THEO PANAYIDES finds the owner of the oldest pub in Cyprus to be a quiet extrovert
New owner Renos claims he’s inherited a museum, and vows to change it as little as possible. It’ll still be the only pub in town that opens at 11am, and the old football pennants on the walls will presumably stay. To be fair, some things could stand to be upgraded. The two shelves of books in a corner are incongruous enough, but the actual titles are even more incongruous – loads of chick-lit (seven books by Danielle Steel alone) and a couple of message-mongering titles from the 80s, Child Abuse with a cover photo of a battered child and The Lead Scandal, on the damage done to fragile psyches by the presence of lead in petrol; not exactly ideal reading-matter while you’re sipping your pint. Then again, maybe the books too should stay as they are, just because that’s how regulars like them. They’re a fixture, an exhibit, part and parcel of the oldest pub in Cyprus.
We speak, of course, of Romylos Pub in Nicosia, founded in 1979 by Panayiotis Kyriakou and officially (the CTO confirms it) the oldest still-functioning pub on the island. Panayiotis ran the place for 39 years – and should perhaps have waited till next year’s 40th anniversary to sell it, but another anniversary came first: his own 80th birthday on January 17 this year, making him feel it was time to move on.
He seems in fine fettle, though, I note.
“Touch wood, I feel great. But I was thinking of my family, my wife after all these years. You know, working at night, it’s difficult.”
What does he plan to do with himself?
“Do?” He chuckles dryly. “What will I do? At the moment I have no plans, just to relax. There’s my son too – he might need me, I don’t know…” His son Kyriakos is also in the pub on the Sunday evening of our interview – the TVs beaming out local football to a smattering of customers – and chats with me later, remembering his own childhood days of working at Romylos (he was 10 years old when it opened), mostly washing dishes and making sandwiches; there’s a famous photo of him pulling a pint when he’s barely tall enough to reach the counter. Kyriakos also puts his finger on something that’s been eluding me throughout the interview, offering a pithy description of his dad (whom he knows, after all, better than anyone): “A quiet extrovert”.
That, I suspect, is Panayiotis in a nutshell – ‘extrovert’ mostly in the sense that he’s not an introvert (he likes company and doesn’t seem the type to brood, nor does he have a particularly busy inner life; his main hobby is watching football), ‘quiet’ in the sense that… well, he doesn’t say much. He’s been coming to the pub for 40 years (and casinos for 20 years before that; we’ll get to them later), almost every day including weekends, alternating shifts with his brother Tasos but still either opening the place in the mornings or closing up in the wee hours. He’s met so many people, thousands of people, sat beside them and listened to their problems. He must really like to talk, I venture. “To be honest,” he replies, “I don’t talk much. I might sit down, and there might be 20 people having a conversation – I just sit and listen. If someone asks me something, I answer. I never butt into their conversations, because when you butt in, that’s when you might end up being misunderstood.”
He’s never had misunderstandings, he says proudly. I ask new owner Renos – who’s been a customer since his teens – if he’s ever seen his predecessor angry, and he shakes his head: “No, always calm”. His life has been “normal”, affirms Panayiotis, despite working nights and odd hours; he’s never had family troubles, the kind that often emerge in his line of work. “You know, many people in this business might get drunk, might become drunkards. Never! The pub has been operating just as you see it now for 40 years – just like this, quietly, legally, with all its licences, everything in order, year after year… There’s never been trouble, never any fights, never in 40 years”.
Football is his passion, so let’s bring in a football metaphor. Romylos is festooned with football posters and memorabilia, including a much-cherished photo of Panayiotis with Kevin Keegan and George Best when the two legends came to Cyprus for a friendly tournament in the late 80s – but, if Panayiotis were himself a footballer, he wouldn’t be a forward like those two flashy poachers. He’d be a defender, not a dirty one – not the type to commit professional fouls – but a solid and sturdy one, very hard to get past. Even better, he’d be a goalie, a safe pair of hands. This, I suspect, this sturdy unexcitable quality, was precisely what prompted an Indian princeling to offer the young Cypriot a job in his London casino, all those years ago.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The story begins in Yerolakkos, the now-occupied village just outside Nicosia where he was born, the son of a shepherd. Panayiotis was the second of eight siblings, and the family was by no means rich – so he emigrated in his early 20s, moving to London where he worked in construction and as a house painter. He met the Indian prince and his wife when they hired him to paint their flat – and met him again when he went, as a customer, to the man’s (semi-legal) gaming club, making enough of an impression to merit a job offer. The prince had installed roulette tables in “various clip joints around London,” explains Kyriakos, “and my job was to organise the list sending different croupiers to different clubs”. He soon graduated to running his own place in north London – then, when casinos became fully legal in 1970, applied for a licence to open a big casino and betting shop in the West End.
Had the licence been approved, his life might’ve been very different. Alas, the application was denied (a complicated story involving a duplicitous business partner who turned out to have a history of bankruptcy), “so it all fell apart, and I started on the journey back to Cyprus”. He built a house in Yerolakkos – it was going to be the first house in the village with central heating – sending money to his brother to build it. The whole family sailed back in July 1974, first the kids, then Panayiotis himself; he arrived on the day of the invasion – and of course never even saw the Yerolakkos house, let alone lived in it. Four years in Greece followed, as Gaming Manager at the well-established Parnitha casino – then, in 1979, he was passing by outside what’s now Romylos (at the time a private home and steam-press ironing business) and noticed a sign saying ‘For Rent’. And here we are.
