When I first landed, the excitement of finally being in a new country, being out of London and being in the sunshine (well I have to be honest with you , the climate was a big draw) somewhat clouded my judgement. I was in awe of this wonderful little island; the culture, the buildings, the food, they were all so different from where I had come from.
It is true that London is a deeply eclectic place, full to the brim with a variety of cultures and different nationalities. But I guess growing up around them, they were never “different” in my perceptions, just normal. So embracing the culture upon arrival in Cyprus was a little more difficult than I had anticipated.
But I got there in the end. Cyprus is a country with a rich history, an interesting culture and many, many traditions and customs to get your head around. After 3 years, I am still learning. But let's start with the basics.
Cyprus is a very traditional culture in the sense that family is at the heart of it. Families here are big; like 20 or 30 people as your average, once you factor in aunts, uncles, cousins, children of the cousins etc. There is no such thing as extended family like we have in England. It is just family.
And the whole gang will regularly get together, meeting at granny's or a designated aunties, for some sort of family feast. This is the aspect I like most and find most daunting about Cyprus. Families are very close (both physically and in terms of their relationships) and being a newbie to Cyprus, there was always someone on hand to help, to drive, to go translate. But as a small family London girl, family gatherings in Cyprus are understandably a bit scary and a little overwhelming.
Food is at the centre of many customs and traditions in Cyprus, starting with the regular family meals. These are centred around the Souvla (σούβλα) a Cypriot style barbecue, where large pieces of pork are slowly cooked on a rotating spit for up to 3 hours. Souvla is often eaten on a Sunday.
There are many foods which are traditional made and eaten at certain times of the year. At Easter, Cypriots make a specific type of bread or pastry called Flaouna (φλαούνα) which is made to celebrate the breaking of fasting period during lent. They are made with pastry, cheese and often have raisons and sesame seeds and are traditionally prepared on the Good Friday and eaten on Easter Sunday. At Christmas a special cake, called Vasilopita (Βασιλόπιτα) is baked. Hidden inside there is a coin which brings good luck to the person who receives it.
Green Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα) is a movable feast that occurs at the beginning of the 7th week before Orthodox Easter Sunday. It is marked by the family getting together and eating fasting foods, such as fish, vegetables, salads, dips and breads. On Green Monday, a special type of bread is made called Lagana (λαγάνα).
And then there are the many other food items which are made and consumed, year round. Cyprus is well known for Halloumi, Ouzo, Mousaka, Koupepia which is meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves, Loukoumi known to most English people as Turkish Delight, Glyko which is preserved fruits and nuts and Baklava, a rich pastry made with honey. They are definitely culture that takes pride in their food.
Have you ever seen the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That is what weddings in Cyprus are actually like. They are huge. 1000 guests is considered a small wedding so you get the idea. The wedding day will start in the morning, but the actual marriage doesn’t usually happen until 4pm or later, mainly due to the heat in the summer months. The bride and groom will get ready separately; family members will gather at the respective houses where a musician will play traditional songs and the maid of honour or best man will help the bride and groom to get ready. The best man will shave the groom and dress him in his shirt while the maid of honour helps with jewellery and shoes for the bride. A red piece of material will be tied and untied around the waist of the bride and groom which several times, which is a sign of fertility.
At the church the groom waits outside, with the bride’s bouquet. Then the couple will walk down the aisle together and ceremony begins. During the ceremony, the bride and the groom wear headbands called Stefana. The priest leads the couple round the table, on which the Gospel and the Cross are placed, three times. The Koumbaros (best man) and Koumbara (chief bridesmaid) are walking behind the married couple holding Stefana in place. This is called the dance of Isaiah. The wedding rings, which are worn on the right hand, fourth finger, are exchanged three times. Like in English weddings, confetti or rice is thrown over the couple as they leave the church.
The wedding ceremony is followed by a cocktail reception, where guests line up, to give wishes to the couple and money to help the couple start their new life together. This is followed by a sit down dinner and the evening celebrations for a smaller number of guests.
The death of someone in Cypriot culture also has many associated traditions. In Cyprus the funeral happens promptly due to the temperatures in the summer months. In Greek Orthodox religion, the period of mourning is 40 days, however there are several memorial days, marked on the third day, the ninth day, the fortieth day, six months, and one year after the death. Family members may choose to wear black for the 40 day mourning period and many widows or widowers, especially the older generations, will wear only black after their partner has passed.
Cypriots take hospitality seriously. You will hear kalos orisate (καλώς ορίσατε) regularly used, which means welcome. If you’re a guest in someone’s home you will be treated like royalty so to speak. There will be food and coffee and no chance for you to lift a finger. I stayed with the family of my boyfriend for the first month of our time in Cyprus while we looked for an apartment. In that time I was not allowed to wash the dishes, cook or help with any house chores because I was a guest.
At restaurants, it is very normal for there to be a complimentary glass of Ouzo or Zivania (both traditional Cypriot spirits) or traditional desert at the end of your meal. In my experience it is best to accept these gifts and attempt a small sip or bite to please the owner. They take it very personally if you decline.
There are many more customs, but I prefer to stick to the ones I have the most experience with. I realised very early on that I would never understand all the customs of this country so it was important to understand the basics.
But in Cyprus what you really need to remember is food is key, never turn down hospitality and to look both ways even if the traffic lights are red; they are not the best drivers!
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