My Own Greek Bookshelf

P1150546What is it about Greece that so inspires writers, always has? With Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it’s where the very idea of literature in the western world began. The Histories by Herodotus came, relatively speaking, not long after and in the centuries since then, this muse has infected countless others. Some like Cavafy and Kazantzakis were of Greek heritage, others became so enamoured with what they’d encountered on their travels that they had no choice, really, but to put pen to paper.

I’m one of those. On my first visit a dozen or so years ago, the island of Sifnos took a firm hold on my heart and the result is my two books, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, as well as this blog. Up until then, I’d never ever considered myself a book author. Now I am one. What I’d never expected is how many wonderful, interesting, passionate people from all corners of the globe my writings about Sifnos would bring into my life. Ekaterina Botziou from the UK is one. She’s a go-getter, an eclectic sort and when she posted a video recently on her Youtube channel. “What’s on My Greek Bookshelf” and included my two books on it, well, I was thrilled. “A beautifully written travel memoir,” she called The Chronicles. “Nicely paced,” she went on. “Funny and quirky,” all of which, of course, made my writer’s heart soar. Chronicles 2, she said, “carries on in the same vein, with so much more fun.”

Ekaterina’s video got me to thinking about my own collection of books about Greece and when I went to my shelves and tallied them up, it was many more than I imagined. There were the guidebooks that started me off on this grand adventure, among them Frommer’s Greek Islands and a well-thumbed copy of The Cyclades: Discovering the Greek Islands of the Aegean. A Greek phrasebook/dictionary, Learn Greek Without a Teacher, plus Instant Greek and the more realistic Learn Greek in 25 Years. A copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin whose movie version convinced from its first scenes that this country needed to be in my future. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill, a title that springs to mind every time the ferry I’m on is on is sailing in or out of Piraeus. A new book in 2019, Eye, by Marianne Micros, a collection of short stories exploring the mythology, folklore, Greek customs and old-world customs that have fascinated her all her life. This book was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s top book prizes and, as she lives near me and her writing and mine have brought us together in person several times, I was extra thrilled.

Sadly, I never met Lawrence Durrell. I would have liked that. He sends me into fits of guffaws while I’m reading The Greek Islands, which a thoughtful friend gave me as a gift to celebrate my own first book launch. I of course never met J. Theodore Bent either whose 1885 account of his archaeological expeditions in The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks was recently reprinted. Though I feared a book so old was likely to be filled with dusty, impenetrable prose, it was anything but and I could practically see the author’s raised eyebrows as he told of the cure he’d observed on one island for a dreaded childhood illness. If summoning the priest and scratching the child with her fingernails didn’t do the trick, the mother was to go down to the shore and at sunset gather forty round stones brought up by forty different waves, take them home, boil them in vinegar and wait for the cock to crow, upon which the evil phantom would disappear and the child would be left whole. I’m sure that he, Lawrence, and I, keen and respectful observers all but not above a chuckle at what looks odd to our outsiders’ eyes, would share a good laugh at that tale. Ekaterina too. She likes to have fun. As for Marianne, she’d be off, I’m betting, to write another tale.

Then there are my books from Sifnos. There’s the Sifnos Cyclades: Tourist Guides, my first purchase ever bought in the island’s bookshop. I consider this book a treasure because I did meet its author, the late and distinguished historian and teacher Antonis Troullos, quite unexpectedly one morning as I was walking past his house in Apollonia when he invited me in and showed off his shelf-full of books that “I write about my island.” I treasure too Traditional Recipes of Sifnos by Ronia Anastassiadou, a collection “of the most characteristic dishes of Sifnos, the way they were described by old housewives and men with a good relationship with the kitchen.” It is, as she hoped, a book I open often, one that has taught me to make revithia, caper salad and I hope will give me a good relationship with the pasteli I plan to try as a Christmas gift this year. Another one I love, both the book and its author, is 100 Days of Solitude by Daphne Kapsali. In it, she set out to discover if she was actually a writer and whether she could survive on this small island after the tourists had gone home. Definitively yes, on both counts and I always look so forward to seeing her whenever I arrive. Ronia, too.

