Five-minute Memoir: Sofka Zinovieff recalls the day she became a real Greek


The address was a side street in central Athens, behind the Cathedral. It felt like a special day – I had put on a nice dress, and my husband brought along his camera. After many years of involvement with Greece, this should have been the culmination of a love story. As a student, I had done anthropological research in the Peloponnese and later, I met my Greek husband in Russia. Now, in 2004, having moved to Athens three years earlier, we were bringing up our two daughters in their father's country and sending them to Greek school.

In pursuit of a Greek ID card, I had negotiated my way around a labyrinth of public offices that would have foiled Ariadne's thread, and underwent a panel interview only mildly less demanding than my PhD viva. Finally, the day had arrived. I was born in London, had Russian grandparents, had lived in four countries in 10 years, and I was now becoming a Greek citizen.

I'd pictured something like the scenes in sentimental American films – solemn speeches, joyous songs, a euphoric 'rite of passage', as anthropologists put it, in a pillared hall bedecked with flags. In reality, the experience was somewhat different. We were directed to a seedy waiting room and, eyeing up the 25 other candidates, I wondered when the ceremony would begin. There were some Russians and Eastern Europeans and perhaps the odd Albanian. After a while an official walked in.

"So, you're becoming Greeks?" She didn't sound exactly encouraging, but nor was she gruff, like so many of her colleagues in the various Aliens' Offices we had all traipsed through so often. We followed our shepherdess like a flock of well-behaved sheep and entered a nondescript office with a large table, in the middle of which was a black book. There was little time to take stock.

"Put your hands on the Bible, and those who can't reach, touch the shoulder of the person next to them. OK. Now, repeat after me: 'I swear to be faithful to the Fatherland, obedient to the constitution and the laws and to consciously fulfil my duty as a Greek citizen'." The whole thing lasted about 60 seconds. And that was it. "Congratulations. We'll send you the papers," said the official.

People have often asked me why on earth I wanted to be Greek. After all, as a European, there was no real need. I knew the passport would not make me really 'Greek'. I had seen the graffiti on street walls declaring, "Albanians, you'll never become Greek", and there was no reason why a Brit should be any different.

But for me, it was a symbolic act linked to the desire to be part of the whole. I wanted to be able to say "us" not "you", and to be able to vote, but the act was also an expression of love for a place that has provided vast quantities of joy and given me different ways of looking at the world – through Greece's intoxicating, mauve light and its people's quicksilver approach to life. It was a means of honouring a country that had made a significant contribution to who I had become.

Looking back, it was a fine time to want to be Greek: the country was on a high after the roaring success of the Olympic Games. Athens was dressed in her Sunday best, with buildings painted, trees planted, and a gleaming new airport and metro system. Business was booming. Who could have predicted that the collapse would be so frighteningly precipitous when it came a few years later?

The Icarus tumble from grace and optimism has been into the depths of black despair. Some Greeks compare the current crisis to the horrors of the Nazi occupation, the subsequent Civil War or the Colonels' Junta. This is probably an exaggeration, but certainly, the country is going through a trauma; after the shock and anger, it is now in a deep depression. You see it on the faces of people on the street. Who would want to be Greek at this time? It sounds like a joke.

Recently, I have come to appreciate why, "May you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse. I have had the advantage of an outsider's perspective on Greek troubles, but after so long, I have also seen the complexity and felt the frustrations of an insider. Nevertheless, I have never regretted getting my Greek citizenship. It was a leap of faith and a statement of intent, somewhat like getting married; "for better or for worse" and certainly "for richer or for poorer".

I have now lived in Greece for 10 years and have spoken the language for over two decades. I am still interested and charmed by the object of my affections. And if there are elements that are troublesome, well, it happens in the best of marriages.

Sofka Zinovieff is a writer. Her latest novel, 'The House on Paradise Street', will be published in March by Short Books

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