“They’re plastic.” Aris Evangelinos snatched the komboloi from Peter’s hand and put a match to it. The orange and yellow beads—my gift to Peter less than a week ago—were wrapped in flames. Aris waited a moment, put his nose to the beads and sniffed. I scanned the beads’ edges. Plastic would melt, amber would burn; Peter’s komboloi did neither.
Aris was uncertain. Peter’s mood improved immediately. We had bought Peter’s strand of Greek “worry beads” in Crete a week ago and ever since then, we’d been worrying.
Aris lit another match. The flames lingered.
“Well,” I said before he could light a third, “what are they?”
The komboloi was not the standard olivewood or monochromatic plastic. Peter’s beads looked like geologic tie-dye—hundreds of layers of red and orange with sepia swirls and bursts of sunsets. The beads, we had been told in the small shop in Crete where we had bought them, were some mixture of amber and stone from China.
“Plastic,” said the owner of our hotel when he saw them. He pulled from a pocket his own komboloi —deep red, as if cut from a glass of claret sitting in the sun. “Amber,” he said, “from the Komboloi Museum in Nafplion.”
Over the past few hundred years, the Greeks have evolved worrying from a lowly pedestrian experiment to high art. Worrying became colorful, rhythmic, sensuous. And after that, who was worried? The komboloi all but cured anxiety. In many countries beads are associated with prayer, but on the streets of contemporary Greece, a komboloi supplies calm companionship and a certain chic.
Peter wanted one. He wanted an internal, rhythmic grasp of the whirling or slow, drip-dripping komboloi he heard everywhere in Greece. Why were all these people playing with beads? Komboloi ticked and twirled in the hands of restaurant patrons waiting for tables. The beads dropped slowly, one at a time, through the fingers, rapping softly but resoundingly on the bead below like secret code. There were rhythms for every mood, lengths for every hand, beads for every budget. They wrapped around young and old fingers alike, and Peter wanted to know why all these rhythms, combined, sounded like the collective pulse of Greece.
The komboloi, traditionally a male distraction, caught my attention too. There was something appealing about an ancient, compact, aesthetic, low-tech antidote to Palm Pilots, cell phones and Internet access anywhere anytime in the split-second timing of the 21st century. Stroking beads sends an entirely different message to the brain than jabbing at keyboards; even rhythms unlock a portal to a place light years from the office. The komboloi is an ancient codex for “be here now.” And one of the best places to decipher its mystery is at Aris Evangelinos’ Komboloi Museum.
The Komboloi Museum is a candy store for the anxious. One wall is covered to the ceiling in strands of cabernet red, amber orange, and saffron yellow beads. They are smooth to the touch and feel like poetry to the fingertips. Some are translucent, others built of so many layers that the eye loses its way before the center is discerned. The strands closer to the window glow in early morning or midday light.
The Museum is located in Nafplion, a tree and fortress-filled, seaside town on the eastern edge of the Peloponnese. Here, Aris Evangelinos repairs older komboloi and sells contemporary versions of traditional designs. Hanging on the back wall are black and white photos of a komboloi workshop in Egypt, and the first Greek workshop to make the beads. Upstairs is a museum of rosaries and prayer beads Aris has collected during his travels over more than twenty years.
Unfortunately, we did not make a good first impression. We arrived with a komboloi of questionable quality; we were obviously too ignorant to be buyers of consequence. I retreated up a well-worn, narrow staircase to the museum. Here were four small rooms full of beads—Hindu and Buddhist, Moslem and Christian and Greek. Made from red and black coral, cedar and sandalwood, glass, Bakelite, snake’s bone, or mother of pearl, some strands held as few as nineteen beads, others over one hundred. Most surfaces were smooth, but a few had intricately carved or etched designs. A single, rare strand of horn beads from Tibet hung next to three strands of black coral mixed with ivory, silver, and amber; and a length of Chinese beads carved from elephant bones. Amber was clearly the material of choice: there were more than a dozen strands of beads, crimson and rust, gold and flaxen, cherry and brick. Most pieces were dated between 1750 and 1950.
By the display of Greek komboloi was a typed sign, heavily edited, which in its original format stated: “The only country in the world that never uses a komboloi for religious purposes. We have take this habit from the Turks (Moslems). We made it little bit different than originally was and it became like a toy in our hands helping us to calm and also to have something to concentrate and gather.” Perplexed grammarians passing through had crossed out certain words and written in others. “The number of the beads is not specified. It depends on the size and the length related to the size of the hand. The total number of the beads has to be an odd one.”
I spent over an hour studying the beads, the signs, and the editing. I also flipped through the book Aris had written and published about his lifetime with the komboloi—his passion for this unassuming strand of beads passed down to him from his grandfather, his trips through Egypt and Turkey searching for workshops that made quality beads.
“The eyes alone cannot decide which is the best and most beautiful,” Aris’s grandfather had told him. “The fingers and the ears must agree as well.”
