As I stepped off the little bus that ferried us from Athens’ airport terminal to the plane, the reality of the situation dawned on me – I was going to be flying to Skyros on a tiny propeller plane that looked like it could be pushed over with my index finger. The August Athenian sun was beating down on my head, and the strong winds were threatening to take my bright pink scarf (and the stupid little plane) with it.
The funny part, though, was that it barely fazed me. For years now I’ve seen these propeller planes taking off and landing at airports around the world and they’ve always scared the bejesus out of me; but now that I was about to board one I couldn’t care less. I was numb from all emotion, wondering what the next two weeks would bring. I was more worried about the prospect of spending long amounts of time with people whom I had never met before than travelling thousands of feet high in a tin can.
I was more worried about the prospect of spending long amounts of time with people whom I had never met before than travelling thousands of feet high in a tin can.
Operation ‘I Need A New Direction’
When I booked to go on this writing retreat a month previously, my three-year relationship had just ended. I decided almost immediately that I wasn’t going to let anything get me down, and started making plans to pull myself up and out. I wanted to do something that would not only give me direction and enable me to learn something new, but that I could also write about.
“A friend has suggested I go hiking or cycling across Europe,” I told my friend Gaby one day.
“But you absolutely hated hiking in Vietnam,” she replied honestly.
“What about a writing retreat or a cooking retreat? That sounds far more like you!”
She was right. So within a week of this conversation taking place, I’d Googled and found the best writing retreat, booked it, and got a commission from a magazine to write about the experience. Truth be told, I didn’t give it much more thought until I found myself on the tarmac in Athens…
A Magical Start
I had enrolled on the ‘Writing from Life’ course at the Skyros Centre simply because The Guardian says it’s one of the best writing retreats out there. I was more interested in the writing aspect of the getaway than anything else; I was hoping that the whole experience would jump start my first novel, something I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I was so focused on the writing that it never really occurred to me that I’d have to spend a lot of time with people whom I had never met before – something the introvert in me always dreads.
It finally dawned on me that I’d be with a bunch of strangers (and even sharing an apartment with one!) for two weeks when I boarded the tin can for Skyros. So instead of being full of dread for the impending flight, I was more concerned with the looming social demands.
The flight lasted less than hour, and I soon found myself in little Skyros. After offloading my backpack, having a quick shower and getting dressed I walked out of my traditional Skyrian apartment to have a look at what was around. Outside my front door there was a tiny church; white walls, Grecian blue dome, Greek flag flying outside. It looked beautiful, like something from a postcard sent from the Greek isles. It’s at that very moment that I started to get very excited about the prospect of being on the island for two weeks. I mean, look at the photos: what a perfect place for a writer’s imagination to run wild in!
I then made the two-minute walk to the Skyros Centre, where we’d be eating, having our lessons, and socialising. A welcome dinner had been arranged for that evening so that the 30+ participants could meet each other.
My Kind of People
As everyone began to arrive and introduce themselves, I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I realised that everyone who was there either a) had recently gone through something like a breakup, divorce, death of a spouse, or kids leaving home, and were in Skyros looking for a new start, or b) wanted to learn something new and meaningful as well as meet likeminded people.
It felt like a cocoon; a safe haven away from the ills and wrongs of the world
In addition to the writing course, there was a ‘Life Choices’ course called ‘New Beginnings’ as well as a painting course running at the same time. Hence everyone there was likeminded and bringing their authentic selves to the table. I realised quickly that there’s something incredibly soothing about being with a group of people who have recently all been through something similar. And those who hadn’t been through a big life change were just as open and lovely as the rest. It felt like a cocoon; a safe haven away from the ills of the world (which made it incredibly hard to leave two weeks later!).
Something amazing happened that first night in Skyros. I found myself enjoying the company of every person I spoke to. There was no forced small talk. There were no fake niceties. Everyone was genuine and authentic, and I realised that I’m actually not as socially awkward as I thought I am – not when I’m with likeminded people, anyway!
