How a trip with my mum changed how I see myself

Voyages of self-discovery are never more powerful than when they're with your mum. Digital Editor Olivia Phillips took hers back to Cyprus, her family birthplace, for an emotional crash course in identity...
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How a trip with my mum changed how I see myself
I got it from my mama: Olivia and her mum at Nissi Beach Resort, Agia Napa

I really don’t see my mum as much as I should anymore – one of the toughest side-effects of upping sticks and moving somewhere far-flung and sandy. There have been a lot of tearful goodbyes – and hello agains – over the four years that I’ve lived here, punctuated by a question even more pointed than “When are you getting married?” and laden with twice the heaviness… “When are you coming home?”

“Come on, that’s enough now,” she’ll say in her Greek-Cypriot accent, rounded at the edges by 40-odd years of living in south London, whenever the merest whiff of hardship brushes past. When I’m lost in an Uber, for instance, or if I get a cold. I am, after all, a massive wimp, so she knows when to catch me at my most vulnerable. When my last apartment block caught fire it was all I could do to stop her performing a citizen’s arrest when I flew back to London. My dad – smart enough to know both women in his life are immovable – usually stays silent from behind a newspaper.

Kato Drys, a village just outside Larnaca

It’s hard, though. Greek girls and their mums aren’t built to be apart. So to alleviate my guilt, if only temporarily, I planned a trip back to the motherland with my actual mother, sure that it would be one of those ideas that I’d look back in years to come and congratulate myself on. We would bond, after-school-special style, over quaint stories of her youth while we sat being eaten by mosquitoes on the veranda; she would teach me tender old Greek songs about lost loves who never came back from war; and we would spend warm evenings laughing, bellies full of lamb and cheese, at a taverna run by a man who we’d later discover was a third cousin because, well… those are the rules in Cyprus.

My Mamma Mia! fantasy continued apace as I thought about maybe, maybe even doing some sneaky future wedding-venue reconnaissance – although mum didn’t know it yet. Heritage! Wedding planning! Meat! Everything a Greek mother could want, really. It was going to be twee, sepia-tinged and magical, and we were to go home at the end closer than ever after having spent four days sandwiching the poor tourist-board rep, and four days with the family in Nicosia. Done.

What a real, O.G. taverna looks like; Makrynari in Omodos village

I arrive on the island of love (legend has it it’s where Aphrodite sprung from the rocks), ahead of mum who is flying in from Heathrow later. It’s actually a brilliant halfway meeting point; pretty much equidistant from Dubai and London at around four hours from each.

Met at Larnaca airport, the island’s main travel hub, by my tour guide Irene (pronounced Irini), my traditional Cypriot experience begins. Firstly, I can’t find her. Secondly, when I finally do, she’s completely bananas. I fall in love with her immediately. She is – quite literally – my stand-in mother; small, loud, blunt as a flying mallet and in the possession of a huge, gutsy laugh and matching gold earrings. She packs me into her cosy hatchback before zooming off to Mackenzie Beach, about a 15-minute drive away. We head to a new ocean-front bar called Rebuke Lounge that is raffia-covered and has something of a cool, Ibiza feel to it; the first indication I see of the modernisation that Cyprus is in the midst of, finding its feet somewhere between rustic and old-timey, and stuck in the tacky, plastic time-warp of ’90s Agia Napa.

Pretty houses in Larnaca

We pass the famous salt lake – home to flocks of flamingos, including the super-rare black version, Irene tells me proudly – and make our way to our first historical site of many; the beautiful Byzantine church of Agios Lazarus.

The stone bell tower stands tall over a blossom and bunting-filled town square, off which are myriad ramshackle alleyways filled with tiny tavernas and dusty junk shops brimming with baskets, gold-coin jewellery and the occasional bouzouki; a kind of Greek mandolin. Treasure for days. I struggle to distinguish between who Irene knows and who she doesn’t, as she speaks to everyone we pass with the same cheery overfamiliarity. It’s a truly Cypriot trait and I get a pang of heartache, suddenly really missing my mum even though I know she’s on her way. I idly wonder why I haven’t inherited the same friendly, talk-to-everyone temperament of my ancestors. Being shy doesn’t seem very Greek. I silently blame my polite Surrey upbringing and run to catch up with Irene who is tottering towards the medieval fort at great speed in heels.

