Moussaka, its story

We had moussaka for dinner last night. It was everything this most famous of Greek dishes should be. Savoury, flavourful and clearly prepared by a warm-hearted cook. Referred to by some as “Greek lasagna,” moussaka is a layered dish of sliced potatoes and eggplant, a tomato and meat sauce in between, and a thick topping of stiff béchamel sauce. Baked sto fourno – in the oven – until the top is golden brown, the whole thing bubbles, its smell is divine and the taste satisfies my tummy and much more. Last night’s certainly did.

Study the menu in any Greek restaurant or taverna anywhere and you are almost guaranteed that moussaka will appear. Last night’s version came via take-out from my husband’s and my favourite restaurant here in Canada, the one we always turn to when Greece is a long plane flight away and we can’t wait any more. And even in 2020 when takeout must do, this place still eases so much of that ache. Its owner, Maria, has roots in Volos, a seaside city between Thessaloniki and Athens, and she’s created a place where that legendary Greek open-heartedness and hospitality fill the air, where your status as a stranger ends the first time you walk through the door, and where among the delights in its kitchen, there is always moussaka. Of course.

So … if you’re someone who is interested in culinary history, you might think that the recipe for moussaka is an old, long-standing traditional one in a country that measures time in millennia, a dish that is Greek to its core. But in fact it’s neither. The moussaka we eat today was invented a mere hundred or so years ago and its inspiration and conception occurred in the fine restaurants and grand hotels of France. Few people know that. But even fewer know that a humble village on the island of Sifnos is the true place where its story began.

Every year in September since 2007, Sifnos, an island long renowned for its good cooks, has hosted a festival that celebrates the foods of the Greek islands. Representatives from all of the neighbouring Cyclades islands and from other corners of Greece gather together for a weekend of music and dance, cooking demonstrations, and cultural events, plus free tastings for all of each island’s unique local foods. Kalasouna, onion and cheese pie from Folegandros, for example. Or Santorini tomato fritters, tomatokeftedes. Eat up. There’s more to taste at the next booth and people anxious to have you sample what they offer.

The festival’s full title is the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival, named in honour of one of Sifnos’s most famous sons. Tselementes was born in 1878 in the village of Exambela and went on to become an ambitious chef, his career blossoming in Athens and taking him to fine kitchens in Paris, Vienna and New York where he learned of techniques unknown to Greek cooks. Béchamel, for one, that uses milk and butter from cows, an animal that was still absent from Sifnos at the time. A creative cook too, his genius was to combine these techniques with Mediterranean ingredients in a quest to update Greek cuisine, resulting in recipes for moussaka and pastitsio, a similar pasta-based dish, and more. He was a literate man too and in 1932, he published Odigos Mageirikis, the first ever Greek cookbook. So popular did it become that eventually it was reprinted 15 times. To this day, it is still found in most of the country’s kitchens and when Greeks refer to a cookbook, any cookbook, tselemente is the word they’ll use. But despite rubbing shoulders with the upper crust, Tselementes never forgot his native island and during the desperate times the Second World War brought there, he returned home and cooked meals for children, literally saving many from starvation. Little wonder that Sifnians hold this man in such high esteem.

So the next time – whether in Sifnos where I happily ate the version that appears in this photograph, elsewhere in Greece, at Maria’s, or anywhere else in this world – that you sit down to a plate of moussaka, take a moment before you dig in. Breathe in the aroma. Then eat slowly. The pleasures will last longer that way. Kali orexi, as the people of Sifnos would say. Know that with each bite, every layer of flavour will bring you a part of what makes their island so special to so many. Their dedication to good taste. The determination to feed you well. Their zest for life. Epic kindness and generosity. It’s a fine mix indeed.

More from my blog: Cycladic Food Festival

Chick Pea Balls, with a video from the festival

Recipe for moussaka from George Tselementes, grandson of Nikolaos.

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and 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.

Sifnian Chick Pea Balls, the Recipes

Thoughts of revithokeftedes, Sifnian chick pea balls, would not leave my mind. And my heart. 

I’d watched a video I found online, a part of this year’s Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic food festival on Sifnos, that shows viewers how to make this most popular of the island’s snacks. Still, I was not entirely confident enough to tackle making them on my own. Then, aha! I thought. 

