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Learning to look the language

It’s not always easy to grow up with two different cultures, but it is a great privilege. As a child my home was always in London, but my gaze was always elsewhere. It was fixed on somewhere to the south-east where the sea was always blue, the weather was always warm, and the food was on a different planet.

IMG_8166My heart was in Greece from a young age. My year was punctuated by visits at Christmas, Easter, Summer and any other time we could get away. When I was much younger I used to have the myths of the Ancient Greeks as bedtime stories, and I knew all the nursery rhymes off by heart.

My love for Greece only grew stronger as I grew older. Greece was my rock. Whenever things got stressful, I would dream of just turning up at the airport and getting on the next plane to Athens and sitting down by the shore and enjoying the sea breeze. With the arrival of cheap airfares, this dream has finally became a reality.

Yesterday, after spending another day in Budapest battling through some of the most horrendous heat I’ve ever experienced in my life, I finally threw in the towel and booked a last minute flight to Greece. I had barely enough time to process what was going on, as the next morning at 5 am I packed my bags and headed first to Vienna, then to the airport to catch my flight. As I came through security I started to hear more Greek voices and spotted those unmistakeable blue laminated ID cards devoid of any trace of security features and I started to get really excited. To my delight, at the gate the announcements were made not only in German and English, but in Greek too, this time adding “Have a nice trip home!” for those who could understand.

IMG_8144As I took my seat and we took off I was already over the moon. I was so excited to be going back to Greece at such little warning. We climbed and banked left out of Vienna to fly back over Hungary, where I had just hurtled through on the train that morning. As the drinks trolley approached, I started to think about what I was going to have.

The stewardess stopped at the row in front of me and asked the passengers in Greek what they wanted to drink. They were all French tourists and didn’t understand a word she said. They all laughed. “Sorry, I thought you were Greek!” she explained to them. I laughed too. It was funny.

Then she lifted the break on the trolley and wheeled it back to my row. She turned to me first. “What would you like to drink?” she asked me in English. I was horrified. I answered curtly in Greek that a glass of water was fine, which she gave me. She then turned to the passenger next to me and asked: “Θέλετε κάτι να πιείτε;” He was from Peru.

IMG_5116Indignantly I watched her make her way down the cabin to see how she spoke to each passenger. To every passenger that didn’t have jet black hair, dark brown eyes and a tan (a beard also seemed to help) she asked them in Greek, but with anyone who strayed ever so slightly from that description, she switched to English.

I was outraged. She’d just treated me like any other tourist, yet she’d spoken to all of the real tourists around me in Greek, just because they had a tan. It clearly didn’t matter that I speak Greek, have Greek family and was even travelling on a Greek ID card. She just took one look at me and decided that even someone from Peru was more likely to be Greek than me.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Once I was with my parents in a café in Athens and every time the waiter came over, he spoke to us in English. We patiently replied in Greek every time. After about the fourth time he finally swore loudly and said (in Greek) “I can’t get used to the fact that you’re Greek because you don’t look Greek! That’s not normal.”

It’s not enough to speak the language. It turns out you have to look the language too. But what does that even mean?

IMG_5025I used to think that there was just a Greek “look”, which I clearly don’t fit. As far as I could work out, if you have dark skin and dark features people will speak to you in Greek, because that’s what Greeks “look like”. But when I am in Greece and I look around me, I actually see a very diverse population. There are plenty of green and even blue eyes, lots of people have blonde or fair hair (not all of it peroxide) and some people are as pale as a Swiss cheese. I started looking out for these people because I wanted to make the point, both to myself and to other people, that they exist which would mean that I could – realistically – look Greek.

Once when I was in a café in England, I heard someone shouting in Greek down the phone. I looked and discovered the source of this was a blonde-haired blue-eyed woman sipping a chai latte. To make this point, I asked my friend who I was with at the time to guess where they were from. “I don’t know,” she said. “Sweden, maybe?”

Because of my background and personal circumstances, Greece is where I’ve mainly encountered this problem. But in fact, it is one that is spread far and wide. Any country that seems to have a sort of homogenous “look” will give the same reaction to anyone that they perceive to be a foreigner. My father, for example, lived and worked in Japan for four years and learned good Japanese. But because of the way he looked, people never stopped treating him like he’d just walked off the plane.

If you don’t look authentic, you can at least try and sound authentic to make up for it. With Greek, my accent was always a top priority for me. There was a while when I even deliberately adopted the local dialect of my parents’ village to create some kind of a backstory, but there comes a point where playing guess-who spills over into plain deception, which is where I start to feel uncomfortable. Whichever way you look at it, Greece is not like countries such as Germany, Norway and the UK that have a long history of immigration from all sorts of different countries. Anyone could realistically be from those countries because, well, almost anybody is. But if you don’t look the exact part in somewhere like Greece or even Asia, then this is a problem that you’ll just have to learn to live with.

Once, though, I was flying back from Singapore with Turkish Airlines and as I was queuing at the gate I felt a sharp tap on my shoulder. It was from a guy with bright blue eyes and thick white hair. “I think you’ve dropped your boarding pass,” he said in Greek and pointed at the floor. Startled but grateful, I thanked him and picked it up. His gaze lingered on me for a few seconds longer as he examined my face. “Somehow I knew you were Greek,” he said.

Want to find out more about how I learn languages?

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