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May 1991

What kind of language is it where "nay" means yes? And closing the eyes and nodding the head upwards means no? One could certainly get the wrong impression of a typical animated Greek conversation. Of course, Greek has a different alphabet; but at least, I thought, I learned that in college. We all know "alpha," "beta," ... Wrong already, itís "vita," and has a v pronunciation. Maybe that was ancient Greek we learned, since the travel guide references are to Modern Greek.

Fortunately the house on Skopelós, the Greek island where we recently spent two weeks, had a translating dictionary – between Greek and German! Well we did rent it from a BFS colleague who bought it several years ago as a place to retire. (Itís not easy finding English language books in Germany; although we did stock up on $150 worth of travel guides before we came, we didnít have the foresight to know every language we might need.) Actually, the dictionary was quite useful in finding the right Greek word to tell someone, since the common words we were likely to need we did already know in German.

Going in the opposite direction, we soon found, wasnít so easy. Greek has two letters that sound like o (omicron and omega) and five letters (and letter combinations) that sound like i (iota, of course, and ita and ipsilon, which I learned as eta and epsilon; also ipsilon-iota and omicron-iota) (of course the i pronunciation really sounds like "ee," as weíve become accustomed to with most European languages, e is pronounced like "ay," and a like "ah.") So even a fairly short Greek word containing an o and i sound can have you bounding all over the dictionary checking out the permutations. And even that isnít so simple – letís see, where does theta appear?

So if itís not beta where does a b sound come from? Why from the mu-pi (mp) combination, of course. So mpifteki, on the taverna wall (well okay, the F was really a phi) is pronounced like "beef-take-ee," close enough to "beefsteak" to not require looking up the Greek word. Although it seemed that something was lost in the translation, because what we really got was a pork chop! And the souvlaki was pork chop cubes on a skewer! Well it is a little early for the tourist season here – which makes it all the more enjoyable.

This shows Skopelós' location in the Aegean Sea.

The town of Glossa is on the opposite end of the island from Skopelós, the main town, and we didnít see many (other) tourists walking around. However, the harbor of Loutraki is at the base of the hill on which Glossa is perched, and the hydrofoils from the mainland and the other islands stop here as well as at Skopelós. And Glossa is an attractive destination in itself; Frommer says "for the particularly intrepid, it offers a native purity rarely found on any island in all of Greece."

The intrepid part begins with the climb from the harbor. By road, itís about a mile and a half; the more direct walking path is half a mile. Which ought to give you an idea of the slope – the elevation of the town is about 1000í; or at least it begins there and climbs another 200í up the hill. (Last winter they had a one-meter snowfall, a real rarity in the islands, and enough to ruin this yearís almond crop and much of the olive crop. They say one could hear the trees cracking, both from the weight of snow and from freezing. They also say there wasnít much movement within the town until the snow melted. I guess you couldnít actually slide all the way into the Aegean from within the town; youíd probably smash against some building or fly into a ravine before then.)

Glossa means tongue in Greek and one story goes that they named the town that because by the time you reach it your tongue will be hanging out! The people who live here have no need for jogging or Nautilus to stay fit.

And the people are great. Our German friends told us if you donít make friends with the Greeks itís because you donít want to. The first day here we checked out the village, going into each shop to see what was available where, and usually finding some item to buy. People were surprised to hear we were from America; they expected England. We in turn were surprised to learn how many people had lived at some time in the U.S.: mostly New Jersey, Mississippi, and Pensacola, Florida! However, many of the shopkeepers, and even the postmaster knew no English, so sign language and some reference to the dictionary was needed. (Fortunately we located the right word to translate on the salt package before buying our sugar.)

Betty Lou talked to a schoolteacher here one day and found out that English isnít routinely taught in school. Often children take private lessons – Olga (!) teaches in Glossa; pretty well, based on our conversation with one child who had studied with her for two years. When they reach high school age, they can study a foreign language, but usually the schools arenít big enough to support more than one, so thereís no choice – itís either French or English, depending on whatís taught there.

We also had Greek coffee in the cafes and said YAH-sahs (the informal Hello – and Goodbye) to everybody we met in the street. For the rest of our stay, everybody greeted us; although the children delighted in saying "Hello," "Hi," or even "How do you do!" (The schoolteacher is from Skopelós and he told us everybody quickly knows everything about you. I guess itís not much different than any small town. When government investigators came to Union Springs to check me out for a Top Secret security clearance, my mother got frequent reports on their progress – from people at the Post Office, the grocery store, the school, the factory where I worked one summer, finally the neighbors.) And there are a couple of old ladies in traditional black garb (I donít know how they stand it – itís not even summer yet, but there have already been days when the Greek sun has beaten down intensely) who start chattering away to Betty Lou whenever they meet. Neither really understands the otherís language, but that doesnít matter – things really do get said.

