“M’ opoion daskalo kathiseis, tetoia grammata tha matheis” they say in Greece. Whichever teacher you learn with, such lessons you learn.
The teacher I learnt with was a tiny, excitable, slightly mad, retired primary school teacher from the villages in the centre of deepest Corfu with the weather-beaten face of an old tree trunk. She gave free Greek lessons every Friday in a dark old deserted-for-the-evening school, the 1st Gymnasium of Corfu. I had been in Corfu for a few months by this point, and my Greek was appalling and getting no better. I was in serious need of help and had learnt, from talk around town, that there was a co-operative group here in Corfu who organised all manner of lessons for free. They had set-up in a school in the centre of town in the late afternoons and evenings, and one of the lessons they offered was ‘Greek for Immigrants’. I hadn’t really thought of myself as an immigrant, I thought I was a junketer, an adventurer, but immigrant I was. And I really needed better Greek to survive. I signed up for the lessons, a little suspicious in my stiffly conformist British manner, of why everything was free. I was assuaged by the scraggy staff, sat behind a make-do office desk crudely set up in the playground, that all teachers taught their lessons here expecting nothing in return. They told me that the whole operation worked by everyone, hopefully, offering something of their own back. I put my name down for both sets of the Greek lessons they offered, smugly safe that I had NOTHING worth offering and would therefore not be expected to do anything in return.
“Well… You could guard the school gates,” said one of the old, revolutionary, Hellenic hippies.
“But everyone is allowed to come in aren’t they? It’s all free.”
“Yes…” the old man said, thinking, rubbing the stubble on his face like scratching the side of a matchbox. “That’s true… Well you could stand there, but, you know, try your best not to stop anyone…”
The first Greek lesson I went to was the class on Thursday evenings. This class was taught by Leonidas. A man who never talked, only shouted. A huge bear of a man. He would go through a whole box of chalks in the first 10 minutes of every lesson, snapping them in his great paw hand as he tried to write on the board and hurling each one to the ground in frustration, elaborately swearing as he slung. Sketchy on the language we may have been, but there was no confusion over what he was getting at with this prolonged, bellowed, streams of Greek profanities. Leonidas was an unsmiling man. Even on the rare occasions it seemed he was telling a joke, he would do it with the face of a man disgusted by the very idea of humour. I would let out an anxious yap of laughter at one of his highly equivocal gags – trying to curry some sort of favour with him – only to get a unimpressed grunt in return. Leonidas was also obsessed by politicians. He brought up Greek politics in every lesson. Illustrating anything he taught with some homology to Greek politicians.
“Kleftis – A thief. Or, instead, if you’d rather be more accurate, you could just say politikos.”
“Skotono – to kill. What, of course, every sensible person amongst us would like to do to a politician.”
“Synousia – sexual intercourse. What you will find the politicians doing to us. EVERY SINGLE DAY.”
He was a man fixated.
Every lesson, Leonidas stood at the front of the class, like some bellicose man-mountain figure. His teaching method, it seemed, was to just threateningly glower us into learning.
“You,” he would point to one of the two identical young blonde girls, overly made-up, sat wearing their bikini tops: Brit holiday reps for the summer who had thought it might be a good idea to learn a bit of the language while here, now turning to look at each other with spreading regret conveyed through nervous twittering laughter.
“Yes, you,” Leonidas would continue as he stalked closer, on the attack. “What’s the third conjugated form for the verb ‘to speak’?”
Flashed panicked looks between them, and then a pair of confused simpering giggles would send Leonidas’ eyes up into his skull, cheeks puffing aggressively, the biro bending in two between his fingers. Everyone in the room praying he wouldn’t turn to them for the answer. We were only on our second lesson.
The lessons had started with the Greek alphabet. Useful for most of us. Then suddenly, as the majority of us were still grasping these odd alphabetic characters brought to Greece from ancient Phoenicia by some old king called Cadmus 2000 year before Christ, we moved quickly on to dealing with something we were told were genitive singulars, and then onto verb accent changes. Like bound men tied to a horse given a hard thwacked smack to its backside, the whole class were suddenly desperately trying to keep its feet, running alongside, and not fall to the ground as Leonidas’ lesson careered dangerously away from us.
