Those who love know nothing

Note for the non- Greek speakers: Agoni grammi (άγονη γραμμή), literally barren line, sometimes translated as “non profit line” or “unprofitable shipping line”, is a shipping route that shows little commercial interest and therefore brings in very little profit for the ferry companies. It usually serves smaller or “lesser” islands, with limited tourism; Sifnos, in the West Cyclades, is one of them.

There’s a lot being written about Sifnos recently. There’s a lot being said. I go into facebook each day and see more articles urging those who know to get to know her, to discover this hidden secret of the Cyclades, treasure buried all this time along the barrenness of the agoni grammi. Magical, they call it, unspoilt, aristocratic, as if they’ve suddenly found a vein of gold and we’re all about to get rich.

And I remember when I was in school and we spent the summers here, and the other kids said to me, early June when the holidays began, “Sifnos? What is that?” and laughed. The other kids that went to Mykonos and Santorini, Spetses and Hydra, places known and accepted, of value, and they laughed at me for spending my summers here, in exile, on this barren place, on the barren line to nowhere. What Sifnos?

That Sifnos where they come to get married now, in Chrysopigi, with catering imported from Athens and local, traditional violins. The Sifnos of magazines, shiny like their pages, glittering somewhere between Serifos and Milos, on the οnce-barren line that’s become fruitful now that we have five ferries calling at her port each day. They discovered it, with private yachts and the SeaJet that takes a mere two hours from Piraeus, those who know.

And I remember when the monastery of Fyrogia was nothing but ruins and you took a boat to Vathy because there was no road and we washed with water drawn straight from the well, ice cold, and got our drinking water from the spring at Panagia tis Vryssis. I remember the campsite in Plati Yialos and when Botzi played rock and we emerged croaky at dawn to get sandwiches from Plaza in the square and the sunrise glittered off the whitewash walls and made us blind.

All that glitters isn’t gold. There was gold in Sifnos, once, but now there are other things. Not what they write about: more secret than that. And, at the same time, not at all. A mountaintop, a walk along a trail with a friend in November, a view you hadn’t seen before but had always been there, the nights when you can hear nothing but the wind. An empty beach and the restaurants that stay open through the winter. Soaking your chickpeas on a Friday and taking them to the wood oven on Saturday, and hearing people say hello as if they know you, those people that you thought you knew. Walking down the street and no longer being asked why you are still around.

When you love, you know nothing: Sifnos taught me that. There was a time when I knew, because I spent my summers here and we had a house of our own and I played on the streets with the other kids and because I remember, because I can tell you what Sifnos was like back then and how it’s changed. But Sifnos isn’t there, after all. It’s not where we look for it, but where we find ourselves. Not in how much it’s changed but in how much it’s changed you. If you forget all that you know and start to learn. How much treasure can be found in a vein of gold that ran dry. That magic is in what you love, and to love is not knowing. You know nothing, and that’s how you get rich: when you learn.

And I remember when I knew and didn’t love her. When I used to whisper it, that I’m going to Sifnos, and I was drawn to other places, full of light, shiny. And they made me blind. Until, one day, I found myself here and two winters had gone by and no one asked when I was leaving anymore and I understood suddenly what it means to love a place for what it is, not for how you imagined it. Not for what is said and the value other people give it and for what you tell other people that you remember. And to say it, that you live here, and if anyone asks what Sifnos? My own.

They know something, those who know. They’re right to come here. For weddings and christenings, for the weekend on the SeaJet, for the whole summer in overflowing cars. For the bars and the restaurants, for aristocratic Artemonas and cosmopolitan Plati Yialos and the quaint fishing village of Herronissos. For the ceramics and the exhibitions and the photographs they post on facebook, with Chrysopigi in the background. For all that everybody knows, by now, and all that’s secret and all that’s hidden and all that’s always been there but you hadn’t noticed it before. For all that you might learn. For those who know and those are searching and those who are looking for a place to stand, and those, like me, who found themselves here and are learning everything from scratch. There is Sifnos enough for everyone, it won’t run dry. There are riches enough for everyone, if you love her. And to love her without knowing: that’s where the magic is.

Daphne Kapsali lives in Sifnos. She knows nothing.

This post was originally written in Greek. Click here to read it.

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.