Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Days Before I Met My Wife


It is difficult to explain, even to myself, what I was doing there again in Cyprus. The Cypriots had the same problem. Why had I left my own country, to go there and do nothing? Was I doing nothing, was I not a spy, for the United States, for Israel? Was I even really American? Why was I living like I was, spending time with a Serbian woman who, protected companion of a powerful local lawyer plainly didn't belong with me or to me or me belong to her in any way? Why was I helping her when no one else would, putting myself at risk?

She had moved me from my beach apartment to the store's loft, where I could sleep in the company of plastic bags filled with clothes donated to churches and bought by her by the pound. The owner of the restaurant next door tried to bully her, suffered astonished the fearless sharpness of her tongue, and proceeded to the performance of dirty tricks, knocking down trees in the courtyard and blocking her door, smashing, removing things. This about a place open 2 hours in the evening a few days a week. Sales averaged about 10 dollars a day as far as I could tell. I was brought over to house-sit.

Every morning I would climb down the loft steps cluttered with more plastic bags of clothes, make my way to the door, unlock it, drag out a table and a chair and make myself instant coffee. Knowing I was a reader, my friend had greatly expanded her collection of donated paperbacks. The customers liked to ask my advice on their selections. They'd ask me, sitting outside in the garden with coffee in one hand and book in the other, do you work here? No, just a guest. Go on in. Prices are on the board by the door. Leave the money on the book shelf. Just go on in? Yes.

Many people found the trust and nonchalance the most amusing thing about the place. More than one mentioned a Yiddish writer unknown to me by the name of Grade, and a story of a religious man who managed his store the same way.

I had Shakespeare, and best sellers, Plato and strange books on history and politics and poetry that would turn up at the churches. My Serbian friend would arrive most nights with yogurt and pizza for me, and we would sit outside together under the night sky. We had known each other for years, met in Budapest before she came to Cyprus, met her protector, and began to settle down. She would tell me sometimes, when I asked why she was being so good to me, she was my friend because I had helped her in the past, made her gifts, and I would always say I never would have given her anything if I knew it was going to be considered the price of her friendship. She'd laugh, and say, too late now, and in any event I let her repay the generosity or whatever it was.

After I had been there a couple of weeks the attacks of the restaurant owner resumed. The palm branch decorations on the roof are thrown down before the door. I go to the mayor's office to complain when my friend's visit to the police is unproductive. Eventually much of the town knows about this little war going on in the courtyard. And then it comes back to me.

From the garden a young man and a woman enter the store, ask me if I work there. I say no, I am staying upstairs. They can go in, if they find something they want they can leave the money on the shelf, prices are listed on the board. The man asks if he can buy the book I am reading and holding in my hand? I tell him it happens to be my book, not the store's. But I will be finished in a few minutes, and then you can take it. You are under arrest, the man says. Why? Tell you later.

The policemen, as he leads me into the lock up behind the station, says, "Your problem is you think you can change the world."

I meet many fine people on the other side of the fence, young men from the Indian subcontinent mostly. And I work over my ideas on Shakespeare's supernatural worlds, to one of which I have evidently been transported. Next morning I am taken before the court, met by a lawyer I had selected from a list provided by American Embassy. I am charged with working illegally. Passport confiscated. Bail money demanded, police drive me to automatic teller machine. And then I am out. The lawyer gets to work putting pressure on the prosecuting officials at the courthouse, and he recommends I get help from the Embassy. The pressure works, next day the prosecutor's representative is in court saying he believes there is no reason to continue with this case. Judge says he will await an official statement of this from the main office. Next day, the same official appears in court to say he has changed his mind. I get on a bus to the capital to speak with the American Embassy. They don't care, don't want to be bothered: put it in writing, they say, and we'll see. Next week back in court, another lawyer I have asked to help has been working again on the prosecutor's officers. She tells me they are ashamed of what they are doing. Then why are they doing it? Instructions from above. Continuances have been day after day arranged by the lawyers, and the judge is getting irritated. What are we waiting for now? An answer from the Embassy determining what they are going to do. I have been spending my days in the courthouse cafe, reading, meeting the other accused. The court interpreter suddenly appears and sits down at my table.

He tells me the judge wants this case to move forward. What do I expect from the American Embassy? I said I have asked the Ambassador to contact the Attorney General of Cyprus. What does the Ambassador say? I don't know, haven't spoken with him directly. Tell him the judge wants an answer. How? Call him. O.K., I will give it a try. I dial the number of the Embassy, ask to speak with the woman whom I'd been talking with before. She repeats the formula that the United States doesn't involve itself with the internal legal affairs of foreign countries. I respond that it is the judge here that is demanding a response. Really? Put your lawyer on the phone. I do, my words are confirmed. What do I want them to do exactly, the Embassy official asks me? I want the Ambassador to call the Attorney General and ask him if he knows what is going on here. That a prosecutor from his office has said in court that the case should not be prosecuted, there was no grounds whatsoever for the action to continue, then returned the next day saying he would proceed anyway. OK, she'll do that. I hang up, the interpreter asks me what she said. The Ambassador will call the Attorney General, I repeat, and the interpreter jumps from the table knocking over his chair and runs out of the cafe. Five minutes later he rushes back in, saying "Case closed! Call the ambassador! Tell him not to call the Attorney General". I make the call, the Embassy woman answers impatiently,

- Yes? What now?
- Case closed, the judge wants you to tell the Ambassador not to call the Attorney General.
- Too late, she says, I am looking at him on the phone right now talking with the Attorney General. What happened?
- I don't know.
- Incredible!

So it is over. My lawyer hands me later the official story: the prosecutors claimed they found a misplaced document from the capitol that had closed the case days before.

What was this all about? The usual: hatred of Americans, hatred of Israelis (anyone thought to be Jewish was considered Israeli), hatred of immigrants (my Serbian friend), anger at being defied by both me and my friend (the offending neighbor I had been told worked for the police as an informer).

This hatred was widespread. At Starbucks, the Lebanese manager had stuck used chewing gum on the inside of my cup lid. The manager of MacDonald's, like the rest of the town, had heard of my war with the authorities, and said the Jews were always stirring up trouble and bring it on themselves. A restaurant owner, who told me he also knew everything, warned me he wasn't on my side, he hated all Americans. Who was on my side? A pastor of a home church, a group of Christians who meet together privately at the house of this Cypriot owner of a large fruit cannery. I'd got into conversation with him on the beach promenade, and when he heard the sad tale immediately invited me to stay with him in his house. He agreed it wasn't safe to stay at the store any longer, and his house is where I was to be found the nights of the days of court delays, debating definitions of religion, doctrine, practice. I tried out my new ideas with a visiting English preacher who had acted in Shakespeare at school.

I was told the cannery mostly employed immigrants. What was going on with me was part of a vicious program of attack on immigrants, which seemed to have no purpose other than cruelty. Impossible papers were demanded, immediate expulsions ordered....

On the day the court gave up on me, I bought the first ticket I could get out of Cyprus to Budapest where I had friends. At the stop over in Prague I got talking with a student, who it turned out had been researching in Cyprus the subject of the persecution of immigrants. I told my story, and her comment was swift: she knows this very well. In a place where immigration is not a problem and the immigrants themselves generally admired and welcomed by the people, the police hunt them as a sport. The Cypriots were themselves, before they got rich from tourism and off shore banking, humiliated foreign workers. The people who are studying the situation, and apparently there are many, say that the police enjoy the reversal of roles. They are literally mad about it.

The very afternoon I arrived in Budapest I met my wife-to-be....

continued: How I Met My Wife