Thursday, June 23, 2011

I wonder what's happening in Cyprus?

A sign at Aphrodite's Birthplace, 2010, that makes reference to the 1974 Turkish invasion's remains. 
(SP Tiley photo)
Just over a year ago, I realized a dream I'd had since my last year of college, to visit Cyprus.

The dream was born when I picked up a copy of Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell at the campus bookstore as summer wound down; I was married, working in the library 30 hours a week, keeping house, and embarking, however haltingly, on what would become my adult life. That is, a life of writing constantly and traveling frequently at times, interspersed with long periods of finding that a trip to the closest beach was as much as I could muster or afford.

The sweet summons of Bitter Lemons
I adored Bitter Lemons. Durrell painted scenes of life in Cyprus in the early 1950s as almost idyllic...except, of course, when he got into the specifics of the tension between the Turks and Greeks that ended up, in 1974, with Turkey invading northern Cyprus, a campaign that ended with the island divided into the Republic of Cyprus in the south, and what the Turks now consider part of Turkey in the north. When one crosses the border--which we did several times to reach Krykkos Monastery, high in the divided mountains--one's cell phone beeps and one gets a message, "Welcome to Turkey." Freaky. Also freaky, of course, are the instructions not to venture down certain roads, and the odd sightings of military watchtowers. Even inside the Republic of Cyprus, for some years now part of the European Union (EU), one finds cogent instructions regarding military ordnance. Even the paths surrounding Aphrodite's Birthplace near Paphos bear warnings that the odd bullet might be found; please leave strictly alone.

I am thinking about Cyprus because we are not going back there, despite several enticements.

The Mediterranean off Polis, where we stayed, was the most incredible water in which I have ever swum.

We met an interesting restaurateur, Andreas, owner of Moustakallis, a very fine taverna, who invited us twice for morning coffee, and regaled us with stories of pre-EU Cyprus, when the meats and sausages could be truly local, not conforming to EU homogenization. I wouldn't have thought a discussion of abattoirs could be interesting...but on Cyprus...well, it is itself, with lemons and tomatoes and halloumi cheese made from milk of goats grazed on thyme, but lamb and poultry are more important, at least to Cypriots. Me?  I loved the lemons, olives and--I admit--the baklava.

We also had an apartment for the week with views of the Mediterranean from our second-floor balcony, where we ate breakfast. There was bougainvillea beside the front door, and bushes of geraniums. Bushes, not spindly little plants.

But we are not going to Cyprus again soon. Not until the Middle East becalms itself a bit once again; the Turkish question is still bothersome, and Cyprus is only a day-trip by ferry from Egypt. It is strange to realize that the island outpost of the EU is really in Asia Minor, and very probably subject to the Byzantine political machinations of the ages.

Bella Italia, I hope
Our next trip will be to Italy; it was booked less than an hour ago. I've never been to Italy, but I was never crazy to go. I grew up on eastern Long Island (less east than the toney Hamptons, more west than Manhattan, and therefore a true nowhere land) surrounded by Sicilians who were noisy and "juicy" unlike my Irish-English family, who were quiet and dessicated by comparison. The Sicilians were less interested in education than we were, and most of my family considered them NOKD--not that we were anything exalted.  But my mother prided herself that we were not a "huggy" family. Sicilians hug a lot. And the Sicilians I knew did eats lots more interesting food, though, than the steaks and chops that are standard fare in middle-class Irish households in New York, at least back then. 

Lake Garda is not Sicily, so there should be no ghosts of the trampy girls who tortured me in high school because I didn't smoke or drink, did do my homework, and utterly refused to get engaged at my senior prom to a local boy, later a local fireman, who wanted me to do just that. No ghosts of the mothers of trampy Sicilian girls who teased me because I was built like Twiggy (not anymore, darn it) and pale. No ghosts of the leather-jacketed Fonzi wannabes who knew they could intimidate me simply by staring at me when I walked past their corner to the store.

But nothing those skanky worst examples of the Sicilian heritage could do has put me off Italy. Italy just hadn't been on my travel A list.

Paris, a dream--once--as cogent as Cyprus, and now tarnished
Paris was, always, on my A list. I was crazy to go to Paris from an early age, although I was over 30 before I got there the first time. For decades after that visit, Paris remained an important destination that I'd jump through any number of hoops to reach. The shine is dulled now, partly by the behavior of Paris itself, and partly by what I might call the "Home Alone" syndrome: too bloody many American tourists, loud and obnoxious parents and too many snotty children clogging everything with their headlong rush to see it all in four days whether the whining kids want to or not and insisting that they pay in "real money" and noisily rejecting food that doesn't bear a striking resemblance to hamburgers and fries.

So, Italy. My husband loved Lake Garda when he was 16, when he went there with his aging parents who turned in early, leaving him to frequent the bars on his own for the first time. He loved the scenery, of course, and that extensive trip included visits to more touristy places, such as Venice. Now, Lake Garda itself is touristy. It now sports a Gardaland. That's frightening. I wonder if my husband will like it as much now as he did then. Perhaps. On his recommendation, his boss took a week there last year and said he liked it. Gardaland must be avoidable.

Two gentle people in Verona
We booked a fly-drive, so we get to fly into Verona, a place that does hold some fascination for me, more so, I think, than Venice. When I think of Venice, I think of sewage. I think of Katharine Hepburn almost losing an eye to infection after she fell into a canal while filming a movie. I think of two friends who went 30 years ago when the spring tides were particularly high; they had to totter across boards spanning the canal water lapping the walls in the lobby of their hotel, holding their noses--they said--against the stench at the same time.

It's odd the way the reactions of others to places we've never seen influence us. That same couple loathed Paris. Had I spoken to them before my first visit, I might have had to change my previous lifetime of hungering for it. But I spoke instead with my first husband's aunt, a brilliant woman who had worked for Time, Inc., in Paris after WWII, and adored it. In the 60s, Time flew croissants into NYC every day, and she was on the recipient list, all of which made staying with her at her Beekman Place apartment even more wondrous than it already was. She was my touchstone for Paris, thank goodness.

I don't believe I will be anyone's touchstone for Cyprus. It seems to me a shadow of its self in antiquity; the Cypriots are not good at preserving their heritage. Aphrodite's Birthplace, a plant-ringed pool, was filthy. The better part of that day was encountering the semi-toothless orange vendor in the car park. We bought some oranges, and they, like the Mediterranean waters, were the very best of their species. But we grew tired of the scant variety in Cypriot cuisine; we were amazed at how little they did with the lemons and tomatoes that were good enough to make foodies cry with joy. Even the halloumi, the thyme-scented halloumi, was enticing, something store-bought halloumi in the States or the UK never is; here, it's more like plastic turning to stone, tasteless and unscented.

The lure of the Med
But I will go back to Cyprus some day. My skin craves the silky Mediterranean water, and my soul still wants another sighting or two of the "wine dark sea." It amazed me that just at the horizon, as described in the Odyssey, the sea is a deep purple-red, at least there in the climes that the Homeric sailors used to roam.

I will probably go to Italy more than once, too, I think. The Sicilian horror show I endured as a timid girl on Long Island is just about faded now, replaced after knowing a generous, kind, and intellectually agile friend, an Italian doctor from Puglia I knew well in Baltimore, dear Enzo. I miss him, and I miss his Italian-American-etc. wife, Judy, an artist who was one of my horse riding/culture vulturing buddies for years. Only with Judy did I drink Pino Grigio; when Enzo was on hand, we all drank the red wine he favored, Ars Poetica, a primitivo from his hometown.

We shall see. The excitement is beginning to build. For future reference....