Cyprus Mail
Life & Style Profile

A sense of decorum

THEO PANAYIDES meets a retired policeman who is a quiet and tidy follower of the rules

 

I admit I’m a little disappointed to discover that, even though Yiangos Georgiou is a retired cop with 40 years’ service – from 1959 to 1999 – almost all of those years were spent as a Storekeeper, first at the Police Academy then the General Supply Stores. It would’ve been nice to sit in his cosy house in a quiet part of Strovolos, drinking lemonade on a Monday morning, listening to the ear-splitting chirp of crickets from the hot day outside and reminiscing about going to stakeouts, investigating murders, meeting underworld figures of the 80s and 90s. But he didn’t do any of that. Instead, he stacked pairs of shoes and handed out uniforms.

It could’ve been different, based on the evidence of his first five years in the police force. “He was strict, but they loved him,” recalls Yiangos’ wife Yiannoulla, speaking of his time as a junior cop in the Paphos area (the couple have been married since their early 20s; both hail from the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis). “I don’t know, it was my manner,” muses Yiangos himself, trying to define it. “I was always neat, too. My uniform, my shoes always polished, spick and span, my cap in place”. Yiangos was a serious young man who liked things to be organised and law-abiding – and is now a twinkly older man (77, to be precise) with a thin white moustache and a shrewd, foxy face, tending to tread carefully as he talks about the past vs. the present. Yiannoulla is a lot more outspoken, and a lot more scathing about the state of the Cyprus Police. “We don’t know what it’s like,” cautions Yiangos, more circumspect; “I’ve been out for a long time”.

Back then, however, in the late 50s and early 60s, he was quite a determined character. Not yet 20, he was assigned to the tiny village of Fyti – and was shocked to find the police station standing in a field, unfenced and decrepit. There was no kitchen, no radio, no car or even bicycle with which to carry out patrols; at night, donkeys and goats roamed freely. “As soon as I arrived, from the very first day, I applied for a transfer,” he tells me – but he also applied for the field to be fenced, and organised his three colleagues (a sergeant and two policemen, a Greek and a Turkish Cypriot) into a cooking rota, convincing them to put down some money so they could buy pots and pans instead of subsisting on corned beef from the village shop.

He wasn’t pushy; it’s important to note this about Yiangos. He’s never been aggressive as a person (Yiannoulla seems the more forceful character) – just organised and scrupulous and, like she says, “strict”. He likes rules; he hates uncertainty. Transferred to Stroumbi, a much bigger village, he turned his attention to traffic offences (Stroumbi is on the main Paphos-Polis road) and wrote down the number plates of local cars – the ones that passed through on a regular basis – making a note of when their licence and insurance was due to expire so he could warn the owners, and fine them if they ignored his warning. Yet he was generally liked, says his wife; he was fair-minded. She tells a story of some “punks” who once rolled 12 barrels of asphalt down a hill into a vineyard, just for fun (there wasn’t much to do in Stroumbi in the 60s); Yiangos tracked down the youths – but, rather than arrest them, simply made them push the barrels back up the hill, though it took all day.

The “punks” were bold in those days, because their fathers had guns. This was a transitional time, the English barely departed – police reports continued to be made out in English till 1964 – and everyone still armed from the EOKA days. Yiangos was asked if he’d been an EOKA member in his job interview for the police, and wasn’t sure which answer was expected (he finally answered in the affirmative, which turned out to be a wise move). He’d applied for no special reason, because he’d just left school and needed a job – he also applied to the Fire Service, the Prisons Department and CyTA – and because his father, a construction foreman with four kids, was unable to support him. He was used to hard work, both in school (the now-defunct Commercial Academy of Limassol) and alongside his dad in the building trade. “Because I’d been working on building sites, when I joined the police and saw what it was like, I said ‘Is police work always so easy?’.”

That said, the hours were long. “We were always on duty,” sighs Yiangos ruefully; he and the other cops practically lived in the station – his and Yiannoulla’s house was just across the street – and of course boots had to be polished, there were uniform inspections, “there was discipline”. Things were easier in his more senior years (he rose to the rank of Lieutenant) in the supply stores – by which time he also had a family, two sons named Christos and Giorgos who in turn have produced five grandchildren. Does he ever regret not having stayed in more conventional police work? “I was fine where I was,” he replies, shaking his head.

“Better!” puts in Yiannoulla. “We had a good life, with office hours – well, practically office hours.”

“Yes, but it was a big responsibility,” he notes. He’d open the stores in the morning and lock them at night. He once discovered a shortfall of 300 bullets, and couldn’t sleep for two days till he finally found the missing case in a corner of the cupboard. Once again, his penchant for being organised came to the fore: he prepared tenders, suggested tailoring uniforms to individual cops instead of mass-producing – which saved money in the long run, since they wore them for longer – and oversaw sartorial projects like changing the summer uniform from khaki to blue. It wasn’t exactly stakeouts and car chases, but it was something.

