Reimagining the Greek village 'men's cafe in Palo Alto

the Kafenia includes hang out time and then dialogues
this poem beautifully captures the spirit of the Kafenia - a place to really be together, enjoy each other off our technologies.

In Palo Alto, CA, I am taking the traditional Greek village men’s hangout - the Kafenio - and reimagining it from a feminine, inclusivepoint of view (thus Kafeni(a). My grandfather had a kafenio to keep village life alive in a bustling metropolis of San Francisco in the 1930s, and, one hundred years later, I, as his granddaughter,am reviving the tradition to bring a ‘village feeling’ to Palo Alto.

The Greek village Kafenio was a coffeehouse & social center for men. The Kafenioemerged during the Ottoman Empirebecause drinking alcohol in public was not allowed at the time. Whenever men were not working, they would be at the Kafenio. It was significant in that it was a place of pleasure as opposed to women’s private spaces, where they never had down time.The Kafenio was open morning through the evening, and eventually served Greek coffee and then liquor as the day went on, as well as simple hand held foods. Women traditionally did not like the Kafenio since their husbands were there instead of helping with the children and household duties.

Greeks brought the Kafenio with them wherever they moved around the world, including the migrations to the United States. So when my Grandfather came as part of the European economic migration during the early 20th century, he brought the Kafenio with him to San Francisco. My Dad and my Aunt grew up with their father going to the Kafenio (he did not have his own anymore), and one legend in our family is that my Grandfather had to be pulled away from the Kafenio to attend my Aunt’s wedding, and he went back as soon as it was done.

When I started researching what kind of café space to open in Palo Alto, my own village, I was struck by how many people shared in my interviews here that they had many social connections but not much meaningful contact. In the heart of Silicon Valley what I hear people want is more in person community and less device time. The Kafenio struck me as a beautiful structure to infuse with new traditions: as a place of deep contact, social and political dialogue, pleasure and real community. But I wondered if I could reclaim what was so patriarchal?

What would that look like today if it centered on the multicultural abundance of my community?

To set the tone, this excerpt from the beautiful poem Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye is what you see:

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Just like the traditional Kafenio, this is a place to really slow down and be together. In theKafenia, though, instead of debate, we share our humanity, stories, meaning and journeys. For pleasure, we share culinary traditions, music & dance. We welcome people of all backgrounds, especially immigrants and refugees. True to the Kafenio spirit, once you enter our doors, whether you are a faculty member at Stanford or a recent refugee, everyone is equal. And we really listen to and enjoy each other’s company, with friendship as a core value. We share food as they do even today in Greek villages: feta, olives, dipping bread in olive oil not just at the crust, but the entire piece with our hands. For our friends from Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere in the greater Mediterranean, it feels like being at home. And essential to any true ‘village,’ we have our elders, our Grandmother in Residence, currently our “Tata” from Lebanon who has lived through war and still has faith in humanity. Instead of seeing immigrant neighbors as assimilating, the Kafenia sees their communal values vital to steering our American culture on a positive course.

But for me the most powerful part of the Kafenia is just the courage it has taken to bring this to life. It’s been a dream I’ve had for many years to host a beautiful, internationally welcoming space, but I’ve been afraid of how to make it viable and how to do it while raising our 3 year old daughter Evvie. What’s helped the most is community -- I joined a cooperative social business incubator program in Oakland where I’ve been with an incredibly supportive group of entrepreneurs who are practicing a kinder, less driven style of innovation. I am starting small – now once a month, moving hopefully to once a week and eventually to a permanent space.

If you are ever in Palo Alto, my dream is that you will not say “let’s go visit Google or Facebook,” but instead, “Let’s visit the Kafenia.” Or better yet, open a Kafenia or reimagined social space in your community.


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