In this period of the pandemic, when I’m one of so many who long for Greece and can only dream of it from afar, I am consoling myself by rereading my own two books about life on the island of Sifnos and sharing parts of them with you on my blog. Today’s episode is the fifth in this series and comes from Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales.
I’ve tried to learn Greek. Really, I have. Every time we’re about to go to Sifnos, I pop a Learn-to-Speak-Greek CD into my car stereo at home and leave it there for a couple of weeks so that the basic phrases will wash over me as I drive and sharpen that part of my brain. While here, I listen as hard as I can to conversations around me and try to pick up what I can.
So it’s not that I know nothing. Before we came that first time, I made sure to learn to say efharistó and kaliméra, for I’ve seen over time how my using even a bit of other people’s languages always seems to touch them to the core. Soon on that first trip I picked up that you greet people with Kalispéra in the evening and Yassas in the middle of the day. Now when someone asks, “Ti kánete?” as they do, I reply with ease and “Esís?” ask how they are in return. Raised eyebrows are most often my reward, a hmmm, and often a hearty Bravo! I even have my own favourite word. Parakaló—you’re welcome. Or please. I love the feel of it in my mouth, all rattling syllables and a long rolling rrrr. Pah-rrrrrrAH-ka-low.
As for the practicalities beyond that, I can count to ten. I can order two beers. Thío bírres. Or one, mía bírra. Horiatiki, a Greek salad. Two coffees, with medium sugar. Thío kafédes métrios. I can say we want the Greek kind. Ellínikos. I can even put a verb in front of any of those. Thélo, I want, or theloume, we do. My Mia yiaourti me fruta kai ligo meli, parakaló always earns me a big smile and brings the yogurt with fruit and a bit of honey I hoped for. I can tell people where I’m from, Ime apó ton Kanadá. So even if I don’t get the endings right, as I most often don’t, I can put together the odd sentence that will be understood.
But it’s not nearly enough.
Perhaps more formal lessons would help, I thought at one point and I tried to find a course or someone to tutor me near where I live, with zero success. Then it dawned on me. We were going to be in Sifnos in a few weeks and how much more efficient and probably effective my learning would be there, immersed as I was going to be in hearing and seeing the language. So I emailed Barbara and asked if she could recommend someone who might help.
Of course, she could and as soon as we arrived, she introduced me to Ronia who lives in an old Apollonia house that belonged to her great grandmother. At her kitchen table over the next month, Ronia tried. Really she did. And her methods were admirably orderly and systematic. She started with the alphabet, the etas, the thetas, the omikrons, teaching me to say the letters, to recognize them when I’d see them again and to attempt to write them, all squiggly and so different from my own. She taught me the most oft-used verbs, the regulars and the irregulars. These I managed to learn with some small measure of success. But when we stepped into the endlessly byzantine world of nouns and adjectives, their three genders, four cases, singulars and plurals, and what felt like a million different endings, none of them logical to me in the least, I was at sea. You won’t learn it all right away, she assured me. It will take time.
I wonder if she meant this long.
I should be doing better by now. Really I should. I’ve had an ear for languages since I was a girl and I speak decent French, smatterings of Spanish and of German, a touch of Italian. Whenever we’ve travelled elsewhere, I’ve always picked up enough of the basics to get by. And as English and most other European languages have evolved at least partly from the Greek, by rights I should have found the key to it by now. But I haven’t.
It’s a human need to communicate and we all do our best. But it’s becoming awkward with some of the people in Sifnos who don’t speak English. When you’ve known someone as long as we have, say, Grandpa Nikoleta, and you see him as often as we have over the years, stay at his daughter’s house beside his for goodness sake, the relationship wants to move forward. But it can’t.
We first came to know him as the proprietor of his kafeneion, the old-style Greek coffee shop that his grandfather built late in the 1800s, the oldest such establishment on the island. He carried on business there as it had so long been done, as the centre of Sifnian political life, a place where men gathered to drink coffee and talk, to play backgammon and clack their beads, and by all appearances to get away from their wives. On Sundays, though, more chairs were pulled out and the women could come. But tradition be darned, I’d go with Jim on other days. Though few words passed between us, Grandpa’s eyes would always show how pleased he was we were there. Since then, his grandson has taken over and added food to the menu. Though Grandpa still goes every day to meet with his cronies and to watch what’s going on in the alley, he has more time on his hands now and when we’re at Apostolos’s, he often stops in and the two of them chat for a while. One night not long ago, they were having a drink at the table beside the kitchen.
“Could you,” I called over, “please tell Iannis how sorry I am that I don’t speak Greek?” I’d been thinking this for a long time and now finally seemed the right time to say it out loud. “I’d so love to be able to talk with him. I think he’d have lots of good stories to tell.”
Apostolos chuckled. “Oh yes, he has those.”
I’m sure he does. There’s nothing that’s happened in this alley in the past fifty years at least, I’d wager, that this man doesn’t know. And from the twinkle in his eyes, there’s been little devilry that’s gone on that didn’t involve him somehow.
When my thoughts had been translated for him, Grandpa nodded. I think I saw some moisture in his eyes.
He feels it too.