Larnaca - Famagusta, October 2015
“I want to do my pilgrimage in Cyprus this year,” I type on the facebook window that Katerina and I share.
“Hayatiiii” she says, “Yes, let’s do it,”
It’s a tryst that instantly flies up to the ether, young and shivering. While the pilgrims flock to Mecca at the pinnacle of Hajj season, Katerina and I will have our own pilgrimage to God. Items needed: figs from the side of the road, Mastika, temples in the sun, sea waves, and a lot of quiet where we just listen.
I am already in love before our trip even begins.
Katerina is my Cypriot friend who lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, working as an instructor at Effat College. She taught the girls English and probably much more than that. I heard about Katerina from a friend of mine who described her as a hippie who sometimes doesn’t wear underwear because she wants to feel life flowing down there. I giggled when he told me that. I was also a little bit jealous. I felt like I was wearing a tight corset in comparison.
Katerina, when you first meet her, gives you the impression that she has spent so much of her life soaking sun and moon, rosemary and Cypriot seawater. She has a wiry frame. You could break her into two with a snap of your fists if you tried. Her hair makes up for it though, wild black, furious, and cannot be tamed either by society or by a hair band.
Katerina’s face is stunning because it is an infusion of feminine vulnerability and the fierceness of Greek Goddesses who have walked through raging seas to save drowning ships. Her almond eyes have a melting quality, like dark honey is dropped into the pupils every morning when she wakes up.
In 2015, She arrived at KAEC, where my group of friends and I were having a boho picnic. She and I had been having a magnetic correspondence for a while. With the shyness of a blossom, she greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks. Very European I thought, my head tingling. I later learned that she had that tingling effect on everyone else. Katerina put her hands on people’s heads and sent potent torrents of love that went to where ever the pain was. She had healer’s hands and a healer’s embrace.
I arrive in Larnaca in the afternoon, journal ready, pen poised, cells wide open for miracles. Katerina certainly knows how to hunt for those.
She meets me outside the airport with her red convertible, small, worn on the inside, and just perfect for excursions of devotion. She helps me with my luggage and we’re off.
“We’re staying with Yaya tonight,” she says. Yaya, of course, is Katerina’s Grandmother. I have never stayed with someone’s grandmother in a foreign country before. My appetite for entering people’s lives starts to gape wide open. I want to meet Yaya. I want to chat with Yaya. I want to drink tea with Yaya - Greek coffee, I later find.
The roads swirl through the landscape as we drive to Famagusta. It’s sparse. It’s lush. It’s withering old. It’s vivacious. Such a conundrum, the place. I love it immediately. I am completely swept away by the cypress trees, my favorite kind of tree. I’ve furnished most of the fantastical settings in my would-be novels with Cypress trees. I plan to have them surrounding my dream cottage, someday, along with bitter lemons.
Something feels odd though. I did not get the chance to spend much time with Katerina when she was in Saudi because we were rarely in the same city, or she was often not in the mood to go out. Now that I’m here in a car, with this enchanting creature, I find that there is little to talk about and the time-old social obligation to keep a conversation going rears its frowny head. What if we really don’t have much to talk about? I will be spending a week with this young lady with hardly a thing to say. She will find me boring and will wonder why on Earth she invited me here. We will drag our little pilgrimage along and instead of it being two steps up toward enlightenment, it will be a perfect chore. That’s what I tell myself, my heart torpedoing steadily downwards.
We arrive at Yaya’s charming little house. It’s not far away from the seashore. There is nothing glamorous about Yaya’s town and not much either about the house. They both seem to be sliding along in a pleasant dance with time. There’s not too much expectation and an abundance of simplicity.
We enter through a tiny kitchen that barely fits five people. The inside of the house immediately reminds me of Egyptian apartments. I am taken back to that trip to Cairo when I was five years old and I was sick with a stomach flu and unable to sleep because of the donkeys that brayed at night on the streets. I felt uncomfortable in those apartments, like no chair or bed was willing to welcome my little body. I wonder if my initial discomfort here stems from that memory? Enough psychobabble.
