A Goat and a Motorbike

P1010550 - croppedIt was in Faros one night that I watched a man about to drive away on a motorcycle with a goat on top. At least that was his plan. But the goat had other ideas and no one was going anywhere soon. The harder the man fought to keep the animal where he meant it to be, across the seat in front of him, on its back with its feet in the air, the harder the goat struggled to break free. How the situation resolved itself, I didn’t see. I thought it rude of me to stand right there and stare, so I went on my way.

You could spend days watching the kinds of things Sifnians pile onto motorbikes. I know. I have. There must surely be regulations about how much you’re allowed to put atop two wheels, but regulations or not, the rule of thumb here seems to be if you can somehow make it fit, it goes. I’ve seen whole families crammed up there. Farmers almost hidden in a pile of hay with tools of all sorts sticking out. A pair of wooden dining chairs once. Lengths of plastic pipe on another occasion, longer than the motorbike itself. A dog behind the driver, erect on all fours, its ears aflap in the breeze. Lambs innocent of the fact that they’re about to feature in a meal somewhere. And of course, those painted boxes bolted on the back, the ones that carry take-out food for delivery. I once saw a man barely slow down while handing over a plastic bag to two people already seated, ready and waiting to dine at a table in front of their house.

The zone in front of the driver is a particularly well-used one. It’s where that goat was meant to be. Where little children, as soon as they can sit up, are kept safe. Where I once saw a small tot, dressed up for a party, jammed in there between an enormous gift-wrapped box and her mother.

On a Greek isle like this where the distances are short and the weather is mild, motorcycles are practical vehicles for so many purposes. I doubt that anyone who lives here gives this kind of thing a second look. But to visitors like me from more northern climes, places where the weather for so much of the year forces us to close ourselves in, scenes like this are novelties. They tickle whatever sense of humour we’ve brought along. I’d love to photograph them, I’ve often thought, but this proves almost impossible because as soon as you see them – Whoosh! – they’ve roared off.

Once though, in To Steno, Apollonia’s main alley, we encountered a motorcycle that was not yet quite ready to take off. Its driver, a middle-aged man, was already in place. What goods he had on his half of the bike, I’ve forgotten, but he was well occupied with keeping them aboard. His wife, seated behind him, was holding a large potted plant in one hand. On the other was balanced a restaurant-sized pan, the kind you’d use to prepare moussaka or pastitsio, enough for a crowd. There remained a tall electric fan on the flagstones beside them, the kind that sits atop a base and then a long pole, one meant to cool a whole room, and they clearly meant to take it along. Do you need help, my husband asked. Well yes, efharistó, and soon the appliance was teetering on that skinny pole across the seat between the two of them. Good enough, and off they went.

My camera that day, sadly, I’d forgotten to bring along.


Confessions of a Travel Blogger

Marina Vernikou - cropped

Well, I got that wrong.

In “The Statues of Sifnos,” my previous blog post, I wrote about a quest I undertook when I was on the island last fall. In public spaces wherever I went, I kept my eyes open for statues, those bronze or marble busts of renowned citizens of the past, determined to find every one and to discover what I could about the people they had been. There were six that I found and what I learned when I started to read about them told me a lot about the island itself. This is a place that chooses to honour not men of power and military might, but its poets and writers, teachers, politicians, and doctors, leaders who persuade others through knowledge and the written and spoken word. How refreshing, I thought, to find a place that so values logic, the articulate voice, and the ability to influence minds toward the greater good.

All that, I had pretty much right. But in the past two weeks I’ve learned that there were at least four statues I’d missed. And that, despite my lament in that blog post, there is one woman among them. I am grateful to Sofia Katzilieri of the Sifnos Information Centre in Kamares port for straightening me out – she always does that so well – and for these photographs that she sent to my inbox over the next days. I thank her too for allowing me to use them here.

Sotiris Triantafyllos

This got me to thinking about the nature of travel itself. Lately when deciding where to go next, more and more I find myself drawn to revisiting favourite places I’ve already been. How lazy of me, I often think then with a small stab of guilt, how unadventurous I’m becoming. Surely there’s somewhere new on this earth that deserves to be seen.

But maybe this has nothing to do with any lack of adventure at all. Maybe it’s that more and more, I want my travels to be deep and meaningful ones. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned as I’ve travelled, especially as a foreigner far from home, that no matter how much you think you know about a place and its people, there always remains so much you do not.

