A ‘Greek Unorthodox’ look at Athenian life

Your path may not have crossed hers, but regardless of whether one has been in Greece two months or 20 years, the work of Elizabeth Boleman-Herring is essential reading. As columnist and deputy editor in the 1980s for the now-defunct Athens-based English-language monthly magazine The Athenian, Boleman-Herring’s writing brims with tender irreverence and acute insight into her daily struggles with life in Greece. Now this is not the «isn’t it quaint and curious» of Sofka Zinovieff in «Eurydice Street,» nor the «I’ve really become one of them so let me deride them to you» of Patricia Storace in «Dinner with Persephone,» the latter attitude especially offensive to this reader. Long before those more recent publications, Boleman-Herring thrashed out in the monthly installments of her «Close to Home» column – sometimes from Greece and sometimes from her home in the southern US – her own bemusement, confusion and ambivalence about «the view from the fence,» as she called it, when straddling two cultures. (Boleman-Herring arrived here when she was 10 years old and attended three years of school in Greece before returning as an adult to work as a journalist.) The result is often comic and invariably clever, but stands out most for its absolute candor. The best of those articles, originally published in The Athenian, have now been published in «Greek Unorthodox: Bande a Part» (Cosmos, 2005) along with her searing memoir «A Farewell to Ikaros,» which details her relationship with the writer and philhellene Kevin Andrews, the author of «The Flight of Ikaros,» and his subsequent death by drowning. The pieces in «Greek Unorthodox» address a range of subjects: bus etiquette, noisy neighbors, the «Grenglish» she encountered when teaching English here, visits to sadly overdeveloped Greek islands or the strangeness of her homeland on visits to the US, only to be again frustrated by Greece upon returning to her adopted country – that Catch-22 of the transplanted native. «Greece is Greece. I may rant at her, throw vitriol down her blouse, sing her praises, or ignore her (just try it), depending on my mood,» she writes. «But I’ve come to accept my ‘alien card,’ in fact, to treasure it… In the jarring day-to-day life of a foreign city, one is brought up face to face with oneself. If you’re after spiritual growth, you are given a harsh measure by which to gauge your progress.» In the almost 70 pieces included in this collection, Boleman-Herring is by turns introspective, appalled, defiant and resigned. «I stepped out in front of a bus the other day,» she writes. «The green pedestrian light was on but the bus – Greek, large – was going to turn the corner anyway. I knew this. The driver knew this. The stranger who jerked me back out of harm’s way knew this: I’d chosen a truly stupid moment to make a statement for order amidst chaos, for adherence to ‘rules.’ Most of the time, I pick my moments better.» A few of the pieces are almost too clever, as in the series of articles detailing imagined conversation between a pair of local males in phonetic Greek slang, with a direct English translation underneath to show readers the difficulty of idiomatic Greek. But Boleman-Herring is at her best when addressing the daily frustrations and idiosyncrasies of life in Athens. Here are Nos 9 and 10 of a list of 30 complaints about life in Athens from the article «Through My Keyhole:» «9. You work two or three so-called part-time jobs just to cover basic expenses only to have your foreign friends show up, May through October, to tell you how rundown you look and ask why you don’t spend more time on the islands. «10. Nothing whatsoever can be accomplished by phone, even should you succeed in getting a line through, and should your passport, identity card, voting book, etc, need alteration of any sort, you must gird your loins for at least three working-day trips to the appropriate government offices until you have irrefutably ascertained what papers you will need in order to make the next (three working-day) trips down to accomplish the document changes.» However, the most tragicomic of the articles included here contain her advice for what she initially enthusiastically calls «Mixed Doubles» and later with heavy irony relabels «Mixed Troubles» – marriages between Greek men and foreign women. Boleman-Herring wrote from experience, having twice married Greek men, and having seen – as she readily admits – many such unions go sour. There’s even a series of three or four pieces in which she interviews family therapists who counsel cross-cultural couples. Their findings are particularly interesting, focusing on the kind of individual who seeks a mate outside his or her own culture, but you’ll have to read the book to learn their conclusions. Who knows what the 21st century equivalent and outcome of these mixed marriages is in today’s much more multicultural Greece? Let’s hope that with the greater influx of people from other nations and the return of so many Greek-somethings that this part of the book proves to be the most outdated. Her pen doesn’t spare her own homeland either. For the collection’s 2005 publication, Boleman-Herring has added a few follow-up paragraphs to many of the articles included; it is in these that she also expresses her dismay at world events since the articles were originally penned. For the most part, Boleman-Herring’s window on life in 1980s Greece and her infrequent visits home is both revealing and tender. She frankly introduces us to her life in all its sublime turmoil, both her own inner chaos and that taking place outside on the city’s streets. You are relieved it no longer takes four months to get a phone but are also somehow both surprised and comforted by how much is still recognizable as the Greece we know today. ‘Farewell to Ikaros’ In late August 1989, the newly enamored couple of Kevin Andrews and Elizabeth Boleman-Herring set out for a holiday on the Ionian island of Kythera. He had brought a manuscript on which he was working and she a notebook to jot down ideas and the Greek phrases he was teaching her. Kevin Andrews was 65; she was 37. They had met at a literary evening – or met again – but, from the time they reconnected, they were continuously together, feeding off one another’s experiences and intellect. It is in this, the last segment of Boleman-Herring’s book, that she speaks about their final days together, their hopes for the future and what they did and said before the afternoon he set out to swim to a small islet off Kythera and never returned. Kevin Andrews was already famous among philhellenes for his books on Greece: «Castles of the Morea,» «The Flight of Ikaros,» and «Greece in the Dark,» among others. He had traveled throughout Greece with a reed pipe and a Harvard education in Classics. He had come to Greece during its Civil War and later renounced his US citizenship over American involvement in the junta. He had been living a hermetic existence in a small spare place in Mets, central Athens, and, according to Boleman-Herring, they both felt they’d been given a new lease on life upon meeting each other. In «Farewell to Ikaros,» Boleman-Herring writes of their burgeoning love, and then of the dark hours when he went missing – an epileptic seizure paralyzing him in the water – and the fog of funeral, condolences and meeting his family. It is so candid it is painful to read. It is her elegy to the man she loved.