Eateries have always been the place to talk politics

The Bairaktaris taverna made the front pages over this last week as the place where Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis chose to meet over a «glass of wine» with deputies from Parliament’s summer session. Some opposition deputies were quick to criticize «taverna politics,» forgetting that Greek politics has always been strongly linked to that traditional Greek coffee shop, the kafeneion, as well as tavernas and later (particularly during the rule of PASOK’s Andreas Papandreou) to fancier restaurants. One does not have to go back as far as the symposia of the ancient Greeks or Romans. From the foundation of the modern Greek state, the kafeneion played a major role in politics as the place where politicians and party leaders made speeches, where plots and conspiracies were hatched, and even assassinations committed. Between the two world wars, the kafeneion was the center of events. Later on, the first cafes made their appearance, but up to World War II, try as they might, these more upmarket establishments could not take the place of traditional meeting places such as Zacharatos, Neon, Ellas, Omonia and other such humble watering holes where people could drink and debate politics. In the postwar years, the center of the political stage moved to Syntagma Square, to the cafes of Zonar’s and Floca and the bars and restaurants of the major hotels. The late Constantine Karamanlis broke with tradition by being as much at home in a tuxedo and top hat as in an ordinary suit. He could be found everywhere from Mont Parnes to Antonopoulos in Glyfada or Kamaratos and Kalokairinos in Piraeus, in the company of Georgios Andrianopoulos. As prime minister, he began to frequent places that had not been as popular with his predecessors. The scourge of the dictatorship brought the kafeneion to the fore once more. In the cafes of the central Exarchia district, politics were on everyone’s lips and the student movement limbered up during chess and card games used as a cover for political meetings. The fall of the dictatorship ushered in a new fashion. Whenever he could find time, Constantine Karamanlis enjoyed the Attica countryside at Leonidas, in Varibobi, with political correspondents in tow waiting outside or at neighboring tables. When Karamanlis emerged, he would make a statement, usually laconic, which the next day was analyzed ad infinitum in the press. During PASOK’s early years, Andreas Papandreou had a particular penchant for dinners out. Although he had no particular favorite, he often visited tavernas, usually away from the center, where his relationship with the public was developed. As many of his former associates say, Papandreou gained much of his support at these dinners. Gradually, the Pervoli t’Ouranou on the outskirts of Plaka became the favorite haunt of PASOK cadres, while Andreas also found time to go wherever Vassilis Tsitsanis was singing. No doubt the political correspondents of the time who covered PASOK got many of their sound bites at the Perivoli. The other day in Parliament, two of those PASOK deputies who condemned the current prime minister for «making political statements in Parliament» come from the ranks of Papandreou’s «hand-clappers» – the name given by PASOK members to those of their number who would squat down on the dance floor whenever their leader was dancing a zeibekiko, as much to provide the rhythm as to get in the photographs. Later, after PASOK first gained power and was frequenting tavernas, the fashion for Kolonaki and the northern suburbs emerged. Places such as 17, Piccolo Mondo and Aglamair came into their own. After 1993, Costas Simitis’s PASOK settled well and truly into Kolonaki, where news began to be made at Da Capo, Jackson’s and Tops. For lunch, deputies met journalists at the Prytaneio, the GB or Ideal, an old favorite. When Costas Karamanlis became its leader, New Democracy acquired a different perception of entertainment. Bairaktaris suddenly became popular, as well as Maritsa’s restaurant. For coffee, it was the Vivliothiki in Kolonaki Square. For an opposition deputy, the Prytaneio was accessible, but not the GB. However, the new ND president, who had always been sociable, changed his style radically. Bairaktaris set the tone and deputies chose similar venues for their gatherings. The truth is that reporters covering New Democracy have spent many evenings at meat restaurants in the northern suburbs or neighborhood fish restaurants, while their colleagues covering PASOK were commuting between Kolonaki and Kefalari. Many a news item has been gleaned at Bairaktaris, where Costas Karamanlis apparently feels at ease and might just say something newsworthy. So eating places have always been directly associated with politics. After all, a journalist’s job is more easily accomplished in a place where tongues are loosened and when politicians leave their oratorial personas at home.