Image from Google's local host Lakis Tham
Traveling through Greece, you might have noticed all the old men, endlessly sipping coffee in front of a traditional kafeneío. These men seem to be a static part of the decor of every Greek village, but where are the women?
Let’s start with old times, the generation of our grandmothers. When they were young, it was taboo even to talk about a woman going out for coffee with her friends. The Greek women from this time were supposed to stay in, take care of the family, the house, and of course the cooking.
The Greeks used to have a saying, “η καλή νοικοκυρά είναιδούλα και κυρά”. Which can be translated into something like, a good housewife is a slave and a hostess. A wife was the possession of the man she was married to, only existing to support him and their family. She was allowed to go out for groceries, pick up the children, or go to dinner together with her husband. But not alone, not to meet her friends.
The reason behind this was not the masculine will to control women. It was their insecurity and sensitivity more than their authority. The Greek men were extremely jealous and afraid that other men might look at their wives.
My Greek grandmother had a husband like this, and she was the perfect housewife. One day she went shopping and found the most beautiful color of lipstick, which she bought to surprise her husband. However, when he came home from coffee that afternoon, they got into a fight. How could she wear that beautiful lipstick! All the men would look at her!
Luckily, things changed during the generation of our parents. Women became more independent and no longer listened to the fears of their husbands. They started going out with friends and some of them got a money-earning job. However, this did not change much to the decor of the Greek village.
Although the Greek women started going out more, they would not endlessly sip coffee at a kafeneío every afternoon. Instead, they meet on town squares, at home, or simply go shopping. And even if a Greek woman goes for coffee with a friend, she will not do this at the same time as her husband. While the men go to work in the morning and sip their coffees in the afternoon, the women have a coffee when the men are at work and start their laundry and cooking when the afternoon begins.
Understanding what happened in our generation will explain why the villages are still full of men, and how this will change in the coming generations. After our mothers slowly started entering business life, today it is the most normal thing for a Greek woman to work as much as her husband. However, this does not place these women in the Greek kafeneíos, instead, they are now spending their days at the office. Probably you have noticed that most men, that are part of the village scenery, are older. All the young people, both male, and female are either working hard in the big cities or have left the country. There are no young women that can afford to sit in between the old men to show us, tourists, that the country is, in fact, full of emancipated women.
With the women of today’s generation working, it are often their parents who take care of the children, since daycare is not really a thing (yet) in Greece. And although taking care of kids becomes more and more a shared job between the grandparents, they stick to some of their traditions. Grandfathers still go for a coffee for a couple of afternoons a week, while the grandmothers take the mornings or evenings for themselves.
I believe that in a couple of decades, the Greek towns and villages will look completely different. Maybe the Greeks that are currently away from Greece will come back to the country, and the kafeneíos will be full of families and playing children. But the other option is that the traditional Greek coffee places will slowly disappear, together with the generations that created them. It would be a shame because even though the many men make you wonder about the position of women in the Greek culture, they also show what life can be when you take it slow. I sincerely hope that kafeneíos will keep existing, not for the men, but as a place to escape the fast pace of the world we live in today.