I hadn’t come to the Cyclades for the famous islands. I was there for me. The invitation to join my friends there had showed me a simple truth about myself: I never took real vacations. Like most Americans, I had accepted the loss of even the idea of a vacation as a fact of what everyone kept calling the new economy. As a freelance writer and a “visiting writer” at a small liberal arts college — a sort of high-end adjunct professor, better pay but with all of the uncertainty — vacations meant working vacations, or, as I liked to call them, “really beautiful places I have freelanced from.” As a writer, the time I don’t work is never very clear; I am as likely to get an idea at 11 p.m. as I am at 11 a.m., and if I ignore them, they tend to go away and not come back, and so I had learned to just go and write, no matter the hour. But I had come to feel a little like an on-call doctor for patients who would never fully explain themselves to me. I was also teaching writing, and that was its own blur of constant tasks, email in particular. I was, then, determined to have my first real vacation, even from writing.
In my carry-on was a Moleskine notebook with a set of black pens, for sketching. My brother had given it to me, saying, “I remember when you used to draw all the time.” I did too, and I missed it. The notebook was like a new door to an old place, one I wasn’t sure how to get back to. The gift was several years old by this time, and I had taken it along on trips before and left it empty each time. I hoped this time to fill it.
I’d never been to Greece before this, and as I was unsure if I would even like it, I’d set myself up for just 10 days, which, as soon as I arrived felt like not enough time. Because I loved Greece instantly, more or less as soon as I’d exited the plane in Athens. And I loved Sifnos instantly also. That first morning, I woke up in the one-bedroom efficiency I’d rented in the same complex as my friends, in Apollonia, the island’s capital city, and stepped out onto a patio lined in bougainvillea, mimosa and what looked like bearded orchids, which I quickly learned were caper berry blossoms. That air was fragrant with oregano and sage, which grow wild on the surrounding hills. Three adorable tiny kittens and their mother, who all seemed unsure if they would beg for food, were on my lounge chair, and this was how I met the first of the skinny cats of Sifnos.
I went for a coffee, and to buy some groceries. As I walked back by the line forming for the bus to the beach, I noticed the busy traffic in scooters and motorcycles zipping by and knew instantly I didn’t want to wait for a bus. I rented a scooter for the rest of my stay, easily the best decision of the trip. After the agent warned me about the speed limits — 20 kilometers per hour in town, 40 pretty much everywhere else — I put my notebook and pens in my shoulder bag, buckled my helmet on and was off.
The routine I quickly established: wake up, get a coffee, drive to a new beach, order breakfast — typically an omelet, which meant a sort of wide circle of egg batter dotted with tomatoes and cheese, a crinkle of salad as a garnish. After I ate, I drew. That first morning I went to the beach my friends had said they always went to, Platis Gialos, where, after I noticed the pictures I tried to take of the landscapes all seemed to make everything small and dull, I finally took the notebook out, and a pen, and traced out the horizon in front of me without looking at the page, an old drawing class exercise. The outlines were satisfying to me, and so I kept at it, beginning to fill the drawing in. The final result was O.K. — not amazing, but not terrible. More important, I could sense a new sort of calm.
Of my friends there, the one who inspired me most on that trip was a chef who ran a thriving catering business back home. He came every June with a year’s worth of New Yorker magazines in a suitcase, as he didn’t have time to read them during the year, and over the course of the month, he would get caught up. Each day he sat out on his lounge chair in his bathing suit, sunning himself as he read, alternately stern or amused. He was still cooking a little while he was there, usually breakfasts for himself and the children of our mutual friend Sabina. Once breakfast was over, though, he was regimented, on a schedule of enjoying himself, and he looked visibly relaxed in a way I had never seen him back home. This dedication to a regimen of a kind, one entirely alien to his normal life, was what I was after.
The next morning, I found Cheronissos, a town on the island’s north side, much smaller than Platis Gialos and with a long cove that leads to the beach. I had breakfast there, and stayed and drew until lunch. By the third day, this was my regimen, and for the rest of the trip I went to a new beach town every morning, had breakfast and made drawings until noon, before leaving to find my friends, who were usually at Platis Gialos. There, with my friend John, Sabina’s husband, I practiced the art of swimming while drinking beer and wearing sunglasses.
Drawing is an excellent way to remember a place. In my mind I can still see clearly the towns I drew and the mornings I spent there. Vathi is the luxury resort, the place the yachts tie up, a spectacular cove surrounded by mountains. Heronissos is for the fishermen, the far-flung northernmost town reached only after a long drive braving the winds — the only time I questioned the wisdom of my scooter rental. Faros has ruins on the hill across from the cove that I drew, brick by brick.
