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Local Practices and Curiosities

Local Practices and Curiosities
Goats Eating Olive Branches, Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

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If you spend any time in Gavalochori or surrounding towns and villages, you are likely to find some things puzzling. This section is designed to explain some of the curious things you are likely to encounter on Crete and sometimes in Greece in general to help you make sense of them.

Local Practices and Curiosities
Greeks Dancing, Athens. Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

Cretan Rusks

One thing you might be surprised to encounter in markets or tavernas on Crete are food objects that appear to be slices of hard, stale bread. They can assume a variety of forms, including rustic-looking oblong thick slices, round ones like a donut without the hole in the middle, and bite-sized croutons. In grocery stores, you will find an abundant supply of plastic bags filled with them. In a taverna, you might be served one and might almost break a tooth trying to eat it. 

So what’s with these things? They are called rusks or paximadia (παξιμάδια), a name that comes from a Greek citizen of Rome and the author of cookbooks, Paxamos, who allegedly perfected the way rusks are made. Rusks are literally twice-baked bread. The bread is leavened and baked twice—once for the initial loaf and then sliced and baked again at a low temperature for several hours until all of the moisture has evaporated and the slices have hardened. 

Rusks can be made of many different kinds of flour; barley is the preferred flour, which is much darker in color than wheat flour, but rusks are also made of wheat, rye, carob, and chickpea flour. Rusks are typically made today from a mix of barley and whole wheat flour because barley has become quite expensive, and mixing it with whole wheat flour makes the rusks both cheaper and easier to digest. 

Why would anyone bake bread twice? Rusks were created to keep bread longer without spoiling, and rusks can last a year without any preservatives. Those who were away from home for extended periods of time like sailors and shepherds could have something to eat that was both tasty and nutritious. 

The secret to eating rusks safely is to soften them by briefly dipping them in water or pouring olive oil on them until they soften up. Rusks can be paired with cheeses, olives, or cured meats or fish and also can be eaten as an accompaniment to meals in place of bread. They can also play the role of croutons in salads and to thicken soups. You might see dakos (ντάκος) on a menu in a Cretan taverna. This refers to a dish where a rusk is topped with olive oil, chopped tomatoes, cheese, a pinch of oregano, and maybe some olives. In this case, the juices from the tomatoes and the olive oil do the softening up of the rusk for you.

cretan-rusk-
Cretan Rusks. Greekbreakfast.gr
Plat_de_Dakos_en_Crète
Dakos. Benoît Prieur, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

Mantinades

The mantinada (μαντινάδα) is a type of poem that, although it can be found on other Greek islands, is particularly associated with Crete. Mantinades are verses of two lines, with each line dekapentasyllabic or consisting of 15 syllables. They are told at festivals, in tavernas, and in everyday conversations, and most of them are not written down. They appeared on Crete in the 15th century during the Venetian occupation of Crete, so you might think of them as an ancient form of rap music or limericks. They may be delivered as a song or accompanied by music, but they are typically spoken, with their lilting cadence making them feel musical. 

One mantinada can call for another in response, so friends can engage in skillful banter using mantinades. Anyone can produce mantinades, but those who are blessed with improvisational skills and wit tend to be better at them than others. Mantinades competitions continue to be held on Crete, encouraged by the Mixalis Kafkalas Cretan Rhymers’ Association. 

Here are a couple of mantinades to give you an idea of what they are like: 

 

Κάθε λεπτό σε σκέφτομαι

κάθε στιγμή μου λείπεις

Υπάρχεις μες στο αίμα μου

σαν τον ιό της γρίπης!

I think of you each moment,

ever I miss you, it’s true,

You run in my blood like a virus,

like some kind of flu.

 

Φαντάστηκα την Άνοιξη

με δίχως τον Απρίλη,

Μα δε φαντάστηκα ποτέ

πως με προδώσαν φίλοι!

I imagined a spring

without any May

But never imagined

my friends would betray.

 

Thanks to the Rental Center Crete, “Mantinades: All About the Famous Rhyming Couplet of Crete,” January 12, 2022, visit >
Μαντινάδα_στη_σφακιανή_διάλεκτο_-_Pashley_Robert_-_1837
Cretan Mandinada. Robert Pashley, Wikimedia Commons

Vendor Trucks

When you are staying in Gavalochori or are in surrounding villages, you may hear loudspeakers booming out something in Greek. Don’t be alarmed. This is not how the Greek government warns its citizens of a terrorist attack, as some visitors to Gavalochori hypothesized. The voices are coming from trucks driving through villages, with their drivers trying to entice people to come and buy what they are selling. The drivers are typically selling fish or vegetables, but some are selling items as diverse as plastic chairs and shoes. Sometimes, a driver will stop in a village for a few minutes to allow people time to gather, or you can flag a truck down if you are interested in seeing what is for sale. Another type of truck that might pass through the village is one gathering scrap metal and old appliances, which provides an easy way for people to get rid of hard-to-deal-with items.

