Deputy Arts and Culture Editor Marianna Pantelli chronicles her experience reconnecting with her homeland Cyprus, on a language and culture course.

Nearly a month ago today, I was sat feeling slightly nervous in Gatwick airport. I was about to travel back to my motherland, Cyprus, to take part in a language and culture course with over 40 other young Cypriots from across the diaspora.

For three weeks, we lived and studied at the University of Cyprus in the capital of Nicosia. This experience came about because I was lucky enough to get a place on the NEPOMAK Discover Cyprus Programme (NDCP). NDCP is a course run by NEPOMAK who aim to connect young Cypriots. On NDCP, 43 of us were immersed in the language, culture and heritage of our homeland.

I applied for this course to improve my Greek, which is shamefully lacking, and to get the opportunity to see more of the country that holds such a strong place in my heart. I did not expect the experience I had to be so special, and yet this short time I spent in Cyprus felt really important. I went feeling a bit anxious to meet all these people and came back with a renewed sense of love for my country and strangers who had quickly become family.

What promised to be a fun and educational thing to do in my summer proved to be so much more. I hope to be able to express why in this article. I also hope that the feelings NDCP gave me will resonate with any of you that balance more than one culture in their lives and have the fear that the one of your heritage may slip through your fingers without you quite noticing. Note: To prevent this article being completely insufferable I’ll try to reign in my sentimental tendencies. However, being overly emotional does seem to be what us Greeks are good at so maybe we could just call it embracing my culture.

Monday through Thursday consisted of class from 9am until 2pm fuelled by frappes. On the first day after writing my name in Greek on the test we were given and nothing else, I was unsurprisingly placed in the beginners’ language class. I quickly picked up the alphabet and found myself reading in Greek even if I didn’t know what I was reading. Speaking was more challenging but now I’ve got some basics down, I’m determined to keep it up.

History and culture classes were what I was really excited for. I feel pangs of longing, from time to time, to know more about Cyprus and understand its past properly. I got the impression that many others felt the same, especially when it came to the Turkish invasion. We covered a timeline of Cypriot history from the first permanent settlement in the Neolithic Age, through the hands of many Empires, to its independence in 1960, the 1974 Turkish invasion, all the way up until today. This tiny island has been through a lot. It has a history that is rich with culture, commerce, literature, and development. It is also marked by tragedy and conflict. We spent a whole lesson on the 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the events that led up to it. I won’t discuss the history or politics itself because this article is too personal for things like that, and I still feel I need to be more educated to discuss it with any authority. I would encourage everyone and anyone to read about the Cyprus issue, because its ramifications continue today with Cyprus being the only country in the world that still has a divided capital.

It wasn’t just in the classroom that I felt my understanding grow. Visiting the occupied North with my family for the first time gave me a personal view of the lasting effects of this division. Our group attended a talk at the community centre, Home for Cooperation, in the UN buffer zone in Nicosia. They work towards encouraging intercommunal dialogue and cooperation. Listening to what they had to say and what my friends had to contribute brought out mixed feelings in me. I have a deeper comprehension of Cyprus’ situation now. I don’t just know the facts, I know how these facts are affecting Cypriots including my family. I also found these new rumblings of duty for my country combined with frustration at the limitations of what I can do and a fear of the limits of what anyone can do to help Cyprus.

Of course, it was not all so sombre. There was much fun to be had. Drinking Keo and dancing the night away was a regular. I thought I knew how to party before but it turns out I was just a yiayia from the horio, because these people really know how to dance and sing and be absolutely joyous. Personal highlights include going to see UB40 and Greek superstar Antonis Remos in concert. Bopping along, eating koubes and watching everyone Greek dance I was in my element. Another wonderful moment was being woken up by a group of South Africans blaring house music at 5am to watch the sunrise. I was a bit befuddled, but it all made sense when I was sat on the bridge with everyone, watching the sun come up. Some of my favourite times though were the quiet moments. The hours on the coach chatting. The late-night walks to the periptero for ice cream. It was then that I got to know these people and find out how funny, clever, and kind they all are. Although we came from all over the world I felt we had a shorthand. We have a shared culture, a shared way that we’ve been brought up and perhaps that’s why we all bonded so quickly. However, it is also down to our three lovely advisors. Marianna, Pete, and Andrew made sure we were everywhere we needed to be at the right time but they also made this trip so much fun and showed us so much kindness and patience (when we were late for the coach).

Fridays and weekends consisted of excursions. I had seen surprisingly little of Cyprus, having mainly stayed in the areas that my family are from. Now I feel like I could be a tour guide for Cyprus. Although, I could not be as delightful as our tour guide Katie. She accompanied our adventures around the island with all the information, stories and serenades (that’s right, our tour guide was a classically trained singer) that we could have wanted. My favourite destination of all these excursions was the Troodos mountains. As we headed towards the highest point in Cyprus, I noted the arid dusty landscape gradually change to luscious green trees coating the mountain side. The beauty of the Cypriot mountains really did take my breath away, or it might have been the occasional moment I thought we were going to drive straight off the side of the winding roads that had next to no barriers! With the cooler temperature and abundance of nature you could have told me we had been transported to another country completely. We ventured on to our final destination, the resting place of our first president Archbishop Makarios near the Kikkos Monastery. The artistry of the mosaics of the icons that form a circular path to the tomb itself seems to float among the 360-degree sea of green as the views span all across and down the mountains.

As our trip drew to a close you could sense the sadness creep in as we knew we’d all be saying goodbye soon. After our final exam, we headed off as a group onto a boat trip from Protoras set on for us by NEPOMAK. It was a blissful day and as I sat there sipping my vodka pineapple I thought how these few hours perfectly sum up why this trip had been so special. Looking out across the crystal sea and jagged rocky form of the Cypriot coastline rising from it. I realised that this trip had given me a wider perspective of my homeland. I had seen its beauty and troubles before but for the first time they had been stitched together in a full and comprehensive tapestry for me. Cyprus has a really mixed heritage (mainly due to it being taken over so many times). Given this, it is often tricky to place what our identity is. Add to the mix, that we are now dispersed across the world and have grown up in cultures very different to the Cypriot one, our identities can feel even more transient. I’m sure many fellow St Andrews students, being such an international university, feel a similar way. NDCP gave me a chance to feel more connected to such a big part of who I am. Turning back to look in on the boat, I saw all these people I have come to love dancing, chatting, and eating. They are the other reason, the main reason, why this experience means so much. I felt such happiness spending three weeks with these people who share being Cypriot far away from Cyprus and I feel proud to be part of a community with them. Cyprus is lucky to have them as its global representatives.

I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I didn’t know it at the time but I really think I needed NDCP. The love and warmth I was shown by the friends I’ve made has made me want to live life up to the full. When stress and the mundane get me feeling stuck I’ll think of them as examples of how to act to push through it. I have come home with a greater understanding of the country of my heritage. I feel so fulfilled embracing my roots but also now feel a duty to be cognisant, educated and if possible, involved in helping in the problems Cyprus continues to face. I hope this article made for an enjoyable read and encourages you to reconnect with your own roots. Finally, for any Cypriots reading this, apply to NDCP, get involved with NEPOMAK, and your local communities.

 

Greeklish translations:

Yiayia – Grandma

Horio – village

Preriptero – corner shop

Koubes – Cypriot mince-meat croquette with bulgar outer shell

 

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