Installment 6: March 26, 2001
At the school where I have been taking Greek lessons, kids take English lessons in the afternoons. Sometimes in the mornings when I get to school, English vocabulary words and grammar examples are written on the board. One day, this was a sampling of the words that were scrawled in haphazard array: rod, belly dancer, squid, spear gun, Muslim, gossip. A couple of weeks ago, the board was empty save this phrase in the middle: “ ‘Good morning, young fellow. How are you doing?’ the policeman asked.”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
Learning Greek has helped me understand how complex, but mostly how fundamentally basic, words are. I have started thinking that we might be a lot better off if, about the time we become adults and our vocabularies get jam-packed with innuendos and truisms and coquetries (such as the word “coquetry”) and ways to gracefully circumvent dangerous subjects, we all had to turn around, learn a new language and stop communicating in our native one.
I have come to this conclusion by listening to a Polish friend talking with her Cypriot boyfriend. She doesn’t know Greek, at least not well, and he doesn’t speak Polish. So they both speak English, a language native to neither of them. And you know what? It doesn’t stunt their relationship at all. In fact, instead of hinting at things and making allusions, they actually say what they mean. Because they don’t have a choice.
Of course, this idea sounds nice in theory but can be less nice in practice. Like last week, for instance, at the pool. After I went swimming I went to the locker room to change and a guy was mopping the floors. He apologized and I apologized and he apologized again and then he went next door to clean the men’s locker room while I was changing. I spent the whole time I was in there rehearsing how to casually say, “I have finished” and when I was done I called into the men’s locker room my meticulously constructed phrase. There was a pause and then a polite “Thank you.” I patted myself on the back, walked out, and realized I had not said “I have finished” at all but had yelled something that was not really a word at all but sounded comparable to “I have made a telephone call!”
In addition to being too sure of yourself, there is something else which is not a recommended activity for a non-native speaker of a language: attempting to write witty advertising slogans. There are several good ones in Cyprus so far, but my favorite is for a chain of eyeglass and optometry shops all over the island. The store is called cEYEprus, which is clever enough, but their tag line reads, “Look no further.”
As for non-verbal communication, Jimmy has been doing a lot of communicating his prowess in the running arena. Two weekends ago he ran a relay race in the middle of Nicosia. For each team of four, every person would run one four-kilometer loop. There were minimal problems. The biggest was that there was no one directing the runners at several turns, so some ended up straying off the path. The start was also staggered, which meant that there was a random, but straggly, array of people running around this loop at any one given time, which isn’t necessarily a problem but kind of breaks the dramatic tension of a race when you can’t tell who is ahead and who is behind and which teams are finishing or starting.
Yesterday Jimmy went with some UN people to the north to run near a castle called St. Hilarion which was built in the 12th century and is rumored to be the image that inspired Walt Disney’s magical castle logo for Disneyland. Then in the afternoon he ran a 6km race here in Nicosia. Even as the only spectator cheering on the course, the race was very pleasant for me, save for the contingent of kiss-blowers.
I also saw my friend Andreas from the marathon who rushed up to me before the race, kissed me on both cheeks (he, on the other hand, had reason for kissing – we are great pals) and gushed, “You must kill me! You must kill me!” I started to, but then he explained that he had a picture of me from the marathon and had forgotten to bring it. When I told him I wasn’t running because I had hurt my knee at the marathon, he nodded in great sympathy. “Me too,” he said, and darted off to line up for the race.
This weekend the air was so clear that, from the Troodos Mountains we could see Turkey, snow-capped peaks and coastline. It’s forty miles away, and almost never visible from Cyprus, but yesterday it looked much closer. Turkish Cypriots make up only about 18% of the population in Cyprus and Greek Cypriots constitute about 75%, and yet Greece is nearly ten times further away.