I went to my shelves and pulled out the first purchase I ever made at the island’s bookshop, a slim volume called Traditional Recipes of Sifnos. Equal parts cookbook and cultural treasure, it has taught me how to make revithia when I’m at home and longing for a taste of Sifnos, the chick pea soup that is the island’s signature dish. Surely a recipe for revithokeftedes would be found in there as well. And, of course, it was. On page two, which tells me something about how important a dish Sifnians consider chick pea balls to be.

This book, says its author, Ronia Anastassiadou, is her “effort to collect the most characteristic dishes of Sifnos and the way these are made in our home nowadays.” To gather these recipes, a part of this land’s tradition, she spoke to “old housewives and men with a good relationship with the kitchen.” Sifnian men have long had a tradition of going to sea as cooks on merchant ships and good relationships with the kitchen, I’ve happily discovered in their tavernas, they have in equal proportion to their wives. So if there was anyone who could help me to make revithokeftedes in this year when I can’t be on the island to eat those prepared in Sifnian kitchens, it was Ronia. And I could think of no one more qualified to help me understand the nuances of this dish that is said to have as many different recipes as cooks who make it.

Sometime long after I bought her book, I met Ronia and was privileged to spend time in the kitchen of her old Sifnos house where three generations before her have cooked. That is one of the great joys of travelling among people as generous and open-hearted as Sifnians are, of coming back again and again with no agenda beyond seeing where your curiosity and your own open heart will lead you. The good news, she told me not long ago, is that she’s been working on a new edition, the third one, of her book. It will have traditional local recipes as before, but a lot more – locality, weather, habits and customs, seasons, ways of production, plants that don’t need water, the reason behind everything, etc. Another of the treasures that is the culture of Sifnos. I can’t wait. There’s a spot for it already on my bookshelf at home. 

In the meantime, she has given me her kind permission to share with you from the first edition of Traditional Recipes of Sifnos her instructions for making revithokeftedes as the Sifnians do, your way.

Kali orexi. Good appetite. Enjoy. May the taste transport you to this blessed isle. May it cause you to smile the way Sifnians do, from deep inside. 

Previous post: Chick Pea Balls, a Sifnos Snack

Earlier post: Chick Pea Soup

Video: Revithokeftedes at 2020 Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival

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.

Chick Pea Balls, a Sifnos Snack

Screen Shot 2020-09-22 at 9.32.33 AMThose who love Sifnos have a special place in their hearts for its talented cooks. I know I do. So it was a happy day not long ago when I found a video online, a part of this year’s celebration of island foods and of its famous son, Nikolaos Tselementes. Born in the village of Exampela, he went on to an illustrious career as a chef in kitchens across Greece and far beyond. His 1932 book, the first cookbook of Greek recipes ever published, became a fixture in the country’s kitchens and still is today. Indeed, when Greeks speak of any cookbook, tselementes is the word they most often use.

The subject of this video was revithokeftedes, fried chick pea balls, and its main intent was to teach viewers how to make the dish. Oh good, I thought. Sifnians know chick peas, create magic from them, and these savoury bites are but one of the delicious foods based on this humble ingredient you can find in almost every one of their tavernas. Though I’ve happily eaten revithokeftedes all over the island and it was one of the first items I learned to order in Greek, never have I made them myself. Here was my chance.

Tasting this satisfying snack all over Sifnos can profitably and deliciously occupy a diner for a very long time. Though the differences may seem subtle at first, every kitchen makes it their own way and I’ve often heard it said that there are as many chick pea ball recipes as there are people who make them. Revithokeftedes, it seems, are where Sifnian cooks strut their stuff. One might use garlic, another never. One version might, from its first brush against your lips, taste of an explosion of fresh dill. Or of whichever combination of wild herbs that grow most abundantly on that part of the island. And every Sifnian yiayia surely passes on the knowledge her own grandmother gave to her.

That finally I could learn to make this favourite food of mine was only one of the gifts this video brought me, so extra precious this year when I can’t travel to Sifnos and can only love it from afar. There are two women in the video who I know. In fact the older one, the yiayia showing how to make it her way, is someone I met early the very first time I visited Sifnos. Since then, she’s always kept such a close eye on me that when I speak of her, I most often call her Grandma. She’d be pleased, I know, at how much I understood of her revithokeftedes instructions, how many of the words I caught. It’s she who’s taught me so many of them. 

