Chickpea Sundays (100 days of solitude, Day 34)

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Manolis has just lit his wood oven. The smell of smoke and the heat from the fire drift into my house, and the wood crackles and pops in a rhythmic, soothing way, breaking the silence of the still, windless day. Soon, the wood will turn into coal and it will crackle no more; there will be no more smoke, only heat. That’s when the pots will go in. The neighbours are bringing them already, mostly men, tasked with the carrying once their wives have done their bit.
    The locals have chickpea soup on Sunday. Only on Sunday, because you can’t make this in your kitchen at home. The soup, which is thick, like a stew, and tastes like all the homely comforts you can imagine, is cooked slowly, overnight, in clay pots with clay lids, in a woodfire oven. The women start preparing the chickpeas on Friday: they need to be soaked in water and bicarbonate of soda for twenty-four hours, to soften. On Saturday, they rinse them out and put them in the clay pot with some fresh water, onions and the seasoning of their choice. They add the lid and summon their husbands to carry the heavy pots to the oven. There’s one in most villages, in someone’s back yard, and they get the word out when they light them so the neighbours can bring their pots. Manolis has collected three so far, and he’s lined then up next to the oven, to go in as soon as the fire has burnt itself down. In the summer, when my mum is here, he lets her know on Fridays so she can prepare her pot in time. He’s said nothing to me since she’s been gone.
    I smell the smoke and come outside with my afternoon coffee. I sit on a ledge in the sunshine. It’s cold in the house but out here the sun is still strong enough to warm your skin. I sip my coffee and watch some lazy clouds drifting across the sky. There are church bells and goat bells. A donkey brays. Somewhere, intermittently, there’s a mechanical sound, but it’s far enough to ignore. The wood crackles in the oven, and the men chatter with Manolis as, one by one, they come bearing their pots.
    Tomorrow, our little edge of the village will come to life as, after church, the neighbours will arrive en masse to collect their chickpeas and bring them home, for Sunday lunch. I will watch them from my side of the wall, as I busy myself with some task or other; a few, the ones I know, might notice me and say hello.
I finish my coffee and go down the road to scavenge some lemons from the garden of an empty house; I want to make lemon cake. On my way back I run into Yorgos, Vangelia’s husband, bound for Manolis’ oven with his burden of chickpeas and a serene smile on his face.
    ‘You must be enjoying yourself,’ he remarks, after we’ve said our good afternoons. ‘If you’re still here.’
    ‘I love it,’ I blurt out. ‘I’ve never been happier.’ I drop a lemon in my excitement, and leave Yorgos behind as I chase it down the path.
    In a break between pot bearers, I call out to Manolis over our dividing wall.
    ‘Can I come and take some photos of the oven and the pots?’ I ask.
    ‘As many as you like,’ he says. ‘Why do you need to ask?’
    ‘Well, I can’t just walk into your house!’
    He shrugs; he doesn’t seem to think that would be a problem. The side door to the back yard is open, inviting the neighbours in.
    I take my photos and then stand by the fire for a bit, until my face starts to sting from the heat. I stop to pet the cat, who’s rolling around in a patch of sunshine.
    ‘Next time you light the oven,’ I say, ‘will you let me know?’
    ‘Oh,’ he stammers. ‘Of course. I just thought, with you being on your own…’
    ‘I cook more than my mum, you know.’
    ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he says quickly. ‘Just that you’d have too many chickpeas.’           
    ‘Yes,’ I agree. ‘I’ll just have to eat chickpeas all week!’
    ‘You could put some in the freezer,’ he suggests, obviously pleased that he’s stumbled upon this idea. He smiles. ‘I’ll let you know.’
    The pots go into the oven and the smell of smoke is replaced by the sweet, heavy scent of roasting onions. It wafts into the house and mingles with the smell of my baking cake. I fantasise about the chickpea soup I’ll make. I might go rogue and add a few sprigs of rosemary, a dash of cumin, a pinch of chilli powder. I’ll definitely have to freeze a few portions. I like chickpeas, but I don’t particularly want to eat them every day for a week.
    But I’ll make a huge pot, regardless, enough to feed a large Greek family their Sunday lunch, because, more than chickpea soup, it’s the ritual I like. Being let in on the secret on the Friday; the slow, careful process of lighting the fire on the Saturday, the camaraderie by the oven, the open door; the impromptu Sunday gathering of well-dressed churchgoers, as they crowd around the oven to collect their lunch.
    I don’t want to be the one watching them from the other side of the wall. I want to play, too. I want to be a part of this. I want to be one of them, in this small way, to stand in line with my neighbours and talk about the weather as I wait to receive my pot.

This is Day 34 from 100 days of solitude. Continue reading for free on Kindle Unlimited. And for more Sifnos adventures, check out the sequel, For Now, also available from Amazon.

What’s right in front of you

I want to write about love, but I don’t know if love wants to be written about. I don’t know what love wants, or if it wants anything at all; maybe it just is, without want, without need. Maybe we need it more than we know, but we’re wrong in the way we want it, the way we go about getting it. And when it feels like love resists us: the truth is, I think, that sometimes it’s us who resist love. We stay blind to it while ostensibly looking, and we look in the wrong places, when love can be found wherever we look.

I’m beginning to understand that love is bigger that all that: all of our lovesongs and our romantic notions, the clothes we dress it in and the definitions we write up, the stick we measure it against, ceremonies and rituals, our ends and our beginnings, the petty arguments and all of our broken hearts. Bigger than our plays and our poetry, our games and the strategies we use to capture the incapturable, too big to fit into our little box of a human mind, because it’s not in the mind that love is felt, and love is felt, not thought about. But smaller, too, tiny, the most subtle of things, like when something clicks inside you in response to a hand on your back, like the relief you feel when you sit in a room with a man, doing nothing of any importance. Like the scent of the sea or the gentle sigh of a breeze on a summer afternoon, or a smile that smashes everything and then puts it back together before you’ve had the chance to notice. So small that you could miss it if you don’t pay attention, if you insist on looking for things that seem appropriately big; if you keep focusing your gaze elsewhere and thinking with your mind and finding only spaces empty of love, while the sea scents your skin and the breeze is in your hair and a smile is in motion that could smash everything, if only you’d lift your gaze and see. If only you’d notice what’s right in front of you.

I spent fifteen years in love. It was a love so big that it contained me, that it contained everything I was. It was big enough to give me freedom within its margins, but it had margins, still, like everything has. I saw nothing of the world outside. I had no interest in what was out there. But there’s a reason why they say you fall in love, and there’s a reason why they talk of falling out of it. I stumbled, and I fell: out of love, outside of the margins, and I lifted my gaze and I saw. The love was still there, but I was out of it. My love, my big love will always be there, but it no longer contains me. I am too big, as it turns out; I have outgrown the margins it imposed. Or perhaps I’m the wrong shape for it, with parts of who I am sticking out at awkward angles. But the world outside has no fixed shape; just like love itself, it resists definition. And that’s freedom outside the margins: when you begin to notice what’s in front of you. When you allow yourself to feel.

I don’t want to write about love. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to feel the breeze on my skin and notice the click that means something’s shifting, and to allow a smile to smash me to pieces, and then watch those pieces drift and swirl and make a new shape. And that’s who I’ll be. And I won’t look for love, but I will let it find me. And when it finds me, I won’t resist. I won’t look back to make comparisons or hold up a stick against it to measure how long it might last; I won’t try to tame it with rituals or stifle it with romantic notions or think it into something that makes sense. I will sit in a room with a man, doing nothing of any importance, and I will lift up my gaze and I will see. What’s right in front of me.

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