Thursday, July 05, 2018

Two days in Cyprus

Cyprus is a big beach destination for much of eastern Europe, the near Middle East (especially Israel and Lebanon), and Russia: it's nearby, inexpensive, and sun-baked. The landscape looks a bit like northern New Mexico—hot and scrubby—as you can see in these photos of the University of Central Lancashire's Cyprus campus (red & white building, where the conference was held) and the new student housing (white building at right—it's a panorama shot so the road is not really curved). The latter are so new that the road leading to them isn't even paved yet; it looks for all the world like an American condo subdivision going up.

(I'm still not sure why UCLan opened this campus. I suspect the answer is either to make money, or as a loss-leader to feed students to their main UK campus, as this school is not particularly a top tier school. I get the sense many Cypriots like their kids to study a lot of English to make sure they have opportunities after school, and the ones who can afford it send their kids to spend some time studying abroad; the UCLan's brochure "The British University in Cyprus" seems to capitalize on this.)

After the first conference day some of us went downtown for dinner, as there is literally no food to be had on campus after hours (other than pizza delivery to the dorm—really). Larnaca's downtown waterfront reminds me a little of the French Riviera, though I don't mean that in an entirely complimentary way. There's the usual assortment of nondescript but pleasant outdoor cafés; a beach that isn't very wide or very sandy, quite packed with beach umbrellas in neat rows; and enough people bathing that suggests the water's reasonable, but not so many as to make bathing festive.

Seems like a nice enough beach, but having just come off a week in Cozumel last month, I wasn't strongly regretting not bringing a swimsuit.
The most interesting part of the evening, though, was what I learned from the bus driver's narration on the way to town (which is a good 25-30 minutes from campus). Disclaimer: You probably know all this. I felt woefully ignorant that I did not.

Historically Cyprus has been a mix of Turkish and Greek culture. In 1974 the Turkish army invaded/occupied the northern part of the island and set up a "country" there that is recognized by no one except Turkey. They expelled most of the ethnic Greeks and took their homes, sending a wave of refugees to the southern part of the island. The island is now ethnically basically segregated, and the Turks are said to be stamping out all signs of Greek culture and heritage in the occupied portion. This explains the UN "Green zone" mentioned in my earlier post: the campus is within the "buffer zone" between Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied zone, presumably so that in case of trouble the campus would remain open and accessible (or at least, the British could get in there and evacuate it).

You might wonder why nothing has happened to end the occupation given that Cyprus was admitted to the EU in 2004, and occupation by a foreign power is a violation of the EU constitution. (Of course, the country doing the occupying isn't an EU country, and indeed the occupation is a main obstacle to Turkey being allowed to join.) The EU has fined Turkey $100M (which it hasn't paid), ordered it to leave Cyprus (it hasn't), censured it (Ankara has conspicuously ignored the censure), and ordered Turkey to stop destroying Greek culture in north Cyprus (they continue to do so). If you believe my cab driver, and I'm not saying you should, the EU has also cajoled Cyprus into solving the problem diplomatically rather than, say, cutting the power lines and infrastructure into northern Cyprus. The Cypriots are understandably skeptical that diplomacy will work now if it hasn't worked since 1974, and they mutter about the Turkish genocide in Armenia (there is apparently a significant Armenian community in Cyprus that was seeded by the refugee exodus when Turkey invaded Armenia early in the 20th century). But to hear the history of the country, it's been occupied, ruled, or overrun by foreign powers so many times—the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire—that maybe people are resigned to this being a fact of life. I don't know. At any rate, it meant that when I had some beers with Turkish-speaking guys (previous post), it was pretty rare to hear Turkish spoken in the south part of the island, and most people don't take kindly when they do hear it, kind of like speaking Russian in the Baltic countries. To most people you'd speak to in south Cyprus, the culture is basically Greek culture. This also explains why Google Maps shows place names in Greek and Turkish on different parts of the island.

