Travel Writer & Author
The Sifnos Chronicles
WE COULD EAT ELSEWHERE tonight, our first night back on the island. There’s the blue-shuttered café-restaurant where the owner will bring out a bottle of ouzo and glasses after we’ve paid. Just up the way, the place whose tables fill both sides of the whitewashed alley and whose waiter is missing a good part of two fingers. Or Roula’s because, well, it’s where everyone goes. In the end, though, no real question exists. Beautiful Sifnos Taverna it will be.
How clear our memories, my husband’s and mine. How often we’ve giggled whenever we’ve talked about that September night almost exactly two years ago, our very first and jet-lagged day on the island of Sifnos, our second day ever in Greece, and the first time we laid eyes on this taverna’s owner. About how his owl eyes blinked behind his thick round glasses while we flipped through his multi-paged menu. About how his young daughter wobbled across the terrace and between tables on her pink training-wheeled bike. And about the answer he spit out when I told him what I’d have. The moussaka.
I turned back to the menu.
“No,” came, too, the response to my second request.
Eventually we sorted it all out, our travel-tortured stomachs were soothed and we’d dipped our toes into Sifnian life. Over the next three weeks of mornings, beside the square in Apollonia, the main town in the centre of the island, we greeted the day with a mug of strong coffee and watched old men on tree-shaded benches clack strings of beads. By day, we hiked across sage-scented hills on the island’s ancient marble-paved paths, explored quiet coves where fishing boats floated on a transparent sea, and pointed our cameras at sugar-cube villages and at goats nuzzling sunburnt rocks for morsels of brown grass. By evening, at tavernas perfumed with jasmine and the spice of night-blooming flowers, we spooned cool, garlicky tzatziki onto chunks of soft bread and then tucked into mastelo, Sifnian lamb cooked in red wine in a clay pot, and oregano-dusted souvlaki that smelled of the fields.
And as the heat of September yielded to the winds of October, we found ourselves returning more and more often to Beautiful Sifnos Taverna. The Happy Greek's, Jim dubbed it. But despite its leafy grape arbour that sheltered us that first night, never again did we eat on the back terrace. That was for tourists. Anyway, inside was more fun.
When, at the end of three weeks, we boarded the ferry to leave the island, that was it, we’d decided. It was unlikely we’d return. Oh, we’d loved Sifnos but the list of places we want to travel is long.
AND NOW, back we are. Tonight, as soon as we walk into the square on our way to Beautiful Sifnos Taverna, I spy The Happy Greek right where I predicted, propped against his doorway's well-worn jamb. We’re halfway across when his eyes open wide and his jaw drops. "You!" An index finger jabs toward Jim.
Jim nods. "Us. It's two years ago we were here.”
“Two years.” He seems somehow surprised to hear that.
Our usual table, the one near but not quite at the front door, the one it took almost two weeks to work our way up to last time, I was sure would be filled by now. But no, it’s still open. Soon we have menus and our host stands over us, pen poised over notepad.
Jim doesn’t even bother to open the cover. "Do you have something good to eat tonight?"
"Yes," comes Happy’s clipped answer, and with that he turns and strides out the front door and he’s gone. Now, this I call progress.
You see, we’ve learned. We know now that every meal of ours at Beautiful Sifnos starts off something like this. That more likely than not, usually immediately upon taking our order, he’ll stroll out the front door and disappear up the street. That in the end he’ll return, we’ll be fed, always are. Though in what order and over what period of time our food and drinks might arrive, there is no way to begin to predict. And that none of this matters a bit.
Earlier today I saw his little girl wheel up the main alley. She's grown in two years, as kids do. This bicycle is red, the training wheels gone. The wobble, too. So is the purple plastic purse she used to take everywhere with her. Her dark eyes still have the same determined flash, though, and a few minutes ago, her thick curls ringed with sweat, she muscled the bike in through the front door, leaned it into the back corner and dashed back out to the square.
Her mother, a shortish though not slight woman with curly hair too, comes through the front door. She surveys the room then marches to the back table, ties on her apron and spits out a series of orders. Oh yes, that voice. It can still rattle a room.
Before long Happy, returned from outside, walks past us, parks himself in front of the tiny TV mounted high in the back corner and stays there until the program breaks for commercial. This, too, we’ve come to expect.
At long last he’s back at our table. He leans forward onto both fists and, eyes flitting between us and the TV, launches into a well-practised list. "I have lahm, stuffed toe-mah-toes, stuffed egg-plahnt, beans in tomato sauce, rrrabbit … And, offf courrrse, the grrrill.”
Of course. The grill. "Two pork souvlaki," we tell him. “And Greek salad.”
"Porrrk sou-vlaki. Grrrrrreek salat." He scribbles it all down.
Order taken, tonight quite unusually, he gets right down to business. He shakes out a paper tablecloth, smoothes it down, stuffs it under the elastic that encircles our table and gives this a snap. He drops off the salt and pepper, the oil and vinegar, the toothpicks, the basket with the bread cut, offff courrrse, almost but not quite through. Then he replants himself, neck craned upward, in front of the TV.
It takes no Greek to understand what happens a few minutes later. The wife barks three syllables. Happy jumps, goes into the kitchen, emerges with two thick tumblers and a pottery pitcher and carries these toward our table. He stands beside us with his eyes firmly affixed on the screen, and aims the glasses downward.
Thunk, thunk. They’ve arrived. He's done this before.
The pitcher, our home wine from the barrel, begins to follow, then stalls mid-air. It hovers. A weather map has appeared on the screen. Sunshine tomorrow, warm temperatures in the islands and most of the country. Except for Thessaloniki which shows storm clouds overhead. The TV fades and shifts once more to commercial. Clunk. The wine’s made it, too.
Oh, yes. This is going to be fun.
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