Book Club & Readers

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I was thrilled recently to be a guest at a Book Club meeting where the book under  discussion that month was mine, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. Over baklavá and almond cookies that the hostess had gone to great lengths to procure, members talked while I listened as closely as I could. After all, how many authors have the chance to sit, as it were, on the shoulders of readers who are engrossed in your book? They mused about the characters of Sifnos they’d met – the kind ones, the ones whose actions perplexed and amused them so, and those they found gobsmackingly eccentric – and wondered what’s become of them since then. They talked about the taverna on the square and its owners who lived their lives so unselfconsciously out in the open, with every one of their family foibles and daily dramas in plain view of anyone who cared to notice. They talked about the whitewashed main alley where one night we’d all joined the community of fond watchers as a tiny tot played with a ball and rolled her new word, balla, balla, balla, over and over and around on her tongue. They marvelled at the freshness of the fish in a tiny seaside village that a fisherman selected from his catch and then cooked for us himself. And my Book Club readers talked at length about the lessons they’d learned from what I’d shown them about the Greek way of life.

When I sat down to write The Chronicles, my sense of who its audience would be was hazy at best. They’d be, I guess I’d figured, people who were interested in learning about the rest of the world, those who’d travelled to Greece among them, those who wanted to, or simply those who, I hoped, would find this a good tale. Since I launched it into the world, however, this audience has come into much sharper focus. And that, I’ve discovered more than I thought I ever would, is one of the great joys of being an author.

I always thought that those people near to me – the Friends and Family Brigade, they might be called – would say they’d liked my book, and they have. What I hadn’t expected so much, though, were the messages I’d receive from complete strangers around the world, the ones that arrive at the most random of moments, and how those words would make my spirits soar. And I certainly didn’t expect that relationships would develop from there. But develop they have.

Some of these have been fleeting. A random email or Facebook message arrives, say from Malta, from Ireland, or from Nova Scotia in my own country. I reply. A bit of conversation evolves. Or not. I know, at least, that my stories have touched someone out there.

Sometimes the contact is more prolonged. The last time I was on the island, it introduced me to more than one Sifnian I hadn’t met before. And more surprisingly that time, it also brought me face-to-face with two readers I’d already met online, one from Cambridge in England and the other from San Diego, who happened to be there at the same time I was. The Englishman loves Sifnos so much that he and his wife have since taken a leave of absence from work, returned and rented a house on Sifnos, and whose almost daily Facebook photos make me quite envious, I must say. The American, a kind soul who returned to Greece earlier this year to volunteer with Syrian refugee mothers, will be in Sifnos again the next time I am, I am thrilled to hear, and plans for dinner are underway.  The tribe of those who love Sifnos as deeply as I do, I’m learning more all the time, is much larger than I ever imagined.

My book brought one Lindaki mou into my life, who lives not that far from me and who over tiropitakia and horiatiki in what must be the best Greek restaurant in Canada, entertained me with her own tales of Sifnos. (Read about these here.) A backpacking teenager in the 1970s, she happened upon it, decided it was as good a place as any to stay for a while, and for the next six months worked at delivering goods to customers who lived beyond where the few roads at the time ended, that is, leading a donkey across the island’s centuries-old trails.

When I think of unexpected encounters my book has brought me, there are two in particular that come to mind. One day, the daughter of a woman I’d followed for a while, and really knew nothing about, asked her mom’s Facebook friends to send a photograph of a flower for the lady’s special birthday. “Why not?” I thought. I chose a shot I’d done a few years back and added the message, “Bougainvillea from the Greek island of Sifnos.”

“Sifnos!” the mother replied right away. “Say hello to …” she said, and she named a person and the taverna he owns and where we would find it. Though I hadn’t said so, I was in Sifnos at the time, it was a half hour before dinner, and my husband and I were headed to that very taverna that night. We eat there more often than anywhere else and, of all the Sifnians we know, I’d have to say he is the one we know best. She, I learned then, lives in Australia … and we have the same friend.

The other occurred when, as happens from time to time most often on Facebook, I come across someone I don’t know who excitedly shares that they’re off to Sifnos very soon. Some even count the days out loud. Sometimes, quite brazenly some might say, I contact these people, let them know about The Sifnos Chronicles and where they can buy it, should it interest them.

“I’ve already read your book,” one woman replied. “That’s why I decided to go.”

Oh my.

To all of my readers, thank you. You’ve made my book come alive and you spur me on with the next one. No title yet, but it’s well underway and, yes, it will take us all back to our beloved isle.

