A richly rewarding narrative about a young painter's love affair with the Greek island of Sifnos
When Christian Brechneff first set foot on the Greek island of Sifnos, it was the spring of 1972 and he was a twenty-one-year-old painter searching for artistic inspiration and a quiet place to work. There, this Swiss child of Russian émigrés, adrift and confused about his sexuality, found something extraordinary. In Sifnos, he found a muse, a subject he was to paint for years, and a sanctuary.
In The Greek House, Brechneff tells a funny, touching narrative about his relationship to Sifnos, writing with warmth about its unforgettable residents and the house he bought in a hilltop farm village. This is the story of how he fell in love with Greece, and how it became a haven from the complexities of his life in Western Europe and New York. It is the story of his village and of the island during the thirty-odd years he owned the housefrom a time when there were barely any roads, to the arrival of the modern world with its tourists and high-speed boats and the euro. And it is the story of the end of the love affairhow the island changed and he changed, how he discovered he had outgrown Sifnos, or couldn't grow there anymore.
The Greek House is a celebration of place and an honest narrative of self-discovery. In its pages, a naïve and inexperienced young man comes into his own. Weaving himself into the life of the island, painting it year after year, he finds a place he can call home.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.85(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.76(d)|
About the Author
Born in the Belgian Congo in 1950, Christian Brechneff was educated in Switzerland and the United States (St. Olaf College). In 1975 he received his master of arts degree from the Royal College of Art in London. He has exhibited in Switzerland, Spain, England, Germany, Sri Lanka, and the United States, and his paintings appear in public and private collections all over the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Brechneff is also the author of Homage: Encounters with the East, a book of travel drawings published in 2007. He lives in Hadlyme, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
The night was black, no moon, the sea the darkest ink blue possible, the sky full of stars. The island, much bigger than I expected and even blacker than the sea, rose up over the water like an animal. The two mountains on either side of the little harbor entrance towered above us and seemed threatening. Our ship, impossibly white at night, luminous against all the darkness, slipped quietly between the mountains and over the still water as if on a slick black mirror.
I could make out a few lights along the quay, but the village of Kamares was mostly dark, sleeping. It was almost three in the morning. As we coasted in, the deck still vibrated underfoot, but the ship’s motors were stilled and I could hear the sounds of the harbor as it came to life to greet us. As the sea winds died, I could smell for the first time the delicate scent of the island, like a package of spices and herbs suddenly spilled open in the palm of my hand.
The ship dropped anchor out in the middle of the harbor—there was no dock for ferries then—and we weary disembarking passengers had to climb with our luggage down a rope ladder to the waiting fishermen’s boats that would take us to shore. Heavy Greek women dressed in black from head to foot; old, old men; boxes and suitcases tied with rope; fridges and stoves; chickens and dogs—anything and everything was handed down the side of the tall ship into waiting caïques. The sea was dead calm, thank God.
Jammed into these little boats, we all stared up at the brightly lit ship, watching this complicated transfer while the passengers who were going on to Mílos stared down over the rail at the near chaos below. When the little boats finally pulled away, we turned as one toward the shore, its single row of one-story white houses and kafenia hiding behind the old tamarisk trees that lined the waterfront. Bumping up against the quay, we struggled out of the boats, pushing and shoving and pulling one another and all our things ashore in a messy, noisy scramble. Then, with a deafening hoot and a great clanking of anchor chains, the ship rumbled to life again and we watched as it turned and backed and turned again in a clumsy pirouette and self-importantly sailed away.
The Greeks, islanders mostly, dispersed almost immediately, and in no time only the foreigners, six of us, were left on the darkened quay. We had all found one another within minutes of boarding the ship in Piraeus all those many hours before, and in the way of ship travel we had become instant friends, a little gang, already inseparable. There was Chuck, an American, tiny, elfin, smart as a whip, a touch of Ariel and a handful of Puck, who is to this day my best friend in New York; a young honeymooning couple from what was then Rhodesia, with whom I still keep in touch; and two tall, beautiful girls, sisters, from Australia. We were all in our early twenties, me only twenty-one, still kids, off on an adventure and wide-eyed. Chuck knew Greece and, most important, some Greek—he had been teaching at the American College in Athens—but for the rest of us this was all new, so we clung to each other and to him.
We had no idea where to go. The village had shut down completely. An old woman appeared on the quay who Chuck said was offering us a room to rent—but only one room, and none of us had any money anyway, so we thanked her and said no. Wrapping her sweater around her against the night chill, she vanished like a shadow into a nearby door. Exhausted suddenly, all the adrenaline pumped up by the arrival having drained away, our little band of newfound friends headed off into the night, dragging our things along the quiet dirt street, trying to get away from the houses. Where the village finally ended, we stumbled down to a beach and rolled out our sleeping bags.
“What about a swim?” asked my new friend Chuck. The sea looked inviting, black and silky, and we stripped naked and ran into the water, whooping in shock—it was only May and the water was still cold. “Wow,” whispered Chuck in a kind of awe. “Look. Look around you. Do you see it?” The sea was filled with millions of tiny lights, little stars. Phosphorescence, but phosphorescence such as neither of us had ever seen. Every move we made created showers of luminous sparkles, like fireworks in the water. Boys still, off and away on this magical island, we let out hoots of delight into the silent night as our splashing arms and legs created waterfalls of light in the sea.
Afterward, toweled off and cozy in my sleeping bag, exhausted but wide-awake, I stared up at the black mountains rising around me and the amazing sheets of bright, bright stars in the sky. Greek stars. I could hardly believe it. I lay listening to the still night, the lap of water nearby, and the otherwise deafening silence. I felt totally at one with myself—a new feeling for me—and I knew I was going to love this place and I was sure this place was going to love me back and take care of me. Young and romantic as I was, I was sure those two mountains would be like two giant arms holding me tight.
* * *
Islands are full of romance. Famous artists and writers have fled to them, lived and created on them. Tahiti, Cuba, Capri, Sardinia, Majorca, and Zanzibar, the names ring with mystery and romance. Of course, not everybody actually likes to be on islands, finding them claustrophobic, but the idea of being away, being cut off in some kind of parallel universe, always seemed wonderful to me. I had spent several weeks painting on the island of Cozumel in Mexico the year before, but once I was back in Switzerland, it was Greece that caught my eye and my imagination. Its dozens of islands baking in the sun were within easy reach, yet far enough away at the same time, familiar and yet foreign as well. I imagined the Greek islands as a gateway to the East. And compared with the gray and damp of Basel and Zurich, they sounded like heaven on earth.
It was the Sun, the Sun with a capital S, that drew me the most. I was a sun worshipper in the making, and I wanted to see and paint the Greek light, to feel it, experience it, capture it. A friend had described the Greek sun to me as a force. He and a couple of friends were in Greece one summer, and he told me of driving from Athens to Delphi by car, the sun blinding, not just hot and glaring but everywhere, inescapable, almost maddening, so strong that he and one of his traveling companions there in the back had to get down behind the front seat with a coat over them to shield themselves.
Greece was still in the throes of a brutal dictatorship that had begun in 1967 with the seizure of power by a group of right-wing, much-hated Colonels. Given the political situation, I may have hesitated a moment about going there, but not very much. I had been very involved politically the year before, when I was in college in America—the war in Vietnam was something I had come to care about, as had my brother when he was studying there—marching with fellow students at every opportunity. But the Greek Colonels had somehow made little impression on me, nor I think on most Europeans, except perhaps for the French—Paris was full of Greek exiles—and even the French spent more time raging against the United States, as is their wont, and about Vietnam. In any case I was so involved with myself and my art that I didn’t worry much about the political pros and cons of going to Greece.
I had just completed basic training in the Swiss army, a literally recurring nightmare, as one had to go every year, year after year, and I was desperate to get back to my painting. I wanted to do work for my master’s degree, a three-year course I was to start that fall at the Royal College of Art in London. I was very proud of having been accepted, and I was determined not to fail. On top of that I was scheduled to have my second one-man show in Zurich in September. I was pretty proud of that too, and had a vision of the gallery filled not just with mountain drawings and paintings from the Engadine, a place I loved to paint, but with new and different work—Greek whites and blues, sea and sky and light flooding the walls.
I needed to find a peaceful island where I could work, an island with no tourists and, above all, no airport. Even back then I was sure that was key. In Switzerland, poring over maps, I hit on the island of Sími in the eastern Aegean. I had never heard of the place, and I admit it may have seemed like closing my eyes and sticking a pin in the map, but in fact I had given it some thought. I had heard about the charms of other islands like Hydra and Mykonos, but I was intimidated by the buzz emanating from them, by their attraction for the rich and famous, and by their homosexual vibrations. Already insecure and confused about my sexuality and knowing how endlessly, hopelessly horny I could be, how susceptible I was, I wanted to avoid a place with too many temptations. Sími, I was sure, was the answer—far away and difficult to get to. Its very isolation, I was sure, would help keep me safe and sane. And out of trouble.
Once I got to Athens, that dream didn’t last even a day. In the tiny, dusty student travel office just off Syntagma Square, the center of Athens then as now, I was assured that Sími was indeed lovely but almost impossible to get to. The woman who ran the office sat smoking at her cluttered desk behind a pair of huge dark glasses that must have been hand-me-downs from Melina Mercouri. She listened to my plans for traveling to Sími, my arguments for going there, rubbing her eyes with a mixture of weariness and ennui. When I finally drew breath, she told me in a deep voice with her thrilling accent that I was “grazy to go to Zími.” The island, she said, was impossibly remote and backward, there were no regular boats, and if I found passage at all, I would have to change boats at least once. As I didn’t speak a word of Greek, I would undoubtedly get hopelessly lost and end up on some altogether different island.
Quite determined, and getting nervous lest my wonderful trip turn into a disaster before it had even begun—I mean, what was I going to do if Sími didn’t work?—I kept on arguing. I told her that I had been to many remote places, that I would get to this one, that I knew it would be perfect. Finally she put her hand up to stop the flow of anxious nonsense pouring out of me and said there was another island, an island called Sifnos. That was where I should go. “Fvorr yuu iz perrfect,” she said, rolling her English at me. “Iz jusd waat yuu arrre looging forr.”
The name Sifnos stopped me in mid-flow. Amazingly, I had heard of it. In my year in America in 1970–71, at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, I had known another foreign student, a Greek girl named Maya Yannoulis. We were never close friends, but with her dark good looks, she had made quite an impression on me. I knew she didn’t live on Sifnos, only visited her grandparents there, but I thought, my excitement rising, the very fact that I knew someone connected to Sifnos was like an omen—wasn’t it? Maybe it was where I should go. Suddenly I could feel Sifnos calling me. And solving all my problems. Yes, I would go to Sifnos. Everything was going to be all right after all. I booked passage then and there.
* * *
In the early 1970s, not many boats went to Sifnos either. What they euphemistically referred to as regular ferry service had begun only in 1969, and there were almost no boats in May, as it still was the off-season. I would have to wait for a couple of days in Athens. But I didn’t mind. I was ecstatic just to be in Greece, vastly relieved that I had retrieved my trip from disaster, so I wandered the sun-filled streets of Athens until I could get on the boat.
Athens then was a small city, dusty, funky, almost third world, hardly part of Europe at all. A few worn-out Mercedes, Citroëns, or Deux Chevaux and lots of belching, heeling buses were in the streets, but there wasn’t any real traffic. The sprawl and toxic pollution of the 1980s and 1990s were still in the future. But even then I immediately preferred the quiet, treelined streets of Kolonaki and its square to the hot glare of Syntagma and downtown Athens. This well-to-do residential part of town rose up the slopes of Lykabettus Hill, with the church of St. George perched on top. Of course I couldn’t afford to stay there, nor even downtown, but was happy enough to find a room in Plaka, the old city of Athens, with its huddle of low houses at the foot of the Acropolis.
Finally, on May 19, 1972, I found my way to Piraeus and the boat. Several morning ferries were lined up waiting to depart, and the quay was packed with passengers. My heart sank a little at the sight of the Kalymnos, a very old and grubby ferryboat that rolled and slopped from side to side at the dock. In spite of being named for an island in the eastern Aegean, she sailed, very slowly and erratically I was to learn, to the western Cycladic harbors of Kíthnos, Sérifos, Sifnos, Kímolos, and Mílos—to this day the route that most ferries take to Sifnos. From among the crowd waiting to board her I immediately picked out the other foreigners—my friends Chuck, the Rhodesian honeymoon couple, and the Australian sisters—and we fell on one another, strangers in a strange land, exchanging accounts of our adventures so far.
Finally, after an endless wait there in the growing heat—the boat was already several hours late departing—a sailor blocking the gangway stepped aside and the crowd surged forward, pushing and shoving and squeezing. Once on board, leaning over the rail with my new friends, I couldn’t help seeing the far bigger ship docked next to us, the Island of Mykonos. She loomed over us—newer, sharper, crisper, gleaming white, the very definition of shipshape. Her rail was crowded with people looking down at us in our old rust bucket, and I had a moment’s pause, a moment’s envy of her splendors, a moment’s insecurity about what I was doing. Where in the world was I going? But I soon realized, to my withering disapproval, that the passengers on the Island of Mykonos were all tourists, even in those long-ago days, whereas those on the Kalymnos were obviously Greeks, mostly island Greeks. And I knew then and there that this was what I had come for, this was the real thing, and I had chosen the right island.
Fifteen hours later, at three in the morning, the Kalymnos chugged into the tiny harbor of Kamares.
* * *
Sound asleep on the beach, we were woken that first morning by the sound of a clanking and sputtering old diesel engine. An ancient prewar bus—the only bus on the island, as we learned later—was making its raucous descent to the harbor, a cloud of dust trailing behind it. Not wanting to miss it, we grabbed our stuff and chased after it through the village, no easy task for me with all my drawing pads and equipment. Of course we needn’t have worried; the bus just sat there, panting and shaking and rattling, for a good half hour before it moved again. It had nowhere to go, it appeared, but back up the mountain to the town of Apollonia whence it had come, high in the center of the island.
We piled on board along with a few smiling, nodding islanders, one with a sheepdog, another with what looked like part of an old engine, another, amazingly, with two goats. I recognized him from the Kalymnos the night before, lowering his prizes down the side of the ship into a waiting caïque. The goats were completely passive in his arms when he loaded them one at a time onto the bus, and they settled down like docile children waiting for the voyage. Greetings were exchanged back and forth—I of course spoke not a word of Greek, but Chuck, sitting next to me, chatted away, and he taught me the basic greetings: Iassu, tikanis?
