We've lived in Cyprus for thirteen years now. That's more than a quarter of my life. At eighteen, Tim had spent half of his life here.
The primary language in the main (southern) part of Cyprus is Greek, so we had assumed that we would need to learn the language when we moved here. I thought I had a head start, since I studied Ancient Greek to A-level when I was at high school. That meant that I could, at least, read the letters and had an idea of pronunciation and grammar. Pronunciation had to be adjusted radically, and grammar in modern Greek is rather simpler than it was a couple of thousand years ago. But still, I had some slight confidence that it wouldn't be too hard...
Armed with a Greek-English dictionary, we set to work to 'decode' (as the boys put it) labels on food, circulars that arrived in our mailbox, and other random Greek. We found a couple of beginner Greek books, and worked our way through the earliest exercises. We borrowed a Greek Linguaphone course, and started out with some enthusiasm. Unfortunately it was very dated, and we got bogged down in some of the conversations that were really not relevant to boys of 11 and 9... or, indeed, to me.
Then we discovered the Learn Greek course, produced originally for Cyprus radio. It's also rather dated, but was made in Cyprus, narrated by a friendly person who explains everything, and rather easier to work through than the Linguaphone. So we started at the beginning, and it seemed fairly straightforward at first... as we covered the same ground, learning about pencils and tables and baskets...
But over our first year or so in Cyprus, we gradually realised that we didn't actually have to speak Greek at all. Our neighbours were pleased to find British people living nearby, so that they could practise their English. People in shops all spoke English, too - some of them biligually, some of them still fluently, others with just a smattering... but a great deal more confidence than we had in our Greek.
Daniel took Greek classes for a year or so with a friend, and picked up a fair amount from playing in the town band, and also having friends in the inter-church youth group, and Antidote Theatre. Tim also amassed some Greek - sufficient to make himself understood, when he needed to. But it wasn't very often.
And so the years have gone by. Every so often I make a concerted effort to progress further through the 'Learn Greek' course. I wrote a post about attempting to learn Greek in March last year... I was very pleased since I had reached lesson 30, last in the 'elementary' section of the site.
Now, over eighteen months later, I'm on about lesson 33. I seem to manage a few days when I listen to a lesson, and study the attached transcript, and it begins to fall into place in my mind. Then something distracts me, or I have a few busy days... and suddenly I realise that months have gone by without me listening to another lesson. So I back-track a little, and reach the level I'd got to before... and so it goes on.
Part of me feels that I should be fluent in Greek now. Occasionally someone makes a comment to that effect, and I feel a little abashed. But most Cypriots have such remarkably good English that it's difficult to have any opportunity to speak Greek.
However, this morning I found myself wishing I'd worked a little harder at the language. The phone rang, and someone spoke to me rapidly in Greek. I assumed it was a wrong number, and said so in English, slowly. The person kept speaking, rapidly. I said, 'Sorry' and rang off. Five minutes later, the same person phoned. Part of my problem is that I find it remarkably difficult to think on the spur of the moment. I could not even remember how to say, 'I don't speak Greek' in Greek. I had forgotten - tempoorarily - the word for 'English' in Greek. Everything I had learned - all those thirty or more lessons - completely vanished from my mind, when someone was finally speaking Greek to me.
Eventually he asked me my name. I told him my first name... and he put the phone down. I assume it was a wrong number. If it was some official or perhaps the post office trying to get hold of us, they would surely have found someone who spoke English, at least for the second attempt.