The Sifnos Chronicler Reaches 100

P1040294 -resizedWith this post I celebrate the 100th episode of this blog, The Sifnos Chronicler. Please indulge me a moment as I say … Woo hoo! I’m delighted that you’ve come along to mark this milestone. 

When I began on my journey into the blogging world, I must admit I was a tad worried. I’ve visited Sifnos many times, always for a month at a time, and have done thousands of photographs there. So I was sure I had plenty enough material. But would my enthusiasm dwindle, I wondered – not for the island and its people, but for the demands of keeping up the momentum to write and post regularly? Would anyone out there discover this blog and would they stick around long enough to see what I had to say? If so, would I ever know about them? The answers to these questions, I can report from this vantage point, have surprised me. Thrilled me, in fact.

From the first time I saw Sifnos in 2006, the island took a firm hold on my heart. And more and more now every time I am back there, I do so much more than see. 

I smell. Wild sage as I walk in a field on a hot summer’s day. Frying fish from a kitchen window that I pass by in an alley near noon. The steaming warm comfort when a bowl of revithia is placed before me. 

I hear. Church bells across the valley. Wind through the olive trees. Waves gently lapping onto Xeronissos beach. The roar of a motor scooter as it tears through the square.

And I feel, deep in my soul. The way my heart speeds up as the ferry I’m on pulls into port. The kindness of every Sifnian I meet. The love so freely given. The pull back to this island whenever I’m not there.

I’ve written about fishing boats for this blog, large ones and small, and the loving care every one of them receives. About my favourite of the island’s marshmallow-white churches and their dark, cool insides. I’ve written about the ferries, about donkeys, about Greek salad Sifnos-style, and about how I make revithia when I’m at home in Canada and am hankering for a taste of chick pea soup, Sifnians’ Sunday lunch. About the spring flowers. Oh my, those flowers. About how the island prepares for Easter. About the Cycladic food festival in September and the lighting of the towers, the island’s ancient communication system, in spring. I wrote once about the corner where Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famed French photographer, shot his Ile de Sifnos, 1961. I brought news about my first book, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle. I told about the day I walked into The Bookshop in Apollonia and found it on display right alongside the latest Harry Potter. With twice the shelf space as he, I noted with some glee. I told about that magical night when I read aloud from it to an eagerly attentive audience, mere steps from where the events I was describing had occurred. And the day on the dock in Kamares last May when I watched boxes of my second book, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales as they were carried off the ferry. The very first time I’d be seeing finished copies of it in print. A thrill for an author if there ever was one. 

And whenever I began to fear that I didn’t know what else to say, a reader would write to me, would spark a new idea, and I’d know I wasn’t finished yet. I even managed a couple of times to convince someone else to guest blog. Sometimes I’d read something online that would send me back to my keyboard. That dazzling day that snow fell everywhere in Greece and covered the entire country in a cozy blanket of white. The time that a 10 Beaufort wind storm was predicted and I worried about how my friends, especially those with seaside properties, would get through. The day I woke up, opened Facebook and read that the Agios Georgios, the aged ferry that first took me to the island in those early years, had started that morning on its final voyage, under tow toward a Turkish wrecking yard. By night-time I’d managed, with not a few tears in my eyes, to finish and post, “Ode to an Old Ferry,” a piece that brought forth a large number of equally sentimental replies.

Then there is Linda. She lives near me here in Canada and I first met her when she came to the launch party for my first book. 

“I’ve been to Sifnos,” she said, “I lived with a family there in the 1970s for six months and they allowed me to take their donkey wherever I went.”

“Your stories are ones I want to hear,” I said, and I’m thrilled that she allowed me to share them with you.  

So … I’ve had plenty of help with this blog and I owe thanks to so many. To Linda, for sure. To the two Michaels who each guest-posted for me. To Sofia who, among other contributions, pointed me once to a fellow islander who’d done photographs of a rare event I wasn’t there to see. To Giorgos for generously allowing me to share them. To those of you whose reply, whether you knew it or not, inspired a new topic. Or who let me know that my words meant something to you and thus encouraged me to keep going. To all in far-flung countries who have simply read a piece or two – Canada, the U.S., Sifnos, elsewhere in Greece, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Germany, Israel, Trinidad, Ireland, Bulgaria, Singapore, France, India, Australia and many more. Yes, my blog host lets me know what countries you come from. To those of you who started out as strangers and have become dear friends that I’m dying to see again.

The community of those who love Sifnos and Greece is vast, it is wide-spread, and is made up of very fine people. I can now confidently report that. I feel honoured to be a part of this tribe.

