In a local architect and former King of the Carnival, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who radiates bonhomie and Limassol’s old way of life
Why this person, and not that one? I’m always on the lookout for profile subjects, trying to resolve that tricky question – and, being Nicosia-based, I’m also on the lookout for subjects in Limassol, currently our most vibrant city. In the past few weeks I happened to approach three acquaintances, all independent of each other – the one thing they had in common was being Limassolians – asking them to recommend interesting, or just noteworthy, folks from their hometown. One name, and one name alone, appeared on all three of their shortlists: Miltos Papadopoulos.
“It’s a fact that I’m very well-known,” says the man himself when I put this to him, sitting in the offices of MPP Architects – the firm he founded in 1983 – down the road from the Limassol Municipal Garden. “And the reason is because I’m very interested in civic issues, especially when they have to do with Limassol. I’m in love with my city, I’d say.” He’s 66, very striking-looking (presumably another reason why he’s so well-known) with his flowing white hair and thick grey moustache. The face is suntanned, the midriff bulging with a bit of middle-age paunch. The voice is soft and mellifluous, a reminder that he’s been part of the Giorgaletti – a choir specialising in old-time serenades, especially around Carnival time – since his teens. The brown eyes sparkle and, when he laughs (which is often), his whole body rocks and the mouth opens wide in a triangle under his moustache. He radiates bonhomie, and a certain practised informality.
Yes, but why is he so well-known in Limassol? He was ‘King of the Carnival’ in 2011, but that’s more an indication of local fame than a cause of it. He served as a municipal councillor from 2012 to 2017 – and, remarkably, ran as an independent (actually part of a jerry-built grouping of four candidates calling themselves the Architects’ Movement), without an established party behind him, an almost unprecedented feat in Cyprus. But, again, that only goes to show how renowned he was, without actually explaining it.
Is the family especially prominent? Not really, shrugs Miltos, though it is indeed an old Limassol family; “Back in the day, the whole of Limassol was, like, 10 people, so we all knew each other well”. (The city’s population when he was growing up in the 50s was probably around 30,000, he estimates; nowadays, just the Russian community is more than twice that number.) What did his father do? “He was a well-known party animal, just like me!” replies Miltos amiably – and it’s true, he adds, “I’m out every night”, going to tavernas to drink and sing. Where does he go? “Oh, wherever.” Usually it’s casual, sometimes a little more structured: “Once a week, or once every two weeks, we’ll take our guitars, a group of us – a group of guys, usually – and have a few drinks and sing songs”. As for his dad, he was actually a manager (and later a shareholder) in Zemco, one of the island’s big construction firms – though he also died young, at 46, after years of heart trouble.
Miltos mentions his father’s final illness when I ask about difficult times he’s faced over the years – but quickly makes clear that he doesn’t dwell on it: “By and large, I only remember the good times”. It’s the same with the Turkish invasion, a defining event for men of his generation. Miltos was an infantry officer, doing three years of National Service (he was demobbed a full year after the war ended, and then only because he had a place at university), and fought on the front lines. “I was with Vasos Markou in Mia Milia,” he recalls, Vasos Markou being the courageous major whose forces bore the brunt of the second invasion. “I was at Sopaz, I was at Kythrea…”
Was it bad?
“It was pretty bad, especially once it became clear that Greece wasn’t going to help us. It was bad when we shot down those Dakotas with the Cretans in Makedonitissa – which our side shot down,” he recalls solemnly, speaking of a Greek detachment who were killed by friendly fire. For a moment, his good humour seems stilled – but then he stirs back to life, as if he’d merely been observing an obligatory moment’s silence. “Personally, I’ve stopped talking about it,” he tells me, “because – well, these are traumatic experiences, so I prefer to keep a certain” – Miltos smiles easily – “a certain amnesia”. He laughs again, as if blowing the bad memories back to the dusty mental shelves where they belong.
His phone rings; it’s a friend asking him to send something (I don’t catch what; some address or phone number). I get up and peruse the photos on the wall, alongside his professional diplomas – photos from the Carnival, showing Miltos and pals in assorted outlandish get-ups. Here he is in 2011, his year as ‘King of the Carnival’, when he dressed as the Amazon queen Hippolyta, with a long straggly blonde wig and a plastic boob sticking out of his dress. Here he is a year later, part of a group of ‘Naughty Schoolgirls’, though in truth the name seems naughtier than their costume. (Last year – though it isn’t on the wall – the theme of his float was ‘Snow Whites and the Dwarf’, featuring Miltos as the lone Dwarf.) Meanwhile, his friend – now on speakerphone – is saying goodbye. “A bunch of us are getting together later,” he adds casually; “Come by if you can”. “I’ll see,” says Miltos, presumably wondering how to work it into his packed social schedule.
This, it appears, is the way his life works, shaped by a constant gregariousness. But it’s not just being sociable and having fun, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his sociable nature and his status as a public figure, his involvement with the workings of Limassol, are two sides of the same coin.
