"Hello, how can I help?"
"I'd like to hire a car."
Between us was a desk, with a big promotional slogan;
'Easy Car Hire! Drive a car away now!' I slowly looked down at it, and looked back at him. There was a moment's silence. He replied thoughtfully;
"That is.. difficult."
"Yes... What do you want?"
"To hire a car for the day."
"One day.... that is very difficult."
"It's cheaper if you hire it for longer."
"I only want it for today."
He sat, unable to escape the inertia. I let silence fill the room and smiled. The desk continued to read 'Easy Car Hire'. Eventually he broke the silence;
"I must ring my boss."
"Excellent, thank you." I replied, pulling out my notepad to transcribe this extraordinary conversation. Not only would this preserve the words, but I find that copious note-taking can be a usefully galvanising act when it comes to getting other people to do things for you. It also works well when dining alone in posh restaurants. The gentleman then left the room, still on the phone, and returned a few minutes later, still talking, but with an unsolicited cup of coffee for me. He placed it and left. It was in a mug with a picture of a naked woman on the side. I drank it, milky with two sugars.
After a little while, he returned.
"He says forty Euros"
I agreed, and the contract was signed. I handed over the cash, and he took me to meet my new wheels. Out of the back of the bare office was my car for the day. A magnificent off-cream Nissan Prolapse. Now I have owned some terrible cars in my time, from Arnold the Astra (Like driving around inside a grandad) to Oswald the Racist Rover, but this was something special. I set off to find a petrol station. It immediately became clear that the wheel bearings were all completely knackered. The car sang to me as we went along, a four cornered polyphony. The tyres had strange tread-wear, and the brakes, far from being ineffectual, would immediately stop this lightweight piece of tinfoil on the spot as soon as you touched the pedal. It had two speeds, 'Argh!' and 'Nope.' Having committed a terrible faux pas by fueling my own car at the petrol station, and attracting the ire of the attendant, I hit the motorway across the island. I quickly resolved to avoid cornering where possible in the hope of retaining all four wheels for the duration of the day. I briefly considered returning it, but time was passing, and I didn't fancy my chances of getting anything better. He didn't have my credit card details, as I'd paid in cash. So long as I walked away from the damn thing, the problems were all his.
We stormed up hills, engine roaring, wheels yodeling, exhaust rasping. If 13 years of being a professional folk musician have prepared me for one thing, it's driving a bad car a long distance. Loaded wagons eased past me on the outside as I grazed 100kmph. Downhill, the tables were turned. Suddenly the car took control, and I was an expendable minion in an uncontrollable runaway mine cart in an Indiana Jones film. Unsurprisingly, I soon needed a wee, but ignored my bladder, reckoning that it was more important I continued to my destination in case the Nissan gave up the ghost where we stopped.
After two hours, I dropped down into Nicosia, found a large car park and abandoned ship. In my mind I strode towards the camera, tossing a match carelessly over my shoulder, not looking back as the Nissan exploded in an immediate and definitive orange fireball.
Nicosia immediately struck me as being totally different to Paphos. Gently and unaggressively foreign, it looked interesting, inviting, different. After 3 days of living in the surreal collective hallucination of Paphos, it was nice to be somewhere that felt genuine. I was so overwhelmed by the sense of interest this place posed me that I burst out laughing in the middle of the car park.
After a fortifying coffee of the highest quality, I headed for the old town. On the shiny new walkway, I crossed over the magnificent Venetian walls and into the narrow streets. Conquered, prized, layered, Nicosia is a city with a complex history. Such an outpost, with access to Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, has been fought over and fortified for as long as ships have been able to get there. Mosques stand on the footprint of temples, on churches, and vice versa. Some places like this can feel like nowhere, but Nicosia feels like everywhere at once. It is beautiful and very real. Some lads bounce down the street towards me, kicking a bauble off one of the Christmas trees that seem so out of place in 25 degree heat. It rolls my way, and I deflect it back into their path. This earns me a great cheer. It is a moment of life and levity that I've missed, and not known I've missed till it feeds me, fills my soul. Past tailors and cafes, multinationals and family businesses, I'm in a reverie, till one side-street ends abruptly in a barbed wire topped heap of barrels and the unflinching stare of a soldier.
Nicosia is Europe's last divided capital city. Its continuing strategic importance made plain by the gash that cuts the place in two. A 1960s segregation between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots was set in stone by the 1974 invasion of Turkey. The UN polices a buffer zone between the two sides. In the city it's often only a couple of houses deep. Many side streets end this way. It's a higgledy piggledy border, jagging around, so you never quite know where the roadblock and the solider will be, which road will have exits and which will just stop, suddenly dead, the final house boarded and graffitied. The walls of concrete barrels are 8 feet high, which means you can just see the tops of what is beyond, the collapsing villas in the buffer zone, shot windowed, broken beamed, their life force drained, spent on peace, lost to war. Beyond that, the flags of Turkish Northern Cyprus, on high masts, proud, Daz white. The Greek Cypriots don't bother with that game, restricting themselves to a few small and tatty flags on short masts. They're not interested in a flag war. Beyond the Turkish flags, great minarets of the new mosques. The are high and clean, perfect columns of exquisite masonry, towering far above the city. The four course view, from solider and barricade, to collapsing villa, to flags, to minaret, gives one the impression of a military Disneyland just beyond reach.