Actually we had already had an introduction to that. Eleni, who looks after the house when the Kustusches arenít here, dropped in to see us the morning after we arrived. We started talking to her in English and soon found out she only knew a few words; German was no better. But she stayed around for a hour and we learned a lot about the village; the bus, boat and trash pickup schedule; how to make Greek coffee; about her and her husband Kosta (he was presently in Athens; heís politically on the wrong side of the present government and that can even affect the employment of a house painter); even about Bernd and Heidi. In the summer, Eleni rents several rooms as a Bed and Breakfast, so sheís used to communicating with people of many nationalities without knowing the language.

The men ride donkeys sidesaddle to their olive or almond groves in the countryside. And I guess, plums – Skopelós plums are supposed to be renowned. Our house is located on one of the three "main streets" – wide enough for a car or truck, but only in one direction at a time – and we hear the rhythmic tinkling of the bells on the donkeysí harnesses as the men ride by. Presently theyíre clearing away brush and pruning. There are several other streets running along a given level and many up and down connecting ones, most of which are really steps, although there are a few that are more like concrete ramps. Itís hard to believe that vehicles drive up and down them, but weíve seen cars and trucks parked in the most precarious places, so I guess they do. There are also quite a few motorcycles, mostly of the off-road variety, which makes a lot of sense here. In fact, in thinking of what more one would need to retire here, I canít figure out where Kustusch could park a car. There are taxis, and theyíre not very expensive (it cost about $17 for the drive of about an hour from the other end of the island), but heíll have to get a phone installed. We used one in a store down the street to call Skiathos, the nearby island where the airport is located, to reconfirm our flight back. It seemed to be free – I guess it is a local call – but maybe itís because we also bought something.

Some houses are built of masonry construction, some are wood-frame; theyíre all covered with whitewashed stucco, so itís hard to tell which are which. The roofs are covered with curved red tiles. The older roofs have two layers: the bottom one placed like Uís, the top one like an arch. The newer ones use a tile specially made for roofs, shaped sort of like an S, so only one layer is needed to overlap. Some houses are partially built into the hill; the first floor bedroom in ours has part of a boulder protruding through a wall near a corner – I guess it wasnít worth the bother to chip it flat. The second floor has a balcony overlooking a terrace, which is shaded by a grape arbor, and the Aegean far below. Swallows swoop by trying to find the end of a tile where they can nest, but the builders have anticipated them pretty well. When the curvature of the tiles used isnít too shallow for them, the tiles are sealed with mortar.

Although a stove and refrigerator have been imported from Germany, the kitchen is still too cramped, being half under the stairway to the second floor. (Counted the U.S. way – to Europeans the first floor is the one above the ground floor.) Eleni told us Heidi has plans in mind for a relocated, larger kitchen – they also own a building behind the house weíre living in which is presently only used for storage space. And they donít have hot water. They brought a type of instant hot water heater for the kitchen sink; unfortunately it is no longer working. There is a shower in a room off the terrace, but so far the weather hasnít been warm enough, or we havenít been desperate enough, to use it. (Donít get the wrong idea – we take a sponge bath in the sink with water heated on the stove. In some respects itís not much different than when we first started taking trips to Europe. And the Aegean is already warm enough to swim in.)

In spite of what you might think, hearing about the donkeys and cold water, things arenít really that backward here – television antennas proliferate, although I havenít seen any satellite antennas; Eleni also operates a videotape rental business; one cafe near us has the latest video games and uses a microwave oven (more than we would like); and the taxis have radios, cellular phones, and remote control devices that honk the horn when a call comes in, allowing the drivers to relax in an outdoor cafe while waiting for business. While riding the bus to Skopelós, we saw many houses with solar hot water heaters, a natural for this area.

And there are flush toilets – howeverÖ Frommer warns not to flush toilet tissue down them! (Of course, you may have to bring your own in the first place, but thatís also not unlike many other places weíve been.) There are containers nearby for their disposal; if not, Frommer says to "carry it out with you. Believe me, itís easier to find a trash bin than to explain in Greek that the toilet has just flooded. All this fuss is because of the peculiarly narrow pipes of the Greek sewage system."!

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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