«Καλά δε νιώθς; Μη μ’ βανς ομελέττα, αφού δεν αρταίνουμι».
My grandmother placed the pan on the table and stared at me in horror. If looks were capable of parakinesis, then that stare would have had me lifted from the kitchen table, packed, despatched to the airport and bundled onto the next available flight back to Melbourne. This was due to the fact that since my arrival in the motherland, there to spend my Christmas on Mount Penteli with my maternal grandmother, she had been continuously lecturing me about my hideous (according to her) Samian accent.
“You are supposed to have been educated,” she would ponder. “How is it possible that you are still speaking in that horribly perverted way? How did they let you graduate high school?”
According to my grandmother, given the right factors, accents were transmutable. Thus, once one had completed high school, any rural accent they may have had the misfortune to have inherited by birth and geography would immediately and seamlessly transform into Athenian. My defence, which was that we all spoke Samian at home and didn’t know any Athenians was thus deemed invalid, since there was no doubt that I had finished high school, the fact that I had done so in Melbourne, rather than Athens, apparently having no appreciable effect upon the expected dialectic transformation.
“We have a certain standing in this neighbourhood,” my grandmother informed me, almost immediately after I had settled in. “You will NOT walk these streets speaking that vulgar tongue. I will not have our named shamed. If you must indulge your perversions, at least do so discreetly only within these four walls.”
Speaking Athenian was tough. Samian is economical, methodically removing all unnecessary and probably most necessary vowels. The cluster of ensuing consonants that the tongue must hurdle gives one time to pause and consider exactly what it is they are communicating. Not so with Athenian, which spurts from the mouths of its native speakers with the exuberance of a water fountain, spraying all those in the vicinity with an unrelenting lexical word jet.
Then there was the matter of vocabulary. Try as I might, I could not get the local fruiterer to understand what I meant when I spoke learnedly and enthusiastically about the cultivation of μπουρνέλλες back home, because δαμάσκηνα, the word Athenians employ to denote the plum, was unknown to me at the time. By that stage, I had lost any credibility I may have had with the fruiterer anyway, as, in fulfilment of my grandmother’s wishes that I complete her Christmas shopping, I made my debut in the shop by dutifully asking for κρεμμυδάκια, expressing incredulity when the fruiterer produced what I knew back home to be σπρινγκάνια. In my mind, and to this day I maintain that it makes logical sense, κρεμμυδάκια should be that which they proclaim: small onions.
The look of horror my grandmother gave me that fateful Christmas Eve was thus motivated by sheer exasperation. Not only was her antipodean grandson a Samian-speaking yokel, untouched by the benefits of education and western civilisation as a whole, now he was proving that there truly are no limits to the depths of his depravity, by uttering aphorisms in the manner and style of her own native and long-suppressed patois: the dialect of Ioannina.
“How quaint, he’s trying to speak Greek” my grandmother’s neighbour remarked, as she angled her aquiline nose into her coffee cup. “What is he saying?”
At that time, the film “Basic Instinct” had just been released in Greece. I had not seen it, but had been told that it involved a particularly murderous icepick. As I observed the camber of the neighbour’s nose, it assumed the sheen of steel in the gloom of the Pentelic kitchen. I had visions of detaching it from her face and using it to crush some ice of my own.
I despised her for two reasons, for the first of which she bore no blame. For in a manner deeply disquieting, she looked exactly like Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, with the same furrowed brow and cheeks, even down to the stiff wiry hairstyle and the slightly slanted, yellow flecked, Stalinesque eyes.
