Greek Lessons by Jill Germanacos

By bobby on January 19, 2014 in

Jill Germanacos has lived outside the UK for the past twenty years, moving from Paris to Kazakhstan to Romania with her husband’s work before settling in Greece in 2001. Despite Greece’s current woes, it has been a great place to bring up our four children and give them exposure to their partly Greek roots. Spurred on by making the shortlist for the Wasafiri New Writer’s Prize in 2014, Jill enrolled on a Masters at Lancaster University and is now hard at work developing a portfolio.

Driving through suburban streets outside Athens, Claire fought the urge to tidy up. If this were a house, she would have the maid give it a jolly good vac. She pictured a monster-sized Dyson churning the cigarette ends, the wrappers, the wild plants erupting through the pavement, the blobs of spilt concrete.

‘Look at it,’ she said to the inside of her car.

Rust and dust blocked gutters; empty plots with chicken-wire fencing housed Coke bottles and gobs of broken paving; wheelie bins sauntered down the middle of the road. Even the trees were unkempt. And then there were the sheets billowing out over front balconies; it was all so horribly public.

‘Exactly how does standing outside in your slippers hosing down the street contribute to the upkeep of a neighbourhood?’ she asked the Lexus but, for all its optional extras, it did not yet come with the power of speech.

Claire was on her way to the church with some of Paul’s shirts which were starting to fray at the cuffs. Paul never seemed to notice but Claire knew the IMF wouldn’t tolerate frayed cuffs.

The Church recycled everything these days, such was the mess the country was in and Claire was only too glad to have somewhere to unburden herself of things which had expired beyond their usefulness, though she had stopped taking things to the nearest church. In fact she had stopped frequenting any establishment which did not make the effort to speak English to her and had decided to try the church recommended by Catherine at the International Women’s luncheon instead.

It was not that Claire was against speaking Greek per se. She had even taken a couple of lessons when they had very first moved to Greece but it had all proved a monumental waste of her time.

She flicked up the indicator and turned into the one way street leading up to the church. Coming down towards her in complete defiance of the no entry sign was an extremely shabby van which had probably once been white. A brown, hirsute arm idled down the driver’s door, the hand at its end cupping the warm breeze.

‘For heaven’s sake!’

The words were still forming in Claire’s head as the once white van clipped her wing mirror.  The driver of the van caught her eye and broke into a smile which struck Claire as completely inappropriate given what had just occurred. She pulled on her handbrake and stormed out of the car.

‘Hey!’

The van screamed to a halt and the gear box grunted as it started to reverse up the hill towards her. A chin black with stubble and sleepy brown eyes smiled lazily out of the open window and glanced in the direction of her small, neat breasts.

Ela,’ he said which, as far as Claire could tell, did not in any shape or form approach apology.

‘You damaged my wing mirror.’

The man frowned. Claire pointed to a small grey splodge on the tip of the mirror casing.

He laughed. ‘We can also say it is your kathreftis who hit me. For me, no problem!’

‘But this is a one way street!’
‘Yes?’

‘And you didn’t even have the decency to give me priority!’

Only in Greece, thought Claire, would you find yourself invoking the protocol of driving the wrong way down a one way street.

‘But the road, it is big.’ He opened his arms out wide.

‘Well, clearly not big enough.’

The man transferred his gaze to her slender legs. ‘You know your … lastiko … the wheel, it is broke?’

‘What?’

A long dark finger pointed to the tyre on the front passenger side right behind her — flat as a cow pat. She must have hit a nail tossed in the road by some stupid, ignorant oaf.

‘I don’t believe it!’ she cried. ‘You know, this is your fault. This never would have happened if you hadn’t driven into me.’

The van reversed a little further and pulled in behind her. The driver’s door creaked as it opened and the smell of newly baked bread flooded Claire’s nostrils. The man walked towards her. He looked younger than her, maybe early forties judging by the crow’s feet and the thickening at the waist of his jeans. His arms, though, were strong and toned, suggesting he was used to manual labour. That figured. He kicked the tyre with his foot.

‘No air. Katholou,’ he said. ‘This happen five, ten minutes before.’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Claire. She held out her iPhone. ‘Please call the road assistance people for me.’

