Monday, 30 November 2009

Greek For Tourists

The story so far: Our hero has taken the plunge and finally got round to going to Athens. He has successfully navigated his way to the hotel, and has succeeded in checking in. Now, driven by hunger, he is about to go forth into the city and stun them with his knowledge of the Greek language.

I've been learning Greek now for three years. At first I spent my spare time hunched over my computer, painstakingly reading news websites by looking up every single word in a dictionary. It sometimes took me an hour to read a couple of paragraphs.

Very gradually, things got better. Sometimes I went for whole sentences without reaching for the dictionary. Which meant that I needed another challenge. So I started downloading newspapers in PDF format. They are far wordier and use much richer vocabulary.

Later, I started ordering books online. And watching Cypriot TV. And streaming other things, and watching the odd film on DVD. nowadays I understand virtually everything on the TV news, and a reasonable amount of film dialogue. Enough to understand what's going on, anyway.

So getting a beer would be no sweat, right?


On the plus side of the equation is my three years of learning. However, there were also quite a few minuses:
  • I've never, ever, spoken to anyone in Greek. I've done quite a lot of reading aloud, but that's not really the same thing.
  • I'm not exactly the most confident of people, so it was very clear to everyone I met that I was nervous and unsure.
  • Aimilia Kenevezou and her colleagues in the RIK newsroom are professional TV people who speak very clearly. Sadly, I didn't find Aimilia or any of her colleagues moonlighting in the places I visited. Your average person behind a bar or in a cafe mumbles.
  • There are only about 3 or 4 different things that your average person behind a bar or in a cafe will ask you in any given situation. "Ice and lemon?", "Do you want fries with that?", and so on. Most of the time you can't hear them properly because of the noise and the mumbling, but you're able to guess. When, like me, you don't have a clue what they might actually say, you're stuffed. Especially if they put fries in your drink instead of ice.
  • My hotel was in an area with a high immigrant population, so I was talking bad Greek to people who were talking bad Greek back. Which increased my potential for starvation.
Nevertheless, somehow I managed not to starve and not to speak a word of English whilst I was there. The first evening, I went to a bar and after a fashion managed to get some Amstel. And some ouzo. On the second visit there I realised why I was having so much trouble communicating with the barmaid. It turned out that she was Polish, and was having difficulty with the language. Luckily she knew enough Greek to explain this to me.

A lot of the time, I felt like a total idiot, especially when people started trying to use sign language or speak to me in English. At which point I'd always repeat what they'd just said to me in Greek.

I did better in shops when I had to ask for something specific, or in the second had bookshop where I explained to the owner that I lived abroad and relied on buying new books on the internet, so it would be great to find some out of print books, and the subjects I was interested in. He even complimented me on my good Greek.

So linguistically speaking, the week was a learning experience for me. It proved that I need to watch more films and listen to more radio, so that I can get better at understanding less formal Greek. Then maybe next time I won't feel so hopeless.

Stay tuned for another installment of my Greek Adventure, coming soon...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

All Greek

Several weeks ago now, I went to Athens. This was my first foreign holiday in about 12 years. I've been meaning to get around to going away, but of course I never did. And then one day I decided to see how much a seven day break would cost, by entering some random dates into Thomas Cook's website. I was pleasantly surprised by the result - £360 for flights and hotel seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and booked something for real. In the end I paid £430 so that I didn't have to fly at crazy times.

I didn't really think about going anywhere else. There were several reasons for this:
  • I wanted to go to a Greek speaking part of the world.
  • They speak a dialect of Greek in Cyprus, which I'm nowhere near as good at understanding.
  • Melbourne is too far away.
  • I went to Athens when I was 15 and decided that it was the best city in the world. I should add that the only other city I'd been to at that point was London.
  • I'd read and seen more about Athens than Thessaloniki (Greece's second city), so it seemed more familiar somehow.
My flight got into Elevtherios Venizelos Airport late afternoon on a Saturday. I'd read all about the metro, and I knew that I could get very close to my hotel on it, so I headed straight for the station and bought my ticket using a machine, then went to the platform.

There were two trains there, and one of the train drivers seeing that I was looking lost asked me where I was going. I told him, and he directed me to the other train. My first ever verbal exchange in Greek was actually a success. Even if I did stumble over the words.

On my way to the hotel, I stopped at a kiosk to buy a copy of the paper. This was one of the things I had been looking forward to - having the newspaper in my hand instead of on a computer screen.

The kiosks are a great idea - they're outdoor newsagents, dotted around all over the place and sell papers, magazines, cold drinks, crisps and chocolate. And they're open all day until late. It can't be that much fun being cooped up in one for all that time, though.

I bought a real paper every day, of course, and some of them came with free CDs and DVDs. One of them was a CD of Greek music by Yiannis Poulopoulos. Here's one of the lighter tracks for your delight and delectation.

It's called "I have a boat with sails". Even though I've found the lyrics on the internet, this song is taking me ages to work out - I understand all the words, but getting the sense of it is much harder to fathom than most of the Greek I'm used to. Which means that I need to spend some time on songs, something I've not thought of doing until now.

Anyway, more about my holiday (and language issues) later...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Nothing Doing

Last week was rather stressful, due to family issues which are unfortunately ongoing (isn't old age cruel?), and I've been feeling zonked. Thankfully, as this week progresses, I'm beginning to get back to normal, and to wake up a bit.

So apart from the work and family stuff, what have I been doing over the last seven days? Well, I spent two of those days travelling by rail, which meant that I got a lot of reading done. I got through Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder in three days, which is very good going for me.

