Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cyprus: A Country Occupied

I had no right to cry and yet, I could not stop the tears. By right, I mean my life had never touched these places, these memories, except through the stories of my husband, who'd been a soldier at the time and my dear friend, Andrea, who lived it, in her own painful way. She'd been a new bride, in the U.S. when her village was invaded, her entire family having the daunting task of trying to escape by foot on a land as flat and treeless as a cutting board. Turkish parachuters floating down to amber fields as mothers ran with children, but to where? It was not clear to anyone. Back then, 1974, there was no social media to keep the information flowing. The people of Cyprus had no idea what was happening. The radio station was quickly occupied and continued to play music. Immediately, the Greek government sent ships to help. My husband, Nick was on one of them. They were blocked by American and British ships, forced to watch from afar, impotent while the atrocities of war with its brainwashed soldiers unraveled.

For Andrea, there was only a brief mention of the Turkish invasion on the nightly news in her New York home and then silence. . . and agony as she waited for some word of her family's fate. After six months it finally came. They'd gotten out, all of them, one of the few fortunate families. Theirs was an in-tact family but without a home, without a village. Refugees forced to the other side of the island as a handful of political players, untouched by the tragedy, drew lines on a map, invisible borders that remain today.

The people are referred to as Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, both groups having lived peacefully as a diverse population of christian and muslim Cypriots until the invasion from mainland Turkey, which forced the Turkish Cypriots from their homes in the south as they feared repercussions from the injured Greek Cypriots. So they fled to the Turkish-occupied side of Cyprus while the Greek Cypriot refugees who were able to escape that war zone, relocated in the south.

There are ghost towns at the border that lie within something called the buffer zone, a sort of no-man's-land between the two sides. It's too dangerous to settle near there even though it's more than 40 years later. What would happen if one side or the other decided to take more land? Better to be as far from the border as possible. So we passed by completely empty shells of large villages with houses, town squares, and churches standing vacant against the cypriot-blue sky as nature slowly covers the stones, taking them back to the earth. . . a historical site for future generations to ponder over.

We were there to visit Pigi (Πηγη), Andrea's village, something she's dreamed of for years. The border has been open since 2003. Greek Cypriots who've been exiled from their homes for over 4 decades have trickled back to see their homes, but those houses are occupied by the enemy . . . kind of. Our Cypriot license plate identified us and most people understood why we were there. There were hesitant waves of welcome, a honk or two from a passing car with Turkish plates, a few meek nods of the head as we passed by cafes.

Where Andrea's house once stood, was a small vacant lot. The house had been razed by the displaced Turkish Cypriots. After the fighting ceased and the population of the island settled with Greek Cypriots banished to one side and Turkish Cypriots having fled to the other, Turkish people from the mainland of Turkey were sent to the occupied side to live in those houses still empty and to increase the so-called Turkish-Cypriot population. One of those houses was Andrea's. In situations such as this one, it appears all Cypriots were united. None seemed to want those Turkish neighbors, those outsiders, those non-Cypriots, so the Turkish Cypriots demolished the empty houses insuring the Turks from Turkey would go elsewhere. It seemed to be something both christian and muslim Cypriots agreed upon. They did not want Turkey's occupiers.

We walked through the village, while Andrea's husband followed in the car. The church where she'd gotten married still stood, defiled and unkempt. The symbols of christianity had been removed and the pigeons had taken up residence. There was the simultaneous joy of returning home, with the horror of what it had become, and it was emotionally confusing. I shot a brief video:

Although Andrea's house was no longer there, her sister's was. We got back in the car and drove slowly past the house. In 1974, her sister was a new bride and had lived in that newly built, newly furnished house for exactly one day when she and her husband had to flee. There was a man watering plants outside as we stopped and gawked. He motioned for us to come out of the car and then he called his mother. She welcomed us into the house. She had lived in Lefkosia back in 1974. As a Turkish Cypriot, she had feared repercussions from those Greeks who'd suffered during the invasion so she'd fled with her family to the occupied side. She did not like it, she said. It was too hot. Forty-four years later, she still wanted to go home.

The woman led us around the house with two younger women following. It wasn't clear who they were but they were swept up in the emotion as Andrea communicated with the older woman the best she could while pointing out changes. I quietly snapped photos, tears welling in my eyes as I watched Andrea use all of her might to stay composed.

Afterwards, we got back in the car and drove away from the occupied area, away from the woman who occupied the house and back across the checkpoint, back onto a well manicured, wide-paved road of Greek Cyprus.

On one awful day in 1974, a handful of men from various countries separated the people of Cyprus, drew a line between their two religions . . . but they are all Cypriots many of whom simply yearn to go home.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What You Find In a Greek Garden

In Greece, everyone's heard of construction projects that've been halted due to unexpected artifact finds. It's usually a tale of woe as the building project is kept in limbo waiting for a governmental decision -- to proceed as planned or to halt work permanently thus claiming the property as an archeological site. For this reason, it is rare for citizens to report any ruins they find while undergoing independent construction projects. Instead, such sites are often covered up and left for another era.

Likewise, gardeners in Greece have similar experiences. A mere generation ago when Greece was still struggling to meet the modern world, artifacts in one's garden were common place.

When my mother-in-law found an ancient coin while she was digging on the family farm, she
showed it to her children and asked, "Can we use this to buy something?" The answer was "no" so she tossed it aside and it lay unclaimed until many years later when it was put on a chain and worn with pride.

Remnants of war also tend to surface now and then. Take this belt buckle, for instance.

It was worn by one Greek teen throughout the 1960s after he'd found it half buried on the farm. For him it was a prize to show off with swagger. But as time went on, the belt that was attached to the buckle began to deteriorate. The buckle was lost and forgotten, only to reemerge some fifty years later in the family vegetable garden. Nostalgia for the teen-turned-old-man, melancholy for me. . . his pampered American wife, never having experienced war or the survival of such. So, with that belt buckle and with the Italian and German WWII helmets that have hung for decades in the family storehouse, the thoughts that encompass me as I listen to the discoverer tell his rendition of his childhood archeological finds, are of those soldiers who never came home.

Yes, I know, the German and Italian soldiers hurt many Greeks, maybe more so . . .  I've heard it many times. It's just hard not to feel the human side of it, though, when you have the luxury of standing on the sidelines.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Margariti's Morning March

Currently there are two of us in this group. I am the not-so-fluent Greek speaker, making up Greek words that seem like they should be in the language and Toula is a do-or-die, won't-stop-until-I-get-the-point-across, barely-able English speaker.

But we are both fluent in grunts, groans, eye rolling and gestures. Thus, our morning conversations are both enlightening and somewhat confusing.

All are welcome to join us! Young, Old, middle aged, male, female, Greek-speakers, English-speakers, non-speakers etc.
However. . . and this is a big however. . .

No dogs, please.

Why no dogs?
Here are 4 reasons:

1. 1962, First Encounter with a Dog: I was playing at Little Jimmy Sorkell's house in Hicksville, NY. His puppy, which to my 4-year-old mind was a ferocious lion, jumped up on me and started barking. I peed all over the kitchen floor. His mother said something like "You make more of a mess than fido!" and then she got me a pair of Little Jimmy's scratchy boy-jeans to wear while she laundered my clothes.

2. 1987: Margariti, Greece . . . My brother-in-law thought it would be a good idea to keep a ferocious man-eating dog outside the door of our small 2-room house. I was terrified all that summer, especially at night. What if the dog got loose? It never stopped barking. My in-laws tried to reassure me. The dog would never hurt one of its own, they said, which I found completely unnerving. That dog was trying to get at an unfamiliar scent: American. I barely slept a wink that summer.