MAD GREEK DICTIONARIES AND PORKY PIG
I had never known the editors of language dictionaries to be practical jokers, until I bought the English-Greek Greek-English Dictionary published in Athens by Mikhailis Sidheri in 1996. His compilers Angelos Tsakinakas and Joanna Niemczuk have keladhima as their only word for ‘song’, and psofio as their only word for ‘dead’. Everyone here on the island of Kythnos looked much bemused when I used these terms, as the former only applies to birdsong, and the latter to dead, often rotting animals. Given I am a widower, and was trying to say my beloved wife died five years ago of cancer, these things matter. The correct word for ‘dead’ in the case of a human is pethane, and a song from a human is a tragoudhi. In effect I was accusing handsome Chrisoula the owner of my virtual second home, the Glaros Cafe, of emitting a fruity warbling or a chirruping instead of singing a nice little song.
But then there are the omissions. They give no Greek words for absolute essentials like ‘sometimes’ or ‘somebody’, but do give the words for ‘impeccant’, ‘popinjay’, ‘allocution,’ ‘bedabble’ (is there such a word?) ‘ceraceous’, ‘slanding’(eh? No it’s not a misprint for ‘slanting’ as they have a separate word stravos for that). And, forgive me, but it leaps out a mile at the bottom of p129, they also have the word for ‘cunt’ (mouni in case you ever need it). If I were an impeccant popinjay given to slanding allocution, I would be laughing with this mini-volume retailing at 9 euros a few years ago.
I came to Kythnos in September 2013 to start a new life, and new it has become I assure you. My wife of thirty years, Annie, died at the age of fifty-four on December 4th 2009 and our big North Cumbrian farmhouse became a lonely kind of sarcophagus for the three and a half years that followed. My daughter Ione was a student in Leeds, and then had a couple of jobs there before relocating to beautiful Wroclaw in Poland as a TEFL teacher. Later she was teaching English to adults in Brussels, and making thirty euros an hour, which is over twice the hourly rate of the secondary school teachers in Kythnos. At thirteen euros an hour, they get about the same as a Cumbrian gardener or cleaner. I am a novelist and a fiction teacher, and I have also started a fiction school here in Kythnos in the Cyclades. I hadn’t written a word after Annie died, but once I got to Kythnos I completed a novel in three weeks, working eight hours a day seven days a week, and enjoying every minute of it. Without trying to sound too coy, the novel wrote itself and I only did the typing. I don’t mean pace Kingsley Amis in his dotage, that I am the passive quasi-mystical conduit for something lying out there in the ether(the only thing I am a conduit for is retsina wine to which I am extremely partial). What I mean is that the novel had been storing itself up for I would say about forty years(I am 64) and for whatever reason a few days of being on idyllic Kythnos allowed it to let itself come flying out.
I use the word ‘idyllic’ carefully. I often tell friends back home that this place is paradise, and I mean that too. I also say every day is like Christmas Day and again there is no hyperbole. I instance the drive from the Hora capital (Kythnos Town) to the old capital Dhryopida aka Horio (The Village) where you have the islands of Serifos and Kea down below to your left. Of an early morning and late evening, an enormous solid pillar of golden sunlight spreads hallucinatorily all the way from Serifos to Kalo Livadhi on Kythnos. It looks as if you could easily walk or ride by horseback along that pillar between the two islands if you wanted. Tears to the eyes is the least of it, you feel as if you are there at the Birth of Time or you are there in the Odyssey, and that Homer is still alive and kicking somewhere.
Then there is Dhryopida itself, one of the handsomest villages on earth. Its old part Galatas, across the dry river bed, is the equal of anywhere in Tuscany, but with only a handful of families, is virtually deserted. No one knows any English in Dhryopida, not even a dozen words, so I am obliged to improve my Greek or flounder. If I had no Greek at all it would be hopeless. The old men who drink coffee and argue and talk unbelievable smut on the plateia, have a made a special friend of me. I am variously John, Johnny, John Boy, Mr John and Johnny Be Good. They vigorously condemn almost everyone they know as a malaka (wanker), but it is also confusingly a term of tender affection between mates, including old women, young women, priests and foreigners like Mr John. The day an old man of eighty-five called me a malaka, I knew I had made it at last. The same old guy offered to get me a mikri gyneika if I wanted one. You can probably guess that gyneika is ‘woman’, and in my ignorance I thought mikri could only mean ‘little’. I thought he was offering to solicit a midget on my behalf, until it was explained to me that mikri along with nea can also mean ‘young’. I explained I had someone I cared for back home in England, and bought him a coffee by way of thanks for his concern at my sexual and emotional well being.
The next day he stopped me and gave me a dozen eggs covered in henshit from his allotment. He made no more mention of any mikri gyneika , so perhaps, I thought, he had just been showing off for the fun of it. But no, as an open friend of Horio’s immigrant Albanians, Russians and Rumanians, I can see him as an amiable procurer, and I’m even convinced that hens’ eggs might play a part in these transactions. More to the point though, sometimes he wears a dazzlingly vivid electric blue cardigan with very shiny buttons. That together with his rakish pork pie hat resoundingly emphasise that he has sex on the brain at eighty-five, because no one could wear a blindingly blue, shiny-buttoned cardigan like that unless they were all glands and thought about nothing but women from dawn till dusk.