Larnaca

Given that this is just as much a legacy fact-finding mission as a girls’ trip, I use the drive from Larnaca to Limassol on the south coast – Cyprus’ second-largest city after the capital, Nicosia – to get Irene to do a deep-dive into the island’s history, starting with the gene pool. Turns out, it’s about as mixed as you can get.

Over 12,000 years, the island has (often unwillingly) played host to every type of invader, from the Ottomans and the Venetians to the British and the French. My mum, with an air of imperiousness she without doubt passed down, always insisted that our bloodline was almost exclusively from Venice, as if this revealed a level of thoroughbred purity that would later expose me as true heir to the throne of Westeros or something. Having said that, I was also raised to believe that George Michael was my second cousin (he isn’t), so the truth in my family has often been quite a fluid construct. Morally questionable, but it means dinner time is never boring.

Kolossi Castle

As Irene gives me a definitive rundown involving Mycenaean this and Richard the Lionheart that – the woman is literally a Cypriot Google – I make a mental note to finally take that ancestry DNA test I’ve been toying with, but also worry that by doing so, I’ll potentially skewer any romantic folklore we’ve ever clung to as a family. I’ll be the one causing my mum to argue with science as we discover we all actually hail from the Isle of Wight. To be frank, I’m not sure I want it on my conscience. Families need fairytales. They’re like bones. They prop them up.

Irene is happily answering every geeky question with impressive depth as we make our way towards Limassol. Her love of her country is palpable; so proud, telling every detailed, date-filled story with passion and colour even though she would have told it a thousand times before. She looks me straight in the eye, puts her hand on my arm and tells me that she’s been a Cyprus tour guide for over 25 years, and if she were to die tomorrow and be reincarnated, she genuinely wouldn’t want to come back as anything else.

In Omodos village

It’s this kind of raw emotion and pride that really defines the Cypriot people; my mum very much included. Perhaps it’s an island thing, but whatever town you visit, they’re insistent that their water is the bluest, their olives are the juiciest, and their halloumi is the creamiest. And in some places, they’re right. The family-run Mousikos taverna in the village of Sotera makes their cheese from scratch and serves it hot. It is also – inexplicably – round and orange, but so good that it made me want to get on my chair and sing the national anthem, if only I knew it.

We arrive in Limassol, one of my favourite places on the island for its party vibes and fantastic beaches (the long, sandy Ladies’ Mile is a standout stretch). It was also ranked by TripAdvisor as the third up-and-coming destination in the world, with a shiny new marina, bougie apartment buildings, and a slew of restaurants now snaking round the existing old town.

Cleverly, it’s all been pedestrianised which means you can stroll around it at your leisure while you choose which eatery you want to spend the evening slowly becoming comatose in, thanks to giant platters of freshly caught calamari, salads where they’re not shy with the feta, and baskets of hot pitta that you will inevitably burn your hands trying to pick up because you’re greedy. And by you, I mean me.

Bread at George's bakery, Omodos

Mum arrives and after checking in to our hotel, the excellent Amathus Beach, she joins Irene and I for dinner at Draught; a buzzy spot located in a disused carob mill in the old town. I’m finally sitting opposite my mum, medieval castle in the background, devouring an oversized bowl of loukoumades (deep-fried dough balls dipped in syrup), laughing with my mouth full and not caring one bit. I fall asleep later thinking I can’t remember the last time I was this happy.

