The last grapes of the year were served at the table of the family home in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Kypseli just a few days ago. No words were needed to express the hope that the grapevine in the backyard would yield another good harvest in 2019. The proud owners of this storied vine swear that every year the grapes seem to be sweeter, crisper and more vibrant in color.
This pink variety comes from Cyprus and is known as “veriko,” a name legend says derives from the “very good” verdict of Richard the Lionheart when he tasted the grape during in Cyprus in 1191. No one knows if the legend is true, but it is a story that the 72-year-old keeper of this particular vine in Kypseli, Makis Fountoulis, likes to tell.
The other story relating to this particular vine is definitely true – and it is an emotional one at that.
Back in the 1980s, Fountoulis worked for a pharmaceutical company. That’s where he met Savvas, from Cyprus, and they swiftly became fast friends. Savvas, whose last name was not given, hailed from Dikomo, a village in Kyrenia, north of Nicosia, in the occupied part of the island. Up until the Turkish invasion in 1974, Dikomo was the second-biggest village in the region, with a population of 4,000 residents.
“In 74, my friend had just been discharged from military service and became a refugee with his wife and their two daughters, who were just a few months old at the time, with nothing but an army blanket to his name,” says Fountoulis.
Savvas and his family spent some time in a refugee camp in Nicosia before moving to Athens, where the two men met.
Fountoulis and Savvas traveled to Cyprus several times, but could only look at Dikomo from across the line dividing Nicosia (“it’s there, just to the left of the Turkish flag”).
In 2003, authorities in the Turkish-occupied north decided to allow people to cross the Green Line. “I’m going home,” Savvas told his friends at work one day shortly after.
“We went together,” explains Fountoulis, as he tells us Savvas’s tale. “His sisters had already gone and his mother, Salome, who still lived in refugee housing in Nicosia, didn’t want to. She told us not to bother if we were going to start crying when we got there.”
Going through the border post and crossing to Dikomo was one of the worst experiences he has ever had. “It was like traveling into a different dimension. It’s a tough journey. The church was a mosque, the elementary school a military warehouse, the gymnasium a barracks, the cemetery a soccer field and his father’s house was a stable. The entire village had been turned into a military facility,” recounts Fountoulis.
Savvas’s home was occupied by a Turkish-Cypriot high school gym teacher. “He hadn’t added a single thing of his own to the house, not even a nail. It was exactly as they had left it. The library shelves still contained the family’s Greek books, while it was very moving to see that his family photos were still tucked into the mirror frame. The man hadn’t touched anything, but he also hadn’t put any care into the house either, not even a lick of paint.”
Fountoulis remembers the gym teacher as being polite, but a bit aloof. “He was aloof and we were ill at ease, like we were in a different life,” he says. They hardly spoke among themselves, just stared at everything as they tried to block out the voices of the soldiers around them.
The garden was equally neglected; none of the trees had been pruned, nor the vine. “It had grown wild and was in danger of dying,” says Fountoulis. Without giving it much thought, he cut off a branch from the vine and took it along. On the journey back to Nicosia, the two friends felt numb.
When Fountoulis got back to Athens, he planted the vine branch in a tin of soil in the backyard of his Kypseli home. It took root fast and soon grew into a beautiful vine, giving wonderful shade and juicy fruit.
Cuttings from the vine also grow at Fountoulis’s family home on the island of Icaria and at his wife’s family home in Astros in the Peloponnese. He has also given cuttings to many of his friends, who have planted them all over Greece, from Alexandroupoli in the north to Rethymno on Crete.
“When we prune the vine every January I make a list of people to send cuttings to. I see it as an act of support for all those people who were uprooted and are still being uprooted,” says Fountoulis.
“A couple of years ago I took 10 cuttings to the refugee camp in Elaionas. I thought it would give them some shade in the summer and it would be nice if these people, the refugees, had a plant to look after, something to help them find an attachment to this place, if they have decided they want to stay on. I don’t know what became of these cuttings or if they were ever planted. But this vine is expansive, it spreads like an idea.”
In autumn this year the first four volumes of the so-called Cyprus File, comprising the findings of a 1985-88 inquiry by the Greek Parliament into the 1974 Athens-backed coup in Cyprus and the Turkish invasion of the island, were delivered to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Parliamentary Speaker Nikos Voutsis.
Like every time the Cyprus issue comes to the fore, Fountoulis thought of that journey to Dikomo with Savvas. He can’t help thinking that nothing will change as long as the settler doesn’t feel any love for the place.
Savvas died last January. He never went back to his family village.