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Interview
Dr. Gabriele Gauler, institute director

The director of the institute, Dr. Gabriele Gauler, is standing in the garden of the Goethe-Institut Nicosia and smiling at the camera. She is wearing a blue and white blouse. The green trees and plants as well as the little water fountain of the institute frame the photo in the background.
© Goethe-Institut/Marie Lena Groenewald

On 1 February 2022, Dr Gabriele Gauler took over as director of the Goethe-Institut Cyprus. Born in Kassel, she studied Sinology, Japanology and German Studies in Würzburg and Taipei (Taiwan). Since 1991 she has served in various positions at the Goethe-Institut in Munich, Bremen, Beijing, Budapest, Hong Kong and Berlin. In this interview, she talks about the individual characteristics of Cyprus as a location, the impacts of the pandemic, goals for the near future as well as her personal encounters and exchanges in Cyprus.

What, in particular, distinguishes the work being done in Cyprus regarding German culture and language?

For over 60 years, the institute here has contributed to educating people about the German language and culture, as well as providing any other general information regarding Germany. That alone is worth mentioning, as 60 years is truly a long time. What is also special is the longstanding cooperation with partners in the southern, as well as in the northern part of Cyprus. In addition, we reach a large target group of all ages with our language courses: children, young people and adults whose mother tongue is Greek or Turkish, or who are bilingual. This is also what makes the work in Cyprus so special.

The most striking thing for a person visiting our institute is, of course, the fact that we are located in the buffer zone. The institute is located between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot checkpoints. We are next door to the Ledra Palace, which is a building that everybody here in Cyprus knows and that is steeped in history.

Are there any similarities between your last place of work in Berlin and now here in Nicosia?

Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe. Berlin was also a divided city. Both cities share this experience of division. Fortunately, this division in Berlin was surmounted in 1989. Here, the island has been divided since 1974 and the city of Nicosia since 1963. Naturally, that does something to the people, the country and the mentality. Therefore, parallels can be drawn, even though the historical origins are completely different and the situations are, of course, not directly comparable.

The contexts are also otherwise different. Berlin has a population of 3.7 million people. It is a cosmopolitan city, while Nicosia is much smaller. Here I have realized that you get to know a lot of people very quickly, who then in turn know other mutual acquaintances. It is in that sense a completely different place here.

What does openness mean to you within the context of the pandemic we have been facing?

The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all of us around the world in recent years, which also influenced the work of the Goethe-Instituts worldwide. I experienced the start of the pandemic in Berlin, where we were affected by the lockdown. The institute had to remain closed for a few months and the employees had to be put on short-time work, which had an adverse effect on my colleagues and me. And here in Cyprus, I can, of course, still feel the changes, even now in the third year of the pandemic. For all the Goethe-Instituts worldwide, but also for the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia, it was important to try to maintain the existing programme on offer, i.e. to make them digitally accessible. This especially affected our language courses. Exams could not be carried out here for a long time due to official regulations and social distancing rules. But like many institutes in the world, the teachers at the Goethe-Institut adjusted very quickly, and acquired knowledge in the field of online learning and teaching. We continue to make use of this, as there are course participants who still learn German online with us. However, there are also course participants who have returned to the institute for face-to-face courses, which, as you would expect, pleases us particularly.

Is Cyprus located in Asia or in Europe?

That is a good question. If you look at it politically, we are of course in Europe. After all, Cyprus has been part of the EU for many years. In just over three hours of flight time, Germany can be reached quickly and easily. English is one of the official languages in Cyprus, and many people here speak it extremely well. This also speaks for a strong proximity to Europe. But when it comes to the sentiments of the people, the music, the smells in the city and the heat, you can of course already sense that the island is very close to the Near East and the Levant. Historically, there were very strong cultural influences. These factors are exciting and very enriching in terms of the work we do.

What can someone visiting the Goethe-Institut in Cyprus expect?

Firstly, visitors get to view our location, which is in the buffer zone, in the middle of the divided island. At the institute, visitors are thus able to meet people from the southern and the northern part. For me, it is one of the most beautiful experiences that people from both parts of the island are able to come to cultural events and exhibition openings. The Goethe-Institut Cyprus functions as a meeting point. It is open all day. Our exhibitions can be visited almost every day. We have a great exhibition hall that currently has a very nice exhibition titled Found and Lost.  We are presently showcasing both a German artist and a Cypriot artist there. We also have a beautiful garden. We have five classrooms and very nice colleagues, who are always happy to answer questions. It is an open, friendly place, where we always try to familiarise people with Germany and German culture through our courses and cultural programmes.

When did you first come into contact with Cyprus yourself?

I have always-and continue to do so-read a great deal. As a teenager, one of my favourite books was a Greek mythology book. I read that five, six, seven times (laughs). I was fascinated by the Greek myths. One of these myths, of course, was the famous story of the birth of Aphrodite. That was my initial contact with Greek and Cypriot culture as a child and teenager. During my time as a student in Würzburg, there were some very nice Cypriot students in the student residence where I then lived. Most of them were studying medicine or dentistry. That is when I first came into contact with Cypriots.

Do you have an object in mind that is representative of Cyprus for you?

There is an olive tree here in Nicosia that fascinates me. It must be ancient. It remained untouched during the construction work for Eleftheria Square. This ancient tree has a very thick trunk and is utterly gnarly. The modern architecture of the entire Eleftheria Square converges on this one tree. I found it fascinating how modern architecture tries to incorporate these old and traditional elements, and the nature of Cyprus.

Another object that I have seen in various exhibitions, for example in the Archaeological Museum and the Leventis Museum, are small figurines made of light green-grey minerals found in tombs. They have oversized heads, thick necks, short torsos and thick legs. They are made of a stone called picrolite. It is only found in Cyprus. These objects are more than 4500 years old and were recovered from the first grave finds in Cyprus. The figurines can be seen in different places here. For me, that is also representative of Cyprus.

What goals have you set for yourself during your time in Cyprus?

The most significant goal for me is to continue the successful work that the institute has undertaken over the past few decades. I hope that this will be possible in spite of the pandemic and Europe’s current state, which has been strongly influenced by the war in Ukraine. In my first few weeks here, I learned that the German language is on the decline, especially in the southern part of Cyprus, even though there are some schools with great initiatives that strongly promote the study of German. That is why I would like to further promote the German language and reinforce its reach. And I also have two very specific goals: firstly, we have to make our building earthquake-proof. That is an important goal for this year. Secondly, another important goal is to implement a project that has been commissioned by the European Union. This is a scholarship programme for the northern part of Cyprus, which is aimed at students as well as graduates, and provides scholarships throughout Europe and not just in Germany. This project has only just begun and will keep us very busy for the next few years.

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