A Philosophy of Travel, Sifnian-Style

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“How do you do it?” someone asked me not long ago. “I never manage to form meaningful relationships with people who live where I travel.” The man asking had been reading my writings about Sifnos, a place where seemingly every time I leave, it’s with the knowledge that I’ve made at least one more friend. Someone I treasure. Someone who in true Sifnian style will welcome me back with wide open arms next year when I return. Perhaps will even remember which flavour of ice cream I prefer.

I wasn’t quite sure how to reply. It is true that meeting people I never expected to and having them become a part of my life is one of the great joys of my travels. But exactly what I do to cause this to happen, though I’ve thought about it a lot, I can’t really say. It’s not that I’m a wildly outgoing person. I am not. And, if anything, I’m an even quieter version of myself when I’m abroad. So there’s no sure-fire method I can give anyone, no magical list of steps to do that will guarantee they’ll be surrounded by new friends. However, when I think over my past travels, the way I’ve approached them and the happy adventures that have followed, certain patterns emerge. 

I am married to a man who is a photographer and who has discovered that it takes time to discover the essence of a place. We stay now wherever we go for a while, a month if we can manage it. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the longer we stay, the more interesting a place becomes.

We go back. To restaurants we’ve enjoyed. To family-run tavernas. To the same bakery for breakfast every day. People soon notice and they appreciate that. Conversation has often followed.  Deep connections sometimes too. We’ve learned too the value of going back year-after-year to a destination we love. Sifnos taught us that. Oh, we resisted at first, despite the strong pull of this island on our hearts. The world is large and there are plenty of places to be seen was our way of thinking then. And that is true, as far as it goes. But forming a relationship with a place and its people, we’ve seen since then, brings rewards of a different order altogether. 

We make sure to learn a bit of the local language wherever we go, even just enough to say hello and thank you. As an English speaker, it’s easy to assume that everyone speaks our language. More and more wherever we go, people do. But using at least a few words of someone else’s is such a simple thing to do, yet one that almost always brings profound reactions. Eyebrows raised in sweet surprise. An mmm-hmmm of appreciation often. On the odd occasion, someone teaching me a new phrase or two. A waiter in an Athens hotel restaurant once rushed over from what he was doing to be sure to say good-bye and to escort us out the door after we’d done nothing more earlier than to thank him, efharistó, in Greek.

Whether it’s to Sifnos or not, we worry little about exactly what we’ll do when we’re there. The best times always come in the unplanned parts. No one, after all, ever learned much about the people who live somewhere while running off to see the next sight. We  know enough now to open up, to say “yes,” to relax and go with the flow. To be kind in small ways and large, as Sifnians have taught us to. To be the first one to say hello and to respond to others more than we might in our everyday lives. 

It was oraia, a single word of admiration for the flowers a family was planting in a church yard on Sifnos that brought us a spontaneous invitation to a wedding there a few days later. At one of those quintessential blue-domed churches. In the golden rays of the late afternoon sun. At the top of a hill. With the Aegean on almost all sides. It was magical, this Greek island wedding, the kind of experience I might have imagined somewhere in my fantasies, but would never have expected to come true. A simple Your flowers are beautiful was pretty much all it took.

The Sifnos Chronicler Goes to Spain

 

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I’m just home from the south of Spain, from Mijas, a pretty white town in the Sierra Nevada mountains overlooking the Mediterranean and on a very clear day, to Africa beyond.

Mijas is a tourist town. Every day, the streets are filled with hordes of sightseers, most of them following along behind sign-toting tour guides. Pueblos blancos like this, they’re being told, the white towns of the province of Andalucia, are the legacy of the Moors, the north Africans who ruled Spain for seven hundred years and brought great cultural and scientific riches to this part of Europe. But what these visitors come for, really, are the sights and tastes of Andalucia today, so famous they’ve almost become clichés. Tapas. Paellas. Churros y chocolate, perhaps. Flamenco dancers in the square, if they’ve come on the right day. Tours of the Plaza de Toros where bull fights still occur. And of course, as tourists everywhere, to buy souvenirs.

 

 

 

And then night-time comes, the crowds have disappeared, the daytrippers gone back to their hotels on the Costa del Sol, and the streets are quiet. It’s at this time of day and in the early morning that Mijas is itself, when I love it most. When it’s a normal Spanish town, albeit one with a lot of great restaurants.

