What does it smell like? I say as we bump into each other in Athens. Swishing across the street one way or another. It’s all chemical and noise.
Smells and sounds travel. They echo back what happened. The last night on the island had jasmine drifting in to bless us through the kitchen window. Such island noises are varied; sheep bleeting, the sweeping of stairs, the ruins of time, the hum burr of the petulant motorbike. But the city is monotone – even in smell. I long for carpet, fabric to muffle and peel down the timbre. The slams and creaks above and below a voice talking in an accent that isn’t mine through the walls like a vapour.
Others like us and others not gather and gaggle, gawping eyes and opening doors designer clothes scent sunglasses mirrored to reflect the gravity keeping the rest of us away. Squawking Monastiraki gleams and stinks at night, first rains of autumn, this new season shines, loosening a slick of filth into the blocked drains. Too late I say. For us. To leave.
Isn’t that what we share with the sounds and smells? Not belonging. The wrong time, wrong country – wrong skin full of bones that don’t fit and clunk as we run. Heavy weight of bags trapping shoulders making welts. Cohen on repeat. Lost.
Winter not even in the shadows but people out before it reaches them in the last cold water flats and empty furnaces. Platia Iroon fills with Greeks wearing seasonal clothes; boots shining new and long trousers hemmed, light sweaters. Everyone else is flip flopping in the dirty puddles shorts and sheen sweat faces. Holiday. Snap.
This city is full of fools don’t let anyone tell you about the crisis while sipping fine 5euro coffee. They rebuild. Abandoned is an idea being swept out with lost people making room for stainless steel shower heads and slender chairs of honeyed wood. Air. Pay to breathe it. B&B. This is for the rich.
Smoke car fumes in my eyes looking like I’ve been crying. City snot. So far from home the kid shouts bedding down in doorways with the funk unwashed stink of lost. Countries or fixed ideas. What good did they do for anyone? Half here half there we don’t draw lines or marks in sand to say much of anything. Better to drift than pledge allegiance to something solid, cruel, broken. Sit in your tower and holler.
Yet I’m watching us pile into the plane seats, scent of adventure and neon plastic, caught in the idea of how many leave never to return. Land in Luton like me but not; with new lives and jobs to go. Using up freedoms holding hands packing big suitcases with everything they won’t ever need. Just in time to open and let the last smell of home reach them.
“How have we just finished lunch and snoozed on the beach and it’s now time for the sun to set?”
“Welcome to my world” I am laughing as if there was some explanation to offer of why M’s vacation here on this Island has flown by.
I cannot explain why time seems to pass differently here, why it is a world that is punctuated by meals where we share everything and our arms touch as they reach across plates and tables, and wine glasses are always full, and sleep is sound and deep, adventures offer themselves up and the blue sea of swimming is broken by wandering and wondering. And talking…oh how we talked, and talked. Thank you M. for visiting. That is exactly what a vacation should be – a letting go of time and how it dominates our lives.
Then I think oh, I’m not on vacation all the time and feel that pang of guilt and regret. Time works it’s magic on me as I chide myself for incomplete projects and self-imposed deadlines. Time has ran away from me… When Autumn winks in the distance with it comes that back to school feeling in the air and a slower reflective pace arrives to the island as it quietens. ‘What have you done?’ even the trees seem to whisper.
Island days ebb and flow as they steal hours, squashing in blank spaces of time spent doing and not doing, measured out by sunsets hurtling the orange light into the darkening sea before us. Days ripening the grapes, mouldering the figs, pears softening too soon as autumn yellows at the edges of summer. Maybe that explains why Ancient Greeks had different Gods and different words for time. Chronos is sequential clock time measured out against a dial and Kiaros is the moment of time, not a measure but a way of seeing the right opportunity of time. Then Aion represented the everlasting eternity of the Greek Cosmos. In some ways these concepts explained humanity’s place in a temporal world but they can’t explain where a week or day dissapears!
