The 1989 movie Shirley Valentine, a tribute to the phenomenon of Greek kamaki
There’s no denying it – Greece is a very sexy place in the summer. The pace of life slows right down and the air hums with the buzz of thousands of cicadas. And like so many others here in the summertime, those noisy little bugs have just one thing on their mind.
But while amorous insects and balmy summer nights have remained a quintessential part of the Greek summer, there is one element of summer in Greece which seems to have disappeared, that of the traditional Greek art of flirting, known affectionately as ‘kamaki’.
It used to be that once upon a time, the art of kamaki was as inseparable from summer holidays as ouzo or souvlaki.
The word kamaki literally translates to harpoon. It’s about “fishing” for a summer romance with a foreign woman, and when you go fishing, you have to be patient and just keep at it until you catch something. Such was the case with kamaki. Talk to anyone who came of age in the 70s and 80s and they’ll tell you tale after tale of women from colder climes who flocked to Greece to get an annual fix of that famous Greek kamaki.
But these days, a little bit of quick research online and I found that women of the older generation, those who lived through the height of it, will tell you that even though it irritated them in their younger days, kamaki is a dying art, and one that they miss.
When I first aired the idea for this piece in my office, Maria, one of my colleagues and one of the youngest members of our team swung her chair around to give me a live demo of kamaki.
“Wow! What a doll! Hey hey! What a woman! Hi baby!” she crooned.
We all laughed. This was her crude take on the vintage kamaki of days gone by, but connoisseurs will tell you that it wasn’t like that. Authentic kamaki was an art of flirting that was practically kabuki-esque in nature.
Back in the day, kamaki, specifically Greek men flirting with foreign women on holiday, was personified by the myth of the Greek lover: persistent, dressed entirely in white with a gold medallion drowning in the hair of his chest, with broken English and drenched in aftershave. It was as cheesy as it was cheesily charming.
I speak to some foreign women living in Greece for several decades and they share their stories of how these types would hover around airports and ferries when “hunting season” opened, trying relentlessly to harpoon girls.
There’s the story of “Kamaki Nick” from Crete who used to go to the beach early, place towels all over the beach and then wait for an unsuspecting tourist to place hers next to one of his so he couldn’t be accused to chasing her. Or the guy who used the same pick up line of wanting to practice his English on the same woman many times, sometimes even during the same day, having forgotten that he already tried to hit on her once.
“I absolutely loved kamaki, particularly if both parties enjoyed the verbal exchange, but it is dying today. In fact, men here today remind me of men in other countries of western Europe about two decades ago.” lamented one friend. Another shared a poem from a kamaki in the 90s: “You and me, under the tree, making love while the birds go tsiou tsiou.” Who said romance is dead?
Greek men are too shy now, they tell me. They said that kamaki of days gone by, which was at its finest in the 80s and 90s, was a sweet interjection in daily life, a particularly Greek way of flirting which they used to enjoy but which has since vanished. It made you feel good, womanly, they said. They miss the boldness and the flattery of it. The men now just don’t flirt any more. “Especially if they’re under 45 or those hipster types with beards? You can forget it. They don’t do kamaki.” said one of the women I spoke to.
But if you look carefully, you’ll discover that kamaki is alive and well. If the streetside kamaki of shouting out “Hey doll” or “What a smile” is fading today, it’s only because it’s moved online to more sophisticated mediums in the hands of more sophisticated users. Clued up, modern, technology rich and time poor, Greece’s millennials are giving the art of kamaki a new lease of life.
On a warm May afternoon, I meet with Adonis (not his real name) at Flisvos Marina. He’s 31 and a fitness instructor (not his real job either, but close enough to what he does and you’ll soon see why he needs the physical stamina). In his lovelife, he specialises in selling the myth of the perfect Greek lover, the ideal summer romance. I soon learn that he is digital-era kamaki in the flesh.
He tells me how it works. Modern kamaki has moved online onto a host of apps like Tinder which make instantly meeting someone easier than ever. “I don’t live downtown, so it saves me time.” he explains in breathtakingly simple terms. Apps have opened a whole new world to guys like Adonis. Through apps, it’s not been than unusual for him to spend a different night with a different female tourist every day of the week.
So what’s it all about for him? Sex, company, friendship? A little bit of all three. Adonis says Greek girls hold no interest for him, he finds them “snobbish” in his own words, and he’s never been with one. He likes meeting women from other cultures, and presents them with the illusion of the perfect summer romance which they are seemingly happy to buy into. We scroll through his phone: “She was from Columbia, this one here, she’s from Korea. This girl was from Brazil. Tunisia. Japan.”
