Gritty city recollection

Insight into both formal Greek culture and everyday life inform «92 Acharnon Street,» John Lucas’s entertaining account of a memorable stint in Athens during the 1984-85 academic year. Lucas, an academic, poet and musician who now runs the Shoestring Press, is an engaging raconteur. He is so up-front about the things he loves in Greece that it lends weight to any criticism he voices. And he’s a fair observer as well as an engaging raconteur, definitely not the type to complain because things are not the same as they are back home. His Athenian adventure began when a letter arrived out of the blue, inviting him to spend the 1984-85 academic year in Athens as visiting professor in the English Department at the University of Athens. The job came with a fancy title, something along the lines of Lord Byron Visiting Professor of English Literature. A student whose doctorate Lucas was supervising undertook to find him accommodation. Flattered and excited, Lucas, then 47, accepted the appointment. Surprises Neither the job nor the accommodation was quite what he expected, but Lucas, who clearly possesses the spirit of adventure, made the most of both. He encountered the apartment first: 92 Acharnon Street, a cacophonous, car-choked road in one of the city’s least salubrious locations. Lucas would come to love his neighborhood, extolling the generosity of its inhabitants and their readiness to welcome a stranger, but his first impression speaks for itself: «Street after street of nondescript concrete-built apartment blocks stretched away into the surrounding hills. Most of them with an unfinished or somehow provisional look about them: bare brick here, unglassed windows there, and everywhere steel rods sticking up from flat rooftops. The road itself was littered with discarded newspapers, plastic bags, rusting Coke tins; and floatings of cement dust drifted through what appeared to be rotting sunlight and was, so I would find out, caused by the worst atmospheric pollution in the Western world.» But it was there, in that gritty, underprivileged part of town, that Lucas would have his moment of «falling in love with Greece.» Noisy and dirty it may have been, the city was still home to a more expansive lifestyle. People had time to escort a stranger to another shop and stop there for a chat. He describes store owners escorting him to rival establishments that stock some articles he requires – a tribute to the generosity of the people he meets, but no doubt also due in part to his open, responsive approach to them. The academic post brings surprises of a different order. The elusive professor who has invited Lucas to Greece fails to meet him, welcome him or respond to his overtures. Then he changes Lucas’s course topic three times without any warning and is always too «busy» to answer queries. That doesn’t stop the author from engaging with his course and his students. Through them he becomes part of everyday life – the parties and celebrations, the family gatherings and bust-ups, the seasonal excursions. Through friends of a progressive bent, he comes to understand something of the complex legacy of the civil war and the dictatorship, the inculpation of many in a corrupt system where people had to struggle to survive and a heroic few fought back outright. He witnesses the corrupt system of university appointments where connections and political affiliation trump academic merit. And he is hilarious on the excruciating toils of bureaucracy, such as the glacial pace of the university’s accounting system that has him waiting till December to be paid, having started work in September. When he does finally get paid, it’s in an impossibly thick wad of banknotes in such large denominations that he can’t get change for them. A keen observer, Lucas is always perceptive, whether rhapsodizing about the food and congeniality of his local taverna or the qualities of the Greek landscape, which he says is geometric: «It is a matter of sharply defined lines, of mountains cut cleanly against sky, of terraced fields that are rhomboid or variously rectilinear, of deep valleys, crevasses of houses and churches shaped by light so clear that it shaves away all imprecision.» We see him coming to love the poetry of Greece, meeting the poets themselves and translating them. In aspic Lucas has maintained his relationship with Greece, regularly vacationing on the island of Aegina. While he does share snippets from later visits, he focuses on that early, unforgettable year, which occasionally gives the book a curious effect, almost as if it has preserved Athens of that time in aspic. For those who knew the city then, his account of it rings true, and is a measure of how much thing have changed, for better and worse. The traffic we still deplore seems mild compared with the smog-drenched days before catalytic converters and lead-free gas, and we benefit from better road management and modern transportation. But many of the friendly local neighborhoods and tavernas Lucas extols have given way to soulless successors. It would be interesting to to hear what he has to say about the city today.