Frances Karlen Santamaria's memoir, A Room in Athens, takes place in Greece in 1964. It is both a travel journal and the simple, yet complicated, story of a child's birth and first few months. The author, who gave birth to the child, provides a vivid picture of the birth and of the unfamiliar new surroundings in which she had found herself.
It is not the world of Zorba the Greek that she expected, with light-hearted spirts and joyful dancing—although she did get a tiny taste of the latter. Instead, she finds herself in a world where babies are swaddled and not able to move their arms for months, and in which solemn men play finger games with beads.
What makes this book special, and why it was chosen in 1974 to be excerpted in the landmark anthology, Revelations: Diaries of Women, is Santamaria's writing, based on her observations. She steps past the skin of things and goes right to the heart of them.
Shortly after arriving in Athens, and while sitting in Omonoia Square, she writes:
At twilight, the sky above Athens turns orange and the light in the streets takes on the purple tone of the bare mountains that semicircle the town. Men sat drinking in cafes where women never went. The city had awakened from its long afternoon nap and Athenians were out in their numbers...there were many of the righteous priests in their black robes, their hair braided in a knot in the back like a matador's. They had, without exception the air of smug landowners... Interspersed in the crowd were old peasant women, dressed in black shabby skirts and shawls, toothless and often bright-eyed with the private jokes of country cousins in the city.
A Room in Athens is filled with such vivid images, especially the scenes of the underground birthing center where the author gives birth to her son. Santamaria was determined to have a natural birth without the aid of drugs, but male hospital doctors would not agree. So she looked for an alternative, and felt fortunate to have found the underground center. It was led by a kindly female doctor who taught the Lamaze method of birth, and stressed that if followed, there would be no pain. That was not so, at least for Santamaria.
First published in 1970, the book was originally titled Joshua, Firstborn. This 2016 reprint now includes an introduction by Joshua Karlen, who was that Athens-born child. Of his mother's book, he writes, it contains, "an abundance of riches for such a small volume, a fascinating travel journal, a time-capsule for the 1960s...but perhaps most importantly, it offers simply a beautifully written story whose subject—a woman's first pregnancy and motherhood—is far older than even Greece."
And so it does.
Frances Karlen Santamaria (1937-2013) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, attended Antioch College, and lived in New York City. A fiction writer and diarist, she was debilitated by multiple sclerosis in her early forties. A Room in Athens was her only published work before her illness.
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