It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete
Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.

Capisce?

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12 thoughts on “It’s all Greek to me

  1. Enjoy your Greek idyl! For me, I’m back from 5 weeks in the UK where, you are so right, I struggled to remember basic sentence construction and a whole different manners system and now my tiny brain is back to trying to think French again … Hey Ho – if that’s the worst life throws at me I’m pretty darn fortunate 🙂

    1. So true, Osyth: there are worse problems than having to adjust back to life in France. Hope you had fun in the UK. Five whole weeks, wow! I’ve never lived there but every time I visit it feels strangely familiar – and oh, so civilized.

      1. Oh do go to the UK sometime. I come from Oxford which is particularly lovely but it is a country (4 different countries of course) of many faces most of them civilised 😉 I also enjoyed a trip to Bath taking my mother away for a few days which was Jane Austen-tastic

  2. you’re too much, young lady: I’m readin’ again and LOL of the LOL – mdr=morte de rire, écroulée… 🙂 you’re really formidable! ❤
    * * *
    @‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong." – eh oui, j'en suis encore et tjs étonnée, surtout que les Français et les langues étrangères… our son speaks(and writes!) Chinese and Japanese, I'm serious! well, it's a long way to Tipperary(type au rory!)… 😉 😀

    1. Merci mille fois, Mélanie – so glad you got a chuckle! Chinese and Japanese – that is quite the linguistic accomplishment for your son. How lucky are our kids, eh? Must be in the genes… 🙂

  3. I recognise that feeling of stumbling in English when I go home – whilst reading and writing in English isn’t affected, my brain has switched over into French for spoken conversation. I trip over myself, start hunting for that elusive word that should be on the tip of my tongue but isn’t, then notice that I’m being stared at and end up laughing my head of with embarrassment.
    Have a lovely time in Crete.
    P.S My belly roll says “hi” to yours.

    1. Ha, ha….I remember once reading a novel where the author said that in middle age, our belly buttons all turned into belly smiles. I’ve been smiling at mine ever since! 🙂

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