And so this year, my husband and travelling companion, Jim, will return to Sifnos, our tenth time there. There I will be found, I know, scouring around more of the public squares on the island, perhaps with Sofia in tow.

The internet and the books I have at home have precious little information about these four distinguished Sifnians of old whose statues she told me about. Apostolos Makrakis, Sotiris Triantafyllos, Marina Vernikou and Aristomenis Provelegios, I believe are their names. I’ve learned only one fact, an intriguing one, that one of these men, who was educated at the University of Athens and did graduate work in Munich and Leipzig, once turned down the offer of a professorship so that he could dedicate himself to writing poetry and prose. How Sifnian of him.

So, I have a favour to ask. Among my readers, I know, there are many who are infinitely more knowledgeable about Sifnos than I. I’d be grateful to hear what information you have about the people in these statues – or for that matter about anything I write. Even, make that especially, when I get something wrong. You may comment here on this blog post, or you can reach me by Facebook Messenger or in an email.

And so onward. There is still so much I must discover.



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The Statues of Sifnos

P1090321I set off on a quest when I was in Sifnos last September to find every statue I could of the distinguished citizens of its past, those bronze or marble busts in squares all over the island. My favourite of the six that I found was a bespectacled school teacher with a book in his hand, perhaps because I was once one of those myself. And then back at home, my curiosity piqued, I set to reading about these men.

They were a learned lot, I soon found, hardly surprising for an island where education has so long been revered, and their influence went far beyond these shores. There was among them more than one poet. A chief physician, Member of Parliament and benefactor of the island – all the same man. A philosopher-theologist. A minister of education and senator. One, a “great teacher of the nation,” as he is described, who awakened the population, made them dream of liberty, and believe that it was near. Another, one of the most renowned satiric poets of his day, who wrote blistering articles in his Athens newspaper that deplored the evils and corruption of his era, stories that he said were “so bold … that they served as an entry ticket to the country’s prisons.” I’ll lift a glass of ouzo to his fiery spirit the next time I go back. How refreshing, I thought, to find a place where it’s not those who wield power and military might that they choose to celebrate, but masters of the spoken and written word.

Sifnos is an island that in the middle of the 1600s established the first school in Greece to offer free higher education, one that over the next centuries attracted students and renowned teachers from all over the nation. One that’s just built a magnificent new one to educate all of its young. One that has and continues to count an inordinate-seeming number of poets and scholars among its population. An island that has a long tradition of kalanta, carols sung in the local dialect on specific occasions, in which singers make up new words according to events local and beyond. Where book readings, art exhibitions and music and other performances take place all the time. One that in 2007, the Swiss Tourism Organization in Lugano named The Island of Poets and Civilization. 

And it’s an island whose people have so graciously welcomed a book by an outsider like me about the times I’ve spent in their midst, who were so flattered that someone would choose to write stories about them, and who have showered me with myriad kindnesses because I did.

There is plenty of room on this island, of course, for more statues of those of their citizens who so distinguished themselves by making their world a better place. I’m expecting in due course that there’ll be one to honour Nikolaos Tselementes, the author of a cookbook that so influenced Greek kitchens that the word tselementes in this country has come to mean simply “cookbook,” a man who fed Sifnian children to keep them alive through the privations of the Second World War, one whose legacy is celebrated already in his birthplace with an annual festival of Cycladic cooking that grows seemingly larger every year. Perhaps someday, too, one of Antonis Troullos, an elegant man I once had the privilege to meet, a former teacher himself and a scholar who was honoured by the Academy of Athens for his many writings chronicling the history and folklore of his beloved home. And surely statues of women as well. Of that, I’m pretty much certain. Those that I’ve met in my time on this island are a magnificent lot.

A Sifnian Village 3

P1040736I love Kamares, Sifnos’s port town. It’s where I take those first happy steps whenever I return to this island. Where I again smell its sweet air. Where I luxuriate once more in its touch on my skin. My husband and I always insist, much to the puzzlement of the car rental agency owner whose standing offer to pick us up at the ferry we’ve again refused, that we’ll walk the length of its main street to his office instead. We want to see what is new and, more to the point, what is not. Those cheery hellos that we’ll meet. Those welcoming hugs that often come our way, even from people who know little more about us than that our faces are familiar to them.