The modern reputation of Sifnos is as a place known for its food. A 28-square-mile island with a small year-round population, it is blessed like the rest of the Cyclades with beautiful beaches and coves, mountains and olive trees. Located southwest of the more famous Mykonos, Sifnos was, at this time, not as popular with Americans, more of a weekend trip for Athenians. It is the birthplace of Nicholas Tselementes, the country’s first celebrity chef, who is credited with having either modernized Greek cooking, with the invention of moussaka and pastitsio, or having diluted it with European influences. A copy of his 1932 cookbook is likely still in many Greek homes, and his recipes are still served all over Greece and in most Greek restaurants around the world. Sifnos, though, isn’t known to Greeks for just his food — the island is full of good restaurants, and even the most modest places do well by you.
The famous islands never drew me away. I was more interested in the little mysteries I found here on these mornings. I stopped at a church where visitors came in, prayed and placed a lit candle in a mound of sand, and then I watched, with a little shock, as the solemn attendant got up after they left and blew out the candles, pulling them out of the sand and returning them to the stack where they could be lit by the next new arrivals who donated a euro or two. It seemed to me they would burn on only in the minds of the faithful — where a candle perhaps burns best and safest. This made it all the more charming to learn there are 360 churches on the island, many of them little chapels built by petitioners who had received the prosperity they had prayed for — a kind of Greek Orthodox ex voto.
Other mysteries included the monster of Sifnos, supposedly a very large bird with a terrifying roar, though we never saw any sign of it except in the drawings Sabina’s sons made of their interpretations. And Kastro, the Venetian settlement, the oldest on the island. From the distance, it is a tiny white cap on a rocky promontory, and yet when you are inside it, it feels vast, easy to get lost in; Venetian towns are designed to fool pirates, each one a little like Venice itself. You think you are headed toward a courtyard, and end up in someone’s backyard. Or you are sure you are headed to the sidewalk, and exit onto the back side of the town, looking down the cliff at the Church of the Seven Martyrs, separated from the town by a rock spit and a chasm created, apparently, when two lovers prayed to God for protection from pirates. A rocky path of steps is the only way to the chapel now.
I spent one of my favorite days in the cove village of Seralia, just below Kastro — maybe 10 buildings, all of which seem to go right into the water, the ocean coming up to their doors. At the Captain Sifakis, a taverna there, I ordered a Mythos beer and picked out a sea bream from the tray of fresh fish caught daily by the owner and prepared by his wife and sons.
As I began drawing the views from their second-floor deck, my hostess brought first a salad of hard wine-washed goat cheese, pickled octopus, cucumber and olives, and then the grilled bream, with cucumber and tomato and the island’s oregano and sage. I drew for hours: the side of the cliff, the far rocks and the ocean, the mouth of the cove.
I returned the next day and this time ate skari, a local Greek fish, grilled and served doused in olive oil poured onto it at the table. It was delicious, but so full of bones that I decided the name meant it would cut you. I drew a profile of Kastro’s cliff across three pages and then left and walked up to Kastro to make one more, of the chapel of the Seven Martyrs. By now I was near the end of my trip, and I was trying to get as much in as I could. Looking over the drawing again now, I remember that when I finished it, I added the two kestrels fighting the wind that day, but left out the cats all over the hill, moving like arrows in the grass. I’d refrained, as cats typically overwhelm whatever images they are in, with, well, cuteness, but at this distance I miss them.
The things I couldn’t draw or replicate: the knack Greek men have for winking at you as they pass on a scooter or motorcycle. The way the islanders, as they enter restaurants, or pass each other on the street, shout, “Kalimera!” (“Good day!”) If you don’t return the greeting, they think you’re weird, but to get it right, you really do have to be happy to see the other people, even if they’re strangers.
And the best moment of the trip: Late at night after one of our dinners, somewhere between Platis Gialos and Apollonia, the full moon had risen and was casting light down on the Aegean, and the vision of it was so beautiful that I stopped so I wouldn’t drive off the road. The boundary between the sea and the sky had blurred, and the moon had left a path of light, laid out as if for one moment you could walk all that way there.
I never did go to the famous islands — the unfamous one was the one for me. I never drew Apollonia, perhaps because there is no sea there. Apollonia was for eating, or drinking, or gossip, or the disco, but not for drawing. It was where I mostly saw my friends, or ate delicious food, or fell asleep.
When I left on the ferry home, I could feel I had in fact relaxed, deep down, in some way that was entirely new to me. But also, drawing had opened that new door to the old place. It had brought me back to the pleasure of the art you make just for yourself, where all art begins, easy to lose track of when you become a professional writer. Your own private conversation about ideas and aesthetics.
Vacation is so often cast as a luxury now in America, a bourgeois game of Instagram tagging and food photos. But for me, in Sifnos, I came to know it as the time in the year when you find not only rest, but also the strength you need to meet your work and your life when you return to them. In the years since, it’s been hard to be an American writer and take vacations like this. But I would never want to live the other way — without them — again.