Street_vendor_on_pickup_truck_near_Kokkini_Hani_Crete
Vendor Truck, Crete. Wolfgang Moroder. CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Eye Talismans

As you browse souvenir shops on Crete, you will undoubtedly notice glass or porcelain eyes with concentric blue and white circles surrounding a black dot for sale in the form of necklaces, bracelets, keychains, and soap. You might even see them hanging from a car mirror, as a body tattoo, or at the entrance to a shop or office. These talismans depict the eye and are called mati (μάτι), which means “eye” and are designed to ward off evil. 

The idea behind the talisman is that a person can harm other people with negative energy, often transmitted with a stare. The evil eye, then, symbolizes the transmission of negative energy from one person to another. The evil eye is not necessarily given by someone who wishes another person ill or who deliberately wants to harm someone. It can also be caused by admiration, envy, or jealousy. 

The eye charms function as preemptive or precautionary devices that protect their owners from the evil stare, bad luck, and misfortune. They do this by attracting the instigator’s evil gaze so that the evil spell cannot be cast. The eye deters the wicked energy that a person can transmit to another. 

A person who has been affected by the evil eye can feel bad for no apparent reason. Common physical symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, and an overall feeling of malaise. According to myth, the evil eye is more likely to affect certain categories of people, including newborn babies, children, and women. This is one reason why you often will see the eye talisman hanging outside the crib of a baby.

According to tradition, people with blue or green eyes can more easily give the evil eye or are better at casting an evil spell. That is why the eye charm typically has blue eyes, although now you can find variations in multiple colors. The belief that people with blue or green eyes could more easily impart negativity through their eyes was probably due to the fact that light-colored eyes are uncommon among residents of the Mediterranean region. 

The concept of the evil eye dates back at least to the 6th century BC, when it commonly appeared on Greek drinking vessels and was painted on boats sailing around the Aegean Sea to help guide the ships through potential hazards.

One supposed test to determine if someone has been affected by the evil eye involves the use of olive oil and water. Due to their physical properties, the two substances normally don’t blend, and the olive oil floats on the water because it is less dense than the water. For the test, drops of olive oil are placed into water, and if the drop floats, the concerned individual has not been cursed by the evil eye. If the oil and water merge, the individual is thought to have been cursed.

If a person has been affected by the evil eye, a special ritual known as xematiasma (ξεμάτιασμα) is performed to take the evil eye away from the person who has been affected. The healer performing the ritual recites a special prayer that is known only by a few people. According to some local traditions, the prayer can only be passed on to a person of the opposite gender, typically an older relative such as a grandparent, and only on Big Friday or Good Friday before Easter. Healers can only reveal the prayer up to three times in their lives, or it will lose its power. Once the prayer is complete, excessive yawning and watery eyes signal that it has worked. 

The Greek Orthodox Church does not condone the ritual of xematiasma because of its pagan origins and sees the mati as at odds with Christianity. But the Church does teach that if a person feels ill for no apparent reason, the cause may be evil spirits and demons that are servants of the devil. The Church offers a variety of means for warding off such evil spirits rather than the talisman of the evil eye, however—prayer, holy water, the cross, and religious icons.

Local Practices and Curiosities
Eye Talismans. Guruharsha, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Breaking Plates

Breaking plates as a Greek tradition became known to people outside of Greece in 1960 with the film Never on Sunday, in which the main characters drop and smash glasses, cups, and plates on the floor during a dance when they are having a good time. 

Breaking plates can have a number of meanings. Plates used to be smashed at the graveside of the deceased, signifying that life has ended on earth. It also was done in joy during a celebration. Because some Greeks believe that a celebration can draw the attention of bad energy or evil spirits, plates were sometimes smashed as camouflage to fool the spirits so they would not suspect a happy event was taking place and would stay away. The ritual also symbolized abundance, signaling that the owners have enough wealth that plates and glasses could be thrown into the hearth following a dinner instead of being washed and reused. 