Irene runs a tight ship, so after a celebratory glass of bubbles over breakfast at the hotel with ma, we leave at 9am sharp for a bike tour around Limassol with a dashing young cycling enthusiast called Neofytos. Mum and Irene leave me to it and sit gossiping over thick Greek coffee in the sunshine. In less than 12 hours they’ve become firm friends and I can’t get a word in. They stop only to cackle at each other’s jokes, talking over each other at breakneck speed. I suddenly feel immediate sympathy for my very British dad who has had to suck this up for four decades. The whole thing reminds me of how Caitlin Moran once described her huge, chattering family as only able to communicate thanks to a very special kind of circular breathing. The Greeks invented this, although, if you ask them, they invented everything.

Graffiti street, Limassol

Limassol is a brilliant, multifaceted mix of old ruins, great beach clubs, a pretty harbour and oodles of award-winning graffiti. Turns out Neofytos is not only a Limassol native but also owns the cycle-hire company, NextBike, explaining that despite launching to a cacophony of naysayers insisting it would never catch on, that it has now genuinely changed people’s lives and – by extension – their health. Most of the locals now cycle at least once a week. He’s expanded the company to two other towns, has plans to conquer Greece next, and even though the municipality were among the initial doubters, they’ve now conceded, building cycle paths along the seafront to encourage it even more.

We’ve only just met, but I feel disproportionately proud of him. It’s so buoying to meet someone making real, positive change in a community that, historically, can be quite insular and stuck in its ways.

Neofytos leads us along the beachside cycle path under rows of palm trees, winds through the cactus-filled Municipal Gardens and heads up Athinon Street in the historic centre. Standing next to walls completely covered in graffiti, my two-wheeled tour guide explains that every spring during the annual Street Life Festival, they’re painted white and artists descend from around the world to decorate the blank canvases once again. I make a note to come back for it.

Olivia and her mum taking a boat trip to Cape Greco near Agia Napa

Cycling – and graffiti for that matter – are hardly the height of innovation, but they do reveal a wider shift in the cultural attitude. After spending every summer when I was growing up on the island, I can vouch that, in some spots, time really has stood still. There are villages where the hunchbacked old ladies have always been 100, forever dressed in black, and waving their walking sticks at passing cars; or where they still travel up the mountain by donkey to go and water the fig trees. I know this because my granny used to take me. So to see the other side of the coin has just made me fall in love with the place even more.

Back with my two loud mums, we hit the road again – this time to the archeological site of Kourion; one of the island’s 10 original city-kingdoms. A gigantic Greco-Roman theatre originally built in the 2nd century BC, it sits in a pretty majestic spot overlooking the azure blue of the Med. Before I know it, I’ve wondered out loud if people get married here. Mum shoots me an indiscernible look. I don’t think she had done anything quite as nihilistic as write me off when it comes to this sort of thing, but I also don’t think she suspected I would want to discuss it with any kind of real meaning – especially here, now, in the midst of the ruins of a small temple dedicated to water nymphs.

One of the best bars with a view in Cyprus; Cliff Bar at Grecian Park Hotel, Limassol

Let me tell you a bit more about my mum, just for context. The youngest daughter in a family of six, she was the naughty one that never wanted to settle down and ran riot all the way to London where she eventually married an Englishman (hi, dad!). It wasn’t exactly a scandal, but it did cement her as a free spirit whose fearless nature she never quite left behind, and whose entire raison d’être is to be as brilliantly unique as her name; Kyveli.

These are all things she has always felt were imperative to encourage in my brother and I. Be different, darlings. Be brave. And be a little bit eccentric. All the best people are. And my goodness, is she loved for it. Everyone is a fan. She is electric; a bright bolt of fun and warmth, who loves her family so entirely that it has allowed us to go out into the world, and dare to be different, and brave, and eccentric. She has paved the way for us to be exactly who we want to be, not only by leading by example, but by loving us so much that we knew we could.

This is how you make a Greek mum happy - cook dolmades

The thing about mum is, despite all her emotional intelligence, she will immediately shut down when faced with any subject or situation that makes her feel uncomfortable. My pop psychology take on it is that various plot twists in her life have led her to become considerably cautious about what she gets attached to, and anything that she feels leaves her open to vulnerability, she just avoids.

