Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So, What Are (Greek) Cypriots Like, Then? (Comments Welcome :>)

After going to the Independence Day parade last week, I called Lise. “You’re brave,” she said. “I haven’t been to one yet, and I’ve lived here longer than you!”

We considered the contradiction of Cyprus being such a conservative, conformist society made up of such diverse, non-conformist individuals, and reached no conclusions: “Someone asked me the other day what Costas (her husband) is like,” she related. "And I said ‘He’s a typical Cypriot’. Then I said ‘No, actually he’s not like most Cypriots!’ and suddenly thought ‘What is a typical Cypriot?’”

I realised that I, too, use the adjectives ‘typical’ and ‘unusual’ in describing Best Beloved’s own manifestation of Cypriotness – often in consecutive breaths…

So what is a Cypriot? He or she might be a blend of almost any race. Some – like Phil – are dark, short, and stocky with kinky hair – possibly, in the Paphos area anyway, descended from the people who built the mud houses at Lemba five millennia ago. Others inherit their swarthy colouring and tall, slim build from Arab or Phoenician traders. Still others are fair-skinned and blue-eyed: often blond, they say that their appearance comes from the Achaeans who ended up on these shores at the end of the Trojan War. These days, with around twelve percent of all marriages contracted on the island taking place between a Cypriot and ‘a foreigner’, a Cypriot could look like anything. Although most of the foreigners marrying Cypriots today are European, there are quite a few Philippinas or Sri Lankans who have also chosen to stay. The gene pool is getting quite a shake-up.

Many threads bind the people of this island into a community – or two communities – or many communities. A predominant one is a shared history of colonisation.

Not until 1960 was Cyprus independent. Until 1960 it had answered to a procession of conquerors: Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Crusader, Frank, Venetian, Ottoman, British. In 1960, under the Presidency of the Archbishop Makarios it finally became free of tithe or tribute, free to decide its own destiny.

Two main communities flourished on the island. Roughly eighty percent of the population spoke a dialect of Greek closer to the archaic than the modern language (and rich in loan words from French, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, and English) and embraced Orthodox Christianity. They were often farmers and traders, but also professionals and the intelligentsia. And about eighteen percent followed Islam and spoke a dialect of Turkish. They were predominantly farmers and small traders and made up the bulk of the police force. Small Armenian and Maronite communities enjoyed good relations with both Greek- and Turkish Cypriots, and the main communities also got along well. Intermarriage was not common, but villages, towns, and cities were mixed, and many people spoke each other’s language. They shared business partnerships, celebrated each other’s weddings, and mourned at each others’ funerals.

For a host of reasons too complex to discuss here (but that included the less-than-shadowy machinations of the British and American governments) Cypriot independence led shortly to inter-communal bloodshed, which culminated in a Greek-sponsored coup used by the Turkish government as a pretext for invasion in 1974 and the Occupation of 40% of the island that continues to this day. Previously mixed communities were sundered, with 50,000-60,000 Turkish-Cypriots moving north of the Cease-Fire Line and 160,000 Greek-Cypriots fleeing Turkish forces into the government-controlled areas. In one brief month, the Republic of Cyprus lost forty percent of its lands, 65% of its tourist accommodation capacity, 56% of mining and quarrying output, 41% of livestock production, nearly half of its agricultural exports and industrial production, more than a third each of its housing stock and school buildings. The total number of Greek Cypriot casualties was around 5,000 – with over 1,000 unaccounted for and still listed as missing.

The years following the Invasion saw a haemorrhage of population as families and young people went abroad. They went to England and America and Australia, they went to Greece, and they went to Libya and the Gulf. And they worked. The money that came back, coupled with loans from the international community rebuilt the infrastructure in the government-controlled areas and improved it.

Meanwhile, the Turkish controlled areas continued to suffer. Although free of the fear that had blighted many Turkish Cypriots’ lives once the decade of inter-communal strife was over, Turkish Cypriots found themselves living in a country unrecognised internationally, without international support, and with an increasing influx of settlers from mainland Turkey which the leadership brought in to bolster its own position. Turkish-Cypriots, too, began to leave. Abroad, they often found themselves living cheek-by-jowl with Greek-Cypriot former neighbours but relationships on the whole were good. Perhaps united by exile, they cursed together their own politicians and they Great Powers that had brought about the ruin of their country – then settled down together to enjoy a souvla. Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots are more like each other than they are like either Turks or Greeks.