And so on and so on, through an endless stream of pictures with different girls where Adonis is playing the role of temporary boyfriend to perfection. He really goes for it. “Do you tell them you love them?” I ask. “I do, and I really insist on that even if they think I’m just saying that, which to tell you the truth, I am.” he replies. At least he’s honest, just maybe not with the girls he sees. But perhaps they know that anyway and choose to ignore it.
“So do you want to tell me a number?” I ask, digging into the cake that he won’t eat because he’s on a diet. “Sure” he says. “I’d say it’s about 200 women from around 50 countries.” I nod, faking cool journalistic professionalism, but I’m gobsmacked. How did someone so young get to that many women that quickly? His record was 17 girls during a four and a half day trip to Barcelona. “They weren’t one at a time.” he clarifies. “Got it!” I say. That’s plenty of detail for me.
It doesn’t always go smoothly. There is the girl who got “Adonis, I love you forever” tattooed on her arm, and the drunk Canadian tourist who went berserk when he refused to sleep with her. Not all his flirting takes place online ‒ if he sees someone who interests him, he’ll strike up a conversation.
He says that his ultimate goal is for the girls to have a good time. “If they’re happy, then I’m happy.” Adonis is very open about his dating life. He had told me he had no problem with me using his real name and details. But I decided not to, because he was just so darn nice. Adonis is polite and charming. He takes care with his personal appearance, not a medallion or hairy chest in sight. He speaks perfect English and four other languages. I can see why girls find his illusion of the dream summer romance so beguiling.
So far I have one consensus that kamaki is dead, another that’s it’s alive but online, so I go to speak to the one person I know could set me straight about whether face-to-face kamaki really has bitten the dust in Greece. On a Friday night, I drop by one of Athens most famous vintage nightlife institutions, the Boom Boom Discotheque. This place has been going since the 80s and is one of those very rare venues that has crossed the thin boundary between being so kitsch it’s terrible and has reached the level of being so kitsch it’s amazing. There are helium balloons and little chintzy LED lamps with Disney characters on each table. I love it.
Sitting on leopard-print seats as disco lights and lava lamps swirl around us, the proprietor DJ Soulis, the authentic breed of the Greek kamaki of days gone by, looks offended when I suggest that kamaki is dead. “Of course it’s not dead! How else do you think people get married?” he says.
“It all depends on the woman. If the woman isn’t interested, nothing can possibly happen.” he says. At 71, he’s seen decades of flirting on his venue’s dance floor, and he insists that people still flirt.
“The problem today is that everyone today is waiting for Monica Bellucci to walk by. It won’t happen! In my opinion there is no such thing as an ugly woman. Make sure you write that down” he says, waving his cigarette at my notepad. “Every single woman has something special about her. You just have to look for it.”
“Sometimes I’ll see a truck driver or something hanging out of his truck shouting ‘Oh my God what a woman!’ That’s moronic. That’s not kamaki. You can’t take this tacky way of flirting and baptize it as kamaki.”
So where did the kamaki go? He looks at me. “You’re really obsessed with this, aren’t you?” he asks. I can’t help it, I reply, the health status of kamaki is the central premise of my article. DJ Soulis draws on his cigarette again. “Maybe people are doing kamaki online now, but the real deal is actual interaction. It’s all in the eyes. She looks at you, you look at her. The man might decide whether he wants her for an hour, a night, or more, but the woman is the one who chooses the man.
“Kamaki can change your life. It could lead to just a few minutes conversation, or it could lead to a marriage and a family. Mark my words, it’s not dead.” he says, with a wink. The disco is about to start and I make my move to leave. As I do so he hands me a little souvenir from my visit. It’s a pink bag with Barbie on the outside, and one of those little LED lamps with a “I love Boom Boom” sticker on it. This might just be the best perk of the job I’ve ever received.
As I drive home, the seafront avenue on is jam-packed with cars. Summer has officially arrived and the night is warm. Everyone is out, heading to beachfront cafes and clubs. The air buzzes with the promise of the possibility that every Friday night holds for someone free and single out on the town. “It’s raining men” is playing on the radio of one of the cars crawling along the traffic with me.
Tonight in the bars and clubs of Athens, people will meet, either after catching each other’s eyes or after whipping out their smartphones. Girls on holiday will go looking for the myth of the flirtatious Greek lover, and they might just find him. They’ll chat, flirt and get to know each other and the practised art of kamaki will come alive once more.