For here, amidst the stone carved ruins of the past, is a future, if you should choose it. This is a town of the hairy shouldered, the red chested, the bald headed, the long of ear, the jowled, and their wives, strictly in that order. The women follow the men on the endless migration from one end of the strip to the other. During the day, by the pool, aged bodies are strewn haphazardly on tired sun loungers, unmoving, unreading, unthinking, looking for all the world like the newly discovered aftermath of a deadly gas attack.
Numerous restaurants and cafes create the illusion of choice, but each menu offers the same grisly fare. Chips, egg and chips, fish and chips, ham egg and chips, burgers, steak, kebabs, and moussaka, this final incongruous item merely comically underlining the nauseous and growing feeling that you have become stuck in a transport cafe theme park. Each bar menu is a horrific list of zombie drinks you'd thought dead and buried. Caffreys, Boddingtons, Worthington, Stones bitter, (Stones Bitter? They still make this stuff?) and of course, Nescafé. (In many, this brown filth costs more and easily outsells filter coffee.) There's local beer too, and it all tastes just like Carling. "You should find where the locals eat and go there" you might say. I suspect they eat at home and distill their own hooch, such is the totality of the takeover. In my whole time in Paphos, I never had either a good or a bad meal. They were all identical, the culinary equivalent of a North Korean choosing which of the approved haircuts to have this month. Thank goodness for the Cypriot red wine, and the fruit, the wonderful fruit, the only genuinely decent native products to be found here.
On my first morning, I stepped out of my hotel, expecting naively to find a bit of Cypriot life and culture. After a fruitless half hour wandering round, avoiding Marks and Spencers and passing dozens of empty shops, the remaining few active concerns engaged in a vicious price war on items I couldn't understand anyone ever needing to own, I finally figured out who was making money in this town. Pharmacies. Douglas Adams identified the trend towards every shop being a shoe shop in 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy', an observation that has remained entirely relevant other than the generational change of focus on the nature of the ubiquity. Here, the ancient, and perpetually drunk and sunburned expat populace seek minor remedy as a daily concern. I went inside one in search of sun cream and toothpaste and left immediately when I saw that a small bottle of sun cream was twenty euros, and toothpaste eight euros. I later found them for a fifth this price in a back street supermarket.
UK tabloids are sold here, and the headlines solemnly digested. They could generate a Daily Mail every day based on a number of scripts and a small number of changeable variables and nobody would ever notice. As their only reference point, it's every word is truth. Outside, old men drive their wives around in Morgans, or go to the bar on their own on their BSA motorbikes. Nothing ever happens. There is literally nothing to do except drink. Paphos has been the European city of culture this year. It's December, and the builders were getting close to completing the great new cultural centre, just in time for it to never ever have any purpose ever again.
How has this happened? Cyprus, realising the cash cow that Larnaca had become, developed Paphos airport as a gateway from Britain and elsewhere, and made it easy for the money to flood in. This once sleepy port town has grown rapidly into a long seaside strip of complete dross, like Llandudno without the amusement arcades, or Blackpool without the fights. It's bleak, barren, and utterly empty, with not even a derelict cliff railway to break the monotony, as if a drunken town planner had activated the clone tool before passing out on the keyboard, spamming identical tavernas and monstrous concrete hotels for mile upon mile of unconsenting, helpless coastline. The Cypriots live further up the hill, out of the way, and try not to get involved. I imagine they try to pretend it's not there.
It's idyllic, if your idyll is one where you never get asked a difficult question, never try a new activity or flavour, never have to face an injustice in person, never need to think a new thought. If you just want to be left alone to pickle yourself under the sun. I hated it. I hated the cultural vacuum. I hated the intellectual emptiness of the place. 'Everything here will be OK', that should be the mantra. I heard tales of Vietnamese girlfriends, prescription medicines, and football results, and saw the slow plod of the withered as they went from bar to bar, spending their winter fuel allowance on lager and Rothmans King Size. Everything will be OK. Even the postboxes are just like at home. This is where spent minds come to be broken up for scrap. Where those who are tired, or just simply disinterested with the fight can come to live out their world view in unchallenged decay under a cancerous sun. Everything will be OK, and it will be exactly the same tomorrow.
