I’ve just enjoyed some weeks in the Peloponnese, where I spent many long hours bobbing in a warm, wordless sea of forgetfulness. A few days in Athens brought me back to the land of language, however. The city is a linguistic battlezone, from the daily graffiti riot around the Polytechnic area to the striking political proclamations on banners strewn across gates and doorways and the hubbub of growling dialects and street slanguage in bars and cafés. And beneath it all, the still sore rubbing along of Katharevousa and Dimotiki – the ‘pure’ language claiming descent from ancient Greece against the everyday vernacular. The establishment versus the people. And sprinkled over this, all manner of English, from phrase-book mash-ups to student wall scribblings and the pantomime prose of global brands.
Of course, it’s now traditional for Britons returning from abroad to share hilarious manglings and misuses of English discovered en route. You know the sort of thing – a Chinese food menu with a dish called Fuk Yoo. The Daily Torygraph has an enjoyable if rather smug section of this type called Sign Language.
I did spot a few oddities (one restaurant promised to serve ‘haunted food’) but some other aspects of writing in Greece made a stronger impression. In the National Archaeological Museum, for example, I was struck by the lucidity and cultural confidence of the captions. The words provide a sophisticated interpretation of the history on show, with politics, economics and religion very much to the fore. I can’t help but think many British museums would attempt to make these insights more ‘accessible’ via some dreadful editorial device, like a character who travels through time and interprets the complex stuff of history into ‘everyday language’. Sentences such as ‘Mystery cults with a soteriological content flourished, while the Stoic philosophy and Neoplatonism were also widespread’ would probably be culled for fear of seeming highbrow and alienating visitors. This need to ensure that the audience ‘gets’ everything first time is corrosive and limiting. There’s nothing wrong with captions and catalogues that stretch our understanding, that is what the process of learning involves, after all. I had to look up ‘soteriological’ in a dictionary, and that took me down some interesting and unexpected avenues.
The design of the museum reflects this no-nonsense pitch. It’s big on substance and refreshingly free of themed trails, interactive visitor experiences, didactic signage, promotional posters, health and safety notices, sponsorship messages and feedback forms. I saw no children holding leaflets with headlines such as ‘How many sculptures of animals beginning with the letter B can you find in Room 5?’ I saw plenty of children discussing the works with adults.
My only gripe is with the museum’s caff, which is set in a lovely courtyard but sells dry cheese puffs and fizzy drinks at prices that would make an Onassis wince. In contrast, the beautiful new Acropolis Museum boasts a restaurant serving scrumptious food at modest prices. And there are one or two relics in the building that are worth a look too.
Between museum cafés it was necessary to go into a non-museum café to eat more pastries. The natural choice was Chatzis, on Syntagma Square. Here, one of the most delicious delicacies was the prose used to describe their recipes. ‘The artistry, the flavors and the smells of another, sweeter era unite with our reality and awaken our senses. Cinnamon smell, thick syrup, velvet creams and chubby dough are sweetly mixed and take you on a magnificent and charming time journey. The pure ingredients, always carefully chosen, the recipes, rooted in the old homes of Constantinople…’ OK, so some of the vocabulary might benefit from a lighter touch from the translator (‘smells’?) but the prose oozes heritage, personality, atmosphere and, most of all, flavour. I love the idea that their pastries evoke another era – a time when Greece emanated from Costantinopoli. Chatzis is selling baklava soaked in nostalgia for a lost city, a lost time, a lost centre, and some might even say a lost greatness. Reworked in contemporary Anglo-Saxon copyspeak, the translation would probably read ‘Chatzis – we’re passionate about delivering the authentic taste experience of ancient Greece.’ Give me the old homes of Constantinople and a plate of chubby dough, every time.