The words port town could understandably lead to the wrong impression in those who’ve never seen Kamares. But a grubby place with questionable characters loitering around, Kamares is not. As admirably clean as anywhere else on the island, its white buildings sparkle in the sun. Its bay is sandy-bottomed, its waters crystal clear. Its beach, the longest on the island, has been awarded the coveted Blue Flag designation for 15 years running now. But what I love most of all in this town is the ebb and flow of life there, a rhythm determined by the ferries.

The boats come and go most frequently in the summer, of course, but no matter the time of year, you’ll always know when one is due. Trucks will start to rumble through toward the dock, everything from rickety three-wheeled Italian scooter-trucks to full-sized transports that tower over everything in their way. Cars and motorbikes, too, all of them looking to find their place in the line. The street will swell with people, and the tavernas, cafés and gelato shops will fill with those fuelling themselves for the voyage ahead. In these moments, it feels as though every bit of island life has found its way down here.


Then the ferry arrives, announced by a deep blast of its horn a minute or two before. It always amazes me how chaotic the scene on the dock then, with passengers, vehicles, boat crewmen and various dock workers darting in seemingly every direction, yet how organized underneath it all is. In a mere ten minutes or so, everyone and everything departing is stowed safely on board, the boat is steaming away, and the newly arrived are on their way to the rest of the island. The dock is frenzied no more.



Now, life in Kamares can return to its normal self. It’s a place where the sense of community is strong. Where conversations fly back and forth along the row of shops and restaurants that lines its main street. Where food and drink are ferried from kitchens on one side of it to waterfront tables on the other. Where kids ride bikes along it, skillfully or not, and where everyone watches over them as lovingly as if they were their own. Where if you order a fruit salad in a café, you’re likely to see the waiter head to the grocery store down the way for a nectarine, a kiwi, or some grapes. And some chit chat, of course. Where, if you stay long enough, you’ll see the whole cycle repeat itself once more.

P1000899Kamares, I’ve found, is a place that rewards those who take time to experience life there. People notice that you’re not just rushing through and show appreciation for that. Even an ordinary visitor like me from afar finds herself welcomed in. Before long, there’s someone who wants to know you by name, someone who will celebrate with a hug the next time you arrive on that ferry. And so, it’s always happily that I step onto the solid ground that is Kamares.

How could I not?

A Donkey and a Boat


The road into Vathi is a winding affair, down, down and down the mountainside into this seaside village. In the days before it was built, some twenty years ago now, the only way to the village was on foot, by donkey if you were lucky, or in a boat if you fancied rowing all the way from Kamares. So, in the 1970s when Lindaki mou was sent to Vathi by the family she lived with and worked for, it was a trek.

This past September, I myself walked a part of the trail she would have taken from her home in the island’s centre. It’s a long one that climbs up and down a succession of steep hills through what seemed to me one of the most remote and rugged parts of the island. Fortunately for her, she had O Gythero, her trusty donkey, along. And, it must be said, incredible views out across the Aegean as she travelled along.

You ought to go to Vathi, the family had said. There’s a woman there you ought to meet, a foreigner like you. Here, take the donkey and go. None of this sounded all that unusual to Linda. She was regularly traversing the island with O Gythero by then, doing deliveries for the family’s import business, and every so often she and the animal had been sent to the seashore in Kamares for a few days’ “vacation.” So, off she went.

The islanders, as it turned out, were worried about this woman. She was clearly unhappy but, as she spoke no Greek, they felt unable to help. Perhaps Linda could. She soon learned from the tale of woe that the woman managed to tell her in bits of broken English that there was good reason for this sadness. Unlucky in affairs of the heart, she’d been brought to Sifnos by a lover and then abandoned there, left to fend for herself. Linda, a kind but somewhat naive teenager inexperienced in such matters, found herself listening and listening and listening, virtually pinned down. The hours turned into days and the days threatened to turn into a week.

There are, for certain, far worse places to be stuck than in Vathi. At the edge of a calm bay that faces south, there’s an ethereal, almost divine quality to its abundant light. And, protected by high hills to the north as the village is, it would have been warm. But stuck there, Linda was, unsure how she’d ever manage to leave.

