The City and the Writer: In Athens with Amanda Michalopoulou

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?

Sweet anarchy. Athens is about instant decisions, constant change, boldness and confusion and nerve. Parthenon makes Athenians feel imperfect, inadequate, creating and recreating a longing for proportion, an innate obligation to beauty. You look up the Acropolis hill and the juxtaposition is overwhelming.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was about eight years old, coming back home from the public school at Exarcheia, and couldn’t reach to ring the bell. A woman saw me and came to help. “What kind of parents would let their child deal with this situation?” she said. And I immediately thought of my parents as dark fairy-tale protagonists who left me alone. It was the first time I had to consciously deal with another person’s point of view, look at my life over their shoulders, and then change the perspective again and comfort myself in first person, as a writer would do, by saying, “No, my parents love me, they just work hard.”


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

Again, a childhood reminiscence: Dexameni is built uphill on the way to Lycabettus. At the coffee place, which still exists today on the downward slope, water didn’t spill out of the glasses, and this felt like pure magic.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

One should start with Plato’s Symposium, which takes place in Athens, in the house of the tragedian Agathon, and continue with poets who wrote about the city, including Nikos Karouzos, Titos Patrikios, Kiki Dimoula, Katerina Aggelaki-Rouk, and prose writers like Ersi Sotiropoulos and Christos Oikonomou. I love the Athenian chapters of Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou, that circus-like extravagance of “darling little Greecey.” I would also suggest texts by foreign writers who saw in Athens tangible ambitions and fears. One example is the open letter Sigmund Freud wrote to Romain Rolland following his visit. He expresses this feeling of derealization: “A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis . . . I am standing in the Acropolis, only I don’t believe it.” And to add to that is the heartbreaking definition of Athens after the civil war in Don DeLillo’s The Names: “a denial of Greece, literally a paving over of this blood memory.”


Is there a place here you return to often?

Desiré, a small coffee place between Kolonaki and Syntagma that smells like my grandaunt’s kitchen, butter and sweet tsoureki bread. This is my Proustian memory, I guess. My grandaunt lived in Kipseli and treated my sister and me to cookies and condensed milk in small coffee cups every time we visited her in her flat near Fokionos Negri.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Filion on Skoufa Street, although the ghosts of writers are gathered mostly at the old premises of Brazilian, that famous coffee place of the thirties on Voukourestiou Street that doesn’t exist anymore. One should also check out the miniature bookstores: Lemoni at Thisseion for the books and the secret garden, Little Tree Books and Coffee near the Acropolis, Booktique and Bookloft in Kolonaki, and Sporos in Kifisia.


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

All my life I’ve associated Athenian neighborhoods with feelings. I spent my childhood in Exarcheia, and I formed my student identity and my reading habits in the bookstores around the law school. At the eastern terminal of the old airport, long before Eleftherios Venizelos airport was built, I dreamed of escaping Greece. I wrote my novels in a small mezzanine looking out at Haritos Street, spying on people passing by. My adult life started in Plaka, at Agia Filothei, where my boyfriend and I rented our first flat together. Then we became parents, and in 2003 we moved to Berlin. In 2010, during the financial crisis, we returned to a different city, sad and poor and brave. Now we live in the suburbs, in Maroussi. During the lockdown I discovered Halandri Ravine. I kept my sanity walking on its banks every afternoon, under the pine trees and the oleanders.


Where does passion live here?

Everywhere. Behind curtains in apartment buildings and on poorly lit park benches, in front of the Parliament during demonstrations, in concerts and poetry readings.


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

Why I Killed My Best Friend is an older novel of mine set mostly in Exarcheia, an ideal setting for a political novel. And my short story “Four Hundred Pleats,” published in the anthology Decapolis (Comma Press). You can listen to it here. The narrator falls in love with a Greek evzone outside the Parliament. She follows his shifts just to admire his masculine face and his girly skirt with the four hundred pleats, the typical fustanella. At the end of the story she kidnaps him and takes him to the Acropolis on a motorcycle. You see? The Acropolis is everywhere.


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

I live on the outskirts of Athens. We use the words “up” (for the suburbs) and “down” (for the city). In our case it is not about being inside or outside, it is always about going up and down on a virtual vertical axis. Waking up and traveling down to the heart and lungs of Athens.


Amanda Michalopoulou is the author of eight novels and three short story collections. She has been a contributing editor at Kathimerini in Greece and Tagesspiegel in Berlin. Her stories have appeared in Harvard Review, Guernica, PEN Magazine, World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, The Guardian, and Brooklyn Rail, among others. She is a winner of the Revmata Award (1994), the Diavazo Award for her novel Jantes (1996), and the Academy of Athens Prize for her short story collection Bright Day (2013). The American translation of her book I’d Like by Karen Emmerich won the NEA’s International Literature Prize (2008). This book also won the Liberis Liber Prize, awarded by the Independent Catalan Publishers (2012). Her stories and essays have been translated into twenty languages. Her novel Why I Killed my Best Friend was shortlisted for the ALTA National Translation Award. Her short story “Mesopotamia” was selected for Best European Fiction 2018 (Dalkey Archive Press). She was a fellow at the Iowa International Writers Program and has received literary grants from the DAAD and LCB in Berlin, the Shanghai Writers Association, Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig-Rowohlt, and Bellagio Rockefeller Foundation. Her latest book in translation, the novel God’s Wife, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, is shortlisted for ALTA’s National Translation Award. She lives in Athens, Greece, where she teaches creative writing.


Related Reading:

“Imagining Our Own Death”: Amanda Michalopoulou and Patricia Felisa Barbeito in Conversation