Adventures In Customer Support

Note: I originally wrote this several  months ago, but neglected to edit and post it. Since our phone and internet contracts are now finally running out, I thought it would be appropriate.

This is an age-old tale. Age-old in that it all started more than two years ago and age-old in that it surely has happened before to other people from other countries – in other centuries, even. As a matter of fact, I am sure that in ancient days cavemen were waylaid in their caves by travelling wheel salesmen who, unimpressed by the fact that the axle had yet to be invented, wanted to sell them Authentic Neanderthal Copperworks Wheels with Matching Sabertooth-Hide Hub Caps. And before that some guileless amoeba was wondering why that strange bacterium in the pinstripe suit kept insisting that it needed to buy ten pairs of gloves (special offer, only valid as long as the Hadean eon lasts!), when it didn’t have any hands and the primordial  soup it was swimming in was quite warm enough on its own.

Some of you may already have guessed what, or rather who, has made me so exceptionally aggravated. Right. Salespeople. To be more precise: telephone salespeople. Not as in telemarketing, those ones are bad enough, but as in people who are trying to sell you telephones and telephone contracts.

(Telemarketing is fun too. There’s one company that keeps calling to invite us to a totally free exhibition of totally high-quality totally authentic French kitchenware. Or something like that anyway, the people who call have at best a tenuous understanding of the German language and ridiculously thick French accents. It’s rather amusing, really.)

But back to my tale. Jonas and I got married in the summer of 2009. While the actual wedding was great and something that we both wanted, the event also brought us a whole lot of paperwork, mostly connected to changing my name with insurances and internet providers and the like. The one that I sort of left until the bitter end was our telephone provider. (Bitter end meaning until about a year later.) I won’t name any names, but let’s just say that their logo is sort of sickly pink and they used to sponsor a cycling team that didn’t do much except use lots of illegal substances and lose a lot. Got it? Yeah, that’s them. I should have guessed after that cycling debacle, really.

Instead of writing them a letter you only had to show up at one of their stores and say “hey, I got married the other day, could you change my name please?” That, incidentally, is the other thing that should have made me a little suspicious. I used to work for one of the bigger German cellphone providers and there you couldn’t as much as ask how long your contract was still going to last without a passport, a birth certificate and a signed and stamped horoscope. At the pink place I only needed my phone number.

Name changed. Done. Wonderful. “Can I interest you in one of our internet flat-rate offers?” asks the woman behind the counter. “No,” I tell her. I also add, quite truthfully, that I had only recently renewed our contract with our current internet provider and wouldn’t be able to get out of said contract for at least another year. “Oh”, she says, “but you’ll think about it, yes?” I answer, quite politely, that when the time comes I will weigh all my options and maybe change providers or maybe not or whatever… a year is a long time, lady. The woman behind the counter only smiles, gives me her card and wishes me a good day. And at the precise moment, in the far-off distance, the God of Fuckwits can be seen to cry tears of joy.

Three days later we have an envelope from the Tele… our telephone provider in the mail. I ignore it, they send enough adverts to deforest the South American rainforest to our house alone.

Six days later I get a phone call from them. Customer satisfaction survey, they say. “How did you like your recent interaction with our company?” I am a little flummoxed, but I answer quite pleasantly “fine.” The man seems eager for more. “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate our handling of your request?” Flummoxation increases, seeing that changing my name in my account information doesn’t leave much room for grey zones. Surely this is more of a binary-type answer? Still, they changed my name, so I say “ten.” The man continues. “Were you satisfied with the information provided by our employee?” I frown, wonder if they maybe think that the employee chose my new name for me or something, but I still say “yep.” “On a scale of one to ten?” I sigh. “Ten, very satisfied.” I reason that this is probably some sort of standard questionnaire. So I relax and let the whole thing wash over me. And then I forget about it. They’re funny, these telecommunication people.

Two weeks after that there’s another letter in the mail. Might have been three weeks, not quite sure, because (guess what) this one goes straight to the trash as well.

Five weeks after the original visit to the shop another letter arrives. Number three. This one I open, because it looks like it might have some actual content. And boy am I right.

“Dear Mrs. Kyratzes,” the letter says. “We’re very sorry to say that we haven’t received confirmation of the cancellation of your internet provider contract yet,” it goes on. “Here’s another cancellation letter that you just need to sign and send to them, in case the first one got lost,” it continues. If it is feeling ashamed of itself, it doesn’t show it. My right eyelid starts to twitch. “As soon as we get the confirmation,” the unblushing paper proclaims, “we will send you your new digital TV receiver (199,- €) and you will have access to 34 channels as well as unlimited telephone and internet usage with our new BloodyExpensiveDeluxe Package (54,99 €/Month).”