The man pulled out a rather less impressive handset. ‘ELPA? You wait three hours for the ELPA! Better I call my cousin. He is vulcan — the wheels are his work. He will fix this. Yes?’

‘Oh, no you don’t,’ said Claire. ‘Do you think I was born yesterday?’

The man ran his fingers through his shock of black hair and shrugged his shoulders. They were standing quite close, close enough for him to reach out to her own wavy, auburn hair and take a lock that had broken free onto her forehead and tuck it back behind her ear.

‘Don’t touch me! How dare you?’

‘My wife have the orange hair,’ he said. ‘He paint it,’ he added. ‘But you, you have the real orange, I think. Where you come from?’

What effrontery was this now, Claire wondered. Did he really think he could worm his way out of this by chatting her up?

‘If you must know, I’m English,’ she said. ‘My husband works for the IMF, trying to help sort out the mess your country has got itself in. Now, are you going to call the ELPA people for me or do I have to do it myself?’

The man looked amused. ‘Tell your husband, Aristoteli say thank you.’ He walked round to the back of her car. ‘Where is the tzack?’ he asked.

They found the jack and Aristoteli lay down in the road and tried to attach it to the side of the car but after three, four attempts, he was still not getting any purchase. Claire could see they were going to be there all day.

‘Look, do you know what you’re doing or not? I could have had the road assistance here three times over,’ she said.

He pulled himself out from under the car and stood up. He was filthy. ‘Skatos-e,’ he said. ‘This tzack, it is fuc—’

‘Spare me your crude translations,’ said Claire. ‘I get the gist.’ Her phone rang. ‘Paul, thank goodness!’

‘Whatever’s the matter?’

‘This horrible man knocked into me and now the tyre is flat and he’s refusing to call the road assistance for me. I don’t know what to do!’

‘God, are you all right? Do you need me to call the police?’

‘No, I just need someone to fix the tyre.’

‘Look, I’ll pass you over to Fotini. Tell her where you are and she’ll sort the rest. I’m sorry, darling but something came up and I’m on the next flight to Brussels. I should be back tomorrow.’

Claire was about to say they had better move to Brussels, the amount of time Paul was spending there, but Fotini came on the line. Claire looked across at Aristoteli who, having packed away the jack had reverted to staring at her unashamedly.

‘I am not horrible man,’ he said when she finished her call. ‘I try to help you is all. No, you are horrible lady. You have much to learn.’

He started to walk back towards his van but Claire took it upon herself to teach this Aristoteli a thing or two.

‘May I remind you, you were driving the wrong way down a one way street and you clipped my wing mirror causing me to pull over and wreck my front tyre. So not only do you owe me an apology, you could at least try to go about helping me in a more effective way. All I was asking was for you to call the ELPA people for me. Is that so very hard to do?’

He got into the van, turned on the ignition.

‘But that’s just it, isn’t it?’ Claire continued, warming to her theme. ‘It’s hard to take responsibility. That’s why Greece is in the mess it’s in. Because of people like you. Look at you, you drive around in your vest thinking you own the road, oblivious to everyone and anyone because no one else matters and then, when you make a mistake, do real damage, you just don’t care. No, you just shrug your shoulders, say what can anyone do? then wait for the rest of Europe to clear up your mess. You disgust me!’

The van was moving towards her. Aristoteli paused and brought his fingers to his lips whereupon he blew her a kiss. ‘Kali sinechia,’ he said and was gone.

When Claire punched this phrase into her online dictionary, hope the day continues well for you popped up on the screen.

*

By the time she finally pulled up at the church, Claire was feeling rather the worse for wear. To top it all, she had nearly run over a dog sleeping on the warm tarmac. But she was determined to accomplish what she had set out to do; she was not about to let some grubby Greek van driver ruin her day. She found the priest who, as promised, spoke the most exquisite English and pointed her in the direction of a building where they had set up an impromptu community centre. She took the bag of shirts from the car and entered the building. As she opened the door, she was struck by a familiar warm, rich smell.

There was a long trestle table stacked with old plates and cutlery. A small, sprightly looking lady hurried towards her carrying two metal pitchers.

Kalimera,’ said Claire although she probably should have said kali spera as it was surely by now afternoon. ‘I have some clothes to donate.’

