My mother-in-law, Maria, is from Cyprus. She came to the UK not in 1974, to escape the invasion of the island by Greek paratroopers and Turkish tanks, but in 1963 as an economic migrant. She came to escape a life knitting socks and to find a husband. She met George in London and after they married they moved to Manchester to be near other members of George’s family.
Maria and George were determined to protect their Cypriot culture and to bring their four daughters up to be good (Greek) Cypriot girls. When Jo started school in 1971 she didn’t speak a word of English. No school trips; no unchaperoned contact with boys; no boyfriends. Spare time meant doing lots of household chores, visiting family and offering guests coffee and cakes; Greek school on a Saturday; Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday.
When George died in 1982 Jo, as the eldest, came under enormous pressure (mainly from male relatives) to abandon her dreams of art college and to get a job in one of her uncles’ cafés to help support the family. She didn’t. After college she came under renewed pressure not to move to Stoke to study Fine Art…..this time from her tearful sisters who were convinced she would bring shame on them and ruin their chances of finding a nice Greek Cypriot husband.
When I met Jo in 1990 I remember her not wanting to hold hands as we walked past her uncle’s chip shop on Langley. When we visited relatives I was always asked if I was learning Greek….whether I liked Greek music….whether Jo had taught me any Greek dancing.
30 years after her parents first moved to England Jo’s family had done a great job of protecting their Cypriot culture….from plate smashing at weddings to starched linen on the beds; from impeccable manners to stuffed vine leaves for tea.
In 1991 Jo and I went to Cyprus. It was a working holiday. Jo had a small Prince’s Trust grant to enable her to meet a range of Cypriot artists who were exploring similar themes to her around identity, culture and patriarchy.
Boy were we in for a surprise when we arrived in Cyprus of the 1990s…..it was so different from the Cypriot community in Manchester. Boys and girls hung out together. They flirted….kissed in public….smoked cigarettes. Everyone spoke English (mostly with an American accent picked up from the pop music radio they all listened too). There were UK and US brands everywhere; there were short skirts, the F word, motorbikes, Coke and lager……..it was just like being in most parts of the UK.
We soon realised that the Cypriot culture that Jo had grown up in and which still largely prevailed for a few thousand young Cypriots in Manchester, was a strange fossilised version of the culture that their parents had brought with them in their battered suitcases in the early 1960s. In Cyprus times had changed. Things had moved on. A poor, agrarian former British colony had transformed itself into a vibrant, wealthy nation pumped full of tourist cash.
After two weeks travelling around and meeting lots of artists, friends and family members we arrived at a rather different conclusion. There was a cultural thread that tied the Cypriot community of Manchester with that of the mother land. But it wasn’t some superficial, time specific trappings. It was something more deep rooted and enduring. It was the values of the people – warm, friendly and generous. A people for whom the family was all important and where guests – old or new – were always made to feel welcome…..offered a place at the table and a bed for the night. They were a people who were open and trusting and who valued their community relationships and associations.
Long after Maria’s descendants have stopped smashing plates or speaking Greek I bet you will still be invited into their homes with a big smile, a warm welcome and more food than you could possibly eat.