In an unpretentious man with restless energy who is professionally terse, THEO PANAYIDES finds a small business owner struggling to combat the double whammy of the pandemic and rising prices
I don’t get much out of Andreas ‘Andros’ Paphios. His energy is restless in any case – he talks fast, tamping down his answers like a man who knows he only has a few seconds before being called away on urgent business – and besides he has tables to set and food to cook; it’s 11am on a Friday and the lunchtime crowd at the Achilleion, the Nicosia restaurant and bar which he’s run since 1995, will be here soon. And there’s something else too, a kind of professional terseness. Anyone who’s spent so many years chatting to all kinds of customers, night after night, surely becomes adept at brisk deflections and bite-sized answers.
Those many customers included the late Alexander McCowan, the much-loved Scottish polymath who was also the Cyprus Mail’s resident herbalist and Nicosia restaurant reviewer, indeed Mac was such a regular at Achilleion that his framed photo appears behind the bar (next to a bottle of Bacardi, though his tastes ran more to scotch and the occasional Carlsberg Classic), one of only two ex-customers to be accorded such a visible ‘in memoriam’. “He was a gentleman,” recalls Andros. “He was here before he died, we were knocking back drinks.” Mac returned the compliment, opening his review of the place – shortly before his passing in 2021 – with the following memorable paragraph:
“Among the ‘knowing ones’, this establishment is also known as Platanos – due to the giant Asian plane tree beneath which it shelters – the place, or the club, or simply Andro’s. Before the scourge [i.e. Covid] forced it to comply with our life-saving legislation, this was the harbour of the most diverse dining coterie in Cyprus: mechanics and ministers, diplomats and designers, ambassadors, authors and academics – above and below the salt – lawyers, liars, accountants and actuaries by the bucket-load. And let’s not forget the lapidaries, millionaires, drivers and gardeners. Masters of the Universe broke bread with the United Nations, side by side with sheep-shearing olive barons discussing prices with plumbers, plasterers and painters. But no matter how humble, rich or self-important, Andros, the master of ceremonies, and Floventier, his son-in-law, treat them all the same, be they hobbledehoy or autocrat.”
There’s a touch of pardonable exaggeration there; for all its virtues, diversity of clientele isn’t really the Achilleion’s strongest point. It’s a very male enclave, for a start, not the sort of place where you’d imagine groups of young women on a girls’ night out, nor would its rough-and-ready vibe necessarily appeal to the show-off brigade – though his customers include well-known figures, confirms Andros, “even ministers and presidential candidates”. Averof Neofytou and Nikos Christodoulides have both come by recently (not to campaign, probably just to try one of the ospria [pulse] dishes on the lunchtime menu), and he also gets regulars from the presidential palace up the road. What does he talk about with such people? “Eh, okay, nothing really,” he shrugs. “What are we going to say? I tease them a bit about politics.”
Andros’ style is unpretentious, like his torn jeans and worn white T-shirt. Achilleion too is unpretentious, an old house in the very special neighbourhood of Ayioi Omologites, a kind of mini-village – really just a couple of streets – in the centre of town. The single room is bisected by a stone archway below wooden beams, though in fact these are mostly design elements (the old leaky building was extensively renovated in 2010). There are only about 15 tables, plus two counters where the regulars congregate.
One man is already there, sipping coffee and glancing at his phone; as we talk, he’s joined by another – I get the sense they only know each other through their mutual patronage of this place – and they start to talk about football. “Where were you last night? You missed all the singing!” Andros’ wife says by way of greeting as the second man comes through the door. It turns out Apoel played in the Europa League last night (they drew 0-0, but went through anyway), much to the joy of assembled Apoel fans. Achilleion doesn’t have live music, because of the neighbours; most nights, it doesn’t need any.
Ceiling fans whirr as we talk; 80s Europop plays low (‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Man’, seguing into ‘Brother Louie’) before being replaced by Greek music at a higher volume. I sip a skettos, glancing around as Andros goes off to pay a supplier. On the walls are football-club emblems and the usual array of pensive pub aphorisms: “Two men looked out from behind the walls of a prison. One saw mud, the other saw the stars”. One poster is a little more personalised: “Paphios Against the World. Yesssss”. Also on the wall is a cutting from the Cyprus Weekly circa 2008, an article by Barbara Lyssarides (wife of Vassos): “A simple stone and mudbrick structure,” she calls the place – this was before the renovation – “named after the Trojan War hero Achilles”. The truth, it turns out, is more prosaic: the previous owner was a man named Achilleas who owned various properties and tore them down to build blocks of flats; there’s an ‘Achilleion 2’ and ‘Achilleion 3’ a few streets away. This one, however, was a listed building – so he couldn’t tear it down, and sold it instead.
The work of a bar owner is a bit prosaic in general – which is not to say it’s easy. “With this job, unfortunately you get trapped,” muses Andros. “You lose everything. Hanging out with friends, everything. After all, you’re working from morning till the next morning.” 27 years, I note; it’s a lifetime. “No kidding,” he replies (actually “Eisai pellos?”, literally translating as ‘Are you nuts?’). “Morning, noon and night. At least now I can rest a bit because of my son-in-law, I can leave in the middle of the day for a while. Before, I couldn’t leave at all – I worked 17-18 hours a day.” His daughters – now 37 and 35 – were mostly raised by a sister-in-law; at the beginning, especially, when he opened the place (taking over from his father-in-law), he did everything himself: “I cooked, I served, I made the salads. Everything”.
