Episode 6: A Gift

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In this period of the pandemic, when I’m one of so many who long for Greece and can only dream of it from afar, I am consoling myself by rereading my own two books about life on the island of Sifnos and sharing parts of them with you on my blog. Today’s episode is the sixth in this series and comes from a chapter in my Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales called “Raw Fish.”

I’ve poured a cold lemonade and settled onto the balcony to enjoy the afternoon breeze when —Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch — I hear footsteps coming up the tiled stairs. Slow, steady, deliberate ones. Not Jim’s, for their cadence is nothing like his. They’re coming my way, have to be, for this staircase leads nowhere else. The head that belongs to them, when it appears, is one I’ve never before seen.

Hmmm.

The man who’s arrived looks harmless enough. Very pleasant, actually, and as I’ve become well used to on Sifnos, he has the air of someone whose intentions are good. He’s grandfatherly and distinguished, straight of back, proud of bearing and wearing an open-necked dress shirt. He must be our landlady’s father-in-law, I decide.

She told me yesterday that their daughter starts school next week and so they’re returning to Athens this weekend. Her in-laws are coming to take their place. But they speak no English, she said, and she looked a tad worried at that. She wrote her mobile number on a card and handed it over. “Call any time,” she added.

We’ll be fine, I assured her. I have no doubt that we’ll be treated with kindness and, language gulfs notwithstanding, we always manage somehow. 

This man is still coming my way and he’s smiling now. It’s late enough in the morning that a plain hello will do, so “Yassas,” I say. I set my glass down.

Yassas, he replies. Then I see it. He’s carrying a plate of fish, four medium-sized ones by quick count. Raw fish. Whole ones. With heads. And these, it’s clear, are for me. Oh dear. Pride in his offering all over his face, he hands me the plate and waits for what I will say.

I look at the plate, with sufficiently sincere appreciation I hope. Er … efharistó —thank you — I manage. Polí — very much — I think to add. 

He looks satisfied. 

Thank goodness for that.

Visitors to Greece, I read in a guidebook once, are often astonished by the number of spontaneous acts of generosity they receive and, though the time I’ve spent here is now measured in months, I’m astonished still. Wine carafes quietly topped up have been countless. Sweets that arrived unordered at the end of a meal. Cookies and other small treats tucked into my hand at any time of the day. In such circumstances, I’ve relied on what I’ve read, memories of chats with Greek friends at home, and simple common sense and observation to craft what I supposed was the desired response. That these gifts have kept coming tells me I’ve been more or less on track. But on the matter of what one should do when presented with a mess of raw fish, my usual guides have been silent.

And this man is no help. He does like to talk, all of it in Greek, and despite the few words I’ve picked up and whatever skills in reading people’s intent I’ve developed over time, I’m unable to follow any of what he’s saying. Even his gestures make no sense. I did, though, near the beginning manage to catch one word. Psari. Fish. Yes, that one I know. But other than that, the torrent of sounds rushes past me uncomprehended.

Then I hear it. Three syllables pull themselves out of the stream and into a recognizable whole. “Antonis.

“Antonis?” I say.

Ne,” I hear back and I wonder not for the first time how that word ever came to mean yes. But as to what he’s trying to tell me about Antonis, I glean nothing more.

Another efharistó from me and the polí are the only words I have in Greek to add to the conversation, a fact my gift giver soon concludes, and he returns back downstairs.

What now? Our kitchen is well supplied with pots and pans and utensils, a stove and an oven, but as we have no plans to make anything while we’re here other than the odd breakfast egg, our cupboards hold no ingredients beyond a few snacks and the pepper and salt we found when we arrived.  Besides, I never cook fish like this. It’s not that I wouldn’t eat them, but Jim hates any he even suspects might have small bones. I’d be on my own.

Maybe he’ll have an idea when he comes back.

But no, he’s shortly as flummoxed as I. We cast about for a plan, and at some point toy with throwing them into the village garbage bin just a few steps up the road. But we quickly toss that idea. Whatever the politics around the town’s refuse collection point, there surely are some, and they’re ones we don’t understand. But we’re wise enough to know we’d be well-advised not to run afoul of them. Our gift-giver could well catch us in the act and what a betrayal that would be. If he didn’t, someone else would be likely to see us. This island is one where secrets are few, where everyone watches who goes where, when, and why, and the news pipeline works fast. Plus this gift we’ve received is no small piece of candy. Fish are expensive everywhere in Greece and this man has given us a whole meal. 

