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Cyprus, to me, smells like dirt and cigarettes. It hit me the moment I walked out of the airport in Larnaca for the first time. And although I initially found it unpleasant, I have come to associate that particular, unique scent with arriving home.
I first came here two years ago, in the summer of 2015, as an archaeology field school student. After experiencing the warmth of the people, the incredible food and the beautiful landscape, I knew that I would come back to experience even more of what the island had to offer.
Coming to Cyprus the second time around was more difficult than I had imagined. While I had previously been a part of a group of students and professors, I was now living and working on my own. I had arrogantly believed that not knowing any Greek would be fine because of the prevalence of English speakers, and I did not think it would be too difficult to meet people and make new friends. Almost as soon as I arrived, I realized how wrong I was.
While the majority of the population does speak English, usually very well, not knowing any Greek certainly didn’t endear me to people. I had also severely underestimated the degree of culture shock that I would experience during the first few months. Learning to live in a new culture with a new language and a drastically different climate than the one I was accustomed to was daunting most days, and I became overwhelmingly homesick.
I decided that the best way to make the most of the situation was to begin taking Greek lessons. My Greek teacher, Christos, began our first lesson by teaching me what would become the most valuable Greek phrase I have learned: siga siga, slowly slowly.
“We will start with the alphabet, then we will learn how to introduce ourselves, and then slowly slowly we will add more vocabulary and grammar.” Christos’s “slowly slowly” approach is certainly not unique to him. The common phrase embodies much of what I have come to understand about the Cypriot lifestyle.
When I told a Cypriot friend I was nervous about learning how to drive on the left side of the road, she said, “You will start out on the side streets and slowly slowly you will be more comfortable driving.” When I asked a neighbor how long a roadwork project on our street would take, she simply replied “siga siga.” No pressure. No deadline. No stress. Everything will happen in due time.
Coming from the United States, this mindset was something I had to adjust to. I was brought up in a world in which everything needs to be done yesterday. People are constantly pushing themselves and those around them to be more efficient and more productive. The attitude of siga siga is the antithesis of what I have been taught about how to get things done. While of course the more, better, faster approach is useful and favorable in some aspects of life, during my time in Cyprus I have started to see some of the cracks in that philosophy.
Efficiency is important, but so is enjoying life. So many people I know back in the US work so tirelessly that they cannot enjoy their time off. They feel guilty about time off of work and not being productive. That is certainly not the case here. Cypriots revel in their vacation and holidays. They will meet up to get coffee and sit for hours on end.
When you go out to eat at a restaurant, you have to hound the wait staff for the bill at the end of the meal. They just assume that you and your group will sit there all night, enjoying the food and drink and one another’s company. A far cry from the rapid turnover that you find at most American restaurants. Things move a bit slower here. And while that can be frustrating at times, it is also fundamentally Cypriot.
Besides the language and the culture, the smell—that musky mixture of dirt and cigarettes—was something that took time to adjust to. There is a reason for that smell. In the warmer months, dust fills the air and sometimes creates a kind of foggy haze that makes the whole landscape look as though it’s sepia-toned. As people sit down to enjoy their frappe or a Keo, they casually take out their tobacco and cigarette papers and roll a cigarette as they seamlessly carry on the conversation.
Though at first I honestly found it a bit unpleasant, I now recognize the warmth of that smell. Like siga siga, the smell of Cyprus is something I have come to recognize as synonymous with the island itself. It represents the landscape I find so beautiful and the people who have been so kind and welcoming to me. It also represents some of the ways in which this Mediterranean island is so drastically different from my home in New England, which has its own distinct, salty scent.
Moving halfway across the world has been life altering in so many ways. Months later, I still feel some waves of culture shock. But I am adjusting. To the climate. To the language. To the lifestyle. To the smell. Siga siga.