Every morning they meet at the break of dawn at Manoli’s taverna, the old men in the village of Filoti, Naxos
Manolis Taverna, which is situated directly on the most important corner of the village square, is the first taverna to open in the early morning and the last taverna to close late into the night. This is the place the old Greek men choose to start their day. Here they drink strong black coffees…
…Hey Manoliiiiii! ελληνικός καφές…
…Greek coffees that will brace them to face the chores stretched out across the day ahead.
Whether it is the wooling of sheep, milking of goats, harvesting of olives, making of wine, or one of the countless other seasonal jobs to get done in any given day, they discuss said jobs but never complain about them.
Manoli is a third-generation taverna owner and keeper (or most times not) of the villagers’ secrets. He is round and gentle, smiles with pure joy, and will laugh out loud as he putters about in his kitchen, which is jammed up against the back wall of the small taverna.
Like clockwork, the old men arrive one at a time in the early morning sun. They climb-step onto the ancient Naxian marble floor of the outdoor seating area, which is really just four or five tables and ten or twelve chairs placed tightly together under a cosy wood awning.
The grandfathers (Οι παππούδες pronounced E Pappoudes) speak to each other, and most importantly they speak to Manoli, like they are all long lost brothers. A stranger listening to them would wrongfully think they are reuniting after many years apart, no, their last meeting was for sure yesterday morning, or even last night at some impromptu gathering.
Γεια σου Μανώλη! (Hey Manoli!)
This is more a warning of their arrival so he can get busy boiling up their coffees than it is a “hey good morning”.
Manoli shouts back a friendly greeting from the tiny kitchen where he is busy as always, meticulously stirring the unending orders of Greek coffees. He banters back and forth with them while placing the tiny cups of boiling coffee onto tiny saucers, stacking small slices of fresh baked bread into little baskets, adding a small plate with broken off chunks of his own farm cheese, filling glass bottles with the icy cool mountain spring water that flows through the pipes of this blessed village.
The old Greek men lounge themselves around the marble-topped taverna tables, their ancient bones comfortably settling into the creaky woven-reed chairs.
The lone village cop comes by for his Greek coffee too. He sits quietly there, nodding hellos and goodbyes, documenting the local gossip…half his day’s work done in the 30 minutes it takes for him to drink his morning Ellinikos coffee.
Coming from an era when men, without a word of complaint mind you, fought in wars, farmed lands and provided for their families, these gentlemen to this very day comport themselves with that pride that took them through the decades.
These old Greek men of Filoti, Naxos, are the very soul, the very history, the very staple of Greek culture. As a traveller I seek and document these precious moments that remain, as still as a picture, throughout the marching of time.
The old Greek men come and go all morning, each so different in his own way…there’s the proper-gentleman-retired-scholar expertly spinning his κομπολόι (Kompoloi), the rosary used as worry beads that are almost always attached to the wrists of many old men in Greece.
There’s my good friend Ilia, the rebel cowboy in the village. He wears his beaten-up ranger hat and his vest of many pockets, and he expertly drives a big truck up and down and around dizzying narrow mountain roads. He is like an Aussie outbacker left behind in a Greek mountain village. He is strange, different, adorable and an Athenian, which explains him. Now that he has retired to his childhood village, Filoti, he has been absorbed into the fabric of life on Naxos island.
There’s ex army guy who fought his own brother in the last war, and there’s the reformed alcoholic, and the once-aspiring priest, and the other taverna owner with the happiest smile and the missing teeth.
Then there’s the well groomed farmer with his tweed bunnet set straight across his brow that highlights his bright eyes and weathered wrinkles. He still works all day on his farm, and some evening if one is lucky he will play the hauntingly patriotic village music for hours on his Tsambouna – during the Greek Junta, this beautiful instrument was banned and I do believe this is why it represents rebellion and patriotism.
The symfonia of tradition and skill played on this “archaic relic” by a true maestro of the tsambouna is something to be heard to be believed. As he plays some keep beat by banging on the tables, some weep, others listen in silent awe. I weep from the sheer emotions of the music and the passion of the listeners. I will always carry that moment with me wherever I go.
Once Manoli has delivered the coffees and they have fortified themselves, these old men will inevitably burst into a fiery argument about the “ineptitude” of the government, they bang tables and gesticulate wildly, ashes from glowing cigarettes flashing through the air, and the beads of their κομπολόι dangling from fingers clacking loudly as though the beads themselves are adding their own 2 cents worth. They laugh and shout, make derisive snorts, pause in stillness to listen before they get their turn to speak. Sometimes they respond with such passion that their bodies will shoot straight up off the chair, they will look at their feet in surprise and settle back down again.
The old men drink coffee mainly, but if the argument is juicy enough to stick around and they are in no rush to get to the farmstead, they will order a small raki, never more than one before the chores get done.
The argument ebbs and flows like a Filoti mountain breeze, it gets louder with every coming and going…some newcomer arrives and he is brought up to speed, someone gets up to leave but he is not allowed to walk away until every last man has had his say.
In the stillness after the grand debate they settle into a comfortable silence, each appears satisfied that he has won the argument. A fiery argument they are all in agreement on…the government is “absolutely useless”.
Manoli, of the inherent patience and sweet smile, clears the tables as he prepares for the next round of old Greek men that will arrive as sure as there is night and day…
…Γεια σου Μανώλη!