Then one day as she happened to be gazing out to sea, she saw a small boat rounding the rocks into the bay from the direction of Kamares. Was it? … Could it be? …

Yes, it was, she saw as it rowed nearer. It was Antonis, her employer, the father of the family who’d sent her to Vathi. He’d come to take her back home.

Not so fast. It was a very small boat, not large enough to take all three. The donkey would go. Lindaki mou would stay, “I’ll never forget that sight,” she says, “Antonis and the donkey in that tiny boat, bobbing up and down on the waves as they headed away.” Even now as she told me this story, I could feel the hope draining away.

A donkey in a boat is a rare thing. It’s one I’ve never seen and, hence, have never had opportunity to photograph. Fortunately the talented and accomplished Italian artist, Paola Pivi, has and she has generously allowed me to use her image for this post. It’s one that she has shown at the Venice Biennale. Molte grazie, Paola. Euxaristó polí.

And yes, the next day Antonis returned and rescued Lindaki mou. How fortunate for me.  She brought back with her tales like this, has shared them with me, and allowed me to bring them to you. Euxaristó polí, Lindaki mou. To learn more about her adventures, you can start here.

Photo credit: Paola Pivi

Untitled (donkey)


1020×1230 cm

inkjet print on pvc

ph: Hugo Glendinning

Courtesy Galleria Massimo De Carlo, Milano

exhibited in the Venice Biennial in 2003

Sifnos in World War 2, a Tale


The video I’ve attached may not be to everyone’s taste, a 1966 documentary that in the ponderous television English of that era tells the story of a Canadian who returned to Sifnos to thank islanders for having saved him during the Second World War. But I consider it a treasure.

On November 7, 1943, Robert Adams, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who had been loaned to the British RAF, was flying his Wellington bomber off the coast of the Sifnos when it was hit by German fire and ditched into the sea a half mile from Chryssopigi. He and his crew, four Britons and one Australian, struggled to shore and took refuge under a tree. Some hours later Giorgios Karavas, a local farmer, found them huddled there and took them into his home. Over the next days Sifnians, at one of the worst times of their lives, treated these strangers with the utmost of kindness, generosity and selflessness. As, in my experience, Sifnians always do. They sheltered the men and hid them in a mountain-top monastery until a navy ship disguised as a fishing boat arrived in the middle of the night to spirit them away.

But though Bob Adams had left Sifnos, it would not leave him. Over the years, he sent back small gifts for the school children and in 1966, he returned, this time with a camera crew following along. Perhaps to his surprise, he found that he’d become somewhat of a celebrity there and his story had been told and retold. He was met at the port by the chief of police and honoured at more than one official dinner. He visited the school where children sang to him in Greek, greeted him in the shy English they’d learned for the occasion, and presented him with a bouquet of “flowers from our vee-lage.”

As for me, as I watched this film, I practically vibrated at so many of its details. Of course, much has changed since 1966, a time when electricity was new, the cinema in Apollonia too, when the first road had just been built and there were but four cars on the island to drive it. But so very much has not. The terraced hillsides with their stone walls, erected over thousands of years, are still there. The ancient paths through the fields. The churches large and small in towns, on hilltops and in valley bottoms. The monastery of To Vouno where the men were kept hidden, and the stone table in its courtyard, the very table I rested my elbows upon no more than two months ago now.

Nor have its people, with a generosity of spirit that remains to this day. “All day long, men and women swarmed up that hill,” Bob Adams said. At a time when many on the island were literally starving, they brought gifts to the airmen of bread and cheese, eggs and cookies, almonds and figs. They brought lutes and violins, too. “They were shaking your hand,” he said, “and kissing you and handing you food.”

In the 1966 film, he met Antonis Troullos, the handsome young school teacher who’d prepared his students so well, and when I saw that, I found myself … well, tingling. I’d never heard of Robert Adams before, but Mr. Troullos I had, and some forty-two years later in 2008, I’d met him myself. He was an old man by then and someone had described him to me as a learned man, one it would be worth my while to find. When I finally did, he invited me into his home and pointed me toward a shelf of books, “that I write, the history of my island.” It was with virtually these exact same words in 1966 that he presented Robert Adams with a gift of one of those very books. And thanks to a thoughtful Sifnian acquaintance of mine, her message, and the link to this film that it contained, I was able to hear him say them again. Sophia, euxaristó polí. I hope you can feel how meaningful your gift is to me. Kindness like yours and magical coincidences like this are what bring me back to Sifnos again and again.

