Mind Your Language!
It has almost been a year since we returned to the States. The novelty of being home, yet observing American life through an outsider’s eyes has almost worn off. So as if waking from a dream, we’re trying to record our observations before they vanish into the ether.
For me, the American half of DW, this remove, this stranger’s perspective on the familiar, specifically being surrounded by my native language, is akin to being given a superpower: the power to read minds. But first some context.
For three years we lived in a country where the language was Greek to me (well, it was Greek to everyone, it was Cyprus). It was like living in a bubble. Conversations around me were reduced to noise, much like adult conversation when you’re a small child, or the way adult speech is rendered in the “Peanuts” cartoons: mwhaap, mwhaap, mwhaap.
This is the first time either of us surrendered to lingustic defeat; we both consider trying to learn the language (to the best of our ability) of the host country an absolute priority—not only to make our own lives easier, but out of respect as a guest in that country. Between the two of us we’ve managed to get our minds and mouths around Serbo-Croatian, French, German, Spanish, and Bahasa Indonesia. We don’t consider ourselves cunning linguists, but we get by.
Greek, however, broke me. It was the troika of:
- The Greek alphabet which not only requires an extra step of decoding when pronouncing or looking up a word (the above languages use the Latin alphabet), but even when a letter looks familiar, it’s often another: for example, B=V, v=n, P=R, H=I;
- The lack of necessity to learn Greek due to the prevalence of English in Cypriot life. This is courtesy of the legacy of British colonialism and the large English-speaking Cypriot diaspora. English as lingua franca has contributed to Cyprus’ popularity as a retirement and holiday destination—here’s looking at you, Russia!;
- An undetermined length of contract—I didn’t know if we’d be three months or three years—which made me a little lazy in the language department.
There were moments of triumph; the first word decoded: φέτα φ=F έ=E τ=T α= A…FETA! Of course this was while holding a block of feta cheese so it wasn’t exactly a breakthrough. Not a Hellen Keller W-A-T-E-R style revelation. Taking classes at the gym gave me a solid ability to count backwards and forwards to 20 and to name a few body parts. The gym also gave me my favorite Greek catch-all phrase: έλα!= Come on! Let’s go! Feel the burn! (Ok, it doesn’t mean that, but I got to make up my own translation—I was in my bubble. A definite perk.)
With English beholden to Greek for so many root words there were other tiny (or μικρό=micro) victories: mega=big, neo=new, exodus=exit. I remember being pleased when I misheard and mistranslated the name of the biggest supermarket in town, Αλφαμεγά (Alpha Mega), as Alpha Omega (A to Z) which I assumed meant that they carried everything. But no, it just means Big A. I think they should consider rebranding.
Almost three years passed in this blissful fog, punctuated by the odd number or body part, then it was time to go home. This is when I discovered my newly acquired superpower, the ability to read minds—even if I didn’t want to.
Now, as I go about my day, I can effortlessly listen in to strangers’ conversations while on the subway, waiting for the light to change, or, unfortunately, trying to have a romantic meal. At first I was giddy—I had to resist going up to people, tugging at their sleeve, and asking them, “Did you know you just shared your diagnosis/marital situation out loud? And in English? And I can understand you?”
The overshare is incredible. My theory is since the average New York apartment is just large enough to provide shelter, New Yorkers conduct their private lives in public, having the conversations they’d normal have in their nonexistent living rooms, or (especially) bedrooms, out on the street or in my restaurant.
Generally my superpower is annoying, but sometimes it can be fascinating. Recently, settling in to my seat for a four-hour Amtrak journey, the woman in the seat in front of me pulled out her phone and started a loud conversation. I was silently cursing not being in the “quiet car” when she said, “So then I came home and found her in my dining room. Of course I took out a restraining order!” I leaned forward and enjoyed the rest of the ride basking in my superpower.