Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stick a fork in it

The final week of our trip was a sojourn in Cyprus, another country where politics is a touchy subject. The southern part of the island (the Greek Cypriot part) has a population of about 700,000, with the annual tourist influx a multiple of that. Tourists (and investment) come from many countries—notably Russia and England—but not particularly from the U.S. English is widespread in this former British colony, but at least in the Limassol area, where we stayed, commercial signs are as likely to be in Russian as in English or Greek.

Cyprus is old. When Aphrodite emerged from the sea, near Paphos according to Greek legend, the island had already been continuously occupied for thousands of years. There are archeological digs—some of the most spectacular I’ve seen—everywhere, ranging from Late Stone Age through the Hellenic and Roman periods. I got the feeling that if you stick a shovel in the ground at random and dig down a few feet, you’re likely to hit the foundation of some ancient building. One person we spoke with suggested that most of the beachfront resorts might have been developed illegally by people who, upon digging for a foundation and finding ruins, failed to report what was there, because doing so would have scuttled their projects.

Cyprus itself emerged from the sea, of course. The Trados mountains are igneous rock that formed as an ocean ridge where two tectonic plates collided. The lowlands are limestone pushed up from the surrounding ocean bottom. Construction materials are a mixture of the two kinds of stone in the middle of the island and almost entirely limestone toward the southern beaches. The beaches themselves, at least where we were, are nearly black in color, from the weathering of the mountains. But the overall landscape in the lowlands is overpoweringly light in color, just barely tan. This looks like a desert at this time of year—fertile desert with good crops, but desert nonetheless. The appearance is probably deceptive, but just a little bit uphill, the slopes are stripped bare of soil, with just the scattered tree here and there. Once this island was forested, but the Bronze Age inhabitants four millennia or so ago mined and smelted copper here. And smelting copper requires fire. And fire requires wood. And so the hillsides were stripped and what remains is dry land and a dry, hot climate. Culturally, Cyprus is part of Europe. But in terms of climate and soil, it is part of the Levant.

Our hosts, as has been true in other countries we visited, overfed us. But they did so in a way that is apparently customary on Cyprus. Many of the restaurants are taverns, and whether they specialize in meat or fish or some foreign cuisine, they all offer meze. Meze (rhymes with “yeah, yeah”) was described to us as “like tapas.” Um, not really. With tapas, you order specific small plates for specific prices and you run out of money before you run out of appetite. With meze, you pay a prix fixe per person (twenty euros, give or take a couple of euros), and you are served heaping platter after heaping platter after heaping platter. It is immediately obvious that if you empty a dish, it’s a signal that the next dish should have even more food on it. It is also immediately obvious that if you consume more than a forkful of each dish, you will not make it to the end of the meal. It takes discipline to have just a taste, because the food is delicious, whether it is souvla on freshly baked pita or any of a raft of dips and condiments or sausage or fish or anything else. The cuisine overall is heavily influenced by Greek food, but some Turkish and Middle Eastern and North African influences are there too. With meze, there are invariably leftovers to go home with someone. Of course, if that’s not your scene, there’s always Pizza Hut.

From Cyprus, we flew to Frankfurt, spent the night, and caught a morning plane to home sweet home.

It has been a fabulous trip, but the junket is done. Stick a fork in it.

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