Installment 8: April 29, 2001
In Cyprus this month, the wind has started blowing gale force, so strong it will almost knock you off your bike. Some days, both sets of mountains are obscured by a dirty mist made of dust and smog rising up from the city. The sun has changed its preferred afternoon sinking location, streaking the sky red a full hour later than it did in January. Instead of having to peer out the side of the front window, you can sit on the couch and watch it fall down behind Turkey.
All the fields have gone from avocado-skin green to yellow and gold, and the roses are blinking out from the tops of thorny stems. A few electrical wires have appeared on the poles in the burgeoning subdivision across the way. The men who attach the wires during the day are close enough to see silhouettes, but far away to look like refrigerator magnets, hands and feet attached to the surface, bodies jutting out impossibly into space. Last week, a new law was passed that requires stores to forego the Wednesday siesta that has been religion for dozens of years. Now we can buy ice cream until three o’clock on Wednesdays instead of just until one.
A new window on the passing of time seems available to me here. I’m sure you can see the same things transforming anywhere – the seasons, your neighborhood, nature – if you just open your eyes, but I don’t usually take the time to notice.
However, what no one could fail to observe, is that as the spring marches on, embassy event planners are rallying the troops – caterers and security, speechmakers and table decorators. You should be aware that, at this moment, the corps is staging an all-out war of official happenings, designed to break us into tiny cucumbers stripped of skin, hollowed out beyond recognition and viciously stuffed to overflowing with some ungodly mix of vinegary ocean things.
Last week, for example, the Fulbright commission presented Mrs. Fulbright herself at a reception, the Ambassador’s wife graciously hosted a spring garden party, and the Marines cooked a large lamb, eyes bulging and torso rotating, over a large fire. Jimmy and I showed up, pressed and washed, at every one. At one point, I found myself committing most of the seven sins of official political social functions. Just so none of you fall to the same fate at your next embassy gathering, let me work on chapter one of the etiquette workbook for you.
Rule number one: Do not linger too long when greeting the host/ess. Just say hello and keep on walking. Not to do so might lead to a disastrous rebuke, like this: “Well, ummm….I guess you’ll just have to introduce yourself instead of me walking around with you and introducing you to everyone.” Ouch. Well, of course, I didn’t want you to introduce me. I mean, I come from a family of minglers. I can shoot the shit as well with Brian Boytano as Hosni Mubarek.
Rule number two: Don’t look like you should be a member of a yacht club from Boston when you’re actually from Texas. I have no idea what this means, but a vague acquaintance slipped it in during an until-then seemingly innocuous conversation. She seemed to be accusing me of something (“What, do you sail?”), but maybe I was just still splashing in paranoia soup from the hostess comment.
Rule number three: If you have met someone once, even if you barely know them, gesticulate wildly across a crowd and act as though they are your famous dead cousin come back from the grave. My failure to do so earned me the wounded, “What, did you not see me or something? I mean I was standing there smiling, and you didn’t do a thing!” This person should have seen all the things I wanted to do, like shove a salmon crepe up this person’s nose or use this person’s blazer to take a solo ride, slip-n-slide style, in the fountain and through the garden mud.
Rule number four: If you don’t have children, and the majority of your consorts are parents, don’t mention anything good about your life. If you do, you will surely be greeted with a chorus of “Oh, you just wait until you have children! Then you’ll see how easy it is to get away!” or “Cyprus relaxing? When you have kids, you’ll find out that no place in the world is calm!” Or the incredulous, “Read and write? I can’t remember the last time I had time to sit down and read a book! When you have kids…” I know that I cannot begin to understand the difficulties that parenthood presents. Still, I had to suppress the urge to draw out the tiniest guitar in the world and start playing a soulful dirge for the whole damn round table of ice-tea drinking companions.
There’s more, but that’s enough for one lesson. I should mention that the beauty of my life right now comes from the children who I teach every week. These kids are going to study in the United States on Fulbright scholarships. They are so excited that they can’t stay in their seats and so scared that, nearly every class, some student comes up to me with eyes so wide you’d swear they just met Joseph Stalin’s apparition in the bathroom. All the words come out in a tumble: “IreallywanttogotoUniversityofMarylandbutIhaven’theardfromthemandGeorgetownwantsadepositbyMayfirst.ShouldIsenditorwait?WhatdoIdo?WhatdoIdo?”
Or one of them pulls me aside at the break. He’s the class clown who seems oblivious to worry of any kind. His face is drawn. “I know this is a stupid question” – he keeps his voice low – “but my housing application says ‘community bathrooms.’ What does that mean?”
I tell him not to worry. I tell him that he will be paired with three or four other guys with whom he will share a shower every time he wants one. I tell him that they will link arms and parade around under the faucet together and that it’s a great way to get to know the people on his floor. His face goes blank, for just one second, and then he catches one corner of my lips quivering and breaks into laughter, calling his friends over to tell them about the joke he just fell for. Self-derision. How very American. He’ll have no problems adjusting to life in the US of A.
Last week, Jimmy and I went to a wig party. In lieu of wigs, we filled two pairs of stockings with toilet paper (thanks, sheree, for the troll tights), jimmy found some wire in the trash pile in the empty lot next to our house, and we mounted them on our heads like overgrown antenna or drooping feelers. At the party, most of the people were Australians from the UN, and most of them were wearing mops or mullet wigs. The guy who was hosting is Jimmy’s idea of a true Renaissance man (photographer, art collector, army captain you’d never peg for one, life-of-the-party type, superstar runner without even trying, lucky with the ladies), but we had to leave early because, once the dancing started, it came to light that his music collection consisted almost entirely of albums from the Brittany Spears genre.
I mean, when “Rock Lobster” is your pinnacle of hope for a dance party, come on, man. But the party was fun, and later the host told Jimmy he was glad that we had come. He also threw in the phrase “outside of the box,” somehow referring to our presence. I don’t know what that means any more than that I look like I’m in a sailing club in Boston Harbor, but it sounded like some streamlining of the end-users may have been facilitated.
This morning was our first Cyprus triathlon. The flags were flat in Nicosia but by the time we got to the coast they were whipping like those of a hundred rhythmic gymnasts. Against all my aversions to shame, I wore my wetsuit and came out of the ocean on Jimmy’s heels, which was due primarily to the fact that the wetsuit makes me float like a jellyfish, not to my swimming prowess. Jimmy took off up the hill on his bike away from me like a madman (it’s too bad they don’t make a wetsuit for biking), and ended up finishing sixth overall.
I promptly got a flat – okay, not promptly, just when I started coming down the other side of the hardest hill – and, due to new wheels, couldn’t wrench the tire out of the bike rim. I bummed a ride back to the start, tried to go running and got lost, and missed my husband and friends’ glorious finishes.
Well, life doesn’t always make sense, and just to illustrate that notion, I will inform you that at this very moment, as I am upstairs in the study, I am looking down at a cat who has appeared underneath the desk. I have no idea how a cat got up here, and stranger still is the fact that I am dog-sitting this week and there is a canine downstairs on sentry duty. Either this cat is magic, or I shouldn’t put Can-Con on bodyguard duty.
So off to cat removal (not from the world, just the house). Write letters and send emails. Thank you all for the packages and gossip. Keep us in mind when you’re planning your Eastern Mediterranean tours. We love you and miss you like crazy!
Janie and Jimmy