British writer Alex Kemp fell in love with a Greek woman, and the next thing he knew he was living on a Greek island. Read about how he’s adapting.
Meet Alex Kemp
Born and raised in the UK and working in “the terribly British worlds of the House of Common’s Library and then as a cricket journalist, Alex Kemp decided it was time to shake things up. He began traveling the world, teaching English. One day, in a summer school in the English countryside, he met another teacher. This beautiful woman from the Peloponnese stole his heart, and set his life on a new trajectory.
“Within the year she had taken me around Greece, from the wild parts of Mani in the south, to Thrace in the north, many incredible beaches and even to the top of the country on Mount Olympus. I, of course, fell in love with the country too.”
A year later they were married, and he left his old life behind, to start a new one on the island of Corfu.
“We love it here, but itchy, restless feet mean that we are going to tour the country again next year, living in a few different areas of the country for a few months at a time. So I can’t wait to see and feel more of Greece soon.”
In addition to teaching, Alex has been a writer for many years. For a time, he had a column in an international cricket magazine. How fitting that cricket is popular on the island of Corfu!
An editor friend in England asked him to write a few articles about his teaching experiences around the world. The feedback was strong, so he kept writing. This time, he chronicled his adventures adapting to life in Greece.
“I write about the challenges, the surprises, the pitfalls, the people, and the sights.”
That’s when he began his blog, World of Kemp. Alex shares a story about learning Greek. We see the dedicated ex-pats trying to learn the language, the personalities of the people he encounters, and his humorous look at learning a new — and difficult — language as an adult. Enjoy!
By: Alex Kemp
Lessons in Greek
“M’ opoion daskalo kathiseis, tetoia grammata tha matheis,” they say in Greece.
Whichever teacher you learn with, such lessons you learn.
Greek for Immigrants
The teacher I learnt with was a tiny, excitable, slightly mad, retired primary school teacher from wild, deepest Crete, with the weather-beaten face of an old tree trunk.
She gave free Greek lessons every Friday in a dark old deserted-for-the-evening school. The 1st Gymnasium of Corfu.
I had been on Greek ground for a month and my Greek was appalling and getting no better. I was in need of help.
I had learnt, from talk around town, that there was a co-operative group here in Corfu who organized all manner of lessons for free. They had set-up in a school in the centre of town in the late afternoons and evenings, and one of the lessons they offered was ‘Greek for Immigrants’.
I hadn’t really thought of myself as an immigrant. I thought I was a junketer. An adventurer. But immigrant I was. And I really needed better Greek to survive.
I signed up for the lessons. Highly suspicious, in my stiffly conformist British manner, of why everything was free.
I was assuaged by the scraggy schismatic staff, sat behind a make-do office desk crudely set up in the playground, that all teachers taught their lessons here expecting nothing in return and that the whole operation worked by everyone, hopefully, offering back something of their own. I put my name down for both of the Greek lessons they had, smugly safe that I had NOTHING worth offering and would therefore not be expected to do anything in return.
“Well.. You could guard the school gates,” said one of the old, revolutionary, Hellenic hippies.
“But everyone is allowed to come in aren’t they? It’s all free.”
“Yes..” the old man said, sadly, thinking, rubbing the stubble on his face like scratching the side of a matchbox. “I can see that is a problem…”
The First Class
The first class was on a Thursday evenings. This class was taught by Leonidas. A man who never talked, only shouted. Never discussed, proclaimed. A huge bear of a man. He would go through a whole box of chalks in the first 10 minutes of every lesson, snapping them in his great paw hand as he tried to write on the board and hurling each one to the ground in frustration, elaborately swearing as he slung.
Sketchy on Greek we may have been, but there was no confusion over these prolonged, sustained, bellowed streams of inventive profanities and execrations.
Leonidas was an unsmiling man.
Even on the rare occasions it seemed he was telling a joke, he would do it with the face of a man disgusted by the very idea of humor. I’d let out an anxious yap of laughter at one of these, highly equivocal, railleries, trying to curry some favor with him, to only get a leviathan grunt of disapproval in return.
Leonidas was obsessed by politicians. He brought up Greek politics in every lesson, iIllustrating anything he taught with some homology to Greek politicians.
