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Not your quaint old shoemaker

Not your quaint old shoemaker

In one of a dwindling band of Nicosia craftsmen, THEO PANAYIDES finds a restless octogenarian who has spent a lifetime making shoes and other leather goods but is now ready to move on

Inside the small, cluttered shop – behind the sign in Greek reading ‘I. PAVLIDES, SHOEMAKER’ – everything seems timeless and immutable. Shoes in various stages of repair, aluminium moulds for stretching leather, low-tech machines sprouting cogs and rollers. On the shelves, spools of thread and ancient-looking jars: Carr’s Boot Cream, bicarbonate of soda. On the wall, a religious calendar for the year 2005.

Outside the shop, in a dusty part of old Nicosia, things are a bit more unsettled. The street has been cordoned off; I can see makeshift scaffolding, bits of rubble and exposed masonry. Two handsome townhouses – so handsome, I’m told, that tourists often stopped to take photos – were turned into listed buildings years ago then, as so often happens, allowed to collapse. The owner couldn’t afford to maintain them, or couldn’t be bothered; the state did nothing. The owner died, his children sold to a company which in turn went bankrupt. The bank took over, but the houses had become uninhabitable. Now they’re being torn down.

Yiannis (Ioannis) Pavlides sits astride those two worlds. Going in, I’d imagined a sedate, old-fashioned figure, rather like the shop where he’s plied his trade for the past 60 years – but in fact it turns out, quite surprisingly, that his life is closer to the flux and messiness (and yes, disappointment) of the street outside. The craftsmen of old Nicosia are a dwindling band, remnants of an older, more noble, more prosperous time in the old town. The temptation is often to view them romantically – especially since they are, by and large, old men, and we tend to imagine old age as a time of equilibrium. Yiannis will be 82 in January, having spent a lifetime crafting shoes and other leather goods (belts, wallets, key cases) in this little eyrie. Surely a man like that – at an age like that, with a job like that – would be philosophical; surely his life would be settled, for better or worse. You imagine him trawling the distant past, bringing up some youthful misadventure with a shrug and a little chuckle – but in fact that’s a stereotype. He actually has much of the same frustration, and restlessness, as a man 50 years his junior.

As it happens, I arrive just in time. Yiannis’ shop has always been there, down the road from the Cyprus Mail offices, and it’s purely by chance that I choose this particular week to approach him for a profile – but in fact, after 64 years (he opened the shop in 1955, as a teenager), he’s just placed an ad looking to sell the business and move to Australia, a country that recurs more than once in our conversation. Admittedly, it won’t be easy. In the two weeks since he placed the ad he’s only had one offer, directed at his vintage shoe machines rather than the business itself. What if the right buyer appeared tomorrow, though, would he sell up and go Down Under? “If only!” he replies with a chuckle. “I’d be out like a shot. Go down there straight away.”

Australia is something of a promised land; three of his five siblings live – or used to live – there, his sister in Melbourne plus two brothers (one has now passed away) in Queensland. Yiannis has been there a staggering 16 times, most recently this past February, including six times in a two-year period while his brother was sick; he was all set to emigrate himself, in 1971, but “my late mother wouldn’t have it” – then came close again quite recently, when his ailing brother begged him to come live with him, but this time Yiannis’ wife vetoed the move. For someone who’s spent almost his entire working life in a cluttered cubbyhole, hunched over leather-cutters and sewing machines, he seems to travel to the other side of the world with remarkable ease.

Still, a pattern emerges – a recurring motif of a man trying to change his life, only to be thwarted again and again. His mother, then later his wife, put paid to Australia. His wife also balked when he thought about playing bouzouki (his only real hobby) in nightclubs, as a younger man; he had offers to play twice a week, Fridays and Saturdays, but she was afraid he’d “be running after some woman,” he recalls rather snappishly. The wife passed away seven years ago, and he thought about remarrying – but, again, the idea was discouraged, this time by his children. He actually found a good woman, says Yiannis, a Cypriot just a few years younger than himself, “but I didn’t want to upset my kids” – though in fact, the way he tells it, the kids have little right to complain, having left him to fend for himself. He has four, two sons and two daughters, all in good jobs – one’s at a bank, another at the Land Registry, another’s a police lieutenant – but “the kids won’t come near us,” he says mournfully, speaking of himself in the plural. “Won’t come near us. Eh, they have their work: ‘I don’t have time’. They don’t even call, for the most part.”

He sounds bitter, though of course it’s hard to know if he’s telling the whole story. Did his loved ones really hamper all those life-changing decisions? Did Yiannis just meekly acquiesce, or was he perhaps too cautious for his own good? (It’s easy to look back on a life unfulfilled, and blame others.) Are the kids just ungrateful, or is he himself rather awkward and ornery? Yiannis tells an intriguing, slightly jumbled story of his wife’s illness, apparently sparked off in the 1960s when their older daughter, still a baby, was sleeping in their bed and his wife rolled over, almost squashing the child. “Look out!” he cried, shocking her awake – and the shock, he says, made her come down with jaundice soon after, which in turn produced the chronic liver disease that finally killed her. I have no idea if this story is medically accurate – but it’s still intriguing that he seems, on some level, to blame himself. I suspect there’s some unresolved issues behind the façade of this picturesque little shop.

