The sun shone, the flags flapped in the breeze and as I entered the church yard, I saw a half-eaten cookie left behind on one of the stone benches. There’d been a panagyri here the day before, the celebration to honour the name day of the saint this church is named for. I’d missed another one of these. Again.
Despite my frequent visits to Sifnos, I’ve never yet managed to get to one of the panagyria this island is famous for. However, I do know the basic outline. There is a church service first, presided over by one or more of the island’s beloved priests. If it’s Papa Yiannis, his dog Malou will be at his feet, gazing reverently toward his master. There follows a feast in the dining hall with chick pea soup – always, always – spaghetti, bread, wine and much more. Then outside in the courtyard, music that goes on through the night, a party to which even I, a stranger, would be welcomed. How wonderful, I’ve always though, it would be to attend one.
Oh well. Some day. When the timing is right.
The church I was visiting that day sits atop a hill, is a favourite of mine and though I’m hardly a religious sort, it’s one I walk to at least once every time I’m on the island. I was about halfway up the hill when a car passed me, I didn’t know the woman in it but she waved, then drove on past the church into the midst of the herd of goats that live up there. So when a few minutes later, a small pickup truck started up the road, I thought little enough of it. But when it stopped in front of the church a few minutes after I arrived there and an older couple got out, I was surprised to see that I knew exactly who these people were.
How is a bit of a long story, one that the smidgen of Greek I can speak would never stretch to explain, and I knew they wouldn’t recognize me. But for some reason I wanted to let them know, perhaps, that I wasn’t just a random tourist who’d somehow wandered there. “Einai Kiría… ?” I asked, inserting the family name.
“Nai,” she replied, a bit surprised herself. So I mentioned her son’s name and that of his wife and a connection was made. Later I asked about the louloudia, the bed of geraniums and lavender in one corner of the yard, whose health I check on whenever I’m there, and managed to have her understand I was asking if these were the ones their daughter-in-law planted some years ago now.
They are. Her husband comes regularly to water them, she said. No wonder they’re thriving so well.
Shortly, she unlocked the door of another room and went inside. I followed. There was a kitchen in one corner of this room and a long table and benches that ran the full length of a space that stretched much farther than it ever appeared from outside and with the remnants of a party on top. Clearly much clean-up had earlier occurred, but there remained still some to be done. Her husband outside had unlocked one of the church’s outbuildings, hauled from it a wooden ladder and had propped it up against the church’s front wall.
This couple and their family are the panegyrades, I’d come to understand by then, the caretakers of this church and those responsible for its panagyri, for organizing and paying for it, for cleaning up after. I ought to help her, I thought. So I worked beside her in companionable silence as we emptied olive pits from ash trays and small dishes into the garbage, gathered up more left-over cookies and scraps of this and that. We carried ceramic wine pitchers and glasses to the sink, poured out what was left in some and stacked them there to be washed. We straightened the benches and wiped the plastic table cloth. There’s no faster way to a woman’s heart, I’ve found, to show appreciation for her hard work than by offering to help. Especially when you’re an outsider. And so, though I understood few of her actual words to her husband who was taking down the flags outside, I’m quite sure I caught the gist of what she was saying.
When all of the clean-up was finished and they went to leave, she insisted I stay. The church was still open. I should go inside.
Oraia, it’s beautiful, I said to her. This much I know, that one of the best things you can say to a Sifnian is that you admire their church. And admire this church, I always have. I spend time in its stillness whenever I’m there and always write my name in its visitors book. It’s just that before today I’d never known who is responsible for keeping it up.
She beamed. Written across her beautiful face I saw every bit of Sifnians’ pride in their heritage and her hug said more than any language ever could. Perhaps I’m not meant for this island’s parties. Perhaps I’m meant to experience its heart in the quieter times.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.