Journalism, Reviews, Interviews, Opinion, Travel, Culinary, Creative Fiction, Short Stories & Poetry

I am a Writer, Artist, Musician and Philosopher who believes the reason to be alive is to learn, experience, grow, influence and if you're lucky, inspire.

I've created this blog to introduce my own literature to the rest of the world in the hope that it will - and I will - in some way, make a difference.

There is a quote by a Greek philosopher, Epictetus, which I love: First Learn the Meaning of What You Say and then Speak. I believe in making life as meaningful as possible, and that is why everything you find here was created with meaning which I believe, in turn, gives it the power to inspire.

I hope you will enjoy reading my writing and be sure to check out my website at for samples of my artwork, photography and music.

From Inspiration to Creation...


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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

LIVING - Road Rage

Road Rage by Nathalie Kyrou

Only the other day, I witnessed an incident in the parking lot of a Limassol superstore which left me stupefied. Two adult men, rolling around on the floor of the car park, throwing punches, and all this over who gets the parking space! I thought I may have been hallucinating, (this kind of nonsensical violence doesn’t really happen in Cyprus, does it?), until I heard that a friend of mine had witnessed another shameful display of aggression on the Limassol-Nicosia highway. Apparently, there was a car pulled over on the side of the highway, and one man was dragging another man out of the car, in an obvious and asinine attempt at bloodshed. As if that were not enough, my sister just told me that she recently saw a woman in the passenger’s seat of a car, slapping a man’s face (as if that weren’t bad enough), while he was driving! Absurd!

It seems that road rage in Cyprus is in full swing. You have to be very careful these days who you make eye contact with, let alone who you hoot your horn at, because you never know what kind of deranged person you’re dealing with. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if everyone knew how to drive (and park) on this island, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Nevertheless, take heed: practice a little temperance if you want to arrive alive.

It’s true that you need to have the patience of a snail with the eye span of an eagle to drive in this country. The minute you’re not concentrating, somebody is sure to cut you off, without signaling (has anyone in this country ever heard of indicating?) If you don’t happen to have eyes on the sides of your head, you may end up needing a new car.

And hello, does anyone get the concept of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lanes? Roads are designed with two lanes for a reason: it’s called overtaking…so please take your side already! I have had to weave my way down roads, sometimes putting my own safety at risk, all because people simply don’t understand that when they are in the right lane going way under the speed limit, the proper thing to do when a car is right behind them is to either pick up speed, or move to the left. I definitely don’t expect them to ignore me, after I have flashed my headlights at them. What’s worse is when you move to the left and overtake them from there, they follow you and stick to your behind, blinding you with their headlights in a malicious attempt to piss you off! (Seriously, it’s enough to get anyone mad, isn’t it?) If you’re guilty of having behaved with such hostility towards another driver, then maybe instead of renewing your membership to C.A.A next year, you should consider joining A.A.A (Automobile Aggression Association).

I’ve noticed the papers have been filled lately with letters complaining about the driving in Cyprus. People are aware of this problem, it seems, but rather than do something about it, they moan about it or laugh, but finally, accept the way things are. Sure the police are cracking down on illegal road acts more and more, but the truth is, although speeding tickets are being given out like there’s no tomorrow, so are driving licenses. And people just don’t follow the rules, no matter what the consequences. Cyprus has experienced some of the highest international rates of road accident fatalities for decades, and yet it still goes on. We need to put a brake on this now.

Nonetheless, this is not just another article about how careless and reckless drivers in Cyprus are…we already know this. The point I wish to make is that we should exercise the right balance of restraint on the road, by not indulging in displays of anger, violence and revenge, and by showing some courtesy to our fellow drivers. It’s not a matter of driving slower or faster; it all comes down to driving - and behaving - better. Be aware that there are others on the road as well as you, drive politely, and pay attention. Put down that mobile phone, stop eating, brushing your hair, smoking, trying to park on a double-yellow line or pavement, racing another driver through a red light, yelling at your passenger, checking out the person in the Mercedes in the lane next to you, or beating someone up, and for goodness sake… just drive!

Nathalie Kyrou © 2009. All rights reserved to the author.

Monday, 27 October 2008


From one sea to another: A Cypriot visits Cuba by Nathalie Kyrou

The first thing I notice is the heat. Stepping off the plane, I feel like a cigar being placed in a humidor. Although I have just stepped across the world onto Cuban soil, the airport, signs, chaos at passport control, as well as the locals welcoming us tourists, are all strangely reminiscent of my own country - also an island - Cyprus.

From one island and sea (and literally ‘C’) to another, I notice the similarities between Cyprus and Cuba end once you exit the airport. Back home there may be old Mercedes taxis still functioning, but here a variety of antique cars dating all the way back to the 1950s are parked on roadsides, their vibrant colours reflecting the brilliant sun. Around us, the plentiful vegetation is also a little more dense and abundant than I had expected. Coconut palm trees - very different in appearance to the other species one is used to seeing back home - fill the landscape. This island, like my own native land, is at first impression very hot, but unlike the yellow dryness of the Cypriot summer, Cuba is extremely green, reminding me that I am indeed in the tropics.

If you are heading off to the most popular beach resort in the country, you will most probably be making your way to Varadero, and to do this you must enter the province of Havana. The drive along the peninsula to my hotel is remarkable: traditional Cuban homes, crumbling in poverty, are postcard material; screaming with character, they border the roads, adorned with colourful washed clothes hanging on the line, blowing in the breeze. There is a sweet rich smell lingering in the air, but I cannot pin down what it is exactly. Cubans, sitting along the dusty roadside or crouched on dilapidated rooftops, seemed undisturbed by the sound of our tour bus whizzing past – they are obviously used to this tourist invasion. Exotic plants line the thick red soil of the surrounding farmlands, and everywhere I turn there is water. Not only is the peninsula of Varadero merely 700 metres wide, as well as being surrounded by water on both sides it is also filled with water in its centre, in a form comparable to a large dam.

