Finding the incidental magic in the everyday, one writer tells THEO PANAYIDES about touching those she meets and the wisdom of older people
Bus Diaries, random moment No. 1: Jimmy the barber in Polis Chrysochous talks to the unseen woman, telling of his many years at sea. On the walls of his shop are old snaps of unexplained children, various tools of the barber’s trade and a photo of Jimmy himself in his youth, sporting a magnificent horseshoe-shaped moustache. The ’tache is now trimmed, the hair lanky and straggly, the young man older and slyer. He tells the unseen woman of some long-ago liaison: “I fell in love with this girl in New Zealand. She had one leg. I met her in a bar”. Of course, one of those one-legged girls you meet in bars. New Zealand is full of them.
“I’m very, very interested in people,” says Eleni Xenou – the unseen woman in question, though we do catch a glimpse of her at other points in the video. “I feel like, if I were to stick a sign on myself, it wouldn’t say ‘Journalist’ or ‘Writer’. I’m a collector of stories. People fascinate me. How they think, what there may be inside them, what they contain, what they remember. I mean, really getting to know–” she stops herself, as if careful not to overstate. “Not getting to know, but just briefly touching that something inside them.”
Is that true, or just a spiel? I assume she didn’t just make up this excellent description of herself as ‘a collector of stories’ on the spur of the moment. “There’s a novel inside every one of us,” she tells me later, quoting writer Kostas Mourselas – and quotes the exact same line in the Bus Diaries video, right after chatting to Jimmy the barber in fact. There’s a slight sense of strain about our encounter, something slightly unnatural – though she couldn’t be friendlier, pours me a glass of iced pomegranate juice and asks “Do you mind if I smoke?” before rolling the first of several roll-ups – simply because Eleni is on the wrong side of the tape recorder. Ordinarily she’d be the one asking the questions, for many years at Phileleftheros and elsewhere, her collection of personal ‘stories’ including some notable interviewees like Paulo Coelho and Isabel Allende. She met the latter in San Francisco, having travelled halfway around the world (she claims) for the answer to a troublesome question: “Tell me, Mrs. Allende, what makes life interesting?”.
Eleni’s own answer would presumably include travel, which she did compulsively for decades (one reason why she’s never managed to save much money, she sighs) – above all during the year she spent in Asia, making her base on the tiny Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan and venturing out to Laos, Vietnam, Bali and so on. She made ends meet partly by distilling her experiences into a weekly ‘travel diary’ column for the paper back in Cyprus – but in fact she didn’t need much money (that was the point), shunning hotels and following “that community of wanderers” who camped out on Ko Pha Ngan like the blissed-out hippies in Alex Garland’s The Beach. They were something of a motley crew, a smattering of drifters and yoga teachers but mostly “people trying to find themselves” – most of them between 35 and 55, “at a stage when they were taking a break from their lives, and that was very interesting… It’s interesting to meet people in a kind of transit moment of their lives.”
Bus Diaries, random moment No. 2: the unseen woman – now, briefly, seen, her shrewd, narrow eyes giving her the watchful expression of a bird of prey – talks to an 84-year-old village woman making olive oil. The old lady’s helper is a smiling young Vietnamese girl named ‘Two’ – and this cheerful assistant holds up two fingers (the unseen woman having presumably tried to decipher the name based on her own experiences in Vietnam) to make clear that, no, her name really is just … Two
Bus Diaries is Eleni’s new project, actually a joint project with her business – and life – partner Christoforos Roditis; it’s a series of short videos (four have already been posted on YouTube, with four more to go; there’s also a Facebook page, facebook.com/busdiaries) with our heroine getting on a bus and heading off into rural Cyprus, usually encountering a mix of elderly Cypriots, British retirees and young foreign ‘helpers’. Her own contemporaries (she’s 47) are largely absent – not by design, simply because that generation of Cypriots has almost entirely fled the villages – and the tone may also chafe for some viewers, being consistently wonderstruck: everything is quaint, lyrical, magical. Eleni’s default mode seems to tend towards poetry, the incidental magic in the everyday (that’s what she loves in her favourite authors, notably Haruki Murakami) – not just on video but generally, even when she’s giving me directions. “It’s a yellow house,” she says on the phone, explaining how to get there but having to be prodded for the actual address. Colours are magical; addresses are not.
It is indeed a yellow house, deep in old Nicosia, adorned with light-blue shutters and old-fashioned street lanterns. There’s art on the walls, though less than you might expect from a woman whose writing (and editing) appeared in Phileleftheros’ cultural pages for 18 years; the house is airy, calling attention to its high domed roof and spacious courtyard in the back. Eleni limps into the courtyard, her limp being the result of a foot operation that’s kept her housebound for weeks now. It’s a Saturday morning and very quiet, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the sounds are very specific: the chirp of swallows, the tinkle of wind chimes, and a weird rattling noise that descends from the ceiling whenever someone walks in the living-room. Those are the sounds of the roof, she explains: “I like to say it’s my guardian angels walking about”.
