I spent my morning writing down the Greek alphabet in four different ways in my attempts to understand a language this foreign. First in the Greek letters, then with the Greek spelling of the letters in the Greek letters, and lastly, with the “American” alphabet spelling out the letter’s name and the sound it makes. My brain was now going through four steps to comprehend each of the 24 Greek letters. What the hell did I just sign up for?
It reminded me of when I was first learning English as a Brazilian five-year-old, and how impossible it felt. My learning process was sped up due to the basic need to survive. And from looking at pictures of a cartoon hand with the word “hand” underneath, to this moment, here we are reading a lengthy blog with my developed English. I reminded myself that if with janky flashcards, Barney, and survival, I could learn English, with desire, the internet, and some language classes, there was hope for Greek.
As a polyglot, I admit, I often feel like a superhero.
On a good day, I can glide around most of Europe and communicate without much hesitation. France, pas de soucis. Italy, va bene. Spain, claro chicos. Portugal, ta legal. And everywhere else, English applies. In Greece? I had entered a forcefield where my superpower is no bueno.
There are new rules now: Us sound like Vs, Vs sound like Ns, Ps are Rs, and Ls are what looks like an upside down Y. And right side up Ys sound like Hs but are really Gs.
Now for some math: G as in “gutter” is what happens when G and K have a baby. Js are what happens when you add T and Z together, and B is the sum of M and P. Let’s not forget that a hard D (uh) is what happens when you add N and T. There are two Os (let’s hope), and there are four ways to make an E.
Algebra ain’t got nothin’ on Greek.
Here’s some more to confuse you.
With a new language, comes a new identity: my name is no longer Joanna, or Jo, it’sΙωάννα. Yo for short. Yo Yo considering this is my second time coming back to Greece in six months.
In March of 2018, the first time I went to Greece, I didn’t expect much before clicking book on a cheap ticket from Nairobi to Athens. To tell you the truth, it was a split second decision where I looked at the globe and reasoned with myself that it was closer to go to Athens than to fly back to the States. A decision made out of convenience turned out to be the decision that introduced me to my new favorite part of the world.
Plus, I gave in and recently took one of those spammy looking online quizzes that tell you what background you’re supposedly from, and got “Mediterranean.” Carbs aside, now my obsession to speak Italian, and return to Italy every few months also makes sense.
I should’ve connected the dots: I talk with my hands, I’m expressive, and I take five years to tell a story because I want to carry every detail until the next century. Without even knowing it, I was acting very Greek this whole time.
In March during my first trip, my jaw dropped (and clicked because of my TMJ) in awe of the history, the architecture, and let’s be honest, the eye-candy. Greek gods and goddesses trotting up and down ancient streets in their modern clothes. It was like watching a play about the sands of time: also very Greek.
Surprisingly, Athens had so many similarities with Brazil.
“The grit, the grime, the grins. It’s all so good. ”
Ten days later, my trip left me on a major cliffhanger, that and the fact that we climbed up all major cliffs in the city. I had tried and failed at saying a simple “thank you” in every café. Normally, people would dust off that fact, but I felt ashamed. Like I was doing this country and its thousands of years of history a disservice. How could a place so great it had me saying “I’m so happy” multiple times a day not deserve the TLC and respect it deserved? The least I could do was try to learn basic Greek.
Bottom line is that my first trip left me wanting more. I wanted to dive into more than just picturesque Greek islands that people robotically double-tap on Instagram. A country with this value is worth more than a tiny heart.
This Summer, Damon and I had earned ourselves some solo travel time. Whenever we split up, I go with my gut, and despite it only being six months after my first trip, my gut pointed to Greece.
Before taking off, I remembered a small detail about traveling solo contrary to every person living amidst a robotic routine thinking they never have enough hours in a day, spending all day alone in a foreign place makes you realize there are in fact, several hours to work with. I wanted to fill my time while filling my brain.
So I woke up one day and literally said, I want to learn Greek.
As a linguist, I had been searching for my next, and sixth language to learn. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because I had done all of the “easy” ones already. Once you know one to two romance languages, with a little determination and a lot of stuttering, you can eventually learn them all within a few months. The reality set in that I needed to be in love with the culture, the people, and the country to dedicate all that time sounding like a dumb five year old for the beginning stages. It might not be a romance language, but my passion for Greece had me falling in love with the thought of learning Greek.
Plus, my Greek friend had told me every other word I say comes from Greek origin (basically any word that makes me sound smarter), I might as well learn the roots of my favorite words.
I connected with our go-to language learning agency, Apple Languages, and asked them to hook up some classes, as they have done before in Cuba, Lisbon, Rome, and Sorrento. As usual, they never disappoint. I was booked for a week of private classes within days. PSST: There’s a discount code at the bottom if you want to take lessons with one of their partner schools worldwide!
