Kostas, from the Department of Medicine to the kafenio trap

Year 1900 and something. At a rough guess, it could be year 1985. A young Greek says goodbye to his family, to his friends and to Sivas, a small village in the South of Crete, 10 minutes away from the most famous Matala. He is ready to leave and chase his dream. His eyes, his heart and his head are a centrifuge of emotions. His suitcase is lightweight, it contains only the bare essentials: a lot of trepidation, a flood of happiness, a good dose of determination and a hint of fear. The destination? Rome, Università La Sapienza, Department of Medicine.

Once he arrives in Rome, he feels he has just landed on another world. Everything is so big, so noisy, so chaotic, so different. He still doesn’t know that he will fall in love with this city, desperately and forever. The arrival in the city centre, the walk through the Roman Forum, the enrolment at the university, the first lesson at the Department of Medicine are moments he will never forget. His five years in Rome are indescribable. He lives intensely, fully. Besides studying for the exams, he absorbs everything: the Italian culture and language, the history of ancient Rome, art, religion and the Italian cuisine. He has an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

Then comes the damn phone call. It is a Thursday night, he still remembers it perfectly. He has just returned home after a tiring day. He is in his room and he is eating a sandwich, his dinner. At the fourth phone’s ring, he decides to answer.
“You have to come back home, right now.”
It is his mother. It is the phrase that marks the end of his dream. Four exams are left, only four cursed exams. He does not ask for explanations, he does not try to negotiate. Before leaving for Italy, he had made a promise to his father, it was the sine qua non condition to leave Sivas and his family: in the event that the conditions of his father, already ill, were seriously and irreparably worsened, he had to return home and take care of his mother and sisters. On Friday he gets through the red tape. On Sunday evening he is back in Sivas. The suitcase is heavy, it contains too much: the books of the four left exams, a sea of tears, endless frustration, a lot of anger and an abundant sprinkle of emptiness.

Since then his days have been boring and endless, but there is no solution. He had promised it. So he is obliged to keep the family kafenio (typical Greek café) open and to serve coffees to his customers. Only his books and the Italian tourists bring him light.

This is how I imagine the story of Kostas, the owner of the beautiful kafenio in Sivas. The first day we arrived in this wonderful village in the South of Crete, after a short exploration, I got attracted by a small architectural jewel: a green wall, a blue-sky door, some climbing plants and some chairs and coffee tables placed at the entrance. As soon as I realized it was a kafenio, I decided that we had to stop there, simply. I was right!

Kostas immediately started talking in Italian, explaining that he knew our language because he studied medicine in Rome and that he could not finish his university studies: because of his father’s illness, he had to go back home. He showed us several books, he gave us valuable information about Crete and he showed us the inside of his kafenio. It looked like a museum, a church and a private house at the same time. A couple of small tables and a few wooden chairs made up the furnishing of the kafenio. In a corner of the room there was an electric stove and a top on which few tools where placed to prepare a coffee, an orange juice or a snack. His books were scattered all over the floor. The walls were the protagonists. They were covered with sacred images, photographs of people, paintings and sheets of paper with hand written quotations. The atmosphere was bittersweet: you could breathe the smell of a half-lived life, the smell of childhood dreams which never became true, the smell of not-shared knowledge, the smell of humanity turned into condemnation.

If you come across Sivas, I strongly recommend to stop at Kostas’ kafenio and have a chat with him. You will not regret it and he will be over the moon!

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