You are Invited …

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If you are in Sifnos this Thursday evening, September 14, you are invited to the You Are Here Concept Store in Apollonia where I will present, read from, and sign copies of my book, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. Under an Aegean moon and in the soft night-time air, mere steps from where many of my stories occurred, together we will celebrate the sweet mysteries of this island that has given us all so much. Please come!

Many thanks to the kind people at the You Are Here store and To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop, also in Apollonia. Efxaristó para para polí, in my best approximation of Greek. For details, see the poster above.

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A Sifnian Village 1

 

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It’s odd. I’ve never written about Kastro before in my book or on this blog, though it is arguably the most interesting of the villages on Sifnos. It is time that I remedy that.

No matter how many times I’ve seen Kastro and no matter how I approach it – in the car on the road down from Apollonia or from any one of the many ancient footpaths that lead to it – when this tight huddle of sugar-cube houses and blue-domed churches crowded around the top of a round hill comes into view, I gasp. And when I’m inside, the brilliant Aegean sunshine that bounces around and off of those pure snowy-white buildings, and grows more intense with each back and forth, makes me feel that I’ve stepped somehow into a marshmallow’s very centre.

Kastro is the Greek word for castle and that’s just what this place is, a fortified village that in its present form dates from the Venetian period, around the 1600s or so. But in it, there are details sprinkled everywhere that make it clear people have lived here since long, long before that. Meander through the marble-paved alleys that squeeze their way here and there and you’ll come to a small archaeological museum filled with a wealth of astonishing finds. Coins were minted on this island, you’ll learn, before they were even in Athens. Kastro, once the asty, or capital “city” of the island, has been inhabited continually since pre-historic times and was filled in one era, so I’ve been told, with buildings all of white marble.

But it’s a higglety-pigglety place and grand, Kastro is not. A ring of tiny, modest houses jammed side-by-side, some piled atop each other, forms what was the town’s defensive outer wall. The rich built their houses in the centre, farther from peril, though to call them large in these modern times would be a stretch. It’s a place so compact that every time someone inside his own house clears his throat, it’s a public event. Domestic arguments and even quiet kitchen discussions are everyone’s to hear.  And around noontime, you can’t miss knowing exactly what’s being cooked and where. I know. I’ve witnessed this all.

The place was clearly constructed bit-by-bit over time by builders in whatever space they could find, with whatever materials were handy nearby. Architettura spontanea this process is called in an Italian village I’ve visited, and spontaneous it was here too. Someone once found a stone column of the classical era and decided that this cast-off piece of old rock would provide good support for a second-floor veranda. Someone else found one of a different order of Greek architecture and set it in a place of honour in front of his house. I was taking a rest one day and happened to notice in a series of stone stairs cemented together nearby that one now well-trodden step was a piece from a much larger rock, one magnificently carved eons ago by the hand of an ancient stone mason.

There are easier places to live on Sifnos now, more open ones, and the number of permanent residents who remain in Kastro is few. Sad, yes. But for those who are intrigued and who choose to spend lengthier periods of time here rather than just walk through and then leave, this fact seems to add an extra dimension – more space for the imagination to roam free. “There’s something about Kastro that speaks to me,” someone once told me. “I’m not religious, but I feel something spiritual there,” and his greatest desire was to rent one of those old houses for a time. Someone else said that when the wind howls through the alleys, he finds it a disturbing place and leaves as soon as he can. As for me, my favourite hour in Kastro is the one around sunset, when the casual day travellers have left, when the shadows are lengthening toward black, the breezes finding their way in from the sea are cool ones, and everything is quietening down. It’s a time when, if I close my eyes, take a deep breath and listen carefully enough, it’s the echoes, layers upon layers of them, of lives long past that I hear.

Sifnos Weaves its Spell

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Photographs: Michael Ellis

 

I first met Michael Ellis on Facebook, and later in person when we both happened to be on Sifnos last September. He and his wife, he told me then, had plans to return from their home in England for some months over the winter and were looking for a house to rent. In January they were back, living in Kamares and savouring all that Sifnos has to offer in its quieter months. Via Michael’s many posts, I was able to follow along on  their carefree adventures. With some major envy, it must be said.

