by Susan Kegel
A small effort to learn Greek leads to a big pay-off.

She clasped my hands warmly and tightly, wishing us chronia polla, season’s greetings, and much more that I did not understand.

Friends had told us that everyone in Greece spoke English. They seemed surprised that I would bother learning Greek. I listened to hours of language lessons anyway, faithfully repeating all the phrases. It wasn’t easy. Greek sits alone on its branch of the Indo-European language family tree. Knowing French, German, or Russian does not help. But in all the tourist areas, everyone did indeed speak English. My efforts, though fun, seemed unimportant. Until now.

We had parked on the outskirts of the little town near Kalamata. It was Christmas, so archaeological sites were closed, forcing a break in sightseeing. After opening our stockings, brought from home and filled with treasures bought in Athens, we selected a hike that promised churches, castles, mule paths, and ocean views.

The guidebook said to park next to the olive press. As my ten-year-old son and I climbed out of the car, an old woman dressed in black came through the gate of a house and rushed over, talking fast. Regretting that I had not looked up “Can we park here?” in my phrase book, I asked in Greek, “Car here OK?” She launched into a friendly-sounding torrent. I explained that I only understood a little Greek. Unfazed, she merely added gestures. I understood only “What are you doing?” I pantomimed walking.

She pointed to a church in the distance. Was she saying to park over there? “Endaksi, OK,” I said. As we turned to go, she reached over to pat Alex’s head. “What is your name?” she asked, finally something I recognized. I translated. She repeated his reply “Aleksey, Aleksey,” all smiles now. She reached into her pocket and handed us each a chocolate bar in gold foil, squeezing our hands once more. We said “Chronia polla” and “Efharisto,” thank you.

Back in the car we tried parking in the small main square, but another woman popped her head out of a café. I plunged once more into my limited Greek. “I understand only a little.” This time I caught a bit more of the reply. She asked how long, one hour? “Ochi, no,” I said, “Three hours.” She talked some more; I shrugged helplessly. Finally she gestured to a spot on the other side of the square. We could park there. Endaksi.

It was sunny and hot walking in our long-sleeved shirts. The path wound through olive groves, past goats munching the winter grass under the trees. We saw women harvesting the olives. “Yassas,” we said as we passed. We came to a tiny church, crumbling stone houses, and a concrete dance floor in a grassy area. According to the guidebook this community was abandoned after the 1955 earthquake, but olive oil lamps were burning inside the church, and the light bulbs strung above the dance floor were new.

Here we took the cobblestone mule path switch-backing down the gorge, one of many built all over Greece during the 17th and 18th centuries. The aromas of mint and thyme drifted through the air as we crushed the small plants growing underfoot among the cobbles. At the bottom we reached an old stone bridge across the dry riverbed. It was a perfect place to enjoy our unexpected chocolate.

Back at the car, an old man leaned in our window. Oh no, I thought. Now what? I repeated my I-don’t-understand-Greek mantra. This just energized him. He was determined to make us understand, no matter how many times he had to repeat it. He said “Something, something, ena chiliometro, something, asphalt, pirgos, something, Kalamata.” He cupped his hands around his eyes like binoculars. When I finally nodded—a castle with a view of Kalamata one kilometer up the road, paved all the way—he beamed and launched into another speech. I caught one word, repeated several times, aristera, left. By now we were all smiling and nodding, thrilled at our successful “conversation”. As we drove up the road, staying to the left at all intersections, we saw the castle. It was utterly charming and the promised view, fantastic. Efharisto.

Susan Kegel is a writer and stay-in-the-car mom in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in independent family travel and art education for children. She can be reached at

About Editors’ Choice:
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