Not only did none of us except Chuck speak any Greek, none of us really knew anything about anything. For the rest of us, arriving here had been a semi-premeditated leap, and we had no idea where we were or where we should go next or what to expect when we got there. We learned from Chuck that Sifnos was famous for its pottery; his then girlfriend, Lisa, who was yet to arrive, was coming for the summer to work with a potter, and Chuck had come ahead to scout out the island. And we knew, from poring over a tiny antiquated guidebook of his, the only one about Sifnos he had been able to find, that the island was supposed to have the longest beach in the Cyclades, Platy Ghialos. We had all decided to go there.
There were no cars on the island, only a couple of battered pickup trucks, six ancient Russian Volga taxis, and this bus, which would take us to Apollonia. And we were very ready to get going, just to get moving. Though it was still early, it was getting very hot baking away in that little tin can of a bus. Finally it leaned to one side as the smiling driver climbed on board. He—his wonderful name, I was to learn, was Fragoulis Psathas—slammed it into gear, and the bus screamed in protest as it lurched forward and started its gasping struggle up the mountain. I was immediately reminded of the little buses I had traveled on in Mexico, where I had gone on a painting trip during my time at school in America. This was not as crowded as a Mexican bus, perhaps—nothing could have been—and there weren’t people and livestock riding on the roof, but there was the same motion of heads bobbing and tilting in unison as the bus heeled this way and that, the same battered, dusty body, the same folding door that would not close all the way, the same miserable, worn-out seats, the same strange stains on the floor and the hot sunlight pouring in through the grubby windows. I had loved those buses, and I loved this one.
The road to Apollonia was the only road on Sifnos then. It climbed gently at first, but as we continued, the fields and terraces that sloped up from the harbor gave way to a rougher landscape. We came to a gorge with a rushing river pouring down, pink and red oleander massed along the banks, rocks and boulders strewn everywhere—spills from landslides. The road became incredibly steep, unpaved, a kind of glorified path with nasty hairpin turns, and the bus skidded and spewed gravel at every curve. There were of course no railings, and the land dropped precipitously, sickeningly, away to the valley floor. This harsh, wild landscape went on for quite a while, but as we twisted back and forth, the valley began to open out. The road was still very steep, very rugged, but now there were terraces again, with fields climbing the slopes and orchards of flowering trees—figs, I thought, and olives. It was clear as we climbed that the island was big, high, massive, and unusually fertile, with real rivers rushing down the hills, under and in some places over the road, washing it out. The rains of winter had ended only a few weeks before.
Bouncing on broken springs, we clung to the seat rails in front of us, craning to see out the windows on the left that looked over the valley. Chuck and I, on the wrong side of the bus, eventually stood in the aisle, hanging from the luggage racks, me too tall, crouching down so as to see out. Everywhere there were stone walls, terraces echoing the contours of the mountains, stone paths and stairs winding between them, sheep and goats all over, mules and donkeys grazing everywhere. Clinging to the slopes were strange white towers two or three stories high, with elaborately patterned triangular openings near the top, dozens of smaller triangles set within bigger triangles, like little stone pyramids worked together as in a house of cards, the whole crowned with little turrets and crenellations, like miniature fortified castles. These were the famous dovecotes of the Cyclades, the best and most elaborate examples said to be on Sifnos. And around us, above us, crowning every peak, were monasteries and their churches, white, white against the blue, blue sky, the highest one called Profitis Elias. It seemed that even today, Helios, the charioteer, the sun god of the ancient Greeks, lived on. He had become the prophet Elias (Elijah), and the churches where he was worshipped were built on the points closest to God, symbolizing Elijah’s whirlwind assumption to heaven in a chariot drawn by horses of fire.
Still climbing, we finally reached a cluster of whitewashed one-story houses, the outskirts of Apollonia, the capital of Sifnos. The bus wound around one corner, and another, and then, bucking and belching once or twice, ground to a stop in the town’s tiny main square, dust pouring into its open windows. All the buildings were freshly whitewashed, as I was to learn they were every spring. Across the square was a small folklore museum set in a little park, where there were wooden benches surrounded by big, shady pines. On another side of the square was a glass-fronted building with an unreadable sign in incomprehensible Greek. “Tachidromeia,” said Chuck, sounding it out for me: the post office. How will I ever learn even a word of this language? I thought. To the right were a couple of small shops and at the corner a very simple little café, the Kafenion Lakis, its tables and chairs spilling out into the road. This was Stavri, explained the guidebook, the center of the village.
There wasn’t much to it, this town center, and as we ventured along a narrow, curving street, we dead-ended almost immediately between two tavernas and a tiny shop selling postcards. There the street opened onto a road that ran along the opposite side of the village, with houses strung to the left and right along a high ridge. In front of us, the land dropped away immediately and dizzyingly down a steep spill of terraces and sharply raked fields to the village of Kato Petali. Next to it was a domed church and a single ancient palm tree. After that, nothing but the sea and the distant islands floating on the horizon. I stood there staring out. I could not believe my luck. This was the landscape I had imagined and hoped for. I looked forward to painting it.
It was perfectly clear that Lakis’s was the center of town. Even at this early hour it was full of people coming and going and was obviously Sifnos Central. Starving, we went in for coffee, something to eat, and information about how to get to Platy Ghialos and its famous beach. Lakis himself, the owner and only waiter, came over immediately. An older man with a fierce, strong chin, a prominent nose, and steel-gray hair, he must have been very handsome in his youth and was still good-looking. He took our orders grudgingly and grunted answers to our questions about the island. He had chosen the role of curmudgeon, I was to learn, but there was a mischievous twinkle in those bright blue eyes, and if nothing else, he was clearly an operator with an eye for the ladies. In no time he was closing in on our two Australian beauties, flirting in a mixture of Greek and broken English.
All at once I sensed eyes burning into the back of my head, all our heads. I turned and saw a sharp-faced woman, no longer young, and, nearby, an ancient crone, both watching Lakis and his every move. His wife and his mother—the wife behind the counter sourly preparing the food and pouring the coffee, the old lady squawking, “Lakis, pediiimou…,” Lakis, my child, as she sweetly criticized everything he did. He ignored them both, as we were to learn he always did, at most responding with a little tst of his tongue as he raised his eyebrows and lifted his chin—the Greek gesture meaning everything from “no” to “don’t be silly” to “bugger off.” All his attention was on our blond, blushing, long-legged Australians, and he poured on the charm, offering them donkey rides to his secret lemon grove and other no doubt sweet delights. But we had eyes only for the longest beach in the Cyclades, as did the girls, and it was clear that he was getting nowhere; the sweet delights would have to wait.
* * *
In fact, a dirt road to that faraway beach was under construction, a mess of gravel and rock and potholes, as it turned out, but passable. The very young taxi driver, Apostolos, assured us, naturally, that he was willing to risk the possible flat tires and damage to the car’s suspension to get us there (the suspension, we were to find en route, was already long gone), but he would need two trips, as six of us with our backpacks would be too much for his worn-out old Volga station wagon. That way, of course, he could ask for more money, so, being a little afraid of being taken advantage of, we dickered a bit about the price. But it was all quite innocent; soon we agreed on the two trips, and four of us piled in, ready, raring to go. It had been decided that Chuck had to be in the first shift, and he sat in front with his guidebook. I tagged along, using the argument that I could help too, but in truth I just couldn’t wait another moment, and David and Gill, the Rhodesians, sat with me in the back. The Australian girls were to come after. We weren’t too worried or guilty about leaving them, since they were no doubt going to get anything and everything they needed from the lecherous Lakis.
Much of the island terrain sat even higher than Apollonia, and I stared out as the road-to-be, this bumpy dirt track, wound along the edge of the village—a perfect puzzle of flat-roofed white cubes fitted together, walls dripping bougainvillea and jasmine, windows and doors facing out over terraced fields to the sea. Climbing higher still, the road followed switchbacks that went up to three huge, semi-ruined stone windmills straddling the crest of the hill. Just past them was a cluster of farmhouses by the side of the road, a church dome or two, and an old palm tree peeping up over the roofs—this was the village of Exambela. And then the road led steeply down toward the southern end of Sifnos.
* * *
We saw very few houses anywhere, only barns or dovecotes; the farmers mostly lived in the villages. But everywhere were ancient walls and terraces. The slopes and fields were covered in waves of yellow daisies and red poppies, fig and almond trees, and old olive orchards. Here and there the new road cut across paths paved with huge stones that led off to the sides. These paths seemed incredibly old to me, biblical highways climbing across the hills. From time to time the car clattered past a farmer neatly dressed in tweed jacket and cap, switch in hand, sitting sidesaddle or plain sideways on his donkey, off on his way to his distant fields. His dog, loping behind him, tongue lolling out, would cringe as this unfamiliar, noisy, smelly creature, our car, roared by and left them both in a cloud of dust.
As we hurtled on along this mere suspicion of a road, valley after valley fell away on our left to the sea, the slopes covered with oleander, buddleia, and broom. Suddenly a huge vista opened—in one of those surprising views I was to learn one often got on Sifnos, coming almost as a shock, down a deep valley to what looked like a fortified hill town, a perfect cluster of white houses on a rocky headland that reached out into the sea. This, we learned, was Kastro, the old capital of the island. “That’s the town where my friend Maya [my friend from college] comes from,” I crowed with excitement, twisting around in my seat, craning to see out the back windows down to this perfect town, this perfect composition, a ready-made painting, watching until it disappeared from sight.
After another corner or two, the land dropped away even more steeply, and we all gasped, gaping down at a long, double-vaulted white church with a bell tower above the entrance. It sat lengthwise on what seemed to be a single narrow piece of rock, like a finger sticking straight into the sea. Alarmingly, Apostolos turned right around in his seat, yelling and pointing at the church. “Ch*****p*ghi,” he screamed incomprehensibly against the noise of the wind, the rattling car, and the flying gravel. “Chrissopighi. It’s a monastery,” said Chuck, bracing himself against the dashboard. I had never seen anything so white as that church against the dark cobalt sea.
This dazzling island, the fields of wildflowers, the white churches against the vast blue sea and sky, all bathed in the most amazing clear, blinding sunlight, left us speechless. Of course we were all young and impressionable and struck by what we were seeing, but the magical beauty of this landscape hit me especially hard, like a bulldozer. As a painter, I was stunned, in a kind of trance. I stared out of the car, the sun and the hot wind in my face, and could already visualize my hand, my brush, racing across the pages of my sketchbooks, taking this all down, recording these patterns and shapes, this orgy of color.
* * *
Rounding a bend in the road, high up still, all at once we saw it below us—Platy Ghialos, a strip of smooth white sand stretching away toward a distant range of hills, with the little island of Kipriani beyond. As we wound down, we could see that the beach wasn’t very long after all, a disappointment, but for a Greek island, usually all rocky coast, it was an amazing sight, and it was totally unspoiled. A dusty lane ran the length of the beach to a newish small hotel called the Xenia, but except for that, there was only one other two-story building on the water side of the road. It was owned by a fisherman’s family, and it seemed you could rent rooms there. Otherwise there were only potters’ houses with wood- and brush-burning kilns attached. On the inland side, fields of vegetables and olive groves reached to the enclosing hills; there were one or two little farms, but no real houses.
We climbed out of the car and sent Apostolos back for the girls. Possibly overstimulated by so much sun and fresh air, our Rhodesian friends quickly found a room to rent and off they went, back to their honeymooning, Chuck and I joked. When the girls finally arrived, as always the center of excited attention from the men of Sifnos, they were immediately swept off by a good-looking farmer in a beautiful straw hat who promised to show them his fields and gardens—perhaps he too would have lemon groves and sweet delights, like Lakis. Chuck and I decided to camp on the beach until we found the right lodging.
But first, we were starving. The only taverna on the beach, it seemed, had just opened, but its young owners received us as if we were their best and oldest friends. Indeed, I’m not sure I have ever been greeted anywhere with the same warmth and hospitality as we received that day. The food was delicious, fresh, and simple: grilled fish, followed by roast lamb and stuffed tomatoes and aubergine—everything perfect. And miraculously cheap, which was one of the great advantages of Greece, especially the islands, for anyone young like myself. The owners, Vassilis and his brothers Kostas and Iakovos, sat with us. I still spoke not a word of Greek, but as we sat eating this wonderful food and sharing a bottle of wine, or perhaps two, I was sure I would soon be speaking it fluently. And I was sure that Platy Ghialos was where I wanted to stay. I didn’t know where I would find a room, but I knew that here was a dazzling beach, delicious, inexpensive food, and warm, friendly neighbors.
Then, not quite believing where I was, I was suddenly thrown into further confusion by the sound of bells approaching, coming closer and closer—Swiss bells? Looking around, I saw that the beach served in fact as a goat path, and hundreds of goats were happily running and bounding along the beach toward home, their bells merrily ringing. Driving them along was an incredibly handsome young shepherd. Like Italians you see in Venice or Florence who look just like a Bellini or Bronzino, the same faces still living there centuries later, this young man had the profile of a figure on a Greek vase, the perfect Greek nose and brow of the ancient world. In truth, unlike in Italy, this is most unusual in Greece, as modern Greeks usually look nothing like their ancient ancestors, having mixed and blended with the Ottomans and Venetians who ruled them over the centuries. A year or two younger than I, perhaps, he had shining black hair and blue, blue eyes. As he came down the beach behind his goats, he seemed to give off sparks. An innocent young man, no doubt, but I am sure he knew exactly what he looked like and happily flirted with everyone, both men and women.
As it happened, I knew something about goats, having herded them as well as cows as a fourteen-year-old in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. It was very mountainous there, and I spent six not very happy weeks high up on an alp, milking goats and making cheese. Fairly innocently charmed by Panos, whose name I would soon learn, I was eager to show off my knowledge of these animals, so I spoke to them in goat language, “Tschaa, tschaa, tschaas, li-mo-tscha,” I called to them. I may not have spoken Greek, but I spoke Goat. And the goats were suitably impressed. Stopping dead, they stared at me like curious idiots, goggle-eyed, chewing steadily. Panos seemed impressed too, and he invited me to come help him milk the goats that very evening. Not perhaps where my fantasies were leading, but it would have to do.
Pointing up the hill, Panos, with Chuck translating, also told me about a ruin, just above the house of someone called Georgos and his wife, Aphrodite, just there behind us. No one knew whom it belonged to, he said, but it had been empty for a long time, and if I liked it, I could easily set up my studio and live there for free, he was sure. Georgos, it seemed, was a potter, and he and Aphrodite lived in Platy Ghialos in the summers and during the winter months in a house in Exambela, the village we had passed on the way. Five years later, when I bought my house there, they were to be my immediate neighbors.