If you want to read more of what I’ve written so far, you might like to begin here at the first of Linda’s stories. And then just wander where your nose leads you. That is the very best way, I’ve discovered over time, to find out what Sifnos is about.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 4

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Today’s episode from The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek island gives my take on some of the colour of Greek island life and comes from a chapter called, “Squawkapalooza.”

 

“Are you afraid of thunder?” asks the young woman at Roula’s. “I am,” she adds before I even open my mouth, “… very.”

Her name is Niki, she’s always here at the café these days and I’m glad. “We have spinach pie today,” she’ll say because she remembers that I asked for it last time and they didn’t. And, “Do you want sage tea?” because she knows that I order it often.

Last night’s storm did rouse me, but it was the lightning I noticed first, a flash that made me jump despite my still closed eyes. A furious, though short-lived, rain followed and fierce wind. This all, she says, happened around four a.m. I didn’t know that for I fell back asleep before I thought to check the time.

As for the thunder, I don’t really mind, I tell her and it’s true. In fact, I quite like the Sifnian version. It’s nothing like what we have at home – a loud crack that, depending on how far away it occurs, makes people jump and shy dogs cower, and then is followed by a few seconds of clatter. Any thunder I’ve heard on the Aegean has begun as though in a whisper somewhere far out at sea and, like a huge tumbling rock, rolled toward us louder, louder, louder still. It’s never stopped, never slowed and rumbled on past and into the distance until finally it faded out of earshot. I timed it once and got to a whole twenty seconds. It’s clear that Zeus still reigns on a mountaintop somewhere near here.

When I’ve given Niki my order and it’s been delivered to the kitchen, she sets to bustling about with a broom over what last night’s storm left behind, the bougainvillea petals and grape leaves that litter the terrace’s floor. She’s half finished this task when a loud noise erupts that puts an end to the bits of conversation we’ve been having while she works.

Not thunder. This din comes from somewhere more earth-bound. The source of the ruckus is one of those car-mounted loudspeaker systems that I see around here from time to time. Dreadful things. Greek drive-around advertising, I call them and this one arrived two days ago. It works this way. You stick a pair of crackly loudspeakers atop whatever vehicle you’ve got, crank the volume up to Harangue and, while cruising along at little more than walking pace, spew your message onto every street of the town. Then when you’ve been everywhere, in the remote case there could exist someone who didn’t hear the first time, you drive the same route once again. And again. Whether it would annoy me more if I spoke Greek and could understand what’s being said, I’m not certain, but I can’t imagine it would be less bothersome.

My first exposure to one of these contraptions, the vehicle on that occasion bedecked with blue and white flags and multiple copies of the same poster, was two years ago at the height of what I had learned was the municipal election campaign. It was followed moments later, whether coincidentally or not I was never entirely sure, by a man in a suit who came into the taverna where we were eating that night, shook hands all around and generally tried to impress everyone there. This year’s version – I’ll call it the Squawkmobile – is a white van plastered with amateurish decals of alligators and other like creatures.

“What is that all about?” I ask Niki in one of the less raucous moments.

She listens. “Theatre … for children … in Artemonas tonight. 7:00 o’clock.”

“I don’t think I’ll go.”

“Me, neither.” She giggles.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 3

Apollo's Gifts on arrivalWhile the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books that are set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and onto the ancient marbled paths that wind through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

It’s fraught always, the act of packing to leave, this cramming of one’s life into a few pieces of luggage. There’s the finality, the shutting of one of life’s chapters. The joy at all that was seen and was done. The regret for what wasn’t. The question of how, or whether, all of one’s possessions will fit back inside.

It’s seven weeks of our lives in total now that Jim and I have lived here on Sifnos and, as on the last time we left, we take home with us much more than we brought. Antonis’s hats. The souvenirs we’ve bought or elsewise acquired. A few new words of Greek. Jim’s photographs and mine. And the tales.

Oh yes, the tales.

Will we be back? The question tonight hangs in the air. Two years ago, the answer was easy. The world is large, the list is long, and there are plenty of other places we haven’t seen. This time it’s a whole lot less simple. The future will unfold as it will, is as definitive an answer as either of us can give at this moment.

By contrast, those who live here are certain. I’ve lost count of how many times in the past days the response to one of our good-byes has been, “See you next year.” Stavros the baker expressed in his own way a sentiment along those lines. “No Ingleess,” he bemoaned this morning and with our breakfast he brought out two almond cookies.

Sadly, though, when we went to Roula’s for one final time, she wasn’t there. So I’m left to wonder what she would have had to say about the matter this time. Niki was at work, though, and she seemed genuinely sad to see us go.

