AP Essay: My Cyprus, changed forever

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 3, 2013 at 6:05 am •  Published: April 3, 2013
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NEW YORK (AP) — Nicosia, Cyprus, 1973: Riding with my parents and two elder siblings in a taxi, the kind of large Mercedes favored in the Middle East. The driver gestures to an alley where you can just make out people behind barricades.

"Turks," he spits derisively.

We keep quiet. We hadn't been brought up to think of any people that way. Later that day, my father tells us that things don't bode well for Cyprus, a place we had been coming to for three summer holidays and that he visited frequently on business over the years.

A year later, war broke out.

My thoughts have turned frequently to Cyprus and its patient, resilient people in recent weeks as the ruinous financial crisis that swept across southern Europe engulfs the tiny Mediterranean island. The angry and worried faces, waiting in ATM lines to withdraw their money, were very familiar to me. Over four decades, to my family, the country became a convoluted relative of sorts.

Famagusta, that most beautiful of ancient port towns (its name in Greek means "hidden in the sand") had been our idyllic destination: a golden beach lined with luxury hotels and a child's swimming pool dream. The aroma of street vendors' charcoal-grilled corn on the cob lingers in my nose.

In 1974, Famagusta was occupied by invading Turkey. There were deaths and disappearances, and thousands of Greek Cypriots lost their homes and businesses. Parts of Famagusta remain neglected to decay even today. The island of Cyprus is now split into the Turkish north and the Greek south.

Within minutes of meeting Cypriots, I usually can tell if they were among the displaced. I get the sense and then I ask, anxious to share memories of that lost paradise.

We never returned to Famagusta, part of an internationally unrecognized republic. But two years after the war, my family purchased a plot of land in the Greek Cypriot territory — a small place called Coral Bay.

Cyprus was in shell shock; postwar recovery was taking hold only slowly. The capital, Nicosia, was divided by a "green line." The Turkish Cypriot flag was emblazoned on a hill. From the Greek side, you couldn't miss it. Nicosia's airport was now out of bounds and Larnaca's took in the many visitors to the island. I remember the tortuous, hours-long journey on winding single-lane roads, often in the dead of night.

This was one of the many things that would change. Tourism boomed, the national infrastructure modernized and the economy and the island's people began to prosper.

I think back to the accelerated construction as if it were a time-lapse video. Hotels, holiday apartment blocks, shops, supermarkets, restaurants — build, build, build and then build more.

In Coral Bay, our house now stood proudly. It was named "Samantah," combining the first letters of my family's names. The battles of foreigners owning property abroad were well known to us: haranguing the municipality, chasing after builders, grappling with electricity and water issues.

But you could also just walk out into the garden and pluck a lemon off a tree for evening cocktails. The beach was two minutes' walk. We listened to the BBC World Service ("This is London ...," my family's home at the time) on the veranda as a gentle breeze cut the stifling heat.

We spent wondrous times together there. And of course there were bumps, too.

In 1983, my father, outraged that a restaurant had sold out of Kleftiko, the national dish that he had promised to his guests, declared to the owner we would never return. We didn't.

"Nice move, Dad," my brother, who would later become a successful restaurateur in Manhattan, remarked dryly on the walk home. "Now our dining-out options have been reduced by 50 percent."

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