A great introduction to modern Greece

It could almost be a travel guide but it has a story as well.   “Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens” by Sofka Zinovieff is a great answer to all those Greeks which get over excited about anything in international media even remotely negative about this country.

Athenian friends had told us we were mad to want to bring up our children where they were bringing up theirs. ‘Greece is good for holidays but not for living,’ they said. ‘It’s impossible to work, and it’s unbearably hot.’ I recalled various British friends who just thought that Athens was hideous and polluted.

Yep.   Indeed a common start to any conversation.   Ι will pack some copies next time I go abroad on business to answer them.  Her international experience and eye for detail puts it all in perspective.

Athens may be an ancient city, but it is also uncompromisingly modern. And there’s hardly anything else in between the two extremes. It’s almost as though the Athenians went straight from carved marble to reinforced concrete, skipping the intervening centuries. 

 The vehicle is perfect.   Her husband is Greek and she has two daughters to explain Greece to.   So it reads less like a pedantic travel guide and more like a novel.   From the beginning it is amusing:

Searching for somewhere to rent quickly got depressing. We enjoyed the fireplaces disguised as the Parthenon and the plaster caryatids and classical columns that were scattered around brand new houses like icing sugar decorations on wedding cakes. And we laughed about the ubiquitous and horrible, dungeon-like room known euphemistically in Greek as the playroom. But we didn’t want to live in these places. Friends from the more traditional, inland suburbs of Kifissia, Maroussi and Psychiko, in northern Athens, were sardonic. They told us pointedly that the seaside areas we were exploring were especially popular with ex-basketball players, the nouveaux riches, and Russian mafiosi.   We’d never get through a winter there, they said.

She doesn’t always manage to blend in.   But even the failures show the limits of differences:

Even I (who have always needed my sleep) was becoming accustomed to going out to dinner at ten or eleven p.m., and staying up until three a.m. or later. I remembered, somewhat ashamedly, how I had once requested to meet some friends for dinner at eight-thirty. I had been howled down:

‘What do you take us for, Germans?’ 

The author does love Greece.   But not in the exaggerated way some foreigners do.   She always has a deep reason and a simple fact to illustrate things:

As I walked down into the centre of town, I marvelled at how Athens has managed to keep so much charm in spite of the abuse it has suffered. Even in the most modernized districts there is often a sense of neighbourhood. You still have the same neighbours, even if you now see them across fourth-floor balconies instead of on the front door steps, and the local kiosk, grocery, coffee shop and church still hold central positions in daily life. 

I assume this new breed of Grecofanatics will find some bone to pick in one of her descriptions.   But as far as I’m concerned they are almost always spot on.   Insightful in ways that people living here can hardly understand, particularly since everybody is cutting down on international travel lately.    Here she walks into the civil service:

He invited me to see his office one day, and we walked through the old, scruffy building which was just about to be renovated. Long, dusty corridors gave onto rooms where civil servants sat drinking the ubiquitous frappe (iced Nescafe), smoking furiously, and playing patience on their computers. They were perhaps the bureaucrats known as ‘chair-centaurs,’ who are supposedly so inseparable from their desks that they seem to be welded to their chairs, as the centaur’s human top is joined to his horse legs. 

And the author’s anthropological background obviously comes in useful.   Admire this succing description of the most popular of Greek words:

They insulted the boys by using the word for ‘wanker’, malakas, and became highly adept at using this astonishingly versatile and common epithet. It is not only a slur on somebody ignorant or incapable, but is used by friends as an affectionate equivalent to the English ‘mate’. Thus, teenage boys can interject ‘ela malaka’ (‘Come on, you wanker’) between every other word, but it is still strong enough to be used as a satisfying insult by an angry driver or an abandoned girlfriend.

 In some ways, as I look at the quotes I chose, I am not sure anymore if this is “a great introduction to modern Greece”.  The economic crisis is changing most of these carefully painted portraits.   But if anyone can do a good description of the next phase of Greek life, my vote goes to Sofka Zinovieff.

Leave a Comment