The Language Barrier
About a year after my father was transferred from the American Consulate in Montreal to the Consulate in Salonika, Greece, my brothers and I began to speak to our parents in the third person. This wasn’t something we discussed or planned, and we didn’t consciously imitate each other. It just happened, as though it were the natural thing for us to do at that point in our lives (I was nine, my older brother, Budge, twelve, my younger brother, Bob, seven and a half). And it went on seeming natural, because neither my father nor my mother ever corrected us—not that year, 1937, or the next year or the next, when war broke out in Europe and we returned to Washington, D.C.
“Can she give me some cash for the streetcar?” Budge might ask my mother to her face before he headed out on an excursion into downtown Salonika.
“He’s going too fast, I can’t keep up,” I might complain while trying to match my father’s quick circuit from the American Consulate to the White Tower along the Salonika esplanade and back to our waiting De Soto.
When I think about those prewar years, it seems strange that I never asked my parents, both of whom lived into their late eighties, what they said to each other to explain the perverse grammar that emerged from their offspring day in and day out until each of us in turn went off to college. Many years after the fact, when both parents were dead, I did ask my brother Bob what he made of this odd grammatical distance between generations within our household, in which our intimate home life was governed by an unexplained narrative convention that prevented us from speaking directly and personally to our parents.
Bob’s response to my question: “I have no idea why we spoke to them in the third person, but that is what we did. All three of us. Idiotic. Though no more idiotic than their never correcting us.” He added that he had asked our mother about this linguistic curiosity some years before her death and she had blamed it on the presumably dubious English of our maid and nurse at the time, Nartouie, known to our less tolerant Greek companions as the Armenian Midget.
“Of course it wasn’t Nartouie’s fault at all,” Bob said. “Her English was devious, but not dubious. She certainly knew the difference between I, you, he, and she. The problem is, we did too.”
Nartouie wasn’t actually a midget. She was well over four feet tall, an orphan refugee from the Armenian massacres in Turkey, stunted by hunger and poverty but eternally optimistic, eternally young, all heart, all cunning. At least that is what she became after my father took her in during his tour in Beirut and brought her to the winter never-never land of Montreal to help my mother cope with three hyperactive sons, spoiled by adoring Syrian and Lebanese servants. Nartouie’s diminutive size and childlike view of the world kept her close to me and my brothers, more surrogate sister than nurse, and whatever the limitations of her English, Bob was right: She was never third-person distant with the younger generation or anybody else. It pained us in unspoken ways—the first death in the family—when, some days after Europe went to war and we moved back to the United States, Nartouie took the train to Providence, Rhode Island, to become the bride, in a marriage arranged by an Armenian broker, to a man two heads taller than she was and wider by another half.
During those early years, my mother might betray us to our father over some delinquency of ours—that was her one consistently unforgivable weakness in my childhood opinion—but not Nartouie. When we would violate the anopheles-mosquito deadline that prevailed throughout the foreign community in northern Greece and stay outside past the sun’s disappearance for another half hour of soccer with our multinational companions, Nartouie was always there to lie for us.
“You were to get them back here before sunset,” my father would say to Nartouie, his finger pointing menacingly. “If they get malaria, it’s your funeral.”
“When I went to call them in, one of them fell. We had to carry him back home.”
“Which one fell? They all look perfectly healthy to me.”
“Not one of ours. One of the gardener’s boys. One of the Armenians.”
“Nartouie, you’re lying. Don’t lie to me. I can tell when you’re lying.”
“I don’t lie, Mr. Keeley. I am a Christian. I act like a Christian.”
“I’m warning you. If one of the boys comes down with malaria, it’s your funeral.”
“I would gladly die for them, Mr. Keeley. My life means nothing to me. I have died once already. I—”
“Okay, okay. But I’m warning you.”
If there was a linguistic basis for the move from second to third person in our generation, the syntax my brothers and I adopted had little to do with Nartouie’s occasionally quaint near-Eastern English and much to do with the varied riches—sometimes confusing and costly—of the polyglot world we encountered in Greece. We spent the first months of my father’s new post on the outskirts of Salonika in a rented villa with no particular charm that I remember, except maybe for its weed-studded clay tennis court. During the first spring in Salonika, my father moved us to a place called the American Farm School some four miles outside the city limits, where he rented a three-story house with a ground-floor living room that seemed the size of a roller-skating rink, a second-floor garden patio open to the unblemished blue heavens, and screens against malaria on every window.
My father’s motive for this move was simple, my mother explained years later: not so much the luxury of grand, mosquito-free space (even inside the house, all of us slept under mosquito netting) as the proximity of a herd of Jersey cows, imported from the United States. If cows were my father’s motive for moving to the American Farm School, I took that to be a product of his passion for cream in his coffee and fresh butter for his bread. But my mother, more generous toward him, told me that he wanted to provide his children with regular pasteurized milk. And to ensure that, once we moved to the School, he drew up a contract in which he agreed to pay indefinitely for the upkeep of a particular cow with the best production record in the herd, whose milk henceforth was to be his and his family’s. He called this arrangement a “bovine scholarship” for the School’s farm operation.
