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The City and the Writer: In Athens with Alicia E. Stallings

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Athens as you feel/see it?

Athens is full of energies and contrasts. For ancient Greeks, “hope” (elpis) was a mixed emotion rather than a purely optimistic one: “anxiety about the future” as well as the possibility that things are looking up. Poverty is still shockingly visible—elderly Greeks riffling through trash bins, many homeless. One construction of cardboard boxes used by a homeless man for sleeping near the central post office has “Person not Trash” written on it to avoid its removal. And there is anxiety about what is happening in terms of property sales—a lot of foreign investors have come in to buy up the foreclosed properties, often partly because of “golden visas.” And Airbnb has also had a mixed effect on locals (sometimes a source of extra income, but often a reason to be kicked out of an apartment). Athens is covered in lively graffiti and street art—every surface a potential canvas. Street protests and bustling open-air cafés, tear gas and the heavenly scent of bitter orange blossoms; these are some of the juxtapositions that give Athens its liveliness. Creativity—in street musicians, theatrical productions, art galleries, poetry readings—is everywhere on display.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I’ve seen a lot of haunting things through the economic crisis and the arrival of refugees into Piraeus (the port of Athens). During the nadir of the economic crisis, I had a father and son ring the doorbell of my house. They were Serbian and were going to return on foot to Serbia because they had no way to continue to live in Greece. They were both in dire need of shoes. I wasn’t able to find anything in the house that fit them, and to this day I regret not just going across the street, where there was an athletic shoe store, and buying them each a new pair. Maybe I thought I would have people asking me this on my doorstep every day, so I hesitated. I met a mother and daughter in the tent city that arose in Piraeus in 2016—the daughter was named Yasmin and was close to my daughter’s age. The woman had taught English literature in Syria. They were frightened and uncomfortable in the tent city, and I wished I had just at that moment invited them to come spend a week or so in my office—to have a decent shower, a safe place to sleep. I didn’t, and when I returned to try to find them the next day, they were gone. Lots of stories like that.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Perhaps not an “extraordinary detail” but one I notice. It can be hard to look up because so much is happening at street level, and indeed it can be unsafe to look up—you might fall into a pothole or worse. But Athens is a different city when you look up. Although many of Athens’s neoclassical buildings were knocked down and concrete apartment blocks thrown up in their place, a lot remains, more than people realize. There are many beautiful neoclassical buildings, and even modernist gems, that just need a bit of paint. And there are many places you wouldn’t think would have an Acropolis view, and suddenly you look up, and there she is.

We also tend to think of Athens as a sprawl of concrete, devoid of greenery. It is true that there are not enough planned public parks. But there are a lot of scattered archaeological sites, and these also function as parks and even wildlife reserves. Islands of greenery among busy roads can have a surprising number and variety of wildflowers in the spring, and there are frogs, tortoises, bats, dragonflies, and birds. Athens has not only a lot of native birds (scops owls, magpies, black birds) but migrating visitors such as hoopoes. There are also ever-burgeoning flocks of feral parakeets that streak through the city, squawking.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Many writers have lived and written here. George Seferis has a poem about the relatively unromantic Syngrou Avenue. Angelos Sikelianos, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos. Poets such as James Merrill and Alan Ansen. Probably the most important living poet whose main theme really is the modern city of Athens and the neighborhoods of Athens is Kiki Dimoula.


Is there a place here you return to often?

One of my favorite places is the cinder track above the marble Olympic stadium (Kalimarmaro). The track is a great place to walk or jog, and to people-watch, and it has stunning views of the Acropolis, the Hill of the Muses, Mount Lycabettus, and Mount Hymettus. It might be the best place to watch a sunset—you see the sun turning the Parthenon into floating gold and fire. It’s also a beautiful place for a moonrise, as the moon comes up behind the mountains opposite the Acropolis—two kinds of ruined marble. It is also full of wildflowers in spring.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I might consider the First Cemetery of Athens to be the iconic literary place. Many important poets and writers are buried here: Palamas, Sikelianos, Elytis, Seferis. The cemetery is ornamented with the work of important sculptors, including Chalepas. Movie stars and prime ministers rub shoulders (at least in death), and the great mausoleum of Schliemann looks down over it all, with its strange and fantastic frieze that combines the Trojan War with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy in one timeline. It’s a working cemetery and full of the undertakings and livelihoods of death. And it is green—cypresses and pines, the clatter of magpies, the moans of doves.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

We like our little neighborhood—Kynosargous, or more largely, Neos Kosmos. You can walk to the Acropolis Museum in twenty-five minutes, but it feels more remote. What I like about it is how self-contained it is. There is a cobbler near us, and a caner of chairs, stationery stores, schools and pharmacies, supermarkets; a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker (in that order) around the corner. We live next to an undertaker, so I suppose we are covered in even the most extreme emergency. On Mondays, the farmers market comes to the next street, and the Greek countryside is trucked into the city with whatever is growing in season—all the different kinds of wild greens and nets of live snails and many kinds of apples or potatoes or what have you. Just when you are tired of strawberries, the cherries appear, and so on. We live near a pedestrianized street that has a couple of decent tavernas, and a scruffy park and a little square which, when certain trees are not in leaf, affords an Acropolis view. It’s a working-class neighborhood in a lot of ways, and it is interestingly mixed. Refugees are starting to settle there, and it is nice (or I think it is nice) to see women in hijabs doing their shopping at the farmers’ market alongside little old Greek widows in black headscarves.


Where does passion live here?

On the street, I think. Out in the protests and marches and cafés and open-air cinemas.


What is the title of one of your works about Athens and what inspired it exactly?

“Athens, Picture Postcards.” It is a number of vignettes from Athens as well as a loose translation of Cavafy’s “The City.”


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Athens does an outside exist?”

Athens is properly a collection of little cities or villages sprawled in a bowl of mountains and facing the sea. Piraeus is attached to Athens, but it is outside of Athens. One of the great things about Athens is how easily and quickly you can escape it. Everyone needs breaks from the intensity and continuous background stress of Athens. Many people have a native village to escape to in the summer or on long weekends. We don’t have a family village to return to but have found an island close to Athens we like and that feels remote, even though it is an hour and a half or so away by boat. There, the main complaint is weather or boat times or what to do about the gangs of feral peacocks that eat up people’s gardens. When the sky is very clear, rinsed clean by rain perhaps, you can see Athens over the sea in the distance and it seems like a giant scab of concrete from the shore to the mountains. We are always glad to escape for a while but also glad to be so close to home.


Alicia E. Stallings is the author of the poetry books Archaic Smile, which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax, which won the Poet’s Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’s Benjamin H. Danks Award; and Olives. She has also published a verse translation of Lucretius’s The Nature of Things. Stallings was a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. She lives in Athens, Greece.

Published Sep 23, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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