Cyprus: A Painter’s Journal

a memoir

Now is midsummer. During the month of July, it doesn’t rain here. The days are hot and the evenings cool. In a dry streambed, smooth chalky stones absorb and disseminate solar heat while oleander bushes with shiny, narrow leaves flaunt pink and white blooms. At the edge of this road, thorny caper plants creep through detritus of thin soil. And there in the distance, like visionary omens in a painting by El Greco, the twisted trunks of ancient olive trees eddy upward into a radiant sky.

Like all islands, Cyprus is surrounded by water, in this case the Mediterranean. I am a painter. With an artist’s eye, here is what I see as we drive through a small village: a background of white stucco highlights magenta blooms of bougainvillea. Stepping from the ebony penumbra of a darkened doorway, an old woman appears and bends to stroke a white cat.

One of the eternal yia-yias—Greek grandmothers in perpetual mourning for husbands and fathers who are all dead—she moves across the picture plane in her black dress, stockings, and scarf. Barely glancing at the flowers, the woman turns abruptly and pads back through the unillumined opening behind her, followed by the cat.

Like a gift free for the taking, she is a potential painting. But I am not here in Cyprus to find fodder for art. I’ve come for my brother’s wedding. He is marrying a Greek Cypriot woman he met through his job as a consultant in international agriculture. I’m here to support the beginnings of a marriage. Every marriage is a fragile thing, and so I’m offering whatever I can to make this one work.

I live in Texas. I had to fly from Austin to Dallas, from Dallas to London, and from London to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. It was a long way for me to come— geographically and emotionally. This leap back into family life fills me with doubt. After a long period of estrangement from my family, I don’t quite feel I belong here.

In this Nicosia neighborhood where my future sister-in-law’s family lives, cream-colored houses with flat, square roofs have reddish-brown wooden shutters at the windows. The squared dwellings lock into one another to form Mondrian paintings perched on hillsides. The outside of each house is a flat stucco facade, an organized presentation offered to the world. Inside is private space and the patio where we are sitting—me, my brother, parents and nephew mixing with the parents and family of the bride.

Her mother passes me a fresh bourekia. The sweet, flavorful cheese pies, formed in a half circle and smelling of melted sugar and rosewater, are delicious. Knowing that I love to cook, she invited me into the kitchen to help. Everything was done from scratch. She even made the cheese herself the day before. I tried my hand at shaping a few.

We all sip from diminutive cups of coffee. It’s a lovely setting. Beside the miniature mandarin orange trees, lustrous magnolia leaves hide fragrant white flowers and provide shade.  But there’s tension in the air. And it’s not simply that these people from radically different cultures have never met before.

This might look like a carefully framed and charmed circle. But surface appearances lie. Our family harbors many secrets having to do with my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s meanness. Most of the time, it’s hard for me to separate the two.

For the moment, when they are at home, my mother keeps my father alive by sitting in a room with him watching television. Left to his own devices, and for whatever reason, he would quite literally drink himself to death in a matter of days. He has tried numerous times to do so, has fallen into a snowbank, has gone to the hospital to dry out, has been in treatment, has gotten dead plastered on his way home from an AA meeting. What’s more, he’s currently recovering from having his recent colostomy reconnected. He’s not really well. He looks sick.

            My parents are not rich. The money they spent to get here from their home in Wisconsin must weigh heavily on them. The wine flowing freely at meals threatens them, and the unfamiliar food makes my mother click her teeth in a sour way. I see both bitterness and confusion on their faces. What are they doing here? To my mind, they should be at home.

My father lights another cigarette. If the drinking doesn’t kill him soon, then the smoking will. Last year, while visiting my house, he had a terrible bronchial infection. For three days, he wasn’t able to eat for the coughing. It sounded as though his lungs were ripping free, as if in trying to expel the poison, he was tearing himself up inside.

            They left when he was somewhat better, continuing their driving trip across the country. “We’ll get him to the doctor when we get to Tucson,” my mother promised. “He just needs some antibiotics. Then he can keep going.”

            But for how long? I look at them and an inheritance of pain makes it difficult for me to smile.

