By Theo Panayides
If you happen to talk to Stephane Fissentzides at Ermou300 – the versatile space in old Nicosia that functions as a coffee shop, exhibition hall, Stephane’s architectural office as well as his home – without getting a good look at his face, you might easily assume that you’re talking to one of the elderly craftsmen, merchants and metal-workers who ply their trade in poky little shops along Ermou Street. Stephane thinks Cypriot society has gone to the dogs, and things were much better in the old days. He gets angry when clerks or waiters don’t speak Greek if you go to a shop or a restaurant. He believes kids these days are violent, have no respect and watch too much TV. Back in his day, he says, children only watched an hour of TV per night, and only after they’d done their homework.
In fact, ‘his day’ was just a couple of decades ago. Stephane isn’t an old metal-worker but a trim 37-year-old (he’ll be 38 next month), bearded, handsomely rumpled, and a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, he does insist on the language thing: “I order a delivery, and it takes me 20 minutes,” he protests, “because I refuse to speak English. I want to speak in Greek, re koumbare!”. On the other, like most Cypriots, his own conversation is sprinkled with English words, and when he describes himself as “low profile” and “down to earth” he does so in the language of foreign clerks and waiters. On the one hand, he stands for a fierce authentic Cypriotness that most Cypriots have lost, except in the mountain villages. On the other, he himself isn’t totally Cypriot but ‘half and half’ (his mother is French), and most of his childhood friends – who, almost to a man, no longer live in Cyprus – were from similarly “mixed families”.
The biggest contradiction has to do with his character. Most people like to see and be seen, he notes with a touch of disdain, “but I’m a little bit – actually more than a little bit – of a loner. I like to be alone, to be calm, to go to places where there aren’t any people”. He’s done the clubbing and trips to Mykonos (“From the age of 18 to 25, I think I was a monster!”), and doesn’t want to do it anymore. If he goes to the beach on weekends it’ll be a deserted, un-trendy beach in Pomos or Pachyammos (or, if he goes to Protaras, it’s likely to be in April, when there’s nobody there). Yet his whole professional life depends on pleasing clients and being in close proximity with people – whether as a prize-winning architect or, more recently, running the kafeneio (coffee shop) at Ermou300, with its self-conscious menu in jocular Cypriot dialect.
Stephane never planned to run a coffee shop, placing orders and calling suppliers (let alone schmoozing with customers every evening, which he did for a while but now finds exhausting); in fact, he admits, there’s been “a drastic change in my life, over the past year”. He’s primarily an architect, and a very good one. Not only did he get into the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but he did so, unusually, on his portfolio alone, without having to sit the exams. As a teen he always carried a pencil around, forever sketching (a habit he’d picked up from his dad, also an architect). He came back from Paris in 2006 and made his name by designing nightspots like Cos’Altro, the stylish restaurant on Makariou, or Zoo Club and Lounge, cited in Interni magazine as one of the best-looking lounge bars in the world – but both Zoo and Cos’Altro are now defunct, the economic crisis having re-fashioned the local landscape. He recently logged into AutoCAD, the computer software for architects, says Stephane wryly – and noticed that he’d last logged in 11 months ago! “For a year now there’s been nothing. Everything is frozen.”
Ermou300 was the reason he came back to Cyprus (he loved living in Paris): he wanted to restore an old building and live in traditional Cypriot style, among the carpenters and metal-workers and the call of the muezzin. What would he have done, back in 2006, if he could’ve looked ahead eight years and seen where he’d end up? Stephane stiffens, his green eyes thoughtful, and takes a drag of his roll-up.
“I think, if I’d known this would happen, I wouldn’t have come back,” he replies at last.
‘This’ being the crisis?
Not just the crisis; “the Cypriot mentality” in general. “I’ve been very disappointed,” he admits, warming to his theme. “Because I came back with dreams and ambitions of contributing. I mean, I wanted to devote myself to the Old Town, the masterplan, to urban planning – but, at the end of the day, you realise that in Cyprus it’s all about party politics and having meso [i.e. knowing someone]”. Stephane shakes his head, looking more weary than bitter: “So for instance you submit a project to the authorities and you have to wait a year and a half because it’s being studied by so-and-so and you don’t know him, or else you’re DISY and the person studying your application is AKEL”.
Stephane himself isn’t political, indeed he no longer votes – but his dad was in APOEL (the football team associated with DISY) for 30 years as a player and official, so resistance is futile. “People impose a label, whether you like it or not, and it’s really exhausting. It’s worn me out – and it clips your wings, you lose your enthusiasm. And because it’s such a small society it’s even more obvious, you feel it everywhere, whoever you talk to – oh yeah, I know so-and-so, I’ll help you out, or if you don’t know so-and-so they won’t help you”.
