Book Review: Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

I picked this book up at the library because I thought that it was a memoir on traveling in Greece. And it is, sort of; at least part of it is. I’d say about a third of the book or less tells of her travels. Mainly though, it is a memoir of the author’s love affair with the Greek language, both ancient and modern. Why Norris is dubbed the Comma Queen is not explained in the book, but I assume that it’s because for many years she has been a copy editor for the New Yorker.

The style of the book is very light and entertaining. Her descriptions of attempting to learn to read and write Greek sometimes resemble a soliloquy in a stand-up comedy act, if the comedian’s main subject was the Greek language. Norris revels in details such as origins of words and relates them with gusto. To do so, she often uses Greek alphabet and spelling, sometimes offering English transliterations and sometimes not. I have an advantage there because I can read Greek, and I remember enough Greek to understand most of what Norris expresses in Greek. In fact, it made me nostalgic.

I was married to a Greek woman and spent over fifteen years in Greece. We lived for a time in Athens, but then moved to Thessaloniki where my wife was from. We raised our five sons there when they were young. They became bilingual, having school in Greek but speaking English at home. I taught English as a second language for years to teenage and adult Greek students. During the summers we would head for the nearby beaches: beautiful sandy stretches where the sea was warm as bathwater and soothing to the skin.

I agree with Norris that Greece is a wonderful place; however, I always had trouble with the Greek language. I found it one of the most difficult languages I have ever attempted to learn. Compared to Greek, Italian, Bengali, and Indonesian were all a breeze. I remember during my early visits to my wife’s relatives I would exchange basic greetings, and then their conversation would gradually become unintelligible to me. I would sit there and sip my coffee or eat my food or whatever and be off in my own world while my wife and her family chatted. Even years later when I could navigate street markets, transportation hubs, and government offices with ease, I would quickly become lost when two Greeks would begin exchanging chit-chat.

I also found it a bit difficult to relate to Norris’s method of travel. She was a tourist, taking ships from island to island, renting cars to traverse the mainland, taking her meals at restaurants. I’ve visited over fifty countries but I’ve seldom been able to travel with much money in my pocket. As I was reading Norris’s accounts of her travels, I was thinking: Wow it would be great to be able to travel like that. My wife and I took an occasional trip with our kids, sure, but most of the time we were struggling to survive financially. We had fun, yes, but we had to portion out our fun at intervals between lengthy months of hard work.

I know it may not be fair to compare Norris’s experiences with ours, but that’s what I found myself doing. There’s a difference between traveling as an affluent visitor and being deeply immersed in a place day after day and year after year.

All in all, Greek to Me is a light, fun, uplifting read.

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