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Stay here long enough, three weeks as my husband and I did this time, and the people who live here will begin to recognize you. They’ll see that you’re sticking around and  they appreciate that. People like the waiter at the pizzeria near our hotel, a man whose almost mechanical demeanour when serving customers is the product of long years of dealing with those just passing through. It took only a day or two before he started to break into a broad smile and say, “Hola!” whenever one of us walked past. You’ll learn that they treasure this town as a place to raise kids. Before your children have a chance to tell you what they’ve been up to, one man said, you’ll have heard all about it already. And if you’re lucky as we were, you’ll find more than one person who in time will come to call you amigo and will mean what he says. You’ll see the policeman on the motorcycle stop in front of the bakery every morning for a kiss from his daughter, a sweet young thing who spends the hour or so before school there with her grandmother and is learning to tend to the customers who come in. 

I’ve had these kinds of experiences before. In Sifnos every time I am there. And anywhere else I’ve stayed for a while. It’s why when if asked for my travel philosophy, I’d say, Stay longer. Cover less ground.

Our way of travel evolved as it did because my husband is a photographer and he’s found that it takes time to find and capture the essence of a place. And the longer we stayed, we started to notice, the more interesting were the adventures that started to find us. Some of them sweet, a few of them crazy. All of them unexpected. Every one of them fun.

We’ve been to Mijas before, about ten years ago now, and one night that time a bar owner who’d been seeing my husband go by with his camera every day invited us in, poured us a drink, and arranged for us to meet his friend, an award-winning photographer renowned throughout Spain and abroad. It was that year, too, that somehow we were adopted by the local Barcelona football fan club, the Peña. They’d make sure we knew when the next match would be on TV and el presidente would stand up when we walked in and motion us over to the two chairs he’d saved for us beside him. More and more after that when we walked through the town, men would smile, rush over and make sure we understood they knew us from the Peña. One evening when we were there this year, we found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of the filming of a Japanese TV show, surrounded by cameras on all sides, unable to move lest we ruin the scene and realizing only later what it was we were a part of. More of that tale, I’ll leave for another day.

IMG_0931“Why do you travel to just one place?” someone asked me just the other day and I could see she was perplexed. I started to tell her one of these tales. 

“Aha!” she said before long. She got it now. “I really didn’t meet any locals on my travels,” she said.

To each their own when it comes to travel, I say. And I do believe that. But for me now, meeting the people who live there has become why I go.

Note from The Sifnos Chronicler

P1020989Those of you watching this space will know it’s been a while since I’ve posted and might be wondering what that means.

Is it that I’ve run away and decided to stop writing about Sifnos? Far from it. That I’m having trouble thinking of new things to say about my beloved Greek isle? Not at all. It’s not either that I’ve stopped writing entirely, my life now filled with other endeavours of various sorts. Hardly.

I’ve been writing more in these past few months than I ever have in my whole life, all of my current scribblings devoted to revising the first draft of my next book, a sequel to The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. I’ve not settled on its title quite yet, so I can’t share that with you now. I can tell you though that it will take readers along with me through through sunny days and soft, balmy nights in whitewashed stone alleys and seaside villages to local tavernas  where I’m  welcomed yet again as though I were family, and into conversations with those I never expected to meet.

Many of the characters from The Chronicles (well, they’re real people) are back and there are new friends too, open-hearted and quirky, generous beyond belief, people who teach me yet again that kindness, when given away, multiplies itself. People who make me laugh harder than I do almost anywhere else on this earth. 

For now, I’m off on a short vacation. But keep your eyes peeled. Over the next months I’ll have plenty more to tell you. In the meantime, happy and meaningful travels.

The Sifnos Chronicler

A Sifnos Table

Apollo's Gifts on arrivalI found Lindaki mou’s family when I was in Sifnos in June, and I must tell you that was a thrill. “I’m from Canada,” I said when I was sure I had the right person. “I know a woman who came to Sifnos in the 1970s and lived with your family. Her name is Linda.”

The woman looked at me and, even though we were relying on her daughter to translate, her answer was instant. “Well, why hasn’t she been back?” 

“I was eight years old when Linda was here,” she went on to say. “I remember her.” Then, “How is she? Does she have children? What does she do?” This Canadian teenager who loved nothing more than to hang out with their donkey had caused quite a stir at the time, I could see, and became a part of their family lore.

Over the next weeks, as I got to know them bit-by-bit, eating at their café on occasion, I could see in the newer members of this family the qualities Linda described. Hard work. Ambition. Determination. Open-heartedness. Kindness above all. When my time on Sifnos was up and I went to say good-bye, “Will you be seeing Linda?” they asked. They had two gifts, one for her, one for me and for her a note. “Apó ti Sifno me agápi,” it said. From Sifnos, with love.

