In the footsteps of Aphrodite

Memories intertwine our lives, some good, some bad some indifferent. Of mine I have a particular affection for the young me who fell in love with warm brown eyes and an infectious smile that transported an only child into the heart of a large, raucous family.

My first trip to Cyprus was to attend a wedding and at the same time meet all of my husband’s family. We had met and married in England in the space of four months not giving anyone much notice so save for airfares in the day of pre budget airlines. No one from my husband’s family had been able to come and stand witness so, despite being two years into our marriage, this felt like a rewind to the beginning.

We had worked all day and travelled overnight. The furthest I had travelled was Spain and although I was to learn that long haul was visiting another continent, for me, travelling to what was practically the Middle East, was an adventure.

I am a planner and enjoy researching where we are going and what we might encounter there; my husband is economic with advice and forward information. In 1978 and no Google expertise to hand the best that I could find out regarding Cyprus is that it is a small island close to Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel. Turkey had invaded four years earlier displacing Cypriots both Greek and Turkish as they travelled either South or North to re-build shattered lives. I also knew that Cyprus had formed part of the British Empire, a colony, and although it had been independent since 1960 I did wonder whether my Englishness would be a negative selling point to the Greek Cypriot family I had never met.

I dressed in jeans, a long sleeve tee shirt and jacket which my husband assured me with his usual disarming smile was,

“Perfect baby. You look gorgeous.”

Disembarking some hours later and stepping onto Larnaca’s runway I discovered that heavy English denim was not de rigueur for a Country that could produce and package humidity for the entire world. I was soaked in seconds, my carefully coiffed hair hanging limp and my porcelain English skin a not so delightful shade of puce.

Discomfort aside and ignoring the fumes of oil and petrol, I breathed in the heady scent of Cyprus for the first time; the smell that would ever after evoke memory and emotion and never fail to writhe its sultry tendrils around my heart.

Cyprus is the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, beauty and sexuality. The combination of basil, citrus, pine distributed through the warmth of a natural vapour was like a magical elixir, a welcome assault on the senses not unlike I imagine a love potion might be.

When the world had turned into the twenty first millennia archaeologists would find evidence of a large scale scent making industry from over 4,000 years ago including bottles, stills and mixing jugs at a site in Cyprus. This was uncovered in 2003 and came as no surprise to those of us who know and love this sensual Mediterranean island.

Passport control forty years ago was unsettling for the innocent country girl that defined me. Odysseas stood behind me as I tentatively handed my passport over to an unsmiling, scary looking official. Dressed in full military uniform, a handgun clearly on show at his belt, his eyes seemed cold and challenging. I was arriving on holiday for heavens sake, not to stage a one-woman coup to regain the Island for the Crown.
 He studied my passport for an unacceptable length of time and then my face equally so.

“Your father is Cypriot?” he demanded.
 “Certainly not.” I snapped back and then heard a warning.
 “Chrissy, don’t.” softly in my ear.
 “My husband is.”
 I gave him a dazzling smile as I over indicated the man behind me using my left hand to show the wide wedding band and, therefore, my honesty.
 The official looked from one to the other and then stamped my passport and gestured my dismissal.
 As we walked to collect our luggage there seemed to be a lot of armed uniformsamongst the tourists. I suspected that this was, in part, due to the hostage situation that had ended bloodily with fatalities played out on the runway some five months previously; I was shocked at the the casually held rifles, eyes raking the crowds constantly. It unnerved me in a way that living in London with IRA bombs a constant threat did not.

Our suitcases recovered we headed for the exit; crowds of people were outside waiting to greet their relatives and my nervousness increased a hundred fold. We had been married for two years and I knew none of my in laws or what their perception of me might be. Had they already decided they hated me and would be icily polite, or ignore me, or tell me I wasn’t welcome? Would I take the blame for keeping their son, their brother from returning to them? That my husband loved me with all of his heart was not in question, but would they?

As I hung back with these unspoken fears at the forefront of my mind, I was pulled into a pair of strong arms and a ferocious embrace from a huge bear of a man that almost made me faint for lack of oxygen.