I can’t blame her, and I don’t even know if my hunch about it is right, but my feeling is that when she was forced to flee Cyprus during the Turkish invasion in ’74, her outlook changed for good. When things get taken from you to that degree, how can you ever look at life through the same lens again? She once told me she remembers running across a field holding nothing but a family photo, turning to see bombs being dropped behind her as she ran. She told me that story after I asked where all her vintage Ossie Clark was. I didn’t ask again.

I don’t presume to fully understand, but I do think the kind of look she gave me as we were standing by the mosaics at Kourion was related. It’s self-preservation; happy and excited, but not wanting to commit to those emotions fully incase something bad happens to take them away. I get it. And on a much smaller scale, I’m the same. But I want her to fully feel my joy and to allow it to be unburdened of any worry.

Nissi Beach Resort, Agia Napa - where Olivia's mum and dad had their honeymoon in 1980

Luckily, we have someone with us who happens to be the best person for the job. Irene takes us both arm in arm and promises the kind of support and expertise that could only come from an accomplished tour guide who has also just so happened to marry her daughter in what sounds to be the big, fat, Greek wedding of the century.

We pile back into the car talking locations and wedding dresses – I show mum a Vera Wang that she says looks “like underwear” followed by a Marchesa number that is deemed “awful.” We still have a way to go.

Dinner helped, as a good meal often does. We book in at Oineas; an O.G. taverna hidden in the backstreets of Limassol where the tables are so close they rub together, the live music is so loud you can’t speak – only sing, and the meze just keeps on coming, even when it seems like insanity to carry on. Grilled octopus, meatballs in tomato sauce, lamb cutlets, grilled halloumi, chicken souvlaki, sesame-topped bread, bowls and bowls of tzatziki, houmous, taramasalata… they bring it all while mum gets up and dances on her chair, belting out Greek numbers from the ’60s at the top of her voice as I clap along, a bit embarrassed but mostly just really, really proud.

A 'mini' meze at one of the best traditional tavernas in Nicosia; Kathodon

In the morning we leave Amathus Beach for Fig Tree Bay on the east coast, right next to Agia Napa. It’s where I spent most of my summers as a kid, when I wasn’t being slung onto the back of a donkey to trundle up and down pine tree-covered mountains. We were at Fig Tree Bay so much, in fact, that I even made a cameo in the back of a Wish You Were Here…? segment circa 1991 as Judith Chalmers did her bit to camera.

The memories come flooding back as we make our way towards Nissi Beach Hotel; no doubt doubly as emotional for mum as it’s where her and my dad had their honeymoon in 1980. I look at her in the backseat as she gazes out of the window at the hills. It’s pretty green at this time of year (April), and there are lemon trees and bright, bursting bougainvillea out in force, colouring the landscape in happy shades of orange and fuchsia. Against the blue sky, there’s nothing quite like it.

Mum loving life on the high seas in Cape Greco

Ever the crier (I get it from her), I notice mum has a little tear in her eye and instantly know why. She misses it. She misses this place that, 44 years after leaving, she still calls home. She has spent more of her life out of it than in, but it will always be in her blood. Without knowing it, and for different reasons entirely, I have followed the same path, leaving a place that shaped and defined me for a strange land that I’m now entwined with for life.

I suddenly feel closer to her than ever, silently sharing an understanding of what it feels like to have your soul tied to your homeland but battling the pull of a life built elsewhere. What she did was infinitely braver, but unwittingly, she paved the way for me to do the same. Fearlessly, she carved out a new life for herself and a richer one for her unborn children. She thrived, creating something from scratch, and, when all is said and done, taught me exactly how lucky I could be if one day, like her, I was able to call two places home.

• Olivia and her mum stayed at Amathus Beach Hotel, Limassol (amathuslimassol.com) and Nissi Beach Resort, Agia Napa (nissi-beach.com)

Photos: Supplied and Olivia's own