European Far East
From one island to the next.. I took off from Britain yesterday to fly another one of the countries that joined the European Union on 1 May 2004: Cyprus. Situated closer to Lebanon, Israel and Egypt than to Greece, Cyprus is the easternmost country of the European Union. Question of the day: What`s worth knowing about this little island with not even a million inhabitants?
Throughout history, Cyprus has belonged to different bigger nations. Its strategic location made it a very suitable gateway to the Near East. After the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and Turks, the English were the last ones to count Cyprus as one of their overseas provinces. The international history easily explains the rich architectural heritage, as well as the fact that Cypriots speak Greek as their first language, and oftentimes English as their second.
`We have no problems with Turkish Cypriots, only with the Turkish Turks`
The last time Cyprus gained independence was in 1960, when the English were requested to return home. Happiness lasted only fourteen years, until the moment tensions between the Turk and Greek Cypriots started to arise. The situation turned even more complicated when Turkey invaded the island in 1974. Within a matter of days, it occupied the north of the country, accounting for almost 40% of the territory.
Following international peace talks between Turkey, Great Britain and Greece, Turkey agreed to halt its advance on the condition that it would remain on the island until a political settlement was reached between the two sides. Until today, no such solution has been found. The Cyprus dispute is a very sensitive subject, with entirely different interpretations on either side of the conflict and many parties involved. Once I get to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, I will dedicate a complete article to the subject.
Current day`s tourist maps of Cyprus invariably display the entire island, with the north marked as `inaccessible since the Turkish occupation of 1974`. Relations have however loosened up, and traveling to `the other side` is still restrained but no longer prohibited. Upcoming elections will possibly increase the probability that both sides shall be reunited.
Leonidas (23, photo) prefers not to make use of his recently acquired right to visit the North. `Turkey has sent in many people from Turkey who live in houses formerly owned by Greek Cypriots. I do not want to go to the north and see Turkish flags waving over my compatriots` houses. The Turks have converted Greek Orthodox churches into markets and farms, while we in the South have been very supportive to the Turkish Cypriot community. There is very little difference between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. Todays`s problem is a problem with the Turks, not with the Turkish Cypriots.`
Even though the United Kingdom has also played the role of occupant for several decades, British visitors can count on a much warmer welcome than the Turks. Summer is high season for the tourism industry. Two million people visit Cyprus each summer and most of them are Britons. According to Leonidas, their presence is usually absorbed smoothly, although their love for endless parties and binge drinking does occasionally lead to man fights.
In winter, the presence of Britons is limited to white-haired, red-faced, reading-glassed elderly who may or may not have spent their army service on Cyprus during British occupation. Many now own a house in one of the coastal cities. Despite the colonial past, the Cypriots see no harm in the renewed British presence on the island. As Leonidas puts it: `They bring in a lot of money, so lots is done to accommodate their needs.`
It`s not difficult to find traces of English heritage in the streets. Cars drive on the left side of the road and all street and traffic signs are bilingual. Some zebra crossings have even been equipped with yellow light bulbs on top of black and white striped posts. Cities have double names, with the capital Nicosia officially named Lefkosia and Limassol locally known as Lemessos.
Different from mainland UK is definitely the weather. Rain usually only touches Cyprus during four months of the year. Marios (31) tells me about sweet winters, during which the mountains in the middle of the island may get covered in snow, while the temperature on the seaside hardly ever drops below 10 degrees.
The sunny weather serves as a powerful magnet for tourism, but it equally poses a threat to water supplies for agriculture and human consumption. Cyprus has been faced with water shortages for the last five years, and if no rain arrives during the months to come, the island will have to import water from abroad. Marios assures me that major research into salt water processing is necessary to solve the country`s water problem. `At the same time, we are learning to take more advantage of solar energy. Many households already use it to heat water in containers mounted onto their rooftops, and the range of applications of solar energy do not cease to increase`, Marios says.
Pareskevi (18) was born and raised in Cyprus and has never left the island. `I enjoy living here so why would I go somewhere else`, she says. Most Cypriots are a lot more eager to travel. Many embrace the tradition of flying to Greece twice a year, for holidays and for shopping. Another popular reason for temporary emigration is studies. Cyprus only has one university, leaving many students the popular option of studying in Greece, the United Kingdom or the United States. Students preparing to work in the tourist industry may opt for Hotel Management studies in Switzerland. Many graduates return after completing their studies, as Cyprus apparently offers more jobs and higher salaries than surrounding countries.
Within Cyprus, traveling is almost impossible without a car. The island has no rail connections, very few bus connections within cities and even fewer between cities. The island is said to be small enough to do without an intercity network. Paphos has one bus a day running to the nearest big city of Limassol, 75 kilometers to the East, leaving the Paphos at 8 in the morning on weekdays and Saturdays. It is not very surprising that car rental companies are thriving, and that households usually have one car for every family member. Many people are in a rush to obtain their driver`s license directly after they turn 18. The average driving style can hardly be called acceptable, which translates into road mortality figures similar to those of Lithuania.
Cyprus`s popularity can easily be explained by the good weather, friendly people and tasty food. The standard of living is high compared to surrounding countries. Thanks to limited disparities in income, crime rates are low. The pace of life is rather slow and people take time to get to know each other. Needless to say that I look forward to 10 pleasant and relaxing days in Cyprus. Please accept that my postings will also have some casual delays ? internet connectivity is limited so I may not be able to update Us Europeans on a strictly daily basis.
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