“Christina! Welcome! Me am Pavlos, Me am your sister and you am my brother! Welcome! Welcome!”

I laughed delightedly, it was OK to be this man’s brother. He spoke far better English than I did Greek and his warm greeting wiped away my immediate worries. This was the first of my new brothers to meet me and he could not have made it easier or more fun than he so naturally did.

As we got into the truck that Pavlos had brought, several young children followed us and climbed into the open back that normally carried fruit.

“Who are they?” I asked

Odysseas smiled “I don’t know them all, kids in the family and their friends. They love being with Pavlos.”

“Are they safe sitting in there?”
 ‘Sure.”
 And so we set off on a two-hour drive to Paphos along bumpy roads with much gesticulating and laughter from Pavlos and Odysseas. I had been amongst Cypriots enough to know that the volume button rose during conversations but this was echoing around the cab like a megaphone on high.

Every now and again Pavlos would lean out of the open window to shout out to oncoming lorries whose drivers would laugh and yell something back as they drew level with us. I wondered if Cypriots were always this happy.

Four and a half hours later we finally reached our destination. It had taken twice as long as anticipated as every few miles we stopped at a house where, even though it was very early morning, everyone seemed to be up. Coffee and ligou, which are sweet desserts made out of fruit rind and served in a syrup sauce, were placed in front of us.

I tried refusing but hurt and confused looks galvanised me into eating. The sweets were too sickly and I couldn’t drink the coffee regardless of who I offended. Greek coffee has a rich aroma and is made by spooning unfiltered ground coffee into a special little cooking pot called an embriki. The pot is then held over a gas flame and cooked until the coffee bubbles across the width of the pot, poured into tiny cups and served with a glass of chilled water. The coffee is thick and leaves a gritty sediment at the bottom of the cup and whilst I love the smell have never been able to drink it.

“The village” was the way in which my husband referred to his home but I really had no idea of where it was and what it looked like. I lived in a village prior to our wedding and it was a very English affair consisting of a pub, a post office, a church and a duck pond. I thought that the Cypriot village would be a variation of this sort of set up. Not for the first time I was not quite accurate.

My in laws lived in the centre of a village named Marathounta which lies about five miles above the town of Paphos. The housing format was a collection of rooms over 400 square metres that were functional and dual purposed.

The kitchen housed a gas cooker, a cabinet for crockery and cutlery a small table and two iron single beds. A curtain hid a large store room which was dark and a good place to keep the home made halloumi (Cypriot cheese), wine, vegetables and dried goods.

When the six children were small that was all the family had and in the winter they all slept there, alongside the animals brought into the storage area as well.

Next to the kitchen was the Kafenion, a medium, one storey square building of old, thick stone; the real centre of the village and a hive of activity for the number of businesses my mother–in-law ran there.

Hot days saw people sitting out on the veranda where palm leaves woven through an overhead frame offered welcome shade, whilst vines provided lush red grapes hanging down for an instant tasty treat.

Tables and chairs were set out in the Kafenion and on the veranda, where the tavli (backgammon) board was passed around as challenges for games were made and accepted. Card games were also very popular, but mainly it was the place for the men to gather late in the afternoon whilst their wives prepared an evening meal at home in peace. They would take the opportunity, over a cup of coffee, to talk politics and put the world to rights often using a gomboloyi, or worry beads, to concentrate their thoughts.

There is an art to manipulating these whilst making it look effortless and it is quite mesmerising to watch. These men started their days early, often before dawn working as drivers, farmers, labourers before coming home to work their own fields; they deserved an hour’s relaxation. Papas Nikos, the village priest would always make an appearance about half past four, and join in the discussions being put for or against the topic of the moment. Distinguished in his flowing blue robes, high black hat and white beard he was very warm and kind, always greeting me with an English, “Hello”.

The Kafenion doubled up as a convenience store and my mother in law, Domniki, sold a selection of fresh breads and pittas, cheese, dried goods and drinks. The favourite beer on the island was, and still is, Keo which was sold alongside bottled Coca Cola, Fanta orangeade and a local favourite called Garzozo which is a sherbet drink. Very refreshing on a hot day. The local firewater is called Zivinea and Domniki’s home brew was the most popular.

