CULTURE

Kalfopoulou’s experience of ‘Broken Greek’

The axiom most prescribed for authors is: «Write what you know.» This is because a writer’s own experience lends richness and authenticity to what otherwise could only be imagined. And this is just what Adrianne Kalfopoulou has done in her book «Broken Greek: A Language to Belong» (Plain View Press, 2006), beginning with her memories of her grandparents and their big house and garden on Syngrou Avenue – long gone now, sold to a BMW dealer, she informs us. American by birth and upbringing, Kalfopoulou charts her experiences and frustrations in attempting to adjust after having moved to Greece as an adult. The initial pieces in this collection of vignettes serve to inform the reader of the differences in cultural heritage and rearing between her and her elderly grandparents – their fears, superstitions, traditions and habits. They also serve to remind us how much Greece has changed since the 1950s and 1960s. But mostly they seem to fulfill the author’s personal need to capture something of those fading ancestors before the lights dim altogether. It is clear that they are the people she knows, respects and loves but we never really get under their skins. The following pieces are written much later, her grandparents now gone, when Kalfopoulou must negotiate on her own the conventions, institutions and even streets of her adopted home – and with a young daughter in tow, she tells us, without having made us privy to that chapter. Her descriptions of learning the unspoken rules of Athens’s roads, jostling for a parking place, and the curses and confrontations are slapstick but would have gone over better with a bigger dash of hilarity. There is an accident, a court case. Everything seems to be an exercise in futility as Kalfopoulou does her best to unite her personal «Grand Idea» of what the country should be with its inexplicable reality. She is well-versed in Hellenism, mythology, the great Greek past – in what she imagines her birthright to be. The problem is the country won’t conform. Much of what she writes is truculent – a rant at a bitterly perceived injustice. The reader becomes her companion over a cup of coffee, a sympathetic listener who is supposed to «tut tut» at the appropriate moments. But anyone who has made any attempt at making a life in this country is already well familiar with the chaos and the contradictions. So one wonders who Kalfopoulou imagines her audience to be. If an author’s first rule is to write what she knows, a second maxim should be to consider her audience. In the section that begins under the heading «Academic Phallicisms,» Kalfopoulou relates a saga of trying to apply for a teaching position at Athens University. Like the pieces about road rage and inconsiderate drivers, this section becomes a litany – about nepotism and the lack of meritocracy in Greek higher education. «Little did I know it would hardly have mattered what my qualifications were. Not only was I a spinning Arachne threatened with Echo’s fate, but now, introduced to the Greek term dyke mas (one of ours), I was Pandora who had opened Zeus’ box. Chaos was ready for mischief. Becoming dyke tous (one of theirs) required that I make myself recognizable within terms I was ignorant of.» When she is passed over, there is another court case. Funnily enough, her experiences and the book are peppered with various court cases. Kalfopoulou seems to have adopted at least one Greek habit of «sue first, ask questions later.» She seems to finally find some peace when she buys a summer place on the island of Patmos (after some false starts, due to cunning owners who misrepresent themselves – and the inevitable threats of litigation). On the island, with the parea (company) she keeps there, she finds acceptance. She finally becomes dyke tous. So it appears an unintended irony when she takes a xenos (foreign) neighbor to court over a property dispute. On a trip back to the USA, she is surprised at how foreign those once-familiar environs are. «The two countries that made up my identity, a spacious continent and a small Mediterranean peninsula, were opposed spaces: America was in love with her spaciousness, proud and defensive of her large dreams, while Greece, passionate and crowded in her small corner, trampled her dreamers.» Many authors have written about straddling two cultures. Or of falling between the great divide where the two refuse to meet. While Kalfopoulou can articulate the frustrations, it will be interesting to read her work when she has transcended them.