“Kleftis – A thief. Or, instead, if you’d rather be more accurate, you could just say politikos.”
“Skotono – to kill. What, of course, every sensible person amongst us would like to do to a politician.”
“Synousia – sexual intercourse. What you will find the politicians doing to us. EVERY SINGLE DAY.”He was a man fixated.
Every lesson, Leonidas stood at the front of the class, like some bellicose mammalian figure. His teaching method, purely it seemed was to just threateningly glower us into learning.
“You,” he would point to one of the two identical young blonde girls, overly made up in bikini tops: Brit holiday reps for the summer who had thought it might be a good idea to learn a bit of the language while here, now turning to look at each other with great regret conveyed through nervous twittering laughter.
“Yes, you,” Leonidas would continue as he stalked closer, on the attack. “What’s the 3rd conjugated form for the verb ‘to speak’?”
Flashed panicked looks between them and a confused simper of a giggle would send Leonidas’ eyes up into his skull, cheeks puffing aggressively, the biro bending in two between his fingers. Everyone in the room praying he wouldn’t turn to them for the answer.
We were only in our second lesson.
The Greek Alphabet
The lessons had started with the Greek alphabet. Useful for most of us.
Then suddenly, as the majority of us were still grasping these odd alphabetic characters brought to Greece from ancient Phoenicia by some old king called Cadmus – the first hero of Greece – 2000 year before Christ, we moved fast on to dealing with something we were told were genitive singulars, and then onto verb accent changes.
Like bound men tied to a horse given a hard thwacked smack to its backside, the whole class were suddenly desperately trying to keep its feet, running alongside and not fall to the ground as Leonidas’ lesson careered dangerously away from us.
“You must know this…” he would growl, exasperated, facing out at our group of beginners, adult learners, sat, squeezed like fools, into small primary school chairs, kids drawings above our heads.
“Come to blackboard and change these nouns to the accusative…”
Then after 45 minutes of advanced grammar, we went back to the alphabet and numbers: 1-10.
The Greek learning experience seemed a pretty odd one to me. From drily drilling the alphabet to parsing complex verb structures and back again in the same lesson.
I needed to learn Greek as a beginner, as did pretty much all of us in the class. Learning from the ground floor up. Leonidas though would put some initial bricks down – a foundation – but then suddenly we were up working on the top floor, vertiginous views of a complex, unfathomable, Greece all around us. Then we were back down again, in the basement, learning the letters. And all this written up in endless chalk on the blackboard.
Discussions, dialogues, any sort of communicative lessons seemingly a completely foreign concept here.
What sort of people, aside from myself, had signed up to these classes? I looked round the small, crumbling, grey concrete old room, cold, with Corfu’s brilliantly lit, sun-drugged life going on just outside, beyond the shuttered windows: we made a queer, disparate bunch.
There was Lyudmila, a painfully shy girl from Ukraine who seemed to know no one in Corfu, refused to make eye contact with any of us, or ever try and use her Greek. Sat deep in her anorak in the height of summer, forever diligently lining up pens on the desk in front of her, arranging her notebooks.
Alexandra a friendly, loud, stoutly-built Serbian who had met a Greek on the beach in Kavos, married him within a matter of weeks and never gone back home again. Her Greek was better than most of ours, though still insignificant and patchy. She took a no-nonsense approach to Leonidas – the only one of us who ever dared cross him. Sometimes blazing rows would flare up over the exact meaning of a word. The two of them nose to nose. Alexandra was the only one of us who seemed to enjoy these lessons.
“I like his style,”she told me, shrugging. “He’s..direct.”
Chester, a waggish American with curly hair, moustache and extravagant deck shoes who lived on a boat he had been sailing around the world on, now docked in Corfu’s Gouvia harbour. “I’ve still got half the world to see. But what can I do? I’ve fallen in love with this god-damn island!”. His Greek was wretched and I always made a point of talking straight after him in lessons in the hope that it made my choked, defective Greek sound slightly better in some way.
There was Erica, a handsome middle aged German lady, well made-up, wearing an elaborate classy, shawl, who sat on the small kid’s desk in front of me. She had attended these lessons last year. And the year before.