But on that first day, I had no idea of any of that. I took one look at the old ruin—and it was a ruin—but with its long terrace looking straight down the length of this empty white beach to the hills beyond, I knew it was perfect, and I moved in on the spot, thanking my lucky stars for being something of a flirt myself and for having learned to speak Goat.
* * *
A letter to my parents:
Platy Ghialos, May 22, 1972
Dearest Axel and Dita,
I am in paradise here and I have never been happier. I found my own house. Imagine. It is just up from the beach on a cliff overlooking all of Platy Ghialos and the Cycladic island world.
Views into the infinite, the movement of the sea, the endless horizon. All of this with the help of a local shepherd who is impressed with my goat-milking talents from my days in the Ticino. And it is free! A ruin that no one has used for years apparently. The sister-in-law of the local taverna owner has given me a slightly worn mattress (perfectly clean, I hope) and I am installed. One large room with a fireplace for cooking, which I fear I’ll never use, a table for my painting, some shelves and an open door to the bedroom. It remains cool and wind protected and all seems ideal.
The world of color here is incredible. I have already started drawing and painting and work all the time. Lots of light studies in the morning and evening. There is a joyous atmosphere here, an interplay of work and simple pleasures, all nourished by the Aegean sun. I work and then lie in the sun on my rock doing nothing, thinking of nothing, keeping my mind empty. Being still and silent—me silent! It is very healing. My new work is fresh and clean, I think. I hope. I am trying to paint, to find the light.
Those first days were magical. Sifnos seemed to be everything I had imagined it might be. There was endless sea and sky, and this strange, charged atmosphere. There was sun such as I had never known, an actual force, wind that came from every direction at once and not only cleared but emptied your head, clean, dry air without any of the gloom or murk or fog of Europe, and moonlight so bright and sharp it made you want to howl with all the island dogs. I loved the mountains, the Swiss Alps above all, but this was something else again.
Being there, after Switzerland, was like day and night. I had just finished my first stint in the army, an annual misery for all Swiss men. Some men loved it, of course: for them it was an annual visit to a summer camp for grown-ups, a world of men away from home, away from wives or mothers, a world of men giving orders, men following orders, a bit of physical fitness, a bit of playing with guns, good macho fun. I had loved summer camp and the Boy Scouts, but I hated this. For me, it was mind-bendingly boring, an exercise in having other people kill your time for you by teaching you things you didn’t want to know or running you ragged through the mountains to keep you in shape in case the Chinese invaded, an overriding Swiss fantasy at the time.
For me it was also an uncomfortable exercise to be surrounded by so many men, men whom once in a while I was attracted to, of course, but with whom for the most part I had no connection whatsoever. And who had no connection with me and, I am sure, found me even more alien than I found them. Half Russian, thus not truly Swiss, very tall and slim and blond, and a painter, for God’s sake. I was not part of their world. At one point in those first years—you had to go every year—I was made acutely aware of my alienness. I found myself attached to a medical corps where the officer in charge of the physical examinations of new recruits—a sneering, superior sort—ordered me to assist him. He gave me the unenviable job, no matter how gay I might have thought I was, of sitting in front of the naked recruits and sticking two fingers up in their scrotum while they coughed—testing for hernias. There were hundreds of recruits; the parade went on and on, students, farm boys, bankers, all of them smirking down at me. This little cruelty seemed to amuse the officer, and the other officers too. Obviously they all sensed something, maybe that I was gay, or that there was simply something about me, too arty, too different from them, and they pounced.
How did they know, I wondered, or how did they guess? At that point I had only the haziest notion that my attraction to men really meant anything, that I might not grow out of it but might actually grow into it.
* * *
As the summer days passed, the magic of Sifnos settled over me as lightly and gently as some fine golden powder, as light as the fairy dust blown by Tinker Bell into the faces of the Darling children to get them up and flying on their way to Neverland. My days there were peaceful and I hoped they would never end. Each morning I woke to the smell of the fire in my neighbor Aphrodite’s kitchen—a fire of brush and homemade charcoal—to the crowing of cocks and the clatter of hens, and to the slightly melancholic tones of bells as the goats were driven along the beach to their fields.
The dry heat never seemed oppressive; in truth, the warmth of the sun and the fire one sensed behind it always excited me. The landscape, with olive and fruit trees growing in profusion, with the sea always nearby, seemed the perfect place to live and work. The days were long, and one could accomplish an enormous amount. Pictures poured out of me, piling up on the table or pinned to the flaking walls of my ruin.
And if I wasn’t painting, I was reading—reading as I had never read before. I had brought stacks of books with me that summer, Russian mostly, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Chekhov and Goncharov, all books I had—to my embarrassment, as the son of a Russian émigré—never read. Being so busily anxious and distracted and ambitious, I had never given myself the time to concentrate on books as I might have liked. Now I contentedly found myself reading and reading and reading for the first time in my life.
It was bliss. The only problem was that I was alone much of the time and very lonely. Chuck had moved back to town with Lisa when she arrived, the Rhodesians as well, and anyway they and the Australian girls were soon to leave the island. Very few people made it all the way to Platy Ghialos, beach or no beach, and everything you needed was in Apollonia—the post office, the pharmacy, the bank, food, and most of the tavernas on Sifnos.
Fortunately, I was getting enough work done that I usually felt I had plenty of time to hike all the way up to Apollonia whenever I wanted to, and a hike it was, more than two hours each way. But there was no other way to get there; the road was not finished and would not be for another year or more. Happily, I discovered that I loved to walk on Sifnos. My route led through the same richly fertile farmland we had passed on the way to Platy Ghialos that first day in the taxi, but the walking route was more direct. I took paths that the islanders had used for centuries, up into the hills, across donkey paths and goat trails, skirting terraces and climbing huge stone stairs that led up and over the high back of the island.
The view was vast and changed constantly. From very high up I could see, and came to know, the surrounding islands, Mílos, Kímolos, Páros, Foligandros, and Sikinos, all of them floating in the distance, sometimes faint in the midday haze, other times so close and clear you felt you could reach out and touch them. Everywhere there were flowers and flowering shrubs. I knew the names of only a few of them—anemone, delphinium, wild cyclamen, monkshood, and broom—but there seemed to be thousands of them of all kinds. By early June the rain had stopped, and the fields and flowers began to dry up, but the olive trees retained their silvery gray-green color, and the dark pines and cedars stood sharp against the golds and yellows of the dry fields.
As I walked, I was bombarded by waves of smells and sounds. Sage was the dominant scent, but there were any number of other hot, dusty herbal smells, along with the deafening sounds of crickets and cicadas. If I needed a rest, it seemed there was always a little white church or an empty monastery with a spring-fed well nearby, an old bucket close beside it, and a tree to sit under to cool off in the dry, dry air. I often ran into farmers on their donkeys, almost always in old buttoned-up tweed jackets, their sun-browned, bony wrists and rough hands poking out of the sleeves, and caps or straw hats on their heads against the sun. They would offer me figs or tomatoes or whatever they had in their pockets. Eventually they all got to know me and, I think, thought well of me for walking the island; walking made me somehow closer to them, made me feel I belonged to their world a little.
Reaching the summit, I would start down toward Apollonia, its houses stretching out in front of me along the spinelike ridge that ran down the narrow middle of the island, the land dropping steeply on either side to the sea. From up above, one could see the long flight of marble steps that curved down into and through the village to the square in the center of town, and then another flight of steps that climbed up again, winding and twisting through Ano Petali to the handsome village of Artemona sitting even higher up across the way. The lines of paths and steps, my route through the three adjoining villages, were like arteries in a living organism.
They were my great inspiration, those walks. I took my black sketchbook with me wherever I went, and I did endless sepia and black ink drawings of the island. I was recording everything, gathering it in, soaking it all up to make pictures of the mountains and monasteries, the terraces of windblown trees. Even the marble stairs with their whole range of pale, elegant colors turned up in my work—tender whites, grays, silvery mauves with gold threads through them—the steps actual paintings in their own right.
* * *
In Apollonia, my first stop was always Lakis’s, where I would sit and reconnect with the world and with my more worldly, sociable self. Lakis’s was the magnetic center of the island. All information passed through this little kafenion—about the erratic comings and goings of the always terrible ferryboats, the newest arrivals and the latest departures, the perilous state of fishing, or the crop damage caused by too little rain—all the gossip in the island villages about marriages, pregnancies with or without marriages, illnesses, and deaths.
It was where you saw your friends, made new friends. Over endless cups of Turkish coffee—this was before the Cyprus crisis, and Greeks still called it Turkish coffee—we chatted and swapped stories while the island fishermen, calling “Psariaaa! Psariaaa!,” sold their catch in the square, and the bread man shouting “Psomi! Psomi!,” outscreaming them, stood nearby with his beautiful white mule loaded with different kinds of bread. All the vegetables and fruits one might need were laid out in old baskets under the pines, the farmers showing their produce while their donkeys stood dozing nearby in the shade, tails switching lazily at the flies.
After resting awhile I would run my errands. There was the post office next door, where telegrams were sent and received and phone calls were made—there were no private phones on Sifnos yet. Thomas, with his small grocery shop, ran the licensed National Bank of Greece office, and all minor money transactions were handled there. The butcher next door was called Christo, and very soon, so was I.
Christian is not really a Greek name, and I was quickly rechristened Christo. “Iassu, Christo,” I would hear as I walked down the street, entered Lakis’s, or visited the island shops. “Iassu, Christo, iassu. Tikanis?” I heard wherever I went. I loved it. It was a new identity, a new skin. It was like being part of the language itself. And it was like being somebody on the island, a kind of personage, it seemed to me. I began to introduce myself as Christo to islanders and foreigners alike. People like Chuck who had known me as Christian still called me that, but everyone new called me Christo. In time, Christo the butcher would affectionately call me Christaki or, fonder yet, Christaki mou. I loved it.
There were very few shops in Apollonia then, very little real business as such. The islanders were quite innocent about money, and much of the local economy was barter, the islanders trading their crops and wares and animals. The only good general store, Katerina’s, was farther along, up in Ano Petali, up the steep steps that led to Artemona. The shop was dark and cluttered, foodstuffs and canned goods packed to the ceiling, and you could find almost anything there, or Katerina could. Whatever you asked for, she would give it a moment’s thought and then go to one top-heavy pile of goods or another, find what you wanted, and write out the price of each purchase in a neat schoolgirl hand on the back of an old envelope. Her sons helped in the shop, and if you needed a fresh chicken or rabbit, they would kill it for you right there, neatly wrap it up, and hand it to you.
Katerina’s husband’s father had been a collaborator during the Italian occupation of Sifnos during the Second World War, and many Sifniots would not go near his daughter-in-law’s store. They had suffered greatly in those years, and life had been very hard for them, the occupiers claiming all the livestock they could and plundering everything that was movable. Many people came close to starving. Some young married people in the war years were never able to have children, and they blamed it on the malnutrition of the time.
Decades later, the war years still cast a shadow on the island. In Artemona, a rather grand village with much larger, patrician houses and noble nineteenth-century neoclassical villas, stood a handsome white stucco house with high windows and a tiled hip roof that sat far back from the gates behind an avenue of pines. It seemed like a house with a secret, and indeed, the islanders still whispered when they told you that it had been the Italian headquarters during the war. Though meticulously cared for still, it always appeared empty, the gates and shutters closed, not a sign of life, not a sound other than the wind in the pines. It seemed set apart, cut off, at a remove, quarantined, people not even looking at it as they went past, as if avoiding not only memories but contamination.
Returning from shopping at Katerina’s, one had to pass Lakis’s again, and there was no way not to sit down and have an ouzo and a delicious meze. Ouzo, an anise-flavored drink like the French absinthe or the arrack of Turkey and the Middle East, is clear when drunk straight, milky and sweet when mixed with water. Its high is closer to being stoned than being drunk. And mezethes are little snacks, which Lakis’s wife grudgingly prepared under her mother-in-law’s watchful eye. In spite of his grim-faced wife and his ancient mother watching his every move like two hawks or two old buzzards, or perhaps because of it, Lakis was always up for mischief. He played the grouchy Greek to strangers, but he was actually a playful devil, not above giving pretty, young tourists a pinch. I always had the feeling he did this just to torment his wife, all this flirting around. She and I never actually warmed to each other much, but Lakis and I became great friends; I even got him to part with one of his precious kafenion tables to use as a bar in the house I was one day to buy. This was considered a great sign of affection, but he made sure that his wife and his mother were never to know; it was our secret.
* * *
Like the line from Casablanca: everybody came to Lakis’s. For our little gang, which grew and shrank with the arrival and departure of the island boats, that was where the evening began. After a few drinks, though, we would have to deal with the problem of where to have dinner. You couldn’t stay at Lakis’s; there was no real food. But the choice between the only two tavernas in town was fraught with dire consequences: we knew that either we were going to infuriate Kyria Sofia at her eponymous (from the Greek, thank you) restaurant, or we were going to make the widow Kaliope very unhappy at her little taverna.
These two ladies ran the only two tavernas in town, both of them on the main street, right across from each other. If you decided to eat at Kaliope’s, probably the better restaurant, old, chubby Sofia, sitting there with her always silent husband in front of her door, cutting beans or shucking peas, would glare fixedly at you from under her tightly wound head scarf—she was pretty much bald—and try to ruin your dinner as punishment for your betrayal. On the other hand, though Kaliope remained in her kitchen and was rarely seen, she always knew who was in her restaurant and who wasn’t, and she always remembered.
Probably never having smiled much to begin with, Kaliope appeared to have decided never to smile again after her husband’s death. Her son-in-law, Lukas, waited on tables, and his three little boys tried to help, though they mostly created havoc, running between the tables out under the trees and generally treating the place as a playground. In spite of the recent death and Kaliope’s unsmiling face, it seemed a happy family. And it was delicious food: her revithia keftedes—tiny, highly seasoned fried chickpea balls—were the best on the island, and she knew it.
Lukas was a charmer. He had a magnificent mustache, and his smile was huge, beaming, radiant, and full of sex appeal. Good-looking, strong as a rock, yet playful too, he had a kind of inner glow, as I found many islanders did. It was a warm blush, a bloom, not on the skin but behind it, coming through it. That his smile and his charm made me want to eat at Kaliope’s every night was a fact I was unlikely to broadcast to my newfound friends. I mean, at that point in my life I wasn’t quite ready to say, “Let’s go to Kaliope’s, the waiter’s cute.” Like most Greeks, Lukas smoked constantly and was among the first islanders to succumb to what eventually seemed like a plague of lung cancer.
