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The Greek Komboloi: Through Generations and Even a Debt Crisis Too

If you look closely enough from the street corners in Athens and Salonika to the tavernas on the Greek islands' horia, you will certainly see one thing the same as your last trip to Greece.
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In most cultures, there is a sense of worry--heightened levels of anxiety in which individuals will turn to inanimate objects for a sense of relief. However, the only culture to this day that has legitimate "worry beads," is the Greek culture. Worry beads evolved from the Greek word for prayer rope. Komboloi comes from the Greek word kombos, which means "knot," and the verb leo, meaning "to say." It therefore translates to "in each knot, say a prayer." The Greek Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in Northern Greece initially created the beads as a way to count prayer. They would do this by stranding beads together, tying knots on a string at regular intervals each time they prayed. In modern Greece, these beads have become a symbol of Greek culture and have adopted several uses. They are used for prayer, for fidgeting, for flipping the strung beads around your fingers; yet, the most common use (and most tainted from original purpose) of komboloi beads is for protection.

When I visited Greece growing up, all the papou's (grandfather's) in their respective horio (village) would sit at the cafes counting or spinning their kombolois. My papou, who immigrated to New York around 1948, always carried his komboloi. This was not uncommon for Greek immigrants; kombolois were and still are often found around the house as décor. I would sit for breakfast with him while he read the newspaper with his burnt-orange komboloi hanging from his left hand. Each day I would challenge my papou to tavli (backgammon) -- a game he taught me on the island he grew up on in Greece. The clacking of the komboloi blended with the dice rolling on the tavli board. One time, I was convinced that I had made a very strategic move because my papou was taking what felt like forever to take his turn to my eleven-year-old self. He was passing each bead through his hand, one dropping onto the next. "Papou?" "Oh, is it my turn?" He was in his own world with his komboloi, absent from our present game of tavli. A little disheartened that he had forgotten our game, I asked, "Papou, what do those even do?" pointing to his komboloi. "They protect us from our worries," he responded making his next move. He handed me the dice and the game went on.

When I think back to that day, the last tavli game we shared, I linger over his answer. I've always believed he's been protected by all of his hard work. My papou grew up on Lemnos, a northern island in Greece, in a home occupied by Germans. He traveled two and a half hours by foot to the capital of the island twice a week to earn his high school degree. He not only survived, but also embraced a life-changing journey to America by becoming an engineer and rising through the ranks at Con Edison while raising a family and living the American Dream. He survived triple bypass surgery in his mid-fifties and just after his 80th birthday, he survived a severe stroke, one that doctors expressed their pessimism about his remaining years. Yet, my papou embraced his immigrant roots and worked hard to earn back his speech and ability to walk. And somehow he still believed that his komboloi protected him.

Everyone has superstitions. To each, no personal superstition seems overly outlandish; yet, to those outside their world, they can seem absurd and, quite frankly, preposterous. Superstitions cannot be found etched in stone, nor written anywhere in the Bible. However, they can be found ingrained in a culture's identity. My own komboloi, which my papou purchased for me in Myrina, the capital of his home island, rests on my bookshelf.

This summer, the komboloi takes on even greater meaning and significance in Greece. As Greeks await an uncertain economic future, many will be reaching for their kombolois seeking one of the object's many abilities. While the heavy influx of tourists continues unabated to the Cradle of Civilization, many a euro being spent, much seafood eaten, and the avra (soft winds off the sea) still refreshing, the Greeks contemplate their economic future and whether to stay in the Eurozone. But if you look closely enough from the street corners in Athens and Salonika to the tavernas on the Greek islands' horia, you will certainly see one thing the same as your last trip to Greece. You will notice kombolois spinning as they have for generations, with the old men who twirl them seeking protection but knowing well that in the end everything will work out. After all, it has for the past 2,500 years.