Into her old-fashioned food grinder went plump chick peas, not the dried ones. A strong and continuous crank of the handle and the results landed in a large Sifnian pottery bowl. Cooked potatoes followed. Then handfuls of greens, parsley and perhaps at least one more I wasn’t able to identify. Onions, which Sifnian cooks so generously use and I always so happily eat. When the bowl was filled near to the brim, in went both her hands and they mixed and worked through the ingredients until she was satisfied they were thoroughly mixed and held together well. Next, between her palms she deftly rolled out several perfectly-formed chick pea balls. A plate then appeared on the screen, the finished product fried to a deep golden brown. My nostrils began to tingle. Though the Atlantic Ocean and more separated us, I could practically smell them from here. Oriste, she said in that grandmotherly way I’ve heard so often. Here you go. Kali orexi. Enjoy. 

I will. My mouth waters even now as I write these words. Her revithokeftedes, I know her well enough to be certain, will be some of the best.


Video: revithokeftedes at the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival 

Photograph and video: Giannis Kontos

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive then in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order them in paperback. They are available also at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos and Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario. Please support independent business like that everywhere.

Sifnos and Gelato

P1140477July 1, 2020

I’ve been speaking with a friend on Sifnos this morning. “How is it there these days?” I asked. It’s early days in the reopening of the country to tourism and I’ve naturally been wondering.

“Quiet, relaxing,” was his answer. “Hardly any non-Greeks about.”

So the guy I wrote about in the excerpt below from my book, I guess, is not there now. Pity. Normally I take pains not to make fun of other people, and at this terrible time in world history that seems more important to me now than ever. But this man, well … 

Besides, on a hot summer’s day when I’d love to be on my beloved island and can’t, how achingly delicious is it to think about Sifnian ice cream?

From Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales:

The shops in Kamares serve some of the most heavenly gelato on earth. We’ve earned it, Jim and I decide after our walk up to Agios Symeon high above the village, and we’re strolling along the main street and savouring our treats when a man asks, “Is that homemade?”

“It is,” Jim replies. 

We’ve both been watching this man for a bit. He’s hard to miss. Not because he’s lumbering along under a huge backpack, clearly a departing passenger bound for the ferry. Nor because he’s hindered further by what seems a gimpy knee. It’s because he’s been walking in the middle of the road, all over it actually, and has no idea that there’s a growing stream of cars, people and trucks backed up behind him on this narrow thoroughfare and that he’s forced them to stop now while he ogles our ice creams.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

Yes, we’re sure. This gelato is definitely homemade. We show him the café where we bought it. They have plenty more, we tell him. Tiramisu, one of Jim’s favourites and his choice today. Black chocolate. Something called banoffee. Strawberry sorbetto. Many more.

“They say that, you know,” the man says, “but they just take powder and mix it up.”

They? Who is it he thinks would cut corners like that? No Sifnian of my acquaintance. Certainly not the man who sold us these, who once insisted on calling the friend who makes his apple sorbetto to be 100% certain it was dairy-free.

“Nope,” I say, “this one is homemade,” and I add as punctuation a vigorous lick of my mango sorbet.

“They have Ben and Jerry’s in Apollonia, you know.”

Oh, good grief. I don’t come to Greece to eat American ice cream, I’m about to say but Jim jumps in first. 

“Yes, I know,” he says. “That’s why I bought this.” Lick.

“Uh … okay, then.” The man hesitates a moment, then shuffles off boatward. 

How long he’s been on the island, I have no idea. But if he’s leaving without noticing that kindness is a way of life here, still fears that Sifnians are out to rip him off, not  long enough. 

Perhaps next time, he’ll give it more time, will open his heart farther. A gelato after he steps off the boat will be a good place to start.


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. It is available also at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos. As things start to become more normal again, please support independent business like that everywhere.

Koulouria and the Ferry


This pandemic, as I’m told they do, continues to rage on and sadly, the prospects of my being in Greece seem no nearer yet. So I must continue to dream of it from afar. I console myself in part 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 seventh in this series and comes from a chapter in my Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales called “Comings and Goings.”

We’d arrived at the dock in Piraeus with plenty of time before our boat was scheduled to depart. The air was fresh, the sun shone and spring was here. We’d found seats on the boat’s outside rear deck, for the time being at least. I was excited. Jim was too, though in matters such as this, he is more outwardly calm than I.

I love the docks in Piraeus, the busy seaport of Athens, have since my first glimpse of them and the first moments I spent there. Those huge ships gliding so smoothly in and out of their berths. Their names, so exotic to my ears. Hellenic Sea Lines, Blue Star Ferries, Ventouris, Nel Lines, Minoan. The correct way to travel around these islands is by boat, I once heard someone say, the way it’s been done as long as people have moved between them, and I’ve come to agree. Besides, to get to Sifnos which has no airport, it’s still pretty much the only way.