And these are only the beginning, really, of the books about Greece that I own. There is Maeve Binchy’s Nights of Rain and Stars which our Canadian travel agent, after she’d booked our flights that first time, insisted we had to read. One that I’ve discovered since then, The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi. I’ll need to make room for more of this author’s as she opens a window into a side of Greek island life so different from the one I’ve experienced. I’ll need space too for a book of photographs from Sifnos of past, my next planned purchase at the Sifnos book store, and a novel an author on a nearby island has promised me he has underway.

There will be, I sense, more shelf-building in my future. More writing too. This muse is a powerful one.

Ekaterina Botziou’s What’s on My Greek Bookshelf (You’ll find my books at the 12-minute mark.)

Follow Ekaterina’s Youtube Channel

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

After the Panagyri

P1130545The sun shone, the flags flapped in the breeze and as I entered the church yard, I saw a half-eaten cookie left behind on one of the stone benches. There’d been a panagyri here the day before, the celebration to honour the name day of the saint this church is named for. I’d missed another one of these. Again.

Despite my frequent visits to Sifnos, I’ve never yet managed to get to one of the panagyria this island is famous for. However, I do know the basic outline. There is a church service first, presided over by one or more of the island’s beloved priests. If it’s Papa Yiannis, his dog Malou will be at his feet, gazing reverently toward his master. There follows a feast in the dining hall with chick pea soup – always, always – spaghetti, bread, wine and much more. Then outside in the courtyard, music that goes on through the night, a party to which even I, a stranger, would be welcomed. How wonderful, I’ve always though, it would be to attend one. 

Oh well. Some day. When the timing is right.

The church I was visiting that day sits atop a hill, is a favourite of mine and though I’m hardly a religious sort, it’s one I walk to at least once every time I’m on the island. I was about halfway up the hill when a car passed me, I didn’t know the woman in it but she waved, then drove on past the church into the midst of the herd of goats that live up there. So when a few minutes later, a small pickup truck started up the road, I thought little enough of it. But when it stopped in front of the church a few minutes after I arrived there and an older couple got out, I was surprised to see that I knew exactly who these people were.

How is a bit of a long story, one that the smidgen of Greek I can speak would never stretch to explain, and I knew they wouldn’t recognize me. But for some reason I wanted to let them know, perhaps, that I wasn’t just a random tourist who’d somehow wandered there. “Einai Kiría… ?”  I asked, inserting the family name.   

Nai,” she replied, a bit surprised herself. So I mentioned her son’s name and that of his wife and a connection was made. Later I asked about the louloudia, the bed of geraniums and lavender in one corner of the yard, whose health I check on whenever I’m there, and managed to have her understand I was asking if these were the ones their daughter-in-law planted some years ago now.

They are. Her husband comes regularly to water them, she said. No wonder they’re thriving so well. 

Shortly, she unlocked the door of another room and went inside. I followed. There was a kitchen in one corner of this room and a long table and benches that ran the full length of a space that stretched much farther than it ever appeared from outside and with the remnants of a party on top. Clearly much clean-up had earlier occurred, but there remained still some to be done. Her husband outside had unlocked one of the church’s outbuildings, hauled from it a wooden ladder and had propped it up against the church’s front wall. 

This couple and their family are the panegyrades, I’d come to understand by then, the caretakers of this church and those responsible for its panagyri, for organizing and paying for it, for cleaning up after. I ought to help her, I thought. So I worked beside her in companionable silence as we emptied olive pits from ash trays and small dishes into the garbage, gathered up more left-over cookies and scraps of this and that. We carried ceramic wine pitchers and glasses to the sink, poured out what was left in some and stacked them there to be washed. We straightened the benches and wiped the plastic table cloth. There’s no faster way to a woman’s heart, I’ve found, than to show appreciation for her hard work than by offering to help. Especially when you’re an outsider. And so, though I understood few of her actual words to her husband who was taking down the flags outside, I’m quite sure I caught the gist of what she was saying. 

