A question I get a lot is, “you’ve been in Greece for 10 years, why don’t you speak Greek fluently?”
According to these niche groups, the answer is:
a) Greek men: Greek is a rich, but difficult language. (I agree with the rich part, but that’s no excuse)
b) Greek women: You do not have confidence to speak. (That’s hilarious)
c) People back home: You must be lazy or something. (No natural talent in the area of languages like my friend Ti who speaks 12 languages, but lazy…no)
d) Friends of all nationalities: Who cares? You already know English, French and Spanish, that’s enough!
The real answer is none of the above.
When I first arrived in 1998, there were no relatives or friends to give me a home and no parents to support me financially. There were no free Greek lessons being offered, in fact this only became a reality in 2004. I did not have a boyfriend/husband, a permit or a work contract. That means I stayed in a cheap hotel, then invested my savings in securing an apartment (deposit and rent), a few basic essentials (pots/pans, cleaning supplies) and a 220V radio to hear some music.
I signed up for basic Greek lessons at a rate of 575 euros for 60 hours, a considerable amount of money, even by today’s standards with the majority of university educated, experienced professionals earning 700 – 800 euros. How is it possible to pay rent, electric, phone, food and transportation in addition to 575 euros in Greek lessons on only 700 – 800 euros? I don’t know.
My classmates were nothing like me. A German boyfriend of a Greek woman, a diplomat’s wife, an English retiree, Swedes on paid sabbatical, spoiled American teenagers and a pregnant woman from Yugoslavia married to a rich Greek citizen. I was the only person with a need to find work and a permit.
Although I felt learning Greek was crucial to my success — and Kyria Rosa was the best teacher I’ve ever had (she’s mentioned in “Dinner with Persephone” on page 216) — it was also clear that survival was a higher priority with money running out. Empty interviews, “Brits only” rules and canceled appointments to teach English and Internet savvy to business professionals forced me to accept bar work on a faraway island where I at least had free shelter, food and a little money.
I returned to California for a family emergency with the money I’d saved, worked two full-time jobs while there and returned to Athens when things were clear for another go. Enrolling in Level 2, I also found full-time work and tried to balance this with lessons and homework. Since the salary was not enough to pay basic expenses and support Greek lessons, I took a second job to compensate. By the end of Level 3, it became too much to the point I only slept 3 hours a night and needed to quit.
At around the same time, there was a domino effect. My boss failed to draw up the necessary papers to finalize my contract, I became illegal and then he refused to pay me because he knew I had no legal standing to complain to the labor board. My boyfriend flew into a jealous rage after stalking and seeing me talk to another man who was a friend, broke into the house, stole my remaining money and a bunch of other things to sell, then flooded my apartment by leaving the bathtub running. I cleaned everything up, accepted a job in Sweden to pay my rent while gone and returned to find my landlord had changed the locks and rented my apartment to someone else using my things. I fled this apartment and filed a lawsuit against my landlord for the rent and deposit he owed and the things he stole. To pay the lawyer, I accepted a job in New York and came back to Greece to try again, only to get robbed within five days of arrival…OK, well you get the idea. No need for me to drone on if I haven’t already.
Aside from survival, not being in Greece for continuous periods and unexpected drama, my jobs have entailed speaking and writing native English perfectly for up to 14 hours a day. It’s the primary reason I’m hired. My colleagues are fellow expats or Greeks speaking highly proficient English, and this has been true of my Greek friends and boyfriends.
It’s also about employers and money. My bosses often refuse to give me IKA, which means I pay for my own insurance (ensima) costing upwards of 250 euros/month to retain my residence/work permit. And because I’m a single woman, I’m seen as needing less money for equal work and am told to find myself a husband to relieve any financial burden. To prove my point, a single American male co-worker hired at the same time doing the same job earned 300 euros more.
The opportunity to truly practice Greek came after I intentionally moved myself to a predominantly Greek neighborhood where no one spoke English and choosing to deal with bureaucracy myself, instead of always having a Greek speaking friend accompany me or hiring a lawyer to help. Whatever Greek I know is because of my choices and doing things myself, not because I’ve had a measly 120 hours of Greek lessons over 6 months.
In finally settling into a legal salaried job with IKA some years ago and having the time to take Greek lessons again, my Greek salary is not high enough (then or now) to pay my rent, electric, phone, food, transportation, water AND Greek lessons now costing 740 euros for 60 hours. I would need to earn 1500 euros/month to break even, and 1500 euros/mo is a near impossible salary to attain as a non-EU female in spite of the fact I’m educated and experienced. The cost of Greek lessons alone is more than the minimum Greek salary of 668 euros. I might not be able to afford it, even if I lived at home with everything provided for me.
There are cheaper and free options. I’ve attended the cheaper ones and learned that you get what you pay for, and the free ones clash with a work schedule that my boss is unwilling to change. This works out fine because the class I need is available only once in a blue moon, so there is a huge waiting list and I haven’t been able to enroll for two years. As a non-EU citizen, Greek law says I also need my boss’ written consent to attend the ministry’s free Greek lessons, and of course he will not give his consent because he knows if I ever become fluent in Greek, I will leave him for a better paying management position and stop earning him millions of euros.
Should the class ever open up and I quit my job, then I no longer have the right to attend free classes because non-EU citizens require a residence/work permit to enroll; and in order to keep my residence/work permit, I must work. It’s a Catch 22. So the only way I can be fluent in Greek is to pay hundreds of euros for lessons or for a private tutor, but the only way I can earn more money is to take more lessons to be fluent in Greek. Another Catch 22.
Friends mean well when they say they’ll help me, but they never do as they understandably have family, work and financial obligations of their own, as do I. Learning Greek in a casual environment is also unsuitable to my profession because it demands linguistic perfection.
That’s OK. Spanish and French are in much more demand, and I am doing fine now with Greek as my fourth language. I even manage to surprise the occasional Archbishop with Orthodox Christian greetings and scare off kamaki boys who think they’re hitting on a tourist. 8)
I’m fluent now. The post above is a retrospective.
“The importance of speaking Greek in Greece”
“Free Greek language lessons”
“Conversations from my life as a foreigner in Greece that no speak good English”
“Why do you speak Greek fluently?” — Betabug’s success story
Kat is a well-traveled American journalist and author. To learn more, see “About Me.”
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Photo: Nassau County Library