They’re what brought Robert Adams back too. This Song Belongs to Freedom, his story is called, the title of the song the school children sang for him.


Cows on Sifnos, a Tale


I had lunch with Linda the other day, Lindaki mou, and I had for her some small gifts that I brought back from Sifnos three weeks ago. She hasn’t seen the island in some 40-plus years now and my photographs brought her memories flooding back. The recipes I gave her for local dishes the likes of revithia and mastelo too, and the two-handled pot from a local ceramics shop. I so love to spend time with a kindred spirit, one whose heart is as filled as mine with the magic of that place, and the hours flew by. She had, of course, many questions. Are there cows in Sifnos still, was one.

Well yes, a few.

She explained. She was still a teenager when she lived on Sifnos, not that many years removed from her childhood which was spent on the outer edge of a Montreal suburb in a neighbourhood beside a dairy farm. The farmer, a French Quebecer, was very tolerant of the English kids and let them hang around his farm. He treated his Holstein cows with loving care, hand milking them, giving each one a name, and hand-grooming the beasts. It seems clear that he treated the kids with similar kindness and patience as they “helped” out. This experience, Linda said, gave her a confidence about cows that was definitely naive.

Fast forward to some time during her six months on Sifnos when one day she was led to a shed out of town where a cow and a young calf were tied up, and asked to clean it out, i.e. to shovel the manure. By then, she’d been working with her employer’s sheep, goats and other animals, her ease with them so apparent that she was already being trusted to deliver goods all over the island by donkey.

At a previous lunch time around her employer’s large table, one she remembers well to this day, talk had turned to the topic of cows. She was learning Greek as she went, and she somehow managed to convey that she liked cattle and had spent time around them, the female variety at least. The Sifnians, on the other hand, were quite clear. They were wary of the beasts, and they mimed vigorous kicks and wild charges.

They were impressed by her confidence and shortly came the day when she was led to the cow shed. All the men who accompanied her, she noted, stood back and watched from a safe distance. The cow seemed nervous too and those big eyes were rolling. She talked gently to the beast, eventually touching her and stroking her. When the animal had sufficiently calmed down, Linda removed the manure from behind, cleaned and refilled the water bucket, and did whatever else was needed. These tasks soon became her ongoing chores.

Her employer, Antonis, was amazed. The cow, it seemed, had been kicking at him. But now he changed his tactics. He would approach the animal slowly, talk to her and pet her, and before long the cow’s behaviour toward him improved. Over time he learned to milk her, and cow milk became a valued staple in his store. He befriended the calf too and it became a pet. He took it wherever he went, she says, leading it like a dog with a leather collar and leash, and showing it off to everyone he met. She can still hear him coo-ing over the brown calf, “Oraia brama,” as she remembers the words. “Oraia brama.” You beautiful thing.

At the time, there was a man on the island, the photographer Linda calls him, who spoke good English, who eagerly answered all her questions, and who explained “so much history to me.” When she caught up with him some time later, he told her that her cow episodes were being talked about across the island, including one in which she’d led a young, rambunctious steer on a rope “for HOURS!” somehow miraculously arriving at the correct destination despite her unfamiliarity with the forks in the path and the animal’s strong ideas about stopping to eat grass. She had, the photographer told her, singlehandedly transformed the island attitude toward cattle. This wee teenaged girl. Somehow she’d become, “The Sifnos Cow Expert.” Perhaps, “The Cow Whisperer,” however you’d say that in Greek.

Cattle had traditionally been unknown on Sifnos, he said. Sometime quite recently, authorities in Athens had decided on a project to introduce dairy cattle to the island and had shipped over a bull and a few cows. They neglected, however, to send an expert to advise on their care and handling. In a tragic turn, almost immediately a Sifnian man was killed by the bull. This may have occurred, though Linda is not quite certain, right on the dock during the unloading. Sifnians, accustomed to much smaller goats and sheep, were naturally terrified of the remaining cows. It was her sweet talk to the beast, the photographer said, that broke their fear. That and Antonis and, oraia brama, his calf.

To this day, though still few, there are cows to be found on Sifnos. Brown ones, many of them. Calm ones, to my eye. Perhaps at least one, I’d wager, named Lindaki mou.


For more Lindaki mou stories, begin here.