It’s early October, 2020. And somehow, in the middle of the Pandemic I find myself for the first time in my life, in Greece. I have come to an island named Kefalonia which has had only 20 cases of Covid since March, with 10 other people for a writer’s retreat. Something I have only dreamed about since I started writing.
I knew nothing before I came, I was busy throwing myself from task to task, buzzing around my studio flat in Berlin, nourishing myself with bad food and coffee. I half-knew I would arrive in Kefalonia. In these current times, situations change in seconds, and so, it was only once I arrived and I was soaring up the hills to our new home for the week, and watching Kefalonia unfold in its quiet glory, that I realised that I have arrived. And this was in fact happening.
On the writer’s retreat, one of the themes of the workshop was place, and how the characters in your story relate to that place, what role it plays in your piece? Alongside my own writing projects, I began to think of the place were staying, Vericoco. And our co-host, Lena.
When I first met Lena I was struck by the familiarity of her strong British accent. I assumed, lazily, that she was another Brit that has escaped to Greece or Spain for the Mediterranean dream, but later learned that she was in fact Greek, (her mother half-Greek, half-British and her father Greek) and though she had grown up in the UK, she had intentionally moved back to Greece to soothe the niggly feeling that she had somehow missed out on this part of her heritage.
As you may know, if you’ve followed this blog for a while I do like to dig beneath the surface of the places that I stay. After staying here a week, and thinking about the value of what the idyllic site had given me, I realised that apart from a few short conversations with Lena, I didn’t know the story of this place, of her neither, and I had no doubt that the story I had yet to discover was the breath that gave movement to this magical place.
On my final day, I sat down in the morning with Lena to hear the story about how Vericoco retreat came to be. A couple of hours later, I had also decided to extend my flight for a week (I have the ability to work remotely).
What is Vericoco retreat?
Founded in 2015, becoming a retreat in 2016, Lena and her partner Nikos (a local from Kefalonia) birthed what is today known as Vericoco retreat in Kefalonia, Greece. At the same time, they also gave birth to their sons. Just because life likes to laugh at our timing sometimes.
“On our retreat, there is a cook, who Lena often joins, to cook up a beautiful breakfast: meats, fruit, greek yogurts, fresh local eggs, vegan pancakes”
Vericoco is 15 minutes from the airport and comprises a poolside villa, and a collection of apartments, all within minutes of each other, and also minutes from the beach. Standing at any point of Vericoco–it’s position being on an incline–means you are at eye-level view with mountains, and have a clear view of the sea from wherever you stand. Surprisingly for me is also the background of lush vegetation and olive trees, that relax amongst the blue view. (It is greener than I thought).
The way to stay at this place ranges, the smallest group it can accommodate is probably a group of 5 or 6 people in the poolside villa, the largest they’ve done so far was a retreat of 24 people, which was just perfect as they have exactly 24 yoga mats. On our retreat, there is a cook, who Lena often joins, to cook up a beautiful breakfast: meats, fruit, greek yogurts, fresh local eggs, vegan pancakes, but she also tells me that with the smaller groups, this is usually self-catered.
The villa itself has two breezy and open-plan kitchens–inside and outside, and within the outside kitchen, a large dining table where we gather for drinks, breakfast and workshop classes. Within the bright collection of apartments where I stayed, too there are small but perfectly-formed kitchens, tables inside and outside on the porch, which is perfect for eating our self-made lunches or writing. For reading, one heads to the hammocks or deck chairs.
Why yoga? An answer I wasn’t expecting.
Vericoco has an outside Yoga Shala (which also has a bar for ballet, from a previous ballet retreat) and I ask why? Lena tells me she has been practicing forever, but officially a yoga teacher in India since 2010. So her love of yoga sort extended into the concept of this place. We are her first writer’s retreat.
I have a quiet reverence for yoga and these types of things, I know it’s good for the body and mind, but can never get into consistently. So I decide to ask why yoga is so important to her. “You really want to know?” “absolutely” I tell her earnestly. I tell her too that that’s what this piece is about, her story, and how it shapes where we’re staying. “Okay” she breathes deeply, and gives me my answer, one I am not expecting.
