More Notes From The Greek Class

I still go to Greek class, in case some of you were wondering. I would also have written about it more regularly, but Jonas had this idea about doing a game whose graphics wouldn’t take me long at all to draw… right. Four weeks later I reluctantly return to the blogging world, but at least the game is beautiful and almost done.

My Greek is improving steadily if slowly. This first semester of the class concentrates on “tourist Greek.” Introducing yourself, asking someone’s name, address, phone number. Ordering food in a restaurant and asking for directions. Useful things, but sadly not entirely useful for me. I know where Jonas’s relatives live, and if I think a little I can even remember what all of them are called. But part two of the class beckons in the fall, and that will bring new, exciting challenges.

For now I am torn between struggling to remember the different forms of “to be” and marvelling over the boundless stupidity of the other students.

Did you know, for example, that the Greek question mark looks like this:


Did you also know that that is incredibly hard to understand for Germans? “So,” says Sonja, “you are saying that the Greeks don’t have a question mark at all?” And Costas, our teacher, says yes. “But,” Sonja continues, slightly puzzled, “I only see semicolons in this text.” And I sigh.

Did you know, for example, that you can’t write sch, as in the word schtick, in Greek? The language doesn’t contain this sequence of sounds. “But,” asks Miss Schmitt, “how do I spell my name then?” Smit, is the answer, or rather Σμιτ. “But that’s not my name!” she exclaims. Yep, I think, and Εὐριπίδης wasn’t called Euripides either, live with it.

Finally: did you know that in Greek you always use the article and the name when talking about or to someone. Η Βερένα. Ο Ιονάς. “But that’s so rude,” says Heike, the German teacher that’s afraid of speaking in front of people (kids are okay, though).

Heike’s story is funny, but not stranger than some of the others. The people taking this class are as diverse as they come. There’s Thomas, whose estranged wife took his two daughters to Greece twenty years ago and now the only way for him to communicate with his children is to learn Greek. Nico, who wanted to learn Greek in order to be able to talk to his future wife’s parents and family (he’s also since disappeared, taking the only copy of the textbook’s accompanying CD with him… go figure). Johanna, who loves all things Greek and likes to sit in on four-hour Greek orthodox services, not understanding a single word, but happy to soak up the atmosphere. (She was also very enthused when she learned that Jonas is from Thessaloniki and asked me if I knew that delicatessen shop in the city. Right. You’re from America? Wow, do you know George Arbuckle?) Next up is Gerhardt, who reminds me of my uncle, and who always tries to analyze every little bit of information that he has gleaned to death and always fails to understand any of it. Martina, the militant feminist who hates all men (especially Greek men!). Esther, who seems to be as rich as Croesus and who has spent a month in Greece every summer for the last fifteen years and has yet to pick up a single word. And Steven, the most likable of the lot, a Brit with an atrocious Greek accent who dreams of going to Greece when he retires in a few years.

Interesting people, all of them. If only they were a little less dense.

A Spoon Full of Bullshit

This soup spoon costs almost sixteen euros. It is made from melamine, which is nice enough as plastics go, but it’s ultimately just plastic. (Also, I hear it smells of rotten fish if it’s heated up too much.) Sixteen euros, that’s about 23 dollars by the way, is a whole lot of money for a plastic spoon that smells of fish.

“But,” says Rice (the manufacturer), “fear not, dear middle-aged European women of above-average income, this spoon stands for a worthy cause!”

Ah, what a relief. I was worried there for a moment. So, you say my sixteen euros will go to a good cause? Let’s have a closer look at that.

“By purchasing a Spoon Full Of Hope,” says Rice (on their website), “you give poor refugee families in Mogadishu in Somalia 24 servings of soup, preventing them from starving as they flee from war.

Twenty-four servings, you say. Of soup, you say. Bullshit, I say. Soup, and we’re assuming decent soup made from ingredients bought in ridiculously expensive European supermarkets, is cheap. Just like talk.

Now imagine what soup costs in Mogadishu. Subtract that amount from sixteen (or twenty-three). Do the same with what you imagine the actual spoon and the pwetty, colourful packaging cost. And don’t forget about the VAT, which currently is at 19% here in Germany.

