Most of our traveling is to places where we speak the language, and of course when we don’t, we can usually fall back on English. This is the case in Greece as well; since it’s the only Greek-speaking country, the vast majority of Greeks are (more or less) fluent in English. But since my husband and I are both language lovers, and enjoy the surprised yet pleased reactions of native French, Spanish, and Italian speakers when we are able to communicate in their language, I thought of a new twist for our trip to Greece: why not learn a bit of Greek? We decided to spend a week in Athens taking classes, just to give us something to work with for the rest of our trip, and in order to prepare for those classes (and to do something constructive with our excitement about the upcoming trip), we learned the alphabet and a few essential phrases before we left.
This turned out to be an excellent idea, as the people we met were always pleased that we could say more than “hello” in Greek. With the help of books and websites, we’d learned such essential phrases as “we are vegetarians,” “a glass of white wine please,” and “I like it!” Since Greek schools offering group classes invariably required two weeks of study, we took a private class for four days, during which we learned how to carry on short conversations about where we are from (which was great, because pretty much everyone we talked to had a cousin or sibling or child somewhere in the US), where we live, and what we do for a living. Even when we then had to switch to English, I felt like we connected with people much more than we would have if the entire conversation had been in English. In addition, we talked to people that we wouldn’t have otherwise; for example, when we were practicing our Greek on each other on the métro, other passengers sometimes started chatting with us and gently correcting our pronunciation. It was great.
The only negative was that at some point, virtually every person mentioned what a difficult language Greek is. Yes, it’s true that there are three genders, numerous cases, and impossible spelling (for example, the sound [i] has six possible spellings), but the debate about whether a language is easy or hard is pointless. It depends on so many factors – your native language, your capacity for language… – and in my opinion it’s silly (and rather chauvinistic) to go around announcing that your own language is difficult, which presumably means that you, then, are of above average intelligence for being able to speak it. And the funny thing is that almost everybody does this. Just on this trip, we met two Dutch people, three French people, an Italian, and dozens of Greeks, all of whom insisted that their language is very difficult. (A Dutch teenager even told us that English is easy, which was ironic considering how poorly he spoke it.) Anyway, we’ve learned to just smile enigmatically and change the subject as soon as possible.