Monday, 30 June 2014

Very lost in translation

It is all in the tongue

A language often defines a people, provides a common identity and is a link to its history. Few people are more proud of their language and its place in history than the Greeks. Greece is a wonderful place. A place of sun, of food, it's fragrant and noisy, and of course regrettably for its visitors, it has the Greek language. Greek is just a step in the long linguistic journey of an earlier Indo-European language but it is an important one. It is the one that has shaped our alphabet, given us the beginning of Western literature, the first written New Testament and made lasting and wide reaching contributions to most of our everyday language. It has also caused untold misery to many who have tried to learn it. It is where I find myself now.

Learning a language provides you with the key to bumble through most of the everyday tasks needed. It also allows you to finally pick through just the veneer, seeing and understanding much more about your host country, such as small conveniences in getting by when shopping, suffering through inconveniences in family situations and some things that you should just never have asked about in the first place.

On the surface

Greece is a place that overloads the senses. Viewed in a romantic light, it would be the kind of place you would like to disappear to. Do a Shirley Valentine or even just let the clear light and blue sky wash over you daily in a carefree simplified existence. it is what crossed my mind on my earlier visits here. Less simple but no less romantic in the old fashioned sense at least would be to rob a bank, hide out, get a new identity and settle down in Greece. It would seem the perfect place to go on the lam, just blend in. You would be excused for thinking so, for it is a place of splendid disorganisation. The state is a creaking bureaucracy where not much helpful gets done and the police seem genuinely indifferent to the law so long as they can get a coffee and smoke a cigarette in peace. So much so that if you have the misfortune of getting apprehended, you can escape from a high security prison yard by a helicopter. Twice.  Does it not sound just perfect? It has all the complimentary stirrings of heat, passion and an inert bureaucracy that It should have been the idyllic land of the Ronnie Biggs-es and Casablana-esque type films. But it never happened.

The reason it never was is unfortunately the language of the Greeks. A writer who settled in Athens for some years, neatly described the uphill task of learning Greek; when his brother settled in Madrid he was asked for his paseporte at the airport, when he arrived in Athens he was asked for his  διαβατήριο (diabitirio). No guess as to which brother learnt the local language first. (The writer then went on to write the very hilarious and steeped in reality "How to Learn Greek in 25 Years".) Greek a language that is unyielding to the outsider. Even if you do manage to speak it, it is very rare that you will sound like a Greek. Whether you are mute, on the run, eloping, engaged in an illicit affair or just visiting it's impossible to go unnoticed. Greek women after a certain age make it their life's work to know everyone else's business. It is because of them that Greece has some of the lowest crime statistics in Europe. No CCTV surveillance system can ever compare with the alert and ever watchful elderly ladies on their balconies.

Pass the burnt toast please

One of the consequences of living in a foreign country and not being able to speak the language fluently is that many facets of life wash over me in a wave of white noise. I can get around though, make polite conversation when buying a coffee.I can generally do about most of the things a recently escaped mental patient could do, with attracting the same amount of attention. What I really do wish though is that I could follow or join in family arguments - because no one argues like the Greeks. Any foreigner married to a Greek will find family arguments mystifying, tense and exotic. So quickly do arguments escalate that comprehension is soon lost. Even if the argument begins with something as minor as burnt toast, within seconds it will escalate to something that you can only conclude must contain a murder and accusations of who had slept with the postman. Just being nearby to an everyday argument  is electrifying. You do not even need to know what the subject of such a heated exchange was. Anglo-Saxons don't argue with such vehemence unless they have a broken beer bottle in one hand or if someone did sleep with the postman.

Are you the postman?

Please feel free to argue..

Arguing in Greece is about as common as the English commenting on the weather. It happens all the time. A major flaw in most Greek language guides is that they do not have a 'How to Argue' section placed just after the 'Common Greetings and Farewells' to be found in chapter 1. Anybody is allowed to join in other people's arguments without even having the slightest idea of who the parties involved are or what they are arguing about. In fact they are encouraged to.

If you have any desire to learn how to argue properly, the next time you are in Greece you should skip a trip to the beach and hang around any road intersection. Traffic accidents are a truly wonderful sight to behold in Greece, because everyone gets involved, even the old lady who saw it all from her balcony and is now breathlessly shuffling across the street in her nightgown towards the gathering crowd. The only condition of participation is that you enter the fray shouting and gesticulating loudly. It is oddly appreciated, because at the root of it all, Greeks love company and the noisier the better. It is also felt that the noisier you are the more you know. Fortunately, Greek driving is rather conducive to accidents and so this enjoyable pastime of enjoining other people's arguments is never infrequent. In fact I think that this is the main reason that all Greek cafés face their chairs out onto the road. 