“You must know this…” he would growl, exasperated, facing out at our group of beginners, adult learners, sat, squeezed like fools, into small primary school chairs, kids drawings above our heads. “Come to blackboard and change these nouns to the accusative…”
Then after 45 minutes of advanced grammar, we went back to the alphabet and numbers: 1-10.
The Greek learning experience seemed a pretty odd one to me. From drily drilling the alphabet to parsing complex verb structures and back again in the same lesson. I needed to learn Greek as a beginner, as did pretty much all of us in the class. Learning from the ground floor up. Leonidas though, would put some initial bricks down – a foundation – but then suddenly we were up working on the top floor, vertiginous views of a complex, unfathomable Greece all around us. Then we were back down again, in the basement, learning the letters. And all this written up in endless chalk on the blackboard. Discussions, dialogues, any sort of communicative lesson seemingly a completely foreign concept here.
What sort of people, aside from myself, had signed up to these classes anyway? I looked round the small, crumbling, grey concrete old classroom – cold, with Corfu’s brilliantly lit, sun-drugged life going on outside, just beyond the shuttered windows and the playground. We made a queer, disparate bunch.
There was Lyudmila, a painfully shy girl from Ukraine who seemed to know no one in Corfu, refused to make eye contact with any of us, or ever try to use any of her Greek. Sat deep in her anorak in the height of summer, forever diligently lining up pens on the desk in front of her, arranging her notebooks. There was Alexandra, a friendly, loud stoutly-built Serbian who had met a Greek on the beach on holiday in Kavos, married him within a matter of weeks and never gone back home again. Her Greek was better than most of ours, though still pretty insignificant and patchy. She took a no-nonsense approach to Leonidas – the only one of us who ever dared cross him. Sometimes blazing rows would flare up over the exact meaning of a word. The two of them nose to nose. Alexandra seemed to be the only one of us who enjoyed these lessons. “I like his style” she told me, shrugging. “He’s…direct.”
Chester, a waggish American with curly hair, moustache and extravagant deck shoes, lived on a boat he had been sailing around the world on, now docked in Corfu’s Gouvia harbour. “I’ve still got half the world to see,” he told me. “But what can I do? I’ve fallen in love with this god-damn island!” His Greek was wretched and I always made a point of talking as quickly as I could after him in lessons in the hope that it made my choked, defective Greek sound slightly better in some way. Then there was Erica, a handsome middle aged German lady, well made-up, wearing a classy shawl, who sat on the small kid’s desk in front of me. She had attended these lessons last year. And the year before. “I want to get it perfect”, she told me. Demanding of herself, irked at other’s linguistic solecisms, studying assiduously. Her Greek was already quite clearly nearly native level. At the back was Keith. A small, dirty-looking, round, Australian in his late 50s. Always in the same bright yellow t-shirt. Always staring at his notes, lost, scratching at his raggedy white beard, making the sound of a goat chewing at a carpet. “Er… Can we go through that alphabet one more time?” Hopeless.
Next to him a prim, camp, bespectacled man from Yorkshire who worked on the cruise ships – ships which appeared in Corfu from nowhere like giant floating white summer birds, suddenly, along with the good weather. He would twist and turn this way and that in his seat, pulling the most outrageously offended and affronted faces as he suffered Leonidas’ rained-down tutelage assaults. A gargantuan, gouty, red-faced Swiss and young, smooth, hipster Belgian sat side-by-side looking as incongruous as possible. Then there were two girls at the front, one from Albania, one from Bulgaria, who, quite ridiculously, could speak perfect Greek having grown up bordering the country. They were the ones in the class most amused at my own spoken Greek, nudging each other and putting their heads together, laughing like a pair of squawking seagulls as I stumbled. I couldn’t work out what they were doing here as I watched them chatting in Greek incessantly to an uninterested, irritated, impatient Leonidas. Then I was told, they could speak but couldn’t read Greek. Curiously, as the lessons wore on, it became clear that despite their advantage they were faring no better than any of us at learning to read the language.
Learning to read at an advanced age is an unsettling and a faintly humiliating experience. Tracing unfamiliar letters, moving your mouth to spell the words out loud with a slow, low, sound as you read. Brightening with a vivified flash when the word suddenly becomes apparent. Or, more often, continuing to stare at the meaningless collection of characters. It’s like being a very small child again. Learning afresh everything you once thought you knew. Except no one teaches you with parent-like patience, repeating over and over again, mouthing the words as you speak. And no one grips your cheeks and gives them a joyful rub when you get the words right as a 40 year old.
