Travelling with a Greek speaking friend around the Greek islands is of course a wonderful way to see both the beauty of the place and to have an instant translator. Need to know what is on the menu? Need to understand the strange street signs in an alphabet you only vaguely remember from pure maths classes eons ago? Ask your friend and the effort of travel in a strange country recedes into the background. You become blasé, you rely heavily on your friend and their good nature and a symbiotic, if one sided relationship ensues.
So, yes having a native speaker with you is a strong advantage but little is said about the disadvantages. And believe me they begin to happen when you least expect it. Firstly, they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get you to say a few words in Greek, then fall about laughing at your poor attempts at the tongue twisters. I have been lazy and really only know the rudimentary hellos and how are you, but lately my friend has upped the ante and found some magnificent phrases for me to practise, helped by a few friends of the Greek variety who egg on the helpless Aussie. The words are usually at least four syllables long and my tongue and hearing do not connect well. Despite being an English teacher, said friend is sometimes guffawing and derisory of my attempts. I do point out that this is hardly a good teacher’s methodology. But she ignores me.
Secondly, they seem to find relatives at every village and taverna that we land upon. The question that all Greeks ask of each other it seems is “where do your family come from and who are you connected to?” Then the conversation takes off as long lost second cousins emerge out of the woodwork and loud exclamations take over with much hand waving and gestures and kisses on both sides of the cheek. Family histories are unravelled and nea, nea (yes, yes) is repeated often and loudly. The hapless Aussie looks from person to person hoping that a word or two might emerge to help with context, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Many a time I have been sure of the relationship- oh they are your third cousin, to find that they are talking about the long dead uncle who no one liked and was a womaniser to boot. So much for context. The family gossip tends to drag on interminably and generally sounds like loud shouting to the uninitiated.
Lastly, said friend speaks Greek so often that she speaks to me in Greek, assured that I understand everything she has said and then wonders why I have the look of the permanently bewildered on my face. I tire of the number of times I have to correct her and ask for a translation. And of course, the translation is truncated and half hearted as said friend tires easily about repeating herself.
Hence, let me segue to the title of this piece – and that’s why they made ouzo. Ouzo or alcohol in general is a perfect way to cope with the lack of language skills. Learn the many varieties of ouzo and Greek beer, imbibe a bit and any tongue twisters seem like child’s play or at least irrelevant in the joy of being slightly pickled in a fabulous, foreign country.