At the top of a steep mountain street, THEO PANAYIDES finds an unlikely star of the lockdown, a woman who brings to life a Cypriot stereotype born from a life of writing
“I don’t know how many of you ladies have sons,” says the tetchy-looking middle-aged woman, speaking to a YouTube audience from her fuzzy monitor in what looks to be an ordinary living room, with a background of orange-and-yellow striped curtains. “But those who do will understand what I’m about to tell you.”
Thus begins the most extraordinary success story of recent months, not just in Cyprus – though Elena Galatarioti is Cypriot, speaking Cypriot dialect in the videos in question – but also in Greece and throughout the diaspora. To say that the series of 10 video monologues by the middle-aged woman known only as Pethera (‘Mother-in-law’) has gone viral is an understatement. In the two months since they first started appearing, the videos have amassed thousands of views – Part 1 currently has 356,000 – but in fact that’s just on Elena’s own channel; she never ticked the right copyright boxes, she explains (“I’m not a YouTuber”), so the videos have been uploaded without credit (i.e. stolen) on 140 other channels, going viral there too. The total number of views runs into the millions.
The story becomes more remarkable the more you learn about it. In the first place, the videos have no production values to speak of: no camera angles, no supporting actors. Each one is literally just a fuzzy shot of the mother-in-law griping, mostly about her (unseen) daughter-in-law who – among other sins – eats quinoa, goes jogging, and gets her hair done in the middle of lockdown. (The coronavirus features in several videos.) Nor was there any big social-media push to get them out there: Elena put a link on her Facebook – where she had about 300 friends – having done the first video mostly for a laugh, something to do while cooped up at home. So how did it blow up so quickly? “Nobody knows!” she claims, putting it down to word-of-mouth. The buzz would make sense if Elena were some well-known actress – but in fact she’s not an actress at all, she’s a published author, nor is she involved with the world of showbiz (unless literature counts as showbiz). Only now is she starting to write scripts for TV, at least successfully: “I was writing scripts before. It’s just that all the producers in Cyprus have ‘discovered’ me now”.
Her anonymity was a factor in the most remarkable part of the story – viz. that so many people didn’t realise the persona was fake. “Madam, I’ve just watched a video on Facebook in which you state that you’re spying on your son’s wife,” goes a message Elena received from a lawyer (!) after the seventh video. “Let me say that what you’re doing is illegal under Cyprus law, specifically the law relating to protection of privacy. I should also add that I consider it to be immoral on your part.” That lawyer was unusual in having written so late – by Part 7, most viewers knew it was a joke – but that kind of comment was all too typical after the first couple of videos, only less formal and more abusive. “My friends were trying to go on Facebook to protect me, saying ‘Stop being mean to her’,” she recalls. “It was tough, those few days. The messages I was getting. Nasty messages… Later on, you can’t imagine how many people got in touch to apologise.”
Part of the ‘problem’ has to do with her comic rhythms. Most Cypriot comedy could never be mistaken for real life; the actors mug, roll their eyes, scream at each other. Elena, on the other hand, does something different as Pethera: she plays it straight, like an Alan Bennett character, as if aware that comedy is rooted in obsession and neurosis. What’s funny are the weary pauses, the end-of-her-tether expression, the sheer weight of this woman’s exasperation at the unspeakable daughter-in-law who not only can’t cook but also orders Chinese takeaway, in the middle of a ‘Chinese virus’ (her excuse, that Peking Duck doesn’t actually come from Peking, is treated with the contempt it deserves). She’s so ‘aksourtoti’, sighs Pethera, one of many hardcore village words (this one meaning roughly ‘useless’) that prompted professional linguists to step in with translations after the videos took off in Greece.
The whole thing is fake, of course; Pethera was a character in a script Elena had written, originally meant to be performed by a professional actress (she only stepped in herself due to lockdown). The character has nothing to do with her own personality; “Neither my books nor my scripts have anything to do with my private life”. That said, Pethera comes from a village and so does Elena herself, in fact she still lives there – the village being Kakopetria, her house a red-tiled, two-storey affair just beyond the village, at the end of a steep cul-de-sac. Pethera dotes on her son, indeed that explains the irrational animosity towards his wife – and Elena too has a son, 16-year-old Andreas who seems close to his mum and happily sits in on our conversation, intermittently reading SPQR, Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, in a Greek translation. (There’s also a daughter, nine-year-old Hara, presumably in school on this Wednesday morning.) Above all, perhaps, if we’re noting similarities between the writer and her creation, Pethera seems very single-minded – and Elena too is single-minded, having nursed her dream of becoming a writer through 20 years at the Bank of Cyprus before finally taking a redundancy package in 2013. The phrase ‘life begins at 40’ (she turned 46 last month) might’ve been coined to describe her.
The contours of her story are a little hard to pin down – not least because I’m by no means the first to this story. The woman behind Pethera became one of the unlikely stars of the lockdown, appearing on TV talk-shows in both Greece and Cyprus, splashed all over Greek-language media; many other journalists have previously trekked up the steep cul-de-sac, presumably to be offered bananas and biscuits at the same outdoor table (just outside the room with the orange-and-yellow curtains) with a stunning view of a pine-wooded valley. All of which is to say that Elena’s story is clear by now: the uplifting story of a girl who was born to write, lost her way in banking after a Financial Services degree at Umist (an echo of Manchester crops up when she quips that even “a footballer at Old Trafford” wouldn’t have to endure the level of abuse she did) – then made the best decision of her life, becoming a writer and finally, unexpectedly, a celebrity writer.