Here in this garden, seated on these iron filigree chairs, we are feigning normalcy. We are pretending to be what we are not. I’m asked to act as though none of the bad stuff ever happened. All those scenes, all the screaming and yelling, the blows, the broken glasses, and the smashed cars disappear. And this is the way it has always been—such happenings never to be spoken about, never examined, never looked at in the clear light of day.

I experienced much of my youth as a kind of emotional slavery from which I hoped to escape. Still, I’ve decided that my parents will not control my experience here. I am going to drink wine and eat well. As a student, I came to Greece on foreign study. I plan to use my limited command of the language to communicate with people. I will laugh and have a good time.

On the breakfast table luscious fresh apricots—soft and golden—form the makings of a still life painting. My eyes follow the shapes of each piece of fruit in the white bowl. The nature of the picture plane is to be flat and unyielding. The artist has to make it bend. He or she has to dig for space, look at the interstices, draw the negative shapes around objects to find ways around or through. Among the apricots are ripe, red cherries. These exist as punctuation marks. On a canvas, they would draw the eye. In real life, they seem to sink back, pulling me toward the darkness at the bottom of the bowl.

I take up an apricot, bite into it, and suddenly know that this is what an apricot should look, feel, and taste like. Tree-ripened and local, this piece of fruit could compete with the perfect prototype for everything an apricot is supposed to be.

Morning sunlight streams through the open window to form patterns on the tiled floor. I tell myself again that I’m here for my brother and his new wife. I truly wish them well. But how can I avoid being pulled back into old patterns?

And ultimately, I do not know whether I can see this through in the years to come. Sure, I can manage the wedding, but what about the rest of our lives? I find it hard to be in such close proximity to my parents. I simply don’t have the right feelings about them. I might pity them but I don’t love them. And it wasn’t merely my father’s alcoholism that destroyed those feelings for me.

My mother purses her lips, and I know all too well she is establishing her “them and us” mentality. She would like me to take her side and join her in ridiculing or criticizing our hosts. That’s just the way she is, the way she lives. If I give her the opportunity, she’ll test me to find out whether I’m in solidarity with her. I’m not.

As usual, I feel more like “them.”

That evening, at an outdoor dinner, I enjoy the delicious lamb with bulgur. The bride’s father pours me yet another glass of red wine. I don’t turn to see any potential distress or disapproval on my mother’s face. I drink the wine slowly. I savor an olive and that chunk of crusty bread. I’m fighting for autonomy, fighting to maintain my identity in the face of what feels like an onslaught.

            And in spite of all, the days are here wonderful.

The island is beautiful.

These cherry trees growing in the Troodhos Mountains are each about thirty feet tall and laden with several sweet varietals—one dark red and another golden with a crimson blush. This land and the cherry trees are owned by my future sister-in-law’s family. Agios Demetrios, outside of Nicosia, is their home village. They have a house here, and come to harvest the cherries for market.

Tall grasses beneath the trees have been smashed down by the picking operation. Ready to pitch in and help, we climb ladders to reach the lower branches, stripping the cherries from them to fill large pans. When we’ve finished working, we share food under the grape arbor with its vine that is almost sixty years old. Heavy bunches of green grapes hang from this ceiling, and the broad leaves shade the table.

Around us are the accouterments of a way of life: clay vessels, rusted implements and tools, and a scythe set to rest against a rock wall. A small, fenced garden bursts with zucchini, tomatoes, and young leaf lettuce. Pots of flowers and herbs are casually set at the edges of the flagstone patio.

Lunch is haloumi, a salty Cypriot cheese grilled to make it warm and chewy, then souvla of chicken and lamb, a salad of garden greens dressed lightly with olive oil and lemon, fried potatoes, marinated mushrooms picked last fall here in the mountains and canned, and caper greens, also gathered nearby.

Later that evening, a friend of the bride reads my fortune. This is done by tipping the tiny cup over after you’ve finished sipping a Greek coffee. The grounds spread out on the white saucer making patterns that, supposedly, tell the future.

“A young man is turning to you for help,” she warns.

