Photographs: Michael Ellis
I first met Michael Ellis on Facebook, and later in person when we both happened to be on Sifnos last September. He and his wife, he told me then, had plans to return from their home in England for some months over the winter and were looking for a house to rent. In January they were back, living in Kamares and savouring all that Sifnos has to offer in its quieter months. Via Michael’s many posts, I was able to follow along on their carefree adventures. With some major envy, it must be said.
I asked if he would share his thoughts with readers of my blog and was thrilled when he agreed. While waiting for a flight back to England recently at Houston International Airport after a week of work nearby, he penned the following. He also generously shared several of his many photographs. He writes:
I cannot imagine a place more different to Sifnos than where I have been working for the past week. I have been at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the largest children’s hospital in the United States with 465 beds and probably as many staff as the entire population of Sifnos. And this hospital is just one of over 50 medicine-related institutions on an enormous medical campus there. The statistics are mind boggling. Head over to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Medical_Center if you have a mind to.
The buildings and landscape there are alien to me and not only because I’m not American. The skyscrapers make me think of some strange cubist rendering of a mountain. They’re impressive, imposing like mountains, but to me they look like giant filing cabinets for people.
My lovely hosts took me to lunch in an Indian restaurant. The “local” restaurant was a 45 minute drive away. The restaurant was the size of an aircraft hangar, and as personal and intimate as an aircraft hangar too. This is not criticism. The staff and food were both excellent. It’s just the sheer scale of things that simply do not suit me.
I leaned across the table and showed my hosts pictures of the jewel-like waters of Heronissos and Poulati, the sunset over the bay at Kamares, the old houses in Kastro. Their faces lit up with amazement. And suddenly I felt worried, maybe a bit guilty. I was in a state, greater than twice the size of the UK, where everything is bigger and better, or so we are told, but I was filled with thoughts of bigger and uglier and lonelier prisons.
I am at heart a small island man. Texas has shown me that even more. The smaller the community, the more tight knit and connected it is and, in my experience, the bigger its heart. Scale is relevant. Even in my home town of Cambridge, England, a beautiful place that I love, there are so many people but you just do not seem to connect with those around you. On Sifnos, pretty soon everyone gets to know you. And I like that.
The first time we alighted from Speedrunner III at Kamares with just backpacks, we stopped at a beach-front restaurant and ordered the revithokeftedes (ball-shaped chickpea fritters) and a caper salad. As I bit into the chickpea ball, it was as though I’d come alive. The aquamarine sea, the golden sands, the traditional blue and white houses, the gentle, warm sea breeze on my skin, the fragrant scents and tastes of the food – they assailed every one of my senses. It was as though I’d stepped out of this world and into one closer to the Greek gods above. And despite spending six months on Sifnos, even through the winter, that is how I felt every single day there.
There is something in the very soil of this island. A magical or mythical fertility that just cannot reside in the concrete of city. If I stand too long on Sifnos, I feel roots from my feet reach down into the ground in search of nourishment there. As I run through the mountain roads with my dog at my side, I breathe in the warm air, heavy with the smells of oregano and sage. As I turn and head for home, the sun sets in the bay of Kamares and warm streaks of pinks, oranges and reds are reflected both in the sea and my heart. It all just reaches out to me and holds me there.
Why are we here? What do we want to do with our lives? These are existential questions that I guess we all at sometime will ask of ourselves.
I look forward to the next time I can join in at a panagyri. The first time, I worried that I was intruding, pushing in on a family gathering. By my sixth panagyri, the local potter was sneaking extra food onto my plate when I wasn’t looking. The daughter of the local jeweller and school teacher tapped me on my shoulder and was there to explain some of the goings-on. The owner of the garage, who did a fabulous job of mending our car, waved and shook my hand. I banged my spoon against the plate as everyone does to say thanks to the panagyri hosts. I am not religious, but these saint’s day feasts come closest to answering those existential questions for me.
I wax lyrical with all the zealousness of a religious convert, I know, but I make no apology. It surprises me still how this island, despite the short time I lived there, exerts such a strong pull on my heart.
Copyright ©: Michael Ellis