It may sound cliché, but I cannot wait to see the beach, which is after all the reason I booked this vacation in the first place! Having grown up in the sea-side town of Lemesos, be it across the world, I have the salty taste of the sea in my veins. But to my disappointment, after waiting my entire life to see the Caribbean Sea up close, this aquamarine water framed by fine white sand is not as calm as advertising photographs have promised it to be. In my dreams of this place, the waves are not as fierce, nor is the wind. Being used to the tranquillity of the Mediterranean waters my entire life, I am not accustomed to the ferocity of this vast surf before me, so I feel both excited and a little fearful as I step into this tropical sea for the first time. In fact, I only actually experience one morning of crystal clear, still water during my entire week-long stay in Cuba. It is true that no matter what time of year you decide to visit, it really is down to luck whether you will be wrestling for your life as you dodge the violent waves or enjoying yourself as you float calmly whilst snorkelling on the reef.

The next morning promises tamer weather. The smell of sweet coconut and banana oils wafts through the air. Seeking the soothing shade as well as protection from the sharp breeze, I settle under the cover of my straw thatched parasol. In my section of the beach, the sun beds are set back at least fifty metres from the shore. Nestled near the plants and trees, they leave a large stretch of pristine, powdery white, untouched sand between the people and the ocean. As much as I love my own country, Ayia Napa this is not. There is no-one to bother you out here, no messy, dirty sun-beds, no children screaming. For most of the relaxed bodies, either asleep, or sipping on cocktails, the relentless wind and scorching sand make reaching the water too tiresome a challenge, even to those who are attracted by the idea of exploring the warm sea. As a result, the scenery remains fairly empty and thus, picture perfect. As I settle down onto my űber-comfortable sun-bed, I am intoxicated by the peaceful mood around me, only slightly distracted by the occasional Latino vibes filtering through the atmosphere from a salsa class being held somewhere in the distance.

A day out in the sun will definitely stir up the appetite, and if you are staying in a beach resort complex comprised of more than one hotel, it is typical that you’ll have access to all of its hotel restaurants for meals, leaving you with an impressive choice of places to dine. The strangest meal I devour on this trip is at the seaside wooden hut tavern: a dish of rice topped with a fried egg, framed by a cooked sweet plantain banana, served with fresh tomato sauce and a side order of black beans (a very odd combination indeed, but a local delicacy nevertheless). Once I have scrambled it altogether - as instructed by my waiter - I admit it is, to my surprise, delicious. And as if that is not enough, I have fresh Cuban fish to follow, and for dessert, decadent homemade coconut ice-cream. No matter how good the food is, however, based on my experience as a traveller it may prove a good idea to cut meat out of your diet during such a voyage for a variety of reasons, the benefit being that because of this you will be forced to try vegetarian options such as fish and seafood instead (even though most Cuban dishes contain pork or chicken – unlike beef which is rare here and thus too expensive). The fresh grilled snapper, calamari and shrimp are succulent and delectable, and with no doubt the best choice anyway, and the paella, served fresh off the grill by the poolside, is truly the best I have ever tasted. It also is worth your while to consume as much tropical fruit as possible while out here, because not only is it local, abundant and fresh, it does not cost you a thing (unlike drinks – including bottled water – which you may be charged for even if you are on an inclusive package).

On my second evening, I venture out of the resort with some hotel guests, (did I mention that everybody out here is either German, Russian, French or Canadian), accompanied by one of the hotel entertainers. We go to a Cuban 1950s style club which features a live Latin band called Mambo. The moment we walk into the night spot we are faced with a humorous sight: at least fifty people on the dance floor doing a form of synchronised dancing which reminds me of the Macarena or perhaps a Cuban version of line dancing. I realise I need a drink! A ten dollars entrance fee to the club gives me access to an open bar all night, allowing me to sample a variety of local beverages. I try two rum cocktails: Rum Punch and the famous Mohito (made with real sugar cane) which is refreshing and highly addictive. Turning back to the dance floor, I am now ready to join the others and lose myself in the vibe (and gosh, can these Cubans dance!) My favourite music is by the famous Cuban band ‘Las Orishas’ – a mixture of French and Spanish rap over Latino style melodies. Club Rhumba is another option if you are looking for a busier spot with a somewhat more international scene. The nightlife here is the same as on any party island: young people having fun into the early hours of the morning.

Not surprisingly, I find it very hard waking up at the crack of dawn for my excursion to Cuba’s capital, Havana. With swollen ankles and a sore sunburn (I should have remembered that the closer you get to the equator, the stronger the sun is), I board the bus and sleep for the most of the two hour drive out to the capital, unfortunately missing out on all the scenery along the way. I awaken to crumbling eighteenth century buildings in faded colours, to a cultural and historic city which is overpopulated and drenched in an extremely pungent smell, and also to poverty. We drive around Havana, trying to pay attention to our uninformative and sadly rather boring tour guide, stopping to have lunch in a restaurant set in an old pink house. We then visit the downtown area, the oldest part of the capital, which is definitely also the poorest. It had been said that smell may be the strongest trigger of memory, but unlike the warm, salty, humid air of Cyprus, or the crisp, cold, damp smell of London, the stench in downtown Havana is not one you would care to remember. The stray dogs, overstuffed horse-driven carts and buses only add to the sickening and unbearable stink of human and animal pollution. Intolerable and suffocating, it is spread around by the warm breeze, leaking into even the smallest cracks and corners.

On a brighter note, upon our tour of this city, which is rich in culture and immersed in history, we come across numerous noteworthy sites: a park named after and dedicated to John Lennon by all his fans (I had not realised what an impact he had made on Cubans before this), the hotel where Earnest Hemmingway lived for four years while he wrote “For whom the Bell Tolls” (in fact he lived in Cuba for 18 whole years), and a beautiful old Spanish church (having been mesmerized by its beauty, I cannot for some reason remember why it is famous). More interesting yet is the fact that Christopher Columbus first embarked here, on this very island, when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean on his famous voyage.

