1981 The time in my life when I was most free was a time when the scope of my activities was tightly restrained. I slept on the bottom bunk of a bed in a room with six other seventeen-year-old boys. I woke at 6:30, ate a crust of bread, drank some foul-tasting water, worked for five hours on a building site, ate lunch, came home, took classes and spent the evenings reading and writing papers. I had no freedom to vary that routine.

Once, I wrote a paper about a topic other than what was assigned. I got a tongue-lashing, in writing. “That would be like writing, ‘Cabbages can sing, if they eat pumpkins’, if I asked you a math question.” That came from the crazy old teacher who ran the school. Keep to the task. That’s why it’s there.

The school was on an island in the Dodecanese. Twelve major islands that lie along the coast of Turkey. Seized by Italy from the Ottoman empire in 1912. Transferred to Greece after the Second World War. They retain special status within the Republic of Greece still.

Dhodheka – twelve (dodecahedron; duo+deka)

Rhodes – popular tourist destination. Site of big Crusader colony back in the day.

Leros – biggest insane asylum in the Balkans.

Patmos – where John drafted Revelation.

Kos – drunken Brits, drunken Swedes.

Karpathos – rednecks and sheep thieves.

I was on Kalymnos. Between Kos and Leros. Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships in Iliad 2, but very briefly. Rocks, mountains, sun, sea, sponge boats, white-washed houses, motorbikes, old women in black sitting on stoops, old men in black walking with canes or sitting in kafeneia, playing with worry beads. In the early mornings, sometimes the thwack-thwack-thwack of a local kid standing knee-deep in the sea next to the harbor, throwing a freshly-caught octopus against a rock.

The school was a one-off, the creation of the crazy old teacher, Nick. Word was that he had been expelled from Oxford, for being obstreperous. He hadn’t fit in with the literary crowd in Athens or London. So much better to found a school, form a small pond in his own image. An eccentric old lady from the States provided the money. Nick provided the vision and labor. When Nick retired – long after I left – the school shut down.

Nick said that the term “freedom” means nothing, unless the term was modified. Free from what? British taxes? German occupation? Gun laws? Sexual mores? Cockroaches? Nagging wives? Abusive husbands? STDs?

The term in Greek was Elevtheria. Although – Nick said – Greeks did not have much freedom. Their lives were consumed with family obligations, hard work, and the unforgiving gaze of the community. They couldn’t let their freak flag fly.

My parents sent me to the school because they were at their wit’s end. I had been kicked out of prep school. I didn’t talk to them, and I broke things around the house. Wilderness schools for crazy kids did not exist yet. They didn’t want to send me to jail, or the bughouse. It seemed like a fit. Illusions of classical greatness for me. Out of sight, out of mind for them.

Classes were in modern Greek language, history and literature. The work was with a family-owned residential construction company. Father, older son, younger son. Vasilis was twenty-five. Pantalis was eighteen, a year older than me. The old man was a gheros – what one would expect of a patriarch.

Gheros – old man (geriatrics, genronology, genrontocracy, Geritoltm)

My job at the building site was to carry bricks, cement, wood for cement forms, and modified olive oil tins full of gravel and mortar. Sometimes I did this at the site, and sometimes I did this on the back of a motorcycle, while Vasilis or Pantalis drove. I did not have any choice in the matter. Heavy shit wasn’t going to move itself.

The houses we built were cement boxes. No basement. Cement slab foundation. Poured cement columns at each corner, and cinderblock walls. Everything plastered over and whitewashed once we were done. Many houses on the island had columns extending a meter or so above the roof, with a tangle of rebar poking out from the cement. Nick said that is because customers could only pay for one story at a time. Nobody borrowed money. They bought the second or third story after they had saved up another few years.

Like the joke about the pig with a peg leg – but in reverse.

Greek women come with a house as a dowry. We built those houses. Nick said that Greek men curse the day their wives give birth to a girl, because each daughter is another decade of work. Although – they say – the better-looking the daughter, the smaller the house. As time went on, I would sometimes pass houses that we had built, as I walked through the streets of the town. Daughter. Dowry. Marriage. Living space. Grandbabies. The circle of life.

Despite my daily activities being closely circumscribed, I was freer than I had ever been. That was because I was free from my origins, and from my language. I hated both.

