Marble Girls of Athens

Arkhe tou paramythiou, kalispera sas, is a traditional beginning of a Greek fairy tale. The fairy tale begins, good evening to you.

I lived in Athens, at the intersection of a prostitute and a saint. It was a neighborhood of mixed high-rises and a scattering of neoclassical houses, some boarded up while the owners waited to be offered the right price for their inheritance. The neighborhood hardware stores carried, along with screwdrivers and lengths of wire and caulking pastes, icon frames with electric lights in the shape of candles attached, so you wouldn’t have to inconvenience yourself with oil for the perpetual flame. All the neighborhood shops—the laundry, the butcher’s, the vegetable market, the TV and appliances store, the cheap dress shop and the bridal gown shop, the school supplies shop with its large-sized brightly colored picture books of Greek myths and tales of Alexander the Great—were defended by charms against the evil eye suspended over their counters. If you took the evening volta, stroll, that provides most Athenians with their exercise during the punishingly hot times of the year, certain streets gave you glimpses of Mount Hymettus, smudged with darkening violet light, like a drawing someone had started and then decided to cross out with ink.

The tiny cottage of an apartment I moved into yesterday has already begun to teach me what a different world I have come to, physically, socially, historically. It is no easy matter to find apartments with furniture and kitchen appliances here. In Greece, the tenant is supposed to supply these things. Until 1983, when the obligatory dowry—the prika—a woman brought to her husband was declared illegal, refrigerators and beds were components of the marriage agreement. And for the most part, unmarried people until fairly recently lived with their parents, and had no need for their own domestic equipment. Even now, when it is common for couples to marry later, and to live together before they do, many people I know from previous visits live in a kind of compromise between independence and family surveillance. Their parents or grandparents built family-only apartment buildings in which each child of adult age is housed on a different floor, along with members of the extended family, who wander in and out of each other’s living rooms, dandling each other’s babies, stirring each other’s pot of stifado, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man Kiki has gone out with three times in the last month.

The miniature living room of this flat is dominated by a ballroom-size chandelier, a persistent element of the middle-class Greek idea of grandeur in decoration, probably translated into homes from Orthodox churches, which usually feature monumental gilt chandeliers, their branches supporting a rain of votive offerings. There is also a glass-fronted trinket cabinet, which displays a blue and white Greek flag, some seashells, a souvenir china plate from the island of Paros, and a narghile, or hookah, the Middle Eastern water pipe. In the tiny kitchen, there is the ubiquitous dull white…

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