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A Greek Kafeneio – A Way of Life and the World

February 15, 2021
By Peter Nicolelis

I miss the concept and culture of the local kafeneio even though I never lived that experience myself.

I did however organize a group of church friends in Spring Hill, Florida that met every Thursday for breakfast at a local panero. Then, when I ceased being a snowbird and resettled in East Marion, Long Island, I organized a group of neighbors that met every Thursday for breakfast at the Hellenic Snack Bar in East Marion for the last six years. That run has been interrupted by the current pandemic.

Despite the fact that I never lived the kafeneio experience, I do know the important role it played in my father’s life.

My father received a limited education in Pergamos, Asia Minor. His father experienced  a serious business reversal and my father’s formal schooling was interrupted after having completed only three years of primary school education. He was very aware of this shortcoming but he was determined to self-educate. And so he did.

As soon as he became old enough to work (and then to begin shaving) he become a regular at the local kafeneio in Pergamos. He would enter the store and slowly maneuvered from one discussion group to another. It seemed that each group had at least one leader. One or two groups had livelier participants. Typically, the leaders were the more educated, successful or better-traveled of the group of men. He studied the leader patrons, listened to their comments and studied their speaking patterns. The leaders normally led the discussions and they spoke with authority. These men impressed Niko the most. There was no doubt in his mind that these men were ‘morfomeni’, educated and cultured. They had completed their studies at the ‘gymnasio’ (high school). He listened to them intensely and soon felt confident and comfortable enough to get into some discussions himself. He became stimulated. He began buying the Greek language newspapers and developing his own opinion, philosophy of life and political views.

In later years, he read the Ethnikos Kirix. He was a strong Venizelist … Eleftherios was his hero.

Earlier, when Niko became seventeen years old, he realized that he had to begin preparing for his escape from Turkey because if he stayed, he would have been forcefully conscripted into a Turkish labor battalion upon reaching his twentieth birthday. He knew that was the equivalent of receiving a death sentence.

Now, having completed his evaluation of the most experienced, Pergamos/Kafeneio-101, leaders, he sought to learn everything he could about his escape plan. He learned about the military roadblocks and about the police patrols that the Turks had arranged along the escape route to the international harbor of Smyrna. He also learned ways to bypass the roadblocks and places where he could overnight safely for the three-day trip to the Smyrna harbor where he had planned to find passage to America. He was advised to also consider finding passage on Greek inland freighters leaving for Greece.

As it worked out for my father, he made it safely to Smyrna and found passage on a Greek island freighter leaving Smyrna for Kalamata on the Greek mainland where he subsequently boarded the Greek steamship Athanae bound for New York.

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My name is Charles Robbins, the chief correspondent of the Chicago Daily Tribune in Constantinople.

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