Plate smashing can be done in a number of ways. People may simply hurl a plate to the floor, they may break it over their heads, or they may hold a stack of plates in one hand and hammer through and shatter the stack with another plate. 

To accommodate the need for an abundance of plates in Greek culture, specially produced plaster plates were often used in the breaking ritual. There were 53 manufacturers of plaster plates in Thessaloniki in the 1960s, with up to 100,000 plates smashed in Greece each month (now there is only one manufacturer, the Tsiroulis Brothers in Thessaloniki). When he filmed Never on Sunday, director Julius “Jules” Dassin needed to reshoot the plate-smashing scene several times, so he used factory rejects for the plates. 

In 1969, the military dictatorship of Greece banned plate smashing in nightclubs and tavernas. In place of plate smashing, patrons at tavernas could buy trays of flowers to throw at performers and each other in celebration and appreciation. But even flowers can be pricey, so Greeks began to use paper napkins for this purpose instead. 

The practice of breaking plates revived in the 1980s following Greece’s entry into the European Union. Greeks flocked to bouzoukia (μπουζούκια), flashy night clubs with live popular music, smoke machines, extravagant light displays, lots of dancing, and plate smashing. The plate-smashing revival ended in 1994, when a law was passed that restricted the hours of bouzoukia; since plate smashing tended to happen in the wee hours of the morning, the practice largely disappeared again. 

Then the economic crisis hit Greece and other countries in 2008, which revived interest in plate breaking, possibly as a means of expressing rage or anger. In 2009, the Tsiroulis Brothers sold 300,000 plaster plates for smashing, and the numbers kept going up, reaching half a million in 2014.


Today, plate breaking is rare and is most often done as part of a performance in Greek restaurants that target tourists. In fact, Greece actually requires a license for establishments that allow smashing plates because the practice can cause serious injury, especially after a few drinks and impaired aim. You can still hear remnants of this tradition, however,  if something breaks in a restaurant or taverna—you might hear someone shout spas’ta (σπάστα), which means “break them!”

Broken_Plate
Broken Plate. ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Worry Beads

While on Crete or in any part of Greece, you are likely to see Greeks—and especially older men—fidgeting with a string of beads in their hands. These are worry beads or komboloi (κομπολόι). Two stories are told of their origin. One is that they originated with monks on Mount Athos who began making strands of beads by tying knots on a string at regular intervals in order to keep track of their prayers. Another version of the origin story is that they were imported into the culture by the Turks, who used a version with 33 beads. As a symbolic form of resistance to Turkish rule, the Greeks reduced the number of beads to 23. Whatever their origin, the Greeks have adopted the use of worry beads not for religious purposes but for relaxation, to defuse stress, and to calm the nerves. They also are helpful to people who are trying to quit smoking because they provide something to do with their hands.

Worry beads usually have an odd number of beads strung on a loop made of silk thread. The beads can be crafted of anything, including plastic, marble, amber, and silver. The top of the loop has a fixed main bead called the priest, a single bead that is larger than the rest and whose style is often altogether different from the others. A shield separates the two threads and helps the beads flow freely. A tassel is tied to the end of the string behind the priest, although today you can find worry beads without the tassel because younger Greeks sometimes consider it to be old fashioned. 

There are many different ways to use worry beads. Some people spin the beads in their hands. Another method is to hold all of the beads in one hand and roll them against each other, creating soft clicking sounds. Others count the beads over and over. Another method is to start at one end of the chain, near the shield, and to pull the thread forward using that hand’s thumb and the side of the index finger until one of the beads is reached. Then the cord is tipped so that the bead falls and hits the shield. This is repeated until all the beads have been tipped, and the user starts over. A method that makes more noise and is typically used outdoors is to separate the beads into two distinct groups on each end of the string. The user then holds the string in the empty space between the beads and swings the back line of beads up and over the finger to where it clangs against the other line of beads. 

Worry beads were used only by men in the past, but now everyone may use them, and they are sometimes seen as fashion accessories.

Local Practices and Curiosities
Worry Beads. Barcex, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Opa!

If you have seen any movies that involve Greece or Greeks, you probably have heard someone say opa (όπα). You might wonder what it means and if you should use it while you are here. 

Opa! is an interjection or expression that technically doesn’t mean anything, but it is used to express a variety of emotions. It can mean enthusiasm for an activity, and in movies, you probably have seen it used when people are partying, dancing, or celebrating a wedding. In this case, it is the equivalent of “hooray!” It also can be used to get someone to pay attention, as when English speakers might say “whoa!” or “wait!” or “hold on!” Another use of the word is to express surprise, shock, disbelief, or disapproval, as in “what?!?” People also use it just after they have made a mistake—the equivalent of “whoops!” Opa! Is still very much used in everyday speech by Greeks, so you are likely to hear it while you are on Crete.

