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Snow on the Parthenon
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.