A Box of Cookies

Sigh …

I came across this photo not long ago, and my heart leapt. When will I be able to visit my beloved Sifnos again? When will it be safer to travel once more? 

Sigh … some more.

Though the cookies in this photograph of mine are a particular kind you’ll find everywhere in Sifnos, to me they represent much more than that. These exact ones came in a box tied in blue ribbon, a gift to my husband and me once from a man whose business we patronize whenever we come to the island, and who we have occasion to see often and talk philosophy with while we’re there. He met us with a big smile as we stepped off the ferry, then handed us the box, making sure to point out that it came from the bakery he considers the best, which we knew meant he’d taken a trek to the next town. For us. Some customers are just customers, he’s said to us before, but there are those who are more. To which I would reply how rare it is to find business people like him who add so much to your life, far beyond the goods or service their establishment provides.

Rare in much of the world, but not on Sifnos. How often we’ve been presented at the end of a meal with a pair of almond cookies like these, amygdolata they’re called, along with our change. Or pieces of cake. Spoon sweets, perhaps on yogurt. A glass of ouzo or a homemade liqueur cordial. Not only with meals, but whenever the giver has felt so inclined. And always expressions of joy upon seeing us on their island again. Such gifts have been coming our way since our very first days ever on the island, a time when we were but passing strangers, ordinary tourists who’d done nothing yet to earn such consideration. Since then, gestures like this from Sifnians have been such a constant that they barely surprise me any more. But every one of them touches and warms my heart still. 

When I look at this photograph, what I see is Sifnos itself. The generosity of spirit that is not just a feature of what its people do, but defines who they are to their core. I see why I find myself so at peace when I’m in their midst, why I’m compelled to return again and again. I see what they’ve shown me about gifts large or small, tangible ones or those that are mere messages from one heart to another, that giving one always returns much more than has been given away. How kindness multiplies itself when it’s shared.

Sometime over these past long months when it’s been impossible to go pretty much anywhere, my spirits were boosted one day when a recipe for amygdolata from Sifnos landed on my computer screen. I saw that the instructions came from an impeccable source, one of the island’s many fine bakeries, and though I’d never thought of baking them myself before, this seemed the signal to give it a try now. The ingredients are few: ground almonds, sugar, enough egg whites to hold the mix together, a whole almond to top each cookie. The instructions are those I’ve been given for other Sifnian dishes, to put them in a not-too-warm oven and bake them  slowly, slowly. They’ll stay moist that way. The best part was that, since there is neither flour nor any milk products in the mix, I was able to share the warmth of Sifnos with those near to me who must eat only gluten or dairy-free.

Over the past year and more now of this pandemic, collectively and as individuals, we have lost so much. For many, the ability to travel ranks high on their list. It certainly does on mine. In the midst of all that has occurred, this ability may seem a luxury and its loss a trivial concern, but in many ways I think it is not. It’s a basic human need to come together. With those in your neighbourhood. Your family and friends. With those farther afield. It seems to me that when we each retreat and stay in our corners, our understanding of others wanes and bad things often follow. How much better for everyone when we travel thoughtfully wherever we go, meet each other with open hearts, appreciate the differences between us, learn what we can from ways of life different from our own and take these lessons home with us.

I take home with me so much every time I leave Sifnos. Photographs. Stories. The warmth of good foods and, sometimes, recipes to recreate these at home. Memories of bright smiles and new people we’ve met. The ability to speak a few more words of Greek. The determination to become more Sifnian in how I treat others. And lately, more gifts from our philosopher-businessman friend. On more than one occasion, he’s chased us right down to the port, roaring up on his motorbike while we’re waiting for the ferry to arrive and delivering another of those blue-ribboned bakery boxes, treats to ease our journey away. 

“Your faces look different than when you came,” he said the first time he sent us off this way.

“Yes, they’re brown,” I replied, “from the sun.”

He agreed, but what he’d actually meant was that we looked more relaxed. “You’ve taken the power from your vacation,” he said.

Indeed.

This recipe for amygdolata is neither Sifnian nor the exact one I made, but it’s close.

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.

Wings of Hope, a Tale

Photos by: Helen Tsopouropoulou via www.ww2wrecks.com

Good stories never die. Some – maybe the best ones – merely lie dormant, lurking unseen, for up to years at a time and when the right story-teller comes along, stir themselves back to life.

So, I imagine, Antonis Grafas might say. A professional diver, he is a passionate explorer of sunken wrecks in the Greek seas, each with its own tale to tell. But the power of the story he uncovered on the sea bottom near Sifnos and the hold it took on his imagination surprised even him.

This story begins in 1943 on the night of November 7 when a crew of six airmen, members of the British RAF’s 38th squadron, climb aboard their Vickers Wellington bomber in Berka, Libya and head out as the lead aircraft on a wartime mission over the Aegean aimed at freeing the islands of Greece from German and Italian control. Somewhere above Naxos, they are struck by enemy fire and forced to ditch in the sea. 

