Aphrodite’s Isle

I grew up on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus from the age of one to the age of eight. If they are willing to listen, it is still a part of the story I tell anyone who asks the complicated question of where I am ‘from.’ It is the place where my sister was born, where my parents started their business, and a place I was never quite able to let go of; and last month, my sister and I finally went back for the first time since we left in 1999.

I had very little idea what to expect, and realized, the closer our trip came, that every time I tried to think through what I wanted and needed from it my thoughts stuttered to an uncertain halt. I acknowledged many years ago, through my early years of living in the United States (and through Boston winters), that my memories of Cyprus were objectively those of a child, and of a sort of paradise that I doubted could be real. Remembrances of sun and warm water, of mountains and feral cats and school uniforms in stripes of white and green, were overtaken in my absence by reports of the last divided capital in the world being, at least in theory, reunited. The news was of a great influx of shady Russian money; of the tourist hub of Ayia Napa being overrun by sunburned Britons on stag and hen dos; of the financial crash, and the carnage in its wake given the southern half of the island’s close ties to Greece, driving some of our old family friends to flee to London and wages and savings to tank. In these articles Cyprus was made real, and complicated, and to return as a twenty-seven year old with eighteen years of another life under my belt frightened me in ways I still can’t quite express.

In many ways, I needn’t have worried. The sun is still there, suffuse and scorching. The perfectly blue water is still there, even before the brutal heat of summer, though I had forgotten how rocky the beaches were. We visited the Rock of Aphrodite, where the goddess of love was born of the sea, and brought away a few pebbles so we could remember her warmth. We drove up the vertigo-inducing switchbacks of the mountains with their inaccessible, razor-sharp tips, and celebrated coming down in one piece with grilled trout pulled directly from a peak-side waterfall. We discovered that the wine produced on the island has improved immensely since our parents regularly partook of it, and exulted in the flavors of rose and pomegranate. There is nothing of the trip that I could possibly regret, and that, in and of itself, is an immense relief. Something of my memory can be trusted again – indeed, be celebrated, because it strikes me I have taken too much time in my life after Cyprus telling myself to forget it, and to adapt to reality.

There are things about it which I could never have understood as a child which are fascinating to me as an adult. At the age of five or six, I knew that the island was split in two; that there were people living north of a wall on Ledras Street who were different, whom we weren’t supposed to see, and whom our neighbors loved to hate. I knew this because of the journey we took through a U.N.-manned border post every Saturday so I could play football (in retrospect, the idea of putting children’s playing fields in a putative warzone stuns me), during which I stared up at stern, but vaguely bored, soldiers wearing blue berets. I knew this because a visiting family member had to make special arrangements to drive into the north as a sightseer, and was warned to stay clear of army exercises; I knew this because of the scowls more troops threw at my grandfather once when he had the temerity to wander too close to the Nicosia wall on an otherwise pleasant day out.

On this trip, in almost complete contrast, the only warning given to us about Turkish Cyprus was on the agreement we signed for our rental car, which stated categorically that the company would not be held liable for repairs or be obliged to pick us up if we broke down in the north. We passed through two sets of passport checks to emerge into a world where the signs were in Turkish and we heard the cry of a muezzin; the border guards were still bored, but this time one of them broke out of his apathy for long enough to smile and wink at my sister in her sunhat. We easily paid, in a jumble of euros and lira, for thick Turkish coffee and earrings crafted out of glazed clay, and walked back into the south to indulge in ice cream from a Greek-named corner store. It was easy to believe in another new idyll, but reminders of conflict remain: next to graffitos of ONE CYPRUS and several scrawled Anarchy symbols, the Greek crossing post displays a printout of a U.N. resolution which demands information of the Turks as to the fates of hundreds of then-Greek citizens who vanished into (probably) army detention during the invasion of 1974. At the Cyprus Museum, a delightful jumble of displays charting the history of the many, many cultures which have taken over the island (Greek-Hellenic, Roman, crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans, British), there are several labels which passive-aggressively grouse about the precious archaeological sites that have been ‘lost’ to the Turks. Memories run long here, and they run deep; a generation of men who fought in 1974 is still alive, offering no quarter or compromise, and the Turkish flag still stands out starkly in the landscape itself, carved into a mountain range that fills your windscreen every time you drive north to Nicosia, and your rearview mirror every time you leave it.

During the course of my research in the British Library over the last month, I came across several maps of Cyprus in compendium collections of charts or wide-ranging atlases. Cartographers and geographers got its shape mostly correct by the end of the sixteenth century; several well-known maps of Nicosia or Famagusta exist, depicting military campaigns between Greeks and Turks and whomever else was invested at the time. The star-fortification walls of Nicosia, built by the Venetians, still stand in places and can be seen from the air. Saint Sofia, on the other hand, the central cathedral shown in those maps, is now the Selimiye Mosque. The school I attended from the ages of six to eight is unrecognizable; the school I would have gone to if we had stayed a few years more looks exactly the same. To witness the uneven course of history, so starkly and personally, is a sort of gift I intend to repay. I want to take my fiancé there, when he is my husband, and say Look: this is the place which made me.

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