Cyprus is Greece on steroids. Like Greece, the island is at the crossroads of East and West, but this intersection is much more acute. The bitterness and sadness still hover in the air above the diverging cultures, threatening to disrupt the delicate balance. Beginning at the eastern end of the island, you will find anything and everything that reminds you of Greece: white-washed churches, sweeping beaches with over-priced beach chairs, octopus hanging from the roof rafters, and monasteries with 14th-century frescos. But as you approach the border of the island’s Turkish side, the Greek signs with their Turkish translations in small font become Turkish signs with translated Greek underneath. You see a gradual increase in dishes involving yoghurt or pistachios or cumin, among other characterizing features of Turkish cuisine. Tzatziki, the traditional Greek yoghurt dip, becomes cacik, its much more watery, much more seasoned counterpart.
Before entering the Turkish part of the island, I had assumed that the “occupied region” was an over-dramatic way of referring to it. But that’s exactly what it is. You’ll find Greek Orthodox churches boarded up, stores and restaurants with Greek signage abandoned and left to rot. The controversy is still so real and raw. There are entire residential areas surrounded by barbed wire, with signs that read “FORBIDDEN ZONE” and “NO TRESPASSING!” nailed to the walls. There are beautiful beaches lined with abandoned luxury hotels from the 70’s that stand looking out to sea with haunted eyes.
Famagusta is a Turkish city close to the border. From afar, the crumbling skeletons of 15th-century Venetian cathedrals in the Old Town seem to mock the city’s modest skyline, cruelly reminding it of its glorious past. But as you meander the endless maze of ramshackle shops, eateries, and stalls, you begin to see what these beautiful cathedrals have been reduced to. Their soaring walls have been spray painted with obscenities and their boarded-up insides are rotting away. Their only inhabitants are shattered beer bottles and empty soda cans.
Scoffing arrogantly at its rich legacy, Famagusta seems like modernity at its worst. Formerly the richest city in the world, it is now comprised of run-down restaurants, deserted houses, and dusty shops. Pirated DVDs, fake handbags, and knock-off jewelry abound. You cannot escape the billboards and mural advertisements. Any tourist attraction worth seeing, like the legendary tower that Shakespeare’s Othello would climb to look out to sea, has fallen into disrepair and has thus been closed to the public. The entrance to the Cathedral of St. George is blocked by an inoperative bus missing most of its windows and tires.
But cross the border to the Greek side and you are in a different world (granted I didn’t see the entirety of northern Cyprus). While the Turkish part of the island was chaotic, lacking street signs, traffic signals, and lines on the pavement for the most part, the Greek side offered orderly traffic patterns, in addition to new roads with clear signage and an emphasis on traffic safety (ie: “ATTENTION! Drive on the left!”). In the Greek side, you will find an abundance of three-story houses with well-tended gardens. Cyprus seems to be an exaggerated, enhanced, more intense, and more alive version of Greece. While Greece has spent the past four years in a crisis-induced coma, Cyprus has proven immune to the ailments of the global economy. With a per capita income well above the EU average, the Cypriot economy has diversified and flourished. As Cyprus’s tourism, financial services, and shipping sectors take off, there is a noticeable surge in the flow of economic migrants from Greece to Cyprus.
The people are more upbeat and cheerful, without a decade of austerity measures hanging over their heads. They reminded me a little of the Greek-American version of Greece that I had grown up in– classy and dignified, while still lighthearted. While the Athenians often grow irritated with me and my grammatically-horrific Greek, the Cypriots were eager to converse. Their dialect was sometimes difficult to understand, but they were more than happy to repeat themselves again and again. In Athens, when I explain that I have come from New York to learn Greek and work at a few different institutions, I am often regarded as if I have suddenly sprouted multiple heads (who in their right minds would choose to live in Greece during an economic crisis?). But in Cyprus, the people were thrilled to hear that I am attempting to reconnect with my Greek roots and were so eager to ask questions.
The cuisine in Cyprus is almost identical to that of Greece, but here and there you will find some interesting twists. For example, dried coriander and wine act as a marinade for most meats, giving this food group a uniquely Cypriot taste. Though the Cypriot cheese known as halloumi would never dare to replace feta, it will often substitute for the Greek staple in dishes like salads and phyllo pies. Ingredients such as carob, the edible legume component of the carob tree, intermingle with traditional Greek dishes to create strange new flavors. There are also a variety of Cypriot delicacies, like lountza, smoked pork loin, and sheftalia, which is minced meat in sausage form.
But perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Greek and the Cypriot culinary scene is Cyprus’s warm embrace of multiculturalism and diversity. In Athens, due most probably to the city’s escalating illegal immigration and its subsequent xenophobia, ethnic eateries are few and far between. But in Cyprus, the ethnic restaurants quantifiably match the traditional Greek. There are Mexican restaurants, complete with waiters in cowboy hats and cactus centerpieces on each table. There are Japanese steakhouses, sushi bars, noodle bars, and Chinese buffets, in addition to Irish pubs, French crêperies, Indian delicatessens, and Italian pizzerias.
Even so, the staple dishes of Cypriot cuisine are unarguably Greek. There is an abundance of cucumber-tomato salads, oil-based dishes involving eggplant, beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils, and simple souvlaki dishes, involving grilled chicken or pork. Spanakopites (spinach pies), tiropites (cheese pies), bougatses (cream-filled pies), and baklava are still everywhere to be found. But Cypriot cuisine is an enhanced version of Greek cuisine in that there are so many underlying surprises.
While souzoukakia in Greece denotes spicy sausage-shaped meatballs, souzoukakia in Cyprus signifies the sausage-shaped desserts that can be found throughout the Caucasus, but are referred to in those regions as churchkhela. These candies involve stringing almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and raisins together, dipping the string into flour-thickened grape juice or fruit juice, and then hanging the dessert out to harden and dry. Similarly, the influence of the Middle East can be seen in Cypriot dishes like koubes, fried balls of rice and chopped meat, which resemble the Arab kibbeh. While the loukoumi, the jelly-like dessert more commonly known as the Turkish delight, can be found throughout most of Greece, it is ubiquitous in Cyprus.
Cyprus squeezes the entirety of the Greek landscape into a much smaller geographical area. As an over-sized island, it merges the feel of an island with the feel of the mainland. Its shores incorporate Greece’s soft sand, with her rocky shores, her jagged cliffsides, and her sea caves, one right after the other. Cyprus’s inland region features the Troodos mountain range, including steep roads with hairpin turns, hidden monasteries, and an assortment of picturesque little villages. The island comprises several major cities, including Larnaca, Limassol, and Nicosia. It encompasses both industrial factories and herds of goats, state of the art highways and tiny dirt roads, fields of wild flowers and teems of well-preserved ancient mosaics.
It was with a heavy heart that I stepped my nicely tanned legs into my jeans and pulled on my boots. I boarded the plane at Cyprus’s international airport wishing I could have stayed in Cyprus forever. But when I returned to Athens, I stepped off the plane to find a transformed city. In my absence, spring had shyly made its way onto the stage. The skies are now clear and the sunlight is overwhelmingly bright. The grass has lost its brownish tinge and is shooting up in a light and cheerful shade of green. Endearing little yellow flowers poke out their heads, and the birds have returned to turn the volume up to full blast. The trees are blossoming with white and pink, tenderly ushering in the Easter weekend. In the face of crushing austerity, Greece needs a sweet spring this year more than ever before. Let’s hope that Easter brings in renewed hope and the fresh breeze of optimism.