illustration by Eleni Debo

Living the dream: Illustrator Eleni Debo works from the Italian Alps

I came across editorial illustrator Eleni Debo on Instagram a short while ago. As I do when I see pretty stuff that’s right up my alley, I followed the breadcrumbs… So I ended up scrolling through the beautiful illustrations on her feed and I was intrigued. Such a solid style, beautiful use of colors and textures and strong story telling. Big names to her portfolio. The short bio on top of her Instagram page read ‘Belgian illustrator living and working in the Italian Alps’. What the… She is – to dramatise things a bit – living my dream. I needed to speak to this lady.

illustration by Eleni Debo
illustration by Eleni Debo

Turns out she is only 25 years old (get out of here!) and has really only just begun. By the look of Eleni’s work I figured she spent years and years developing her style and getting her work out there before working for all the big newspapers and magazines. Nope, just hard work, lots of talent and a bit of luck. She finished her studies in 2015, a master’s degree in visual arts with a focus on illustration at the Luca School of Arts in Ghent. Eleni worked at a small letterpress studio for a year while building her portfolio until she felt confident enough to send out her portfolio to art directors of newspapers and magazines. 

I politely accepted their request while seriously trying to restrain my obvious and utter excitement

Eleni: “I wanted to make sure I had more to show potential clients than just school work. I decided rather early on that I wanted to take my chances working as an editorial illustrator. So I focused my portfolio to include a bunch of editorial style illustrations – I just bought a newspaper and assigned myself random articles to illustrate – while also displaying a range of different subjects I could tackle.”

Only about one week later she received the first call by Belgian newspaper De Morgen. “They asked me if I wanted to work for them, which I politely accepted while seriously trying to restrain my obvious and utter excitement.” Working for De Morgen on a regular basis – up to the point of having sometimes two to three illustrations published in a single week – turned out to be huge for her exposure and new clients started trickling in. “I quickly became so busy that I had to drop my job at the printing studio in order to start full time as an illustrator.”

Eleni Debo looking out over the Italian Alps from her apartment / photo by Josefien Tondeleir
illustration by Eleni Debo

Where most people – speaking for myself now – see their style develop over the years and cringe when they see the things they made years ago, Eleni’s style seems solid from the get-go. Eleni: “I do feel that my work has, and still is, developing rapidly. In my first years as a professional illustrator I was lucky for having a lot of assignments, especially in 2017 when I was mainly taking on really short deadline work one after the other. I was punching out the illustrations in a sort of adrenaline fueled year long frenzy. My clients didn’t mind me experimenting while working on their assignments, often surprising myself and the client with a new technique or style on each project. Having had such fast paced work in combination with the chance to experiment was an enormous boost to my work and style.”

I was punching out the illustrations in a sort of adrenaline fueled year long frenzy

In this year of experimenting while working her ass off, she built up a steady client base – and some savings. When she realised both she and her partner were working completely from home, there wasn’t much stopping them from living the dream. They could now work anywhere in the world as long as they had access to solid internet. “It has always been a dream of mine to live in a quiet place somewhere. Although I love visiting cities, I’m not really one for an urban lifestyle. My partner and I being both avid lovers of mountains, we often went on holidays to the Alps to enjoy the nature and the good food.” 

No longer bound to Belgium, or any place in particular, they decided to just pack their stuff and head for the Alps. “Why go once a year on an expensive holiday, when you can just go and live there? We promised ourselves we would first try out the whole ‘Let’s live in Italy’-thing for one year, before burning too many bridges. That definitely made the whole idea a lot less scary.” 

illustrations by Eleni Debo

So, Italy… You don’t just go online, find a place, sign a contact, move your stuff and live happily ever after. Or do you? “We went on a two week ‘holiday’ to Italy where we stayed at an AirBnB to find a rental place for us to live the next year. The contract of our Belgian apartment had already been concluded, so it was rather important that we found a new place. Suffice to say that those two weeks might have been the most stressful in my life.” 