No Speedrunner for us that day, no Superfast Ferries, no Flying Cats. We were going by slow ferry, the Adamantios Korais. Why rush to get to the island, Jim and I thought. Why not savour the voyage across these ancient seas. And why not, after a long winter at home, choose a vessel where you can comfortably stay on an outside deck for as long as you like.

The slow boats are the big ones that, in addition to carrying passengers and their luggage and other belongings, take along trucks loaded with whatever goods modern life requires on the islands and aren’t produced there. Once I even saw a long trailer back on board with a huge pile of telephone poles lashed to it.

I stood at the rail, watching those in charge load the ferry. Cars and motorcycles were being waved in, and trucks of all shapes and sizes. Everything from sputtering putt-putts to huge semi-trailers that must dwarf island roads. That day, I saw something new, a hearse waiting to come aboard. Two in fact, one grey and the other black, each with its sad family walking alongside, its arrays of stiff flowers and, this being Greece, its requisite bearded priest. Both were bound for Kythnos, I was to learn later when they each got off there, the first stop on the voyage, about halfway to our destination.SONY DSC

I also kept my eye on the koulouri table. On the dock beside the ramp to every ferry boat in Piraeus in the hour before it is scheduled to leave, there appears a table piled high with stacks of sesame-seed-covered wreaths of bread. Koulouria they’re called in the plural, they’re delicious and at one Euro, they go fast. What I like best, besides eating them, is to watch from the deck high above as the seller, in between collecting the coins and putting passengers’ purchases into clear blue plastic bags, deftly arranges, rearranges and re-rearranges his dwindling stock into increasingly sparse, though admirably geometric, displays. Today’s vendor was doing his part.

And then I saw it. A rickety little white van with a large luggage rack on top, proclaiming in turquoise and navy blue letters on its side, “Sifnos Hotel.”

“Look at that!” I called to Jim. The stocky arm protruding from the van’s side window was all I could see of its driver, but it was enough for me to be quite sure it was him. And I recalled his face right away. I had, after all, almost every day for more than three years been writing The Sifnos Chronicles, my first book about our travels on this island, and its people were as real to me as if I’d seen them all yesterday. Grandma. Roula. Helias. Corelli. The Happy Greek. And this man.


It’s a very large boat, the Adamantios Korais, with two passenger decks and compartments of different classes and seating arrangements. Unless you were to do a determined and systematic tour through them all, or were seated near a snack bar and happen to look up at the right time, you might pass an entire voyage without discovering that you know someone who is also on board. And so, it wasn’t until well into the journey, somewhere near Kythnos, that Jim returned from a walk and reported that he’d spotted him in a section upstairs, this one filled with airline-type seats. Mr. Sifnos Hotel. That was the only name we had for him at the time. 

We didn’t expect he’d remember us. We’d eaten at his taverna, but not that often and in the years since then, he would have seen hundreds, even thousands, of faces. How in a business like that could he be expected to keep track of them all?

But, Jim said, he’d been surprised to see this man take note of him as he walked by, though nothing was said. How far we’d come since we’d first travelled this route almost six years ago. Back then, neither of us had any understanding of the language at all, nor any clear picture of where we were going or how to get there. I wasn’t even sure that we’d understand enough to be sure we’d be getting off at the right island. Now today someone on board recognized us. The thought stunned and, I must admit, thrilled me. So after a decent interval, Jim and I strolled together – coolly, we hoped – through the airplane-seat cabin and this time approached the man.

“We’ve been to your taverna before. We’re from Canada,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied, “I remember.”

He did? Yes, clearly he did. 

He hadn’t changed in the least and was exactly as I remembered. The strong build and arms, the dark, tightly curled hair, the beard. The chuckle. Always that chuckle. And as ever, something we’d long appreciated, for his English is some of the best on the island, he was eager to talk. He was happy to hear we’d be in Sifnos for almost a month. He hadn’t opened for the season yet but would soon, he said, the week before Easter, about ten days from now.

“Come by then,” he said, “There’ll be free ouzo.”

Well, how could we not?

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. It is available also at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop, in Apollonia, Sifnos. As things start to become more normal again, I hope you will support independent business like that everywhere.

Episode 6: A Gift


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.


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


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


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.