Sofia’s, besides having no Lukas, was less charming anyway: a few teeny tables jammed together tightly on the “sidewalk”—where, in the years to come, cars went whizzing right over your toes—and inside, a high-ceilinged, bare, dreary room lit with harsh neon lights. The food was good, though, and local Greeks ate there, but it was rarely full. Sofia and her husband made up for it, business-wise, by renting rooms upstairs in the equally eponymous, rather grandly named Hotel Sofia, and they were considered rich. Their son, Francesco, of whom I became very fond, was the chef. He was also the local information center for the island’s few real estate transactions. Sifniots, as I was to learn, were very shy about telling anyone if they were selling houses or land. It was all a great secret, yet the minute a conversation turned to real estate, everyone, in hilarious opera buffa style, would begin whispering excitedly behind their hands.
One of the curiosities of Greek island life was that Sofia, Kaliope, and Lakis’s wife—indeed, all the women on Sifnos—owned their own houses. When a daughter married, she usually received a house of her own. Either she had one bought for her by her father, if he could afford it, or, in a rather brutal system, she would receive her parents’ own house on her wedding day, forcing them out into a smaller dwelling, a barn, or even a shed to make way for the next generation. This protected the women from wandering spouses, either runaway husbands or hardworking ones. For generations, men all over the Greek islands had been leaving to work on ships or in Athens, often for years at a time, or they emigrated, most often to America, and the women were protected by owning the houses they lived in. Thus Greece, or the islands at least, for all the men’s macho bluff, was actually a kind of matriarchy in disguise. This arrangement, I thought, lent a certain ominous weight to the glaring looks of Lakis’s wife and old Sofia.
After dinner we always went to Vassilis’s, another kafenion; his chocolatinos, washed down with some brandy, made a grand dessert. By this time, quite a lot of alcohol would have been consumed, and if I decided to walk home instead of staying with Chuck and Lisa, the hike over the mountain paths, never easy, was downright perilous. But I never gave it a thought. I never needed a flashlight, for the often dazzlingly bright moon made it easy to see the route and gave a sharpness to the night. And even without the moon, the darkness was never so black that I couldn’t find the path. Like a version of “day for night” in old films, it seemed like a kind of false, backlit darkness, and you could always see.
For me, the island night was full of sensuality and mystery. The shape of Sifnos and the neighboring islands floating off in the dark sea, the flowing terraces and walls, and the strange black forms of the trees—all the mysterious images from those nighttime hikes soon found their way into my paintings. The night-inspired images were not only darker but more abstract than the ones I gathered during my daytime walks. The mountains were there, and the monasteries and churches, but the mountains were swirls of dark paint and the churches often dark red against an even darker sky.
I loved those night walks, tearing along over the rocky paths and steps. The exercise, the wind, and the moonlight combined to clear my head of booze and, more important, of the frustration over not having made love to anyone or even having had sex with anyone. I imagined what Chuck and Lisa were doing, and what I assumed everyone but me was doing, and sometimes would get nearly crazy with desire. But by the time I got home, I was sober and exhausted and fell into bed, images of the island at night running through my mind.
* * *
Dearest Axel and Dita,
I am writing this letter sitting on my little stone wall overlooking the sea, and feeling pretty much at one with myself. I paint about five hours a day, walk and sketch a bit, read Russian literature, swim and eat fresh food. Not a bad life. Sometimes I go up to Apollonia to see friends. There I get to eat fruit and vegetables which are rare here at the beach. But much of the time I just stay here in Platy Ghialos. The owners of the taverna are very kind to me. Sometimes in the evening musicians arrive and play folk songs, and the men all dance. There is a Cretan girl who works at the hotel down the beach. She is the only woman dancing and of course rather popular. She has her own Cretan steps, different from the local dances. She dances with the youngest brother of the taverna owners, who must have the bluest eyes I have ever seen, forget-me-not blue eyes. The piercing eyes combined with the black hair and the olive skin and the rosy cheeks is pretty impressive. I imagine those two are having an affair, though of course no one knows for sure.
Sex is very much taboo here even though I am told the Sifniots get quite busy sexually in the wintertime. All these little farm huts, thimones they are called, second homes for the farmers when they are working faraway fields, have little bedrooms—obviously easy places to meet. One can’t help noticing that all Sifniots look a bit alike. There is a Sifnos look for sure. I am forever seeing people I think I know, and it is someone else entirely. I suppose any island is sure to have serious in-breeding, probably incest too. When I asked Christo, the owner of the butcher shop, if he was related to so-and-so, he just grinned at me through his big mustache—how do they grow those?—and said “No, no. Or at least I don’t think so.” Then with a wink, “But of course it could be.” Wink wink. “No. Maybe. Ha ha ha.”
Tonight I am asked to a church festival nearby. “Christo,” as everyone now calls me, is a minor celebrity here. I am probably the tallest person on the island, certainly the blondest, and I do stick out. Of course I don’t mind that. I need to find a book about the Orthodox Church, though, to know more what it is all about, what is going on during these ceremonies. There is something about these churches with their golden screens, and the priests with their tall hats and long beards, that seems curiously familiar to me, almost like some kind of unformed genetic memory. I wish, Axel, you had talked more about Russia, Petersburg, the Orthodox Church. I wish we had made you talk more about it; I know you put it all behind you but I know so little.
Anyway, I am well and healthy. I sleep wonderfully well. My dreams are very sexual, as I imagine you can tell from this letter, and I am writing them down. The island has serious sexual vibrations. Part of its charge for me. It is not sweet or pretty here, like France or Italy. Never “lovely,” but somehow stripped down, primitive, primal, raw.
My skin is darker than sepia ink, and my hair has turned Naples yellow from the sun and sea.
My mother, Dita, was a psychotherapist, a very serious one, with much of her work, aside from seeing her patients, devoted to endless research and papers done for the Jungian Society in Switzerland. I am aware that most young men do not discuss their dreams with their mothers, certainly not their sexual dreams. But I actually read most of her papers, and at home we talked a lot about dreams and all those Jungianisms such as the anima. And she enjoyed it when I talked with her about my dreams.
I suppose I was trying to please my father too, telling him about the Russian books I was reading, though I don’t think he really cared. He had read them all when he was young and could quote from them freely, but after his unhappy youth, he had left all things Russian behind him. Oh, there were a few old Russian prints and drawings, a few rare books, and some of the silver and smaller objects my grandmother and stepgrandfather had managed to get out of the Soviet Union when they fled in 1937. These were objects of fascination and near veneration for me, coming from a past I had never known, but for my father it was over. He even let his Brechneff name go, choosing to be known by his Dutch stepfather’s name. He called himself Dr. Peltenburg, and we were all Peltenburgs when I was young. My biggest regret was that he never taught me or my brother a word of Russian. He spoke Russian only to his adored mother for as long as she was alive.
* * *
I suppose my mother’s interest in Jung was part of the reason why my brother, Michael, and I both ended up in the Rudolf Steiner School in Basel. As a Jungian, she was naturally well disposed to Steiner’s theories about education. Neither Michael nor I did well in the regular schools; primary school, for me, was bad enough, but when I went on to the Humanistisches Gymnasium, I completely fell apart. My brother, two years older, had already been transferred from the Gymnasium to the Steiner School and had done so well that I was soon enrolled as well.
There, my life began to turn around. I did better in all my studies and began to enjoy myself at school and with friends. But there was a downside. Going to the Steiner School, I lost my best friend, Martin, who it was clear had been told by his parents to drop me. In Basel, certainly then and probably now as well, one simply went to the Gymnasium; anything else was deemed to be for the lower classes or idiots, and no proper Swiss went to the fancy international schools such as Le Rosey or Zuoz unless they couldn’t make it in the regular schools. Once I went to Steiner, Martin’s extremely grand family felt that I was no longer a suitable friend for their very golden child. For me the inexplicable loss of my best friend was incredibly painful, and for years, whenever I had anxiety dreams about not passing the baccalaureate, or about a gallery opening in Basel, or indeed about anything connected with Basel, he was always present in them. Many years later, after we had reconnected and he became once again one of my closest friends, I told him about this, and he put his arms around me and hugged me tight and said, “Now you will never dream about all that again.” And I never did.
After a few years, though, I had to go back to the Gymnasium in order to get my baccalaureate. This time I was sent to the Realgymnasium, and besides hating every moment of it, I once again went through the experience of being dropped by my best friend. Only this time it was worse, one of those classic unhappy experiences that young boys with homosexual tendencies—or actual homosexuals in the making—go through. At the Gymnasium I had become friends with David, a strikingly handsome dark-haired, green-eyed boy on whom I developed a huge innocent crush. We were best friends for a time, incredibly close, inseparable even, but then quite suddenly his very wealthy Jewish parents forbade him to see me anymore. I think, indeed I am sure, that his parents were afraid that I was homosexual—one wasn’t “gay” back then—and if Martin’s parents had thought I was unsuitable for their son, David’s parents considered me a catastrophe. And he dropped me. Worse, he turned on me and became my enemy, mocking me to my face and making fun of me to the other students. I was shattered. I couldn’t understand how my beautiful friend could be so cruel. I still can’t. And I often think I have spent half my life chasing down that handsome dark-haired boy in every man I meet.
In part because of Martin and David, and as a reaction to all the unhappiness of those horrible school years, when I was about seventeen, I started to paint. I had never before thought of painting; perhaps I had imagined myself a kind of wunderkind fashion designer, a baby Yves Saint Laurent rocketing to fame at an early age, but never a painter. But once I started, I discovered that painting totally absorbed me. I would paint every night at the kitchen table, watercolors—the images all archaic and primeval and, well, Jungian: huge eyes, ladders to the sky, snakes, flying witches, entire villages in trees, and, my favorites, a series of pictures of a small white plane flying above Europe, the Dan-Air plane I had taken in 1967 when I went to Scotland alone to learn English, my first flight and my first real adventure abroad.
In 1969, when I was nineteen, I had a one-man show at a gallery in Zurich. In the papers I was described as der malende Gymnasiast, the high school artist, and I loved every minute of it, becoming a little bit famous. It was largely because of this show that I was able to get a scholarship to study for a year in America, once again copying my brother, who had already spent a year there in college. The glitch was that I still had my baccalaureate to get through; my American college would withdraw the scholarship if I didn’t pass. But by some miracle I passed, thus proving to Martin, who passed the exams the same year, and, most especially, to his parents that I wasn’t a little Russian idiot with immigrant parents who had to go to the hopeless Steiner School, but that I was as good as their golden boy.
* * *
The Xenia Hotel, at the far end of the beach, had been built in the 1960s, before the Colonels, in the then plausible hope of attracting tourists. During the Junta years, though, almost no one came—to Greece or to Sifnos. It was quite a simple place, really, a chunk of plain government-guesthouse architecture, but in those days it seemed very posh and expensive to me, and I never went there. Close by it, however, was a wonderful hidden rock where the swimming was heavenly, the temperature by June wonderfully, softly warm, and the sea perfectly clear and clean. I never liked going into the water from the sand, so I would go to this rock to swim and sunbathe and read. And soon it became pretty much my rock.
My friends and I never met and rarely even saw any guests from the hotel, whom we thought of as “fancy people.” They usually kept close to the hotel grounds, swimming from the hotel beach and eating their meals in the dining room or on the terrace. One evening, though, I was at my little taverna on the beach when a young American couple from the hotel, newlyweds from the looks of them, arrived all dressed up for dinner. That tiny restaurant was a pretty simple affair—chairs and tables out on the beach, an umbrella pitched tipsily to one side, a scraggly tamarisk tree growing in the sand. Just then Panos and his two hundred goats, their bells tinkling, passed by in a huge cloud of dust.
Paying no attention, indeed barely taking his eyes from his new little blond wife, the man turned and ordered, “Two martinis, straight up, very dry.” “One olive,” he added, turning back to his wife. I snorted a mouthful of retsina through my nose. Aside from the absurdity of ordering a martini there on Sifnos, I was amused by the idea of “one olive” in Greece, the land of olives. The waiter of course had no idea what the man was talking about, so I—a beginner there myself and the only other guest—tried to help them as best I could. But it was useless. They would have to settle for retsina; there was nothing else to drink.
I never saw them again.
Not many people ventured to Sifnos back then, certainly almost no real tourists. There were very few ferries, the Kalymnos being the only one that season and the next, and absolutely no cruise ships. For years the rather poky Xenia and a small hotel in Artemona were the only hotels on the island besides the Hotel Sofia and, beyond that, some rooms to let in private houses. Aside from having no dock in the harbor and no cars to get people around, no buses, and no roads, Sifnos also lacked most of the conventional Greek island attractions. True, there was the supposed longest beach in the Cyclades and many beautiful sights, but no great classical ruins like those on Delos, no huge monasteries like St. John’s on Patmos, no dramatic volcanic craters like Santorini’s. Nor was there any Mykonos-like nightlife—no clubs or even bars other than a few kafenia like Lakis’s.
For most people, I suppose it was too quiet, Sifnos. But people who came and stayed loved the scale and wildness of the island, as I did, its isolation and simplicity. They were hikers or solitary artist types like myself who came to draw or sketch or be alone. More than anything, though, I think they loved Sifnos because of the islanders. It was the Sifniots themselves who charmed you; they seemed so genuinely warm, so cheerful and gracious, their lives so rich and full. The people and the life they lived there, with its seemingly timeless, unchanging rhythms and habits, had a quality of the ancient and eternal alive and well in the here and now. Over time I was to learn that it was a fragile thread that connected them to the past, to their earlier selves, a weakened artery already under attack and compromised by the twentieth century, but for now, blood was pumping through it.
One tended to meet most of the people who happened onto the island; there were really so few of them. There was, for example, a young English couple working on the first maps of the island paths—maps showing everything from the ancient stone “roads” to the narrow, winding, crisscrossing goat trails. They had been coming to Sifnos for some time and were regulars at Kaliope’s. They knew every inch of the island, and walking everywhere with them, I got to know just about every path as well. To this day I believe walking is the best way to experience Sifnos.
Most of the visitors I met that summer were young, wandering backpackers, traveling on the cheap, spending the summer drifting from island to island in the sun. Some of them caught my eye, I must confess, girls and boys who became objects of a fantasy romance, but during those first years I was still very young, and even with the girls I tended to be circumspect. Many of them became part of our gang for a while, friends but nothing more. No matter how much I fantasized about sex with this one or that, I wasn’t about to start having any wild romances in my ruin. I was a novice on the island, a guest, and I had no desire to rock any boats.