The market place of downtown Havana is also worthy of a visit, brimming with life and immensely colourful, but it is fair to say that practically every stall sells mostly the same items. People will always haggle with prices too, even offering to barter their goods with the contents of one’s handbag: candy, jewellery, used cosmetics. (Several people even walk up to me in the streets and beg me for ‘savon’, which I only later realise means that those poor citizens were in need of soap! In the museum we visit, the women staff plead with us to give them candy or medication for their children. I wish I was more prepared and had brought along supplies with me). Nonetheless, despite all the desperation, only a few elderly people sitting on the steps of the church actually beg for money. In fact, Havana is not the poorest city I have ever been to, but it still lacks certain things which we in the developed world take for granted, making it deprived in its own way. I also think this is the first place I have ever been to where nowhere is to be found any Coca-Cola sign. Most of us may have become accustomed to the fact that American products are omnipresent throughout the world, but in Cuba, where the opposite is the case, you really notices their absence.

We finally visit the Romeo and Juliet cigar factory - whether you are a cigar aficionado or not, this is certainly not to be missed - picking up a box of cigars to take home on our way out. Although glad to have experienced Havana, I am more than ready to return to my hotel. Once again within the confines of this heavenly prison, I discover the best way to get a feel for the authentic Cuban vibe is to smoke one of those cigars, or preferably one rolled freshly by the lady at the cigar stall in your hotel lobby. There, as you sit in the breeze of the hotel terrace, cigar in mouth, you can truly relax while you mentally prepare yourself for the morning antics. I say this because mornings are war time in the hotel, as one gets up earlier than can be considered desirable, simply in order to secure sun-beds. After a few unsuccessful tries, on my the fourth day, I awaken extra early, before the attendants are even up and about, and actually manage to acquire a suitable lounging spot on the beach, but much to my dismay, not only does it rain all morning, but it remains cloudy and windy all day long! Cold but stubborn as a mule, I stay on the beach, listening to music and trying to read, while all around me the beds are for once empty, as more people more sensible than myself seek more appropriate pastimes for such weather.

Finally, a sandstorm on the beach diverts me to the swimming pool and recreation area. It is only after I walk around the grounds a little, that I discover the secret swimming pool by the hotel bungalows. There I find a true oasis, with cosy corners surrounded by palms swaying in the breeze, framed by wooden bridges. The pool’s inviting and calm turquoise waters lure me in, and I finally get the swim I deserve. Afterwards, I decide to continue my stroll through the fascinating tropical grounds and gardens of the hotel. Lush in greenery and elaborate in design, the hotel grounds are spectacular, the only disappointing fact being that they are not well lit at night; the high arches and numerous plants in the fancy gardens lay asleep in the enveloping darkness which forbids the wandering guest from exploring. The gardens, in general though, far outshine the hotel rooms, which are bathed in intense pink paint, and lined with marble floors which augment and echo any kind of noise (my advice is if you are looking for peace and quiet, sleep on the beach). On the other hand, all this is made up for by the wonderful sounds that also surround me, sounds that remind me of my childhood: the soft rustling of the palm leaves against each other, the wind howling, whistling then whispering, the lapping then smashing of waves on the beach, a loud cricket’s song and a bird’s soothing lullaby (all of which of course I notice only when the rest of the noise has died down).

On my last day in Cuba, I am thrilled that the morning greets me with promising clear skies, as the rest of my holiday has been plagued with the kind of cool weather known as the ‘coldfront’ which, I have been told, the tide has brought in. Luckily today unfolds into a warm and bright afternoon, although the ocean continues to attack the shore and my attempts to swim are futile. Needless to say I get crushed by a wave and my shoulder ends up scraped on the sand, leaving me aching and bruised, but strangely victorious and happy at my brave attempt.

As I board the plane to leave windy Cuba, with its beauty and culture, behind me, what I take with me are not souvenirs that one can physically hold (well, apart from the cigars - you have to take home Cuban smokes!) My greatest souvenirs are my memories of unforgettable and striking natural images, like the large albatross type birds swooping over water, dunking into it beak first, then floating on the surface like large ducks; the quiet strolls through the peaceful grounds of my hotel; that shade of aquamarine water that is unsurpassed in richness and beauty; or the feel of the soft powdery sand between my toes. But most of all I remember the trees: numerous varieties of cactuses growing everywhere, the sweet smell of huge carobs and mangroves which emerge out of nowhere framing the shore. Last, but certainly not least, those palm trees, with their short, thin, fat, or lumpy barks; like plastic models dotting the beach, coconuts dangling perilously overhead, they sway gently in the wind, silhouetted against the sun as it sets on the horizon. In the distance the sea is endless and wild.

Nathalie Kyrou © 2008. All rights reserved to the author.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

MUSIC - Listen and Harmonize...Review and Interview

Listen and Harmonize by Nathalie Kyrou

Plato said “Philosophy is the highest music”, Beethoven said “Music is a higher revelation that all wisdom and philosophy”. Could music be the highest philosophy? Experiencing the Cyprus’ International Music Festival and an interview with one of the artists opens the doors to musical enlightenment.

In the magnificent setting of the ancient Kourion theatre, the annual International Music Festival celebrated its first year of “beauty through music and landscape” this summer. Founders and organizers, Teresa Dello Monaco and Paolo Cremona, did a tremendous job of selecting world renown musicians, and combining various musical styles (the festival is open to classical, jazz, traditional and avant-garde music) with a setting that evokes deep-felt emotion. Comprising of three evening concert performances, the festival, this year, hosted Daniel Levy who offered us a fresh, new perspective of classical works; the Jacques Loussier Trio who enthralled us with never-heard before alchemies of jazz and classical melodies; and the gypsy jazz energy of the fun and young Zaiti ensemble.

