Thessaloniki, Greece (Summer 2016)
When I was twelve my late grandfather, seeing that I was disinclined to study English, made me an offer I could hardly ignore. “If you learn English,” he said, “then we shall go to America together,” knowing that this was a boyhood dream of mine. A few years later, at the age of eighty, he flew to the States on his own to visit his expatriate sister after more than forty years of separation. My own turn to cross the Atlantic would come much later; however, his brilliant ruse at that time provided me with the necessary motivation.
I had the good fortune to be taught by a man who really loved his work. Using a combination of skilled instruction, tireless effort and persistence he helped our class develop a taste for the language. Those were the days of the chalk: he would fill whole blackboards with new words, synonyms and antonyms, which he would go on to explain in detail, and he would expect us to learn them and use them correctly. He spared no effort, not simply to teach us the language, but to make us appreciate and love it. He would have us write essays, short stories, or dialogues on various topics. Gently but firmly, he would correct our errors and point out our weaknesses. The weekly conversation drill was a real gem: he would introduce a subject that might be practical, philosophical, even political – a not insignificant risk in the days of the military dictatorship – and our teenage class would debate about it for two hours, during which time the use of Greek was proscribed. Little we knew in those days how useful this practice would later prove.
In addition to formal tutorials he encouraged us to borrow books from his shelves for study, and we slowly moved from Ladybirds to Charles and Mary Lamb, and thence to John Buchan and Agatha Christie and Somerset Maugham; by the time I finished high school I had read the unabridged editions of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and ‘Northwest Passage’, among others. He would ask us to summarise long pieces of text in no more than a given number of words. More often than not I would get the count wrong either way, and I would usually argue heatedly about the futility of this exercise. Since then I have realized that this is a pet vice of journal editors, who tend to impose specific text lengths on prospective authors.
In the years that followed, the language skill acquired under his tutelage proved to be one of my most useful educational assets. They helped me sail through eight years of living and medical training in Britain, and pass several professional examinations. With the advent of computers and the Internet a sound knowledge of English became a sine qua non. Every day I rely on it for continuing medical education, for general information, and entertainment, even for some side income as occasional professional translator. Thus I can truly appreciate the magnitude of this man’s impact on my life. One of his favourite pieces of advice used to be: “Write down your thoughts and ideas as they occur to you. Lock them up in a drawer for a few months or even years, then take them out, read them, and see how much of what you once thought you still hold as true or valid.” Some of these old ideas eventually find their way to publication.
Such were my fond memories of my old teacher when, a few years ago, I happened to spot his name in the heart surgery list in the hospital where I work. I looked into his room, and there he was, unchanged save for the lines of aging on his face. The joy of the reunion was mutual: we hugged and held on to each other, within seconds shedding decades of time dust off our common recollections, reminiscing about fellow students who had passed away, about his late brother who had been my patient in the past. We swapped stories about family and friends, and I showed him some of my writings, including an earlier version of this tribute; there were tears in his eyes when he finished reading it, and mine were not completely dry. For a few days he was our ‘guest’ as he slowly recovered from his operation; and thus I was able to thank him in a small way for the long-lasting gift he had bestowed on me forty years earlier.
Anthony Papagiannis, MD, MRCP(UK), DipPallMed, FCCP is a practicing pulmonologist in Thessaloniki, Greece. He received his MD degree from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Medical School in 1981. He trained in Internal Medicine in Greece and subsequently in the United Kingdom, and specialized in Pulmonary Medicine. He also holds a postgraduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine from the University of Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is a postgraduate instructor in palliative medicine in the University of Thessaly, Larissa, Greece.