Home had been a sterile, isolated house in the New York suburbs. It had been please-and-thank-you-clink-of-silverware-on-china-plates. It had been someone evaluating me always, even when I slept. It had been clothes-make-the-man, be decorous, play football and baseball because that’s what the father had liked when he was your age. It had been do things to put them on your college application and, later, your resume. School had been junior boot camp for the investment banks. The summer before I went to Kalymnos, I had had a job shoveling dog shit. When I pedaled my bike up hill, past the women’s correctional facility, between home and the kennel, I had cried bitterly and said to myself, “Fucking life. Fucking life.” My vehemence had surprised even me.

Because of all that, I didn’t speak much – not to other people, at least. I spoke plenty to myself. Swear words, disquisitions, philippics, rhyming couplets, jeremiads, songs, poems, things I was too shy, or too slow, to come out with when the time was right. But I never spoke much, or well, with other people. My parents accused me of “staring at my shoes” when I had trouble speaking. My father straightened my spine by putting his hands on my shoulders and twisting with his thumbs when I slumped. I spoke in ellipses, inside jokes that only I got, and a few swear-eruptions. I made a lot of noise when I got angry, but I did not say much. I felt awkward because I was harshly judged. But I was harshly judged because I was awkward.

Things would have been easier if I had been born Finnish, or an accountant.

But – I found that I wasn’t shy in Greek. To my surprise, I became a blabbermouth. Maybe it was because I was too focused on morphology to worry about what I said. Maybe it was because the guys I worked with were, well, decent guys, who didn’t judge on a chickenshit scale. Maybe it was because as a foreigner, I had a ghetto pass. Whatever it was – it worked.

Lift heavy objects? Memorize vocab, decline nouns, conjugate verbs? Check, check, check, check. Extra points for shouting swear words? Check. Finally, something I liked and could do well.

I found that there were certain words that provided mnemonic hooks from English. Those were easy to learn. I could associate new words with them, and the new words would form a chain, linked to the hooks. The process was accelerated if I spoke to myself in Greek as I lifted the bags of cement and filled tins with mortar and gravel. Sentences I muttered to myself formed creases in my mind that were easy to recall when I needed them. Sometimes I would utter a word or an expression when I lifted a bag of cement or a bunch of cinder blocks, and the feeling of exertion or pain, or the view of a boat leaving the harbor, the sun or wind on the sea, or a goat on the mountain that abutted the town that I noticed when the building material bit into my shoulder would be associated with the word. That would form another hook:

Podho – foot (podiatrist)

Podhosfairo – football (foot, sphere).

Sarantapodharousa – Millipede (the “forty-legged-one”).

Pithikos – Monkey (Austrolopithicus).

Skyli – Dog (cynic, Kenoskephali).

Ghata – Cat.

Ti kanei i ghata? Miao, miao.

Ti kanei to skyli? Bow-wow.

Ti kanei o pithikos? Oooh, ohh, ahh, ahh AHHHHH!

Ti kanei i sarantapodarousa? —————.

I learned the names for some of the tools and materials in Greek before I learned them in English. Beron – wet cement; tsimento: bag of dry, Portland cement; laspi; wet mortar; zighi: plumb line; sfiri: mallet; skerpani: claw hammer; mistri: mason’s trowel; sidhero: rebar.

I found that you could use the hook-and-chain method to learn how to swear, too. If I shouted what I learned while standing on a pile of cinder blocks, or riding on the back of a motorbike, all the better:

GamO – F-word (gamete, polygamy, monogamy).

Skata – Shit (scatology, scatological, bear scat).

GamO-to – Fuck it.

GamO-to Panagheia – Fuck it by the virgin Mary (Pan – all; agheia – holy – hagiography).

GamO-to Panagheia kai Christo ollous tous aghious – Fuck it by the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and all of the saints (ollous – all; aghious – see above).

GAmo – marry – see above.

Archidhi – testicle (orchid; monorchid – “Hitler – has only got one ball…”).

Grafo – Write (telegraph, graphic, graphite).

Mitera – mother (Big Mamma morpheme; Lat. “mater”, Eng. “mother”, Skt. “matha”, Cz “matka”).

To grafo pano st’archidia tis miteras sou – I write it across your mother’s balls.

The last one got me a handshake from all of the guys, as well as a laugh.

Ypno – sleep (hypnosis, hypnotic).

Exypnos – smart (away from sleep).

Orthos – straight (orthodontist, orthotic).

Orthodhoxos – Orthodox Christian (straight doctrine).

Evraios – Jewish (Hebrew).

Tassoula – Daughter of the family. Twenty-three years old, stout, brown hair, brown eyes, large lips, large nose.