“Now … what can I give you?” she said after we’d paid for our lunch and she turned to the shop’s well-filled shelves. A bag of cookies tied in a blue bow, a handful of pasteli  – the cellophane-wrapped honey and sesame seed bars like those passed out at the wedding – and a package of small oranges slathered in a sugary syrup later and I found myself wondering where on earth we’d fit this all in.

But she wasn’t done yet. “Here’s some tea.” She thrust into my hand a bundle of dried herbs. “Not sage, though,” and she turned reproachful though sparkling eyes toward me. “You drank all that.”

That I did, drink her sage tea. There’s little I find more warming.

In the end, though I feared that I’d not manage to force the zippers shut, all of her contributions did fit somehow and everything was finally inside. And then at the last minute, not much more than an hour ago, I found myself with one more item to add. We’d cleared out of the apartment and were in front of Nikoleta’s to wait for the taxi. Jim is a man who likes to be early and one, I know, who is itching to get back to his darkroom at home, so we had plenty of time. Grandma joined us. By now I can handle polí kalá and oráia with ease and any number of Thelúme thío bírres, but the longer we waited and the more she chatted, the more I strained to decide what I could say next. Then she handed over the small plastic bag that she had in her hands. Open it, I understood. Inside, wrapped in tissue, was a scarf.

She’d … bought me a gift.

I was stunned. Put it up to your face, she mimed and I did. In a shade of pale yellow like one she’s seen me wear often, it was soft and it was cozy. And she hadn’t forgotten about Jim. “Glikó?” Would you like sweets?

This is the exact question his German great-aunt always asked whenever we left her house, no matter how short our intended trip. Today’s answer, “Oxi efharistó,” was as effectively received as its Stuttgart counterpart always was, which is to say completely ignored, and soon he had in hand a bagful of chocolate-wrapped biscuits. When the taxi came to take us away, this time Grandma had a big hug for him too.

Such a philosophy these people choose to live their lives by. One kind act brings two people joy. It’s the sort of saying that ought to be inscribed on a plaque. With each encounter like this that I’ve had on Sifnos and they’ve been legion, far too many to count, I’ve found my reserved Canadian heart pried farther open, more determined to carry to carry home with me this way of being. 

No wonder we found ourselves so compelled to return.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, I hope we’ll all support our favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners wherever we are.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 2

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While the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and across the ancient marbled paths through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

Our destination tonight is one of the tavernas that line the seafront in Kamares, the ouzerie with the green tables and chairs. At first I’m not sure if the woman who brings us the menu is her, the owner we met when we were here two years ago. Then she smiles.

“We’ve come back … from Canada. Your food is that good.”

Again that smile. It’s such a comfort to find people who understand at least some English. And the more I think about it, so easy for us to take for granted how lucky we are to speak the language the rest of the world wants to learn. Our ouzos soon arrive and not terribly long after, the large bowl of “summer salad” we’ve ordered. Red and yellow peppers, cucumbers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, the crunchiest fresh greens. It looks, and smells, as good as I remember.

We dig in and as we do, we return once more to the topic we’ve been discussing all day since Xeronissos. The wedding. Jim, who loves little more than to tease, kept me guessing for a goodly long while before he finally gave in and explained. He’d arrived at the top of the hill this morning and found several people there in the church yard. They were planting red geraniums in a small bed against one of the whitewashed stone walls. He greeted them, as one would, unpacked his camera and rested for a few minutes on the shaded bench, then added kudos for the beauty of the blooms.

One woman understood what he’d said. All were members of the same family, she told him, and their bout of gardening was in preparation for a wedding there on the weekend.

“Mine,” she said. “Would you like to come?”

“Well … yes … But do you really mean that?”

She’d be honoured, she said. She’s from Athens, a doctor, she went on, and she’s marrying a Sifnian. The wedding is on Sunday at 5. He’s welcome to bring his camera and, yes, his wife.

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The family finished soon thereafter and gathered their tools. “Could you please shut the gate when you leave,” the bride asked, “so the goats won’t eat the flowers?” Her father showed him how.

Whether we’ll go was decided hours ago now, about two seconds after Jim started into his tale. How could we not? To a hilltop wedding? In the late afternoon sun? At the very tip of the island? With the Aegean all around?”

There is, of course, the question of what to wear. A wedding is hardly what I packed for and, no matter how hard I scour the depths of my luggage, I’ll find no formal attire in there. And in that department, Jim is barely any farther ahead than I. We’ll just have to make do somehow.

In Kamares now, traffic is beginning to build on the street that runs past these tavernas, all of it aimed toward the pier. Cars. Trucks of various sizes. Groups of travellers towing suitcases behind them. The first three or four of the island’s ten taxis. 

We pay our bill and then start into our platefuls of thick yogurt with quince jam that has arrived unordered. But we don’t linger over this treat, the sort of gift that appears so often to end our meals around here, for the Speedrunner II has appeared in the gap. We hurry to finish then make our own way to the dock.

