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Living on the edge
THEO PANAYIDES meets a dreamer who has raced formula cars and is involved in New Age therapies and is looking for stability
It’s the time of year when John Lennon’s words come to mind: “So this is Christmas / And what have you done? / Another year over / And a new one just begun”. Lennon meant well, but those words strike an uncomfortable chord with some people – like Roberto Sciffo for instance, who admits that sometimes a little voice pipes up inside his head, casting doubt on his life choices. “Sometimes I do question what the heck I’m doing,” he tells me, sitting in the showroom of Global Green Guard Ltd in Nicosia, “because I’m not where everyone else is, or should be, at this point in time”. His parents, he’s aware, “would like a grandchild, or wedding bells or whatever it is”, and sometimes the little voice agrees with them: “In comparison to all your other friends,” it needles, “who have now been married and are on their first kid, or second kid or whatnot – where is your stability?”
By the time you read this, Roberto will have turned 40 (he was just days away when we spoke) – an age when mid-life crisis starts to loom, and one clutches at stability like a drowning man at a life-preserver. Then again, stability is overrated – and Roberto, to answer John Lennon, has done quite a lot with his years so far. He’s raced cars as a Formula Ford mechanic in Quebec. He’s sailed across the Pacific on a three-man yacht, from San Diego to New Zealand – a journey that took eight months, including an enforced four-month layover in the Kingdom of Tonga. He’s a freediver, and can hold his breath for just under five minutes. He’s worked with Tim Ray, the son of a Hollywood director (Nicholas Ray, who made Rebel Without a Cause) and an Oscar-winning actress. Above all, he’s consistently explored new ideas, from the eco-friendly ion heaters and copper-based pool cleaners he’s currently selling to self-actualisation, probiotics, “heavy metals”, and healing techniques so out-there he prefers not to talk about them.
Not that Roberto doesn’t like to talk. If anything he talks too unstoppably, his verbal tangents punctuated by a loud, high-pitched laugh. In 1969 his dad proposed to his mother, he recalls: “Took her out into the lake, so she wouldn’t have a choice!” – and he laughs loudly. “She accepted. Wisely!” – and he laughs again. His style is boyishly enthusiastic, his rather sharp, ruddy face crowned by shoulder-length blond hair above a pair of green eyes and thick square glasses. He was born and grew up in Cyprus, but his ethnic background (as implied by his features) is more complicated: Mum is Swiss but born in Hungary and raised partly in Brazil, Dad is Italian but born and raised in Egypt. “He’s a bit like me, he’s quite an adventurer as well,” says his son fondly.
Roberto himself was a shy boy, partly because he was born short-sighted but wasn’t issued with glasses till he was five, so his first impressions of the world were “foggy”. He was “somewhat lost as a child,” he recalls; “I used to be very introverted, I wouldn’t go out and make friends very easily”. School was a chore, and he may have been mildly dyslexic. His life seemed to lack direction; all that really stirred him were race-cars and motorbikes. He seems to have been slightly in the shadow of his older brother Raffaello, whom he describes as “quite magnificent. He was very jolly, got on with everybody, very intelligent, very good brain, remembered things”. Raffaello went off to study in the US and Roberto followed, mostly so they could be on the same continent. “We were very close, my brother and I. He passed away in 2003. We had a really good –” he pauses: “You know, with him I felt really safe.”
He seems to have the kind of personality that craves a mentor, someone – or something – to attach to, yet he also loves adventure and living on the edge. That’s why he cherished motor-racing, because it hinges on teamwork (“I’m the type of person that likes to connect well with people”) yet is also a case of “being on my own and not being told what to do”. It’s the kind of personality that’s naturally drawn to extreme experience; he might’ve joined a cult, or become a monk, in another life – yet he’s also keenly aware of the kind of reaction his ideas might provoke, and much too nice to give offence. At times he seems almost embarrassed by the things he’s seen and experienced. “This is where it gets a bit… ‘woo-hoo’, shall we say,” he explains, and laughs loudly. “For want of a better word.”
What exactly are the “woo-hoo” ideas he’s been involved with? The first was perhaps “network spinal analysis” at the wellness centre he started with his brother in Hertfordshire in the late 90s. Raffaello was a qualified chiropractor (Roberto, who helped out on the business side, graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts) – but network spinal analysis is a non-invasive technique where you’re “not actually moving a bone, but you’re looking for the deeper cause why the bone is out of place”. Any bad experience creates energy which is then absorbed by the meningeal sac (he explains) and gets stored in the body, usually along the spine, causing stress which can then be found and released. The underlying point, adds Roberto, is to see that “our body is not just a biological mass. It’s also got an energetic aspect to it.”
