Shaken, not stirred

I got to experience my first (and second) earthquake this week! By experience I mostly mean “laid in bed sleepy and confused”, but it was still an interesting event to have felt.

The first earthquake one was at around 3:00 Thursday morning. I didn’t actually wake up for that one, even thought it was the stronger of the two at 4.2 magnitude, and only later remembered having strange dreams in which everything was moving. I woke up for the second (3.3) at around 5:00, cursing “at the garbage trucks” for waking me up. (Our last house in the UK was a renovated old workers’ cottage, which tended to shake if any large trucks ever drove by too fast, so…) In my early morning delirium I’d assumed it was their doing. It was only later on during breakfast that I was told there had been two earthquakes and that we had been really near the epicenter, which was 13 km west of Larnaca.

Afterwards, I did a bit of research and it turns out that earthquakes in Cyprus (at least ones you can feel without equipment) are relatively infrequent and mild, but new building here are built to withstand seismic movement, and there have been sever earthquakes in the past. For example, in 1222 when Cyprus was under Lusignan rule, a major earthquake was felt throughout most of the island (and as far as Alexandria, Egypt), which caused a tsunami that flooded Paphos and Limassol.

Thankfully, such sever events are rare and I’m glad that the two on Thursday were small. There were no reported injuries and, as far as I know, the only significant damage was to a 100+ year-old bell tower in Psevdas.  It was a cool experience – like airplane turbulence but on the ground – and definitely one that I’m glad to have checked off my bucket list, rather than having it precipitate the bucket’s kicking.

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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!

Wine and Dine: Maqam Al Sultan

Every February, the only thing I find crazier than the people who go overboard on Valentine’s Day, is their antithesis the love-Scrooge militia throwing around words like “rampant consumerism”. Calm down everyone. As long as whatever you do is reasonably within your budget and lifestyle (it’s not just about romance, you can show love – for free or otherwise – to family and friends too!), why not get into the spirit and have some fun?

With that ethos in mind, this year I ended up having one of the best value-for-money Valentine’s Day meals I’ve ever had. It was at Maqam Al Sultan, a Lebanese restaurant right on the Larnaca seafront. Being so close to the point of origin, I had high expectations for Lebanese food in Cyprus – apparently Lebanese trading schooners would anchor in Larnaca Bay as late as the 1950’s, not far from where the restaurant now sits.

Still not used to “Cypriot dinner time”, my table was booked for 7pm and at that hour the restaurant was virtually empty – that did not last long though, and later in the night there were a lot of parties being politely turned away at the door, despite the restaurant being quite spacious with indoor and outdoor areas, all of which were flamboyantly decorated for the occasion.

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Maqam Al Sultan’s outdoor and indoor seating

They were offering a special menu, which we knew would include a mezze, a main course, dessert and a bottle of wine for €65 per couple (a price unheard of in the US or UK on a Valentine’s Day weekend). So we had expected the mezze to be more of a sharing platter-type starter, but it was a full on mezze with 15 dishes. All the little plates were good, but what I most enjoyed was that they offered popular dishes like tabouleh and falafel, alongside dishes I’d never tried before like sambousek lahme, batata harra and rahib.

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Just a small selection of the mezze dishes.

By the time the mezze was over we were actually already full and having serious doubts over our ability to ingest the main courses, and we could overhear other tables having the same struggle. We’d picked the ouzi, a slow cooked lamb dish served over rice mixed with ground meat and crushed nuts, and the pomegranate molasses and pistachio-encrusted salmon fillet. They were delicious but huge portions, so once we managed to make a decent dent into them and the belly dancers started, we decided to just sip some wine and share a shisha before tackling the dessert.

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A variety of shisha flavours are on offer.

When the dessert did come, it was (thankfully) a dainty portion of ashtaliyeh, a kind of rosewater panna cotta, which was light enough to let us walk gracefully out onto the Finikoudes Promenade at the end of the evening rather than being forcefully rolled.

The quality (and quantity of food) for the price was extraordinary, especially considering the attentive service and the night’s entertainment. I would certainly recommend Maqam Al Sultan for a meal out in Larnaca, and next time I’m there I might even be persuaded to get up and join the belly dancers!