“We can’t really know what a pleasure it is to run in our own language until we’re forced to stumble in someone else’s. (Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts)
I live on a Greek island, with a Greek surname, a Greek father – and I can hardly form a sentence in Greek. Its not because I haven’t tried – I completed the first year Modern Greek course at the University of Johannesburg. I can read and write – but somehow, when it comes to putting the words together in a spoken sentence, I can’t get the words out. Its probably a combination of the fear of sounding like an idiot, the inability to speak perfect Greek, and some linguistic mental block (my excuse).
The thing is, I look Greek – so the natural assumption is that I can also speak the language. People see me, and they start speaking to me in a very fast Greek – and I get all flustered and uncertain about how to approach this communication nightmare. I try to catch a few words, just to get the gist of what they say – but your average customer does not want to repeat a sentence four times until the linguistically challenged waiter ‘gets’ it. So, we all end up conversing in Grenglish – their limited English, with my more limited Greek. But, somehow we make it work – because I can count, and I know the Greek words for all the food on the menu. I even know what a courgette tart is in Greek, and I can pronounce it correctly. When I say kolokithopita, every Greek’s eyes widen in surprise. However, after the greetings and pleasantries (these I know in Greek), I have to say something like “I’m sorry, but my Greek is really bad… I understand the menu, but I have no idea what you are saying when you speak that fast.”
When I travel and move in and out of countries, the language barrier very rarely bothers me. In fact, I quite enjoy not knowing what the people around me are saying. It gives my mind a bit of a break from the constant processing. I know I’m missing out on stuff, but to me, there is bliss in the absolute oblivion. I can hear the music of the language, but have no idea what is being said. But, now that I’m spending so much time on Ithaca, I am no longer a tourist. I need to be able to communicate.
I’ve come across some fabulous words on my travels, words that struck a cord with me… that fell easy on my tongue, and I liked using them. Namaste is probably my favourite – a greeting used in Nepal and India, meaning “I greet the divine inside of you”; In Indonesia word repetitions are common, hati hati (careful), sama sama (you’re welcome), jalan jalan (walking). And, English, in every country, needs its own little dictionary – In New Zealand, sweet as, is the slang used by almost everyone, to say ‘yes, that’s cool/I agree with you’, jandals (from Japanese sandals) are what I know as flip flops, and kumara are sweet potatoes. I’ve even started to pick up some Greek slang; re is used often, as you would use “dude” in English. And, a malaka is an idiot (a word you hear – and need – quite often).
Stumbling along the words of an unfamiliar language, has made me think about how much I identify with my own language. When I’m in South Africa with my people, I very rarely think about our shared language and shared identity. But, when I’m away from it, I am acutely aware of my foreigness. So much of my identity is locked up in my language (or shall I say languages). Afrikaans is the language of my heart – the language with which I grew up. I read, write, work, think and live the rest of my life in English. And, I wonder, if I will ever be able to laugh and dream and be in Greek.
Maybe this year, I’ll let go of the desire to speak perfect Greek, and just start with what I know – even if its a bit crooked and gramatically incorrect. I’m already using slang and have replaced yes with the Greek ne without thinking, and to my own surprise. It does not matter, after all, if I sound like a malaka…! They say you have to crawl before you can walk, let alone run.