Fast & Furious: Cypriot Drift

Driving and car ownership on the island of Aphrodite

For Americans, driving on the left side of the road is like writing your signature with your non-dominant hand. The fundamentals are familiar, but the orientation is different, and your execution is not as natural as you’d expect.

I had many anxieties about moving to Cyprus, driving on the left being one of the most stressful question marks.

Most of the world’s countries drive on the right, except for Britain’s former colonies, Cyprus included. (For the record, archaeological evidence suggests that wagons in the Roman Empire kept to the right side of the road, so Cypriots driving on the left is a somewhat recent phenomenon).

However, here is some common advice about driving regardless of the traffic orientation:

—The faster traffic is in the lane closest to the median.

—When making a turn, think about where you are going.

—Refer to your side mirrors to help make sure your car is between the lane lines.

Though most of the rules are the same, driving in Cyprus also features some quirks that might seem strange to Americans.

Yellow Means GO!

In the U.S., a yellow light intercedes between a green light to indicate that the light will soon turn red. In Cyprus, yellow lights function the same way. But, in addition to appearing before the red light, they also appear before the green light.

This was explained to me by the fact that most people in Cyprus drive stick, and the extra yellow signal allows drivers to get into gear.

However, this doesn’t stop many drivers from advancing into the intersection early, and this can cause quite a few accidents especially when other drivers are running red lights.

The Roundabouts of Hades

Traffic circles are often thought of as a commonsense solution to major intersections and tend to keep traffic flowing more efficiently.

However, in Cyprus they become quite intimidating to the American driver because not only is the traffic flowing in the opposite direction than one is used to (clockwise as opposed to counter-clockwise), there are two or three lanes within the circle, and the lane you enter determines which exit you are allowed to depart.

There are even roundabouts on the freeway. I suppose that given the lower volume, these are more efficient than expansive cloverleaf interchanges, but coming in from top speeds to choose a new expressway on a big circle is intense.

No Sign to Die

In America, particularly California, giving driving directions usually involves naming the streets or freeways on a particular route. This is best parodied by the SNL skit, “The Californians.”

However, in Nicosia, there are no signs. Not any you can see from the road, anyway.

Nicosia is a city for insiders. If you’re lucky enough to be on a street labeled with a sign, then that sign will be too small to read from the road itself.

Google Maps is therefore essential, but don’t count on Google to be able to properly pronounce the Greek names.

Jersey Gas Stations

Gas is a fortune in Cyprus, as it is in the rest of Europe, reminding us how subsidized prices are in the US. (1.6 € per liter equals about $6 per gallon).

But residents of New Jersey or Oregon will be relieved to find out that service technicians are required to pump gas for you in Cyprus—during business hours.

You do have to self-serve at night, though the process has some key differences. At a kiosk you have to input an exact euro amount into the pump and fill your car’s tank to the specified cost, as opposed to waiting for the tank to fill and being charged accordingly.

Buying a Used Car from the Web

Buying a car was another odyssey. Public transit is so-so in Cyprus. There are intercity buses and city buses, but if you want to really get around, you do need access to a car, and renting isn’t the easiest proposition. On any given weekend, I had to call up to ten local agencies before I’d find a place that had an availability.

There is a thriving used car market in Cyprus, but not on conventional sellers like CarMax. Instead, you can go on Facebook Marketplace or Bazaraki, the local version of Craigslist, and look at the options.

However, this is a terribly inefficient way to buy a car, because you need to schedule a test-drive with the owner, then find a local mechanic to inspect the car, and then make a decision.

I opted for another solution. Some mechanics act as brokers and deal as used car sellers. With the assistance of a local mechanic who tested several vehicles for me (generously, as a courtesy because I would become his client), I ended up buying a “Honda Jazz” (known as a “Honda Fit” stateside).

The Jazz, while tiny, is perfect for getting through tight spaces in the old city of Nicosia. While driving the car, I feel like I’m in The Italian Job or that scene in The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon drives a Mini down some sidewalk-stairs.

With the help of an insurance agent who dealt with Americans, I insured the vehicle, and then I headed to the unhappiest place on Earth—the DMV equivalent.

Citizen’s Service Center: The Kafkaesque Cypriot DMV

The Citizen’s Service Center was a rather convenient and small office downtown. Making an appointment was easily conducted over the phone, and at the appointed time I brought an application to change the title of the car that had been notarized by the previous owner.

The receptionist told me to fill out my side of the form in blue pen (the form was all in Greek), and sternly advised me “not to make a mistake.”

Now, I can read and speak Greek reasonably well, but under pressure my Greek tends to slip away from me. Naturally, I made a mistake. I filled out my phone number (in pen) in the box intended for my birthday. When I informed the receptionist, she, in a panic, shouted, “I told you not to make a mistake!”

“Can’t I just cross it out?” I asked.

The receptionist shook her head, as this error was weighing on her.

I was in trouble. If they rejected this form, I’d have to go back to the seller and try and get a new one notarized again. An inconvenience to be sure, but not the worst thing in the world.

I waited while a public official headed upstairs to ask the manager if my mistake was forgivable.

Apparently, it was. The title was transferred and I was now the proud owner of an aging Honda Jazz in Cyprus.

This is the fifth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. I will continue the subject of divided Cyprus with “The Two Nicosias, Part II” after Thanksgiving. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite! — HWB