One group of young people I got to know quite well: four college students, three of them—Lewis, Richard, and David—Americans, the fourth, Reinaldo, from South America. They were my age or a year or two younger. They had met at school in Paris and were traveling together through Europe. I had very fond memories of my year at St. Olaf College and liked Americans anyway, and we rapidly became friends. And all four of them fell under the spell of the island and stayed for several weeks, one of them going so far as to buy a piece of land high up above the beach in Platy Ghialos. I was quite impressed by this, by someone so young buying land there, but I have no idea whatever came of it, as when he left that summer, I never saw him again. Possibly because their visit had a slightly dicey conclusion.
They all stayed with me in my ruin most of the time, sleeping bags scattered everywhere. I was being particularly hospitable because one of them, Lewis, caught my fancy and I developed an enormous crush on him. But it was a fantasy, I am afraid, indeed worse than a fantasy, a total misapprehension on my part. About everything. Too timid to make my feelings known, too worried about what they might think of me if I made some kind of advance, I was also apparently too naïve—and too self-involved—to realize that Lewis himself was having an affair with one of the other boys.
One night when I was up in the village late and decided to stay with Chuck and Lisa, one of the four of them—Richard, I think—was bitten by a scorpion; in considerable pain and total panic, he ran from the beach all the way up to Apollonia to find me, someone, anyone, to get him to a doctor. By the time we got him to the tiny island clinic, his arm was hugely swollen and the doctor couldn’t do much except give him something to stop the swelling and some tranquilizers, which the poor fellow poured down his throat. We were all nearly hysterical by then, and I gulped a handful of them myself. He was told that if he should ever be bitten again, to soak the wound in his own urine, but he assured the doctor that that was not likely to happen, as he was “going to get the fuck off this fucking island.” He and the would-be landowner, I think it was, left on the first boat the next morning.
I stayed on in my wonderful ruin, but in truth, I never really slept there peacefully again. From then on, I was sure my rough stone walls were alive with scorpions and spiders, and as I drifted off to sleep, I would start bolt upright, sure that every tickle or itch on my body was something crawling up my leg or across my face.
A doctor’s child, I was fascinated by all the island remedies and folk medicines. For example, another remedy for scorpion bite involved catching a scorpion, putting him alive in a pot of oil, and letting him slowly die there while the oil soaked up the poison. And if you’d been bitten, you just rubbed this now magic potion on the bite and it would cure you and ease the pain as well. It seemed a rather complicated remedy, I thought, and I wasn’t about to go rushing about catching scorpions, but most Sifniots had jars of that oil in their houses just in case. And probably still do.
Panicky as I was about scorpions, I was and am even more terrified of snakes. Sifnos is full of very poisonous snakes, vipers living in the stone walls and terraces all over the island. Walking everywhere as I did, I was always coming across them, lying in the sun on the hot island stones, suddenly lifting their sinister heads to glare at me, or slithering away into the brush. When the island farmers encountered them, they killed them and spread the dead creatures across the paths as a warning to other people on foot or as a talisman against them, I was never sure which. Whenever I saw one of these corpses, I usually screamed in fear, not realizing the creature was dead. I even started carrying a knife to cut open a bite so as, I imagined, to suck out the venom, an extremely unlikely scenario.
Later, in the years when my parents started coming to Sifnos, my father, who loved to carve wood, made me a magnificent walking stick from wood he found deep in the valley behind Platy Ghialos. It was very long and beautifully worked, with a wonderful flourish at the top, a bent piece of wood with its sharp end fitted into and through a hole in the main shaft, making a looped handle. He added a metal tip at the foot, a sharp point against snakes or other possible attackers, and I never hiked anywhere without it, endlessly tap-tap-tapping in front of me like a blind man, striking every wall and dangerous-looking rock pile to warn the snakes that I was coming.
Besides protecting me, I fancied it gave me a biblical look as I walked with it all over the island. I was proud of this beautiful stick, and the island men were very admiring too, and a little envious. I lost it several times, and it was always found and returned to me. The whole island knew that stick belonged to Christo, and I have it to this day.
* * *
When I was young, I both worshipped and feared my father. He knew how to carve wood and build campfires and fry eggs outdoors on a flat stone over an open fire—a boy’s dream father figure. But he was also autocratic and controlling in a patriarchal way. He never permitted my mother to learn to drive. And when she thought of changing her Protestant faith and becoming a Catholic, he forbade her to become anything other than Russian Orthodox. I dreamed about him a lot, and in my dreams we had fights, actual physical fights.
As I grew older, I began to realize how sweet he was—almost like an overgrown boy, pottering around their place in the country, a place more Russian than Swiss, a kind of run-down dacha with a huge tile stove that heated the whole house, a woodshop in the shed out back, a rushing river that roared almost through the house, and shaggy, unpruned bushes covered with berries growing up through the overgrown lawn.
Looking back, I see that he was quite wonderful to me, as was my mother. But distant, as I suppose most parents were then. Especially in Switzerland, where it was so formal and strict. People hardly used first names; my mother was Frau Doktor to everyone. And no one talked about sex. I mean, there they were, he a doctor and she a psychotherapist, and I was just as uninformed as any child my age when it came to sex. They told me nothing, nothing at all. I remember poring through my father’s medical books trying to find a diagram of the human body, male or female, with sex organs. I only learned about women and sex while hitchhiking in Italy in my teens from a group of Italian boys who had a pornographic magazine with them that was so terrifying to me, so crude, so bloody and violent, showing an actual deflowering, that I couldn’t get the images out of my head for ages.
And it seemed I liked boys. As I grew older, I knew I liked girls too, but didn’t know what to do with them, how to be with them, how to treat them, anything, and in my late teens it seemed easier to satisfy my seemingly endless need for sex by letting men who followed me in the streets pick me up. And soon I was picking them up in turn. Strangely, I was quite pleased with this hasty, improvised, no-strings-attached solution to my problem. I don’t think I imagined it would go on forever, after all; it was just pleasurable and convenient, I thought, a handy outlet.
But I suppose my ignorance wasn’t really much greater than most children of that time, nor all that dire or all that deforming. Some of it was innocent, like anyone’s childhood experiences. I have an early memory of me at age ten or eleven, walking back from the Gymnasium in Basel as I did every day and passing, at the corner of the Rennweg and Lindenweg, a crowd of Italian laborers digging up the street—not an unusual sight in Switzerland, where much of the work was done by Italians or Swiss-Italians from the Ticino, the poorest part of the country. There were ten or fifteen of them, most of them big, burly men with curly hair and hairy chests. As I walked by, one of them who was leaning on his shovel, taking a break, suddenly reached out, put a hand into what I discovered to my horror was my wide-open fly, grabbed my little-boy cock, pulled it out of my pants, gave it a couple of good sharp yanks, and said, laughing, in his very Italian Swiss-German, to never go around with my fly open or I would get into all kinds of trouble. Some of the other men laughed too. He turned away, back to work. I was so startled I stood stock-still for what seemed like several moments and then hurried away home.
I was, however, so turned on by this event that for weeks—long after the workmen had finished and moved on—I would pass by that corner, lingering a bit, hoping against hope that this terrifying, marvelous encounter would be repeated.
* * *
I was often lonely and melancholic that summer on Sifnos, and the next ones as well. It was not just physical loneliness, longing for companionship or sex, though that was constant with me. Nor even that I spent so much time on my own in the little ruin above the beach. What overwhelmed me was my awareness of this sexual confusion and frustration, and of having no one to talk to about it.
Back then, few young men or women admitted to being homosexual. It was all pretty secretive and lonely, and I had no gay friends, or none that I knew of. I had had plenty of sex with men, but I had no examples of homosexuals or how homosexuals might live in the world. Oh, there were a few people in Basel, homosexuals one knew about and people talked about, most often sneered about, but I didn’t know anybody who was openly gay. I felt totally alone with my confused feelings, longings, and fantasies.
I learned about a couple on the island, Serge and Roger, two men from Australia who had been living on Sifnos for some time, buying houses, fixing them up, and then selling them. They were a bit older than I, both physically quite attractive, and I was dying to get to know them. But they isolated themselves and never made any kind of overture to me. We saw one another only at large parties, and even then they seemed to avoid me. I would often walk by their house in the evening, hoping to run into them, hoping they would see me and ask me in, but they never did. I would just stand there, waiting for something to happen, but they never paid any attention to me. Maybe they thought I was a kind of stalker, hanging around out there, peering into their garden, perhaps a bit of a sexual predator, but either way, they continued to ignore me.
Curiously, their presence there on the island only made me feel even more isolated and alone as a gay person, and I felt this even when I moved later on to the village where they lived. If they would not talk to me about being gay, who would?
* * *
I met Onno at Lakis’s, of course. He was a Dutch architect living in the village of Artemona while he built a house near Poulati, one of the most beautiful churches on the island. He had been coming to Sifnos for several years and knew the island well. Very attractive despite a childhood accident that left half his face paralyzed, he had dark hair and dazzling blue eyes, a particular weakness of mine, as the reader may have noticed. I was very young for my age and very naïve. He was older, openly gay, and very experienced. He had a lover who often came to visit from Holland, and a life that was all pretty much over my head, but here maybe was somebody I could talk to. And we did talk and got to know each other well.
He was attracted to me, and I must have been a terrible little flirt. One day a year or two later, a serious “what do I do now” moment arrived when we returned to his, by then, completed house after swimming and lying naked all afternoon on the rocks below Poulati. All at once I found myself being seriously kissed, and naturally, I was about to kiss back, when I realized the situation could end up being very complicated, and I pulled away.
If I had allowed Eros to take over that afternoon, a lot might have been very different, not only for Onno and me—we remained fast friends—but about my life on Sifnos. It was very clear to me that if I were going to “fool around” with this man, who had a house on Sifnos and came there all the time, I had better mean it; otherwise, hands off. I did not want to be the sort of person who was playing around, sleeping my way around the island as some people did. I followed that instinct for thirty years and more, and though at times it was torture, it served me well. Eventually I had affairs on the island, with men and women, but I never went to bed with someone who was a regular repeat visitor or who had property there. Well, once, a few years later with Joanna, a South African—you will hear about her soon enough—but that was it. And I never touched an islander, ever.
It wasn’t just that any such encounter had the potential for high drama—two people on an island and everything blowing up in their faces. It was about my relationship with Sifnos itself and with the islanders, or what I thought I wanted that relationship to be. I was not there on holiday, passing through on a visit. I knew from the start that I wanted to come back, to stay on Sifnos and work there, and I wasn’t about to muddy my life with emotional traumas and hurt feelings with people I could not escape. I also wanted to provoke as little gossip as possible. A raving artist type I might be, and sex starved I certainly was, but I have always had a strange streak of conventionality about sex, and what I am afraid I must call my “reputation” on the island was very important to me from the very first day I walked into Lakis’s kafenion. I respected the islanders and their systems and codes, and I craved their approval. The newly minted Christo was not about to put his foot wrong.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t horny and frustrated a great deal of the time. I was still a seriously oversexed twenty-one-year-old, and I spent much of my time fantasizing about everyone I came across. I was sure everyone was having sex, everyone I knew, everyone I saw. Be they gorgeous backpackers, beautiful, tanned European boys and girls, or martini-craving American honeymooners, they were all having sex. And the islanders, the beautiful shepherd Panos, the handsome fishermen in the harbor, the wild-looking farmers I met on my hikes, I was sure they were having sex too.
Fortunately, I could express much of this frustration and yearning in my painting. Many of my paintings that summer were filled with strange, menacing birds in whirling dark skies. Phallic cypresses, hills like breasts, hips, and buttocks. But I think I sensed intuitively right from the start that life on Sifnos would actually save me from this sexual turmoil. I knew somehow that I was too young and unformed for the real world, the Great World, sexually or artistically, that here on this faraway island I could mark my boundaries and live within them. Here I would have time to grow into myself; I could grow, I thought, at my own speed and not have my little boat swamped before I had even begun my voyage.
* * *
Panos. Panos with his goats there on the beach. He was so handsome, so playful. I often visited him that first summer and helped him milk his goats. I spoke no Greek, and he no English, but we joked together, laughing and winking, and made lewd signals at each other over the goats’ backs. I had myself fairly well under control around him, but he must have sensed something. Did he really think I liked milking goats? Did I? Does anyone? But my relationship with him remained totally platonic, then and always.
There was a strange moment, though, a year or two later. I was lying naked on what had become my favorite rock in those early days, all the way at the end of the beach. As with the rock at Chrissopighi that a few years later became “my rock,” everyone in Platy Ghialos knew this was where I went to swim. I was lying there reading when suddenly Panos appeared. Out of the blue, literally. Or I thought it was Panos. No, I was sure it was Panos. He went to the next rock, and ignoring my presence, acting as if he were alone, this most beautiful young man took off all his clothes, lay back, and proceeded to masturbate there under the blinding sun, with the sea pounding against the rocks below, almost shaking them and us, the spray shooting up. By the time I realized what was happening in front of my sun-blinded, lonely eyes, he was gone.
It never happened again. Did it happen at all, this … gift? He never mentioned it, never gave himself away with a wink or a sign or a special smile. Nor did I dare do any such thing.
Sometimes I doubt it was truly he in that blazing sun.
No, I know. It was Panos.
* * *
Day by day that summer in Platy Ghialos my friendships with the locals grew and deepened. By midsummer I had been accepted, and was treated as a kind of prized guest. Platy Ghialos was a tiny, remote community lost on a remote island, a handful of people really, struggling to eke out a living from the little valley that rose up behind them or from the sea that stretched endlessly in front of them. The fact that I stayed there in my ruin, living among them in this sleepy, faraway place, was almost a source of pride for them, as if by being there, I did them honor, and they responded to my gesture in kind, welcoming me into their world.
I think my favorite among the locals was Iulie, a fisherman who, it appeared, was equally fond of me. He had a charming grin under his heavy mustache and was always in the best of moods, bursting out laughing whenever he saw me. Totally uneducated and perhaps a bit simple—hence his noisy affection for me—like many islanders, he had never left Sifnos. For him even a trip to the harbor of Kamares was a rare occurrence.
Iulie, together with his brothers Stelios and Stamatis, had a small fishing boat, and every night, unless the winds were too strong, they would set out in their caïque. In the mornings when they returned, I would find them in their brightly painted boat anchored just below my terrace. They would sit there in their sleeveless home-knit sweaters and caps, barefoot, trousers rolled to their knees—on the island, only young boys wore shorts, never grown men—singing to themselves while they cleaned out their nets. I was often up with them, up with the sun, working on light studies of the water and sky, and I loved watching the three of them, singing and happy, the rising sun creeping up behind them over the Aegean. During lobster season they would sell me a lobster for a hundred drachmas, about three dollars, and I would bring it to the taverna to be cooked for me later in the day. Did anything ever taste so good as those lobsters?
