Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

In many ways, Cyprus is one of the most boring places I have ever visited.  I partially visited it for that reason… although things in Israel and Jordan turned out to be quite calm, I wanted to make sure I had some time to relax somewhere far away from Middle Eastern squabbles.  Cyprus, especially in April, is idyllically quiet, peaceful and lined with gorgeous beaches.  I strolled by flamingos hanging out in a salt lake in Larnaca, walked for miles on the boardwalk in Limassaol, got blown away by the wind and the beauty of Cape Greco near Aiya Napa (infamous beach and party town).  Along the way, I toured a few castles, walked some boardwalks and it was nice but I felt like I had seen it at all before.  Especially since I have visited Greece and Turkey, even the food, language and culture was familiar. However, one aspect of my trip to Cyprus was something completely new, different and totally bizarre… Nicosia: Europe’s last divided capital. Before coming, I was aware of some aspects of the situation.  I knew the country was split into a Greek and Turkish side but I didn’t really know what that meant.  I had a Greek-American friend who studied in Cyprus for a bit and she talked about peering over the border to the Turkish side which was plastered in flags, including flags painted onto the mountain side. She assured me that I could walk right across the border and that “things were getting better”.  But the Turkish guy who was studying on the Turkish side and he told me he could not cross to retrieve me.  But the directions seemed easy- he said, “I live right near the bus station, just go down, cross the border and you will see me.”  My Larnaca host who had been living in Cyprus for a decade gave me similar instructions, “From the bus stop, go down the hill and you can cross”.  I asked the man at the bus station and he made it sound similarly simple, “Straight then left”. I started happily marching forward but after five minutes, I found a surprising lack of signs.  I asked a couple people on the way, and despite being assured multiple times, “Everyone in Cyprus speaks English” (it was a British colony after all), everyone waved away my question.  They replied to my inquiry with feigned ignorance and vigorous, almost desperate, “don’t-ask-me” hand motions.  Eventually, beyond a patio with a dozen hanging magic eyes, I followed the “tourist information center” signs to a dusty basement where a lady paused shuffling brochures to instruct me to retrace my steps down the main shopping street. So I went.  Past the Greek grandpa’s nursing already-cold coffees, kids chomping on cheese pies and pottery shops.  “This can’t be right,” I thought, hunting for wifi to tell my host that it might take me longer than expected to cross.  But then I almost walked into it. Some cones, a tent, a small sign “Nicosia: the last divided capital” and two border officials playing Candy Crush. One barely lifted her eyes from her phone as she plopped my passport on the scanner and waved me onward.  I walked for about 25 meters through some abandoned shops, lined with barbed wire and “no photograph” signs then I was at another booth.  The Turkish officials had me fill out a small paper which they stamped and waived me forward to where Sercan was waiting for me expectantly.  On a similar shopping street but now the shops sold simit (round thin bagel-ish like breads sold from carts everywhere in Turkey), kabobs, Turkish SIM cards.  Instead of a time warp, I felt like a entered a culture warp… the street felt eerily similar but simultaneously different. As I tried to re-orient myself, Sercan (my host) explained some of the border crossing regulations.  Greek and Turkish Cypriots could cross the border freely (although some refused on principle).  Turkish citizens could not cross but members of the EU and other countries could visit both freely.  He had only been in Cyprus the past couple years but had no desire for the island to be united since he felt that would mean he could no longer go to school here. I continued to peer around as we returned to his place to drop off my bags.  It sounded like Turkey.  It looked like Turkey.  By the looks of the restaurants, it tasted like Turkey.  I just spotted a few exceptions: I saw very few Africans in Turkey but here there were many, either studying for university or doing hard labor.  Towering casinos (which aren’t allowed in Turkey) dominate the streets.  As we crossed the street, Sercan pointed...