TrueLayer retreat 2018: building and bonding in the Sicilian sun

Jarvis Prestidge, our Software Engineer, and Nicki Clark our Visual Designer describe the TrueLayer Italian retreat and what we all discovered along the way.

So it finally happened! TrueLayeristas have travelled to Italy, an area of the world which holds a great amount of significance for our little, fast-growing company. For no greater reason than it being the homeland of our founders, alongside a smatter of other employees throughout the company.

It’s been this healthy dollop of Italian heritage that, in turn, has resulted in very few days passing without a passionate conversation materialising about Italian coffee, design, art, history, lifestyle or, of course, food.

These conversations soon end with the Italians wishing they could once again be home, and for everyone else second-guessing their own quality of life. This trip, therefore, was planned to fix both of these terrible woes! Italians would finally be happy and non-Italians could experience the fabled quality of life for themselves!

Eat, sleep, chill, repeat

We touched down in sunny Sicily, eager to see, sample and explore all that the ancient island had to offer. The beautiful warm colour palette of the Italian landscape, accented by the sounds and sights of Italian drivers arguing in the airport car park, filled us with anticipation of what was to come.

Many of us took the first opportunity presenting itself to try some coffee before the group as a whole was picked up by our small fleet of mini-busses.

Our first destination was the heart of Catania, only a 20-minute drive or so from the airport. As soon as we arrived we were met by charming streets and historic buildings, with opportunities brimming at every corner to dig a little deeper into the city’s fascinating past.

We first entered the stunning Piazza Duomo, a large and bright square. The centrepiece was the famous Elephant statue and symbol of the city. It stands atop a white marble pedestal and has a seemingly out-of-place Egyptian obelisk sitting on it’s back.

The origins of which lend to the decidedly “non-Sicilian” influences this island had experienced in its past. In front of the elephant’s gaze stands the grand Cathedral of Sant’Agata whose size only becomes apparent as you walk past the front facade.

This was a reoccurring theme throughout the retreat, essentially expect to see a church on every other street and then expect it to be larger than you first thought possible.

Every inch of the square likely had an interesting story to tell but we soon moved on to explore more of the winding streets, while blissfully listening to history and stories narrated by our resident Sicilian of sorts — Mirta.

Sooner or later we found ourselves back at the square. In a secluded, unsuspecting corner, there sits the beautiful Fontana dell’Amenano, a fountain fed by the waters of the underground river Amenano.

Beyond the fountain’s misty gateway, you will see the famous local fish market, a real folk place. We stumbled among the colourful vendor stalls, before more deliberately taking to a restaurant and enjoying some of the freshest produce the market had to offer. Before we knew it we were happy and full, making our way to our home to be for the next few days.

Our remote villa — an ancient Masseria rebuilt on the ruins of a fourteenth-century abbey in Brucoli— steadily came into view with an olive tree enveloped driveway and wheat fields as far as the eye could see. Many a “Godfather” joke was cracked alongside apt references to the “Gladiator” and for good reason… we had apparently found ourselves within our very own feature film.

On arrival, we, soaked in our beautiful surroundings, met the diverse family of friendly dogs and were shown to our quarters by our welcoming hostess Francesca and her team. Our villa (Commenda di San Calogero) was more than could have been expected and this could be seen written all over our faces. We made short work of exploring the grounds, testing the pool and soaking up some sun, all before trying local delicacies whipped up by the talented onsite cooks.

You may have the universe if I may have Italy.
Giuseppe Verdi

Some played football, others flew drones (à la the beautiful photography above) while one hankered down for a quick nap, before our first and only agenda point of the trip — an open talk about TrueLayer. A retrospective of sorts, focusing on our direction and what we can do better.

The conversations varied over the course of 2–3 hours and touched on a number of topics:

  • Our products & features roadmap for the next few quarters;

  • Introducing, improving or removing unnecessary processes;

  • Our company size, our ambitions, and how we want to scale our people operations;

  • Our branding — how we perceive ourselves, and how we think we are perceived externally;

  • Our values and what we stand for.

This was an opportunity to put forward new ideas and debate company-related topics to a holistic TrueLayer audience.

Not only was the stage appropriately set for open, honest discussion, but so too was the pace and tone set for a slower more thorough consideration of points raised.

This was clearly the influence of our slower Sicilian way of life and we made sure to put it to good use. All were primed to offer their thoughts, without the worry of time-scoped meetings and agenda points.

Often this level of rigorous detail is not easily afforded in a fast-paced London environment, but as a result, we’ve been able to tackle some of the more challenging questions in the foreseeable future.

More specifically, from an Engineer’s perspective (that’s me, Jarvis 👋) concerned with expanding the support for banks and looking towards internationalisation, it was an opportunity get some positive, detailed feedback on an approach to crowd-sourcing bank support for new regions.

Maybe most remarkably we came to the startling revelation that we would like to have more company retreats in the future and a second office in Sicily.

After all was said and done, the afternoon had drawn to an end and we readied ourselves for what would be a fully curated traditional Sicilian meal prepared just like “Mamma” used to.

Now, our Italian counterparts have spent a great deal of time and effort convincing us of the quality and the taste of their food, all within the relative safety of Central London where no true sources can be found and tasted.

As a result, you could feel the tension within the mob, *cough* I mean… Italians among us. Their aim was to impress and impress they did.

We were treated to a plethora of regional pasta, vegetable bakes, fresh fish and side dishes, alongside some wonderful desserts and wines. The food stands the test of its towering hype; happy faces could be seen in every direction and a gentle sigh of relief could be heard across the table.

Sicilian tomatoes and oranges will ruin these foods for you outside of Sicily, they’re just that good…

After the wonderful meal, some of us decided to taste test a variety of bottles of Amaro, a quintessential Italian digestif. Which we seemingly enjoyed quite a bit, as not soon after, we found ourselves staring down a weary-looking PlayStation and a copy of “Sing Star — Italian Greatest Hits”.

What can graciously be described as “singing” and “dancing” ensued until the early hours of the morning, before the last of us toppled into our beds, ready for a new day.

Partying like rockstars in paradise

The new day started slowly, to say the least, but with a round of teas and coffees to stir us, was quickly followed by an opt-in session of yoga led by no less than the Sicilian “Stretch Armstrong” himself. 🧘 Namaste Fabio!

After which, we gladly accepted a glorious traditional breakfast and discussed the day ahead, and perhaps more importantly, the need for accessible yoga classes incorporated into our TrueLayer life going forward. An excellent conclusion if you ask me.

The remainder of the morning and afternoon was ours to relax and enjoy the villa’s offerings as we saw fit. Much of that time was spent by the pool, flying drones, exploring the grounds and testing the onsite hammam and sauna.

After eating an enticing arancini lunch, we put on our finest and loaded up the buses headed north to Taormina (did we mention in addition to being crazy talented and smart, we’re a good looking group? 😉).

The first stop was to the famed Bam Bar, where we enjoyed a variety of refreshing rainbow-hued granitas along with their signature brioche pairings.

Once the delicious treats had been savoured, we headed to the ancient Teatro Greco, built in the third century BCE. The expansive theatre is still used today for plays, operas, film festivals and concerts. Soaking up the gorgeous Mediterranean scenery, reflecting upon the vast history of the structure, and taking team “album cover” photos made for an awesome excursion.

As the theatre was closing, we headed down the cacti-laden hill to La Baronessa Restaurant, where we enjoyed a fabulous multi-course menu on a stunning waterfront terrace. Between the incredible view, amazing food and wonderful company, we were feeling truly happy and lucky to be a part of this intelligent, hilarious team.

Drinking wine, gazing out onto the Ionian Sea wrapped in a cosy blanket, surrounded by an incredible group of multi-talented people telling stories, planning our next steps, and creating lasting memories was a truly unforgettable experience.

Happy and full, we headed down the charming ancient vicolo to Club Morgana, where we felt like celebrities as we seamlessly bypassed the long queue, walking straight into the club. Seated on plush emerald cushions, our bottle service soon arrived, and everyone was ready to commence the celebration with drinks and dancing. Cheers, indeed!🥂

After dancing the night away, singing “We work hard, play hard/Keep partyin’ like it’s your job” at the top of our collective lungs, we ambled down the streets of Taormina towards the buses heading back to our cosy villa.

On the journey back, we made friends with a stone horse, debated Yanny vs. Laurel, chatted about new life-enhancing technologies, and were all ultimately very ready to turn in for the night.

Culture, beauty and bonding

Early the next morning after a much-needed breakfast and a few pats for beloved villa dogs Frida and Nina, we hopped on a bus bound for Siracusa.

We were perpetually overwhelmed by the wealth of mind-boggling architectural beauty wherever we set our gazes. We were visually inspired at every turn, mentally archiving elements to incorporate into our next TrueLayer projects. The rich textures and colours and relaxing, breezy atmosphere were a nice and needed change from busy, brick-laden London.

Our first stop was the baroque Cathedral of Siracusa on the island of Ortigia. The 7th-century cathedral was built on top of a Greek temple dedicated to Athena. We could have happily spent hours inside the cathedral marvelling over the ornate mammoth of a building, but time was of the essence and it was time to eat (yet) another amazing meal, so we headed to get sandwiches at Caseificio Borderi. Our team certainly knows how to live well and eat well!

While waiting for our sandwiches, our group was treated to a show by the entertaining owner of Borderi. In between sampling various types of delicious cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes, taking a peak at the imminent royal wedding, and chatting amongst ourselves, we enjoyed our time spent together in the warm sun.

Our team was bonding through this shared time together laughing and learning from each other. This moment of pause before a busy upcoming week was gearing us up to build new connectors, design awesome new features, and ultimately collaborate effectively as a team.

After eating the giant sandwiches by the sea, the next stop was south to the baroque city of Noto (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). We were very lucky to have arrived in time for the annual Infiorata flower festival.

Chinese art, history, and culture were the themes of this year’s festival. Crowds of people marvelled at the vibrant, hyper-detailed flower arrangements. Walking amongst the meticulous display, we knew our retreat was sadly coming to an end.

We made a point to soak up every last moment. Enraptured in Sicily’s architecture, food, culture, and perfect weather, we realised we were all mentally planning our next visits.

At last, we headed back to the airport, our heads swirling from the overload of incredible experiences gained over the past few days. We grabbed some last-minute food and gifts, laughed about learning to grow up by carrying our own cannoli and discussed the group action list we had compiled.

We were empowered to create positive changes based on the thoughtful conversations and suggestions posed over the course of the trip.

In Sicily, we became a tighter team — gratefully bonding over food, fun and building trust through shared experiences and honest discussions. As a company that is rapidly growing and evolving, we continue to be focused on all of the wonderful things that are still yet to come, together.

So … what are you waiting for? If you’ve read this far, come join us - we’re hiring!

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Visual designer
Nicki joined TrueLayer in 2018, where she helped establish the brand's visual identity brand from it's embryonic stage to a fully-formed refelection of our values, mission and purpose.

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