The other designation of the Kafenion was as the village post office. As people came for their shopping, to drink coffee or just dropped by to say yasso, hello, it made sense for Domniki to become the village postmistress. She took delivery of and sorted the incoming post, and arranged for outgoing to be collected by the district postman to take into town.

The ceiling of the Kafenion was made in the traditional Cypriot way with great skill and craftsmanship. Held up by twenty-five thick wooden beams which crossed the length of the room, a steel girder passing through the middle to give extra security to the weight of the beams. Between the beams tightly packed canes kept out the water and the cold and the roof was made from clay which is naturally water-proof, no tiles or felting.

It was mid morning before we finally arrived in Marathounta and all my nerves had returned as I was greeted by a diminutive woman and a man who it was not difficult to see had given my husband his facial characteristics. They both had warm smiles as they gave me a kiss on each cheek and I finally began to relax.

I was told to “gatsi” a word I already knew meant sit down which we did on uncomfortable chairs that are made on the island and furnish virtually every home. My bottom has never quite adjusted to the feel of the woven reeds that form the seat.

We both needed sleep and I wanted to get into some lighter clothing so after we had sat for a while and exchanged pleasantries I requested a shower. I found my toiletries and we picked up towels but I couldn’t see the bathroom anywhere.

‘It’s in the yard.” My husband said.
 ‘Yard?”
 “Down there” he nodded to an incline and indeed under where we had been sitting was a yard. It was filled with cages that housed dozens of rabbits and a hen coop, although at that time of the day the hens were wandering around the yard pecking at their feed.

“There’s hens.” I pointed out but just got a grin in response.

Odysseas led me down a couple of steps onto a rough pathway and I gingerly followed until we reached a tumbling down shed.

“There you go.” He said opening the door with a flourish.
 I stared inside perplexed.
 “What is it?”
 “The shower. Look, get undressed and stand on those two slats; hold the hose and I’ll turn the water on.”
“Hot water?”
“It will feel nice and warm.”
“Hot water?”
“Well, no cold, but the sun is hot and it will feel warm. I promise you’ll love it and besides you’re hot so cooler will be better.”

Whether that is male or Cypriot reasoning all I know is that it is inaccurate, it was freezing cold and the slats were slippery; it was all I could do to stay upright whilst washing myself. There was nowhere to put my towel or soap and I came out more hot and bothered than I went in. That was the one and only shower I had there. Fortunately, a kindly Aunt lived on the road to the village and whilst she and her nephew had a coffee and a chat each day she kindly let me use her bathroom.

I did though have to use the toilet which mean running the goat gamut. I refused to go alone so my husband had to escort me which caused much amusement to everyone else.

When we went back the following summer, it was to find a new bathroom had been built outside the kitchen area including a a boiler for hot water. I have always felt the conversation went something along the lines of “For heavens sake, build that English Princess a bathroom otherwise we will never see our son again.”

Three days after out arrival I was beginning to understand that the days started early here and people were everywhere. There was little to no privacy as our allocated bedroom was in the room where the best crockery and assorted table wear was kept and knocking before entering clearly was never observed. Whenever I was getting dressed or changed I tried to do it behind a wardrobe door. I learnt to be quick.

Each day droves of people seemed to come and go arriving with bowls or huge cooking pots and there was much hustle and bustle as the wedding preparations began in earnest. I knew that the wedding reception was to take place at home rather than a venue but when I had been told there would be eighteen hundred people attending my mouth had actually fallen open. Eighteen hundred? Who knew that many people? How did you begin to cater for that number? My family was even bigger than I had thought.

I had met so many cousins that I had lost count but everyone was very welcoming and smiling. Even though I found the numbers overwhelming and meal times loud, I had always wanted a big family. As an only child my life had been quite orderly and quiet; I used to dream of having brothers and sisters to have fun with. Now I had three brothers, two sisters and a multitude of cousins, aunts and uncles.

I did try to be helpful but against me was the struggle to cope with the intense heat of a Cyprus August. So much hotter than anything I had experienced before and I had developed a tendency of passing out for a few moments at regular but unexpected intervals.

