugees from Bellapais, and play endless games of football or anything else. We also used to head down to the local shooting range, where the considerably large army garrison would do shooting practice. We liked to pick up rusty old bullet casings and bullets, lead deformed from contact with the targets. Costas found an old National Guard helmet, which we kept for years, as it made playing 'war' all that more convincing. It was initially green, but the paint was flaking so we painted it white. A family heirloom from a troubled time. It was an adventurous childhood to say the least.

My parents were very actively involved in the local community. Dad played football and especially volleyball which was (and still is) a must where we came from. They did theatre, politics, all the things that their generation had and believed in, and risked their necks to pursue, contrary to the fascist threat and the danger of ostracism in a time when bosses didn't want to employ 'commies' or active union members. I remember Dad taking us to watch the local football team, ENAF (Youth Union of Ayia Phyla) which played in the regional league. This was no glamorous affair-it was the time before grass pitches and fences, the crowd just stood by the touchline and watched, spurred on their team and intimidated and occasionally beat the poor referee (as fat Christakis notoriously did one Sunday-stuff of legend). The ground was near Tsireio, a 'proper' stadium where the big Limassol clubs played, AEL (the left wing-and therefore ours-team), Apollon and Aris. Politics mattered very much in those troubled times. We occasionally went there as well, although I don't think Dad enjoyed the company very much, as we were more interested in peanuts, soft drinks and going to the toilet than the games themselves.

One day, Dad came home in a car. Driving it. Our relative poverty never allowed such luxuries, so when he turned up in an old, 1960s Triumph Herald 1200 Estate, we were amazed. He bought it second hand, of course, but it was ours none the less. It looked so beautiful. It was white, with registration CC588, and it had red seats and a wooden dashboard which looked just gorgeous.

It had lovely round headlights, and the hood opened by opening two latches, one either side. It had this little badge on the wings with '12' on it, for 12 horse power.

In the next few years we spent a lot of time in good old Triumph, as the family travelled east to see parents and relatives in what was still really home. Those were the days before motorways and fast journeys, and it took the 1.2-litre Triumph a few hours to get us there. The dusty, country lanes of early 1980s Cyprus seemed endless, as hill after hill and orchard after orchard unfolded in front of our eyes. After some time Dad had a tape deck fitted in the Triumph, so we could listen to music. Mum and Dad had this horrible Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb tape which they played endlessly (#I am a woman in love...#, my toes still curl with agony). Dad also taped songs from the radio, he had this black EMI tape with Pink Floyd's Another Brick on the Wall and The Police's Don't Stand so Close to Me. I remember enjoying the journey very much, much more than actually reaching our destination. After passing the largely arid and dusty hills near Limassol we started weaving through green hills and small villages, through lazy squares where men sat outside coffee houses, playing backgammon and looking at passers-by. At one of the rest stops there was a restaurant which had on its roof a huge beer can, advertising the local lager. When the motorway was finished, these businesses died, but the beer can stayed there, dying a rusty death in the Cypriot sun. I remember those times with nostalgia. The long trips and the games we devised to make time pass. Costas used to pull my leg by telling me that under the hills were hidden giants, ready to sprawl and eat the unsuspecting travellers. We'd stick our ears close to the car's inside wall to hear the engine, and it would make a strange sound. Costas used to say that it sounded like beans were cooking, boiling in the engine, and we laughed. When Petros was old enough to be naughty, the three of us just raised hell (or did we?) on the back seat.

We always thought that the road signs deliberately didn't tell the distance to our village because it was a communist village. Approaching Larnaca, which we recognised by the tall eucalyptus trees which lined the road, we felt that we were in almost familiar territory. On the other side of the city started the 'red villages', named after the colour of the rich-in-iron soil. Potato fields, colocassi fields, orange groves, orchards and windmills appeared as the landscape changed dramatically from the barren to the fruitful, the desperate to the hopeful. Home wasn't far. I somehow can't remember ever arriving, I cannot conjure the actual image of entering our village. I wonder if by the end of it all I fell asleep, always to be woken up by Nana's sweet kiss and the promise of lemonade and biscuits.

Staying at Nana's place was always fun. She loved us very much and was always mild-mannered and nice. Her house was at the back of aunt Pepa's house and the yard had all sorts of weird and beautiful things. An old moped of Grandad's became, with a little imagination, a wartime torpedo. Uncle George's plumbing stuff were all part of that battlefield of children. Being there also meant we caught up with all our cousins and got up to more mischief in the village streets. My cousin Dinos was only a toddler and Stalo, his sister, was my age and we got on like wild fire. The chance to play with them gave our games a different, almost continental, foreign dimension. We were sort of city kids, although we also lived in a village. We were the ones who were away and came for the weekend or for a few days in the summer, bringing with us all the funny habits we'd picked up elsewhere. Calling the goals 'kola' instead of 'terma' for example. And the beaches. The beaches in the east were to die for. Uncle Kokos would pick us up in his old Mitsubishi Colt and we'd whizz through dirt tracks lined with reeds, which cut through fields of wheat and water melons. The sea air would hit our noses and we knew we were close. We loved the sea, we spent so much time swimming and playing in the water I'm surprised we didn't develop gills.

And then the time to return came. We loaded the Triumph, said our goodbyes to Nana and the rest and off we went. Again through the same villages, occasionally stopping to see aunt Giorgoulla and our cousins in Xylophagou, where play temporarily resumed before we jumped in the car for the final part of our journey. Good old Triumph did the journey back and forth for a few years. I remember it breaking down a couple of times, but it was mostly fine-"it has a good engine" were always Dad's words. When we moved back to the east, it did the journey one last time. Dad parked it next to the house, in an empty plot, and it stayed there. After a few years we stopped using it and it became part of the landscape. British tourists used to stop and photograph it, a forgotten gem of a car made in Coventry, parked up behind our house. I guess it was an antique in Britain. It was an old, crumbling car in Cyprus. For years Dad said he'd have it fixed, "its engine is good", but he never did. It just stayed there, gathering dust and providing another space for the neighbourhood children to play in. It was there up until the mid-90s, when the local council offered to pick it up and take it to the scrap yard, in an attempt to tidy up the (by then) town. Dad said yes, knowing that the engine, although good, would never roar again on the hills. It was a sad day. Along with the motorways and the decline of the old routes, came the demise of the old trusted family Triumph. It was a legend of our childhood.