Saturday, 25 May 2013

P.K. And Me

                           I have yet
Room for six scotches more.
Antony and Cleopatra IV. 7

P.K. looking Henrician.
It was a shock but not a surprise (if that is possible) to learn early last month of the death at 49 of Peter Kanellakopoulos, the owner of the school in Kalamata where I worked from 2002 to 2005.  Peter’s Greek name was Panayótis, which is shortened in most parts of Greece to ‘Panos’, but sometimes abbreviated in Kalamata to ‘Potis’. Make a minor adjustment to the spelling and this also means ‘drinker’- a most apt hypocoristic in Peter's case. We had in common a lively appreciation of ‘Johnnie’, the beverage that the late Christopher Hitchens called ‘Mr Walker’s Amber Restorative’ and ‘the Breakfast of Champions’. (If you offer a guest in Greece a drink and they ask ‘have you got a Johnnie?’ they are not jumping the gun, just stating a preference.*) A young man called Ilias kept a kava or booze shop nearby, and Peter would call him to have bottles of Johnnie delivered whenever he ran dry, which was daily.  Peter’s dedication to Johnnie was far greater than mine, and the attraction proved fatal.

(*For transatlantic readers, I should explain that 'johnny' is British demotic for 'condom'.)

Peter was a very generous bloke who worked diligently in the background of a number of people’s lives to help them with their jobs, their education, their taxes, their accommodation, whatever. If he didn’t always get the appreciation due to him for this, it was probably because face-to-face he could be rather hard work. Those who knew him would probably agree that he was not the easiest person to deal with in the early stages of acquaintanceship. He would make cringe-worthy remarks about people's personal appearance to their faces, intending these as jokes, or God help us, ice-breakers. An American woman newly arrived in Kalamata met with him to explore the possibility of a business collaboration.

'You shouldn't sunbathe so much!' Peter told her jovially as they were introduced. 'Makes you look old!'

A friend of mine who knew him much better than I did described him as monokómmatos, 'one piece', by which she meant unyielding, wooden, blunt - just what you might expect from looking at his photo. Few can tolerate silence in a social situation as long as he could. When I first had dealings with him around 1996, after a fifty second hiatus I would struggle to say something, anything, to keep the lines of communication open but when I managed to spit something out, he would frequently ignore it or change the subject. Thus in those early days he often made me feel like some prattling halfwit interrupting the cerebrations of a deeply serious scholar. It was a relief later to hear that he had the same effect on most people, and much later, comical to learn that he had thought I was the one who was hard work. Even after I understood him better, some of his thought processes remained baffling. One summer, we needed to advertise for new teachers. Peter wrote an ad for the local rag and asked me to cast an eye over it. I pointed out that although it provided a contact number, it didn’t give the name of the school.

‘We don’t want people to know we need more teachers,’ he said.

‘But we do need more teachers. Why else are we advertising?’

‘Trust me.’   

I never worked that one out.

Kalamata central square
Before I moved permanently to Kalamata I would visit the school perhaps three times a year to run seminars and study skills courses, and over time Peter and I established a modus vivendi maintained in large part by a common interest in ethanol. The study skills courses were for kids who were applying to British universities. While I taught them, Peter would be dealing with their parents, or on the phone to the universities, or sorting out their UCAS forms. The bizarre things that kids and parents said to us in the office became a staple of our conversations.

‘I want him to go to an easy university with a direct air-link to Kalamata, and no Pakistanis’ one father stipulated. His son Vangelis wanted to study chemical engineering but could barely compose a sentence in English, so the father was given to understand that the options would have to be narrowed down to one: a desperate university. Peter duly found one, and the other two requirements were waived. (The racism, incidentally, was just something you learned to live with. Few people of the father’s age in Kalamata had had dealings with other ethnicities at the time.) In due course, we received a wad of bumph to be completed and returned to Bumson-Seates University, and Vangelis was required to provide assorted documentation. He brought in a stack of forms and certificates for this and that, accidentally including a doctor’s note pronouncing him free of gonorrhoea. One form from the university asked if he wanted mixed or single-sex student accommodation. Vangelis didn’t understand this; the word ‘sex’ has been borrowed into Greek, but designates rumpy-pump, not gender.

