It’s Greek to me – and that’s OK
Thirty years ago, when I was 20, I spent a month in Greece traveling with Renee, a Greek-Canadian girl.During our days together on Corfu, on buses bumping around the Peloponnesus, in the twisted streets of the Plaka in Athens and a week spent on the island of Paros, she taught me Greek.Although not quite full-immersion in the language, it was pretty close to it. Renee’s family spoke Greek at home, so any conversation she had with the locals was in casual, street-smart Greek.I’m not sure what got the lessons going. In retrospect it was probably a combination of my earnestness as a student and her love of her native tongue, but before I new it, in addition to sharing feta cheese omelets and fending off the amorous local boys we had daily Greek lessons.I have a knack for languages and a belief that if I am going to another country I should make an effort to speak as much of the language as possible. After taking six years of French in school and what were for a while yearly trips to France, my French is competent. My Spanish is less so, but after several semesters of Castilian and numerous trips to Mexico, I can maintain a casual conversation with a Spanish speaker as long as it’s in the present tense. I also know a smattering of tourist German (please, where is the train station, please) and even less Japanese (please, thank you, hello, that’s wonderful).In those days in 1974, Renee and I had morning lessons, much like any language school might conduct. I learned to count to 100, the days of the week, basic colors and the ever popular menu items.Renee also taught me street Greek, a subtle language, which more often than not consisted of a word or two like isos (maybe) or avrio (tomorrow) that was uttered in response to questions from strangers as we passed by shops and tavernas. And it was this language and attitude that proved most useful.In time she also taught me to read uppercase Greek letters, which transformed the formerly undecipherable graphics of signs and ferry destinations into words and phrases that I could pronounce if not always understand.For the next 30 years my use of Greek was limited to finding waiters in Greek restaurants who would tolerate my takanis (how are you) when I walked in, efaristo (thank you) when the food arrived and kali orexi (good food) when asked if I enjoyed my meal.But this spring when my husband, Allen, and I decided to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Athens, Santorini and Mykonos, I set about reviewing (cramming actually) several phrase books and a Greek-English dictionary.In addition to reviewing what I had learned before, I tackled some new phrases, including poso kani afto? (how much does that one cost?) and mono vlepo (I am just looking).When we arrived I continued my lessons, asking waiters and shopkeepers poso leti (how do you say?) so I could learn more words and simple phrases that came to mind. I then wrote the translations on the back of business cards I kept in my pockets so I could reference them and use the Greek word the next time.My pocket notes include such traveler’s necessities as “the check, please,” “where is the subway?” and “more bread.”Because so few American or European tourists speak any Greek, I found all I had to say was endaxi (OK) or parakalo (please), and Athenians would respond, “You speak Greek, you’re not Greek, how come you speak Greek?”To which I would reply, “because it pleases you so much when I do!” Which it did.While in Athens I noticed a column in a weekly English language newspaper called “Learn Greek in 25 Years.” With a nod to the many foreigners who live in the country for years without picking up more than a few words of Greek, the column offers tips for pronunciation and simplified rules for the arcane grammar which inverts our accustomed nounherb order.Like these expats, I am a long way from speaking Greek – much less conjugating verbs. And as the nearest Greek restaurant is 150 miles away, my chances of keeping up my new vocabulary are slim. But I’m holding on to my pocket notes just in case.Barbara Floria Orcutt is a travel writer and the editor of Vitality Magazine. She lives in No Name.Barbara Floria Orcutt is a travel writer and the editor of Vitality Magazine. She lives in No Name.
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