In an antique-shop owner and winter swimmer, THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who has turned to activism in her seventh decade, although her vibrant and positive personality has long seen her bringing life back to forgotten things
My encounter with Erma Stylianides takes nearly four hours. We begin at the antique shop she owns, Antique Epsilon, on a busy intersection in Limassol, then decamp to the Pattichion Municipal Museum and Historical Archives – they know her well there; she’s donated or lent many artefacts and items of clothing, including the costume she herself wore as Queen of the Carnival in 2013 – then end up at the seafront, the beach at Akti Olympion where she swims every morning at 6am and carries out daily ‘patrols’ as president of the Association of Winter Swimmers and Friends of Limassol. She does all the driving, offering a running commentary on her rapidly-changing – and polluted – city, plus occasional insider info. “Look at this shop,” she says in passing, pointing out a seafront business which shall remain nameless. “It has a sewer going straight down into the sea!”
She’s 60, not very tall, with an ear-to-ear grin and a colourful wardrobe. She’s obsessed (she admits) with jewellery, her get-up including a golden bracelet in the form of a crocodile and a decorative cross with chunks of orange-red coral. She crosses herself when she drives past a church, a gesture from a long-ago Limassol. She points out the clearly inadequate facilities at Akti Olympion, then spots a couple of motorbikes parked on the pedestrian walkway – there’s nowhere else to park them – and takes out her phone to snap a photo (“I’m going to make a fuss about this!”). Later, we sit outside in the early afternoon and she sips a Keo Light (a beer created partly by her daughter, a Keo brewmaster) while holding forth on tall buildings, old buildings, homeless people eating cats in the now-deserted GSO Stadium, human waste in the sea, plus the traumas of her own abusive marriage. Talking to Erma is an experience.
“We’re all over the place, always, always!” she cries out gleefully as I make my way into the antique shop – a magnificent jumble that reflects her own eclectic, endlessly generous personality. (She’s donated to the Pattichion, as already mentioned, and also supplies antique furniture, for free, for use as props in school plays and theatre productions.) At the entrance is a pool table, plus two personal collections which are not for sale: old biscuit tins ranged on a shelf, and a rather alarming array of wood and metal crucifixes – two dozen Jesuses looking down from the Cross – as you come in.
I take out my notebook to jot down assorted objects – but where to begin? There’s a piano, a guitar, a piece of old kimono that’s been turned into a canvas. There’s a flyer for the Platres Festival of 1967. There’s an old map of Leicestershire. There are old wooden doors, the kind you’d find in village outhouses, and a sturdy-looking safe made by Samuel Withers & Co. of West Bromwich. Erma shows me a carved wooden bookshelf, made in Burma before it became Myanmar: it was brought to her by a couple (the wife was Burmese) who’d retired to Cyprus in their old age – “Well, they thought they were old. I don’t think 70 is old!” – and sought to divest themselves of possessions. There are lampshades and typewriters, a birdcage, old mugs and teapots, a painting by the artist Michael Owen, a card-punching machine for factory workers. There’s even a shovel. Why a shovel? “We just brought that from the old house,” she says airily, leaving it unclear whether or not it’s for sale.
Objects are important to Erma. She still has her grandfather’s cap and apron from the time when he ran a restaurant in Brooklyn, plus an ice-bucket with the name of the restaurant. Both grandfathers spent time in America back in the day, making money before returning to the village of Vasa Kellakiou, not far from Limassol. (I mention that she seems quite prominent in town – she seems to have been especially chummy with Andreas Christou, the former mayor – but she soberly points out that her family were a well-off village family, never one of the “aristocratic families of Limassol”.) Objects are alive to her: “When I touch an object, whether it’s glass or wood or stone, I can tell, more or less, how old it is”. Objects still carry the energy of previous owners, she explains, though “when you wash them with sea water, or water with salt or vinegar, the energy goes away”.
Erma made her living by restoring and fixing – and selling – objects: they came to the rescue at her most stressful time, after she divorced in 1990. Her life breaks down rather neatly into decades, as she now embarks on her seventh decade (she was born in 1959). The 60s and most of the 70s were childhood years, going on Sunday excursions with her parents – who, unusually for the time, liked to collect old things – to buy wooden chests or carved furniture from this or that village. The 80s found her unhappily married, to a teacher from Greece whom she met while he was doing his National Service here: “I got engaged at 17,” she recalls rather mournfully, “married at 18, had my daughter at 18 and my son at 19”. Erma’s often wondered if her love of dolls, which she collects even now, might be some kind of defence mechanism, trying to make up for the youthful hi-jinks she largely missed out on.
The 90s were a time of recovery, clawing her way out of the darkness. It took four years before she even felt ready for a new relationship – but then she met a man named Michalis, who’d studied Wood Restoration in the States and became her partner both in life (they’re still together, 25 years later) and work. Objects play an unexpected role in this story. Erma should really have been the one to quit the marriage – there was abuse, she confirms – but in fact it was her husband who left, and not only left but took all the furniture with him. He’d planned his departure for months – then, on a day when she happened to be in Platres with the kids, took advantage of her absence to load up two removal trucks and strip the house empty.
