By Nick Dudler
People ask me all sorts of questions about Cyprus. Is it in the Middle East? What do they speak there? Can I sightsee there? Where even IS Cyprus?
Being Cyriot by blood, I will do my best in this blog to explore these questions, and to answer something basic but important: “What IS Cyprus?” The answer is more complex than you might expect.
WHAT IS CYPRUS?
First of all, Cyprus is not Greece. The Republic of Cyprus is an independent nation, albeit with a very mundane flag. The locals are known as Greek-Cypriots, and they speak a slightly adapted version of Greek.
Most of the more populous towns are on the coast. Limassol, Paphos, Larnaca, and Agia Napa are the most populated, and Nicosia is the capital. On the map, you might notice the dotted line cutting Cyprus in half-- I will explain why later!
The religion is mainly Greek Orthodox, with churches acting as the centerpiece of most towns and religious icons appearing in most tavernas and cafenion.
In a way, it feels a lot like Greece: Tavernas line the water, gyros and souvla assemble en masse, and yogurt flows like water. The omnipresence of the Mediterranean gives it an island atmosphere, and it shows in the people. The locals seem to live in a relaxed, unhurried manner. My cousins on my Cypriot side could best be described as “chill.” Nothing seems to worry them. Their faces exude a kind of confidence that even when there are stresses in life, some divine power returns everything to a neutral state in due time.
I joke that the most popular saying in Cyprus is “μην ανησυχείς!”--don’t worry!
Cyprus is a land of opposites. Its landscape is and has always been a contested place. In the past centuries, the Phoenicians, Ottoman Turks, Greeks, and Romans called it their home.
Not much has changed. Culturally, Cyprus is still a complex society. The first thing you might notice is that there are Russians everywhere. In the past three decades, Russians descended, taking advantage of low tax rates on businesses and ample land for building. A lot of restaurants feature Russian on the menu, and a noticeable amount of hotel staff come from Russia, Ukraine, and other Russian-speaking nations.
I’m not saying I don’t like Russians. It would be easy to say that they are intruders of the land my ancestors inhabited for centuries. I recognize, however, that without the lavish amount of investment by Russians, the island might be in the same situation as Greece at the moment.
Surprisingly, many hotel staff don’t even speak Greek. But many times I was met with blank stares.
Once, I said “ευχαριστώ” to one of the pool boys at the hotel. This is the most simple word one could use in Greek--probably the first word you learn: It means “thank you.” The pool boy’s face immediately lit up, asking me questions about my family, where I was from, what I was doing in Cyprus. He looked like he was ready to give me a hug!
Oh, and this is just the South of the island that I’m describing. Venture to the North and you’re in a different country. Northern Cyprus is an occupied territory (AKA nobody recognizes it as a country except for the Turks). You won’t find any Russians there-- or Greek-Cypriots, for that matter. More on THE NORTH in another one of my blogs!
A Land of Opposites
Like I said, because of Russian, the island is becoming much more developed and the contrast between different areas of the island is staggering. In a mere 30 minutes of driving, one can be transported from the bustling beach bars, nightclubs, and the resort hotels of Limassol, to the quaint mountain villages dominating the center of the island.
On day 3 of my trip, we drove through the mountains to my hometown of Kato Drys, where my family still owns a plot of land. In these parts, your wealth isn’t measured in the size of your house. The quantity of olive or carob trees you own, your livestock, the number of wells on your land, and whether or not you have an olive press, are what determine your status.
Old men lounge around, their most important task of the day smoking cigarettes and championing their version of backgammon, known in Cyprus as “Tavli.” They linger in the shade of the cafenion most of the day, wandering home only for a nap in the afternoon, another typical island ritual.
The first thing I did when I arrived was go to a restaurant. NOPE, not the hotel, a restaurant. After 25 hours on the move and some hearty Greek table wine, I was ready to fall into my plate. But I didn’t, because the food was too amazing to take my eyes off. We wandered into a cozy taverna in a small town. The town church loomed above us, a protector and reminder that I was at home with my Orthodox kin.
The food arrived at the table the moment we sat down. It was like our flight was scheduled to get us to the table for dinner time. Grilled Octopus, lamb, kalamari, dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves), manitaria (mushrooms), and sheftalia (Cypriot pork sausage) were all featured. My uncle, born and raised in Cyprus, was more than happy to continue ordering until we were about to slump off our chairs. I will never forget his ultra-Greek accent, somehow soothing to the ears and inherently inviting us to order more:
“Would anybody like any more of the delicious meat?” he would ask, as we sat with plates still full of food. No rest for the weary, I suppose!