Or so I thought.
Friday’s lesson was with Maria. A small, retired teacher used to dealing with tiny primary school kids.
I’d given some innocuous detail about myself roughly right in faltering pigeon Greek.
“Brrr-avo Alex!” Maria clapped her hands together rapidly under her chin in delight.
Maria was, I realised, slightly crazy. Sweet, fun, caring, dedicated to her students’ learning, but crazy. And she seemed to be of the opinion that I was seven years old. She could also speak no English. To translate for her she had enrolled a young man named Nikos to help. Nikos – awkward, slightly sullen, stood at the front of the class with his drooping shoulders and junior moustache – had not much English himself. Most lessons would be spent with us as mute spectators as Maria and Nikos rowed heatedly at the front – disagreeing, gesticulating, hands waved in each other’s faces before Maria would double-up in cackling laughter and wave Nikos her approval to translate something on to us. Something that, even with my rudimentary grasp of Greek, I knew was translated pretty much completely wrong. Maria’s lessons were more lively and far less threatening than Leonidas’. But still, there was no conversational practice. No using of any of the language we were picking up. Just as in real Greek schools – so I was told – the lessons were solely lectures by the teachers. Learning by rote. And everything solemnly chalked up, over and over, on the old lusterless blackboard.
Maria used her primary school background to good effect though. And she did make you feel she cared about your learning. “Alex…Aaalex…” she would sing-song say to me. “Katalavenees?” – do you understand? – as she knelt by my desk and stroked my arm. I would look up from my book and beam back at her my understanding, or pout my confusion.
One by one the students stopped turning up for Leonidas’ weekly persecutions.
“Weak students…” grumbled Leonidas at each new empty chair. “Don’t they know you can never learn anything by just giving up?” Then there was denial, “Well it’s not my fault my lessons are on Thursday. I should have been given the Friday evenings…” At the end it was just me and Alexandra the Serb turning up. Leonidas cornered me after the lesson, outside in the long dark school corridor. He seemed a different man.
“Why are they leaving me?” he asked, wounded eyes searching my face. I told him I didn’t know. “Nevermind” he said pulling himself upright, towering above me, blocking out the light from the old hanging, blinking, school lamp behind his head. “But you,” his heavy fingers jabbed at my chest, “You must stay loyal.” He fixed me a stare. “You must stay loyal...” I promised I would. I lasted one more lesson.
I felt bad, but drew some solace from the fact that even Alexander the Great had a rough time of his education – and from a tutor also named Leonidas: a man who favoured the tough, austere methods, before a thoroughly fed-up Alexander finally replaced him, taking the all together more estimable Aristotle as his teacher. The very last I saw of my Leonidas was his exorbitantly large head looking sadly through the open window from the kids’ playground into Maria’s class, as we grinned at her clowning one Friday evening. My laughter froze on my lips as I saw him. I wanted to reach out and tell him we really weren’t enjoying this other lesson nearly as much it looked and I had learnt many things from him. Mainly complex noun endings for words connected to various politicians’ perceived misdoings, but nevertheless I had learnt. He saw me and met my smile with a cutthroat glare, before he lurched away towards town. Into one of Corfu’s dying, ball of blood sunsets.
I had been an English language teacher for a long time before moving to Greece. Although never a particularly good teacher, I was sure I knew that Greek lessons here would improve considerably with just a few of the methods of teaching I had been taught to use myself: group conversation practice, or even just getting us to talk to the student we were sat next to. But this wasn’t the Greek way. The Greek way was instead: listen to the teacher, write it down, hope it sticks. However, as the months wore on with Maria, I did feel I was learning. I was now the dumb-eyed slack-jawed student I so despised during my teaching days, but slowly things were sticking. Obviously Greek is a difficult language. It has its own adage to prove that. And especially for an Englishman like me: no other real languages in my armory; no concept of grammar aside from how I picked it up back when I gurgled and crawled; no idea of how cases work, what conjugation does, what on earth a clause is… What troubled me most, I think, was that concept that each noun had a corresponding sex. How could I remember whether the blackboard I stared at was male or female (it was male) or what sex the chair I sat on was? (female) And then there were the neutral nouns. Why were both ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ neutral? How could that make sense? Why was a moustache neutral? Surely it couldn’t be as cruel a reason as to reflect the unfortunately familiar spectacle of that downy growth on the upper lip of a Greek girl? And then the alphabet, and those sounds… What could the difference be between the cowboy bow-legs of the Greek letter omega which makes the the sound ‘o’, and the perfectly round ‘o’ of omecron? An English n with a dripping-down second leg makes an ‘e’ sound in Greece, as, of course, does the Y or a lower case u. The Ps are Rs, the Bs are Vs and the Hs are Es. And the question mark is a semi-colon.