I asked if he would share his thoughts with readers of my blog and was thrilled when he agreed. While waiting for a flight back to England recently at Houston International Airport after a week of work nearby, he penned the following. He also generously shared several of his many photographs. He writes:

I cannot imagine a place more different to Sifnos than where I have been working for the past week. I have been at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the largest children’s hospital in the United States with 465 beds and probably as many staff as the entire population of Sifnos. And this hospital is just one of over 50 medicine-related institutions on an enormous medical campus there. The statistics are mind boggling. Head over to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Medical_Center if you have a mind to.

The buildings and landscape there are alien to me and not only because I’m not American. The skyscrapers make me think of some strange cubist rendering of a mountain. They’re impressive, imposing like mountains, but to me they look like giant filing cabinets for people.

My lovely hosts took me to lunch in an Indian restaurant. The “local” restaurant was a 45 minute drive away. The restaurant was the size of an aircraft hangar, and as personal and intimate as an aircraft hangar too. This is not criticism. The staff and food were both excellent. It’s just the sheer scale of things that simply do not suit me.

I leaned across the table and showed my hosts pictures of the jewel-like waters of Heronissos and Poulati, the sunset over the bay at Kamares, the old houses in Kastro. Their faces lit up with amazement. And suddenly I felt worried, maybe a bit guilty. I was in a state, greater than twice the size of the UK, where everything is bigger and better, or so we are told, but I was filled with thoughts of bigger and uglier and lonelier prisons.

I am at heart a small island man. Texas has shown me that even more. The smaller the community, the more tight knit and connected it is and, in my experience, the bigger its heart. Scale is relevant. Even in my home town of Cambridge, England, a beautiful place that I love, there are so many people but you just do not seem to connect with those around you. On Sifnos, pretty soon everyone gets to know you. And I like that.

The first time we alighted from Speedrunner III at Kamares with just backpacks, we stopped at a beach-front restaurant and ordered the revithokeftedes (ball-shaped chickpea fritters) and a caper salad. As I bit into the chickpea ball, it was as though I’d come alive. The aquamarine sea, the golden sands, the traditional blue and white houses, the gentle, warm sea breeze on my skin, the fragrant scents and tastes of the food – they assailed every one of my senses. It was as though I’d stepped out of this world and into one closer to the Greek gods above. And despite spending six months on Sifnos, even through the winter, that is how I felt every single day there.

There is something in the very soil of this island. A magical or mythical fertility that just cannot reside in the concrete of city. If I stand too long on Sifnos, I feel roots from my feet reach down into the ground in search of nourishment there. As I run through the mountain roads with my dog at my side, I breathe in the warm air, heavy with the smells of oregano and sage. As I turn and head for home, the sun sets in the bay of Kamares and warm streaks of pinks, oranges and reds are reflected both in the sea and my heart. It all just reaches out to me and holds me there.

Why are we here? What do we want to do with our lives? These are existential questions that I guess we all at sometime will ask of ourselves.

I look forward to the next time I can join in at a panagyri. The first time, I worried that I was intruding, pushing in on a family gathering. By my sixth panagyri, the local potter was sneaking extra food onto my plate when I wasn’t looking. The daughter of the local jeweller and school teacher tapped me on my shoulder and was there to explain some of the goings-on. The owner of the garage, who did a fabulous job of mending our car, waved and shook my hand. I banged my spoon against the plate as everyone does to say thanks to the panagyri hosts. I am not religious, but these saint’s day feasts come closest to answering those existential questions for me.

I wax lyrical with all the zealousness of a religious convert, I know, but I make no apology. It surprises me still how this island, despite the short time I lived there, exerts such a strong pull on my heart.

