CAARI at 40: Reminiscences

From Nancy Serwint:

It is sobering for me to recall that my personal relationship with CAARI began nearly 35 years ago.  As we stop to remember the institute and all the things we experienced there, I am rather stunned that most of my professional life has been intertwined with the place whose 40th birthday we are soon to celebrate.

For me it all began in the summer of 1983, when, at the conclusion of Princeton University’s first season at ancient Marion, away on the other side of the island at Polis Chrysochous, several of us from the excavation made our way to Nicosia and, of course, visited CAARI.  It was the old CAARI then…the one on King Paul Street…and the first introduction to the institute was the CAARI bird on the front door – a bit of an anomaly, as the building was tucked beside a travel agency. The bird made a statement and we were glad for its boldness that seemed to herald that here was a little gem of a place in an otherwise quiet residential area of Nicosia.  Once entering, you would be swept up in the warm welcome of Vathoulla.  Her downstairs office was quite like the present one, a place of papers and notes and energy, only smaller.  Usually there was a ubiquitous Greek coffee on her desk or her favorite drink, Coca Cola.  The formalities of welcome and embrace over, Vathoulla would lead you up the stairway and once you reached the top, you took in the comfortable sight of an open space with books and shelves and tables.  What I remember most about the upstairs was the presence of traditional Cypriot craft objects, placed beautifully around the room.  The woven pieces were stunning, and I would learn later that the aesthetic of the place was due to Laina Swiny and her careful eye and love of the island’s culture.  Stuart Swiny would come bounding toward you and the earnest hug of hospitality would be shared again.  CAARI was a welcoming place, and all that was cordial, affable, and friendly made an impression on a graduate student who was just beginning to learn about the past and present of Cyprus.  Any return to CAARI during subsequent fieldwork in Cyprus during the summer months would be anticipated with the feeling akin to returning home.  It would always feel good to be back at CAARI.  As I write this, I can see…and nearly feel…the wind wafting in through the open windows with the curtains responding with their gentle sway.  The ambience of wood and books and curtains belied the brutal Nicosia heat.  That would be relieved, too, by the presence of scholars who were busy at work, but never too busy to share an introduction and broach the question of what a student was working on.  Alison South and Ian Todd were the two I remember most distinctly…and most fondly.

I have no idea why, and perhaps it just was luck, but overnight stays at CAARI would find me folded into the little room under the stairway.  Perhaps it was the challenge of having to walk slightly hunched around the room…or maybe it was the freedom from the anxiety of having to sleep under a ceiling fan, but I loved that room.  At the old CAARI, I developed an inordinate fear of the wobbly ceiling fans and was quite sure that with every rotation, one would detach itself from the ceiling, fall on me, and slice me in two.   Sleeping in the hovel room alleviated my fan phobia, at least for the duration of long sweltering nights of intermittent rest.

However powerful those memories of the old CAARI are, new ones were made with the move into the new building on Andreas Demetriou. Those of us who were used to the old place marveled at the guts of Stuart to take on this new project.  Frequent trips to Nicosia during summer months would include a stop to see the building during renovation. Stuart would take great pride in pointing out the original tiles, the wonderful  staircase inside, and the garden area, soon to be lush with greenery.  Dust was everywhere, as were plastic sheets, but the vision that Stuart had of a place that encompassed a hostel, an extensive library, administrative offices, and more room for gatherings and social events was infectious, and all of us were ecstatic with the result.  I was most fortunate in receiving the first NEH CAARI Fellowship in 1992, which allowed me to stay in the new CAARI for an entire year.  Having the library available to me at any hour and living in the Fulbright Suite were both delicious treats, and the amount of work that I was able to get done that year was incredible.  I remember quite distinctly how Stuart would do all he could to facilitate my work on the terracotta sculpture from ancient Marion that we had excavated.  He made innumerable and invaluable introductions for me throughout the Cypriot scholarly community, and he did more than I can possibly express to launch me on a career that focuses on the coroplastic art of the island.  With her insistence on morning coffee (always made better with something chocolate), Vathoulla and I developed a deep friendship, which lasts to this day.  That friendship has turned into a sisterhood that is grounded on respect, kindness, and deep and sincere love for each other.  What a mainstay she has been!

