Sofka Zinovieff unpacks Athens
Acclaimed author and Athens-based anthropologist Sofka Zinovieff delves deep beneath the surface of Athens in a podcast series that’s designed to decode our captivating capital. In an exclusive interview with Athens Insider, she takes us through cemeteries and bustling farmer’s markets.
Your podcast series Athens Unpacked launched shortly after a long lockdown and as Greece reopened its doors to tourists. Did you feel like a first time tourist at times while making the series?
Most of the work for Athens Unpacked was done before May. It was sometimes strange to move around a city that was much quieter than usual and which I saw with fresh eyes after months of lockdown. As Madonna said, ‘Like a virgin’, or even a first-time tourist, though my interest in Athens and my love for the place is longstanding and deep. I hope to bridge the gap between interested new-arrival and loyal old-timer. I’d like to think that I would listen to these podcasts if I hadn’t made them.
If you were to suggest three experiences every tourist should have, what would they be ?
Athens is not always an ‘easy’ city and it’s particularly hard in midsummer heat, or if you’re in a rush and don’t know the place. If you can, choose the time of year (first choices : spring and autumn), don’t try to see ‘everything’ and follow the habits of the locals. First, stroll through Athens’ neighbourhoods, stopping for coffee, drinks and meals. Second, if it’s summertime, go to an open-air cinema or concert in the evening. Third, go up a hill : try something other than the Acropolis, like Lycabettus, Hymmettus (episode 5) or the Tourkovounia (episode 1). Go at sunset to gaze across the city sprawl. I was fascinated to discover from Athens Insider’s very own Sudha Nair-Iliades about the real-life rivalry between shipping magnates Onassis and Niarchos in the 1960s and the on-going rivalry between the cultural foundations that bear their names (episode 8). Perhaps most surprising was going underground with Water Board employee and Urban Dig community arts activist to see Hadrian’s Aqueduct (episode 1). A 22 km tunnel built almost 2,000 years ago during Hadrian’s reign, it provided water for the city and is still functioning today; a true living monument.
Any funny anecdotes that will find their way into your dinner table conversations ?
Walking around the First Cemetery of Athens with celebrated American poet A.E. Stallings, we found much to laugh at in this beautiful ‘sculpture park’, even if it also is a place of sadness. The memorials range from the sublime to the ridiculous : the exquisite ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by famous sculptor Chalepas, who almost always has a fresh flower in her open hand ; or film star/politician Melina Mercouri’s large but austere stone, which has her husband, Jules Dassin’s ‘entrance’ around the back. We spotted some splendid moustaches on disply, but the funniest moment was when Alicia pointed out a stone angel with a decided resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch ! (episode 7)
Each of the chapters in your podcast series explores a different aspect of urban living : of discovering Athens from atop the hills that surround it to diving into its aqueducts below. Of how royal ambitions and housing laws colluded to Athens’ incongruous architectural identity. Of funerary rituals and food markets.
From being the cradle of civilization to a contemporary beacon for the arts. How did you choose those specific themes to focus on ? Are there topics you wish you’d covered – or would like to delve into in the future ?
Many of the subjects were things I was already interested in. I’d addressed some in my 2004 travel book/memoir Eurydice Street : A Place in Athens. So I was happy to take another look and see how the city had changed since the glory days of the Olympic Games and unprecedented prosperity – we’ve had a severe economic crisis and a large influx of refugees in the meantime. Of course, certain things – the essence of the place – remain, but Athens has become a much more international, cosmopolitan city during these first decades of the new millennium. It was often painful deciding what to leave out. It’s the same with writing though, and I’m aware of how fundamental editing is to creating something good. Another difficulty was deciding how to group subjects together, when many of them overlap. I often wished I could make a whole episode around one of the interviewees,or a whole series about the subject covered in one episode.
I would adore to do more on Greek music and song, which I believe has been overlooked outside Greece because of the language barrier, but which deserves more attention. There’s definitely a podcast series waiting to be made about food in Athens ; it was frustrating fitting it into 30 minutes (episode 4).
