On Learning a New Language and Long Walks

So. I’ve been learning Greek. If you’re like most of my witty friends, your first reaction after a slight step backwards will be to quip, “It’s all Greek to me!” Ha, yes I see what you did there, very funny. I should let you know that the Greek language has this helpful word δεν (den) that creates what I call “opposite day.” It makes the sentence state that you do NOT have the thing you are talking about. So please revise my earlier sentence to say, “Ha, yes I see what you did there, δεν very funny.” Super convenient.

I am learning Greek for a reason, it’s not just some random New Year’s resolution. I plan to go to Greece, specifically Crete, in the late fall of this year with some friends for a swim vacation (#swimtrek) in the Aegean sea. Besides swimming in those incredible blue waters, I’ll be visiting the palace of Knossos, which has loomed large in my personal mythology for years, since 4th grade in Mrs. Sandberg’s ALC class to be precise. We did a whole semester on the Greeks and read Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey. I was captivated by those stories, most particularly the ones of the half-man half-bull Minator roaming beneath the palace of Knossos, and Ariadne using her magical thread to help her lover escape the maze. I read about the excavations Sir Arthur Evans did on the site (ones that would make modern archeologists cringe, sad to say). I even made a to-scale model of the palace out of sugar cubes for extra credit in Mrs. Sandberg’s class. I dislike the term “obsessed” in general, but it might apply here.

Languages fascinate me, and I try to learn a few words for the country I plan to visit, although I’m also okay with falling back on exaggerated hand motions. I have a smattering of Spanish and French. The physical equivalency of those would be the pathetic random paint drips an inexperienced wall painter leaves behind. I have a larger bunch of drips and blots – say a vigorous Jackson Pollak – of Russian. During this process of learning Greek (#duolingo), a backwater section of my brain where I evidently kept these languages creaked open and now random words bubble to the surface. The Spanish ones are mostly filthy swear words, as I picked up the majority of that language working in restaurants. The French bits are an amuse-bouche of words for colors and food. The Russian has a bigger footprint and whole phrases are coming back there. I could perhaps have a jagged chat with someone who is forgiving of my appalling accent. My Russian teacher in college would tell me, “Is uzhasnyy, like Volga boatman.” I’m sure my Greek is equally risible.

The Greek is full of fun surprises like εγώ means me, or I. Pronounced Ee-go, you can see where we get ‘Ego’ from. That connected line over thousands of years from ancient speakers to our English language of today makes me feel grounded. Greek has its horrid share of male/female/neuter endings and don’t get me started on the possessives, but it makes up for it in other ways. For example, every letter is pronounced, none of that silly “silent letter” bit that makes English so sneaky. They also put helpful accents on the vowel of the syllable that needs to be emphasized, so you can avoid putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

It’s hard learning a new language at an *ahem* advanced age, but I’m a fighter. I tend to learn language by brute force, simply jamming it into my head over and over. I also steal a trick from Mark Twain, and try to connect to a word picture. For example, the word for ‘Greece’ is Ελλάδα which sounds sort of like Aladdin, so I have a word picture of Disney’s Aladdin doing a dance on top of the map of Greece and I remember it. I am doing this with the important words, like Παγωτό, which means ‘ice cream.’  Παγωτό starts out like pagoda and ends in close to gateau (cake in French) so I imagine a pagoda built of ice cream and a birthday cake on top of it. Or cheese is τυρί, pronounced tee-ree so I imagine a golf tee stuck in a hunk of swiss… speaking of cheese, I really love Greek food, and am looking forward to lots of tasty dishes. Below* is a recipe for one of my favorites, Tzatziki.

I’m enjoying the learning, and having fun noticing quirks. Like the word for lunch is super long, μεσημερπιανό, which makes me imagine it was reserved for those who had the time for long chats, as opposed to the short and prosaic πρωινό and δείπνο, breakfast and dinner. I remember μεσημερπιανό because I like lunch, and because it sounds vaguely like a good Mexican restaurant called Mesomera here in Dallas.

This language learning makes me sit in my office chair too long. To combat the rear spread, I’ve started doing long walks early in the day. My favorite is taking on various 3-5 mile stretches around old water source for Dallas, White Rock Lake, with the goal of sometime in the spring being able to circumnavigate it in one go. I think it’s 9 miles all the way around. I like starting my walk in the dark before the loud and stinky shorebirds (cormorants are the WORST) wake up and start quarking and taking poos on the sidewalk where you want to walk. Predawn is one of my favorite times of the day. Dawn itself over the lake is a gift. I’m working on walking faster and adding a bit of a jog in stretches. I say that tongue in cheek, as I’m absolutely the person you pass, the one who makes you feel good about yourself and your speed. I don’t mind. I’m working up to greeting folks who whisk past on their bikes or bypass me with a Γεια σου or a καλημέρα soon, hello and good morning, respectively. So if you’re out there on White Rock Lake in Dallas in the early morning, you’ll know it’s me!

*Tzatziki (τζατζίκι)

Grate ½ of a large cucumber and squeeze out the liquid as much as you can.

Add in 1.5 cups plain Greek yogurt – nonfat or full fat your choice –, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 T of olive oil, 1 T of white vinegar, ½ t of salt and fresh or dried dill weed to taste – at least 1 T though. Mix well and refrigerate until ready to enjoy.

Serve as a side dish, a sauce for meat, or as an appetizer with olives, veggies, and crusty bread for dipping. For vegans: use coconut milk yogurt instead of Greek yogurt.


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