Archive for December, 2011

Christmas wishes

Coffee time – the most sacred of Greek social rituals

I have been trying to write something about Greece that will not be related to the crisis. It is not easy, I must admit. On the other hand, when I cannot solve a riddle I turn to something else, occupy my mind for a while and when I return to the riddle it seems to solve itself.

I want to tell you what coffee means to Greek society. It often baffled me when people trying to compare prices with other European countries referred to the price of coffee!! Not milk or bread, much more substantial, but coffee!! The answer was staring me in the face: we consume as much coffee as bread and much more than milk. Coffe is synonymous to leisure and friends, to chatting in the sun in open air cafes, to solving personal, local or universal problems. Drinking coffee in Greece is very expensive, complain my friends from abroad. I try to explain to them that the café owner charges not just the coffee but also the time you occupy his table. An Italian who drinks his espresso in one gulp and rushes out cannot be charged as much as a Greek who will spend one or even two hours over his coffee, with his friends joining him and the shop owner often providing some treat in addition.

I suspected this all Greek weakness some years ago when I read Ilias Petropoulos book on Greek coffee. He presented more than 50 ways to produce this thick, aromatic beverage shared by all the countries previously belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The one recipe that struck me most is the one of monks in Mount Athos which is laced with ouzo!!!

Is it just the mild climate and the sun that shines nine months a year? Is it an inborn need to communicate with other people? Probably a combination of those two and many more that lead to cafes being packed every day of the year.

I was shocked the first time I saw my gran smoke. “Greek coffee without a cigarette is like a church without a priest”, she told me with a twinkle in her eye. She would have suffered today but in her time coffee drinking for women was limited to their homes and possibly their yards so she would have enjoyed her innocent, therapeutic chat just the same.

The Greek coffee scene has been invaded by various western type coffees like cafe frape, capuccino, espresso, capuccino fredo and so on but the idea behind it remains the same: coffee is an excuse to relax, meet friends, mix with strangers, chat and enjoy social life. It is worth paying that little bit extra just for that.

Greeks and tobacco: a love-hate affair

The only law that the Papandreou government actively pursued is the law against smoking in public places. There were incidents of public health officials actually charging café owners with heavy fines ( 6.000 Euros is the latest) for allowing smoking in their establishments.

This has proved to be one more mistake. It was the wrong time and the wrong place to tell people that “you are looking after their health”!! The government’s credibility dropped below zero. The Minister of Health asked for permission to smoke (this is just a rumor but I love it..) in the Parliament Building and one of the most popular stand-up comedians, Jimmy Panoussis, advertised his new act saying “come and smoke in peace in our establishment”!!!

Last year, when I visited Istanbul I was pleasantly surprised by the organized fashion in which the Turkish people faced the banning of smoking: large ashtrays in every corner of the city made the stubs invisible and no one tried to curb the law. Another one of the popular Greek sayings was disproved: “you smoke like a Turk”. Well, Turks do not smoke anymore and we are left alone.

Smoking and cigarettes abound in Greek modern music and their lyrics mark our peoples relationship to this imported “pleasure” or pleasure, please yourselves.

«Η ζωή μου όλη είναι ένα τσίγαρο που δεν  το γουστάρω αλλά το φουμάρω» – My whole life is a cigarette which I don’t like and yet I smoke  sings Akis Panou. On the other hand we have “άναψε το τσιγάρο δος μου φωτιά, έχω μεγάλο ντέρτι μεστην καρδιά» -“ light up a cigarette and give me a light I am desperately in love” – the translation cannot give the full impact but this is roughly the meaning.

The list of extremely popular songs about tobacco and smoking seems endless and it shows how much it has invaded and permeated social life in Greece.

Here is a more modern version sung by Kotsiras

It is one of the smaller sacrifices we have to bear and strangely enough the one we resist most!!