One common theme that brought her peace through this, was yoga, a travelling practice that she was able to unpack and use every city she ended up in.
She tells me in 2005/6 she was in the UK, she was in a relationship, and they both had itchy feet, so they made the decision to travel together for six months and headed to India. Week 2 of their arrival, whilst they were deep in the forest trekking, and her partner sadly had a heart attack and passed away.
She explains what happened after that in a bit of a whirlwind. Back to England. Difficult times. Being back to where she felt restless and leaving once again to stay with her sister. She then returned to her family in Athens, eventually met her partner Nikos, and the rest of her life unfolded after that.
One common theme that brought her peace through this, was yoga, a travelling practice that she was able to unpack and use every city she ended up in. I understood completely.
Revisiting her heritage: home and belonging
After these events, I wonder what then leads Lena back to Greece? She has already told me she used to visit often throughout childhood and beyond. Her dad lives in Athens, you see, and after the cocktail of emotions and events: leaving Greece as young child, not feeling totally English, moving around the UK several times, having a sense of something missing (heritage), losing her partner, itchy feet–going back to the UK didn’t feel right.
I tell her about my father, a Moroccan man who has lived in the UK for over two decades. When he’s in Morocco, they call him English boy, when he’s in the UK…well, he is a visibly Arab man, and though he has had a rich and long life in London, Islamophobia is a real thing.
But Athens, specifically her dad’s one apartment block, felt like home, her stable point of reference in a life that has had many moving parts, and she had a craving for familiarity, for stillness.
We also talk about this split culture dichotomy: not feeling totally British, but not feeling totally Greek either. Being of mixed heritage, I understand it well.
I tell her about my father, a Moroccan man who has lived in the UK for over two decades. When he’s in Morocco, they call him English boy, when he’s in the UK…well, he is a visibly Arab man, and though he has had a rich and long life in London, Islamophobia is a real thing. In a way that to a casual glance of someone on the bus, he will never seem British enough for the UK.
She has something similar that is more internal, as she totally passes for British, visibly, but she doesn’t feel strongly from either place. And thus, it was important for Lena to spend some more time in Greece and embrace her heritage, “I didn’t speak really good greek, and that bothered me, I wanted to stay and immerse myself in that”.
I tell Lena that my dad feels like they should build an ‘other’ or ‘no mans land’ for people like him to go: a joke an exaggeration from my playful dad, she laughs, “he’s right though, I totally get it”.
From Athens to Kefalonia: a love story
“When I was in the UK in my early twenties, I was working in TV. When I arrived in Greece it was an easy thing for me to continue to do, so I worked as a translator, or a fixer”. “A fixer?” I raise my eyebrow. “Yes” Lena tells me, explaining it’s a job she really loves.
“A fixer is an on-the-ground person of your film set that will stay in touch with you, and help you flesh out things you need prior to arriving to the set (around 6 weeks), so if they need to find a hotel, or various things for the set. It’s really fun, and you also don’t have the responsibility of the end product.”
In 2008 when Lena returned to Greece, people began making documentaries about Greece and its struggles, so she picked up a lot of freelance work from that. She then mentions that another job popped up, this time in Kefalonia.
Lena’s brother, a fine artist, is also married to a Kefalonian woman, and it’s this connection that eventually leads her to her now partner, Nikos. Lena and her sister-in-law are very close, and were before she met Nikos. As we talk about her more, I see she has been a support in a multitude of ways: emotionally, following the aftermath of what happened in India, and also job wise.
She tells Lena about this Kefalonia-based project to photograph local hotels in the area. At the same time she tells her cousin, Nikos to look after Lena while she is in town. And the rest as they say, is history.
Why is Kefalonia the right place to stay and build your life for you?
“When Nikos and I decided to have children, we wanted to stay here. I was brought up in the countryside, and couldn’t imagine having kids in the city. Athens, for example, is super noisy, super polluted, not very green, not user friendly, and quite tiring actually.”
