18th June 2004
THE best way to understand the oddness of what it means to be Greek, the race which invented the concept of civilisation, is to become Greek yourself.
Sofka Zinovieff docs just that. As an anthropologist, the author observes the process with an objective eye: as a wife and mother, it’s nothing less than total immersion.
Sofka already knew something of what lay in store. Some 15 years before she and her husband Vassilis, a Greek diplomat, moved their family to Athens, she had spent three post¬graduate years on an island in the Peloponnese.
With her Ph.D achieved, she had taken time out to search for her paternal roots in Russia.
She meets Vassilis on the steps of the Greek Embassy in Moscow, where she is researching the plight of the Pontian Greeks, a persecuted minor¬ity from the shores of the Black Sea.
Romance changes everything. ‘Ever since I met Vassilis, we’d dreamed about going to live in Greece.
The dream becomes reality when the couple, with two small children in tow, find their room with a view — actually, a maisonette with small rooms and little charm in an unglamorous suburb of Athens.
The attraction is ‘a spacious terrace surveying what looked like half of Greece’ from which, in the distance across the glittering waters of the Satanic Gulf, can be seen, the island, where the author’s English mother was courted by her Russian father.
The maisonette also happens to be in Eurydice Street, leading, as might be expected in a land where mythol¬ogy is part of the fabric, to Orpheus Street — and thence, it must be supposed, to Hades, the land of the dead from which the beautiful Eurydice, poisoned by a snakebite, is rescued by the merry tunes of Orpheus, only to be returned to the shadows when her lover looks back.
The omens are clear. The die is cast. Athenian friends and relatives tell them they’re out of their minds, but the couple have made their decision.
REALITY bites as soon as they drive off the Jetty. ‘The new high-way to Athens was like a soft, steaming slick of black treacle.. .it felt, as though we were being roasted alive in a tin can.’
It is mid-July, everyone else is driving the other way, heading for the islands and the cool breezes of the Adriatic.
The mountain-ringed bowl of the Greek capital is just discernable through a ‘deli¬cately lilac-tinged mist’ which, Vassilis assures his anxious wife, has long since replaced the noxious grey nephos which plagued Athenians throughout the summer.
For a Greek wanderer such as Vassilis, any homecoming is a mixed blessing since, as his wife observes, it reminds the traveller of what he’s escaped: ‘If the Greeks have a passion¬ate pride and love for their country, they also hold feelings of shame, pity and. disappoint¬ment.’
The early days — only the first year is chronicled — are the hardest. The children, nine-year-old Anna and six-year-old Lara, relocate to Greek schools, bring home friends called Aphrodite, wear national dress and learn skipping songs in which sheep are devoured by wolves — a hint of ‘the great darkness which haunts so much of Greek popular culture’.
Nevertheless, their mother burns her boats and applies for Greek citizenship, a Byzantine process which takes patronage as well as patience.
Athenian life provides a steep learning curve. An evening at the bouzoukia — a nightclub where the main attraction is the singers, the songs are heart-wrenching and the cus¬tomers are honour-bound to drink till dawn — provides a lesson in Greek friendship.
FESTIVALS — a gaffe-ridden Christmas involving a roasted piglet, an Orthodox christening in which, total immersion threatens to drown the baby — teach. Sofka that nothing is as she expected.
The conventions governing public life, the granting of favours, the importance of the koumbaro, the godfather as a source of advancement, the bitter-sweet songs — all these things must be absorbed.
That the family survives and thrives is a tribute to the author’s sensitivity and. willing¬ness to learn. The slightly awk¬ward style — anthropologists are trained to take things seriously — is balanced by the depth of her knowledge.
Here is the inside track on what it mean to be Greek: a lovely book, full of poetry, history and insights. Aspiring Shirley Valentines – a common theme throughout the narrative – shouldn’t leave home without it.