From experience I know what fun it
gives and how much more easy it is if you speak and understand the local
language. So I intended to learn Greek as fast as I could.
When I had just arrived on Lesvos, a
Greek man came up to me. He seemed to be in a panic; he showered me with a
stream of words and I didn't understand a word of what he said. Even though he
repeated himself at least three times I had not the slightest idea what he
wanted, although it became clear to me that he needed some help. What was the
matter? He did not speak English and so he tried to speak with his hands. He
pointed to the scooter saying “Bloop”. Bloop? “Nai, bloop!” I wondered what he meant with bloop? The man got irritated that I did not
understood him and he took me by the arm to a nearby well and repeated his ‘bloop, bloop’, in the same time pointing to his
scooter. He pointed down the well and motioned as if he was fishing in the
well. And then I finally got it: he had dropped the key of his scooter down the
well and wondered if I had a rope and a magnet. No, I did not have those items.
After this, I intended to quickly
learn Greek and I started with the alphabet. That did not help much, because
then I could decipher a written word, but had not a clue of what it meant. And
I am very lazy when it comes to looking things up. To keep the story short:
after a few months I had not learned much more Greek than the common phrases
that all Greeks exchange each day. When somebody starts speaking Greek to me, I
still do not understand much of it. It's so bad that when a Greek says 'nai' to
me, I keep on thinking it is a negative answer because it seems so much like
all other European no-words: no, non, nein, nee. I still have problems
realizing that 'nai'in Greek
means yes. Greeks have experience with this misunderstanding, they can see the
humour of it and mostly laugh it away. They are not mad at me for not speaking
their language. Most of the Lesvorian people (in the tourist areas) speak English and so we
work out together what we mean. If that fails, there always is sign language.
Greeks have championed the art in
using their head, hands and other body parts. They often use so many movements
to support their words that it may look as if they are engaged in a serious
row. It took some time for me to realize that this was their usual way of
having a discussion. Just like I have only just now learned that when they move
their head down it means a yes and when they throw it backwards it means no.
The gesture for “come here” (ella),can be interpreted as ‘go away’ (only the fingers are moved towards the body)
and when a finger is held in front of the mouth it is not to say that I have to
be silent, but means that they have to tell me something. It is a pity such
movements are not universal because it causes many misunderstandings.
Gestures are cultural and set. And
so they are very stubborn. The movements a police officer has to know in order
to regulate the traffic might be easy to learn, but gestures that support a
conversation or express feelings or thoughts come from the genes. Foreign ones
are not easy to master and your own ones certainly not easy to ignore. You use
them as automatically as you walk. For instance, I keep on sticking my thump up
when I agree with something or I find something cool. This is a gesture you had
better do not do in Greece, because it can be understood as 'fuck you'. And you
do not want to offend a Greek, do you? Even though I know this, my thump keeps
on going up. You’d better control also your forefinger in pointing things out; it is the
same story and it can become a very offending finger for a Greek.
Even though I keep on using crude
gestures, the Lesvorians keep on being polite and nice. The gesture I like most
is a subtle movement of the head that Lesvorian men use to say hello when they
pass in a car or on a scooter. I think it a very sensual gesture and each time
it melts my heart. But automatically I carry on answering with the wrong
gesture in saying hello back: waving my hand with stretched fingers: this is
stupid and so totally wrong! This gesture in Greek means “moutza!'’, best translated as “asshole”!
If I continue with these ‘gesture bloopers’ and I don't learn the language very
quickly, I am afraid that one of these days the Lesvorians will teach me a less
than nice little lesson.