The ferry – not the big blue-and-white Agios Georgios that we sailed on, but imposing in its own right – is one minute steaming bow first into port and the next it’s turned completely around. Its huge rear ramp is swaying down toward the dock. Two motorcycles have pulled up there in the last minute, each driver’s task to catch one of the ropes tossed down from on board and to secure ship to shore.

 

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A man in crisp maritime navy-and-white is the first off the boat as it’s being tethered to shore and he hands papers to a waiting official. Soon another officer unhooks a chain across the back of the ship and passengers begin to stream onto the dock. The crowd seems endless and all seem to know where they’re going, none with the bewildered look I surely did on our first arrival. There are shopping-bag-laden locals on their way home. Athenian weekenders. A few backpackers. A handful of wheeled-suitcase travellers. And those going in the opposite direction who won’t wait their turn to get on board.

Jeeps and Peugeots have started to glide down the ramp. Trucks of all sorts follow. Motorcycles too. When all of those arriving have finally departed the ship, the port policeman blows a whistle and waves his arm, the  signal to the vehicles queued on the dock to proceed. 

In time when the comings and goings, the arrangements and rearrangements have ended, and the man in the navy uniform is back inside, the huge ropes are released from the cleats and fall with a splash. The ship lets out a plume of black smoke and pulls away from the dock, its lights bright against the darkening sky, and steams out of the bay.

Jim and I, of course, are not on board. It’s not nearly time for that yet.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive it in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device or order it as a paperback. When things are more normal again, please support your favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners near you.

Dreaming of Greece, Episode 1

P1000572While the world is housebound this spring of 2020 and so many of us who adore Greece can only dream of it from afar, I have decided that one of the best tonics for me is to share with you excerpts from my two books set on the island I love, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and its sequel,Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. Whether it’s Sifnos that you’re pining for or somewhere else in Greece, or if your heart yearns for a destination far from there, come along with me through the whitewashed alleys, into the homey tavernas, and across the ancient marbled paths through the hills of this magical isle. And please invite someone else to come along with us all. I will post these excerpts over the next while in no particular sequence, making as my selection the one that most speaks to me that day.

 

From: The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle

I’ve stretched myself over a warm slab of marble at the shore. Sunlight is strutting warm steps over my skin, quiet ripples are washing almost over my toes.

I’ve been here quite still for some considerable time now. But despite appearances, I’m alert and I have a mission today. My camera is beside me and my eyes and ears primed to catch every bit of action in this tiny fishing village.

There’s something that has niggled for the two years since I was last here. It’s what might have been. What should have been. What I missed that day while I stood not far from this very spot and the memory still stings.

 

I remember exactly how it happened. I’d pulled out my camera, switched to a wide-angle lens, and set up the tripod. I’d checked the direction of the sun, tried several angles. This shot I was going to get right.

The photo I did that day, I must admit, is beautiful. The curving sweep of the bay. Rich turquoise, perfect whites. Dusty earth tones. Fluffy clouds. That wee splash of red. The light that dances over it all and permits me, were I so inclined, to count every rock on the sea bed.

But this is all small consolation. So intent was I in that moment that I paid scant attention to the commotion and shouts from somewhere out of sight below. An argument of some sort, I gathered.

“Where were you?” Jim asked when he caught up with me later. “I was sure that was something you’d want to shoot.”

The man we’d watched earlier check over his fresh-painted boat, he told me, had decided it was ready to be launched and had managed somehow to gather all the men and boys of the village, every available bit of Xeronissan manpower, onto the lone corner of beach that I couldn’t see from my angle. They rolled the craft over a bed of logs and heaved it into the water. It was then that one saw his chance. A quick shove, some splashes and the game was on. The hollering, the laughter, the male jostling, the banter. The ritual as old, almost, as the sea itself. And I, with my nose in my camera, missed it all.

That day I made myself a new rule. Never – NEVER! – Ignore a Disturbance. Not in a village this size.

 

Today I hear no laughter. No disturbance stirs the air inside this cleft in the rock. No shouts cut into the calm. The only thing that could possibly be considered as action consists of shards of light jiggling across the hull of a thick-white-painted boat. That and a lone fisherman who is standing mid-deck near his craft’s small cabin, one foot on the rail. He’s been there the whole while and, with strong sun-browned arms, is pulling a length of yellow net onto his knee from the stern where about two-thirds of it lies. As he does, he runs quick fingers over the net, wooden floats clacking on the deck. If all is well, he nestles the section in question atop the tidy and growing pile in the bow, and more net follows in its wake. If not, if he finds a tangle, he untwirls this part. Minute-by-minute – clack – bit-by-bit – clack, clack, clack – centimetre-by-centimetre, the net travels from the back  – clack, clack – of the boat to the front where tonight just after sunset, once more he will cast it into the deep and then near dawn haul it back in.

