Cyprus remains divided between Greek and Turkish communities, but in London exiles from both sides of the partition live, work and eat side-by-side. Although Greek Cypriots are concentrated to the west and Turkish Cypriots in the east, head to Green Lanes and you’ll see shops, cafés and restaurants serving Mediterranean cuisine, shops selling all natural remedies and olive oil soaps amid born-and-bred Londoners alike.
The majority of Greek Cypriots living in the UK are descendents of the Achaeans and the Mycenaeans, who came to Cyprus in circa 2000 BC. Just like any other nationality, Greek Cypriots possess their own unique mentality and socio-cultural traditions. In this post I will highlight some of the traditions and culture norms of Cypriot living.
The main things that characterize the Cypriot communities are the history, tradition, and culture. I aim to explore some of these in order for you to become familiar with some of the superstitions, truths and mystifying ways of cypriots. You may know some of them and be surprised by some others. But by the end of this post, I guarantee that you will feel Greeker than the Greeks!
The main priority in the life of Cypriots is the family. Parents take care of their children until they get on their feet, then when parents grow old, children take care of them, and old people switch their attention to their grandchildren. Warm relationships are maintained between all family members, including distant relatives. For Cypriots, the family is a warm circle of close people who are always ready to give advice and help. Older family members are honored for their age and wisdom. Men respect and protect female family members of all ages. It is quite common for Cypriots who have only just met strangers to invite them into their homes for a drink (always accompanied by a little something to eat). Overall, Cypriots are extremely hospitable. It is considered polite to accept at least a little of what is being offered to you even if you do not want it. This applies most often to food and drink, where your action will determine whether you can be welcomed as family or perceived as rude and never welcomed back again.
Sometimes this hospitality and genuine interest in others can seem slightly intrusive to outsiders – expect to be cross-examined about your family relationships, your profession, even the details of your income. Cypriots are also lively conversationalists. Cypriots speak more loudly and with more hand and facial gestures than western Europeans. A friendly discussion may look like an argument to the outsider, but rest assured it’s most likely an amicable conversation with some passion.
Being Late Is Normal
Cypriots are known for their slowness and habit to put things off until the next day. (Sounds about right?) Being punctual is not part of the Greek Cypriot way of living. If a group of friends has agreed to meet, for example, at seven in the evening, the very first of them will arrive at twenty past seven. Cypriots are rarely ever in a hurry, enjoying every minute of life. Being on time may be a virtue, but it is not one well-practiced in Cyprus. Being 30-45 minutes late to a social engagement is not considered unacceptable. It is actually expected.
In queues and public places, no one pays special attention to personal space. An average Cypriot is rarely angered by someone standing close or touching him/her with a bag. Cypriots love to praise each other; guests often praise the house or dishes, but praise is always sincere because the true Cypriot can see positive features in everything. At the same time, they avoid criticism, believing that it’s better to stay silent than spoil someone’s mood.
Food & Cooking
Cypriots love tasty and hearty food just as much as they love cooking. On my big, fat Greek Cypriot side of the family, food is always a big big deal. Certain family members are known for their exquisite dishes, for example at any family gathering, everyone will request my nans dolmades (koupepia), homegrown vine leaves stuffed with a delicious mix of rice, herbs and minced meat. This is the food that everyone is waiting for at family gatherings. Very rarely will any other family member be asked to make this dish as my nan not only has a traditional village recipe passed down from her mother from her yiayia and so forth but there are ways in which she cooks that means you will never get this taste if you do not cook it exactly how she does. I will not spill some of our greatest family cooking secrets and I have not completely mastered it just yet, but for those that know about the big rock on the pan, you are enlightened my friends.
No family get-together or party is complete without a table full of mountains of glorious, lovingly cooked food. From basics like pitta bread and houmous, to huge dishes of moussaka and refilled platters of heavenly feta cheese and bundles of pitted olives. If it’s a real big family shindig there will be a BBQ going at the back of the gardens.
If you didn’t guess already, food is a huge player when bringing my Greek family together.
Some Greek culinary traditions date back over 4,000 years. Greek/Cypriot Orthodox Easter usually takes place a week or two after the usual Christian/British Easter. Traditionally YiaYia (Nan) will boil eggs and dye them blue, red and green which are used to play a game called Tsougrisma, the name of the game means “clinking together” or “clashing.” I can remember playing this with my nan throughout my childhood although back then I didn’t understand it, I just thought it was super cool that our easter was different and we got to smash colourful boiled eggs… Anyway, after years of teachings from my nan and conversations with aunties and cousins the object of the game is simple, each person picks an egg, (only the ones that have been dyed red are to be used in this game for religious symbolisation) similar to playing ‘conkers’ someone clashes it against someone else’s. Whoever’s egg doesn’t crack, is the winner. The red colouring symbolises the blood and sacrifice of Christ on the cross, whilst the egg symbolises rebirth.
In most cultures there is always a pick me up dish, an illness fixer or bring back to lifer. In our case we have ‘Soupa Avgolemono’ – this is the widely recognised name of the best soup you will ever taste in your life, made up of eggs, lemon, rice, water and chicken although my family have always called it ‘Chicken Lemonia Soup’ (half English and from North London what did you expect?) Any time we visit nan in winter there is always a big, fat bowl of chicken lemonia soup waiting for us and if anyone is unwell nan will come straight down with the remedy! A beautiful home comfort.
