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The City and the Writer: In Athens with Natalie Bakopoulos

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?

I am always returning to it, reacquainting myself with the city each time, each new spring. I know that the way I view it is always through the gaze of impermanence—even when I’m there for months at a time. Though I try to resist nostalgia, I admit I’m prone to its rosy-toned hues. Athens is vibrant and melancholic, proud and hesitant, wildly anarchic yet with a rigid social order. Heady and warm-blooded and always a little on edge.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Each time I leave: always before sunrise for an outrageously early flight, sometimes having barely slept at all, watching the city whir by from the back seat of a taxi. I’m always a bit shattered by Athens, and when I arrive it’s often after the academic year has ended and I feel exhausted. I tend to wander around aimlessly, tender and open to the entire city. My most heartbreaking memory in particular was in 2006, meeting my aunt to see a Fernando Botero exhibit, only months before she died. Though I knew she was sick, she did not want me to know, so I spent the day with her in this delicate state of knowing and not knowing all at once, as if not speaking of her illness would make it go away. Amid Botero’s voluptuous and joyful, vibrant and mournful bodies, my aunt felt particularly small.


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

I’m not sure I can pinpoint what is noticed or unnoticed by most, but I think it’s a great place for what Georges Perec called the "infra-ordinary." To sit in a café in Athens and record the details: the sounds of kids playing, the whir of a motorbike, the sounds of conversations, the grounds of coffee at the bottom of the cup, the small bowls of nuts and olives that come with your beer. The presence of several generations sitting together in one café—I don’t mean in the same group, but in the same space—feels particularly Greek to me. Once, running out for beer in the middle of a soccer match, I didn’t miss a moment, the sounds of the game coming from balconies, from windows, a small television propped on the counter at the corner café or a giant screen at the local bar. Athens has a wonderful nightlife, but I love its early mornings, too: sleepy, with such heartbreaking light, the smell of sugar and pastry and coffee and cigarette smoke.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

A contemporary writer I love is Amanda Michalopoulou, whose stories and novels are excellent—I recommend Why I Killed My Best Friend and God’s Wife and I’d Like. Mysterious and smart, sly and subversive, darkly playful and philosophically sharp and emotionally resonant. I’d Like, when I first read it—the English translation by Karen Emmerich—was a revelation, the way she plays with the fragment, with white space. Two poets: Kiki Dimoula, who died this past year, and Phoebe Gianissi. Two brilliant translators of Modern Greek into English are Karen Emmerich and Patricia Felisa Barbeito—I love everything they do. For writers in Athens writing in English, I’d recommend Adrianne Kalfopoulou and A. E. Stallings. Next, I’d like to read Kallia Papadaki’s prize-winning Dendrites. I don’t think it’s yet been translated to English, though it’s been translated into several other languages.

And many more, past and present: Manolis Anagnostakis, C. P. Cavafy, Maro Douka, Yiannis Doukas, Odysseus Elytis, Gazmend Kapllani, Margarita Karapanou, Michalis Katsaros (my great-uncle), Ilias Maglinis, Jenny Mastoraki, Titos Patrikios, Yiannis Ritsos, George Seferis, Ersi Sotiropoulou, Alki Zei.


Is there a place here you return to often?

With each visit, particularly when I’m there for weeks or months at a time, I fall into a daily routine of writing, walking, sometimes teaching, and I neglect to visit some of the more iconic places. I’ll go tomorrow, I say. I’ll go next week. It’s been fifteen years since I visited the Parthenon, for instance, but I’ve been to Athens every year since. Each trip I visit at least one museum—there are many fabulous ones—and two perfect things to do in Athens are to see a movie at the open-air cinemas scattered throughout the city and to attend a concert at the Herodeion theater at the base of the Acropolis. My favorite, though, is late-night rebetika at a small café.

