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Reviewed by:
  • Culture and Customs of Greece
  • Yiorgos Chouliaras
Artemis Leontis . Culture and Customs of Greece. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press. 2009. Pp. xxi + 266. 26 illustrations, 1 map. Cloth $49.95.

How many Greeks does it take to buy a watermelon? A book that can fruitfully engage this question tells you much about life in Greece and belongs to any modern European culture syllabus. Indexed from Acropolis to Zorba, in eight narrative chapters, following the structure of this Greenwood Press series on the "culture and customs" of Europe, this book contains a discussion of the land, people, and history of Greece; religious practices; social customs, gender roles, and the family; leisure, holidays, and the Greek table; language and literature; music and dance; media, theater, and cinema; and architecture and art.

Illustrated with photographs taken by the author and others, this volume also includes a chronology, from the Stone Age through the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern periods to 2008; a glossary that explains filoxenia as well as frappé and frontistirio as well as parea; and a selected chapter-by-chapter bibliography that cites many useful websites. In short, this is a volume those of us who used to lecture on modern Greek culture in American universities would have wished to have had not only for our students, but for an educated general audience, including colleagues in other fields.

Three major themes that help organize the narrative of the book involve urbanization and the evolution of greater Athens into a dynamic, problematic, and exciting metropolis, where nearly one third of the population of Greece resides; the performative aspect of Greek culture that reflects the way people play their parts for one another, onstage and off; and the living relationship of inhabitants to the distant past. An overarching theme corresponds to the centrality to Greek culture of Greek, a language with more than 3,200 years of documented history.

Greek defines the modern nation, argues the author, giving word to song, protest, and debate, relating Greeks to their ancestors, providing oral and visual order to poetry and prose, anchoring religion to its Septuagint and New Testament written sources, and binding diaspora Greeks to their ancestral homeland. Some, like Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis, seem to claim that Greece exists for the purpose of preserving Homer's language. Even if language debates today are not deadly, as they sometimes literally were in the past, they still populate public discourse. Do foreign lexical imports, text messaging, and emails in Greek written with Latin characters threaten communication skills? Will Greece's many recent immigrants ever learn Greek as well as their children do?

Also drawing on personal experiences of Greece, going back over 35 years to a first visit to her family's place of origin, Artemis Leontis, who grew up to become a noted Greek teacher and scholar of real and imagined Hellenic topologies, pulls together many threads that can guide those innocent of Greek and Greece through the apparent labyrinths of observed Greek culture, where a crisis may emerge out of nothing, while real threats may be faced as a matter of fact. The country of paradox, politics, and pleasure she describes, which welcomes each year more foreign visitors than the number of its permanent residents, appears [End Page 152] as a very attractive, even if puzzling, destination, the extreme attraction as much a part of the puzzle as the puzzle is of the attraction.

If culture can always be conceived as a dance on a tightrope between introspection and exhibitionism, Leontis is singularly perceptive in highlighting such moments in a Greek context for those who wish to get to know the ropes while they enjoy the performance. At the same time, the author manages to pack an unusual volume of information in what is necessarily an introductory account. There are inevitable drawbacks. Given perhaps the constraints of the series, discussion of directly cultural dimensions tends to be more illuminating than discussion of politics and history. Moreover, the need to refer to numerous contemporary Greek contributors in literature, the arts, and culture in general is sometimes reduced to lists of names that could never include everyone who should be...