14 August 2004
Athens, among European cities, gets a lousy press. At the time of writing I neither know nor greatly care whether various Olympic venues have received their last lick of paint (or even more essential structural components). One of the biggest European environmental disasters of recent times is the new Eleftherios Venizelos airport – not because it doesn’t work or has bits falling off it, but because the old airport served perfectly well, was far easier to reach and, unlike the unnecessary new airport, did not devour an enormous chunk of the best agricultural land in Attica.
I’ve always enjoyed visits to Athens, despite the far from negligible problems of pollution and ugly uncontrolled development. I rediscovered Greek holidays a few years ago – not having been since my early 20s – in a brief but intense phase. The goal was islands, certain very small Cycladic islands where you don’t need any transport other than shank’s pony to take you to idyllic unfrequented swimming beaches, but the first and last legs consisted of two or three nights’ bar- and taverna-crawling in Athens.
Nights is probably the mot just because days, certainly afternoons, in the Athenian summer are often too hot to do anything except flop on your hotel bed. After seven though the heat begins to relent and you can make your way to the less touristy parts of the Plaka. I spent a memorable evening there three years ago, drinking cool
Mythos beer in the Klepsydra bar as the still mysterious and beautiful Athenian night drew in, with scents of jasmine, surrounded by talkative and attractive young people. One of the couples, with whom I got into conversation, turned out to be Jewish/Sikh newly-weds on honeymoon from north London – clever, warm, friendly people who it would be a pleasure to meet anywhere. Afterwards we had supper at a taverna (Plato’s in Odos Kladou) that hardly seemed to have changed since the days of Zorba.
My knowledge of Athens is very limited, hardly extending beyond the bars and tavernas of the Plaka, one or two seedy hotels near Omonia Square, the Acropolis and the National Archaeological and Goulandris Cycladic Art museums. Getting to know more about a relatively unsung capital is just one of several reasons to read Eurydice Street, Sofka Zinovieff’s captivating book about going to live in the city as the wife of a Greek official and mother of two rapidly Hellenising daughters.
I tend to be suspicious of the whole genre of books that involves northern Europeans seeking Shangri-La in some Mediterranean setting where the sound of cicadas drowns out passing jets and twinkly-eyed locals appear with gifts of regional delicacies or just to fix the plumbing in winningly idiosyncratic ways. I am also highly allergic to the writings of smart young mothers about how to placate the little ones on shopping trips to the supermarket in the Landcruiser.
Even the most cursory look at Eurydice Street reveals that it fits into neither of these categories. Zinovieff speaks fluent Greek and spent some time in her 20s conducting PhD field research on the risque topic of kamakia – the Greek youths famed for their Don Giovanni-like conquests of female tourists. Her book is an affectionate but not rose-tinted picture of a society still recovering from the multiple traumas of the 20th century – including the sack of Smyrna, brutal German occupation, equally brutal civil war and a military dictatorship that was still gunning down and torturing students in 1973. It is infused with an indomitable joie de vivre. She made me want to return to Athens and explore quarters such as the student stronghold of Exarcheia and Psirri, a neighbourhood of artisan’s workshops by day and fringe theatre, ethnic restaurants and boites by night.
Zinovieff is not overawed by the achievements of ancient Athens and spends little time on the glories of Greek sculpture and architecture. She quotes Bernard Shaw, speaking with iconoclastic relish of the “stupid classic Acropolis”. Call me a square, but the stupid classic Acropolis still strikes me as Athens’s spiritual centre and one of the world’s inspiring places.
I won’t forget my first walk up to the Acropolis on a bright April morning, at the age of 17 on a school classics trip. The extraordinary combination of size and lightness of the Parthenon seemed pretty special, as did the exquisite workmanship of the tiny Ionic temple of Athene Nike. But the building I remember best – maybe because I wasn’t expecting it – was the modest but lovely octagonal Tower of the Winds in the Plaka, built out of Pentelic marble long after the glory days of Pericles, Phidias and Sophocles. The Tower of the Winds doesn’t celebrate civic glory or victory, but playfully personalises forces even more powerful and more enduring – the breezes that carry on blowing through the fall of empires.