Since arriving to Athens several months ago, I have dedicated several hours a day to learning Greek. (Okay, not every day–I usually take weekends off and holidays, whether they be Greek or US holidays, and if it’s a really too nice day to be stuck indoors, I might not be so diligent…) I now feel that I am actually beginning to understand things, perhaps a bit more than I would if I were surrounded by Swahili or Icelandic. I have transitioned to speaking almost entirely Greek to my buddies on the tennis court, but am aware that tennis-related vocabulary like “great shot!” and “are you seriously calling that out?” can only get you so far in daily life.
I work on increasing my vocabulary by regularly reading articles from the Greek newspapers. As a result, I have mastered terms like “financial bailout,” “municipal elections,” “public workers’ strike,” and “student demonstration,” but I lack a lot of words and phrases that would actually be useful day-to-day like “Is it really necessary to park [on the sidewalk/blocking the wheelchair ramp/in the middle of the frickin’ street], asshole?” (That last word—malaka—I learned years ago. Just the rest of the phrases I need to work on.)
While studying Greek can be frustrating at times, it has the not-to-be-underestimated advantage that virtually any activity involving the use of the local tongue can be justified as edifying, whether it be watching a cooking show on TV, chatting with a friend over coffee, or, as I have been doing lately, reading comic books. My niece had the brilliant idea of giving me for Christmas Greek versions of some vintage American comics, including “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones.” It is humbling to acknowledge that comic books geared towards the Greek pre-teen set are just about right for my level but such is the nature of language study. Humility is a fundamental prerequisite.
“TZETSON!” is what Mr. Spaislee hollers in Greek comic books at his hapless employee. The Greek alphabet lacks the equivalent of the “j” sound in English and French, so they substitute a “tz” sound, making for some of my favorite Greek words. Tzazz music is quite popular here and if you win the lottery, you hit the Tzak Pot. My favorite cartoon character at the moment is Tzortz Tzetson, along with his wife Tzoudi and daughter Tzein.
I have spent a lot of agonizing hours over the last several months trying to slog my way through dense newspaper articles, heavy dictionary in hand, having to look up every other word, so comic books were a great discovery–the vocabulary is not “Dick and Jane” level, but most of the words used are fairly common and useful and the sentences are short. So I have actually learned quite a lot of new vocabulary through the Tzetsons and Flintstones and have had a pretty darn’ good time while doing it.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother spending so many hours learning a language that is spoken solely in a small country of 13 million people, at least half of whom speak pretty darn’ good English and maybe 10 percent of whom speak it as well or better than I do. I am reminded of the time my friend Neil bought an Italian language study program that promised that it would enable him to communicate with people “in Italy and all other countries where Italian is spoken.” So I suppose that after a couple years here and some hundreds or thousands of hours of study, I will have the good fortune of being able to communicate with people in all countries where Greek is spoken. (Sadly, this does not include Greek restaurants in the States—last time I tried to speak Greek to the waiter in a restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown, I discovered that his name was Juan Manuel and that he was from Guanajuato, Mexico. We had a nice chat in Spanish, but no Greek practice.)
In any case, I do feel compelled to try to develop a reasonable capacity to speak the language in the country in which I’m living. Even a modest degree of fluency, I believe, is appreciated by locals and gives you an entrée into a society that you can never have without any ability to communicate. And, who knows, maybe all the hours of study will fend off Alzheimer’s for a few more years.