The Lockdown Lowdown: Nicosian Diaries
Hrishabh Sandilya, 30 April 2020
I really need to begin this piece by acknowledging the greatly privileged position I’ve been in over the last six weeks during the different stages of this surreal and seemingly unending pestilence. Ensconced in a colonial-era villa in the leafy surroundings of Ayios Andreas, with great housemates, cats (both feral and domestic) and a garden to bask in, my lockdown saga has been very different from that of many other foreigners in Cyprus. This includes a number of my friends and colleagues in the refugee and asylum-seeking community (with whom I work), who have had a torrid time dealing with authoritarian overreach, bureaucratic inefficiency, the loss of livelihoods, limited access to healthcare and a generalised sense of anxiety over recent happenings. And just as my experience has been generally positive, I know that theirs has been the polar opposite.
My name is Hrishabh Sandilya and I am currently in Nicosia, where I lead operations for Project Phoenix, a young European NGO that seeks to empower migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. I have been in and out of Cyprus since October 2019, and most recently returned to Nicosia on March 10th 2020, a few days before the lockdown began.
Having flown in from London, which was in the throes of the COVID panic, it was both refreshing and alarming to see that things in Cyprus were still running on island time and that no one really seemed to have much of an idea of what was about to hit them. Rather comically, the UK was moved up and down a list of high-risk countries the Cypriot government had created, and I wasn’t sure whether I could leave the house or I had to voluntarily confine myself indoors.
This list changed three times in three days. One evening, I ended up walking into a networking event, co-organised by the UK High Commission at the Ledra Palace, and running right out a few minutes later, when the Cyprus Mail website informed me that the UK was back up in the highest risk category. I spent the next fortnight secretly anxious about the fact that I had started my own COVID outbreak amongst all the people at the event, and fearing that the Ministry of Health was going to come for me.
The first weeks of the lockdown in Nicosia were spent in the company of firebrand British journalist Andrew Connnelly, a dear friend who was in Cyprus covering a story on migrants – his regular beat. Like me, Andrew was staying with Maria Emmanuel, well-known Cypriot media activist, architect and community organiser. Given our common media interests, the house was a roving COVID war room, as each of us took great effort to up the ante with ghastly, alarming and occasionally humorous news, as we scoured the ends of the internet world in a frenzied peripatetic manner.
As the situation grew grimmer, we moved into the ominous world of predictions with each of us trying to outdo the other, in our quest to portend what was coming next. Sadly, I predicted correctly that the Cypriot government, which had been caught napping so far, was probably going to react stringently. And President Anastasiades did not fail to oblige, in his entertaining baritone voice, as he shut down the airports and the country. The next day, Andrew hurried himself to Larnaca to get one of the last flights out of the country. A good thing, for my liver and his, given that he had recently discovered a cheap source of local Zivania at Oxi Market.
Week two of quarantine was spent in the futile attempt of trying to rationalise my situation, what was going on in the world and dealing with all the confusing and haphazard messaging from the Ministry of Interior, as they kept changing the terms of the lockdown. First, there were paper forms in Greek, then paper forms in English, then a website that didn’t work and finally an SMS number (that I couldn’t text with my Swedish SIM) that I needed to use to leave the house. I was therefore stuck at home.
I wrote to the Ministry to ask what I was supposed to do, to which they replied instantly and said I had contacted the wrong department, but refused to tell me which was the right department to contact. Then, I wrote to the Police, who replied after a week (what if it had been an emergency?) and linked me to a website with phone numbers for the Ministry of Interior (that no one ever answered). At this stage, I finally caved and realised I could purchase a Cypriot SIM to hit up my friends at the 8998 number.
Fresh from the joy of being able to leave the house (now legally), week three was spent taking long walks to the supermarket, once a day. I don’t have a car in Nicosia, so this was the perfect way to combine my daily exercise routine with essential grocery shopping. I made it a point to acquaint myself with every grocery store and kiosk in a 1.5 km radius of where I live. Walking with a mask is a particularly taxing venture, but it also means that overzealous policemen stay away from you. I saw them at their power-hungry best in the Old Town, mostly profiling anyone who didn’t look Cypriot.
With a mask though and an occasional forced cough, they stayed far away. Week three was also spent taking in my surroundings and gaining new appreciation for Ayios Andreas’ many abandoned architectural wonders. I quickly learnt where to get free lemons from derelict mansions, which army and prison guards smiled back, which neighbourhood drivers to avoid on the back roads and which delivery-only souvla joints were secretly hosting diners on their outdoor tables.
By week four, I had made peace with the fact that the lockdown was potentially endless and it was time to focus on less intellectual and less worrisome pastimes. Suddenly, virus numbers, Trump, Johnson and every bumbling politician no longer seemed important. I gravitated toward slightly more interesting things – mostly epicurean delights and the company of Nicosia’s urban wildlife – the mangled cats on every street corner. They made for fascinating photography subjects and, in the absence of denizens, had taken brazen control of the city’s empty streets. On the epicurean front, I delved into the delightfully intricate world of halloumi and anari cheeses. Little did I know that there were so many variants. Each with their unique fan following within the island, capable of inciting passions amongst Cypriots over what type of milk is the best for production.
It was in week five that I realised I missed human company and the joy of simple conversation with strangers, friends, whomever. I was sharing a house with two others, but in five weeks we had exhausted our topics of conversation and I was eager for fresh brains to pick. So, I paid my friend – local architect, designer and urban futurist Natasa Christou – a visit while on one of my walks. She lives in the neighborhood and, with ample social distance between us, we conversed and walked around her little street. She regaled me with stories of what she had been up to. Stories about a post-COVID word are so essential to the narratives we construct, in these troubled times, to keep ourselves going.
It was also in week five that I began to re-observe the famed Cypriot relaxed attitude to rules and life. I was afraid it had disappeared. For five weeks, it seemed everyone was fearful enough to follow rules. Even the drivers on the roads were observing traffic signs and using their blinkers (for once) and I was suitably impressed. Alas, it all gave way on Easter. I remember heading out for a run on Easter Sunday and encountering a massive group of family and friends clearly flouting the law and having a jolly time on the street. In all honesty, seeing humans at their social interactive best was a sight for sore eyes and I secretly wished I could join them.
Week six, so far, has been one of relatively good cheer. President Anastasiades was back on TV a few nights ago and it seems like a relaxation of the lockdown is in the offing. I am personally eager for my Syrian barber at Oxi Circle to reopen so I can get my beard trimmed, but I’ll take three outings a day and small-shop retail therapy till that happens.
As I write this, I have just learnt that I could have legally left the house as many times as I needed throughout the lockdown period. All I needed was a confirmation from my employer that I was going to work. I guess it’s a good thing the Ministry of Interior’s information cell needs some time to perfect its technique. I would have never had this opportunity to sink my teeth into the intricacies of Nicosian city life and take in my surroundings in this depth otherwise.
I made a split-second decision to return to Nicosia from London and I am pleased that I did. Things turned out rather well. The alternative would have been the last gasp of a cold, grey Central European winter. Instead, I am incredibly grateful I got six weeks of sunshine (with some unseasonable rain) and a chance to learn more about this charming city that I am going to be calling home for the near future. I don’t think I could have picked a better place to be petulant about the pestilence.
If only the crossings to the other side of the island were to open soon, I’d be a happy, happy man. Why pay Western European prices for drinks when they can be had for real Middle Eastern prices on the other side?