Learning a language can sometimes be fraught with problems when you try to put your new-found skill into action (like ordering the wrong thing in a restaurant), but even if you really are fluent in a language it can still backfire on you.
Some 25 years ago, when I was finally fluent in Modern Greek and often being mistaken for being a true Athenian Greek, I used to travel to all parts of Greece at a moment’s notice with my children, or with friends – no advance bookings, we’d just get the air tickets to Athens and decide which island to go to once we arrived. My knowledge of the Greek language always stood us in good stead and we seldom had problems. It also meant that we were offered much hospitality by the Greeks, who are such welcoming and lovely people to know.
One day, back here in the smoke, a friend took me to a Greek restaurant he’d found in Bayswater, and it was a terrific place. A musician played the bazouki, we danced a lot, the food was wonderful and we spent the whole evening speaking English and Greek alternately. When my friend asked for the bill, the manager came over and asked us whether we were English or Greek, because he’d heard us speaking both languages and he was puzzled as to our nationality. When he discovered we were both English but had learned to speak Greek at home with books and cassettes, but without formal lessons, he was very impressed. So impressed that he offered us anything on the menu as a gift. It was not difficult for me to choose. I absolutely love halva. That was my selection. I hadn’t remembered that the halva you get in a Greek taverna is not the halva that you’d buy in the shops. Instead, it’s made with semolina and it’s the one I don’t like!
Needless to say, when it was served to me I couldn’t find it in me to turn it away, so I ate as much as I was able to. I thanked him profusely and then said I was full up, having already eaten three courses before it, and this was accepted by the manager. No big deal, you might think. However, more than six months later I returned to that Greek restaurant and took with me a male relation who was in London on a visit, thinking it was unlikely that I’d be remembered especially as I was with someone else and there would be no Greek spoken that evening.
Imagine my chagrin when, at the end of the meal and with nothing being said about it, the halva was presented to me once more. I couldn’t believe it. I ate it manfully (or perhaps it should be womanfully) and made up my mind to not go back there any more. It was such a pity because their hospitality was second to none.
What would you have done?