Humans are obsessed with time. How long does time feel when waiting? How fast does time seem to fly when in the midst of things? Why are we counting time and yet mourn its passing? Is it not easier to just live as opportunity in Kiaros, breathe it in and let it pass when things are panicked and packed with activities, or lingering in moments being ‘present’ with our ‘best-selves’ (whatever that means).
Despite this, it has been a happy few weeks of time out, friends and family visitors – all lovely as I have journeyed around and taken lots of ferry rides, been a tourist and eaten in a lot of tavernas. I appreciate the way that showing people around gives me a new perspective as well. Inspired again by the why; why we stay, why we are drawn back, why there are still mysteries and so much to learn.
Often I have found myself comfortably walking on a wild hill thinking I belong to nothing, to no-one. When people suddenly arrive and remind me where I do belong and they call me back into the roles I inhabit, those I feel comfort in, standing next to them, holding hands, talking endlessly without apology or worry. It reminds me that home is not about places, it is about people. Despite the wishful Kiaros, time is not about what you show for the hours, but becomes about what you take from it. Perhaps that’s enough to keep me going when there is nothing else to offer up.
As the summer slips slowly from your grasp may it keep you warm through the coldest of winters.
I haven’t posted anything for a while. I have no excuses to add to that sentence. I have lived instead. Not lived in that righteous way one would proclaim loudly from the top of a mountain, in a yoga pose and hashtag in a way that grants meaning only in this time period (and on that note I’m positive historians will have a lot to say about now). I just mean lived as in existed in a regular line of unformed days and routines. In shadow and in light. Hesitant, steady and factual.
Yesterday something magical happened. Ordinary non-magic things happened too. I returned to work peeling through the unread emails in my inbox, lying unchecked for over a week. I hear you work-harder‘s try-harder’s gasp at the shock of switching off. Yes, my out of office note meant what it said this time. I know I am better for it. For 9 days I was alone with no jibber jabber office chatter to distract. We had taken off on a North Aegean adventure – out to Samos, stopping onto Ikaria and then to Fournoi. Each island very different in both personality and place.
But before I get to all of that, yesterday I met an octopus. Here in Kini, after all that travelling around and swimming, and sipping ouzo. Here it was just bobbing in the deep end of the bay. I swam my usual lap next to the buoy line and was just half way back when through my goggles I saw something move on the bottom of the sea. It was the colour of sand blobbing across the milky silt of the ocean floor, a master of disguise and trickery. The octopus pondered and hesitantly curled its tentacles around the rope which holds the buoys in order bobbing like a military parade. Its movements were swift, probably panicked thinking of his Kalamari friend’s fate after he noticed my huge human shadow. I think we shared a moment even though I had to keep bobbing up for lungfuls of new air. Eventually he (or she – how do you tell?) was bored of showing me his twirling tentacles and in mere seconds he went from a blobbing mass to become streamlined as a rocket as he shot off into the depths.
I felt awestruck and amazed having never seen one before just wildly swimming around. All I could think about was can you hold an octopus? Would he be soft and slippery or calm and weighted? Could you have an octopus like a pet? Are octopus our loved ones reincarnated?
So the holiday. First stop Karlovassi, the old port town of Samos, we slinked off the boat smugly with our small backpacks – which did actually get bigger over the week. We disappeared into the port crowds to board a bus to Samos Town that waits for the often late arrival of the Nissos Mykonos. The bus sidles its engine and crawls next to a beach strewn with sun-loungers and bathing bodies lying on the pebble town beach. Old Karlovassi appears before us like time-bending feat of both renewal and abandon. Concrete skeletons of dreams jostle for space alongside glorious venetian mansions, resplendent reminders of the town’s fortunes once made in the tobacco and tanning trade, time may have passed but a different version of the trade still remain in operation – suntan and cigarettes. A few package hotels sit on front as we pass holidaymakers carrying plastic inflatables. Further up the coast things get more interesting as terracotta roofed warehouses crumble empty at the shoreline, we pass fields of vegetables and tiny wooden houses. The odd caravan parked under a pine tree. Once off the coastal road, for sale signs jostle with resort signs and jewellery shops, then underneath the waving banner of the TUI smile the busses cause an impasse on the road forcing the KTEL driver to wait while the ‘island tour’ finishes its pick up.
