Let’s talk about err … lessons, baby
AG, shame. At Last’s face is all puffed up and her eyelids hover around her cheeks.
She’s sitting across Eressos Square, on Sam’s stoep, waiting for the pharmacy to open — just about everything stops for the siesta, everything that’s not a taverna or a cafe.
You’re at Kafene, on the internet, but you walk the 20 or so steps across the square when she posts a picture of a tea cup with a tea tag hanging out of it.
Tea? She really is sick!
You feel her forehead with the back of your hand. It’s clammy and feverish.
Eressos life, she says, and looks ruefully at her ashtray.
The rain and wind accelerate and subside; they whip and lash, and retreat again.
Parts of the Kampos are swamped, the gravel roads are almost impassable and water hurries down the village’s narrow alleyways.
The weather is a talking point.
Even Madame gets a bit animated telling you about the ice balls that hammer Erresos and send everyone scurrying to stare from their doors.
You should see the basilicum, she says, and pegs some laundry to the line.
She’s quick to move in a gap of intermittent sunshine.
You phone your friend in Mytiline.
It’s like winter here, says Mr V.
He sounds surprised and dashed that he can’t do anything about it.
It’s very unusual, rain and cold at this time of the year, he says.
The weather report predicts that it’s going to get warmer only on Saturday.
You don’t know what day it is, but you calculate about three/four sleeps until the weekend.
Then you get down to business.
You need a book that will take you from the Alpha to the Omega in basic Greek (is there anything basic about Greek, hello).
You also need an English-Greek-Greek-English dictionary.
Madame says so.
You’ve had your first lesson.
Madame is teaching you and the first thing you do is go through the Greek alphabet, all those squiggles and wiggles and dippity do; you write and pronounce them, sort of.
Like this, she says, like a Greek, not a foreigner.
Can’t I write in the English letters you ask as she points out dazzling phonetic conundrums among the twirly whirlys.
She looks at you. Deadpan.
She’s a master of measured indifference.
You want to read Greek don’t you?
And leaves it at that.
Your homework is to practice until you can spontaneously write out the alphabet, and recite it without any furtive glances at the page it’s printed on.
You have to find and write words that correspond to the exercises she has given you; how the letters change depending of where they are in a word, etc, and also masculine and feminine.
Of course, you’re delighted when, for the first time, you understand what a vegetable vendor is saying over the loudspeaker on the roof of his truck: Oranges, lemons and potatoes at ???? a kilo.
You don’t get the price a kilo because you can count only to five… Humbling it is, this learning a language.
So! You finish your breakfast in the drizzle on your terrace and think maybe you should have bought a patata or two to celebrate.
You’re quite chuffed though, by your progress.
Your vocabulary is improving and you can say Sit Down Now in Greek!
You say that to Vento, your hunting dog.
Anyway, you can greet in Greek and say thank you and please, and some other arbitrary and friendly things.
Truth is, you know more words than you can summon at once but thank heavens there are Eressosians whose English is much much better than your Greek.
You find a way.
You like meeting people and talking with them, mainly the shopkeepers.
They seem friendlier, more open to a good old chat.
The butcher, the baker, Mr D in the hardware shop.
You ask what construction’s like.
He draws thoughtfully on an elegant silver and black cigarette holder and crosses a reed-like leg over a knee that makes his jeans look jagged.
He contemplates his shelves of stock.
It’s gone down everywhere in Greece, he says. Here too. It’s going down, not up.
The crisis, you know. He looks embarassed, and his cigarette goes bright red at the end.
Mrs H is what your dad would’ve called loquacious.
She’s very forthcoming as she tries to roll a cigarette on her desk.
I don’t smoke, she says, battling to get it to close.
The cigarette slides back and forth, in stubborn resistance.
The tobacco wriggles out of the paper but she’s got the answers you want, and she knows the women you’ve met, and your landlords.
She advises about who you should talk to to help you get this, and that.
Wood for winter is one thing.
Where does it come from, you want to know, because there are mainly olive trees on the island.
The mainland, she says. It’s cheap. Much cheaper than petroleum.
Mrs H also tells you the name of the man who’s servicing your rusty old bicycle, the one that’s on loan from the Kaftan One.
Adonis, she says, and tucks some stray hair behind an ear.
He and you, outside his bicycle/motorcycle/quadbike repair shop — where the mulberry trees start on the flat part of the road to Skala — you and he communicate in single words and puzzled expressions.
A kind of sign language predominates.
You ask the price by saying euro, and moving your thumb and forefinger over each other, as if you’re trying to get rid of some dust between them.
You shrug your shoulders to indicate you don’t know what it might be.
Twenty, he says, as you point at the brakes, the gears.
That’s not expensive, says Mrs H, shaking her head.
You think so too, and traipse up the hill to the square.
You’re on your way back to your comfortable rented house, luxury for you with its smart this and that.
You peer into the shop at Miss E. She’s busy in the mini market metres from the verandah of the taverna where the walruses sit.
Me-sell, Me-sell, she says, and beckons you inside.
There are two other people in the shop but she stops serving them to give you a piece of paper with a hand-written recipe on it.
It’s for the beef stew mix she sold to you the other day; the stifado that contains black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, bay leaves, aniseed, cardamon and chilli peppers.
The other one was the kokkinisto (red sauce) mix: black pepper, allspice, small peppers, bay leaves, cardamom, onion and salt.
The brand is called Aegean Flavours and it is a product of the island.
She points out the label, in English and Greek, and looks at me.
It’s traditional, she says.
Like the time it will take Adonis to fix your bike, Adonis with a cigarette swirling smoke into his screwed up eyes. They rest on a swathe of two-day old stubble as black and as stout as scrub on a hill.