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My 45 Year Struggle with the Greek Language

Early Childhood

papoo-yayaLike many people I was Greek for years before I knew it. When I was a child I had two sets of grandparents. My mother's parents were Jewish. Murray and Gertrude Issacowitz, known to me as Grandpa and Grandma. My father's parents were Giorgos and Vasiliki Economopoulos who I called Papoo and Yaya. I must have been three or four when I had my first revelatory experience in which I learned the concept of grandparents and learned my first Greek word. My grandmother used to visit us ever couple of Sundays. They lived in Lawrence, LI which was about a 45 minute drive from our home in East Northport, but my grandfather had a big Cadillac convertible and like many guys with Cadillacs he loved to drive and those Sundays were the most family experience I can remember. My grandfather would always tell us stories about when he was a kid and my grandmother would read to me from the dozens of books we had. (My favorite was the Possum That Didn't). My Papoo and Yaya came over less often. First of all my Papoo was Greek and had a luncheonette in Hicksville, LI called The Sweet Shop and like most 60 year old Greeks in America with restaurants he worked all the time. He lived for work. So we rarely saw them. On the other hand my Uncle John and my Uncle Gus worked with Papoo in the Sweetshop and their families saw Papoo and Yaya a lot. They all worked side by side every day until my Papoo died and then my Uncles continued working side by side til they could not stand each other anymore and they sold the sweetshop and moved far away from each other and still rarely talk. My Dad was a teacher. He left the world of the Hicksville Sweetshop for the world of education, and also left behind his Greek identity.

One Sunday my Papoo and Yaya came to visit us. It was such a rare occasion I remember it as being as special an event for us as my Yaya's funeral was a few years later. Probably my Papoo had to be dragged there from the Sweetshop, and my parents were falling over each other trying to make them comfortable. I climbed on to my Yaya's lap and asked her to read me a story. I forget the name of the book but it was about a little boy named Matthew(like me) and his dog and I related strongly to it. It was an important book in my childhood and come to think of it the fact that I don't have a dog now makes me feel incomplete even though the idea of having to carry around a pooper scooper or plastic bags every time I take him for a walk has kept me from getting one. But back to my childhood. So my Yaya opens the book and starts pointing to the pictures. "Look at the boy. Look at the dog. It is a nice dog". I was confused and irritated. I can look at the book and point to the pictures and say look at the dog, look at the tree. That's not reading me a story. "No Yaya. Read to Me!"

My mother to the rescue. "Yaya is tired from her trip (20 minutes). Why don't you go play."

Later I asked her about it. "Mom. Why couldn't Yaya read to me". My mother explained how her parents were born and educated in America and my father's parents came on a boat from Greece and had to work very hard and she never learned to read. I started putting two and two together in my mind.
"So wait a second, what Grandma and Grandpa are to you, Yaya and Papoo are to Dad?" I asked my mother.
"Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are my mother and father and Papoo and Yaya are your father's mother and father."
I had never really thought about this but it made sense. "So Yaya and Papoo are my grandma and grandpa too!"
"Yes. Yaya and Papoo mean Grandmother and Grandfather in Greek". My mother smiled proudly at my ability to grasp the situation.
"Damn. I thought Papoo and Yaya were their names".
I had learned my first Greek words. Papoo and Yaya.

Later Childhood

By the time I was 8 my Papoo and Yaya were dead and so was any possibility that I would grow up Greek. In the years between my revelation and our first trip to Greece I don't think the word Greek was mentioned and we did not even have feta cheese in the house. The last spanakopita I had was at my Yaya's funeral in 1960. I was growing up American. So I was taken by surprise when my parents told us we were moving to Greece.
"Greece? What the hell is that?"
"Its a country far away where your Papoo and Yaya came from and your father is going there to teach at the University."
"Oh. OK. Can I have a glass of milk?"

Not long after my father took all of us kids and told us about Greece, and that we were Greek and how they speak a different language. We danced around the garden gleefully shouting ochi (no), nai (yes), skylos (dog), skouliki (worm). In just 3 years my vocabulary had jumped to 6 words and I was ready for a new life in Greece.

Greece 1963

Matt in Athens 1963As it turned out none of those words would come in handy during my first crisis in Greece. We spent the first month on the island of Syros where my father and all the other teacher in the Fulbright program had their orientation while all the kids ran wild in the Hermes Hotel and the town of Hermoupolis. My father was pretty busy so he did not continue the Greek lessons beyond those first essential words he taught us back in Long Island. It didn't matter. We were surrounded by American kids and the Greek kids in the town knew words like Hello and phrases like How are you? so we all communicated quite well. But the first day we were in Athens my brother and I got totally lost in Monastiraki and my limited vocabulary did not allow me to explain my situation to the police who found us, no matter how many ways I changed the order of the words ochi (no), nai (yes), skylos (dog), skouliki (worm) and papoo and yaya. But by some miracle I was able to remember where the Fulbright office was (this is still considered a miracle in my family) and the police brought me there and a little while later my father walked in and found us. That next year I went to ACS, the American Community School, and my best friend was an English kid who lived on the next block, named Ian Sammit-Smith. I leaned some Greek but before I could get comfortable using it our year in Greece was over and we were back in the USA again. (I am the first on the left with the best gear. Ian Sammit-Smith is the last. My brother david is holding the fish.)

Learning Greek by getting a Greek Girlfriend

Greek GirlfriendIf you want to learn Greek get a Greek boyfriend or girlfriend. That's what my sister did when we moved back to Greece in the late sixties. Cindy was very shy and kept to herself so much that my parents were worried that she might grow up to be a shrew or a nun or an unhappy person. So they were ecstatic when she got a Greek boyfriend named Yorgo and they didn't care when he pretty much moved into her room when she was 16. (She claims they never had sex, even to this day and she is 50 now so why would she lie?) Cindy learned Greek faster than any of us because of Yorgo.