That brings us to “subtle energy” – “what we’re all connected by, if we’re able to tap into it”. Take a body at the moment of death, for instance. One might say it’s still healthy, insofar as you could harvest its organs and put them in a living body, but (obviously) something is missing – “which is the vitality, the spirit, the energy or whatnot of that body. The subtle energy, let’s put it that way”.
He means the soul, I point out. This is not a new idea – but why is he so convinced that such a thing exists? Because he’s used subtle energy in practical ways, replies Roberto, but prefers not to go into details; “I tapped into, let’s say, one little aspect”. Better not say more, he adds with a laugh. “When you give information that’s way too much over someone’s reality, then they’ll just write it off”. Translation: that part of his life is a little too “woo-hoo” for the Sunday Mail.
Then again, some might also snigger at the Paracelsus Clinic, a place in Switzerland which “has its own way of working: its belief is basically that most, if not all, diseases originate from the state of the teeth”. That was where Roberto’s brother went for alternative treatment after being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer – and the cancer was successfully reduced, claims Roberto, but his body was already too weak to survive. Some might even raise their eyebrows at Dr Mick MacKenzie, another of Roberto’s mentor figures (they worked together for a number of years), a kind of wellness consultant who leads month-long retreats for people who “basically want their life shook up to see more options, shall we say”. Some readers will reject such things as insufferably New Age-y – but that’s the point, that it all depends on the reader. “Everybody’s life is their own creation, in a sense,” he admits. “I’ll put the information, and my understanding of health and life and whatnot out there, but it’s not for me to convince them.”
Roberto Sciffo isn’t out to convince anyone. It’s true he’s selling something – he had a stall flogging detox products at the recent Mind, Body & Spirit exhibition – but he’s not really a hustler; he’s an enthusiast, an adventurer, a bit of a gypsy. His ideas tend to be outside the mainstream, but not necessarily extreme. He believes in good nutrition, like drinking lots of water (30ml per kilogram of weight per day) and eating at least 60 per cent fresh (i.e. uncooked) food. He believes in detoxifying the body of “heavy metals”, the chemicals we unknowingly absorb every day in everything from water to car-exhaust fumes. But he doesn’t come across as a zealot – maybe just a bit of a drifter, and a bit insecure. “I’m quite sensitive as a person,” he says. “There’s no good or bad, it’s just who I am”.
‘What’s been his most life-changing experience?’ I ask – and am quite surprised by the answer. In 2001, he was backpacking through Europe; he met a couple of Swiss girls and they travelled together, ending up in Barcelona. They went out one night, did a bit of bar-hopping, and around 5am they were looking for one last place which they’d been assured was still open. Suddenly a garbage truck drove by, and they decided to ask the garbage-man for directions. Roberto approached him as he was taking out garbage, asked his question – and the man “basically looked up, pointed, and then just kept on doing what he was doing. It stunned all three of us.”
I’m puzzled: “Why?”
“Because the whole essence of the person was someone who was absolutely happy, absolutely secure. There was no judgment – he didn’t say ‘oh, these are tourists’, or ‘look at the clothes they’re wearing’, or ‘look at what I’m wearing, this is not a great job’ and judging himself – there was nothing. It was like … clean. All three of us were speechless”.
So you mean he was very serene?
It was just his essence, his very being. It was just so clear. “‘Essence’ would be the best word.”
It’s a strange story (maybe you had to have been there), but I think I get it. Maybe life is indeed a search for stability – but not the stability of a wife and kids, at least not for Roberto, though in fact he’s become more concerned with “building a base” in the past few years. I remember what he said about the people of Tonga, whom he got to know quite well during his four months (his Tongan name is ‘Lopeti’) – that they’re “the happiest people on Earth”, partly because they’ve never been conquered; their Pacific home is their own, and it fills them with confidence. Roberto strikes me as a man who’s spent 40 years trying to achieve that same confidence.
Has he made it? Will he ever? Hard to say – but don’t forget that adventurers are also pioneers. Today’s flaky, “woo-hoo” idea is tomorrow’s new way of doing things. At one point, as we speak, we’re interrupted by a friend called Gabriel who designs geodesic domes; cheaper than ordinary structures, says Roberto later, more stable, more energy-efficient. Yet they’re still a novelty, I point out; why isn’t everybody building geodesic domes? “Well, it’s new,” he shrugs helplessly – but later quotes Schopenhauer: “The truth is initially ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and finally it is accepted as self-evident”. Far from being a misfit, Roberto may be in the vanguard of a new revolution. You may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. There’s that John Lennon again.