Looking back, it was quite a venture. For one thing, he was almost 40 (he’s now 66). For another, he had young kids and was leaving a pretty solid job, having worked at Paraikas clothing store for about 15 years. For yet another, Achilleion wasn’t a restaurant at the time, just a club where a few regulars used to play cards; when they’d finish, he recalls, they’d come inside, “have two shots of brandy each, we’d lay out some cheese and halloumi”, then they went home. Finally – and most importantly – the neighbourhood was dead at the time, having gone the usual route of being abandoned and turned into a ghetto for migrants and foreigners (mostly Pontians and Sri Lankans) without yet having reached the next phase of being reclaimed by hipsters and cultural centres. Even the famous plane tree – a local landmark – had dried up, and had to be replaced with a new one.
What did Andros bring to the job? Sociability, for one thing. Unlike some bar owners – like the legendary ‘Moulos’ of Savino in Larnaca – who don’t drink at all, he drinks every day, or more accurately every night (like Mac, he’s a whisky fan), sitting with customers and being convivial. A relentless work ethic, for another thing. He’d worked all his life, solid working-class jobs, even before the clothing shop – on building sites with his dad (who was in construction), a stint at the shipyard in Limassol (where he grew up, though the family hail from Paphos), as an electrician with Caramondani contractors, another stint at the army’s ammunition depot in Palodia (those guys were mad, he recalls; they’d throw hand grenades around just for fun). Andros wasn’t always good in school, in fact he repeated a year – but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it meant he was still there at 18 and avoided being in the army during the invasion (he started his National Service in 1975). A close shave, no? “It was fate,” he replies with an eloquent shrug.
That’s the only mention of fatalism in our conversation. Later I ask if he has regrets, but he shakes his head: “No regrets. Everyone decides their own future”. Andros is self-made, and keenly aware of it. He has no illusions about what he’s done, nor any hint of false modesty: taking over a forgotten dive in a dying area, turning it – bit by bit, working long hours and without any help from anyone – into a thriving operation. “Some people love us, some people hate us,” he shrugs; either way, Achilleion is his baby, the archetypal small business (it’s just him, his wife, his son-in-law, and two other staff). Alas, things are changing.
Another visitor comes in and he interrupts our conversation again, leaving me to sip my coffee and peruse the signs on the wall. When he returns he explains that the man was from the Electricity Authority, here to talk about money. The Achilleion’s power bill for the past two months (May and June, I assume) came to almost €5,000, more than double the usual sum – and that’s not all. Frying oil has shot up from €12 to €30 per 10-kilo jug, just in the past couple of months; bread, meat, charcoal, alcohol have all become more expensive. Partly it’s the war in Ukraine, and the consequent grain shortage; partly it’s broken supply lines, and the spiralling cost of containers (their price has almost tripled, hence the higher price of imported booze for instance). He also has a bank loan, says Andros with weary resignation; that’s another couple of thousand a month. Then there’s Covid, when they had to close the shop and work only with takeaway (they received the princely sum of €1,800 in state support over two years, two lots of €900). “We still haven’t found our feet.”
What can he do? It’s not a rhetorical question: what can he do? The place is full every weekday, lunch and dinner; he couldn’t fit any more tables, even if he wanted to. He could raise his prices, but not high enough to cover the shortfall. Could it be that this kind of small business, working mostly with regulars, just won’t be viable in the near future? “God knows, mate, what can I say. As long as we can keep paying them, we’ll keep paying them. Let them close us down if they want to – then they can chase us for the money.”
He’s in his 60s, anyway; retirement might’ve been on the cards, even without the world collapsing. His son-in-law can take his place, if he thinks it’s still worth the trouble. What would Andros do, though, if he left the Achilleion after all these years? He has no other passions, except an affection for songbirds (of all things); he keeps about 10 canaries – it used to be more – not to breed them but just “for myself”. His real defining trait is his restlessness, his need to be always doing something; even on Sunday (his day off) “I can’t stay home – I’ll go out, maybe down to the beach for a few drinks, maybe up to the mountains”. He might see his grandkids, take the wife out for a meal. Something sociable; he likes being with others.
What kind of person is Andros Paphios? Hard to say, given his bite-sized answers and general aversion to much self-analysis. (To be fair, he’s a busy man.) At one point he mentions his grandpa, a celebrity in his day, one of the best-known puppeteers in Cyprus (we’re talking karagiozis, the traditional shadow theatre); he even performed abroad, all over Europe. What was he like, this grandpa? “He was an unusual character. You know, he was an artist, and artists are always a little bit different.”
And Andros himself?
“I’m all about people,” he replies with a shrug. “I like to talk.”
So he likes PR, then?
“Yeah… PR, that’s our business!” He nods briskly, thanks me for the chat – then gets up and goes to work, setting tables, laying out salt shakers, and joining the men at the counter in their animated football discussion. Mac, I feel sure, would’ve approved.