Just when we were starting to feel like our whole poorly constructed plan would turn into a failure, we caught a stroke of luck

Turned out Italians don’t like emails and Eleni and her partner needed to contact landlords by phone in their very best Italian. “We both had taken some Italian courses, but they could very obviously hear that we weren’t native speakers. Some of them were put off by that, which actually was a bit surprising and disappointing. Just when we were starting to feel like our whole poorly constructed plan would turn into a failure, we caught a stroke of luck. We found a particularly kind housing agent who showed us a top floor apartment – with an amazing balcony overlooking the forest and the mountains – in a small village in the Valsugana mountains. We fell in love with it the moment we set foot in it.” 

Before saying yes to the apartment they had to be sure there was a solution for the slow internet connection that was available in the village. “It took most of the week and all of our Italian vocabulary to find a solution,” Eleni says. “There was a little known provider start up piggybacking on the excess of a large 4G network and with that our problem was fixed. We could live and work in the apartment we had set our eyes on. We drove all the way to Bolzano to get our last minute ‘codice fiscale’, without which you – apparently – cannot rent an apartment in Italy. All fixed and we signed our lease contract on the last day, just before having to return to Belgium.”

illustrations by Eleni Debo

Back home in Belgium the couple sold most of their furniture and belongings. Two months after signing the lease contract on their Italian apartment they crammed what was left of their belongings into a van and drove off to their new home in the Italian Alps. “When we arrived at the apartment there was no electricity, heating nor water. So we spent the first days of our new life in Italy eating camping style dinners by candlelight and sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our landlords cantina, because it was freezing in our apartment. But all turned out well eventually, and now we always have a good laugh about our misadventures.” 

Even though it feels like holiday each time she sets foot outside her door, Eleni doesn’t really have more free time than she had in Belgium. “I just spend it in a much more enjoyable way”, she says. After breakfast and yoga she goes to her messy office full of tape and stacks of paper and her partner goes to his neat and organised standing desk in the living room. After some coffee breaks, lunch, discussing new projects and brainstorming with her partner there are the Italian Alps… right outside the door. 

On Saturday we drive to the nearest town. We do most of our groceries on the weekly farmers market where there’s local cheese, sausages, wine and veggies in abundance

“If there aren’t any deadlines, we’ll stop working at around 5pm. In summer we’ll go to the little mountain lake five minutes from our house. We’ll read a book, soak up some sun and have a swim. Or we’ll go for a short walk in the woods behind the village. Often times we’ll just have a nice aperitivo on our balcony, watching the sun go down behind the mountains. The weekends are holy to me, and I truly try to avoid to have to work during the weekends. On Saturday we drive to the nearest town. We do most of our groceries on the weekly farmers market where there’s local cheese, sausages, wine and veggies in abundance. We’ll have a coffee with a brioche con crema at the bar, meet up with some friends and spend our afternoon doing chores at home. Sunday is my favourite day of the week where we put on our hiking boots and go off to the mountains, either hiking to mountaintops or exploring the woods.”

Quite a view: the mountains as well as that ravioli / photos Eleni Debo

Since they traded their large vegetable garden in Belgium for a balcony in Italy, the forest around the village has become their garden. “I am a huge foraging enthusiast. There’s an abundance of all kinds of wild herbs, plants and fruits to be found in the forest and in the pastures if you know where to look. Think hops shoots – lovingly called little asparagus – to top of an omelette or a risotto, wild figs and prunes as sweet as honey and stinging nettles that turn into intoxicatingly good ravioli with a dash of cinnamon.” Okay, the girl can cook as well…   

We found ourselves completely in love with living here and happier than ever

“Looking back at how we started I can certainly see as how this may come across as a completely disorganised and destined to fail way to move to another country, so maybe I’m not the best example for anyone wanting to do the same!”, she says. But they made it work anyway and figured things out along the way. Having recently passed the ‘one year try-out period’ of living in Italy, it’s safe to say they made the right choice. “We found ourselves completely in love with living here and happier than ever, so all’s well that ends well and we’re definitely not leaving anytime soon!”

Eleni Debo / photo by Josefien Tondeleir

Eleni Debo has illustrated for De Morgen, De Tijd, De Volkskrant, Gestalten, l’Echo, Vie & Culture, Knack and more. Check out more of her beautiful work at her website and on Instagram.

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