When all of the clean-up was finished and they went to leave, she insisted I stay. The church was still open. I should go inside. 

Oraia, it’s beautiful, I said to her. This much I know, that one of the best things you can say to a Sifnian is that you admire their church. And admire this church, I always have. I spend time in its stillness whenever I’m there and always write my name in its visitors book. It’s just that before today I’d never known who is responsible for keeping it up. 

She beamed. Written across her beautiful face I saw every bit of Sifnians’ pride in their heritage and her hug said more than any language ever could. Perhaps I’m not meant for this island’s parties. Perhaps I’m meant to experience its heart in the quieter times.

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

 

 

Going Back Somewhere You Love

thumb_P1020034_1024In the beginning, we were going to go to Sifnos only once. The world is large, it has endless places to see and our future travels would take us to more of those. The only thing we wondered was whether this small island would keep us interested and occupied for the three weeks we were planning to stay. It did that and since then, my husband and I have returned to the island ten more times, always for a month at a time. The one certainty now when we go to plan our next year’s trips is that it’s not a question of whether we’ll go to Sifnos, we only ask ourselves when.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Perhaps it is yours, whether with Sifnos or more likely somewhere else. Travellers take their time to explore a place well and, the more they look, the more fascinating they find what they see and the more connections they make there. Before they know it, the place has sunk its hooks into them and the pull to go back a second time and many more is strong. Irresistible, really. Ask them about this place and their eyes shine.

There was a time when I worried that the desire to go back somewhere we’d already been was a sign of laziness on our part, a lack of imagination, a certain complacency perhaps. It is easier to simply say, “Yup, let’s go there,” than to sort through all the alternatives, to research what each one has to offer, to decide which is the right one just now, and then to arrange the logistics of how to get there and where to stay. But the warmth of the Sifnian sun and so much more had crept into my bones, had put a smile on my face that would not be erased, and thoughts of going back would not be stilled. Yet I wondered, was this a trap, were we getting into a rut? Had we already done everything there was to do there, and we’d find ourselves bored? 

Well, no.

I’m so glad now that we listened to that loud voice, did not resist the island’s strong pull on our hearts. The writer Scott Stavrou talks about living on a small island, nearby Paros in his case, and sharing the same stones as everyone else there, the same stories. My eyes flew open when I read that. I’ve felt the same phenomenon myself, have found endless stories on Sifnos to write about – two books so far and this blog – and the more often I go there, the more I realize I am not merely witness to those tales, I find myself becoming a small part of them myself.  

“What do you do when you’re there?” so many people at home ask. Surely you’ve seen it all by now, is what I know they are thinking. Why on earth don’t they go somewhere new? 

What do we do? We explore. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We learn more every time we are there. We live whatever adventures the island has in store for us this time. We make connections, spend time with good friends and make more. We experience life in this part of the world and bring back home with us the best parts of it. All of that takes time. We know now that we’ve barely scratched the surface.

This past spring on Sifnos my husband Jim, a serious black-and-white photographer, turned his camera lens onto the kind of stones Scott speaks of. I spent a lot of my time merely sitting on one rock or another, listening to the echoes of this ancient land. After finishing my second book Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales just before we left home, right then I needed nothing more. And nothing less.

Jim Blomfield’s photographs

Small Shores, Large Horizons, Scott Stavrou

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new in spring 2019, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Falling in Love with Kos

FB_IMG_15381647778073488My previous post, “Two Weeks … Four Islands?” stirred up considerable conversation both on Facebook and on the blog itself. Varied opinions were expressed and many who wrote were in exuberant agreement with mine, one that urged travellers to slow down and to explore fewer places but more deeply. It was as though they’d been dying to tell someone what they’d experienced by doing just that. 

