Sitting outside a cafe, having our morning coffee, we heard a clack coming from the table next to us. It wasn't the familiar smack of nard pieces nor the clickity-clickity-click of spoons in tea glasses, both sounds that, after nearly two months, had recently vanished from our lives. It was the sound of a komboloi, Greek worry beads.
We'd seen men handle strings of beads in a number of cafes, pushing them back and forth between their thumbs and forefingers. I'd assumed they were akin to rosaries - why not pray while you're watching the lotto results or your favorite futbol team? Turns out, that's just the quieter "indoor" komboloi procedure. Things only get into full swing, literally, when there's freedom to be loud. The strand is held at the center with an even weight of beads hanging from each side. One end is swung around the hand to clack against the other side. Then, the other end takes its turn around. Clack! Most men are really good at it, so a seamless rhythm is created with only the slightest movement of the hand. They're really similar to Chinese medicine balls or, at their most basic, a yo-yo.
It seemed absolutely fitting that komboloi would be sold alongside chewing gum and trashy mags at the corner kiosk. Mindless activities. The name komboloi means "bead collection." While their design may be derived from prayer beads, komboloi have never had a higher ceremonial or religious meaning. Some people call them a game, others, a meditation tool. For most, it is merely a habit - like spinning a pen - except instead of carrying around a pen, you get to carry around some pretty beads.
One thing that's intriguing about komboloi is the fact that it seems to be a male-only pastime. Maybe women, historically, never had idle hands? In the Nafplio Folk Museum, the beads were placed in the hands of many models - never female. You'd think women would need "worry beads" (as they are most commonly called) just as much as men.
The city of Nafplio is known for its production of komboloi - there is even a private museum dedicated to them, which we could never find during open hours. Instead, we found this workshop/store, where a very sternly enthusiastic woman showed us the handcrafted products and explained the raw materials from which they were made. The coral and blue coral ones were points of pride, as they came from right there in the Mediterranean. Other high end komboloi are made of amber and crystal - but she told us firmly that only her shop had handmade local products.
I've read that the popularity of the komboloi has been waning since the mid 20th century. Though, I also read that some people use the beads to help them smoke less. Occupy the hands. So maybe what we're seeing is a recent resurgence as smoking bans spread across the country. Judging from this fridge-side Coca Cola ad, I'd say the komboloi's place in Greek culture is pretty safe and sound.