Sofka Zinovieff was never going to be ordinary. Descended from Catherine the Great on one side and the woman you see on your £5 note, the famous prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, on the other, the fairies at her christening seem to have bestowed her with more than the usual quantity of gifts. Beautiful, clever, sweet-natured (and end-earingly prone to giggles and blushing), her exotic name is only one of the things that makes her remarkable.
Things happen to Sofka that don’t happen to other people. While studying anthropology at Cambridge she went to visit her grandfather, who lived in Oxfordshire, in one of England’s loveliest houses. He had never been a man much taken with children, so Sofka had seen very little of him as she was growing up. Long separated from Sofka’s grandmother, his lifetime companion had been the genial Lord Berners, model for Nancy Mitford’s Lord Merlin. The two had entertained the likes of Salvador Dali; a photograph shows Penelope Betjeman, her tall white horse and Evelyn Waugh all standing nonchalantly inside the house. The resident doves are dyed the blue, pink and purple of sugared almonds. The house needed someone with a sense of style to take it into the twenty-first century, and Sofka’s grandfather didn’t have to look far. When he died in 1987, it came to her. Sofka is that paradoxical creature, a free spirit with her feet firmly on the ground. Instead of retiring to a life of lolling in the English countryside, she continued her studies and rented out the house. She went to Greece to study for her PhD, documenting the effects of tourism on a coastal town in the Peloponnese. “I thought I was meant to be there,” she remembers; “it was like falling in love. Having no things, arriving with a couple of suitcases, you could just be you. It was very liberating.” She met her husband standing in a queue, when in 1990 she went to Moscow as a freelance journalist. Reporting a story on the plight of Russia’s Greek population, she was waiting to interview someone at the Greek embassy when a tall, dark, handsome press attaché breezed by. He knew at once that she was the woman he wanted to marry; it took her a bit longer for the penny to drop: about a week. She acquired a married name – Mrs Vassilis Papadimitriou – every bit as splendid as her original, and they had two daughters.
Vassilis was posted to London, and then Rome, but both of them knew they wanted to live in Greece. They went back in 2001, arriving in a car with broken air-conditioning, their two little girls and mongrel dog panting on the back seat. “It felt as though we were being roasted alive in a tin can,” says Sofka cheerfully.
Her first year in Athens forms the back¬ground of Sofka’s writing debut, Eurydice Street, full of insight and humour. It might have been subtitled How to Be an Athenian, for Sofka had to unlearn many of her English ways, such as expressing gratitude when family help you out (it’s considered a point of honour that they should, for which thank-yous are thought slightly insulting) and hesitancy of any kind.
Gradually she learns the knack of hailing a taxi in Athens, which she describes as “something between catching a fish and public speaking to a restive crowd”. She discovers that “subterfuge is normal in paying restaurant bills, and those who have been paid for certainly show no gratitude. The only retort is, ‘Well, it’ll be my turn next time.'” She learns how to cook the traditional Christmas suckling pig, which bears “a disconcerting resemblance to the body of a hefty, naked toddler. We tried to curl it up as though it were going to sleep in the baking tray, but it wouldn’t even fit halfway into our oven.” Help is at hand when Sofka is told that the custom is to take the pig to the local bakery, where the ovens are ample.
Eurydice Street also details the complex politics and history that have shaped modern Greece, and the sometimes paradoxical forces that define Greek character. It is subtle, penetrating and written with disarming clarity. Sofka Zinovieff deserves a place on the shelves up there with Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, justly famous for their books on Greece. She’s thinking of writing about her English and Russian grandmothers next. Perhaps she’ll set up her desk on the wide terrace at her fiat, the air scented with sage, looking across the bay to the Acropolis.