Over the years, when I would run into Iulie down in Platy Ghialos, he would scream “Chriiistoo!!” and slap my back, clap my hands between his, and laugh hysterically. Then, winking and leering, he would ask if I were finally married. “Oxi,” no, I would reply, shaking my head. And I would ask the same of him. “Oxi, oxi!” he would answer, screaming with laughter, and we would hug again, two bachelor brothers.
His brother Stelios never married either, nor their sister; both had had polio as children and had bad limps. But their brother Stamatis married a girl called Maria, who was from Exambela. As with Georgos and Aphrodite, who moved back and forth between Exambela and the beach, there were longtime connections between many of the families from these two villages. Maria—with her huge brown eyes, a very low brow, and the alarming hints of the mustache one saw on many young island women—was no beauty, but she was an excellent wife. I knew she had a little crush on me, and whenever she saw me, her eyes would flutter and her smile would freeze.
She and Stamatis were the first to build a house on the inland, mountain side of the road behind the beach, and Maria was especially proud of her garden there. Most people on Sifnos had no gardens, as freshwater was—and is—scarce and far too precious. Yet plants such as red, yellow, or white bougainvillea grew with abandon everywhere, dazzling blue plumbago climbed the walls of houses, and the path to every door was lined with lavender, all seeming to live without any water other than winter rains, the lavender even thriving in hot, dry weather. People kept more delicate plants and flowers in pots, jars, and old tins that could be frugally watered. Pots filled with balls of Greek basil or old cans with huge vines of heavily scented jasmine stood outside most village doors.
There was no running water anywhere on the island, and the only freshwater was what was collected in cisterns from the flat whitewashed roofs during the winter rains. You would see the women recycling water from the kitchen sink and from their washing, even bathing water, carefully doling it out among thirsty plants. But at the beach, curiously, there were actual wells everywhere, and Maria’s garden was a local showplace. She would flutter her eyes at me and smile and proudly point out her latest triumph, a magnificent tomato plant or a tall blue vitex.
Right below me, of course, were Georgos and Aphrodite. That summer and over the years, especially when we became neighbors in Exambela, we were to become firm friends. One late afternoon in July the weather suddenly turned, as it can in Greece. In what seemed like only a moment the endless blue sky vanished, a cloak of gray cloud was thrown over the island, and the wind began to howl. When the wind comes to the Cyclades, it is usually preceded by an uncanny stillness, so profound that if you are asleep at night, it is the absolute silence itself that wakes you. And quickly, while you are still trying to figure out what you thought you heard—in fact total nothingness—the wind slams into your house like a fist, banging windows and shutters and doors. And then it may blow for days and days and days. At sea, it can be terrifying; the beautiful Aegean, stretching away so calmly and serenely to the horizon, can in a moment become the wild and treacherous sea one knows from Greek myths.
That day in Platy Ghialos, the sea turned a deep blue-black, the waves crested with foam, while the sky grew darker and darker and the wind howled down from the hills. It was everywhere, coming from every direction. And then, suddenly, rain came pounding down as well. With no electricity, no radio, none of us had had any warning; certainly I had absolutely no idea what was happening. I stumbled out of bed from a nap, stark naked, and raced around in the now almost pitch-dark, trying to protect my drawings and my supplies and especially my still-to-be-used, very expensive handmade watercolor paper.
Over the roar of the pouring rain and the crashing thunder and lightning, I heard Aphrodite frantically screaming, “Christo! Christooooo!” Assuming she was in trouble, I ran out into the storm to look for her. In a huge flash of lightning, I saw her below, and she yelled and waved up at me to come down from my ruin and stay with them in their house. I yelled back, “Ola endaxi! Efxaristo!,” everything’s fine, thank you! In truth, I felt safer between my own four, albeit shaky walls, where I could keep an eye on my two months’ work. Only when a second flash of lightning came did I realize that if I could see her, she could see me, buck naked outside my ruin on the terrace wall, and I fled inside. Then, in a matter of minutes, almost as suddenly as it began, the storm was over.
Such a storm was almost unheard of in the summer, and later on when this remarkable event came up in conversation, Aphrodite would turn all giggly, vastly amused, it seemed, by the memory of the near typhoon and Christo naked in the dazzling flashes of lightning. Her hand over her mouth, she would lean over and whisper to her friends among the village women, in their black skirts and aprons, their thick stockings and clunky shoes, all of them giggling, whooping, and slapping their fat thighs, and giving me sly looks.
Of course everybody was overjoyed by the storm. No one had been hurt, and to have your cisterns filled in the middle of the summer was a gift from the gods.
Another favorite of mine, old Iannis, had also been a fisherman. He owned the only two-story house on the beach, right there in the middle, the upstairs rooms for tourists. He had two very good-looking sons who, when their father retired, took over the boat, fishing at night and selling their catch during the day from big handmade baskets in the square in Apollonia, making the tremendous daily journey with a slow-moving donkey, as it was more lucrative than selling the fish in Platy Ghialos. Both sons were getting married and starting families, and the house was full of life and laughter.
Iannis had a wonderful face, and I did a couple of portraits of him. Interestingly, he became a painter himself and built a tiny studio to work in. He painted his world of churches, boats, terraces, vegetable gardens, donkeys and chickens, women in black and men in wonderful straw hats, and always the mountains and the sea. He painted in oil, carefully hoarding his paints and using worn-out brushes; in the years to come, I always gave him whatever I didn’t need or hadn’t used when I left in the autumn. I visited him almost every day and grew fond of him and of his paintings. His naïf and very colorful work had tremendous charm, and he also had an extraordinary sense of composition. His pictures were the real thing—nothing kitschy about them. To this day, I regret never having bought one of them; by the time I had a little extra money and could afford it, he was dead, and his family had given his pictures away or destroyed them.
Next door to my friend Iannis was Stavros, a farmer. Very handsome, and always turned out in a wonderful straw hat, it was he who had carted off the beautiful Australian girls and made himself their guide for the few days they stayed at Platy Ghialos before they retreated to the greater comfort of a room in Apollonia. A lifelong skirt chaser, he was already proudly and happily married to Evangelitsa, a sixteen-year-old girl. She was underage, but they had the parents’ consent and, far more important, the permission of the church. Though still almost a child, she was already luscious, zaftig—her name meant “good news”—and Stavros walked around with a little smile and a knowing wink: the cat that ate the cream. Indeed, they produced many handsome children over the years.
Stavros was to become quite rich, for he caught the rising tide of tourism on Sifnos right at the very beginning and rented out rooms in his house on the beach for years. He had not inherited the property, but had had the imagination to buy land on the waterfront when it was cheap, and he made good money when the tourists started coming. Still, he went on farming all his life on his land in Platy Ghialos and his fields up by Exambela. He was to play a large role in my Sifnos life, being the one who took me to Exambela, where his parents and his sister lived, and showing me the house I was to buy.
Quite a few of the people living on the beach were potters, and I enjoyed visiting them in their workshops. These simple huts right by the sea had only rudimentary equipment, usually just a potter’s wheel and a glazing oven. One potter, more up-to-date than the others, used oil to heat his kiln, but most of them still used brushwood. The clay came from the hills behind the beach. When it dried, it varied from light to dark ocher and, when fired, turned a dark reddish brown. They glazed some of the pots and bowls dark green or deep blue with a hint of mauve, and sometimes they traced simple patterns and designs in white on them. These were not objets d’art but useful mugs, plates, bowls, and pitchers, and I bought them when I could. Once I had a house, I filled my kitchen with their pots and dishes.
Sifnos pottery was famous; between the First and Second World Wars, there were said to have been at least five hundred potters on the island. But by the 1970s there were only ten workshops left, pottery appeared to be a dying art, and the potters were pessimistic about the future. But with the coming of tourism in the following years, the craft of pottery had a rebirth of sorts. True, only a few potters still make the old objects whose shapes and colors have evolved over centuries or the more complex pots that their ancestors made for celebrations, settling instead for decorative stuff that is easy to take home in a suitcase, but they are still there, still working.
At the far end of the beach was another couple, total outsiders really, and the butt of many jokes in Platy Ghialos. A colonel, not one of the Colonels, but a colonel nonetheless, had a house there by the road-to-be as you came down to the beach. It was new and quite large, surrounded by a high wall. The colonel himself was rarely in residence, but he parked his ostensible wife there, where she lived mostly alone above the beach. All the women in Platy Ghialos joked about her having a past in Piraeus, and indeed she looked very like Bouboulina, the old prostitute played by Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek, but that was probably just jealousy. Whatever, she was a jolly, friendly soul and always gave a broad, perhaps too-friendly smile and sighed maybe a bit too deeply when we passed each other during her daily constitutional on the beach. Few people spoke to either of them, but in the evening she often sat, in one of her too-short skirts, in the tiny kafenion at the end of the beach, laughing with the fishermen.
As the weeks passed and during the years ahead, I was flattered to be treated more and more as a member of this little community. People took to shyly inviting me to their village and church events and their festivals, and into their homes. I was invited to join them in evenings at the taverna with the barber from Apollonia who played the lauto, a lutelike island instrument, and the farmer from Katavati who played the violin and sang with an incredibly anguished, haunting voice. Unlike on other, less isolated Cycladic islands, whose music often came from neighboring islands or even the mainland, the songs of Sifnos were primarily composed by local poets and musicians, fathers over the centuries teaching their sons the words and music. New songs were often improvised as they sang, slipping in their favorite saints or even local stories and figures as they went along. The music could seem a bit monotonous, more Arabic and Eastern than European, a part of the Ottoman heritage, but there were rhythms and long melodic lines that were very Greek.
Mostly it was the men who sang, as it was the men who danced, alone or together, in circles, slowly at first and then picking up speed until (as we have all heard about) plates started flying, even chairs. Vast amounts of retsina were consumed during these evenings. This wine, which has been made in Greece for centuries, gets its name, and its special taste, from the pine sap (mythically the Tears of the Wood Nymph) that was used to seal the amphorae and barrels in which the wine was kept and shipped. Each farmer was very proud of “his” retsina, and one had to be careful not to offend any of them by favoring one over another.
Retsina is an acquired taste, doesn’t travel well, and is best with local food. It took me a while to get used to it, but I got the knack soon enough, I’m afraid. It was light, and you could drink quite a bit before the buzz turned to a kick. Watching my neighbors during those evenings, I could imagine them during the long, damp, cold winters, singing and dancing like this, late into the night.
* * *
Not everything I witnessed was happy. During the summer I made friends with a young couple who had a house on the beach in Platy Ghialos and a larger house in Exambela. The husband was Angelos, another of the taverna owner’s brothers, and his wife, Nicoletta, was pregnant with their second child. I almost ruined things one morning when, without asking her, I innocently borrowed her red plastic bucket to do some laundry. She was not at home, but still …
“Panagia mouuuuu. Panagia mouuuuu,” she howled when she returned to find her red bucket missing. She ran up and down the beach, searching everywhere, screaming all the time. I could hear the ruckus up on my terrace, where I was rinsing out my boxer shorts, but I had no idea what it was all about. By the time I figured it out and came down, bucket in hand, half the women on the beach had joined her in her search, and now they all pointed at me, calling out that the bucket had been found. I felt terrible. Men are not supposed to do laundry to begin with—Greek society, like the Arab, is riddled with dos and don’ts about what men and women can and cannot do—and obviously you are also not supposed to borrow things without asking. I returned her precious pail with all the smiles and excuses I could muster, but I don’t think she ever really forgave me.
That screaming was nothing compared with what we heard only a few weeks later when, for some reason, her husband went to Kamares to meet the ferryboat. In spite of having had a lot of retsina at lunch, Angelos took his old motorcycle, without a helmet of course, bumped up over the paths and the steps to Apollonia, tore down the steep, twisting road toward the harbor at Kamares, and, missing a curve, sailed off the edge and dropped more than a hundred feet to the rocky valley floor below. He somehow survived the fall and was flown by helicopter to Athens. But to the islanders this was a sure sign of death: once you left on the helicopter, it was thought, you only returned dead, if at all. And indeed the poor young man died in Athens the same day.
I found out about this when I heard the fearful shrieks, the strange, almost ecstatic grieving and keening, not only of the new widow but of her women neighbors in Platy Ghialos. They were all there with her, all in black, hands over their faces, heads thrown back—much as you see mourning women in pictures or news footage from Palestine or Baghdad or elsewhere in the Middle East, their mouths open, literally howling. Being Swiss, I had never heard or seen anything like it, and the hairs stood straight up on the back of my neck.
At the funeral, the first of many I attended in the church of Agios Nikolaos in Exambela, the very pregnant widow in the front was still weeping uncontrollably, moaning, groaning, beating her knees with her fists, and clawing at her bare arms in an extravagant display of grief. Two of her neighbors came to sit with her and restrained her, holding her arms down at her sides. This was a venting of raw, open emotion such as I had never seen, and I soon found myself crying along with many of the other mourners. All these men and women crammed inside the church, weeping and keening, the strange, smoky candlelit atmosphere, the somber, bearded, chanting pappas, as they called the priests, and the sobbing widow were fixed in my mind’s eye, and the cries of grief rang in my ears for long after.
The widow gave birth to a boy a few months later, but she was never again seen in anything but black.
This was my first initiation into the cycle of life as the people of Sifnos lived it. Even though this death was unusual—an accident, and such a young victim to boot—in the end it was simply a death, and for them births and deaths, baptisms, weddings, and funerals were doorways of life one had to pass through. The accompanying ceremonies were layered with traditional, often theatrical rituals, with candles burning, incense swinging, and the mourning or celebrating actors in these dramas crying in grief or dancing in joy. But once the obligatory rituals were completed, life went on as usual. Following this dramatic funeral service in the church in Exambela, the mourners sat together at a reception, drinking, gossiping, laughing, talking crops and business, and arranging marriages.
They had lived this way always.
* * *
Sifnos, and indeed all of Greece, was then and basically still is Greek Orthodox. The church is the greatest landowner in the country and hugely powerful politically. Orthodox means “right belief,” and pretty much all Greeks believe that the Greek Orthodox Church, in whose embrace they are born, baptized, married, and buried, is indeed “right.” On Sifnos, almost everyone wears a crucifix and celebrates his name day, and it is a Sifniot dream to build a chapel in honor of the saint you are named for. More than three hundred of these little chapels are dotted around the island.
Sifnos had been Orthodox since early Christian times, taking its cues from Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and this allegiance continued even during the centuries when Sifnos was ruled by Roman Catholic Venice. The conquering Ottomans who came next, ruling their vast Islamic empire from what was now called Istanbul, interestingly made no move to interfere with local religious practices, choosing instead to manage the Greeks through the Orthodox Church. Thus the curious fact that most of the many large churches and monasteries on Sifnos were built during the more than three centuries of Turkish occupation, during which the church thrived. And when the Turks were finally expelled in 1830, the Orthodox Church was the only real power left standing.
