In this period of the pandemic, when I’m one of so many who long for Greece and can only dream of it from afar, I am consoling myself by rereading my own two books about life on the island of Sifnos and sharing parts of them with you on my blog. Today’s episode is the sixth in this series and comes from a chapter in my Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales called “Raw Fish.”
I’ve poured a cold lemonade and settled onto the balcony to enjoy the afternoon breeze when —Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch, Tch — I hear footsteps coming up the tiled stairs. Slow, steady, deliberate ones. Not Jim’s, for their cadence is nothing like his. They’re coming my way, have to be, for this staircase leads nowhere else. The head that belongs to them, when it appears, is one I’ve never before seen.
The man who’s arrived looks harmless enough. Very pleasant, actually, and as I’ve become well used to on Sifnos, he has the air of someone whose intentions are good. He’s grandfatherly and distinguished, straight of back, proud of bearing and wearing an open-necked dress shirt. He must be our landlady’s father-in-law, I decide.
She told me yesterday that their daughter starts school next week and so they’re returning to Athens this weekend. Her in-laws are coming to take their place. But they speak no English, she said, and she looked a tad worried at that. She wrote her mobile number on a card and handed it over. “Call any time,” she added.
We’ll be fine, I assured her. I have no doubt that we’ll be treated with kindness and, language gulfs notwithstanding, we always manage somehow.
This man is still coming my way and he’s smiling now. It’s late enough in the morning that a plain hello will do, so “Yassas,” I say. I set my glass down.
“Yassas,” he replies. Then I see it. He’s carrying a plate of fish, four medium-sized ones by quick count. Raw fish. Whole ones. With heads. And these, it’s clear, are for me. Oh dear. Pride in his offering all over his face, he hands me the plate and waits for what I will say.
I look at the plate, with sufficiently sincere appreciation I hope. Er … efharistó —thank you — I manage. Polí — very much — I think to add.
He looks satisfied.
Thank goodness for that.
Visitors to Greece, I read in a guidebook once, are often astonished by the number of spontaneous acts of generosity they receive and, though the time I’ve spent here is now measured in months, I’m astonished still. Wine carafes quietly topped up have been countless. Sweets that arrived unordered at the end of a meal. Cookies and other small treats tucked into my hand at any time of the day. In such circumstances, I’ve relied on what I’ve read, memories of chats with Greek friends at home, and simple common sense and observation to craft what I supposed was the desired response. That these gifts have kept coming tells me I’ve been more or less on track. But on the matter of what one should do when presented with a mess of raw fish, my usual guides have been silent.
And this man is no help. He does like to talk, all of it in Greek, and despite the few words I’ve picked up and whatever skills in reading people’s intent I’ve developed over time, I’m unable to follow any of what he’s saying. Even his gestures make no sense. I did, though, near the beginning manage to catch one word. Psari. Fish. Yes, that one I know. But other than that, the torrent of sounds rushes past me uncomprehended.
Then I hear it. Three syllables pull themselves out of the stream and into a recognizable whole. “Antonis.”
“Antonis?” I say.
“Ne,” I hear back and I wonder not for the first time how that word ever came to mean yes. But as to what he’s trying to tell me about Antonis, I glean nothing more.
Another efharistó from me and the polí are the only words I have in Greek to add to the conversation, a fact my gift giver soon concludes, and he returns back downstairs.
What now? Our kitchen is well supplied with pots and pans and utensils, a stove and an oven, but as we have no plans to make anything while we’re here other than the odd breakfast egg, our cupboards hold no ingredients beyond a few snacks and the pepper and salt we found when we arrived. Besides, I never cook fish like this. It’s not that I wouldn’t eat them, but Jim hates any he even suspects might have small bones. I’d be on my own.
Maybe he’ll have an idea when he comes back.
But no, he’s shortly as flummoxed as I. We cast about for a plan, and at some point toy with throwing them into the village garbage bin just a few steps up the road. But we quickly toss that idea. Whatever the politics around the town’s refuse collection point, there surely are some, and they’re ones we don’t understand. But we’re wise enough to know we’d be well-advised not to run afoul of them. Our gift-giver could well catch us in the act and what a betrayal that would be. If he didn’t, someone else would be likely to see us. This island is one where secrets are few, where everyone watches who goes where, when, and why, and the news pipeline works fast. Plus this gift we’ve received is no small piece of candy. Fish are expensive everywhere in Greece and this man has given us a whole meal.
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.