Two Greek Languages?! Isn’t one bad enough?

At a festival where we managed to communicate despite language.

At a festival where we managed to communicate despite language.

At the time we lived in Greece it came as an unpleasant surprise that there were two languages: the Greek daily spoken language called Demotic, and an artificial official language called Katharevousa.

After 400 years under the Ottoman Turks, when the Greeks finally won their independence back, some leaders decided they should somehow get rid of all Turkish and Byzantine influence and go back as far as possible to ancient Greek. A scholar made up the language. But language is a living thing and you can’t legislate it. People went on speaking Demotic Greek.

But government officials used Katharevousa in official proclamations, and newspapers published in it. Its use seemed pompous and deliberately trying to cut off ordinary folks from their government. Kids learned Katharevousa as a second language in school beginning about fourth grade. It was finally abolished by Papandreou when the colonels were kicked out and democracy restored in 1976.

The language books I had bought in the states to learn Greek turned out to be mostly Katharevousa – totally useless. Our dictionary was a mixture and therefore undependable. The two languages were like Old English versus what we speak today. Sometimes it could be useful. An example “white house” like the one we lived in was “aspro spiti”. The White House (inWashington) was the official “lefkos oikos”. You can see how vastly different the languages were. What was intended as a patriotic gesture turned out to exclude people from those controlling their lives. It’s a hard enough language to learn so I am relieved there is just one Greek now.

The Greek Dead Do Not Stay Buried – No, Not Zombies!

More Vv

The Greek dead do not stay buried. No, they don’t turn into zombies, they are acknowledged in regular ceremonies for three years.  In the mountains at each of these ceremonies the family would cook whole kernels of wheat sprinkle it with sugar and dried fruit, then put it into paper cones they would give away to everyone. We often enjoyed the delicious “death wheat”.  After the three years end, the bones are dug up and tossed in a “boneyard”, so the grave is ready for its next occupant. Think about it. For thousands of years in a country that is mountainous and arable land is at a premium, if the Greeks hadn’t developed such a custom there would be no place to grow food for the living! In my book I wrote about a scary discovery of the village boneyard.

Here are links for those interested in buying a copy of the book “It’s Greek to Me”. Print is $20, ebook version is $4.99






The Greek Struggle for Education

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

At the time we lived in Greece the government provided just eight years of free education. After that parents had to come up with school fees and sometime board their children out in towns where there was a high school because most small villages did not have one. In very remote places there was not even a primary school.

During WWII and in the following civil war the schools were closed. So for eight years a generation did not get educated and those unfortunates were illiterate. Nikki, our yiayia who adopted us, did not go to school on her home island of Ithaka. But, eager to learn, she taught herself to read and write with the help of her step-grandchildren.

On the island of Paros once the civil war had ended and schools once again opened, people were so desperate to get their children an education they often forced them to walk long distances. The school teacher told me she once taught at a school on the far side of the island and the first thing she did every morning was light the wood stove that had been provided to the school and heat water. The barefoot children who had walked so far in the winter could then warm their feet.

It was worse under the Ottoman Turkish occupation that lasted four centuries. Schools were forbidden, so “secret schools” were hidden under churches where the priest would teach the children.

The Kalamatiano – Why it is the national dance of Greece

Vv Anastasius

The national dance of Greece is the Kalamatiano. During the Turkish occupation which lasted over 400 years, the Greeks were in constant partisan rebellion trying to regain their freedom. The men of Kalamata went off to do battle with the Turks. They were defeated and except for one teenaged boy were killed. The boy ran back to Kalamata to tell the women that the Turks were on their way to rape and kill the women and children – the usual Turkish punishment for a rebellion. Rather that await their fate the women and children went to a cliff by the sea. The Syrto is a dance that takes you two steps back and three steps forward. It is usually done in a circle, but instead the women of Kalamata formed a line and one by one danced off the cliff. When I lived in Greece at every party at some point people danced the Kalamatiano to honor the women.

What Me Worry? – Not Without My Beads

Dimitri of Marathi. Too wise to need komboloi.

Dimitri of Marathi. Too wise to need komboloi.

Komboloi – worry beads. It was the custom in Greece for the men to carry short strings of beads, sometimes simple, sometimes very fancy and expensive, looped in a circle. They would sit incessantly tossing them at the cafes. They have absolutely no religious significance. They are not rosaries or anything like it. They are simply to relieve stress. Greek women didn’t use them because they were too busy to get stressed.  There was popular song “I’m going to turn in my watch for a set of worry beads, and just count my troubles.” I have often thought it should be a regulation that a set of komboloi be given out with each computer sold! This is one woman who could use them.

When No Means NO – How Greeks Helped Save Democracy

For no reason - a picture of my kitchen on the island of Paros.

For no reason – a picture of my kitchen on the island of Paros.

OXI Day. It is pronounced Oh Hee. It means “No”. In 1940 the Nazis demanded to be allowed to cross Greece en route to Russia and to set up bases in Greece. The dictator Metaxas in Greece was very pro-Axis, but the populace was not. To make sure Metaxas got it right, one night people all over Greece went to highest hills near the towns and villages and lined up stones and whitewashed them spelling OXI. On Oct. 28, 1940 Metaxas capitulated and told the Axis no. Everyone knew OXI meant war and occupation but they refused facism anyway. It is a holiday still honored. The Greeks not only invented democracy, they helped save it. Later British intelligence officers poisoned Metaxas – can anyone say OO7?

Why Greek First Cousins All Have the Same Name

Cross-Eyed Nikos celebrates the end of threshing the year's wheat crop.

Cross-Eyed Nikos celebrates the end of threshing the year’s wheat crop.

Greek names. The oldest boy in a family is named after the paternal grandfather. The second son is named after the maternal grandfather. The oldest girl is named after the maternal grandmother, the second daughter after the paternal grandmother. So you see it can take some time and effort to introduce a new name to a family. It also means all first cousins have the same names. Greeks handle that by freely bestowing nicknames. The nicknames can derive from physical characteristics like our neighbor Cross-Eyed Nikos or Tall Yianni. Or they can derive from a profession such as Nikos the Barber or Yianni the Fisherman.

One major exception is during WWII in defiance the occupying Nazis, many Greeks named their children Eleftheros or Eleftheria. That means freedom or liberty.