Words. Words that were utterly identical in sound, but so different in meaning to each other that they were clearly only designed to trip up us foreigners: tax office and euphoria (eforia), rent and victory (niki) etc etc… There were completely identical words with slightly different accents on different syllables which also meant totally different things – poteh: when and never; yeros: old and strong; podia: your legs or an apron. Impossible Greek words all around me. Wind-beaten verbs. Nouns shouted and exclaimed by the fat men in the markets, landing like a flung barrels down a taverna’s cellar steps. Or skimmed softly, like a pebble, by the women outside their homes peeling beans and gossiping on their steps in the dying evenings. To complicate things further, ancient Greek, the lexicon of Alexander and further back still – the language on Homer’s shores – rears its head today in the modern language and modern day conversations… “You and your prasin aloga…” I heard people say when someone did something ridiculous. ‘Prasin aloga’ meaning – in the ancient language – doing insensible, illogical things. But as it sounds incredibly similar to the word ‘green’ and the word ‘horses’ in modern Greek, most of the natives don’t even understand what they’re really saying: thinking they’re lampooning the object of their scorn by suggesting they perhaps owned some kind of strangely coloured animal. I guessed I had it easier than Giristroula’s parents though. There used to be two forms of the modern language: demotic, which is the language of everyday folk, and Katharevousa, a pure Greek, which had been devised by some intellectuals in the early nineteenth century to try and connect the modern language to its glorious ancient Greek past. Until the 1970s Katharevousa was the official language of Greece, used in legal documents and news reporting, although people rarely spoke it. But everyone had to learn both.
I found myself there was actually a third form of communication in Greece too. The communication formed just by bare sounds. Guttural sounds. Sounds like an animal. Greek conversations could sometimes sound like the chattering in a zoo. I would twist my head anxiously. Were these sounds alarm calls? Mating signals?
“Ach!” and “Vach!” Greeks would exclaim. These, I found, were for joy.
“Adeh!” or Aman!” – when someone has been annoyed. Or an “Och!” for a deep pain in the soul (a mime of a stab of the fist into the heart usually needed to accompany this particular sound).
“Po po po…” – when someone is lost for words.
“Re!” and “Vre!” used pretty much constantly, at the beginning or end of any sentence. Just because. And always theatrical sighs when speaking – sighs that had to empty the whole lungs, with a great long rasp.
But with all these hurdles that seemed to be put in front of us students: the language posing as an enemy, a beast not wishing to be tamed or understood; with all the hostility the language provided in direct contrast to the openness of the country, the clear atmosphere, the endless deep blue air; every one of us in the class quite perceptibly and discernibly improved. For me I was at last able to understand the people I had met here in Corfu: the lives they led, how they talked to me and to each other, their personalities. Up until then, every interaction I’d had was based on just some kind of assumption of mine. Whether they were being kind, whether they were corteous or hateful, whether I was being laughed at or helped. Each person’s personal disposition was all of my own invention. Now at least I understood what they were saying, I could put an essence and an individuality to a face, to a voice.
And others grew too… One evening, as class packed-up and the rain of dust fell in the shafts of Corfu’s late sun coming through the school shutters, Lyudmila, the shy Ukranian, always the first out, suddenly stopped in the doorway. She hesitated and then turned. A pause. She looked at us all, really for the first time, a long slow moment. “Kalispera everyone” she finally said. She looked, slightly terrified, and then the briefest sweet smile flickered on her face before she turned quickly and fluttered out through the large wooden main school doors. We all looked to one another other, and smiled. Maria clutched her heart with pride. A sound at the back made us turn round. There was Keith, still in his bright yellow t-shirt, staring at his language book. Still lost. He looked up at us with sad eyes.
“Er…could we try that alphabet thing again one more time next week…?”