 

Copyright ©: Michael Ellis

 

 

How to Ride a Donkey

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Greek islands and donkeys go hand-in-hand, and the small but sturdy beasts have charmed me since I first set foot on Sifnos. I love the clip clop of their hooves against stone as they walk through the alleys of Apollonia in early morning. I love to meet them on the trails far from town. I love to pass them in my car on the road and if the owner is Konstantinos, a farmer whose acquaintance I’ve made, to stop for the short conversation we can manage between us.

It was when I met Lindaki mou, though, that I saw how little about donkeys I really know. She’s the Canadian woman I’ve written about before, who as an adventurous backpacking teenager in the 1970s, found her way to Sifnos and lived there for six months. She’d left home with little money and wherever she went on her two year trek through Europe and the Middle East, she sought work in exchange for her keep. On Sifnos, she soon found herself living and working with a family whose main business was to import goods and distribute them all over the island.

Linda is crazy about animals. Even though it was in a restaurant in the middle of the city where I heard her stories a few months ago, it took me little time to see that. I suspect that it took this Sifnian family even less. She had a way with their donkey, they saw right away, and they wondered if she would use it to deliver items to people who couldn’t be reached by road. Of course, she would.

Equipped with only the very few Greek words that she’d managed to pick up and no map beyond a list of names that she’d committed to memory, off she’d go in the direction her boss had pointed. She’d walk behind the donkey and together they’d traverse the hilly trails and stony staircases that criss cross this island. At intersections, the donkey would stop and wait for directions or, if necessary, for her to catch up. Turn left, she’d tell him in donkey talk, Turn right, or Stop. Or in a peculiar snuffling sound that she remembers still, Are you thirsty? whenever they’d pass by a church, which they both knew always has a well in its yard. If he responded with the same sound, she’d draw up the bucket and give him a drink. If he ignored her, she soon learned to save herself the effort.

She called him “O Gythero,” the name she’d heard the family use, a rather elegant one, she thought. Quite noble, really, and one that suited his distinguished personality. It was some months later, when her knowledge of the language had grown by a quite a bit, that she realized what they were calling him was … the Greek word for donkey.

At the first destination she’d unload the correct goods – a sack of potatoes or carrots, cases of pop or of beer – and then restack what remained on the wooden saddle that sat atop a straw pad on the donkey’s back, careful to keep the pack evenly weighted and securely tied with a rope. Then someone would point her off in the correct direction toward the next stop on her route.

First, though, there’d be a mouthful of spoon sweets for her to eat – cherries, oranges, perhaps figs in a sugary syrup – and a small shot of homemade liqueur. These gifts would be administered with many friendly smiles and clucks, for it was a novelty to have your propane tank delivered by a koritsi, a girl, one from Canada yet.

At the end of the day when the last of the goods had been delivered, she’d climb aboard, sitting sidesaddle as one does on a Greek donkey, and cling on as O Gythero nimbly sped down the steep trails to home and to supper. Such clinging on was rather desperate in the early days, she says, before she discovered how to put a limit on the number of drinks urged onto her at each stop. Leave a drop in the bottom of the glass to show you are full.

Good advice that, donkey or not, I well know. Even today, some forty years on, the generosity of those who live on this island is endless.

 

More Lindaki mou stories:

A Canadian in Sifnos in the 1970s

A Donkey and a Carrot

Magic under the Moonlight

 

Travel Greece … well

SONY DSC  “I need help with my itinerary,” I read on a Greek travel message board not long ago. “So far, I’ve planned this …” and the writer went on to detail a 12-day trip that would take her to Crete, two more islands, perhaps three, to Athens for two days, maybe four, and to Meteora in north central Greece. With a toddler in tow.

The responses online were swift and they kept coming. Way. Too. Much. was the dominant theme. “Six destinations in twelve days???” one person exclaimed. “Oh, wow! I am exhausted,” another replied. “You won’t really see or experience or feel anything…” “You will spend your money and your time on trains and boats and planes, and standing around and waiting for them … and miss it all.” “I could live the rest of my lifetime just on Crete and still not know it.” “Throw out two-thirds of your itinerary and take your time.”

