I have always said that the key to a successful life in Hydra is to throw away the rule book, because everything in this part of the world is more or less the opposite to the norm. Keys will turn the wrong way, neh means yes, a nod means no, and roosters may crow at sunset, but none of these contradictions is more striking than Theo’s advice to us during the first week of September.
Theo reassures patrons that despite bruised bum,
he’s still serving the “same old rubbish.”
“If crossing a road in Athens, always do it when the little red man is lit,” he said after limping over to our table at his restaurant, the Pirofani. “If you cross when it’s safe, when traffic has stopped and the little green man is illuminated, you have more chance of being run over.”
“The reason is that when you cross on red without the ‘safety’ light, you are aware and you look around, left and right, and dodge traffic. When walking across the street on green, particularly when traffic has stopped, one doesn’t pay as much attention and one’s guard is down—and that is when disaster can strike.”
Not only is it out of the ordinary for someone who lives on a vehicleless Greek island to be hit by a car on the odd occasion when they do visit the Big Olive, being that the odds are much reduced and the chance of incidence minimal, but to be told to break the rules seemed odd.
Theo had popped into Piraeus to purchase some supplies for the restaurant and was crossing the main road on his way to catch the return hydrofoil when he got smacked in the middle of a pedestrian crossing while crossing on a green light.
“Normally I’m in a rush, so I nip across roads without using the pedestrian crossings, ducking in and out, and I’m alert,” he added. “But this time I wasn’t in any particular hurry, and I was carrying bags of supplies—luckily.”
Theo waited patiently for the green man, then for a car stop, and had finally proceeded to cross when suddenly he found himself flying through the air. A truck had smashed into the back of the stopped car, which in turn shot forward and hit Theo.
“It was most fortunate that I was carrying a big bag of soft sponges and cleaning materials that cushioned the blow. Otherwise it would have been metal against bone and Lord knows what I would have suffered,” he philosophized. “Somebody up there was looking after me—goodness knows why!”
Kamini Village during one of Hydra’s nightime blackouts
Ironic, really, that last month we suggested there be light … sometimes. In March, the DEH really took us at our word: no light … sometimes.
By the time the third consecutive week of nightly blackouts came around, even the stoic Kaminites were beginning to grumble. The ongoing rolling and random electricity cuts—often twice a day for hours on end —were affecting everyone’s mood. Nobody knew when the next would occur, making it hard to plan any sort of schedule, work or domestic.
Granted, about ten days into the crisis, Kontelania taverna had a installed a generator, a beacon of light in a pitch black valley, but the novelty of sitting by candle light in the gloom had worn patience thin.
It must be said that whilst mountains of skoopethia (rubbish) mounted on Athenian pavements, our local garbage collection went about its work as usual, so we were spared some of the inconvenience much of the rest of the country suffered.
If nothing else, it showed how absolutely dependant upon electricity we have become. Back in the 1980s, its absence was excuse for a prolonged party, but then we didn’t have a variety of entertaining television programs, computers and the Internet, electrical heating/cooling, ATMs, cordless phones (which don’t work in blackouts unlike the old style roto-dial type) and such.
Where else in the world would one consider one’s business day to be hugely successful, cause for celebration in fact, purely because one has managed to get a spare key cut. Granted it wasn’t a task that we pursued with persistent enthusiasm or even monotonous regularity, but we had, on and off, on several dozen occasions taken our key into the city of Hydra with us on the off chance that the island’s sole key cutter was in.
The key-cutting operation is situated in the corner of one of our carpenter’s shops, and due to the nature of their business, being that they may be out fitting doors or windows, they do not keep regular hours. So, more often than not, the shop wasn’t even open when we passed by.
When we did find it open, the key-cutting expert, Spiros, wasn’t there. “Come back in half an hour,” was the standard answer. We did, many times, but our half-hour and his didn’t coincide—for nine and a half months.
To be fair, if the matter had been urgent, we could have waited at the carpenter’s for a few hours or, indeed, taken a boat to Ermioni or Athens and had the key cut, but it was simply something we had on our “to-do” list while in town. This month we were able to tick that item off—almost.