Friends For Life
I arrived in Skyros thinking that the main thing I’d take away from the experience were some new writing skills. I was wrong, though. From the beginning, Dina Glouberman, the course director and one of the co-founders of the centre, told us how they like to develop a sense of ‘community’ with each and every group that passes through. This is established through regular community meetings, co-listening, activities, and a timetable of little chores we had to complete.
And it worked; by the end of the two weeks I had made friends from all over the world whom I’m still in contact with. In May next year, a small group of us will be meeting in a little country house in Sweden to catch up and drink Champagne. I regularly Skype with one woman, who I now regard as a very close friend.
A New Beginning
So, how did the retreat change my life? Well, in a number of ways. First of all, the writing course reignited my passion for writing. I had arrived in Skyros unable to work and unable to focus on anything for longer than five minutes. After spending time in class with a published author I realised more than ever that I really want to do this. I want to be published. I want to teach workshops someday. And since I’ve been back home I’ve been doing all the ground work in order to take part in National Novel Writing Month in November, which shows how much the retreat helped steer me in the right direction.
At the end of the first week in Skyros, I did something I wasn’t expecting to; I switched over to the ‘New Beginnings’ course which I felt was the right decision considering the circumstances. I was at a point in my life where I wanted some direction, and I figured that it wasn’t a coincidence that this course was running at the same time that I was there, so I switched over.
It felt amazing to see myself as a published author; ‘feeling’ it made it feel real, and in turn made me realise that it is possible – the only thing stopping me, is me!
Dina, who is an image work pioneer, was leading this group. We did many different exercises that helped us to envision the future that we want for ourselves, and from those visions of an ideal future we worked backwards to see what steps we need to take in order to get what we want. It felt amazing to see myself as a published author; ‘feeling’ it made it feel real, and in turn made me realise that it is possible – the only thing stopping me is me!
Why You Should Consider A Retreat Holiday
I came away from the retreat with a renewed zest for life, feeling empowered, and also having my faith in people – good, honest, emotionally healthy people – restored. That is why I recommend a retreat holiday for everyone.
You don’t need to be at a crossroads or a bad point in your life to go on a retreat; there were plenty of individuals there who simply wanted to learn something new or meet likeminded people.
It’s also great to try something new once in a while; if you’re the type of person who usually loves to be hopping from place to place every few days while on the road, this is a great alternative. For one, you’re forced to stay in one spot for two weeks, which enables you to slow down and appreciate the place you find yourself in. And not only are you getting to explore a new country, you’re also getting to explore yourself so to speak, which is equally (if not more) rewarding.
If you’ve also been looking to start a new hobby, it’s a great way to kickstart it while being abroad.
Hand on my heart, those were two of the most magical weeks of my life. On our last evening at the centre, we all had to put a white sheet of paper on our back and write messages to one another. I saved my messages for the flight home, and upon reading them as the plane took off from Athens I bawled my eyes out. These were messages of hope and of love – some of them gave me goosebumps. To see myself through the eyes of these wonderful people made me realise how lucky I am – lucky to have the life I have, and now, how lucky I am to call these beautiful souls, who just two weeks previously were strangers, my friends.
Ah Skyros. I miss you.
- I booked the Writing from Life course in Skyros with Skyros Holidays. They offer a variety of courses throughout the year, some in Skyros, others elsewhere around the world (including one in Cuba!).
- Skyros Centre offers writing, life choices and painting courses. Their sister property on the island, Atsitsa, offers things like meditation, yoga, and drumming (?!). It has more of an ‘alternative’ feel to it.
- Flights aren’t included in the prices that they quote, but the company is great at helping you find cheap ones from wherever you are in the world.
- I cannot recommend Skyros enough (and no, they haven’t paid me to say this!). Truly, this retreat was life-changing in more ways than one, and I’d go back again in a heartbeat.