Fade in. An open-air amphitheatre, perched on a cliff-top amongst ancient ruins, set against a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea. The night sky is dark and sprinkled with glittering stars. In the distance lies a faint outline of the horizon. The wind whispers through the air while waves can be heard crashing upon the shore below. A crowd gathers on the stone seats of this intimate venue. There is a buzz of excitement in the air. Daniel Levy is about to perform on the black polished Steinway lying alone in the middle of the stage.

Levy caresses the keys softly before his slow commencement of Brahms. The music softly creeps up on you, without the need for amplifiers, as his fingers scurry over the ivory bars. When he pauses, the vast silence of the venue engulfs you. Levy’s expression matches the music’s vivid character. He makes what is difficult to perform, look easy, delivering piece after piece with clarity and concentrated melody. He teases us gently with his pianissimo, amazing us with his accuracy. Every single note is played with extreme care and attention to detail.

Mesmerizing us with his Chopin performance, Levy captivates his listeners with his skillful rendition of the Barcarolle. The second half of the recital contains more recognizable music from Chopin and Schumann - works with a more romantic feel to them – a perfect complement to the enchanting surroundings. During Liszt, Levy’s left digits rumble over the keys like rolling thunder, his right fingertips like raindrops tinkling on glass. Keeping us on our toes with changes of tempo, he delivers a memorable ending to the piece, then entrances us with his encore, an improvisation surprisingly played solely with his left hand. The finale is a dramatic display of musical flair as Levy ends the performance like a storyteller finishing a tale with gusto.

Not only a master of music on stage, but also a kind, intelligent and interesting man, the renown Daniel Levy inspired me during our interview:

You have said that “Music is a language”. Can you elaborate?

Not only is music a language, but language itself comes from music. In India, grammarians are musicians - they understand grammar from their love of music. The origins of words are often derived from music. Take the word "accordo" in Italian, rooted in music and adapted into everyday language. Same with the word "sympathy" –often the tone of one's voice is described as being sympathetic. How about “strings”? Have you ever heard of the expression: "pulling/tugging at one’s heart-strings" to denote emotion? This epitomizes the link between music, language and feelings. Even the word “heart” is very close to the word “heard”. When you say you learn things "by heart", you mean that you hear it, and then remember it... once again to do with sounds and listening.

Music is literature without words. The ballad represents a poem, the ‘novellette’ is a short novel in small parts. The composer doesn't tell you what the story is (in words), but you can hear the 'voices' in the music. Actually, the great composers were inspired by novels. Liszt's ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ is a great example of this – the music was inspired by a book of the same title, which tells the story of a man (Obermann) who went to Switzerland to a valley (not an actual place but more of a philosophical state) to find himself.

You chose to record Schumann’s works and perform him at the festival this year? What do you find so unique and inspiring about his music?

Schumann was a sympathetic man, which is why so many listeners were affected by his music. There was a sense of singing and poetry in his works, and he was inspired by children and nostalgia, all of which give his music a sense of freedom, intuition, and purity, which attracts me. His compositions may not appear to be difficult to play but they are in fact more complicated than other "acrobatics" on stage, which seem to have more music packed into a piece. With Schumann there is so much yet to discover. In 2010 it will be his 200th anniversary - celebrated by musicians all across the world. My aim is to bring some of his less popular works to light. There is no motivation to do this amongst managers of music - it is always the same pieces which are performed and recorded, and yet he has so many other compositions. Using a celebration as a reason to discover more of his work is a great way to get to know him better.

How about Chopin?

The thing about Chopin is that the pieces that are usually performed are usually “spectacular” and seem difficult to play. The Barcarolle is a little different as it seems easier and yet it’s not. I believe it’s harder to play a very good pianissimo than a forte. Also velocity is not the most important indication of difficulty either. Something andante and without noise is more challenging to impress people with. It's like being naked on a stage.

How do you see live performances evolving in the modern world?

The 'concert' as we know it is quite recent. Piano recitals were the continuity of poetry, begun by Liszt. In fact in the 19th century, it was not uncommon to have 4 hour long performances with singers, sonatas and orchestras - it was not until the end of that century when the focus was shifted to one artist for each recital. These days, music has become a pause, an interval. It is hard to capture all that the composer was trying to say in just a couple of hours. Although I do believe that is it not only about how long the piece is, but how intense it is for both the audience and the performers, we cannot deeply appreciate what is happening, when we don't have enough time.

I believe in the influence of music on human beings: in taking time out, in making a choice to listen. Music is a mirror of time - it is impossible to shorten the time it takes to listen to a sonata - it takes as long as it takes. You just cannot squish the story. What’s also important is that music must sound, even if it is an old composition, as though it were something that is happening - and relevant - now. Each time you hear it, it could be interpreted differently.

How does recording in studio compare with live concerts?

Sometimes a truly well executed recording of a piece can give you a different yet equally satisfying experience of the music compared to a live performance. There is something to be said about listening alone versus listening with people. With live concerts, sometimes because of technicalities or conditions not being right, they may not turn out as perfect as is desired. I love playing with an orchestra, as well as doing solos, but actually working with the ensemble rather than just showing up on the concert night and playing without rehearsing with them beforehand. When it comes to the audience, I can tell during the performance if they are "willing to listen". There is a different between hearing and listening.

Is this part of what you have written about in your novels, as well as what you are trying to teach in your newly founded Academy of Euphony?

