Cyprus

Nicosia

I am in the Tourist Information Centre in Larnaca, Cyprus’s third largest city. I am asking about the weather forecast for the capital, Nicosia.

The man squints at his screen and clicks his mouse. He is wearing a white shirt that is not at all wet with sweat in the air conditioned room. I feel untidy in comparison: beach-haired, dirty feet, damp to the touch. I hope the beads of sweat haven’t appeared across the bridge of my nose in the two minute walk from my hostel.

The man makes a moue of surprise. ‘It’s only 28°C there,’ he says. ‘Here, 31°C.’

I thank him and leave for the bus stop, realising only afterwards that he meant those are the temperatures now, at 10am. By the afternoon it will ratchet up to 38°C.

Arriving in Nicosia by bus I pass through streets that could line any European capital. There is more bustle here and people are dressed more smartly. As they walk they beat the refrain we-have-a-job-to-do.

I leave the air conditioned bus and step out into the walled old city, waiting for my body to acclimatise, waiting to gauge the heat of the day. I am disoriented but know I need to head north to walk into the heart of the city so I glance at my compass. North. This way.

I walk along the two main high streets on the south side of the city. They run parallel to each other, north-south, and stop abruptly at the checkpoint. As I walk I catch the odd glimpse of the UN buffer zone: quickly erected concrete barriers, barbed wire, sand bags, NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs, a jeep, a woman with MILITARY POLICE on the back of her T shirt. I imagine accidentally stumbling into a prohibited zone, the bark of voices. What would I do? Put my hands up? Shout, ‘British citizen! British citizen!’? But actually the border is clearly defined – I wouldn’t be able to scramble past that barbed wire by accident.

I walk on, following the Green Line towards the east of the city and twist through crumbling streets, admiring the metalwork of balconies.

A reminder of the north side! The call to prayer starts up and takes no notice of the border, drifts across wherever it chooses. It sounds so close it surprises me, though I have already noticed the minarets pointing skyward. It is somehow more shocking to hear the other side than to see it.

It’s after 1pm now so there is almost no-one on the streets away from the busy centre. I am glad of the hat I bought because the sun is strong on my head in the gaps between buildings. I stick to the shade where I can. It’s that time of day when the sun acts like a rolling pin, smoothing life into the corners. Life hugs the disappearing shade, removes itself indoors where it can. Feral cats yawn and sit still. If they are feeling comfortable they sleep on their backs, paws in the air.

I find a place to eat, not because I am hungry but to have some time off my feet and to stay in the shade of an umbrella. I find a cafe and stay there as long as I can.

Finally, I do it. I cross to the other side. I think at first that it’s possible to walk straight through, but it’s not quite that relaxed. I come to the passport control window and notice police to my right, sitting on plastic garden chairs and scanning the crowd over their conversation. There is a slight atmosphere of tension – slight, but it’s there. I fill in a photocopied piece of paper, a visa: name, passport number, nationality. The woman behind the glass doesn’t smile but her presence is friendly. Meryam, says her name badge. She has a stitched Turkish flag fixed to her epaulette. She spends what seems like a long time typing my details into a computer, then she stamps the paper visa and I am waved through. At that point I realise I haven’t learnt a single word of Turkish to thank her with.

I go past the line of tourists, past the two frowning at passport control, past the police sat on garden chairs and into another country. Or, as my country calls it, into occupied territory.

Immediately I search for difference. How Turkish does this feel? How occupied? How Muslim? Similarities push themselves to the forefront: signs are in English, many prices are in euros, men play backgammon and draughts in the shade outside cafes.
Slowly the differences press forward too: the language, of course, the currency, the stares in the street (more? Different?) The mosques that used to be cathedrals, the Greek Cypriot Turkish coffees, ubiquitous. The crumbling buildings, crumbling because they are badly maintained and their owners are poor, rather than the picturesque version of crumbling worthy of a photo that exists across the border. There is an oh-so-subtle mist of tension here that doesn’t settled on any particular place but seems to envelop the north side.

