At the beginning of April, I spent five days attempting to learn Greek.
Or rather, I spent a week trying to begin to be ready to start learning Greek.
I think, truly, that was my goal: to break down the sense of total panic and sheer, inhibiting frustration that rose up every time I tried even to remember a phrase. Or a letter. Or how to say ‘yes’ without saying ‘no.’ (to non-Greek speakers, this is not nearly as easy and idiotic as it sounds …)
I arrived in the third floor classroom of the City Lit Institute, a lovely purpose-built college squashed between Holborn and Covent Garden, anxious, concerned, but determined to at least come away with some gain.
And I struggled. For the first two days, it was only my sense of pride that prevented me from giving up and simply wandering around London looking at the shops instead of focusing for 5 hours on the impossibilities of Greek. And it was exhausting. Draining. Mind-blown tiring.
But no-one found it easy. We were a mixed age group – 12 adult students ranging from millennials up to – well, possibly a few years older even than me. And none of us spoke much Greek at all. A few words, vocabulary for ordering wine, coffee, saying good morning, good night – that was about the extent of it. The teacher, Flora, a native Greek speaker, was insistent on us all taking part from the start, however: role playing, mini conversations, exchanging greetings – and this was supplemented by YouTube lessons and numerous hand-outs and sessions on the black board. It immediately created a relaxed and supportive atmosphere that felt safe and friendly.
And by day 3, by Wednesday morning, I began to think I was not going to drown entirely. In fact, for the first time ever in my pathetic attempts to learn Greek over the years, I started to feel that progress – slender and skinny – was nevertheless within reach.
For a start, I could, at last, now write and understand the alphabet. I could begin to read some words, write down some of them. I began to see and understand some of the difficulties and complexities of the language – rather than simply throwing up my hands in despair at the impossibility of the challenge. I could see, as it were, the steep hills ahead rather than considering them unconquerable mountains.
By day 5, I was hooked. I began really to want to do this frustratingly difficult thing of learning Greek. I was committed to the idea.
Of course I can still hardly say a word – although I can pick up bits and pieces if people speak slowly and carefully to me. When we arrived in Crete just two days after the course finished, I was thrilled to go into a shop on our way from the airport to our house, buy a few food items and understand when the girl asked me in Greek for 20 euros! Another of my (very moderate) successes and thrills was when, a few days later, my use of some very basic Greek phrases in another shop was greeted by ‘oh, you speak some Greek!’
There is, obviously, rather a long way to go.
But I do now feel ready to begin to learn Greek. In September, I am going to enrol for a Level 1 course (my April week was Beginners’ pre-level 1 …)and slowly, patiently, try to learn some more. It will probably take years and years, but I am loving it. It is a beautiful language and it’s exciting to feel I am learning something entirely new that’s challenging and stimulating.
And useful too.
You see, ‘YES’ in Greek sounds like ‘No’ in most languages. And ‘NO’ sounds more like – you get the idea. It feels counter-intuitive every time I try to choose the right one to say.
But I’ll get there. Hopefully. In the end.