As we go inside to put our luggage down, I get glimpses of fondly kept furniture, picture frames, small lacy things, and, also, the soul of a woman who has made a home here and needs nothing from life but companionship.
Katerina introduces me in Greek. She chats with Yaya for a while, probably about her day or about the rest of their family. I understand not a word, of course, but I can hear in Katerina’s voice the intonations of endearment; endearing her grandmother to herself and herself to her grandmother. It is lovely to observe because I’ve used those same intonations with my own grandmothers.
These women, these Yayas and Grandmothers and Sittos, they all have one thing in common: you can see that child from long ago still sitting in their eyes, swinging her legs. That child looks back at you with the soul of a sage. The cycle of life is complete in them and the price was the body. They know things now. They have probably always known things but people didn't believe them.
Yaya is not very tall and she grows in the house like a squat little oak tree except that she’s much smoother and rounder. Her hair tumbles in silvery white waves about her head and her face looks like it was about to be a man and then realized it was a woman. But there is so much tenderness in that face, and benign sarcasm too.
Katerina leaves me alone with Yaya and Pambos (her grandfather) because she has a class to give and will be back in two or three hours. I sit with her grandparents at that small table. I am a paper cutout. Am I real? I’ve woken up in this strange kitchen with elderly folk who are looking at me waiting for a conversation to start with no spoken language to connect us. But we try.
My skin crawls because of how foreign everything is. It’s a kind of skin crawl I feel whenever I’m in a new country in someone’s home and the sights are different and the smells are new and my body is simply adjusting to the reality change.
I adjust to it surprisingly quickly, before dread comes up and seizes the stage. When will Katerina be back? But the conversation flows in a patchwork quilt of unfinished words and sentences. A contribution from me in English, a donation from Yaya in Greek and we make a lopsided limping conversation with the table between us to support it.
“You married?” she asks with a rolling “r”. Oh that word she knows!
I shake my head, cornered. Will I have to explain why? I get the feeling that she will not understand my reasons anymore than my own grandmother ever did. And just like my grandmother, her lecture about the importance of marriage comes fast. In her case, it is brief because of the lack of words.
We have a small lunch consisting of roasted chicken, a green salad with lemon and olive oil, and - this is new to me - real authentic Greek yogurt (not Chobani or Fage). It comes out of a luscious tub from which you could scoop it out like ice cream and feast on tart creaminess that compliments basically anything; fruit, chicken, vegetables. Greek yogurt with figs would later become my favorite. I wish I could grill some figs right now as I write this and pipe some Greek yogurt on top through a piping bag and then drizzle some honey and crushed walnuts…
I make myself at home because Yaya’s house is begging for it. I know I’m foreign to you, it says, and this is not really your family, but for now it is. This bed is yours, the bathroom and towels for you to use, the window shutters to crank closed. Come to sleep. You’re tired.
I am tired. I fall asleep into a surprisingly refreshing nap on a hard mattress. Katerina and I have some reveling to do when she gets back.
I’ve known contentment before but never like this on a small porch with greens all around and a cup of Greek coffee - I refrained from writing Turkish, here - and the prospect of a swim at sunset. I sit on the swing bench feeling the moist air mellowing down for the evening. I don’t even feel left out when Katerina and Yaya lock heads and speak in Greek for half the time.
Later, we swim in a drab little cove beneath a hotel that is hopping with Taylor Swift’s and Miley Cyrus’s best. It is dark. In the water, we take off our bathing suits. There is hardly anyone around, except for the moon and it's the only nasty bastard that’s craning for a peek at our nudity underneath the black surface.
Katerina emits her usual sensual mmm-ing and Aaah-ing, the kinds of sounds my mother would be horrified if I made in public. I feel like we’re two glistening beings gifted with the sense of touch for the first time in our lives. I slither in still water, a ripe mango swimming in juice. I’m all sighs, all smiles on my skin, and, eventually, I become nothing.
