Coffee shops

The main meeting place for the men of a village is its coffee shop, for the women it is the courtyard. In hamlets there is no coffee shop and in small villages a few tables in the general store suffice. Tavernas are found mainly in towns and differ from coffee shops in that wine is the main beverage sold, served with food or appetizers (mezédes). Women do not enter tavernas and coffee shops and even give them a wide berth if they chance to be in the vicinity. Young bachelors only go there with paternal consent and even after marriage young husbands only pop in very occasionally, lest calumnious tongues accuse them of spendthrift behaviour or neglecting their family. Thus it is the middle-aged men who tend to frequent these places, while many old men spend most of their time there.

On the other hand, a man does not normally spend much time at home with his wife and children. His domain is the fields and the courtyard and if there is not enough to do there he may leave the village for part of the year to work elsewhere. The women of the house are reluctant to having their men folk under their feet and make it known to them. So the coffee shop or taverna is a "necessary evil", filling the gap between a man's working and family life.

In villages or neighbourhoods where no such meeting place exists a workshop fills the role, whether a cobbler's, cooper's or saddler's - all it needs is a bench and a barrel of wine. Behind its closed shutters friends gather in the evening, one brings olives, another ouzo, another pickles or something from home. If one of the company has been hunting or fishing he proudly brings his bag of game or catch of fish, which is shared by all as they tipple their wine. The atmosphere is convivial, there are no strangers, the men have known one another all their life. Of course there are quarrels and even irreconcilable differences of opinion, but deep down there is a sense of community, of a shared destiny. All are beset by the same fears: bad weather, illness, foreign occupier, tax-collector.

Often they reminisce about the past, for men have more need of relating their experiences than women. The same yarns are repeated, analysed and corrected time and again, the outcome being a version acceptable to all, so that even those not present at the actual event feel as if they were. Personal recollections of important events pass from one generation to the next, thus legends are born. Another perennial topic of conversation is farming. The men exchange tips and information on crops and animals: the coffee shop is a true school for agricultural practices, as well as a host of other subjects. The men learn by listening what to do in certain circumstances and what to expect.

It is in the coffee shop that agreements are reached, news officially announced, rumours circulated and glad tidings celebrated. Everyone has some joyous occasion to share with his friends by treating them to a drink: a name day, the betrothal of a son or daughter, the completion of the building of a house. It is in the coffee shop that a man awaits news of the birth of his child, its baptism, the consummation of his daughter's marriage, for his presence at home on such occasions would be improper. Little wonder then that, after a few glasses of wine, some tasty mezédes and convivial conversation, the men gathered in the taverna or coffee shop break into song. One will begin singing his own favourite and the others will join in. These slow, narrative table songs (tis távlas), recanting deeds and tales, continue long into the night. Now and again the rhythm quickens, whetting their appetite for dancing; a man gets up and takes to the floor, another follows, either to accompany him or to dance as well. And when this momentary spontaneity vanishes the men sit down just as suddenly as they had got up.

If the men are in a particularly good mood the need for dancing is not so easily quenched. They may send for a musician, rousing him from his sleep. Sometimes they will even fetch one from the next village. Once summoned the player arrives, with his son or a friend to play the second instrument, and as he plays the merry-making gathers momentum. The dancing becomes more energetic and virile, which tends to sober the slightly inebriate men who stick money to the musician's instrument in a display of appreciation and generosity. There is only room for about three or four men between the closely packed tables and they often have to dance on the same spot, modifying their movements accordingly: small, measured steps, drooping posture, numerous turns and improvised figures, clasp­ing of the shoulders or dancing solo. Thus the dances are quite different from those performed in public in the village square. Even the same syrtós, to the same song, becomes another dance when danced in the taverna, for it is danced under totally different circumstances.

With improved transport to the cities and the change to an urban way of life such scenes became common in neighbourhood tavernas. Their habitues were mainly migrants, pedlars and casual labourers, for such places were rarely patronised by respectable family men. Over the past hundred years or so the urban population of sailors, porters, journeymen and soldiers has rapidly increased and it is they who created the so-called rebétiko songs, an amalgam of folk, oriental and European music, and adapted older dances, such as the zeibékiko, hasápiko, karsilamás and tsiftetéli, to this new social clime.