Still …

We could perhaps, the thought strikes me next, wrap them in a grocery bag, sneak them off to Apollonia and into a receptacle there the next time we go. But that possibility is barely out of my mouth before it too falls apart. However Antonis fits into all this we don’t know. But he’s someone we don’t want to disappoint. Fish are a big deal to him. We don’t dare treat them as cavalierly as that.

No. We have to face up to it. We’ve been given these four fish and we’re responsible for them now.

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Episode 5: I’ve Tried to Learn Greek

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In this period of the pandemic, when I’m one of so many who long for Greece and can only dream of it from afar, I am consoling myself by rereading my own two books about life on the island of Sifnos and sharing parts of them with you on my blog. Today’s episode is the fifth in this series and comes from Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales.

 

I’ve tried to learn Greek. Really, I have. Every time we’re about to go to Sifnos, I pop a Learn-to-Speak-Greek CD into my car stereo at home and leave it there for a couple of weeks so that the basic phrases will wash over me as I drive and sharpen that part of my brain. While here, I listen as hard as I can to conversations around me and try to pick up what I can. 

So it’s not that I know nothing. Before we came that first time, I made sure to learn to say efharistó and kaliméra, for I’ve seen over time how my using even a bit of other people’s languages always seems to touch them to the core. Soon on that first trip I picked up that you greet people with Kalispéra in the evening and Yassas in the middle of the day. Now when someone asks, “Ti kánete?” as they do, I reply with ease and “Esís?” ask how they are in return. Raised eyebrows are most often my reward, a hmmm, and often a hearty Bravo! I even have my own favourite word. Parakaló—you’re welcome. Or please. I love the feel of it in my mouth, all rattling syllables and a long rolling rrrr. Pah-rrrrrrAH-ka-low.

As for the practicalities beyond that, I can count to ten. I can order two beers. Thío bírres. Or one, mía bírra. Horiatiki, a Greek salad. Two coffees, with medium sugar. Thío kafédes métrios. I can say we want the Greek kind. Ellínikos. I can even put a verb in front of any of those. Thélo, I want, or theloume, we do. My Mia yiaourti me fruta kai ligo meli, parakaló always earns me a big smile and brings the yogurt with fruit and a bit of honey I hoped for. I can tell people where I’m from, Ime apó ton Kanadá. So even if I don’t get the endings right, as I most often don’t, I can put together the odd sentence that will be understood. 

But it’s not nearly enough.

Perhaps more formal lessons would help, I thought at one point and I tried to find a course or someone to tutor me near where I live, with zero success. Then it dawned on me. We were going to be in Sifnos in a few weeks and how much more effective and probably effective my learning would be there, immersed as I was going to be in hearing and seeing the language. So I emailed Barbara and asked if she could recommend someone who might help. 

Of course, she could and as soon as we arrived, she introduced me to Ronia who lives in an old Apollonia house that belonged to her great grandmother. At her kitchen table over the next month, Ronia tried. Really she did. And her methods were admirably orderly and systematic. She started with the alphabet, the etas, the thetas, the omikrons, teaching me to say the letters, to recognize them when I’d see them again and to attempt to write them, all squiggly and so different from my own. She taught me the most oft-used verbs, the regulars and the irregulars. These I managed to learn with some small measure of success. But when we stepped into the endlessly byzantine world of nouns and adjectives, their three genders, four cases, singulars and plurals, and what felt like a million different endings, none of them logical to me in the least, I was at sea. You won’t learn it all right away, she assured me. It will take time. 

I wonder if she meant this long.

I should be doing better by now. Really I should. I’ve had an ear for languages since I was a girl and I speak decent French, smatterings of Spanish and of German, a touch of Italian. Whenever we’ve travelled elsewhere, I’ve always picked up enough of the basics to get by.  And as English and most other European languages have evolved at least partly from the Greek, by rights I should have found the key to it by now. But I haven’t. 

It’s a human need to communicate and we all do our best. But it’s becoming awkward with some of the people in Sifnos who don’t speak English. When you’ve known someone as long as we have, say, Grandpa Nikoleta, and you see him as often as we have over the years, stay at his daughter’s house beside his for goodness sake, the relationship wants to move forward. But it can’t. 