The ancient Greeks implemented their values of loyalty, glory, intelligence and hospitality into everyday life. While these values may seem simple, they effectively shaped an entire civilization into a culture that is one of the most referenced in history.
Family was very important to the Ancient Greeks. This was largely due to the influence of the godly family that their beliefs sprang from. It was believed by many that to go against your family was a sin frowned upon by the gods and that family members should be honoured and forgiven no matter what their crime.
When you achieved honour you became more important in society and it was believed the gods supported you. Honour was tied in very closely to religion as honour came ultimately from approval from the gods.
Stereotyping and Common Attitudes
You may call it controversial, I call it being real. My generation are very non judgemental and have positive attitudes to being who you want to be and embracing individuality. Sadly this does not stretch back that far to our elders and their bluntness can be mistaken for pride and prejudice. Our elders were subjected to many disadvantages when coming to London, for venturing outside their cultural norms and when they did they were forced right back into it (the political aspect of this should be explored further and you can find more information here) so the cliche is they became a product of their environment and the message was very much stick to your own and don’t speak to ‘strange’ people. Suppressing the Cypriot’s hospitable and sociable nature caused many of the narrow minded common views such as racist behaviour, between Greeks and Turks, which was magnified politically, though you may see them living in harmony in the villages.
Attitudes to gay people can display prejudice although gay clubs do exist in large towns such as Lefkosia, Larnaka, Ayia Napa, Lemesos and Pafos, these are tolerated. Depending on how you enter ones family or home or generally present yourself, you will be accepted if you show polite and respectful qualities, first and foremost you will be considered as a friend and sexuality is not a common topic when being welcomed in and vetted (if you like) but in the same breath, openly gay public behaviour might attract disapproving frowns and the clicking of tongues. I guess there’s always going to be acceptance and/or prejudice irregardless of what culture you are from and how open minded an individual is. Luckily London isn’t stuck with those old views and the gay community here are able to thrive!
Any family orientated persons with decent qualities does not typically bother cypriot people, you are not seen as a specific colour or gender or sexuality you are seen for your morals, respect and altruism, how you treat people and family is ultimately how you are seen, but only recently the huge influx of outsiders has been a problem, particularly non-EU workers who tend to do unskilled domestic and agricultural labour, this has led to anti-immigration rhetoric from far-right groups and isolated outbreaks of violence in Cyprus.
Wedding is one of the most extravagant and beloved holidays in Cyprus. It is full of rituals and traditions. It takes months and sometimes even a year to prepare for this event. During this time families have a chance to get to know each other better, while the bride and groom plan all the details of the most important day in their lives.
Some rituals include wrapping red scarves around the bridal couple, shaving the groom, “dancing the wedding clothes”, placing wedding crowns (stefana) upon the bridal couple, exchanging of the marital rings and tossing rice at the newlyweds as a symbolization of fertility. (I’ve noticed that most of these rituals have not been carried over to British ceremonies) For the single ladies they offer sugar almonds and a piece of blessed red ribbon to place it under their pillow and dream of the man they will get marry. Single men are happy for the chance to see all the single ladies gathered together and do the traditional “korte” (flirt).
One of the highlights of any Cypriot wedding has to be the food, something all guests look forward to. If you want to give a nod to where you’re getting married, consider handing out sugared almonds to your guests as they leave the church or use ceremonial bread at the reception, known as kouloruia.
Partway through the reception, the happy couple hit the dancefloor to have their first dance as newlyweds – and as they do, guests have the chance to pin money to their clothes to help them pay the wedding off and start their new lives debt-free.
The Evil Eye
The evil eye is the most undisputed yet mystifying superstition’s that a vast percentage of Greeks believe in. A person that is said to have received the evil eye gets a strong headache and a string of “bad luck”. The causes of evil is bad intentions towards you. If someone wishes you ill and has bad thoughts while looking at you, then you may get “evil-eyed”.
People can knowingly wish negative thoughts on you, but the power of the eye is that some people unknowingly and innocently cast the curse on others. That’s why it’s important to wear an evil eye somewhere on your body to ward off this curse and protect yourself throughout the day. These have become common decorations and are almost always blue with a painted “mati” or eye on them.
From as far back as 3,000 BC the idea permeated through ancient culture. If someone was jealous of another because of their social status or what they owned, the evil eye could be cast on them out of pure envy, leaving the receiver with misfortune. To avoid this look, the ancient peoples began wearing amulets or jewelry with the evil eye symbol incorporated into them. If you wore this, the evil look would be reflected back to the person that was casting it.
Before science was able to explain many misfortunes such as bad luck, ill health, an accident, or environmental woes like a drought or disease, many people attributed these harmful situations to a curse. The evil eye was a common answer to the question “why do bad things happen to good people?”
How do you rebuke the evil eye?. Whenever I feel a negative vibe the first step for me is to hold the eye in my hand, closed and recite a special incantation three times to ward it off. Knowledge of the incantation is usually passed down from one generation to another and could differ according to villages and communities, because of it’s sacred protection I am unable to unveil my words of protection. During this reciting if I start to yawn, then one can assume the evil eye is true.
Some methods you may want to use to avoid the evil eye and the bad luck it brings are spitting on someone, (Personally I wouldn’t go with spitting on someone, especially during these uncertain times of Covid) throwing salt over your shoulder, and wearing the eye charm to ward off negative energies and entities.
I hope you liked this post and be mindful of the Mati!