What upsets you most about the city ? (or if you want to be politically correct What positive changes would you like to see in the city ?)
I’m most upset by how Athenians drive – partly because it’s annoying to be overtaken at speed on the inside lane or find cars parked across the pavement. But it’s mostly because so many people are killed and injured on the roads. Few people obey speed limits, many drink and drive and there’s little implementation of the rules. But I have a three-pronged solution which I think should be immediately taken up by the authorities ! It would help reduce unemployment by hiring numerous monitors/municipal police to catch speeders ; it would make lots of money for the municipalities with fines ; and best of all, it would help reduce the terrible statistics of crashes. What’s not to like ?
How different are the creative processes of writing books set in Athens to making a podcast about the city ? How challenging was it to condense hours of recorded material into crisp sound bites ?
The two processes are shockingly different ! I’ve loved listening to podcasts for many years – when I’m cooking, walking, driving or travelling – but that doesn’t mean I automatically knew how to
When the focus is on the listening experience, it’s unlike reading. Sounds, pauses, and music running underneath the words become vital. And whereas a written (or filmed) interview might be able to run on longer, on audio, it has to be straight to the point or the listener can drift off ; I have certain favourite podcasts (which I won’t name) for helping me get to sleep ! So yes, crisp sound bites had to be coaxed and clipped into existence ! And it was a steep learning curve for me, being accustomed to the written word as my medium.
I suspect that my next book will be influenced by the podcast experience and will be closer to the spoken word, which may be a good thing ; I always read my writing aloud to check it. I’ve written about Athens in two novels and the latest, Putney, is available on audiobook for those who prefer to listen. The story follows Daphne (a 13-hear-old London girl) as she falls in love with a much older man in the 1970s. They travel to Greece together, believing they’re in love, and it’s only decades later that Daphne realises she was a victim of child sexual abuse.
The research for my first novel, The House on Paradise Street, helped me with some of the interviewing for the podcasts, for instance, with Guardian correspondent Helena Smith, with whom I discussed the Athenian penchant for street protests (episode 5). The book was read on BBC Radio 4 by two actresses who brilliantly spoke the parts of the two main female characters. The story follows a divided Athenian family in the Greek Civil War (late 1940s) and the fall-out through subsequent generations to the present day.
Three neighborhoods that tourists often overlook that best channel Athens’ new energy ?
We’re spoilt for choice in this category. The old favourites of Plaka and Monastiraki are great and I’d recommend everyone take the classic walk around the base of the Acropolis, past the Theatre of Herodes Atticus and Philopappos Hill. But there are plenty of other areas to choose from that show another side to this complex, fascinating city. I’d suggest Pangrati as a neighbourhood that has become fashionable in recent years, while remaining true to its slightly unkempt character (episode 3).
It’s filled with a variety of desirable cafes, restaurants and intriguing shops. And you can continue into Mets, one of the loveliest residential districts, with its low-rise buildings, beautiful Ardittos Hill park behind the 19th Century Olympic Stadium and the First Cemetery (episode 7).
Kypseli (episode 2) is another place that has changed dramatically. Starting as a middle-class residential neighbourhood, it became a fashionable, society meeting place in the 1960s. Following a steep decline in its fortunes, many migrants found cheap housing there.Recently, it’s gone up in the world. The municipal marketplace in nowa trendy, multicultural hub and the leafy pedestrian street of Fokionos Negri has resumed its position as a delightful and more cosmopolitan place to stroll, people watch and stop for a coffee or genuine Syrian felafel.
For a third choice, try crossing Syngrou Avenue from Koukaki, the now fashionable area below the Acropolis Museum, and going into Neos Kosmos (or “ New World ”). This was a neighbourhood
for refugees from Asia Minor, who fled the 1922 ‘Catastrophe’ (episode 3). Until the 1960s there were remnants of their shanty town shacks, though now all you can see are the old Bauhaus style refugee buildings of Dourgouti. Other attractions include the fabulous Onassis Stegi cultural centre and the new Museum of Contemporary Artin the former Fix Beer factory.
Athens Unpacked premiered on 19 May, produced by Pod.gr for This is Athens.