The facts of the case are bizarre (it made the evening news at the time), since her ex also abducted the children – Erma only recovered them a week later – and left her with nothing. Desperate for work, not to mention new furniture, she started picking up objects from dustbins and empty lots – and found her calling when a table found in the trash, hastily restored as best she could, sold for £900. “Even now,” she muses, “I love taking something broken-down and forgotten, and giving it life.” The first version of Antique Epsilon opened in the 90s and Erma spent that decade, she recalls, waking up early, sanding and varnishing all day, and barely buying any new clothes for 10 years. “I was always in a shirt and a pair of jeans, stripping down furniture. But I still wore my jewellery!”
The early 00s were another turning point: she and Michalis closed the shop and launched something bigger – a 600-square-metre auction house in the centre of town where objects came into their own, sold to the highest bidder, and where, from about 2008, Carnival balls were also organised, generous Erma throwing open the doors for fancy-dress revellers to come and dance, free of charge. (The events were hugely popular, and a big reason why she was chosen as Carnival queen a few years later.) Those were good years, Erma in her 40s and increasingly a fixture in the city (“a true Limassolian,” she calls herself) – but there was trouble too, an arson attack then, a few years later, a rent dispute which led to the auction house closing down in 2012. More importantly, despite living – as she likes to say – exactly 320 steps from the sea, she didn’t go swimming once in those years. Her weight ballooned, “I became very fat”. Then, one day in 2012, she decided to go in the water with her granddaughter and felt “such a great liberation in my body, in my soul, in my spirit”. She’s barely missed a day since.
So here we are, another decade and another chapter in the life of Erma Stylianides – the 2010s, the age of Antique Epsilon 2.0 and (more importantly) of Limassol 2.0, the city now pockmarked with towers and dwarfed by construction cranes. It’s oddly fitting that Erma, who’s spent her whole life dealing with objects – physical things, visible embodiments of other eras – should now have to deal with the physical environment of the city itself, our current era of unchecked development. Has she finally, at 60, become an activist? “I didn’t even know what the word meant,” she admits. “But yes, at the end of the day, I’m an activist.”
Limassol’s changed, that’s for sure. Erma still lives 320 steps from the sea – but she drives to the beach in the mornings, too scared to walk past the derelict hulk of the deserted GSO. People are ruder, more aggressive, she says; and of course there’s the physical change, the mushrooming skyscrapers (13 tall buildings are planned for the one-kilometre stretch of beach next to where she swims every morning) like haughty arrivistes planting their flags without regard for their surroundings. Looking at the fancy designs, muses Erma, “I get the sense of someone – an architect, I mean – building a vision that was always their dream since childhood. But that’s bound to be different for me, different for you, different for everyone”. There’s no overall style. There are tall buildings cheek-by-jowl with old listed buildings. Simply put, it’s a mess.
And of course there’s the sea – which is where she comes in, along with the rest of the winter swimmers. Every morning, she explains, two members (out of about 400 overall) venture out in a canoe to literally test the waters, then report back to her. Some days the sea is crystal-clear (to her credit, she posts that on Facebook as well). Most days the water is spattered with ugly slicks of foam, a layer of filth that’s left many regular swimmers with skin rashes and urinary infections.
The towers are one possible culprit – each one, she claims in a startling statistic, is legally allowed to expel 2,500 cubic litres of drainage water (aka sludge) every day for 18-24 months, while the tower is being constructed, all of which ends up in the sea and drifts down to bathing areas – though not the only culprit. Yachts from the Marina are a problem, since the Marina is privately owned and can’t be inspected (except by the Department of Merchant Shipping, which however has no boats available for its inspectors). Small boats touting mini-cruises dump their waste too, others claim the right to “wash out their hold” which however may contain dead rats or other waste. The situation is becoming unbearable, enabled by authorities who seem to think that occasional dirty seas are a small price to pay for a shiny new Limassol. “Mrs. Erma, we even found a vibrator,” the canoeists reported recently. “A vibrator in the sea!”
Angry photos go on social media, inept officials are called out, a file is being compiled for a formal complaint to the EU. Erma Stylianides doesn’t shirk from protests and lawsuits (“Some people think I’m a lawyer,” she chuckles) – yet she also doesn’t seem to think the worst of people, as activists often do. She doesn’t seem bitter, despite her various ups and downs over six decades. Partly it’s because she blocks out the bad stuff; it’s a survival mechanism. She can’t recall precisely when her husband left, and the three months surrounding the arson attack on the auction house are “a blackout”, she says, “I can’t remember three months of my life”. But it’s also her personality – colourful and vibrant and fun-loving, typified by lots of lovely jewellery and a glorious abundance of objects.
Simply put, she’s a positive person. “Let’s say we’re sitting here,” muses Erma, sipping her Keo Light, “and that block of flats next to us falls down, I won’t be like ‘Oh my God!’ and start to faint – I’ll get up and say: ‘Quick, move the rubble so we can find survivors!’. That’s how I am. I react quickly, and I always try to help”. A block of flats falling down seems a rather weird metaphor – but that’s how it is in today’s Limassol, a place of fragile development and a city in fear of collapsing, metaphorically and even literally. Ring in the old, ring out the new.