* * *
Even the Greek monarchy that succeeded the Ottomans was never a challenge to the power of the church, perhaps because it wasn’t very Greek. King Otto, the first modern Greek king, was a Bavarian installed on the new throne in 1832 by the British. He was deposed in 1862, but the line of kings who replaced him didn’t have any Greek blood either. In fact they called themselves kings of the Hellenes, not of Greece, and they were actually Danish, with a little German and Belgian thrown in—part of the doubtless hochgeboren but incredibly confusing Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg family, among whose dubious products is Prince Philip of Great Britain. Their hold on power from the start was iffy at best, and they never managed to create a court or an aristocracy of Greeks with a stake in their hold on power. The monarchy was abolished in 1924, reestablished in 1935, and finally snuffed out for good in 1974. And once again, through all these years, it was the Orthodox Church that remained the one and only Greek absolute.
The church is long on ritual and ceremony, and the church calendar is cluttered with many festivals honoring different saints and biblical days. Most of these are taken very seriously and celebrated religiously, so to speak, and among the most popular, at least on Sifnos, are the panaghias. There are several of these each year, rotating around the various, often hard-to-reach island churches and monasteries, some on mountaintops or remote promontories. Most are in the evening, and they are as much social as religious events—with crowds of cheerful islanders not only chanting and praying, but cooking, eating, and drinking, feasting long into the night in the refectories or outside in the whitewashed forecourts of the churches.
The first panaghia I attended was in midsummer of that first year, and it was held at the church of Agia Marina. I learned about it the day before at Lakis’s. Chuck and I were told that it would be at an unusual hour, very early in the morning, and that it was a good three hours’ walk or more, so we would have to leave at the crack of dawn. I decided to stay in Apollonia with Chuck and Lisa. Lisa decided to skip it, but Chuck and I were determined to go, and well before sunrise, alarms clanging, we dragged ourselves awake and struggled into our clothes.
It was a glorious morning, the light before sunrise clear and pink-gold. The sea was calm, and there was a gentle breeze. We didn’t need directions, as we could already see a steady stream of pilgrims hiking up the valley of Profitis Elias and along the mountain ridge toward the tiny chapel of Agia Marina, a white dot in the far distance, hanging on a cliff high above the sea. Chuck and I were pretty much out of breath early on, scrabbling slowly up the steps and along the rocky paths, sweating in the warm air while the old farmers in their home-woven woolen undershirts and buttoned jackets zipped by us, whistling away, smiling, tipping their caps, showing no signs of fatigue. They had been hiking up and down these steps and paths all their lives, but we were still humbled by the show of fitness, in awe of those strong legs and lungs.
At the chapel we were served icy water from the well and offered a glass of retsina or an ouzo by the panigiras, the host of the festival that year. This person was either from a rich Athenian family with connections or family on Sifnos or, just as often, a Sifniot who had saved all year for the honor. It was he who carried the icon of Saint Marina, the central object of the festival, up to the church to be blessed. The host of the following year’s panaghia, already chosen, would have the privilege of lovingly carrying it back to his house, where the holy image would, it was hoped, bring him luck and blessings in the New Year.
Resting, catching our breath against the wall of the forecourt, we could see the island stretching away dizzyingly far below us, and we watched as more and more pilgrims came along the path we had just struggled up. Everyone wore their best clothes, the men striding along together, the ladies trailing behind, some of the older people riding mules or donkeys, all very jolly and festive, like figures in a Brueghel painting. This centuries-old procession wending its way to the church seemed to be coming not just from distant villages but out of the past, an ancient, biblical past, weaving and threading its way into the present.
Once the pappas in their flowing black robes and tall, cylindrical black hats arrived on their mules, it all became a bit more serious. Dipping their heads, they passed through the low door into the small white chapel and slipped into their grander chasubles, and the pilgrims began to squeeze through the door after them. Being the only foreigners, Chuck and I were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but everyone, apparently pleased that we were there, nudged us forward into the chapel, smiling and nodding.
Toward the end of the long ceremony—very moving in its solemnity, even though incomprehensible to us—the priests blessed and cut the holy bread into small pieces for everyone to receive. It was delicious bread, but there was more to come: we could smell lamb grilling and potatoes frying in the old kitchens adjacent to the chapel, and soon the crowd started to move across the forecourt to the refectory, everyone pushing ahead to be the first to share the table with the priests and the host. Even at a religious festival, it seemed that Greeks were wont to push and shove, as if someone had just yelled “Fire!” in a theater. Being adjudged honored guests, Chuck and I were escorted to the front of the line.
The refectory was not large, and clearly the pilgrims would have to be fed in shifts; the long, narrow table down the center of the room seated only about thirty people. At the head sat the senior priest, the host proudly to his right, and we, feeling terribly important by now, were touched to be treated so generously. Chickpea soup and bread were already on the table along with glasses of retsina, little plates of lemon slices, and olives. The priest blessed the meal, and almost instantly the soup bowls were emptied and replaced by plates of the lamb and potatoes we had smelled cooking on the open fires outside. Everyone was starving and ate quickly, Chuck and I among the best of them; with no breakfast, having climbed all that way, we were faint with hunger.
As I ate, I stared at the head priest, transfixed. I was to see this sight again and again on the island, and it never failed to astonish me: he and the other priests, along with the farmers, had removed their hats for the meal, and across the foreheads of all of them was a sharp line where the hats had been; the lower half of their faces, even the priests’, was dark and weathered from the sun while the top half—their foreheads—was startlingly white, milky, eerily smooth, almost translucent, somehow naked. One could imagine that the skin below their collars and above their rolled sleeves was like that—smooth, pale, young. Boyish and innocent. Oops, I thought, too sexy for now, and blushing slightly, I looked away, returning my gaze to my plate and my meal.
Suddenly everyone in the room began rapping their forks and spoons on their plates, making a terrific racket, lifting their glasses as they loudly toasted and thanked the panigiras, the host and donor of the feast, calling out, “Eviva tou panigira!”—good health to the panigiras! Bang, came down the glasses on the table. Then everyone went on loudly and merrily toasting and thanking the cook: “Eviva tou magira!” Bang, went the glasses again. And then toasting the waiters: “Eviva ton servitoron!” And bang, went the glasses one more time. Looking around me in this plain whitewashed, sunbathed room high above the Aegean, looking at those weathered, smiling faces, a bit of retsina in me to be sure, I suddenly found myself tearing up. Maybe I was just young and sentimental, or maybe I was feeling nostalgia for something unknown but somehow remembered subconsciously from my lost Russian Orthodox heritage, but the golden screens and clouds of incense, the bearded priests slipping in and out of the chapel doors by the altar had seemed more connected to me than the austere Protestant services in the vast, beautiful but always icy Münster, Basel’s cathedral.
More important, though, looking around, I felt not only affection for these people but a near yearning to enter this community I had discovered, a desire to be in some way part of this place I had stumbled upon. A homeless émigré’s child banging on the high, closed doors of the city of Basel—always closed, it had seemed to me—I suddenly felt that maybe this was a home, a place of my own that I could come to and feel that I belonged. Then I noticed a farmer I knew slightly from hiking across the island, a man with a weathered, kindly face, watching me from across the table. As our eyes met, he nodded at me and smiled shyly, raising his glass in welcome, as if he knew what I was thinking and understood it.
I was woken from this reverie by a nudge from Chuck, who pointed to the people crowded outside the door, the next shift waiting for their meal, and all of us at the table got up and poured out into the sunlight. The musicians had started to play, and people gathered in the courtyard to sing and dance. But the day was now becoming hot, and instinctively Chuck and I, by some kind of silent mental telepathy, started together on the long walk back down to Apollonia. We walked, almost unseeing, in a kind of trance, neither of us speaking, unwilling to break the spell of that morning.
* * *
One of the charms of these panaghias was that over the years, they led me to places I might never have gone on my own, beautiful spots that were too far off or too high up to think of struggling to alone or without a specific reason. Sifnos was about seventy-four square miles; there were big stretches of high land, mountains, and valleys where you could not see the sea, where you had no idea you were on an island. Trekking off to these celebrations was one way I learned to know the island’s paths and byways, its more remote beauty spots. Over the years, I got to be sort of an expert among foreigners on Sifnos, guiding friends and guests on walks to far-flung villages and monasteries.
Vathy, for example, was a harbor town directly across the southern tip of the island from Platy Ghialos, a beautiful, sleepy place on a closed, protected bay, with a double-domed church almost in the water and the tiny village, only a few houses and potters’ sheds, stretching away to either side. Most people went there by boat from Kamares, a long ride, but once you knew the way, you could hike there across the island—a magnificent walk following farmers’ paths, up and over the top of the island, then through a cut, a rough, wild gorge, and down to the picturesque harbor below. Vathy had only one little taverna, right on the water. You couldn’t order, couldn’t choose, you had to eat whatever it was they had that day, but the food was delicious and you always got a warm welcome.
Artemona, aside from having a couple of the best restaurants on the island, was another favorite place of mine to visit and draw, with its grand villas, with their columned porches and walled gardens, and its several big old rambling farmhouses. In the heart of this handsome town was a large open square with a few houses and the main bakery of the island at one end, some houses and a taverna called Mangana on one side, a big open field on the other, and the church of Agios Konstantinos at the far end. At dinner, one sat facing the field and the church in the fading light while skinny-legged boys in shorts played cache-cache, hiding behind the parked cars or wagons in the square, or football in the field beyond.
The church itself was a unique piece of architecture. Its rather conventionally handsome west front, with two vaults and a bell tower between them, faced the square, but around the sides and to the back, massive slablike walls leaned and heeled and slanted this way and that, like a bunker designed by Le Corbusier. And on the north side of the church an exterior staircase spilled down the raked wall, every step a different size and shape, dipping and tilting and twisting crazily, the whole a piece of sculpture, really, cockeyed and absolutely perfect. And murder to draw.
And there were any number of places closer at hand, nearer to Platy Ghialos, to explore or take people who came to visit. There was Faros, then still a charming fishing village with a harbor full of brightly painted boats and the nearby ruins of the sixth-century B.C. gold and silver mines that had been the basis of the island’s wealth in ancient times. Or Exambela, a farmers’ village reached by narrow stone paths and steep steps. There were no streets, no cars, only farm donkeys tied up by the doors waiting to be ridden to the fields. Almost across the road was the high, fortresslike monastery of Vrissi, its rather grand courtyard a wonderful place to draw—if you were prepared to dodge the advances of the rather smelly monk who lived there alone at that time. He was even more desperate and horny than I, it seemed, and as you stood staring at the altar screen, he was apt to slip up behind you and give you a painful pinch.
Another monastery I loved to draw was tou Vounou, which sat high above the sea overlooking Platy Ghialos and the beach. It had a large flagged terrace shaded by huge pines and a bright red entrance gate set deep in a high white wall. Inside were two courtyards of monks’ cells, one large, one small, on either side of a large, square, domed church; smaller domes, miniatures of the central dome, were arranged at the corners. It all looked a little crooked, almost handmade, somewhere between a sand castle and a leaning, tippy cartoon cake. It is one of the charms of Greek island architecture that nothing is quite straight or symmetrical, but the shapes dip and weave and curve and fold into themselves or into neighboring buildings.
The interior of the church itself was a high white vaulted space, the dome rising above the nave, the altar screens covered with icons framed in gold. The entrance was through the smaller courtyard and a vaulted sort of porch that was a miracle of arches within arches, doors large and small, and even tiny flights of stairs mysteriously going every which way. Here the old lady who took care of the monastery kept her masses of plants, all in pots, some of them vines that climbed up on strings lovingly strung from arch to arch.
Along the opposite side of the courtyard was a row of monks’ cells—one could rent one to stay in—and a small apartment with a kitchen and dining room where this same lady served dinner to the people staying there. She and her husband actually lived in Exambela, but she was at the monastery every day and sometimes stayed the night if she felt she needed to keep her eye on the guests. Many were young and naturally “misbehaved,” sharing cells and beds. Her husband was often there with her. I assume she was paid for caring for the church, but mostly I suspect it was an honor to have the keys, to be in charge of the monastery, opening and closing it morning and night, hiring people to clean and whitewash it.
The walls of her suite were covered with photographs of islanders dating back to the nineteenth century, farmers and fisherman, their festivals and weddings, decades’ worth of the life of the island. The people in the photographs all had what I thought of as the “Sifnos look,” and they all looked just like the islanders I knew. Among the most interesting images were pictures of King Paul and Queen Frederica’s first—and maybe only—visit to the island after the Second World War, the two of them in uniform riding up to Apollonia on donkeys. The islanders line the path dressed in their best clothes, obviously excited, beaming at their handsome king and queen, exhibiting none of the ambivalence that many Greeks came to feel about them—especially Frederica, with her German past (which included a stint as a Hitler Youth)—an ambivalence that was to grow and poison the early hopes for their son, Constantine, when he became king.
The most astonishing monastery, then as now, was Chrissopighi, which we’d seen on our very first drive, a long white double-vaulted church on a narrow rocky point that stuck straight out into the sea. The point had split in an earthquake and was broken in the middle, the monastery courtyard being as it were on the mainland and the church on a little island, the two connected by a slim walled bridge arching over the cut below. Legend has it that the rock was split by the Virgin in order to save the lives—and of course the virginity—of three island women who were fleeing pirates. Another legend says that the church was founded when an icon, discovered floating in the sea by sailors who brought it on board their ship, magically turned toward this rocky promontory and the church was constructed to house the holy icon on the spot.
Arriving, you enter a courtyard with a well and a huge tamarisk tree, a few rooms to let, old monks’ cells to one side, and a kitchen and large refectory to the other. From there you walk across the bridge to a terrace in front of the sky-blue church door, which is set in a finely carved marble molding with an arch above that rises to the bell tower. Inside, the double-vaulted space is plain, except for a gilded screen of icons in front of the altar, punctured by three doors, the middle one open to the altar. The windows, with painted blue frames, open directly onto the sea, and hanging from the ceiling is a miraculous model ship, quite large, but in fact a simple caïque, a gift from someone whose prayers have been answered by the Virgin. Outside, beyond the church, out in the wind, is a handsome marble baptismal font dug into the rock, with a little blue iron fence around it. Beyond that are shelves and sheets of rock where people come to swim. Over the years, those rocks became my favorite spot for swimming and sunbathing, one rock in particular, “my rock,” where I went every day to read and swim after lunch in the taverna on the beach.
