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Sofka Zinovieff
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Eurydice Street
softback
276 pages
Sofka Zinovieff is an English writer who lives in Athens, on the street for which her book is named. Eurydice Street is not in the centre where the tourists, but in the suburbs by the sea. Zinovieff loves Greece, but is not so sure that all this Olympic success will happen. Nor is she sure that she wants it to happen. The restored Grande Bretagne Hotel is now one of the finest in the world. But she preferred it in its more faded state.

The author is an anthropologist by training, who made her first professional study of the "kamakia", the sharp-suited "harpoonists" who famously offered sexual services to Shirley Valentine tourists until AIDS and a transformation in domestic sexual mores drove them to minicabbing instead. Now she is a wife, mother, journalist and literary critic. She writes of how Athenians like herself live, of personal friendships, political frustrations and the problem of being or becoming a Greek.

Cab drivers will be an important part of most visitors Olympic experience, an Athenian breed unusually determined in their view that the businessman traveller must want a receipt for twice the fare and that the resultant profit should be shared with the man behind the wheel. Rejection of their scams truly disappoints this band just as it did when a pair of shiny black trousers and matching shades were the key to visiting females bedrooms.

Olympic visitors this summer will see much children's display at the ceremonial parts of the Games. It is hard to sit in a hotel lobby these days without the sight of nymphs and goddesses, white costumes collected at the back with black bulldog-clips, fluttering past for the latest rehearsal. Athenian schools, Zinovieff discovers, offer sound training in march and mass display. The high spot of the year is "No day", October 28, which "commemorates one of the few clearly victorious heroic moments of Greece's Second World War", the "Ochi" moment when the Italian Fascists were denied their expected easy invasion opportunity. Instead Mussolini's macaroni-eaters got a resounding "No" and a defeat in the icy Albanian mountains; and to commemorate this triumph the Zinovieff girls soon learn to march up and down in long blue skirts and red jackets -while the newspapers conduct their annual debate about whether it is still right to ban Albanian children from the parade.

What else they learn at school is also something of a worry. Vassilis, returning to his country after more than twenty years away, finds that the education system is remarkably unchanged from his own day. And while some English parents might see that as a glorious dream of corruption reversed, Zinovieff is less amused by nights spent rote-learning the names of all the country's fifty-one administrative departments. On top of a daily three-hour dose of homework, each nine-year-old with ambitious parents needs a private tutor to ensure a successful passage to the next educational stage. It all looks like a good deal for teachers who can double their pay in the black economy. But then everyone else is in the same game. The house-owner wants double the rent set out in the contract. The minor peccadilloes of the taxi drivers seem hardly worth complaining about.

Zinovieff visits the place where Greeks can sometimes successfully complain. She wants to become a Greek citizen which, since she is married to a Greek diplomat and political aide, ought to be easy enough. But it is not easy. The place where problems like this may possibly be sorted out is the "other office" of the appropriate top official or politician. The "office" is where decisions are delayed. The "other office" is where votes are committed, loyalties promised, stuffed envelopes exchanged and decisions advanced. Zinovieff just watches half anthropologist, half suppliant herself, horrified and fascinated.

This is not a judgemental book. It is generous, appreciative as well as exasperated, optimistic in that tradition which has always so motivated British philhellenes over the centuries. Sofka Zinovieff sees her adopted country with the eye both of affectionate parent and dispassionate field researcher. The book is somewhat dissapointing in the end, as it never delivers on it's promise of a "foreigners guide to living far away from home", as it turns out Sofka is more at home in Greece than many a Greek. Someone who's close friends with the son of one of greece's most influential politicians, speaks fluent greek, has already spend many a year in Greece and can seemingly get interviews with whomever she wants, can hardly claim to be representing the thousands of people who really go and live in a foreign country where nobody knows them.. Ultimately it's not really what it was made out to be.. Still an enjoyable read however!
7/10
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