Samos Castle Church
The road looks as if it cuts straight through the pine forest slicing the branches out to the deep blue sea as the bus takes the hairpin bends snaking across the coast. It is impossible to mention Samos without mentioning refugees – it is a fact that 3,000 remain on the island in an overcrowded camp outside Vathy. The refugees are not forgotten, they are hidden. Islands like Samos and Lesvos sit at the front line and are woefully far from the hearts and minds of the rest of Europe. I understand only a little of the complexities and more needs to be done. You cannot pretend their lives are worth less than others. Parts of Samos they want you to notice; the view azure seas stretching out to Turkey, the white sand beaches and awe inspiring lush valleys. But shyly look away at the broken down cars rusting at the side of the road, the piles of rubbish uncollected, the widow dressed in black bending in the field collecting melons in a sack, the staring eyes of the man on the porch as we, the bus full of gawpers, go on our way. Eyeline to washing lines as the bus dawdles in Kokkari.
Changing buses in Vathy is a doddle, the driver tells us to wait for the next one and we mill around the pavement cafe that passes for a bus station. The capital of the island leans out across one long sweeping harbour, a tumble and jumble of buildings is various states of distress and rebirth. Fashion stores, kafenions and slick coffee places line up. It is eerily quiet in the mid afternoon slumber hours when stores are closed; a town in wait yet to wake. If ever.
When the bus turns up we are joined by teenagers pointing at a poster for a music festival in a town beyond Pythagorion where we are headed; the ticket man walks down the aisle while the teenagers ask him questions in different accented versions of English. Some are scrolling through their phones trying to show him the address of the hotel complex they need to find. He is patient with us all, even the irate women who seems upset at having to get the bus at all. She who threw her hands up exasperated when the bus showed up 3 minutes past the hour it was due. Not quite understanding this was on time for Greece. The bus whisks us along another new surfaced road and then we reach Pythagorion – I quickly name it, the land time forgot, or time the land forgot. But don’t see that as me casting a criticism, I celebrate it. Perfection in a long street leading to the harbour jumbled with shops selling every touristic item you may ever desire – bakeries, ice cream parlours, artisan wineries. At the harbour yachts and day trip boats are lined up bobbing in the blue hour after sunset when the lilac light sweeps across the sky. The chatter of waiters and bar staff waiting to greet you, see what you like, take a look at the menu they wink and preen. Pretty teenagers employed to entice you in. An excursion boat has a pet kid-goat on the hull which makes me feel sad more than anything – but I see a fisherman slicing open fish and tossing pieces to the cats around him which seems to redeem the scene. We stay for 3 nights in a tiny hotel up at the back of town opposite the Archeological Museum, which is worth a visit.
Away from the harbour at night, we pick out tavernas and gorged on feasts like kings. All the classics, we say, tucking to lamb kleftiko, moussakas, souvlaki. Local Samos wine from the barrel. The chatter of tourists and transactional comfort you find in touristy places is fun. The voices are mostly Dutch, German, Italian, a few English but not many Greek visitors at all. I must say, compared to Syros when you often find non-Greeks in the minority of visitors, it kind of makes a nice change.
Samos reminded me of the long resigned to history ‘Holidays in Greece’. I half expected Judith Chalmers to pop out. The place that still has a perpetually mid-90s vibe, timeless tavernas with mama’s cooking and shops selling friendship bracelets where everyone has a smile and a welcome for you. The island was an early adopter of the tourism boom with its long sandy, pine forests and azure seas it had all the natural assets. And thankfully still does have them. We stayed in a busy area but seems to handle its influx of visitors well so never feels crowded, beaches have free sunloungers even in the peak of mid-afternoon. Unlike Syros, with its smaller beaches and relative land size, can feel crowded in peak summer. After all isn’t that why I’m here again and again, bitten by some bug that there is no cure. It is deeper than the superficiality of a holiday. It’s something in the wilderness of the land itself, no matter what dreams have been built upon it since, there remains an essence something wilder, maybe the ghosts of mythic legends like Hera and Aesop.
