Lemesos Letter 1

There was a full- blown riot in Lemesos (Limassol) on Saturday night. The only discernible difference from riots all over the world was the total absence of the police and the reason for the riot: Limassol football team had just won the equivalent of the FA cup. On Sunday morning an amiable municipal clear-up was under way. The main roads round the new town centre were littered with still burning, largely melted down wheelie bins and their contents. The evening before had been punctuated with huge explosions from God knows what strength ‘fireworks’. Bearing in mind this island is only a hundred miles from the Syrian coast, and that 30,000 Turkish troops occupy the northern third of the island, splitting Levkosia (Nicosia), the capital, in two, the lack of concern might be seen as surprising.

But then, as I am discovering, this is a very laid-back island community – at least in the south – dedicated to family life and living well. It is why so many expats from a large number of European countries – including 50,000 Brits – make this their home. Oh, and the Russians, who are trying to run the banking system, since the Cypriot one went tits up with the Greek’s. Limassol – Lemesos in Greek, they do that a lot here, to draw attention to the fact we live in Greek Cyprus – is the commercial city, much involved in the trading of goods and services, for the Levant. It has taken over the role played many decades ago by Lebanon. It is no accident that the place has so many Lebanese restaurants. Then there is shipping: the Cyprus flag is a very convenient one, not quite so regulated as the Greek.

Which is very odd: because, you see, and not a lot of people know this, since 2004 Cyprus has been a member of the EU, so the same regulations ought to apply. Well they do, up to a point (and back home, we have the Isle of Man to do our own dirty flagging-out for us), but there are much bigger issues here. We all know Greece got in by fixing the books, but Cyprus?

Look at where it is, and you will see why the EU commissioners let her in, no doubt pushed and shoved by their political masters. Cyprus is tucked up in that interesting northeast corner of the Mediterranean, so close to Turkey you can see it from the northern coast, a hop away from Syria and Lebanon, half an hour from Tel Aviv and Amman by air, hardly any further from Cairo. I tell you, many parts of this town of 150,000 people, in the dusty hot afternoons now becoming the norm, feel middle eastern. But – and we return to the occupied north – without the Muslims.

Cyprus is an anomaly. Invaded incessantly – the last time, by those naughty Turks – just 38 years ago – it has the feel of a country still unsure of who it is, or
ever was. Most of the road signs are in English and demotic Greek, a curious mixture. The English signs are everywhere – to ‘keep off the grass’ in the parks, to shop signs, which frequently don’t bother to add a Greek version. Oh, and they use a roman script for all the car index numbers. Everyone in the towns speaks English, and it is bizarre in my local Russian supermarket to hear Russian staff and Greeks customers speak it as their lingua franca.

Here’s a story of the old Cyprus, the one many folks say is passing into history, that the Cypriots are getting too self-centred, too greedy. I went to buy a bicycle – just for the duration of my stay here – on the recommendation of Steve, who runs the old town roller-blading store. He sent me round the corner to Mr Andreou, who is 73, officially retired, but who can’t keep away from selling bikes. I bought it at €200; he’ll buy it back from me when I leave the island, at half price. He threw in free a good bicycle lock, and he is insistent I take it back at 15 days – and 30 days – for a free check up and, if needed, a service.

Any problems, call him any time. He knows it ain’t like that in much of the rest of the world, including Cyprus now, because he told me, but for him it is the way business should be. He sits in his office at the back of his shop, watches sport on tv, and sells what he can. Guess what? He’s very busy.

The sun is getting steadily hotter; I am already riding my bike very early in the morning and later on, in the evenings. Soon, it will become too hot to riot, not that they do that very often. Just when they win; and why not? Makes a change after all. From the land of the lotus eaters, land of Aphrodite, land of plenty (I have a lemon tree and two orange trees in the back yard), I greet you from Cyprus.