Learning Greek – Part 1

You hear so many stories about people who have been living in Cyprus for five, 10, even 20 years and never bothered to learn Greek. I definitely didn’t want to become one of them, so I arranged to start classes even before I left the UK. That was in early January. A long eight weeks later, I’m done with beginners’ Level A1… and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

What You Can Expect

Greek uses the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages so what you can expect to get out of Level A1 is pretty standard. In my class we covered things like:

  • The alphabet and phonetics
  • Greetings and introductions
  • About genders
  • Some cases (singular)
  • Basic expressions and questions
  • Some articles and prepositions
  • Numbers
  • “to be” present tense
  • Type A verbs present tense

Essentially, it is all really useful, salt-of-the-earth type stuff, but there is by no means any Greek prowess in my brain at the moment (as you’ll see in the mistakes below). Be under no illusions: Greek is tough and you won’t learn to speak it in eight weeks.

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Some of my Greek-learning paraphernalia.

What You Don’t Expect

Right now Greek and I have a love-hate relationship. She drives me crazy because of all her quirks, which I perceive as superfluous because they make my life more difficult:

  1. I have never looked at a calendar and thought: “You know that these months need? Two names each! Oh, except for August, it’s cool with one.”
  2. I already speak two languages fluently, neither of which is highly inflected. Surely all these declensions in Greek only exist to make me unhappy?
  3. There is no need to give everything a gender. English got it right when it decided to do without during Middle English. I’ll blame the Real Academia Española for keeping Spanish with two. But surely three genders is just unnecessarily absurd?
  4. Why would an alphabet have three letters for I but no U?  And, in case those three options don’t satiate your short-I needs, you can also make the same sound with three extra vowel combinations: ει, οι, υι.
  5. Forget any concept of autonomous identity you might ascribe to names, because names change in Greek, particularly men’s names. So when I talk about my husband he is Σίμος. But when I talk TO him he suddenly becomes Σίμο. Having to remember two names seems like all the hassle of polygamy without any of the perks.

The love part of my relationship with Greek, is still only budding. Truthfully, I love the way it sounds; it is a beautiful language to listen to, particularly the Cypriot dialect with all its funky CH and J noises. And there is a lovely satisfaction whenever I watch TV, listen to the radio or overhear a conversation, and realize that I can understand just a little bit more each day.

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In the foreground, the months of the years (all 23 of them). In the background, homework with lots of red corrections.

Embrace the Mistakes

On their website my Greek school enigmatically states their philosophy as: “Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage”. I’ve interpreted that line from Cavafy’s Ithaca to mean: Don’t worry about how totally crap you are, just enjoy the journey of learning. So, fortified by their ethos, I’ve tried to dive into it as unselfconsciously as possible and have, as a result, made an amazing array of mistakes along the way. Here are a few of the situations I’ve been in, and their relevant lessons:

  1. When you want to write “very good” but end up with “city good”, because they are homophones:

    very – πολύ
    city – πόλη

  2. When you want to show off your meager sentence construction skills at a family BBQ and think it’ll be nice to tell the small children about your dog, but rather than being impressed that you understand genders, their mother informs you that you’ve been saying “bitch” repeatedly. No wonder they were giggling so much.

    male AND female dogs – σκύλος

  3. When someone asks you to do some simple arithmetic and your response goes a little something like this: 50 + 20 = week

    70 – εβδομήντα
    week – εβδομάδα

  4. When you want to describe someone as a housewife but instead end up saying that “She doesn’t work because she is a family”.

    housewife – οικοκυρά
    family – οικογένεια

  5. When, in response to “how are you?”, your teacher replies with a new word and then goes on to ask if anyone knows what it means. You rapidly scan your mental vocab bank and remember the word from last week’s lesson on punctuation. You realise it makes no sense, so confusedly ask in English whether that wasn’t the same word as “period”. At which point everyone, including yourself, erupts in laughter because you realise you’ve just asked the male teacher if he is menstruating.

    perfect – τέλεια
    period – τελεία (which, incidentally, is only used for the punctuation)

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Some lovely books that I am not able to read yet.

What to Consider

Despite my frequent bursts of frustration, I am really enjoying learning Greek and would certainly recommend it to other expats. There are a lot of options for learning though, so everyone should weigh up which is best for their schedule, budget and learning-style. I decided to pay for group lessons because I knew that they would be the most effective for me in terms of speed and cost-efficiency.

I’d tried at-home CD/book programs before, thinking I could learn some Greek to use on holidays but, when you have no pressure to study regularly, or people to practice with and ask questions to, you aren’t going to learn much and you will retain even less. Using language is inherently interactive, so learning in a group setting, where I was forced to react and contribute has been valuable. It is also cheaper than having private tuition.

I know that the Cypriot Ministry of Education offers free Greek lessons, but after a bit a research I found that these have a reputation for large classes and varying teaching quality. They also only run twice a week.

So, instead, I chose to go with Learn4Good Larnaca, essentially because I’d heard through the Cypriot grapevine (eg, my father-in-law spoke to a neighbor, whose daughter’s friend’s cousin had taken classes) that they were good and I have not been disappointed. In fact, I’ve masochistically signed up for Level A2 with them as well, so we shall see how the love-hate relationship develops!