We swim in strangeley chilly water with soft white sand under our toes and walk up into the hills. Visiting the Eupalinos Tunnels we find ourselves awestruck at how they managed such an intrepid engineering feat in the 6th Century BC of Polycrates reign to build a complex aqueduct. Over walkways perched over 50ft gaps in tunnels that scale 2kms into the hills, it’s not for the nervous or feint hearted. It’s worth visiting on a guided tour, which they offer several every day. On the way we visit the cave that houses the Spillia Pangia. Here our breath steams visible in the cold cave air. Walking outside again was like stepping off an aeroplane in a new country when the heat and humidity hits you and your glasses steam up squinting in the sunlight.
Panagia Spilliani (the church of virgin mary in the cave)
When night fell towns in the distance appeared and twinkled as heat rose from the trees. Oh the trees! Giving off that distinct sugary burnt scent of pine as the wind blew its sticky way towards us. The headlights in the distance swooped and swung around bends spinning into dark green ravines where lights were shielded until another bend revealed them once more – each dip a dark place on the road we didn’t know. But under each twinkling, I could learn the difference between the lights on the land – fixed on streets and things made by man, waving outside houses creating ghosts and shadows, and the moving lights of cars, mopeds, taxis and busses. It made me think about how islands can be a muse inspiring little creative moments.
There’s a long history of literature and music being inspired by Greece. Songs like So Long Marianne – written on Hydra for the gilded muse waiting in the wings holding a plateful of barbiturates for Leonard Cohen. There is a new Nick Broomfield documentary out now, Marianne and Leonard. I haven’t seen it yet but want to, as it examines the relationship between them on Hydra where the counter-culture literati gathered in the 1960s. A time that transformed him from a little-known fiction writer into a world famous songwriter and how Marianne plays (by choice or otherwise) the role of muse to Cohen’s creativity. Although Hydra has changed since Cohen’s time, softened by the layers of change and progress, it cannot be preserved in aspic.
But maybe some of the magic Cohen famously wrote about in these lines still remains;
Greece is a good place
to look at the moon, isn’t it?
You can read by moonlight
You can read on the terrace
You can see a face
As you saw it when you were young
Greek Islands are fascinating because of their quiet contradictions, and not in spite of them. Political, industrial and agricultural changes, discarded life-vests on the shore and the financial need for a tourist filled summer, a village of crumbling stone houses, a pristine infinity pool and an instagram pose on painted blue chairs against a whitewashed wall, wild valleys and deep ravines. Churches and wilderness. Crisis and hedonism.
These near-uninhabitable jutting rocks of islands can never an absolute place. They end up being a place that exists in different versions, more so for the people that live there than the people that pass through as visitors. Yet they still come to bask in the light, the beauty, the kind words of people, the food, the wilderness, the lifeline it provides. The whisper of ghosts along the way.
I was in Sifnos back in April. Even now as the wings of summer have opened and danced rays of golden honey warmth across the longer days, to me now that feels a long time ago. A lifetime ago in which I had a persistent cold and snotty nose that wouldn’t budge and a penchant for wearing socks in bed. Both afflictions have thankfully been cured by summer’s eventual arrival. It took a while didn’t it? And No, Sorry I Can’t Keep Talking About The Rain In The UK – it is awful. I know. I know! Everyday I wake up to sun here I do a little sun salutation vinyassa and give Greece a mental and sometimes physical, high-five of thankfullness. It is indeed the small things that make a difference.
So Sifnos was a place we’d wanted to visit for ages. Some call it the perfect Greek Island, a timeless place of mystery and charm. Great for hiking, cultural events, pottery, rural valleys, charming towns, culinary delights – it did not disappoint at all. In fact going there in April before Easter was perhaps what made it really special, places just had a kind-of-shrugging-off-the-winter feel. Everywhere we went was coolly quiet and calm, some places were just opening up, laying out chairs and sweeping off the dead leaves, chasing out the ghosts of winter. As the ferry shunted into Kamares port, the flowers were in bloom and hills were green, the island was lush and inviting after all the rain.
