Thursday, 10 June 2010

The dining table of life

As someone who lives abroad, I always dread phone calls from Cyprus announcing losses of loved ones. It's the fate of the voluntarily (or involuntarily) displaced. They always tell you that [insert name of loved one here] is in hospital and it doesn't look too good. Half the times your loved one is already dead and they're just trying to soften the blow. It doesn't work of course, it just makes it easier on the unlucky messenger to deliver the dire news.

Just over two years ago, I lost my grandmother. She'd fallen and broken her hip bone, they operated on her and apparently it went well. 'Yiayia' was always afraid of anything remotely related to death however (she'd stopped going to funerals decades earlier), so when she was in the clinic she decided that it was probably her time to be on her way. They said that she kept saying thing like "I'll be seeing my Kostis soon" (her dead husband). I suspect that her death was partly due to her frail condition (she was 96) and partly a conscious decision-she'd simply had enough.

In her final years her eyesight had started to fail her, and she gradually lost her hearing. I loved her very much though, and she always recognised me and asked me whether I'd found a wife yet (Firfiri you are not alone). She only knew how to read a little bit, hadn't gone to school, worked the fields and raised children all her life. She always sat on an old-style chair outside her door, looking at the gate. Every time I passed from there, on a bicycle (childhood), moped (teens) and more recently in a car, I'd turn my head and see the figure clad in black sitting there, enjoying the breeze. It was reassuring somehow, as if my own roots were still secure, firmly in the ground.

When my brother rang and told me the bad news, I kept my composure up until I hung up. I then cried bitterly, like I'd never cried before. By the time I heard the news they'd already gone ahead with the funeral and it was all over. I never told them this, but I was upset that they didn't at least allow me a day to get there for the funeral. I don't know, somehow I wanted to be there and go through the grieving process with the family, and especially my dad who lost his mum.

When I go to Cyprus, we always gather for family feasts. I think it was last year, or perhaps the one before, when I noticed that my brother's children are now sitting where my brothers and I used to sit when we were children, at the edge of the table. Where my parents/uncles and aunts used to sit is where our generations sits now. My parents sit where my grandmother used to sit, as if the conveyor belt of life is slowly but surely moving us from one end of the dining table to the other. The dining table itself is life. I must say that the hairs on the back of my neck stand upright every time I think of the concept. Life is a dining table, and as we grow older, we shuffle down to make space for the next generation. Figure that one out.

Every time I pass outside yiayia's house, I always look, as if I am still expecting her figure to be sitting there.

[Apologies it's a bit of a sad one-I promise you a nice recipe to make up for it]

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Things I hate about Cyprus

Queen Vic Live Music Karaoke it is. I'll try to keep the rant to a minimum. (Following on from 'Things I love...')