“I want to get it perfect,” she told me. Demanding of herself, irked at other’s linguistic solecisms, studying assiduously. Her Greek was already quite clearly native-perfect.
At the back was Keith. A small, dirty looking, round, Australian in his 50s, always in a bright yellow t-shirt, always staring at his notes, lost, scratching at his raggedy white beard, making the sound of a goat chewing at a carpet. “Er.. Can we go through that alphabet one more time?” Hopeless.
Next to him a prim, camp, bespectacled man from Yorkshire who worked on the cruise ships – ships which appeared in Corfu from nowhere like giant floating white summer birds, suddenly, along with the good weather – who twisted and turned this way and that in his seat, pulling the most outrageously offended and affronted faces as he suffered Leonidas’s rained-down tutelage assaults.
A gargantuan, gouty, red-faced Swiss and young, smooth, hipster Belgian sat side-by-side looking as incongruous as it was possible to do.
Then there were two girls at the front, one from Albania one from Bulgaria, who, quite ridiculously, could speak perfect Greek having grown up bordering the country. They were the ones in the class most amused at my own spoken Greek, nudging each other and putting their heads together, squawking like a pair of seagulls as I stumbled. I couldn’t work out what they were doing here as I watched them chatting in Greek incessantly to an uninterested, irritated, impatient Leonidas. Then I was told, they could speak but couldn’t read Greek.
Curiously, as the lessons wore on, it became clear that despite their advantage they were faring no better than any of us at learning to read the language.
A different teacher
Learning to read at an advanced age is an unsettling and a faintly humiliating experience.
Tracing unfamiliar letters, moving your mouth to spell the words out loud with a slow, low, sound as you read. Brightening with a vivified flash when the word suddenly becomes apparent. Or, more often, continuing to stare at the meaningless collection of characters.
It’s like being a very small child again. Learning everything you once thought you knew, afresh.
Except no one teaches you with parent-like patience, repeating over and over again, mouthing the words as you speak. And no one grips your cheeks and gives them a joyful rub when you get the words right as a 40 year-old.
Or so I thought.
Friday’s lesson was with Maria. A small, retired teacher used to dealing with tiny primary school kids.
I’d given some innocuous detail about myself roughly right in faltering pigeon Greek.
Maria clapped her hands together rapidly under her chin in delight.
Maria was, I realized, slightly crazy. Sweet, fun, caring, dedicated to her student’s learning, but crazy. And she seemed to be of the opinion that I was 7 years-old.
She could also speak no English.
To translate for her she had enrolled a young man named Nikos to help. Nikos, awkward, slightly sullen, stood at the front of the class with his drooping shoulders and junior moustache, had not much English himself.
Most lessons would be spent with us as mute spectators as Maria and Nikos rowed heatedly at the front – disagreeing, gesticulating, hands waved in each other’s faces before Maria would double-up in cackling laughter and wave Nikos her approval to translate something on to us. Something that, even with my rudimentary grasp of Greek, I knew was translated pretty much completely wrong.
Maria’s lessons were more lively and far less threatening than Leonidas’. But still, there was no conversational practice. No using of any of the language we were picking up. Just as in real Greek schools – so I was told – the lessons were solely lectures by the teachers. Learning by rote. And everything solemnly chalked up, over and over, on the old lusterless blackboard.
Maria used her primary school background to good effect though. And she did make you feel she cared about your learning.
“Alex…Aaalex…” she would sing-song say to me. “Katalavenees?” – do you understand? – as she knelt by my desk and stroked my arm. I would look up from my book and beam back at her my understanding, or pout my confusion.
One by one the students stopped turning up for Leonidas’ weekly persecutions.
“Weak students..” grumbled Leonidas at each new empty chair. “Don’t they know you can never learn anything by just giving up?”
Then there was denial. “Well it’s not my fault my lessons are on Thursday. I should have been given the Friday evenings…”
At the end it was just me and Alexandra the Serb turning up.
Leonidas cornered me after the lesson, outside in the long dark school corridor. He seemed a different man.“
Why are they leaving me?” he asked, wounded eyes searching my face. I told him I didn’t know.