More to come on Cyprus’s food specialties! (scroll down!!)
Cyprus is known for its wind, and, surprisingly, its surf! Put both together and you get windsurfing! It was blustery while we were there, so Chris and I decided to try our hand at the action sport! We pulled up to a small beach adjacent to a strip of hotels on the outskirts of Limassol, desperate to find somewhere less expensive than the resort areas, where the watersports (and just about everything else) are twice as expensive as they should be.
The first thing that caught my eye was a trailer, complete with a massive decal on the exterior. Walking closer, I realized I was looking at the face of a man. But this wasn’t just any man. He had chiseled muscles, a rippling chest, and a picture-perfect tan. He was pictured paddle-boarding into overhead waves (AKA, they are big enough to block out the sun). The question reverberated in my mind: Who WAS this guy?
I couldn’t linger too long: it was time for the lesson. I entered the boathouse, and to my surprise, I stood face to face with none other than the most interesting man in the world. He was slightly shorter than I imagined, but he fit the bill for a Greek god for sure. His name is Costa-- could he be any more Cypriot? When he opened his mouth, his accent was so thick that I swear it had a physical presence. I soon learned that he coached the Cypriot national windsurf team, and paddle-surfed in Bali and Namibia in his free time. He once paddle-boarded from Greece to Cyprus. To put that in perspective, that’s 500 MILES! This man must also be a part-time saint, because he remembered our names immediately and NEVER, even once, mixed us up.
The windsurf lesson was incredible, but the lesson was just a footnote because I got away with a picture with the legend himself!
My cousin’s wedding took place at a Greek Orthodox Church in the village of Kato Drys. I’m Orthodox myself, but the village setting was otherworldly. It was as traditional as a village wedding in Greece could get. We were serenaded in a village home by a bouzouki--the traditional greek guitar-- under a carob tree, flanked by a massive stone olive press. We processed through the streets of the village to the church.
The priest, who was in fact the Archbishop of London, had flown in just for the occasion, and was adamant that we turn the fans off in light of the noise. At 3 pm the church was practically an oven (a Greek oven, of course). If you’ve ever been to a Greek wedding, you’ll know that there’s a lot of movement to be coordinated. They are also EXTREMELY LONG. Everything needs to be done three times according to the Orthodox tradition. The bride and groom are connected by white crowns, and they must walk around the altar three times along with the priests and the parents of both families. The look on the newlyweds faces was a mixture of joy and pain. A good metaphor for life, I suppose! It seemed oddly appropriate.
THE FOOD: CYPRIOT SPECIALTIES
I borrowed these images from online (in Cyprus you have to eat late because it’s too hot in the day, so there are no good photo ops for the food!). I needed you to see them in all their glory.
The only cheese you can grill! It has a super-low fat content and I’m convinced it will be the next US health craze. It has a mild salty flavour and a chewy, meaty texture.
These are spiced sausage parcels seasoned with herbs, minced pork or lamb, often served with classic Cypriot potatoes. Don’t ask me why, but potatoes are a big part of Cypriot agriculture.
Just another name for souvlaki. Grilled meat, usually pork, chicken, or lamb.
Coming from the Greek word meaning “stolen,” the meat was snatched by thieves and placed in the ground so nobody would find it. It is typically lamb cooked for many hours with potatoes, tomato, and bay leaf. Those thieves sure know how to cook.
A beef stew with the classic mediterranean flavors. The flavor comes from another long cooking method with cinnamon, onion, and red wine. Sometimes made with beef, but especially delicious with rabbit.
Minced meat with Middle Eastern spices, cooked with a bulgur wheat coating. Standard in just about every Cypriot bakery!
Sausage-looking sticks of grape juice with a little added flour to thicken the juice. An almond rolled in the middle to give it a crunch. The only “healthy” option, once you’re fattened up with all that meat.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT:
Now it’s your turn to visit!
Here are my top recommendations for planning a trip to Cyprus:
Rent a car. It’s worth exploring the island, and distances are long enough between cities to make a car totally necessary!
Cypriots follow the British rule, meaning people drive on the left side of the road!
If you’re entering places of worship (i.e. churches, monasteries) dress appropriately, covering your body and no flip-flops allowed!
Euros are the national currency! Make sure to bring some with you!
Learn a few basic Greek terms! More on this in my next blog!