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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 26 January 2019
DIATRIBE 28 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 26 JANUARY 2019 DEAN KALIMNIOU After a year of silently observing us while dropping off his granddaughter to school, the kindly old man with the bright blue eyes finally leant over and commented: "Είναι καλό που μιλάς στην κόρη σου στα ελληνικά. Η δική μου η εγγονή μόνο παππού ξέρει να λέει." Well not quite. The elderly gentleman's granddaughter calls him "dede," which is Turkish for grandfather and I had spent the mornings of last year, listening to him variously lament in Turkish, in concert with other Turkish parents and guardians, at the inability of their collected offspring to speak that language and, in Cypriot inflected Greek, lamenting with the Greek grandparents of students, the instability of Melbourne's weather. The Greek grandparents at the school ordinarily speak to their grandchildren in heavily accented English. On my daughter's first day of school, upon hearing me address my daughter on the subject of the Minotaur in Greek, one of them was unable to stifle a sneer. That sneer was soon transformed into an expression of shock, as my daughter proceeded to relate the story of Icarus and Daedalus in response, also in Greek. This is because Greek is the primary language of our relationship. Whenever that particular grandparent arrives at school in the morning, granddaughter in tow, he brushes past me and moves towards the farthest edge of the playground, as if he cannot bear to hear my daughter speak Greek. One lively old lady chasing her hyperactive granddaughters around the yard yelling: «Κάμαν κιντς, καμ μπεκ χία» smiles whenever she hears us speaking Greek to each other. "Ελληνικά ακούω," she beams and then turning to her grandchildren, continues her attempts to return them to the fold, this time, employing hybrid imperatives such as "Καμ μπεκ τώρα," and "σλάουλη σλάουλη, σιγά, σιγά." She does so with trepidation however, for as she confides, her daughter has asked her not to speak to her grandchildren in Greek. Another grandmother, observing us once, remarked, "I wish my grandchildren could speak Greek, but their mother is a ξένη. And you know what ξένες are like.." "I do indeed," I responded. "I'm married to one." She hasn't spoken to me since. Sometimes, in the crush of Playground Greece DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM watched her, her mouth half open. "But in Greek, the Γοργόνα is Medusa," my daughter continued. "What has that got to do with the sea? It is completely different. And how is she the sister of Alexander the Great if Perseus cut off her head?" "This is unbelievable," the incredulous Greek school teacher exclaimed. "Not really," I hastened to explain. "She has to negotiate and switch between three very different linguistic realities at once, so it makes sense that she instinctively seeks meaning in etymology in order to reconcile them. The key here is not the language itself, but the fact that her linguistic contexts are very real and relevant to her day to day existence." "No," she interrupted. "I mean that you would jeopardise your child's future by burdening her with unnecessary languages. There are plenty of linguistic pursuits at the multilingual playground. the school corridors, I catch undertones of a mother speaking to her daughter in Greek. She does so in hushed tones, as if she is afraid of censure by passers-by. There is no need to be afraid. The Indian ladies walking past are speaking heavily accented English to their progeny in loud voices. The Cantonese parents are speaking to their children in slow, precise English. As soon as those children are out of earshot, they turn to each other and start speaking Cantonese, the undulating tones of which language are broken by a booming "Έλα εδώ μάνα μου, θα αργήσουμε," emanating from a tall, young, barrel-chested father, dragging his vociferously protesting daughter across the pavement. Like me, he has been born here and like me, the Greek flows from his mouth, unconsciously and without restraint. Another father walks past, trailing his daughter's school bag across the yard. He nods by way of perfunctory greeting. I first came across him a month earlier, in the local park. Hearing me sing «Κούνια Μπέλλα» to my youngest daughter as I pushed her on the swing, by way of response, he turned to his daughter and said: "I'm gonna do you Κούνια Μπέλλα like παππού.» At the time I smiled and said nothing, simply because the ensuing conversation deriving from this statement of cultural solidarity, would have invariably led, as it generally does, to a justification as to why my interlocutor's offspring do not speak Greek, a conversation I always seek to avoid, not wishing to make anyone feel that they are being judged, or obliged to justify their own choices, which could be informed by a multitude of complex considerations. I abhor the fact that my own personal discourse may provoke feelings of guilt or ennui in another's; the condition humane of the twenty first century. I could not, however, avoid a conversation with the disconcertingly natural platinum blonde, svelte mother replete in active wear, compelling her children to jog to the swing. "You are Greek as well? When did you arrive here?" she asked. "In 1977," I responded. "Huh?" "I was born here." She, as it turned out, was Finnish, had married a Greek in Athens and as a result of the Greek Crisis, was seeking opportunities in Aus- tralia. Her children, slightly older than my own, were fluent in Greek, Finnish, German and English and she conversed with them in all four languages at the park, expressing the concern that she could not find a decent German school. A mother trips over the trailing school-bag and I proffer a greeting. She is an occasional Greek school teacher, though her children do not speak Greek. "Just you wait," she warned me affably at the start of the year, when she heard us speaking Greek and I informed her that my daughter spoke no English, "she will pick up the English in no time but she will lose the Greek straight away." "I'm not convinced that will be the case," I ventured an opinion. "My view is that as long as children have enough words to express the things they want to say in a language and have someone to speak it to, they will use that language. I think that social context and relationships are pivotal here." "No," she will definitely lose it, the teacher affirmed. "My kids did. What's more, because she will be speaking English, your daughter will teach your other kids English too and they will learn no Greek whatsoever." "You sure?" I asked. "Definitely," she pronounced with an air of finality. "That is what happens to everyone." Yet on this, the last day of school, my daughter was still speaking Greek, as well as her mother's tongue, and rejoicing in her newly acquired skills in English. In contrast, her sister, though conversant in both her paternal and maternal tongues, knows no English, even though this is the main language of discourse between my life and I, because her relationship with us and her sister, for the moment, is uninformed by that language. «Μπαμπά, πώς λέμε γοργόνα στα αγγλικά;» my daughter asked me. "Mermaid," the Greek school teacher hastened to supply the answer. "Mermaid is comprised of two words," I interjected. "Mer, means the sea in French and maid means a young unmarried woman. So it means a young woman who lives in the sea." My daughter sat and thought about this a while. Finally, she observed: "That's like in Assyrian. In Assyrian they say 'Kyalu d' Yama,' which means 'Bride of the Sea.' The Greek school teacher That time could be better spent on focusing on her school subjects. You are impeding her progress. Believe me. When she becomes a teenager she will rebel and turn against everything Greek." "You sure?" I asked. "Definitely," she pronounced. " I did." As the holidays draw to a close, my daughter begins to express the sentiment that she misses both her Greek and English schools and teachers. We venture out into the shops, in order to procure stationary and are confronted with the harried features of an old woman in a hurry. She pushes past us, grandson in tow. Our eyes meet and instantly, a flash of recognition. We have met before, in a playground, some months ago, where my daughters were playing with their maternal cousins. The old woman's grandson was howling for a turn on the swing and as it was offered to him, the grandmother turned to her daughter and exclaimed: "Από πού τους έμασαν όλους αυτούς τους κωλοαράπηδες, μου λές;" "Μπαμπά, τι είναι κωλοαράπηδες;" my daughter asked. "What is a κωλοαράπη?" my Assyrian nephew, who is learning Greek, asked. Turning to the lady, I asked: "Θέλετε να τους το εξηγήσετε;" On this occasion however, I merely smiled, wishing: "Χρόνια πολλά και καλή πρόοδο." "Μπαμπά, τι είναι πρόοδος;" my daughter asked.
19 January 2019
2 February 2019