Cyprus : The story of
MARIA and NICOS
By Ismail Veli
The story of Maria and Nicos (aka Nico) is one of a typical Cypriot couple and yet I found something special about Maria’s story of the love of her life, Nico, who sadly passed away in 2009. Maria is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s and losing Nico has affected her tremendously, and so her memory and health are not what they used to be. Listening to her story, the outpouring of grief, emotion and love had a profound effect on me. For a woman of 81 years, her expression of love and yearning is not the norm for conservative minded Cypriots of her generation. She rarely stops crying, but is excited that anyone would even remotely be interested in her life. In-spite of having Alzheimer’s, her recollections of her early life are immensely strong.
Maria was born in 1932 in the village of Trachoni near Kythrea, and Nicos in 1931 in Palekythro, only a mile or two away.
In 1951 Nico was a good friend of Maria’s brother Taki, and they were also work colleagues as shoe machinists. So they were not exactly strangers to one another. Nico would pass by Taki’s parents house to drop off and collect shoes, and soon after Nico told Taki to go with him to work in the shoe factory.
One lovely day, Maria was at home choosing discs to play on the family gramophone. Taki arrived home and his friend Nico was with him. Nico had seen Maria before, but had been afraid to approach her, as it wasn’t the proper thing to do. But on this day, whilst Maria was listening to her music, and whilst Taki had walked out of the room for a moment, Nico put his hand on Maria’s shoulder and said “Thelo se (I want you)”. It was love at first sight. She replied by saying “Nico, I am just a poor village girl with no wealth, whilst your family has property and wealth”. His response would completely fill Maria with emotion. “I am only interested in your love, the way you are, not in wealth or property”. Their love was instant and was destined to last all their lives.
The confidential and unofficial preliminary meetings took place between the parents at Maria’s family home. The discussions had to be done without Maria being present. The bride-to-be would busy herself in preparing coffee and cakes for the honored guests. On top of all that, saying yes straight away would be considered to reduce the family pride, so poor Nico had a tense wait. The news of a “Proksenna” would often become public knowledge, therefore a rejection was not only heartbreaking but also humiliating.
The wedding arrangements began soon after, and Nico and Maria married in October 1952. The cultural tradition was that the bride’s mother would be handing formal invitations to every village family. Normally this would entail a gourd filled with wine and a roll of “koulouraki” (crackers made of bread dough with sesame seeds) but protocol was changed to only invitations. For Maria and Nico’s wedding, the whole village was invited by word of mouth, with no formal invitation required. On Saturday, the festivities began with men from the two villages singing and dancing to the sound of the violin and the”Laoutari”, which is a large mandolin. The best man performed the “dance of the groom’s clothes”. It was also customary for the bridesmaids to do the ”dance of the wedding dress”, which involved them holding the dress above their heads and dancing around the “Tsaera” (chair).
Strangely, however, Maria insisted that this was not done at her wedding. One important preparation was the “Paploma”, or “the spreading of the mattress”, which was undertaken by the women. The village priest would be invited to bless the Paploma and the married women then danced around it. While the women sang their sweet songs of romance and poems of love, others began spreading the wool used to stuff the Paploma. The women then moved it in four directions to form the sign of the cross. All the while the singing did not stop. Once completed the women chose a little boy and threw him on the mattress and rolled him over three times (in respect of the Holy Trinity). Maria doesn’t remember who the young boy was. Maria’s and Nico’s parents then came forward and placed gifts on the Paploma, followed by friends and relatives placing their own gifts.
On a Sunday morning, Nico got his last shave as a bachelor, with all his friends and relatives also present. This custom was accompanied by music, singing and leg-pulling. Following this, Nico was accompanied to Maria’s house and together they led the procession followed by the whole village to the Church, which was only a short walk into the village center. Nico’s wait was finally over. The proud groom and his beautiful bride, Maria, were now the envy of all around.
The village Church of Trachoni near Kythrea was so full that many of the guests had to listen to the wedding vows from outside the Church. Family, relatives, “koumparous” and “koumeres” (best men and women, which in Greek tradition could number anything up to a hundred) had priority in the seating protocol. Maria’s eyes and smile lit up when reminiscing the most important day of her life. At the tender age of 20 her new life as a wife was about to begin. As she remembered the moments so clearly, the tears were once again there, tears of longing for Nico. A longing which has clearly had a toll on her health.
As soon as the Church ceremony ended, the massive congregation of two combined villages made their way back to Maria’s family home for the next stage of the celebrations. The garden, though large, could not possibly accommodate such a large host. Neighbors willingly gave their consent to extend the tables and chairs into their gardens. Younger people cared little if they sat on the garden walls or mini tables and stools. The excitement of such a family wedding overrode all other personal considerations. Without the modern cookers and ovens that we have today, all the food was cooked in the mud brick ovens. A few of the neighbors ovens were used, and the chosen dish was “Kleftiko” and roast potatoes. Klefitko literally means “stolen”. So famous and popular is this dish in Cyprus that according to legend and folklore the name derives from the priests hiding it from the local people only to find that they often ended up stealing it, thus the name “Kleftiko”.
