Return to Paris Day 2

Tuesday, April 2

Days of adjustment.  I often travel alone and for extended periods of time.  Yet, I  forget how difficult the first week can be.  My second day began with lashing rain, as the Irish call it, arriving for my first class at the Alliance Francaise bedraggled which aptly describes my understanding of French and my ability to communicate with the instructor, indeed, with the class.

I wonder why am I doing this?  I will never master this language.

I consider my ancestors who landed in New York and had to do just that, master a foreign language and a foreign culture.  They had relatives whom they joined, but each encoutered difficulties patching themselves into the fabric of America.  My Greek grandfather eventually spoke, not fluently, seven languages but when he first stepped off the boat, English wasn’t one of them.


Efstadiou (Tom) Zinis and Germaine de Jorna with their children

My “French” grandmother probably  had some English as Saint Lucia, from where she hailed, had been a British colony since 1832.  Yet, she only spoke French with her sisters or her husband, my Greek grandfather, when they didn’t want the children to understand.  What  kind of French?  The French of Paris or the patois of Saint Lucia?

My Irish grandmother came to the states at age 13 and refused to continue her education.  She didn’t want anyone making fun of her brogue.


Molly Daly

Here I am, a privileged American, trying to become part of my heritage, the holy land of France and I’m unable to converse with anyone or to even order food.  I forget the importance of “politesse” that is, the polite way of interacting.  I’m more a bull in a china shop.  In the states, we don’t bother with greetings, with leavings when we are doing business.  We get right to the point.  “I want a coffee” instead of “Bon Jour Monsieur.  Je voudrais un cafe, s’il vous plait.”  “Good day sir.  I would like a coffee if you please.”  And always when leaving “Au Revoir or Bonne Journee.”  “Good bye, have a good day.”

Confusion again.  I stopped at the same cafe as yesterday and ordered a cafe allonge, that is an espresso with a pitcher of hot water to elongate it.  This I understood, but what  was I do with the green bottle of cold water and small glass placed on the table?  I maximized my stay by using all the hot water and never touched the other or inquired about their purpose.  Like my Irish grandmother, I wouldn’t risk being the object of a joke.

These small setbacks create feelings of isolation.  So minimum but so heartfelt.  What could my grandparents have experienced when Greeks were called “Dirty Greeks” and Irish faced “No dogs or Irish allowed?”  Although perhaps, being American today is just as unseemly.



Learning Greek

Many months have passed since my last entry. Is there anybody out there still interested? I am taking a bit of a left turn as I move closer to not only observing Greece but perhaps understanding it as well.

Three months from now, I will be living in Athens and teaching a film studies course to university students as a Fulbright Fellow. Although I will teach in English, I hope to occasionally communicate in the language of my students. Therefore, I have become the student and am presently taking an elementary course in Modern Greek. The class has seven students, and I am the least accomplished. This situation comes as a great surprise: I have never had a failing grade in my life. I considered abandoning the class; however, I enjoy listening to Greek, learning to write in Greek, and reading in Greek, even if I only master forty percent.

I find my response interesting. Who enjoys failing? Hearing and reading the language creates an excitement about the people, about their lives. Although I’m not successful, I feel a pride in knowing I can write a sentence in Greek. I can, even, read a sentence in Greek.

Perhaps, I will be able to understand the newspaper Kastelliotika Nea sent to me every month from the village where my grandfather was born. I am one quarter Greek on my father’s side. Since 2001, I have made seven visits to the village. I could not speak Greek and the uncle who lives in my grandfather’s house does not speak English, nor did his wife, his sister, or his sister-in-law who were the family members I saw most often. I have younger cousins that speak English, but they are rarely there. Yet, not speaking didn’t seem to bother me. I felt at home in the courtyard of my great grandfather’s house, in the village square where we had souvaliki at night, tiny delicious pieces of marinated meat skewered on a large toothpick, grilled over charcoal and squeezed with lemon- a “meza” before the evening meal.

The first time I went to Greece, I climbed into a closet every day and cried. The Greeks looked so cranky, pushed up too closely, and spoke with what seemed like aggression and abruptness. When I visited the village and was embraced by one relative after another, the two impressions didn’t jive. Now as I learn Greek, I start to understand.  When I say “nai” that is “yes” in Greek as it sounds in class or on the CD I use, I hear my voice emphasize, not in abruptness or aggression, but in the joy of agreement, the pleasure of interaction, maybe even, some Hellenic pride.