(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)
What is your hyphenation?
This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.
On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.
It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.
The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?
In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.
There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.
The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.
We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.
But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.
Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.
Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)
The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).
Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.
[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]