I had a golden opportunity to have a Greek girlfriend and solve my language problem forever. We were living in Ambelokipi and I was hanging out with some very nice Greek kids in the neighborhood. I had taken the bus to Kifissia where there was an American Club and a Youth Center one day, but I felt like an outsider and was more comfortable in my neighborhood I guess. There was a really pretty girl named Voula who liked me and one day we went to find one of our friends at his apartment and as we were passing through a dark walkway between two buildings she grabbed me and kissed me passionately, her tongue so far down my throat she could probably tell what I had for breakfast and said "Se agapo" (I love you). A new word. Two actually.

I guess I was kind of in shock though. We walked back to the steps where our little gang of friends hung out and said nothing about it. But I was so shaken I went home. My parents were all dressed up to go to a party for the ACS teachers at the American Club and asked me if I would take them there on the bus and I said OK. On that bus I saw another Greek-American kid I recognized from one of my classes at ACS. It was Peter Christ and his brother Chris. They became my best friends and after that night the American Youth Center was my hangout. I never even saw Voula again. Ever. And from that point onward all my friends were Americans or Greek-Americans who knew as little Greek as I did.

Learning Greek in School

If you can't have a Greek girlfriend the next best way to learn Greek is to take it in high school. I wanted to take Greek at ACS. Even the Greek-American kids who spoke Greek fluently took Greek at ACS. My father wouldn't let me. "Greek is not an accepted language at American Universities. You need to take Spanish, French or German". So I took 4 years of Spanish and never made it to Spanish Two, in fact I never passed Spanish, got into a college anyway, and dropped out after a year.

I learned a lot of Greek by osmosis. All of us American kids did. We knew all the bad words of course. Malaka, Pousti, Gamoto, Gamisou. These just come naturally for some reason. But we could all say what we needed to say in order to do the few things that we did, take a bus, eat a souvlaki, order a coke or a beer, buy a ferry ticket, the same stuff that tourists do. We also knew enough Greek to play practical jokes on people who did not know any Greek. Like when Gary came to visit us in 1970 and he wanted to learn how to say his name and we taught him to say he was a compulsive masturbator instead.

Learning Greek with Music

SavopoulosProbably the first time I realized that there was something going on that I was not getting but needed to was when my friend Jimi Quidd (or James Hatzidimitriou) translated the lyrics to the album Vromeko Psomi by Dionysious Savopoulos for me. It was recorded during the Junta and it was a commentary on life in a dictatorship written in such a way so that if you just took it at surface value they could have been love songs or weird poetic imagery. In fact it was a condemnation of the government and a cry for help and it made me want to learn Greek more than ever. But its a long way from Beginners Greek to understanding the lyrics of Savopoulos. I have Greek friends who listen to one of his songs and don't know what some words mean. Thirty years later I can pretty much understand most of the lyrics on the album. But could I explain them to someone in Greek? No way. But it got me started on listening to Greek music, laika and rembetika, and I began picking up words from the songs and then actually sitting down and translating all the lyrics. So if the subject is broken hearts, sly women, exile, poverty, or drinking in the taverna, my vocabulary is pretty good. But if I turn on the Greek news or even the weather I barely know what the hell they are saying.

Reading Greek

George Seferis PoemsThis could be the key. I have a friend who plays music and was so reluctant to learn to read and write music he created his own musical language that enabled him to compose. The only problem is that he is the only person in the world who reads this language. If you want to learn Greek but are too lazy to learn the alphabet then you are hamstringing yourself. Once you learn the alphabet everything becomes a Greek lesson in Greece. The signs on buildings you pass on the bus, your bus ticket, the Greek side of the menu, anything with words on it enables you to practice. I learned the alphabet from one of those language course books and then practiced reading the Sherrard-Keeley translation of George Seferis Poetry which has English and Greek side by side. Learning Greek from a poet is a strange way to do it, especially if you mix it with the slang of rembetika, the music of the hashish smoking underworld, and the love and hate songs of Stelios Kazantzides, but probably by the time I die it will all come together and I will walk into a cafe and order a coffee in a way that the owner has never heard before but he will still know exactly what I want.

Speaking Greek

OuzoBut the best way to learn Greek, or any language, is to have the courage to try speaking it. It does not matter if you say it wrong. People will figure out what you mean and often correct you in a nice way. Why is it that someone like me struggles with Greek for most of my life and an Albanian comes to Greece and speaks almost fluently in a year? One reason is because he has to. Many Greeks speak English and want to, so most conversations when there is a native English speaker in the group, even if outnumbered, will be in English. If Greeks did not speak English then Americans, Greek-Americans and English people living in Greece would pick it up a lot faster, just like the Albanians. So where can you go in Greece where not that many people speak English and you can practice your Greek by immersion? Well, prison would probably be one place. But that might be a little extreme. I know when I go to the remote villages in Lesvos I speak only Greek and the longer I stay the better it gets. Actually the more ouzo I drink the better it gets too. But even in Athens if you just stick to Greek and even when they answer in English, keep using your Greek, eventually they will go back to their native language because it is easier and you will learn Greek. Or just tell them you come from a country nobody has ever heard of and speak a language nobody knows and then everyone will help you practice your Greek.

Good luck.

I probably could have written more on this subject but I just woke up and did it before I even had my first cup of coffee. Maybe I will develop this into a new page somewhere. But in the meantime you can pick up some Greek words at and I forgot to mention the Anotek Program that I used that is pretty good if you want help teaching yourself Greek. See The best thing to really jumpstart your Greek is by doing a course at the Athens Centre or one of the other Greek language schools in Greece. See

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