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Rather work than talk

From serving MPs and bank managers to ranting at the earring-wearing punks walking down Ledras, the owner of the Centrum hotel has seen it all. THEO PANAYIDES meets him

If you want to talk about the old days, Yiannakis Aristodemou can do that – up to a point. “I remember in 1962 or ’63 we’d offer an hors d’oeuvre, a starter, a main dish, cheese and biscuits, coffee and dessert for six shillings!” he recalls. This was at the Troodos Hotel, which he ran for about 20 years (1962-81). He then moved to Nicosia and ran the wildly trendy Rondel Café-Restaurant – the place to be in the late 80s – and is currently surfing another wave of popularity, having opened the boutique-style Centrum Hotel in 2003, right in the heart of then-dormant, now-buzzing Old Nicosia.

So yes, he can reminisce if you want him to – but don’t expect long garrulous stories, and definitely don’t expect any chit-chat. Some like to talk, others like to work, and Yiannakis falls in the second category. He’s sitting in the lobby of the Centrum at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, but gets up and leads me to a small glass-walled conference room where he reaches into his pocket for a page of scribbled notes. He’s written down the precise dates of his various accomplishments – which may be to ensure he doesn’t get confused (he’s now 80 years old), but more likely reflects his careful, methodical temperament.

Drawing him out is no easy task. Does the hotel business fit his personality? Yes indeed, he replies. How? “Well,” he shrugs, “I’ve always liked this job, this line of work.” I decide to try again: Why does he like the job? “Well, I’ve always had…” he begins – and seems about to offer something personal, then retreats into truism: “I’ve always worked in this sector”. Did he ever want to do anything else? I ask later, thinking back to his childhood in the mountain village of Tembria – but he shakes his head. Not really, he replies; “I’m a man who, when I see a job I can pull off successfully, I do it. Like I did with the car wash.”

The ‘car wash’ is Hyper Car Wash in Nicosia, next to Alfa Mega – a business started by Yiannakis and now run by his son Socratis; meanwhile, his daughter Lina is Director at the Centrum. Clearly, he believes in keeping his family close; when the kids were growing up, however, he barely saw them, even though they all lived in the tiny hamlet of Troodos. Like a good paterfamilias, he was too busy working.

It’s a shame, I offer.

“It’s a shame, yes. My son tells me, now that his own children are growing up, he says to me: ‘You never raised us’.”

Then again, that was a different time – a subject that crops up more than once in our conversation. If you were the second of five children of a Tembria schoolteacher, and your uncles owned a well-known hotel (the Troodos is among the three oldest hotels in Cyprus, along with the Savoy in Famagusta and the Vasilio in Kakopetria) and you got the chance to manage it, you didn’t think twice. You took the job, and found yourself a wife – Yiannakis has been married for exactly 50 years – and started a family, and lived a respectable life without any silly distractions like dreams and what-ifs, and counted yourself lucky.

The years in Troodos were perhaps when he was happiest, he recalls with a tinge of nostalgia: “Troodos is something else. Especially in the winter”. Wasn’t it lonely? Not at all, he replies: friends would come up from Kakopetria (where his wife is from), “we played cards in the evenings, put on the heating. We had a good time, doksa si o Theos [thank God]. We were fine”. He’d never have left, he muses, if the kids didn’t have to go to high school – the nearest one, in Solea, was too much of a trek – which was why he came down to Nicosia and opened the Rondel.

That was something else again. Long before the explosion of café culture, when the city only boasted a handful of places for a business lunch or an afternoon jaunt, “I attracted all the Nicosia aristocracy, as it was then”. Patronised by the great and good, famous for its Steak Diane, the Rondel was a lunchtime hotbed of politicians preening and football chairmen making deals behind the scenes. “Bank managers used to come there, Ministers, MPs, the General Directors of ministries – they were all there. Every day, every day”. Then, in the afternoons, it was older people meeting for a gossip, or families having tea and sandwiches.

How was it different from today’s Costa Coffee?

“It was a family environment,” he replies with a tight smile. “I kept up a certain standard there – meaning I didn’t let people come in and start shouting and carrying on”.

Didn’t youngsters want to have their fun, though?

“I didn’t give them a chance. When they came in, [I said], ‘Sorry, this is no place for you’.”

Really? He threw people out?

“Those who behaved themselves were welcome,” he replies. “A few who wanted to do this and that, maybe make eyes at a woman or whatever – out, straight away! Or, if they came once and didn’t behave themselves, next time they came I’d say sorry, you’re not welcome here.” Yiannakis nods grimly, with a touch of pride. “I was young in those days. I wasn’t afraid of anyone”.

He wasn’t always a nice person. This should be noted, and in fact he admits it himself. Clean-living types who talk about working hard, as he does, are often thought of as meek and quiet – ‘work hard and keep your head down’, as the stereotype has it – and of course he looks mild enough now, a dapper elderly gentleman with glasses and a trim white moustache. Back in the day, however, he was quite the martinet. “I always had a temper. Always. I didn’t stand for any nonsense in my life”.