Yes. We think that we listen very well, simply because we have ears, but that's not true. We learn to talk, write, and read at school, but how about just listening? The great composers all had so many things in common: they were all deep listeners, completely aware of the music, of its role, and what it can evoke in you. When you first study the composers it seems that they were simply romantic and poetic, when in fact they were simply aware that one can transcend themselves with music.
You cannot discover such things in a regular academy, which is why I have founded the Academy of Euphony, a place to share, accessible to all. We are all musical instruments in an orchestra - each of us with a different pitch. We can all offer something to one another, no matter what our background is - as long as we feel the necessity. It would be a borderless form of teaching, with no divisions, where each person can take or give as they wish, educating themselves in the process. The challenge is to: i) Experience sound, ii) Listen, and iii) Go beyond. The idea is to explore harmony, as the body itself is a harmonic human unity… a true musical chord.
Pythagoras originated the idea of the enlightening and healing power of sounds and music thousands of years ago, however you seem to be the pioneer in bringing the idea of Euphony as a state of consciousness to the attention of modern society. Why now, and how will you succeed when so many others have failed?

So many people in time have tried to do this, but silently, without listening. Music was not essential before... but it is the right moment now. It seems that there is greatest necessity to address this issue now that there is so much ‘noise’ in the world. Recognizing that this sort of education could be essential to each one of us is a natural reaction to this. The Dalai Lama said: “In a moment of so much communication, and yet no communication...there are so many windows, but nothing in the room”.

One doesn’t have to be a musician in the professional sense - we are all musicians in the essential way…we have music within us. We are all able to appreciate it; something resonates inside us when we hear music, even if we don't understand it completely, and that is a marvelous experience. We are the musical instruments, we are sound… I mean we use sound in our voices, when we speak and in song. Have you ever thought: why and how is it possible that we can produce certain sounds like this so naturally? Maybe we need to have more responsibility about this power. We must swim against the current. The fear of finding ourselves, leads us only to become less human.

You have definitely been a great mentor to others. Do you prefer teaching or performing?

They are so different that you cannot compare – it’s like "a different frequency" altogether. Having one without the other would not be good. Sharing is important – it is essential to hear what others have to say. Just playing would be like being of touch with reality; you wouldn't have a clue what people are searching for in music, what they need. If we don't listen to people first, why should we listen to music?

As the performance ends, the last notes of music drift up the theatre and dissolve into the atmosphere. The roaring crowds explode into applause. Smiles adorn the faces of musicians, as laughter rumbles amongst the delighted audience. The lights dim and the people climb up the rocky steps, empting the amphitheatre. There is an overall sense of satisfaction intermingled with a touch of sadness, as it will be a whole year before the ancient grounds of Kourion host the International Music Festival again. Fade out.

Nathalie Kyrou © 2008. All rights reserved to the author.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

TRAVEL - Egypt /Nile

The Secrets of a Great River - A Cruise down the Nile by Nathalie Kyrou

Forget the pyramids. Cruising along the still waters of the Nile, stopping at temples along the way, is the perfect and most relaxing way to get a real sense of prevailing Egyptian history. The journey down the longest river in the world offers an authentic sense of Africa in Egypt. Only a couple of hours flight south from Cyprus lies an entirely different world, a photogenic land and river whose cultural depth and historical magnitude are stupendous and awe-inspiring.

Modern-day Luxor, otherwise known as the ancient city of Thebes, was Egypt’s capital at the beginning of the 18th dynasty and remained a religious centre even after the capital moved to Memphis and, later, the Nile Delta. Luxor is where most of the cruises for floating hotels along the river begin, sailing southwards to their final destination, Aswan, in what in ancient times was referred to as the region of Upper Egypt (in term of the Nile’s northerly flow).

After settling into our rooms on our ship, the M/S Mojito, we had the entire day to tour Luxor, before lifting anchor the next morning. After getting the schedule break-down from our own personal guide, Abdulla, who was to accompany us on the entire trip, we hopped into our own private mini-van and crossed the large gates of Luxor into the surrounding countryside.

In the ancient Egyptian cosmos, the realm of the dead lay beyond the western horizon. Across the Nile in western Luxor, a succession of New Kingdom rulers had tombs cut into cliffs. Here you can find the tomb of the famous Tutankhamun and the Temples of the Nobles. The legendary Queen Hatshipsuet of the 18th Dynasty - the only queen to rule Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs - built her temple at Deir el Bahri, and although Egyptologists have yet to find her body, some believe it lies in the nearby valley. The famous Queen Nefertari, known from the myriad of representations of her in temple reliefs, was also buried in the nearby Queen's Valley. Her tomb is considered to be the most beautiful of all queens' tombs, both for its design and its brilliantly coloured painted decoration.

After a brief stop to take pictures at the Colossi of Memnon (where two enormous statues of seated figures are all that remain of the monumental avenue leading to the temple of Amenhotep III), we arrived at The Valley of The Kings, one of the main attractions of the region, and a major tourist spot. There, nestled amongst gargantuan, rocky mountains, lie prehistoric rulers’ carved-out tombs, once stocked with goods for the afterlife. The renowned Ramses II (a.k.a Ramses the Great, of the 19th Dynasty, ca. 1539-1075 B.C), who restored traditional beliefs and fought a succession of foreign foes during his reign, was buried here and had his temple erected nearby. The Valley of the Kings was impressive - I was most amazed at the intricate and beautiful hieroglyphics, especially at the enduring vibrancy of the originally used colours.

On our return journey into town, we stopped off at an alabaster factory in the village of El-Korna. Four young Egyptian men, sitting on the floor outside, were working on crude slabs of locally collected alabaster, from which they were producing refined sculptures and assorted containers. We were explained the working process in detail, after which we were left to wander around the shop (I later regretted not purchasing one of the exquisite works of art from there, as prices at the airports for comparable souvenirs were quadruple the cost and the selection limited). I accepted a tiny piece of alabaster as a gift from one of the men, only to be told afterwards, to my amusement, that I must give him money for it. This was only one of the many times where I was reminded that tipping is extra, regardless of whether your trip covers all expenses. Although being expected to disperse cash to everyone around you at all times can take some getting used to, it is important to realise that people out here survive on tips. Thank goodness for our guide, who could advise us how much to give and to whom.

