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.