The other day, on a dark and
windy afternoon, I went on one of my walks around Söder,
the southern part of Stockholm. From Bellmansgatan over
to the churchyard of Maria Magdalena, where Lucidor and
Taube lie buried opposite each other, as if drinking a
toast to each other.
Then via Ragwaldsgatan and Södra Latin school down
to the covered markets where the giant new Tower seems
to flirt coyly with the Stockholm Globe high above our
Medborgarplatsen has long since been ruined by all sorts
of knick-knacks and frolics. I hurried past it, past the
Kvarnen tavern, where I had once been with a Greek lady
friend of mine whose husband had just been told that he
had incurable cancer.
I remember holding her hand in mine for such a long time
that, in the end, it seemed that we had both disappeared,
leaving our hands behind.
When her husband died, she left Sweden. He left nothing
but a short letter in which he wrote: “I don't know
if there are windows where I am going, but if there are,
I will stand by one and think of you.”
At the end he could neither talk, eat nor sleep. But he
could still love her.
These memories made me walk more slowly, staring at the
ground. As a result, I nearly collided with a smartly dressed
gentleman wearing an elegant hat. It turned out that the
collision was but the prelude to a warm and surprised embrace.
It was my old friend Elias, whom I had met at the start
of my stay in Sweden. A group of young Greeks used to meet
in the City Library in order to study for exams together.
There were five of us. One is dead, two have returned to
Greece, two are still here, Elias and I. But we hardly
ever meet, and I some-times wonder if this is because we
want to forget those times, or because we want to remember
He was on his way to a nearby Greek restaurant in order
to book a table for New Year's Eve. He explained that he
had been ringing round for several hours for a table without
"That's life", I said. "Now that we can
afford it, there's no room."
"It's always been like that", he replied. "Don't
you remember the old proverb? When the sea turns to yogurt,
that's when the poor man finds he has no spoon."
We talked for a while, then parted with the agreeable feeling
that some things never change.
His reply had filled me with happiness about being Greek,
or more precisely at being back in the Greek language.
I kept repeating to myself: "When the sea turns to
yogurt, that's when the poor man finds he has no spoon."
I smiled happily to myself, as if remembering something
agreeable. Then it struck me that that was exactly right.
From being central to my life, the Greek language had become
just a memory.
I no longer had any real empathy with my language. I recognised
that. But after a 36-year absence, I was beginning to discover
it anew. That was a blessing.
My lips moved effortlessly, my voice sank deeper within
my chest, like a diver hunting for hidden treasure.
I don't know what else I can say to describe the feeling
I experienced. But let me try once more. It was as if I
were falling. The fall seemed long and inevitable, when
suddenly it was being slowed down by a self-opening parachute.
I would never lose my way as long as the homely hearth
of my language was still glowing, even if at a distance.
I would die with my dignity intact. No one can be more
safe and secure than one who possesses a language.
There are differences between the Greek language and the
Swedish language. But the essential differences, like those
that define a culture, are but two: namely their ontology
and their logic.
How is the world perceived in these languages? That is
the ontological question.
How is the world organised in these two languages? That
is the logical question.
The Greek sun is a curly-headed young man with short fair
hair. The Swedish sun is a young woman with long blonde
I sometimes wonder what sort of children would be born
of a marriage between these two.
These two figures have different characteristics. From
these characteristics comes a particular aesthetic sense,
and from that, even if not so obviously, comes an ethic.
Ontology, aesthetics and ethics are all children of their
language. Greek ontology is tangible and omnipresent. Word-endings
attest to their ontological status.
This is not so in Swedish. The ontology is nowhere near
as tangible. What does "autumn" convey in Swedish?
Is it masculine or feminine? Or something in between? Or
nothing? The word-ending divulges no gender.
But in Greek it does. Consequently a Greek's universe is
populated. He is never alone in the world. His relationship
with the world becomes different. He can tussle with Spring – to
him a young girl.
The Swede cannot do this. He is alone in his world of inanimate
shadows without substance, or substance without shadows.
It is a crueller world.
Quite simply, we inhabit different worlds. That is why
we often find it hard to understand and appreciate each
others' literature. That well-known line by Stagnelius "Night
is mother to the day, chaos is neighbour to God" sounds
utterly banal in Greek.
The same is true of one of my most beloved Greek poets,
Konstantinos Kavafis. His intensely personal style in Greek – his
colourful linguistic attire – becomes merely a grey
tracksuit in Swedish.
Words can be translated, but a world cannot. That is why
poetry in translation feels so unsatisfying. It’s
like making love while asleep.
A language's logical structure has other implications.
The main one is that there are things one can do in one
language that one cannot do in another.
A Greek like myself cannot understand what air hostesses
mean when they wish me a pleasant onward journey. Why is
this? It is because an onward journey is a journey that
has already taken place. I can say that my onward journey
was pleasant, but not that my onward journey will be pleasant.
The point of what I am saying is not to hand out grades
to different languages. The point is simply that they are
different. Swedish has a far greater tolerance for ambiguous
expressions than Greek. This is not always a bad thing.
A vigorous "We-ell" can be very useful in many
Over time, this characteristic of the Swedish language
has also become a feature of Swedish culture. I know of
no other country where the incomprehensible is cherished
as warmly as in Sweden. It is the same with silence. We
often see praise for a certain author, X, who has returned
after 20 years of silence. As if not working were an achievement.
The Swedish language also allows you to ignore logic, as
long as you adhere to the conventions of speech. I once
read the following words in a magazine: "Everyone
could see that the young couple only had eyes for each
I laughed for a week, visualising the scene of two young
people who lacked all body parts except their eyes. But
from a conventional point of view, this was an entirely
correct way to write. The Swedish reading public did not
mis-understand. It was I, or rather my Greek language,
that demanded a clear distinction between two people who
only had eyes for each other, and two people who only had
The interesting thing with these differences at ontological
and logical levels is that we can learn them, but cannot
adopt them. We cannot live within them, even though we
can live with them.
At least it is so if one learns a new language as an adult,
as I did. My brain was simply branded with the words: Made
Of course this is not something I regret. But it does mean
that however much I would like to become Swedish, I cannot.
For my children, things are different. On their brains
are the words: Made in Sweden. For that reason, I have
not tried to turn them into Greeks. That would only fail.
Their native language is Swedish. So is mine.
I start the day reading a Swedish newspaper, I speak Swedish
to my wife, I write in Swedish.
My Greek language is becoming more of an oasis than an
instrument. Sometimes I sing lewd songs in Greek, I tell
myself stories in Greek, I swear in Greek. I am recuperating – just
what one should do at an oasis.
One can also play etymological games. The closer you are
to a word's etymological roots, the simpler the world becomes – and
sometimes smaller as well. The mystery of life is sustained
by words that we do not fully comprehend. Words like love,
or spring, or death?
Why are they called what they are?
The etymology of the word for the woodworker's tool, the
'vice', creates no difficulty.
Unless one is a foreigner, that is, because the foreigner
often lives his life clamped in a vice between two languages.