Meaning what?

“Meaning, for instance, that I wouldn’t stand for one of my employees trying to get smart with me”. Anyone who came with an attitude was out on his ear, without a second thought.

Was that just at work, or in general?

Everywhere, he says. “Always. I wouldn’t stand for any back talk.”

And did he yell at people?

“I used to yell, unfortunately. Till the age of about 40 or 45, I was a terror. Later on I changed, though, and became much closer to my staff. And I had better results, much better.”

So, looking back, would he change the way he did certain things?

“Yes. But when you’re young, you see things differently. As you grow older, slowly, you begin to change.”

The polite-old-man demeanour is misleading. Not that he isn’t polite, in fact he’s unfailingly polite with hotel guests – no matter how unreasonable their request, “you must submit,” he says solemnly – but Yiannakis Aristodemou is a man who feels things strongly. In the 33 years since he left Troodos he’s only been back twice, by design: “Because I’m so attached, I can’t stand to face the hotel where I worked so many years. It doesn’t feel right to see other people working there”. If he’s going to Platres he’ll go the long way, via Prodromos, to avoid getting sad, or angry.

His passion for work is all-consuming. I ask about hobbies: does he like music? He shakes his head: “I don’t like movies, and I don’t like music”.

Really? I thought everyone liked music.

“Not me”.

What about reading books?

He shakes his head: “For me, my work is my books”.

profile-The Centrum in walled NicosiaHe’s at the Centrum every day, problem-solving – fixing broken bulbs and leaky plumbing, tending to guests’ requests. He hasn’t taken a holiday in years, and travel doesn’t interest him. Doesn’t he want to see the world in the time he has left? “What world? I can see it on TV,” he replies with another tight smile. Well, doesn’t he at least want to spend a few hours in some coffee shop, chatting with friends? “I’m not the coffee shop type,” he replies. “I don’t care about sitting in coffee shops, or playing cards. I like to work”.

His one extracurricular interest seems to be football (he’s a big APOEL fan); when he lived in Troodos he’d often come all the way down to Nicosia to watch a match, then go back up the mountain. I note how the local game has been all but ruined by hooligans now – and Yiannakis’ expression, already sober, tightens even further: “Definitely”. Society must’ve changed a lot since his day. “Very much. Very much…”

He sighs, every inch the grumpy old man. “It won’t change back,” he intones sadly. “We’ve gone downhill, and we just keep going. How can you change young people? When you see a young man, for instance, shaving his head or whatever, or growing his hair long, or putting on earrings or those little rings on his lips – well, how can you change them? This is not the way we were raised. Listen to them, how they behave in the street – both boys and girls! It’s a terrible situation”. Nor is it just the young, adds Yiannakis, pointing a finger at all those who brought the economic crisis on themselves by living large on borrowed money. He himself never lived beyond his means, he says firmly – not even in the days of Rondel, when he lived among the crème de la crème. “I’ve always been conservative. Always.”

I’m sure he always has; and some may roll their eyes at this gloomy stalwart of an older generation – but then there’s the Centrum, a notable success which a different man might not have been able to accomplish.

It took single-mindedness, for a start, that obsessive quality Yiannakis has in spades. Old Nicosia was half-dead when he opened 11 years ago: “Everyone told me ‘What are you doing? Opening a hotel in the Old Town, you’ll last six months and go bust’. I replied, ‘OK, we’ll see who goes bust’”. Then there was the location, formerly occupied by the Lido Hotel “which was, pardon my expression, the whorehouse of Nicosia”. This was where his high moral standards and years of policing the Rondel came in handy. Couples were carefully screened, and turned away if adjudged to be dodgy. Rooms by the hour – which would’ve been lucrative, especially in the early days – were out of the question. Yiannakis might’ve mellowed in the way he treats his staff (almost all his current employees have been with him since the hotel opened), but he wasn’t about to put up with any funny business.

So here we are 11 years later, with the Old Town in the middle of a boom – which Yiannakis, with typical gruffness, predicts won’t last long – and the Centrum going strong, albeit forced to slash its rates by the crisis. Yiannakis Aristodemou has held his own from the age of a five-course meal for six shillings to the age of the internet (30 per cent of his bookings now come from and, from serving MPs and bank managers to ranting at the earring-wearing punks walking down Ledras – but this dour, careful man would still rather work than talk.

What makes him happy? If he has no other dreams, no other interests (and he even hates music), what fulfils him? “What fulfils me are the good people we get at the hotel,” he replies primly. “Having good customers, and sitting down to talk to them, and solving their problems if they have any”. ‘How could someone describe your personality?’ I ask, still trying to draw him out – but he shrugs noncommittally. “Eh, how to describe me? I’m a man who likes to work, all the time. I don’t like to waste my time here and there”. I get up, shake hands, and leave him to it.

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