We first came to know him as the proprietor of his kafeneion, the old-style Greek coffee shop that his grandfather built late in the 1800s, the oldest such establishment on the island. He carried on business there as it had so long been done, as the centre of Sifnian political life, a place where men gathered to drink coffee and talk, to play backgammon and clack their beads, and by all appearances to get away from their wives. On Sundays, though, more chairs were pulled out and the women could come. But tradition be darned, I’d go with Jim on other days. Though few words passed between us, Grandpa’s eyes would always show how pleased he was we were there. Since then, his grandson has taken over and added food to the menu. Though Grandpa still goes every day to meet with his cronies and to watch what’s going on in the alley, he has more time on his hands now and when we’re at Apostolos’s, he often stops in and the two of them chat for a while. One night not long ago, they were having a drink at the table beside the kitchen. 

“Could you,” I called over, “please tell Iannis how sorry I am that I don’t speak Greek?” I’d been thinking this for a long time and now finally seemed the right time to say it out loud. “I’d so love to be able to talk with him. I think he’d have lots of good stories to tell.” 

Apostolos chuckled. “Oh yes, he has those.” 

I’m sure he does. There’s nothing that’s happened in this alley in the past fifty years at least, I’d wager, that this man doesn’t know. And from the twinkle in his eyes, there’s been little devilry that’s gone on that didn’t involve him somehow.

When my thoughts had been translated for him, Grandpa nodded. I think I saw some moisture in his eyes. 

He feels it too.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

The Sifnos Chronicler Reaches 100

P1040294 -resizedWith this post I celebrate the 100th episode of this blog, The Sifnos Chronicler. Please indulge me a moment as I say … Woo hoo! I’m delighted that you’ve come along to mark this milestone. 

When I began on my journey into the blogging world, I must admit I was a tad worried. I’ve visited Sifnos many times, always for a month at a time, and have done thousands of photographs there. So I was sure I had plenty enough material. But would my enthusiasm dwindle, I wondered – not for the island and its people, but for the demands of keeping up the momentum to write and post regularly? Would anyone out there discover this blog and would they stick around long enough to see what I had to say? If so, would I ever know about them? The answers to these questions, I can report from this vantage point, have surprised me. Thrilled me, in fact.

From the first time I saw Sifnos in 2006, the island took a firm hold on my heart. And more and more now every time I am back there, I do so much more than see. 

I smell. Wild sage as I walk in a field on a hot summer’s day. Frying fish from a kitchen window that I pass by in an alley near noon. The steaming warm comfort when a bowl of revithia is placed before me. 

I hear. Church bells across the valley. Wind through the olive trees. Waves gently lapping onto Xeronissos beach. The roar of a motor scooter as it tears through the square.

And I feel, deep in my soul. The way my heart speeds up as the ferry I’m on pulls into port. The kindness of every Sifnian I meet. The love so freely given. The pull back to this island whenever I’m not there.

I’ve written about fishing boats for this blog, large ones and small, and the loving care every one of them receives. About my favourite of the island’s marshmallow-white churches and their dark, cool insides. I’ve written about the ferries, about donkeys, about Greek salad Sifnos-style, and about how I make revithia when I’m at home in Canada and am hankering for a taste of chick pea soup, Sifnians’ Sunday lunch. About the spring flowers. Oh my, those flowers. About how the island prepares for Easter. About the Cycladic food festival in September and the lighting of the towers, the island’s ancient communication system, in spring. I wrote once about the corner where Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famed French photographer, shot his Ile de Sifnos, 1961. I brought news about my first book, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. I told about the day I walked into The Bookshop in Apollonia and found it on display right alongside the latest Harry Potter. With twice the shelf space as he, I noted with some glee. I told about that magical night when I read aloud from it to an eagerly attentive audience, mere steps from where the events I was describing had occurred. And the day on the dock in Kamares last May when I watched boxes of my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales as they were carried off the ferry. The very first time I’d be seeing finished copies of it in print. A thrill for an author if there ever was one. 

And whenever I began to fear that I didn’t know what else to say, a reader would write to me, would spark a new idea, and I’d know I wasn’t finished yet. I even managed a couple of times to convince someone else to guest blog. Sometimes I’d read something online that would send me back to my keyboard. That dazzling day that snow fell everywhere in Greece and covered the entire country in a cozy blanket of white. The time that a 10 Beaufort wind storm was predicted and I worried about how my friends, especially those with seaside properties, would get through. The day I woke up, opened Facebook and read that the Agios Georgios, the aged ferry that first took me to the island in those early years, had started that morning on its final voyage, under tow toward a Turkish wrecking yard. By night-time I’d managed, with not a few tears in my eyes, to finish and post, “Ode to an Old Ferry,” a piece that brought forth a large number of equally sentimental replies.