Sadly, Margarita the grandmother, the matriarch of the family when Linda was there, passed away some time ago.” “I’m so sorry,” I said when I heard that. “I wish I could have met her. Linda tells me she was very kind.”

“Yes,” her granddaughter replied, a tear not far away. “She was like that her whole life.”

Linda talks about Margarita often. About her very long table and the huge midday meal she’d prepare every day. Pots of chick pea soup on Sundays. Giant beans in tomato sauce. Fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers drowned in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. An “amazing” lentil soup Linda says she’s tried to copy herself, without much success. Her mouth waters at the thought of it still. Bread from the bakery. Baby goat or lamb on occasion, stewed in oil, tomatoes and other vegetables and herbs. Goat and sheep cheeses. Bowls of black olives from the family’s ancient trees and wine they made from local grapes. Almond sweets. Margarita, Linda has said often, was a wonderful cook.  

Her table, as Linda remembers it, held near to twenty people depending on how closely they’d snuggle together, and on many days it was full. There’d be Margarita’s husband and children, of course. Lindaki mou, too. Whatever workmen they’d hired that day. Whoever else happened along. And always two widows, the same ones every day. The family owned a store and in late morning every day, this pair of women would arrive. They’d cluck and pore over the goods for a long while, critiquing their quality, redoing the displays and, Linda says, never buying a single thing. Then, “Would you stay to eat?” Margarita would ask.

“No, no, no, no,” they’d reply. They’d prepared something already. They had to get home.

“Oh, you might as well stay,” would come Margarita’s reply. “Dinner is ready. There is plenty of food.”

“No, no. We must go.” 

So the back-and-forth would carry on, every single day. No one would give ground, voices would rise, and with every volley the whole thing would grow more heated. Linda, fascinated, would watch this. Why didn’t Margarita give in, she wondered, why was she so insistent when these women clearly wanted to go home? Why did it get even physical some days with Margarita taking them by the arm, leading them to a chair and practically pushing them into it? And why did she always insist that they take home with them whatever bread was left over at the end of the meal? That she had too much today and would otherwise have to feed it to the chickens instead?

Then one day, Linda had an Aha! It was one of those epiphanies of life. This was all an act, she saw now. A dance. These women were poor. There’d be nothing for them to eat if they went home. Margarita knew that, yet let them pretend, thus maintaining their pride, their dignity. She’d let them “help” in the store.

When Linda told me this tale, I had my own Aha! moment. I’ve seen many times how willingly Sifnians take care of those of their own who need help. How gently, how supportively, how discreetly. How they define their own as almost anyone, even someone from afar. How kindness and respect for others is so deep in their bones.

So much has changed since Linda was there. So much has not.

(More Lindaki mou stories start here.)

Note to readers: I have just finished the first draft of my second book. Ta da! (Pardon me while I do a pirouette.) This one, too, is set in Sifnos and I will have more to share about it in the coming months.

On Leaving Sifnos, Again

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I’ve just returned home from Sifnos where the number of people I call friends has grown yet again. By a lot. It has become my habit to go there once every year for a month and I should be well used to this phenomenon by now. But the generosity of spirit I find among those who live on Sifnos astounds me still.

For interest sake, I attempted to keep track this time of all the gifts I received. There were cakes and cookies galore, some waiting for me already when I stepped off the ferry. Invitations into people’s homes for coffee and much more. Glasses of wine, ouzo and other liqueurs that, no matter how much I drank, never emptied. Sweet apricots from a neighbour’s tree. Pieces of Sifnian pottery to bring home. A pair of earrings made for me in a colour the maker guessed is my favourite one. She got it right. Most of these gifts came from people who not that long before were complete strangers to me. And I know that in receiving so many kindnesses, I’m far from alone. Of all the things I love about Sifnos, it’s the open-heartedness these gifts represent that means the most.

There’s a phrase in English I’ve heard often on this island, one that has always intrigued me. I like to drink coffee after a meal and, in more than one taverna I frequent and whose owners I’ve come to know, when it’s been time to settle the bill, rather than charge for the coffees, they’ve said, “The coffee is for me.” 

Perhaps, I thought at first, the speaker had confused their prepositions, saying “for” where they should have said “from,” as in “The coffee is from me,as a native English speaker would. But when over time I began to hear the same phrase from different people, I decided that this explanation didn’t work. Was it, I thought next, an instance where the structures of English and Greek don’t line up, the distinction between “for” and “from” one their own language doesn’t make so clearly? As over time I began to pick up bits and pieces of Greek – apó, the word for “from” among them and yía, the one that means “for” – this reasoning, too, fell apart. 

