A Gay Artist's 30-Year Greek Love Affair

6.3.2013

By Out.com Editors

An excerpt from painter Christian Brechneff's new memoir.

(Christian Brechneff by Jacques Burkhardt.)

In Apollonia, my first stop was always Lakis’s, where I would sit and reconnect with the world and with my more worldly, sociable self. Lakis’s was the magnetic center of the island. All information passed through this little kafenion— about the erratic comings and goings of the always terrible ferryboats, the newest arrivals and the latest departures, the perilous state of fishing, or the crop damage caused by too little rain— all the gossip in the island villages about marriages, pregnancies with or without marriages, illnesses, and deaths.

It was where you saw your friends, made new friends. Over endless cups of Turkish coffee— this was before the Cyprus crisis, and Greeks still called it Turkish coffee— we chatted and swapped stories while the island fishermen, calling “Psariaaa! Psariaaa!,” sold their catch in the square, and the bread man shouting “Psomi! Psomi!,” outscreaming them, stood nearby with his beautiful white mule loaded with different kinds of bread. All the vegetables and fruits one might need were laid out in old baskets under the pines, the farmers showing their produce while their donkeys stood dozing nearby in the shade, tails switching lazily at the flies.

After resting awhile I would run my errands. There was the post office next door, where telegrams were sent and received and phone calls were made— there were no private phones on Sifnos yet. Thomas, with his small grocery shop, ran the licensed National B ank of Greece office, and all minor money transactions were handled there. The butcher next door was called Christo, and very soon, so was I.

Christian is not really a Greek name, and I was quickly rechristened Christo. “Iassu, Christo,” I would hear as I walked down the street, entered Lakis’s, or visited the island shops. “Iassu, Christo, iassu. Tikanis?” I heard wherever I went. I loved it. It was a new identity, a new skin. It was like being part of the language itself. And it was like being somebody on the island, a kind of personage, it seemed to me. I began to introduce myself as C hristo to islanders and foreigners alike. People like Chuck who had known me as Christian still called me that, but everyone new called me Christo. In time, Christo the butcher would affectionately call me Christaki or, fonder yet, Christaki mou. I loved it.

There were very few shops in Apollonia then, very little real business as such. The islanders were quite innocent about money, and much of the local economy was barter, the islanders trading their crops and wares and animals. The only good general store, Katerina’s, was farther along, up in Ano Petali, up the steep steps that led to Artemona. The shop was dark and cluttered, foodstuffs and canned goods packed to the ceiling, and you could find almost anything there, or Katerina could. Whatever you asked for, she would give it a moment’s thought and then go to one top-heavy pile of goods or another, find what you wanted, and write out the price of each purchase in a neat schoolgirl hand on the back of an old envelope. Her sons helped in the shop, and if you needed a fresh chicken or rabbit, they would kill it for you right there, neatly wrap it up, and hand it to you.

Katerina’s husband’s father had been a collaborator during the Italian occupation of Sifnos during the Second World War, and many Sifniots would not go near his daughter-in-law’s store. They had suffered greatly in those years, and life had been very hard for them, the occupiers claiming all the livestock they could and plundering everything that was movable. Many people came close to starving. Some young married people in the war years were never able to have children, and they blamed it on the malnutrition of the time.

Decades later, the war years still cast a shadow on the island. In Artemona, a rather grand village with much larger, patrician houses and noble nineteenth-century neoclassical villas, stood a handsome white stucco house with high windows and a tiled hip roof that sat far back from the gates behind an avenue of pines. It seemed like a house with a secret, and indeed, the islanders still whispered when they told you that it had been the Italian headquarters during the war. Though meticulously cared for still, it always appeared empty, the gates and shutters closed, not a sign of life, not a sound other than the wind in the pines. It seemed set apart, cut off, at a remove, quarantined, people not even looking at it as they went past, as if avoiding not only memories but contamination.

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Excerpted from The Greek House: The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos by Christian Brechneff with Tim Lovejoy, to be published in June 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Christian Brechneff. All rights reserved.

Image of Christian Brechneff on previous page by Michel Zumbrunn.

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