The following afternoon we got a "walking tour" of downtown; we saw the Byzantine Church of St. Lazarus, dating to 890 AD (but looking suspiciously newer), where the tomb of Lazarus is. (Yes, I know the story too, but legend has it the tomb and relics here are from when he died the second time, and I guess you only get one resurrection.) There's also a medieval castle dating from a bit later than that, whose purpose was ostensibly to protect the town and the harbor; the abovementioned history of occupied Cyprus suggests it wasn't working, yet it stood as-is for a thousand years. Facelift thought it was way too hot, and other than a visit to a traditional pottery workshop (I skipped it; I've seen pottery being made, and usually these are ways for the guide to get a kickback if you buy things), the walk wasn't as good as my own perambulations after dinner the night before. My basic takeaway was that such ambience as there is, is dominated by the beach vacation crowd. It was hard to get a sense that the place has a flavor of its own, but I'm probably not being fair as I was here just 2 days for a conference.

The last evening

was spent at a taverna with traditional Greek food (lots of little plates), drink (I chose Zivana, a grappa-like drink, over red wine), and dancing. The performers were quite good, including a guy who was dancing with about 15 stacked glasses and a bottle on his head (he claimed to have gotten up to 32 at another gig). There was the usual audience-participatory "dancing" which was more like a conga line, but what the hell. Overall a festive capstone that gave a sense of the culture, and two of my colleagues at the conference who were Greek were really getting into it, as they knew the words to all the folk songs.

I'm not sure I feel a strong need to return, but Cyprus was an interesting place to visit, if a bit hot for my taste (though coming here for a conference is a little like going to Cancún for a conference: if you're not in the conference room, you're both overdressed or overheating in business attire). The whole Turkish thing made me sad, especially because with the US leaving a leadership vacuum and the EU holding on by a thread, the Turks are probably thinking to hell with EU membership, we'll just align with Russia and stay right where we are in Cyprus. But most surprising is that it got little airplay—even my European colleagues didn't know much about it.

Trying to be a citizen of the world, some days are more cheery than others.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Welcome to Cyprus!

So far for me, Cyprus is like China: most signs that visitors might see include a helpful English translation, but other than that, I'm lost (or reliant on the amazing Google Translate). This is humbling, after being in French Switzerland (my French is passable) and London (my English is passable, despite being an American). In the immigration line at the airport, I heard some Russian alongside English—apparently this is a very popular beach destination for Russians, and also for douchebag frat boys from London, but that's the subject of another post.

The two languages spoken here are Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot (or Cypriot Greek and Cypriot Turkish, depending on your point of view).  I can sound out words in Greek letters,  but I can only translate very basic things like "EXIT" or "CITIZEN". (I wish I knew how to say "BEER".) On the way here, my cab driver explained (in limited English; but that's literally infinitely better than my nonexistent Greek or Turkish) that Pyla, the village where I'd be staying, was the only village on the island that was part Greek and part Turkish. I was thinking "Yay, diversity" when he pointed out that that meant the Turkish army had a base on one side of it, the Greek army on the other, and only UN peacekeepers were allowed to patrol the perimeter. The village is a UN "green zone." And green is good. I assume.

The University of Central Lancashire, England (UCLan, which locals pronounce "U-Clan"), has a satellite campus here which is hosting the conference. Some US universities have things like this; some are cash cows, others serve some other purpose; I suppose I should find out where Berkeley has them and see if there is any good to be done there. But meanwhile, UCLan just opened a new building complex to serve as student residences for the Cyprus campus. And when i say "just opened", I mean the paved road stops right at the edge of the complex, and doesn't extend to the back buildings, where I am. (To get home, I walk along the road until a bulldozer blocks the way, then I turn right.) It's a bit incongruous that in the middle of what is otherwise an open field, there is an Ikea-modern campus and living complex, the latter being the student residences where I'm staying. For the record, my "student" room has the best air conditioning and the best shower/bath I've experienced since leaving the US. The room is pleasantly chilled to 17C, and the shower looks like I can actually stand up in it and enjoy the luxury of hot water streaming from my head to my toes without me holding a shower fixture to make it happen. In terms of the room furnishings, either this is Ikea's largest regional contract or there are many Ikea look-alike stores in Cyprus. But, as with all things Ikea, it's brand-new so everything looks and works great!

