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
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
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
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
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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