I'm not the type of person who gets all shy when it comes to speaking in a foreign language. I test a newly learned word on its effect immediately. The actual meaning is of lesser importance. It's the sound that counts. Whispering »cylinder head gasket« ever so softly in my ear can put me in a horizontal position faster than a profane »honey«. Nonetheless the meaning inevitably becomes of main concern when one travels to a foreign country.
When I came to Crete for the first time, the only word I knew was »bottle cap«. I said »bottle cap« at the airport, »bottle cap« during the cab ride to the south coast and »bottle cap« when I saw the run-down country house that I had purchased for a ridiculously low price in a godforsaken place named »Good Will«. I wanted to learn Greek with the ease of a child, but for the time being I was restricted to what I knew: »Bottle cap«. I was greeted with Cretan cordiality and I used my meager vocabulary everywhere I went: At the bakery, the priest and in the ramshackled pharmacy. »Ah, bottle cap! You speak most excellent!«, the people lied. Three bearded old women dragged me into their home, shouting euphorically, pushing me on a wooden footstool and offering me coffee in a dingy mocha cup. »Bottle cap!«, I yelled in desperation and pointed at the door. The diversion gave me just enough time to pour the muddy broth into a nearby flowerpot.
As time went by I learned a handful of verbs and the precious word »not«. Already my Greek sounded much more adept. »Are we smelling bottle caps?«, I asked at a christening. I threw my worn-out sandals at the cobbler, telling him shrewdly that bottle caps could not go fishing.
If my vocabulary had been bigger I would have been able to understand what the people in the village were saying about me behind my back. Luckily there already was a village idiot. He never talked, though, instead he'd swing naked on a discarded tire, weaved crosses out of twigs from an olive tree or blew folk songs through a hollow broom stick.
»This language is best learned in bed«, an icon painter claimed. I was enthused and let him into my bedroom. There he muttered something about »profiles« and »Tiko«. Then he jumped on top of me and grunted. Undoubtedly he grunted in Greek but I couldn't understand anything except for »you horny girl, you!« and »oh, holy mother, mine!«
»Profilaktikó – contraceptive!«, the village idiot explained later, trying to stick his head inside the bag of a vacuum cleaner.
For a while I retreated to my country house to make it habitable. During the day I crawled on concrete floors, at night I expanded my Greek vocabulary. One may argue over its benefits:
My neighbors visited me occasionally to chat. »Incontinence«, I'd say to greet them and »spittoon« when they left. The times in-between I filled with a dumb grin or the spontaneously gained knowledge of the word »sea beast«.
It seemed impossible to have a normal conversation. Thus, I hired a private tutor. One time she arrived with bloody fingertips because she had tried to open the door of the bus by pulling with her bare hands to get to class on time. My home was without power and we had to study in candle light. Whenever it got rough I killed the flames and hid in a dark corner. »The passive form is not that hard!«, Miss Manetákis cried and angrily poked her pointing stick into the darkness until she located me. When she showed up with a flashlight I had no choice but to face the passive. »The Greeks don't use it anymore«, she later clarified. »Too difficult, you know?« I kicked her out and defiantly flooded the village with the passive voice.
»The unicorn is being doubted!«, I shouted at a sweating man who sat on a power pole. »Bottle cap?«, he yelled down.
I stubbornly added more words to my vocabulary until I was able to place my first orders. For the remodeling of my house I had useful things delivered to me from the city. Proud as one could be I returned nothing. There was enough room in the house for all the stuff that I hadn't ordered quite like this:
»What do you need a calf's head with handles for?«, my neighbor inquired when I asked her for a cooking pot.
They intentionally misunderstand me, I thought. I put it to the test by ordering the ears of a bat. I received the ears of a bat, embedded in a seashell-studded chest with sand. It was the first correct delivery. It made me happy.
Soon I was ready for fluent dialogs.
»When is your daughter doing?«
»Oh, she is getting married next year.«
»Ah, not believable that!«
»She's engaged. A good boy. Lives in 8 caves and rides on a transverse flute.«
»Urgh, that far?«
From thereon out I did all my shopping myself.
»One milk of suns. The time is hot.«
»You mean sunblocker? Which SPF?«
»A quarter to five, please.«
»That is speaking of cow?«
»Cow tongue, yes.«
»I give that, too.«
»Can I fuck brown bread on shelf?«
When I traveled back to Germany the villagers waved good-bye. »Bottle cap!«, they shouted. »Anus!«, I responded. And then: »See you all last year!«
Feeling content I got into the cab and thought about Rabelais who once said: »Without Greek nobody can call himself a scholar, if he doesn't want to blush in embarrassment.« What might have been his first Greek word?