More of the magic in the everyday – a tendency, or perhaps sensibility, that may also explain why she needed travel so much. Coming into contact with the remote and exotic isn’t just a fun thing to put on Instagram: “It immediately broadens your awareness of what is possible in this life”. Comparing one’s reality with that of some village person in Laos or Nepal makes one comprehend, as she puts it, that “life is something bigger than reality” – that it also includes the mysterious, which we tend to exclude from our definition of ‘reality’. Simply put, you no longer have to feel guilty for imagining magic in your daily existence: life includes so much else – so many more realities beyond our parochial own – that “what you’ve imagined might actually happen”.
Where does it come from, this lifelong reaching-out for mystery? Hard to say, but she’s always had a restlessness, what she calls “escapist tendencies”. What was she like at 18? “I feel I was someone who was boiling on the inside – not in the sense of an explosion but a great thirst to learn, to see, to know things… [Longing] to be a bit random, a bit of a wanderer”. This was all on the inside, however, channelled not into open rebellion (she was never much of a rebel) but scribbling down thoughts and ideas, meanwhile studying Law followed by Journalism. She seems to have grown up in a loving but fiery family: “They were both very, very strong personalities,” she notes when I ask about her parents. Her dad was also a journalist, actually a political analyst; her mum was among the first women to own a betting shop, which she’d inherited from her father. Both had been married before; Eleni has three half-siblings but is presumably the youngest, being the only child from her parents’ marriage – which also ended in divorce. One wonders if that sparked the travel bug (not to mention the writing bug), a young girl dreaming of far-off exotic worlds while surrounded by these big, intense people.
Bus Diaries, random moment No. 3: Mr. Agathocles in the village of Anogyra – a great character, bull-necked and toothless – giving the unseen woman the benefit of a lifetime’s experience from beneath his bald dome, eyes almost lost in folds in flesh. “God save us all,” he shrugs, summarising life in a few well-chosen words: “The earth will swallow us”. Then chuckles at the merry futility of it all, his big body shaking with mirth.
“I love the wisdom of older people,” says Eleni, puffing at her roll-up. There’s a lot to be learned from their worldview, and indeed their fatalism – above all, of course, that “this life will end at some point”. It’s not something she really thinks about (she’s only 47), but she does ‘prepare’ by, for instance, doing yoga every day, taking care of her body – and you also prepare, indirectly, by “appreciating your relationship with your partner… Saying ‘Yes, we’ll go – there, together’, shall we say. Just trying to grow old beautifully”. Christoforos is the most significant relationship of her life, says Eleni – and they seem to have found each other at a significant time, not long after her life was upended by losing her job just a few weeks after the haircut (i.e. when no-one was hiring). It’s obvious that she still feels hard done by, and remains angry at her old employers for having cut her loose without any kind of safety net – not even a month’s salary – after 18 years of service; “You just don’t expect that someone will behave so pettily”. Then again, she also likes the freedom that comes with going freelance – and is busy rebuilding her brand, now writing mostly at Kathimerini (which also had a hand in the Bus Diaries) where her work seems to be quite political, writing on the Auditor-General and “the rhetoric of hate” in recent articles.
Meanwhile, there’s a rich collection of stories to look back on – all the people she’s met on her travels (some became friends, who later came to visit her in Cyprus), and the people she continues to encounter. The wizened 80-something she met on a bus who sells lottery tickets outside the Land Registry, has the carefree laugh of a little girl and wished Eleni good luck (rather fittingly, given her job). Mrs May in Thailand – another village woman and wise older person with a calm, “rooted” wisdom – who once caught Eleni on a bad day but was too polite to note that she seemed depressed, talking instead about the weather: “‘Did you see how angry the sea was last night?’ she asked me. ‘Yeah,’ I replied, ‘it was really rough’. ‘But do you see today,’ she went on, ‘what a beautiful day it is?’ And that was her way of saying ‘Things aren’t so bad’.”
Surely there are also people she can’t stand, though? Of course, she replies; if anything, the older she gets the more her “patience for stupidity” diminishes – but it’s not just stupid people, it’s also (or especially) “those who you feel aren’t relaxed in their skin”, those who always seem to be pretending. Is she relaxed in her own skin? “I feel OK with myself,” she replies simply. “I feel like, since this is who I am – well, at least I should try to be nice to this person!”
Sounds like a pretty good note on which to leave Eleni Xenou – still unable to walk very well, admittedly, an ironic fate for a lifelong traveller, though in fact even the trips have been largely curtailed in recent years (I suspect she may be living through her own “transit moment”). These days she’s working on a novel – her first, though she’s previously published a collection of her newspaper columns – writing for various outlets and slaking her thirst for magic and mystery by going on excursions, walking down new paths and coming into contact with new people. I exit the yellow house and walk down the street, random shards of our conversation still bouncing around in my ears like a piece of music. Could I really say I ‘collected her story’? Did I get to know – or not even get to know, just briefly touch – that something inside her? I guess I tried.