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.
Next Lindaki mou story: Cows on Sifnos, a Tale
The series begins: A Canadian in Sifnos in the 1970s