Then there is Linda. She lives near me here in Canada and I first met her when she came to the launch party for my first book. 

“I’ve been to Sifnos,” she said, “I lived with a family there in the 1970s for six months and they allowed me to take their donkey wherever I went.”

“Your stories are ones I want to hear,” I said, and I’m thrilled that she allowed me to share them with you.  

So … I’ve had plenty of help with this blog and I owe thanks to so many. To Linda, for sure. To the two Michaels who each guest-posted for me. To Sofia who, among other contributions, pointed me once to a fellow islander who’d done photographs of a rare event I wasn’t there to see. To Giorgos for generously allowing me to share them. To those of you whose reply, whether you knew it or not, inspired a new topic. Or who let me know that my words meant something to you and thus encouraged me to keep going. To all in far-flung countries who have simply read a piece or two – Canada, the U.S., Sifnos, elsewhere in Greece, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Germany, Israel, Trinidad, Ireland, Bulgaria, Singapore, France, India, Australia and many more. Yes, my blog host lets me know what countries you come from. To those of you who started out as strangers and have become dear friends that I’m dying to see again.

The community of those who love Sifnos and Greece is vast, it is wide-spread, and is made up of very fine people. I can now confidently report that. I feel honoured to be a part of this tribe.

If you want to read more of what I’ve written so far, you might like to begin here at the first of Linda’s stories. And then just wander where your nose leads you. That is the very best way, I’ve discovered over time, to find out what Sifnos is about.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 4

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Today’s episode from The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek island gives my take on some of the colour of Greek island life and comes from a chapter called, “Squawkapalooza.”

 

“Are you afraid of thunder?” asks the young woman at Roula’s. “I am,” she adds before I even open my mouth, “… very.”

Her name is Niki, she’s always here at the café these days and I’m glad. “We have spinach pie today,” she’ll say because she remembers that I asked for it last time and they didn’t. And, “Do you want sage tea?” because she knows that I order it often.

Last night’s storm did rouse me, but it was the lightning I noticed first, a flash that made me jump despite my still closed eyes. A furious, though short-lived, rain followed and fierce wind. This all, she says, happened around four a.m. I didn’t know that for I fell back asleep before I thought to check the time.

As for the thunder, I don’t really mind, I tell her and it’s true. In fact, I quite like the Sifnian version. It’s nothing like what we have at home – a loud crack that, depending on how far away it occurs, makes people jump and shy dogs cower, and then is followed by a few seconds of clatter. Any thunder I’ve heard on the Aegean has begun as though in a whisper somewhere far out at sea and, like a huge tumbling rock, rolled toward us louder, louder, louder still. It’s never stopped, never slowed and rumbled on past and into the distance until finally it faded out of earshot. I timed it once and got to a whole twenty seconds. It’s clear that Zeus still reigns on a mountaintop somewhere near here.

When I’ve given Niki my order and it’s been delivered to the kitchen, she sets to bustling about with a broom over what last night’s storm left behind, the bougainvillea petals and grape leaves that litter the terrace’s floor. She’s half finished this task when a loud noise erupts that puts an end to the bits of conversation we’ve been having while she works.

Not thunder. This din comes from somewhere more earth-bound. The source of the ruckus is one of those car-mounted loudspeaker systems that I see around here from time to time. Dreadful things. Greek drive-around advertising, I call them and this one arrived two days ago. It works this way. You stick a pair of crackly loudspeakers atop whatever vehicle you’ve got, crank the volume up to Harangue and, while cruising along at little more than walking pace, spew your message onto every street of the town. Then when you’ve been everywhere, in the remote case there could exist someone who didn’t hear the first time, you drive the same route once again. And again. Whether it would annoy me more if I spoke Greek and could understand what’s being said, I’m not certain, but I can’t imagine it would be less bothersome.

My first exposure to one of these contraptions, the vehicle on that occasion bedecked with blue and white flags and multiple copies of the same poster, was two years ago at the height of what I had learned was the municipal election campaign. It was followed moments later, whether coincidentally or not I was never entirely sure, by a man in a suit who came into the taverna where we were eating that night, shook hands all around and generally tried to impress everyone there. This year’s version – I’ll call it the Squawkmobile – is a white van plastered with amateurish decals of alligators and other like creatures.