One thing I admire more than most is that dying breed, the autodidact. My taxi driver Kostas who left school at sixteen and is an ordinary guy in every aspect, is a remarkable example of the genus. Some days he has no fares at all, and he sits in the Glaros sipping coffee and reading. But he doesn’t read any old thing. In one week alone I saw him read a hefty tome on Greek history, a translation of Hamlet, and a study in Greek of Plato. When he saw me reading Chekov he wanted to know all about him, and he also wanted to know what I thought of TS Eliot. Kostas is forty with two small boys and an attractive wife who is a nurse, of whom more later. Sat next to Kostas, by contrast, was a man in his sixties, who migrated here from Athens twenty years ago, and is a puzzle magazine addict. I have seen him spend three or four hours doing the crosswords and teasers, oblivious to all around him. The other day his reading matter had changed, and he was devouring with great relish a comic detailing the adventures of Porky Pig. I was baffled on two scores. Firstly, to do puzzles and crosswords, you need a certain amount of brain power, you can’t afford to be backward or dozy. Back in the UK, any adult not mentally deficient, would sooner be seen dead than reading the adventures of Porky Pig. The second cause of bafflement was that I had seen another man recently doing the same thing, reading Porky Pig in public and among his adult friends. It was on the boat to Lavrio, he was about seventy, bespectacled and intelligent looking. Like the puzzle book addict he wasn’t just reading Porky Pig, he was devouring his adventures as if it were a work by Shakespeare or Plato or Nikos Kazantzakis, not a comic about a cartoon pig. In conversation with his friends he was humorous and alert, and the only striking thing about him was that he was wearing a vast neck brace. For a second I imagined his doctor telling him, it won’t be easy wearing this neck brace, Manolis, and if you start to feel depressed by it, read a bit of Porky Pig to cheer yourself up! In the case of the Glaros puzzle addict, one give away was he was minutely moving his lips as he read the comic. But that again I found inexplicable. If you have literacy problems, how can you possibly do puzzles and brain teasers for hour after hour?
To get back to Kostas’s wife, who is a nurse in the Dhryopida health centre. I have recently developed a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and need regular three monthly shots to stop me becoming anaemic. My first shot in North Cumbria, in July 2013, was in the arm, and was a bit painful. When I squeaked at the pain, my Cumbrian doctor, a good-looking and spiky-haired woman about five feet tall, weighing six stones at a guess, snapped at me, Oh, don’t be such a baby, John! She had just returned from a trekking holiday in a dangerous part of Eritrea, and was clearly afraid of nothing, so I resisted the temptation to snap back at her. At the Horio health centre, I held out my arm to Kostas’s wife, also very good looking, but a far gentler type than my North Cumbrian doctor. She shook her head and indicated the injection would be in the backside. I groaned as she asked me to lie face down on the adjacent table. The injection followed, it was direct into the muscle, and it hurt like buggery. The arm injection had been painful but this was ow, yow, wow stuff. The pain lasted maybe two minutes but it felt like two hours, and I made the appropriate Billy Bunter ejaculations. Kostas’s wife didn’t tell me I was a baby, but smiled sympathetically. I returned limping to seventy-year-old Stamatis’s internet cafe and explained to him why I was limping. He laughed long and loud and soon had told everyone in Dhryopida that Kostas’s wife had seen John’s backside and given it a painful injection! The next day the bawdy old men in the plateia knew all about the infamous injection, and suggested the roles should have been reversed with me injecting Kostas’s wife, but not with Vitamin B12, tee hee! In the taxi back to Merihas, I had to explain to Kostas why I couldn’t sit comfortably and about his wife’s role in the affair. The autodidact laughed very heartily and went ow, yow,wow as if he had read Billy Bunter in Greek twenty five years ago. Before long the whole of the Glaros knew about Kostas’s wife seeing John’s backside(kollo) and they were all, waitresses included, clutching their behinds and going ow,yow,wow! The next day everyone in the port knew about me and my sore kollo, and they were all doing Frank Richards’ ejaculations and all clutching their rear ends. Far from being embarrassed, I felt as if I was giving everyone a good laugh, and it felt almost as good as when the old guy in Dhryopida had called me a malaka, a wanker.
Finally some harmless wordplay. Chrisoula who owns the Glaros is 46, single, has long, beautiful hair and is very attractive. We flirt with each other in a charming way, and with her ten words of English she does very well indeed as a bilingual wit. When we realised we both lived near the village Mini Market, we decided she was Mini/Minnie Mouse and I therefore must be Mickey Mouse. I also call her Dama Chrisoula (Lady Chrisoula), Vassilisa Chrisoula (Queen Chrisoula), and, in English, Lady Chrisoula. At which she insists, no, she is more like Lady Gaga, if not indeed plain Gaga (‘gaga’ I was delighted to learn means the same in Greek as in English). She has also christened me Catman as opposed to Batman, as I have been adopted by a kitten I have named Anthoula (Little Flower). When I sit outside in the hot sunshine, Anthoula pesters me for scraps of food, and likes to go to sleep on my chest. Chrisoula’s sister Marianna, who works in the Kavos, calls Anthoula, ‘Skatoula’ which means Little Shite. I don’t think she means it, because in her smallholding at nearby Flabouria, she has a horse, several goats, two dogs and two cats. Thin and graceful Marianna, aged 48, always calls me John Boy, and I call her Lady Marianna, and the name definitely suits her.