The view from Eurydice Street

Three years ago, when British anthropologist and journalist Sofka Zinovieff came to settle in Greece with her Greek husband – himself long absent from his homeland – and their two children, she wasn’t arriving in terra incognita. Years earlier she had written her PhD thesis about insiders and outsiders in Nafplion; she and her husband had always spoken Greek together and she felt «like an honorary Greek.» But settling in isn’t the same as visiting, even when you manage to find an apartment with a splendid view on a street that literally has your own second name, Eurydice, on it. Eurydice Street gave its name to Zinovieff’s book, which chronicles the first year in Athens, and much more besides. Well-read and well-informed, Zinovieff eases information about Athens and Greece into her narrative, prompted by her encounters with the place and its people as she strives to make sense of her – and her family’s – developing relationship with their new home. Astute observations Whether visiting a politician to see the rousfeti political favor system in action or investigating how Athens developed from a 19 century backwater into a huge urban sprawl, she always digs beneath the surface. The result, couched in elegant prose, yields astute observations. On the chaotic lead-up to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, with construction in progress just about everywhere, but most Athenians expressing optimism about the outcome, Zinovieff writes, «In many ways, this constructive chaos suits the Athenians; the noise and tension is part of what gives their city life.» Kathimerini English Edition visited Eurydice Street to meet the author. How did the book originate? The book has its deep-down roots in my academic interest in Greece. I’d always had it in my mind to write something about Greece. When we arrived back in Greece, gradually the idea of writing some sort of a book came up, but I didn’t know if it would be a guide to Athens or something more personal, which really tempted me, but I’d never done that sort of writing before. My editor George Miller at Granta was very keen on the idea of drawing out the personal. Although, as many of my dear friends have said, it sounds incredibly boring – married woman with children in the suburbs, what a terrible kind of idea, hearing about her daily life – there was something that appealed to me as a sort of anti-hero, not a macho «I’m going to go around all the islands» or «up the highest mountain.» It’s real day-to-day life trying to get to grips with a country that fascinates me, albeit as a wife and mother in the suburbs. I wanted to go out and look at things and engage with the subject, but from my perspective at home, as somebody trying to get to grips personally with the place. You use the structure of a year. A year is a handy amount of time because it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The arrival was an obvious point to start; when things are new and fresh there’s an intensity about your experience which then diminishes as time goes on. Unlike a lot of travel books where the traveler comes in, has his or her whirlwind experience, then whirls out and can say what the hell they like and never come back again, there’s something very different about arriving and that’s it, you’ve come to stay and this is now your life. And it’s more nuanced; there are your family’s responses too. Looking at how the children reacted was like a laboratory experiment. You bring these little children and they’re going to become Greek children; it happens so quickly and intensively and you can really see it before your eyes. I was less prepared to see what a shock it was for Vassilis coming back. You’ve been away from your own country quite some time, which gives you an insider-outsider perspective. That’s a subject I’m generally very interested in. I always had a tendency to feel that I didn’t completely belong wherever I was. There’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in ending up living as a foreigner somewhere, and that is one element. And it can give you a sort of freedom. There are some disadvantages to being an outsider. There was a time during the first year when I thought: «What have I done?! I’m committing myself to being a foreigner forever.» The other side is that you’re allowed to be different. You can try and hold on to what it is that you love about a place, exactly the same as with a person, not getting sidetracked by the irritations but holding on to what is positive. Having fallen in love with Greece has stood me in good stead throughout, because I can return to that feeling. It’s a good base for a relationship. Your next book is about your paternal grandmother. She was born in St Petersburg, in 1897, into an aristocratic family. When the Revolution arrived, she managed to escape with her grandmother and went to England. There, through her different experiences, not least of experiencing poverty and the other side of life to what she’d known as a child, she ended up becoming a communist and a very dedicated one at that. Never gave up her card, right to the end, even though she saw a lot of what went wrong with communism, she still insisted that she believed in the ideals. She led a very intense life. She had a lot of lovers, was very a bad mother and abandoned her children. She was interned in a Nazi camp during the war, and she loved books with a great passion and she wrote a lot. She wrote an autobiography and various unpublished memoirs. I’m going to try to pull together all these different strands. I have already started traveling. I’m also fascinated by her as a woman who defied the expectations of what women are meant to do. She did the sort of things that men have always done and often continue to do, but when a woman does them – like putting work, or relationships or travel before their children, or going with their heart rather than staying with a marriage – they can be vilified. Things have changed a lot now, but it’s surprising in some ways how little they have.