While we couldn’t believe our luck in finding the aforementioned service open, and the expert in situ, things still didn’t go quite to plan. After much rummaging through miscellaneous boxes, it turned out he only had one spare key of our type. We had hoped to get two spare house keys cut—just in case.
We have ordered another and expect, with good fortune and synchronised time pieces, it will be done by November.
It must be a record somewhere—nearly three years for a small package to reach our post office on the port. In the age of instant coms, it’s hard to believe that an envelope could literally take years to arrive at its destination (though the main thing is that it eventually did!).
Not so long ago an expatriate received a dog-eared, moth-eaten parcel that had somehow managed to travel half way around the world, twice, before landing on the Rock. No one knows for sure how this happened, but it evoked some speculation because the aforementioned mail had been franked in places as far away as Moscow and Montreal.
There was nothing obviously untoward about the address upon initial inspection; nor were the contents of the parcel extraordinary, just a couple of paperbacks, but it had also visited the United States a couple of times, as well as France and Italy.
It was addressed to
Mademoiselle “Jane Doe”
So how did the package go on such an extended walk-about? Someone suggested that it went to both France and Quebec because the sender had quirkily titled the recipient “mademoiselle.” Another pointed out that the package may have been returned to the States, where it appeared to have come from originally, because the zip code for Hydra, 18040, is also the zip code for Easton, Pennsylvania.
It was then astutely decided that it had gone to a Russian post office because some bright spark had noticed that “Greece” had been written in an alphabet resembling Russian. Nobody could quite figure out why it had vacationed in Italy, except that Poste Restante sounded like an Italian pasta or something.
According to the stamp marks, in most cases the parcel had sat in an unknown/pending pile for a few weeks before some clerk had decided to pass the buck onto the next “logical” country.
When asked for our snail-mail address abroad, most folks don’t believe that what we tell them is sufficient. The lack of street name, house number, suburb, city, and state lines diverges suspiciously from what is regarded as the norm.
Keeping it simple works best. A sorting clerk in any post office anywhere initially looks at the address’s bottom line and puts the piece of mail in the relevant bin or pigeonhole. So, if it says Greece, it will go into an overseas box, then a European box, where it is then stuck in a mailbag destined for Athens. Once in Athens, it is then subsorted into suburbs, regions, or islands; so, something marked Hydra comes here. Once here, well, they know who we are:
Whilst we do not advocate everyone keeping it this simple, that is, not even using a surname, snail-mail will find its way home … as we found out recently.
It is not by coincidence that the cliché “It’s all Greek to me” connotes incomprehension. While Greek, spoken or written, is notoriously tough to master, its difficulties have an unusual twist on the island. The dozen-odd subdialects of the mother tongue can be quite confusing to the untrained ear.
A fairly common sublingo is Bar Greek, a language tailored to obtaining service, ordering rounds, and eventually calculating the tab. An inmate of the rock may hereby specify exact wishes, such as a beer and a bottle of chilled white wine with four glasses:
“Parakalo, mia beira, ke ena boukali pargomeni aspro grasie meh tessera bouteria.”
Impressive bar banter in the Hellenic third person can ensue at length to include ashtrays and directions to the head.
Once having spent an enjoyable afternoon with one old timer on the port, I stopped a muleteer and asked my companion if he could explain about keys and the whereabouts of a house for guests that were arriving. After introductions and a brief discussion about the weather, my translator ran dry.
“My dear fellow, I don’t understand a word he is saying.”
He explained that while he was fluent in taverna and café Greek, when it came to other matters, the language became a blur.
One local bloke, an Auzzie skipper marooned for over three decades on the Rock, admits that he will never get his tongue around the language—but he does speak fluent Nautical Greek. He knows the names of obscure things like grappling hook, and complicated phrases like “Your anchor is laying port side of my chain so be cautious when raising yours, as our respective yachts could become entangled.” On land, the man needs a translator.
