I've just come back from a magical retreat for writers in a remote part of the Greek Peloponnese. Picture a white house with verandas and a terraced Mediterranean garden leading straight down to a clear blue sea, with exquisite vegetarian food appearing at regular intervals throughout the day. That alone would have been delightful enough, but the aspect that has lingered longest in my mind is the quiet mornings.
When the owners first set up the retreat, they left people to do more or less what they wanted in the mornings, but they soon realised that the rule of “silence till lunchtime” actually made the experience more enriching for everybody.
I have always liked quiet mornings anyway, as they give me time to read, think, write, and generally get my mind into a calm and creative state. But staying with a whole group of people under one roof, the silence rule gave me permission not to talk. I found myself walking past people in the mornings, sometimes with a fleeting smile, sometimes without even making eye contact. I still felt I was among people, but knew my morning reverie would not be interrupted by polite small-talk. Heavenly.
After breakfast, I would choose one or other of the shady writing spots created by our hosts in the garden and work on my current essay-writing project. When the bell for lunch interrupted the silence, I would join the others at the table, almost wanting the calm atmosphere to continue a bit longer. I sometimes winced when someone leapt straight into chitchat. I would have been quite happy staying with the silence and simply taking pleasure from the fresh salads and local cheeses on my plate and the sublime views.
All in all, the silent mornings made it much easier to write, but they couldn't protect me completely from the writer’s typical yoyo of moods. One day I felt what I was doing was pointless, next day I would reread my draft and be surprised at how well it was taking shape. On my last evening we all agreed to read some of our writing aloud to the group, and that experience left me feeling heartened.
There was another silent pleasure worth mentioning. One warm evening, four of us took up an invitation to go for a silent walk through the nearby olive groves. After turning off the road into the bushes and trees, we ambled along in a single line without a word. Not surprisingly, this allowed me to pay full attention to my senses – I could take full pleasure in the silvery green of the olive leaves; the seagulls swirling high up in the blue sky; the crunching of our steps as we trod on the dried-out stems of unharvested wheat; the sounds of unseen feathery creatures in the trees; the orangey-red blossoms tucked in amongst deep green pomegranate leaves; the soft patches of dark earth recently watered by the farmer. (I should have paid more attention to the smells – I only vaguely recollect the scent of Mediterranean plants.)
After this exceptional experience, I am keen to recreate some of the conditions elsewhere, possibly in France. Whatever else, I won’t forget to insist on the quiet mornings, and I will encourage people to come on silent walks. I feel confident it will be a gift not only for writers but for anyone who yearns for quiet time to contemplate.