The American Farm School, enveloped in green close by Salonika Bay, was a high school for training Greek villagers in modern methods of farming, created while northern Greece was under Turkish occupation at the turn of the last century. The founder was a white-bearded American missionary named Dr. Henry House, who believed that the fastest route to the salvation of your soul was by way of tilling barren soil to feed your body. The School, starting with a few arid acres and six Christian students from Bulgaria, gradually grew to become an oasis of some hundred acres in free Greek Macedonia. It was taken over in the ’30s by Dr. House’s son Charlie, who turned from sowing wild oats to sowing the good word in an evangelist mode learned from his father.
This he did, first of all, for the benefit of the School’s Greek Orthodox students, who responded to his kindly manner if not to his largely incomprehensible message, and then for the benefit of anyone who arrived at the school gate with a survival problem and a capacity for hard work, whether a refugee from Asia Minor or the Slavic territories or the Metaxas dictatorship then in command of the country. Charlie House was a man of gentle conviction and broad tolerance. He had a talent for building out of stone and mortar on meager resources to put a roof over the exiled and dispossessed who came to his door for shelter and who remained faithful. He smoked cigarettes like every other local Christian, but always on the road outside the school boundaries in order not to displease his father’s ghost.
For the underaged new to Greece, as for the dispossessed, the American Farm School was Eden. The pleasures in it started with the fields between the school buildings and the sea: wheat, barley, and alfalfa, along with patches of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, and something called eggplant. The gold and green of those fields, the smell and taste of what the gardens produced, much of it familiar from my grandfather’s farm in upstate New York, was startling nourishment for nostalgia. Then, on the hillside behind the school buildings, the unfamiliar colors of row on row of blossoming almond trees and a neighbor’s strip of dark green vineyard beside a spread of olive trees with silver in their leaves. Eventually we came to know the buildings and their games: the dairy barn for more practice milking, the quadrangle of craft shops for after-school wood and metal work, the storage barns for caves and ladders, the farm machinery for hopping a ride into open country, and near the huge dormitory building, the playing fields for soccer and track and the garden reservoir that served for a swimming pool until its bottom and sides turned green.
But most of all, what made this oasis a vast playground were the young companions we discovered there: those old enough for action and adventure, children of the school staff living in houses scattered on the grounds, the sons and daughters of Greeks who had arrived with the exchange of populations in the 1920s, Armenians who had fled the Turkish massacres, and former students from remote villages who had stayed on after graduation to teach the crafts they’d learned and find a new life near the city. The language of the older generation was often mixed: Turkish and Armenian and even Slavic overtaking Greek when privacy was called for. But the companions had their own language: Macedonian Greek spiced with vulgarities, wild metaphors, and grand threats—a language that remained distant enough from the elders to make for off-hour sport as loud and uninhibited as play in a first Eden ought to be. The sons of the American Consul learned that language better than their own.
“All right, masturbator. Christ and the Virgin! Are you a masturbator or what? I told you to kick the ball to me, you chunk of halva. Me, I say. Just give me the chance and I’ll turn that goalie’s eggs into cabbage.”
“Hey, hey, it’s almost nine o’clock. Rise up, rise up, you grandfather cock.”
The difficulty was that the freewheeling life at the Farm School did not begin until a few hours before sundown. Life in the real world began at eight in the morning when my father drove the ten kilometers into the Consulate and on his way dropped the three of us off at the German School.
This, our parents told us, was the school highly recommended for non-Greek nationals by the city’s foreign community, except for the French, who recommended a local school run by the French. Nobody recommended a Greek school, even if the American Consul’s children, by the end of their first spring and summer in the country, spoke a version of village Greek as though it was their mother tongue. In any case, it turned out that the French had a point, because the German School proved to be an abomination.
The first problem was that all classes were taught in German, so the American Consul’s sons had to learn a third language, a ghastly-sounding language, to go along with their domestic English and their playground Greek. The second problem was that the teachers using this third language were political missionaries sent out from Germany to proselytize in more or less subtle ways for the Third Reich, as might have been suspected by foreigners of the older generation in that part of the world who kept up with the news during the years 1936 to 1939.