Jonas looks slightly concerned now. I am standing next to the mailbox, open letter in hand, frothing at the mouth and screaming incoherently. I concede that he might have a point, wipe the froth from my mouth, and we leave on some errand or other.

Later that same day: “[Redacted] customer service, how may I help you?” I take a deep breath. Shouting at that man won’t solve anything. Yet the temptation is there. I manage to contain my temper, but what comes out might still be the most heated telephonic monologue that I have given in my life so far. I explain. I explain about my visit to the shop and about the letters and about the frequent phone calls at increasingly ungodly hours. I especially explain about how I am not ever going to buy anything off them again even if they should turn out to be the last telephone provider on the planet. That last bit gives the guy some pause. “So you don’t like our BloodyExpensiveDeluxe Package (54,99 €/Month)?” he asks. No… I don’t. In the end I get transferred to another desk, because the first guy is bleeding from the ears and maybe also because my problem is outside his area of expertise. First day on the job, poor guy, hasn’t even learned how to butcher babies. Right.

Next dude. “Hello. [Redacted] customer service, how can I help you?” I have to repeat everything again. I can only assume that Dude #1 is sitting next to Dude #2 and that he is smirking. Maybe I’m being paranoid. When I’m done this creature doesn’t ask if I would like to switch to a different service package, thus proving that he must have some semblance of a self-preservation instinct tucked away somewhere, but instead begins to take down my complaint. Very. Slowly. When he is done enough time has passed to copy down the Bible… in Maori. He reads the thing back to me, a task which isn’t made easier by his thick Bavarian accent, and would you believe it, a tiny mistake has slipped in there. Wonder how that happened. “The customer will sign a new contract with [redacted] once her old contract has run out in eleven months,” he reads. Aha, I think, is that so? This isn’t good for my heart. I point his mistake out to him and he’s all sorry-and-forgive-me. Dude #1 is still sniggering, I presume. Never call me again, I say. Or write or anything. Close your shop in our part of town. Whatever. I make him take that down too. Then I hang up.

The moral of the story is that you should never, ever, not under any circumstances, talk to salespeople. Honest. It will be bad for the rainforest and it will be bad for your blood pressure. And doping is bad. Yep.

At least I haven’t gotten another call, letter, telegram, email or smoke signal from that bloody pink madhouse since then. That’s something.

And this is why we’re doomed

This is a fifteen-minute video in which the 51 contestants in the 2011 Miss USA pageant tell us if and why evolution should be taught in schools. Yep, you heard right. Evolution, taught in schools… yes or no? As the people at BoingBoing, where you might have already seen this video, rightly pointed out: why aren’t they asking whether creationism should be taught in schools?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why am I expecting any kind of reasonable, sane answer from the participants of a beauty pageant? There’s several reasons, actually.

First of all: these pageants, Miss America more so than Miss USA, claim that they are judging their contestants not only by how hot they look in a tiny bikini, but also by their general knowledge. Okay, I admit, Miss USA is rapidly devolving in that department. The big interview was discontinued in 2001 and replaced by a single current events question, but still…

Also: this is 2011, might I hope for a little bit of thought and knowledge from children of the internet generation? I haven’t got the strength to watch this sad testament to the state of the human race yet again, but I think none of these girls are older than 24. TV, internet, radio, there are plenty of effortless ways to get information these days (note I didn’t say libraries, I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually pick up a book, certainly not Miss New Mexico).

Thirdly: Jesus, I know a lot of these girls have been put through the pageant-grind by their overambitious parents since they were three, but does that seriously mean that they all have to be the intellectual equivalent of a small, grey pebble? I know the stereotype of the starved model whining that she’s not automatically stupid just because she’s absolutely stunning and never has more than 500 kcal a day, but has anyone ever considered that she might be right?

Apparently that is too optimistic. Yes, of the 51 contestants only four actually say that evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools, but a whopping 21 add to their more or less hesitant yes that creationism should be taught as well. Or creationitism, as Miss Hawaii would say (3:30 into the video).