We, of course, went there for the hiking which was top class. Well signposted, cleared trails of a wide variety of distances to beaches, churches and inland valleys. Particular mentions are deserved for the old path to Agios Sostis past the ancient bronze and gold mines, which now seems to be home to no-one else apart from colonies of goats. This beautiful view cascades down a steep path and out to a barren landscape where a church is just perched right on the rocky edge of land, lapped by the frothing sea. Naturally death defying for me to walk down and had to scrunch down a survival cheese pasty in the shade of the church before making it back up the steep hill. But the weather was cool and the rewards were empty trails and timeless Greek island scenery.
We loved exploring the Kastro after the walk to the waterfall which was in full flow. I imagine walks like these are much different in high summer, but at least then you get rewarded with swimming. The church of the seven martyrs was also spectacular as it perched out on rocky precipice with a winding path connecting it to the land. I imagine the streets of Kastro get a bit crowded in summer but in April some cafes and bars were open, but not all. Climbing back to Apollonia along a beautifully preserved stone trail – which passed by ancient olive groves and terraces dotted with falling down houses. This was my hiking heaven. I am now obsessed with pigeon houses and Dovecotes, I dream of renovating one into a tiny house.
Also – the food! Revithia (chick pea soup), Sardines, Horta – local cheese with figs – after all the exercise (and my snuffling ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ approach) it meant we tried a few of the foodie places too – despite very quiet evenings we ate early at Cayanne, a little pricey but amazing food. Well put together and as a treat, seemed worth it. Wild salad leaves with strawberries in a balsamic cream, caper dip and bifteki stuffed with cheese.
We ate one night at Kafenion Drakakis – a place that had been in the village since 1860 and as tradition dictates still serves meze and ouzo. The small room and courtyard had been recently redecorated but the ephemera of its history still adorned the walls. Black and white photos of men gathered around tables and images of the island scenery long before the holiday houses were built. Modern art and rembetiko music jostle for diners attention. Places like this are becoming popular -making new traditions out of old; one foot in the past, a nod to their history and one foot in the future; whitewashed chairs, locally sourced seasonal dishes and bottles of craft beer. The difference is simple in who they are serving it to. Those men who drank here are long gone, as is the small island rural economy that sustained them. In order to survive people and places have to adapt and it won’t ever be to everyone taste or price range. I get a bit sad to admit it, but no Greek Island can ever be timeless.
I really do like Sifnos. I can see why people love it and visit again, although it is starting to get a reputation as a place where the very chic international jet-set go, (that’s just not my interest or price-range) it still retains a unique charm which I found beautifully inspiring and atmospheric. It certainly wasn’t beach weather so all the renowned beaches like Platis Yialos stayed unexplored for us. So maybe we will have to return in summer! But this notion is the same for any Greek Island (in fact any destination). Anywhere you’d describe as idyllic and serene won’t necessarily be anywhere near that in August. But I really liked its rural feel and traditional life – farmers out herding goats and travelling by mule along the old paths.
We stayed in Apollonia in a little studio complex where the lady brought us Greek coffee and homemade biscuits when we arrived. It was a great central place to just wander and explore with no real plan. Through Pano Petali, Kato Petali and Artemonas, the villages that just blend into one another as you wander. Small cafes on squares and churches on every corner. The locals often said hello and everyone seemed friendly, like the older ladies we saw painting the outlines of the narrow steps that cascade through the maze of streets. I wondered what it felt like for them to see and hear so many visitors walk past their houses, taking photos, admiring the views and scenes. We are just visitors in their timeless land of change. The architecture in Sifnos is typical – from small cubed Cycladic houses, both old and new renditions, to the crumbling grandeur of Venetian mansions, reminiscent of Ermoupolis on a much smaller scale. A little garden centre on the street corner was stocking up with plants and flowers ready to wow in window boxes.
