I wanted to speak for those who could not speak for themselves. That was the answer to the question asked of me a few years ago back in New York: Why had I become a teacher to immigrant children and then a speech pathologist to brain-injured adults? And as that answer escaped my lips, I realized where that yearning was born. In Margariti, my adopted Greek village. I’ve known that feeling for years. The frustration of wanting to communicate—my way, with my words—instead of through fractured and inadequate translation.
Mary Smith, the author of one of my favorite books, No More Mulberries, said "people thought I was aloof, stuck up . . . If only they understood the agonies of the socially inept." When I read it, I thought, Yes! And then add to that a different culture and different language! That’s the conundrum of being the American-me in Margariti.
In a group of four, (myself and my husband/translator, Nick, counting as two of that four), I can follow the conversation, though I might ask a question about the foot injury I think you're discussing when you are actually talking about the octopus you caught at the beach. But with such a small group, I feel like I have a fighting chance. And even better if you subtract one person. With three of us, my understanding is a bit clearer and I might venture to add something to the conversation, even if you turn to Nick and say, “Huh? What’s she saying?” I’m no longer silenced by that comment. I still might try to repeat my message without his help. And I can almost understand most of what's being said to me if the speakers don’t have food in their mouths or mumble too much.
But conversation one-on-one with a kind conscientious person is the most rewarding. I feel I can speak more freely – even if you have no idea what I’m saying. For this reason, I enjoyed my mother-in-law, Chevi, when she was alive. I didn’t realize what Chevi was doing until my English-speaking niece pointed it out to me. I knew that Chevi was speaking slower than most people and that she was cognizant enough to put long pauses between words and use gestures, but it was my niece, Maryanna, who pointed out that she was speaking a kind of ungrammatical telegraphic speech with simple words. And that act, dear people, was brilliant. It allowed us to have actual conversations. I felt like a true participant, even if she didn't always understand me. Perhaps this came from the fact that she married a man who did not speak her village dialect. Thus, she seemed to understand my plight.
So, dear Greek villagers, I extend to you now, an ongoing apology, if I’ve seemed aloof or ungrateful in any way. I am just overcome sometimes with the chaos of too many Greek speakers and an anxiety that chops the Greek words in my brain like garlic in tzatziki. I've found that a glass of ouzo sometimes puts the words back in order. But two glasses tend to fuse them together in a useless ball of dough. The truth is, I appreciate your recognition, your greetings, your well wishes--always.
Following is an excerpt from The Nifi in which Chevi is faced with the prospect of not being able to communicate with her future husband and having her father as a not-so-accurate translator.
Chevi, an unmarried woman, a shaky-legged fawn among hungry wolves, approached her yard one morning hunched over with the weight of a mound of wood on her back. She did not hear the unfamiliar voice until she was too close to avoid him. A stranger stood with her father within the high walls of the courtyard, but they stopped speaking midsentence as she rounded the corner.
Chevi registered their uneasy smiles and she knew something was amiss, but what? She wondered. She moved closer and let the wood fall from her back and then straightened up to her full height—though it was no more than the mid-stone of the storeroom door. She met their gaze with questioning eyes, looking from the stranger to her father. Without addressing her, the two men resumed their conversation but they spoke gibberish.
“He’s not from the valley,” she thought and dismissed his presence.
The smaller pieces of wood needed to be brought to the back room next to the fourno. Chevi loaded her arms and walked toward the door, but the stranger stepped into her path and spoke. Her arms were shaking with the weight and she did not know what this person asked of her and why didn’t he just ask her father who appeared to know his language?
“Get out of my way you idiot.” Chevi spoke quietly as he continued to stand in her way and when she moved to the right, he tried to clear a path for her to pass but he mistakenly chose to move in the same direction, so they danced back and forth and the wood grew heavier.
“May lightning strike you dead.” She cursed him and swept past as the first cut branches began to fall from her hands and the sound of their crashing to the floor as she entered the cooking room sent her father running in to aid her.
“Father who is that?”
“No one, Chevi. Pick up the wood and bring it to the cooking pile.”
“It is someone father.”
“He is here to buy some wheat.”
“Well, he’s an imbecile,” she thought and wondered where his sacks were and how he planned to cart the wheat away.
Chevi's father returned to the yard, to Pavlos' friend, Tomas. Pavlos had spoken well of him and his bravery during the war. He looked strong and healthy, important features for working the fields and providing grandsons to do the same.
Tomas rubbed his chin. He liked the look of the man's daughter. She seemed to be shy and had spoken so softly though he had no idea of what she had said. She appeared to be someone he could mold to his liking. Yes, he was interested in this arrangement and he told Chevi's father as much.
"But what was it she was saying to me, John," he asked his future father-in-law.
"She said she thinks you are very handsome and will love you as a good wife should."
Your Own Kind, The Nifi and Among the Zinnias are available in ebook and paperback. And they're free if you have Kindle Unlimited. I hope you will give one of them a try!
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