There’s a sudden roar, and Panayiotis lifts his eyes to the TV: Omonia have scored in their game against Paralimni. They’re the team he supports in Cyprus, he tells me, but his first love will always be Arsenal: the wi-fi password at Romylos is the London club’s name followed by ‘1886’, the year it was founded. There’s a tinge of nostalgia for his days in the UK (which may just be an old man’s nostalgia for the days of his youth) but he insists he has no regrets, even though Romylos is a rung below a London casino – and even though he might’ve run a bigger establishment, even in Cyprus. About a year after they opened, Carlsberg came with an offer to manage a bar in Ayia Napa – but his kids were already in school in Nicosia and he didn’t want to uproot the family again, so he declined.
“So I stayed just with Romylos,” he muses. “40 years. I’ve had a good life here, with my people, my regulars. I always worked very honestly. The pub never had a bad name – because you heard a lot about pubs in those days, when they had women, selling women and so forth. Here, never! If a customer bought a waitress a drink – if the drink was £2, then £2 is what you charged. In other places, if the customer bought a girl a drink it might be £10. I never allowed such things.”
The years have indeed passed quite smoothly. He never had trouble with underworld types, neither here nor (more surprisingly) in London: “I did have customers who were gangsters or what-have-you, and they respected me… They’d come to the casino, they gambled, lost their money and left like gentlemen. They did their dirty work elsewhere, never with me”. Was it because they knew he wouldn’t stand for it? “I don’t know, re koumbare. Whoever I met, even among so-called ‘villains’, they ended up liking me. Because of my manner, whatever. They never messed with me. Not there, not in Cyprus.” People generally seem to behave themselves around him. He’s only had to throw out a couple of customers during 40 years at Romylos – and not even throw them out but refuse them entry, because they were obviously blind drunk.
Bars do attract some lost souls, I point out.
“There are many people with problems,” he agrees. “I became a psychologist, without having studied. I never made it past primary school, but I could look at a customer and know what kind of person they were”. Many of these people shared their problems, whether family or financial; a barman who doesn’t talk much – and, implicitly, doesn’t judge – makes an excellent shoulder to cry on. He’d listen, recalls Panayiotis, and offer advice.
“Would you ever advise them to take risks?” I ask, already half-knowing the answer.
“No risks,” he replies instantly. “Not to take risks.”
That, more or less, is the crux of the matter when it comes to Panayiotis Kyriakou. He plays it safe; even his low-key, laconic persona is a function of playing it safe. I try to broaden the discussion, away from the pub and specific details of his life – asking, for instance, if there’s something that makes him angry about Cyprus society – but he’s not too happy with those kinds of questions; offering opinions on matters that don’t really concern you is a sure way of being misunderstood. It’s telling that both his children followed unimpeachably safe paths in life, nothing to do with clubs and casinos. Kyriakos graduated from the English School, and is now in financial services; his older sister Diamanto has a job at the Foreign Ministry. And of course there’s Romylos itself, a place that’s barely changed – that’s part of its charm – in 40 years. Panayiotis isn’t the type for radical makeovers.
It is indeed a museum, its subject being 80s ephemera. The posters and pennants are for old teams: QPR and Bristol City, Holland as the European champions in 1988. Also on the wall are a couple of yellowed Cyprus Mail articles, written by one Mike Woods who seems to have been quite a regular: “If you take a beer, and like your conversation heavily salted with soccer talk, then Peter [sic] Kyriakou is the host you must track down,” wrote Mr Woods, describing Panayiotis – in a reference that won’t mean much to anyone under 40 – as “the man who looks more like Herbert Lom than Herbert Lom”.
The pub was buzzing in those days, the 11am opening being a particular attraction – because those were the days when Cyprus was teeming with offshore companies, most of them staffed with Brits whose job was to keep an eye on things and send the occasional fax. This was pre-internet, and of course it was also pre-Starbucks and Costa Coffee; from late morning, Romylos was packed with underemployed expats with a taste for Keo and nowhere else to go. Then came the exodus, of course. Then came the smoking ban, which hit the place hard despite the addition of a small balcony. Then came the crisis, though the problem is largely cultural: jobless millennials are more likely to spend the day nursing a frappé than a cheap beer. Whatever the reasons, traffic has definitely slowed at Romylos.
Still, there’s cause for optimism. The area around the pub is being upgraded, and will soon be pedestrianised; nearby Makarios Avenue is sprouting with skyscrapers; and of course there’s a new owner, bringing fresh customers and a sense of renewal. “I have two children,” recites Panayiotis Kyriakou, with the air of reading out a prepared statement. “The pub is my third child, which I’m now abandoning. I have mixed feelings, because for 40 years I spent more time here than I did in my own home”. Will he return as a customer? “Well,” he says cagily, refusing to be drawn, “if there’s a football game, I might show up occasionally”. I leave him behind the bar, fiddling with the nozzle on a beer keg, his 80-year-old frame bent double as he shows the new owner how to deal with the problem. A man in his element.