A Donkey and a Carrot

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Well, of course. Linda, the adventurous Canadian teenager who in the 1970s travelled with two friends to Sifnos for a short-ish visit, (see my April 2 post) returned once more on her own not long after that. It’s a story I recognized as soon as she told it to me because, basically, it’s my story too, though mine is of a different era. Sifnos worms its way into your soul, and there is no choice but to go back.

Not that I go there alone. And I stay for a mere month at a time, not six through winter as she did, the only tourist on the island at the time, though tourist in Linda’s case is a relative term. I don’t get a job on a farm and live with my employer’s family. Nor does anyone add the affectionate ending, aki mou, to my name.  And I most certainly don’t spend every day walking with a donkey on trails all over this island.

No, that story is hers. Lindaki mou, she came to be known. It was a time when roads on Sifnos were few, her employer’s truck was useless at delivering goods to large parts of the island, and he soon recognized that this young girl loved animals and could be trusted with such a task. So off she went with the beast. O Gauthero, she called him.

She knew little of the Greek language at that point and even less about the ways of life on Sifnos, so she listened and she observed. She thumbed through her learn-to-speak-Greek book. She followed pointed directions and consulted her island map when out on the trail. Conversations, she says, consisted of vigorous arm gestures – international charades, I call these – snatches of words grabbed from her translation book, and Greek words repeated into her face again and again, louder and ever louder so that she’d understand this time. And somehow, it worked. Sort of.

During a meal once at the family table, talk turned to a large sack of carrots that had just arrived from Athens. Might she take one, she asked, and offer it as a treat to the donkey?

Laughter erupted. What on earth for? What was she thinking, this silly girl? Donkeys don’t eat carrots.

Well, in Canada horses do.

There followed, of course, much conversation, much laughter, many of those wild hand and arm gestures too. Somehow, though, she won the argument and her employer, Antonis, followed her down the stairs to O Gauthero’s yard. Behind them, came Margarita, his wife, the children, their workmen and two old ladies in black.

O Gauthero, though, knew better than she and it was with disdain that he merely sniffed at every one that was put under his nose. No one, not even his trusty Canadian companion, could entice him to try.

Her employer Antonis, undoubtedly triumphant, dug into his pocket, pulled from it a large head of fresh garlic, and held it in his open palm. “Sifnos donkeys love this!” he said and before she had time to wonder whether such a thing could be true, O Gauthero had downed the whole thing. With relish.

There in the field and later back at the house, conversation raged on. Of course. On Sifnos, conversations always do. Garlic is a medicinal food, it was explained to her. In this situation, she learned, its prime use is to keep the donkey free of intestinal worms. The charades it took to illustrate this … well, these are perhaps best left to the imagination.

Easter, to a Visitor’s Eye

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Kalo PaschaFeliz Páscoa … Joyeuses Pâques … Buona Pasqua … Felices Pascuas… Frohe Ostern … And because my facility with languages, such as it is, extends only to those in the European realm, Happy Easter to you wherever you are.

Sadly I won’t be in Sifnos for Easter this year but if you’re more fortunate than I, you’ll have seen by now that the spring whitewashing is done. The outsides of every house, every shop and official building will have a new coat, every paving stone in every town will be newly outlined, and the churches will sparkle inside and out.

For the faithful, there’s been a whole week of worship. Services in Apollonia are held at Agios Spyridon, its biggest church. It’s atop one of the town’s highest points and accessible only on foot up a number of stairs, too difficult a climb for the elderly priest who is there every night. He’s received special dispensation, it seems, and in the only vehicle allowed in the main alley at that time of day, he is driven as near to the church as you can possibly reach on wheels. From the taverna where I have my evening meals, I wait for him to go by in that old 2CV, one of those clattering French farmers’ cars with the bulbous headlights and flap-down side windows. “The popemobile,” a friend of mine always calls it as it rattles past. His trip back down is a slower one, with several halts so that tables, chairs and diners that have by then spread themselves across the alley can be pulled back to allow him room to pass.

