..having no foreign-speaking nations literally on our borders takes the heat
out of having to learn another lingo, but New Zealand has given respect to
the indigenous Maori population by making the learning the Maori language
compulsory, and while I can see there are problems emulating that gesture
in Australia, it does bring up the issue of learning a foreign or indigenous
language simply out of respect for another's culture. I think this is partly
why I now tend to think that making an effort to speak the local language
wherever you go on the planet is not a complete waste of time, even given
English's current pre-eminent position.
Anyway, I had a crack at speaking the odd French phrase this time in Paris. On this occasion I was dispatched to the local boulangerie to purchase something nice to eat for breakfast. I spied some nice looking pastries with various toppings in the vitrine.
M had said she'd prefer an apple topping and I thought I remembered the French for apple so I requested 'tartine aux pommes de terres, s'il vous plait' and the lady laughed and said they didn't have potato tartine and I went red and chose the apricot instead.
We went to the same boulangerie again too, and while I imagined they probably called me Monsieur Potato-Head behind the counter there was no malice involved and I gave myself the order of the legion of honour for at least trying.
Of course I was very lucky in Greece to be accompanied by a fluent Greek-speaker in Ms Maria Gravias. It's quite a revelation when somebody you think you know starts speaking in another language, a language that's all Greek to you, in fact.
Like it's fellow Romance language, Italian, Greek is a passionate language, one that is apparently impossible to speak without passion and without the accompanying hand gestures.
One of the most confusing things for the Greek speaking novice is that the word for 'yes' in Greek sounds a lot like the word 'no' in most other European languages.
The Greek word for 'yes' sounds like 'neh'.
This is sheer theorising of course, but because it begins with the letter 'n' it's quite satisfying to say and to interpolate repetitively into a conversation, rather like phonetic punctuation.
'Yes' or even 'yeah' isn't nearly as satisfying to rattle off as a volley of 'nehs' and as a result doesn't get this kind of a workout.
Anyway, it's probably not a significant clue to the Greek character, although it hints at some inherent ambiguity, but it's definitely an oddity to the Anglo ear.
Speaking of character, the character of Greeks and Greece is surely being tested right now. The economy is in reverse and small business entrepreneurship is being punished with draconian taxes and it's hard to envisage it not becoming significantly worse before it gets better - some are predicting the imminent collapse of the Greek economy.
In the more depressed areas of Athens, like the lethal-sounding Omonia for instance, you are constantly exhorted on the Metro PA to take care of your personal belongings - actually it's the same in the Paris Metro where they explicitly warn you to beware of pickpockets in French, English, German and Mandarin.
But there is a tangible desperation in downtown Athens that we didn't see in Paris and I know from discussions about the situation with some of my new Greek friends that the Greek middle class feels under siege politically. In this climate it's just as well Greek school kids are well versed in speaking English and an assortment of other European languages because it's highly likely they'll have to seek employment and consequently a new life outside their homeland of Greece.
Being a tourist for the past six weeks has been an interesting experience and, although I have some sympathy with the view that equates tourism with cultural terrorism, I shall remember with special fondness the days I spent over this last Easter with Maria in her parents' hometown of Kastellia, nestled at the base of the Parnassus ranges in northern Greece. I shall remember it not so much for the grandeur of the scenery, although we saw much that was beautiful there, but for the spirit of love and generosity with which we were received by Maria's kinfolk living in this far, far-off land that we call, almost sarcastically given their present circumstances, the 'cradle of Democracy'. The evidence of a once great civilisation and the splendid scenery are to be marvelled at, of course, but the privilege of seeing this once proud country through the eyes of its people, everyday Greek people who still love their country while despairing of its prospects, is one you will never get on a tourist bus..