Monday, 2 April 2012

The way we were: Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki - a glimpse of modern Greece by Betty Blair

Before the launch of online book sales, English books were not cheap or easy to find in Greece. While I was living and working in Athens in the 1990s, my favorite place to browse was the Compendium Bookshop, a small haven for the English-language book lover in central Athens, and one of the businesses that is still going strong despite the crisis. Such stores take the place of libraries which have always been severely lacking in Greece. The used English books often came from ex-pats leaving the city after a long stay. I often pick up English language books in hotels, left behind by tourists.

Sun, seasons and souvlaki: A glimpse of modern GreeceDuring one of my browsing sessions at Compendium, I came across a used book containing humorous descriptions about life in Greece. Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki is written by an American woman (Betty Blair) who had lived and worked in Athens for a few years. It was first published in 1974, which is a significant year in many ways: it was the first year since democracy was restored in Greece after the fall of the junta government in 1973 (aka the infamous 17th November), it was the year Cyprus was divided into two (but the book was written before this actually happened), and it was also the year I made my very first visit to Greece, at the age of eight with my parents. (My next visit in 1991 turned into a permanent stay.) More importantly, it was pre-EU, and negotiations for Greece's entry to the EU were all still in draft form. Greece was still in her raw form, carrying the image often ascribed to Greece as a popular summer holiday destination of the ancient world: ancient marble monuments shining brightly in the background, with freshly caught octopus drying under the sun, and small white-washed boxes perched on hillsides, all surrounded by the bluest sea.

No mention of the gesture of the up-and-down shaking of a closed fist whose meaning is rooted in ancient Greek.
Blair's book is basically a beginner's guide for foreigners visiting Greece (mainly Athens) and wanting a quick explanation of some of our quirks, like the alphabet, hand gestures, coffee, souvlaki, etc. It combines an illustration (her own sketch) with a very synoptic one-page description about 67 different aspects of Greek life. Each aspect is covered in a two-page spread, with an English title, its Greek translation, the Greek pronunciation, the text and the drawing on the second page. Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki offers a slice of Greek life depicting the period it was written. It must have been quite popular, as the book was reprinted up until at least 1977.

Greeks still hold a lot of money in savings - these days, it is mainly found in UK banks.

The book's preface states "Greece, as Betty Blair has portrayed it, is the real Greece - an exotic blend of the ancient, orthodox and contemporary bursting with passion and spirit." Many of the subjects covered in the book still have their place in contemporary Greece (the Acropolis, Plaka, the alphabet, the cafeneion, the frontistirio, icons, the open market (ie the laiki), the village, etc), despite nearly four decades having passed; Greece is timeless in many respects. The underlying idea of Blair's book is that Greece is a country full of history with a turbulent past, a country which has never ceased to be troubled; despite the difficulties, Greeks seem to be a happy bunch of people, enjoying their zesty life and beautiful scenery, in the constant companionship of the sun. This seems to be true to a certain extent - the most recent UN report on World Happiness reports that Greeks are generally happy people (as opposed to other nations, whose people are generally unhappy).

Frappe has now replaced traditional Greek (ie Turkish) coffee, which is in fact easier to sip slowly and make it last even up to an hour or more in a cafe.

Blair's book rests on the stereotypical Greek identity, as viewed by tourists/foreigners, people who generally view Greeks from the outside: they aren't Greek themselves, and language barriers often prevent deeper discussions. This is also apparent in Blair's book: in her opinion, 'mezethes' is "a word that is difficult to translate but connotes something small, appetizing and existing in a large variety"l the word is common throughout the Middle East and former Ottoman-ruled countries. Hence, the book provides more of a brief dictionary-like overview of Greek life, rather than a deeper analysis of the subjects covered.

During my three-month stay in Greece in the year the book was published, I spent time with teenagers and young adults living in Pireas (the 'Athenian' port suburb) who were contemplating their future lives. My memories of those people centre on three individuals. One was a very pretty girl, who talked a lot about looking forward to growing up, getting married and having children. Her brother was very clever and wanted to study at university; he was very interested in the 'outside' world (ie beyond the borders of Greece) that I had grown up in and often tried his English out on me.

Betty Blair's insights on this great institution are all incorrect. To her credit, however, she devoted not one but TWO two-page spreads to this topic (and one other - The Sqaure/H Πλατεία). The kafeneio has changed form, but it is definitely not dead - in recent times, it has taken over the village square and encompassed the taverna. It is a symbol of perseverance in the crisis. The little boy who said he'll have plenty to do was right - he is probably playing backgammon or using his laptop in a kafeneio.
The most interesting person I remember from that time was a young woman in her early twenties who was living with her parents in an apartment. Her bedroom was the rooftop attic on this building. The view from her room was an interesting mix of rooftops and TV aerials. She often talked about her unhappiness at the thought of living in a restricted environment. At the time, it was difficult to leave home without being married, and just as difficult as today for a woman to find employment. Just like in the modern crisis times we live in, in 1974, it was very hard to live independently in Greece. This was possible for a short period - possibly about a decade - in the mid-period of post-EU-entry.

The old Greek school uniform (a blue overdress, known as ποδιά - 'apron'), the same one all over the country for every school child, became obsolete in 1982, one or two years after Saturday school lessons were abolished (Greek children attended school 6 days a week up till then). Both boys and girls were required to wear it, but fewer boys actually did. In pre-EU times, state education was said to be much better, although frontistiria also existed.

You may wonder how an eight-year-old had gained the confidence of a 20-something student. There is an easy explanation for this: I had come from the outside world, I was bilingual, and I was therefore viewed as both an oddity and a icon of admiration to be emulated. Perhaps I epitomised their goals. In many ways, I know that this 'oddity' is what helped me to secure a reasonable standard of living in a country where most Greeks are not happy with their own standard of living. Having been on the outside, I know what it is that I don't want to return to. But if you've never been there yourself, the grass looks greener there than it is here.

In a sense, Greece hasn't really changed. She's much the same country that she was pre-EU, only with a different appearance; she got a facelift, but she's still very much Greece herself. Blair writes that "Greeks love their country - its milk climate, the brilliant sun, the clear skies and calm, azure seas. If they leave, it's only with the idea of returning, better able to cope with the bitter hardships of life in the country that gave them birth." This is probably on the minds of most of our more recent emigres. I already feel that I'm one step ahead by staying. 

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