A Place in Athens
by Sofka Zinovieff
Reviewed by David Wills
This is an account of the first year of a new life. A foreign woman married to a Greek moves to his homeland, with their two daughters, and describes her experiences and her attempts to fit in. As such, this book forms part of long tradition of accounts of foreign residents in Greece dating back at least sixty years (Wills 2005). It includes many of the themes familiar from its predecessors. For example, the author has encounters with “timeless” Greece: olive harvesting “could have been a scene from any time in the last few thousand years, if you ignored the tarmac and the large jeeps speeding by every so often” (72). Aspects of modernisation are commented upon negatively: “once pretty villages are now swamped with advertising hoardings and tasteless new developments” (219).
However, this is a much more reflective book than most about how foreigners view Greece. This is what we might expect of an anthropologist. Indeed, Zinovieff holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge, and a central theme of her 1980s fieldwork in the Peloponnese was the activities of the kamakia who try to sexually “spear” female tourists (Zinovieff 1991). As with her earlier anthropological work, in Eurydice Street Zinovieff’s interest lies in the negotiation of identity between East and West that she finds taking place in Greece. Zinovieff admits that, like so many others from Britain, she has had a “love affair” with Greece: “I colluded with Greek friends to create an image of my country as a sort of Dickensian, fog-bound place, and Greece as a land where the sunny skies reflected personal freedoms and passions” (10). She describes a country in the throes of trying to achieve practical and intellectual conformity with European “norms.” Hotels have to be “brought into line with EU directives on hygiene” (35), and a Greek friend agonises “Can Greece become European without losing her soul?” (158). There is much discussion about immigration to Greece, an issue that causes anxiety amongst Athenians about the dissipation of “Greekness.”
As an immigrant herself and as the subtitle of the book suggests, Zinovieff is searching for her “place.” At first, she believes that “I’d always be an outsider” (3). She fears that she “might become one those horrific ex-pats, who only see problems everywhere in Greece” (19). However, she finds herself swept along as her children become progressively more integrated. By the end of her account she has “started to love and understand my adopted city” (263). Zinovieff challenges the reactions of other travel writers to Greece. She does not entirely reject the existence of Zorba-like exuberance but gives a more nuanced than usual take on this aspect of the Greek character (pointing out, for example, that it is not often exhibited by women) (47-8). There is a refreshing lack of the stock eccentrics prevalent in travel writing about Greece. Greek hospitality—oft cited in many other accounts—is said not to have reached the halls of Greek bureaucracy (43).
Zinovieff’s attempts to acquaint previously unfamiliar readers with the recent history of Athens (and, indeed, Greece) are achieved without leaving a feeling of disconnection from the first-person nature of her account. Reflections upon the foundation of the Greek state, the monarchy, and the development of Athens as the capital, arise from viewing nineteenth century buildings during a walking tour. Other defining moments of Greek history are recounted through Zinovieff’s conversations with locals: the loss of Constantinople in 1453, exchange of populations with Turkey in 1922, the Second World War, the Civil War, the Colonels’ regime of 1967-74, and recent terrorist attacks. Zinovieff devotes little time and space to the ancient monuments and has little new to say about them. This may be explained by her sentiment that “I dislike it when Greece’s present is swamped by the distant past” (217).
In Zinovieff’s hands, Athens is viewed positively as a city of contrasts—ancient and modern, Eastern and Western. She emphasises the existence of sights beyond the “universal icon” (48) that is the Parthenon. At Omonia Square, for example, Athens “retains its oriental legacy; you can imagine yourself back into Ottoman times, when there were mosques as well as markets and merchants” (35). This is also an “uncompromisingly modern” city (3), “where you can choose between visiting a chic Indian restaurant, a designer-kitsch gay bar with fusion cuisine, or a converted warehouse specializing in mussels” (117). The modern concrete sprawl of Athens is recognized as being borne of necessity in the need for housing during the decades following the Second World War. Zinovieff is in a good position to observe the more recent physical transformation wrought by preparations for the Olympic games of 2004 (74 ff.).
Zinovieff recognizes her place in a long tradition of writing about Greece. She expresses regret that she “arrived too late to see the raw innocence and still untouched, elemental beauty that was written about so eloquently by the wonderful mid-twentieth century British and American writers who loved Greece” (220). But Zinovieff is part of new, most welcome, group of authors. For hers is one of a recent crop of books about residency in Greece set not, as so often, in rural backwaters, but (wholly or extensively) in the city (e.g., Orme-Marmarelis 2004; Sarrinikolaou 2004). After years of neglect and vilification, the capital may finally be getting the travel writers it deserves.
Orme-Marmarelis, Melissa. Vignettes of Modern Greece. River Vale, N.J.: Cosmos Publishing, 2004.
Sarrinikolaou, George. Facing Athens: Encounters with the Modern City. New York: North Point Press, 2004.
Wills, David. “British Accounts of Residency in Greece, 1945-2004,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 23 (2005): 177-197.
Zinovieff, Sofka, “Hunters and Hunted: Kamaki and the Ambiguities of Sexual Predation in a Greek Town.” In Contested Identities: Gender and Kinship in Modern Greece, ed. Peter Loizos and Evthymios Papataxiarchis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, 203-220.
Sofka Zinovieff, Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, London:
ISBN: 1-86207-681-2. £14.99 (hardback).