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Merkel Visits Goethe: The Villa at Europe’s End

Marcos GittisCopyright: Marcos Gittis
Chancellor Merkel in Nicosia: “She, too, grew up in a divided nation.” (Photo: Marcos Gittis)

13 January 2011

High-ranking visit on the demarcation line: Angela Merkel only had a few hours’ time for Cyprus. Nonetheless, the chancellor did not deny herself a visit to the Goethe-Zentrum, where she discovered a special kind of liaison office. By Maren Niemeyer

“Kalimera, ah, Goethe-Zentrum, yeah, yeah, hello – go, go – no problem,” grumbles the moustached Greek border sentry in his tiny guardhouse on this sunny January morning. He doesn’t even ask to see our German identity cards.

Not 100 metres from his barrier gate, the Goethe-Zentrum is enthroned like a forgotten isle of peacefulness. The house is situated right on the demarcation line, called the green line, which separates the Greek from the Turkish occupied part of Nicosia. Here, right under the clematis-hung windows is Europe’s end, the outer border of the European Union, the end of Schengen, a sleepy no-man’s land.

Surrounded by embrasures, UN barriers, abandoned ruins and martial barricades of sandbags, like an adamant admonisher, the little rose-coloured villa braves the bitter course of world history that has separated the state of Cyprus since 1974.

This is one of the few places where the people from the antagonized parts of the island meet as equals. This is where they learn German together.

“Here I feel safe”

“I can’t imagine that we would accept any other country besides Germany in this role here,” says language student Ioanna Markidou from the Greek part of the island. “After 1945, Germany showed the world how a nation can transcend a dictatorship and that it’s possible to make peace with one’s neighbours.” Next to her at the table is Faruk Batuan Uyaroglu who attended the German school in Istanbul. The business economist comes here once a week from Turkish occupied northern Cyprus to polish up his German skills.

“I wouldn’t venture into the Greek part of the city otherwise, but here I feel safe and secure, because we are all united by our love of the German language.”

Here in the advanced German class of the Goethe-Zentrum it is not a matter of solving the political conflicts between governments; the Turkish and Greek Cypriots just want to talk with one another – in German. About their island, the weather, everyday life, the tourists, hassles at work, their New Year’s resolutions (more exercise and less eating!), and about Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Brief break in no man’s land

She just left the tiny classroom on the first floor. “I was very nervous beforehand,” says Ionna Markidou, “but Mrs Merkel got us into a discussion so immediately and directly, that I soon forgot about what a powerful politician she is. She, too, grew up in a divided nation and she wanted to know who we feel about our situation.”

It is the first state visit by a German chancellor in Cyprus. The Goethe students still cannot really believe that Angela Merkel devoted half an hour of her very short time here to them. The German head of government only spent a few hours on the divided island.

Yet, in between the meeting with the president, the press conference and a visit to the UN quarters, Angela Merkel appears to have enjoyed this brief break on a little, uncomfortable chair in a seemingly insignificant classroom in no man’s land. She met genuinely eloquent German-speaking Cypriots, who so nonchalantly left all nationalistic sensibilities behind the sentry bar.

“Oh, so German is your common language,” she ascertains at the end with gratification. She acts determined; determined to help ensure that the bi-national composition of this language class may some day be the norm in all of Cyprus.

Both acknowledgment and interest

As she makes her way with the imposing envoy of journalists to the neighbouring UN headquarters, the Chancellor says goodbye to Ute Wörmann, the director of the Goethe-Zentrum, and Rüdiger Bolz, the regional director of the Goethe-Institut for southeastern Europe, with a sentence that lets us forget all the hard chairs in tiny classrooms: “I believe the people who are here in your house are happy.”

Merkel’s visit also has great symbolic significance for Bolz: in 2011 the Goethe-Institut is celebrating its 60-year anniversary. This summer, the Goethe-Zentrum in Nicosia will be converted into the 150th Goethe-Institut worldwide. “So, the encounter and discussion between the federal chancellor and the language students means both acknowledgment and interest,” says Bolz. It is a uniquely pleasant experience.

The moustached border sentry observed all the excitement about the German chancellor with Greek imperturbability. On this day in January, a dozen Federal Criminal Police Officers, a great many black state limousines, excited German chiefs of protocol and a considerable number of capital city journalists woke his little sentry house roughly from its sleep: “Goethe-Zentrum was very important today.”
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