It is an island with an interesting mix of traditional and modern; like the Lakis Kafenion which is on the main square opposite a few boutique and artisan craft shops, old and new seem to jostle along nicely. I’ll leave you with some photos, sometimes images say more than words ever can.
It has certainly been a few months of interesting climate changing weather. Just when there was a burst of sunshine and the sea started to feel almost bearable for swimming, there it was… a dark cloud over the horizon and a northern wind sent to chill and soak. Like a reminder to not take anything for granted – even the change of season! We headed off on a mini-adventure the week before Greek Easter, tied in with UK Easter days off. By the time we reached Kythnos on the Artemis Ferry the wind seems to have whipped away the storm clouds and the sun appeared again. We are the only foot passengers to depart and other new passengers join the boat here and replace us in greater numbers, a crowd of school kids jostling in excitement and another orthodox priest (ever been on a ferry journey without a priest? nope). We have been given instructions by the lady who runs the place we are booked to stay, but she’s been called away with family emergency. We find a taxi, the only one waiting at the port, up up we go on sloping road, magnificently handled at each turn. Heading to the peak in the middle, a small traditional town called Dryopeda – population 400 and shrinking every year. We’ve been told a girl will wait the cafe, it’s the only one you can’t miss it. She isn’t there, but unalarmed we wait in the unhurried quiet and take in the view. Dyropeda is named after the first settlers, the Dryopes who were forced out of their lands and then settled on Kythnos. It is a traditional farming island with small settlements, evidence of this was everywhere – beautiful lush hillside, but very few trees, windmill remains on the ridges. It does get a fair bit of tourism in the summer, especially at the beaches and seaside villages like Loutra, famed for its thermal baths.
After a while the cafe man comes out and says ‘follow me’ and we do without asking. Trusting folk so we traipse behind him into the maze like streets and up to a house next to the tiny Evangelistria Chapel. They key is in the door of course. He lets us in to the little stone house, traditionally decorated, even with an old singer sewing table, a wrought iron bed tucked away in a recess in the sala room and a stone kitchen – modernised but with touches of its past on the antique furniture and white lace curtains. Like all traditional village houses the windows are small and walls are thick – the house stays cool in summer. But in winter an even now in April it’s cold but we are thankful of an electric heater and electric under blankets on the bed. He promised to come back with batteries for the air-con later. The view from the tiny square kitchen window is magnificent over to green hills – I swear I see a rabbit hopping on the hillside.
Beckoned by the sun we take a path that follows an old and uncleared trail up to the Church of Konstandinos and Eleni. It passed a lush valley with water still flowing in brooks from the recent rains. There was even frogspawn in the old springs.
I say it all the time but this year the spring flowers are exceptional – the blood red of the poppy standing out against a sea of bobbing yellows and white, the greenest green leaves and billowing tall grass. The fields here are full of goats, sheep and horses munching away on this bounty. The trails aren’t well marked and we are breaking through undergrowth to reach the church – a beautiful view greets us.
But because we know – and we are always warned – about snake season. Yet despite the hiking we do snakes have evaded us so far. Or we have evaded them. Not this time. G sees one in front of him – he shouts snake, I don’t see it. It scatters (or slithers?) he is strangely calm, I freeze, like a loon and scan, I want to see it too. Even though we don’t know if its a biter – we bolt, over the gate breathless and hearts beating loud, fear in our mouths. The first Φίδι (fidi) and not even time to take a snap.
The village in the afternoon is quiet – but the supermarket is a hive of activity doing a stocktake so I ask which tavernas are open. The boy who is sent to serve us looks at me and takes a deep breath like a gas fitter about to tell you the worst news about your boiler. ‘Well, there is one open. But only later tonight – after 9′. Thanks we say. This happens a lot over the next few days as children are sent to speak to us. ‘Ah a foreign tourist, send the child to practice his English!’ It’s nice in a way – family ran and kids pitching in to help out and learn.