Interestingly, to a person, every one of those who travel the way I do went on to add something more. Every one of them told about a place they’d discovered by travelling like that, one that speaks to their own heart and that they find themselves compelled to return to again and again. My experience exactly, though I hadn’t said that and I hadn’t mentioned that I’m planning a future post on that very topic. Michael Petersen told about his love of the island of Kos and when I asked if he’d contribute to my blog and he agreed, well, I was thrilled. Thank you, Michael, for your generosity in sharing your thoughts and your beautiful photographs. Perhaps Kos needs to find its way onto my list. 

Michael writes:

It started with an all-inclusive resort. An overly hectic summer had sent my wife and me in search of a week-long Greek island vacation and our travel agent suggested Kos. We happily lazed around the hotel for several days in the early October sun, not yet dreaming that we’d become so captivated that we’d return again and again. Then we decided to take the bus into Kos Town to look around, perhaps see some of the archeological sites. Our first stop was at one of the town’s little cafés for coffee and tea.   

Thus it began, our true introduction to Kos, sitting on the café terrace and looking out onto Kos Town’ harbour. I ordered a Greek coffee and learned to ask for it sketo, with no sugar. When the owner asked, I told him I’m American, my wife is Belgian and we live in Belgium most of the time. He was born and raised in Kos, married an Englishwoman who came for an island visit and never left. Most surprisingly, he has a friend who owned a restaurant in my wife’s hometown in Belgium. 

In the two days remaining, we visited the reconstructed Roman villa and the ancient gymnasium, and wandered through the amazing complex of the ancient agora. We sat in the shade of the ancient plane tree where Hippocrates taught his students in the first medical school, and we were smitten. We’d only begun to scratch the surface of the Greek and Roman culture of this fascinating island, we realized, and we couldn’t wait to return.

 Since that first week, we have come back to Kos three more times, every time for a longer stay.  We’ve left the all-inclusives behind and are happily finding new places to stay, each time closer to the centre of town. Whenever we go back, there are more things to see and do, more people to meet, and friendships that started to form on that first trip to build upon.

This past June we branched out further. We left Kos Town and travelled to the little town of Kardamaina on the southern coast and on another evening to the mountainside town of Zia in time for the sunset over the Western Aegean and Turkey. Watching the the sky turn slowly from blue to orange to red, to fade first to purple and then the black of night, it was impossible to imagine that we’d not be back in Zia again.

Kos has an amazing culture. One would expect, of course, Greek and Roman influences and, being so close to Turkey, Muslim ones. But we were puzzled by so much that seemed Italian around Kos Town and the occasional Italian word we would overhear in conversations. Then a taxi driver told us why. For about 30 years in the early 1900s, Kos was ruled by Italy and, until 1943 when the island was returned to Greece, Italian was its official language. 

 We are both small town people at heart and Kos feeds our love for that atmosphere. Each time we return, we find something new, something we haven’t seen before, and friends we can’t wait to see again. When we go back this September – for the second time this year – we’ve been invited to join a local family, the owners of our favourite restaurant, whose extended family we’ve become a part of, on their fishing and swimming trip. And of course, we’ll go to the coffee shop. It’s our first stop whenever we arrive in Kos Town and a place we go every day as we wander around and explore the town. No wonder Kos is beginning to feel so much like home.

 

Photos by: Michael Petersen

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Two Weeks … Four Islands?

P1140596“I need some help in planning my Greek vacation,” I read recently in an on-line forum. “Is two weeks enough to see four islands? What’s the best way to island hop?” 

This is a variation on the sort of question that shows up there all the time.

I know that I’m an opinionated sort on such matters, that my views about travel are at the far end of the spectrum from those who would ask that, and that everyone has the right to determine what is right for them. Plus I believe that asking questions is a wise thing and I have no wish to belittle this person or anyone else for theirs. I may even at times in my life have asked similar ones myself. But I would argue, vociferously, some might say even rudely, that such questions are actually the wrong ones to ask.

