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The Courtauld Institute of Art

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Floating Roots

August 9, 2019

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

 

A native-born islander’s relationship with their home can be complicated. If you happen to be an islander, chances are you had a beautiful, albeit concealed childhood, seeing that you grew up far, far away from the hustle and bustle of a metropolis like London. You eventually come to realise that having had the advantage to grow up on an island gives you an outlook on life unlike any other person’s. The ugly side of this is felt once you have moved away from the tiny bubble you were raised in. Upon your occasional return, you are hit with the realisation that sadly, nothing ever changes. Everything remains stagnant, as it was. Is this saddening, or oddly comforting? 

  

Change is not a huge feature of the Mediterranean-island lifestyle. Speaking from my own experience, it is no secret that Cypriots avoid change like the plague. In a way, it would not make sense for them to gravitate towards it. My guess on why this lack of change is oddly comforting to Cypriots is this: everything is instantly recognisable. No new faces, names, or places will ever invade your comfort zone. There is a feeling of attachment that goes along with this lifestyle. In my opinion, the slow pace of life is something that is comforting to anyone who comes to experience it. No wonder Cyprus is a favourite tourist destination: in the limited time frame of a holiday, visitors get a taste of this unhurried attitude and are enchanted by it. Though this may sound like a stereotype, as a local, I can attest to this. The big things in life are never big enough and the small things not small enough. Everything can be reconciled one way or another (mainly through food).  

 Illustration by Ariadne Diogenous

However, this relaxed outlook on life can lead people, who are aware that “the real world” is nothing like the one condensed in our small island, to isolation. Isolation because being “different” is criticised and shunned. “Fitting in” is a big thing that all members of Cypriot society are constantly after, as there is nowhere to hide your difference, no space to grow. In a big city like London, you can find such spaces: everyone is so busy with their own lives that they barely give you a second glance. But in Cyprus, you probably won’t be fully satisfied if anonymity is what you are after. This is what leads to the state of stagnation that I mentioned previously. The lack of cultural stimuli is possibly the most tragic side effect of this. As a young person interested in art, the only museums available in my hometown were a run-down picture gallery and a beautiful yet severely neglected archaeological museum. This is also where pain comes in: you are constantly torn between two very conflicting desires. On the one hand, you want to seek new experiences and break free from the shackles of inertia. On the other, you become attached to this strong feeling of familiarity.  

 

The film Nicostratos Le Pélican (dir. Olivier Horlait) perfectly encapsulates the essence of living on a Mediterranean island. Despite the French dialogue and the director not being Greek, the film portrays childhood experiences that resemble the real life of those who have grown up on an island like Cyprus. The story revolves around a family of two, father (Emir Kusturica) and son (Thibault Le Guellec), who nurture a baby pelican they find in a crate. The archetypal grumpy yet loving patriarch – a figure that the entirety of the Greek-speaking population has known and loved dearly – struggles to reconcile his relationship with his son following his wife’s death. Though patriarchy and family dynamics is a topic which would require an entire feature of its own, the accuracy of it shows how diligently this film was made. Nicostratos Le Pélican is quite possibly the only film produced by a non-Greek director to justly represent the culture, unlike the kitschy and over-the-top Hollywood productions filled with stereotypes and gibberish Greek dialogue. On the contrary, Horlait’s film is entirely faithful to the truth. It reminds islanders of scents they’ve all smelled before, music they’ve all heard before, tastes they’ve all tasted before, images they’ve all seen before. It achieves all of the above through simplicity, without having to frantically over-compensate for things.  

 

The aforementioned idea that no small thing in life is small enough and no big thing is big enough is represented by means of Nicostratos, the pelican. Nicostratos is an ancient name and is broken down into the words νίκη, nike (= victory) and στρατός, stratos (= army). Apart from becoming a tourist trap on the island, the pelican also becomes a preoccupation in the lives of its inhabitants. He is the big-small thing that they all obsess over. In a way, this may also be a nod to Mykonos’ famous pelican, Petros (who has not necessarily been the same pelican over the course of the last fifty years). Petros is on postcards that can be found in the island’s souvenir shops and show one of its many claims to fame – that is apart from the vibrant party scene and nude beaches. However, this film’s locations are the islands of Milos and Sifnos. These islands are lesser-known to the party-going populations, yet they are adored by the Greeks for their atmosphere of nostalgia, characterised by the longing for something that you cannot exactly pinpoint. The astoundingly beautiful beaches and lagoons are again left untouched by editing and one can take in their sheer magnificence, which is something true to all Greek landscape.   

