Learning to Shout in Greek

When I graduated oh-so-many years ago, I was pretty chuffed with my 2:1 in English Literature and Philosophy.  Then I discovered that the rest of the world (i.e. employers) were not quite so enamoured of my academic skills.  So, I did what any self-respecting girl with wanderlust and a clingy boyfriend would do, and bought a one-way ticket for myself to Greece.  I had replied, in a very old fashioned way, to an advert in a newspaper.  I now had a job – to teach English as a foreign language.

This was the first time I had travelled anywhere significant on my own.  But I thought that I knew Greek culture from holidays on the Greek islands, so I went with little trepidation.  In fact, I did what I now recognize that I usually do, and just leapt on a plane and went with the flow, with little thought to any consequences.

I was teaching English at a Frontesterion in Livadia, in the region of Viotia, about two hours north of Athens by road.  Frontesteria are private evening schools, which parents pay a fee to get their children additional education.  This was one which solely taught English, but the children attended other ones for other subjects.  I was quite horrified at the amount of hours that the children were putting in to their schooling – a day at school, then off to classes at a Frontesterion; even the primary aged children of 6 or 7 years old.  Children regularly came to class in a state of exhaustion, so high were their parents’ expectations.

The reason given to me by most people I spoke to, was that the Greek government schools, in their opinion, did not provide a good enough education, and parents who could afford to, would send their children to these additional evening and Saturday classes.  As the Greek schools went on strike when I was there (along with the students, teachers, banks, bakers, bin men, ferries and Olympus Airways), I could perhaps understand their concerns.

I had been teaching English as a foreign language in Edinburgh since I’d graduated.  My classes had been filled with a mix of French, Spanish and Italian kids, all in Edinburgh for a couple of weeks to see the sights, live with a local family, and have English lessons.  I didn’t just teach, but also accompanied them on cultural visits, sporting activities, and a memorable trip to Loch Lomond, where all the teachers were sharing a giant collective hangover following the free bar at the director’s wedding the night before.

Most of the kids were just there to enjoy some freedom from their parents, eat their body weight at McDonald’s, and clog up the streets of Edinburgh with their enormous backpacks.  One of the more interesting characters was a French teenager who stalked about in a long leather coat, enjoyed shoplifting from tourist shops, and terrorizing his more studious classmates by threatening to drop them out of the 6th floor window.  He was a charmer.

So I thought that teaching in a Frontesterion would be a breeze.  Mostly it was, and mostly I enjoyed it.  With the tinies who spoke as much English as I did Greek, I did puppet shows and delighted them with a Hallowe’en lantern made from a pomegranate.  With the adult classes, we used the hilarious series The Bold and the Beautiful to talk about appearances and social issues.  This series was shown on a daily basis, over lunchtime, when no one seemed to be at work, but crowded round a TV to watch the trials and tribulations of Ridge, Storm, Logan and Sally Spectra.  It was subtitled in Greek, which was a great way for me to pick up the language.

I particularly enjoyed when a class would learn a new word – which they then spoke for evermore with a Scottish accent!  I like to think of a generation of Greeks from Livadia who sound mildly Scottish.

But the one class which made my life a misery was the advanced one, full of 16 and 17 year olds – which included the daughter of my boss and the owner of the school.  She was, of course, the ring leader, and I could do nothing about it.

To make matters worse, we were using the most appalling grammar book ever.  Imagine the worst excesses of Google Translate translating itself, then swap some words around at random, and that was what you got.  The grammar was often just plain wrong, and there would be random nouns and verbs with seemed to be allotted different meanings from what I had been familiar with for 20-plus years.

But none of the students wanted to hear that the book was wrong.  It was printed in a book!  It must be correct!  So they would refuse to listen to me, chat and yell, and generally misbehave, led by the director’s daughter.  One day, I lost it completely with them.  I roared at them that I was sick fed up with their attitude, but if they kept refusing to listen to me, then they would fail their exams spectacularly.  I pointed out that I was the native English speaker, but if they wanted to believe a badly translated grammar book, then they were welcome to it.  In my last act, I flounced out the door, slamming it soundly behind me.

I had only taken a couple of steps towards the staff room when I heard an almighty crash.  Yes, dear reader, the door was made up of 3 large panes of glass, and my slamming had sent one of these tumbling to the ground, in smithereens. I managed to get to the staff room before I burst into tears.

Maria, one of the other teachers, came to find out what was wrong, and I sobbed my story to her.  She put the briki on the hotplate, and made us coffee.  We both liked it metrio.  She told me not to worry, and that the students were busy sweeping up the glass.  It was, she said, for the best.  She pointed out that I was, in comparison to many Greeks, soft-spoken, and that it was common for Greeks to yell and shout to make their point.  I had certainly seen a lot of that around, but hadn’t paused to think of the cultural necessity of this to form my authority over the class.  The students would, she assured me, respect me more now.

She told me stories of her first job teaching English.  She travelled to Crete to do this, and was met by the director who told her, “You are English, aren’t you.  From England.”  She began to assure him that she was actually Greek, but he took her by the arm and whispered that his native speaker had not turned up, and that, having promised the parents a native speaker, he couldn’t disappointment them.  Maria spent that first year pretending she knew no Greek.  She had to ignore the comments and discussions about her going on in class, and pretend to learn new Greek words each week from her students.

“It is only a job,” she reminded me, “don’t take it so seriously.”

That smashed glass and slammed door did, in fact, work out for the best.  The class treated me with newfound respect, and we went to the cinema and out for coffees.  The girls gave me advice about dealing with unwanted male attention, and the director – who hardly mentioned the smashed door – finally bought some decent grammar books.

That just left me coping with the teenage boys who liked to fill the essays I set them (with innocuous titles, such as ‘What I Did at the Weekend’), with their lurid fantasies, which often involved versions me.  Myself, and the Scottish teacher I met who worked nearby, would howl with laughter as we marked the homework and read the stories to each other.  I took a vengeful delight in choosing never to correct their collective misspelling of ‘fack’ (as in ‘I want to make fack with you’ and ‘I like to fack’).

Well, there had to be an appropriate limit to my wish for them all to successfully learn English…


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