[Note: This essay first appeared published on The International Writer’s Blog at Brown University, which you can find here]
It’s Greek To Me
The day before I flew to Greece for a month-long writing residency program, I called my Greek friend to ask for advice.
“It’s summer, the weather is beautiful, you’ll be on the beach. What’s there to know?” he asked.
“Nah,” he said.
“Remember when I went to Italy, you gave me phrases to learn in Italian? Pazza per cibo! That was really helpful. Can you teach me to say something in Greek?”
“I don’t know—how about ‘thank you’?”
He replied in garbled language, a cross between coughing and speaking.
He repeated the noise.
“There’s no way I can learn that. I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Eh, it’s okay. You won’t need to know anything. They’ll speak English, probably.”
“Oh,” he added. “You might want to know that ‘Neh’ means yes.”
“Neh means yes?” I repeated. “Then what is no?”
“I’m not going to remember that.”
“You should also know that they nod their head up when they’re saying no, and to the side when they’re saying yes.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Where are you going again?” he asked.
“I’m landing in Thessaloniki and then we’re going to Thasos,” I said.
“Thahhh-sos,” he corrected. “It’s not THAY-sos. There’s no long ‘ay’ sound. It’s Thasos.”
I was quiet. “Oh.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said.
The closest I came to learning a foreign language was in high school, when I took three years of German. But I stopped before my senior year and never took another class again, largely because I didn’t need to, but also because I discovered I was not one of those people who is “gifted” at language. In fact, after a brief trip with my high school class to Germany, I definitively concluded I was un-gifted. Even though I could understand everything our teacher said, I understood virtually nothing the Germans said, and I experienced brain paralysis whenever prompted to speak. And once, for some reason, I spoke Spanish. So, this inability to put into practice everything I knew led me to accept the fact I would never be fluent in another language.
It wasn’t until I began traveling during graduate school that I regretted my own un-giftedness. When I was younger, I thought only of the appeal of secrecy; speaking a foreign language to escape the comprehension of others. But when I was older, I developed a desire for communication. There is something selfless about being able to speak someone else’s native tongue. Countless times I found myself within a group of people from Germany, or Holland, or France, or Iran—anywhere, really—and not only could they speak English, but they spoke English just to include me in conversation. The opposite of secrecy. This gesture broke me because I could give nothing in return.
So really, my desire to learn a language was sparked by my need to say “thank you.”
“Eff-harry-stoh” Winnie had written in her notebook. A beautiful girl a decade younger than me, Winnie unintentionally taught me an important lesson in understanding languages. “I don’t know if it helps you to think of words as other words,” she said, “but that’s how I remember them.”
I looked over her shoulder as she wrote, intrigued by her breakdown of the Greek word that had, until then, eluded me. Only three syllables. All of them pronounceable. For the rest of the day, I conjured an image of three small words—Eff Harry Stoh—and I could remember how to say, “Thank you.”
I practiced it everywhere we went.
The writing workshop we attended offered complimentary Greek class in the evenings, every Monday through Thursday. They weren’t mandatory, but I thought it would be silly not to take advantage of them. Our teacher was a young woman raised half in Cyprus and half in America, and she simply glowed. There was never a time when she taught us Greek that she wasn’t smiling. Her enthusiasm for the language was infectious—whenever she would explain the history of a word or connect an English phrase to its Greek origins, she would somehow expand in size and pull all of us into her. “I’m so happy to be surrounded by people who love words!” she’d say.
I remember, weeks later, when she taught us to say, “I miss you.”
“Mu leipeis,” she said. “It literally means, ‘you are missing from me.’”
There was poetry even within a simple translation. And thus I fell in love with Greek.
I have been a staunch perfectionist all my life—a “problem” I assume most students at Brown can relate to—but I remember it affecting me most significantly when I was learning to play tennis in my early 20’s. My tennis coach (and friend) refused to teach me one day because I was having a meltdown every time I missed a shot.
“You have to allow yourself to fail in order to get better!” he said in exasperation.
I eventually became very good at tennis, and outwardly learned to control my self-loathing, but I’m not sure I ever understood or accepted his message.
In Greek, however, I learned to fail.