Is two weeks enough to see four islands? Why? What is this mania among travellers for cramming as much into their precious vacation time as they possibly can? For running from one place to the next? For thinking that there’s a master list somewhere of the world’s sights worth seeing and that the more of these they can manage to tick off, the better? And what is this thing with island hopping? 

I’ve come all this way, many would protest to what I’ve just said, and I want to see as much as I can while I’m there. To which I would reply, if it’s the Cyclades you’re planning to see, the part of Greece I know something about, yes there are definite differences from one island to the next. But if you spend so little time in each, they’ll all look the same. You’ll be so gobsmacked at first by the beauty of the whitewashed houses, blue domes, clear seas and bougainvillea boughs that your eyes won’t yet be open to any of what makes each one unique.

And why think that seeing is the only thing worth doing? You’ve been given more senses than that. Why not make good use of them all? Why not take the time to hear, really hear the soft waves against the shore, the wind through the olive trees, the clip clop of a donkey’s hooves? To merely sit on a rock and hear the echoes of this ancient land. To feel the rhythm of life in this part of the world. The way it comes alive in the morning, quietens down in afternoon as it moves inside out of the heat of the sun, then re-energizes itself in evening and stretches long into the night. To walk through the fields with the scent of wild herbs perfuming your way. To loll in silky waters and come to realize that the longer you stay there, the more whatever aches you’ve brought along with you will begin to disappear. To learn what you can about the layers of history at your feet. To taste foods flavoured by the soil underneath and the sun overhead, to discover dishes cooked only here and nowhere else on earth, ones that this island’s people have held most dear since forever. To find out how to say even just Thank you in Greek and experience the smiles that will follow, the myriad kindnesses that will come your way when you’re recognized in a taverna you enjoyed once before.

You’ve come all this way and you want to make it count. On this, we agree. So why not slow down and explore one place as deeply as your time permits? Okay, maybe two. But no matter how many different places you visit, determine that you’ll be sure to engage with those you meet who live there. While you’re planning, ask questions that will help you choose a place that’s likely to speak to your own heart. Perhaps one you’ve never heard about before.

Try all that and you’ll bring home with you more than a list of places and snippets of images in your mind. Much more. I always do.

Is two weeks enough? No, in my opinion. Not for even one island. But it’s a start and, in wanting to come to Greece, you’ve chosen well. Now dig deep. There’s no place I’ve found that more richly rewards those who travel this way. 

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

The subject of travelling deliberately is one that I am passionate about and I speak about it elsewhere in this blog. See A Philosophy of Travel, Sifnian-Style and Travel Greece … well.

Myzithra and Manoura: Sifnos Cheeses

P1100511- resized“Sifnos cheese or feta?” If you’ve been to this island, you’ll know the question. It’s what you’re most often asked when you order horiatiki. Which kind of cheese do you want on your Greek salad? 

For me, the answer is easy. I can have feta almost anytime, pretty much anywhere, is my way of thinking, so if there’s a choice to be made, Sifnos cheese it will be. Soft, fresh and mild, with a swirl of olive oil on top and perhaps a lashing of black pepper, spread it onto a slab of fresh bread and I’m in heaven. 

I am, it must be said, a cheese lover and one of the things I find so interesting about travelling almost everywhere in Europe is the quality and variety of its regional cheeses. I make it a practice to try the local version wherever I go and to learn what I can while I’m there. Once high in the French Alps, in front of a sunburned chalet, I asked two men about the Reblochon they’d advertised on the sign at the entrance to their farm. The next thing I knew I was in their kitchen sipping white Bordeaux while their sweet white-haired mother gazed happily out through the window and told me how she’d spent every summer of her life in that sunlit meadow, how excited the cows always are on the trek up the mountainside in spring, and that the rich array of wildflowers that grow at that elevation are what give the cheeses of summer an extra kick of colour and taste. 