Good Friday night brings the first of the open-air events, when in a solemn procession, Christ’s “coffin” is paraded through town. The Epitaphios, it’s called, both the revered object and the event, it happens wherever there are Greeks, and there are several of these in different villages in Sifnos. The one in Kastro is particularly interesting, I was once told, but the Epitaphios in Apollonia is the only one that I know. It begins actually in Exambela and the coffin, carried by four men, and its followers walk down through Apollonia to the square and return eventually to where it started. It’s a circular route that it follows, sometimes down the alley and then back along the road, other times the other way round and until it arrives, no one is certain which way it will go. “They’re coming past here first,” will be the word flying up and down the alley at the same time as, “No, they’re going the other way this time.” It’s best to make your way to the square. Most everyone else has. “They’re coming any minute now,” you’ll hear there which, with Sifnian parades of all sorts, I’ve learned, can mean any time in the next several hours. It’s a quiet scene when it does arrive, the coffin an elaborate construction which the church ladies have decorated in an exuberance of flowers, and everyone joins in and follows along.

 

At midnight on Saturday, and not a second before, the whole atmosphere changes. Everyone has gathered at the church, the faithful inside and those less so on the stairs outside. At the appointed hour, the church bells start to ring out, as does the joyous greeting, “Christos Anesti!”– Christ is risen! – to family, friends, neighbours and everyone else who happens past. “Alithós Anesti,” is the reply. He is indeed. The dark night is a sea of flickering candles, loud firecrackers tossed by young men fill the air, and there are happy faces everywhere. Not the least reason being that now, finally, after the self-restraint of Lent, they’re allowed to eat meat.

Midnight feasts will follow, and plenty more food tomorrow, lamb, lamb and lamb over the next day and a half. It will be served as lemony margaritsa soup, it will be grilled over an open flame and, this being Sifnos, it will be cooked in a wood-fired oven in wine. There’ll be melopita, honey pie, the Easter desert made in every Sifnian kitchen. And as everywhere else in Greece, there’ll be tsougrisma, the contest of smacking your red-dyed Easter egg against your friend’s, the winner the one who emerges with his still unbroken.

By Sunday night, you’ll have had so much food that you’ll be groaning. I always am. But the fun’s not over yet. At some point in the evening, a much rowdier procession will make its way down the alley, a gaggle of loud young men hauling the traitor Judas to justice. It’s a straw effigy they’re toting, thank goodness, for when they arrive at the square, they’ll hoist it onto a gallows constructed for the occasion. A man with a flaming torch will step forth and, with the boom of more firecrackers echoing in his ears, Judas will meet a fiery end. He always does. There will follow a display of Sifnian folk dance in the square and glasses of wine will be passed out to all in the crowd. And at the end of the night, whether you’re Greek or not, whether you’re in Sifnos or anywhere else in this beautiful land, whether you’re among the faithful or are of a more secular persuasion, you’ll be glad you are there. Alithós, I promise, you will.

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A Canadian in Sifnos in the 1970s

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I had lunch with a fascinating woman a few days ago. The last time I met her, the first time too, was when she came to my book launch party last April for The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. She knew Sifnos too, she told me, because she’d lived there for six months over winter in the 1970s. She stayed with a family, she said, and was allowed to take their donkey to explore beaches and trails. Oh my, I said to her that day, I want to hear your stories. But somehow time marched on and it took us this long to get together again.

But oh, was it worth the wait. In the 1970s, she was a Canadian teenager with an adventurous spirit and less than $100 in her pocket and off she flew to Europe. For the next two years, she explored it and the Middle East, often “going native” she calls it, working and living with local people. It was in a hostel in Athens that she and two friends decided that they wanted to experience Greek island life, and that it must be somewhere none of them had heard of before. They pulled out a map, someone pointed to Sifnos, and the next thing they knew, they were chugging southward across the Aegean on the old ferry, the Kalymnos.

When they arrived in Kamares, it was night-time, and all of the houses were dark. It was raining too. Someone consulted another map, pointed to Apollonia, the main town, and off they set on foot. It’s a good five kilometres away but they didn’t know that yet, and it’s up a steep and winding road, which they learned quickly enough. The rain continued to pour down and before they got too far out of Kamares, they decided it was time to take stock of the situation and spotted a house. Though the building was dark, they pushed on the door and found it unlocked. Taking care not to disturb anything, they slept on the floor and the next morning resumed their trek. It was much later she learned that, of course, the whole island knew where they’d spent that night and respected them for the care they had shown. Lindaki mou, she came to be called on Sifnos, which means something along the lines of my sweet little Linda.

The day of our lunch, she brought souvenirs along. Yes, she’s kept them safe for more than forty years now. She brought a map which had been folded and refolded many times, one that showed the island long before there were roads into Vathi or Xeronissos, a time when if you were going to either of those places, it would be by boat or along one of the island’s ancient hiking trails. She brought too her learn-to-speak-Greek guide, with many of its well-thumbed pages no longer attached to the spine. And she brought a stack of air mail letters her parents had kept tied together with ribbon, adorned by their wandering daughter with drawings of clay chick pea soup pots and other island sights. She promises to dig into those letters again and to permit me to share some of her almost-forgotten tales.