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5 Lessons for a Reluctant Minimalist

Unlike many people that follow a minimalist lifestyle – the voluntary practice of simplifying one’s life by reducing material possessions – I currently find myself following its principles quite involuntarily. Having moved to Cyprus two months ago, I’ve been living out of the contents of one suitcase and one carry-on, while I waited for all my other worldly possessions to float over on a leisurely-paced container ship.

When I told my friends and family that it could take up to three months for my things to arrive the reactions I got were of shock. Disproportionately so, I thought; surely, it’s like a long vacation! But then I started to pack, and that’s when the really shocking thing happened: I’d moved house plenty of times but this time… whether it was because my things were going to another country, because it would take so long, or because their safety would be out of my control… I was not happy. There was a resentment at having to part with MY STUFF. Suddenly, I felt a deep attachment to that Dala horse I’d bought in Stockholm; I couldn’t see myself doing without the sushi set I’d used once in four years; and how would I cope with an abridged repertoire of dresses for date-nights!?

Well, I’d seen enough episodes of “Hoarders” to know that that is not the type of relationship I want to have with my things. If I can feel any degree of separation anxiety towards my Moroccan nightstands, then I have no business thinking that the old lady with 5,000 dolls should just throw them away and get over it.

So, rather than feeling like I was being forced to do without, what if I treated the next few months as a minimalist experiment? Sure, living out of a suitcase isn’t quite the same as joining the tiny house movement or taking up The Compact for a year, but I figured there would still be some interesting lessons, and this is what I’ve gotten out of it so far:

ONE: Materialism is a State of Mind

Before all this, I would have said that I probably score below average on materialism (controlling for variables like being a product of 80’s-90’s USA). I don’t ever go out shopping “just for fun”. I like having a budget, and buying pretty but functional things when I need them, or when I can imbue them with sappy significance (like a Dala horse that reminds me of the trip to Sweden).

But retail therapy or compulsive shopping, aren’t the only ways in which people use stuff as a psychological crutch- everyone’s crutch can be different and it’s been good to figure out mine. Giving my things TOO much significance was creating a different form of attachment: the Dala horse, for example, the bronze owl from Athens, the carnival mask from Venice, had come to represent my love of travel, and I realised that, by extension, I have a tendency of connecting my stuff with my identity. But I am not my stuff. Just like the balding man with a mid-life crisis and a new convertible is not suddenly 25 again.

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TWO: Shifting Focus

If lesson number one was “I am not my stuff”, lesson number two consisted in answering “then, what IS me?”. In response, I decided to shift focus towards things that I enjoy doing or trying, rather than the things I own and want. In the past two months, for example, I’ve :

  • started working back up to 10k runs
  • completed the A1 Greek language level
  • done an online study
  • read two novels
  • written a piece of flash fiction

Clearly, then the answer to question two is: “nerdy with a dash of jock”. But without getting into a whole other mindfulness-style debate on the difference between “being” and “doing”, and whether the latter should really constitute your identity, the fact is that refocusing on activities I enjoy and/or am good at has felt a lot more fulfilling and will bring a lot more long-term joy than dedicating the same time, money, and energy on material things.

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Three: Contentment and Gratitude

Despite my initial tantrum, living with less stuff hasn’t actually been very difficult. There’s been very few moments when I’ve missed specific objects or really needed something I hadn’t thought to pack along. Instead, I’ve mostly found myself just being happy with what I have… and borrowing the rest when needed.

By extension, I’ve found myself giving a lot more thanks:

  • for the things I have with me, because they are finite and yet get the job done perfectly well;
  • for the things that aren’t with me, because I am lucky enough to own superfluous nice things, when so many people in the world can’t;
  • for the lovely people that lend me stuff, because sometimes a girl just needs a hairdryer;
  • for the free (but priceless) things, because I’m able to spend more time with my father-in-law, or admire nature on sunny hikes by day and stare up at the constellation-filled skies of Cyprus by night, or simply because it’s warm enough to go find rocks at the beach.

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FOUR: Humility and Perspective

But then last week we finally got an update from our shipping company saying that our things had arrived (early!) – forget all this minimalism nonsense, let’s unpack my lovely stuff! I was so excited.

Except that when we finally unlocked the storage locker, I was faced with just a solid wall of boxes and furniture, floor-to-ceiling. Aside from disappointingly only being able to make out a fraction of things that happened to be right at the front, I was also suddenly struck with a crazy realisation: all of those material possessions that I had given so much importance to were tightly packed within the humble dimensions of less than 10 cubic meters.

Seeing my things like that was incredibly humbling. Had that container ship sunk into the Mediterranean, my possessions would very literately have been a drop in the ocean sea. Not only did all of my things seem incredibly small in relation to the world and my life at that moment, but I thought back to the past few months I’d spent without them and suddenly felt that, if necessary, I could confidently go on without them.

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FIVE: Decluttering for Good

With the inevitable purges that come with two house moves in four years, our stuff is at a pretty stream-lined state at the moment, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to keep it that way as much as possible.

I’ll be living as an expat for the foreseeable future, and what I want is to have adventures: to divide my time up between the many countries I call home and to have amazing experiences with the people I love in them. And material things – no matter how pretty and functional and meaningful they may be – have a tendency to accumulate and bog down life, spatially and financially,  rather than help make it more flexible and intrepid.