By Constantinos Psillides
UNITED STATES Vice President Joe Biden might have been in Cyprus for barely 24 hours but he was soon acquainted with the best the island has to offer: lots and lots of food.
A late unscheduled dinner on Wednesday night at the residence of President Nicos Anastasiades in Limassol gave Biden and his wife Jill the chance to try traditional souvlaki, sheftalia and meatballs.
Lunch at the presidential palace on Thursday was fish laden with octopus and calamari for starter, followed by a seabream served with grilled vegetables and topped with a galaktobureko, a traditional custard-based dessert with syrup. The VP ended his culinary adventure in Cyprus with a dinner at the Chateau Status on Thursday night, prepared by his own chef.
Bastourma (a sausage, bit heavy on the garlic side) was kept well out of his reach.
“Serve bastourma to the VP? Are you mad? He is supposed to have a ton of meetings and speak with nearly every politician on the island! If he ate bastourma we would probably get blamed for stinking up AirForce Two,” said a Cypriot presidential palace official, one of the people in charge of the VPs itinerary.
While we didn’t honour Biden with our traditional human interaction repellent, the presidential palace rolled-out its best Sunday clothes. Biden arrived at the palace at 12:07, to the sound of a police band and an honorary special forces guard.
It took six minutes for the VP’s motorcade to get to the presidential palace from the archbishopric, one of the benefits of having an armoured escort that doesn’t care much for traffic lights.
Anastasiades greeted Biden and stood next to him while the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the US national anthem, followed by the Cypriot national anthem. Hand on heart, the US VP endured a rather off-key rendition of his country national anthem.
The honour guard presented arms and the VP laid a wreath at the feet of the Archbishop Makarios statue in the palace gardens. The wreath simply said “Vice President of the United States”. The two men walked up to the palace steps, stepped on the red carpet, shook hands for the cameras and went inside for their meeting.
The honour guard consisted of army green berets while military police red berets were next to the statue. But of the three military police officers only two got to see the VP, since the third suffered a heatstroke just minutes before the VP arrived, having been in the sun for over two hours. The soldier is fine now and will remember this day as the day he almost met the world’s second most powerful man.
Other state officials besides the president were there to greet Biden. Energy Minister Giorgos Lakkotripis, Finance Minister Harris Georgiades, Government Spokesman Nicos Christodoulides and Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides were lined up next to each other. “I’ll tell you all about the visit tomorrow guys,” a beaming Kasoulides, told reporters.
Party leaders started arriving at the palace for the lunch with the vice president, along with state elders Vassos Lyssarides (former House president and honorary president of EDEK) and former presidents Demetris Christofias and Giorgos Vassiliou.
Security was unprecedented. All visitors got their credentials and IDs checked at the palace entrance and had to go through a metal detector to gain access to the site. A bomb-sniffing dog checked every single vehicle while snipers were on the roof and the presidential hill swarmed with US Secret Service agents.
Besides the US agents, members of the presidential guard were also present along with MMAD (police armoured rapid response unit) officers.
Telling them apart was not hard. The Secret Service agents were unsmiling and regularly patrolled the grounds despite the scorching sun – unlike their Cypriots colleagues who mostly stayed in the shade and had time for a joke or two.
Nine cars in total were part of the US motorcade, including a mobile communications centre and a bomb-disposal car. An electric signal jammer was also set up, making phone calls impossible within a 300 metre radius.
While Biden and Anastasiades sat down for their meeting, presidential palace staff set up a lunch room in the press building on the palace premises. Finger food, soft drinks and juices were served, along with wine. While Cypriot police, plain-clothed or wearing a uniform flocked to have a bite, the Secret Service agents posted an agent at the door while the rest ate. They were soon joined by bomb-disposal unit members, all dressed in their bullet-proof vests and complete with anti-terrorist gear.
Around half of the people in the room carried firearms in plain sight, which made this an unusual, slightly terrifying lunch.