One Greek singer I know occasionally breaks plates against his head while he sings a song of the pains of love. He enhances the rhythm of the piece with the smash of the plates and, in character for the song, tries to ease the pains of romantic love by countering them with physical pain. Usually, breaking plates in praise of a musician or dancer is considered a part of "kefi" - the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy.
A plate might also be broken when two lovers parted, so that they would be able to recognize each other by matching the two halves even if many years passed before they met again. Small split versions of the mysterious Phaistos disk are used by modern Greek jewelers this way, with one half kept and worn by each of the couple.
Money to burn, plates to smash
Breaking plates is also an act which implies abundance - "We have so many plates we can break them!" - similar to lighting a fire with a piece of paper money.
But breaking plates is now considered a "dangerous" practice due to flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and may hit the dancers or musicians. It is officially discouraged and Greece actually requires a license for establishments who want to allow it. (Supposedly, plate smashing replaced another, earlier way of showing approval - by throwing knives into the wooden floors at the dancer's feet.)
By the way, if you're offered plates to throw during dances or other performances - be aware that these plates are not free and they will be tallied up at the end of the evening, usually at least a Euro or two each. They are very expensive noisemakers - try applauding or calling out "Opa!" instead. And if you're wearing sandals, please step carefully through the shards. Closing your eyes at the moment of smashing the plate is also an excellent idea.
In English, the phrase "getting smashed" is slang for getting drunk. Was it first used one morning by a traveler who had a little too much ouzo or tsikoudia, and woke up among the fragments of the previous night's revels, feeling as broken up as the plates around him? We may never know.
Reader Christina Houvarda points out that modern Greeks hold the custom in some disdain. "Nobody breaks plates, as a sign of kefi anymore, people throw flowers instead! In all the bouzoukia or other modern establishments, girls with baskets or plates with flowers go around the tables and sell them to the customers, who throw them to the singers during the program." The club owners find this less-messy, more-fragrant custom to their liking, as do the performers. "It's another commercial "machine" for the night clubs to make money. It is well known that all the singers (especially the famous ones) get a percentage on the consumption of flowers!"
New twists on an old tradition
In recent times, smashing plates has been used to attract attention to Greek restaurants outside of Greece, with "plate smashers" stationed at the doors to periodically toss down another plate and attract the attention of passersby.
Some Greek restaurants even cater to the need of clients to break plates by designating a special "smashing area". Many countries, including Britain and Greece, are regulating the ritualized breaking of plates - though clumsy wait staff still are apparently exempt.
Recently, breaking plates has also been used as a protest - activists wanting to get the so-called "Thessaloniki 7" hunger strikers freed coordinated an international day of smashing plates, with the fragments sent to local Greek embassies with the message that they had been smashed publicly in protest. Did it work? Hard to say, but the hunger strikers were freed the following week, possibly a case of starvation ending with an empty plate rather than a full one.
Personally I still think the best use for a Greek plate is to make sure its filled with souvlaki, and the only plates I pay for in Greece are carefully wrapped up and placed deep in my luggage so they arrive home in only one piece.
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