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Custodian of the Savino Experience

Nearly three decades of running a landmark bar in Larnaca adds up to a lot of memories for its owner, finds THEO PANAYIDES

The first thing I see of Christos Koukkides is his back. I turn into a nondescript alley off Finikoudes, wedged between two tourist restaurants serving brandy sours and mojitos, walk a few steps to the entrance of Savino Rock Bar – and there, at 2pm on a Friday, is Christos, standing shirtless with his back to me and shifting boxes, or hanging up lights, or doing any of the countless little chores he’s been doing since Savino opened in 1990. His back, I can safely report, is quite hairy, though also neatly trimmed – possibly at the urging of Mariann, his Norwegian wife of 31 years.

That may seem an unorthodox starting-point, then again Christos (or in fact ‘Moulos’, on which more later) is also a bit unorthodox – something of a cult figure in Larnaca, owner of the town’s most beloved and venerable bar, his main distinguishing feature being the long Billy Connolly beard which swings in the breeze as he walks and is thoughtfully caressed as he talks. He is, indisputably, a ‘character’, you can tell at a glance – yet he’s also adept at the art of compromise, keeping a balance that allows him to be both a cheerful nonconformist and successful businessman.

One, slightly random example: toilets in bars are notoriously riddled with ‘witty’ graffiti scribbled on the walls by happy customers, brought on by the twin euphoria of fuddled brains and grateful bladders. Some bars paint over the doodles every few months, thus dismaying regulars whose message to the planet disappears overnight. Others put up stern notices asking patrons not to write on the walls, which of course is no fun at all. Savino has the perfect compromise: a large, much-abused whiteboard tacked up next to the loo, on which drinkers can compose poignant messages like “Theo and Marina Wuz ’Ere”, or creative projects like this little gem: “Roses are tits / Violets are tits / I like tits / Tits.”

Another example: the bar itself, which is gloriously cluttered. The place reflects the man, being deliberately expansive and all-embracing. “I don’t remove anything,” he tells me; “I only add”. The décor in Savino is a study in letting it all hang out, an Aladdin’s cave of hoarded memorabilia – but the clutter isn’t (just) because Christos likes freedom, hence messiness; it’s also a way of building a community, hence more business. His free-and-easy style is also a case of canny branding. There’s a reason why the place celebrates 28 years of existence next month.

Here are fairly standard bar items, photos of celebs and ‘Things That Are Difficult to Say When You’re Drunk’ signs – but here also, for instance, is a wall adorned with old mobile phones, which their owners either left behind or smashed in a rage. Here’s a rather cryptic photo of Christos with a young Italian kid named Milo. Here are Savino-themed artworks, made by customers. The bar isn’t just a bar, it’s a repository of its 28 years and all who’ve passed through it. Here are actual strands of hair, tacked up on the wall, commemorating shaven beards from days gone by. Here’s a photo of two young men who look like twins, both with bulging eyes and curly hair: “They used to work here,” he explains. “One’s a doctor now, the other a chartered accountant.”

That, incidentally, is par for the course: staff move on to ‘respectable’ jobs, just as customers go home every night and wake up for work in the morning. Only ‘Moulos’ (the Mule) stays on, his nickname – more than just a nickname; it’s how he’s universally known – having been bestowed by his brother years ago, when the brother was trying to ask him something and Christos was stubbornly ignoring him: “‘You’re a real Moulos,’ he told me, and the name stuck”. He opened the bar, with Mariann, in his 20s (he’s now 52) and has been there ever since, working late – he usually gets home around four – and operating on about five hours’ sleep. He’s not just the owner of Savino, he’s the custodian of the whole Savino Experience: an unchanging place, stubborn as Moulos himself, famously open 365 days a year. It only closed once, for four days in 1997, when a fire destroyed the bottles of booze and left the walls sooty; the regulars had nowhere to go, he recalls, and begged him to open anyway. “I don’t have any chairs,” he protested. “We don’t care!” they replied.

He’s never done anything else, not really – yet his background isn’t especially unconventional. His father worked as a union rep, allowing him to find work quickly after the family fled their native Famagusta. Christos, the youngest of three, passed an accounting exam in his teens (he changed his mind after a brief internship in a bank), then went to Florence for a degree in Hotel Management – but he came back for the summer, took a job tending bar at Cosmos Disco, met the Norwegian tourist who became his wife, and the rest is history. “I can’t imagine myself behind a desk,” he tells me now, as we sit in the breezy outdoor area away from the heat.

We’re interrupted by a blonde young woman in her 20s, who emerges (or staggers) from the block of hotel apartments next door. “Hey! Good morning, good morning!” calls out Christos, tactfully ignoring the fact that it’s mid-afternoon.

“Don’t feel so good right now,” mumbles the girl, and laughs.

“Oh, a hangover!” he replies, chuckling. “Hung over, a little bit… Eh, by tonight you’re gonna be sober!” She’s a Danish-Romanian tourist, he explains later, part of a group who were at the bar the night before and got very drunk on zivania. What I’ve just witnessed, I presume, was his business face – the fun-loving guy with the wild beard, enjoining tourists to party. “The owner is living it [sic] with the customers and is a very good host,” says a Google review of Savino from about a month ago; “You’ll have an experience there”. The catch, however, is that Christos himself – the ebullient master of ceremonies, and living legend – doesn’t actually drink. Once again, he’s keeping a balance.

