The City and the Writer: In Patra with Christos Tsiamis


Image: Christos Tsiamis.

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 Patra as you feel/see it?

I left Patra at seventeen years old but I visit regularly. What strikes me with every visit is that despite the occasional mood swings precipitated by specific circumstances (the crowds of refugees that arrived in Patra, trying to make it to Europe, more than a decade before they started landing on the island of Lesvos; or the ravages of the economic crisis to the business community of the city), the prevailing mood in the city remains constant: a mix of expectation and resignation. 

Patra is a harbor. Its sights are always set upon the mysteries of the sea. From there came, in the distant past, the ocean liners from America; from there keep arriving, more recently, the ferries from Italy full of tourists. Patra has also lived for a long time on the expectation that its political progeny would deliver on promises that the city would be afforded the stature that it deserves as the third largest city of Greece (four prime ministers of Greece in the last half century have roots in the city). But the promises have not materialized, or by the time some became reality, the expectation had become a memory. And so the city goes on living in an atmosphere that contains little of the hustle and bustle of the other two major Greek cities and has more of the resigned tones of an old city in the deep American South.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I have two related heartbreaking memories at two different times in the same decade. They have to do with witnessing, after multi-year absences, the loss of beautiful identifying marks on the body of the city. First was the demolition of the old lighthouse, with the coffeehouse at its base, at the end of the harbor’s main wharf. Then came the destruction of the garden estates and open-air cinemas and theater around the iconic square Ypsila Alonia and their replacement with high-rise apartment buildings.  

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

For the longest time, the city lived disconnected from its historical past in antiquity. Its archaeological museum was like any other undistinguished and unwelcoming government building. Around the time of the Athens Olympics of 2004, though, a brand new beautiful archaeological museum was built. It offers a rich display of historical artifacts that provide the missing link to the ancient city. Unfortunately, the new museum’s location, far from the city center and not easily accessible on foot, still goes unnoticed by most in the city and by those who visit it.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Patra is the birthplace of Kostis Palamas, one of the major poets of Greece in the last century. In the mid-1960s, a new generation of writers emerged under the mentorship of Sokratis Skartsis, an intensely lyrical poet with numerous books of poetry to his credit as well as numerous translations of modern poetry and classical texts from other cultures, and the founder of the annual Poetry Symposium, now in its fourth decade, at the University of Patras. From that group of writers, those who established themselves in the Greek literary scene include the novelist Ersi Sotiropoulou (winner of multiple national awards), whose books have been translated in several European languages and also published in the US; and the poet and novelist Vassilis Ladas (winner of a National Book Award), whose prose books deal mainly with the refugees in the city. Another writer who, although not born there, has lived in Patras for many years and wrote a novel based on the political history of the city is Rhea Galanaki. She has won national awards for her novels and short stories and has been published abroad.  

Is there a place here you return to often?

Ypsila Alonia, the tree-lined square located on a plateau overlooking the gulf of Patra is where I return time and again. At its coffee shops, I meet my childhood and literary friends and we continue our discussions about life, literature, and politics, over a cup of coffee or lemonade in the morning and over cold beers late into the night.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Although over the years a number of places for literary gatherings have been established throughout the city, the one iconic place that has been the center of many literary events of note for over three decades is the bookstore and gallery Polyedro. It is located in the center of town, just a block away from King George Square with its landmark municipal theater. And besides being the place of readings, lectures, symposia, exhibitions, and musical events, Polyedro is the meeting grounds for many members of the city’s intelligentsia.

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

Two areas of the city have been inscrutable to me from an early age. First, the neighborhood in the upper city that snakes around the hill below the old Venetian castle. Some old legend about the ghost of a woman named Patrinella making appearances there dwelled in my childhood imagination and it somehow still interferes with my thoughts about that neighborhood. The other place of youthful fascination was the area with low-lying small adobes that became home to Greek refugees expelled from Asia Minor during the war of the early 1920s. Something in the look of that neighborhood makes me replay over and over in my imagination the story of its residents’ uprooting and suffering.   

Where does passion live here?

The passion of Patra comes out in its Carnival (Karnavali) that lasts for several weeks. The city prepares for months for it and when it finally takes place it is the greatest party in the country. Along with daily or nightly parades, there are dances organized by different associations and clubs, and public games, and all celebrations culminate in a multi-thousand person, multi-hour parade on the Sunday before lent begins, and the burning, with much fanfare, of the King of Carnival float. The city proclaims a new King of Carnival each year.  

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

My poetry collection about Patra is entitled A Long Walk in Patra (Melani Publications, Athens, 2007). I was living in New York and this lead to me writing a book about Manhattan. As soon as I finished it, I encountered Patra staring from inside me asking, “What about me?” I wrote the Patra book in a “white heat” and it was published before the New York book. My priorities of allegiance were realigned, so to speak.

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

By virtue of my living in New York, Patra has become an interior living place. My Patra, then, exists outside the city of Patra, even when I am back within its physical confines. We have learned, somehow, to coexist quite well like this!

 

Christos Tsiamis was born and raised in Patras, Greece. He studied at City College and Columbia University in New York. He has published the poetry collections Polytropo (Patras, 1979), Garden with Roots in the Moon (Athens, 1996), The Automobile of Love (Athens, 2000), A Long Walk in Patra (Athens, 2007), and Little Hero (Athens, 2015); and the book of poetry and prose Magical Manhattan (Athens, 2013), which in 2014 was short-listed for the book critics award OAnagnostis. He has also published a book of translations, These Are My Rivers (Athens, 1995), a selection of poems by the American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and he has collaborated with the photographer Panagiotis Sotiropoulos on the book Patras, Photographic Profile of a Vanishing City (Athens, 2006). His poems, translations, and essays appear regularly in Greece’s major literary magazines. He is a founding member of the Circle of Poets of Greece.