A ROOM IN ATHENS

A Memoir

Frances Karlen Santamaria

First published in 1970, A Room in Athens is the remarkable journal of a free-spirited, young American woman abroad in Greece with her writer husband in 1964. Inspired by the sixties’ vogue for the exuberant land of Zorba and Lawrence Durrell, they seek an Aegean idyll–but their plans threaten to go awry when she learns she is pregnant. Settling in Athens, she gives birth to a boy at the country’s only natural-childbirth clinic–an underground refuge ruled by a mysterious Madame Kladaki. Afterward, as a new mother in a strange land, she struggles to reconcile the myth of Greece,

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First published in 1970, A Room in Athens is the remarkable journal of a free-spirited, young American woman abroad in Greece with her writer husband in 1964. Inspired by the sixties’ vogue for the exuberant land of Zorba and Lawrence Durrell, they seek an Aegean idyll–but their plans threaten to go awry when she learns she is pregnant. Settling in Athens, she gives birth to a boy at the country’s only natural-childbirth clinic–an underground refuge ruled by a mysterious Madame Kladaki. Afterward, as a new mother in a strange land, she struggles to reconcile the myth of Greece, ancient and modern, with contemporary Athens, even while their idyll recedes. In 1974, A Room in Athens was excerpted in the landmark anthology Revelations: Diaries of Women. This new edition, with an introduction by the author’s son, unlocks a little-known gem in women’s memoir literature for a new generation.

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  • Tatra Press
  • Paperback
  • October 2016
  • 272 Pages
  • 9780989835299

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$15.00

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About Frances Karlen Santamaria

Frances Karlen Santamaria (1937–2013) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, attended Antioch College, and spent most of her life living in New York City. Primarily a writer of fiction and plays, this was her only published work before she was debilitated by multiple sclerosis, in her early forties. She was married twice and had five children.

Praise

One of the most fascinating aspects of early women’s travel—the complication of being female—was long considered too delicate a topic for print and was rarely mentioned in published personal journals. Thank goodness for the frankness of the twentieth century. In this diary by Frances Karlen Santamaria, pregnancy and the birth of her first child are at the heart of her voyage to Athens of 1964 — a place far removed from her experience and knowledge. Both engrossing and perceptive, her diary gives us a portrait of an Athens few visitors have experienced and a rare view of what it’s like to be an expectant traveler and new mother far from home.” —Barbara Hodgson, author, No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travelers

This beautifully written woman’s diary deserves to be read by many generations of new mothers to come.” —Tristine Rainer, author, The New Diary and Your Life as Story

[A Room in Athens] has the economy of a fine line drawing of mother and child… Any reader must be moved by its grace and nourishing spirit.—Charlotte Painter, Editor, Revelations: Diaries of Women

A compelling memoir…With warmth and an authentic, relatable voice the author touches on marriage, gender relations, national identity, and life as an expatriate in ways that both reflect the zeitgeist of the 1960s and are strikingly resonant today.” —Paula Michaels, author, Lamaze: An International History

Discussion Questions

1. What drives the author and her husband to travel from America to Europe, and, particularly, to Greece? What do they expect to find? What do they expect to escape? What cultural or historical events have shaped their expectations? Would young American travelers today have similar expectations? How have Americans’ points of reference changed in the intervening years?

2. Is the author’s decision to undertake a lengthy and arduous European trip while pregnant wise? Foolish? Adventurous? Are her feelings about her pregnancy and the trip the same as her husband’s, or might they be launching on different journeys?

3. When she first arrives in Athens, what does the author feel and observe about the city and its people? Do they meet her expectations? When do we first see hints that her views about Greece may change by the end of the book?

4. The author takes natural-childbirth lessons at the maternity clinic run by Madame Kladaki. What are her conclusions about the other young women at the clinic and about the quality of sex education in Greece? Can we know if she is accurate? Would you generally consider her a reliable narrator?

5. How do the Greeks see natural childbirth and the role of women in society, according to Madame Kladaki’s assistant, Miss Eleadou? How does Miss Eleadou perceive Greek society in general in relation to that of America? Does the author seem to agree? From the author’s portrayal of Miss Eleadou, what can we glean about her opinion of her?

6. The author describes the experience of childbirth as difficult and painful. How does the reality of childbirth, and her husband’s decision to leave in the midst of her ordeal, compare to her expectations and hopes?

7. At the clinic, Karlen Santamaria describes herself as lonely and confides that she wished her husband’s visits were longer. Are her frustrations with him valid? How are his feelings toward their child similar or different than hers? How would you describe their marriage generally? Does the fact that they will divorce a few years later, as the author’s son notes in the Introduction, change how you would interpret their relationship?

8. During her visit to Greece, the author presents women such as Madame Kladaki, the student Hari, whom she meets in the park, and the new mother Frieda, whom she befriends at the clinic, within the broader context of Greek society. They have all returned to Greece after living abroad and face certain difficulties or dissatisfactions. How would you characterize these women’s various positions in relation to their homeland? What similarities do they share? How do the women, and the author, react to their situations? How do these women seem to react to her, as a visiting young middle-class American?

9. Throughout the book, the author compares American and Greek attitudes toward child-rearing practices, such as swaddling and breastfeeding. What seem to be some key differences, according to her?

10. While visiting the family of the Greek woman Frieda and her sick infant (Chapter V), the author challenges the practice of swaddling after consulting with a doctor by phone. Was her act appropriate, or had she “intruded,” as she feared? When traveling, have you been openly critical of aspects of your host country?

11. As the book progresses, the author tries to understand the Greek culture and while doing so often reconsiders American culture. What did you find most interesting about this process? Is she fair in her opinions?

12. What aspects of Greek culture does the author, as an American, single out to embrace or criticize? If you were in her position, do you think you would have similar feelings?

13. Just before she returns to America, she writes in her diary (p. 132), “I could almost call the past year’s journal The Death of Fantasy.” What sort of fantasies had she brought with her to Greece and why does she say they have “died?” What is her attitude toward this realization?

14. In the chapter “The Briss,” she states (p. 141), “I realized how much we have changed in the past three months; how much I have learned about loving.” What has she learned about love? About different kinds of love? How have her perspectives on family, marriage, and motherhood changed by the end of the book? How different would the book be if it were written today?

16. On the meaning of travel, the English writer G.K. Chesterton observed: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” How does the author see America differently on her return?

17. Much of the story of A Room in Athens is told in diary format. Did you like this way of presenting the events? Have you kept a diary or considered keeping a diary?