This is getting all together too much of a dry history lesson, but it has a lot to do with the questions ‘what is a Cypriot’ and ‘why do they behave like they do’?

The 1974 Coup happened on Best Beloved’s eleventh birthday; the invasion five days after. He has clear memories of fleeing the family house in Nicosia, of Turkish jets bombing across the river, of a friend's father killed in the fighting outside the capital. The family lost valuable lands, and relatives became refugees -- still unable to return to their homes and fields. Although both Mili and Phil had jobs, Best Beloved started work at thirteen, giving his wages to his mother to ease the burden of housekeeping and help to support displaced relatives and friends. And his situation was by no means unusual.

Foreign occupation, war, and fractured society are some of the themes that colour Cyprus – and Cypriots. ‘The long view’ is hard to find here; people tend to get what they can while it’s available. Cash in on good fortune. Next week someone might snatch it away. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” And what’s the point in developing a national identity when it will only be trampled under the boots of the next wave of conquerors? Better to hunker down and endure. To contract within the proscribed boundaries of tradition, to be hospitable to strangers, to reserve judgement, to preserve the family.

… But this will have to continue another day. Tomorrow is another anniversary: on April 1, 1955, the EOKA rebellion against English rule began. We Anglo-types used to dread it for our half-and-half children: they were always made to play the role of the oppressors in commemorative school plays and often suffered as a result. “Oh, no! It’s Hate the English Day!” Lise and I used to say, dealing with the inevitable tears.

But for now, it’s time to cook lunch.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Zito, 'Kos-pente Martiou!

Last week I did something I’ve never done before; I went to a Greek Independence Day parade. March 25 commemorates the day in 1821 when Archbishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag over Agias Lavras monastery in the Peleponnese and the shouts “Freedom or Death” echoed around the rocky hills. The fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire had begun, ending some nine years later when a part of what is modern Greece received recognition as an independent state.

Cyprus celebrates the day as assiduously as Greece. Some Cypriots – and many Greeks – see the Great Plan as yet incomplete: Cyprus remains independent, outside the Hellenic fold, and still half-occupied by the old and perennial foe, Turkey. Others, including Best Beloved, believe that Cyprus has no place in the Great Plan, and think that the current educational policy of encouraging Cypriot children to think of themselves as Greeks can only lead to disaster later on when the best interests of Cypriots may diverge from those of Greeks.

Whether or not Cyprus should celebrate a foreign power’s Independence Day is a moot point. It does. With school assemblies extolling the virtues of patriotism and Orthodoxy; with parades of flags, secondary school students, scouts, and soldiers through the towns; with flags and bunting.

I have always avoided the parades; even when Sophia was marching with the scouts I stayed at home. The sight of goose-stepping teens moves me to laughter or tears, and I view nationalism in any form – particularly when it’s nationalism for a country not your own – with extreme distrust.

But Zenon and Leo were clamouring to go last Wednesday, Kay said that she would take them, and I thought there might be some photo opportunities, so we climbed into the Land Rover and headed for town.

The police had closed the main road from the Makarios Statue to Kennedy Square, so I parked up by the new government offices and we made our way to the route of the march, threading through groups of students who hung around in their various flags talking on mobile phones and taking pictures of each other.

Best Beloved had to march one year during High School: “I wasn’t very enthusiastic,” he remembered. “But the school offered me no choice. If I didn’t march in the parade I couldn’t play sports…” I wondered if the Paphos secondary schools were resorting to the same tactics to fill the ranks.

We made our way past the telephone exchange and sat the children on the kerb just opposite where the marching band – neat in blue and burgundy, brass instruments shining despite the overcast sky – was preparing to lead the parade. Mr Zach (Alex and Sophia’s music teacher, and, it appears, conductor of the marching band) waved his baton, and the players swung out past us in tight formation to pass the reviewing platform one hundred metres or so to our left.

School by school, the students followed.

Bless them! Some clearly had Best Beloved’s lack of enthusiasm. Others marched as Hellenes to the core, hands swinging, legs stepping high. But not until the International School contingent passed, with its burgundy blazers, grey skirts and trousers, and identical footwear, did we see any uniformity or cohesion. Yes, each school had its uniform, but each pupil wore theirs differently: hair was gelled, spiked, coloured, coiffed, shirts were in or out, skirts were tight or loose, trousers worn high or low. And shoes? They were mostly black but a varied collection of pumps, stilettos, lace-ups, and trainers – some with white stripes, some with yellow.