Maybe it’s because of changing circumstances. The rent he pays is very low, but business has dropped off precipitously: “You might get four or five people [in a day], but then you might go 15 days without anyone coming”. He used to have a sideline in orthopaedic shoes, and custom-made shoes for those with deformities – but that’s fallen off too (I assume there are cheaper alternatives), and meanwhile there are bills to pay. “If I didn’t have my savings, and my pension… In three years I’ve lost about €30,000 from my savings.” It’d be different in Australia, a place – he affirms – where a craftsman can still find work; even the Orthodox priest of his sister’s congregation in Melbourne has implored him to come and make shoes for them.

It’s not just the shop, it’s the neighbourhood too. All the nearby shops used to be occupied, back in the day; there was a tailor and a man who sold fridges, both of whom stopped by to chat now and then. These days, the shops are mostly empty – or torn down, like the houses up the street – apart from a cute little art studio that never seems to get any customers. “I always worked many hours, because hand-crafted shoes take time,” he recalls wistfully. A single pair of shoes might take two days. He made belts too – the first proper leather belts in Cyprus, he says – selling them all over the island, from Paphos to Famagusta; “That’s how I put the kids through school”, because the belts were so lucrative. The shop thrived, the whole area was buzzing; not only was the house above the shop still inhabited, but its tenant was the director of the Bank of Greece. Yiannis recalls asking this man for a personal loan of £1,000, just for a few days (“I had to pay the builders”), and the banker giving him the cash, no questions asked, “because he knew I was trustworthy”. Before he left, the director also invited him to move to Greece and make shoes there, promising to secure the necessary loans through the bank – but, again, Yiannis’ wife didn’t want to leave Cyprus. The pattern continues.

His wife is gone now, his children – he says – barely even talk to him. He heads home at four o’clock, this tidy-looking elderly man with his trim moustache and hair combed back neatly, and spends the rest of the day doing housework, cooking and cleaning and doing the laundry. “Every night there’s something. Wash this, clean that…”

What about friends? Why not go for a coffee or something?

“Where do you go, when you can’t get away?” he protests. “Only on the weekends. I’ve got some of my wife’s relatives in Kofinou, I might head down there for a bit.”

It sounds a bit convoluted, having to rely on your late wife’s out-of-town relatives for friendship. Are there no neighbours he can go for a meal with? Business friends from the old days? Fellow villagers, perhaps, from now-occupied Ayios Amvrosios on the outskirts of Kyrenia? (He’s been back once, just recently, and found the place unrecognisable, not to mention grubby and unkempt; “Dirty people,” he tells me, leaving it unclear if he means the Turkish inhabitants or Turks in general.) The answer, I suspect, is that Yiannis Pavlides was never the type to have too many friends. His work is based on precision – he shows me the various machines, one with a thin blade for trimming the leather, another a pair of rollers separated by a gap where a belt can be pushed through – and his life sounds like it must’ve been quite precise too. I imagine him working hard, raising kids, building a house in his 20s – he was quite a high achiever, such a young man with his own shop – staying up till midnight fashioning the belts he’d be selling in Paphos next morning, then relaxing quietly with family, strumming his bouzouki. Then again, I also imagined him as a philosophical artisan in a cosy little shop, when the truth is quite different.

Could the state have done more for the old town, the neighbourhood he’s seen wax and wane over 60 years? Yiannis shrugs: “You need to have the will, and you also need to care. We don’t have anyone who cares… Whereas in Australia people are different. Very, very different! No way you’d see such a filthy place. No way!” Cypriots have gone downhill too, not just old Nicosia, though he’s hard-pressed to say exactly why. He wonders sometimes, “if it’s all these foreigners who’ve brought us to this confusion. I used to leave the shop just as it was, when I went to the market to buy something, and no-one stole so much as a nail. With the door wide-open on purpose, so a customer could come and sit down until I came back. Never lost a thing. Now, you padlock the place and they still come in to rob you! Ehhh, the country’s ruined,” says Yiannis gloomily. “It’s not right, our country.”

I decide to leave him to it, this surprisingly restless octogenarian with the solitary life – alone in the shop all day, alone at home after that, widowed and lonely and seemingly abandoned by his offspring – yet also with a dream of starting over in a new place, like some bushy-tailed youngster. The shop looks the same as it’s always done, one of those quaint old-town attractions for camera-toting tourists and young moderns seeking ‘authenticity’, persisting as a charming anachronism – and slowly dying out, in the era of malls and smartphones, along with the craftsmen themselves – but his life has changed with the decades. “I’ve been left on my own,” sighs Yiannis. Roll on Australia.

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