The donkey, though, is far from forgotten. “I was a horse-mad teenager,” she said. The father of the family she lived with and worked for in Pano Petali recognized this right away and asked if she might consider using it to deliver goods to customers of his. She jumped at the chance and over the next months, she trekked all over the island with this donkey. She walked mostly behind the beast, she said, and when it came to a fork in the path, it would stop and wait for her to say whether to go left or right. Or in the low whinnying sound that she remembers still and demonstrated for me, “Do you want a drink?”

Not that her life on Sifnos was all work. There were times when she’d go “on vacation” for a few days to the beautiful beach in Kamares, staying at the monastery of Agia Marina nearby. Lindaki mou, may this photograph above bring back sweet memories of this happy time in your life. I have so enjoyed the stories that you’ve shared with me and I will be greatly honoured to hear many more.

Ode to an Old Ferry

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As I write this, the old ferry, the Agios Georgios, is sailing across the Aegean, so Facebook told me this morning. Its destination is a scrapyard in Turkey where, sadly, it will meet its end.

I loved that boat. Of course. It’s the one that took me to Sifnos that first time in 2006, and for a long time it was the only way I’d ever gone there. On its upper decks, I learned to savour the voyage and saw clearly how, had I chosen one of those Greek isles you reach by air, there’s so much I’d have missed.

Oh, the journey was long and the Agios Georgios never managed to arrive when the schedule promised. But on calm days, I could spend most of the voyage on its vast outside decks. Why else had I come but for the warm sun, the soft breeze, the blue seas? How better to experience these precious gifts than slowly? Besides, if it was windy, the various inside lounges were comfortable enough and the snack bars stocked with tirópita, spanakópita, Greek beers and much more. So, well-fed, we’d lumber across the Aegean, the ship’s engines wheezing out smoke and its old bones creaking and groaning.

Three hours after leaving Piraeus, the first stop was always Kythnos, a place the faster boats of today often ignore. How anyone could live in a place so barren, I often wondered. But live there people did and trucks, cars, and foot passengers poured off. The next stop was Serifos whose main town, the Chora, winds its way up from the bottom of a hill and is crowned by a tiny church at its top. And then, about an hour later and, truthfully, about the time that I’d had my fill of the sea, the Agios Georgios would round those rocks and sail into the bay and toward Kamares. “Sifnos,” I’d hear the loudspeaker  crackle or “Sifnou,” sometimes, that big horn would toot, and the huge ship would somehow turn and sail backwards as it neared the dock. By that point I’d be in the bowels of the boat on the vehicle deck, my suitcase in one hand. With my other, I’d grab my husband’s free one and I’d give it a squeeze. We’d stand as close to the exit as allowed and the huge ramp would clank and would bang as it swayed down toward the shore. How eager we were for the fresh air that would push the gasoline fumes out of our noses, how anxious to touch this place that has come to mean so much to us both.

Over time, other ships edged their way into this route, newer ones and faster. One spring day just after Easter in 2013, my husband and I were on the Aqua Jewel between Sifnos and Serifos headed for Paros when there appeared what seemed to us, at least, a rare sight. The Agios Georgios and its competitors, the Speedrunner III and the Adamantios Korais were near enough together out at sea that at one point they all fit into my camera’s lens. Until, that is, the various speeds of the faster ships prevailed and left the old dear behind. What I didn’t know that day was that what I’d seen was a hint of the future and before long the Agios Georgios sailed to Sifnos no more.

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So tonight, when my husband and I lift a glass and, as we inevitably will, talk over voyages past, I may just shed a tear. To those around the world with memories of the Agios Georgios and with sentiments like these, Stin yassas, I wish youI wish you also calm seas, smooth sailing, and slow voyages with those you hold dear.

The Flowers of Sifnos in Spring

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“In the air here in Greece, we can smell spring coming now,” a friend from Athens told me two weeks ago. How right she was. The Facebook photos from Sifnos I’ve seen these last days show the island covered in a thick blanket of green and the wildflowers beginning to burst forth.