If you arrive at the end of that calculation, you will have come up with maybe six or seven Euros of profit for Rice. Just Rice, that’s not even what the shop earns, which is a whopping seven euros. Bravo, Rice! You managed to screw both your customers and those poor refugees in war-ravaged Mogadishu, which you probably wouldn’t even be able to find on a map. I applaud you, Rice. You are true humanitarians.

Unfortunately this isn’t the only case in which companies blatantly screw over both the trusting public and those that need their help. Take Rewe (local supermarket chain), for example. Now, I have got a bit of a bone to pick with Rewe anyway, because they keep selling me rotten vegetables, but this goes a bit beyond that. A while ago they worked in cooperation with a German charity organization called the Tafel (translation: feast) to bring needed foodstuffs to the poor here in Germany. My uncle, who is retired, does volunteer work for the Tafel in his hometown; these people really try to do good. In a nutshell: they collect foodstuffs, mostly vegetables, dairy products and other things that spoil easily, from local supermarkets when they are just before the sell-by date and give them to the poor. Okay. Here’s what Rewe had to say on the subject. (I might be paraphrasing a little.)

“Isn’t it a shame,” says Rewe, “that we only give vegetables and milk to these people? Tell you what… here’s what we’ll do. We’ll put together some goods. Maybe some flour, salt, noodles, sugar… stuff that doesn’t spoil easily. And we’ll sell that package for five euros. And for those five euros all those fine, needed products will go to the poor. How does that sound?”

Someone, somewhere probably put two and two together and mumbled something about the fact that all those products would come from Rewe’s private brand Ja! and would cost Rewe maybe fifty cents to produce all in all, but he or she was quickly shouted down.

And Rewe, taking advantage of this great chance to do something for the world, went even further:

“How about,” says Rewe, “we also give our customers the opportunity to put these little red and white stickers on other products that they buy, and whatever gets thus marked and placed in the appropriate bin by the exit will also go to the poor. That is a really good thing, right? What? No, of course not, how dare you suggest that. All these things will really go to the poor. Honest.”

Right. See that little sticker on that pasta package there? Wonder how that ended up back in the shelf. Funny, someone must have accidentally placed it there, when the collection basket for the Tafel was being emptied out and… eh… given to the poor.

In case you’re wondering, Rewe’s current charity project is in collaboration with the WWF. They’re selling little booklets for collecting stickers (one sticker is free! with every ten euros that you spend at Rewe!!!) and mugs and pencils and whatnot. Fifty cents of every sold item go to the WWF. But don’t spend it all at once on those pesky pandas and whales and gerbils, okay?

It sickens me. Rewe and Rice are only two examples amongst many. Companies all over the world gorge themselves on wealth in the name of so-called charity. And it is charity, I know that. I do not doubt that those 50 cents will go to the WWF, or that the Tafel needed those noodles and the flour (maybe not the 138 tons of salt though). But how much money did Rewe make off those deals? How much money does Rice make, or all the retailers that sell those damn Spoons, and how does that gel with how little will go to Mogadishu?

It gives me hope that there are some companies that are a little less full of it. I would like to name Lush, a company that I have worked for myself, and who seem to be genuinely interested in helping out. Nächstenliebe (brotherly love) is a skin cream that sells for about 20 Euros and all of that (minus the VAT) goes to a variety of good causes. Lush doesn’t even keep a token amount for the packaging or the ingredients. Charitable organisations can apply for the money and Lush picks several to which the money will go in even amounts. Lush is not perfect – having worked there I know that a few of their claims along the lines of “everything we sell is natural and 100% organic” are, if not lies, somewhat open to interpretation – but they try. That’s how it should be, but unfortunately good programs such as this one are few and far in between.

My advice is to think long and hard before you give money to corporations such as Rewe or Rice or even Lush. Look at the project, look at what it costs, what it will achieve and at how much that is actually worth. I am not saying that giving to charity is always futile, but sometimes you might just be giving to the CEO and not to people in Mogadishu or pandas or homeless people.

Goodnight, old Fangtooth

This is Vicky. Was Vicky. She died last Tuesday. This cat has caused me more harm than any other animal on the face of this Earth, and that is saying something; I’m something of an expert at getting bitten by wildlife. But she is dead now and I shall miss her; my parents’ house will be empty without her.

When my parents got her from the shelter she was six, undernourished and apparently terrified of anything that moved. At the shelter they told us that she was hardly eating and that she wouldn’t make it much longer in the presence of so many other cats. My mother fell in love with her on the spot – Vicky had the most beautiful eyes and coat.  I was miffed, I had wanted a kitten.

