Ex­pec­tant mother’s view of the cap­i­tal in the 60s

Frances Karlen San­ta­maria’s ‘A Room in Athens: A Mem­oir’ chron­i­cles the birth of her first son and her cul­tural ob­ser­va­tions

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NIKOS VATOPOULOS

I was per­son­ally swept away by how that beau­ti­ful, bright and charis­matic Amer­i­can saw Athens back in 1964, when she had her son in down­town Exarchia. While it reads like a fairy tale, there is noth­ing fic­tional about the story told by Frances Karlen San­ta­maria (1937-2013) in “A Room in Athens: A Mem­oir,” a book that is both old and new at the same time, and has been pub­lished in its English orig­i­nal on the ini­tia­tive of her son, writer and jour­nal­ist Josh Karlen.

Josh was still a baby when the fam­ily left for New York and al­though he never came back to Greece again he did grow up hear­ing the slightly ex­otic, para­dox­i­cal and charm­ing story sur­round­ing his birth. “A Room in Athens” is ba­si­cally his mother’s jour­nal, but it is also so much more than a sim­ple record of events; it is a tale of awak­en­ing and fresh com­pre­hen­sion.

It could be a tale of la­bor, of the nat­u­ral child­birth ex­pe­ri­ence that Frances sought in Athens in 1964 at Madame Kladaki’s Psy­chopro­phy­lac­tic Ma­ter­nity Home at 26 Boubouli­nas Street, be­hind the Na­tional Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum. It could be the tale of an in­tel­lec­tual who boarded a Yu­goslav freighter in New York along with her hus­band, a colum­nist for Hol­i­day mag­a­zine, and set off for the Old World as a young cou­ple both aged 26, sail­ing to Morocco, Spain, Wales, Den­mark, Ger­many, Yu­goslavia and Greece. It could also be the tale of a jour­ney of self­aware­ness in the Cold War era in a ge­o­graph­i­cal cir­cle stretch­ing from Tang­iers to Athens, via the heart of Eu­rope. But none of this would stand alone if it weren’t for the depth and cu­rios­ity that Frances dis­plays in “A Room in Athens” and makes it a both quirky and au­then­tic look at the Greek cap­i­tal in the 60s but also a study of this charm­ing woman’s per­son­al­ity.

“My mother had an fine nat­u­ral in­tel­li­gence and in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity, com­bined with a first-rate ed­u­ca­tion at An­ti­och Col­lege,” Josh wrote in the

is both a quirky and au­then­tic look at the Greek cap­i­tal in the 1960s but also a study of a charm­ing woman’s per­son­al­ity. The book was ini­tially pub­lished in the United States in 1970 un­der the ti­tle ‘Joshua, First­born,’ but this new re­lease bears the ti­tle that Frances Karlen San­ta­maria her­self had wanted. book’s in­tro­duc­tion. “In Athens, my mother was preg­nant both with her first child and with her book; each day, both grew and ma­tured seem­ingly all on their own.”

The book was ini­tially pub­lished in the United States in 1970 un­der the ti­tle “Joshua, First­born,” but a new re­lease bears the ti­tle that Frances her­self had wanted.

It fell into my hands af­ter I re­ceived a mes­sage from Josh, who was look­ing for help in cross-check­ing some of the el­e­ments men­tioned in the book. His mother’s time in Athens was not just as a tem­po­rary res­i­dent, but also as a so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist. The event that Josh was most in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing was his birth. Haris Kladaki, re­ferred to in the book as Madame Kladaki, was a gy­ne­col­o­gist who ran a pri­vate clinic that was very pop­u­lar among the city’s mid­dle-class women, though shunned by the med­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, which dis­ap­proved of her views on nat­u­ral and pain­less child­birth.

There was very lit­tle to learn from the in­ter­net, but the sur­name did lead me to Pet­ros Kladakis, the owner of the Orloff Ho­tel on the is­land of Hy­dra.

“The mid­wife Haris Kladaki was my fa­ther’s sis­ter,” he said when I con­tacted him. “My aunt was the first in Greece to in­tro­duce the La­maze method to Greece, which she ap­plied with enor­mous suc­cess through­out her ca­reer. Un­for­tu­nately, she did not leave an heir and was ve­he­mently fought by mod­ern doc­tors, who are ob­sessed with ce­sare­ans.”

Frances’s de­scrip­tion of her ex­pe­ri­ence at the clinic is also fas­ci­nat­ing from a so­ci­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, as she of­ten con­versed with other preg­nant women and their fam­i­lies. Her ob­ser­va­tions of mid­dle-class Athe­ni­ans women and their huge fam­ily cir­cles are de­light­ful, as Frances al­lowed her­self to write what she felt, with­out the kind of crit­i­cal tone that of­ten creeps into such nar­ra­tives.

Athens was a city in flux in the 1960s, full of con­trasts that were not just ev­i­dent in the new build­ings mush­room­ing all over the cap­i­tal but also in the men­tal­ity of its res­i­dents.

“The Athens that con­fronted my par­ents when they drove south from the rugged vil­lages of Yu­goslavia was mod­ern, flashy, crowded, and pol­luted,” wrote Josh. Af­ter some tri­als and tribu­la­tions, the cou­ple set­tled into an apart­ment at 12 Karneadou Street in the up­scale Kolon­aki district.

“As mod­ern as Athens ap­peared, it lacked much that was taken for grant- ed in Amer­ica, such as tele­vi­sion and su­per­mar­kets.” Frances’s ac­quain­tance with the neigh­bor­hood and ev­ery­day Greeks, whom she de­scribes as “the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple we had seen in Eu­rope,” has re­sulted in sharp yet fair de­scrip­tions.

Josh con­ceded that in some parts, Frances’s com­ments on the Greek cul­ture may seem like “un­char­i­ta­ble swipes,” but jus­ti­fies the ob­ser­va­tion by ex­plain­ing her mind-set at the time. Af­ter all, a love for Greece had brought Frances all the way across the At­lantic and Eu­rope, along with other mod­ern Phil­hel­lenes drawn to the coun­try by “By­ron, Miller, Dur­rell, bouzouki mu­sic, and films.”

“I had carted my un­born child half­way around the world to be born in the crux, the om­pha­los,” wrote Frances.

‘A Room in Athens’

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