“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,” he said. 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 notice and they appreciate that. Conversation has often followed. Deep connections sometimes. 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 it has plenty of places to be seen was our way of thinking in those days. 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 some 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 knows 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 be the first 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, at the top of a hill, in the golden rays of the later afternoon sun, 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.