I imagine tales of 12-step programmes and AA meetings (after all, he’s been working in bars and clubs since the age of 15), but it’s nothing like that. He did drink a lot as a younger man, but he never enjoyed getting drunk. By the same token, it’s not like he’s stopped drinking altogether; he’ll still have a shot now and then, with the staff at closing time for instance. But it’s not very sensible to drink when you’re running a bar; it’s not good business. “Better if you’re sober and your customers are drunk, that’s my philosophy!” Not to mention that the work was hard, even with a clear head – especially in the early days, with Mariann working as an air stewardess (at Eurocypria) and Christos having to get up on a couple of hours’ sleep and take care of their baby son Julien.

We’re again interrupted, this time by a friend toting a Frank Zappa CD; “Maybe Julien doesn’t have it,” says Christos, and thanks him for his trouble. Julien, now 27, collects albums by the famously prolific Zappa (and is himself a musician, with a band called Abettor); his younger brother Sebastian did a Fine Arts degree, and is now studying Architecture. The sons are creative, as befits Moulos’ crazy beard and nocturnal lifestyle – but let’s also note, for instance, that he used to organise ‘musical afternoons’ back in 1979, as a boy of 13, booking a disco from four to eight p.m. and having a DJ spin records for his classmates (who otherwise weren’t allowed out by their parents), ending up with a cool £50-60 a week. He’s always had a head for business. Christos can’t tell me his favourite song (he settles, rather coyly, on ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’), but he knows the interest rate on the first loan he took out on the bar, back in 1990.

Meaning what? That he’s somehow a fake? Not at all. But Christos Koukkides is an interesting mix – laid-back yet hard-nosed, more disciplined than he probably looks and more of a perfectionist (he recalls being thrown out of kindergarten for beating up other kids, but only those who were dirty or snot-nosed; I suspect they offended his sensibilities). He’s steered Savino – and adjoining rock club Savino Live – through some difficult times, especially in the early 90s when rock music was associated with “anarchists, druggies, whatever” and people in Larnaca drove to Nicosia for their nights out. His presence alone seems to deter brawls (he can only recall half a dozen in 28 years), though he also keeps an eye on who comes in; British soldiers are notoriously troublesome, or they were a few years ago when troops fighting in Iraq came to Cyprus on R&R. Mostly, though, people behave themselves. “Maybe they’d cause trouble at another place, some of them. But they’re like: ‘I’m at Moulos’ place now, I won’t make any trouble’. And they let things slide. Because it’s me, and because they want to come back”.

Savino is a business; but it’s a community too, with its own history and traditions. The history appears on its walls, in the photos and knick-knacks, the strands of hair and old mobile phones. Traditions include, for instance, the two days a year – the bar’s birthday in August, and Christos’ own birthday on February 23 – when all drinks are 50 per cent off, and there’s also the tradition of ‘baptising’ tourists as honorary Moulos-es, using little plastic horses for mules (the trinkets come with White Horse whisky bottles, though it’s unclear if he pins them to initiates’ T-shirts or something more elaborate). The vibe has always been democratic: even now, anyone can go to the computer and punch in a song they want to hear – a throwback to the days before computers, when people brought their own CDs and tapes hoping to introduce fellow patrons to this or that cool rock song.

Larnaca’s changed quite a bit since then. Everyone gets their music from the internet, Finikoudes has bloomed (if that’s the word) with tourist restaurants and fast-food franchises – but Moulos, stubborn as his nickname, keeps going. He doesn’t work behind the bar anymore (he only works four nights a week, though often comes in anyway) but he’s doing pretty well for an old coot, his only vice being the Manitou roll-ups on the table between us – and of course pilotta, his favourite card game and drug of choice: “Every day, at five o’clock, we must play pilotta!” He recently arranged another ‘musical afternoon’, for old times’ sake – the guests being his old classmates, a kind of high-school reunion – and some of them look so old now, he sighs ruefully. Say what you like about the night, it keeps you young.

He’s not just a bar owner, he’s a local landmark – and of course a psychiatrist, like any barkeep, patiently listening to people’s problems. “One can’t find a woman, another one can’t find a man, another got divorced, another’s telling me about his kid…” In a fickle world, Savino stays the same, taking in everyone from Danish-Romanian tourists to the sad, broken-down and depressed.

“I remember one night, years ago. I was about to close the shop,” says the affable Mule. “Suddenly a guy comes in, orders a drink. I say to myself: ‘OK, it’s only 1.30, I’ll stay a little longer’. He was already – well, he’d had a few – and he says to me: ‘I’m going to kill myself’. So I’m like, f**k me, am I supposed to sit and talk to him now? But what if I say ‘Go ahead’, and he does it?”. Christos shakes his head: “What if you tell him you don’t care, then next morning you open the paper and read ‘Man jumps from the Dipa building’? It’d be like you pushed him!”

So he sat down with the man – who, it turned out, had split up with his girlfriend – and they talked for a good two hours, the man insisting that he couldn’t live without her and Moulos trying to convince him that life is beautiful. Then, at around four a.m., his customer safely dispatched and hopefully going straight home, Moulos closed the bar and went back to his own home, ready to sleep a few hours and return to Savino the next day. And the one after that, and so on and so forth. 28 years and counting.

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