‘What’s mean?’ Vangelis asked.

‘With women, or just with men?’ I said, erroneously assuming he knew we were talking about digs. 

‘No, no! I like girls!’ he gasped, horrified. What sort of question was that, for God’s sake? I wonder if he went home and reported this impertinence to his father, who no doubt execrated poufters even more than he did Pakis: we were in a deeply conservative part of a very conservative country. Later in the course, I invited back a couple of graduates from the previous year to regale the rookies with their experiences of British universities. One of these was Peter’s nephew, Argyris, who had returned from Edinburgh with a faceful of studs and metal rings and a t-shirt held together with safety pins. Had he been present, I suspect Vangelis’s father would have put a stop to his son’s university career before it started, and got him a job as a waiter on the sea front. Argyris informed the kids about Freshers’ Week:

‘Yeah, in the first week, like, everybody’s absolutely off their face!’

I was confident that the idiom was unknown to the Kalamata kids, and did not ask Argyris to explain it in case they went home and relayed this snippet to their parents, who were already worried they were sending their tender young shoots to Sodom and Gomorrah. ‘I feel like a fucking social worker,’ Peter would say, sloshing ice and Johnnie into our glasses late in the evening, after he’d spent all day answering parents’ qualms and queries. Some of the qualms he was so impatient with were in fact the perfectly reasonable fears of parents for kids about to leave home for the first time – not everybody was exercised about the availability of feta in Salford. Now that Peter’s own son is of the same age as those kids were back in 1998, no doubt he would have understood better.

One September I had to get the teachers together to design syllabuses for each level of kids at the school. The teachers were not paid for the workshops, and I got a bit worried as to how they’d react. Peter sensibly suggested I quit trying to be The Knower and The Leader, and just chuck the problems at the teachers to thrash out in groups. The week I had been dreading was a success. I e-mailed a friend in England:

Well, the workshops are going very well - never seen this lot so together, so conscientious and so thoughtful about what they are teaching and why. It's 100 times better than my wildest dreams, as I thought I would never be able to sell it to them.

I was dead chuffed. I went into Peter’s office to get a book. He was clearly crapulous, as betrayed by the smell of the menthol lozenges he kept in a drawer to disguise morning Johnnie-breath, and the fact that he was wearing dark glasses in the office with the shutters half closed.

‘Somebody’s gonna have to tidy up that classroom, it’s fucking chaos in there’ he growled.

(Congratulations, Steve, it’s going really well. Jolly good show, μπράβο σου, etc.)

Peter later had to ask a colleague why I seemed so angry. In the end we had it out and he said all the right things about the syllabus design workshop, but adding that he didn't see why he needed to be diplomatic with me, didn't we know each other better than that, etc. I let it go before we began to sound like an elderly married couple.  

Ten days or so before I left Kalamata for good, Peter's brother-in-law died suddenly and horrifyingly of anaphylactic shock, and I didn't see PK after that. I did not contact him again after leaving Greece in 2005, which is a pity, as he seems to have become somewhat isolated over the years. His funeral was well-attended, and grief was genuine, as he had helped a great many people in his unobtrusive, behind-the-scenes manner. I owe him an apology for not recognising this ages ago, and am sorry it’s such a belated one.  

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bryan Fischer

David Pakman (the thinking daddy's crumpet) reports here on an interesting interview with dick-headed, bat-shit insane homophobe whack-job wing-nut scum-bag Bryan Fischer, who is loonier than a shit-house rat, and then some. And some more. Yes, I admit it, I harbour a certain antipathy for Bryan. He is Director of Issues Analysis (or something) of the American Family Association, which is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center a a Hate Group, an organisation whose 'primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization'. Therefore I have no compunction in laying on him the colourful terms deployed in that first sentence. This interview provides a nice insight into a Christian fundy's perception of his own sexuality, and his projection of his fear of this onto the rest of us. As Louis says, the interview could go viral. I'm doing my bit.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Words On the Brain

The lock of my door broke this morning as I was trying to leave the house, so today it’s been necessary several times on the phone to use the word ‘locksmith’. An odd and rather frustrating thing: the word comes to me much more readily in Greek than in English, probably because I have had no truck with locksmiths in this country but had to avail myself of their expensive services several times in Greece. I suppose it’s all to do with context: keys + locks + frustration = looking for a phone number (usually on stickers in the lift) and mentally preparing what I’m going to say in Greek. The Greek word is ‘κλειδαράς’, pronounced, more or less, klidharás, and all morning for a few stuttering seconds it has blocked off the path to wherever the English word resides in my brain.  