Who? Who might that be? Certainly, I have little idea how to help anyone here. I’m not even sure I can help myself.

That night, as though some psychic door has been opened, I have a nightmare and scream in my sleep. Never have I done this before. In the dream, a miasmic darkness comes toward me and tries to engulf me. I think I will be swallowed up. The huge creature is like an oversized trilobite covered in hair matted with blood and shit. With great difficulty, I dissolve the image and fall back into an uneasy, semi-conscious state until dawn.

            The wedding is celebrated in a Greek Orthodox Church. I’m given a special place to stand in a stall where monks once sang the daily office. Later, at the reception, I’m offered champagne. I’m wearing beige heels, and the shoes are out of character for me. High heels are something I gave up when I stopped working in an office. They’re left over from a past incarnation, another period of my life when I tried to be something I was not.

I’m thinking about how that didn’t last and this probably won’t either.

I see my parents sitting alone and apart from the other people. They look ill, isolated—but I have no idea what to say to them that would bring relief or help them to enter the group of revelers. I plow through the party, ignoring them, and trying to grease the social wheels as I introduce myself to other relatives and wedding guests. I’ll only be here for a few more days. We plan to visit more places on the island, and I’m looking forward to that.

To get from Nicosia, which is inland, to Larnaca on the sea, we drive through a white lime desert. Silver olives and dark junipers mark the landscape, but at the height of these summer months this is mostly barren land framed by ghostly mountains.

At first, the sea is like a thin line drawn across the page. Gradually, as we draw nearer, water fills our vision. Waves bump and break on a sand beach, and my eyes peer outward toward everything that cannot be known. Is this time or space? I can’t tell.

            And it doesn’t matter because soon we are seated at a dark wooden table with clean white linen covering most of its surface. Sheltered and protected from the extremes of midday sun, we rest and order lunch. The meze follow one another in succession: first the traditional bread with hummus and eggplant puree; then deep-fried crab legs, mussels in a garlicky cream sauce, chopped fish and onions under melted browned cheese, and grilled cuttlefish; and then octopus basted with olive oil, small red fish, about four inches long, crisp-fried with the bones intact, deep-fried rings of squid, fried potatoes, and huge juicy lemons for squeezing over everything.

After lunch, having donned my bathing suit, I navigate the sandy beach and move toward the waves. I settle into warm, salty water. Floating on my back, I am rocked as in a cradle. Looking deeply into the blue sky above me, I squint a little.

It’s the last of my days here, and it’s only a matter of waiting now. Alone at a small café, I sip away at yet another coffee. The man at the next table has a baldhead, a hooked nose, and a huge mustache. Mentally, I draw him, finding the line of his cheekbone and imagining the exact shape of his skull underneath his hair. He might have been a model for Leonardo da Vinci. Gesturing as all Greeks do when talking, he seems to make his point. The young woman with dark hair and red lips sitting across the table from him nods.

That evening, I leave to fly across Europe. Once at Heathrow in London, I get something to eat before catching my next flight. A few hours later, well out over the Atlantic, the plane feels hot and stuffy. Aimlessly, I page through the airline magazine looking at pictures of exotic destinations like the one I’ve just visited. Will I ever return?

Next to me, a British woman headed for the American Southwest with her husband and two sons orders a gin and tonic. She’s enthusiastic about their trip, excited to see Arizona and New Mexico.

I’m happy too, elated to be going home to my chosen life. I’m hungry for my husband and friends and for the expression of honest and unrehearsed feelings. In my exhausted state, I make a promise to myself that I hope I can keep. I’m tired of hiding, lying, cajoling, and equivocating. All that seemed possible when I was 25 but at 40? I want to begin to tell it like it is—whatever that means, however it can happen.

Writer and artist Jeri Griffith lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont, after stints in Boston and Austin, Texas, but her childhood was spent in Wisconsin. Jeri has published stories and essays in literary quarterlies. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a collection of short stories, as well as organizing exhibitions of her art. Her short autobiographical documentary entitled ‘Hunting Arrowheads with My Father’ was selected for this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival and the 2020 Weyauwega International Film Festival.