Is it true? Absolutely, at least in general terms – but the meat, as every writer knows, lies in the details, and Elena seems reluctant to be drawn on those, as if unwilling to complicate the narrative. How did she feel all those years, living in the village and edging into middle age? Did she never lose sight of the dream? How did the mounting frustration affect her personal life? (She’s been married twice, despite being one of those girls who never planned to get married.) She wrote the first of her three books while still at the bank. Which one was that, I ask, glancing at my notes, was it Why Did Helen Get Away From You, Menelaus?
That’s the one.
Was it hard to write?
Elena looks at me in surprise. “No,” she replies, as if to a strange question – then explains: “It’s not hard for me to write. It’s actually hard for me not to write”.
Writers seem to fall into two camps, those for whom it’s like pulling teeth and those for whom it’s as natural as breathing; she’s very much in the second category. “I was the child who was always writing a diary, always writing poetry,” she recalls. “I was the teenager who always wrote nice letters, nice essays. I mean, I always had a problem at school: ‘Write a 200-word essay’ – my essays were more like 1,000 words. I’ve never been able to hold back… There are so many ideas in my head that, unless I write them down, I feel there’s going to be – an explosion, let’s say! I have to get them out of my head. All my ideas, my heroes, my stories.”
She always carries a notebook around, to jot down stray thoughts or little scenes between people. She’s locked herself in the loo at parties, because something happened and she wanted to write it down straight away, before she forgot. Some writers set a painstaking routine for themselves, to get ‘in the zone’, but Elena doesn’t see the point; it’s like a sponge, she says – if the sponge has water it’ll flow with minimal pressure, if it doesn’t there’s no way of forcing it. The Pethera videos took about 10 minutes to write, ideas and jokes coming to her naturally (though I assume it took a few takes to get the timing right). She has a fourth book coming out soon – they sell well in Greece; not so much in Cyprus where, she sadly reports, only an estimated 0.4 per cent of people read books – as well as a stage play, and there’s also a Pethera TV show coming out in the autumn; but it’s not just creative writing. “If I have a problem, I’ll write it down. It’s my way of expressing things – to get rid of my fear, my pain, my sadness. That’s how I express myself, always.” Elena nods, putting it as succinctly as she can: “Writing is my life”.
Writing, for Elena Galatarioti, is the way she staves off depression; it’s a panacea, a kind of therapy. Her favourite book (though she hasn’t read it in 40 years) is the autobiography of Helen Keller, the little deaf-blind girl who found salvation in writing. Murky little questions tug at the edges of the uplifting narrative. Elena’s husband – her second husband – is mostly absent; he’s a sailor who used to work on cargo ships, and is now based at Head Office in Athens. She had Andreas with the first husband, Hara with the second. She thinks about explaining further, then shakes her head: “Let it go,” she pleads with a laugh. “My personal stories are kind of weird.”
Maybe someone who writes so much, so fluently, will always instinctively prefer the writing life to the non-writing life. She seems very sociable, and indeed she is; she loves dancing, going out with friends. She’s also in public life in Kakopetria, a local councillor in charge of cultural events. Yet she’s basically an introvert: “Very few people,” she begins – then corrects herself: “Actually, almost no-one knows my secrets, my private thoughts. I’m very introverted, extremely introverted”. She could never live in a city, she tells me, this isolated setting being right up her (very steep) street – yet Andreas also tells a story (his mum grins shamefacedly) of a holiday in Paris years ago, when she took the kids to the Louvre. Elena’s big on educational trips, so they stood in front of the Mona Lisa and she started explaining what it was – then suddenly, to the kids’ utter shock, she started crying, right in the middle of a sentence. “I just felt such awe,” she recalls. “Omigod, how embarrassing!” Note, in the same vein, that her hobby is cooking – but she doesn’t cook boring stuff, Andreas’ favourite being her truffle and mushroom risotto. She even bought kangaroo from Lidl once, cooking it to a special Australian recipe.
That, in the end, may be the biggest difference between creation and creator. Pethera is scathing when the daughter-in-law gets Chinese takeaway – but Andreas recalls how his mum’s always taking them to Chinese restaurants, unlike the KFCs and McDonalds favoured by his friends’ parents. Pethera is parochial, a village woman (in her thinking, if not necessarily her provenance) from a place much like Kakopetria – and Elena too is village-born but she’s also much more, carrying a head full of stories looking to burst out. I haven’t read her books, but I’m pretty sure they’re not formal exercises; they’re about people, which is what she does best (she doesn’t make a detailed structure before she starts writing; but she always makes detailed synopses of her characters). She works with feelings, projecting her own – her “private thoughts”, her tears at the Mona Lisa – on those of the people she writes about.
One imagines her living in the village, looking out at the pine-scented valley and thinking of the world beyond, with its famous paintings and exotic dishes – and the stories in her head, which offered the simplest way of getting from here to there. I hope the Pethera show is a hit – but it won’t be the same when you actually see the son and daughter-in-law. What was funny (especially during lockdown, when all of us were living inside our heads to some extent) was the sense of a woman’s uproarious inner life being more vivid than her real life – and maybe that’s true of the woman behind her, too. I leave her to it, making my way down the steep, wooded incline and back to the city.