Nipping at the heels of each group came their teacher supervisors, counting the cadence: “One-two! One-two! Raise your hands high! Lift your feet! One-two! One-two!” Up and down the ranks they went hissing instructions, cajoling and entreating. “Look strong! Look proud!”

It was heartening. ‘Here,’ I thought. ‘Is a people who would be difficult to lead, difficult to manipulate. They’re all too bloody stubborn!’ For all the straight-laced conformity of Cypriot society, the teenagers were making a great showing as individuals.

Next came the scouts. “Look, it’s Erato!” I said to Zenon, pointing to our former landlady, her untameable cascade of blonde hair crowned unsteadily by a navy beret, leading the Yerouskippou Scout troop. “She’s seen us and is trying not to smile!” Friends of Zenon, the twins Oliver and Joseph flanking Erato’s son Marco, brought up the rear, all three bearing big orange rucksacks. Zenon called to them as they passed and they shed their solemnity for a moment and flashed him a smile.

Following the scouts came the military, led by officer representatives of the National Guard, the Air Force, and the Navy. They marched sternly in Class-A uniforms, holding thin, drawn swords.

Then the reserve soldiers passed, followed by the Home Guard, “Dad’s Army” Best Beloved calls the over fifties that we sometimes see heading off on a moped for duty. They keep their weapons at home and ride out to the base in full kit. The reserves were a motley crew in mixed camouflage. Some had short hair, some long. More than one ponytail, blond highlights and all, swung beneath the rim of a Kevlar. Some were unshaven, some scarecrow thin, some pot-bellied, some so stout that their uniform buttons strained. But they marched in pretty good order, boots bright, weapons slung. Their eyes sought the faces of their cheering family members (“Ela! Ela, Papa! Deme! (Look, Dad, here!)”, and smiles curved their mouths.

Then came the regular troops with a little more spit and polish. Their uniforms were… uniform, rather than the mismatched camouflage of the reserves and Home Guard. They kept their eyes front and swung their arms to an even height.

Last of all passed a company of commandoes, green berets at a jaunty angle, silenced P90’s looking like Star Wars Stormtrooper kit across their chests. Their spit-shined boots hit the ground to the even rhythm of their leader’s cadence, and they looked as if they meant business. Later, going over the photographs, I spotted a familiar dark and handsome face under one of the green berets. “He looks like Harris,” Sophia confirmed, referring to one of the young men who had been in my martial arts class four years before. “But Harris should have finished his Army service by now, that must be his younger brother.”

Once the commandoes had passed the reviewing stand, the ranks of spectators spilled into the road in their wake, buying icecream or helium balloons from the vendors who had been plying their trade up and down the road. Suddenly the street was full of uniforms as, parade over, the marchers doubled back and found friends, families, wives and girlfriends. Students, scouts and soldiers crowded around the icecream vans and popcorn machines, cameras clicked and beeped and a chorus of voices called greetings and farewells.

“There’s that dishy looking naval officer with his sword!” I nudged Kay and we looked toward the popcorn stand as the tall slim officer pushed his cap back and wiped his sleeve across his brow. “Not bad,” we agreed, but. “Too young and skinny!” A tall, podgy reservist, helmet pushed back and G3 slung over his back, his uniform blouse escaping from his trousers, linked arms with his girlfriend whose short plump thighs strained their white trousers as they stretched to match his stride. Groups of teenagers were everywhere, uniforms mingling, banners propped against railings.

“Small town, eh?” I said to Kay as we nodded greetings at a dozen people, marchers and spectators that we passed on the way back to the car.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Breda Lewis

My brother phoned me yesterday from Ireland with the news that cancer took Breda Lewis’ life last week.

I first met Breda in Boston in about 1981 in the Black Rose. She was playing her round-back mandolin up on a stage with her husband John on the flute, son Liam on the fiddle, and daughter Patsy on the concertina. The concept of a family band fascinated me.

Little did I know how great a part Breda and her various instruments would play in my life over the next seven years. I moved to Galway and found her and Liam in regular sessions in the City and Salthill: the Brasserie, the Cottage, the Galway Arms, the Quays, The Crane. Breda always smiled a welcome, encouraged me to play and to sing, taught me new tunes, sold me her mandola. Many young, shy musicians owed Breda their start. She had a way of inspiring even the most timid and unskilled of us.