Anyway, after dropping off my stuff in my room following a 9+ hour travel day (2 hours early to airport; 3 hour flight delay; 4.5 hour flight; 0.5 hour transit to lodging), I asked the property caretaker if there was somewhere I might get a beer. He mentioned a "casino" a couple of hundred meters down the road, which I'd remembered passing, so I headed that way. The casino was a sad assortment of e-poker machines and off-track betting, and there was a shack of sorts across the street with a couple of guys sitting out in front drinking beer. A fridge case was visible within the shack, so I assumed it was some sort of convenience store, and I asked these guys if I might buy a beer.

They immediately insisted I sit down and join them, and TL;DR over the subsequent 30 minutes they fed me a beer (Efes, same kind I enjoy in my favorite Turkish restaurant back home) and a whiskey (Famous Grouse, actually not a bad brand). Turns out it was just some guys hanging out—Taifik, Kerem, and Tzeiki to be exact, though I've almost certainly transliterated their names incorrectly. Kerem spoke enough English to get by; Tzeiki could do a few sentences; Taifik not a word; but that didn't stop us from having a great exchange, variously mediated by Kerem and Google Translate. Kerem has two grown kids studying in the UK to be a fashion designer and pathologist respectively; Tzeiki is a local big shot of some kind and likes whiskey; Taifik is a man of mystery, or at least of few words; and as the photos suggest, they enjoyed meeting Facelift and hearing about his adventures.

Try as I might, I could not arrange to buy a round. But they said I was welcome to meet them tomorrow at 8pm, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, for another round. As a matter of international honor as a citizen of the world, I shall do my utmost to be there, bearing some vessel of high quality whisky as a token of my appreciation for their hospitality tonight, which was significant. It was an excellent cultural experience, comparable to when I followed my Mumbai tour guide back to his neighborhood to hang out and shoot hoops with his friends in a far-flung suburb.

The translation gulf between Kerem and me was occasionally too wide, but that's when Google Translate stepped in (all three guys spoke Turkish Cypriot or Cypriot Turkish, as you prefer, and setting Translate to "Turkish" seemed to produce intelligible results).

It was a wonderful 45 minutes, and a reminder that (a) I have yet to visit any place, except maybe Egypt, where booze was not part of the universal cultural get-to-know-you vocabulary; and (b) in the past I've fretted about how the hell we are going to learn to all get along when we can't communicate, but Google Translate has closed a huge chunk of that gap, so what's our excuse now?

The next day and a half I'll be thinking and talking about software engineering education, but I'll take a time out around 8pm tomorrow to be a citizen of the world with Kerem, Taifik, Tzeiki, and a small bottle of whatever goodwill I can find in this town.

Şerefe, everyone.

I think I'm getting the hang of discount carriers

I think I'm starting to get the hang of the European discount carriers, like EasyJet, WizzAir, and RyanAir. Let me begin with the two takeaways, which I state in the form of the strongest assumptions I think you can reasonably make when traveling on these carriers:
  1. You stand a good chance of arriving at your scheduled destination on the same day as indicated on your ticket.
  2. You will eventually board and sit in a seat where you can stow something under the seat in front of you.
Making any stronger assumptions is asking for trouble. In particular: don't assume you can bring on 2 small bags, don't assume overhead bin space will be available, don't assume paying for Priority Boarding will necessarily buy you anything, don't assume you'll get the upgrade seat you paid for (at least one person on our flight didn't).

Today's discount flight was my direct flight from London Luton to Larnaca, Cyprus, on WizzAir. The name sounds vaguely piquant to me, and I was trying to figure out which non-English language was the one featured on the safety information card. (I correctly guessed Hungarian.)

