Born in Greece, raised in Massachusetts, travel writer and author Eleni Gage has crisscrossed the world 100 times over. In fact, she wrote her latest novel, "The Ladies of Managua," while living in the heart of Central America, in Nicaragua, which is, coincidentally, her husband's native country. "I feel like, if you can, that's the way to write," she says. "Live in the setting, experience it, and let it shape the work." In honor of her book's release in May 2015, we sat down for a chat about writing, the city of her youth, and her jet-setting job, and we ended up vicariously reminiscing about her travel-rich past. Yes, we are quite jealous.
Having grown up in Greece and your husband in Nicaragua, you must lead a fairly multicultural life. How does it filter your perspective on travel?
It definitely guides my travel. My husband, Emilio, was just complaining recently that he had this goal where he was going to travel to 40 different countries by the age of 40, and he is two countries short. He says it's my fault, because since he met and married me every year we go to Greece in the summer, and we go to Nicaragua at least once. Between that and business travel and the fact that I have a full-time job, as does he, it's hard to go and discover new places. When I would freelance as a travel writer, I feel like that was always the dilemma: Do you go back to the places that you love, or do you discover someplace new? Now we have these two Greek-araguan children—my daughter is three and a half and my son is two months old—so all the more reason to keep returning to our homelands, to get them in touch with their heritages. But there is still the side of us that wants to climb Machu Picchu, which we were planning to do before I got pregnant with my daughter, and things like that. I mean, cry me a river. But. …
What was it like getting to spend seven months in Nicaragua while writing "The Ladies of Managua"?
It was actually serendipitous. We moved there for Emilio's work. He's a coffee trader, and he had a specific project. His family lives in Managua, but he had always wanted to live in Granada, which is this Spanish colonial town on the banks of Lake Nicaragua. It's walkable, it's a colonial city, so it still has the same old-city imprint that it did after the Spanish built it. There were turtles in the yard, and parrots, and the lake is full of 365 little islands that have monkeys in the trees. During Holy Week there is a floating procession of religious figures through the lake, and there are horses and carriages in the street, and all the houses are painted these sherbet colors. On every block there is some impressive church. It was like walking into a magical realist novel. You really just get sucked into the culture.
As a travel writer, how does your professional experience affect the way that you travel personally?
I try to research to pick the places that I'm going, and then once I get to the places, I like to wander around and keep the days a little open. I find that it's really the time that is the most precious commodity when you travel. When I'm there, I can be very zen about enforced leisure time, like waiting for a ferry or if there's some sort of delay, because that's part of the experience. You get to talk to the other people you're traveling with, you get to read, you get to soak in the surroundings and maybe eat something you haven't tried before. I love me some street food.
Best ever off-the-radar trek?
Different places are dear to my heart in an off-the-radar way for reasons. I spent a year living in the village in the mountains in Greece on the Albanian border where my father was born, overseeing the reconstruction of my grandparents' house and writing a travel memoir about it. I thought it was going to be cool and give me an opportunity for self-reflection and all that, but it was actually really fun. In the summer, the village fills up to maybe three or four hundred people, but in the winter it dwindles down to 35 retirees. We had the best time going to all the local festivals, drinking moonshine. I did not hunt wild boar, but they did. In the winter, they bring the sheep down to the plains, and in the summer they bring them up to the mountains. So being immersed in that lifestyle was really fun. Also, the ladies were so gossipy and kept teaching me cakes to bake so that fate would come and send me a husband.
And then just in terms of weird coincidences, I was on the Afghan border in Pakistan a month before September 11. A friend of mine married a guy whose dad was working for the World Bank in Pakistan. After they had their wedding in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they set off to visit family friends and acquaintances, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll go to Pakistan with you. When else am I going to go?' We went to Islamabad, and we went to Lahore, and we went to Peshawar. Since his dad worked for the World Bank, he was able to get us a pass to go into the Khyber Pass. It was incredible. Everything was made out of sand. There were gaggles of women in burkas. We went up to the Afghan border. There was an actual gate there, and people were pressing to get in and out. I wanted to take a picture because I thought, 'Oh this is such a surreal setting, I could never describe it to anybody.' And then September 11 happened, and all you saw on TV for the next three years was the Afghan border.
Surprising travel habits?
One thing that’s surprising, perhaps, or proves that I’m old, is that I am not an e-reader person. I love to read, and I always say I read promiscuously. I’ll read pretty much whatever is out there. I do see the wisdom of loading up your Kindle with 20 books before you go away for a long trip, but I like to hold a physical copy. One of my favorite things about traveling is going into a hotel or restaurant or internet cafe and finding the shelf of books that travelers have left behind. I feel the weird pairing of what you’re reading and where you are is like this meant-to-be kismet thing. I remember once I was on a culinary trip in Mexico, hurtling across the Yucatan in this van, and I was in the back reading “A Passage To India.” Somehow it really worked well together.
Best beach you’ve seen?
That’s really tough, because I’ve seen so many. I’ve been on a beach in Nicaragua watching baby sea turtles hatch. And then, I’ve been to some pretty incredible beaches in Greece. I’ve been to Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos, which you always see on the cover of guidebooks, and which has that sort of a cove with a mountain and shipwreck on it—which is actually a boat that was smuggling cigarettes. Personally, I tend to prefer a pebble beach to a sand beach, because I think the water is clearer, and I just kind of like the look of that. I like a beach with contrasts, blue water and then maybe a mountainside behind it, as opposed to miles and miles of taupe sand and some gray water. Although, look, I'm not going to knock it, either. A beach is nice.
If you could hop on a plane right now, you'd go where and do what?
I'm delighted and lucky that I'm hopping on a plane on Tuesday and going to Greece. In my real life, that is what I'd want to do and that is what I'm doing. But, if I had total freedom and I could hop on a plane right now, I would go to Morocco, where I have not been and am longing to go. Sort of shop and soak that in for awhile. From there, I would go on safari.
As a former resident, what is it about Boston that makes people want to come here?
I think it's a rare city that manages to be both cosmopolitan and charming. I love New York, but I think Boston is the perfect size and location. You eventually get any art, music and theater that you want; nothing important is not going to go to Boston. I also think parts of it are so beautiful in the way that older cities are if they don't end up getting torn down.
Thing you miss most about Harvard?
I loved the sense of community. How you would walk across campus and see everyone you knew. I also liked how everyone was so engaged in what they were doing, and excited about it. It was a very stimulating setting and time in my life. It also felt very safe, but very expansive. Sort of like what I was saying about Boston being both cosmopolitan and charming. Harvard felt very safe and homey, but also like it was opening so many worlds to me.
Favorite hangout in Harvard Square?
Harvard Square has changed a lot since I was there. It used to be more small, mom and pop, the Tasty Diner type of places, while now it's got all sorts of flagship stores. I had a friend who was a senior when I was a freshman. I remember him saying when he was graduating, that what he was going to miss most was the light—that the light was so beautiful in Cambridge. That's really true, even though the sun was often going down at four o'clock. I remember coming out of the library and standing on the steps and just this beautiful sunset sending all these colors across the Yard. It was an inspiring setting.
Where are you headed next?
I am packing my two kids and myself into one suitcase, and we are going to Greece for three weeks.