David ‘Windy’ Baboulene and his friend NotNorman are travelling the world, working on ships. They have taken a few days off to go backpacking in the Greek Island of Sifnos…
We climbed up mountainsides, unshaven and sweating heavily in the late summer heat – we must have looked like bandits – then picked our way down the other side of the mountain and visited remote beaches or tiny white churches. We drank, ate and swam, then set off in the opposite direction to try and walk a different way back. One evening we were returning from a long, long walk, towards the setting sun. We were dropping down from a high pass into the top of Apolonia, the capital of Sifnos. We still had some way to go to get back to our rooms, and the sight of a taverna as we entered the outskirts of the town, with a terrific view across the Kastro valley to a glorious strawberry ripple sunset, was too much to pass up. We fell gratefully into the seats on the raised balcony, under a canopy of bougainvillea and grape vines, and removed our backpacks and hats. We were tired but happy and this was just what we needed - a scene of earthly perfection.
A short lady came out. She put her hands on her ample hips and smiled at us. She didn’t speak any English, of course, but her words appeared welcoming, and we were able to sort out some cold beers. It was glorious. So glorious, in fact, that we undid our boots and stayed for another. We were the only customers, so the lady was using the lull in trade to feed her family inside the house, emerging only to pick some oregano from the borders of the balcony. So that was why the air was so fragrant. She took the herbs back indoors. We could see the family eating through the open door, and it had a profound effect on us. I looked at NotNorman. He looked at me. We knew what we were thinking and we called for the lady. It didn’t take too much in the way of charades before she brought an enormous tray of food out to show us. She pointed at it and said, ‘Yovetsi. Yo-vetsi!’
It looked like meat in giant rice (which turned out to be pasta) baked in a fresh tomato sauce. We nodded enthusiastically, and were soon rolling our sleeves up around huge portions of yovetsi, along with Greek salad, zingy olives, Mizithra (a strong, creamy version of feta), and a local retzina wine. The flavours tumbled and rang and burst together in wonderful ways. The sun turned red, and dipped its bottom into the distant Aegean, leaving its colours to bleed across the horizon, turning the sky pink and the clouds orange. NotNorman and Windy were happy, happy boys.
Eventually, we knew we would have to move. It was a shame, and our feet argued strongly the case against, but it had to be. We called the lady and asked her for the bill. She smiled broadly, happy that we were happy, then went into the house, and came back with the tray of yovetsi and began to load our plates up again. We made the international signal for stopping, and signed our names in the sky to get the bill. She seemed disheartened that we didn’t want any more yovetsi, but at least we’d made ourselves clear now.
She went back indoors and returned with another carafe of retzina. We tried to turn it away, but she wouldn’t have it and refilled our glasses. We tried all the hand signals we knew for refusing food and wine and requesting a bill – along with some loud schoolboy French - for some reason – but to no avail. We now had plates full of food again and glasses full of wine, along with a side order of frustrated Greek lady regaling us with a continuous tirade of Greek. We got some cash out and pointed, but this just seemed to frustrate her all the more. In the end, she threw her arms in the air, went indoors and chiselled her husband from his chair. He came out sighing at having been disturbed. I got the feeling he would rather work with donkeys and chickens than holidaymakers. His hands were gnarled from working the land. His face was hard-baked from the sun, and the children ran round his legs as he harangued us with another pointless tirade of Greek and flamboyant hand signals. We stared back blankly. There was a moment of silence before the lady doubled up laughing at her husband, who threw his arms towards us before turning away so the couple could shout at one another for a while without breathing in. They were quite a double act, although the man seemed to be genuinely annoyed. He turned back to us and started rattling off again. The children gabbled and danced around him like pixies. Six goats arrived at a raised fence on one side of the balcony and turned their heads on one side enquiringly. From the way the couple were going at each other, I would have thought they were having a massive argument. I only knew they weren’t from looking at his wife, who shook her head at her man with a disarming mixture of love and mirth in her eyes. Neighbours came out and started to join in, shouting their opinions from the windows opposite and from doorways up and down the street, but none of them made any more sense than the goats, who were also singing along by now. NotNorman and I sat bemused in the middle of it all. We were becoming an attraction. Nobody seemed angry, but something was definitely amiss. I couldn’t figure it out.