Not even Easter yet and places look shut up – it’s fine, we’ll cope we talk between ourselves. Worst case scenario we’ll eat a sweet crepe and ice cream for dinner from our mate at the Cafe. After venture out half-believing sudden crowds would emerge from doorways and fill the cobbled agora street and huddle outside cafes with children playing in the streets at dusk. We are wrong. It is cold and damp, a wind scuttles through the streets and even the fiercest cats hide away. There are 4 men drinking coffee in the cafe, we order beers and our friend returns the remote control with new batteries. Eventually we brave it to the place the boy in the shop told us about. It’s a old style grill house and we enter with trepidation at first. It looks like a child’s birthday party is happening in one corner as a long table is inhabited by over excited almost teen kids with cans of pop and sticks of souvlaki being brandished like swords as they play music on their phones. A young boy gets sent over to take our order – dragged away from his friends at the table. We try to speak Greek and he replies in his best school English.
A woman comes in hurried, holding a cake, smothered in white cream icing and chocolate sprinkles. She presents it to the table, kisses her boy and returns helping herself to plates in the back and a dozen forks. His grandma enters – more kisses for the birthday boy on each cheek. More arrivals and another table hastily set just in time for singing. Someone hands the mother h a lighter. A Happy Birthday song in Greek, loud and overdrawn and then they try in English, a few unsure of the words, following along. All filmed on phones, snap-chatted to those not here – whatsapped to cousins in Athens, a brother in London. These kids, like everyone now, are always connected. This world draws them like invisible thread and will one day call them out from here to other places. Other futures.
The next night we locate another eatery which is open. Inside, the warmth greets us with food smells hovering in the air. Again a no menu place we are the only customers apart from a man who eats alone watching the news channel on a TV in the corner. The elderly owner lady hobbles over and tells us in half-greek, half english what she will serve us. “Meat, chips, horiatiki salad. Neh?’ – Krasi, neh? – it’s like ordering the best mystery dinner ever. We wait and watch her in the kitchen chipping potatoes and loading them in the deep fat fryer – she loads up a tray with glasses and cutlery and brings it over with the wine and beer. She prepares a salad for us, goes back, slices bread, brings it over. Every time she hobbles back to our table I feel a pang of guilt about her ankle which is bandaged and her advancing age – it looks like her husband has passed away. Photos of them smiling, decades ago with clambering children on their laps adorn on the wall. A single photo of him close up stands next to a icon of Jesus. I want to say, ‘you have a sit down tell me where everything is and I’ll fetch it.’ But you just can’t. She just carries on.
The man pays and leaves. We are served steaming plates of rabbit stifado (kuneli) served in the traditional fashion, complete with bones and bits of liver and heart with whole onions and cloves glistening in the rich red sauce. It is delicious and we are thankful for ‘real food’ and warmth. Crepes for dinner sounded like a good idea, but this is better. The lady sits down to rest a while at our table as we pay the bill – we share some conversation with her, where we are from she tells us proudly this is her place, she has lived in the village all her life. It is a good life. What more is there. With good wishes for the upcoming Easter we part and head off into the night.
The village is just waking up and people are out the next day painting white outlines on the cobbled walkways and repairing doors. The Katafiki Cave is kind of open, as in the gates were open and you could see down to where the cave opens and the steps end. But a sign on the door says ‘Do not enter the caves without a helmet and a guide’ there’s no one around despite appearances. So we hover taking photos but not venturing right in – there’s no lights on down there either so decide he’s probably just on a break. But we don’t go back to check.
I like to just wander villages like this – admiring the stillness, listening to everything breathe, the birds chirping in the trees, the sweep of the brush as a lady piles up rust coloured leaves. The stories in each street over hundreds of years are all hidden here somewhere.
A pause at each one in turn; every roof on a house a dream, a shelter, a nightmare, left to rot, a birthright, a millstone, brought back from disrepair – all on fragile foundations. The cracking panes and stone walls crumble, photos mouldering in the frames. The salt on the door handle corroding until it no longer turns.
We leave and take the Adamantios Korias Ferry to Sifnos – a different world awaits.