“Nevermind,” he said pulling himself upright, towering above me, blocking out the light from the old hanging, blinking, school lamp behind his head. “But you,” his heavy fingers jabbed at my chest, “You must stay loyal.” He fixed me a stare. “You must stay loyal..”
I promised I would.
I lasted one more lesson.
The very last I saw of Leonidas was his exorbitantly large head looking sadly through the open window from the kids’ playground into Maria’s class, as we grinned at her clowning one Friday evening.
My laughter froze on my lips as I saw him. I wanted to reach out and tell him we really weren’t enjoying this other lesson nearly as much it looked and I had learnt many things from him. Mainly complex noun endings for words connected to various politicians’ perceived misdoings.
He saw me, met my smile with a cutthroat glare, before he lurched away towards town, into one of Corfu’s dying, ball of blood, sunsets.
Words have genders?
I had been an English language teacher for a long time before moving to Greece. Although never a particularly good teacher, I was sure I knew that Greek lessons here would improve considerably with just a few of the means of teaching I had been taught and used. Conversation practice or even just getting us to talk to the student we sat next to. But this wasn’t the Greek way. The Greek way was instead: listen to the teacher, write it down, hope it sticks.
However, as the months wore on with Maria, I did feel I was learning. I was now the dumb-eyed slack-jawed student I so despised during my teaching days, but slowly things were sticking.
Obviously Greek is a difficult language. It has its own adage to prove that. And especially for English like me: no other real languages; no concept of grammar aside from how I picked it up back when I gurgled and crawled; no idea of how cases work, what conjugation does, who a clause is.
What troubled me most, I think, was that concept that each noun had a corresponding sex. How could I remember whether the blackboard I stared at was male or female (it was male) or what sex the chair I sat on was? (female) And then there were the neutral nouns. Why was a moustache neutral? Surely it couldn’t be as cruel a reason as to reflect the unfortunate familiar spectacle of that downy growth on the upper lip of the Greek girl?
And then there were words that were utterly identical in sound, but so different in meaning, to each other that they were clearly only designed to trip us foreigners – us xenoi –up:
tax office and euphoria (eforia)
rent and victory (niki)
Or the completely identical words with slightly different accents on different syllables which also meant totally different things –
poteh: when and never
yeros: old and strong
podia: your legs or an apron.
To complicate things further, ancient Greek, the lexicon of Alexander and further back still, rears its head today in the modern language and modern day conversations.
“You and your prasin aloyga”
I heard people say when someone did something ridiculous.
‘Prasin aloyga’, meaning – in the ancient language – doing insensible, illogical things.
But as it sounds incredibly similar to the word ‘green’ and the word ‘horses’ in modern Greek, most of the natives don’t even understand what they’re really saying: thinking they’re lampooning the object of their scorn by suggesting they perhaps owned some strangely colored animal.
But with all these hurdles put in front of us: the language posing as an enemy, a beast not wishing to be tamed or understood; with all the hostility the language provided in direct contrast to the openness of the country, the clear atmosphere, the endless deep blue air; all of us in the class quite perceptibly and discernably improved.
For me I was at last able to understand the people I had met here in Corfu: the lives they led, how they talked to me and to each other, their personalities. Up until then every interaction I’d had was based on just some kind of assumption of mine. Whether they were being kind, whether they were courteous or hateful, whether I was being laughed at or helped. Every person’s personal disposition was all of my invention. Now I could put an essence and an individuality to a face, to a voice.
And other’s grew too.
One evening, as class packed-up, as the rain of dust fell into the shafts of Corfu’s dying sun from the school shutters, Lyudmila, always the first out suddenly stopped in the doorway. She hesitated and then turned. A pause. She looked at us all for the first time, a long slow moment.
“Kalispera everyone,” she said. She looked at us again, slightly terrified, and then the briefest, sweet smile flickered on her face before she turned again quickly and fluttered out through the large wooden main school doors. We all smiled to each other. Maria clutched her heart with pride.
Keith was looking at his notes. “Er..can we try that alphabet thing again next week?”
Follow Alex’s adventures adapting to life on Corfu at World of Kemp.