And my routines: Long evening walks around the Hill of the Muses, or Filopappou Hill. And for several years in a row I stayed at the base of Lykavittos Hill, whose trails were lovely to walk in the mornings. I love to wind through various neighborhoods. I have favorite places scattered throughout the city: a bar in Mavili Square, a rooftop café near the Acropolis, great coffee in Exharheia, a taverna at the base of Strefi Hill, and another lovely, particularly hidden-away restaurant—a friend told me he’d be furious if I ever named it! But I’m always coming across new places, new views and perspectives of the city; so often I turn a corner and walk right into a postcard—a stunning view of the Acropolis or a wonderful sunset. Sometimes I take the tram or train to the sea for a swim, or for a lunch of seafood and cold white wine near the port.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Athens is a very literary city, and I don’t mean just because of its classical past. Poetry is everywhere—many of Greece’s most beloved songs are the lyrics of poems; its most beloved poems are songs.

Filion Café is an iconic literary place, between the neighborhoods of Kolonaki and Exarcheia. Years ago, when I was still writing my first book, I liked to go there and sit along the window and write, simply because someone told me it was where all the writers went. I’m certain I never got much work done there, though I suppose all that eavesdropping and people watching counted for something.


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

The American journalist Kevin Andrews has said of Athens that its most intense realities are often the least visible, and it’s something I think about a lot. I also think the most intense realities are often the ones we choose not to see, or that our various privileges shield us from noticing. I suppose the question is also, invisible to what, and to whom? Hidden by what, and by whom?

The way I inhabit Athens is by moving through it on foot, and I’ve come to know the city this way. I love feeling the shifts of neighborhoods, the quiet, tranquil streets that open onto a bustling one, the hills, the way some neighborhoods feel like small villages.

I suppose it’s a particular way of belonging to a city: walking through it. I love the way beautiful spaces materialize behind walls, up narrow staircases, courtyard cafés and rooftop bars and art galleries and bookshops. I was so surprised to encounter turtles when walking the trails along Lykavittos Hill, and I love wandering the narrow streets of Anafiotika. I can go from point A to point B a slightly different way and see something new each time, and I often do—not always on purpose.


Where does passion live here?

The light! Oh, the light! The light in Athens is incredible.


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

My most recent novel, Scorpionfish, is set in Athens and narrated by two people who talk to each other on either side of their adjoining balconies, separated by a thin, opaque wall. Many things inspired it, but one thing was simply a physical space: for several years in a row, often for several months at a time, I rented a particular apartment at the base of Lykavittos. The apartment had two small balconies: one off the living room and one off the bedroom, both overlooking the courtyard, which was filled with lemon trees. I loved this space: the feeling of being part of the city, the blurred boundary between outside and in.


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

When I’m not in Athens I’m always aware of it, and when I’m in Athens I’m always aware of my outsiderness. Because I was not born there—my father was, and came to the States in his early twenties—I’ve always been aware of Athens as another home, both distant and near. And when there, I’m always aware of being on the city’s periphery, metaphorically. I always thought I wanted to belong to Athens wholeheartedly, but I realize I might be more comfortable with the hybridity and ambiguity of borders. So many outsiders have wanted to claim Athens as their own, particularly Westerners, to say nothing of centuries of history and occupations, and I am always thinking about the differences in wanting to claim and wanting to belong and wanting to be. Athens is always aware of the outside gaze—so much of the field of Classics, for instance, originated outside Greece’s borders, eager perhaps to claim a link to a classical past, and sometimes with a dangerous sort of nostalgia. Yet a new generation of classicists is rethinking and reshaping the field in exciting, thought-provoking ways.

To think about “outside” with regards to Athens—to think about any place, really—is to think about its landscape and its complicated histories, to think about the link between history and story and imagination, about what is illuminated, what is obscured, what is erased. To acknowledge both the histories of wanting to possess from the outside and the xenophobia that often simmers within—and how all these things remain embedded in the landscape.  

Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of the novels Scorpionfish (Tin House, 2020) and The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and her work has appeared in Tin House, VQR, The Iowa Review, The New York Times, Granta, Ploughshares, Kenyon ReviewMississippi ReviewO. Henry Prize Stories, and other publications. She's an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Wayne State University and a faculty member of the summer program Writing Workshops in Greece.

Related Reading: 

Amanda Michalopoulou and Patricia Felisa Barbeito on Writing Times of Crisis

The City and the Writer: In Thessaloniki with Christopher Bakken

The Translator Relay: Karen Emmerich

Published Mar 18, 2021   Copyright 2021 Nathalie Handal

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