It has been snowing—yes, snowing!—the past two days in Athens, and the concrete city of horn honking and jack hammers, illegal parking, protest-marches and garbage collection strikes, has suddenly been transformed—briefly— into something nearly silent and pristine. The Parthenon, sugar-dusted, gleams against a bright blue sky. Youths normally dressed in black and sulking in cafes with cigarettes and cell-phones are out in the streets, grinning and hurling snowballs at one another. Small children are looking at the wondrous stuff often for the first time in their lives or short memories. (Northern Greece—an altogether wilder and woollier place—is quite used to being snowed in; but here in Attica it is a rarity.) It is laiki day—farmer’s market day—but only a few vendors have trundled in from the frozen countryside, bearing oranges and leeks and potatoes.

These wintry days remind me a little bit for some reason of the first year we moved here, into an old, high-ceilinged flat nominally warmed by some antiquated method of heated bricks that must have dated back to the Assyrians. (The cold here is a damp cold that tends to hover just above freezing, and is somehow the more bone-chilling for it, especially as houses are not well-insulated.) We moved into the unfurnished flat in January. I would sit trying to write at my laptop in a down vest, fingerless gloves and a hat as if I were a Victorian sonneteer in a garret, whatever a garret was. This was in sharp relief to the flows of e-mails and snail-mail I would get from friends and acquaintances, who seemed to think moving to Greece amounted to a life-long summer holiday of sun and ouzo on the islands. (Or perhaps they were putting a brave face on it, for my sake.) But of course, when you move somewhere and make a life there, that is your life. It isn’t a holiday. You still have to make a living (Greek salaries are low and inflation is high), and make your way in a strange culture, a strange language, navigate bureaucracy (both epic and Byzantine—for some months going to the police station every morning to try to make some progress with my resident’s permit was like a job), deal with plumbers and post offices, banks and physicians.
So I guess it is with increasing ambivalence I look on some breeds of travel writing. Maybe I see it too much now from the other side. We love to meet American writers who are passing through on six-month sabbaticals or Fulbrights, who come to absorb the atmosphere and write. One of the definite bonuses of living in Greece is just how many interesting people do come through and look us up--what precious friendships those are, what memorable taverna evenings! But I suppose too there is always a twinge of something—a kind of envy? Nostalgia? They, after all, are able to explore Greece, but in the end will go back to their real lives. And, sure, sometimes they write about the sun and ouzo and the islands, or perhaps spiritual journeys to ancient monasteries, which is all very well and good, but not something I could do now, any more than I could whip off a Dinner-with-Persephone type book that made sweeping pronouncements about Greeks or Greece, the Henry Miller effect, I guess. (For a rare non-romanticized view of life in Modern Greece, check out Adrianne Kalfopoulou's Broken Greek.) The longer I am here, the more I realize I am and shall always be a Xeni, a foreigner—subject to the great hospitality and deep xenophobia that are flip sides of a single ancient Greek coin. I sometimes think perhaps I could write a chick-lit novel about the trials and tribulations of foreign wives—from Medea on?—a sort of Desperate Housewives of the Aegean—having witnessed the peculiar strains and blessings of many culturally-mixed marriages. But who would buy it but ourselves?
Well, the question remains I guess how to write about a life which is at once my one and only life, and a life that is foreign to me. How to not be a travel writer in an alien land that is my home. The snow seems to change things, at least for now—it too is a stranger here, and all of our visits are brief compared to the monuments and the stones.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. February 19, 2008
     John Blackard

    How does anyone write about where they live-- whether they're native to the place or not? I've lived in and around this North Carolina town most of my life, and it's always felt foreign to me. Most of the places I remember here don't even exist anymore. I think we're all travel writers on some level. Maybe time travelers. I know I'm still haunted by places I visited and people I met the summer I traveled in Greece thirty-five years ago. The trip changed the way I thought about myself and about the spirit of place. By the way, it snowed here on Valentine's Day, which rarely happens anymore. Cheers!
    John Blackard

  2. February 19, 2008

    I know what you mean. The thing about travel poems for me is that traveling gives one the wide awake feeling that feels right for writing poems, yet it's also hard to write good travel poems (for someone like me, who goes for two months at a time) that have something at stake, because it's in one's regular life that at stake-ness happens. Am I just repeating what you're saying from the non-resident's self-suspicious perspective? My travel poems tend to be very journalistic--and so I don't try to publish them--it's not what I want my poems to do. I do like having them as a record. But my most successful one, which I did publish, is, I think, about being American, and is a political poem. That's one way I've dealt with it. Which is to say, NOT "I walked up the Acropolis and skinny dipped off Naxos on my spring vacation and I feel great and not as bored as I was in America and this metaphor came to me." Heh.

  3. February 20, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    "Snow on the Parthenon" is such an evocative image. I'm culturally conditioned to think when hearing or reading "Parthenon" of luminous stone under aureate light. To think of it grey under brittle white is an interesting thing. I admire your spirit in expatriating. I could never do it. Once I almost had someone talk me into moving to England, to Cornwall. She failed to convince me to leave my beautiful home. Also, I find John's question interesting, who can write about where they live? My thought is, who can write about anything else? It seems to be all I ever write about. And with regards to an Aegean Desperate Housewives; it would be a guaranteed best seller.
    But all that is beside the point. The main reason I'm posting is to ask, what do you think of the Comic Strip?

  4. February 22, 2008
     Alicia (A.E.)

    Thanks for these comments... The snow is all gone now! John, I appreciate what you are saying--how does anyone write about where they live. Good question. I guess here so many things--the Acropolis, the "special quality of the light", etc., are common props in travel poems of a certain ilk... while other aspects of life Athens would actually be too foreign in some ways to be grasped by an American audience--and I do feel my audience is largely an American one. Hmmm.
    Daisy, I think self-suspicious perspective is exactly what is lacking from bad travel writing! And awakeness is what is present in good. There's a pretty interesting book, The Oxford Book of Travel Verse, which is divided up by places. It's dated (1989) but in some ways the more interesting for that...
    Steve, OK I'll let you know if I ever write my Desperate Aegean Housewives... I'm not sure it took any spirit to ex-patriate--a certain amount of ignorance was helpful! My husband is Greek and we opted to try life here for a couple of years--that was about 9 years ago.
    The cartoon was a complete surprise--I just opened the web site one day and there it was. I think it is pretty nifty, Of course, it is strange to see the poem set in another city, and with the speaker's gender reversed (at least how I read it), but mostly my reaction is... cool!