In the end the man seemed to have had enough. He threw his hat on the table and marched off up the street, swearing roundly at the ground as the kids danced along behind him. The woman indicated that we should wait. She sat us down again, and poured us fresh glasses of wine. NotNorman and I tried to work out what it was they wanted from us, or that we were doing wrong. It was utterly mystifying. We had no choice but to wait and see.
Then we found out.
Back down the track tramped the husband, muttering to himself in between shouted comments and gesticulations to his neighbours. He was followed down the path by his dancing children and by a shimmering ring of white light. It was extraordinary. The light was moving behind him, so bright at its centre that I could not looketh upon it. So unearthly was it, that I could not heareth the sounds around me. So compelling was it that I was rendered powerless and could not move. So glorious was it that I could not close my mouth and stop mine dribblethneth.
The chaos surrounding us continued as the husband arrived back on the balcony. The light pulled up beside us, and smiled. A waterfall of red-brown hair framed an achingly beautiful dormouse face and cascaded down around bronzed shoulders. The rest of the world dropped away to nothing around her.
‘Hi,’ she said, smiling. ‘You got a problem?’
‘C-c-c-can I touch your hair?’ I said.
Fortunately, my words were so crushed by love that they emerged only as a whimper.
‘No, we don’t have a problem. At least, I hope not, anyway,’ said NotNorman in a put-on posh accent, and then he laughed a girly laugh and twiddled his fingers in front of himself like Stan Laurel. Good grief. He fancied her. I felt an instant welling of hatred for the man. What made him think he had any chance with a vision like her? He needed shooting. ‘I think we could do with some translation though, if you speako da lingo!’
His appalling Greek accent was patronising and not in the least bit funny. In fact, NotNorman had to go. She would never spend her life with me if I was associated with him. I suddenly realised just what a turkey I’d been hanging about with for the last year. Whatever did I see in him? I would have to man up, say something appropriate and take over before it was too late.
‘J-j-j-j-ust one stroke of your hair and I’ll be happy forever. I won’t ever ask anything more of you ever again if you would just let me touch your hair… ’ I dribbled.
She kept up her smile through my pathetic display, and held out her hand. ‘Hiero poli – pleased to meet you.’ she purred. ‘My name’s Hiftyniftyhoshtihairyboshtiblimmikos.’
Well, it sounded a bit like that. NotNorman shook her hand – I mean, he actually touched her. I just about fainted from being so close to such a moving experience. I heard a whining noise emerge from my throat. It was jealousy. I wanted to kill NotNorman for touching something so sacred.
‘Are you Greek?’ asked NotNorman, pathetically. ‘You look Greek, but you talk like a flaming southerner!’ He laughed again at his desperately unfunny joke. I searched the table for a form of cutlery that could see him off. But WonderGirl was equal to both of us so far.
‘My family are from round here,’ she explained. ‘But I live in
. I’m on holiday from college in England at the moment.’ London
The Greeks around us were getting louder again, all talking at once and running in circles waving their arms around.
‘S’cuse me a minute,’ she turned to the Greek couple. She breathed in deeply through flared nostrils. Her face turned into that of a frighteningly angry person. Her hair turned into raging flames, her forehead grew and her veins stuck out on her neck and temples. She shook like a rocket about to take off – and then she launched. A massive, guttural tirade of full-tilt Greek emerged from her throat and her body flexed and gesticulated as if she was mid-exorcism. She was like a completely separate human being, throwing her hair about with all the eye-rolling and back-arching and dismissive facial expressions of a native Greek. And the restaurant family came back strongly at her in similar vein. It was as if someone had just fired the gun to begin a break-dancing and shouting nonsense competition.