Luton Airport, served exclusively by discount carriers, welcomed me cheerily: a 20 minute train + 10 minute bus ride from St. Pancras (about £11), easy security screening (the airport wasn't very busy on a Sunday morning, but they do have about 15 conveyors so I imagine throughput is decent), and the shopping concourse was open, bright, and airy, with a Starbucks that was (as usual) generously appointed with AC outlets, which was good, since the departure board showed a 2 hour delay for my flight (which eventually turned into a 3 hour delay, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself).

Within an hour, the airport was as full and busy as Grand Central, with all tables full, many people sitting on the ground with their luggage, and the airport Wifi collapsing under this load. TripAdvisor warned me against paying for the Aspire VIP Lounge. The three college-age women sitting near me, also going to Cyprus, had originally booked a flight scheduled at 10am; then a few weeks later they got an email saying the departure time had been changed to 6am; then a few weeks later to 12 noon, which was the schedule I'd purchased. But I had low expectations and was in good spirits—with the delay I'd arrive in Cyprus too late to have dinner, but that's what airline booze is for.

When they announced our gate an hour before the delayed departure, I decided to head over, as discount airlines are notorious for closing the gate a full 30 minutes before takeoff to ensure boarding happens on time. Now the real fun began. The Luton shopping concourse I'd been waiting in was a Costco warehouse from the outside—shiny aluminum siding, no frivolous architectural flourishes such as windows or signage—though pleasant on the inside. But then you pass into the actual boarding gate building, which resembles a late-Cold War bureaucratic installation.

One way the discount airlines apparently maximize the use of their airport footprint is by stacking gates. In modern airports, gates are usually on the 2nd floor, making them level with the jetway. Our gate was below another gate, occupying a space that in any other airport would be used for maintenance-vehicle parking or pallet storage but here had been enclosed and turned into a holding pen. But we only spent about half of our pre-boarding time in that space. The other half was spent in the stairwell getting down to it, because for reasons I couldn't understand, the gate space itself wasn't open when they made the airport announcement that everyone on our flight needed to immediately go to the gate. So we were sitting and standing in the stairwell for about 45 minutes until they opened the actual gate area, whose distinguishing feature—in fact its only feature—was a Disneyland maze leading to the boarding podium where boarding passes are collected, and which concealed another Disneyland maze to line up for the actual boarding process. All in all, we were standing in either the stairwell or some sort of maze for an hour and ten minutes, which is in fact longer than most of the mazes at Disneyland, without ventilation or toilets. I remained in good spirits because this was so farcical one could not but laugh.

The boarding-pass collection point was staffed by a girl with braces and a boy barely old enough to shave, but I guess hiring young non-union service workers keeps airfares down. We had the usual assortment of passengers: complainers, overweight vacationers, douchebag frat boys in tank tops trying to con their way into the Priority Boarding line, and so on. Boarding followed the familiar discount-airline system: first, those who paid for Priority Boarding board in a frenzied mob, nominally in the order in which they joined the queue, but not really; about halfway through that process, they "invite" the rest of us to board in a frenzied mob, nominally in the order in which we joined the queue, but not really. Since our gate was at ground level, we were able to board by walking across the tarmac to the plane, though there was another hapless kid managing traffic to ensure we didn't get run over by airport service vehicles, as boarding required crossing an active service-vehicle lane. As I've mentioned before, the seating onboard helps me understand why the European competitor to Boeing is called Airbus. The seats are smaller and less comfortable than BART's (and don't recline, but hey, that means your laptop is in no danger of having its screen crumple when the person in front of you reclines and you have tucked the lid under the lip of the tray table receptacle). Between 2 mini-bottles of wine, my miraculous Bose noise-cancelling headphones, Steely Dan to listen to while working on my talk slides and writing this post for you, and my Kindle to read about Paul Theroux's miserable-sounding transit through South America, everything's gonna be all right.