...some places are spiritual and should be enshrined...


my compulsory visit


If there is one experience I hold dear during every visit to Greece, it is my compulsory visit to the workers' bar, the traditional Kafeneio that you can find in every town, village and bus terminal in the land. Here you can instantly dip into the uniqueness of Greece just by ordering, 'Ena ellenikos, parakalo', a soft drink or maybe even a raki. The best kafenia are a little downbeat and totally unsophisticated.

The kafeneion is where the men gather to while away the hours playing cards or tavli, reading newspapers, sipping Greek coffee, or simply to comment on the state of the world or sometimes just for the pleasure of talking. Sometimes they just sit in silent communication flipping a komboloi like some old Zen monks, or like the gods on Mount Olympos.

 Conversation is unnecessary, companionship is all, and dress code is entirely optional - the more workaday the better. But make no mistake, within these hallowed walls there beats the heart of village life. Usually, the men are a group of old friends, retired or widowed, who readily acknowledge the stranger with a nod and a smile. This means you are almost accepted as one of the lads and if ever they buy you a drink it will signify you are a welcome stranger and from then on you may even be acknowledged on the street, in public, and when this happens you are walking with the gods.

As a visitor, the kafeneion isn't the sort of venue where you drop in for the theatrical repartee, the TV sports or the subservient nature of the staff, nor the fragrances from the kitchen or the Michelline stars. Oh no. You'd visit the kafeneion just like you drop in on the friend of a friend and slowly it becomes obvious that happiness and satisfaction are not proportional to wealth.

When I'm there, I like to sit out of the way and sip my drink and let the atmosphere flow and swirl around my wooden chair. It doesn't matter that I don't understand a single word of what's being said by local men who, having said it all, have little left to do but shine. Sometimes they get a little squiffy and you can spot the whisky or the raki glistening in their handle-bar moustaches as they deride politicians and take the mickey out of each other. Should someone begin a sad old song, everyone joins in until they start laughing and talking all at once because someone's forgotten the words. Cars may slow down as they pass the open door with shouts from their drivers to someone inside and then even wait for a yelled reply whilst holding up a temperate line of traffic. Sometimes the silence is only shattered by a sigh, or a difference of opinion, or the click of a tabla piece but should a lady cross the threshold then it's all change and hospitality and courtesy is draped around her shoulders like a cape.

One of my most favourite kafenia is H PEMBH  in Kalives, on the island of Crete. It is owned by a gentleman called Kostas Vlamakis, a chicken farmer who will often introduce himself as 'the egg-man' simply because for as long as anyone can remember he has been supplying all the hotels in the area with fresh free-range eggs every early morning before he opens his kafeneion. In fact, if he has any left over by evening, he gives them away to his customers as they leave.

I first went there some years ago with Sandy and we'd dropped in one evening for an early drink before moving on to dinner. It was while we were sipping our drinks in this room full of thoughtful men who had even left a respectful space next to my wife when, after several minutes, in through the door staggered someone very well dressed but obviously very, very drunk - something frowned upon by Greeks. A hush fell on the room. The man swayed, dropping coins through the fingers of his upturned hand whilst eyeing the empty seat next to my wife. Shielded glances fell on Sandy, then on the owner, then on me. Suddenly, one of the men put down his newspaper, crossed the room and sat on the empty chair leaving the man in the suit unsure of what to do next. Then something even more unexpected happened.

One by one the men left the kafeneion and stood outside in the street. On his way, the last one leaving went over and whispered something to Kostas. Kostas poured out the man's raki then tapped him on the arm and took his drink to a table outside. The man followed. The regulars filed back in and filled up the seats. The chap next to Sandy looked at me and nodded reassuringly.

My next chance to drop in on Kostas came five years later during the time a group of we Greek-o-files were in Kalives for our get-together. The bar looked the same - bare walls with the ubiquitous calendar, clock, and local football fixtures. By the door were the piled beer crates and on the table, the plastic table cloths fixed with rubber bands. The kafeneion was empty so I could clearly see Kostas standing behind his counter at the furthest end of the room. As my shadow darkened the doorway, he looked up, lowered his specs and fixed me with his stare until his mouth fell open and then he said in obvious disbelief, "Mistra Brown? Is you??" He came from behind the counter, shook my hand and invited me to sit on a chair at the back, then poured me a little phial of raki and brought it on a tray with a glass and a little meze of some pieces of cheese, some bread, sliced zucchini and to my surprise, some pickled walnuts. The walnuts made me smile - very appropriate. Then, devoid of conversation, he sat next to me reading his paper and grunting from time to time while I sat in wonder at how on earth they remembered every passing stranger. For the rest of the week I was there for an hour every early evening sitting with the chaps.

It might be said that I have visited a variety of different water holes in my life, but none have touched me more deeply than the kafeneia. Perhaps it is their basic ordinariness or maybe there is something about the homeliness, the family photographs, the confined space, the unpretentiousness, the the broadminded acceptance of total strangers or perhaps simply the overall gracelessness of these places that draws me in whenever I first arrive in a Greek town or village. And when I leave, always, I have the suspicion  that in some way, those Zen monks were expecting me. 





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