Last week I was in Cyprus — that small island tucked into the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. Getting there was perhaps too much of the adventure. First, I could hardly find a flight. The online travel tool was at a total loss and I wasn’t much help. That the country is split between a recognized entity, the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, and the non-recognized Turkish region to the north, didn’t help flight plans either. Add to this that the name of the capital “Nicosia” is not what Cypriots call it (“Lefkosia”) and that the airport is in a different city altogether and you have a planning nightmare. But it gets better. While booking the travel agent informed me that though there were a few flights on Lufthansa coming in, there were no flights going out. Say what? Do they ship the planes off the island? While she was trying to sort this impossibility out she gladly offered up flights on a Cypriot carrier. A little voice in my head resulted in a quick googling that reminded me that, no, I’d rather not fly on a Cyprus airline. I like landing near mountains, not into them. In the end we got it all sorted out with a connection in London.

But oh the connection in London! The security procedures following on the foiled chemical explosives plot have gnarled Heathrow fiercely. The queuing clusterfuck was a thousand times worse than I’ve seen domestically — and that’s saying quite a lot in post-9/11 America. I ended up missing my Cyprus connection. So, I was re-routed to Frankfurt for a [pause to shudder] seven hour layover. I found a quiet corner and a reclining chair, locked my laptop to my body, and fell asleep. When it was all said and done and I was in my hotel room in Nicosia it was 5am. Just four short hours until my keynote talk at 9am. I’m told I did fine, but frankly I don’t much recall it. I might as well have been drunk I was so dazed.

I didn’t see much of Cyprus. Nicosia is on the interior and most of the beauty is found on the coasts, or at least that’s what the throngs of Eurotourists would suggest. As a former British holding Cyprus still drives on the left, always a source of white-knuckled passenger-side terror for me. It caused me to reflect that most left-driving places in the world are actually islands, remnants of imperial road habits. This makes sense. Being islands, places like Australia, Japan, and the British Caribbean can drive however they want since their roads don’t link up with right-driving roadways. But left-driving isn’t only for islands. India and much of sub-Saharan Africa drive on the left. So my question is: what on earth happens when you cross the border in your car to a right-driving country? I envision a morass of confused motorists surrounded by small mountain ranges of junked vehicles that simply didn’t make it. Anybody know how this works?

Part of my duties in Cyprus included meeting with prominent persons connected to cultural heritage management on the island. I had the pleasure of meeting Bishop Nikiforos of the Cypriot Church. (Greek Cyprus is Greek Orthodox, but it has a centuries-old tradition of complete autonomy from the official Greek church in Istanbul.) Nikiforos might be the next Archibishop of Cyprus depending on elections this week. It would be the equivalent of the Cypriot Pope. But he’s a humble guy, really. What I didn’t know is that I was supposed to kiss his hand. I didn’t know because I wasn’t told. I just shook his hand all American-like. Howdy, partner! My colleagues quickly did the shake-and-kiss and all I could muster was a look of complete ignorance. I couldn’t even refer to him correctly. My colleagues and I spent about a half hour trying to figure out the English equivalent of the Greek honorific that is bestowed on a bishop. They kept saying I should call him “Beatitude,” but I knew that didn’t sound right. He wasn’t a proverb. Finally we figured that I needed to address him as His Beatific, a word, yes, but not one that just rolls off the English speaker’s tongue. I might have said it once, but it sounded so silly that I just mumbled and kept on talking. Frankly, I’m surprised I was let off the island for such heresy.

I missed Halloween while I was there. This was doubly bad since Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and it is the birthday of my youngest son. I mentioned this to one of my Cypriot colleagues. Clearly she felt bad about it because she secretly had the hotel create an authentic Greek toga costume for me. She even had a local florist fashion a laurel wreath from an olive plant. So, there I sat at 4am Cyprus time alone in my room waiting to videoconference with my trick-or-treating family back home hoping like hell that there was no fire emergency in the hotel. Wouldn’t that have been a sight. Who’s the fratboy American in the lobby?

Nicosia in many ways is a sad place. The medieval town center enclosed by beautiful Venetian walls is crudely bisected by the UN buffer zone separating the Greeks from the Turkish. The difference between the two sides is striking. Though the border is much more permeable than it used to be, the economic disparity is real and obvious. Greek Cypriot troops and the Turkish military stare each other down while UN guards maintain order. Animosity over the Turkish invasion of 1974 is so palpable and frankly stated that you’d think it happened last month. Clearly it is a wound that will take generations to heal: one of my Greek Cypriot colleagues noted that the house he grew up in in the north is now a UN depot on the first floor, a Turkish residence upstairs, and a brothel in the basement. A terrible predicament to be sure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was so much ado about a truly tiny place. I certainly don’t have a solution, but stepping back a bit it is obvious that Cyprus is far too tiny to be split in half, especially given its historical role as a crossroad of cultures.

From Cyprus I went back to London for a few days of meetings. Turns out I showed up for Guy Fawkes Night, which is actually Guy Fawkes Weekend as far as I could tell. The country seemed to be shooting off fireworks from the moment I arrived to the moment I left. I might actually be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder the shelling was so constant. But you really must applaud a holiday based on a foiled plot to detonate parliament. One wonders what they are really celebrating — that Guy didn’t succeed or what it would have been like (BOOM!) if he had?

Waiting for my flight home I queued in back of an irate American woman demanding recompense for the $300 of cosmetics that the BAA relieved her of at Heathrow. I just shook my head and took my seat. Turns out this irate American was my seatmate. And her anger was more understandable than I had at first thought. She had all her items neatly measured and baggied, per the guidelines. When she departed Germany to make her connection in London British Airways told her that the bag was fine. Yet, in Heathrow they yanked it.

Say what you will about carrying several hundred dollars’ worth of cosmetics on your person, but she had a good excuse: she was Nancy Gustafson, a professional opera singer. And not just any opera singer as I would learn over the next few hours, but one of the best, a frequent soprano collaborator with every one of the Three Tenors. My first comment was “But, but, you’re not fat. Aren’t you supposed to be fat?” Like she’d never heard that before. It was a fascinating conversation. Basically the top tier of opera singers have no home. They travel the world constantly. She was practicing in her seat for a Russian opera to be performed in Tokyo on Tuesday. This was made more difficult because she doesn’t speak Russian and, well, belting out practice verses on an airplane is generally frowned upon. She was also suprsingly geeky, carrying a Vaio, MacBook, and Treo. And her iTunes library, whoa! Let’s just say there’s not a great deal of overlap with my library. She did have some pop in there, though, including the first track in the library wonderfully titled “I Don’t Give a Fuck.” See, even opera singers slum it sometimes. Nancy’s website is down at the moment, but you can learn a bit more here.

And so, to the two of you who’ve made it this far: you’re insane, but thanks. Must make shorter posts!

One response to “Fortnight”

  1. Bryce says :

    Ah.. Good ol’ Guy. “The only man to ever enter Parliament with honest intentions.” Great update John – glad to have you back. (In Chicago?)