There are other Greek words that do this. I have only ever had to ask for an advance on my wages in Greek, and the Greek word for ‘advance/deposit/down payment’ is prokatavolí. It always springs into my mind a second or two before ‘advance’ or ‘deposit’ do. Another curious ‘blocking’ word is periorisménos, meaning ‘restricted’ or ‘limited’. One Sunday afternoon back in the nineties a Greek queen of my acquaintance was indulging in nostalgia for the days when girls were severely limited in their movements by their fathers and brothers, and so boys turned to boys for sex. (I was some fifteen years too late for that.) Picking up a lad back then, he said, was easy as buying twenty Marlboro. The adjective he used to describe the condition of women was ‘periorisménes’, a word I had not heard up to that point, but whose meaning could be worked out from context and morphology. Correctly deducing meaning from contextual clues is a sure-fire way of fixing a word in my mind, but so often it causes this odd blocking of the English words. Whenever I need to use a word belonging in the lexical area of ‘restriction’, periorisménos bounds up wagging its tail and the right word in English is lagging a few paces behind. Same with prodiáthesi, meaning 'predisposition', which I read in a body-building mag in the far-off days when I used weights at a gym. I wish this meant that I was effortlessly fluent in Greek, but it doesn’t, especially after eight years away.

One evening in Athens I was walking home from work, racking my brains to recall the Albanian word for ‘prostitutes’. (I’m sure you do this all the time.) I had worked this one out from context whilst translating an article from Koha Jonë* a few weeks earlier. I kept getting Greek alepoú meaning ‘fox’, then lýkos meaning ‘wolf’, but couldn’t home in on the right word, and this bugged me no end until finally lupësa popped up out of the murk. Obviously! From Latin lupa, ‘she-wolf’, and slang for a lady of the night… hence the foxes... yeah, well, it was getting close. I felt dead sophisticated.

Until I started to write this post. I decided I had better check the meaning, just in case. Lupësa appears in a Google search only three times, each one the same article that I had read in 1995. It is not in my dictionary or in any online translator. I messaged an Albanian Facebook friend and meanwhile looked in my dictionary at alternative spellings. Yep, it’s lypësa, and it means ‘beggars’. Edlira later confirmed this. I’m so glad I was not trying to translate that article for anyone else's eyes, as I’ve been deluding myself for 23 years because of a typo. It occurred to me to hope that the word might still derive from Latin lupus, but no – the root is lyp-, meaning to ask or request, and nothing to do with wolves.

While we are sort of on the subject of wolves, bet you didn’t know that the English verb ‘look’ derives from the Greek for wolf. A colleague in Greece solemnly declared this to me. In Homer, she said, lýkofos means ‘wolf-light’, i.e., twilight, and you can’t deny that lyk- looks a bit like ‘look’, and you need light to look at stuff, and anyway, it’s in Homer, so QED. Thus a really chauvinistic Greek filológos – and there’s no shortage - can derive every word in every one of the world’s languages by trawling Homer for a syllable or two, and a little semantic lassoing. If I had had five thousand drachmas for every time I heard ‘Greek is the basis of all languages’, I’d have been dead of cirrhosis years ago.  

Actually, English is the basis of all the world’s languages, and I shall use the popular Greek method of etymology to demonstrate this. One illustration will serve to prove me absolutely, incontrovertibly right. The Chinese word for person is ren. It is written thus:  - a rather silly picture of a thing with two legs invented by people who’ve never learned to read like Christians. The word is quite plainly derived from the English ‘wren’, which, like a person, is bipedal. The Chinese failed to understand that the word refers to a bird and not a man because they are foreigners and we aren’t, and this is why the word means so much less in Chinese than it does in English.

Gus Portokalos is not much of an exaggeration.     


*Koha Jonë ('Our Time') Albanian newspaper.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Most Reassuring


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