This is a book by an Englishwoman (of Russian descent) who married a Greek and went to live in Athens. She writes with charm and humour to give a vivid impression of her adopted city, which she obviously loves although she can become exasperated at times, especially by the all-pervasive bureaucracy as she struggles to acquire Greek citizenship (her attempt to become truly Greek is a recurrent theme in the book).
At first glance one would think that Sofka is writing out of many years' experience of Athens, but in fact it is more like a first impression, being a report of her first year there. This was not her introduction to the country, however; she first went to Greece as a PhD student, with the aim of writing a thesis on the impact of tourism on Nafplio, a town in the Peloponnese. She stayed there for three years. However, she met her husband Vassilis not in Greece but in Moscow; it was not until eleven years later that they went to live permanently in Greece.
The book takes the form of descriptions of different parts of Athens and character sketches of some of the people who live there, including her relatives by marriage. There are also snippets of recent Greek history, supplying details that will be unfamiliar to many non-Greek readers. (I once met an American graduate in Greece who asked me, quite seriously, why the Greeks were so hostile to the Turks; he had no idea that Greece had been under Turkish occupation for 400 years.)
Thanks no doubt to her training as an anthropologist, the author gets to know a wide range of people, ranging from a minister (to explore the Greek practice of favours and obligations) to a larger than life prostitute who breaks off the conversation from time to time to service a client briefly (30 euros for ten minuuts is the going rate, apparently).
The Athens we meet in these pages is a very modern city. Sofka is not a classicist and is relatively uninterested in the ancient past. However, she justly laments the replacement of so many neoclassical houses with blocks of flats, and she also deplores the tendency of Athenian suburbs to swallow up ever larger areas of the surrounding countryside, especially since the construction of the new airport. However, she does not comment on the allegedly widespread practice of setting fire to the forests in order to build illegal houses on the newly denuded slopes of the mountains.
The book is full of astute observations that will be immediately familiar to anyone who knows Greeks and life in Greece. These include the stray dogs and cats that tend to get themselves adopted by soft-hearted families who then are faced with the difficulty of finding them a permanent home; the Greek fondness for having meals out of doors in manifestly unsuitable weather; the arguments about who should pay the bill in a restaurant which can almost amount to a quarrel; the great importance of godparents; the fondness for noise. And there are the expected set pieces, such as the celebration of Easter.
The book ends with another typically Greek episode, when the family go off to Vassilis's family home in a mountain village in central Greece. As in many other Greek rural areas the place is now largely inhabited by the old, and it is unclear what will happen when they die. However, Vassilis decides to refurbish the house his godfather has left to him. Some cousins from Athens arrive coincidentally as well, which nearly leads to a territorial argument over a cherry tree when they set about taking measurements with tapemeasures (Greek law constantly leads to multiple inheritance of property with consequent disputes). All ends amicably in this case, however.
This is a well-written acutely observed account of modern Athenian life. Although it is not a guide book it would still, I think, have benefited from an index, and it would have helped the non-Greek-speaking reader if the place names had been given their accents to show where the stress should fall in pronouncing them.
1 May 2007