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Oasis of Icelandic calm behind veggie heaven

The owner of a small vegetarian restaurant in Nicosia comes across as a real Earth mother, nurturing and keen to see men and women stick to traditional roles. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman happiest when reading the Bible

An Icelandic vegan: that description ticks so many boxes, most of them virtuous and politically correct. Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world, and the first to have made any wage gap between men and women explicitly illegal. Icelanders are a secular bunch; around 40 per cent of under-25s identify as atheist. Veganism, meanwhile, is fast becoming a creed in itself, not just in Iceland but all over the world. Vegans are militant, and often self-righteous; if you eat animal products, they imply (and often say), you must be a bad person. The combination of the two sounds intimidating, and I brace myself for improving lectures on the state of the world.

Inga Hadjipanayi (née Karlsdottir), however – owner and proprietor of Inga’s Veggie Heaven in old Nicosia – avoids such stereotypes, and upends my expectations. She is indeed an Icelander but comes from an older generation, from a time before the island got rich and trendy (she also hasn’t lived there in 40 years). Her memories are of growing up in a village of around 2,000 people, roaming freely in a barren, spectacular landscape of rocks and moss, living by the classic Icelandic motto ‘Thetta reddast’ (roughly translated as ‘Everything will be fine’). She’s religious, and a strong believer. When it comes to gender, she’s all for fairness but warns against losing sight of traditional roles. She’s a creationist, and believes evolution is “just a theory”. She’s not even a vegan.

Inga’s Veggie Heaven is mostly vegan, however, though a few of the dishes are vegetarian: they don’t use eggs, but do include cheese in their lasagna and feta in the (gluten-free) burgers. The place is minuscule, especially on a wet winter’s day when sitting outside is unappetising; I arrive at 10am, settling down opposite Inga with a cup of nettle tea, and by midday all six tables are occupied. We’re interrupted by customers, some of whom seem to be regulars – and also by a phone call from ‘Tommy’, who turns out to be Inga’s son-in-law. He’s actually her prospective son-in-law, due to marry her daughter next year – but meanwhile the daughter is pregnant (“This was a surprise!” says Inga cheerfully), making her mum the joyful promise of a first grandchild but also interfering slightly with her birthday plans. Inga turns 60 in September and had planned a big party in Iceland, tying in with a local celebration in her hometown, but of course it’ll be impossible to organise a party in Iceland with a newborn to take care of in Cyprus. Oh well; thetta reddast.

She was 21 when she first arrived, coming down from Sweden – she’d been working in the Volvo factory for a year and a half – for a couple of weeks’ winter holiday. “It was my last trip,” she recalls, “because I was working in Sweden and I was moving back to Iceland… I thought ‘I’ll go to Cyprus, I’ll never go there again’ – it was so far!”.

Had she gone to university?

“No,” she replies, then playfully adds: “I’m a Viking!”

Don’t they go to university?

“No. They travel.”

Inga laughs, a wide-open toothy laugh; her mouth, when she laughs, goes almost triangular, raucous mirth offset by soft, grey-blue eyes. She arrived in Larnaca, all those years ago, and met a boy her own age, a soldier who was DJing at one of the local discos: “So we met there, in the discotheque. The classic thing”. 38 years later they have four kids, two of each (Inga also comes from a family with two sons and two daughters) – and they’ve also avoided the fate of so many ‘mixed’ marriages that end in divorce, felled by the inevitable culture clash. “It’s a bit difficult,” she admits. “Maybe it helped because I come from an island.”

Did she ever think of leaving, once the honeymoon period was over?

“Oh, often!” she laughs. “Yes, yes. It’s normal.”

So what did she do?

“Well, I tried to – mend things, you know? Because, in the family, you have to give and you have to take… But maybe one [spouse] is always the one that – kind of, gives more.”

And would that be her?

“I think so. You have to ask my husband about that!”

It takes two, of course: as Inga puts it, “my husband always spoke well of me” – meaning he stuck by her, especially during disagreements with the family. Cypriots were nice enough, she recalls of her early days on the island, but “they were very close with one another, and they had this attitude of interfering all the time – like, everybody had an opinion and everybody had to tell their opinion, and everybody thought they were right. You know, it was like that at the beginning. But we sat down with my husband and we discussed, and I said: ‘Look, if you stick with me, they’ll stop’.”

Did she seem un-Cypriot in some things? How she raised her kids, for instance?

“Yes. I didn’t mind if they got dirty. If it was raining, I didn’t mind them going out to splash in the water – because I remember I did that too. And I wasn’t always on top of them, you know? I didn’t shout at them, I would try to discuss things with them. I might pull their ear, if they didn’t give me their attention!” She laughs again, looking very good-natured. There’s something quite nurturing and Earth-mother-like about Inga – as there is, perhaps, in many women who feed random strangers for a living. One can easily imagine the neighbourhood kids feeling that “my door was always open” back in the day, treating her house as their own and often popping in – even when her own kids weren’t home – to have a drink or use the toilet.

