Kafeneio culture still alive

Chris Fotinopoulos reflects on the role that the kafeneio has played to a whole generation of Greek men in Australia.

My memories of church are mostly of men huddled beyond its walls while women in moth-balled coats prayed to bearded male icons for miracles in church.

Greek men in the 50s and 60s sought refuge in the kafeneio. The Greek kafeneio was no different to the Australian pub in as far as the men who patronised these bastions of male solidarity did so with the fervour of a devout monk.

Their husbands preferred to drag on a cigarette and talk about politics, soccer and the old country rather than put up with threats of eternal damnation for the sins that they may have committed the night before.

Most men made a brief appearance, which suggested that they were not completely free from God’s grip.

They would stand for while with their sons by their side in the section designated for men and leave just in time to avoid the priest’s gaze as he stepped out from behind the iconostasis, which marked the ecclesiastic gender divide.

The male-female division was as distinct in church as it was at home and in the Greek community.

Greek men in the ‘50s and ‘60s sought refuge in the cafenio. The Greek kafeneio was no different to the Australian pub in as far as the men who patronised these bastions of male solidarity did so with the fervour of a devout monk.

I suppose all men yearn for a refuge at some point in life.

This became apparent after an old friend spoke of getting away for a bit. He suggested that a few weeks in Damascus would be a fine destination, even though his missus preferred something more cosmopolitan like the Greek islands.

I realised that our yearning for Damascus was nothing more than a desire to return to a time when men congregated at the local cafenio to drink coffee, smoke and engage in conversation.

A Greek kafeneio is Spartan cafe’. A smoke-filled shop front where you will find moustachioed men seated around a laminex table with suit jackets draped over their shoulders sipping Turkish coffee out of a flitziani and studying the hand they were dealt.

I remember visiting a kafeneio in Oakleigh on a number of occasions with my dad when I was a small boy.

The sight of men serving men was a novelty to a child who was accustomed to seeing their father at the head of the table or on the couch while the women toiled in the kitchen.

This was a time when the slick cafes and family restaurants had yet to arrive in Oakleigh.

I recall sitting with my father in the kafeneio , which stood not too far from the local Greek Orthodox Church and wondering which of the two anachronistic institutions was more desirable.

These places were not too different to our pubs, except that there was less drinking and more gambling in the kafeneio. Unlike the mandatory 6 o’clock swill, the cafenio was open all hours where Greek men rolled die and played prefa into the wee hours.

Years before I was born, many migrant men where hopelessly tied to these places, gambling away their pay packets and the family’s future in the hope of striking it lucky.

There are many stories of women storming late night card games with a sick child in arm pleading for their husbands to return home.

Thankfully, such scenes have dissipated over time, replaced by other forms of social interaction.

These days the booze-fuelled male banter of the 60s Australian pub has been superseded by electronic sirens that trigger shrills of joy in many of the Greek women who were beaten into silence by their husbands years ago, often after a heavy loss at the kafeneio table.

These women sought revenge by patronising pub venues in Melbourne’s outer suburbs so as to feed the pokies with their pension coins in the hope of landing the fortune that alluded their husbands.

Many of the elderly Greek men who shuffle to the cafeteria in local shopping malls of Oakleigh these days are just as gregarious, bigoted and opinionated as they were when they hung out as fresh-faced young men at the local kafeneio of Richmond.

Rather than a deck of cards, they are likely have a copy of Thursday’s Neos Kosmos open to the obituary section in the off chance of spotting a face from the kafeneio days.

They will spend a mere hour or so in these places, allowing themselves enough of time to pick up the grandchildren from primary school while their wives try their luck at the pokies before attending church to atone for their sins.