The first thing I ever heard about the Greek island of Sifnos was that it was not famous. My friend Sabina said this to me when she invited me to join her there in the summer of 2008. I was confused, thinking she had mistaken me for the sort of person who would only want to go someplace famous, but she quickly explained that most tourists were interested in the other islands, which meant Sifnos was affordable, and so she and her husband could afford to vacation for a month there with their two children, and over the years invite a mix of writers and academics and the people who had married or befriended them for a house party set among apartments, all of them renting near each other at the island’s center.
I didn’t think about whether Sifnos was famous or not again until I was on the ferry from Athens, when I met a friendly young Greek couple — a gardener and a social worker, working with refugees. They leaned over and asked if I was Belgian — their guess, as I’d been quietly drinking beer and reading comics. This was so far off the mark that it charmed me enough to keep chatting. As we bought rounds of beer, we passed the islands and they spoke familiarly of them. Serifos is where the giants mined for iron, they said. It looks big enough, I said. I asked where they were going, and they said Anafi, the island Apollo made for Jason and the Argonauts to rest during a storm, after capturing the Golden Fleece. The ancient gods seemed alive to them, but as if they were friends.
When the couple asked where I was going, and I told them, they said, Sifnos is not as famous, just like that. They then told me a story about how it was known for its gold and silver mines, but after the islanders angered Apollo by sending him tribute made from gold plate, he flooded the mines. I imagined Apollo biting the tribute to see if it was real gold, and wondered if it was now famous for not being famous — some last affliction from the sun god.
In any case, the idea of a place famous for being unfamous, that once thought it could fool Apollo, only made me more curious. The ferry arrived just as the sun set, and the lights from a disco visible from the sea welcomed me like a signal fire. I waved goodbye to my new friends and set out to discover the island for myself, amused by the idea of myself as a Belgian tourist reading comics quietly and drinking beer.
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