Wednesday, May 30: Today I finished reading Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff. The writer tells of her experience accompanying her husband Vassilis on a posting back to Athens in 2001; he returning to his fatherland and she returning to her first love. She embraces it, yet sees it unflinchingly as an outsider. Their Athenian friends had warned: “Greece is good for holidays but not for living.” So. She arrives in Athens with some trepidation.
She depicts Athens as full of rowdy tavernas, political demonstrations, and polluted chaos. At one point she says, “Athens may be an ancient city, but it is also uncompromisingly modern. And there’s hardly anything else between the two extremes. It’s almost as though the Athenians went straight from carved marble to reinforced concrete, skipping the intervening centuries.”
I love her blatant honesty and humor as she looks squarely at a culture that has been marked by years of foreign occupation, terrorism, war, internal strife and poverty. She speaks of the “inherent contradictions” of Greece: its love of excess as opposed to its desire for purification. She talks about the “practical, everyday quality” of Greek Orthodoxy: “its influence is everywhere, but it is fitted into ordinary life.” She strips bare the glamor of the city, then paints on an aura of magic. It seems a city of huge contradictions.
Since I went to Turkey two summers ago, I found especially interesting her story of “the Catastrophe of 1922,” when around 900,000 Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor had arrived in Greece, driven away violently during the Greco-Turkish War. In 1923, the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” was signed in Switzerland by the governments of Greece and Turkey. It involved around 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece), most of whom were forcibly made refugees, based on their religious identity, and de jure denaturalized from their homelands.
When I was in Turkey in 2010, I heard about this population exchange from the Turkish side. Now it is interesting to read about it from the Greek side. It sounds like it was an horrific exchange, with thousands upon thousands of people massacred.
This was an excellent book and I’m glad I read it before my upcoming trip to Greece. The account brings the city down to earth. It’s funny how you imagine the glamorous things about a place before traveling there, and sometimes your imaginings lead to disappointment. Now I feel I’m ready to see and appreciate modern-day Athens for what it really is.