Like many Americans, I often wished I could learn another language, preferably by not trying very hard. Greek in 10 easy lessons, perhaps. Not the language of laurel-wreathed Aeschylus Thucydides, but the speech of baggage handlers or taxi drivers at the Athens airport.
One day a couple of years ago, the opportunity fell into my hands, through the mail slot of my front door like an ad for a pizza purveyor or a catch-basin cleaner: "Learn Easy Conversational Greek in 10 Easy Lessons."
The invitation listed the address of the local community center. Even as I read the hand-lettered flier, I saw myself meeting relatives some fine day as I got off the plane in Athens, impressing them with my ability to greet them in their own vernacular, the language of some of my own ancestors.
The setting for the Greek class was no hall of ivy. Just a cavernous room lighted by a naked bulb, up two flights and smelling of gym lockers and pool disinfectant, furnished with cigarette-burned oak library tables and some unmatched chairs.
A dozen of us clattered up the stairs to be greeted by our instructor, Mr. Pappas, as hospitable as a headwaiter. As he collected tuition, he handed out copies of the textbook, a brightly colored little volume that would not threaten a 7-year-old. It was, in fact, the primer he used to teach children at a Greek church-school nearby. It was a kind of Hellenic "Dick and Jane" about O Kyrios Leonidas; his wife, I Kyria Eleni; and their exemplary children, Sophia and Yiannis.
The Greek alphabet itself was a formidable barrier. A few letters looked like those in the English alphabet, thank goodness. Many were strange. Worst of all were those that looked like something we knew but were called something else in Greek (what looks like a P is an R; H is a capital E; V is really an N).
After these basic confusions, we were glad Mr. Pappas declared a recess and went elsewhere to refresh himself. We had a chance to talk to one another in English.
First to speak were several voluble, young, other-than-Greek women recently married or about to be married to Greek men. As one explained, "I want to know what everybody is hollering about at family dinners."
Four men in similar blue suits, striped ties, short haircuts and polished shoes were introduced by Ronald, their spokesman, as "salesmen for the Lord." They wanted to know enough Greek to get his message into the homes of recent Greek immigrants.
Phyllis, a beauty shop operator, confided that she was engaged, "sort of," to George, whose restaurant was across from her shop. In the summer, he was going back to Crete to tell his mother about his marriage plans. "In case he brings his mother back for a visit, it would be nice to be able to talk to her," said Phyllis.
Ingrid, an elderly woman who lived across the street from the "campus," admitted she just wanted to get out of the house a couple of nights a week and took whatever classes were offered. Last term it was Controlling Your Cash Flow. Ingrid wrote down everyone's telephone number; she likes to keep in touch.
The lesson resumed when Mr. Pappas returned to his task, dragging a huge chart of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, each with its Greek name attached. Now we were off exploring the world of Greek produce: "One apple." "One good apple." "Two lemons." "Two yellow lemons." "Four figs." A feeble Greek chorus tried to follow our leader's insistent pointer.
We soon learned that our teacher, tired out by his afternoon struggles with boisterous young pupils, really did not want to converse with us in any language. Holding aloft the text, he insisted, "This book is the teacher."
We would take turns battling its lines: "The sky is blue." "The milk is good." "Here is one watermelon." "Sophia is a little girl."
I was discouraged as sessions came and went with their invariable format. Outside of class, I had no one to talk Greek to. Once I did approach the surly young Greek man who weighs the produce at our local market.
"Kalimera!" seemed an appropriate greeting, until I realized I had said "Good morning" late in the afternoon. "Na tria lemonia" -- "Here, three lemons" -- I told him as I handed over three lemons. Apparently, he found my observation unremarkable, for he said nothing. Embarrassed, I hurried down the aisle of pet foods, three bagged and tagged lemons in my cart.
The four evangelists were the first to drop out of class, realizing that the menu of fruits and vegetables was not what they were looking for. The rest of us continued to falter through charts and reader; perhaps we did not want to hurt our teacher, who intimated that if we quit, he would not get paid.
When the 10th week came, Mr. Pappas brought a great baking dish of honey-drenched baklava and a celebratory bottle of Greek wine. He praised our remarkable progress and urged us to return in the fall for Intermediate Conversational Greek.