On one of these occasions I came round to find Domniki standing over me muttering darkly and Odysseas shrugging his expressive shoulders whilst speaking rapidly in Greek.

“What?” I asked weakly, “Is she angry with me?” 
“Of course not baby, she’s concerned.”

I glanced at the unsmiling force stood by my husband. To my eyes she was definitely glaring.

“She doesn’t look concerned;” I whispered “she looks as mad as hell.”
 He laughed “She’s just busy. She thinks you’re very …..very English.”
 “OK. Tell her I’m sorry and I’ll try to stop fainting.”
 He did and she shook her head before stomping off, probably despairing at the weakling her fine son had married.
 A couple of hours later that fine man had apologetically told me that his help was needed out of the village.
 “Will you be OK for a while?” he asked
 “Of course” I replied brightly, mild panic setting in as he climbed into his brother’s lorry and they set off down the road.
 Determined to make myself useful I headed into the yard and looking down into the lower area I saw a dozen or so women spreading out blankets in the shade. My English speaking nephew bounded out of the kitchen stuffing freshly baked bread into his mouth. I grabbed his arm before he could disappear, that child travelled everywhere at the speed of light.

“George — come and help me for a minute. What’s going on down there?”

He gave that universal eloquent shrug that Cypriots are born with and called out to one of the women in query.

“They’re going to peel potatoes” he told me round the bread “ready for the wedding.”

Great. Something I could do.

“Tell them I’m coming to help; I’ll just put some more sun-cream on.”

George duly translated the message and a dozen pairs of eyes turned in my direction, doubt clouded every one. Undeterred I lathered on sun-cream and climbed down the rocky slope to take a place on the blankets.

Yassas!”

I said cheerily, pleased that I had remembered the collective greeting. There were a few muttered “yasso” in reply, one or two nods of acknowledgement and a few tight lipped looks. My mother-in-law’s eyes locked on mine and I didn’t need a translator to read the message that lay in them,

“Don’t embarrass me.”

I tried to relay a confident smile as I tore my eyes from hers. Fortunately, at that moment, four huge sacks of potatoes were emptied into our midst.

The women quickly got to work and I watched for a minute to see where the peel was going and where the potatoes, I didn’t want to make any rooky mistakes. Confident that I’d grasped the system adequately I gripped the knife I’d had the foresight to collect from the kitchen and picked up my first potato.

I was onto my third before it dawned on me that the chatter of the women had ceased. I faltered in my peeling and slowly looked up at the silent crowd.

Each of them had stopped in the act of peeling as if, like Lot’s wife, they had been frozen in that instant, potatoes and knives held as still as the air around us. Every pair of eyes were on me and my peeling. I gave a small laugh and tried the expressive shrug. Nothing.

A loud laugh came from above me and I looked up into the amused face of my husband’s American Aunt Zoe.

“Don’t worry about it Christina honey” she called “they’re just surprised you know how.”

“Why?” I asked incredulously. Again that shrug “You’re English.”

“We have potatoes in England.” I protested at this Spartan explanation, although it was one I was to hear many, many times in the future.
 She laughed again,
 “They’ll get used to you” she promised before moving off.
 When the boys arrived back my husband was delighted to see me hot and flustered but with a credible pile of potatoes in my not inconsiderably sized pot.

“Hey — I’ll make a Greek wife out of yet!” he called.

His mother looked questioningly at him and he repeated his comment in Greek. I think she is less confident in my ability to be any sort of proper wife Greek or English than my husband is, but my father in-law clapped his hands encouragingly and laughed.

“Bravo Christina” he called “Bravo!”

After the sun had gone down the family gathered to eat. It was the night before the wedding and lots of stories were exchanged, many of them causing my sister in law acute embarrassment whilst entertaining everyone else. Such is the lot of bride and grooms to be everywhere.

One final ceremony remained before the actual wedding which would take place the following morning. Family would gather once again to witness the formal dressing of

the bride. Violinists would come to sing her life story and acknowledge those people close to her, each of whom would wind the zozimo, a red scarf, around her waist three times giving their blessing to her marriage. I was included and couldn’t wait to be part of something so significant and meaningful.