Why you should care

The answer you’re looking for might lie at the bottom of your cup.

“You cry a lot lately,” says Mary Kontolouri as she looks into my empty cup of coffee. “Your family is going through a painful time.”

I do. We are. How the hell did she know that?

An ancient divinatory art called tasseography. Kontolouri is reading my leftover coffee grounds in her coffee shop, To Flitzani, in a run-down, blue-collar neighborhood of Athens. Hers is the first cafe in Greece that, for $23, offers customers the chance to sip good coffee and glimpse their future.

The practice of tasseography had always been conducted in secret.

Granted, the concept might sound like a PR gimmick. But Greek women have secretly been practicing this peculiar divination method for centuries — in kitchens, salons and dorms. It usually involves emptying the last drops of a cup in a saucer and interpreting the shapes of the coffee remains using a combination of symbol spotting and intuition. Kontolouri only opened To Flitzani a year ago, after quitting her well-paying job as a TV journalist. Having practiced coffee reading for years, she thought “it was time to break the taboo around it” — tasseography had always been conducted in secret. “I wanted to make it social and fun,” Kontolouri explains.

The bar looks nothing like the dark, incense-filled hole I pictured when a friend first told me about it: No red velvet curtains, rusty candelabra or crystal balls in sight. The spacious cafe actually feels more like a posh tearoom, with large windows, comfy white sofas and low tables. Upstairs, a couple of rooms are used for private divination sessions.

Despite Greece’s economic crisis, business at To Flitzani is booming. Appointments need to be booked in advance, and the cafe is packed with people downing coffees and asking big life questions: Will my husband leave me? Will my business take off? Traditionally, tasseography has appealed to women, but Kontolouri has many regular male customers, and not only from Athens. People even fly in from Dubai to learn about their fate, and some send their cups by courier.

Madness? Maybe. Still, even a poker-faced skeptic like me must admit Kontolouri’s predictions are pretty spot-on. “WTF, she must have stalked me on Facebook before I came!” I think to myself as she describes my partner in shocking detail.

To be sure, this could all be a trap for people with more money than sense. “We all have a deep desire for a cosmic plan,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Fortune-tellers manipulate this desire by making predictions that are either unverifiable or so vague they could ring true for anyone, he adds. It’s more about reading nonverbal cues: “It’s a skill, not magic.”

But whether it’s paranormal or psychological, it’s successful as a moneymaker. Kontolouri is soon opening a new, bigger location in Kolonaki — Athens’ poshest neighborhood. After all, there should be no such thing as a risky business move when your business is predicting the future.

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