“Plus, outside of my family I don’t have a huge network of people in Athens, but in Kefalonia we had a support system and outside space. At heart, I’m kind of a hippy in that sense, and my life in Kefalonia lends itself to that. I’ve done courses on permaculture, I like eating organic and local produce.”
“I think the crux of knowing if you are in the right place is the fact that I don’t ever wonder if I should be somewhere else.”
“I also really liked the small community, that’s something I gained from here, maybe because I grew up in different places, I appreciated that more. The community was stabilizing, I liked that for my kids.”
“The truth is I’m a bit of a chameleon, I can kind of fit in anywhere, I can adapt where I am and make myself happy. I think I could live in Berlin, for instance. He is a little less flexible and wouldn’t be able to move easily, I think it’s just a personality trait. But in the end it worked out well, we’re happy here.”
“I think the crux of knowing if you are in the right place is the fact that I don’t ever wonder if I should be somewhere else.” I agree with her completely, it’s how I feel in Berlin.
“The team of Nikos and I has worked really well in getting this thing off the ground. It’s the combination of firstly, of Nikos who is properly from here and knows everybody. It’s very authentic and people enjoy that experience and trying stuff that is typically Kefalonian. He’s actually a computer programmer by trade but he’s really happy making his wine and looking after his bees, spear fishing for example, and we offer that”. I realise then that the honey and wine we’ve been consuming is made by Nikos.
“I have this idea of being into permaculture, but he lives it; I did a course, but he’s like “oh my Grandad taught me that!”
“And then secondly myself, I can speak the language, but I have experience of other places. So it allows me to connect well with people and their needs. It’s not something we never thought about but I’ve realised that it helps.”
“What’s funny is that we’re completely different in some ways, but a lot of the things under the surface are similar. For example, I have this idea of being into permaculture, but he lives it; I did a course, but he’s like “oh my Grandad taught me that!” – he has natural sync with nature.
“He can look at the birds and the wind and know what it will do to the sea, whereas I would have to look it up. I never realised that when we met, it’s something that came out later, but ended up being something fundamental and deeper that supports the way we want to live our lives.”
“This project fulfils me, for different reasons. I love the interior design part.” “Did you do a course on it?” I ask (because it had been a discussion among us at the writer’s retreat, as it’s truly beautifully-designed.)
“No! I didn’t know I enjoyed it until I did it. We do a lot of it ourselves.”
“I also really love the interactions with you guys, that helps keep me going. This year when I thought we wouldn’t have any retreat I was really disappointed because for me it’s important, I realise, I get something out of it. We’re in a small place where of course people can become small minded. Having that fresh perspective come into my world is stabilizing. We have an art therapy retreat coming up, and I’m excited, for selfish reasons.” Lena smiles earnestly.
What does the future look like for you, and Vericoco?
“Well our youngest is 3 and we had the boys at the same time as the business” Lena tells me. And I use my imagination to picture how intense that must have been. Now she says though, they feel, with a bit more time on their hands they can get round to really growing the business how they want.
Lena talks to me about the possibility of packages. I can be testament to the fact that Lena and Nikos seem to have a contact for everything. So Lena mentions bringing in personal trainers for a fitness holiday, adding in a variety of board options, building a cafe on site (they have a small plot of land they can see the possibility to make that an option with), making space for a camping ground for affordable options, and basically just embracing different styles of travel. They also have the idea of building another villa to accommodate more people.
“well first is the spectacular landscape, beaches, it’s relatively green and lush compared to other large islands. It’s also relatively unspoiled and underdeveloped, and people don’t have to battle with huge crowds”–A local’s view on Kefalonia
And finally, a local’s view on why should people come to Kefalonia?
“Ooh what to say, well first is the spectacular landscape, beaches, it’s relatively green and lush compared to other large islands. It’s also relatively unspoiled and underdeveloped, and people don’t have to battle with huge crowds. The people are unusual” she laughs “they are friendly and eccentric. It’s also convenient to get to airport wise!”
“Also the local tavernas and shops are walking distance. Usually (when Covid is not a factor) there are two more food options at the beach, there two shops in the village and three restaurants. So it’s convenient for people who don’t want to be completely isolated and half board, for example.”