Similarly, other versions of Greek could leave one with the impression that all participants to an exchange were fully conversant. Ex-patriots who have dabbled in the building trade appear to be multilingual, but are in fact only partially bilingual. Cement we can order, ink not.
My pidgin has a broader base due to the selection of tasks I have performed, but the reality is that no matter how many new words I learn, there will always be some that can trip me up. A slight slant in vowel enunciation can produce an exciting response.
Early on I learned the word for soft, malakoe, so that I could explain to the chef at the Breakfast Club my preferance for runny, rather than rubber-fried, eggs with my bacon.
“Parakalo thelo avga ke baycon—malaka, “ I said, emphasizing the new word I had practiced.
“Tea!!??” my chef queried. The volume of his response indicated that he wasn’t asking me what beverage I wanted with breakfast, and anyway, I knew tea in Greek meant what.
“Malaka emay? Essee ena Malaka.”
The animated chef, unamused by my order, was calling me soft back?
“You know, you just called the guy a wanker,” said a nearby inmate coming to my rescue. He then explained to the chef that a twisted vowel had been the culprit and that I had indeed being trying to impress the bloke with my newly found linguistic skills. “Greeks are used to foreigners making a hash of their language,” he laughed. I never got yokes my fork could bounce on after that.
Another trick in expanding one’s vocabulary is to fiddle with the English word, generally adding a vowel or two.
A mate and I were in Four Corners minimarket searching for mustard. I explained in pidgen what we were after:
“You eat it with meat, hot on the tongue, a kind of paste, you know mustard.”
Dimitri’s eyebrows jerked in the negative with each additional in description. I was running out of vocabulary, when he saw a glimmer and proudly produced a bottle of tomato sauce.
“Not tomato sauce, mustard.”
“Neh, ketzup. Sauce for food.”
“Ketzup, aye? You say potato and I say—that’s another word learned, but oxi the right sauce, the one I want is yellow in colour.”
Dimitri scratched his head muttering, and we gave up. As we were heading out the door, his voice boomed with the dawning:
“Ahh, moustardo! Ella egho.”
On another occasion we spent an interesting morning going through the chaotic piles of stock at the Plastic Man. The Plastic Man sold everything, but he also sported the largest selection of plastic kitchen utensils and furniture, and so by description of his store, he had inherited the nickname. Many shops on the island had acquired such monikers: the Frozen Man, not surprisingly a chap who sold frozen victuals, the Video and Gunpowder Man, whose shop sold pyrotechnics next to videos for rent, and so on.
Saying the word avga (egg), accompanied by some miming, would do the trick, we thought, an egg flipper being a common kitchen device and all. In our search for said item he unearthed a 1950s East German eggbeater, pans, whisks, poachers, and anything else connected to cooking an egg.
“Everything except a spatula,” said my mate shaking his head in awe at the selection.
“Ahh, spatoula,” beamed the Plastic man, who dove to an exact spot in the mountain of paraphernalia.
One inmate had a delivery “delay” of over a year due to a single vowel. Once, every so often, she would go to the local courier to enquire when her parcel would arrive. The words for never and when are so similar that it is easy to see where confusion and time-lapses can occur: pote (emphasis on e) and pote (emphasis on o) makes the difference between an immanent package and one marked “never.”
Another tip in increasing one’s vocabulary is to differentiate the object into time periods. If it was built or invented in the last century or so, the word for it will often have an anglicized base: aeroplane, an aeroplano, tellyorasie, a television, komputer, a computer, etc.
A lot of words are the basic foundation for the same word in in many major languages: democrasia, philosophia, catastrophia, and most phobias. Even an association of the word’s root, a branch of it, can assist the linguistically handicapped like myself. An earthquake is a seismos and to steal is to klepsie. Great words that one tends to adopt in time.
Some words just look the same—difficult is disscolo. Others simply seem impossible. A toothpick is an othontaglyffeetha.
It’s a question of mixing and matching words and associations. Another few thekahdes, and I reckon I’ll have this glossa down pat (Greek for tongue and language, borrowed no doubt from our word glossary).
Easy this language stuff, really.