My mouth is made for many things, but gammas ain’t one of them. On my flat English palate, s’agapo is transformed from a husky declaration of love, redolent of mastika-scented kisses on a cocoa-coloured Greek mountainside, into an entirely unromantic facial phlegm missile. I’d always assumed that the voiced velar fricative was some sort of small talking rodent, but turns out it’s an essential component of Greek-speak: and boy, are my dorsum and velum at loggerheads.
I was reluctant to learn it, at first. I like being an outsider. Mingling palely with my half-Athenian inamorato and his Attic comrades, I enjoy the sense of dislocation; I relish the quinine-and-linen thrill of the Englishwoman trespassing ‘mongst swarthier, shoutier, saltier souls. But I also want to know what they’re saying about me behind my back, so a ten day escape on the island of Patmos seemed the ideal opportunity to learn.
I have always thought of Greek culture as forged from pale fire, backboned by a sternness, stoicism, and ascetic rigidity – men all earnest athletes scraping oil from their pecs with strigils; women all self-sacrificing sisters topping themselves in barren caves; landscape all hellfire-hot, scrub-strewn apocalyptic hills – that would scornfully shrivel my soft, sybaritic, bluebell-scented soul.
In reality, I found a proud, playful sensuality embedded everywhere from the food to the phonology. The language is full of tumbling trainwreck rhythms, gliding dipthongs and tripping consonants. The punch-from-the-chest neh is so much more affirming than the slippery vowel-helmed sibillance of our reluctant yes. Dizzied by the lip-licking, plosive-pouting joy of para poli, I repeatedly wanted, thanked and loved very much. Like the language, the food has to be tasted in situ; there are no good Greek restaurants in London (oh, comment away), and in any case, there is a particular synergy between each Hellenic mouthful and its name. Horta perfectly expresses the earthy, stringy, iron-rich tang of the whore-common weeds that are served as a spinach-like side. Manouri is as softly, comfortingly, milkily mild as its lullaby smooch suggests. When made properly, with sweet snakes of cucumber nestling in sharply garlic-laced goop, tzatziki is indeed a squeaking exclamation of joy. And when you first bite into the hot, crisp oil-crust of kolokithokeftethes, your bulging maw is as overstimulated by the creamy courgette and cheese centre as it is by the word.
Pity about the plumbing, really.
Photography: Alexia Andreopoulos