Then another contingent weighed in. “Leave the poor woman alone … Stop being so snarky, so superior … It’s not your job to boss her around.”

When I thought about this, I had to agree. Travel means something quite different to each of us, and we all create our own definition of this beautiful pursuit. So, how this woman conducts herself on her precious few vacation days is her business alone. And what other country on earth has such a wealth of worthy sights to be seen?

Still …

Greece is a country that richly rewards those who take the time to slow down, to stay in one spot for a while, and to make it their goal to experience what life is like wherever they are. It’s a place where when you return to an establishment whose food, drink or hospitality you’ve enjoyed before, you’ll be met with a smile of recognition, sometimes a hug, and most often a sweet treat that you haven’t ordered as a part of your meal. Where you’ll be among people who fill their lives with kindness, passion and joy. People who, if you give them a chance, will look deep into your soul, and when they like what they see, will be your friend for life. Where once you come to know them, it’s inconceivable that you won’t be planning to visit again and soon.

It’s a country where if you rush around, one of the online responders said, “You’ll miss the wonderful Greek hospitality that will be extended to you wherever you go, especially if you have a young child.” “Stay at least a week,” she went on. “The rooms’ owners and taverna staff will fuss over your child and greet her like one of their own. ”

“Please take the advice of all these lovely people,” wrote another. “Enjoy Greece and don’t be too concerned about your bucket list,” and I must admit that this side of the argument is where my heart lies. I’ve lived it. I know.

Visit the small villages, the back streets. Smell the roses. The jasmine. The night-blooming flowers. Stay for a while.

Greece is a country to be savoured, not rushed.

Less is more … so very much more.

The Warm Hearts of Sifnos

P1040741“It’s 500 metres from my house to the shop where I have my hair cut,” a man who is living on Sifnos for now wrote on Facebook not long ago, “and by the time I’m back home, six people have commented on my new look.”

I laughed right out loud. “How Sifnian is that!” I replied right away. How many similar experiences I’ve had. This man, like me, is a foreigner to Greece and neither of us speaks anything but the barest bits of the language. But no matter. Sifnians have this way of making you feel that you’re at home.

Those first number of steps onto the island from the ferry are precious ones for my husband and me whenever we arrive in Kamares. There’ll be no dock-side taxi pick-up for us. We always insist on walking the length of the port town’s main street to see what’s new since we left and to see, smell and feel this place that we’ve come to love so much. More and more, though, we realize that we’re not the only ones who are doing the seeing. Last September the young woman who owns the first of the cafés that we pass by and whose place we’d frequented just a few times, rushed over with welcoming hugs. We didn’t even know her name yet. Along the way, there was as always many a happy Kaliméra from people we’ve only met in passing before, but whose eyes clearly say, “I know your face.” From Monika at the Italian restaurant, there was again her hearty Ciao, her multi-cheeked kisses and the question, “How are you?” No mere polite ritual, this. She wants to know. Why on earth would we have chosen to be driven in a taxi and whisked past all this?

As we settle in wherever we’re staying on the island over the next few days, it’s always the same. I think of it as a kind of passage that we must go through, a happy gauntlet as it were, the list of people in the tavernas, the cafés, the shops, and the villages to whom we must say hello. Bright smiles break out whenever we show up and the questions are always the same, “When did you get here?” “How have you been?” Once, within an hour of our ferry’s arrival, we headed to our favourite fish taverna in a village far from the port and its owner said, “I had a feeling that today was the day you’d be coming. I said so to my wife this morning. I’ve kept a piece of swordfish just for you.”

Never yet, though, do we hear, “How long are you staying?” That we’re here is what matters for now.

Not that we’re anyone special around here. We’re mere visitors who are drawn back to this island again and again and who have learned that it rewards those who stay for a good long while. In this we’re far from alone and all the time I see that others like us are treated just the same.

Perhaps in the beginning they, like us, planned to come to this island but once. The world, after all, is large and there are plenty of other places to be seen. But they too fell prey to its charms and many have been back many more times than our eight and counting.

