FACING ATHENS by George Sarrinikolaou


Encounters with the Modern City
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Slender, elliptical impressions of a troubled country on the eve of hosting the Olympics, by a Greek émigré journalist returning all too briefly to his homeland to revisit and record.

Having emigrated at age ten to New York with his parents (who subsequently separated), and returned only for summer holidays and family gatherings, Sarrinikolaou, now in his early 30s, needs to prove (to himself and his compatriots) that his contact with his native land and people can be more than superficial. To correct his skewed perspective based on memory and loss, he sets out to walk the city and reacquaint himself with the seething urban forces of “greed, corruption, and racism.” In a series of ten loosely connected, engaging essays, the author focuses on different aspects of modern-day Athens, such as the uneasy physical transition between the ancient city, embodied in the tourist magnet Acropolis, and the present metropolis's fierce competition for space and air. In “Center Specter,” Sarrinikolaou starts at the central traffic circle Omonia Square, a metaphorical meeting of discordant elements, once the hub of lowlife in the city, now spruced up for the coming Olympics; from the circle radiate the seven wide streets whose names bear Athens's history, which the author sketchily recounts. From here, he traces some of the important decentralizing forces on the city, such as the influx over the last decades of poverty-stricken Albanians, first deported by the Greeks and then offered the cheapest and most miserable labor; and the so-called Russo-Pontians, the marginalized and repatriated Russian Greeks from the Black Sea who were invited to return after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sarrinikolaou pursues the suburbs of the upwardly mobile, in “Good Life,” shamelessly sustained by the lowly immigrant labor; and the abject, recalcitrant camps of the universally excoriated Gypsies (“Outside Paradise”), of whom the author reports, 80% are illiterate. Unfortunately, he doesn’t delve any deeper into these distressing first impressions, but veers into more personal proclivities (recorded, at intervals, in diary-like form), such as the country's government-subsided soccer mania; a family outing to the country for Easter, dominated grotesquely by the slaughtering of a lamb; and the despicably venal treatment by the hospital staff of the author's 87-year-old grandfather. The chapters taken alone make suitably superficial magazine pieces—but this archaic, maddening, and infinitely complex city deserves a more thorough, holistic treatment.

A three-months' visit isn't nearly long enough for Sarrinikolaou's intended reckoning.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-86547-699-3
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2004