Power of well-worn Greek phrase saves the day for a troubled traveller

1990 was a heady year for the world. The polar opposite of 2020/1. If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 1990’s was the Summer of Optimism. The Berlin Wall had collapsed the previous winter and there was a sense in Europe that anything was possible. So it is with this in mind that I launch into the story that follows.

In London where I lived at the time, it was one of those rare summers of no rain – hot and muggy enough to wish for some rain.

My friend and flatmate Mike came to me one day and said “I am going to Greece. I need you to tell me something that only a Greek would know and will stop a conversation.”


“In case I get into a tight spot,” he said.

Mike was a close friend, we grew up in Zimbabwe, went to university together and met again in London years later. It was the first time he had asked me something like this.

The reason he was going to Greece was not the London heat but to find the girl of his dreams, Estelle.

He had met her a few weeks before and had fallen head over heels for her and she for him. But when the time came, she left him to go to Greece where she had arranged to meet a friend.

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Mike bore the disappointment for a few weeks until the day he announced that he was going to Greece to look for her. There was no shifting him. He booked his flight and packed his bags. Then he came to me with his odd request.

It took me aback but I thought long and hard about it and until it finally came to me and I told him what to say and do. It was all about timing and presentation.

He flew to Rhodes because that was where Estelle said she would be going. What followed was an epic quest through the islands of the Aegean – the knight errant in pursuit of his damsel with a host of ferry tickets in her pocket.

The pursuit of Estelle showed up many things about Mike that we had taken for granted – besides this strong romantic streak, he proved a determined and resourceful pursuer. She had left no clues beyond the fact that she was going to the Dodecanese island.

Once on Rhodes, he was able to track Estelle’s movements by trawling patiently through the backpacker hostels. He left notes on message boards.

He was able to establish that she left the island to do a bit of island hopping and he followed hoping to see her on the next island only to miss her by a matter of hours.

On arriving on one island on the ferry, he saw her on the deck of another outgoing ferry. She did not see him as he frantically waved to her. Needless to say he was on the next available ferry to resume the pursuit.

On his travels he met an American, Brad, who was on a similar quest for his wife. It was an annual game they played to make sure that the partner paid attention during the year. 1990 was her year to travel and Brad had accumulated a range of hints of where she was likely to be and was following up on them when he came across Mike. For a while the two men pooled their resources and helped each other.

Eventually they parted ways and Mike resumed his lonely pursuit of Estelle.

The trail took him to Santorini. He hired a motorbike and handed his passport as surety before cruising the island in yet another vain pursuit.

At last, he came to the top of one of the island’s famous cliffs. He sat on the idling motor bike to admire the view and take stock of things.

As he sat gazing into the lovely distance, the motorbike somehow kicked into gear and thrust forward. Before he knew what was happening, he was somehow flung backwards onto the dirt as the bike lurched over the cliff and into the sea a long way below. To this day he cannot say how he did not go the same way as the faulty bike.

It was a long walk back to the town and the motorbike hire shop.

The owner was not impressed by the absence of his vehicle and made it clear in Greek and broken English that my friend pay for the missing bike. Mike said in English: “Your bike was dangerous and you have insurance and I cannot pay.”

To which the shop owner replied by hauling out his passport and yelling: “No pay, no passport.”

It was at this point that Mike applied the only Greek he knew which he had learnt from me.

The delivery of the words had to be timed with the gesture. This involved stretching out both hands to the air ahead and bring them down together to converge on the area that determines our sex.

“As you begin the gesture,” I remember telling him in London, “you draw the attention of the listener by looking intently into his eyes and as you draw your hands down to the nether parts. you invite your target in Greek to “eat them you self-pleasurer” (I politely paraphrase).”

It is an easy phrase for non-Greek speaker to remember as it involves the use of just one vowel,. alpha, that features over five syllables.

It seems Mike’s delivery did me, his teacher, proud. The hire shop owner’s assistant gasped in surprise while the owner himself was frozen in shock as he held the passport still in mid-air. That was the gap Mike needed to grab the passport and leg it on to the first ferry out of Santorini.

His pursuit of Estelle was ended and he returned to London a sadder and a wiser man.