We have been engaged in some relatively important steps lately that are always crucial in creating a new home: going out with friends and hooking up the VCR. A couple weeks ago, we made plans to go out to a Syrian restaurant with some new friends. Courtesy of some good friends and family members back home (Cathy R. and Sheree and Kurt B.) we hosted a margarita party with real limes and margarita mix beforehand.
One of the girls’ boyfriends was to meet us at the restaurant (he’s Cypriot); turns out he’s one of the more colorful characters to enter our lives in recent history. A stockbroker in Nicosia, he’s a workaholic and a know-it-all who speaks five different languages. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to dinner with someone like this, but this combination can be a real terror.
For four hours we heard about the Cypriot stock market, travels in Austria, the Spanish language, water shortages in California, and the philosophy of food. I’m not sure, but he may be revolting against his more stoic namesake, Socrates. By 2 or 3 am at a bar called Babylon, we were all bleary-eyed and plastered into seat cushions. He was gesticulating wildly and telling stories about a taxi driver he met once. The top of his head was glinted in the dim bar light as he turned to and fro.
We have been getting a good dose of Buffy and Angel on video. A girl at the embassy gets them in the mail from her mom, and despite the fact that we might have to catch a few glimpses of Friends as we’re fast-forwarding through, it’s nice to be able to keep up with the Slayer and her cohorts. Unfortunately, we’ve missed nearly a whole season of Sur-vee-vor. Who’s winning?
I’ve been up to the UN base several times, which sits up on a plateau about a mile (as the crow flies) from our house. It takes about 10 minutes to drive there, but there’s a library there that I like, staffed by a woman who suffers with my tattered Greek and practices with me. The UN sits on the site occupied by the old Cyprus airport, which was partially destroyed during the war. At the terminal, you can look through broken glass and see baggage check-in slots and waiting rooms. Benches, some with mangled cushions, still dot the entrance area. Glass from windows and broken skylights cover the floor and a strange filtered sunlight shines in from above. The fire extinguisher has been ripped out of the wall. Weeds grow through the cracks of the sidewalks outside. Across the street, bougainvillea is wrapped in barbed wire.
Nearby, the Corner Restaurant, a large spacious restaurant that probably did a thriving tourist business 30 years ago, is filled with trash and scampering animals. I poked around inside its large eating room with curved ceilings and arched porticoes for a while, looking at old Russian and Greek newspapers, cigarette boxes and cans piling up across the floor. Before too long, something growled at me from the corner and sent me running, reminding me that this is no longer a human domain.
During the war in 1974, in its only overt display of assistance for the Greek Cypriot cause, the Greek army sent a fleet of planes with soldiers in to help defend the airport, which was quickly falling siege to the encroaching Turks. Unfortunately, no one bothered to notify the Greek Cypriots that help was on its way. They shot down one plane, killing 24 men; the rest circled and returned to Greece.
Up the hill from the Corner Restaurant, an old Cyprus Airways plane sits next to the old hangar. Jagged glass hangs from the windows, and its propeller has been removed, giving the front of the plane the appearance of a kid who has fallen and scraped all the skin off his nose. The air flaps hang off the wings by roots and wires droop from the inside ceilings. The stewardess seats are folded up neatly, ready for the next crew to board.
This somewhat grisly scene has its counterpart at the UN. Not far from the carnage, British UN military families sleep in a mini subdivision, whose closest known relative is the married student housing facilities at universities. Neat bungalows line streets that have cheery names like Willow Lane and Rockingham Road. There’s a hairdresser and a corner store and a girl with pink hair who has just started a dog shelter on the UN base. My library is also there. Close by, kids and parents hit a ball with plastic rackets on the soccer field. Signs around the outside of the field warn, “These fields are watered with sewage effluent.”
Hope all is well! Write write write – we love to hear from you. Everything. How you cleaned your ears this morning, how much you spent at the grocery store, the mild depression you’re suffering as a result of job stress, the corn you have on your big toe. We care. We really do. Hugs and kisses to everybody. We miss you!
Janie and Jimmy