A market runs along the Green Line and is the only part of the north side that is thick with tourists. I walk along the street, still keeping to one side or the other to save my head from the sunshine. On my way back to the checkpoint, I turn down a side street to try to avoid the market. It looks deserted and unpromising, and I notice people glance at me as I walk along it. At the end of the side street, there is a fence made from MDF, its door swinging open on a hinge. I look either side of me and step inside, cautiously. There would surely be some sign displayed if this was off limits.

The door leads to a courtyard, wedged between lines of buildings on either side. Across from where I’m stood, on the other side, there is the Green Line’s boundary made from stained concrete and barbed wire. And in between there is what looks like a deserted cafe. There are overgrown trees and bushes that form a natural canopy over the courtyard, cool and humid. The canopy and the dead end give this courtyard a sense of peace and seclusion. Chairs surround tables cloaked in faded, checked tablecloths. I walk between these tables and cross an invisible boundary so I can now hear a thin sound – some music drifting from one of the buildings on either side. Suddenly I am spooked and I turn on my heel, leaving the courtyard and crossing back through the checkpoint to the other side.

Adam and Emily

Adam is gutsy, he is brash. He can go like the clappers. He never blows hot and cold, just cold. A cool, cool shot of air that pushes out in a bank from his wide mouth. Seagulls could ride that airstream, dipping a wing here, tilting a head there, before plummeting to the sea and drawing out – they hope – a glittering, twisting, silver morsel. Adam belches this seagull air, looking from left to right and pausing for a moment at each side. In these pauses he seems to lose some of his power, become laconic, perhaps think a little. Most of the time he holds forth without thought, but in these in between times, when no-one is looking, I fancy he stops to think.

Emily never thinks, she just keep on whirring relentlessly. She’s more petite, resting on a tabletop rather than standing apart – as Adam does – on her own island. She’s younger, smarter, keener, more stealthy. Her breath doesn’t hit you solidly in the face – it graces your hair. You feel it at your edges. She never misses a beat. At least I think she doesn’t. There was a moment last night when I thought she went completely silent, as if waiting for us to drift off to sleep and then taking a moment’s rest. But it must have been my sleep-deaf ears.

Sleepingwaking in a Sun-Hot Land

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside. Maybe it will be a cooler day. No, no, it’s Emily the fan still running. My mouth is ngh-ngh-ngh so I swallow. I move my hand from my stomach where it has left a ring of fingermarks in sweat.
Asleep.

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside that sounds like a thunderstorm coming. Perhaps a cooler day, perhaps rain, though I’m not equipped for that. No umbrella, no raincoat, just shorts and dresses. No, no, it’s Emily still running, thhhh-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-thhhh. It’s dark outside. I turn onto my side so that Emily’s breath can cool the sweat on my back.
Asleep.

Awake.
She is moving around the room. The door opens and closes, keys rattle in the lock. I scratch an itch on my stomach, wonder if it’s a mosquito bite, and then itches spread all over my side, my face, my leg and back to my stomach again. It’s not a mosquito, I think. It’s not a mosquito.
Asleep.

Awake.
My hair is still damp against my head and the sky is dark – there may still be hours to go before dawn. A car engine starts outside with a thack-chack-bang. Voices raised. There’s a cooler breeze coming from the open window. Perhaps the night’s heat has peaked. No, no, it’s Emily still blowing. I remember these hot nights from an August in Osaka. But actually I’ve forgotten the nights, remembering only the relief of cold showers in the morning, washing away the night’s sweat. The only time before that I’d enjoyed cold showers. At that time I was shocked my sister would leave her fan on all night – now I have Emily to spin and whirl.
Asleep.

Awake.
It’s light outside now. Then sun isn’t yet beating against the side of the building. The curtain moves in Emily’s breeze and brushes with light fingertips against my leg. What time is it? It’s not quite time.
Asleep.

Awake.
What time is it? It’s light outside and she is next to me, lying very still, her hands crossed neatly on her stomach. I crawl and shuffle over to the table and pick up my watch. It’s time to eyeball the day, dispatch the night, dirty my feet, seek wind tunnels, drink black-brewed coffee, stumble out words, sweat olive oil, walk single file in the shade, swap shorts for dresses then dresses for nothing. It’s time to wake up.
Awake.