Ten of the contestants say that they don’t believe in evolution and I would like to add another four or five to the tally where the careful avoidance of the “do I believe” question sounds a lot like a heartfelt “suck on this, Darwin.” For comparison, only three of the girls admit to believing in evolution. It gives me hope, though, that the eventual winner was Miss “I am a science geek” California, although that could also just be put down to the fact that she’s a hot, skinny redhead.

But seriously, these girls get judged by how well-spoken and knowledgeable they appear. Note that I say knowledgeable and not knowledged. You hear that, Miss Georgia?

As it is, I hear Miss Kentucky (5:06) say “[I] honestly don’t think you can have too much knowledge about any one subject […], but I do feel evolution shouldn’t be taught in school, just because there’s so many different views on it. So many different definitions, how do you teach a child about evolution when so many different sciences won’t agree [incoherent bit]. It’s just not a subject that I feel everyone will agree on.” Ya think?

Or Miss Mississippi (7:41), who believes that ” evolution should be taught as what it is, a theory, but it shouldn’t be taught as fact.” Miss Washington (13:35) helps clear up any confusion on this count: “[…] I think science is great and that when it comes to teaching facts should be stated and we should know that facts as to how the world evolves, because it does, but as far as it comes to, y’ know, little theories and what not, I’d probably want to stay away from those […] I think facts, not theories should be taught.” Aha, thanks, I see. I think. No, wait… I’m confused.

Miss Virginia, who does look very bouncy and cheerful, very pageanty, favours a safe approach. Better not overload their little heads with too much thought, but little bits of evolution, that’s okay. I guess. What’cha call them fancy houses where them kids get that learning stuff?

And Miss Nevada doesn’t get it at all. Which would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. “I think there’s different ways to view evolution, but as everyone can probably agree upon, everything evolves. We evolve as communities that build themselves from scratch [promotes Nevada for a bit here], so I think evolution can be taught in many different ways and doesn’t necessarily have to be about people and how people have evolved, but it can also be about communities.” Aha, mhm, very interesting, but what about that Darwin fella?

Yes, well. Even if I assume that a lot of these girls were just playing it safe in order not to get into trouble with the religious parts of both audience and jury, I still think that this video shows a disconcerting trend. Many of these girls treat evolution as a theory at best and as a bat-shit-crazy idea that is to be indulged by the truly tolerant at worst. The idea that evolution should be taught in schools is often smiled at, more often met with carefully-controlled incredulity. That is scary. I would have hoped that young women (and, incidentally, men) of this day and age would be a little more tolerant and a little more knowledged knowledgeable, but apparently they aren’t. I wish I could say that I fear for America, but I mostly fear that the rest of the world isn’t very far behind.

Some nice places on the interwebs

Instead of the Epic Announcement™ that I had planned for today (which will be postponed until Sunday or possibly Monday due to a) me being too optimistic and b) things outside of my control), I’ll drop you some links instead. Because I promised a post for today and breaking promises isn’t nice.

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on the subject of Modern Art and, more specifically, Postmodern Art these days. This is one of the things that make me despair when it comes to modern art. “I wanted to give something back to the city that gave me so much,” says the artist. And that‘s what you came up with?

Luckily sometimes things happen in Germany that take my level of general despair down a notch, like this. A hotel that looks cool and that lets you pay how much or little you want/can afford. Of course they’re booked out until just after the heat death of the universe.

And here are a few videos. If you’ve never heard of Saturday Night Live’s version of Celebrity Jeopardy you lead a sad and miserable life. Here’s my favourite skit. Or, if you’ve got about two hours to spare, you could have a look at the Spoony Experiment‘s review of Final Fantasy X. And if that doesn’t cheer you up, you could always take a look at ninja cat. If that doesn’t cheer you up, you’re probably a cyborg.

Also, if you’re tired of me constantly shamelessly promoting my own pictures on Flickr, here’s me promoting someone else.

A few blogs/web-thingies that I regularly look at. The Atlas Obscura is a wonderful compendium of silly, secret and surprising places all around the globe. And Everysaturdaymorning’s Blog is a thought- provoking (and sometimes infuriatingly, stubbornly misandrist) blog run by a volunteer escort for an abortion clinic. If you’ve got a problem with abortion clinics please go away and never come back again. I mean it. Most of the women have got very serious reasons for going there. No one just wakes up one morning and says: “I think I’ll have an abortion today.”

And here’s an Asian mimic octupus chaser from XKCD for all those who are freaked out by the mention of reproductive justice issues on this blog.

Finally, and then I’ll shut up (honest), The Book of Living Magic is still out and it still needs your love and cuddles.

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?