I remember the first time I went skinny dipping. It was in Jeddah at a popular chalet resort. It was dark. I was twenty four at the time, I believe, and it was a perfectly a scandalous thing to do. In society, I was expected to cover up from head to toe when outside the house, but there in the water, I was untouched by all that. It was during a time in my life when I was obsessed with the song “Age of Aquarius” because the age of Aquarius was rising within me, making gentle cracks in the proper world I knew and adhered to.
There it is again, Katerina’s absence. I try to engage her about our pilgrimage but she brushes me off by showing only interest in the water lapping her sides.
Later, we feast on Mexican food downtown like ravenous wolves who had just had a hearty swim. She brushes me off again as I try to glean from her some interest, excitement, or just plain old suggestions for our journey together in the upcoming week. I look for it, like a child looks for a hint of a “yes” in her mother’s face. I saw no yeses, only…”what about it?”
Katerina takes me to a seashore where it’s quiet after dinner. No one is around here either. I’ve already clamped down and crawled back into my disappointed shell. There will be no pilgrimage. The idea, when we spoke online, it seems, was just a floating thing to her, while to me it is my heart inflating to a bursting point with yearning. Yearning for love, yearning for the heavens, yearning for the unknown - and also fearing it - yearning for what is beyond the veil, yearning for God, for the creator, the oneness. Yearning for everything. And also, yearning to share this yearning with someone who I’ve come to think of as more than a friend of flesh; a being of light, a spirit.
She goes to sit on the shore far away as I lie on one of the recliners on the sand and I feel even more abandoned. Then, I turn to my side and hold myself in an embrace. I begin to the see the hurt child that was clinging to her this whole time. Loneliness washes over me louder than the shushing of the waves. I hold myself tighter and cry. I see it now, the hollow, my blind spot. It hurts. It really hurts and I don’t know why. Why is it here? Will it eat me up?
Maybe I’m idolizing Katerina too much. Maybe I’m clinging to the romance of a pilgrimage because I’m running from this horrid hollow that I see and feel now. Katerina doesn’t hear me over there so I let the sobs come hot and fast. She might be a healer, but in this moment, I am my own. I hold myself until I am quiet again, until I’m here again and the loneliness is only a whisper. I can hear the waves sending me ointments and salves. I let my foot sneak down to feel cold silky sand.
I decide I’m ready to Join Katerina. I sit beside her and we stare ahead across the water at an inanimate scene with the moon behind us for protection. We are quiet in delicious repose. No need for words. Just breath.
Then, our first miracle comes. In the silence across, there are thick heaps of clouds hovering over the water at the horizon. We cannot see them, of course, because it is too dark. A single wondrous flash of light appears that was not lightening but a yellow line vibrating across the sky. It sends a shimmery haze all around, cupping the voluptuous curves of the clouds. We both cry out in surprise.
The flash is proceeded with another. Then, flashes come together to create an orchestra that deepens in the sky so that the yellows are accentuated with deep maroons, grays and faint purples. They come fast one after the other, ethereal, silent, but loud in their impact, like Beethoven is sitting in a chair somewhere in there banging his elbows on the piano keys because he thought no one could hear.
The sight makes us delirious. We make those ecstatic sounds with every flash because we are in a state of wonder too sacred to interrupt or question. We witness the genesis of a little universe. For what feels like half an hour we cannot not keep our eyes away from the orgy of pleasure the sky is having. And the pleasure it breaks loose inside us!
Somewhere throughout this miracle, Katerina puts a hand on my heart and love passes between us through the conductor of knowing, of connection and belonging. We don’t need to speak about our pilgrimage. It is already happening, in its own unruly way.
This is my gift to you both, the Universe seems to say. Are you ready?
Note: All pictures above taken by Katerina Kyriacou. http://katerinakyriacou.weebly.com/
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