Of course, everyone says there’s no need. Why bother? people say. Surely everyone in Crete speaks English. And yes, most people have either an impressive, very fluent command of English or can at least get by. Only the very elderly have little or no grasp. Walk into any shop in any small town, city or village and, once the assistants grasp that Greek is not exactly one’s mother tongue, they switch swiftly, graciously and mostly effortlessly into English.
And it makes me feel very ashamed that, after 20 years of going to Crete – with 8 of those years spent as a joint house-owner – I can still only grovel around with basic greetings, count to 10 and know just a handful (a very small, child’s hand) of vocabulary.
My inadequacy depresses me. And it’s not as if I haven’t made some small effort in the direction of acquiring some proficiency …
Three years ago, my sister and I signed ourselves up for a local evening class in Beginners’ Greek. We arrived one blustery, January night to settle ourselves on hard chairs in a school classroom under bright, unforgiving lights and openend our new A4 exercise books, expectant, positive. After some delay, a young woman arrived, hesitant in her greeting of her roomful of adult students, explaining that she was a substitute for the real teacher who had hurt her back. She then conducted the entire class by means of playing a Greek language CD – and we soon worked out that we could arrange the same scenario in the comforts of our own homes and made a swift departure. The class was dully cancelled and our fees returned.
Two years ago, during one of our glorious long summers at our house in Crete, I boldly and bravely approached a language school in a neighbouring village and embarked on a week’s course of Level 1 Greek. There were to be just two of us in the class, I was told by the delightful, enthusiastic teacher, and I looked forward to devoting 5 mornings to my Greek class, confident that learning from a native speaker in a classroom that had panoramic views of the White Mountains would ensure success. My fellow student was about 25, a linguist, German, speaker of 5 languages who was horrifying capable of picking up Greek swiftly and apparently effortlessly to make it 6. My somewhat more mature brain struggled where his youthful, sponge-like one soared. Our charming teacher was patient, constructive, encouraging – and at the end of the week, although still spending the class mainly mute, I was at least understanding a little more. Her other student was virtually fluent. Unfortunately, I had to return to the UK the next day so the vocabulary and constructions and phrases I had learnt soon slipped from my grasp and I felt I was back to the beginning.
Learning Greek is hard. Learning any language is hard. But at least approaching French or Spanish or German or Portuguese, the alphabet has a reliable familiarity. So the first obstacle and stumbling block is in place before you even start: these curious shapes and symbols that comprise the Greek alphabet. Recently, waiting at Athens airport for a flight back to London, I found a pack of children’s alphabet flash cards on sale. For age 5 Plus, these are obviously intended for Greek children’s use ahead of starting school and they are the best visual aid I have found. So I’m trying again, armed with my cards, learning my Greek equivalent of A is for Apple, B is for …..etc keeping them tucked in my bag, by the bed, intent on becoming entirely proficient.
And the clock is ticking.
Because, in a month’s time, I start another course of Introductory Greek – this time a week long, 6 hours a day course in London – and at the end of it, I fly straight to Crete for two weeks and hope to put my efforts to the test.
I am determined. One day, I really do plan on being able to say more than Yammas!