I became a travel writer because of an unforgettable Athens night. This account of it was first published in the American newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor and subsequently became a chapter in A Woman’s Europe, an award-winning Travelers’ Tales anthology. Because that remains my most memorable travel experience, I’m reproducing that article, in full, here. It’s a bit of a long read, but I promise, it’s worth it.
Ferne Arfin Updated 8 July 2017
Smoke, no fire
The three young men at the adjoining table were trying to make time with me. The blond — the one who looked like a storybook Apollo — seemed to be their spokesman. At least, he was the one who spoke English. He was pretty and I was tempted.
As a woman on my own in Athens, I had been warned by more experienced friends. Don’t make eye contact with strangers…especially in the Plaka. There were other warnings too. Hold onto your handbag. Stay in the well lit tourist areas at night. It’s all good advice; sensible for a single woman in any city where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t understand the customs. I intended to take it. I really did.
“You are English maybe? American? Yes?…We are so nice chaps…You talk English with us, please?”
Pretending not to notice them, I buried my nose in a guidebook and tried to work out what I would do during the next twelve hours. This visit to Athens was only a day, snatched between the end of an island holiday and the 3 a.m. departure of my cheap charter flight. I’d never been to Athens before and I wanted to make the most of it.
A chance encounter on a day with no special plans
Earlier, I had dumped my bags in modest hotel near Syntagma Square and hit the tourist trail. I’d spent the morning contemplating the Acropolis and the Agora. The afternoon was to be reserved for museums and for poking around the Plaka, an enclave of 19th century island architecture in the middle of modern Athens. I would have skipped lunch but Athens blazes midday in June and everything closes until the cool of late afternoon.
That was how I found myself in a taverna on the edge of the Plaka, seated beween the young men and a pair of American tourists who were picturesque in their own way; the woman dressed in pink gingham that might have been supplied by wardrobe at the Grand Ole Opry, the man with a ten-gallon Stetson firmly plonked on his head. My fellow countrymen can sometimes embarrass me abroad, so I tried to ignore them too.
“You are English maybe? American? Yes?…We are so nice chaps…You talk English with us, please?”
The young men, all dressed alike in short-sleeved blue shirts with epaulets, were persistent. They laughed and waved to get my attention. Without acknowledging their efforts, I discovered that they were firemen. Many of Athens’ older districts are tinderboxes in the dry summer weather. The boxy, ambulance-like vehicle parked at the curb was a fire truck in which the three young men cruised the streets, looking for small rubbish fires to put out.
This information animated the American in the Stetson. “Me too,” he boomed. The three firemen turned to look at him. I peered over the top of my book. “You firemen,” he said, pointing forcefully. “Me fireman too.” He beat his hand on his chest.
I couldn’t control the urge to laugh at this classic You Tarzan, Me Jane performance. The firemen laughed too and the ice between us was broken. The first piece of good advice I had been given —Don’t make eye contact with strangers — sank under it.
“You like music? Greek music? You like that?” said the blond Apollo.
“Bazoukie music? You know? You like bazoukie?”
“Mmm, I guess so.”
“You come with us later. We play in taverna…for food, you know. Where you stay? We take you. Eat. Listen to music. Don’t say no. You come. Say yes. Say yes. You eat. You listen. We play.”
There was no stopping them and no refusing them, though I tried. Finally, to extricate myself, I agreed that if I was in, at 10 p.m. when they finished work, and if I had nothing else to do, I might go with them. I never seriously anticipated that I would.
Praxitelous Street in the city center at 4a.m. Athens never sleeps.
I watched in helpless horror as. . . the taxi bearing all my possessions, including my handbag — passport, tickets, currency, the lot — disappeared into Athens traffic.
Ten o’clock that night found me foot-sore and bored with nothing much to do. The hotel room was grim and I had hours to kill in it before I could leave for the airport. I’m usually cautious and sensible, but tedium can prompt me to impulsive acts that I sometimes, later, regret. A part of me hoped that the three firemen wouldn’t show up. That way, I wouldn’t have to choose between three hours on a lumpy bed, staring at peeling, yellowed wallpaper and the alternative they offered, a leap into unknown territory. By the time they did arrive, the ceiling stains and leaky faucet had persuaded me that I had no choice but to go with them.
