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...


Bee said...

That was very brave of you! I am also impressed by how you taught yourself the language. My aunt Mary learned English by watching soap operas. I think that's why she's so dramatic

Jean Knee said...

way to go Brian. I could never learn a foreign language. I have enough trouble with LOL speak

I'm about to go have my passport renewed. I'm practically bald. I told my hair dresser I wanted to keep my length so she cut it all short except a fringe at the back that looks like a mullet. at least I won't be mistaken for any kind of terrorist in my new photo

Jean Knee said...

if I hadn't typed all that drivel about my hair I would have beaten Bee

for a different kind of girl said...

Hey! You can also order a Fanta in Iowa just by saying "I'd like a Fanta, please!" in English. We're just like the Greeks! What a small world we really are!

Truly, this is very brave of you. I sometimes don't drive over to the next county for fear I'll say something wrong, and here you learned a whole new language!

Bee said...

You're slipping, jean knee!

Jean Knee said...

my gawd. we all looked like prisoners, even Lean

Rhonda said...

Wow! I am totally impressed and inspired! Several years ago I went to Paris alone and didn't know a lick of French. All I managed to learn was hello, goodbye, thank you and do you speak English? I'm such a loser compared to you.

Chris Wood said...

At least you were taking Bad Greek to people who could appreciate it - that's got to be worth something.

And oh, I find pointing at the beer tap and making "drinky drinky" gestures works fine. No words needed.

Brian o vretanos said...


I'm afraid I'd draw the line at soap operas.

Jean Knee:

They have programs like Photoshop and GIMP for precisely that sort of emergency. If you want me to add some hair onto your photos, just send them to me.


Fanta is indeed one of those universal words.


I suspect that in most other areas of life, I'd be the loser ;-)


You're not suggesting I learn sign language too? I don't think my brain could cope with that.