“What is that all about?” I ask Niki in one of the less raucous moments.

She listens. “Theatre … for children … in Artemonas tonight. 7:00 o’clock.”

“I don’t think I’ll go.”

“Me, neither.” She giggles.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 3

Apollo's Gifts on arrivalWhile the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books that are set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and onto the ancient marbled paths that wind through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

It’s fraught always, the act of packing to leave, this cramming of one’s life into a few pieces of luggage. There’s the finality, the shutting of one of life’s chapters. The joy at all that was seen and was done. The regret for what wasn’t. The question of how, or whether, all of one’s possessions will fit back inside.

It’s seven weeks of our lives in total now that Jim and I have lived here on Sifnos and, as on the last time we left, we take home with us much more than we brought. Antonis’s hats. The souvenirs we’ve bought or elsewise acquired. A few new words of Greek. Jim’s photographs and mine. And the tales.

Oh yes, the tales.

Will we be back? The question tonight hangs in the air. Two years ago, the answer was easy. The world is large, the list is long, and there are plenty of other places we haven’t seen. This time it’s a whole lot less simple. The future will unfold as it will, is as definitive an answer as either of us can give at this moment.

By contrast, those who live here are certain. I’ve lost count of how many times in the past days the response to one of our good-byes has been, “See you next year.” Stavros the baker expressed in his own way a sentiment along those lines. “No Ingleess,” he bemoaned this morning and with our breakfast he brought out two almond cookies.

Sadly, though, when we went to Roula’s for one final time, she wasn’t there. So I’m left to wonder what she would have had to say about the matter this time. Niki was at work, though, and she seemed genuinely sad to see us go.

“Now … what can I give you?” she said after we’d paid for our lunch and she turned to the shop’s well-filled shelves. A bag of cookies tied in a blue bow, a handful of pasteli  – the cellophane-wrapped honey and sesame seed bars like those passed out at the wedding – and a package of small oranges slathered in a sugary syrup later and I found myself wondering where on earth we’d fit this all in.

But she wasn’t done yet. “Here’s some tea.” She thrust into my hand a bundle of dried herbs. “Not sage, though,” and she turned reproachful though sparkling eyes toward me. “You drank all that.”

That I did, drink her sage tea. There’s little I find more warming.

In the end, though I feared that I’d not manage to force the zippers shut, all of her contributions did fit somehow and everything was finally inside. And then at the last minute, not much more than an hour ago, I found myself with one more item to add. We’d cleared out of the apartment and were in front of Nikoleta’s to wait for the taxi. Jim is a man who likes to be early and one, I know, who is itching to get back to his darkroom at home, so we had plenty of time. Grandma joined us. By now I can handle polí kalá and oráia with ease and any number of Thelúme thío bírres, but the longer we waited and the more she chatted, the more I strained to decide what I could say next. Then she handed over the small plastic bag that she had in her hands. Open it, I understood. Inside, wrapped in tissue, was a scarf.

She’d … bought me a gift.

I was stunned. Put it up to your face, she mimed and I did. In a shade of pale yellow like one she’s seen me wear often, it was soft and it was cozy. And she hadn’t forgotten about Jim. “Glikó?” Would you like sweets?

This is the exact question his German great-aunt always asked whenever we left her house, no matter how short our intended trip. Today’s answer, “Oxi efharistó,” was as effectively received as its Stuttgart counterpart always was, which is to say completely ignored, and soon he had in hand a bagful of chocolate-wrapped biscuits. When the taxi came to take us away, this time Grandma had a big hug for him too.

Such a philosophy these people choose to live their lives by. One kind act brings two people joy. It’s the sort of saying that ought to be inscribed on a plaque. With each encounter like this that I’ve had on Sifnos and they’ve been legion, far too many to count, I’ve found my reserved Canadian heart pried farther open, more determined to carry to carry home with me this way of being. 

No wonder we found ourselves so compelled to return.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 2

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While the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and across the ancient marbled paths through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

Our destination tonight is one of the tavernas that line the seafront in Kamares, the ouzerie with the green tables and chairs. At first I’m not sure if the woman who brings us the menu is her, the owner we met when we were here two years ago. Then she smiles.

“We’ve come back … from Canada. Your food is that good.”

