THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

Yesterday I was having an amiable if passionate argument with an Athenian man who has several generations of family connections with the island where I’ve lived for 5 years now. In his mid-50s, let’s call him Kostas, has a good job in the capital connected to natural energy resources, but that is not where his heart is, and what Kostas really wants to do is get into upmarket themed tourism, meaning upmarket themed Kythnos tourism. In the last few years there have been 2 local initiatives started up providing guided walks and island experiences on the lines of learning Kythnos cookery and Kythnos pottery. Add to that one of them works in conjunction with someone who offers kayaking trips to remote beaches, and as a separate initiative altogether, someone is teaching yoga in a big house on one of the obscurest bays along one of the worst island roads, and undeniably quiet and sleepy Kythnos has been transformed and stands to be changed yet further. The rumour is that within a few years there will be a fast train from Athens to the port of Lavrio (at present there is only a crawling 2 hour bus ride) and that many of the Piraeus routes will be decanted to Greece’s 2nd port, which already living on whispers, is a boom town when it comes to real estate. Lavrio is currently one of the 2 ports that serves Kythnos and the only one to serve nearby Kea, and if there is going to be fast transport there from Athens, then Kythnos being close to the mainland, stands to be immoderately inundated. Kostas of course is very excited by this, for although he loves the pure and simple and authentic Kythnos and is one of its most vocal prophets, he also likes the idea of crowds of wealthy foreigners flocking here, some of whom will stay in the upmarket villas he plans to build, replete with wifi, jacuzzis, exquisite classical furnishings, and of course optional themed cultural activities, stuck out along a pristine bay on the eastern side of the island. You can imagine how I assured him that the old and simple peasant Kythnos, which is still discernible from time to time with its donkeys and dusty kafeneia and tavernas that have no written menus, doesn’t sit easily side by side with jacuzzis and organised walks with everyone wielding those splendid hiking sticks and sporting the inverted plant pot hats that wrinkled foreign walkers adore so much. In any case I told him drily, over a decade ago an elderly taxi driver high up in the Nea Demokratia party had forecast to me Lavrio’s imminent renaissance and its eventual take over of Piraeus, and precisely bugger all had happened since. But Kostas had a prophetic gleam in his eye and like all gleaming prophets, he believes with great intensity whatever it is that he wants to happen.

You don’t need to be a prophet to guess that I would prefer that Kythnos had stayed the way it was, and that if people wanted to e.g. go walking on this compact and easily navigable little island, they could do it themselves easily enough rather than fork out 30 plus euros for the privilege. Buy any decent Kythnos map nowadays, and the main hiking routes are laid out, and on the back of the map it will give you enough information in Greek and English about the island and the walks to last you for a month at least. Examine the new themed tourism websites and they don’t have much more to say, and in any case there is copious historical, archaeological and cultural information in English on the numerous free luxuriously printed pamphlets handed out every year by the tourist office in the Kythnos port. That said, it doesn’t take a genius to work out why foreigners like guided walks as opposed to going by themselves. Greek is not an easy language and not one in a hundred foreign tourists has even the simplest Greek, even the ones who have been coming here for decades. On that basis they feel simply nervous about navigating anything, whether it be explaining their needs to a taxi driver (only 1 out 5 here speaks any English) or asking a passing farmer if this is the right route for Kastro Tis Orias. Fair enough, not everyone has to be a linguist, but there are such things as phrasebooks and what I have noticed in Kythnos, is that not a single tourist deigns to use them, and instead they think they are a hero if they cheerily manage to say yassas (hello/goodbye) and efkharisto (thank you). To use a phrasebook really is minimal effort, and aside from anything else can help you to make sense of mad taverna mistranslations (e.g. courgettes/zucchini as ‘pumpkins’ and the revolting galeos = abominable lamprey as ‘cod’). Moreover, if you are frightened of mispronouncing, then you can just point to the Greek phrase itself which is surely better than doing some of the inane and at times rude mime language (2 fingers stroked near the mouth to indicate ‘I want food’) I have seen one or two British and US monoglots resort to. Reflect also that if you are anything but anglophone you will damn well have to be a linguist when in Greece, like it or not. Greeks communicate with French, German, Russian, Japanese, Senegal and every other tourist via English, as not one in a hundred Greeks speaks any other foreign language.

All these things are structurally related though. If you don’t speak any Greek and won’t use a phrase book, nor even the linguistic gizmos and apps on your smartphone, you cannot go off the beaten track as you don’t know whether they want 7 or 70 or  700 euros for the lovely icon reproduction, or whether they are talking about rooms (domatia) or tomatoes (domates) that are of such sterling quality. It’s appropriate to conclude then that giving up on phrasebooks and their equivalents encourages a learned helplessness, and that the antidote for all true Greece fans is to push themselves to go somewhere really out of the way, like some of the obscurer reaches of the northern mainland towards the Albanian or Bulgarian borders. There they really will need their phrasebooks or they will come close to starving, and they will find no decent hotel nor rooms nor nice tomatoes, and even if they do, they might have to share the same room with a senile granddad and 2 goats, as simple as that. Meanwhile if they manage to fish out a Pocket Berlitz or a Pocket Collins Greek-English from a UK charity shop, they will pay only a quid or so to make life easier both for themselves and for the hospitable and warm-hearted Greeks who are busting to enjoy a bit of chat and banter with that enterprising rarity that is the visiting stranger.

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