The Pulse of a Kafenio

In a coffee house in Greece you might find anything from handcrafted straw-bottomed chairs to modern plastic stools. Tables could be the plain wooden variety to fine marble. Whatever the decor, the kafenio remains an important institution in Greek society.

It’s a place to sit and relax, so you needn’t be in a hurry to order. It also provides a spot from where to observe the day’s or evening’s activities going on street side or dockside.

It’s the norm to see men playing cards or enjoying the board game of tavli, often staying for hours. The coffee house is a man’s world in Greece.

Even today, men far outnumber the women patrons. On hot summer days, you may be joined by a few local cats also in need of a break from the Greek sun. And tourists eager to order their first frappe (iced coffee)

Some coffee houses close for the siesta time, but many remain open from the early morning hours to late into the night. The best time for socializing in a kafenio is after 6 p.m., when the air starts to cool and friends begin to meet for a chat over drinks.

Apart from socializing, business is frequently conducted within the walls of cafes all over Greece. Merchants talk their deals and lawyers meet with clients. House or boat prices are discussed. Mayors hold open town meetings and Orthodox priests set up their various appointments for weddings and baptisms.

One foreign tourist on a small Greek island reported how she happened by a pleasant-looking kafenio and selected an outside table under an olive tree. She asked the waiter for a coffee, then enjoyed a quiet morning sitting there watching passers-by in the nearby square.

Only when she asked to pay was she was politely informed she had seated herself outside the man’s private home.

In the countryside or on small islands, the kafenio is the center of life, a so-called “second living room” to discuss politics or talk sports. It used to be the town’s sole public telephone was located in the kafenio. There are usually local and regional newspapers available for patrons to borrow and a television is kept on whether or not anybody bothers to watch it.

Occasionally live music is provided, often a spontaneous performance.
Even in touristy areas, at least one coffee house will be set aside for locals. Tourists who chance to wander in will be served, of course, but are not encouraged by any flashy signs posted outside in English. In fact, tourists may not even notice these little gems.

If you pay attention to the color of the doors (and sometimes window banks) of the kafenio, you’ll learn something about the political affiliation of the owner. Blue stands for the conservative New Democrats, while green means PASOK, the Socialists. Red signifies the Communists, or KKE. Of course, this isn’t true of all coffee houses. Not all owners wish to declare their party of choice so boldly!

Usually you can’t order much in the way of food in a kafenio, although you probably can order sweets of some sort. You can order water, hot tea or beer. All foreign label beers are made in Greece under license. Various soft drinks are available. You’ll also find spirits, such as anised-based ouzo and brandy (often the Metaxa brand) on the menu card. You’ll probably get a mix of mezes (small appetizers).

If you want a mild instant coffee, simply ask for Nescafe (or Nes). Most patons order traditional Greek coffee, which is prepared in a variety of ways. Ask for sketo if you want unsweetened. Metrio is medium, where coffee powder and sugar are mixed. Double- sweetened is called glyko. But that’s just an overview, the list of ways to get your coffee goes on.

For tourists, a kafenio might be the perfect spot to wait for the afternoon ferry or to get out of the sun between hikes. But it plays a far greater role in Greek society than what you might take in at first glance.

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