For some unexplained reason, perhaps because of my age or the environment, I felt less pressure to prove myself. I just went for it, trying out new words, speaking to the Greeks slowly and painfully, and I quickly discovered that humiliation is short-lived. People rarely judge someone for trying.
My favorite person in Greece to converse with was Tasos, the owner of the hotel-restaurant where we were staying. We all gravitated toward him, attracted like flowers to the sunlight; his personality was the size of a planet, and he could dispel even the darkest of evenings with his light. He had a talent for making each person feel special, and when he laughed or smiled at someone, that person felt like the center of the universe.
I could usually find him inside the kitchen, peering through the window, or cooking at the grill, when he wasn’t talking to customers on the patio or repairing something out back or hunting octopus—somehow always in twenty places at once. The first time I greeted him saying, “Good morning!” he was at the grill. One of my workshop friends knew the expression because she had Greek neighbors in Minnesota, and she taught it to me.
“Kalimera!” I said to him, beaming.
Tasos validated me with a smile. “Kalimera!” he replied. “Ti kaneis?”
I remained smiling.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Ti kaneis?” he said slower.
He waited. “Kala?” he added.
My smile faded.
“How are you?” he said finally.
“Oh. I’m good! How are you?” I asked in English.
He laughed, shaking his head. “I am good.”
Later that day, we (ironically) learned in Greek class how to say, “How are you?” –Ti kaneis—and the different ways to respond: Kala, poli kala, oxi poli kala, etsi ki etsi (the last one meaning “so-so,” and one of my favorites to say). So, later that day, I went back to Tasos.
“Yia sou!” I greeted him. “Ti kaneis?” I said, beaming again.
He smiled. “Kala. Kai esi?”
I stared at him, silent.
“Kai esi?” he repeated.
“Of course!” It seemed so obvious. “Poli kala!” I replied.
He smiled and nodded. “Bravo,” he said.
One day Tasos stopped me and pointed to my sweater. I was wearing a bright red pullover, and coincidentally, my Greek teacher was wearing the same color in a zip-up sweater; I thought he was going to comment that we were twins. Instead, he said, “You are like a paparouna.”
“A paparouna,” he said, beaming.
“PapaROUNA. Do you not have this flower?”
“I don’t know what flower you’re talking about. What’s a paparouna?”
“It’s a flower,” he said. “It’s red.”
“Well, there are a lot of red flowers!”
He looked at me in earnestness.
“Is it a rose?” I asked.
“No, no. Not rose. PAPAROUNA.” He paused. “They have them in Europe.”
“In Europe? Um. Okay…like a tulip?”
He said something to himself that sounded like “Toulipa,” and shook his head. “That is not it,” he said, sadly.
“I’ll figure it out,” I promised.
I tracked down one of the waiters, a sleepy-eyed, deep-voiced Giorgos, who was always ready to help. He said he thought a paparouna translated to a poppy.
I used the restaurant’s feeble wifi to do an image search of poppies, and the first picture that came up was a brilliant red flower, with large petals and a center as dark as a black hole. This had to be it. I found Tasos and pointed to the picture on my phone.
“Is this what you were talking about?” I asked.
“Yes! This is it! This is a paparouna! What do you call this?”
“It’s a poppy,” I said, proudly.
He looked at me, eyes squinting. “Poppy?” he asked.
“Yes, a poppy,” I confirmed.
He thought for a moment. “That’s a small dog, no?”
“…That’s a PUPpy,” I said, a grin spreading across my face.
He grunted. “PUH-ppy, PAW-ppy,” he said. “These are bullshit words.” He tried to tell me this convincingly, but I couldn’t stop my grin. His straight face lasted only a moment, and then he was laughing, too.
There were two Greek-Americans attending the workshop, Elena and Demetri, and since they both spoke Greek and English, they became our unofficial translators.
One afternoon, I overheard Elena teaching a couple of girls how to say “See you soon.” This wasn’t something we had learned in class yet, so I quickly wrote it down and memorized it. “Da lenne,” it sounded like she said.
It was not what she said.
The first time I used the expression on Tasos, he looked puzzled. “What?” he asked.
“Da…lenne…?” I asked.
I remembered that the Greek letter “Δ” delta, sounds like a “th” (as in the word then), so I altered what I said a little. “The lenne?”
“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?”
“See you later?” I asked.