My mother knew there was a language problem early on because she had sometimes spoken German at home in New York with her father and mother. Though her German was not really echt Deutsch, she could tell that ours was virtually incomprehensible when we chose not to stay mute, in rebellion against our fate as schoolboys. She tried to work with us after school every other day, but we revolted in violent unison because of the time it cost us away from the soccer field. A family conference led to tears on both sides, though a degree of sympathy for the predicament of the younger generation was established when Budge made a speech protesting the inhuman weight of mastering three languages at once. I now realize that it was probably not so much his rhetoric as the painful awkwardness of our parents’ hearing us address them in the third person that led to a compromise. My father decided it would be up to the German School to teach us proper German and up to my mother, meeting with us two rather than three times a week, to work intensely on our grammar and vocabulary in the one language that it would be a disaster for us to lose: our native language, American English.
My personal problem with the German School wasn’t merely linguistic. There was cause for severe stress in trying to get along with the teachers in that school. Some of them were kindly enough and only vague proselytizers, like the gourd-headed music teacher who made a point of not noticing that I and a few others never joined in the singing of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (I can’t say that I was deeply into international politics at that age, but I did know what my own national anthem sounded like, even if some of the words eventually began to fade away). And when, out of the profound insularity that I brought to my history class, I screwed up the assignment to make paste models of the two designated Germanys—one that showed the country as it currently was and one as it was destined to become, we were told, when what was rightfully German territory established new borders—the history teacher, a white-haired, pig-tailed woman who usually wore a dirndl, finally allowed me to substitute a crude paste model of the North American continent for the future Germany.
A few of the teachers were bolder, more direct. The teacher assigned to tutor foreign students in verbal and written German, a rosy-faced Nazi with a brush of blond hair and a sweet smile, could twist your ear to the point of drawing tears if your lettering was taken to be evidence either of dissent or mental deficiency. He always spoke softly as he twisted: “No, my child, you do not make an r that way. Please. As I have already tried to explain, a German r does not look like an n or some other curiosity. Do you understand? Forgive me, but you must understand. You are not in America now but in a German school. The tail is small on the German r like a fishhook. Shall we try again? I think we had better try again.” His teaching method worked indelibly: My handwriting still shows a German r, a kind of scar on the page to remind me of this tortured phase of my early school days.
The gym instructor, who was said to be Count Somebody at home and who ended up a celebrated Luftwaffe pilot in the war—lean, pallid, a slash of black hair glued to his forehead in homage to the Führer—was no doubt paid well to be the most open Nazi in the school. Part of his assignment was to train and supervise the Hitler Jugend contingent that drilled in the afternoons and sometimes paraded with the members of the Greek youth movement called Neolaia. That organization, reserved for Greeks as the Hitler Jugend was reserved for Germans, had been recently organized by Metaxas to promote martial coherence and group patriotism in the marvelously individualistic and generally undisciplined Greek secondary school students of those times. At the German School, gym class was an undisguised military drill, no room for games, all exercises by the numbers, discipline rigid, and much silent marching this way and that across the schoolyard as training for the after-school parades. Those who failed in concentration or rhythm earned a whack with a riding crop across the back of the knees, and those who spoke during a drill received a dressing down in front of the class and special exercises after class for strengthening the arms, legs, and will.
My brothers and I were never party to the disciplinary exercises, though we learned about them from one of my older brother’s friends, who had made the mistake of swearing out loud in Greek during gym class, an act regarded by the teacher as blatantly subversive. The friend reported that during the harshest punitive exercise he was made to lean at arm’s length into the wall that surrounded the school yard and, under the guidance of the teacher’s riding crop tapping the front of his knees, encouraged gradually to assume an ever greater angle and a straighter line until either his body or his will collapsed—and then to repeat the exercise.
The American Consul’s sons were spared such punishment, as they were spared all participation in the Hitler Jugend activities by decree of the school principal, a smooth, amiable gentleman whom most parents considered a polished if occasionally pompous diplomat but who came out of the war desperate enough to write some of those parents (my father included) for any help in clothing or food they might be able to spare for his distressed family. The principal’s decree followed an interview with Budge and me, during which he explained in basic German that it would not be correct for foreigners who had no German blood to take part in practice exercises that were meant for those who would qualify for the Hitler Jugend, perhaps least of all the children of the American Consul, who would surely find such participation inappropriate. When I asked if having a German grandfather didn’t allow us to qualify for the Hitler Jugend, the principal smiled.
“But surely your grandfather is American, no?”
“Yes, German American.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t quite good enough,” he said, still smiling. “After all, even Jews who are considered German citizens do not qualify for the Hitler Jugend. So you must not take it personally. Do you understand?”
I didn’t really understand why I shouldn’t take it personally, but I didn’t want to admit that. And since Budge didn’t say anything, either because his German wasn’t good enough or because his wisdom was greater than mine, I simply shrugged. Who, after all, wanted to go marching around after school hours and then parading in a stupid khaki uniform when you could spend that time on the soccer field at the American Farm School with your closest friends, mostly Greeks from Asia Minor and Armenians who went to some other school or no school at all? And since there were now frequent special drill sessions at noon, reserved for the Hitler Jugend members preparing to perform during a visit by dignitaries of the Third Reich, we were suddenly given an extra hour of free time. I played marbles or rode the backs of streetcars or explored the upper city walls with the Turk and Jew and Dane and Yugoslav in my class, who also did not qualify for the Hitler Jugend and the joint parades with the boys and girls of the Neolaia. All of us tried hard to show that we couldn’t care less.
