The Greeks have a word for it

13th April 2001 at 01:00
Yeenaika is Greek for woman. "Sometimes, in this part of Greece," says Grandpa Athenasi,"it is also Greek for cow." Athenasi is a 60-a-day man. Despite shortness of breath and a noticeable shortness of stature, he "keeps several cows" - nudge, nudge, wink. Athenasi is not politically correct.

Neither is he correct. He is a Greek man of a certain age. He still believes in myths. Thirty years ago Athenasi's wife Poppy, a retired primary teacher, spoke formal Greek at school, but "demotic" Greek at home.

Today demotic is spoken everywhere - except by Athenasi. In the taverna he uses body language rather than let his (linguistic) standards slip. No one notices. There is way too much competition from the crowd.

"Yassu! Yassu! Here is Barbara from Scotland! Scotland, Barbara? Bagpipes?

Ah-waaaa-heee?" (Athenasi's eyes roll).

Athenasi, Poppy, and their extended family are perfect hosts on this language learning break. Most mornings, while we students slip off to the shore, Athenasi (in new man guise) prepares our evening meal. As we slap on the sunscreen, the bird gets a much more productive basting before heading for the communal oven on the main road. It alone returns dark and golden, to be further admired after sunset. Meanwhile, afternoon lessons and siesta over, we have a bus to catch and a film to see. Family inclusion is the great benefit of home-stay.

There is no queue at the bus stop. Fifteen passengers board as one. There is no bell. There is no need. Any Greek over the age of two is capable of yelling "Stasi!" Most do, but to no avail. This is an express bus. The word "express", explains the driver,"has unfortunately been omitted from the timetable".

The word "timetable" gets more laughs than the average British sitcom. As we leave the bus terminal, the timetable debate is becoming as heated as the cheese pastries we consume at the first street corner, and the spinach ones we consume at the second. A short walk is now required before the main entertainment of the evening can comfortably begin . . .

To follow any dialogue in the open-air cinema is a challenge. We pay for our seats, but all around us locals are sitting on their balconies, knitting, sipping coffee, intermittently watching the show. One family is deepin staccato conversation with neighbours two floors above. The cast of this high rise discussion is more numerous than the film's; and its individual members exit and reappear more frequently than would be usual in a French farce. After much cacophonous toing and froing, one of the main protagonists appears in fluorescent sky-blue, lime-banded Spandex, and barks a final volley skywards. The language, veering helpfully towards the monosyllabic, is colloquial but clear.

Two floors up, a diva in a red dress delivers a withering crescendo.

Defeated, Spandex man exits . . . along with a now multitudinous cast of extras, via different doorways. There is no encore. I decide that they have all gone to her mother's for dinner after all. Maybe he can go cycling tomorrow.

I have less success following the plot of the Italian film with Greek sub titles. Poppy has excused herself, and can now be seen in row three, debating the merits of a length of floral material which has been unwound along rows four to five. Athenasi is asleep. There is no point in asking my neighbours about the film. Everyone is talking. Most people have come here to meet friends. If they chose to look, they could read the subtitles as they talk.

Greeks can probably do anything as they talk. Talking for its own sake, however, is art, craft and musical appreciation rolled into one, and is easily the country's most popular entertainment bar football. I can understand this better than I can understand the film.

Greek is a hugely enjoyable language. Greek people don't have time to finish their words, so they elide them. This is a very efficient way of saving wind power for the next sentence or 10, but it also conceals beginnings and endings.

So, is it hard for the listener? Now that is a Greek word I have yet to discover: and I'm not even sure I would learn it on a home-stay.

Barbara Hyslop

The Hellenic School Alexander the Great, 4 Zalongon St 10678, Athens (0030 1 362 7560) is one of the few Greek language schools offering home-stay. If your Greek is already at intermediate level, you could choose the language school on Sifnos (Dr Anna Kyritsi 0030 1 77 55 021) which cannot arrange home-say, but offers "Learning to argue". Possibly a good substitute.

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