Abdulla, in his early thirties and originating from Aswan, was the ideal guide. A history guru, excited to talk continuously about his country – and not in the least bit weary from already having done it countless times before – he told us that the Nile supports nine countries, each of which allow water to pass downstream, on to the next. He also mentioned, to my surprise, that it only rains here every five years or so, and only for only a few minutes. No wonder most of the huts around us had no roofs! I knew this was desert country, but where did so much of the river water come from then? I discovered that the Blue Nile, which rises from Ethiopia, provides most of this water, while the rest comes from the longer White Nile which rises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, from its source at Lake Victoria. In fact, the Nile flows some 6,695 km from the meeting point of the two rivers (which merge near Khartoum in Sudan), to the Mediterranean, where it ends in a delta that empties into the sea. Another interesting fact: the word "Nile" comes from the Greek word Neilos (Νειλος), meaning river valley.

As we were visiting Karnak Temple later that afternoon upon our return to Luxor, Abdulla proceeded now to relate the history and importance of (and thus reason for) the cornucopia of temples in this country. Mediator between the Egyptians and their gods, the ruler of ancient Egypt was the country’s highest priest as well as its head of state. By building temples and making offerings, he continually reconfirmed his devotion to the gods. In response, the gods maintained the physical world and all who lived in it. As a result, from Luxor to Aswan, history reveals itself in the form of ancient temples, adorned with symbols and pictographs, their giant columns visible from afar.

At Karnak, riches bestowed on the principal state god, Amun-Re, brought increasing influence to priests at the main temple. Carved from stone, many examples of the monumental art of Luxor can be found in this breath-taking work of architecture which took more than 2000 years to build. Karnak temple was so fascinating and colossal that I was gravely disappointed we only had a short time to explore it - I could have spent days wandering amongst the gigantic columns, sculptures, statues and obelisks, losing myself in the maze of enduring ruins, and in the archetypal hieroglyphics which glittered like gold in the afternoon sun.

However, dusk was beckoning us back on board, where rest and dinner were to be had before our night-time traditional horse carriage ride through the streets of old Luxor. This is perhaps the most popular thing a visitor here can do, and it proved to be an excellent way to get a real feel for the town and its inhabitants – the highlight being Luxor’s marketplace, open until the early hours of the morning. Hidden beauty can be found in even the poorest of places, and Luxor market is the perfect example: baskets of colourful spices and tiny Egyptian lemons, neatly arranged in rows, adorn the streetsides, beautifully laid out alongside racks of shoes and hanging clothes and materials; motorbikes, bicycles, horses decorated with bells - their backsides shaved into designs - and pedestrians of all ages weave their way around basketed goods and horses; ironmongers, shoe-makers and other merchants go about their daily work, while groups of men huddle around roadside fires. It was an enchanting and unforgettable outing, well worth the 20 USD extra per person, even though it is possible to bargain for a cheaper ride. My only advice: don’t get off the carriage at any point, or attempt to walk anywhere in town without your guide, or else you will be hassled incessently by locals wishing to sell you their goods or simply asking you for “bakshish” (Arabic for tip or gratuity).

We didn’t have time to visit Luxor Temple the next morning, but we did watch it from a distance as we set off south on the first leg of our cruise. As we disentangled ourselves from the rows of cruise ships stacked next to each other like sardines in a tin, and moved away from the fleet of ships setting off in a cruising parade, I started to notice the scenery changing. As we left the town behind, urban imagery was replaced by rural landscape. This is at this moment when I began to get a genuine sense of the river Nile.

Watching cattle grazing lazily on the tall grasses of the river bank, while small fishing boats, piled high with stacks of sugarcane, dotted the beaches, I was reminded of Egypt’s past. The country was once a savanna roamed by elephants and gazelles, where humans hunted and gathered their food. About 7,000 years ago the climate changed and all but the land closest to the river turned to desert. This is how two great forces – the Nile River and the surrounding desert – shaped one of the world’s most enduring civilisations. Settling by the Nile, people began to farm and form communities. Each year the river overflowed its banks and deposited a fresh layer of rich earth across its floodplain, nourishing its people. Now, thousands of years later, farmers still harvest the fertile surrounding ground, and the Nile was, and still is, used to transport goods to different places along its long path.

We passed by several old villages, their cubic shaped houses of mud and brown clay, occasionally painted in pastel pinks and blues, lining the coast. Barefoot children seemed happy, playing on muddy banks. Roofless huts made from yellow stalks, bunched and tied together to form sheltering walls, speckled the foreground, while in front of them groups of women wrapped in brightly coloured scarves gathered by the river, filling their containers with water and waving to us as we drifted along by. Other women were washing clothes and carpets in the olive green stream, while men, dressed in long, loose white tunics, their heads wrapped in turbans, walked along dusty paths, balancing large baskets of goods on their head. Others sat on rickety rowing boats, fishing for unknown treasures. Further on, in between villages, palm trees, filled with sweet and succulent dates, crowded the shoreline, while patches of dessert sand lay beyond. Everywhere I looked, donkeys and camels were scattered across the lush vegetation, living in harmony with nature and humans.

As we cruised along over the next couple of days, the Nile widened, then narrowed, then widened again, offering us an abundance of breathtaking panoramic views and contrasting scenery: clouds of smoke billowing out from amongst verdant fields, banana plantations covering the red earth, river weeds swaying in the wind, and in the distance, on the eastern side, clusters of date palms interspersed along the vista of beige, rocky mountains looming high above the occasional silhouetted mosque. To my surprise, at one point a speeding train whizzed by out of the stillness on a railtrack that appeared out of nowhere, rushing along to who knows where. The only thing I noticed swimming in the river, throughout the whole journey, was a large brown cow – and I never even knew cows could swim! Long narrow islets also kept cropping up in the midst of the river, upon which a variety of birds would perch themselves, resting on their golden sands. A nature photographer’s and wild-life enthusiast’s paradise, I discovered the Nile to be the perfect haven for foreigners wishing to escape the bustle of modern city life.