1) Class mobility
Especially in the countryside, where an up-to-recently peasant class has quickly transformed into a middle class. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. However, the problem is that what makes the hitherto peasants middle class are simply more material possessions. No cultural/spiritual progress has taken place, and in a way, this is much worse, as at least the peasantry had an organic relationship with the land. Its children have 4x4 BMW's and houses with two kitchens (a Cypriot first?). Our grandmothers raised 7 children while working in the fields. Their grandchildren employ Vietnamese servants and hire limos for their children's birthdays (this last one I was told, never witnessed, thankfully).
2) Racism, xenophobia, a swing to the right
The direct consequence of the Cypriots' newfound affluence and material cornucopia is a certain insecurity and fear of losing their prized possessions. Enter fear of: gypsies, foreigners, asylum seekers, the EU, Greece. Add to that the perennial fear of Turks, Brits and Americans and society is shaping up nicely for ghetto-ing its 'lesser' members. Even people who used to be left-wing-and still pretend to be-have developed right-wing, xenophobic ideas (sorry Omonoia fans, the Che Guevara t-shirt is simply not enough)
3) Land for sale
The same people who fear foreigners are more than happy to reap the benefits of globalisation and the EU. Example: what was until recently a rural landscape was largely carved up by 'developers' who built huge complexes of villas for the well-off Brits and Russians who fancy a house in the sun. This is all built and supported by Sri Lankan and Syrian builders, Vietnamese au pairs and servants, Ukranian, Belarussian sex slaves, Bulgarian farm hands, Polish hotel workers and so on. On top of that, people are xenophobic, because the people who do the dirty jobs for pittance are visible. Have cake/eat cake? That is the question. My dream is that one day we will tear down villas with our bare hands in order to plant potatoes again in order to survive. I can dream, right?
4) Individualistic realism/Realistic individualism
The fact that most people are looking after no. 1 without consideration for anyone else. Driving through Frenaros, I saw a car parked on a pavement (common practice). The problem was that a lady on a wheelchair had to get into the road to get through. Fucking barbaric. The examples are endless.
5) Being cosy: bad for reunification
Many Greek Cypriots find the current political situation rather cosy, and would secretly prefer it to remain like this or even be formalised with two independent states. The reason, product of years of brainwashing and material insecurity, is a lack of interest in living with the Turkish Cypriots. I suspect the latter don't feel very differently.
6) The obliteration of farming
The EU told us to stop growing things and buy them from other countries. So now we have Argentinian oranges, whereas in the years before 1974 Famagusta hosted an orange festival. And farmers gave their land to 'developers'.
7) The complete politicisation of heritage
See number 8 here. The Turkish-Cypriot Department of Antiquities will simply not put a padlock on this beautiful medieval Armenian church, just because it's not their heritage (their words). Medieval heritage, especially Frankish and Venetian, is simply not highlighted, in case someone thinks the island is not thoroughly Greek/Turkish.
8) Inadequate or non-existent public transport
The only people who walk in Cyprus are tourists and the previously-mentioned foreign workers. They often die on the streets, as there are many areas without proper pavements. People drive everywhere, no matter the distance.
9) The Greek-ification of Greek-Cypriot TV
By this I mean that our newsreaders, sports commentators and advert producers feel that they have to imitate Greek as spoken in Athens, even suppressing the Cypriots' ability to pronounce harder sounds so that they sound more 'Greek'. It sounds just stupid, as if forcing everyone in the UK to sound like the Queen. Fuck that. Be natural. We are Cypriots.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Things I love about Cyprus

Snails on barbed wire, Famagusta
Every time I go back to Cyprus for holidays (and to see family) I have to readjust to life there, even if it's just for a few days. It goes without saying that the differences with the UK are fairly sharp. Some things I have to revert to, some others are totally new. However, I always find things I love, new and old, discovered and re-discovered. And of course, things I absolutely hate. Here we'll deal with the nice things, because they matter more.

1) The light
You forget how brightly the sun shines. The photographs are easily over-exposed, and everything is awash with sunlight
2) The sunsets
Sunsets in Cyprus are exceptional. The sun shines red, illuminating the barley fields and painting purple the few clouds that always seem to appear above Pentadaktylos, the northern mountain range.
3) The smell of the evening dew on the freshly-harvested barley fields
Sorry, I can't possibly describe this. I guess you'll just have to travel there
4) The fact that fresh and locally produced fruit and veg are (still) easily available
Despite the best efforts of Carrefour and Alpha Mega with their Peruvian grapes and Kenyan onions
5) The beaches
But then again, I'm biased...
6) People's attitude to children
People don't disapprove and tut whenever you take your toddler to a restaurant or a museum like they do in the UK. People in Cyprus love children, and it's very relaxing. Brits, especially older people (shockingly, as they should know better) always show their disapproval with this expression they make, the one where they look at you and quickly turn away. I've had this in restaurants and also places like National Trust properties. In addition, in Cyprus people don't believe in the whole 'strict routine for children' nonsense. Nobody forces their kids to sleep at 6pm.
7) The fact that you can (still) escape
Despite its small size, Cyprus still has some beautiful, undiscovered spots which I cannot reveal here. All the 'development' couldn't ruin the countryside. And it's all within an hour's drive.
8) The history
I am stunned by it every time. The Cypriots' (both Greek and Turkish) fixation with their respective Hellenistic/Byzantine and Ottoman 'pasts' means that the island's huge medieval, Frankish and Venetian heritage is largely unexplored, under-promoted and relatively hard to find. And when you do find it, it is simply spectacular. Limassol Castle houses one of the best museums (in terms of content rather than presentation) of 'Crusader Cyprus'. Famagusta, due to decades of political limbo and neglect, is a rough diamond half buried in the sand (as the name Ammochostos suggests). The old town was one of the richest cities in Christendom in the 14th century and it shows. Its Gothic architecture and Venetian ruins are simply impossible to fathom. And yet we're fixated with Hellenistic...

Did I mention the smell of the dew on the freshly-harvested barley fields? OK then...

See also: things I hate...