“TA LEMME!” he cried. “LeMMe. Not LeNNe. Is different,” he emphasized.
“Okay!” I consented, feeling embarrassed. And then I added, “PU-ppy, PO-ppy,” with exaggeration. The moment he made the connection and started to laugh, I realized our sense of humor was one that needed no translation or explanation.
I only missed Greek class twice. Once was due to an octopus hunt, and I was out at sea. The other was just a terribly lame excuse: I really needed to go for a run, and the only time I could was during Greek class. Since the class was optional, I thought I would escape from feeling guilty, but I didn’t. What made it worse, however, was when my friend started speaking to a Greek shepherd the next day, and I understood none of what she said.
The shepherd seemed so pleased, giving my friend a lot of “Bravo’s” and patting her on the shoulder. I was so confused. I had no idea what had just happened. I missed one class, and suddenly I knew nothing.
“What did you say?” I asked her after the exchange.
“I said, ‘Today is Tuesday,’” she said.
“Oh. And then?”
“I said, ‘Tomorrow is Wednesday.’ Apparently…methavrio…” she struggled to remember the word, “means the day after tomorrow.”
“You learned the days of the week so fast! I don’t even know the word for ‘today,’ let alone the actual day,” I said, downtrodden.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give you my notes,” she promised, and I felt slightly relieved.
Later that afternoon we went to the beach, and I copied her notes. As I wrote down the days of the week, I had a feeling I would never remember them. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce half of them. Never miss class! I chided myself.
Just then, we noticed Joanna, our Greek teacher, on the other side of the beach. We decided to pester her, but as always, she was delighted to see us.
Only twice did I ever make Joanna laugh from my mistakes—she was very adamant about not making students feel self-conscious by laughing at them, even if in good humor—but this was one of those times she couldn’t help it. I had misinterpreted my friend’s handwriting and copied down Friday as “Paraskinny” instead of “Paraskivvy” and Joanna burst into laughter, unable to talk.
It took her a few breaths to explain what I’d done, but once I realized my mistake, I lost it, too. For some reason, the image of Friday being super thin—not just skinny, but PARA-skinny!—was really funny. I now had a reason to remember the word for Friday, but the other days of the week? They were just a blur.
When everyone quieted, I delved into worry. “How will I ever learn these?”
“Songs always help!” Joanna said.
“Is there a days-of-the-week song?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But we could make one up!”
I was not a fan of this idea. But she insisted.
For the next ten minutes, we came up with our own days-of-the-week song. There wasn’t much to it, just the days of the week set to a tune, but she was right—once we put together a song, I learned the days in only a matter of minutes. We sang it over and over until I could confidently remember them.
From that day forward, my friend (whose notes I’d borrowed) and I would find each other, at the beach or at dinner, and one of us would start (in Greek) with: “Today is…[day]” Then the other would say, “Tomorrow is…” and the first person would finish with, “The day after tomorrow is…”. This never got old.
When I returned to Rhode Island, I drove to Cranston to meet the Greek owner of a restaurant who knew Tasos’ family and had stayed on Thasos. I greeted him in Greek and he asked if I spoke the language. “Not very well,” I said, “but I can say a few things.” He looked at me expectantly, and the first thing that popped into my head was, “Simera einai Tetarti.” (Today is Wednesday.)
“Poli kala,” he said, impressed. “Avrio?” he said, asking about tomorrow.
“Avrio einai Pempti,” I replied.
“Very good! And methavrio?”
I thought of our day at the beach and smiled. “Methavrio einai Paraskivvy.”
Learning Greek is a daily struggle. One of my proudest accomplishments was successfully asking for fried zucchini because the first time I tried to order it, I unintentionally asked for “ass.” And much like I experienced with the German language, I still have problems connecting my brain to my mouth. I’ve planned to say, “No problem,” and instead said, “Please.” I’ve tried to write, “Tonight we go to Greek town” and have instead written, “Tonight we die in Greek town.” I even once spoke German instead of Greek.
My belief that I am un-gifted in language has not changed. But I am determined to learn Greek before I visit again. Having a passion for learning helps. But most important have been my teachers: the wonderful people who have taken time out of their day to speak slowly, to repeat, to translate, and to smile and assure me that I’m doing okay.
It turns out that learning a language, for me, is still all about saying thank you.