May 1972. A young man arrives in Athens for a holiday from his hometown Basel, Switzerland, but does not intend to spend too long in the Greek capital as he is headed for the remote south-eastern Aegean island of Symi. He is 22 years old, an artist who has just completed his military service and has been accepted to the Royal College of Art in London for his master’s degree. He has chosen Symi because he wants to spend his holidays working. But, when he inquires about the ferry services there at a travel agent in Syntagma Square, the employee at the desk is discouraging to say the least: “Symi? You must be joking! It’s almost impossible to get there. Why don’t you try Sifnos? It has everything you’re looking for.”
The next day, the young traveller went to Piraeus and boarded the Kalymnos ferry. Fifteen hours later, the ship docked at Kamares, Sifnos’ port, and a bond that has defined an entire lifetime was forged.
The young man is Christian Brechneff and his recent book The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos, describes that first summer, which prompted him to keep returning to the island year after year for the next four decades.
Today Brechneff is 64. Since 1977 he has lived in the US, where his book earned an especially warm reception.
“I wanted to drop everything and go to Sifnos, the rocky island in the Aegean Sea lovingly portrayed in his memoir,” wrote Steven Kurutz in his review for the International New York Times. That same emotion is also stirred by Brechneff’s paintings, canvasses illuminated by the Greek light, where landscapes are depicted with astonishing tenderness.
I met Brechneff in Athens recently, just before he set off for Piraeus to board the ferry to Sifnos. He unravelled the skeins of memory with such detail that it was as though not a single day had passed since that May in 1972.
“Without ever having visited Greece, as a child I had heard about the beauties and attraction of Hydra and Mykonos. But I was looking for a quiet place, without tourists, where I could focus on my work. I was very ambitious; not interested in adventure and fun, just in my work. And of course I could not know that Sifnos would become a source of inspiration, my muse,” said Brechneff.
Back in the ’70s, Sifnos was a very different place to what it is today. It was almost primitive, and especially so in the eyes of a well-to-do European who grew up in a family where the father was an eminent doctor and the mother a renowned psychotherapist.
“Everybody knew everybody. There were no roads – except for the one leading from the port to Apollonia [the island capital] – and no cars save a few trucks and six ancient Russian Volga taxis. The only taverna, at Platys Gialos, had just opened,” reminisced Brechneff. “I settled in a small house near the sea. Every morning I would wake up to the smells of my neighbour Aphrodite’s cooking and I would go out exploring. During each of my walks I would see the most wonderful landscapes that a painter could hope for. The mountain, the sea, the rooftops, the chapels – it was all so enchanting.”
The locals welcomed the tall, blond youth, calling him by a name that was more familiar to them. “At first I was ‘to pedi’ (the kid). Later they called me ‘Christo’. The name that to this day moves me is ‘Christaki mou’ [a tender diminutive],” said Brechneff.
And so Christian – who became Christos – started memorising his first Greek words, easily picking up daily phrases like efcharisto (thank you) and grasping the nuances of expressions such as Panaghia mou (literally ‘My Virgin Mary,’ but used much like ‘My God’), gradually making a place for himself in what was a closed society.
“When I wanted to avoid a conversation, I just said ‘den katalaveno’ [I don’t understand],” he explained.
When autumn came, Brechneff left, his hair bleached and his skin darkened by the sun. But he came back the following year – and the one after that, and the one after that…
What made him come back?
“A lack of form as a person; I was looking for a place that would help me discover myself,” he answered. “Sifnos became my refuge. There I could escape my history, my family, the ups and downs of my career, the complexities of my personal life. I wanted to rediscover the sense of security that it gave me.”
In 1977, his love for the island was sealed with the purchase of a house at Exambela (which he has since sold). One of the summers he remembers most fondly was when his parents visited the island.
“The locals loved my father. A Swiss doctor? On the island? It seemed like such a big deal to them. Everyone would come by the house to get a checkup, to tell him their symptoms of real or imagined illnesses,” said Brechneff.
Brechneff loves Greece but he does not idealise it.
“In the mid-’90s, Sifnos started to change. The traffic from Apollonia to Exambela began to look like one of the closing scenes from Citizen Kane – a motorcade heading off for a picnic. Everyone had a cell phone. Rich Athenians started building houses – gigantic monstrosities. And when the country entered the eurozone, things got worse. The streets were filled with big SUVs that were parked obnoxiously all over the place, even at the entrances to stores. I did not share in the overall sense of elation. I believed that the European Union would suffocate Greece. In the first summer with the euro I ordered the usual at one of my favourite tavernas and was shocked when the bill came,” remembered Brechneff.
And while in his book and his paintings Brechneff lauds the energy of the landscapes, the sun, the joie de vivre and incredible hospitality of the locals, there were experiences that hurt him deeply as well.
“What surprises me most negatively is the lack of respect so many Greeks have for this beauty, for the environment. When they tore up the cobblestone street that led from Apollonia to Vathy, the locals rejoiced that they would get another broad paved road. I cried,” said Brechneff.
The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos is available online at Amazon and www.bookstop.gr, as well as at the Tsigaridas (www.tsigaridasbooks.gr) bookshops in Athens and Thessaloniki.
* This article was first published in Kathimerini’s insert magazine K.