Some years ago, I was paying for something at a Greek grocery store on Jean Talon Street, back when there were Greek grocery stores on Jean Talon. It was a weekday morning, in winter, and the place was nearly empty. As I collected my change from the middle-aged woman behind the counter, a man walked in and stood swaying by the front window, staring at his shoes. He smelled of beer. By the looks of him, he hadn’t shaved, washed or slept for days. A cigarette smouldered at the corner of his mouth. He wore an old greasy coat.
The woman asked him, in Greek, “How’s it going, Maki?”
I recall a pair of bloodshot eyes and a voice, croaking: “Psofáo gia parexígisi.”
(Ψοφάω για παρεξήγήση)
That three-word sentence lingers decades after I first heard it because it is so perfect and so perfectly untranslatable. But let me try, even though I am not a translator.
Greeks draw a sharp line between humans, with their gifts of philosophy, architecture, rhetoric and war, and the world of brute beasts. (This might explain the casual cruelty to animals you can still witness in Greece, especially in the villages.) People and beasts live and die in entirely separate realms. We even have different words for the death of a man (péthane) and an animal (psófise).
Either of these words is handy for expressing an intense desire, as in, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” But psofáo carries an added whiff of the barnyard: it’s closer to a raw, animal need. And so I’m not just dying for that cigarette, I’m actually perishing for it. (But perishing is too precious for my North American ear.)
Equivalent to the preposition, “for.”
The plainest translation is “misunderstanding.” So, by stringing together the three words, we now have:
“I’m dying for a misunderstanding.” This is literally what Maki said to the woman behind the counter.
But parexigisi has an extra burden. Among Greeks, even a minor misunderstanding at a café, in a cab or at a bus stop can suddenly escalate: Sharp words, striking sparks on flinty Greek pride and self-regard, can flare up. Indignant words turn into shouts, shouts into gestures, gestures into threats of violence. As the blood reaches boiling point, the participants begin hurling honorifics and endearments — “My dear sir” and “Esteemed madam” — the surest sign of trouble. Any parexigisi, or misunderstanding, therefore, has the potential for unhinged chaos. As I said, one of our gifts is war.
And so, “I’m dying for a misunderstanding” might better translate as, “I’m itching for a fight” or “I’m cruising for a bruising.” But neither is adequate, and neither expresses Maki’s appetite for trouble: the black cloud that no quantity of coffee and cigarettes, on that particular morning in that store on Jean Talon Street, will lift. Sometimes, only a cleansing parexigisi will do.
How to kill a joke
You’d be surprised to learn, at this point in this painfully long post, that Maki’s three-word sentence is actually very funny. I have managed to explain away every particle of humour.
I murdered this joke, and my memory of it, to underscore the struggle of writing the Park Ex stories. In my head, they unspool almost entirely in Greek. But my Greek is failing through lack of exercise; English is always inadequate to the Greek; and, as I said, I am not a translator. One curtain after another draws across the stage.
These thoughts came to me during the first few kilometres of last Saturday’s long run, which I ran alone and in the cold. Then, as I began my pickups in the second half of the run, the mind went blank.