After the wedding, the newlyweds moved in with Maria’s parents. Nico proved all that he had promised. Being a shoe machinist was not a bad trade in the Cyprus of the 1950’s. Determined to start his own business in Nicosia he invited a Turkish Cypriot friend to join him and together they worked hard to earn what was in those days a reasonable living. Maria was encouraged to stop working for others and assist in the family business working from home. This arrangement was very common, as it not only meant that Maria was contributing to the family business, but would ensure that she could look after her own children which was not too long in coming. A strange thing happened while Maria was pregnant. She had an earache, and she had a vision in which Ayio Spyridon (St Spyridon), a shepherd boy from Tremethousha who became a bishop and gained great fame, appeared and told her that if she wanted her ear to get better, she should name her first born after him. St Spyridon is the patron saint of the deaf and the paralytic. He is always portrayed as wearing a straw hat instead of the usual crown. In fact the word “spyridon” means ” basket maker”. So when their first child was born in 1953, a little girl, they named her Spyroulla.
Unfortunately from April 1955 Cyprus was plunged into turmoil and their happiness soon turned to anxiety. EOKA, an organisation fighting for the island’s union (Enosis) to Greece began its armed campaign against the British. The effect this had upon the lives of the ordinary Cypriots, Greek and Turkish alike, was traumatic. Curfews, roadblocks and disruptions of people going about their ordinary lives were affected. Nico’s life in particular was hard hit. Having to travel to Nicosia the capital every day became a time consuming affair, not only for him but for his friends to whom he often gave a lift into town. After all, cars were not so common in 1950’s Cyprus. British troops would stop any car to search for hidden weapons, while EOKA targeted many that seemed unsympathetic to the Enosis cause.
It was against this background that two more girls were born. Helen in 1956 (named after Maria’s mother) and Androulla (Andriani) in 1959. Their fourth and last child a boy named George (Named after Maria’s father) was born in 1960. They would have had five children, but unfortunately Maria suffered a miscarriage in 1958. Because of this, erring on the side of caution, when Maria went into labor with her third child (Andriani), Nico drove Maria to Nicosia General Hospital, where their third child was born. This was unusual, as their other children were all born at home in the village, as was the norm. All four of their children were named after people, as was (and still is to some degree) the tradition in Cyprus. All except for Andriani, who was named after the Apostle Andreas (Andrew), to whom Maria prayed too for the child to be born healthy.
In spite of the granting of independence to Cyprus by Britain, Cyprus in the early 1960’s was an island in political and economic turmoil. Many Cypriots were migrating to the UK and Nico, also decided that it was time to leave Cyprus and start a new life in England, as did many Cypriots at that time.
In 1962, Nico moved to the UK and lived with Taki his brother-in-law for six months, who had arrived previously. Nico worked around the clock, saving enough money and eventually securing their first home. Their first home in the UK was in Tottenham, north London – 62 Woodlands Park Road. Maria stayed behind in Cyprus with the children, in order to sell the business. Once the business was sold, Maria with her children made the journey to England. For Maria, leaving Cyprus for a foreign land and leaving her birthplace and family behind was an unsettling occasion. At the same time, rejoining Nico was all that she wanted. She left Trachoni and traveled by bus to the port of Larnaca to board what she believes may have been the ship Messapia. The journey was long and difficult. Unlike the massive cruisers of today, the conditions in her cabin were very cramped. The Messapia was only 5.207 tonnes (today’s cruisers can reach up to 120.000 tonnes) and sea sickness was the norm. But the first stop at Piraeus harbor in Athens was an exciting moment. It was the first time that Maria had left Cyprus and the sight of new lands afforded an unforgettable moment. She finds it difficult to remember the next stop, only that there was a long train journey from the south to north of France and a ferry across to Dover. From there they boarded the last part of their exhausting journey to Victoria station where Nico was waiting excitedly to be reunited with his wife and children.
Nico worked many long hours as a shoe machinist (at that time shoe manufacturing was a large industry in the UK) and they soon saved enough to move to a larger house, one large enough to fit both them and a few members of their extended family – 58 Filey Avenue in Stamford Hill – where they lived until 1973. The house in Filey Avenue was very big, so Nico and Maria decided to rent out some of the other rooms. Despite some of the difficulties of social integration in their adopted country, their hard work and single-minded determination to create a better life for themselves and their family soon began to pay dividends.
Meanwhile, back in Cyprus, before leaving the island Nico transferred ownership of some land he had in Trachoni to his wife. The land had a plethora of fruit trees, some producing lemons which were then sold at the “Pandopoulio” (local market). However, the long-suffering people of Cyprus soon found themselves in turmoil yet again. A military coup organised by Greece with loyal Cypriot officers overthrew the Cypriot Government of President Makarios. This consequentially suicidal strategy was followed by military action by Turkey. The tragic events of the Summer of 1974 was to cause immense hardship and uproot tens of thousands of families of Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots from their homes. Maria and Nico’s land had been lost overnight.
After 40 years there is still no political settlement to end the sad state of affairs. With Nico’s passing in 2009, and Maria suffering from Alzheimer’s, it is her last wish for the children to inherit the land that both she and Nico worked so hard to build. She understands that her family are never likely to return to the village of her birth, neither do any of her grandchildren have any desire to do so, but one thing she hopes to see before she rejoins Nico, the love of her life, in eternal paradise, is for the compensation for her land to be given to her children, and above all for peace to finally come to Cyprus. A peace that has eluded Cypriots all their lives, a peace that will finally benefit all the people of Cyprus, a peace that will hopefully ensure that the hard work and love that Maria and Nico had for each other will one day be translated into fond memories for her children and grandchildren. Perhaps Maria may not live to see all she has dreamed of, but one thing is certain, the love and affection of their life together is not likely to be forgotten by anyone who ever had the good fortune to have known them. Of that there is no doubt.