So, on a random Wednesday, when the rest of the people in my life slept (due to the 10 hour time difference), I left my cozy Exarcheia apartment and bought a water from the Bangladeshi guy down the street who owns a mini-mart. I was smiling extra hard because I barely knew how to say “hi” as I bought my 1.5 L water. I used the basic “Yasu” and “Efharisto” I knew to greet and thank him. The rest was in English. He smiled back at me and explained it took him five years to fully learn the language after moving. Standing between the bread aisle and gum counter, I thought of all the immigrants who leave their homes and go to a foreign country for a better life. If that country isn’t the USA or England, then they have to speak three languages for survival. Meanwhile, English speakers have the luxury of choosing to learn a new tongue. Food for thought. Water in hand and determination in my back pocket, I walked towards the school that would open the door to me speaking (Λίγο or little) Greek.
I arrived at the Apple Language Courses’ partner Greek School, Alexander the Great, with zero expectations, and basically zero knowledge of Greek.
I’ve put myself out of my comfort zone so many times that it’s comfortable now.
I was greeted by two adorable Athenians, Nicky, and Alexandra. Two people I didn’t even know existed five minutes before were now going to teach me a new language I had no prior knowledge of. Isn’t it tρελό ? Crazy? And then people say they’re afraid of the unknown.
The smile on Nicky’s face was so warm it broke any ice in between me and the experience I was about to have. As she gave me the welcome packet, my teacher, Alexandra, starts writing what looks like hieroglyphics on the board behind Nicky. The minute the news was out that I spoke French and English, Alexandra was playing no games. “I go fast for you Jo because I know you can handle it.”
Can I though?
Within the first few minutes, I felt like I was drowning in the Aegean sea. Words, sounds, and expressions that I had no idea how to even begin translating. Typically, I could pick up sounds from another language I know. In Greek, none of that mattered. I was basically as good as the next monolingual gringo trying to understand Spanish. I guessed my best on words that were spoken to me by the director of the school, Κύριος Kostas, and still failed. My instinct told me to smile hard so that everyone could understand that, even if I was detrimentally not getting 90% of what was happening, I wasn’t yet defeated.
Alexandra’s excitement was obvious. As a linguist herself, she spoke French German, English, and obviously Greek. The fact she could use French and even sometimes German with me (because even without ever having studied German, between German and Greek, I somehow understood more German), made explaining why there are three genders easier. Computer, masculine. Bag, feminine. Most other inanimate objects, neutral. Cool, cool, cool, yeah, yeah, yeah…. (nods while still not understanding why).
But see, that’s the thing, as a language learner, I try not to lean on reason. Because when we were all five and first learning the basics of a language, we didn’t know, use, or have a reason. Our tools were limited to our ears, eyes, memory, and the power to repeat like a parakeet. I grasped onto my childlike instincts as much as I could to survive “Greek Week.”
They gave me books, and papers, all using the letters of the Greek alphabet that I had only 70% learned. I knew no verbs, I knew no pronouns, I knew no articles, but what I did know was that I’d leave knowing more than when I walked in.
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My face when I realize one part of my hair will never grow. Also my face when someone says more than «γεια σου, τι κανείς?» to me in Greek. (Hi, how are you is all I’m an expert on so far). Okay, I know more than that (barely), but you’ll have to wait for the videos to watch me werk.
Three hours of intense private lessons later and my brain was pulsating from the whirlwind of new knowledge. Here’s a visual of what was happening inside my brain: me frantically throwing papers and writing nonsense on a whiteboard with “Flight of the Bumblebee” as the soundtrack.
I left wiped, numb, and needing a drink of Ouzo to recover. It’s all part of the cultural experience, right? For lunch, I arrived in one of Exarcheia’s million of adorable restaurants where I could do my homework while sippin’ on the licorice-tasting drink that had become an all-time favorite. To be honest, the 40% alcohol isn’t for everyone. But neither is Greek. Finally, this is all starting to make sense.
Textbook and notebook on the table, I tried finding the words to order my food without speaking English. Being a language nerd pays off. The servers thought I was so adorable with my elementary language skills that they gave me a free shot of Mastiha, another classic liqueur which helped with digestion of both the food and the Greek.
Throughout the week, I started putting pieces of the language together. I learned the alphabet (finally), and picked up vital sentences like, “thelo ena café freddo, ligo gala me ligi zagari parakalo,” I want a coffee with a little milk and little sugar. Or “malaka,” a swear turned street slang applicable to call almost anyone or anything. Most importantly, “den katalaveno tipota,” because I didn’t understand a damn thing malaka.
By the last day of class, I walked down to buy my 1.5L of water and proudly spoke to my Bangladeshi friend fully in Greek. I was having basic conversations with Greeks who would ask me how many years I had been studying. I told them four days worth of years. It was crazy to realize that what sounded like gibberish was now things I knew how to respond to. Ioavva was able to say how many days she was staying in Greece, why she wanted to learn Greek in the first place, what she did for work, and what Islands she visited. It was wild to see that within four days, a new layer of myself started to surface. A few days in, I began unlocking a different level of humor, respect, and philosophy in its original language.
Socrates was right, because, for starters, he’s Socrates, and also because I had no idea I would fall in love with such a different language. The point is, you should Shut Up and Go to places you don’t even expect to fall in love with.
Who knows, you might just take yourself to a place you feel like you should’ve always been.
And with that said, Yo Yo is ready to go back to Greece for round three of Greek Week.
Use code APPLE GO for a discount on your classes with Apple Languages! Comment below if you’re learning a language with a different alphabet, and feel discouraged, you’re not alone boo!