This pandemic, as I’m told they do, continues to rage on and sadly, the prospects of my being in Greece seem no nearer yet. So I must continue to dream of it from afar. I console myself in part 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 seventh in this series and comes from a chapter in my Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales called “Comings and Goings.”
We’d arrived at the dock in Piraeus with plenty of time before our boat was scheduled to depart. The air was fresh, the sun shone and spring was here. We’d found seats on the boat’s outside rear deck, for the time being at least. I was excited. Jim was too, though in matters such as this, he is more outwardly calm than I.
I love the docks in Piraeus, the busy seaport of Athens, have since my first glimpse of them and the first moments I spent there. Those huge ships gliding so smoothly in and out of their berths. Their names, so exotic to my ears. Hellenic Sea Lines, Blue Star Ferries, Ventouris, Nel Lines, Minoan. The correct way to travel around these islands is by boat, I once heard someone say, the way it’s been done as long as people have moved between them, and I’ve come to agree. Besides, to get to Sifnos which has no airport, it’s still pretty much the only way.
No Speedrunner for us that day, no Superfast Ferries, no Flying Cats. We were going by slow ferry, the Adamantios Korais. Why rush to get to the island, Jim and I thought. Why not savour the voyage across these ancient seas. And why not, after a long winter at home, choose a vessel where you can comfortably stay on an outside deck for as long as you like.
The slow boats are the big ones that, in addition to carrying passengers and their luggage and other belongings, take along trucks loaded with whatever goods modern life requires on the islands and aren’t produced there. Once I even saw a long trailer back on board with a huge pile of telephone poles lashed to it.
I stood at the rail, watching those in charge load the ferry. Cars and motorcycles were being waved in, and trucks of all shapes and sizes. Everything from sputtering putt-putts to huge semi-trailers that must dwarf island roads. That day, I saw something new, a hearse waiting to come aboard. Two in fact, one grey and the other black, each with its sad family walking alongside, its arrays of stiff flowers and, this being Greece, its requisite bearded priest. Both were bound for Kythnos, I was to learn later when they each got off there, the first stop on the voyage, about halfway to our destination.
I also kept my eye on the koulouri table. On the dock beside the ramp to every ferry boat in Piraeus in the hour before it is scheduled to leave, there appears a table piled high with stacks of sesame-seed-covered wreaths of bread. Koulouria they’re called in the plural, they’re delicious and at one Euro, they go fast. What I like best, besides eating them, is to watch from the deck high above as the seller, in between collecting the coins and putting passengers’ purchases into clear blue plastic bags, deftly arranges, rearranges and re-rearranges his dwindling stock into increasingly sparse, though admirably geometric, displays. Today’s vendor was doing his part.
And then I saw it. A rickety little white van with a large luggage rack on top, proclaiming in turquoise and navy blue letters on its side, “Sifnos Hotel.”
“Look at that!” I called to Jim. The stocky arm protruding from the van’s side window was all I could see of its driver, but it was enough for me to be quite sure it was him. And I recalled his face right away. I had, after all, almost every day for more than three years been writing The Sifnos Chronicles, my first book about our travels on this island, and its people were as real to me as if I’d seen them all yesterday. Grandma. Roula. Helias. Corelli. The Happy Greek. And this man.
It’s a very large boat, the Adamantios Korais, with two passenger decks and compartments of different classes and seating arrangements. Unless you were to do a determined and systematic tour through them all, or were seated near a snack bar and happen to look up at the right time, you might pass an entire voyage without discovering that you know someone who is also on board. And so, it wasn’t until well into the journey, somewhere near Kythnos, that Jim returned from a walk and reported that he’d spotted him in a section upstairs, this one filled with airline-type seats. Mr. Sifnos Hotel. That was the only name we had for him at the time.
We didn’t expect he’d remember us. We’d eaten at his taverna, but not that often and in the years since then, he would have seen hundreds, even thousands, of faces. How in a business like that could he be expected to keep track of them all?
But, Jim said, he’d been surprised to see this man take note of him as he walked by, though nothing was said. How far we’d come since we’d first travelled this route almost six years ago. Back then, neither of us had any understanding of the language at all, nor any clear picture of where we were going or how to get there. I wasn’t even sure that we’d understand enough to be sure we’d be getting off at the right island. Now today someone on board recognized us. The thought stunned and, I must admit, thrilled me. So after a decent interval, Jim and I strolled together – coolly, we hoped – through the airplane-seat cabin and this time approached the man.
“We’ve been to your taverna before. We’re from Canada,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “I remember.”
He did? Yes, clearly he did.
He hadn’t changed in the least and was exactly as I remembered. The strong build and arms, the dark, tightly curled hair, the beard. The chuckle. Always that chuckle. And as ever, something we’d long appreciated, for his English is some of the best on the island, he was eager to talk. He was happy to hear we’d be in Sifnos for almost a month. He hadn’t opened for the season yet but would soon, he said, the week before Easter, about ten days from now.
“Come by then,” he said, “There’ll be free ouzo.”
Well, how could we not?