Summertime tourists to Greece pass hurriedly through Athens before shipping out to the islands. They’ve been warned that the city offers no seafront, no leashes for its dogs and no shortage of civil servants on strike. A Westerner finding Athens warm and welcoming in December of 2009 – as startling reports emerge of the Greek debt crisis – makes for a story worth retelling.
In “Athens – The Truth: Searching for Manos, Just Before the Bubble Burst,” New Zealander David Cade details that experience. Even if its author comes to some tenuous conclusions, the book is a thought-provoking, well-paced account of 16 days spent wandering Greece’s capital. Cade’s love for Hellenism was kindled during childhood years spent listening to the music of Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. His journey to Greece fulfills a lifelong desire to hear rebetiko live in Athenian tavernas. “At last I’m going to get to grips with Athens,” he writes. “I’m going to mine this city and find what it’s really all about, and from where and from what the magic and allure of all its extraordinary music arises.”
Cade hits the typical tourist haunts – Monastiraki, Plaka, the Acropolis – as well as less frequented quarters – Voula, Spata – and edgy Exarchia. The book has the chatty, anecdotal feel of a diary: “The exhilaration experienced this evening in that mezedopoleio has me feeling, as I fall asleep, like someone who has fallen totally in love, as if up till now I’ve been completely wasting my life!”
The author’s ability to dredge up odd historical curiosa will impress even veteran visitors to the city. The Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea on Ermou Street, for example, was named for the Byzantine tax official responsible for collecting the hearth (“kapnos”) tax. Comprehensive detours into the stories of famous Greek musicians and artists – Nikos Xilouris, Alexandros Panagoulis, Yannis Tsarouchis – are equally intriguing.
“Athens: The Truth” is flawed in other respects. Cade’s prose is hampered by wordiness and a systematic abuse of the exclamation point. The author’s adoration of all things Greek is credible enough to tone down passages like the following, in which Cade spots bitter-orange trees in the neighborhood of Thiseio:
“And then I see another, and then another! Street after street is literally lined with trees that are thick with large bright oranges! They fill this neighborhood with festivity, a sense of carnival, and they must surely be out like this in time for the celebrations of Christmas and New Year!”
Nor will “Athens: The Truth” offer instructive new readings of Hellenic history. Too often the author’s grasp of the Greek past takes the form of a Wikipedia article gone rogue. The following is a section of a long, tedious chapter aimed at sorting out Greece’s Classical and Ottoman inheritances:
“Furthermore, once the Greeks and Christians living under Turkish Muslim rule had been bound together, the Patriarchate integrated into its educational and cultural programs a deliberate and intended identification with the glories of Classical Greece – despite the glaringly incongruent fact that Classical Greece had been polytheist, of an era that had been rapturously in awe of its ‘pagan’ gods!”
Except that the Patriarchate – which had vested interests in preserving Ottoman rule – never supported such a program. The revival of Classical studies within Greece was a secular, 19th-century initiative undertaken by Western-educated Greek intellectuals.
Cade is more insightful when reading ethnographically into today’s Greeks. He hones in on apparent contradictions in the Hellenic national character. Why are Greeks – who are otherwise so proudly communal – some of the world’s most litigious people? And why do Athenians inhabit such ugly, unadorned apartment buildings, yet attend so fastidiously to their personal appearances?
The author’s interests gradually shift from rebetiko to understanding Greece’s most boggling contradiction: the discrepancy between Greeks’ spending habits and the state of their national debt. The Christmas shopping sprees in Kolonaki are particularly perplexing. “How is Greece managing to keep such a good face?” Cade asks. “European analysts at this time are saying on the news that they fear the Greeks will rely on Brussels to bail them out. Well, if that’s the case, from what I see here if the EU does bail Greece out they could simply be enabling its people to continue with what appears to be a splendid fiesta – unless there’s some grim desperation going on behind the scene, miseries which I haven’t yet detected!”
Years spent living in the Middle East give Cade a unique perspective in diagnosing the root causes of this “splendid fiesta.” According to his analysis, Greek society is essentially Middle Eastern in nature. The country’s enthrallment to Western fashions is a superficial attempt to backdoor its way into a European identity. Greece’s membership to the European Union and its efforts to conform to Western standards of statehood are equally misguided. “Greeks are happy to be European in so far as it enables them to stroll glamorously around town in all the designer-wear of Paris and Milan, but Greekness is fundamentally at odds with the systematization that typifies the senior members of the EU,” writes Cade. “The Greeks are essentially a Levantine people and to become truly ‘European’ would necessitate a massive alternation of mind-set and nature, not to mention climate.”
Cade is not the first to locate this fundamental fault line in Greek society. It’s less convincing that the author chooses to both celebrate and criticize this divide as it suits his interests. After a night of Greek dancing: “No wonder Greeks don’t take seriously our Western efficiency, our willingness to suffer, and our adherence to unending toil. They’re so right! There’s so much more to life than system, red tape, and everything being always orderly, correct, and proper!” But when it comes to the country’s lack of accountability in other respects – the failure to take a progressive stance on gay rights; ineffective immigration policies; corrupt politicians – Cade is less enchanted. “Greece is regularly shown to have ignored agreed EU standards with regard to the right of legal representation, the right to trial, and the right to due processes,” he observes.
These are worthy criticisms. But to claim that Greeks are somehow hard-wired to be a thorn in Europe’s side is nonsense. It’s also a misreading of Greece’s extraordinary recovery from a string of 20th-century crises: the Metaxas dictatorship, the Nazi occupation, the Greek civil war, the rule of the Colonels. That Greek democracy emerged victorious from those struggles is a resounding affirmation of its people’s genuine commitment to Western ideals and the European project.
“Athens – The Truth: Searching for Manos, Just Before the Bubble Burst,” by David Cade, published by Tales of Orpheus, 2013.