When I came back to Ireland after a year in the Middle East, she opened her Furbo house, Straidp Cottage to me. Blessings on her, she always welcomed waifs and strays: “Sure, come out and keep me and the cats company!”

Breda wasn’t always easy. “Uppity!” an American might say. And “Ornery!” She drank a lot, smoked a lot, could be outspoken and completely contrary. Stubborn as a mule. But she’d give her money to a stranger if she thought it would do him good, and somehow, despite a life that saw some heartbreak, she kept innocence alive in those unfathomable brown eyes.

I’d go to bed after playing at one of her sessions in Teac Furbo, but if the night were clear, she would get out the telescope. “Lets see what’s happening in the heavens tonight!” Early the next morning, I’d make tea and breakfast while she packed the ‘scope away: “Mighty craic with the stars and planets last night, oh, you should have seen it! Jupiter was as clear as anything… And the moon…”

We called ourselves Helles Belles when we played, just for the laugh.

When I finally left Ireland, she gave me a handmade black Aran jumper that she had knitted for me. For twenty winters it has kept the cold at bay – though the Cyprus weather hardly warrants it.

Strange, the sky is weeping today. After two days of spring sunshine, yesterday’s afternoon clouded over and a soft rain began to fall. I unpacked Breda’s jumper and pulled its heavy warmth over my head. It comforts me in the cold and through my grief.

Years have passed since I saw her: I’m sure she knows that I finally found a man, settled down, had children, but the times that I was in Ireland since, although I asked after her, and although she lived not too far from my brother’s house, I never visited.
Regrets are pointless, but I would have liked her to have met my children, and would have loved for them to have met her.

And now it’s too late. She has ‘gone on’. Winston said that her funeral in Wexford was a gathering of musicians – that many a glass was hoisted in her honour, and many a tune that she loved rang out.

Rest well, Breda. I will never forget you, and I know that I’m not alone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lemon Season

The lemon trees are loaded. Normally at this time of year, Mili requests the glass tomato sauce bottles that I have diligently hoarded throughout the year, and sends them back a few days later full of tart-sweet fragrant yellow lemonade-spiked-with-bergamot. I’m sure that will happen over the next few days, and I’m equally certain that no matter how I try to squirrel a few bottles away for the long summer days to come, we will manage to finish the lot before April is out.

The Grand Folks have two big lemon trees and one bergamot tree in the large orchard beside their house. The orange and mandarin trees have already given us their bounty: lemons are the season’s last citrus. Next will be the mespila, or loquat – a taste for which fresh I have never been able to acquire, but I have just discovered some recipes for jam, so perhaps I can turn the boxes of fruit that we always end up with into something other than compost.

But back to lemons.

“Marmalade, Manamou,” said best Beloved at breakfast. “Go and get lemons from the trees and make a big batch of lemon marmalade…” and “Lemon curd, too!” requested Alex.

“Lemon curd?” I said. “Last time I made lemon curd no-one ate it!” But my son and my husband insisted that I was wrong, and that lemon curd is one of their favourite spreads for toast.

News to me.

But I love it in tarts and as a filling for cakes, and it’s dead simple, so I picked the lemons and got started. On a low heat, I melted 50grams of butter in a heavy saucepan. Then added 110 grams of caster sugar and the zest and juice of two big yellow lemons, two whole eggs, and one yolk, well beaten. I stirred the mixture constantly until it thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, then took it off the heat. It’s cooling now, in a bowl. If Best Beloved and Alex are right, it will be scoffed before it needs to be stored. But if, as I suspect, they’re merely caught in lemon madness, then I need to put it in a sterilised jar where it can stay happily in the fridge for a week or two.

I noticed the other day that the elderflower tree on our hill is in bloom, so if next time I want to add a new twist to the lemon curd, Darina Allen at The Ballymaloe Cookery School, suggests that at the beginning of the process I add the flowers from eight fresh

elderflower heads, and serve the finished product with crème fraiche, meringues, and strawberries. Hold me back!

Since curd only uses a couple of lemons at I time and I have about forty, I’ve preserved some in salt for Moroccan dishes to come. Tomorrow I must buy some vodka and repeat past years’ success with limoncello, research and experiment with cheesecake recipes, and start thin slicing for marmalade.

But for now, time for elevenses. Excuse me while I make some toast.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

We're Back!