If my brothers and I felt half rejected and half privileged by the principal’s exclusion, we decided that it was not a thing that we ought to make a subject of conversation at home, especially in view of the new freedom that it gave us. The only problem was transportation: My father couldn’t drive us home in the middle of his afternoon, even if we had chosen to tell him about our new bonus in free time. And in any case, Budge was on a later and more demanding schedule in the upper division. He decided to find unspecified ways to occupy himself in town while waiting for my father to pick him up as usual, and Bob and I made our way home by streetcar to the turn-around yard called the Depot on the edge of town, and from there on foot across the expanse of bleak open country to the Farm School oasis—a trip that proved to be full of unwanted adventure, imagined and otherwise.
There was as much fear as thrill in riding the streetcar’s tongue, but the more tenacious fear came with the three or four kilometer shortcut across barren fields from the army barracks beyond the Depot to the Farm School gate. If the empty fields belonged to anybody, it must have been to the ghosts of those buried in the ancient funeral mound halfway across that expanse, because the land was silent and deserted except for a few of the living who passed quickly through it, whether itinerant shepherds heading for the hills or gypsies on the move to more profitable country. After a first quick exploration of the funeral mound, my brother and I kept plenty of distance between us and the one entrance we found: a tunnel that you wouldn’t want to enter even without the ghostly presences in there, where the slash of daylight died, because the depths were now protected by the offerings of a makeshift public toilet, constantly replenished.
We crossed those arid fields as quickly as we could but only when the horizon ahead was clear of gypsies who might charge us a toll for safe passage beyond them, or, still more threatening, the sheep dogs that might come rushing at us, fast and savage. We’d been given the word by one of our Armenian buddies: If a sheep dog comes for you, stand there absolutely still. Don’t move a muscle. And don’t sweat, because the smell of fear turns a sheep dog rabid.
Sure. Try it some time.
We were lucky most days, but we were also careful. We found that if we had to, we could make our way through the gypsy gang for a few drachmas thrown out on the run or a T-shirt off our backs flung into the leader’s face or a cap off our heads sailed into the void, and we changed our route to avoid the sheep dogs. But the safest days were those when we timed our crossing so that we could cut back to the main road and join up with the Farm School’s horse-drawn milk wagon on its way back from delivering afternoon cream and butter to the School’s regular customers in town.
From a distance, the wagon—boarded in and roofed to keep its cargo fresh—looked like a blue hut on the move just above the horizon, with a man in dungarees standing statue-still in its doorway in imitation of the Delphic Charioteer: Panayotis the milkman, beloved not only by those who had a passion for pasteurized milk but also by those who could become enthralled by stories about what it was like to lose a grand home, all inlaid furniture and precious carpets, in Smyrna during the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922 and cross from the Turkish coast to the nearby Aegean island of Chios on a raft made out of driftwood and a prayer. Bob and I were enthralled the first time and the second, then did our best to pay attention thereafter, because keeping on the good side of Panayotis meant not only a long cool drink of the morning’s leftover milk but also a safe passage home in a make-believe limousine.
“You boys can’t imagine—how could you?—what it’s like to run from a sword-wielding Turk ready to swing at your head or your ass before you manage to jump into the sea in the darkness of night to search like a blind man for any floating piece of driftwood and, if you’re lucky, a second piece to tie to the first with your belt and hang on to as you paddle with your tired legs kilometer after kilometer until you see a few lights in a distant cove giving you the last gasp of hope that you’re going to reach the Greek island of Chios, if the Virgin still be with you, and find a few Christians there who are willing to close up the holes in your body from your land wounds sealed for the moment by salt water so that what blood you have left doesn’t spill out onto the shore of your beloved fatherland before you have a chance to thank your God for having saved you from dying an evil death as the plaything of your infidel enemy.”
The story would change here and there in its details, but Panayotis’s fall from a career as an aspiring rug merchant to a milkman with a horse-drawn cart not his own was the suffering heart of every version, as was the Savior’s grant of life-saving grace in a moment of desperate need, matched by the saintly Charlie House, who had taken Panayotis in as a young man with no interest in agriculture but a way with words. Nobody ever challenged the story of his survival. And anyway, that was hardly his only story. If you seemed to tire of that one, he would pull another out of his past history during those days of beauty and adventure in his village on the coast near Smyrna, the lost paradise that only a milkman with the heart of a poet could find a way to make you believe.