Such stories were countless during the Second World War and many ended in tragedy. This one, however, did not. The captain managed somehow to keep the aircraft airborne for a time, but soon realized that this would not be possible for long. He spotted an island nearby and steered toward there. The airplane hit the water just offshore and sank in less than a minute. Luckily, all six men – the Canadian captain, an Australian, and four British – made it to dry land unharmed.

Unknown to them in that moment, their good fortune had only begun. They had landed on Sifnos where kindness, openness and hospitality to strangers was the way of life then, as it remains today. They huddled together through the night beneath a tree and the next day a farmer found them and led them to his home. The first thing he did was to give the thirsty men a precious drink of water. Then he contacted the local chief of police who decided the men should be taken to a hilltop monastery to rest and stay safe, hidden from enemy patrols. Over the next days they watched as a steady stream of islanders trekked up the hillside bringing figs, cheese, eggs, almonds and cookies plus lutes and violins to entertain them, this during a terrible period of time for Sifnians over which one hundred-eighty of them died from lack of food. After four days, in the dead of night, a fishing boat spirited the six men away to the relative safety of Serifos, and in time all returned to civilian life in their home countries.

Of course no dive team, no matter how inquisitive, would learn all that at the sea’s bottom among the fishes. No wreck, no matter how well-preserved, would so easily yield a story like that and, as ever with their explorations, Grafas and his team researched further. Military records and flight logs would be the obvious place to start. Then a broader search to find whatever other snippets of information had been recorded elsewhere and remained, waiting to be found. It was here that Grafas struck gold.

After the war the Canadian pilot and captain of the aircraft, Robert Adams, did not try to forget his combat experiences, as so many of his contemporaries sought to do. Instead he embraced the miracle that Sifnos had been to him and, every year at Christmas, he would send a package off to the island with small gifts for the schoolchildren and a note a Greek neighbour in Toronto would write for him. In 1966, he returned with his wife. Among the crowd waiting for him at the port was Dimitris Bakeas, the policeman who twenty-three years before had arranged for the crew’s safekeeping, and the two men embraced joyously. At the school, Antonis Troullos, a young teacher who had taught lessons about the six airmen to his classes every year, had his students ready with a greeting in methodically-prepared English, a bouquet of flowers “from our village” and a musical performance of a piece called “This Song Belongs to Freedom.” He was the honoured guest at an official reception and dinners in more than one town. He walked with Giorgos Karavos, the farmer, from the spot near Chryssopigi where they’d first laid eyes on each other that fateful morning, along the path to the farmhouse and up the hill to the beautiful monastery of To Vouno where in those perilous days Sifnos had cradled this stranger and his crew safe in its arms. 

The church at Chryssopigi, on the spit of land near where they’d gone into the sea, is the island’s most revered religious site and upon his return, Bob Adams was told, “Holy Chryssopigi gave her blessing to meet you. She sent you the right people in the right time.” And how. 

What emotions he must have felt as he stood and gazed out toward to spot where that aircraft he’d captained, he knew, lay submerged far below. Could he have ever imagined that someday, long into the future, explorers skilled enough to go beyond normal diving depths would discover that it lay there, still largely intact? The least damaged wreck of a Wellington bomber ever found worldwide, in fact.

Robert Adams had not come to Sifnos alone. CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, wanting to tell of the bravery of countless ordinary Europeans who had risked their lives in wartime to save people they didn’t know, had chosen his story and sent a film crew along. The documentary they produced and broadcast to Canadians, This Song Belongs to Freedom, is a story of human connections across miles, cultures, and time.  

It was this old film, one likely unwatched for a long time, that Antonis Grafas came across. It sent him and his crew’s historian back to Sifnos where they met a relative of Mr. Karavos, herself a diver. They spoke with a fisherman who showed them a small aluminum piece of the aircraft his nets hauled up one day. They visited To Vouno where he was shown the quarters where the men lived, little changed in all this time. “We were,” Grafas says, “witnessing a plot that started to unfold in front of our eyes.” They went abroad too, virtually as 21st-century technology allows, to Canada, Australia and the UK to meet descendants of the six flyers and hear the parts of the tale they remembered having been told. “The story about the Vickers Wellington bomber was something unique,” he says. “In the 20 years that I investigate wrecks, it was the first time that the actual diving was overshadowed.”

What was Grafas to do with all this now that he’d found it? Create his own film, of course. Divers are also photographers and videographers, recording what they find underwater for closer study back on dry land. And where to premiere it? On Sifnos, naturally. So on October 24, 2020 – the 80th anniversary of the declaration of World War II in Greece – in the square in Apollonia near where Robert Adams found himself wined and dined and honoured in 1966, Wings of Hope: A Story of Bravery, a new film that tells this old story was presented to the world. You can watch it here

You can learn more about Antonis Grafas at his website and watch video footage from the dive itself, plus greetings to Sifnians from descendants of the airmen and more on the the 1895 Siphnians Association’s YouTube channel.

You can also find This Song Belongs to Freedom, the entire 1966 CBC documentary, on my previous blog post, “Sifnos in World War 2: a tale.”

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.

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

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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

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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.

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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

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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 efficient 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.