This photo shows what can happen in a few short weeks
during the Cypriot spring. If you scroll back a few entries
to February 10th's entry, you'll see a picture taken from
almost this spot. Compare!

Well, we’re back.

Best Beloved (someone whose wit I very much appreciate pointed out that implicit in my referring to my husband as Best Beloved, is the notion that I also have a Second, or perhaps Third Beloved... Indeed, possibly a stable. I deny it, but can't help smiling at the notion!) and I had a wonderful week in a flat in Whitechapel. We saw friends, visited museums and markets, went see The Reader and Gran Torino at the movies -- the first time I have been to a grown-up film in at least a decade (I think that the last one was The English Patient), ate out for breakfast and lunch (we cooked at night in the apartment), and generally had one of those wonderful weeks that middle-aged married folks who happen to be parents of four need occasionally.

We returned to controlled chaos.

Kay, our indispensable child-helper who had been scheduled to stay in the house and do much of the week’s driving (Phil was to do the rest) hadn’t been feeling well when we left, and got sicker and sicker over the next two days. She is no quitter (she couldn’t have stayed with us for the last eleven years had she had a feeble bone in her body), but Phil sent her home on Thursday and he and Mili stepped up to the plate. The Little Ones were supposed to stay with them Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights anyway (Alex can stay in the house alone – the Grand Folks are next door for meals, and Sophia was to spend the weekend with a friend), but they took over all the driving, cooking, and childcare without a murmur – and Mili even returned to me a box of the Little Ones’ clothes and uniforms, washed and ironed. As Sophia would say; “Your In-Laws Rock!”

The hospital told Kay that she has bronchitis, and gave her a note for a week off work. She goes on Tuesday for a check-up, and in the mean time I am running like a hairy goat (great Irish saying, that!). With Best Beloved in Nicosia from Monday to Thursday, the children’s and my week is constructed around having two active drivers: guitar lessons, tae kwan do, break-dancing, art class, and the Big Ones’ school run (the Littles fortunately can take the village bus) keep us busy from one until seven most afternoons, and Tuesday, when Alex has break-dancing, I don’t finish until nine and Sophia earns a few Euros bathing the Little Ones and putting them to bed. I get something of a break this week as Alex has torn a knee ligament and replaced break-dancing with visits to the physiotherapist. At least the hours are friendlier.

So we arrived Tuesday night and immediately slipped back into the Groove (or the Grind, depending on whether I’m feeling optimistic or pessimistic). Best Beloved went off to work, and I did five loads of washing and started to sort out the house. When Best Beloved came back Friday, we tackled the vegetable patch, garden, and field together – he managed to put the tractor though most of it again, before getting caught in a massive rain storm. Ha, the Grand Folks’ Vietnamese house and garden helper came over today to give us a hand, and I even managed to get the first set of cucumbers planted.

Did I mention that I’m Cyprus’ Queen of Organic Cucumbers? Ah, well, that’s another story…

Monday, March 2, 2009

Green Monday

I saw an appeal by the Green Party in Sunday's Cyprus Mail 'Greens warn against Green Monday Mess'.

Today is Green Monday – or Clean Monday, in Greek – and most Cypriots load their cars with hampers of vegetables, salads, smoked salmon, prawns, and halwa – and wine and brandy – and take to the hills and fields for picnics. Unfortunately they tend to leave their detritus behind, hence the Greens' appeal. The number of traffic accidents also rises today with inebriated merry-makers negotiating roads at greater speed than normal thanks to the liquid portion of the picnics.

Today is the first day of Lent, and weather permitting, everyone is outside enjoying nature and scoffing their greens. No dairy, no animal products, no eggs may pass our lips today, and even non-believers tend to get into the spirit of the moment the way that many otherwise non-observant Muslims still keep the Ramadan fast. Although Best Beloved (it must be admitted) has already enjoyed a breakfast sandwich of leftover steak.

It is one of the nicer holidays of the year. Children fly kites, families enjoy each others company and the beauty of the countryside. I'm not sure what we are doing. Usually we join with Best Beloved's family, but we went to Bil (Brother in Law's) house yesterday for the season's last meat meal and joined a slew of cousins and friends at a long table and out in the field flying kites in the windy sunshine.

Today the weather is colder, chilly and grey. More snow fell on the mountains last night and the air has too much of a bite to make an outdoor picnic much fun.

Besides, we have to pack for our trip to England tomorrow. I think it will be a quiet day.