Personal paradigm shifts in the land of my forebears
It’s amazing, to me, how one’s perceptions of another culture and language can change so radically as they grow older.
For instance, when I took my first trip to Greece (my family’s “old country”) when I was 13, all I saw was the lack of conveniences and disparity of lifestyle. Rudimentary TV programming, old fashioned plumbing, and a dearth of electrical switches, none of which were located remotely near a bathroom — all made me feel as if I had been thrown back into another century. When you’re 13, it’s never about a country’s beauty, the friendliness of its people, or a history that predates most other countries in Europe. It’s just about what you can’t have while you’re there, how you can’t understand a word being spoken, and how boring it is to visit with relatives you can’t communicate with.
As an 18 year old who arrived in Greece by ship a few years later to spend a year of college there, I was the odd one out. I had no siblings with whom I could poke fun at the country or its lifestyle. I had no parents correcting me, explaining how small and poor a place like Greece was, how richly it contributed to the world, how brave this tiny country had been to stand up to the Germans in WWII, and how it kept its religion and values even during a 400 year occupation by the Turks. All I cared about was how I might fit in, which boys I might date, and how independent I might become so far away from home.
During subsequent trips, each time I visited I became more and more appreciative of my Greek roots. I also became more fluent in the language because I refused to stay ignorant of it any longer. I risked making embarrassing mistakes but learned from them as well. And even though I may have had to use ten Greek words to convey the same meaning I could have using one, I took pride in the idea that I could at least be understood at last. It is then that I became closer to the cousins and other relatives who lived there.
This past trip, which lasted only 12 days, was truly an eye opener for me, however. Before I left, I was blessed with a series Greek lessons by my fairly new friend and neighbor, Konstantina, whose first name was the same as my own, but had never shortened to “Dena.” An outrageously smart, adorable woman, Konstantina was born on the beautiful island of Skiathos (of Momma Mia fame) and grew up half the time in Piraeus, the port of Athens. She was an early lover of languages, having learned to not only speak fluent English, but Italian as well — a language she taught in her own “frontisteria” (tutoring school) on her native island. Having answered a classified ad to come to the Sacramento area to teach a wealthy family’s children Greek, she was brought here and became immersed in American culture, earning her master’s degree and eventually rising to executive heights with a large school district, teaching other teachers how to be better at their jobs. She tells me people here often mistake her for a Latina because they had never heard a Greek accent. But it doesn’t bother her. And she has no plans to rid herself of the lilt with which she pronounces English. Righteous babe.
After a few months of conversational Greek lessons, Konstantina had me feeling more comfortable than ever with the language, having corrected me on my preconceived notions of what some phrases and words meant. On several occasions we fell off our chairs laughing when she caught me using “Greeklish” — a corruption of the language used by hyphenated Greeks in this country. She explained nuances of the language, and how saying things a certain way was more graceful than others. Just listening to her speak the musical tones of the Greek language made me appreciate it in a way difficult to explain.
And so I arrived on a rainy night in the ancient city of Athens a few weeks ago greeted by a private driver holding up a sign with my name on it. In my fatigued state and to my delight, I found I could hold a simple conversation with him during the 45 minute trip to my little AirBnb located in the heart of Athens. I was tired. I was jet-lagged. But I was beside myself with an newly found conversational confidence. As if the language had been residing within me for years, I became of aware of tenses, possessives, and modifiers as I never had been in the past, even if I was not perfect in my execution and lacked a huge amount of vocabulary. Learning a language is truly key to understanding a culture. Like learning music, it expands your brain in ways unfathomable to those who have never dared to try.
Now I get it. I get how my parents took such pride in being able to speak to their families in Greek, even though they spent their entire lives here in the U.S. I digested how the language is an avenue into understanding how the Greek people refer to and respect one another, no matter how poor someone is or what menial jobs they do to survive. And I understood at last why the word for “stranger” is the same one the Greeks use for “guest” in a country that puts no limits on itself when treating tourists as if they were visitors in their own home. To learn all this at my age is indeed a gift — one I will never take for granted.