Six weeks of magic, mystery and mayhem

With two days left in our six-week stint in Cyprus, now’s as good a time as any to share some parting thoughts about this tiny island of magic, mystery and mayhem.

Cyprus’s one million inhabitants enjoy a rich cultural and social  history, cobalt waters that caress pebbled beaches along a fascinating and gorgeous coastline, brown and grey wheat and barley fields that bake in the hot sun beneath mountains dotted with olive groves and vineyards, and tiny villages that seem to feature one 24 hour bakery for every 50 inhabitants. Since neither of us had visited Cyprus before, we arrived here with no expectations of what a wonderful place it would be to soak in the sun and affable local vibe.

This is an ancient island with a boatload of contemporary problems, some of which the locals blame on the 2004 decision to join the European Union and the ensuing economic collapse of Greece. This event led to what is widely referred to around here as “the crisis”, and changed Cyprus from a prosperous island in many respects to a struggling sub economy that has yet to recover.

It’s also a slightly tormented place whose history of occupations is underscored by a tense takeover of the northern part of the island by Turkey. Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe, and you have to produce a passport to get from the Greek Cypriot to the Turkish Cypriot part of the city to shop in the markets, stroll the streets and visit the mosques.

But all this doesn’t seem to have changed life here much. People go about their business of driving madly about from one enormous meal to the next, minding the family business and getting a little work done in between. Cyprus’ flag boasts two crossed olive branches as its national symbol, but it could just as logically feature a padded chair. Aside from the manic road wars, the pace here is stubbornly slow, casual and relaxed. Retail business hours are employee friendly (closed for lunch between 1:30 and 3:30 each day, and closed afternoons on Wednesdays and Saturdays and all day Sundays) and nothing starts or runs on time. Old men spend their days in local clubs and tavernas, sipping coffee and kvetching with their buddies. Children have alarmingly short school days (7:30 to 1:30) and the women head off to local markets that sell explosions of local produce.

People drive like escaping convicts here, speeding along narrow streets that drop without warning from two to one lane, zig zagging well over the speed limit against the flow of traffic and bouncing over the island’s 17 bazillion speed humps. With fixed, determined stares, they routinely bump over curbs and head straight at unsuspecting drivers as they angle to park on the wrong side of the street but right in front of their destination.

When not behind the wheel Cypriots are delightful – quick to smile, eager to chat and wired to welcome one and all. They’re also open books, more than willing to share detailed personal information and inquire about yours in return.

Two reasons why our stay in Cyprus has been so amazing...Marios Georgiou and Vangelis Evangelou.

Two reasons why our stay in Cyprus has been so amazing…Marios Georgiou and Vangelis Evangelou.

This is a casual place where people don’t stand on formality. While waiting for us to pick him up at a coffee shop near Larnaca, our friend Marios was interrogated by a young woman about his job, marital status and how much he earns. He shrugged when he shared the story with us. “It’s Cyprus,” he explained.

Which would also explain the odd experience I had while visiting a dermatologist for a diagnosis of an angry red wound on my arm that turned out to be cat fungus (the joys of cat sitting, I guess.)

I arrived 15 minutes early for my appointment, anticipating the routine clipboard demand for personal and family health history. Instead, the receptionist waved me into the doctor’s office, and I followed a chubby guy in a coral-colored polo shirt into the examination room.

This turned out to be the doc, and no sooner had I shaken his hand than we were joined by a guy in a tank top. He started jabbering in Greek to the doc, who waved me back into the waiting area with a shrug and a curt “Sorry.” As I returned to the waiting area I glanced at the receptionist, who was staring at me, and asked her if I need to fill out any forms.

“For what?” she said breezily, nodding me back into the doc’s office when she noticed that the guy in the tank top apparently had had his problem resolved and was on his way. The doc was great, quickly allayed my fears (“Oh my god…skin cancer!”) with a laugh and prescribed some antibiotic ointment to kill the kitty plague that’s growing on my arm.

I shook his hand and stood to leave. “You pay here,” he said, which I took to mean that I should pay the receptionist on the way out.

“No, here,” he said, stopping me and taking up his pen. “Do you need a receipt?”

Cypriots are wonderful: warm, food- and fun-loving, and possessing an attitude that holds to the principle that a party of less than 50 people isn’t much of a party at all.

Intimate dinners are for groups fewer than 20. A family gathering means all hands on deck. And the meals are up to the challenge of feeding the masses.

A typical mezze (think of a tapas menu on steroids) can include up to 25 dishes…we’ve seen menus boasting 40…and for somewhere around 20 Euros you can expect to eat until you’re the shape of a portly Cyprus watermelon. No wonder Cypriots are so aggressive about parking directly in front of restaurants and tavernas. It’s difficult to walk far after gorging on tzatziki, hummous, grilled and fried vegetables, pastas, potatoes and a dozen or so different meats and casserole concoctions.

Vangelis Evangelou and yours truly with half of the mezze at Maria's near Lefkara.

Vangelis Evangelou and yours truly with half of the mezze at Maria’s near Lefkara.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited to a first-ever Wine Evening at a restaurant in nearby Sotira. We surrendered to the mezze after the eggplant and potato courses, much to the dismay of the restaurant’s owner and our host for the evening. “No rabbit, sausage, pork, chicken, beef? More halloumi, then? Salad? I can make something special for you,” he fretted as he hovered over our table, angst written across his face.

Honestly, we could have quit after the salad, which had arrived in a bowl big enough to bathe in.

Bakeries are diabolical presences that contribute mightily to “the Cyprus stone” that awaits tourists (legend has it that most visitors gain 14 pounds in a month.) Breads, pastries, ice cream, cakes and everything in your friendly 7/11 await you, and on a 24-hour basis.

Who goes to a bakery at 3 a.m.? Aside from the party crowd, there are the early risers headed off to catch the a.m. shifts, and people on the way home from the late shifts. They queue up with enormous loaves of bread shaped like land mines and hand them over to staff for slicing and bagging, often munching on an olive roll or halloumi bun while waiting for the carbohydrate invasion to resume.

A typical village street scene in Cyprus, this one in Lefkara.

A typical village street scene in Cyprus, this one in Lefkara.

Waistlines expand like Kim Kardashian’s ego here, where fat is clearly where it’s at. Obesity is gender blind, too, as we’ve seen many a couple waddling after one another along the narrow streets, grocery bags in hand as they head into the bakery to wrap up the afternoon’s acquisitions. One clothing shop in a local open air market offered size 64 men’s shorts, big enough for Gabi and her niece to each occupy a leg and still leave room for a kebab or two.

I seem heading that way despite our daily pilgrimage to the nearby gym, which is why I’m glad we’re on our way to the airport come Tuesday.

I just hope there are no 24 hour bakeries in the Turkey and Greece.