We stopped for a while in Esna, where we were accosted by a throng of merchants trying fiercely and relentlessly to sell us their goods directly from their rowing boats beneath our ship. They would throw up samples of material and ask us to throw them down some money. This went on for hours and was a bizarre and remarkable sight! We then headed south to Edfu, where lies what is known as ancient Egypt’s best preserved temple, dedicated to Horus, the falcon God. A horse driven carriage brought us to the entrance of Edfu Temple, where a chaotic mass of carriages and screaming drivers continuously gather to drop off tourists who need to be extremely prudent to avoid getting lost, stolen from or trampled.

Nevertheless, Edfu temple, begun by Ptolemy III and finished by Ptolemy XII, is worth the hassle. Abdulla informed us that a picture of the temple can be found on a 50 pound Egyptian note, and that from anywhere you stand in or around the structure you are able to see the image of the king carved somewhere. While exploring the interior’s impressive engravings, we learnt that one of the best jobs in that era was that of a writer, and that the hieroglyphic symbol meaning the sound “shhh” was the equivalent term for the word we use today of ‘writer’ (this being because writers worked best in silent conditions, thus “shhh” was a reminder to others to be quiet around them). Interestingly, the word ‘hieroglyphic’ itself actually derives from ancient Greek, where Hieros (ἱερός) = sacred, and glyphikós (γλυφικός) = engraved.

Further down along the Nile, we passed by the Temple of Kom Ombo, where, as with the rest of the places of worship visited during our trip, we were faced with ornate stone engravings revealing details of a culture that still inspires marvel. We ended our cruise in Aswan, located in lower Nubia (which may have gotten its name from the word ‘gold’ – or nub in Egyptian), a region which in the past provided Egypt with ebony, ivory, leopard skins and incense. It was here at the First Cataract, or rapid, near Aswan that ancient Egyptians erroneously believed the source of the Nile to be. The city itself is a much larger urban centre than Luxor, with about a quarter of a million inhabitants, and most men here are dressed in modern clothes, as opposed to the more traditional jallabehas (floor-length gowns), although all women still wear hejabs covering their heads. As with everywhere else we had visited so far in Egypt, only men seemed to be working in public.

Before flying back home from Aswan via Cairo, we visited the High Dam - the world’s largest - which controls and stores a copious amount of water, and produces electricity. The dam helps locals reclaim land and avoid relocation due to flooding, also aiding to preserve Nubian archaeological sites that would otherwise be destroyed. The neighbouring Lake Nasser, at approximately 500km x 30km, is the largest fresh-water, man-made resevoir in the world. To my astonishment, Abdulla informed us that it is also filled with 36,000 protected crocodiles! From Aswan and Lake Nassar, it is possible to discover some lesser-known temples of the Nile, with the exception of the Temple of Abu Simbel, which is one of Egypt’s priceless treasures.

Despite the enormous size of this all, the highlight of Aswan for me was the short sail we took along the coastal town that morning. The felucca, a traditional sailboat, was captained by a man called Ousama who steered us towards Elephantine island, which takes its name from ivory trade and the islet’s surrounding naturally shaped rocks which resemble elephants. After buying a few village hand-made souvenirs from a selection offered to us by the young ship mate, we sailed to shore, where we docked and continued our tour. Aswan is known for its perfumeries, and at Essence of Life, where we stopped next, one can select different samples to buy from a plethora of oils and glass ornate containers. You can even create your own perfume blend right there, as you get a neck and shoulder oil massage while listening to a guided explanation of all that is on offer.

On the whole, this was definitely a trip worth taking, despite the lack of professionality and service from our local travel agent Xenos Travel. Overall, Nugget Tours, on the Egyptian side, were more helpful and accommodating to our needs. In general, all Egyptians were exceedingly friendly and courteous. The cruise boat itself was nothing remarkable but the staff were pleasant and the food better than average. Perhaps the only real entertainment on-board worth noting though was Oriental night, where guests came dressed up in traditional Egyptian costumes, and were presented with a traditional buffet and entertained by a humorous tribal dancer, although it was the memorable swirling Sufi dancer who truly stole the show.

All in all, hotel accommodation in Egypt was filled with unfamiliar (and to me, slightly eccentric) touches: a leaflet in my room advertising Koran praying carpets available for hire; being woken up daily by loud prayers at sunrise; shower heads by all the toilets (I discovered this is because it is customary to wash one’s backside before praying); the man walking around the entire boat at meal-times, sounding his gong to remind passengers that dinner is being served; the souvenir shop owner asking for my sister’s hand in marriage in exchange for 100 camels! Even funnier was the fact that it took me ages to realise that Egyptian hotel staff were not talking about poultry when they kept saying “Chic – en”, but were referring to check-in! What I loved most was trying the odd but delightful combination of flavours on the breakfast buffet, from freshly made orange and carrot jams to foules (fava beans) and pomegranates.

Yet it is the actual cruise on the river, rather than the boat itself, which offers one a true taste of the real Egypt. As your ship navigates past palm groves, temples, sand dunes, villages, and monuments, thousands of years of history unfold before your very eyes. So far as the Nile seems endless, its history seems never-ending. Yet, for something so immense, the Nile is strangely peaceful. It is a river with real presence – its character coming alive once you have cruised along its sparkling and tranquil waters. Like the hieroglyphics which are engraved on the walls of antiquity, the Nile will remain etched eternally in the memories of those who have been fortunate enough to experience it.