As I watch, quiet voices begin to float toward me from behind one of the farther boats. Earlier I saw three elderly couples, Xeronissos’s other visitors today, totter along the beach. More than one used a cane. Now they’ve slipped into the water, their ailments abandoned on the sand beside piles of their clothing, and they loll like lazy teenagers atop the silky water. A few giggles, some sighs. What more blessed place could there be for a swim?

Farther out in the bay, wooden boats float on water so clear they seem to be anchored in mid-air. So clear that even to eyes as myopic as mine, every pebble, every barnacle, every limpet, every black spiny urchin is there in plain view for anyone who stops to look down. I rouse myself enough to tally the little red fish and then to follow the grey ones with stripes on their bellies. Some I can’t count, the great swarms that one instant are massed together, then       – WHOOSH! – they’ve darted away.

Jim’s finished at Agios Giorgios, the church atop the hill at the end of the island where he went for a walk, I see when I glance in that direction, and has started back down the path. That gives me only about ten minutes still. I pick up my camera. Perhaps if I watch more closely, the fish will organize themselves into a pleasing array. Or one lone sunbeam will point to a beautifully barnacled rock. Or, if I’m lucky, an octopus may swim headfirst in front of my lens, tentacles trailing behind.

To be honest, though, pointing my lens waterward is all for show and it’s the fisherman I’ve been angling for. My guess is that by now he’s decided I’m harmless and, if I ask, will allow a photograph. I lift my camera in his direction, arch my eyebrows and I’m right. He nods. I line up the angles and check the sun. Click. I thank him. Efharistó.

Clack, clack. Clack. Clack.

It’s no Photo of the Year, not even my year, but I feel sure that I’ve caught Xeronissos’s main act of today.

Jim emerges from between two houses and starts down toward the shore. There’s a lilt to his step. Clack. I’m hardly surprised. There’s little my husband loves more than the freedom to ramble. Soon he’s beside me and breaks into a smile, one that I know well.

“Do you want to go to a wedding?”

“Pardon me?”

“Just answer. Do you want to go to a wedding? Sunday at five.”

Yes, he’s definitely pleased with himself.

 

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon to be read on Kindle or your other device, or as a paperback. When things are more normal again, please support your favourite independent bookseller and other small shops and their owners near you.

Stages of Reality: Travel-Planning 2020

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Does this mean our plans to go to Greece, to our beloved island Sifnos this spring, could be dashed? was the first thought I remember having when the reality of the coronavirus , this Covid 19, started to bite. They can’t be. They just can’t.

I need this vacation. Really need it, is what I thought next. And then … We’ll get there. Somehow.

Those thoughts, of course, were all about me. Now, thankfully, I’ve come to see it quite differently than all that. We will not go to Sifnos as planned. There’s no longer any question about that. And that’s how it should be. How it must be. The very best thing for us all.

It’s interesting to look back on how my thinking has evolved over the last weeks. The stages of reality, travel-planning-2020 style, I call them. 

After a few days of stewing in my own disappointments, thoughts of others began to creep in, about those who depend for so much of their livelihoods on the arrival of visitors like me. These people have always treated me like family and I couldn’t, just couldn’t, desert them now. 

But finally, when all began to come into better focus, I saw something else. How selfish it would be of me to go right now. There’s so much more that everyone everywhere needs to worry about now, and imposing oneself on others needlessly would be wrong. Tourism for now will have to wait.

I had a dream once that something I’d done had so offended the people of Sifnos that the next time I arrived on the ferry, an angry, picket-sign-wielding crowd sent me fleeing on that very boat back to Athens. After I recovered from the shock of that dream, I came to see it as so funny because the smiles and hugs and genuine welcomes I’m always treated to from my very first steps onto Sifnian soil are almost beyond belief. Now though, I see it so differently. In the current atmosphere, such signs would be well justified. Anyone from anywhere else and the possibility that they might bring with them this vile virus that is sweeping the world is a justifiably frightening prospect, especially in such a small and isolated place as that.

Greeks are famed for filoxenia, their long-standing cultural obligation to treat strangers as treasured guests. But lesser-known is that filoxenia also places obligations on the guests. They must be respectful, courteous to the host and take pains not to be a burden. So now is the time for all of us, lovers of Greece and those planning their first trip to discover why we fuss about this place so much, to return in kind the filoxenia that has so enriched our lives. It’s time for us to stay home. For now. Until all of this has been properly sorted out.