There's another group here too, a smaller, younger mob, who come to serve. You might not see them at first, because they leave no trace. They have no bars of their own, no shops, no cultural artifacts. When they move on, there will be no evidence that they were ever here. They work the bars and cafes, four Euros an hour the rate here, plus tips, which can be generous. A young person with good people skills can make some money here, especially in season. Everything will be OK here, so tip your friendly staff to keep it that way. I tip too, then I ask questions and start conversations. In the bars, they talk a lot so I get little back. In the cafes, sometimes there's a whole flood of conversation that's been waiting for months for someone to ask. People are lonely. People are trapped.
"They say everyone who comes here is running away from something," Says one young lady, "but it's not true"
"So why are you here?"
"My husband needed to get away from something."
Everyone I speak to just sort of ended up here. Some were running away from something, others were wandering aimlessly and washed up here, so to speak. Nobody exactly chose to be here, it seems. One young lady, from Ireland, followed her Greek partner here when he took an IT job, and now dreams of owning a kiln and working as the ceramicist she trained to be. She was the only person I met with plans and ambition, and I admired her for it. For everyone else working here, there's no obvious ladder, no prospect of progression through the ranks, no chance of gaining enough capital to set yourself up, just a thousand identical jobs in a hundred identical bars.
Shorn of prospects, with nothing cultural to do, with nowhere to go, with no clubs or societies to join, a strange sort of gang culture has broken out. Work colleagues form powerful alliances, bound together by simple fact of having nowhere else to turn. They drink together, and become deep confidants of one another. Your work colleagues are your best friends and your only support network. One told me that if her relationship with a colleague failed, she'd have no choice but to leave. Another, otherwise gently spoken soul suddenly hardened and pointed at me, saying "What goes on a night out stays on a night out." The bonds that tie them are tight, and the penalty for letting the side down is ostracisation.
Trapped in the warped world vision that the combined purchasing power of 24,000 retired Brits can create, this young workforce are trying to stay sane in a collective hallucination that's not theirs. Their only point of reference is to look to each other. It's fragile, its combustible, and it's very alcoholic. They are cheap replaceable parts, on zero hours contracts with no job security and no notice periods. If one slips and falls, another will take their place, no questions will be asked, and the production line of smiling young faces to carry the lager from the bar to the tables will be unbroken. Everything will be OK.
I realised that I felt as I had when I visited Portmeirion, the deeply disconcerting village wholly designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Trapped in someone else's world, I stood out. My view of the world jarred horribly.
Its not that the people here aren't nice. Far from it. There's very little crime, and everyone is looking for a quiet and peaceful life. In a sense, this is hugely admirable. Everyone I met was friendly and kind, nobody wanted to upset the balance of it. At the end of my trip, a retired gentleman insisted on giving me a lift back to the airport for no charge. He really didn't need to, but that's how things are here. This is where a travel writer can perhaps reveal more about themselves than the places they visit. Who am I to criticise those who want a simple, uncomplicated and predictable life? Particularly those who have worked their time, have less time left than me, and have built their little idyll. Perhaps this place plays to my fears of growing uninterested, uninquisitive, of not wanting to engage or address things that matter. I can't imagine a time when I stop wanting to learn and engage, and I fear a place that would prevent me from being able to. How will I feel if and when I'm 65? Do we have a moral obligation to confront the wrongs of the world, or is it OK to slip away? Do some of us even need that confrontation to keep the fires burning? Would we manage in an equal and peaceful world? Is struggle the mother of creative invention? Is the end state of the human experience to rail against things, or to drink red wine under an unchanging sun? I saw the world without conflict and change and I wasn't sure I liked it.
Troubled, I resolved to get up early, hire a car and find out if the rest of the island was the same or not.