Again that smile. It’s such a comfort to find people who understand at least some English. And the more I think about it, so easy for us to take for granted how lucky we are to speak the language the rest of the world wants to learn. Our ouzos soon arrive and not terribly long after, the large bowl of “summer salad” we’ve ordered. Red and yellow peppers, cucumbers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, the crunchiest fresh greens. It looks, and smells, as good as I remember.

We dig in and as we do, we return once more to the topic we’ve been discussing all day since Xeronissos. The wedding. Jim, who loves little more than to tease, kept me guessing for a goodly long while before he finally gave in and explained. He’d arrived at the top of the hill this morning and found several people there in the church yard. They were planting red geraniums in a small bed against one of the whitewashed stone walls. He greeted them, as one would, unpacked his camera and rested for a few minutes on the shaded bench, then added kudos for the beauty of the blooms.

One woman understood what he’d said. All were members of the same family, she told him, and their bout of gardening was in preparation for a wedding there on the weekend.

“Mine,” she said. “Would you like to come?”

“Well … yes … But do you really mean that?”

She’d be honoured, she said. She’s from Athens, a doctor, she went on, and she’s marrying a Sifnian. The wedding is on Sunday at 5. He’s welcome to bring his camera and, yes, his wife.

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The family finished soon thereafter and gathered their tools. “Could you please shut the gate when you leave,” the bride asked, “so the goats won’t eat the flowers?” Her father showed him how.

Whether we’ll go was decided hours ago now, about two seconds after Jim started into his tale. How could we not? To a hilltop wedding? In the late afternoon sun? At the very tip of the island? With the Aegean all around?”

There is, of course, the question of what to wear. A wedding is hardly what I packed for and, no matter how hard I scour the depths of my luggage, I’ll find no formal attire in there. And in that department, Jim is barely any farther ahead than I. We’ll just have to make do somehow.

In Kamares now, traffic is beginning to build on the street that runs past these tavernas, all of it aimed toward the pier. Cars. Trucks of various sizes. Groups of travellers towing suitcases behind them. The first three or four of the island’s ten taxis. 

We pay our bill and then start into our platefuls of thick yogurt with quince jam that has arrived unordered. But we don’t linger over this treat, the sort of gift that appears so often to end our meals around here, for the Speedrunner II has appeared in the gap. We hurry to finish then make our own way to the dock.

The ferry – not the big blue-and-white Agios Georgios that we sailed on, but imposing in its own right – is one minute steaming bow first into port and the next it’s turned completely around. Its huge rear ramp is swaying down toward the dock. Two motorcycles have pulled up there in the last minute, each driver’s task to catch one of the ropes tossed down from on board and to secure ship to shore.

 

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A man in crisp maritime navy-and-white is the first off the boat as it’s being tethered to shore and he hands papers to a waiting official. Soon another officer unhooks a chain across the back of the ship and passengers begin to stream onto the dock. The crowd seems endless and all seem to know where they’re going, none with the bewildered look I surely did on our first arrival. There are shopping-bag-laden locals on their way home. Athenian weekenders. A few backpackers. A handful of wheeled-suitcase travellers. And those going in the opposite direction who won’t wait their turn to get on board.

Jeeps and Peugeots have started to glide down the ramp. Trucks of all sorts follow. Motorcycles too. When all of those arriving have finally departed the ship, the port policeman blows a whistle and waves his arm, the  signal to the vehicles queued on the dock to proceed. 

In time when the comings and goings, the arrangements and rearrangements have ended, and the man in the navy uniform is back inside, the huge ropes are released from the cleats and fall with a splash. The ship lets out a plume of black smoke and pulls away from the dock, its lights bright against the darkening sky, and steams out of the bay.

Jim and I, of course, are not on board. It’s not nearly time for that yet.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, please support your favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners near you.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 1

P1000572While the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel,Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and across the ancient marbled paths through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From: The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

I’ve stretched myself over a warm slab of marble at the shore. Sunlight is strutting warm steps over my skin, quiet ripples are washing almost over my toes.

I’ve been here quite still for some considerable time now. But despite appearances, I’m alert and I have a mission today. My camera is beside me and my eyes and ears primed to catch every bit of action in this tiny fishing village.

There’s something that has niggled for the two years since I was last here. It’s what might have been. What should have been. What I missed that day while I stood not far from this very spot and the memory still stings.