As we were building one very large house, Vasilis told me that it was for Tassoula, when she married. He looked at me meaningfully, and told me it could be mine. Then he asked, “Eis’ Orthodhoxos?”and I said, “Ochi. Evraios.” He was quiet for a bit, and then said, “I Evraii einai poli … exypni.” He did not seem to mind that I was a Heathen. But he never mentioned Tassoula and the house again.

Sometimes I would sing, while I was carrying wood or tsimenta on the back of a motorbike or a trikyklo. “KrAAAAAtisa tin zoIIIIIIII mou”became “KrAAAAAtisa to psolIIIIIIII mou”. “I have kept a hold on my life” in the original; “I have kept a hold on my dick” in my version. That made Vasilis almost crash the motorbike.

Kratisa – I have held (aristocracy, gerontocracy).

Zoi – life (zoo; zoology).

Mou – my (my).

Psoli – penis (vulgar). No etymological hook, but mnemonic provided by mental imagery.

Around noon, we would knock off for lunch. One of the sons, or occasionally, Tassoula, would show up with bags of fresh-baked bread, cheese, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, and occasionally pomegranates. We would climb to the highest point that we could find before we started to eat. Maybe a pile of bricks; maybe some planks laid on top of a series of exposed ceiling-joists overlooking the harbor. I learned to tear off a chunk of bread, hold it in my left hand, take a ntomata in my right hand, bite into the tomato, and smear the juice from the open tomato-wound on the bread. Then, I would continue to eat, alternating bites between the juice-stained bread in my left hand and the now half-drained tomato in my right.

Psomi – bread. From the ancient verb “psao”, meaning to “rub” (palimpsest, e.g.). Easy to remember because it forms a minimal pair with psoli.

Avgo – egg (ovum; ovary; ovulate).

Tyri – cheese (tyromancy).

Ladhi – (olive) oil. No mnemonic hook.

Ntomata – Tomato.

Fae!– Eat!

Elections were going on while I was there. The two largest parties were Nea Dhimokratia on the center-right, and Pasok on the center-left. But the KKE – the Kommunistika Koma tis Elladhas – was quite vocal. Their rallying chant was Psomi! Paidheia! Elevtheria!

Psomi – bread. See above.

Paidheia – education (Paideia, Pedagogy).

Elevtheria – freedom.

Bread! Education! Freedom!

The sons supported Pasok, but the Gheros supported Nea Dhimokratia. Even the boys respected the leader of Nea Dhimokratia, Constantine Karamanlis. He had helped lead the country out of the Chunta in the early seventies, and devotion to him seemed to transcend party politics.

But the communists had the best chant. We would shout it from the roofs of buildings, motorbikes, wherever. The guys weren’t really communists, so we would usually change it to Psomi! Paidheia! Malaikkeia!

Malaikkeia – self-abuse.

Malakkas – self-abuser. A common insult between men, sometimes used affectionately. See, e.g. Am. Eng. “idiot”, “imbecile”, “moron”, “schmuck”, “motherfucker”, “asshole”, “dick”, “jerk”, “shit-for-brains”, “putz”; Ire. Eng. “cunt”; Brt. Eng. “wanker”; Fr. “con”; Span. “carbon”; Cz, Pol. “z’kurvy syn”; Chin. “wang ba dan”.[1]

Psomi! Paidheia! Malaikkeia!

I am sure that I looked ridiculous while I shouted it. I was, after all, a tall, uncoordinated, skinny, middle-class seventeen-year-old American kid with long hair and round glasses wearing ripped corduroy pants, an olive drab tank top, and, on my head, a red bandana that was knotted at each of its four corners. And I was ridiculous. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had been born into privilege and I wasn’t stupid, but I had failed at school. I had never so much as made a joke with a girl. I couldn’t get along with my own kind. My father was a gastroenterologist from Westchester. The trip had been paid for with the proceeds of colonoscopies administered to the good citizens of please-and-thank-you. I bit the hand that fed me. I would be gone at the end of the semester. Who was I to stand on the roof of a building overlooking Pothea harbor shouting ersatz communist slogans in a language I barely knew with a bunch of uncircumcised heathens? But it didn’t matter. That was the freest I have ever been, or felt.

[1] Note that only the British English term shares both the denotative meaning and the pragmatic force with the Greek.

One comment

  1. Linda says:

    Ay yi yi ! I absolutely loved this !! I do remember your talking about Nick when I first met you. ‘Twas in the faculty room at Pine Point and we found out that we had Greece in common. Actually, it was your body in which I was not. Hmm, missed your chance, baby.
    I’m calling you right now.
    L.L. in Cambridge

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