These days I do a lot more driving and a lot more hanging around. And not the kind of hanging around where you can just park the car and read: at least twice a week I am hanging around for an hour or more with the Little Ones at dusk while the Big Ones do TaeKwanDo.
Last Tuesday, by the time the Littles’ class had finished and I had dropped off the Big Ones, I had done all the town errands and was a bit at a loss for entertainment. Zenon and Leo were no help. “I’ll just stay in the car,” was Zenon’s contribution, and Leo said “I want pizza!” Neither was an option, so I said: “We’re going to the Red Park!”
A chorus of groans met this suggestion. “Then we’ll have to change out of our TaeKwanDo suits!” and “It’s getting dark, no fun!” But Benevolent, I may be; Dictator, I am. So I said: “Tough! That’s where we’re going. Change your clothes in the car.”
The Red Park is Yerouskippou village’s municipal park. Large and grassy, with landscaped gardens, slopes, paths, and a footbridge, it also has a kiosk/cafeteria (always closed when we are there), playground equipment (painted red, hence our name), benches for sitting, and a water fountain. Before we moved out to the sticks, we used to have Zenon and Leo’s birthday parties there: there were flat places for football, cricket, or games of tag, woods and bushes to hide in, even an amphitheatre for showing off. Its drawback from May to September is a shortage of shade. The trees are still small, so to enjoy Yerouskippou park in the summer, you need to go before nine or after five-thirty.
We found the parking lot nearly full, and Zenon and Leo tumbled from the car – all complaints suddenly silent. At least fifteen families were enjoying the evening at the park: swinging on the swings, climbing the frame, sliding. Two separate games of kickball were happening, and skateboards and bikes whizzed around the concrete area.
The boys headed for the swings, close to a group of three women, two toddlers, and a baby. We exchanged smiles, the gold teeth of the older woman flashing as she looked up at me. One of the toddlers wandered toward the path of Zenon’s swing, so I scooped him up and returned him to his mother, and I realised that the group was speaking Arabic. I hadn’t twigged at first because, although the older woman was dressed ‘ethnically’ the two younger ones were in Western dress. Most of the Syrian women here wear the conservative Muslim head scarf.
Over at the flat area, a Russian mother and her son were playing kick-ball while Babushka watched and called occasional encouragement. Some Ponti kids were playing on the line swing, a Cypriot thirty-something was encouraging his four-year-old daughter up the slide, and an English mother was trying to stop her two sons from braining each other with lightsabres. As I watched them all, I reflected on how the demographics have changed since I first set foot on Cyprus just over nineteen years ago.
The population then was almost purely Greek-Cypriot. A foreigner’s land purchase had to be approved by the Council of Ministers. Some foreigners (mostly English, many former military) had retired here, and some intermarriage, again, mostly with English – or English-speaking foreigners had taken place. Those (mostly) women had assimilated. Before the ‘nineties, you simply couldn’t manage without Greek. Guest workers were Philippinas – nurses, cabaret ‘artistes’, and home-help, but Cypriots, both men and women, still did menial jobs.
Things began changing. Sri Lankans appeared – the women working as housemaids, the men as shepherds, drivers, cleaners. Then came the Russian invasion: as the Soviet Union crumbled, more and more Russians, many of then wealthy, set up businesses and homes here. Syrians came to work on the building sites, and Pontic Greeks arrived to live – their Greek passports assuring them a right of residency. When I helped with ambulance cover at the rugby match, I ran into our Nepalese worker, and he introduced me to Paphos’ Nepali community which lives in a complex of rooms at the rugby pitch. The latest wave of house- and field-help has been from Vietnam, and it still gives me a slight sense of cultural dislocation to see three or four women in their traditional conical hats, squatting in a field of onions or walking in the market place. You can find a Cypriot house-cleaner, baby-sitter, or field worker for neither love nor money.
When we joined the European Union in 2004, Brits arrived en masse. Suddenly, they could work and buy land. Because there were so many of them, and so many British businesses, learning Greek was no longer necessary: they could buy land, build a house and decorate it, shop, give birth, educate their children (privately), and watch t.v all in English. The one thing that they couldn’t do in English was die. The State still deals with death, and formalities are the same whatever the nationality. Doctors and police speak good English, but the bureaucracy is still Byzantine.
Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States joined at the same time. New languages were heard. Leggy blondes appeared on the streets, in cafes, married to locals. In 2006, 26% of marriages that involved a Cypriot in the government-controlled part of the island were to a foreign partner. When Bulgaria and Romania came into the EU two years ago, even more foreigners flooded in. The economic downturn has seen some retreats – particularly of fly-by-night British who thought that they would make a killing here, then were hit by recession and the loss in value of Sterling. But by-and-large there is still a good-sized community of out-of-towners.
Hence the polyglot mixture at the park. This new multi-culturalism can’t be bad: we all have to live on this planet, the better we know each other and the more things that we realise are common, the less likely we are to kill each other. Syrian and Russian children sharing classroom space with English and Cypriot kids will only lead to greater understandings… won’t they? I’m glad that my children will have international friends. Taste foreign food. Learn foreign tongues.
Just now, like last Tuesday evening at the park, the situation seems pretty idyllic. Maybe I’m just naive, but I hope it stays like that.