However, despite the amount of time I’ve spent on Sifnos, I’d learned surprisingly little about the topic here. Oh, I did know that the cheese you’re offered for your salad is called myzithra in Greek and that there’s another much firmer kind called manoura, though you’re less likely to encounter it in a restaurant or taverna. I’d assumed, given how many more goats and sheep there are on the island than cows, what kind of milk is used to make them. I knew I hadn’t spotted either of these cheeses in a store and, when I’d asked a couple of people I know where they get theirs, the answer was always some variation of, “There’s a guy …” One time a farmer presented my husband and me with a well-aged manoura as thanks for the handful of times we’d given him a ride back to his farm from the fields where he’d come every day to tend to his goats. It was obvious from his proud smile that this gift came from his heart and was likely of his own production. I hope we thanked him properly enough.

Then one time, not long before we were to leave home for the island again, that was it, I decided. I needed to learn more. I was in the midst of writing my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, the subject of cheese had come up and, if I was going to write about it, I needed more facts.

Sifnos has this way of putting in front of me the very person I need at the very moment I need him or her. Often whether I knew up until then that I did. I never know when such coincidences will occur, but by now I just enjoy them when they come, always at the most unexpected times.

So it was again. We’d arrived a day or two before and my husband and I were walking through a quiet residential neighbourhood when a motorcycle roared up behind us and its driver realized that she recognized us. She stopped. “My house is just up here,” she said. “Would you like coffee?” Of course. Invitations like that I’ve learned not to turn down. 

Coffee in such circumstances, of course, is never just coffee and soon she was preparing treats. Savoury cookies I think are called koulouria. Cherry tomatoes for a pop of colour against the white plate. And, lo and behold, Sifnos cheese. Both kinds. As we ate and we chatted and we drank, I learned more than I’d ever known about the topic.

Her father keeps goats, she said, and her mother makes the cheese. On Sifnos, while there are those who make it commercially, many people still make it at home for their own use, the way it’s always been done. You eat myzithra, the fresh one, right away and even when refrigerated, it lasts but a few days. Manoura is an aged cheese. Shepherds used to take it along with them into the fields where it could sustain them for weeks at a time. Made with goats’ milk, it’s formed into a shape that resembles a small Brie but a bit higher, then it’s salted and set to dry on a woven straw mat. Later it’s immersed into wine for a few days, then placed in gili, the sediment from wine barrels that gives it its characteristic and edible dark outside. There it is aged for varying periods, according to the maker’s taste. Some like their manoura mild, others like our goatherd friend prefer it pungent indeed. Barnyardy, even, I’d describe it in some cases. The one this lady gave us that day had been made not long before and was hence fairly mild. But soft like myzithra, it definitely was not. Manoura never is. When she stuck a fork into it, it practically squeaked. You never refrigerate this cheese, she said. You merely wrap it and keep in a cupboard or on the counter. Oops. I’ll know better next time if I’m ever presented with one again.

A few days later, I was walking again not far from there when I met a woman who was going the other way with a matsa, a hand-carved olive-wood walking stick, in one hand. In the other, she was carrying a very large plastic bucket. Rattling around inside it, I could see, was a well-used metal funnel and some other tools and her walk was definitely a purposeful one. 

Myzithra?” I asked. It was all the Greek I could manage right then.

She nodded and smiled. Yes, she was on her way to make some. 

I smiled too. Though my Greek was still far from what I wanted it to be, at least I was starting to be able to talk cheese.

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

My blog post, Greek Salad, Sifnos Style is here.

Book Launch: Sifnos Chronicles 2

P1140646It was a sunny July afternoon at Cusina Mediterranean Bistro in Guelph, Ontario, inside as well as out. There was Greek food, Greek wines, the warm hospitality that restaurant is famous for, and the Canadian launch of my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Plus Greek olive oils too. When I’m at home and can’t stand for another minute not being in Greece, Cusina is always where I head. So when Maria Kiriakopoulos-Kalantzis, one of its owners, asked if I would like to launch my new book there and to help celebrate the Bistro’s 8th anniversary, well, I was thrilled.