The most desirable beads, made from solid amber, are all but impossible to find. If you do find a strand, they will be old and very expensive.
Second best are beads made from faturan—amber filings combined with some sort of resin. This is where expertise comes in: the color of the bead; its weight and shape which account for the critically important, harmonious “click” of bead on bead. The edges must be considered—are they rounded or squared off? Is the amber translucent or opaque? And then, there is the all-important final bead, the “priest,” and the tassel. What of the cord on which they are strung? Many of these choices are purely personal, but certain qualities are unarguably superior to others. It was clear Aris was a connoisseur ofkomboloi, and any slip shod, crass, shiny, metal elements or lengths of chain were not to be tolerated.
When I came back down, Peter and Aris were ensconced. They might as well have been sitting on cushions sipping dark, sweet coffee, so thick was the ancient mercantile camaraderie. Aris had been a rug merchant before devoting himself solely to komboloi, and his history and expertise showed through his uptown connoisseur-ship. It was Peter, the shop-a-phobic who breaks out in hives at the entrance to a mall, who surprised me. He truly wanted one of Aris’ amber komboloi. But not too expensive.
“Do you have any contemporary komboloi as fine as the old ones upstairs?” I asked. “Or the komboloi that belonged to your grandfather?”
Aris looked up. After a hard scan of my eyes, he opened a drawer under his desk and pulled out a strand of heavy, red, solid amber beads.
“This belonged to my grandfather,” he said. Peter and I both knew better than to reach for it. Komboloi etiquette is clear: never touch unless you’re invited to. Some believe that the komboloi takes on the aura of its owner, and it can wreak havoc with your inner rhythms if someone else clicks your beads.
“Is this the piece that launched your life’s journey?” I asked. Finally Aris smiled.
He replaced his grandfather’s komboloi. Then he reached down to a drawer hidden beneath the counter, withdrew a tangerine colored komboloi and passed it to Peter. Slowly, Peter ran the beads through his fingers. He held them to his ear and listened as one bead clicked the next. He rubbed the beads lightly between his fingers and sniffed the air above them. Aris watched and waited and finally went back to work. Eventually Peter cleared his throat and asked if there might not be one more komboloi he might see. Aris scowled and sighed while Peter smiled and stroked the beads, and the whole process began all over again.
While Peter studied Aris’s wares, Aris had another look at Peter’s original komboloi. He ran a fingernail over the surface, studied the inside holes. What combination of resin and amber, plastic and stone might this be? But now, he was being stumped by an earnest student—and a potential client—which made the unresolved mystery less annoying. For Peter, the enigma only improved his feelings for his day-glo komboloi.
I studied the monochromatic candy-colored komboloi in the window. There was a deep red strand of 19 transparent beads to which my eye kept returning. I looked at various shades of orange and yellow, but none equaled the warm nuggets of solid claret. For six dollars, worrying had never looked so appealing. I took it from the hook, allowed my fingers and ears their input, and a few minutes later, decided these were the beads for me.
Twenty minutes later, Aris was still pulling komboloi from drawers for Peter. He sighed loudly, opened another drawer and withdrew a strand of faturan. Twenty-one beads, both transparent and opaque, it radiated a deep warmth and, when rubbed lightly between the fingers, the faint warm-earth scent of amber. Peter smiled. Here, at last, was his amberkomboloi.
On a flight a few weeks later, we hit bad turbulence. I watched a few rows ahead of me, as 25B’s breakfast burrito hovered twelve inches above her tray table. The flight attendant lunged for the dish; the captain pushed for seatbelts; I fished for mykomboloi.
In the seat next to me, an ophthalmologist stowed his Palm Pilot. He glanced at the strand of symmetrical, crimson beads that I held in my hands. The edges were flat, like burnished slices of a crystalline tube. I was squeezing the glowing nuggets through my fingers, moving one at a time along the coiled red cord.
“Turbulence like this is enough to give me religion, too,” he said.
“Oh, I’m not religious. I’m nervous. These are Greek,” I managed.
The smooth beads eased through my fingertips, edging toward a short length of cord and the next bead, arriving with a calming “click.” The light in the beads or their soothing rhythm caught his two-year old daughter’s attention, and instinctively, she reached for them.
His wife, arms clenched around the child, studied my technique. A tense minute passed, and another, but the air got no calmer. “Whatever they are,” she said finally, eyeing my nuggets of sunny claret, “could you work them a little faster?”
Mija Riedel writes about travel and the arts. She has written for Islands, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Herald, St. Petersburg Times, American Craft, Metalsmith, and numerous other publications. Currently she is a field researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, on the West Coast. She has traveled, studied, and taught in Austria, Australia, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Fiji, Greece, Guatemala, Hawaii, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Spain, and the Western U.S. She grew up in New York and lives in San Francisco.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.