Have you seen those kids’ toys – Transformers? WonderGirl was like one of those, transforming from ‘Vision of Feminine Excellence’ into ‘Whirling Greek Mad Woman’ as if someone had thrown a switch. She then reached the end of her sentence, turned back to us and melted into perfect smouldering beauty mode once more.
‘They say you are trying to pay them,’ she said, like we were weird or something. She wrinkled up her nose in a way that gripped me by the testicles, twisted, pulled and enslaved me for life.
‘Of course we are!’ said NotNorman. ‘We’ve sat here for hours! We’ve had beers, and wine and dinner and everything but they don’t seem to want any money!’
He then slapped my hand down sharply behind her back, where I had been hypnotically getting closer and closer to stroking her hair.
‘Why should they?’ she said. ‘This isn’t a restaurant. You’re insulting them by offering them money.’
‘Not… not a restaurant?’ said NotNorman. It was kind of appropriate that NotNorman should attend a NotRestaurant, but the truth was dawning. This was someone’s home. We were sitting in their front garden. We had dumped ourselves on the balcony of perfect strangers. They had brought us beers and their personal wine, whilst we snapped our fingers for them to bring us their family meal. Good grief, how embarrassing.
‘My God! What amazing people!’ said NotNorman. ‘We didn’t realise! Surely, there’s some way we can repay them for their hospitality?’
WonderGirl shrugged. It was a delightful, heart-melting shrug. A shrug so perfect it made you desperate to stroke her hair when she wasn’t looking.
‘Their son is getting married in the church up the hill there next weekend. You could turn up with a gift. They’d be really touched and you’d get invited to the celebration. It’ll be pretty amazing.’
‘Ach, no good,’ said NotNorman. ‘We’ll be gone before then.’
‘Well, there’s always the paniheiri – a festival – at the same church. We’ll all be there dancing and eating. You should come along to that.’
‘Perfect! When is it?’
‘March 13th’ she smiled – it was early October at the moment – and she turned to go. The kind of turn to go that tells a man she might leave his line of vision. This would be the type of disaster that would have brought Hercules crashing to his knees. I hadn’t considered life’s picture continuing without her being in it.
‘No!’ I shouted. It was the first fully-formed word I’d spoken since she arrived. She turned back with a start and looked at me for my next golden words. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t see, speak or think. I didn’t say anything.
WonderGirl put her head on one side and smiled sweetly, a look of sympathy on her face for whatever mental affliction I was labouring under. Then she turned away again. I went to shout, but I couldn’t. She walked back up the path, and her light blinded me again. I couldn’t live a normal life without her near me. In fact, I couldn’t live a normal life when she was near me either, but it was infinitely better than the dark, harrowing existence foisted upon us everywhere else in all the world where she wasn’t.
‘Phwoar! D’you see the arse on that?’ said NotNorman, crudely adjusting his trousers. ‘I’d love to give her one, eh?’
You see what I mean? Dark and harrowing. He needed shooting for the good of civilisation.
We got up to leave, bowing and thanking the wonderful people who had fed us. They nodded and waved with big smiles on their faces, and nodded more when we promised them in slow, patronising English (delivered backwards) that we would be back with a gift sometime soon. We wished them luck with their wedding. The unspoken words spoke volumes. They were fine people who were happy to make us feel welcome. They knew we were grateful and they were pleased by that. It was payment enough.
* * * * *
I returned to Sifnos five years later on March 13th and went to that same church with one aim in mind. I found WonderGirl and somehow tricked her into going out with me.
We now have four children and celebrated 21 years of marriage in 2010. We live part of the year in Sifnos, and still, to this day, the couple whose balcony we adopted try to feed me every time I pass their house.
The books of my travels - Ocean Boulevard and Jumping Ships are published by Summersdale. Available everywhere.