Then it hit me. These speakers don’t have it wrong. They mean exactly what they’re saying. Yes, this coffee was meant as a gift to me, but they well know that they’ve benefitted from giving it too. There’s the warmth in their heart, the sweet knowledge that they’ve brought happiness to another, the way deeds like this feed one’s soul. One kind act brings two people joy, Sifnians well know. It’s a way of life they live every day. So entrenched is it in their culture that it’s simply who they are.

Is is any wonder I so love to be in their midst? Why I always return home determined to carry along with me this way of being?

Can you imagine if the rest of the world operated like that?

Apollonia at Night

P1030384Bit-by-bit as the sun prepares to go down, Apollonia once more comes alive. Shopkeepers open their doors, pull out and rehang whatever goods they display outside to lure customers in, and foot traffic begins to grow. By nine o’clock, life in To Steno will be in full swing.

To Steno is probably my favourite place in all of Sifnos, the pedestrian alley that was once this town’s main street. It still is in the evenings, the argument can easily be made. It’s the time of day when seemingly everyone who lives in this town walks through. It’s when they take time to talk with whoever they meet. It’s when kids come out to play and, watched over lovingly by the whole town, to grow up.  It’s a place where if there’s news to be heard, it will be here. Where this news will travel the length of this alley faster than you can.

Over the twelve years that my husband and I have been coming to this island, we’ve learned that a good measure of how much you belong lies in the amount of time it takes to walk the length of this alley at night. Longer and longer every time we come back, in our case, for more and more are the people who recognize us, say hello, and more numerous and lengthy are the conversations that ensue. 

There’s a kind of magic of living in a climate like this, I’ve long thought, where so much of life is conducted outdoors. There must surely drawbacks, of course, to having your family business out there for all to see, but so much that is good. I know I feel it – the warmth, the strength, the ease of living, even for a short while, in a place where relationships across the community are nourished every day and grow strong.

It’s hours upon hours upon hours that we’ve spent in To Steno, the majority of them at our favourite taverna. It’s where we learn bit-by-bit about those passing by at the same time they’re learning about us. It’s where we know that our table will be waiting, our favourite drinks too. It’s where we’ll discuss the news of the world, where we’ll learn about the parts we missed while we were off doing something else, and see what others have been up to today. Where we’ll find that someone has been cooking for us all day. It’s where, in short, we feel at home.

Apollonia in Afternoon

P1090968Quiet, quiet, quieter still, by three o’clock, Apollonia has settled down for the afternoon. Shops and businesses have closed. Far fewer vehicles are driving through. If you walk along To Steno, the pedestrian alley that once was and in many ways still is the main street of the town, other than the sun pouring in and the occasional cat lolling about, chances are pretty good that you’ll be on your own. 

It will feel, actually, as though the town is asleep and in essence, it pretty much is. Not only are the shops quiet, the houses are too. Things will open up again around six, but for now life has moved indoors. 

I recall that when I first came here, like so many visitors from countries where lives are organized differently than this, I wondered what on earth I’d do during those hours. I could soon see how practical a custom this must be in a climate that can be so blazing hot, but sleep in the afternoon is just not something I do.

Then I discovered the secret. What I would do during those hours was pretty much what those who live here have done for so long. I would move inside. I would slow down. Breathe in the peace. And as I started to do that, I found how delicious it is to spend those quiet hours in the cool indoors. How civilized. 

How very good for you too, as it turns out. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health tracked the habits of twenty-three thousand Greek men and women over a period of six years. They discovered that those who napped three times a week for at least thirty minutes were much less likely to die of heart disease. 37% less, in fact. And for even those who nap only occasionally, the risk was 12% less. The Greeks, once again, have had it right all along. 

So if you’re in Apollonia at this time of day, or anywhere in Greece for that matter, realize that there are rules for this time of day that are quite exact. Even the police get involved and every year announce the national quiet hours, in summer between 3 and 5:30 in the afternoon and again from 11 until 7 the next morning. “Offenders of this particular law,” their announcement always says, “should be reported to the Police.”

I once asked an Apollonian of my acquaintance whether another long-standing practice here was a matter of custom or law. “Custom,” he said right away, “… much stronger than law.” So if you’re ever in Apollonia in the afternoon, I’d advise you, police or not, to know how it’s done. Do not disturb the peace in any way. Do not under any circumstances knock on someone’s door. They’re asleep and, if they’re not, they have no desire for now to come outside. Go inside yourself. Slow down. Chances are you’ll be glad that you did.