Plainly he’s a doer, and a joiner. He was active during his five years as councillor, serving on a number of committees including Tourism, Town Planning, Traffic and Culture. He’s also on various boards including the Friends of Tepak, the Karaiskakio Foundation (working “for a world without leukaemia”) and the Limassol Chamber of Commerce. Just this morning, our interview had to be rescheduled because the Police Association, another of his extracurricular activities, was having a meeting. But it’s also significant that, for instance, he didn’t join the Karaiskakio because of some personal interest in its work (a loved one’s brush with cancer, say); he joined at the instigation of a former Minister of Health, a personal friend – just as he studied in Germany, back in the day, with the help of Dr. Nicos Zamboglou, now the head of the German Oncology Centre. Again and again, Miltos’ life seems inextricable from his outgoing nature, his talent for friendship.
He initially studied Geology, before switching to Architecture; he should’ve stuck with Geology, he jokes, he’d be doing natural-gas projects now. Architecture doesn’t seem so bad, I point out, with the current construction boom in Limassol – but he shakes his head; almost all the infamous towers (the “mushrooms”, he calls them) are designed by foreign architects. So only the developers benefit? Well, he admits, not only – there’s a “chain of jobs” for the local construction sector – “but I hope we won’t see happening what everyone thinks will happen, that the whole thing will be just another bubble. Because a lot of people are going to go down when it bursts.”
How do Limassolians feel about the ‘tall buildings’?
He pauses: “Eh, most Limassolians aren’t very happy about it. We’re a Mediterranean island, we’re not Dubai. But the worst part is we don’t have the necessary infrastructure, just like with everything else in Cyprus. Everything we do, we do without proper planning – like with the rainwater, the drainage system”. (This is just a few days after rain caused widespread flooding in the city.) “Did you see what happened in Limassol? Every year it’s the same thing. We’re drowning!”
To be honest, I thought we’d be talking more about such matters; he is, after all, an architect, a leading citizen and a former councillor. Miltos does lament the destruction of old traditional homes, shares some scuttlebutt about the towers (word on the street is that sales have slowed due to stricter controls and changes to the passport scheme; some locals are wondering if more tall buildings will even be built, beyond the half-dozen now under construction), and opines that the “mushrooms” should’ve been clustered in a single area, between the old and new port for instance – but ‘his’ Limassol isn’t really about drainage and town planning, it’s about good times and Carnival and “the old way of life”, as he puts it.
This, I suspect, is why Miltos Papadopoulos is so well-known in Limassol – because he represents the best of Limassol, a comforting reminder of a more convivial city. He recalls not just a time when Heroes’ Square was a red-light district, before gentrification, but a time before that, when the square was lined with family taverns “bringing ballets from Spain and so on”. He recalls being a kid in the 50s, standing by the window and British soldiers giving him chocolates. He was always prominent, as a well-known athlete in his youth (javelin champion of Cyprus, in his teens) and now, in late middle age, still hanging out, dressing up for Carnival, singing serenades.
Above all, ‘his’ Limassol is about friendship, and a very particular style of light-hearted intimacy. “One of the things we have in Limassol, which no other town [in Cyprus] has, is the teasing,” he tells me. Meaning what? “Well, when you meet a friend, in the street or whatever, you won’t just say ‘Hello, Costas’ or whatever. You might say, for instance, ‘Re, where were you on Tuesday? I heard you got into trouble’. And he’ll say ‘What trouble? Where was I?’ – and you’ll start teasing, just for a laugh”. I witness it in action a few minutes later, when his phone rings again. “Speaking!” says Miltos, laughing delightedly – and later explains that the friend on the other end of the line asked for “kyrios Malakides” (i.e. ‘Mr. Wankerson’) instead of a boring ‘Hello, Miltos’. Nothing like some affectionately silly banter to keep a person feeling young.
He does seem quite youthful, for a husband and father with three grown-up kids (two sons and a daughter, all in their 30s or late 20s). He’ll spend the day at the office, “solving problems” as he says, then often head out to some board meeting – but then he’ll meet the gang for some drinks, and maybe a song or two (he doesn’t sleep much). Doesn’t he end up drinking quite a lot sometimes?
“Yes, yes…” he replies pensively, as though it’s something that’s only just occurred to him.
Doesn’t a person reach an age where they have to cut down a little?
“Eh, I haven’t reached that point yet,” he replies, and laughs. “So far, so good!”
Miltos Papadopoulos isn’t quite as carefree as he seems. He’s more careful with the booze than he lets on, for instance (I later discover that he drinks quite selectively, and only at night). He’s not irresponsible; he runs a successful business, takes part in public affairs and is also quite devout, he tells me – but it’s like his selective “amnesia”, the conspicuously blithe way he claims to remember only good things and ignore the bad. He cultivates a sunny, swashbuckling persona because it’s part of who he is – and, more importantly, because it’s the ‘Limassol way’, like grown men donning blonde wigs and plastic boobs every February.
Why not run for mayor, since he loves the city so much? Miltos nods: “A lot of people are pressuring me to run,” he replies carefully. He’d do something about the annual flooding, that’s for sure. He might even rein in the towers, and the city’s growing drug problem. Meanwhile, here we are in his office – and the phone rings again, his mouth stretching into its happy triangle as he greets yet another good friend: “Hello, Johnny!”.