 

My own experience growing up in Cyprus was one of joy and immeasurable love, but also alienation. Alienation in the grander scheme of things, not on a personal level. There is a lot to be said about the process of having to explain where Cyprus is geographically; this is something unavoidable ninety-eight percent of the time. The phrases “oh, it’s a small island just off the coast of Greece, just above Africa and below Turkey… well it is in the EU but geographically it’s much closer to the Middle East…” are almost blurted out naturally every time someone asks me where I’m from. To put it into perspective, it is almost like being a student at The Courtauld, where you sometimes need to clarify that “it’s an institution that specialises in art history… it’s in London… it’s rather small but very prestigious!” There’s this constant need to assert yourself and clarify that you’re not just making up names of places as you go along. Cyprus’ population just reached a million, therefore one can imagine how it may differ from London, home to ten million people. I believe I speak on behalf of most of my nation’s people when I say that the mere one million of us can’t help but feel isolated from the rest of the world, as we can only seek identification amongst ourselves.   

 

Another theme that runs through the film which is very true to island lifestyle is tradition. Tradition is something heavily entrenched in the lives of all island inhabitants: every last detail of a person’s daily routine is defined by it, whether these be conscious or subconscious decisions. For instance, even if a family is not particularly religious, chances are you will find them congregating with their neighbours at their local church attending Good Friday Mass during Holy Week at Easter time. Even more trivial, Wednesdays and Fridays are days of fasting, which means that in most households, even the less religious ones, you’ll probably see legume-based dishes served in place of meat. We do all this for the simple reason that it’s what our grandparents did and what their grandparents did before them and so on.   

 

Finally, in Cyprus, there is a constant sense of what I like to think of as “perpetual summer”. This perpetual summer can be described by the sticky feeling of melting ice cream, the unbearable yet familiar heat, the sound of crickets at dusk, and the taste of cold watermelon paired with halloumi. The perpetuity of it is not solely due to its warm climate, although statistics do show that Cyprus has roughly 345 days of sunshine. It is also because most days are tedious, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. Nothing ever really happens on this sunny island. Whether you choose to blame it on the slow pace of life, or the endless sunny days, there is always a feeling of stillness hanging over the island’s sky. Once again, Horlait manages to capture this in his film. Yannis’ and his best friend Angéliki’s (Jade-Rose Parker) teenage romance is born out of this sweet summer-time languor, which is another thing reminiscent of all summers spent on an island. Every once in a while, you find a “big” event to look forward to. The extremely touching and picturesque scene where the island’s inhabitants gather for the Festival of Saint Demetris (Γιορτή Αγίου Δημητρίου) represents one of these events. The narrator explains:   

  

“all dressed in their Sunday best will be ready for songs and dances, and the band of copper wind instruments from the monastery creates a relaxing atmosphere…”  

  

(“όλοι ντυμένοι στην τρίχα θα είναι έτοιμοι για τραγούδια και χορούς, και η μπάντα χάλκινων πνευστών από το μοναστήρι δημιουργεί μια χαλαρωτική ατμόσφαιρα…”)  

  

The festivities are held on the beach with fairy lights and flags. All the little children are dressed in traditional garments, yet are wearing fake pelican feet as shoes, marking their island’s unique cultural identity while delivering a heartfelt performance of a song. Love is omnipresent in this scene. Though such an event may seem trivial to anyone who hasn’t experienced anything like it, to someone who has, it feels as if it means the world in that particular moment. After all, that’s what living on an island feels like. It means the world to you, even if it’s just a tiny dot on the world map. That’s the beautiful pain that comes with having floating roots.

 

 

   

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