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.