Life with Vicky was easy at first. The cat disappeared under the couch as soon as the pet carrier was opened and only re-emerged briefly for mealtimes. But the idyll was to be shattered soon: Vicky became aggressive. To this day we don’t know what caused it. Maybe the people at her old home, the home before the shelter, hadn’t been as loving and kind as we were led to believe, but Vicky was a menace. She would attack, an all-out claws-and-teeth-and-everything attack, at the slightest provocation. Jeans weren’t thick enough to keep out her claws – hell, a suit of medieval armor wouldn’t have been enough. She attacked when we were asleep, when the phone rang, when someone dropped something… provocations were easy to find. I remember one particular afternoon spent on the balcony, the door pulled shut behind me, with Vicky sitting on the other side hissing and clawing at the glass and blood running down my legs. I had dropped a book.

She once scratched my dad up badly enough that he had to go to the ER… and they said they wanted to keep him there for a few days, just to be safe. He declined.

We endured. Myself a little less willingly than my parents. I begged them a few times to take her back to the animal shelter, but they refused. Bringing her back would have been a death sentence.

Vicky mellowed as the years passed. A home in which she never got beaten or starved or even shouted at in time broke down even her deep-seated mistrust of humans. Of all the family members she loved my dad the most. Because she had drunken his blood the most, we would joke, but personally I think it was because he was the calmest around her. In her old age she would often walk up to him and lie down on his toes, regardless of whether he was currently standing or sitting down, and that alone was a heartbreaking gesture from a cat that used to be such a terror.

Vicky had been poorly for over a year now, so her death hardly comes as a surprise. Her final months were spent on the top floor of my parents’ house, rarely moving, her head tucked under the radiator, and gradually getting thinner. I had never been close friends with her, never would have been. Although she was harmless in her old age (except to the vet, where she had to be held down by groups of people), she had caused too much fear for me to ever be really comfortable around her. But it was hard not to pity this old, old cat, painfully thin and hardly able to keep on her feet, yet always looking for a little bit of affection from my father.

We shall miss her.

Notes From The Greek Class

So what’s Verena up to? Haven’t heard from her in ages.

Well, dear imaginary friend, when I’m not writing or taking pwetty pictures, I’m going to a Greek language class. And, to leave all the quipping and sarcasm aside for a moment, that is something that is very important to me.

My husband grew up in Greece, it’s a part of him. Not only that, but through marrying him I also gained a large number of terribly nice, generous Greek relatives. The cousins are no problem, they all speak fluent English, but as  far as the older generation, his aunts and uncles, goes, I am sadly and utterly unable to communicate with them. They only speak a smattering of English and German (and a bit more French; fat lot of good that does) and my Greek is basic verging on non-existent. And sign language only takes you so far, I fear.

All of this has been, if not a cause for sadness, at least the cause of some wistful discomfort. So now, only three or four years late, I’m finally making good on my promises and taking a Greek class.

If it all works out the way I want it to, I’ll be able to speak something resembling basic Greek in one or two years. Basic, mind you; with the exception of English I can hardly be called a language buff. But I’m still very happy that I’ve finally taken this step.

Also: if my classmates continue to be as amusing as they were in the first session last Wednesday, I’ll be making this a weekly column. Because, let’s face it, Greek is a difficult language and Germans can be so damn hilarious.

Today we shall cover the alphabet. The teacher, Konstantinos, is a nice guy. Late fifties, I’d have to guess, and soft-spoken. His German is a little broken – as he says himself, he didn’t pay any attention to the articles, der/die/das, when he learned German, and is regretting it to this day. Personally I don’t mind, I’m there to learn Greek, not German. The class is full, fifteen people. Probably, anyway. A father/daughter team doesn’t yet know if they’ll stay on. Konstantinos – we’re all on a first-name basis here – is confused, the class list he got from the school only has eight names on it. Chaos reigns. Please take out your books, he says. Blank faces meet his smile. Book? Nobody said nuffing about any books. He sighs, doesn’t seem very surprised. Plan B then.

