Monday, February 2, 2009

I didn't portrait Cyprus.

The last five weeks of my life were spent on a lovely Mediterranean island. I stayed with friends who live there and got to know their friends. I explored some, but for the most part I just fell into their routine: going to the coffeeshops and clubs that they like going to, attending church and other meetings with them, exercising with them every morning. It was great to be able to adapt to life in a new place so quickly!

But towards the end of my time there, I realised that I hadn't yet written a single portrait of anyone I'd met in Cyprus! And when I wanted to start up again the discipline of noticing people and writing about them, I couldn't think of anyone I'd met lately who was worth portraiting. What was my problem, how'd I get so off my game?

It certainly wasn't that I was hiding in some cocoon and not meeting anyone! In a very short period of time, I made so many new friends who became very dear to me. I immersed myself in church activities and got to know several people that way. I had the chance to have interesting conversations with people from at least a dozen countries. And yet, why didn't I feel any of them were worth describing, remembering through words?

Well, here's what I think happened: Zero to Sixty in five seconds.

Portraits are for me about chance encounters. People (or situations) I encountered that I want to remember, but will have forgotten by day's end because they were random blips on my day. The person sitting across from me on the tube who did or said something interesting, the friendly shopkeeper, the person I met through work whose story impacted me but whom I'll never see again. In my five weeks in Cyprus, I didn't have any chance encounters.

The people I met were friends of some description by conversation's end. In a few seconds they went from strangers to people I could claim to know, and would probably be seeing again soon.

In addition, I realised that with essentially only one exception, I didn't actually meet any Cypriots. All of these new friends were foreigners living on the island. I've never stayed somewhere so long and learned so little of the language, and I've definitely never stayed anywhere so long without actually meeting anyone from that place! These two facts are probably closely connected: it would have been hard to strike up a conversation with the girl who sold me stamps at the post office when our only means of communication were her limited English and typing numbers into a calculator to show the other person what we want to say.

So I came away from Cyprus with the impression that it is a very segregated country. There are two separate communities, and the points of real contact between those two communities are few. There are the Cypriots, the people who call Cyprus home. And there's everyone else - a significant number of people! It's an unusual form of segregation, though, because the Cypriots are everywhere, and it is after all their country. So us foreigners rent our homes from Cypriots, may be employed by Cypriots, buy our fruits at the market from Cypriots. As foreigners, we are mostly consumers: our salaries come from abroad, or else we're self-funded students or volunteers. But because the number of foreigners in Cyprus is so large, instead of attaching ourselves to Cypriot culture as I've done in other countries where I've lived, we just did our own thing.

And did it well, I must say! We became good friends and did fun things together. The fantastically diverse community of expatriates in Cyprus welcomed me with open arms, even though they knew I wasn't around to stay - they were too friendly to be chance encounters. They shared tips with me about where to go for good coffee, where to buy clothes, where to find a shop in which I could get some documents printed. In other countries, I would have asked a local these questions, but in Cyprus, the expatriate community was so strong that it was a local community of sorts in its own right.

Meanwhile, I came to respect Cyprus and Cypriots for putting up with us. Though most Cypriots I encountered only spoke Greek fluently, they didn't bat an eye at trying to use their limited English to communicate with me. They didn't have to do that for me. They were patient with me when I didn't know how things worked. Well, ok, only patient for a few seconds. (A couple of times I was trying to get directions from someone, but we couldn't communicate, so after my second 'I don't understand' they just shut down and pointed in an obviously random direction to get rid of me.) But still. They allow us to live in their country, to hang out in their coffeeshops and on their streets, to live in their neighbourhoods.

I was grateful for the expatriate community I joined and wouldn't have had it any other way. But if I were moving to Cyprus more long-term, would I do the same? I don't know. I like to think I'd start to learn Greek and join some club or attend some church or something where I'd make Cypriot friends. But I've heard that most foreigners who move there have that intention at first but give up. Life is too fulfilling in the expatriate community to waste any effort trying to bridge the segregation gap. And everyone seems pretty much content with the way things are. Sure, it drove me nuts that I couldn't chat with the shopkeepers, but maybe I would get used to it.

Nonetheless, I have come up with two portraits of people I encountered during my five weeks in Cyprus. I'll post them tomorrow and the day after.

No comments:

Post a Comment