Indeed it was those eyes that caught my eye and my ire earlier that day. After spending days ensconced in my grandmother’s kitchen mulling over times past, receiving sage advice and preparing for Christmas, I was bored. So bored in fact, that I offered to weed, prune and cultivate my grandmother’s garden, which was displaying signs of advanced rebellion from her authoritarian rule, this having been a particularly mild winter on the mountain. My grandmother too, Ι supposed, must have been bored, for she consented, even though this meant that I would be exposed to the linguistic scrutiny of the entire neighbourhood. Not having anticipated that a spot of gardening would be on my itinerary, I had neglected to pack suitable clothing, which is how I found myself in my grandmother’s front garden dressed in my grandmother’s lilac tracksuit, with matching lilac and white tiger print fleecy top and a pair of her wooden τσόκαρα, wielding a hoe with the determination of a boy who knows that he is so extremely comfortable with his sexuality, that he hath no need to protest too much. I proceeded to pull, heave, hoe and plough with gusto.
When Jeff Kennett spoke, she did so in the same rasping, reedy tones of her Melburnian doppelganger: «Μέσα είναι η κυρά σου;» I realised at once that I had been weighed and found to have been the help. Furthermore, from her superior tone, I deduced that I was considered to be the help of Albanian extraction and resolved to play the part, if anything, to enhance the standing of my maternal progenitor’s progenitor among her peers, as a lady who could and would, command help, when the need for such help arose.
“Është brenda,” I gestured towards the front door, adding in lisping broken Greek to add verisimilitude: «Κυρά μέσα είναι.»
As I completed my pruning, I wondered whether a Greek Jeff Kennett would nationalise Albanian domestic servants, just so that he could have the pleasure of privatising them. With that, having showered and adorned myself in garments of a less offensive hue, I hastened to the kitchen for the selamlik.
“This is my grandson, Kostas,” my grandmother announced with the poise of a dowager Sultan.
“But isn’t that the Αλβανάκι you’ve got digging for you outside?” Jeff Kennett asked.
“Please say that the Αλβανάκι is a different person, so I can go out and pretend to be him and thus confuse and confound Jeff Kennett,” I prayed, looking at my grandmother pleadingly.
My grandmother caught my eye and I saw the corner of her spirit levelled mouth fight to suppress a smile. Yet such indulgences as those I craved were not to be entertained.
“No, this is my grandson. He is over from Australia, to spend Christmas with me.”
“Oh, maybe that’s why I couldn’t understand what he said. I could have sworn he was Albanian. Mind you, these Albanians….Oh get off me Kari, stop being a Christmas pest,” Jeff Kennett shouted angrily as she attempted to shoo my eponymously named grandmother’s dog who was snuffling her feet.
I burst out laughing.
“What’s funny,” Jeff Kennett snarled.
“Well," I said, "It’s just that Kar is Albanian for penis,” I informed her.
“I don’t get it,” she frowned. “Are you an Αλβανάκι, or are you the grandson from Australia?”
It was at this point, that my grandmother attempted to interpose an omelette between myself and my interlocutor, eliciting the blast of Ioannite phraseology that so incensed her.
«Δεν αρταίνομαι,» means that I’m fasting,” I explained to Jeff Kennett. “It means the same thing as «νηστεύω.» I’m fasting for Christmas.”
“Really?” Jeff Kennett marvelled. “In Albanian? Do you Albanians fast too? But of course, it makes sense. Only Albanians go to church nowadays anyway.” My grandmother rolled her eyes, albeit with grace and dignity.
When Jeff Kennett finally withdrew her presence, my grandmother treated me to the longest and most impassioned stream of Epirotic pejoratives, uttered in the heaviest of accents I had ever heard. “Stupid old toad,” she finally concluded. “With her superior airs. Do you know her son has been supposedly studying dentistry in London for the past ten years?”
“Well, I came all the way to Athens to escape Jeff Kennett,” I replied. “A ten year sojourn in London to escape the same Jeff Kennett seems perfectly reasonable to me.”
That Pentelic Christmas formed a watershed in our relationship. Notably because it was the first of many Christmases spent with one of the most linguistically complex, fascinating and loving people I have ever known. But even more so because from that time, until the day she died, some two decades later, every single one of our Christmas greetings was prefaced by the following: «Φύγε από πάνω μου Κάρυ, μη μ’ενοχλείς Χριστουγεννιάτικα.» And it is in that expansive spirit that I extend to all, the greetings of the Season.
Saturday 24 December 2016