Scusi, no habla Ellenika...

Apart from much of daily life passing you by when you do not speak a language fluently, there are definitely advantages to it. It is important that the learner of a language is aware of this and does not readily get discouraged. Perhaps the greatest advantage is that you able to selectively choose what you pay attention to. Or at least pretend to. This is an invaluable tool when dealing with awkward mother-in-laws. Even when I do gain some level of respectable fluency I will keep it a closely guarded secret from my awkward mother-in-law.

In fact, the best defence is to feign complete incomprehension when cornered with a Greek mother-in-law. They are to be treated with the utmost care and are generally considered by Greek married men to be slightly less deadly than a mother bear and her cub. For the non-speaker it is the same ploy as rolling over and playing dead. The idea is that they will grow weary of pestering an idiot that cannot speak and eventually leave you alone. It is also about the only way you will escape a to-do list longer than your forearm and just because that can't help themselves, a parting gift of some well-meant criticism. You know the old adage, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me - except when from my Greek mother-in-law? Well there you go. In fact this should be Chapter 3: When its best to know nothing, after Chapter 2: How to Argue Like a Local.

Shouting heads...

Greek television is another source of endless education and entertainment. But I fear it falls into the mother-in-law category and it is best for your sake that you don't know what is going on. It follows much the same vein as does a traffic accident in Greece. Routinely 6-8 pundits are featured on a single screen, all shouting at the same time. No viewer is ever any the wiser after these sorts of shows, but most importantly, a noisy gathering took place.

Initially I took an interest in Greek politics as a source of information and understanding of my new host country and it spurred me on to learn the language. Greek politicians are adored by atheists and believers in equal measure. They are proof for the former who feel vindicated that there can be no god because why would and sentient being create anything so abysmal and for the latter are sign that there is still much much work to be done. The news and politics have at times filled me with such dismay that I have no longer wanted to learn the language. Ignorance is sometimes bliss. If you are in any way at all curious to experience what a developing stomach ulcer feels like, then turn on your television to the news.

To contrails or not to contrails...

Greece is a wonderful place. A place of sun, food, smells, noise, meddlesome mother-in-laws, awful driving and conspiracy theories. Most countries will have their share of conspiracies and crop-circle chasers, but Greece seems inordinately blessed with theirs They range from the fantastic: Greek is an alien language because it is to complicated to be created by humans. As a long suffer of Greek I am starting to come round to this one. However, there are those that scoff at the alien link but still agree on the superior genetic coding of your average Greek greengrocer. So fantastic and intriguing is that it seems to come straight out of Ron L. Hubbard's world. This is a larger than marginal group. The previous Health Minister used to promote and sell a range of books (whilst his other job of being an MP) exclaiming the virtues of a superior culture and race. Why he is employed with the business of government is a true mystery. Superior beings probably do not need a health service which unfortunately is rapidly where Greece is headed.

Less fantastic but with a strong grip nonetheless on the majority is astrology. Astrologists are not confined as newspaper margin fillers next to the comic section or a tasty summer salad recipe. These specialists hold sway on mainstream television programmes. Never mind that the country is staunchly Orthodox, but it seems a union that can be tolerated happily. Previously, when my wife interviewed for a role that she felt didn't go well, her mother confidently proclaimed that of course it did because her star sign proclaimed so. But then again on the same day she also met a tall dark stranger and found some money which kind of infringed on the schedule for Sagittarians and Cancerians. Unfortunately she got the role, which means I can't get to say I told you so to my mother-in-law. But then again I am a Gemini which is generally felt as an incompatible choice for her daughter. I guess she is also waiting to say 'I told you so' one day. Oh well. For a country with such in ingrained mistrust of any sort of authority I would have expected a greater degree of scepticism here.
Whereas Greek politics put me off learning the language, this is an area that potentially can offer unending amusement.


My path to fluency will undoubtedly be a long one, but I look forward to the day when I can partake noisily in arguments at traffic accidents or comment on how oddly accurate their horoscope was. At the moment though, my understood version of what a speaker or writer is trying to convey to me is often wildly divergent. It is sometimes a more interesting yet inaccurate version but it is why I always suspect the postman. All in all, Greece is a wonderful place, a place of sun, food, smells and noise. For now I am starting to realise that some things are just better left not understood. 

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