jump to navigation

Destiny cannot be avoided January 16, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life Greek.

Grandmother of nine and septuagenarian Eleni Protopapa last month launched her first book Cyprus, a Taste of Yesterday

Not content to sit back and enjoy retirement, 2007 sees 70-year-old Eleni Protopapa and her husband Nicos take on an exciting challenge: the publication of a book, which rather than have content and approach dictated by a publisher, they took on themselves. The logistics of printing and distribution were daunting, but the beautifully-illustrated book is now on sale at major bookshops across the island.

“I never realised, until recently when I started to write about my village, how many people helped me become what I am… so many people come into my mind. They belong to a world lost to me; but they are my people,” Eleni writes in chapter one.

The village of Eleni’s childhood is near Morphou, on the old railway line from Famagusta to Xeros. (Ed’s Note > All 3 towns are currently under Turkish military control and occupation since July 1974). Her world has been lost following the occupation of Arghaki since 1974, but the book is not about this, it’s about the values of village life in her early childhood, the seasons, the festivals and, of course, the food and the recipes.

The house in which she grew up had been in her father’s family for generations. It is vividly described, from the vast front door, wide enough to allow two yoked oxen into the courtyard, to the iliakos (verandah) with its three arches that is pictured on the book’s front cover. Some inner rooms were richly furnished with carved walnut furniture, “there was a beautiful Victorian bed draped with silk, hand-woven by my mother,” Eleni writes. “And a fine sofa of the kind you see in antique shops… on the wall, there was a rectangular picture, beautifully embroidered by my mother, with flowers and the phrase in calligraphic letters in Greek – Destiny cannot be avoided. As a child, I spent many hours trying to read it and many more to understand it.”

Eleni writes about her early life in a Cyprus village in simple terms, her prose sings simply from the heart to the page. The book unfolds with a natural progression: “The story came out of my soul,” she says. “The structure came later: the book grew without any effort.” She started writing about six years ago, drawing on the experiences of her young life and the memory of the people who were important in it. “Unfortunately I cannot tell my maternal grandmother’s story as it should be told,” she writes. “I can only say that every time I think of her, her habits and her attitude to life, I feel blessed for having had the chance to start my life near her.”

The first girl from Arghaki to attend secondary school in Nicosia, Eleni recalls taking the train and horse-drawn carriage to the city centre; feeling like a country bumpkin and keenly aware of the shortcomings, lack of English tuition, of her village education. She quickly corrected this and entered tertiary education to become a teacher, finally winning a scholarship to Britain for further studies, an amazing, immense journey from the simplicity of pre-WWII Arghaki. “I always wanted to have my own life,” she declares.

The book deals extensively with the details and rituals of betrothals and weddings but Eleni and Nicos, who married in the 1950s, did not have the usual extended engagement period. Nicos took over the family farm when Eleni’s father died and was instrumental in bringing in modern ideas to make it even more successful. In time they had three children and now have nine grandchildren.

Although Eleni prefers not to dwell on the invasion, the book includes some eloquent lines about the loss of family items; the furniture, her mother’s wonderful weaving, the traditional farm tools stored for a future agricultural museum. She confided to me that they had been in the village the Sunday before the invasion, which took place on a Wednesday. “When we left, I noted the vine was laden with fruit and that we should have a wonderful harvest later that summer”; a harvest the families were never to gather.

Life for Eleni and Nicos has been long and full. After the occupation they travelled Europe and later went to America where their son and younger daughter have settled with their five children. It’s for these grandchildren she has written the book in English, for they are not bilingual like the delightful London quartet, visiting for the festive season.

Eventually I asked Eleni about the destiny that cannot be avoided. For me it seems quite clear that her destiny has been to preserve the values of her youth, become the matriarch and guardian of their history and continue to hold her wonderful family together. The final words should be hers:

“Whatever happened, we still have the memories of a rich life…We had a lot, we lost a lot, but we gained a lot by living the life the land offers. The land gives you strength. We are richer for that.”

Cyprus, a Taste of Yesterday is published by Nikiannna Press and is distributed by Hellenic (Tel: 22 878500). It is available at Moufflon and Kyriakou bookshops as well as Hearns in Coral Bay. Cy£6.99.

%d bloggers like this: