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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Classical Music Agony Aunt ALIKI McVEIGH
joins up for keep fit classes, Crete-style

Ask Alice

And so I showed up in Crete, exhausted and weary, ready for long evenings in the tavernas and long days by the beach/pool.

Sunset in Crete

Well, sure, I had my dreams, these including a fitter, zippier, snappier, faster me, after doing thirty lengths in the pool every day, but these I was used to deferring in favour of the long evenings in the tavernas and long days, as outlined above.

But this trip turned out to be different. This was because of Lena Tzamariadakis, born Lerna Hakkinen, the petite but super-fit Swedish/Greek maestra in charge of renting cars to the local expats in Crete. Upon hearing that my husband and I played tennis she fixed me with an entreating eye: 'What you ought to do,' she told me, 'is to come to our Keep-Fit class!'

Once I'd stopped laughing I told her the truth:

  1. Unless a fuzzy yellow ball is concerned, I have no interest in sport
  2. Unless a fuzzy yellow ball is concerned, I have no interest in sport
  3. Unless ...

Well hey, you get the picture.

But Lena is nothing if not determined. She said, 'It's really friendly, and, in the summer, pretty small. The guy who runs it is called Christos Papadomanolakis' (I can't pronounce it either: I swear, the Greeks do it on purpose to make people like me feel dumb) 'and he's great! Not too young, very understanding, incredibly astute. He knows exactly how far to push each of us. And the other girls are lovely!'

'And by "girls" you mean they're stunning twenty-somethings that will make me feel 102,' I probed, very cleverly.

'No, no,' she lied, 'We are all ages here!'

Well, Lena doesn't lie, she is straight as an arrow, but she was still frigging wrong, because, at least during the summer, the middle-aged matrons, comme moi, tend to sun themselves by the beach and not show up, four times a week, as the sun is setting, to do crazy things with weights, dumbells etc.

However: they do show up in September, once I was packing up and thinking of going home. So yes: there were a few.

Anyway, I showed up at Lena's house, with a heart for any fate. And you're thinking why? When you hate the gym? And when there are no, repeat no, fuzzy yellow balls on offer? Why did you show up at all????!!!!!!

Well, I'll tell you. We've owned a place in Crete since 2009 — yes, that was the crappiest time to buy in the history of the world — and we love it, but it's hard to meet Greek people. The expats are lovely: welcoming, intelligent, charitable, keen on saving animals. But ... I wanted to meet Greek people too. So this seemed like a way. (Lena is probably as much Greek as she is anything. The rest in the Keep-Fit are all Greek.)

So: I showed up that first night, despite last-minute doubts ('I'm too old/keen on fuzzy yellow balls/easily bored/might inflame my tennis elbow' ...) Oh I used every excuse in the book, that first evening, not to go!! But I liked Lena, so that was why I showed.

The way to find Kampani Studio, near Chorofakia, Chania, Crete is easy, once you figure it out, and it is definitely worth the trip. A large building centred on a basketball court with tiered seating, it also features work-out rooms, not that we used them in the summer. Instead, we worked out of doors. Surrounding the centre is a circular drive. Surrounding the drive is, well: tremendous beauty, with breathtaking views in two directions: both towards the sunset and towards the White Mountains.

This was a real comfort to me, especially at first. We sweated, me especially, but we sweated while bathed in glorious golden-cream-rose light.

First, of course, I had to meet the master. Christos was not what I expected. First, he's fit but stocky: a weight-lifter, not a runner (which doesn't stop him ruthlessly sending us all off, jogging, running or, in the case of the fittest ones, 'Fast, fast, fast!')

Secondly, he's super caring. There wasn't a day when he wasn't checking out on somebody's injury: knee, arm, shoulder, whatever.

Thirdly, he is, quite simply, a genius. I seriously doubt whether most people could possibly have organised a class of such disparate abilities, constantly keeping everyone interested (even Lena, who is the 'Duracell bunny' of the group, and does more repetitions in five minutes than I can do in an twenty). He had to encourage and challenge the sprightly young things without discouraging people like, well, me. This takes astuteness well beyond the average.

So a typical scenario would be: 'Alice, four press-ups ... Lena, ten ... Effie, ten to your back with the Swedish ball ... Evita and Irini, you jog twice holding the bar over your heads ... the rest of you, just watch me ...' And here he would take a yoga pose (according to Lena) and turn it into an exercise. It was almost like private tuition.

Meanwhile he was juggling far more than bars over his head, computing the exact amount of strains he's putting on Evita's legs, Effie's thighs, and Alice's patience ... When he said, 'Good, Alice!' you positively jump inside for joy, because it doesn't ever happen unless you've really pushed yourself.

One of the other fascinations — not just the setting, watching the bars of sun slip over the sea on the horizon — was the language. Of course, all this was in Greek, which in my case (and yes, I am ashamed of this) mostly consists of the Greek for 'Thanks, please, could I have the bill, how much is it, etc.' I loved the Greek. I loved hearing the liquid language and learning to spot the words (mostly knee, dumbbell, elbow etc., admittedly!) I loved the insight into the Greek character that I was given.

I also love just the way the Greeks are. Take feisty dark Evita, humourously taken to task by Christos for having missed two sessions that week. Evita, exasperated, yelled right back at him: 'I have a ten-month-old baby! Get real!' Or Irini, who is on her feet in a bakery eight-and-a-half hours every day, rolling her eyes expressively at having been singled out for the kettlebell exercise under Christos' implacable eye. Or Eff, who is returning from illness, but still does every smidgeon she can, with this irresistible smile.

Yes, it hurt, and yes, I had to push myself, but it was a magic time, and they were magic evenings, jogging around the centre to the sound of distant gunshot (one Greek gold medal shooter used to train in the shooting range nearby) while learning what the Greeks are really like at last. There's no side to them at all: pudgy or svelte, we were all good buddies, even when we threatened to strike — a favourite Greek past-time — when the humidity went sky-high and Christos ordered us to walk backwards all the way around the centre ... They all embraced me at the end, and urged me to come back next time, while Christos looked a bit befuddled at my present (how English am I?) of Greek beers.

Apparently he only drinks at Christmas. How extraordinarily unEnglish of him!!!!

We used weights, Swedish balls, weights, heavy bars and even once — I loved this, because upper-body strength is my only good thing — hauling a lorry tyre around over our heads. And we all had a wonderful time.

Alice at Kampani Keep-Fit

So, if you're in the area, give this amazing place and these amazing people a chance. You won't regret it. However old you are, or how addicted to fuzzy yellow balls, give it a try. Just tell Christos that I sent you.

Aliki (Alice, in Greek)

Copyright © 16 September 2016 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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