‘Thank you!’ cried the lady breaking into a heart-warming smile. ‘Please, lay them in the corner over there. We will look at them later. Now, we are preparing ourselves to feed a few families.’

‘I really should explain about the care of the clothes. They are very good shirts and it would be a shame … ’

‘Can you be very kind and bring me the bread from the kitchen?’ the lady asked her. ‘We have so very few hands here.’

Stacked on the side in the kitchen were more than a dozen crusty loaves, still warm to the touch. The lady followed Claire into the kitchen.

‘Let us cut them first,’ she said.

Claire felt she really ought to go and yet what was there waiting for her at home except, perhaps, the maid and a gluten-free salad sandwich? She washed her hands at the kitchen sink and took a long-bladed knife from the block.

‘This bread smells delicious,’ she remarked.

‘We are so very lucky,’ said her new companion. ‘Aristoteli, the local baker, brings us the fresh bread every day. Such a good man. It’s not easy at all for him these days but still he finds ways to give, to help those without hope, without employment. This is God at work, you know.’

*

By the time Claire left the community centre, the light had softened and those who still had jobs to go to were beginning to return to their homes. She had stayed long after the hall had filled with noisy families and had ladled out the bean soup which had arrived in two large cooking pots carried in by the two large ladies who had cooked it. They had all insisted she eat with them and, although she didn’t usually touch anything whose provenance could not be guaranteed, she had served herself a small helping of soup and perched on a stool at the end of the trestle table to eat. The soup had tasted surprisingly good. The children had spooned it down without complaint and then started running chaotically round the hall. No one had known much English but Claire had not felt unhappy on her stool quietly soaking up their heated exchanges, their laughter. Even the urge to suggest the children wait for their food to go down before tearing around had abated and she had felt no pressing need to mention that her husband worked for the IMF. In fact, Claire had even found herself wishing somewhat wistfully that she understood more of their chatter which had struck her as really rather cheerful considering the adversity these families faced.

As Claire climbed into her Lexus, she felt no hurry to be home. The maid would have left by now and everything would be in its proper place: polished, ordered, clean. But her salad sandwich would have shrivelled, would have curled at the edges with the waiting and Paul was not coming home. She drove around until she found the bakery; it had parking outside. Inside, the shelves were practically empty and the fridge proffered only bottled water and a couple of cartons of long life milk. A woman came through a curtain at the back and stood behind the counter.  She was short, weighed down by heavy hips and the cheaply dyed red hair lent a sallow look to her skin.

‘Speak English?’ asked Claire.
The woman smiled apologetically.
‘Aristoteli,’ said Claire. ‘Thelo Aristoteli.’
The woman tilted her head.

‘Ari!’ she shrieked from the side of her mouth nearest the curtain and then left Claire to wait.

Aristoteli appeared wearing a white apron on which he now started to wipe his floury hands. He lifted his chin to indicate that Claire should speak. Claire’s lip was trembling, her mouth suddenly awash with saliva. She swallowed.

‘Aristoteli,’ she said. ‘I realise I was unspeakably rude to you this morning. You are not a horrid man at all. You see, I was at the church and, well … I’m sorry.’

He continued wiping his hands as she spoke and was silent for a while. He shook his head.

‘The English,’ he said. ‘Always with the sorry!’

The conversation now seemed to be over and, indeed, what had Claire been expecting exactly, that the Virgin Mary descend and bless them both? She turned to go.

Perimen-e! Wait!’ called Aristoteli and disappeared back behind the curtain, before returning with an old supermarket bag containing at least a dozen pomegranates. He handed it to Claire.

‘For your husband,’ he said. ‘For saving the Greece.’

He grinned and, while the intent seemed friendly, Claire wondered whether he might also be laughing at his own private joke.

Claire usually avoided pomegranates. She hated all the pith and the blood red juice: it stained your fingers and your clothing too if you didn’t take care. She took the bag.

Sas efharisto,’ she said expressing her thanks as she had been taught, in the polite plural. And then, feeling an unaccountable desire for his approval, she added: ‘I’m thinking I might take some Greek lessons.’

‘For to call the ELPA maybe?’ suggested Aristoteli and he went behind the curtain again, leaving Claire alone with the bag.

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