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When in Athens

Author: Harry Strawson
Newspaper: The TLS
Date: Jun 4 2020

The Passenger: Greece is the first English-language instalment of Europa Editions and Italian publisher Iberborea’s The Passenger series (volumes on Brazil and Turkey scheduled for the autumn). In twelve essays, it aims to tell the story of Greece through “its shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, conflicts, and open wounds”.

The volume is varied in its style and content and draws its contributions – both newly commissioned and previously published – from Greek and non-Greek authors, poets, journalists and academics. The first essay takes us on a walking tour of Athens’s neo­classical architecture and the final essay gives us a poet’s take on Greece’s premier basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo; in between, we chink the curtain on shipping oligarchies and irregular capital flows in post-crash Greece; gain insight into the Euripidean energy and global success of New Greek cinema; experience the madness of Greek bureaucracy; discover the history of the traditional Greek taverna and traditional Rebetiko music (sometimes described as the “Greek blues”) and confront despair and hope in two powerful pieces on migration. These essays tie together to tell a story that is by turns tragic, comic, infuriating and uplifting as well as being always compelling.

In one impressionistic essay the poet Kostas Koutsourelis presents the contradictions of civic life in Greece in a series of snapshots: “Summertime, Athens, twenty metres below ground. A woman, seriously out of breath and loaded down with shopping bags, is fighting to find room in a packed carriage”. It’s everyone for themselves on the city’s cut-throat metro trains and in its anarchic queues. Except when it isn’t: in dealings with the state, Greeks pull together. People flout the rules to share metro tickets, warn oncoming motorists if the police are ahead, and send out word if the tax inspector is making the rounds. “Nothing is more foreign to Greeks than the notion that they may rely on … the impartiality of the rule of law or the goodwill of an institution, a service, a company.”

In a profile of Thessaloniki’s septuagenarian mayor, the journalist James Angelos introduces us to Yiannis Boutaris, who has a lizard tattooed on his hand, a gold stud in his ear and an unfiltered cigarette between his lips. In two terms between 2011 and 2019, Boutaris revived Thessaloniki’s finances by promoting the city’s Ottoman and Jewish history to attract Turkish and Israeli tourists at the expense of a “monolithic, ossified brand of Greek nationalism that has long concealed evidence of past pluralism”. He was physically attacked in broad daylight by ultra-nationalists for his trouble.

On the Aegean island of Ikaria, we visit one of five world “Blue Zones” (places identified by the Blue Zones project as having the highest concentration of centenarians). Ikarians tell you the year they were born instead of their age. We sit with Gregoris (1919) as he puffs through his daily pack of cigarettes and Karnava (1916) as she pours out glasses of Coca-Cola. Who’s closer to discovering the elixir of long life: the clean-living gurus of the Blue Zones project or the chain-smoking, Cola-swilling centenarians of Ikaria?

The Passenger: Greece is, what’s more, a beautiful book: its thick pages are the tone and texture of marble and incorporate numerous colour photographs, illustrations and miscellanea (including reading lists, film recommendations and a playlist) that help give the inside story of contemporary Greece.