Notes from a Small Island (Northern Cyprus)

Northern Cyprus   

The red carpet is being rolled out at Ercan airport, but not for us. Too busy congratulating ourselves on reaching the airport terminal at the head of the queue, we forget to request the temporary visitors’ visas advised in the brochure, and our passports are duly stamped by a couple of stern-looking customs officers. We are relieved to approach a taxi-driver holding up our travel company’s logo, which comes as a shock to him, as he is there to meet a young girl from Glasgow en route to a holiday with her parents, and he has no knowledge of our coming. Nevertheless, with a generosity we will come to realise is the norm here, he is happy to squeeze us and our luggage into his taxi and to drive us to our destination, a small apartment in the Hilarion Village, near the village of Karaman, at the foot of the Besparmak Mountains. He is equally happy, it transpires, to give us a potted history of the island since 10,000 years BC, with very little of the detail missed out. But Ibrahim is not happy with everything, especially what he perceives as a lack of progress in talks between Turkey and Greece on the future of the island, and the greater economic stability which it needs. Within twenty-four hours of arriving here we will hear that inflation is currently running at anything between 60 and 120 percent – even the stories are subject to inflation. Ibrahim, who claims to be a qualified thermal engineer, has had enough, and says he will emigrate soon. I wonder how many taxi-drivers there are in the world who are happy with their lot?

We have come here to escape the Scottish rain for two weeks, to lie by the swimming pool and do absolutely nothing, and we don’t mind admitting it.  When our holiday rep comes to visit us in the morning she suggests we visit St Hilarion Castle and other local landmarks. No offence to the saint, but we have a castle every hundred yards at home and we don’t bother to visit many of those, not even in the rain. In this heat, I think I’ll settle for reading about them in the literature.

A town noted for its Byzantine castle is Kyrenia, or Girne, with its distinctive crescent-shaped harbour which looks impressive by day, but really comes alive in the evening. Still relatively undeveloped, the colourful restaurants compete for too few customers, but unlike many other Mediterranean ports, the “catch of the day” here was landed within sight of the front door. Behind the harbour, new designer mixes easily with old-style cafes in the narrow lanes. Image-conscious locals import the latest fashions from Paris and New York, but the real wealth here is in the natural produce, which reminds you of what food used to taste like before the supermarket chains got a hold of it.  A bulging carrier-bag full of oranges, which are not orange but green, costs us 100,000 TL or 70 pence. In the main square, a familiar face looks down from the front of one of the buildings; it is a huge poster of Ataturk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey, spoken of so fondly by Ibrahim, and the face which adorns every banknote, which is a lot of adornment. But then, a country’s economic position is usually a reflection of its political status, as we discover when we attempt to change our Scottish banknotes, and find that the exchange rate is lower than that  for the English variety. In a fit of Scottish pique I suggest to the man behind the counter that perhaps next year I will take my holidays in Greece. He laughs, but not in a way that suggests he appreciates the joke.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but in this part of the world, the simple things really are the best things in life. In the evening we are able to walk half-a-mile to the nearest restaurant, which is little more than the home of a local family, opened up to passers-by from various corners of the world. Mehmet greets us like long-lost friends, and later divulges an interest in all things Scottish, including clans, bagpipe music and what he refers to as the Loch Ness Devil. We are impressed by his knowledge of Scottish history, although it may owe more to Mel Gibson than to the history books.

There is no menu here, you eat what is available. And what is available is beautiful, simple, fresh food. A selection of starters, or mezze, including tomatoes, olives, beetroot, gherkin, potatoes, cucumber and yoghurt, are followed by pieces of chicken marinated in spices and cooked slowly in the traditional clay oven. While we are eating mama joins us from the kitchen and tells us, with a faraway look in her eyes, of  her son’s two years National Service training. Mehmet himself dismisses it with a shrug of the shoulders, before pointing out the owl which has appeared a short distance from where we sit.. In his own words:- “You see the owl on that telephone wire. Last night when I am sleeping (he sleeps on the floor of the roof terrace where we are enjoying our drinks), the owl she is teaching her babies to fly. They fly from the telephone wire to the top of the wall, and when they arrive they are so pleased with themselves they make happy sound – ow, ow, ow – and I am not getting to sleep all night. in the morning I am so tired, but it is so lovely here.” And there is not a trace of irony in his voice. The night sky reminds me of a quotation from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” which I have been reading earlier in the day while lying by the pool; “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

Mehmet’s army training is brought into sharp focus the next day when, travelling along the main road to Kyrenia, we pass a military base guarded by someone else’s son with a rifle, and our taxi-driver, Omer, informs us that there are 30,000 troops in Northern Cyprus, a reminder of the insecurity of the political situation here. Newspaper reports that Turkish and Greek leaders have accepted an invitation from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to peace talks in Paris later this year give rise to a cautious optimism.

At Hilarion Village, a mini-version of the United Nations is taking shape. Three delightful children have taken up permanent residence in the pool, and have great fun at my feeble attempts to learn a few Turkish words, including their names – Nanji, Oben and Taji; Scots, English, German and Turkish voices can all be heard. In the late afternoon a small group of English ex-patriots comes down like buffalo to the waterhole, to float in the pool and talk longingly about rain, and green fields, and business opportunities missed. Emra, the young waiter, delivers drinks and smiles and dreams of scoring the winning goal for Turkey in the World Cup. In the evening, we eat by candlelight on the terrace beside the pool. Emra and Kadir cut us some grapes from the vine above our heads. A giant grasshopper lands on a nearby chair, curious and still.

Saturday evening in Kyrenia. The sound of a fire engine brings people rushing into the narrow street; an electrical fire has blacked out the street lights and provided an impromptu firework display. Fortunately it is soon under control. At the end of the promenade, an open-air wedding celebration is underway, old men dancing Turkish-style with laughing nieces, and waiters smoking secretly behind potted plants. Along the seafront, an ice-cream seller in a sparkling waistcoat sells ice-cream to high-pitched children, while young men watch girls in tall shoes and low-cut dresses. A boy on a bicycle weaves his way through the crowd of Englishmen in their socks and kakhi shorts, young Turks in tight trousers, and the man selling gaudy bands of neon and yo-yos which no-one wants to buy. At midnight, we seek out Omer and his taxi by the harbour to take us home, but I warn him that I only have a Scottish ten-pound note. “No worries”, he says, “You are my friends. I take you home even if you have no money.”

At five o’clock in the morning we quietly take our leave of Karmi, vowing to come back at another time of year, to explore the countryside and perhaps even to visit some castles. As the sun rises imperceptibly, the smell of olive groves and citrus drifts in through the open windows of the taxi on the breeze. At the airport, Ibrahim organises our tickets and our luggage, before reorganising the queue which has already formed. He tells us he is starting a new job as a hotel manager in the morning, and we wish him well. We wish them all well – Ibrahim, Omer, Emra, Kadir, Mehmet and mama and the rest – because their generosity deserves it, and in their country’s development we hope they don’t forget how rich they are already.

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