But it's not beyond reach. Ledra street, the main shopping street at the heart of the old city was cut in half for many years, but re-opened in 2008, and passport in hand, you may cross. The checks seem tight, with police on both sides guarding entry and exit, but in reality, this is formality and both sides know it. The male guard on the South was checking football results as he scanned my passport, and lady on the North (Turkish) side was checking a fashion page on her phone and didn't even glance at me as she slid my passport into the reader. I hoped for a massive, imposing, heroic Turkish stamp in my passport, but it was not forthcoming. The Ledra street crossing is one of the oddest places I have ever been. On the one hand, brutal, deadly serious. Armed guards stand ready. Signs warn you in no uncertain terms that photography is absolutely banned, and you will be hauled off if you try, and on the Greek Cypriot side, a large interpretation board with the UN resolution condemning the Turkish invasion, explaining the story of the people who were disappeared, the families that never met up again. On the other hand, there are the tat shops that focus in on the the crossing like rivers in confluence, the guides that welcome you to 'Europe's last divided capital', the Starbucks and McDonalds. This is a city that cannot reconcile the endless hurt of violent division and the value of selling that division as an attraction to tourists.
I headed through, and to all intents and purposes found myself in Turkey. There is nothing quite so fascinating to the student of politics as the divided city. In a world of endlessly competing political, economic, and social systems, they are a chance to see how things would progress from the same start point. An immediate A/B comparison. The Turks, having conquered the North of the island, imported huge numbers of their own, removed many of the churches and built mosques. The differences that led to partition are now amplified and entrenched, and the commonly sighted graffiti of 'Reunite Cyprus' seems a hopeless, wasted effort against two civilisations door to door, but not talking, little in common now.
Northern Nicosia starts familiar, tourist stalls, shops priced in Euros, but it soon changes. I walked, and within five minutes was in a other world. Rusting and ancient cars were being welded. Tattered buildings, open to the weather were gaunt and forgotten. An ancient woman sat on an upturned bucket in the space where a villa once was. Narrow roads, bad kerbs, the smell of sewerage. In the space of a few hundred yards I had traveled from Europe to Asia. And I could see Europe in parallel across the border. Women in full Islamic dress passed me, a textiled rebuke to European cafe culture.
It was not without its charms. The magnificent market hall was light and airy, each stall having shelves that ran high up the walls, accessible only by ladder. Old men played aggressive, fast paced Backgammon in the generous free spaces, dice rattling loud. The book-stall keeper, realising his stock was all illegible to me, tried to sell me a balalaika. The Büyük Han, the greatest caravansarai on the island, an architectural wonder. But these were the buildings that pre-dated partition. Nothing of value has been added, and much has been lost. In the main part of the town, concrete was king. Whole streets were made of squat concrete blocks and small blue tiles. It was as if someone had imported the entire UK supply of municipal swimming baths and disused Woolworths, and reassembled the entire wretched lot in a dismal square kilometer of pseudo-shopping. Shops were well stocked, but short of customers. The stock was cheap and flimsy. Not much sold. The rising tide of European prosperity had barely lapped over the divide, and the dusty streets were redolent with good, honest state-planned poverty. Several giant mosques dominated the skyscape, their enormous blocky minarets far above every other building, clean and clear, loudspeakers calling all to prayer, whether they could make it across or not.
After a couple of hours walking through the Turkish streets, I decided to return to the South, and passed back through the checkpoints with a freedom that made a total mockery of the enforced differences. I considered that not only did divided cities give one a window on the consequences of political and economic policies, but they also gave you a sense of what matters to different people. The Turkish side, a proud nationalistic series of statements, vast flags, ostentatious minarets, the Greek side, just coffee and McDonalds. One side trying to impress, to make a statement, the other just having lunch. There's a quiet self confidence in the Greek Cypriots. They don't need to engage in this lop-sided propaganda war, they simply buy nice clothes and drink coffee, whilst watching the Turks raise ever greater towers and flags.
I doubt this island can ever now be reconciled. The imported Turks, and the cultural cleansing that have occurred in the North mean that the two communities, separated by little more than two streets of collapsing villas and a line of UN peacekeepers, have grown to be worlds apart. Unlike Berlin, where one people were split by an ideological struggle, here, two wholly different people are separated by a single empty street they could shout across.
I drove back to Paphos, and against expectations, delivered the car back on time and with the same number of wheels it started with. I had a little time to mull it all over before I headed back to the UK.
I chose to finish my holiday with a glass of wine in a trendy bar overlooking the bay from high on the hill. The good weather was drawing to a close, and the wind blew hard off the sea. I ordered my wine and said I'd like it outside on the terrace. I found a long table with a fine view and opened my book. Some minutes later, the waiter came out with my wine, struggled in the wind to keep it upright on the tray in the tall stemmed glass, and eventually landed it on my table. The wind was not gusty, but a long continuous breath of warm air from the South. I held my glass as he placed a small pot of peanuts by it. The wind blew it perfectly along the table in slow motion. Perturbed, the waiter pushed it back. It blew along again. He brought a heavy marble ash tray as a blocker, and we nodded at one another in acknowledgment of a job well done.
Half an hour later, I finished my wine, and gestured for the bill. All bills are brought to you in little metal pots here. The waiter left the building and the wind whipped it straight out of the pot and over his head. We both watched it fly up and away, until it was lost from sight. We glanced at each other and nodded again. Another bill was produced. This time it came out under a rock. I paid up and headed for the airport.