“It’s either once … or forrrrr-ever,” one of my Sifnian friends said one time and with that, as I remember, he topped up my wine. With genuine kindness and hospitality like that from people who look right into your soul the instant they meet you and who, if they like what they see, will be your friend for life … why not?

My Facebook friend has returned now to his own country and his departure was accompanied by tears, he reported. But he has definite plans to be back before too long, he told me, living there again for a period of time that I can only dream of.

I was, of course, not the least bit surprised.

 

Note to readers: Whenever one begins a blog, there’s always the fear, “Will I find enough to say?”

I’ve answered that question, at least to my own satisfaction, and with today’s post, my 50th, I say, “Opa!” In many ways, I feel that I’ve only begun to tell about this Greek island that has come to feel so often more like home than even home does. Thank you for coming along.

Magic under the Moonlight

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Lindaki mou, a Canadian teenager with an adventurous soul, left home in the 1970s with only a tiny bit of money but very big plans to see the world. All of it. Then somehow she found herself in Sifnos, this tiny piece of rock in the Aegean, and as it has done with so many of us, the island captured her heart. In a letter to her undoubtedly anxious parents back at home, she wrote:

My thoughts roam east to places I have not seen yet and I start pulling out maps. However the island still wins out. I love it, and think it is a good place to spend the winter. A postcard from a friend said there is snow in Istanbul and you say there is snow in Jerusalem. At least here, winter or not, we get a fair number of really lovely sunny days, and there are flowers in the fields!

I have seen quite a lot more of the island. It has a lot of beautiful, beautiful trails. By all rights I should be bored of such a small piece of land, especially when I have been dreaming of travelling to Nepal, but every trail sees a different angle of this island, every type of weather throws a different light on it, and I feel I have not seen nearly half of what there is to see. Actually, when I think of it, I have not seen much at all.

Actually, by my reckoning she had. She was lucky enough to live with a local family and to experience all of the insights into another culture that such an opportunity provides. Working alongside them, she lived an everyday Sifnian life and when it came time to celebrate, which Sifnians do so often and so well, she was included too. The same letter to her parents continued:

Last night was exceptionally beautiful. It was Saint Simon’s saint day. All saint’s days are celebrated but last night there was a really big celebration on a monastery which is perched on the top of a hill 750 feet above sea level. It rises straight up from the bay where the harbour town is, but the trail starts at our town, for it rises more gradually from behind the mountain, and you have to take a trail to get to THAT trail. 

The walk was about 2 1/2 hours long, through beautiful Hobbit-like hills, and past an old mine. In 6 BC there were rich silver and gold mines on Sifnos apparently, that caved in or were extinguished. It is a huge hole in a hill now. 

I guess there were 200 people up at the monastery. They fed us all, in shifts, in a banquet hall, chick pea soup, spaghetti and lamb, as much as you wanted, and all the wine, bread and olives you could consume. Most of the people left after the service and feast, then the dancing and music started and went all night, although we left early to be in good shape for the walk back. 

On the monastery walls, I could imagine myself on a castle over a Fairy Land. The Moon was bright enough to cast sharp shadows. I could see the sea on the East, West and North, and far off the shadow of Serifos (another island). The hills and the lights of a village all stretched out below, was like something from Tolkien. The walk back, through Middle Earth. 

The drop was over 300 feet down – twisting back and forth on stairs carved from the hills, glowing silver under the moon, and then rough scrambles on rugged donkey paths, then long straight lanes covered with delicate olive branches, sparkling above our heads, reflecting the moonlight.

I have been to Agios Symeon many times myself, though some forty-ish years later, and without the idealism and breathless enthusiasm of a teenager. And even though I’ve been there only in sunshine, never in the light of the moon, and even though I’ve never walked the whole way, I agree. It’s almost other-worldly up there. Magical, really. And like so much of what we lovers of Sifnos the world over treasure, timeless.

Come back today, Lindaki mou, and you will be transported all over again.

 

More stories from Lindaki mou.