Learning Greek had never occurred to me. But now I understand why some people might go through the hardship of enrolling in a Greek course, hoping to speak Greek fluently one day…
Like many of us, I suspect, I was taught French as a foreign language at school and not much else. Despite this I have enjoyed foreign holidays throughout my life, utilising my schoolboy French with enthusiasm on numerous trips to France, and making do elsewhere in the world with that distinctive didactic tone of voice often heard wherever you might encounter the British on holiday: slow firm diction, and the overwhelming belief that if you say the same words often enough, slowly enough and loudly enough, surely you will be understood.
Perhaps not unhappily, this tone of voice is heard less and less often across the globe – English is now the first or second language of many of the worlds inhabitants, and the desire to speak it seems to grow apace. So for those of us who are lucky enough to have English as a first language, I have never seen the point of furthering my own understanding of foreign tongues.
However, recently I have had cause to change this perspective, and reconsider my view about learning languages, whether it be to better enjoy your holidays, or indeed to advance your career. I have often visited Greece, and spent many blissful evenings watching the sun go down over the stern of a sailing boat, sipping a Mythos beer, and salivating at the smell of fresh octopus or lamb being placed on the grill. Greece, or indeed anywhere else in Europe, from Spain to Slovakia, France to Finland, or even Romania to Russia, are all countries where English is widely spoken, and the tourist, or indeed business traveller, can get by without too many difficulties.
On my last visit to Greece, moored up in a tiny fishing village seemingly miles away from the economic woes which occupy Athenians and European politicians, I picked up an unusual conversation between the female skipper of the boat alongside me and the harbour-master. She had been berating him for some time about something or other – of course I didn’t know what, as the tirade of Greek words machine-gunned out of her at the poor feckless local (whose only mistake it turned out was to throw her the leeward rope first when mooring).
As he slunk away muttering obscenities to Apollo and Zeus, she turned to me and said in clipped English tones, “Sorry about that – they tend to have a problem with female skippers, and it’s important to make a stand!”.
Yet it turned out my fellow sailor was neither Greek nor English, but Czech. And her mastery of languages in a few short moments, taught a lesson in chauvinism to a Greek, and threw out a branch of camaraderie to an Englishman – and both of us thinking she was one of their own. Her name was Alena Sunavska, and she has devoted her life to spreading the word about the importance of understanding foreign languages and cultures, regardless of your mother tongue, through her company, the London Language Studio.
Needless to say, our two crews joined up in one of the harbourside tavernas, and it was here that I began to fully understand the difference fluency in a foreign language can have. As the English language menus arrived, with their colourful pictures depicting very standard fare , she turned to the waiter and shooed them away, asking for a Greek menu instead. What arrived was a small pad of paper filled with incomprehensible hieroglyphics, each line apparently a different dish, of an array and variety far different from that on the English language menu. What followed was culinary heaven – dish after dish of exquisitely fresh seafood, mezze and meat, simply prepared, but all utterly delicious. Soon after Ms Sunavska had ordered she was beckoned into the restaurant, gesturing me to come along too. We were to choose the fish we were to eat. In the freezer lay everything on the English language menu. Set before us was what had been landed only a few minutes earlier. Sea bass, bream, brill, sardines, mussels, razor clams, and a host of other local fish whose names I could not translate – all of them not 15 minutes out of the sea.
And later, long after the sun had set and our crews had retired to their bunks, the owner of the restaurant and his wife – fisherman and cook – asked if they might join us at our table. Of course they spoke the same words of English we hear all around the world, but it was their language they wanted to speak, and especially with a foreigner. They had initially gone from disbelief at her fluency to the thought that she must be part of the Greek diaspora, to finally accepting, with much curiosity, that she had learned fluent Greek on her own. At this point, when the evening of a non-linguist would be coming to an end, ours was just beginning. Bottles were brought out – local wine, raki – the local grappa, strong earthy coffees – it was going to be a long night……..we must join their cousins at a local bouzoukia. To say this is an evening of live Greek music accompanied by dancing, merriment, wine, whiskey, song and the throwing of bunch upon bunch of carnations onto the performer does the word no justice. It is truly a night to remember, and worth learning a little Greek for that experience alone.
Awakening bleary eyed the next morning, a litre of home made raki rolling around alongside my bunk (a late night gift from our new friends I can only assume), I ventured on deck to greet the new day. There was Ms Sunavska bantering with the harbour-master, teasing him gently while he promised his first born son would make an excellent husband for such an intrepid girl.
One short night and a host of new friends and new experiences -this was the real Greece, revealed to us through an understanding and love of its language, its culture and its people.