It occurs to me that Yiangos’ career progression, from working all hours in the Paphos mountains to keeping accounts and going home on time, unconsciously mirrors the Cyprus Police’s own subtle change in recent decades from a rugged vocation to almost a branch of the Civil Service. It also occurs to me that Yiangos is something of a Forrest Gump figure – a man who’s lived through every major moment in late-20th-century Cyprus history, and has a tale to tell about each one, yet has managed to emerge unaffected. Each crisis threatened to derail his world; none of them did.

The troubles of 1963 found him on a dangerous mission to contact a Turkish Cypriot cop in the Turkish village of Terra, at a time when a policeman was an obvious target – but in fact he managed to perform the task without incident. Later, during the invasion in 1974, the house in which we’re sitting was actually strafed by a plane, shattering paving stones and glass objects – but fortunately there were no casualties, just a couple of scared kids and a rather hysterical father-in-law who’d been in the bathroom when the plane attacked.

Just a few days earlier, during the coup, Yiangos himself had been arrested after handing out weapons from the stores to the ‘wrong’ people. The coupists only held him for one day – but that was undoubtedly his closest call, because “it was chaos,” he recalls, giving the impression of having been more bothered by the chaos than the probable danger. They took him to an office, ostensibly for interrogation, and “I was sitting there and they were shooting their guns, right out the window!”. He might easily have been killed on a whim, or by a stray bullet; fortunately his superiors intervened to get him released, and life went on.

Society, too, has endured these various upheavals, and changed considerably in the years since he joined the police force. It’s no surprise to find that Yiangos’ views on the matter are quite conservative. “I believe it’s the way children are raised,” he opines. (“TV is to blame as well,” adds Yiannoulla from the living-room.) “In the old days we had our parents who’d get angry all the time, and punish us, whereas now it’s whatever the child wants. From five years old, they have mobile phones, from three years old – I don’t know, a tablet, whatever. Back then, I remember, we’d only have meat once a week. Once a week. And even that was just a little piece”. Did he and his sons raise their children differently? “I think so. They never refuse them anything.”

Whereas he was more strict?

“We were more strict. That’s the way we were raised – and also, well, policemen are usually stricter parents anyway”. Yiannoulla picks up the thread, telling a story from when the boys were young and ‘borrowed’ a few planks of wood from a nearby building site to make goalposts for their football game. It was only three pieces of wood – but “when I saw it, they were in trouble,” chuckles Yiangos. He confronted the boys, extracted a confession, then made them take the wood back and apologise to the foreman. “A policeman’s son being a thief…” he mutters – then shakes his head, as if to say ‘It looks bad’.

Things have changed, irrevocably; the role of the police has changed too. His former colleagues are busier than ever, dealing with crimes that were much less prevalent in the old days – drug offences, fraud, bad cheques, burglaries on a daily basis, domestic violence (which may indeed have happened, but was never reported). Yet they also seem to be less respected than they used to be. “In those days, people were afraid of the police. Now they’re not afraid of it. That’s what I believe,” intones Yiangos, no doubt placing this development in the same bracket as spoiled kids and enfeebled parents. “Look,” he shrugs, “it’s globalisation now, what can you do. It’s just a mess.”

His own life, at least, is not a mess – or at least remains as active (and organised) as he and Yiannoulla can make it. They have the house and orchard in Kalopanayiotis, where he’ll prune trees and harvest fruit, and he even did some building work on the house a couple of years ago (“but my standards have slipped,” he adds). They’ve also, since Yiangos’ retirement, plunged into volunteer work, helping out at a local community centre. Yiannoulla paints for charity, some of her paintings – “the bad ones!” – adorning the walls around us; Yiangos does first-aid training and also likes to visit nursing homes, cheering up residents who may be his own age (or younger) but don’t have his energy. It makes sense that such a sensible, methodical man would lay down rules for old age as well.

In the end, his career as a cop fits quite snugly with the rest of his life – except those first five years in the Paphos mountains, the source for most of his stories. Remarkably, given how few policemen they were, everyone seems to have a story. A Turkish Cypriot colleague used to sneak out of the station at night – this was just before the clashes of 1963 – to liaise in secret with fellow Turks. Another cop was related to a Limassol gangster family, was perpetually nervous, would always jump up and grab his gun if he heard so much as a dog barking – and ended up getting shot to death by underworld rivals during a trip to Paphos. One sergeant may have moonlighted as a poacher, and would always loudly announce that night’s patrol plans in the village coffee shop to warn fellow poachers. Yiangos, walking in the forest without his gun, once followed the sound of gunshots and surprised a poacher, narrowly avoiding an early demise: “If I’d known you were alone,” said the man as Yiangos made the arrest, “I’d have shot you”.

Fortunately, he didn’t – and here we are all these years later, talking in the quiet little house with the crickets going crazy outside. “Any hobbies?” I ask, and elicit an excruciating pause: Yiangos Georgiou doesn’t really do hobbies. He likes useful things, and socially responsible things. “I just want my children and grandchildren to be in good health, my friend,” he replies at last. “And I want an end to this uncertainty that’s been hanging over Cyprus since 1964. An end to it. Because, unfortunately, there is uncertainty”. Spoken like a true policeman.

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