There is nothing, nothing, like the exuberance of a Sifnian spring. At least not to someone like me who first came to this island in September, a time when, with the summer sun having burned most vegetation to a crisp, the landscape’s main colour is brown. This year’s spring, from what I can see, looks like a particularly brilliant one. Perhaps the happy result of the snow that arrived in January, that seeped into the earth as it melted, and found its way to the plants’ thirsty roots. There are myriad shades of green and poking their heads above it all, the first flowers, bright yellow ones. The softer yellow marguerite daisies have begun to arrive too, I hear, and that’s just the start of the parade. There’ll be something new every day.

Spring wildflowers grow everywhere on Sifnos. In fields. Alongside roadways. In deep valleys. Across high hills. Spilling out from cracks in those solid stone walls. There are the marguerite daisies, literally millions of them, lupins, different kinds of clovers and uncounted varieties whose names I don’t know. There are pinks, whites, yellows, purples, blues and, when the poppies come into bloom, those eye-popping reds. They delight gardeners who are lucky enough to be there, those who love colour in any form, and those who revel simply in immersing themselves in sunshine and cool, fresh, clean air.

Sadly, I won’t be there for spring this year. But fortunately I have many of my photographs from those several times that I have been. Permit me to share some with you. It is my hope that they, too, will bring you joy. May your spring, wherever you are and whenever it comes, be a spectacular one this year. May it quicken your heart and put a new bounce in your step. And may you be lucky enough sometime to experience a Greek one. Opa!

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Feast Days

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Apologies to all in case my three previous posts, ones that all dealt with the topic of rare storms, have given the impression that Sifnos in winter grinds to a halt. No, not at all.

Sifnos, in fact, is very much alive at this time of year. Almost every second day or so you’ll find somewhere on the island a church adorned with colourful flags aflap in the breeze and from inside, there’ll be the smells of cooking going on, clear signs that there’ll be a party there that day. With plenty of food and of drink. Musicians too. And, this being Greece, priests. Plenty of priests.

I know precious little about Greek Orthodox religious practice, but this I do know – this church has plenty of saints and each one of them has their own feast day. So on Sifnos which is said to have 365 churches, ranging from humble field-side chapels to soaring structures where entire towns gather to worship, each named after a saint, that means plenty of such celebrations. Panagyria on this island have two distinguishing features. Revithia is an essential part of the meal. No surprise that, for chick pea soup is Sifnians’ most famous dish. And more than almost anywhere else that Greeks gather for such an event, I’ve been told, such celebrations here are open to one and all. Even strangers are welcome to join in, no matter from how far they’ve come.

A panagyri is organized most often by a single family as part of the responsibilities for “their” church. This is a duty taken seriously indeed. One woman with roots on the island and who grew up in Athens told me that in her entire lifetime, she’s never once missed a single one of her family’s annual panagryia in one of the most remote parts of Sifnos.

I was hiking once on the monopati, the island’s ancient stone paths, and came upon Agios Giorgios, one of the churches here named after Saint George, this one high above a lonely section of its eastern coastline. I sat for a while on a stone bench in its front yard, awestruck by the brilliance of the light bouncing off its snowy white walls. Then, needing a respite from the heat, I went inside, into an interior a world away from the sun-splashed one outside. It was dark in there, one might say gloomy, with aromas of incense, melted beeswax and cool stone. I stayed awhile under the supervision of its stern gold-haloed saints, but eventually, as one does, had enough of the reverence in there and went back outside. For some reason I pushed on another door, something I seldom do because I’ve learned that outbuildings at churches around here are usually kept locked. To my surprise this one was not and I went in. I found myself in what might be called a church hall, a low-ceilinged room filled with long tables and benches and with cabinets filled with plates and bowls and whatever else you’d need to serve a large crowd. Beside it, there was a well-equipped kitchen. Shelves laden with jars of salts, peppers and myriad spices. Stacks of large and well-worn clay bowls. Briki in various sizes, the vessels used for boiling Greek coffees. Most fascinating to me was a pair of metal pots as tall as a small child and almost my full arm’s length across. George, I remember thinking, will be well-feted on his feast day.

I’ve long wanted to go to a panagyri, but sadly there seem fewer of these at the times of year that I come to this island, and so I’ve never been. However I have friends who have. They hiked up a rough hillside and arrived moments after sunset at a church nestled inside what remains of an acropolis wall built in the Mycenean era. Ask them to this day and they’ll describe the whole experience up there as otherworldly. And fun. One of the priests had brought along a companion, his dog who sat at his side through the entire church service, respectfully, elegantly, hilariously so. The event’s organizers were honoured that my friends had made this trek, so deeply touched to see them there that they insisted they be in the first group to be fed. Music in the courtyard outside lasted long into the night. My friends did too. So did the priest. That’s how it’s done around here.