Though I have no Greek blood myself, I found it easy to relate to Adrianne Kalfopoulou's poignant and vivid account of life in modern Greece leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics. A first generation American, she returned to her Greek father’s roots to make a new life, drawn by her deep affection for the generous, open-hearted people and the beauty of the country. At the same time, she is frustrated by the extraordinary complexities of dealing with Greek bureaucracy, in which nepotism, corruption and inefficiency are rife.
The depth of her love for Greece and its people is demonstrated by her longing to belong to and to stay in a country whose government and administration subject her to such blatantly unfair indignities as taking away her driving licence when a taxi driver falsely accuses her of a traffic violation. Yet outside of the workplace, most people she encounters are selfless, kind and caring, although often beset with misery and disappointment, and with a predisposition to be the heroes of their own small Greek tragedies.
During the course of these memoirs, the author slips between two very different worlds, equally at home and equally as ill at ease in the humble apartments of her dying Greek grandparents and the vast, slick, sanitised world of her American relatives. There is never any doubt that her heart lies in Greece, though the country’s complex, broken politics and local government cause her much heartache. I wanted to give a little cheer when she rejected the overwhelming affluence of American society and its decadent stores, yearning instead for simple Greek olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables.
For me, as a former tourist, this book did many great services. It allowed me to better understand the nature of the Greek people, and to reach far beyond the tourist's shallow amusement at being served in a bar by someone who shares a name with a Greek god or mythical character. It welcomed me inside those stark, minimalist apartments and humble houses that I've passed so often on holiday, wondering what goes on behind their shady shutters, feeling like a nosy tourist for wanting to know.
It also made me wonder whether, when I've told myself that loud conversations in Greek, overheard in public places, sound like arguments only because of the guttural nature and different accenting of the language, they probably are in fact genuinely the sound of people arguing, and arguing heatedly too.
The moving story of the relationship between the author and her grandparents was a vivid demonstration of the iron strength of familial bonds in Greece. It also gave me a new respect for those lavish cemeteries that you find in every Greek village, with busy gravestones covered in photos, memorabilia and extraordinary artifacts indicating that the dead are still very much a part of the lives of those they've left behind. The vast divide between city, village and island life was also made clear, as was the bewilderment of even the most urban Greek citizens with the window-dressing of the capital in preparation for the 2004 Olympics.
The prose is an interesting mix of American English seasoned with Greek words and words of Greek origin, and some interesting cross-cultural turns of phrase, e.g. the pleasing "pretzels" of the new motorways that spring up almost overnight around the new Athens airport in preparation for the Olympics, taking traffic-weary locals by surprise.
I'd be very interested to know whether the author has continued to write memoirs of her life in Greece since 2006, when this book was published, and if she has, I’d love to read them. Looking back now from the perspective of 2013, those heady pre-Olympic days must seem like a golden age, compared to the financial ruin and chaos into which Greece has now descended. I sincerely hope the author has fared rather better.