Her religious faith is a constant, though she doesn’t like to advertise it. ‘When are you happiest?’ I ask at one point – and she hems and haws for a while, then decides to share: “Actually, the happiest moment is when I’m reading the Bible”. She’s no longer Protestant, feeling like they’re “making a soup out of the religion” (I presume she’s thinking of the way many Protestant churches have toned down their teachings in an effort to appear more ‘inclusive’), and calls herself “just a Christian”. Her lifestyle, too, is straightforward. She and her husband don’t go out much, having always preferred to invite people over (more nurturing!). One of her sons is a professional graffiti artist, now working in Norway, but Inga herself doesn’t seem to have much of an arty side. Any hobbies? “Hobbies? What shall I say, hobbies?” She thinks about it: “I’m always cooking. I think that’s like my hobby as well”.

That brings us to the restaurant, tucked away in the old town and never, she admits, remotely profitable; it pays the bills, but that’s about it. She goes shopping for ingredients every morning, partly for freshness and partly because “I can’t buy quantity”: she doesn’t get enough customers to need extra food, and doesn’t have enough space to store it. “So it’s like, every day you go out and get a few things, and put them on the few shelves we have… It’s small-scale”. The genesis behind Inga’s Veggie Heaven – the only business she’s ever run – is complicated. Her kids were growing up (this was 12 years ago), so she took over what used to be a traditional coffee shop in a rather forgotten part of town. She wasn’t planning to make it vegetarian – but she tried it as a coffee shop, tried adding soups and sandwiches and nothing seemed to work, “so I just decided ‘I’ll go home’,” she recalls. “Like in the movie Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett O’Hara, every time she had troubles she had to go home, to Tara!”. She laughs again, her mouth stretching into its little triangle.

I assume she means ‘home’ as in ‘home from the restaurant’ – but ‘home’ is actually Iceland, where she went to “ease my mind” and decide, after some thought, on a vegan/vegetarian place. It’s a poignant detail, the elusive sense of home for a person who’s been uprooted from her birthplace (though you’re never entirely uprooted; Inga tells me of a friend who lived in Sweden for 60 years, raised a family, then went back to Iceland alone to retire). It’s enough to unsettle a more anxious person – but Inga isn’t anxious, which may also explain why she’s managed to make a go of her mixed marriage. “I don’t panic easily,” she smiles. When she describes the Icelandic character as hard-working and “quite down-to-earth”, I suspect she’s thinking of herself.

What defines her down-to-earth quality? Paying little heed to ideology, for a start – including the one you’d associate with Icelandic vegans. She herself, as already mentioned, is not vegan; “I’m not even 100 per cent vegetarian”. Did she used to be? “Never!” she replies firmly. “I love this kind of food, but – there are times when I crave meat. And I might just have meat. But it’s, like, once a month”.

Militant vegans do sometimes turn up as customers, and some of them do get upset – or perhaps feel betrayed, given the name of the place – that she owns a veggie restaurant without being veggie, though Inga herself can’t see why: “I mean, I could own an Italian restaurant and not be an Italian”. That’s a bit disingenuous, given that veganism (unlike Italian cuisine) is increasingly an ideology – then again, it’s clear she doesn’t share the more extreme aspects of that ideology. “I think you should be kind to everybody,” she says by way of preface, “[but] I don’t think you should put animals as equal to a human being.” A dog will always be a dog, after all – though of course “I’m not saying ‘Go eat the dog’, no!” She sighs, trying to find the crux of the matter: “Don’t eat meat, if you don’t want it. But don’t accuse everybody else, you know?”.

Moderation, common sense, decency: these are the traits – small-town traits, or perhaps small-country traits from a time before globalisation – one might discern in Inga Hadjipanayi. Others may find her conservative, or overly placid, though in fact it’s a fine line. When her son first started dating, for instance, she warned him to respect women and “don’t ever use anybody”. She believes a woman should earn the same as a man for doing the same job, and was quick to note that men were “kind of higher” in the pecking order when she first arrived in Cyprus. A young Icelander of 2019 might actually find much common ground with her – but she’s not ready to abandon traditional values in the name of a brave new world. She’s too down-to-earth for that.

Take gender equality, for instance. “OK, you say ‘equal’, but equal in which way?” pleads Inga. “Because a mother is a mother, you know? She usually is softer than the father. The father is more of a strength in the family, he will take care of things, he’s more – maybe more stable. A woman is more sentimental. So what do you mean by ‘equal’?

“I think we need to be, like, together – this strength and this softness, to complete each other,” she goes on. “But most of the time we can’t. Because we have too much ego!” Women today try awfully hard to seem strong, maybe because they feel it’s expected or necessary – but “then you forget a lot, maybe, about your role. How you should be a mother, how you should nurture”. So are people forgetting their natural roles nowadays? “In my opinion, yes,” replies Inga. Equal pay, yes, by all means – “but it doesn’t mean that a man is going to give birth. You understand? You can’t change the roles.”

Her philosophy matches the menu – old-school, stolid veggie standbys like ‘Lentil shepherd’s pie’ and ‘Nut-roast with chutney sauce’, scrawled on a board beside the small counter. The food at Inga’s is simple: no gourmet dishes here, “more like ‘Let’s go to Mum’s and have lunch’,” she explains, flashing another glimpse of her Earth-mother side. The woman behind the food is equally unpretentious, a hardy, even-tempered Icelander who approaches life with robust good sense, and even welcomes her restaurant’s precarious financial situation: “I want to need God,” she tells me earnestly. “I don’t want to become comfortable, no.” Her husband is more the angst-ridden type, but “I kind of get on with it, you know?” shrugs Inga, showing off the positive outlook that’s gotten her through 38 years in a foreign land. “I just lay my head, and I go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day”. Thetta reddast.

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