I love all things Greek. One of its Cycladic islands, Sifnos, has come to feel like a second home to my husband and me and inspired me to write these two books. So to be at Cusina that day, with an audience as large as that one, one that was anxious to hear me read aloud more of my stories from Sifnos, it’s a treat. An audience that contained many who’d read my first book and had been telling me for a while they couldn’t wait for the second. 

“I got teary-eyed as you read,” one person told me later. “I felt like I was back on the island. Oh wait, I thought then,” she went on. “I haven’t actually been to the island. It’s just that your books make me feel I’m right there.”

I’m so grateful to Maria at Cusina. To Sumon, her business partner and chef who, though he’s not Greek, cooks as if he were. To Dora Tsiagas, the owner of Dora’s Greek Tours and of Tithorea, a lovely Greek food shop in nearby Rockwood, for educating us about Greek olive oils and so much more. And to everyone who came out. It was an honour to have you there to help me send this book off into the world.

 

What follows is one of the excerpts I read that afternoon. It concerns Nikolaos, a waiter that my husband, Jim, and I were coming to know in the month we stayed on Sifnos that year:

 “Thío kafédes ellínikos, métrios,” Jim says. We’ll have two Greek coffees, please. Medium sweet. He leans back. 

“Oh god!” our waiter cries. He throws both arms in the air, then slaps his thighs. “Now I have to make coffees! Again.”

Oh, yes. I’ve been expecting something like this, waiting for it. Would have been disappointed had it failed to appear. Jim, too, has been itching for this moment the whole meal. And I can tell that Nikolaos was as well, for it’s with a bit of a kick that he promptly turns tail and disappears inside.

The latest bit of fun between these two began yesterday morning, out of the most ordinary of circumstances, as it usually does. I’d been wandering around the village with my camera and when I decided I’d finished, I met Jim on Antonis’s terrace. Shortly afterwards Nikolaos arrived for work. He had with him a large paper bag filled with the taverna’s loaves of bread for the day.

“Where do you get your bread?” I asked when he’d unlocked the door and stowed it inside. I like their bread and have been mildly curious where they have to go for it because as far as I know there is no bakery in Xeronissos or anywhere nearby.

“We don’t,” he said, “give out our… se-crrets.” With that, he raised his nose into the air and there it stayed the whole way to his car and back again, this time with a large pan of baklavá.

Okay, Nikolaos. You win. 

For now.

“Could we have coffees?” one of us asked. Antonis always offers them at this time of the morning and the habit of having one has become a part of our day. But he hadn’t arrived yet.

Nikolaos said nothing. He didn’t, I realized later, even ask what kind we wanted. I recall, though, that he was inside for what felt a very long time. Eventually he returned and, with a small shrug, set two ceramic mugs before us. “I’ve never made coffee before,” he said.

He hadn’t?

Well no, he hadn’t. That soon was clear.

Every café and taverna has a blender for making frappés, those whipped coffee and ice and sometimes milk concoctions, and whip our coffees Nikolaos had. Though frappé comes in a glass, not the kind of mug he served these coffees in. I lifted mine and tilted it, as one does, but found no liquid in there. What touched my lips instead was a stiff foam, mostly air, and so I slurped. On the next go, I slurped again. And again. How often this was repeated, I can’t really say, but I do know it was only near the cup’s bottom that I finally found a mouthful of liquid. Darkish. Not iced. But a long way from hot. 

Jim’s looked much the same and it was about then, I know now, that the plot began to be hatched. “Okay,” he said later as we stepped onto the beach and out of earshot, “If Nikolaos is alone, we’ll order coffees. Always. Whether we need them or not.”

Agreed.

Photos by Jim Blomfield and Montaha Hidefi

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon. She will plan an event to launch this book from Greece the next time she is there.