Long unkempt and greasy hair, bushy mustaches, unbuttoned silk shirts that show off hairy chests and gold crosses on golden chains—it might not be what Greeks like me want the rest of the world to think we look like, but in the 1970s and 80s that was how a foreigner would describe us.
The men who popularized the archetypal image of that period were called "kamaki"—a Greek slang word for the kind of guy who spends most of his time in tourist areas trying to pick up girls. Kissing a Greek girl back then would amount to asking for her hand in marriage, but that wasn't the case for the English and Scandinavian girls visiting Greece in the summer. In the years before the Greek military junta of 1967 to 74, Greece's unique offering of sea, sun, and sand covered in semi-naked bodies led to a surge in tourism. The Sexual Revolution had just taken over the West, so young people from that part of the world traveled to Greece in search of a frantic summer of love. “Doctors, lawyers, builders—all young men of my generation were kamakis. You see, Greek girls didn’t really go out then,” John Klouvas, one of the most popular kamakis of the time, told me last time I visited the island of Rhodes. “We were sexually hungry and AIDS didn't exist. I was born in 1955—around 1970, when I was 15, mass tourism exploded. It was thanks to those foreign girls that we came of age. All the Greek girls wanted was to get married. All my friends ended up married to foreign girls.”
Western girls also quickly realized that it was in Greece, where they could satisfy their sexual frustrations. According to Klouvas, the men who visited Greece from abroad were no match for the Greeks for one simple reason: “In order for a European to approach a woman, he’d need to have three or four drinks in him. We were hot-blooded, audacious Mediterranean men. We didn’t need to drink. We’d cut to the chase straight away and that would flatter the women. Plus, as a rule, we’d never hit on a woman if we stank of alcohol.” George Evgenikos, who is now a respectable business man living in Rhodes, jumped in to describe how easy picking up girls used to be: “I was hanging out with a friend at the beach and he pointed to a Swedish girl, saying 'She’s a beauty.' I went on a date with her that same evening. But, I couldn’t make love to her so I took her to meet a friend of mine, who also thought she was stunning. I asked him if he had ever had sex and he said no. 'Do you want to have sex tonight?' I asked. Of course his answer was yes. I told the girl that I couldn’t make love to her that night, but that my friend was up for it. And, that’s how he lost his virginity.”
It goes without saying that nothing was left to chance—the kamakis were nothing if not organized.
“It would always be 'the main guy,' who spoke a foreign language and knew how to approach women. He'd make the first move of the night. Then, the follow-up act would make his appearance and focus on one of the least beautiful women so that no one was left alone at bedtime. When the main guy got tired of his girl after a couple days, another guy from the group would sweep in and console her.” "We had many tricks up our sleeves, too," said Klouvas. "For instance, there was a group of kamakis who wore an airline pin on their shirt and pretended they were pilots. They'd tell girls they flew wherever they were from. They would keep a pilot’s suit hanging on the living room door, for when they took girls home. They thought pilots were interesting to women and I guess they weren't wrong.” "The most common trick was playing ball on the beach and throwing it towards the girls we liked. We'd always pick those with pearly white skin—it was the only way we could be sure they were tourists.”
"There were also kamakis who went exclusively after the older women," laughed Evgenikos. "We called them 'garbage men.' They were the ones who did not speak English well, didn’t like taking risks, and would wait around for whatever was left over each night." At that point, Klouvas lowered his eyes. "Don’t be quick to dismiss the kamakis," he said. "We played a rather important role in boosting tourism. We formed relationships with people and those English and Scandinavian families would travel back and forth to Greece because of their daughters. They’d bring back their friends and relatives. The bars were always full and there was a lot of dancing—especially to Boney M." According to both, that institution of Greek tourism is far from dead: “I have a bar where about 15 to 20 kamakis hang out," Klouvos said. "Of course, they’re all in their golden years, a little worn out, but the women that come here are all the same anyway. These days, instead of Scandinavians, we get Russian girls. But under the ideal circumstances anything can happen. The kamaki never stopped existing, he just went out of fashion.”
"How come?" I wondered. "Is it that sexual liberation has given way to sexual deprivation?" “Greek girls are actually 'easier' than the tourists who visit Greece these days," Evgenikos replied. "At least the tourist who decides to sleep with you does so because she likes you—Greek girls don’t even know why they do what they do most of the time.” The comparisons seem inevitable: “Today's men are definitely better dressed. We were broke back then but the big difference is that we were 'manlier.' That 'masculinity' that drove our thirst for women has sort of disappeared. Maybe I'm too old but, back then, if you had a girl you’d take her on a stroll to show her off to your friends," maintained Klouvos. “I met my wife because of a bet,” reminisced Evgenikos. “I was a barman at a club called Embassy. In walked my wife with three other Swedish girls. I bet my friend that I would get her to go out with me. I went up to her and we made plans to go on a date the following day. But, she stood me up and I lost the bet.”
"A year later I was working as a manager in a shop, when a beautiful, blond Swedish girl approached me. It was that same girl, but I didn’t recognize her—she had grown so much more beautiful. We went out the following night. Not too long after that, she left for Sweden and I followed her.” John Klouvas married a Finnish girl. “All my friends got married to foreign girls. Admittedly some of them got divorced and then got married to Greek women—relationships with Swedish women, in particular, didn’t last long. Maybe Greek and Swedish temperaments are a natural clash.” On the ferry back to Athens, I got to wondering whether the Greek kamaki could stand next to tzatziki, mousaka, and Molotov bombs as a cultural cliché. Maybe once, but probably not today. Which made me feel a little sad, but then again, I think I'll be alright.
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