I read a Facebook post last week by the Sifnian author, Daphne Kapsali. As usual she talks about her island more authoritatively than I, for she lives there year-round, and so eloquently, for she’s a gifted writer.

DON’T COME NOW! is her message. Don’t even consider it.

DON’T BRING THIS VIRUS TO OUR ISLAND. To any other. Or to anywhere in Greece. We don’t even have hospitals on small islands like ours. STAY PUT. WAIT IT OUT. 

PLEASE!!!

You can read Daphne’s post here.

Or if you can’t access it through that link, her words are below. Read them. Please!

 “This is my first and, hopefully, my only post on the coronavirus, and it’s largely a plea to anyone considering travelling to Sifnos (or any of the smaller Greek islands in a similar situation). I am never one for fear-mongering, and those of you who know me know that I’m always more likely to point out the positive side of any situation, and make a joke of anything that can be joked about. But there is nothing funny in all of this at all.

I write this as a permanent, all-year-round resident, who has become hyper aware of how a health crisis will affect a medical support system that struggles to cope with serious incidents even under normal circumstances. Please understand this: we do not have the resources to respond to a coronavirus outbreak. We do not have the facilities to test for the virus, nor to care for serious cases. There is no testing centre anywhere closer than Athens, and the boats serving us are as sporadic as ever. Anyone showing symptoms will have to either travel to Athens and hope to be tested and treated at the already overwhelmed hospitals there, or stay put and take their chances. We cannot hope to avoid contamination altogether, but our only chance is to only have a few, mild cases within the low-risk, healthier part of the population. Our saving grace, our relative isolation, will be immediately cancelled out if you – anyone – brings this thing in, and the consequences will be dire. PLEASE do not think of Sifnos (or your island of choice) as a safe haven to escape the virus; think of it as a place that needs to be protected from contamination, and DO NOT take the risk of being the one to bring it in. Even if you feel healthy. Even if you feel scared. We are not talking about freedom of movement here: we are talking about human lives. PLEASE stay put in your cities, where they are better equipped to cope, and wait it out. We are now each of us responsible for not just ourselves, but for others; potentially countless of others. Do not think individually, think collectively, think globally. Or, if individual works better for you: imagine if you’re the one to show symptoms whilst on a small island where treatment is non-existent. Put yourself in that situation, and stay safe. Stay put. Wait it out. Please. — in Sífnos.”

Daphne Kapsali                                                                                                                               Author of 100 Days of Solitude, and so much more

As for me, I’m hoping now for Sifnos in the fall. As a friend, another lover of Sifnos, always says, Inshallah, the Arabic expression for “If God is willing.”

Inshallah indeed.

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.

 

The Storms Come

SONY DSC“Batten down the hatches,” I read a couple of days ago on a post by one of my Facebook friends. “Storm force winds forecast for Sifnos on Monday. Beaufort 10.”

10! My heart leapt. I have some sense of what Sifnos is like with winds of almost such strength and, as this friend has lived there for a few years, he understands much better than I. At his house they’ve charged the batteries, he said, stored water and made sure their small camping stove has plenty of gas. He’s moved his neighbours’ flower pots and, I’m betting, checked how many candles they have on hand. 

On the Beaufort scale, every movement of air, from a wee puff to a sustained hurricane along with its attendant effects, fits into one of its categories from 0 to 12. The higher the number, the stronger it is. Winds at force 10, the scale states, are seldom experienced on land and would lead to considerable structural damage and broken or uprooted trees. At sea, well, you can imagine. The forecast for Monday’s storm – I checked – calls for waves up to 5 metres high. Little wonder that the Sifnos radio station is broadcasting the following bits of advice: don’t go out of your homes … watch out for flooding … secure everything you have outdoors … batteries … flashlights … clear drainage gutters at your home. I checked, too, the wind direction to see who on the island I needed to worry about the most.

I’ve been on Sifnos during force 9 winds before. The first time, my husband and I were actually scheduled to be on our way to Piraeus right then. But in weather like that, the ferries all stay in port, and it was on that day we learned in concrete terms how wise it is to always plan at least one day in Athens before a flight home. I learned, too, that there is almost literally nowhere on the island where you can escape from a Beaufort 9 wind and even the snug house we were staying in had cracks that it found. When we did go outside, I struggled mightily to stand upright, and the vehicle we were in rocked and rolled. It felt almost as if the island itself was threatening to come unmoored. These photographs are ones I managed to take on that day. Less than twenty-four hours later, the weather had calmed down a lot, the ferry arrived and we were on our way. 

SONY DSC

Sifnos, this small chunk of rock in the middle of the sea, has through the ages endured countless storms and it will survive this one. Hopefully with a minimum of harm. May it, in these days of modern communications that connect its friends around the world, feel less alone.

