The Time I didn’t learn Greek

The one is light blue with big red letters on it. On the picture people are sitting outside a restaurant at wooden tables in the sunshine. The other is smaller and older, a mustardy brown with white letters and a moth-eaten spine. This is a tale of two beat-up little phrase books and the time I didn’t learn Greek.

Langenhoven noem daardie straat in van sy boeke wat in Oudtshoorn afspeel, soos Sonde met die Bure, Sint Jan Straat (kan nie nou lekker die spelling onthou nie, maar ek onthou hoe snaaks dit was toe ek dit die eerste keer gelees het). Daar, nes jy deur die duik ry, sit ‘n tweedehandse boekwinkel en ek was seker so om en by dertien jaar oud toe ek die eerste keer daar in is. The first little book costed only R5, I think the owner of the shop gave it to me for free in the end. I was in that stage between high school and primary school and convinced that I was going to learn Greek.

Like many of these little books it started with the alphabet, and I earnestly attacked those funny symbols with the same sense of wonder I felt  as a younger child trying to learn Morse code and the secret languages the kids in Astrid Lindgren novels spoke. A couple of years ago a friend showed me how to cook a Greek dish. And when I found myself saying a clumsy “good day”, with my Afrikaans pronunciation sounding like “kalliemerra”, with an onion in my hand, I suddenly remembered the little phrase book again. Today I can see the ticks of my pencil next to each phrase I learnt – I didn’t get more than a couple of pages into the book. And a few months later I started to learn German  at school – a much longer story for another time.

Over the years I ran into the language I never learnt quite a few times. Then one day, as a university student, I picked up another, even tinier, phrasebook. This time for the beautiful handwritten inscription on the first page of an otherwise very dull looking little book:


To Peter

May all our dreams of travel come true

Love, Stella

Did they? Did their dreams come true? Did they travel to Greece? Could they use a few Greek words? Did they split up and never went? Packed the little phrase book but never used it? This time a Greek phrasebook brought me the beauty of someone else’s dream instead of my own. Today when I look at the row of little phrasebooks on my dusty shelf, I see a little row of dreams and stories.

So I guess that’s two times I didn’t learn Greek.  But I learnt a few other things. (Well, for one thing, it taught me that I should rather learn languages a different way.)

I learnt the thrill of encountering a foreign alphabet for the first time. The other day I read this incredible novel by Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai, where a little boy learns Greek (it’s about so much more than that, but I won’t go into it today, in the meantime you can go read what someone else had to say about it in this review) and I sat riveted. Because my little phrasebooks taught me what it feels like to attempt learning Greek at a young age, I could add my own sense of wonder to that of the boy in the story.

When I picked up that first phrasebook in the shop, I remembered again how much I wanted to learn foreign languages. I learnt something about myself from those phrasebooks, and that led met to a path I’m still happily following today. Greek didn’t end up being the first or even the fourth foreign language I learnt, but it will always be first one that made me a learner of foreign languages.

And Greek taught me the value of learning only a little bit of something. I learnt only a few words and symbols, but over the years they would keep popping up in novels and science text books and Hollywood romcoms with the casual familiarity of old friends. The first time I heard Barbara Sher talk about not finishing things and how you can be finished with something without other people realising it, I knew what she was talking about. Getting fluent in another language is a lot of fun (yes, yes, another reference to German), but that does not make my half-baked attempts at learning a few Greek words a failure to learn Greek. Whenever I pick up one of those phrasebooks, I don’t feel sad, I still feel enchanted –  a thrill that adds as much to my way of being in the world as being fluent in a few other languages does.

Do you have a little phrasebook with a story on your dusty shelf?