‘The problem is not that French is impossible to learn: you can hear it spoken perfectly in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. No, the real problem with French is that it is a useless language’. Jeremy Paxman (UK Journalist)
It was still very dark when we made our way down to the harbour and joined a line of passengers flocking onto the ferry Blue Star Paros which was throbbing away in the harbour and we made our way to the partially covered seating area on the top deck of the boat.
As the quayside rumbled with the sound of drag-bag wheels we watched from the deck rail we saw what resembled a sort of Pied Piper story unfolding as people emerged from rooms and spilled out of little side streets all heading in the same untidy direction and making their way to the boat.
It left on time and slipped noisily out of Katapola into a disturbingly rough sea and as the sun rose behind us the wind whipped up the foaming waves and sent them high enough to crash over the sides of the top deck covering our faces in a salty brine. The ferry lurched alarmingly from side to side and the Greek flag was cracking like a whip in the wind as though trying to detach itself from its pole as we sailed west making brief but frequent stops at Koufonisia, Schinoussa and Iraklia before arriving in Naxos in time for breakfast.
After eating we walked to the top of the town to find the Venetian Cathedral tour that was highly recommended in the Island hopping guidebook. We waited around in the courtyard outside the Cathedral and not a lot seemed to be happening and we wondered if we were going to be disappointed.
Eventually an old lady in an extravagant floral blouse and with a worn out old dog for a companion ghosted in from a hidden door in an adjacent room and enquired if we were there for the tour and we told her that yes we were.
She went to a great deal of trouble to explain that her English was quite poor and clutching her stomach she told us that her doctor had advised her against speaking in English because this made her ill.
I’m not a medical person you understand but this seemed highly unlikely to me and whereas conversely I may find it possible to understand that speaking German can give you a sore throat this woman had no credible explanation for a diagnosis of stomach cramps just through speaking English; but anyway as we set off she proceeded to speak perfectly even though it was in a hushed and croaky voice.
This was really excellent, we were the only people on the tour and we received an exceptional commentary all around the interior and the exterior of the Cathedral. But then disaster struck as a group of French people gate crashed the party and after a short debate about language preferences with these unwelcome latecomers she continued for the rest of the tour in about 75% French.
She apologised to us for that and lamented that “English people cannot speak French and French people will not speak English!” which, when I thought about it, was a very profound and accurate observation. This shouldn’t have surprised us of course, we know how precious they can be about their secondary World language so we just had to accept the inevitable and struggle to make sense of the French and be grateful for the few stale bread-crumbs of English that were infrequently scattered our way.
There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English. More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth). The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power in the World.
Actually, even in a foreign language, this was an excellent tour and the communication difficulties didn’t spoil it one little bit. Our guide swept us through a museum, a monastery and a simple basilica as we visited buildings and rooms that would simply not be accessible to tourists who did not join the tour.
In one room there was a pot-pourri of treasures that really deserved to be in a proper museum where they could be looked after properly. She dragged them out of boxes and held them in her frail hands and in a rhapsodical way accompanied by extravagant arm gestures as though she were conducting an orchestra kept imploring us to “look at this, look at this!”
At one point she opened an illuminated manuscript and declared it to be five hundred years old but she turned the pages over as though it was a copy of last week’s Radio Times. That sort of thing would never be allowed at the British Museum. No wonder Lord Elgin took the marbles back to London so that they could be looked after!
This was a brilliant tour that allowed us to see something that we would not ordinarily have seen. It lasted about ninety minutes and then she asked for just €2 each.
Now, I am not usually prone to impromptu acts of extravagance but this had been so really, really good that we gave her €5 each and still walked away thinking that we had bagged an exceptional bargain.
Our sojourn in Naxos was now almost over so we collected our suitcases from the bag storage depot and made our way slowly to the port and waited patiently for the Blue Star Ferry to arrive for our onward journey to Ios.