The Greek alphabet. 24 letters. Careful, they’re a little different from what you’re used to. Here’s how it goes: Alpha. Beta. Gamma. Confusion arises, the class breaks into whispered conversations. Surely that one is pronounced like an r. Or maybe a g. J, someone volunteers with some certainty… or maybe ch? Konstantinos lets it all wash over him, I’m sure he’s heard it before. No, he says, actually it’s pronounced γ, like in this εγώ. That means I, as in yourself. Also, and here is where it all goes wrong, that’s basically the same word you know as ego (a word which in German can among other thing also mean self-esteem or self-assuredness). Aha, crows a red-haired woman in her late forties (you know the type: perm, colored hair, neat black costume, perpetual frown on her face, looks like a Doberman): “Ego, that’s so typical for you Greeks.” Aha, I think to myself… you’re learning the language, but you hate the people. Fan-fucking-tastic.

Konstantinos ignores this and moves on. Delta. Or rather Δ. (Pronounced like the th in this.) A hand shoots up. “Excuse me, sir, why aren’t you saying delta?” The letter d hangs heavily in the stale air. Hmm, lady, dunno… maybe because that’s not the way it’s pronounced? Unfortunately Konstantinos doesn’t say that. Instead he looks a little helpless and then ignores the question. It’s hard to tell people that they’re utter idiots, I guess. The rest of the alphabet is less eventful, although it seems hard to grasp why a language needs this many versions of the i. When Konstantinos reads out a few Greek place names, including some islands, the woman next to me giggles. “Funny,” she says, “they say Ρόδος, not Rhodos.” There’s that sneaky delta again. Tsktsktsk. I sigh. But we’ll get there, won’t we?

2010 In Books

And once again a list of all the books that I read in the last year. Some people enjoy these, I hear. It’s sorted alphabetically by author, because I’ll be buggered if I can remember the order that I read them in.

The list would be a lot longer if cookbooks counted, but alas, I have decided that they don’t. I fear “place noodles in boiling salt water and cook until al dente” doesn’t count as enough of a narrative to constitute a novel. Wish I had read more. Sigh.

2010 was the year that saw my novel finished and also the year in which I wrote a very nice short story that I hope will get published soon. It was the year in which Jonas sold his first flash game and his first articles, and when I say this it is not with envy, but with pride (and a little envy). I made graphics for Jonas’s next game and did a lot of culinary experimentation. A good year, yes, but creatively speaking still a bit of a disappointment. I could and should have done so much more. I hope that’s all going to change next year. I’ll start with this blog. More updates, more reviews and the two final installments in the Twilight Experiment. 2011 will be a creative year. And in a few months it will also stop feeling weird to type that number.

Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie
Last Argument Of Kings – Joe Abercrombie
Never Have Your Dog Stuffed – Alan Alda
Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself – Alan Alda
Consider Phlebas – Iain Banks
The Player Of Games – Iain Banks
Use Of Weapons – Iain Banks
Two Hearts – Peter S. Beagle
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The Death Of Bunny Munroe – Nick Cave
Last Chance To See – Mark Carwardine
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
King Of The Murgos – David Eddings
Demon Lord Of Karanda – David Eddings
Sorceress Of Darshiva – David Eddings
The Seeress Of Kell – David Eddings
Belgarath the Sorcerer – David & Leigh Eddings
Polgara the Sorceress – David & Leigh Eddings
Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Seth Grahame-Smith
Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby
A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Wandering Fire – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Darkest Road – Guy Gavriel Kay
The Shining – Stephen King
Under The Dome – Stephen King
Twilight  – Stephenie Meyer
New Moon – Stephenie Meyer
Eclipse – Stephenie Meyer
Breaking Dawn – Stephenie Meyer
Spilling the Beans on the Cat’s Pyjamas – Judy Parkinson
I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett
The Wilt Alternative – Tom Sharpe
Wilt On High – Tom Sharpe
Wilt In Nowhere – Tom Sharpe
Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

Lift Up Thy Head


Walking home after shopping today we hear the most peculiar sound: something resembling a mixture of the war cry of invading space monkeys and the forelorn cooing of a giant pigeon. At first we are at a loss as to where it is coming from – there’s nothing visible at street level, no car, no other people, nothing – and then we look up. Above us, so small that they are only black dots against the blue-grey sky, are literally hundreds of geese. At least I think they are geese, they look rather big, too big to be ducks or terns, and there are too many of them to be any kind of bird of prey.

We can still hear their cries long after they are gone. And then, suddenly, the sound swells again and the next group comes flying over the rooftops. They are heading west… I wonder where they’re going.