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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

April 16, 1964

The Greeks have a word for it: "ghree-pee." Some Greek neighbors have a treatment for it: mountain tea and koniak, half-and-half (very good); squid tentacles boiled in retsina; hot pads placed over the region of the chest; and plenty of chamomile tea. If those don't work, try three Terramycin pills, one every six hours. "Ghree-pee" in this case -- it covers many variations of colds, viruses and cheat illnesses -- was probably the flu. I had it this past week and the Terramycin worked.

Anyhow, it was an opportunity to do a little reading, some more reflecting and even more of pulling-things-together. Much of this, strange as it might seem, focused around the Greek coffeehouse or the Greek cafenion, a topic at least as interesting as the Greek caterpillar, almost as interesting as embassy marches -- and very much related to the latter.

First of all, there is nothing resembling the cafenion in American life, except perhaps, in a vague way, the old rural general store. And perhaps the television set. And the urban neighborhood saloon. And a high school football rally. These four must somehow be put together in one stew, add a few ingredients, subtract others -- and ultimately you have the Greek cafenion. In other words, there is nothing resembling the cafenion in American life.

What are they? They're coffeehouses. They serve coffee, the thick, syrupy, Turkish variety in the small cups. They may also serve ouzo, beer and mezes (slices of meat, cheese, olives). In rural areas, some cafenions sell general supplies or may attract customers with a special delicacy, like loukoumia, the sweet Turkish candy. The typical cafenion will have a few tables and chairs inside, many more outside. In Kallithea, for example, there are only hard benches inside and tables and chairs are located on the porch, (where it is possible to enjoy a magnificent view of the valley) and in the plateau under a great shade tree. In Athens, cafenions place tables and chairs on the sidewalks and in the parks; waiters in their white aprons and carrying trays scurry through the parks taking orders and then rush a block away and across the street to the little cafenion to fill tem. Oh, yes, on e more thing. There is a little cafenion in our apartment building. There is another one four stores away. There are more of them on the other side of the park. There are hundreds and hundreds of them in Athens -- every neighborhood probably has at least several. If there is only one store in a tiny rural village, it is probably a cafenion and the likelihood is that there are two or three. There is no shortage of a cafenions in Greece.

Why do Greeks find cafenions so attractive? In a mountain village, the cafenion may have the only radio for miles around. It may be the place to go to close a business arrangement. People may go to cafenions for liquid refreshment on a hot summer day. But none of these is important. The reason most Greeks go to cafenions is for kouvenda, the Greek form of what we know as conversation. Greeks love to talk -- and the cafenion provides the optimum conditions for doing jus that. Kouvenda is the national sport, the chief form of entertainment, the most popular hobby, all of these combines into one. If there is no kouvenda, it is probably only because the people sitting around the table are all dead -- or feeling very, very distressed about something and under either condition, the silence is probably only temporary.

Don't get the impression that kouvenda is like American conversation. It isn't -- there is nothing similar to kouvenda in American life. When the President Johnson says, "Come and let us reason together," he is not inviting you into a Greek cafenion. Kouvenda is not reasoning exploration or analysis, a group effort to search out the truth. In actuality, it is, like the Greek, highly individualistic. It is loud and combative, within recognized limits. It places high value on subject matter which is colorful and dramatic. Challenges and insults may be hurled across the table. IT rarely rambles but it fixes itself on one topic -- the failure of crops, Turks, the evils of government, a subject from Greek history, U.S. -- Greek relations, Makarios vs. Grivas -- and the participants throw themselves into it with a fury. It relies on logic, and flaws in logic invite attacks of devastating force -- but the logic may reason faulty assumptions or inaccurate or distorted information. It contemplates no culmination action, although in actuality its consequences may be profound. Kouvenda takes place for kouvenda itself -- for the sheer pleasure and excitement of talk. No other justification is given or expected.

The Greek newspaper might be described as the written form of cafenion kouvenda. Greek newspapers, like the Greek himself, feel an dare free. They are highly individualistic and combative. They hurl outrageous insults at each other and at anything that moves around them. They delight in the colorful and dramatic. They build columns of logic on great dunes of shifting sand. They behave in every way in exactly the way good newspapers are not supposed to behave and in this sense at least, do not differ greatly form most other newspapers. They do all of this not only because there is money in it, because people line up to buy them when they have embroiled themselves in a lively controversy but also because they are simply being consistent with a national quality or pattern. The Greek newspaper is at home in Greece, comfortable in the cafenion, an integral part of he national kouvenda.

