Andrea Applebee: My Journeys Are Different

American poet Andrea Applebee, who is visually impaired, describes her summer on the Cycladic island of Sifnos, accompanied by her guide dog Mercy.

I remember the first time the huge door of the ferry dropped in front of Mercy and I to the bay of Kamares, the port of Sifnos, five years ago. The chains creaked and the heavy metal hinges groaned while Mercy trembled slightly next to me, and then the broad fresh blue air wept in as the ramp clattered down, and the crowd crushed forward behind us to push us into shore. The person I had rented a room from was waiting to drive Mercy and I to the fishing village of Faros, where we’d return the following spring.

This summer I took the ferry with my friends David and Efthimios, who have had a house at Sifnos since the early 2000’s. When we arrived, they drove me to the house where I would be staying, in the mountain village of Apollonia. The heavy but cleansing fragrance of oregano filled the evening air, and the more than two hundred year old Cycladic house-hardly touched except for basic additions of a kitchen and bathroom – welcomed us with its familiar jasmine and dusty stone smells.

I’d arranged for my friend Elizabeth – another longtime resident of the island – to take me to the grocery the following morning, where we would stock up on local cheese, mizithra, olives, chickpeas, horta, and other essentials.

As Mercy and I settled in to mountain village life, we started to shape our routine. I would do my yoga in the large high-ceilinged saloni and sit for a long time with my tea under the trumpet vine in the small garden.

We shared our mornings and evenings in the mountain village. The risks made it too stressful to bring my dog with me on the bus trip to the sea, as the roads are generally inaccessible and dangerous. But, while there was construction on my main pedestrian path, there was always a willing worker to take my arm and help me around the rubble. Eventually I learned to take the bus down to my favorite beach, Platis Gialos, which is long and has sparking gold-brown sand and clear turquoise water. I liked to get off at the first stop and stretch out under the tamarisk trees, a space I shared with ants, caterpillars, and later in the season with other tourists, but which suited me perfectly for a swim and an audiobook listening session. I experimented for a while with creating an invisible lane, so that I could swim straight out and back to my things. Once I learned the area well enough I could build on that.

My favorite place in Sifnos is the valley that overlooks Kastro. I made the hike a few times with Mercy and friends, to take in the mixed scents of herbs, flowers, and fruits on the stone shelf of their patio.

This summer was my longest stay on Sifnos – two months – and I was able during this time to build a good rapport with the bus drivers, the cafe servers, the grocery store folks. While I think many casual observers were confused at seeing a blind woman staying alone, eventually everyone just got used to me. This is a true gift when we have the time and support to be in a place for a period of time – and it’s also, I feel, when we make real breakthroughs in perception of people with disabilities, by making friends and building working collaborative relationships that give insight into how we live.

Travelling blind is not always a dip into paradise, even on a Cycladic island as gentle and gracious as Sifnos. I still fall, and hit my head on the corners of things, and struggle to solve basic day to day problems. I still get lost and have to ask my way from strangers, or miscalculate the bus, or do things the hard way because I’m tired of asking for help. But it’s worth it to have a change – to try new situations and test new strategies for movements, meet new people. The bells, cats, drifting music, laughter, waves, and quiet of the island wrapped around me during my time there like the fresh air, and I will carry these sensations back with me into the chaotic, intense city to return to in my mind in the fall and winter.

Where I want to return

My favorite places in Sifnos centered in the village where I stayed, Apollonia, and the easiest of access beach, Platis Gialos. In Apollonia, next to the bus stop there is a sweet shop with a huge veranda called Gerontopoulos where everyone has their coffees. They were wonderful with me and Mercy, always guiding us to our favorite seat when it was very busy, and remembering what I usually ordered. My second favorite place in the village was Drakakis, the incredibly popular taverna. There was a handsome waiter there who greeted and talked with me every day, and it made me feel at home. 

Mosaico in Artemonas (the twin village to Apollonia), gave me and a friend a delicious surprise of live music one night, and the musicians set up with their guitars and sang folk songs next to us, surrounded by jasmine smells and laughter. 

My favorite spot in Platis Gialos is Gialos Seaside Obsession. The people there were amazing and welcomed me immediately. I also loved the Lost Bay bar (which I discovered through a paraplegic friend who was staying there). 

* Andrea Applebee lives in Athens with her guide dog Mercy. Lara Guide Dog School for the blind supports her with anything she may need regarding her guide dog. Her new poem series entitled Anemones has just been published by Magra Books.

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