Chess and English Lessons

By gerard oosterman


There was an opportunity to teach English to the many Greek and Italian migrants on board and I offered my services to the Australian Migration Officer who organized all the documentation for them as well as giving English lessons by the use of English proficient travellers. My group was about thirty or so of Greek men and women and their children. I knew I had a knack for teaching and was often accused of acting as one, you know the type, always trying to give opinions, wanted or not. At the same time I joined the ship’s chess competition and during those few weeks slowly climbed up the chess ‘on board hierarchy’. It was rumoured that the ship’s doctor was a bit of a ‘master’ and remembering the reverence I had for my uncle in Amsterdam I thought I would be lucky to reach the level high enough and play against him.

The English lessons were going very well, if there is one thing that I learnt about Greeks is that they love laughter. The English lessons at the beginning,  was mainly by pointing out items or persons and saying the word in English and then writing the word on a black board. Apart from ’stavros and mavros’, I did not know much Greek at all. So, pointing to a female was ‘woman’ after which ‘she’ would be ventured. A man was ‘he’. They were quick witted and soon understood and laughed uproariously when pointing to a girl and asked if it was a ‘he’.

 The next lesson was about people having different trades or professions, carpenters, nurses, butchers, typists etc. Greeks are very capable and when coming to the word ‘painter’ and imitating the slapping of paint brushes against a surface, several hands would fly up indicating they were painters. Amazingly and very funny was when the trade of butcher was explained, many of the painters hands went up again, they were both painters and butchers. However, when nurses came up and I went to the previous bi-capable tradesmen to ask if they were nurses as well, the whole lot went into convulsions

They were the most responsive group of people I have known. I wonder now, forty years on, what happened to all that enthusiasm and cheerfulness. No doubt many are grandparents, many might have passed away and many have children who became doctors, professors, wealthy entrepreneurs and some might have returned to Greece. That is life, and I won the chess competition as well.



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