Yesterday evening, I went to the pub for the first time in about three weeks. It was good to catch up with people, but nothing very exciting actually happened, I'm afraid. You're probably going to complain that I'm not trying hard enough. I should have drunk a lot more and made a real idiot of myself to get some blogging material. I might do that another time. In fact, if I get really short of stuff to blog about, I could go to the next karaoke night, and post up a video of the event. For your sakes, I hope I don't get that desperate.

Otherwise, I've done very little. I've not been checking everyone's blogs as assiduously as I should, and I promise to do better. I'm also hoping that I will be able to find time to blog about my trip to Greece in the next few days. As they say, "Watch this space"

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

B is for Bat. And Ball. And Britain.

Over the last couple of days, the English language google has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. So today, as a sort of educational feature, I thought I'd take a quick look at one of the ways that Britain has shaped the world's sporting culture. The British have a long tradition of inventing sports, such as football, which was played on the streets of Medieval Britain, cricket, snooker, croquet, bowls, curling, golf, squash, rugby, etc. Actually, many of these games had origins elsewhere, but the modern versions and their rules were invented here.

The British have a very strong sense of fair play. When the Spanish sent their Armada to invade Britain in 1588 our defence forces were delayed from setting sail because Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a bowls game, and the official rules did mention abandoning the game if it started to rain, but they said nothing about a war. It was okay, though, because the Spanish invasion was eventually cancelled due to rain. Or rather, storms to be precise, which led to the sinking of many of the Armada's ships. In accordance with the rules, the British were declared the winners.

Unlike the Americans, the British long ago made the mistake of letting foreigners play their games. The problem is that they've managed to get much better than us. This is especially true of the outdoor games, since people in drier countries (i.e. everyone else) actually get to finish them more often, whereas here of course they're usually rained off.

Tennis is a good example. It became popular in the mid 1800s, and the Wimbledon championship is still considered to be one of the main competitions. It's 32 years since a British player won the women's singles there, and 73 years since Fred Perry won the men's title.

With the popularity of tennis in Victorian times, people started to play a smaller version of it on their dining room tables, using a row of books instead of a net. This game was called Whiff Whaff. Eventually they constructed proper green tables with nets, and renamed it Ping Pong. Then they made the mistake of letting the Chinese play it.

Many years later in the USA, Ping Pong was turned into the first arcade videogame. For some reason the manufacturers, Atari, called it "Pong", which you wouldn't have thought was a great choice of names. However, the game was successful and led to a home version and further games consoles. Today instead of "Pong" people play "Wii".

Anyway, Bee is the same age as Pong, which is why I didn't say what year the arcade game appeared. It wouldn't be polite since B is also for Birthday. I hope she has a happy one today.

Maybe in three years Google will have a celebration for Pong...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

"The Day of Crisis isn't here yet"

I returned from a great week in Athens to learn that in my absence there had been a death in the family. We're not a close family, but it's still a bit of a shock.

I'll post a full report of my holiday at some point in the near future, when I'm feeling less serious.

Anyway, I brought back some Greek films on DVD, and I thought I'd cheer myself up by watching one of them.

The film is titled "Η γυναίκα είναι ... σκλυρός άνθρωπος", which literally translated means "The Woman is ... a tough person". It was made in 2005. It's a comedy with Antonis Kafetzopoulos as the writer and director and who also plays the leading part of Johnny Maniatis.

I suppose at this point I should write


only I'm guessing that none of you are very likely to see this film, sadly.

The film is a day in the life of Johnny, the 50-year-old head of an advertising agency. His motto is "The Day of Crisis isn't here yet", but it's clear that his life is heading that way very rapidly. He is spending money he hasn't got, he desperately needs to secure an advertising contract for sanitary towels, and then there are the "tough" women in his life.

There's his mother, who visits the agency to get €2000 for her holiday. Money that Johnny hasn't got. Although she enters the building and starts up the stairs, she never gets to his office. The Greek Police send a couple of cops round, but they don't think they'll be able to help, given that they're swamped with other cases. However a €1500 cheque soon changes their attitude. Luckily for Johnny they don't attempt to cash it right away. The head cop (Kostas Triantafillopoulos) gives Johnny a lesson in criminology. There are only three reasons why a 72 year old woman disappears. Altzheimer's, kidnap or suicide. In turn each reason is believed to be the correct one (the scene with the cops comparing the photo to various corpses in the morgue is hilarious). As the titles roll, we learn what really happened.

Johnny has an 18/19 year old kleptomaniac daughter, Artemis, who is in trouble for shop lifting. And escaping from police custody with a bulgarian suspect who she tries to turn into an armed bank robber.

Johnny's girlfriend of seven years, Georgia, is a lawyer whose biological clock is ticking. She decides she's going to have a baby, and if our hero won't oblige then she'll find someone who will. She gives him a deadline. He has to meet her at 10pm in a restuarant for a romantic meal. If he doesn't turn up she plans to go in search of a suitable, em, donor. Her transformation in the restaurant's bathroom from smartly dressed lawyer into man-catching tart is brilliant.

The other women in Johnny's life are his ex-wife (Artemis' mother), his faithful secretary (Yiota Festa) and, of course, his mother's dog.

The film was a lot of fun, and is very nicely filmed, with lots of location shots in Athens and brilliant use of digital special effects. The DVD had a whole load of behind-the-scenes extras which give you some idea of the trouble they went to. The dog is in a lot of scenes, which must have taken forever to get right, and there's a really impressive road accident stunt, which looks just as scary when you see footage of them filming it.

If you get the chance to see it then do, otherwise you can use the above at dinner parties to amaze people with your knowledge of foreign cinema.


I remember this meme thing going around a couple of years ago where the idea is to generate a random album - band name, title and picture all being picked using randomised web pages.

You can find the rules on Kat's blog. Here's what I ended up with this time:

I only hope I'm not going to have to change my name to Jeremy Jones.