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.

 

 

An Octopus and a Bird

P1100613An octopus caught a bald eagle in a death grip, a headline I saw last week blared forth.  

My eyes flew open. Wide. It was its subtitle that grabbed me the most. Thanks to some salmon farmers, the eagle survived.

There are no new stories, it is said often by those who think about such things. Oh, the details may change but at their essence, it’s the same stories that are told over and over and over again. If ever I needed proof of this saying, that headline was it. You see, I was told the almost identical tale some years ago. The only real difference, it seemed, was that instead of the Pacific off Canada’s Vancouver Island with the eagle and the salmon farmers, the earlier version took place on the island of Sifnos in Greece’s Aegean Sea.

If you’ve spent much time in Heronissos, as I have, that island’s tiniest and arguably most picturesque fishing village, you will likely have noticed a lone seagull that flies in every day around noon. Every time I’m there, I make sure to watch for it and it never disappoints. It soars in most times from behind the hills across from my favourite taverna, then circles in a series of ever-lower concentric rings that mimic the shape of the bay, and drops itself finally and softly onto the water, causing barely a plop or even a ripple. Then it sits there in its coat of the purest white, turning its head regally this way and that, holding court. The King of Heronissos, I often call him.

P1050764      P1100609

He actually has a real name, a proper Greek one – Sotiris. It’s the one that the family who owns the taverna has given him, the people he knows will feed him every day as they’ve been doing for years now. We’ve become quite fond of this bird, my husband and I, and when I heard the story that Antonis, the taverna’s owner, could barely wait to tell us our first day back on the island after many months away, my heart leapt. An octopus caught a regal seagull in a death grip might properly be its headline.

It’s fish guts that Antonis feeds Sotiris, the remains from whatever bakaliaro, barbouni or kalamari he’s just cleaned to prepare it for cooking. Clearly, to the bird these are a treat. If you watch him closely, you’ll see that he’s always alert to the sounds from inside, and at the first hint of the tsssssrt, tsssssrt, tsssssrt as a knife scrapes scales from skin or the clunk of a blade on the chopping block, he swims over to the dock that fronts the taverna, near enough that were he to permit it, I could easily reach out and stroke his feathers. He knows that shortly Antonis will walk to the dock’s edge, stand poised for a minute, then toss the prized morsels high in the air. In that instant, a mighty flap of his wings follows and he catches what he can in mid-air. Whatever he misses, he grabs it from atop the water before it can sink into its depths.

P1130840 The day of this story, as the fishy bits hit the water, an octopus went for them too. Before you knew it, its tentacles were wrapped around Sotiris and had him in … well, a death grip. A series of fearsome squawks arose from the bird and Antonis, fully clothed, jumped into the waist-high water to help. But, as strong as he is, his efforts were not enough. Another man jumped in behind him and together they battled and in time set the bird free. “Poor Sotiris,” Antonis said. “I thought he was at his end.” Even now, as we were hearing this story some months after, Sotiris remembered. More tentative than I’d ever seen before, he’d circle and circle longer than usual above the water and scan its clear depths before he’d venture to land. As for the octopus, I’ve forgotten some of the details, but I do recall being told that on that fateful night he became someone’s supper. 

Little wonder then, with that story in my background, that the headline for the British Columbia story caught my eye. Naturally,  I began to read right away. A team of salmon farmers were returning from work in their boat when they came upon a full-sized eagle submerged in the water, and a giant octopus trying to drag it down. They watched for a bit. It was heart-wrenching to see, one of the men told the reporter, but they were unsure if it was right to intervene or whether they ought to leave nature to do what it does. They debated this way and that for about five minutes and in the end, their collective kindness won out. As the boat inched in closer to help, one of the men began to video the scene.  

The Pacific version of the story was all quite a sedate affair, I saw right away as I began to watch, at least the videoed part. The eagle was sitting quietly atop the water – no shrieks from him – and the octopus was draped like a cozy pink scarf over and around his shoulders. No fuss, no battle, and it was soon all over. A crewman reached over with a long hooked pole, tugged gently on one of those eight tentacles, the sea creature released his grip and the bird swam away. 

But the salmon farmers were not quite finished yet. The man with the hook hoisted the octopus high and they all oohed and aahed at its massive size. In the end, though, its fate, at least in that moment, was a happy one too. You might say it was his great good fortune that day to be Canadian, not Greek.

The video: An octopus caught a bald eagle in a death grip

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.

 

My Own Greek Bookshelf

P1150546What is it about Greece that so inspires writers, always has? With Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it’s where the very idea of literature in the western world began. The Histories by Herodotus came, relatively speaking, not long after and in the centuries since then, this muse has infected countless others. Some like Cavafy and Kazantzakis were of Greek heritage, others became so enamoured with what they’d encountered on their travels that they had no choice, really, but to put pen to paper.