Throughout my first years there, the kitchen and the few rooms, and the rocks below, were ruled over with an iron fist by a very large, portly lady named Kyria Kathe. She, like the mistress of the monastery at tou Vounou, lived in Exambela during much of the winter, but in summer she was at Chrissopighi, watching over the visitors. She doled out the little rooms and made sure that no one had a guest in his room and no one on the rocks went swimming naked. Or she tried to. I confess I often swam in the nude from my rock, but it was very sheltered and off by itself, and few people ever stumbled across it. Or else, as is often the case, they incomprehensibly preferred to swim and sunbathe where everyone else swam.
She also cooked meals in the old kitchen for anyone lucky enough to stay there. She was a wonderful cook; her french fries in her own olive oil were the best I ever tasted. We are not talking Cordon Bleu cuisine; Sifnos cooking, like most Greek cooking, is very simple—fresh vegetables, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, fried potatoes, meatballs, grilled lamb chops or stewed lamb, fish, and cheese. I don’t think Greek dishes, any more than retsina or ouzo, travel particularly well, but eaten there in that climate, that air, in those rooms, the windows open to the crashing sea, the food was fresh and simple and totally wonderful.
In later years, when I had bought my house in Exambela, Kathe and I were close neighbors and became friends. Forced out of the big house when her daughter married, as was the custom, she and her husband lived in a rough little house that had been a stable. It was the last building in the village, literally at the end of the road and at the top of a narrow path leading to fields and terraces that dropped down to the walled village of Kastro and the sea. It was a splendid spot, but unimaginably windy. Many barns and outbuildings faced the sea, but no Sifniot in his right mind wanted to live in such a spot. All Greek island houses and villages face inland, away from the rattling, whistling, unpredictable Greek winds. Today rich Athenians and foreigners often build spectacular houses with splendid sea views, but they spend half their time trapped inside, their sealed windows and shutters rattling in the August meltemi.
Kyria Kathe was no longer portly or stout but so immensely fat that she could barely walk. She used two canes and moved very slowly, but she remained cheerful and happy, perhaps because of her husband, Iannis. He was a very sweet old man, smiling down from his mule, his greatest, proudest, most beloved possession. The two of them, he and the mule, and of course Kathe beside him slept only a wall apart in the tiny stable they shared. At night Iannis could hear his mule eat or drink or sneeze or cough or fart, and the mule could hear them too, no doubt, all the same personal sounds. Through a mixture of love and respect and coddling, that mule lived to be more than twenty-four years old.
The little house had virtually no windows and no plumbing, no running water at all, but Kathe always managed to set a most welcoming table with delicious food. To help her earn extra money, I would invite myself to her house for dinner with friends or with my parents, paying her for her hospitality. And it was always a delightful evening.
She, like many of the villagers, loved my parents, Axel and Dita. Because my father was a doctor, and a Swiss doctor at that, he was particularly revered on the island. Sifniots hated going to the doctor, and some farmers never set foot in a doctor’s office in their entire lives. The older generation still practiced folk medicine, herbs and teas and even cupping treatments, something that in Europe went out with bleeding. I had seen it in Zorba the Greek: hot glasses applied to the body—actually to that same poor Bouboulina—to make a partial vacuum, puckering the skin. It looked like agony. And nonsense. Others believed in miracles, of course, offering promises and prayers to their favorite saints. The walls of many of the island churches were covered with silver amulets that showed images of legs and knees, eyes and ears, any and every body part, as tokens given for cures accomplished by the saint of this or that church. But a foreign doctor was something special, something different, a real treat, and wherever he went, Axel was bombarded with questions about the islanders’ health problems.
No matter what they believed in, modern medicine or near-voodoo island cures, all Sifniots loved talking about their health, and they assumed that as the son of a doctor, I automatically knew about medicine too. Whenever I met someone on a path, after the formal greetings the first thing they would tell me was where and how badly it hurt, whatever it was. “Iassu, Georgos. Tikanis?” How are you? I would ask, not wanting to know. “My back hurts. And my legs too. “Panagia mou.” That’s terrible, I would say. And, pointing at his crotch, he would say, “And here there is nothing. Hahaha.”
* * *
The other major walking destination was to the village of Kastro, which sat on a hill thrust into the sea far below Kathe’s house. From there, Kastro was a perfect little hill town, surrounded by a fourteenth-century wall built to protect it from pirates and other enemies. Some islanders suggested that the citizens of Kastro had actually been pirates themselves, but in fact Kastro, crowned by its little ruined acropolis (now rebuilt), had been the capital of Sifnos from antiquity until the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was said to be the oldest continually inhabited town in Greece. In 1832, after the Greek war of independence from the Turks, the capital was transferred to Apollonia, and Kastro began a decline from which it has never recovered—a decline parallel to that of the whole island. In ancient times, Sifnos had been wealthy, for it had more freshwater than most islands. It became rich from agriculture, and it had lucrative gold and silver mines. Under the Turks it continued to thrive; in 1836 the population was eight thousand people, of whom five thousand were year-round residents. By the time I got there, though, there were fewer than two thousand year-round on the island, and a mere one hundred souls living in Kastro.
Legend has it that the island’s decline had in fact already begun in ancient times, when the Sifniots tried to trick Apollo—always a big mistake, as we know, trying to fool the gods. Every year the Sifniots were supposed to bring a golden egg as a tithe to be deposited in their splendid treasury at Delphi, but one year, thinking no one would ever know the difference, they decided to bring only a gilded egg, not a solid gold one; it was their treasury, after all, and no one ever checked anyway. But it was a very bad move: “Such was the wrath of Apollo,” as these things are classically put, that he caused the mines on Sifnos to be flooded and destroyed by the sea, and then, rather than protecting it from its enemies, he let the island be attacked and plundered by the Samians.
From my very first days on Sifnos I had been determined to go to Kastro. I wanted to see it for myself, and I wanted to see if I could find my friend Maya Yannoulis’s grandparents, or perhaps Maya herself. But getting there was not easy. There were plans for an eventual small road down from Apollonia, but meanwhile, the existing path was barely passable, and one of the old Volga taxis struggled and skidded up and down only during emergencies.
My first visit was with my Rhodesian friends, who were as avid about hiking as I was. We chose what looked to be, and was, the most beautiful route, a donkey track that led steeply down from the monastery of Vrissi, near Exambela, past a couple of windswept little farms, goat huts, and dovecotes to the valley floor, where there was a miraculous stream that poured water even during the driest months. The stream, lined with masses of oleander that bloomed profusely, was home to a myriad of croaking frogs, alarming numbers of snakes, and thousands and thousands of butterflies. They were everywhere, yellow and white clouds of them dancing over the bushes above our heads.
This became my favorite route to Kastro, walking down through what I came to call the Butterfly Valley. I would often sit there drawing views of the town rising up in the cleft of the high, terraced hills on either side of the valley, or of the flawless little white church below the walls, or of the pair of domed churches that sat perfectly together, catty-corner, one slightly higher than the other, within the high walls of the village cemetery. These little, perfectly square domed churches dotted Sifnos—some in small villages; others, like these, built along farmers’ paths. They were lovingly tended, whitewashed annually, and cleaned regularly by farmer’ wives or village women. They were the very meaning of homely—very small, very simple, with stone floors, a few caned chairs, and the simplest altars, but they always had fresh flowers and smelled of wax and soap.
That first time, after hopping and slipping over the wet stones in the stream, we emerged from a virtual wall of oleander to find ourselves at a small bay called Seralia. The name probably came from Seraglio, as Kastro was once called, no doubt an all too vivid reminder of the island’s Ottoman past, since the name had long ago been changed. During the Venetian and Turkish periods, Seralia was a busy port, a safe harbor in bad weather. Now it had only a cluster of deserted little houses, and when we arrived there that day, we found one lonely fisherman working on his nets. Startled to see us stumble out of the bushes, but full of smiles, he offered us some water and then guided us up the steep path toward the town that towered over us.
Full of anticipation, we climbed the marble steps and entered the village through one of three massive iron gates set in huge arches, or loggias, a hint of the village’s grand Venetian past. A tiny stone-paved street that twisted away in either direction following the outer walls was lined with white houses, each with an outside staircase to the upper floor. In some cases these projected into or across the street to form low, arched bridges to the next street up, making the town a veritable warren of houses and tunnels. This was not quite what we had expected—such a narrow and rather claustrophobic street—and we could immediately see that most of the medieval buildings rising up toward the center were in ruins. The whole town had a slightly abandoned air, with a strange, empty, hollow quiet to it.
“Where can we get something to eat?” I asked the heavyset lady who ran the tiny general store tucked in the village wall by the gate. We were starving after our long walk. Without looking up from her newspaper, Sotiria, as we were to learn she was called, lifted her chin and clicked her tongue, tst, in that classic uncompromising Greek negative I was coming to know, sometimes finding it hilarious and sometimes, as in this case, not so very amusing at all. There was no food to be had in Kastro, she baldly lied. Of course she might cook for us, she added, and quoted an outrageous sum. She also had rooms to rent, it seemed, but at vast expense. She had nice postcards too, but unless I bought stamps as well, I couldn’t have them. And when it turned out she was asking double the normal price for the stamps, we fled her store.
A bad beginning, but along the street we soon found what we learned was the only taverna in the village, with a terrace clinging to the walls and a lovely view up the valley we had just descended. We got a welcoming smile from Maria, the cook and owner, and her husband. He was from Artemona but had married into a Kastro family. The Kastro blood seemed to have come out mainly in their daughter, who was as grumpy as the shopkeeper by the gate, slamming my plate piled with food down on the table and shuffling back to the kitchen in her broken-down slippers. Looking back, I realize that it must have been a Sunday, as they were serving the traditional Sunday revithia, a chickpea soup. Even here at Maria’s everything was several more drachmas than anywhere else on Sifnos, but the terrace view was spectacular and the food delicious. As we sat there in the sun, Kastro was beginning to seem more charming.
I asked Maria if she knew the Yannoulis family. Yes, she said, but they were most likely not there. They rarely came to the island. But she told us about Margaritha and Fotis, caretakers of the Yannoulis house, and after lunch we were directed to their home nearby. Margaritha, it turned out, was the most beautiful Sifniot woman I had ever seen. Sifnos girls, usually quite short, are often very pretty between the ages of twelve and seventeen, but then they start to lose their looks. Married by twenty or so, they tend to get heavy and, dressing as they all do in drab blacks and grays, long dresses covered with baggy sweaters, they often seem to have just let themselves go.
Margaritha was big from the waist down, but her face was that of an Italian Madonna, and I could sense the Venetian blood flowing through her veins. She glowed with smiles and warmth, and one could not help loving her. Fotis was good-looking, rather fine featured, and friendly. He drove the only car in town, the battered old Volga used for emergencies, which sat outside the walls below. They had a little boy and a girl, whom I was to watch grow up over the years, and the whole family, especially here in slightly spooky, unwelcoming Kastro, appeared totally charming.
My friends and I were supposed friends of the Yannoulises, or anyway of Maya’s, and so they welcomed us into their house, offering us delicious coffee and fresh milk from the pride and joy of the house, their first refrigerator. Electricity had just been installed in Kastro, it seemed. Given the heat of the long Greek summers, I wondered how people lived without these machines, but most did. Some of the tavernas had kerosene refrigerators, but many villagers didn’t even have that.
“Ah, Maya,” they smiled, thinking of her, as I stumbled over my questions. They had known Maya since she was a little baby, and they loved her. Sadly, they said, she came very rarely to Sifnos, but they would certainly let me know if she was coming. Maya’s grandmother lived in Athens most of the time—in some splendor, I suspected—and the house here was empty. I didn’t dare ask them to show it to us, and it was many years before I saw it, a beautiful place, high up in the village, with panoramic views of the sea from every window.
As we were about to leave, Margaritha suddenly turned my cup upside down and, intensely studying the remnants of the coffee on the saucer, started to tell me my future, a common practice on the island. I had never been keen on knowing the future, and of course this time I could barely understand anything she said, but I was startled when she began talking about my being in love with a girl called Pamela: this was actually the name of a girl I had very seriously dated at St. Olaf College. How did she come up with that name there in Kastro? I wondered. I listened more closely, but unfortunately, or rather fortunately, the rest of what she had to say seemed pretty generic. “There are many problems.” Of course. “You will have two children.” Really? “You will have a long life.” Despite this potted nonsense, I couldn’t get over her hitting on the name Pamela, and I thought I would come back sometime and hear more. Besides, I loved her voice and I enjoyed watching her face; I could have watched her for hours, the light pouring in on her.
Afterward, strolling through the village and, as we climbed up toward Apollonia, stopping and looking back in the afternoon light, I fell a little in love with the beauty of the place, the fantasy of this tiny fortified town, a kind of miniature Mont Saint-Michel built out into the sea. I imagined coming back to Sifnos the following summer and staying in Kastro, renting rooms in the town and painting there. Nothing seemed more idyllic.
* * *
I already knew I would come back to Sifnos. I just knew it. In truth, it had not all been easy and wonderful that summer. In spite of friends like Chuck and my neighbors in Platy Ghialos, it had been a lonely and sometimes frustrating time for me. There were days when I hardly spoke to anyone. To be sure, my Greek was mostly mispronounced words and sign language, but it was also true that much of the time I had no one to talk to. God knows I had had no sex, hardly even a flirtation, something almost unimaginable for me. The whole place was emotionally and sexually charged, I felt, but I had been more alone there than I had probably ever been.
Still, I knew that being there mattered to me, that it was important. Most of the time I had been at peace with myself, maybe for the first time. I knew that somehow Sifnos—the island, the nature, and the people—had repaired me. The army, my career, problems with my family, my sense of being an outsider, every kind of tension and anxiety, personal and professional, seemed less important. Here, for the first time, I felt in harmony with my surroundings. My tumultuous dreams had calmed and my work had gotten stronger and stronger, I was especially convinced of that—the most important thing, really. I was sure I had good, new, very different work for my show in Zurich in September, and I was ready to face the challenge of moving to London and starting at the Royal College of Art, a huge leap.
I had come to Sifnos by pure chance, but I knew I had found something, something of my own. It felt like my own invention, this place, and for young Christo, a whole new start, a whole new me. And I knew it was not just a passing fancy, a notion I would forget by mid-February in some amazing studio in amazing London, an idea I would let go of the moment someone suggested something else, someplace new. No. I knew I would come back. Sifnos was already a kind of home. Some instinct had brought me there, and that same instinct—protecting me and giving me time to grow and develop in safety—was going to bring me back.
Copyright © 2013 by Christian Brechneff
Map copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey L. Ward