And so we sit fascinated and watch and listen as the issue develops. Temperatures rise and the pace quickens. Soon the issue boils out of the cafenions, out of he newspapers and radios. You can feel the difference. The air becomes electric. The issue is now discussed on the buses and trolleys; you hear people talking about it as you walk down the street. Varvakion teachers ask if they might read prepared statements; students roar out of the schools and surround the embassies. It builds to a conclusion like a great and tumultuous orchestration, an 1812 Overture, drums and cymbals, bells and cannon …

It is at this point that a frail and pathetic and helpless voice says, "But it isn't true! We didn't do it!"

It isn't true? Of course, it isn't true! But my god -- who cares? What's that got to do with it? It's irrelevant! It's irrelevant!

And there you have a few of the ingredients of the Cyprus issue. Add a few others: economic hardships faced by many Greeks, a native grassroots Communist party (right at home in the cafenions) , the powerful sensation of nationalism of a reborn old nation.

Greece, in other words, is not suburban Long Island. It is fascinating, it is marvelous, it is exciting -- and it is different. What works in Garden City somehow doesn't always work here … and if we look carefully, we may find it don't work in Garden City either. Chester Bowles once saw a similar type of problem in the Chinese teahouse and the "teahouse jury" -- it is hero that Chiang's doom was first sealed and it is here the fate of the Communists may ultimately be decided. But the "teahouse jury" and the "cafenion jury" are both very unlike other juries with which we've had experience and to treat them in that light is not a hopeful way in which to conduct foreign policy. Neither does it help much to place too much emphasis on rumor-killing: the denial is never as fascinating as the original rumor and will probably not b believed; besides, there are many more rumors coming. The cafenions are full of them and their variety is infinite.

Somehow we need to put more of our energy into the hard substance of reality. I'm not sure the Greek believes 90% of what comes out the cafenion -- in fact, I feel certain he doesn't -- after all, entertainment and truth are no the same thing and the Greek is clever enough tot recognize this. But he does believe poverty. He believes it when he sees children in the plaka without sufficient clothing. He knows schools exist in Greece without books. He is aware of peasants struggling to maintain a subsistence level. He also believes it when he sees a Chrysler plan preparing to produce farmobiles and when Columbia University provides aid in building a school in previously neglected mountain community. And besides, believe it or not, these are the things that get at the source of the trouble, the cause for the unrest and revolutionary ferment, the reason people sometimes attach themselves to ideologies peculiar to themselves and their whole cultural heritage. This is the stuff which has real meaning, which needs to occupy more and more of our attention. Greece is not in need of Renaissance men playing pianos -- it is in desperate need of men with the fire and energy of the Industrial Revolution and the other technical revolutions since then. Throw in a few anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists, to give us a sense of where we're going and what we're doing, and by all means keep the publicity specialists and public relations men at home.

Certainly, the opportunity is here now. Papendreau has expressed a determination to attack the social and economic problems which have long plagued the country. What is needed first is American moral support -- a phone call from Johnson to Papendreau might not be a bad idea even if it didn't win an election this time. And then must come the specialized aid, the technical help -- some money, yes, but much more in the form of know-how and American business investment and new industries. Papendreau has expressed determination to build an American-type university -- isn't it appropriate for American colleges and universities to offer to help in this, to provide some of the funds and information and experience that will be needed? Gymnasia may soon have the programs changed -- wouldn't'' this be the point to bring large numbers of Greek teachers to the U.S. to study the operation of the American comprehensive high school?

Anyhow, that's it for now about cafenions. Oh, yes -- except for one additional thing: they are fun to go to. I'll drop in on one occasionally after work, sip coffee or ouzo, listen to the kouvenda. (My Greek is so poor I wouldn't dare get directly involved in that churning mixmaster.) And it's true. It's a thoroughly pleasant and stimulating way to spend an hour.

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