Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Money Matters” by Ken Dunn

The Turkish Lira has been quite stable over the last few years, bobbing up and down around the 2.5 mark to the pound sterling. That helps with ‘the shopping’ and the ‘hesap’, the bill, at restaurants. I know that shot up recently to well over 2.8ish but I expect it will go down again. It has in the past. But that was not always the case. In the 80’s the value of the Lira was all over the place. At one time the inflation rate was at a staggering 80%! And then with a few Banks collapsing in the early 90’s many folk had to be very careful having accounts in those which remained and in their need to exchange currencies, wondering which bank might next be at risk.

I can remember the days when a 1000 Lira note was about £1 and that worked really well but as inflation took off we eventually ended up with notes of 1,000,000 and more being common to the wallet. The only problem was that you had to have a bloody huge wallet to carry round any kind of sensible amount and always with a small calculator to convert Lira to Pound!

In the 80’s the all powerful US Dollar reigned supreme for the ‘Bureau de Change’ with the German Deutch Mark a close second. It’s interesting today to see how many shops in the TRNC label their goods with the Euro equivalent to the Turkish Lira.

But in those days finding anywhere to actually change money was extremely limited to no more than three or four venues in Girne. This was aggravated by the fact that they regularly ran out of ‘stock’ which made life a tad irritating. This, for those who may be wondering, was well before the introduction of credit or debit cards. Paying for anything or retrieving anything from a ‘hole in the wall’ was not possible. There were no ATM machines and ‘plastic’ transactions were not possible for the better part of twenty years.

But there was a certain Sergeant Mustafa who was always there to change any currency for any customer at any time. I think he was a retired Policeman but he may have been in the Army. In any case he set himself up as a trader of currency in the middle of Girne, complete with his old peaked hat, at the crossing point of the main street and the one that comes down from the 1001 shop. He was always there, sitting on the corner on a folding chair with a folding table in front of him, on top of which he placed a large, battered leather suitcase absolutely bursting with folding money! Imagine that happening in the UK then or now!

So, he was our ‘bolt hole’ when the other, few, places were either shut or without any money to exchange. His rates were the same as the others and sometimes better so there would always be a few folk around him waiting patiently to do their various ‘deals’ with him. He sat there for year upon year and eventually opened a small shop on the same corner but never, and I mean never, had a problem with any thug trying to rob him. That was the TRNC then and, largely it still is.

In the days of cheque books (remember them?) we usually trolled on down to one of the banks in Girne to cash a few quid or so for the week ahead. That was never a problem but it did take time, a long, long time. Passports were necessary and they always preferred us to write out the check in front of them rather than have it already completed. That was fair enough, just a little security check for making sure we were who we said we were. The cheque was then handed over and the cashier at the counter would begin a long, circulatory journey.

We had to sit there watching this slow, staccato movement as the cheque passed to one, two, three, four…. well, several desks where it was attached to a piece of paper, the paper was stamped and it would move on to the next one. It sometimes took over forty minutes before the cashier returned, opened up a draw and handed over the money! Turks loved paper then and they still do but what all those bits of stamped paper were for and where they ended up I’ll never know. What the folk doing all the stamping were for is another equal mystery.

A few years later, unless you were a resident and known to the bank, they wouldn’t cash a cheque. Tourists had begun to arrive in greater numbers and too many cheques from them, vulcanised and rather ‘rubbery’, bounced all over the place. I have to say that most, but not all, of those cheques were from Brits.

So, with a pocket bulging full of notes the shopping could be done but if you needed to purchase a large piece of equipment there was the near need for a wheel barrow to carry the stuff around! We had one occasion where we had to replace an elderly fridge-freezer. It had become slightly asthmatic and a bit noisy, insisting on growing a spectacular frozen waterfall at the back which didn’t really help the cooling process. Fortunately, we found what we were looking for in a shop on the main street of Girne instead of having to make the arduous trek to Lefkoşa, long before the dual carriageway was built.

The proprietor was delighted with such a sale, a rare event in those days, invited us to sit comfortably, rushed out to a nearby café and then back, delivering Turkish coffee before the ‘ritual’ began. This involved the counting out of the cash. We counted it out to him then he took it, grinning widely, tamped it into a neat pile, about an inch and a half thick and counted it out again. This was standard procedure to prevent a ‘financial misunderstanding’. Code language for not being ripped off!

Before we opened a bank account, waiting for the financial turmoil to settle, we had to bring sterling with us as I’ve already said the ‘hole in the wall’ machines didn’t appear for years. But then, when they did, you had to be quick off the mark to use them as when each weekend came up the damned things would be emptied rapidly by all.

Today the banks are much better but transactions, in or out, have to be checked by at least two other folk sitting way behind the cashier and the paperwork is still ‘extensive’. Yet the one thing which is heartening with these purveyors of all things financial is the lack of barriers, glass, bulletproof or otherwise, between customer and cashier. It does make a big difference when you can sit down comfortably and watch while the process plods along. However, we made the great mistake of first opening an account some years ago with a well known bank. Their symbol or logo comprising of four letters beginning with ‘H’ and ending with ‘C’. Not to be recommended. Every time I needed to go there was worse than paying the electricity bill in Girne. The vital thing was too make sure you had a ticket with a number. These numbers would be displayed on digital panels above cashier points and changed as customers were ‘processed’. It was not unusual to have to wait for well over two hours, with thirty or more other folk, all waiting to be served. I must have read at least three books over the period of a month in that place just having to wait and wait and….

Eventually, when my number did come up, I was always unhappy at having to stand at an extremely high counter while the protracted paper chase took place beyond and further irritated by the fact the staff were as miserable as sin. In an idle moment, waiting as usual at the counter, I noticed that one of the logo letters of this bank, the ‘S’ in fact, fixed to the far wall, was upside down. Having a graphic design background allows these small delights to be spotted. When the cashier handed over the cash I’d been waiting for, I pointed this out in a light hearted way. She turned to look at the letters, then at me and then to her neighbour, her eyebrows rising. I could almost hear her thought which was probably, ‘Loony Brit!’.

My worst experience with this lot happened when, again, amongst thirty plus waiting customers, all the cashiers disappeared, one by one. It was 12.00 noon and they had all buggered off to have their lunch! We changed banks after that!

I’ve since discovered that a two-tier system existed in that bank. If only a modest few thousand resided in your account you joined the 30 plus hoypoloy on the ground floor to enjoy a wait of at least one hour. Anyone with a much more substantial amount used the first floor and could be seen going up and coming down in an astounding ten minutes!

Well, overall things are much better these days. Access to cash is relatively simple, albeit slower than you might find in a UK bank but the cost of living has increased. Gone are the days of cheap goods and services. My memory of buying insurance for the car in the early 80’s is a good example. We were over for a mere three weeks and I needed to insure the car for that time, it having run out. So, I found a broker on the main street in Girne, filled out the necessary paper work and paid the fee. It cost me the wondrous amount of £1.00! It’s true what they say. ‘The past has one thing in its favour. It was cheaper.’ Happy Days!

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