My involvement with CAARI would take a more direct turn a few years later when Stuart Swiny announced his retirement, and I applied for the position.  In 1994, I took a leave of absence from my teaching position at Arizona State University, and I stepped into the role that Stuart had filled so capably for the previous 15 years.  I found that I instinctively wanted to emulate the positive and welcoming atmosphere that Stuart had created, and as my administrative role model, I followed his lead in maintaining the array of programmatic activities that had fueled CAARI’s growing reputation as a scholarly institution.  Along with the very capable Diana Constantinides, who was the librarian and program coordinator, and with Vathoulla’s great help, the three of us continued the tradition of monthly public lectures and site visits and also orchestrated periodic hands-on workshops.  The international conference, “Engendering Aphrodite:  Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus” that I co-organized with Diane Bolger was one of the CAARI events I am most proud of.  The topical issues on gender vis-à-vis the archaeology and study of material remains of the island made the conference groundbreaking for its time.

As heady as it was to design a program that would appeal to students, the scholarly Cypriot community, and the general public, the more everyday activities of running the institute commanded my attention on a more immediate level.  In the process I learned lots of new skills:  how to undertake minor repairs to a beloved building (I had always been an apartment dweller), how to work on budget reports for the CAARI Board and the U.S. government, how to calm Vathoulla while working on budget reports, how to dispatch rats that had invaded the CAARI attic (immersing occupied traps in barrels of water was not outside my job description)…the list goes on.  The process of getting parts of the building rewired was one memory I have that was not high on the fun list.  As much as we take the internet for granted and couldn’t imagine life without it, there was no internet at CAARI in 1994. Getting the institute internet-capable with purchases of new computers and collaborating with the guys over at Spidernet was a necessary accomplishment.  How helpful they were and how they tolerated all my incessant questions!

As I continue thinking about CAARI as I write this, I am warmed by the resurrection of all sorts of memories.  In the days of the severe drought that plagued the island, rather than subject all the CAARI residents to the rigors of water rationing, I purchased industrial-sized water storage tanks for the institute.  All well and good, but the tanks could only be replenished when the water was available, which meant that I would fill the tanks by hose at 4:30 am on the three days a week when we had water.  There was a certain loveliness to being up at that time, and I was determined not to let the beautiful garden suffer and took advantage of the water availability to give the trees and plants a good soaking in the pre-dawn darkness.  Listening to the awakening bird-song and the call to prayer that could be heard from occupied-Nicosia are vivid sounds to me even now.  People are the core of life, and I remember so many with utter tenderness.  Lillian and John Craig…those two were my guardian angels who taught me so much about Nicosia and the sway of life there. Diana Constantinides and her family…what a unit they were sharing with me their home and familial warmth (and Vasilis’ great brandy sours).  Photoulla and Georgia…whose attention to the CAARI residence made all the difference in the world and whose kindness was omni-present.  Joan and George Georghalides…CAARI’s precious next door neighbors whose support for the institute was indefatigable.  Vathoulla and the Moustoukki clan, especially her mother and father…how I was always welcome in the Aglantzia home and treated to delicious food and the loveliness of their well-tended garden.  And then there is the Koupparis family, the family of our excavation foreman up in Polis…when I would return to the village on weekends the children would look for my arriving car, race down the stairs and fly into my arms; they taught me so much about love and they were the daughters and son I never had.

When I had to return to my teaching position in America in 1999, there was such a twist of emotions.  Heart wrenching was more like it.  Cyprus continues to be the place where I feel most at home.  Perhaps it is the foil of how life is lived here in Arizona against what life is like for me in Cyprus.  I see myself more clearly there; the archaeology and scholarship are more immediate; the relationships more precious because of the flux of time and geographic distance.  In many ways, the core of it all was CAARI and its great ability to draw people together, encourage a spirit of academic camaraderie, and cultivate a love for a place half way around the world.  I shall ever be grateful for all that.

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