Varoshia, forget-me(-not)

We met at the Limassol Public Gardens. Nurtane and Elena were discussing the concept of memory the day before. I was consumed by my own memories associated with this space; my grandmother used to live nearby and she would take me there every week. I have a photo she took of me, when I was around two years old, sitting on one of those swings next to the cafeteria. I feel like I remember that specific moment, but no, I think I reconstructed that memory through the multiple times I looked at the photo.

Her apartment next to the Gardens had spritz walls on the outside, and on the inside a big living room unfolded with vintage patterns and fine wood. The walls were completely covered with her paintings, depicting scenes from her hometown, Varoshia. Sometimes, their subject-matter was churches and houses from the area, with a few or no people in them, or ruins of the city, paintings of flowers such as thistles, or some distressing scenes of crowds of refugees leaving their homes. She was a refugee herself. Could they be considered self-portraits? All of them had an aura of melancholy. I wonder in which basement those paintings are, gathering dust. I asked my mum if my grandmother used to paint from memory: “No, she would use photographs”. My grandmother loved taking photographs.

Photographs were one of the only things she took with her, along with some film strips, in 1974 when she was leaving Varoshia, forever. That’s how I know what my father looked like as a child, that’s how I know how beautiful their house used to be. I’m thinking that if she was still here maybe she could see me from her balcony sitting in the cafe. She would probably just see a red dot (I was wearing a red had that day -I think-).

We are doing a workshop to find parallels (maybe) between Famagusta and Limassol. Limassol is my mum’s and my own city of birth, Varoshia is my father’s, my grandparents’ and so on. How do you connect the two? The former I know by heart, I loved it and hated it for so many reasons, the latter I dreamed of for two decades  – a whole life of idealising, how do you deal with that? Can you miss a city you never visited? Can you be nostalgic of the moments you never lived? Is the knowledge that your loved ones loved a place enough to make that place your own?

Nurtane was saying how fascinating the concept of ‘I don’t forget / Δεν ξεχνώ’ is in the South, engraved οn every school notebook of our childhood, and how it contrasts with the sign welcoming visitors to the checkpoints in the North: ‘Turkish Republic of Cyprus FOREVER’, as if the two sides play these memory games. Is it a curse to never forget or is the curse to forget forever?

Walter Benjamin wrote about the The Angel of History: “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise […] The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”. I wonder what an illusion the concept of progress might be in the context of Cyprus. They say that time heals, but in the case of Varoshia, time is the destroyer of all memory. Does that leave space for the new? Like in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is the destiny of any place to just return to dust? But can memory reconcile with the dust? Or is memory just the dust of time?

I recall the first time I found out there was a flower called ‘Forget-Me-Not’ and that its colour was blue. I remember my mum used to tell me there is a blue flower in India that blossoms every twelve years and the mountain transforms into the colour of the sea. At some point the memory of that fact merged with a song by Manos Hatzidakis about a magical flower, the chrisalifourfouro, that grows in an imaginary land, Lilipoupoli. What was real and what was not? Was Varoshia the magical land of my ancestors, stuck in time, waiting for me? Is the concept of waiting part of our anthropocentric ego? Did Varoshia bring the disillusionment which comes with growing up, that a place does not exist, the same way that physics tells us that even the concept of the passage of time is relative? Can we trust stories as a medium to reimagine anything? Someone once told me that every time you recall a memory it perishes a bit, and then again a bit more and more and more.

I go to Varoshia. I think: Am I emotionally dead? After twenty-five years of waiting to enter the magical land, why don’t I feel awe? Eralp asks me how I feel, and I really can’t answer that. I penetrate deeper and deeper into the city, on the brand-new, dark grey asphalt road. Yiannis gives us the backstory to many of those houses: this belonged to the best tailor in town, this was a cinema, this belonged to those… This to your grandmother…. So much information, which did not touch me in the beggining. So much information, which slowly turned into fleshy stories, that soon turned into reveries of how life used to be. Were those fragments a reality long gone, were they Yiannis’ memories, or were they just my own romanticised projections? 

“FORGET-ME-NOT!” – Was every house, was every broken glass asking me not to forget it? I realise I am not emotionally dead after all, but am I too dramatic? I want to cry, I want the Angel of History to reclaim the dead, but I know it can’t. A row of beautiful modernist buildings. A row of tired palm trees. A row of thriving plants. Is this a space of death or of life? Is it a memorial of lost time? I don’t know how to intepret it. The water lilies by the sea make me think that some things have stayed the same. They bloom on the sand of my grandmother’s land, where the building named after her still stands: ‘Julia court’. I am also named after her. I now better understand why her house looked like a little mausoleum of upper-class taste, packed with nostalgia and trauma. I know that she used to walk on this exact sand barefoot.

While we were leaving Varoshia, I noticed a plant in the entrance of a house that I used to find so boring as a child because it grew everywhere and didn’t have a nice smell. It’s called ‘Plumbago auriculata’, even though for me it was always anonymous. It struck me that the plant has little sky-blue flowers, and it made me think that maybe that was the Cypriot alternative of the Forget-Me-Not flower. Maybe it was also my chrisalifourfouro. According to the song, if you blow on it and it flies, someone loves you and you don’t know it. Someone loved that house, and was loved in that house, and I don’t know it.

I once wrote a poem about the flowers I was collecting as memento-moris, which at the end of the poem I renamed “Forget-Me-Not”. Another time, I wrote a poem for the chrisalifourfouro and the eyes of the guy I was in love with. I guess I have a preoccupation with nostalgia, memories, the passage of time – so existential and so repetitive of me. But then I saw the opera Argos Sidiros and it said: “In this planet the phrase ‘I remember’ has been disgraced as no other,” and it made me wonder whether this tendency was a curse after all.

Well, maybe. But I also remember that my grandmother used to take me to the Public Gardens, and when she was young, she used to decorate oranges in the ‘Orange Festival’ in Varoshia. I remember she would be mad to find out her paintings ended up in a storage room. I remember she told me right after the death of my grandfather that now her only reason for living is to go back home. I remember that right before her death she couldn’t remember me. I remember that when she was young, she lost her wedding ring in the sea of Varoshia, but the water was so transparent there that she could see it shine in the water and retrieve it. I remember she loved the colour blue. I remember she saw a red dot from her apartment in Limassol and knew it was me. I remember she used to see many colourful dots from Julia court and, I remember she was happy.

P.S. They say you die twice; once when you are medically dead and once when the last person on earth remembers you. I disagree, I think you only die once. The rest is just the way the living will interpret the dust.

By Ioulita Toumazi

Photo credit: Film still from a video taken by Ioulita’s family in Varoshia, rescued by Ioulia while fleeing in 1974.

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