Copyright © Nathalie Kyrou 2008

Monday, 13 October 2008

FILM REVIEW - Hold me Tight, Let me Go

by Nathalie Kyrou

Hold me tight, let me go is the latest documentary by English filmmaker, Kim Longinotto, who once again turns her compassionate lens onto people living in extraordinary circumstances. In her fifteenth film, which won the Jury Prize Award in The International Film Festical Amsterdam (IDFA) and Best British Feature Documentary: Britdoc, 2007, we are invited to take a deep look at the forty children of Mulberry Bush boarding school who have been sent there because of extreme behaviour. Often having suffered severe emotional trauma, they need all the help they can get if they are going to try and turn their lives around.

We follow the lives of these fragile young boys at the heart of the film over a period of time, fast-forwarding between months and switching back and forth between characters. Reminding one a little of ‘Être Et Avoir’ - also set over several seasons in a rural community but in a French school - Hold me tight, let me go may not be in French, but should perhaps come with a warning like “Excuse my French!”, because this is a film that keeps shocking us with the kids’ abusive language (“I’m gonna kick you in the c%*@!” or “Shut up your fat b*$%@” or “F%^& you, little bastard!”) As saddening it is to hear such explicit words exploding out of these children’s mouths, it is clear that they are only repeating what they themselves have heard from the dysfunctional adults in their lives.

The children lash out in other shocking ways, apart from swearing, by hitting and spitting their way through their misery, while endlessly patient and determined staff members try to verbally reason with them, often (and sadly) having to resort to restraining them physically. “In your face” scenes where children are held by the wrist, or even held to the ground, are truly disturbing to watch. Indeed, the camera leaves nothing out. Sometimes – and I don’t know if Longinotto meant for this to be obvious – the staff, although remarkably calm, come off as annoying. It is the tone in their voices which is a tad too irritating and overly patronizing. When families break down, the result is an angry and hurt child who may need more than restraint or some psychological question like “What colour does your sadness look like?” in order to heal. The irreplaceable importance of a mother’s love, for instance, is apparent in scenes showing one child not being able to let go of his mum when it is time to say goodbye. When the camera captures the staff saying that it feels like they “can’t get it right”, they do not gain our sympathy (imagine what the children are feeling!), however flipping points of view does effectively show us their side of the story, allowing us to see that they too struggle in their own ways.

The families’ perspectives are also briefly portrayed, like for example when towards the end of the movie Alex’s mum breaks downs when chatting to a counselor, confessing how she is also a victim of family dysfunction, thus showing us how abuse and neglect can have a domino effect. The significance of family time together is also emphasized, especially in the parts when children are on their best behavior and eager to interact when family visit, as well as in heart wrenching scenes like when a child is in tranquil bliss as his mother caresses and praises him.

This film, not surprisingly but perhaps unconsciously, delves into psychology. When Alex, the boy sitting on the red (psychologist’s?) couch tells the adult: “I’m here, you’re there,” we get a real sense of the distance felt between kids and adults. Although Longonitto did not meet the boys before filming them, she grew to get to know them well through the filming process, and has said how she loves their smartness. “Nearly every adult gets things wrong,” says Alex insightfully. He also sarcastically adds, “With a few words I could change the world,” which just goes to show that in the same way that communication is overvalued by adults, it is seems to be highly overrated from a child’s point of view. Yet, the awareness that these young boys have is amazing; I giggled out loud during the dialogue: “I hate my life”, “What do you hate about it?” I can’t tell you ’cos the cameraman’s shooting!”

Michael, one of the main characters is the perfect example of transformation, something exemplified by family scenes when he proudly shows off his work to his family. In fact, Michael’s development of self-esteem and growth is shown throughout the film. A great moment is when he sings Suspicious Minds at the concert - lyrics such as “We can’t go on together….with suspicious minds” make it an interesting (staged?) song choice. Afterwards, Longinotto successfully captures the sadness of goodbyes in Michael’s tears - he may not have wanted to be there in the first place but at the end he doesn’t want to leave. This film encapsulates the appreciation, and also the wisdom and support, that one child offers another in times of emotional fragility. The boys may be fighting in class, but the way they cry and hug in moments like these shows us how vulnerable they really are, how, no matter how tough they may act, they are just kids after all.

This documentary, although disturbing, is one that unveils the raw reality in the lives of troubled children, something which wouldn’t hurt us all to be aware of. What the film manages to achieve is to show how important, not only verbal communication is, but also the art of listening - something that most kids (and some parents) don’t seem to know enough about. From tantrums to bullying to pulling out knives on each other, it is obvious that the boys are simply calling out for attention in their confusion and anger. Nevertheless, as a staff member points out to them, asking for help is important, but there are other ways to do it.

Although handheld cameras play a background character in long shots where the action unfolding before us tells the story, Longonitto cuts any monotony that might be felt - keeping the viewers on their toes - by inserting shocking subtitles at various points throughout the movie: “At lunchtime Ben attacked Alex with a knife” or “He only spends 6 days a year with his mum at the school” or “Robert, 9 years old” we then learn urinated all over his bedroom carpet. Through the intimate use of close-ups, the director succeeds in capturing the childrens’ transformations (from little angel to aggressive tiger), and what kept me engrossed until the very end were the boys’ volatile temperaments: from yelling to laughing, from hysterics to tranquility.

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is ultimately a heartbreaking study of dysfunction, and the endless cycle of help and struggle for those who suffer. It pays witness to the tremendous influence that adults hold - for bad and for good - upon growing kids, epitomizing the fact that children are just children, and will always need and value their parents’ love, support and attention. The film also skillfully embodies the terrifying feelings of abandonment and the crucial effects of farewell on vulnerable children. With a clever choice of music (like in the last scene where the optimistic, if a little cheesy, lyrics: “I can see clearly now the rain has gone” belt out of the stereo) we are surprisingly left, not with depression because of the dismal world have just witnessed, but with hope that there can be a happy ending. In one interview, Longonitto expressed how difficult it was to gain the trust of the staff members in order to shoot this documentary - I am pleased she stuck through it because this is one rollercoaster of a film worth watching.

Nathalie Kyrou © 2008. All rights reserved to the author.