Out on the street, the blond Apollo took charge. In a flurry of commands, a taxi was summoned; the smallest and darkest of the threesome climbed into it and all my bags were loaded on board. As I tried to enter it myself, Apollo slammed the door. “No, you come on my bike,” he said. I watched in helpless horror as another rule bit the dust. The taxi bearing all my possessions, including my handbag — passport, tickets, currency, the lot — disappeared into Athens traffic.
Motorcycles worry me at the best of times. I always lean the wrong way in the corners. That night, as we rode out of Syntagma Square, leaving the brightly lit tourist heart of Athens behind us, I tried to stay calm, telling myself that whatever happened I had to keep my wits about me. I had no identification and no money. I couldn’t communicate in Greek — not even to call for help. Where were they taking me? What on earth had I let myself in for? How could I have been so stupid?
Rehearsing self-defense tactics
Leaving the glittering lights of Athens for pools of darkness
We rode and rode; into the deep residential suburbs of Athens; down darkened, deserted streets, past closed shops and silent, shuttered houses. My imagination played out scenarios of robbery, rape and murder, adding hours to a journey that could not have taken more than twenty minutes.
I rehearsed various self-defense strategies in my mind, discarding them one after another. There were two of them against only one of me. They would be faster. They would be stronger. They knew where the hell they were. They might even have accomplices hidden down some dark alley where the inevitable result of my own foolhardy act would be revealed.
I had pretty much decided I was an idiot, a coward and doomed, to boot, when we seemed to arrive at some sort of neighbourhood gathering. A half a dozen people ate and drank at tables arranged on the pavement. The only illumination came from candles on the tables. There were no neon signs, no blazing windows, no menus or waiters to indicate that this was, in fact, the taverna — our destination.
Hugs, kisses, steak and chips
Inside, a fat, motherly woman greeted my companions with hugs and kisses. We were ushered to a table where the third fireman — with all my belongings — waited for us. A typical Greek meal, as served in a typical Greek neighbourhood taverna, appeared on the table. It was steak and french fries, in case you’re wondering.
Then two mandolins and a guitar were produced and, for the next two hours, my new friends sang and played for our supper.
The other patrons joined the singing. They applauded and sent over bottles of retsina and ouzo. In between songs, we four struggled to make conversation in broken English.
I could have danced all night, as they say. But my appointed hour at Athens airport approached. I asked Apollo to ring for a taxi.
“Oh, no,” he said. “We take you. We sing for you. We go together, everybody. Yes?”
It was not a question. Once again, my bags were loaded into a cab, this time accompanied by two mandolins and a guitar, and we left in convoy, the taxi and two motorcycles, for the airport.
At check-in, I discovered my 3 a.m. flight to London would be delayed. Nobody knew for how long. “Don’t you worry,” said Apollo. “We don’t leave you to be alone.”
My three firemen — by now I had become a bit proprietary about them — found a comfortable spot on the floor, took out their musical instruments and tuned them.
“How old you are?” Apollo said.
“That’s not a very polite question to ask a woman,” I said, guessing I must have been at least decade older then any of them.
“I think you are same old as my Auntie,” he laughed, adding, “…but she is very young and pretty Auntie….So now you tell me, what music you like.”
Before long we had attracted an audience
The only bazoukie tunes I could name were Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek. Either choice seemed, somehow, inadequate.
“You choose,” I said.
So he did. One song after another. Before long, we had attracted an audience. The floors of Athens airport in the early hours of morning are strewn with sleeping backpackers, waiting for their inevitably delayed, cheap flights. In groups of twos and threes, they were drawn to the music until we were encircled by at least a hundred others.
Now and then, slim, tanned young girls approached my troubadours requesting various songs by name. Each time, Apollo nodded at me. “We play for her,” he would say. “You ask her.”
And so I was serenaded. In the end, my plane didn’t board until nearly 6 a.m. My musicians went the distance, playing for hours.