Even after thirty-odd years among Greeks, speaking, reading, and writing the language, I make mistakes, often ones as daft as those of beginners. Only this morning, having run out of both milk and ouzo, (disaster!) I rang a friend down in the harbour, knowing she was coming up to this village later, and asked her to bring me them. For the ouzo she would have to go to the supermarket and ask for ‘the kind Simon drinks’, but I told her not to pay as I would pop into the shop in a day or two. (Try that in an English supermarket.) But for the milk, she said ‘Oh I’ve got some in the fridge; I’ll bring it.’ ‘But I don’t want to deprive you,’ I said, or thought I said. Actually I’d said ‘But I don’t want to sterilize you.’ And a couple of years ago I was dismantling an engine and couldn’t get the flywheel off; one needs a device, an ‘extractor’, which grips the flywheel like an octopus and pulls it off. I went to a local mechanic and asked if I could borrow an Εξορκιστή. ‘Well I don’t think that’s quite what you need Simon,’ he said. I had asked for an exorcist.
One that I’m always afraid of getting wrong — and I was comforted to find that some Greeks are too — is the difference between ‘Synharitiria’ — ‘I rejoice with you’ — said when someone gets married or has a baby or whatever — and ‘Synlipitiria’ — ‘I mourn with you’, said when someone has died. Getting it wrong might give one a reputation for Wildean wit in some places, but not in a small Greek island.
An English friend of mine, returning to Greece after some years absence, went into a café for a coffee ‘with milk’ but couldn’t remember the word for milk. (Gala of course, from which we get galaxy, as in the Milky Way.) She thought it must be something like ‘laca’ and so when the waiter asked what she’s like she in fact said ‘A coffee, wanker.’ And an American friend — she was in fact the cultural secretary at the American Embassy in Athens — was asked by her Greek teacher to narrate, in Greek, her typical daily routine. ‘Every morning at eight o’clock I get up,’ she told him. She thought she told him, but he was helpless with laughter. When he recovered he explained she had said ‘Every morning at eight o’clock I get an erection.’
Oh, a picture. Here, sitting next to me in front of the Parthenon, is possibly the worst mistake I have made in all my years in Greece: