Psalm on Sifnos
One does not want,
O Lord, to heap
Up by still waters
Of words a cairn
But hopes to attend
A small covert
Whose leaves salty
Will shed light over
A thickened plot.
One wants at last
To cede the field
And mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seed in the stones.
Like this poem by Stephen Yenser, a straight-razor-witted fellow Hellenophile I got to know on a visit here several years ago, the island is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. From the ferry, Sifnos looks denuded, its smooth volcanic peaks all sun firing across a yellow skull. Disembark, though, and you begin to see that flora here is cunning, vines shifting along every available crack in stone, tamarisks lining the beach, olive trees low and orderly up on the terraces digging their roots deep.
The people living here are pretty clever too; over the last five thousand years they’ve developed an architecture and agriculture to survive in style. Their houses are all clean lines and square angles, a series of unfolding cubes, thick-walled to be cool in summer, warm in winter, and painted uniformly white, shutters a limited variety of blue, green, brown, and pink. The blue and white domes of churches—one for every day of the year, one for every sixth Sifnian—speckle each inhabited hillside. Shrubs, vines, and fruit trees surround the buildings: lemons, limes, oranges, figs, pomegranates, mimosas, almonds, cascading bougainvillea, shady grape arbors, banks of flowering capers and night-blooming jasmine, enormous geraniums, and on and on. Beyond the limits of each town there are farmers’ fields, orchards, and pastures, chickens pecking, goats grazing, the odd cow, pig, or sheep poking, donkeys, horses and mules performing their tasks or stalling in attitudes of sublime passive aggression.
And of course there is the sea. Visible from virtually every inch of this island. It’s kind of blue.
Our arrival on Sifnos was a happy accident. In the summer of 2000, we found ourselves between apartments—Sabina Murray, Nicholas, our first child, two years old at the time, and I. In September we were to move into free housing on the campus of Phillips Academy, Andover, where Sabina would serve as writer-in-residence for three years, but until then we had nowhere to go. We looked into summer sublets and seasonal rentals in Boston, Maine, southern New Hampshire, the Jersey Shore, all places near friends or family, but found nothing we could afford. It was actually cheaper, in the last years of the drachma, to go to Greece for a couple of months, than to stay in any of those local places. We moved around the Aegean that summer, but Sifnos was our favorite spot and we continue to return there when we can.
Our apartment on Sifnos abuts the grounds of the chapel of Panagia Ouranofora, once a temple to Apollo, the god from whom our town, Apollonia, the island’s capital, takes its name. Lengths of marble column and fragments from the walls of the temple have been integrated into the more modestly designed church, and ancient marble blocks still provide a few of the long steps up from the steno, the path that cuts between a block of terraced white Cycladic houses and Mamma Mia, the popular Italian restaurant next door.
I feel deeply moved by this site; I’m at home here.
She’s more than half serious. I grew up there with my mother’s family from Sicily. Cusumanos, Catalanos, Frangiamores and Federicos. As it is with other émigrés, my old country, my New Jersey, is gone, colonized by time and change, made unrecognizable by a tyrant present. I wasn’t around to see it happen. To observe without noticing. I go back as often as I can, but I’m a shade there, almost as out of place as I am in Sicily, even though I visit family in both places. Before Elizabeth and Rahway, we’re from Agrigento, Akragas, an ancient Greek colony. According to my grandfather, our family house of worship began as an altar for Phoenician traders, sailors from the Eastern Mediterranean, some of the earliest visitors to the island. Later the Greeks raised a temple around that altar, offered their own sacrifices there. The temple was rededicated by the Romans when they colonized us, consecrated as a church after Constantine Christianized the empire, converted to a mosque in the time of Arab rule, and re-transmogrified into a Roman Catholic church under the Normans. Even if it is in the old old country, I pass many days feeling very much like that building.
I prefer going to Greece because Sicily is fraught for me: I’m more of an outsider there even though I look like everyone in town. In Greece I’m an outsider, sure, but a kind of distant cousin. There’s a certain level of acceptance, even welcome, offered to me, attended by very low expectations. You’re here? Great, just don’t get in the way and we’ll all do fine.
The same courtesy extends to my family. Sabina, who is half Filipina (Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese) and half Irish, is a chameleon: she looks Asian in Asia, South American in South America, Mediterranean here. Our sons also have friends of their own in Greece. Although our command of the language is limited to the most basic transactions, that seems to satisfy us. Until we open our mouths, we even pass for Greek.
I don’t mind not understanding what people are saying. It reminds me of childhood—and I don’t just mean the English words and constructions that flew over my head. Between my family and neighbors there was always some unintelligible language being spoken: various Southern Italian dialects, Spanish from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the DR, Armenian, Yiddish, German, Ukrainian, and whatever the hell my buddy Paul’s grandfather McCarthy from Cork was firing from the side of his mouth. It was just a given that you couldn’t understand everything being said in your presence—even if you were the one being addressed. You moved from Dennis Rivera’s apartment to the Keossians’ to the Smiths’, you ate the food, played the games, took the physical and multilingual abuse from the older siblings, and you tried to keep your head down, avoid attention. There was nothing profound about this—it was the Negative Capability of the quotidian. A humdrum not-knowing.
(For a brief discussion of the Greek economy and links to articles on the Greek political situation, please see yesterday’s post.)