I’m one of those. On my first visit a dozen or so years ago, the island of Sifnos took a firm hold on my heart and the result is my two books, The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, as well as this blog. Up until then, I’d never ever considered myself a book author. Now I am one. What I’d never expected is how many wonderful, interesting, passionate people from all corners of the globe my writings about Sifnos would bring into my life. Ekaterina Botziou from the UK is one. She’s a go-getter, an eclectic sort and when she posted a video recently on her Youtube channel. “What’s on My Greek Bookshelf” and included my two books on it, well, I was thrilled. “A beautifully written travel memoir,” she called The Chronicles. “Nicely paced,” she went on. “Funny and quirky,” all of which, of course, made my writer’s heart soar. Chronicles 2, she said, “carries on in the same vein, with so much more fun.”

Ekaterina’s video got me to thinking about my own collection of books about Greece and when I went to my shelves and tallied them up, it was many more than I imagined. There were the guidebooks that started me off on this grand adventure, among them Frommer’s Greek Islands and a well-thumbed copy of The Cyclades: Discovering the Greek Islands of the Aegean. A Greek phrasebook/dictionary, Learn Greek Without a Teacher, plus Instant Greek and the more realistic Learn Greek in 25 Years. A copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin whose movie version convinced from its first scenes that this country needed to be in my future. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill, a title that springs to mind every time the ferry I’m on is on is sailing in or out of Piraeus. A new book in 2019, Eye, by Marianne Micros, a collection of short stories exploring the mythology, folklore, Greek culture and old-world customs that have fascinated her all her life. This book was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s top book prizes and, as she lives near me and her writing and mine have brought us together in person several times, I was extra thrilled.

Sadly, I never met Lawrence Durrell. I would have liked that. He sends me into fits of guffaws while I’m reading The Greek Islands, which a thoughtful friend gave me as a gift to celebrate my own first book launch. I of course never met J. Theodore Bent either whose 1885 account of his archaeological expeditions in The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks was recently reprinted. Though I feared a book so old was likely to be filled with dusty, impenetrable prose, it was anything but and I could practically see the author’s raised eyebrows as he told of the cure he’d observed on one island for a dreaded childhood illness. If summoning the priest and scratching the child with her fingernails didn’t do the trick, the mother was to go down to the shore and at sunset gather forty round stones brought up by forty different waves, take them home, boil them in vinegar and wait for the cock to crow, upon which the evil phantom would disappear and the child would be left whole. I’m sure that he, Lawrence, and I, keen and respectful observers all but not above a chuckle at what looks odd to our outsiders’ eyes, would share a good laugh at that tale. Ekaterina too. She likes to have fun. As for Marianne, she’d be off, I’m betting, to write another tale.

Then there are my books from Sifnos. There’s the Sifnos Cyclades: Tourist Guides, my first purchase ever bought in the island’s bookshop. I consider this book a treasure because I did meet its author, the late and distinguished historian and teacher Antonis Troullos, quite unexpectedly one morning as I was walking past his house in Apollonia when he invited me in and showed off his shelf-full of books that “I write about my island.” I treasure too Traditional Recipes of Sifnos by Ronia Anastassiadou, a collection “of the most characteristic dishes of Sifnos, the way they were described by old housewives and men with a good relationship with the kitchen.” It is, as she hoped, a book I open often, one that has taught me to make revithia, caper salad and I hope will give me a good relationship with the pasteli I plan to try as a Christmas gift this year. Another one I love, both the book and its author, is 100 Days of Solitude by Daphne Kapsali. In it, she set out to discover if she was actually a writer and whether she could survive on this small island after the tourists had gone home. Definitively yes, on both counts and I always look so forward to seeing her whenever I arrive. Ronia, too.

And these are only the beginning, really, of the books about Greece that I own. There is Maeve Binchy’s Nights of Rain and Stars which our Canadian travel agent, after she’d booked our flights that first time, insisted we had to read. One that I’ve discovered since then, The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi. I’ll need to make room for more of this author’s as she opens a window into a side of Greek island life so different from the one I’ve experienced. I’ll need space too for a book of photographs from Sifnos of past, my next planned purchase at the Sifnos book store, and a novel an author on a nearby island has promised me he has underway.

There will be, I sense, more shelf-building in my future. More writing too. This muse is a powerful one.

Ekaterina Botziou’s What’s on My Greek Bookshelf (You’ll find my books at the 12-minute mark.)

Follow Ekaterina’s Youtube Channel

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.

After the Panagyri

P1130545The 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.