 

I remember exactly how it happened. I’d pulled out my camera, switched to a wide-angle lens, and set up the tripod. I’d checked the direction of the sun, tried several angles. This shot I was going to get right.

The photo I did that day, I must admit, is beautiful. The curving sweep of the bay. Rich turquoise, perfect whites. Dusty earth tones. Fluffy clouds. That wee splash of red. The light that dances over it all and permits me, were I so inclined, to count every rock on the sea bed.

But this is all small consolation. So intent was I in that moment that I paid scant attention to the commotion and shouts from somewhere out of sight below. An argument of some sort, I gathered.

“Where were you?” Jim asked when he caught up with me later. “I was sure that was something you’d want to shoot.”

The man we’d watched earlier check over his fresh-painted boat, he told me, had decided it was ready to be launched and had managed somehow to gather all the men and boys of the village, every available bit of Xeronissan manpower, onto the lone corner of beach that I couldn’t see from my angle. They rolled the craft over a bed of logs and heaved it into the water. It was then that one saw his chance. A quick shove, some splashes and the game was on. The hollering, the laughter, the male jostling, the banter. The ritual as old, almost, as the sea itself. And I, with my nose in my camera, missed it all.

That day I made myself a new rule. Never – NEVER! – Ignore a Disturbance. Not in a village this size.

 

Today I hear no laughter. No disturbance stirs the air inside this cleft in the rock. No shouts cut into the calm. The only thing that could possibly be considered as action consists of shards of light jiggling across the hull of a thick-white-painted boat. That and a lone fisherman who is standing mid-deck near his craft’s small cabin, one foot on the rail. He’s been there the whole while and, with strong sun-browned arms, is pulling a length of yellow net onto his knee from the stern where about two-thirds of it lies. As he does, he runs quick fingers over the net, wooden floats clacking on the deck. If all is well, he nestles the section in question atop the tidy and growing pile in the bow, and more net follows in its wake. If not, if he finds a tangle, he untwirls this part. Minute-by-minute – clack – bit-by-bit – clack, clack, clack – centimetre-by-centimetre, the net travels from the back  – clack, clack – of the boat to the front where tonight just after sunset, once more he will cast it into the deep and then near dawn haul it back in.

As I watch, quiet voices begin to float toward me from behind one of the farther boats. Earlier I saw three elderly couples, Xeronissos’s other visitors today, totter along the beach. More than one used a cane. Now they’ve slipped into the water, their ailments abandoned on the sand beside piles of their clothing, and they loll like lazy teenagers atop the silky water. A few giggles, some sighs. What more blessed place could there be for a swim?

Farther out in the bay, wooden boats float on water so clear they seem to be anchored in mid-air. So clear that even to eyes as myopic as mine, every pebble, every barnacle, every limpet, every black spiny urchin is there in plain view for anyone who stops to look down. I rouse myself enough to tally the little red fish and then to follow the grey ones with stripes on their bellies. Some I can’t count, the great swarms that one instant are massed together, then       – WHOOSH! – they’ve darted away.

Jim’s finished at Agios Giorgios, the church atop the hill at the end of the island where he went for a walk, I see when I glance in that direction, and has started back down the path. That gives me only about ten minutes still. I pick up my camera. Perhaps if I watch more closely, the fish will organize themselves into a pleasing array. Or one lone sunbeam will point to a beautifully barnacled rock. Or, if I’m lucky, an octopus may swim headfirst in front of my lens, tentacles trailing behind.

To be honest, though, pointing my lens waterward is all for show and it’s the fisherman I’ve been angling for. My guess is that by now he’s decided I’m harmless and, if I ask, will allow a photograph. I lift my camera in his direction, arch my eyebrows and I’m right. He nods. I line up the angles and check the sun. Click. I thank him. Efharistó.

Clack, clack. Clack. Clack.

It’s no Photo of the Year, not even my year, but I feel sure that I’ve caught Xeronissos’s main act of today.

Jim emerges from between two houses and starts down toward the shore. There’s a lilt to his step. Clack. I’m hardly surprised. There’s little my husband loves more than the freedom to ramble. Soon he’s beside me and breaks into a smile, one that I know well.

“Do you want to go to a wedding?”

“Pardon me?”

“Just answer. Do you want to go to a wedding? Sunday at five.”

Yes, he’s definitely pleased with himself.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon to be read on Kindle or your other device, or as a paperback. When things are more normal again, please support your favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners near you.