It’s not the crisis per se, he repeats. “The way of thinking, and the way this country works, doesn’t inspire me… From what I can see, there’s no future. I mean, I’m nearly 40 years old and – if I started watching TV when I was 10 – I’ve been seeing the same faces since I was 10 years old, whether they’re politicians or TV presenters. And you think, ‘For chrissake, where are all the young people, the ones who might have some ideas, or some energy?’ But they can’t get in, because of vested interests.”
Stephane himself had a preview of that in his student days, when he won a European Student Prize for a project on old Nicosia. His idea was shown at the St Etienne Biennale, and the Cyprus government paid for his ticket so he could come here and present it to the municipality – who blithely cut him off halfway through with the claim that his ideas were utopian, and besides “we’ve been doing this for 40 years, you’re not going to tell us how to run Nicosia”. (“So why did you invite me?” he retorted, packing up his stuff.) That ‘utopian’ idea was for a sort of living Green Line, a long narrow building running along the border that would shape-shift from museum to park to walkway – a way of imaginatively healing the city’s symbolic scar. Predictably, Stephane doesn’t think much of the current flowering of old Nicosia, a chaotic matter of filling the Old Town with people and surrounding them with frozen-yoghurt shops. You have to “keep an identity,” he protests; you can’t put a Starbucks next to a traditional taverna.
Can’t you, though? This is where the contradictions return – like, for instance, the fact that Stephane is himself a big proponent of “mix and match” in his architecture (his kafeneio blends traditional rush-seated Cyprus chairs with bold splashes of pink and purple). Or the fact that his own identity is somewhat jumbled, having lived in Paris for seven years and dated a girl from Argentina for 10 years. After all, I point out, we’re just a few days from the EU elections. Does the notion of a national identity even exist anymore?
He nods ruefully: “It’s a fact now, there’s nothing you can do about it. [But] I’m one of those people – rightly or wrongly, it’s my opinion, doesn’t mean I’m right – who are against globalisation and all that it entails, the Euro, the global chains, the brands and so on. I believe the world was much better in the days when you were in Cyprus and it felt like Cyprus, or in England and it felt like England, or in Sweden and it felt like Sweden. Now we’re in this great wave of ‘We’re all the same’, we’re all one, the currency is one, the language is one – but I think you lose too much from the richness of each place and its history.”
Doesn’t it lead to less racism and xenophobia, though?
Of course, he replies. There’s good and bad, as with everything; “in the end, it depends on what matters more to you. But I do think that Cypriots in general, the Cypriot mentality and temperament, is not European, and never will be!”. Go to the bank and watch them crowd in front of the teller, he sighs. Watch them park on the pavement right outside a shop, even if there’s parking 30 metres away. “We just don’t have it,” he half-smiles. “We Cypriots are donkeys. It’s no coincidence that I put this guy here,” he adds, pointing to a cartoon donkey on the kafeneio menu. Therefore, and despite the political consequences, “I’d have preferred if Cyprus hadn’t become part of the EU, and had carried on being Cyprus”.
Bottom line? Stephane Fissentzides is a romantic – increasingly alienated from today’s Cyprus, deeply immersed in a half-remembered vision of Cyprus that may no longer exist, and indeed may never have existed. ‘Was there ever a distinct Cypriot culture?’ I wonder – and he points to his safe, happy childhood, going out to play (unlike today’s locked-in kids) and leaving the key in the front door, as if one boy’s experience could contain a whole era. It may be significant that the book he’s now reading – actually re-reading – is his high-school copy of The Odyssey, with his schoolboy notes still in the margins. It’s surely significant that the people he admires most of all (he says) are his parents, for the values they instilled and the love they still share: “I don’t see many [other] couples in their 70s, after 40 years of marriage, walking down the street holding hands”.
Is it just nostalgia, like his longing for the old days when kids didn’t have smartphones? Or a true philosophy, a love of all that’s simple and authentic? He recalls his parents’ friends dropping by uninvited when he was a child, to cook together and eat and drink (“You can’t do that nowadays. Now you have to invite people, you have to organise it”), and rhymes it with experiences he’s had up in the mountains, in the little villages where Cypriotness (says Stephane) still flourishes. Someone will be cooking souvla in their front yard, and they’ll see him – a total stranger – and shout ‘kopiase’, ‘come and join us’. That seems to be what he cherishes most, that sense of unforced human connection.
Yet it’s also what he resists. He won’t answer a phone call from a number he doesn’t know, carefully guarding his privacy. He won’t go down to bustling Old Nicosia, there’s too much noise and too many people. Ermou300 is practically his whole life: he’s in the office from 8 to 1, the coffee shop from 5pm onwards and his bed after midnight, with a couple of hours at the gym in between. He’s built this little nest for himself, and both loves and hates it. “There are times when I just want to leave,” says Stephane Fissentzides. “Just get up and leave, not say anything to anybody, turn off my phone and never come back!” – but where would he go, when he’s so attached to ‘his’ Cyprus? Another contradiction.