Local Practices and Curiosities
Image from film "Zorba the Greek" starring Anthony Quinn, director Michael Cacoyannis, 1964

Roadside Shrines

All along Crete’s roads, you will see what appear to be little houses perched on pillars. They are too ornate to be bird houses and too small to be chapels, but they look a bit like both. They are called kandilakia (καντηλάκια), and they are roadside shrines that commemorate lives both lost and saved—they either memorialize someone whose life was lost in a road accident, or they are a gesture of thankfulness by the survivor of what might have been a fatal accident on that spot. These shrines often have tiny doors behind which you will find a burning light (or an electric light powered by solar panels in the more modern ones), a picture of the deceased or the survivor, a handful of personal items, and some flowers (often plastic). 

Why are there so many of these shrines along Crete’s roads? Greece has the seventh-highest auto-fatality rate and the highest rate of deaths due to single-vehicle accidents in the European Union. The reasons for this are many: Roads are often carved around mountains, especially on Crete, resulting in blind curves with few guard rails. Greek drivers are also known to be a bit reckless, and many of them don’t wear seat belts. 

You will see a building yard that sells roadside shrines on your right as you come off the exit ramp from the National Road and enter Kalyves, but let’s hope you won’t have need of a shrine while you are visiting or living on Crete.

Local Practices and Curiosities
Roadside Shrine. Sonja Foss, Foundation for Gavalochori

Funeral Notices

In Gavalochori and surrounding villages, you are likely to encounter posters on telephone poles or on the doors of shops and businesses with a picture of someone and a cross on them. These are announcing the death and funeral of someone. They usually contain the name and age of the deceased, the names of the deceased’s children, and the time and place of the funeral.

Greek funerals usually take place within 24 hours of death and can be held on any day of the week. The body is dressed and placed in an open coffin by the mortician, and it is then brought to the deceased’s home for a wake prior to the funeral. Prior to the funeral, the coffin is carried to the church by friends of the deceased, with relatives following behind. After the church service, the mourners move to the graveyard for the burial. This is followed by a gathering at the deceased’s house or at a nearby restaurant. Women typically wear black for at least 40 days following the death of a relative or a close friend, and men may wear a black armband or not shave for 40 days.

A number of memorial services are held to commemorate someone who has died. Forty days after the death, a service of remembrance is held on the Sunday nearest to the date of death. It is often more well attended than the funeral because many mourners are unable to attend a funeral due to short notice. There also may be a memorial service annually after the death that is held on the Sunday closest to the date of the burial. Some of the posters you see may be announcing these services. The family of the deceased arranges these services, and they usually pay for food and drinks following the service either outside of the church or at a local taverna.

Although it is more of a problem in large cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, where cemeteries are overcrowded and urban development has left cemeteries unable to expand, there can be a shortage of graves in which to bury the dead, even on Crete. If there is no family grave nearby, relatives of the deceased rent a grave at the local cemetery, usually for three to five years. The price typically escalates for any additional years, serving as a deterrent so that the space can be reused. At the end of the rental period, the grave is opened, the bones are removed, and they are then transported either to a family grave that is some distance from where a person died and was buried or are kept in a vault or ossuary at the church. Even when there is enough space to bury someone, the deceased’s relatives may be charged to rent a grave in an ethically iffy entrepreneurial or marketing scheme.

The Greek Orthodox Church opposes cremation because it teaches that a body must be buried in order to be resurrected at the second coming of Christ. Because of the shortage of graves and the requirement that families exhume the bodies of loved ones after three years, instigating a cycle of grief once again, cremation is becoming more popular in Greece. Because cremation was illegal in Greece until 2006, when the Greek parliament voted to allow public crematoriums to be built, those who wanted to cremate their loved ones had to travel to Sofia, Bulgaria, the site of the nearest public crematorium. Because politicians do not want to risk the ire of the Church, no public crematoriums have been built in Greece yet, although talks have begun to open a public crematorium in Patra. One private crematorium exists in Greece in Ritsona, a town about a two hours’ drive from Athens.

wall obituary memorial greece
Funeral Notice. LBM1948, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Local Practices and Curiosities
Cemetery, Church of Saint George Gavalochori. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori
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