16th April 2004
Guidebooks, like so much else that comes in books, came early to Greece – and stayed there without much change. Olympic visitors in the Roman empire had the benefit of Pausanias, the pioneer traveller and geographer who told Games goers what they needed to know about the classical sites, the temples of Apollo, the statues of Poseidon, all with a smattering of social life and athletic lore. Sporting visitors to the Athens 2004 Olympiad will find their own shelfloads of guidance, still Pausanian in intent, and all to places which, as Sofka Zinovieff puts it, have switched “from carved marble to reinforced concrete” with nothing very obvious in between.
Greeks are intensely conscious of their lost 2,000 years, uncertain whether to praise the virtues of their occupation by foreigners or to stick to the glories that were undeniably Greek, even if those did stop rather suddenly and rather a long time ago. The battle to stage the Olympics this year – a giant task for a tiny country – is a bid to use the past to launch the country to a more settled future. Tourists will come; they will see, they will follow the guidebooks to stadia which have been pictured if not yet built, and they will be conquered. That is the theory.
“Theory” is an important word in Greece. It is one of those words, like democracy and philosophy, with which the actress-politician Melina Mercouri used to begin her speeches, apologizing to her audience, with trademark aggressive insecurity, for speaking to them “in Greek”. “Practice” is also a Greek word – but not one she boasted about so much. This August, however, should be the month when the former Culture Minister’s small bronze bust, too small really for the ego it represents, smiles every day from its place by the old Olympic stadium. Greece will be strutting on the world’s stage. The Olympic Games, commanded by a new Culture Minister, who is temporarily the Prime Minister himself, will have come back home.
Zinovieff is an English writer who lives in Athens, on the street for which her book is named. Eurydice Street is not in the centre where the tourists, asylum-seekers, stray dogs and Amex-wielding Olympians go, but in the suburbs by the sea. Zinovieff loves Greece, but is not so sure that all this Olympic success will happen. Nor is she sure that she wants it to happen. The restored Grande Bretagne Hotel is now one of the finest in the world. But she preferred it in its more faded state. Hers is a guidebook of a kind, a guide to the Athens that is rather than the Athens that is trying to be. It is both a modest and a magnificently well-judged book, which anyone thinking of an Athenian trip ought to read.
The author is an anthropologist by training, who made her first professional study of the “kamakia”, the sharp-suited “harpoonists” who famously offered sexual services to Shirley Valentine tourists until AIDS and a transformation in domestic sexual mores drove them to minicabbing instead. Now she is a wife, mother, journalist and literary critic. She writes of how Athenians like herself live, of personal friendships, political frustrations and the problem of being or becoming a Greek.
Cab drivers will be an important part of most visitors’ Olympic experience, an Athenian breed unusually determined in their view that the businessman traveller must want a receipt for twice the fare and that the resultant profit should be shared with the man behind the wheel. Rejection of their scams truly disappoints this band – just as it did when a pair of shiny black trousers and matching shades were the key to visiting females’ bedrooms. When Athens began to prepare its best Olympic face, there was a scheme to train a new team of honest, English-speaking “super-cabbies”. But, as Zinovieff describes with a certain satisfaction, this plan came even less close to timely completion than did the Olympic swimming-pool roof. As for the “kamakia”, the focus now is on the more traditional form of sex-for-money. This anthropologist has abandoned her studies into how “kamaki was a system of male competition, whereby men without material and social status established other grounds for prestige”. She now visits Elle, a woman with thighs fit for the eyes of Lucian Freud, who is tolerant of the less sexually well equipped of her clients, enthusiastic for those better provided, and impassioned only at the unfair sex-slave competition from Bulgaria.
Zinovieff came to Greece in the late 1980s after studying at Cambridge. She was supposed to research life in a Nepalese nunnery, but chose the street life of Nauplion in the Peloponnese instead. In 1990 she visited Moscow to seek permission to interview the so-called Pontian Greeks of the Black Sea coast, part of the diaspora whose hopes and fate so animate this book. There she meets Vassilis, a young Greek diplomat – and together they spend the next eleven years in Moscow, London and Rome before the moment when they decide to settle down with their two daughters – and Eurydice Street begins.
Olympic visitors this summer will see much children’s display at the ceremonial parts of the Games. It is hard to sit in a hotel lobby these days without the sight of nymphs and goddesses, white costumes collected at the back with black bulldog-clips, fluttering past for the latest rehearsal. Athenian schools, Zinovieff discovers, offer sound training in march and mass display. The high spot of the year is “No day”, October 28, which “commemorates one of the few clearly victorious heroic moments of Greece’s Second World War”, the “Ochi” moment when the Italian Fascists were denied their expected easy invasion opportunity. Instead Mussolini’s macaroni-eaters got a resounding “No” and a defeat in the icy Albanian mountains; and to commemorate this triumph the Zinovieff girls soon learn to march up and down in long blue skirts and red jackets -while the newspapers conduct their annual debate about whether it is still right to ban Albanian children from the parade.
What else they learn at school is also something of a worry. Vassilis, returning to his country after more than twenty years away, finds that the education system is remarkably unchanged from his own day. And while some English parents might see that as a glorious dream of corruption reversed, Zinovieff is less amused by nights spent rote-learning the names of all the country’s fifty-one administrative departments. On top of a daily three-hour dose of homework, each nine-year-old with ambitious parents needs a private tutor to ensure a successful passage to the next educational stage. It all looks like a good deal for teachers – who can double their pay in the black economy. But then everyone else is in the same game. The house-owner wants double the rent set out in the contract. The minor peccadilloes of the taxi drivers seem hardly worth complaining about.
Zinovieff visits the place where Greeks can sometimes successfully complain. She wants to become a Greek citizen – which, since she is married to a Greek diplomat and political aide, ought to be easy enough. But it is not easy. The place where problems like this may possibly be sorted out is the “other office” of the appropriate top official or politician. The “office” is where decisions are delayed. The “other office” is where votes are committed, loyalties promised, stuffed envelopes exchanged and decisions advanced. Zinovieff just watches half anthropologist, half suppliant herself, horrified and fascinated.
This is not a judgemental book. It is generous, appreciative as well as exasperated, optimistic in that tradition which has always so motivated British philhellenes over the centuries. Sofka Zinovieff sees her adopted country with the eye both of affectionate parent and dispassionate field researcher. Look elsewhere for what the monuments mean (Pausanias is still not a bad guide). But all visitors who read Eurydice Street will be introduced – with lightness and wit – to everything they truly need to get through the Olympic Summer.