The scent of jasmine always reminded Maria of the day she first set foot on Cyprus.
She was in her twenty-first year. Full of hope and excitement for this first journey abroad, Maria had travelled to the island to accompany her sister, Marina, and her three year-old niece.
They stood together on the ship’s deck as it approached the coast of this tiny island, about which they had heard so much but knew so little. Marina gripped her sister’s hand, grateful to have this familiar rock of support by her side as she arrived in her husband’s homeland, and prepared to face a family she had never met.
“Maria,” she had addressed her sister directly at the end of her last letter to her own family back on the Greek island of Syros. “Would you like to accompany me to Cyprus when I go, and stay with me for three months?”
Maria could tell this was more of a plea than a casual request. Her sister lived in London with her Cypriot husband, Michalis, and their little daughter, Anna. But Michalis had been called into the army, and so as not to leave his wife and daughter alone, he had arranged for them to go to stay with his family in Cyprus.
Marina was grateful to have their support while her husband was away, but she was terrified of meeting her parents-in-law and other relatives for the first time. Things were so different in Cyprus, she knew. What would they think of her?
Maria felt the pressure on her hand and gave her sister a reassuring smile. She knew how hard this was for her, and she was happy to be able to be there at her side. But although she shared a part of her sister’s apprehension, Maria also had another feeling of tightness in her stomach as they approached the island – and this was from excitement, not anxiety.
This was the first time she had ever travelled abroad, and she was bursting with the excitement and enthusiasm that came with a sharp and well-read young mind that had so far been restricted to the familiar surroundings of Syros, the island where she had been born and where she still lived with her patents.
When her sister had sent that first letter from London, five years ago, announcing her intention to marry a Cypriot man, Maria’s natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge kicked in.
Nobody she asked could tell her very much about the island at all. “They, too, speak Greek as it is a Greek island, but it’s under the British Empire”, was all anyone could say. So she went in search of books on Cyprus, conveying the results of her research to her anxious parents: “Cyprus had had a long history of foreign rule, but the one thing that has remained constant as the island changed hands from one ruler to the next is the heart of its people, and their Greek identity.”
Maria was also astonished to learn that Cyprus was the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In a book she saw a painting by Boticelli of beautiful Aphrodite emerging from the sea in a shell. There was one line describing the picture: “Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born here." This one single line captured a space in her imagination and remained there undisturbed over and above all the other events that would come and go in the years that followed.
So when Maria received her sister’s letter asking her to join her for those first taunting months in Cyprus, the younger woman was already well prepared and more than willing to set out on the expedition.
“Why not?” she thought, feeling for a moment like Homer’s Ulyssses, wandering to unknown places in the Mediterranean. Holidaying in those days was a luxury.
From the moment it was decided and she had her parents’ blessing, her mind and soul were filled with Aphrodite’s faint smile from that painting she had seen. Her heart had also started travelling ahead of her departure. Her homeland of Syros, which had until recently appeared big and cosmopolitan, suddenly shrunk into an insignificant land when she read that even the great ancient Greek playwright, Euripides, had written in ‘Vacchae’: “O to set foot on Aphrodite’s island on Cyprus, haunted by the loves, who enchant brief life with sweetness….”
She thought now of Euripides as their ship was nearing Cyprus and the mountains of Paphos were the first thing that appeared in the distance. The ship was travelling along the coast of southern Cyprus until it reached the bay of Larnaca and threw anchor two kilometres from the coast and the shallow water wooden pier.
“If Euripides got to know Cyprus in 431BC and wrote such beautiful verses, then I, too, will experience a million beautiful things,” she thought, loosing herself in the romantic dreams of love and Eros. What she secretly meant was a million heartbeats. She was 21 and eager to feel new and unknown heartbeats.
Now they had to get through all the immigration formalities before setting foot on land in Larnaca.
They were in the same bay, Larnaca bay, where in 449BC the Athenian fleet, under the leadership of the much-famed Kimon, defeated the Persian fleet preventing them from landing on Cyprus. So many years and rulers later, it was now the British who had controlled the fate of the little island since 1878.
A small harbour boat came alongside their ship and a British immigration officer jumped on board. He settled in a small office and started inspecting passengers’ passports. A big motor boat then sided the ship and the passengers started descending whilst all suitcases and other baggage were loaded on other boats, all heading for the wooden shallow water pier of the port.So, as the big ship rested just off-shore, a convoy of small boats was heading for the port. There, a customs officer was waiting to seal the travellers’ passports with the stamp of Great Britain. Luggage was also inspected and marked ‘OK’.
So far Maria was impressed. The whole procedure of customs, passports and luggage was extremely well organized, fast and efficient.
Once outside the customs offices they faced the crowd of locals, some meeting passengers arriving on the ship, others bidding farewell to relatives about to board, Cypriots emigrating in search of fortune and a better life in foreign lands.
Many in the crowd were obviously from rural areas, dressed in their traditional clothes. Men wore black breaches and knee-high boots, and women wore long dresses with low heeled shoes. The middle-aged women wore embroidered scarves on their heads; the older ones wore plain black scarves and black dresses. Black was worn out of respect to their dead ones, showing that they were still mourning them. Some townspeople had a strange mixture of traditional and European appearance.
Maria and her sister appeared fresh and breezy in their light summer dresses, which came to just under their knees. They both wore high heels, had thick black shiny hair waving in the sea breeze, and wore striking red lipstick on their full, cool lips. The rich colours came into sweet contrast with their milky white skin. Their appearance at once attracted the eyes of all the men, and the envy of the women.
Marina’s relatives remained open-mouthed and speechless for a few moments, but then the hugs and kisses started as they welcomed the ‘peratigies’ (women from abroad) - their new daughter-in-law, with her sister and of course the much awaited granddaughter. The little girl had black hair too but she had a darkish complexion and dark eyes, compared to her mother’s fair complexion. “The little one has taken after us!” exclaimed the relatives with joy as they welcomed them all in their arms.
They were all drawing their own first impressions and first conclusion from this very first meeting. All except Maria. She stood back, letting the others fuss over her sister and niece. She felt her dress sway in the light breeze, felt the comfort and confidence of her high heels. Her head was held high, her chin raised, and she had a look of determination in her eyes, a determination to face life with confidence and hope. All her senses were sharpened, and she distinguished a beautiful scent that was lingering in the air over and above all the relatives and the crowd.
It was the scent of jasmine, this distinctive fragrance that would follow Maria throughout her life in Cyprus. It was a scent that became mixed in her imagination with love and beauty. A scent that promised a million heartbeats.
The minute she set foot on the wooden pier, it was the scent of jasmine that represented for Maria Cyprus and all that was waiting for her…