Tag Archives: family

On Greek being Greek

My grandfather wrote this out for me from memory in the summer of 1990, the summer before I turned 15. (He would have said before I turned 16; we had endless arguments about inclusive counting). He must have written it in the village of Καλό Νερό in Messenia, where I, my cousin Angelos and my grandparents were vacationing. He had written it out for me because we had taken the old train to Κακόβατος for the day to go for a swim and a bite to eat (neither of my Greek grandparents knew how to drive). As we were waiting for the train to come, my grandfather started to teach me the opening lines of the Odyssey, to bide the time, I guess. The words were strange to me. They didn’t make sense, even though of course I recognized familiar words. My cousin laughed at me as I tried and failed to reproduce the strange sequence of sounds that my grandfather was patiently reciting.

I remember the scene vividly, and so does my cousin. It stuck with me. I was always aware of the fact that my father had learned ancient Greek in high school and wrote his papers in καθαρεύουσα, the formal language of the Greek state until 1976. But I didn’t grow up learning Greek formally: I learned orally, largely from my father and from my grandparents, who never left Greece and who never really learned any language other than Greek. And I learned largely in Greece, and especially in Athens, in Exarcheia and Glyfada.

I didn’t grow up yearning to know ancient Greek, but in my first year at college at the University of Michigan, I briefly entertained the idea. I flipped to where “Greek” should have been in the course catalog – this was the 90s, we had paper course catalogs – and it read simply, “See Classical Studies.” The first course codes under “Classical Studies,” listed alphabetically, were “Classical Archaeology.” I was planning to double-major in history and economics, and I was vaguely interested in ancient history, so the idea of archaeology intrigued me. I took an introduction to Greek Art & Archaeology taught by John Pedley and an introduction to Field Archaeology taught by Sue Alcock, and that was it: I was hooked.

But I also took Greek that year, the ancient variety, and while I don’t remember being hooked, I did like it. It was different from the Greek I knew. My classmates kept insisting that my knowledge of modern Greek must have been a huge advantage, but I remember thinking that wasn’t so. More than anything else, modern Greek helped me remember certain words, but the language had changed enough that it wasn’t a one-to-one connection. My favorite example is the adjective ποικίλος, which the LSJ renders as “many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled; wrought in various colours; cunningly wrought; changeful, diversified, manifold; intricate, complex” etc. In Greece now, a ποικιλία (the noun) is a variety plate of appetizers (sort of) served at restaurants, normally for a  bite to eat while you’re drinking (called meze in Greek).

These kinds of connections and interconnections were fascinating to me. They enriched my understanding of my Greek – in wonder, I realized that the Greek word for newspaper, εφημερίδα, was actually a “daily,” literally (φ’ μέρα > ἐφήμερος, cf. English ephemeral). And I understood now that Greek used to have an aspirate, which is why it was an ephimerida and not an epimerida. These are dumb things in retrospect, but it was a revelation to feel that you understood a language and its history rather than simply using it to order souvlakia (still the best thing you can do in any language is order meat on a stick).

I wanted to take ancient Greek because in my addled teen brain I thought it was a kind of family tradition. My father learned ancient Greek in school, my grandfather had taught me my first words of Homer. So it was with some surprise and interest that I read James Nikopoulos’ thoughtful article “On not wanting to know ancient Greek.” In some ways, it sounds like we have a lot in common: we both spent our summers in Exarcheia, we were both raised and educated in the US. But my family saw the language of ancient Greece as something relevant to us. And while my family’s vacations were largely vacation-y, we spent a lot of time surrounded by antiquity: going to archaeological sites and museums, visiting my uncle, who worked as an architect on archaeological projects. I’m not sure that we talked about it much, but it was there, all the time.

And it’s still with me. I’m a professional Classicist – sorry, James – that works on the earliest Greek we have, in the Late Bronze Age. I really derive pleasure from showing students the connections between the Greek words they know and the ones they see in radically different forms in Linear B; that they actually know this word from 14th c. BC Knossos:


(It’s to-sa, as in τόσα, “so many,” as in τόσα σουβλάκια [but sadly in this case it’s actually feminine plural, τόσαι]).

On the other hand, I share James’ worry that the Greek language “shouldn’t have to pretend it ever stopped being itself,” and the same goes for Greece. I do find its antiquity endlessly interesting, but if I’m being honest the reason I have gone back every summer since I can remember is the place as it is now and as it has been. I can’t imagine living without it.

And I share James’ regret that I don’t know Greek better, in all its forms. But I’m working on it.

Place and memory

I’m currently reading Janice Kulyk Keefer’s fantastic memoir, Honey and Ashes. It’s a memoir of an immigrant family in Toronto, full of stories from the Old World, stories that revolve around her grandparents, her mother and her aunt, in the western Ukraine. Those stories were about a world that felt in some ways far more real to her than the Toronto in which she grew up. Her book reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents and their stories. On the one hand, I wish that I had paid more attention to their stories so that I could recall them with Keefer’s vividness. On the other, the yawning chasm between Keefer and the Ukraine is different from my experience — my paternal grandparents never left Greece, I and my family went back often, almost every summer of my life, although of course my experience of Greece was very different from theirs. My grandmother was from a mountain village in the least populated part of Greece, after all, and my grandfather was one of the refugees who were forcibly moved from their homes in Turkey to Greece in the population exchanges of the early 1920s. When they were married they were strangers, my grandmother always used to say. The Greece I knew as a child was a radically urban Athens and its suburbs (especially Glyfada) in the 1980s and onwards.

The other dimension of Keefer’s work that interests me is the extent to which her stories about her grandparents’ village are bound up in place, and how important place becomes when she travels back to the Ukraine as an adult to explore the remnants of ‘home.’ Places anchor these stories, prove their authenticity, bring them alive. In this respect, one of the stories I was told by my grandparents — although it barely qualifies as a story — has profoundly influenced me. One night I went out to dinner with a prehistorian friend in the Athenian neighborhood of Kaisariani. When I told my grandmother where I had been the night before, she nodded and quietly said that many people had died there during the war. Almost word for word, her youngest sister Elli independently repeated the same to me later that morning. I didn’t ask for any more details. 200 communists were executed there on May 1, 1944, and this is now commemorated by a memorial.

I was struck then by the way in which traumatic memories were so stronly associated with particular places, such that my grandmother and her sister immediately responded in exactly the same way, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that more than 10 years later, I wrote an article in GRBS in which I argued that traditions and memories associated with the Athenian Acropolis — in particular the slaughter of the followers of Kylon circa 632 BC — exerted a powerful effect on Athenians in the Archaic and Classical periods, so strong that it influenced the performance of an annual ritual on the Acropolis known as the Dipolieia and the Bouphonia. Memories and family traditions reside in places, they haunt them and define them, no less I would argue then than they do now.