OFTEN in Cyprus, when night turns to day and glasses succumb to more refills, one prophetic reveler will stand up and break into song: “Amartia mou, Zivania mou, lathos mou megalo (My sin, my Zivania, my big mistake).”
There were no such thoughts last Wednesday as trays of Zivania shots were given out to welcome President Demetris Christofias to the new London offices of the Cyprus High Commission. A day before his meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the President went to St James Square to inaugurate the newly-renovated building, situated next to the influential think-tank Chatham House.
In his usual manner, the President stressed that the new building was “a house for all Cypriots”. As members of the London diplomatic scene politely declined the Zivania rounds, Christofias took his time to work the room, giving all and sundry a chance to share two bits of conversation.
There was a sense of anticipation for the next day’s meeting with Brown but also of achievement, as the final text of the UK-Cyprus Memorandum had just been agreed that morning.
The next day, a minibus took the traveling journalists from their Cypriot-owned hotel in Paddington to 10 Downing Street. As we stood opposite probably the most recognized door in the world, members of the PM’s staff did their best to herd us behind the metal railings, positioned a good 15 metres from Brown’s front door.
The building’s exterior was none too impressive, not surprising given its humble origins in 1650. We all agreed that Brown would be a little green if he visited the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, built of course during British rule of the island.
No.10 only really became the established home and office of serving Prime Ministers the last century and a half. The famous shiny, black door has no key hole as there is always someone looking part butler, part police officer standing behind it. The image of a single armed officer in front is a little misleading too. It’s safe to say that security outside No.10 consists of more than one man in a rather large hat.
After evading Downing Street’s busybodies, the Cypriot journos took turns at having their pictures taken outside No.10. It was only 8.30, and hordes of people had already been in to meet the erudite Scot. The PM’s office had already released to the full-time media standing outside new “tough” measures on knife crime, decided that morning. One got a sense that Downing Street was galaxies away from the slow, familiar and often repetitive pace of Cypriot politics
Minutes before the President’s arrival, a member of staff hoovered the red carpet outside, sucking up the tainted politics of the past, oblivious to the fresh start in UK-Cyprus relations.
Finally, Christofias arrived by car alone. Within seconds Brown was at the door to greet him. After a quick handshake and safe comment on the weather (it was extremely sunny – quite disappointing for those hoping for a little rain), the two leaders disappeared behind No.10. Not far behind, the Cypriot entourage followed, including Markos Kyprianou, Georgos Iacovou and Stefanos Stefanou.
“He actually smiled,” said one surprised British journalist about Brown.
Another was less shaken by the whole event, saying to his producer back at the station: “Emily, just to let you know, the man you saw walking in now is the Cypriot president, so nothing to worry about, nobody important or anything.”
A few minutes later, one of the entourage came hurrying out. They’d forgotten the presents in the car.
Forty-five minutes later, we were invited into 10 Downing Street for a short press conference. As we walked through the large door and down the long corridor of the old house, I couldn’t shake out my mind the film Love Actually. I really should have been imbued with a strong sense of history at that particular moment in my professional life, but all I could think about was the scene were Hugh Grant, as a bumbling PM, tries to chat up his tea lady in the PM’s office.
Anyhow, for those who’ve seen the film, the scenes of No.10’s interior are identical to real life. Who knows, perhaps they’re one and the same?
We walked up the spiraling staircase, decorated with framed pictures of every Prime Minister in British history. I beamed at Gladstone, gave a stern look to Callaghan and blanked Maggie. Inside the press room, above the two podiums hung a large sculptured emblem with Latin logo across it (similar if not identical to the one fronting the Presidential Palace).
The two leaders came out of a side door. Brown made his speech short, concise and particularly friendly. When Christofias took the mic, he spoke slowly in English (a relatively new language for our president). In fact, his pace seemed to be a source of a little discomfort for Brown who didn’t really know what to do with his hands in the meantime. They grasped the podium, clasped together, then hid behind his back, before reaching out for the podium again. This cycle repeated itself a number of times as Christofias enjoyed the diplomatic success defining the moment.
To be fair, Brown was extremely cordial and friendly throughout and shared several eye-to-eye moments with Christofias. His fidgeting probably had more to do with the fact he seems a rather intense man who’s mind never stops ticking. Add to that the 10 or so meetings he’d already had that morning and his next appointment with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, one could understand if he kept time tighter than a duck’s arse (as my old editor used to say).
After Downing Street, Christofias held a Q&A session at the High Commission building where he insisted that the Cypriot journalists ask their questions in English so everyone present could understand. The mood was high, spilling into the night when the entourage (sans hacks) enjoyed a few more Zivanias at Cypriot restaurant Daphne in Camden Town.
The next morning there were more smiles for Christofias. Tony Blair happened to be in the VIP section at Heathrow when he approached Christofias. The former PM congratulated the President for the new initiatives on the Cyprus problem.
All in all, the President’s first working visit to London could be summed up by a lot of Zivania, few sins and very little mistakes in the former seat of the empire.
By Stefanos Evripidou (Cyprus Mail 2008)