I have just watched (again) the incomparable Judi Dench star in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I love the film but after my daughter kept telling me I reminded her of Evelyn, the Judi Dench character, not in looks but in my behaviour, I thought I’d better see why.
Evelyn embraces the new culture of India because she wants not simply to exist but to thrive there. She wears Indian clothes, loves Indian food and finds a job at a local call centre. She falls in love with India. And all I’m doing is merely trying to learn how to speak Greek. I don’t wear Greek clothes nor do Greek dancing. Although I do love Greek food. The trouble is I’m still, after two years of lessons, at the deeply embarrassing stage where I keep making completely inappropriate remarks. I asked the butcher – apparently – for a live chicken as he told me when he answered me in flawless English and then asked if I wanted it whole or jointed. When passing an old boy with a donkey in the mountains I asked him what his name was and how old he was (I meant the donkey, obviously).
It’s not just that I am trying to learn the language as a good way to stave of Alzheimer’s, though that would be nice since God knows, the memory isn’t what it was when I learnt amo, amas, amat. It’s because when you learn a language you can communicate, you can understand the culture… I shan’t be reading Zorba the Greek in the original quite yet but I do know now that it is incredibly impolite to phone people between 2 – 5pm, which is why there are two words in Greek for afternoon; the early afternoon and the later afternoon and you can phone only during the later one.
A recent poll of 2,000 people by the British Council found that most British adults struggle with their inability to speak a foreign language when abroad, causing them embarrassment on holiday, even in Spain… and Spanish is a lot easier for Brits than Greek, where the word for ‘yes’ is the counter intuitive ‘nai.’ (But then in India, too, people shake their heads confusingly to mean yes.)
According to the editor of Wanderlust magazine, holidaymakers from the UK tend to assume that everyone will be able to understand them. “We’re nervous about doing it and not doing it right”, she explained. It’s an attitude bred from imperiousness as much as nervousness and nowadays, when so many people in the EU are fluent in many languages, it’s usually true. Brits struggling to speak a language badly will be answered in English so it’s tempting to give up.
Today, after 6 weeks of fairly intensive lessons, I had my test: I had to go to the market, under the eagle eye of my teacher, and do all the shopping in Greek. No sign language allowed. When I wanted something bigger, I had to find the words, no touching allowed when I wanted to check if the avocados were ripe or too hard. Incidentally, that is one of the easier words in Greek (skleros means hard as in the way my arteries are going from all this intense brain activity). I know the words for aubergine, courgette, tomatoes and grapes. But I also need to remember the plural form and make them agree with adjectives … I managed to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘my grandchildren like broccoli’ and ‘how much is this?’
Sounds easy, uhh? You try it. Seriously go on, more of you should. I came home today with some lovely looking produce, not all of it quite what I had in mind but I’m sure it will get eaten. And lots of people had a good laugh!