The wind picked up around us, creating ripples over the infinity pool and stirring the sea below into foamy waves. Meropi's blonde curls lifted up into the air, creating a halo around her head. She looked positively angelic, even though her task at hand was rather devilishly demanding: This woman was going to teach me Greek in two hours.
I had come to Syros, a Cycladic island four hours from Athens, to spend a weekend at Villa Fanya, part of White Key Villas, Greece's premier villa rental and concierge company. Just in time for this summer season, White Key Villas launched a new tutoring program designed to bring a piece of Greece to each guest. I was instantly intrigued by the intellectual edge of this offering. Private lessons include deep dives into ancient philosophy, art and architecture, and the epistemology of the Greek language. And seminars are rather cheekily called "It's All Greek to Me."
Summer vacations in Greece conjure images of sun-soaked scenes, with visitors oscillating from the pool to the beach to the taverna. The villa I stayed in, a sprawling, five-bedroom modern affair with a private beach and ample outdoor dining, seemed designed for the utmost relaxation. But it's also true that after a year of quarantine, the need for intellectual stimulation runs deep.
"We are wholly Hellenic, and we always want to find new ways to introduce our guests to the intellectual beauty of Greece without compromising the serenity of their vacation," Elena Fotiadi, cofounder of White Key Villas, told Travel + Leisure.
Each lesson is tailored to the client, and my Greek class first focused on the difference between Greek and English. "Greek lives in your chest and throat," Meropi told me, placing her hand on her heart. "English lives in your mouth, especially American English. It forces you to smile. The way we speak informs the way we are as people." We had, right off the bat, veered into a philosophical discussion: Were Americans linguistically forced into politeness? After a year of isolation, I hadn't realized how hungry I was for this kind real-life exchange of knowledge.
"From the onset of the pandemic, it was clear that travelers wanted something more out of the ordinary when they travel," said Fotiadi. "We've crafted ways to encourage travelers to further understand the ethos of our culture, so they feel like they are going home with a piece of Greece in their hearts."
I have been studying Greek, with Sisyphean determination, for three years. This is not a necessary prerequisite for any of White Key Villas' classes, nor am I able to do anything beyond order food in a restaurant. But in those two hours, Meropi taught Greek in a manner I had never seen before — a holistic, funny, approachable way into a language that can seem daunting. "I love the Greek language and sharing it in a way that isn't intimidating," she told me. "It unlocks a lot of things around you."
There are three ancient words that form Greece, she told me: Χάος (chaos), Γαία (earth) and Έρως (love). "We don't actually know the epistemology of chaos," she said. But chaos, at least how you pronounce it in Greek, sounds chaotic — the jumble of vowels fill up your throat. "Chaos is a part of our identity as Greeks," Meropi added with a laugh. We talked about the origin of words and their influence on Greek culture. Meropi went through parts of the alphabet, and we marveled at how the θ (theta) letter looks exactly like the horizon. I was learning, but at no point did it feel like work — truly the ideal vacation balance.
White Key Villas has long adapted itself to the needs of its clients. The company operates 380 villas in 27 different destinations across Greece, and has an extensive history of catering to people's needs, from finding a Russian-speaking math tutor for children to laying turf down for a guest who, for medical reasons, could only walk on soft surfaces. The personal tutoring program is a natural extension of this. The COVID-19 crisis has also meant that people are looking to stay in private villas, safely cocooned from the world, for longer periods of time.
A house manager is responsible for each villa, and guests can download a villa-specific app for their home. I indulged in a private yoga class before award-winning island chef Kostas Bougiouris prepared a multicourse, fish-focused meal made exclusively from local ingredients from Syros. The next day, after my lesson, I had a Hippocratic-approved deep tissue massage. Just about anything can be organized for you from the comfort of your villa, which is another advantage of the tutoring program.
Greece opened to vaccinated and COVID-free American travelers on May 14. The Mediterranean Sea and sun are beckoning, but there's something else here, too. As Meropi told me after our lesson, "Language creates connection. And we are missing that connection in our world."
Villa Fanya in Syros starts from 15,000 euros/week. The "It's All Greek to Me" seminar starts at 450 euros for a group of up to eight people. A private chef starts at 80 euro per person.
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