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Fleeced by strippers and chased by dogs: hello Athens

It was my first night overseas. I had crossed the Atlantic because I had felt like it, it was that simple. I had worked my way across North America and reached the Eastern shore, it just seemed natural to continue in the same direction I had been moving for several months. Not to say that I had shot a line across the U.S., that was certainly not true. I had been as far south as Corpus Christi and touched the Northern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. By my count I had logged about eighteen thousand miles, or six oil changes, since I had begun this journey. It was time to go international. I chose Athens for many reasons and none at all.

I took me about two hours and three buses to find my way from the airport to the center of the city. The tour through the outskirts of Athens was exciting and informative. A new and completely different language greeted me wherever I turned. The bus driver prodded me with Greek before we had to rely on his broken English. He was a grumpy old man and gave me the feeling that I was putting him out by asking about the bus’ destination ; as if not knowing gave me no right to board. I defied him and took my seat by the window.

My view introduced me to the world abroad. I was initially struck by how ugly the place was. The streets were dirty and littered with stray dogs. The architecture was uniformly unimaginative, grey walled palaces of practicality. Balconies stepped their way up the walls of apartment buildings, blue awnings designating generic-looking shops, not the quaint mom and pop businesses I had imagined. People hurried about with purpose, most with plastic bags in their hands. Scooters and motorcycles defied all odds and squeezed through the heavy traffic, racing out of view. I had the urge to jump on the back of one of those bikes and take it wherever it was going, to immerse myself in the life of the city, to inject myself directly into this artery and see its heart first-hand.

I disembarked the bus at a stop that seemed appropriate. I was as lost as I had ever been and it was thrilling, I could feel my instincts fighting their way to the forefront of my being, pushing aside the hunger I had been experiencing since the plane. I approached one of the thousands of kiosks that can be found on the streets of Athens to buy a pack of smokes. As I was pointing out my selection from the foreign brands, I saw and requested a map of the city. For that moment I allowed myself to act like the tourist I was, unfolding the map in the middle of the crowded street, even swinging my arm into a passing woman. With some difficulty I figured out where I was and where I thought I wanted to go. I folded the map, slipped it into my pocket and tried to follow the path I had set. Walking the streets brought me closer to the city. There were new sounds and smells and the air felt dry and cool. My feet pounded out a steady beat as a monologue developed and expired in my head. I felt alive and awake despite my long trip and the late hour.

After an hour of walking I realized that I had chosen my destination well. The maze of streets that had attracted my eye on the map was the oldest part of the city and exactly what I had had in mind. The streets narrowed and vehicular traffic disappeared. White-washed storefronts replaced glass windows and grey concrete frames. Music floated in the air from all directions and mingled with the voices of hundreds. Cafe tables lined the streets and waiters hocked passers by, beckoning them to take a seat. This neighborhood was lively and it matched my mood perfectly. I was suddenly very pleased that I had chosen to travel to this foreign place.

I found a hostel tucked inside a small alley and walked inside. They had space and rented me a bed, the price of which I thought was probably high but at that point it didn’t matter, I was where I wanted to be and willing to pay for it. I tucked my bag under my bed and, feeling very light, stepped out to find a beer. That wasn’t very hard, there was a market directly across the street. I bought a bottle of something that looked Greek and found my way to a bench to take in some alcohol and sights. Within five minutes I was approached by a homeless man. He spoke English flawlessly and simply wanted a cigarette. I gave him two and we talked until they were both smoked to the butt. We had a philosophical discussion that transported my mind to 500 b.c.. I was talking to Plato, setting the future in motion with every new idea. Then my beer ran dry and it was time to move on. I thanked the man for his time and donated a few more cigarettes.

“You like music? I know a great place.” His voice startled me. I was sitting at a table outside a small cafe having my second beer. I was looking out over the people and the streets and he came from behind. He was a greasy looking man who could have either been in his thirties or fifties, it was impossible to tell. He wore a large gold chain and an eager expression. “I’m Nunzio.” he continued. “You like jazz? there’s a club right down the street.”

The stairs that led down to the club were narrow and dark. There were two large men, one on each side of the door, apparently guarding the place. For some reason I can’t place, I accepted Nunzio’s invitation down those stairs. Maybe I didn’t want to be rude, I was new to this city, country and continent and didn’t know the customs. Perhaps I thought that if I did what some part of me must have known was the smart thing, I would genuinely offend him. I was consciously attempting to be open to new experiences, approaching this leg of my journey with open arms, expecting nothing and hoping for it all. That mindset may have driven me to follow the greasy Italian, himself a foreigner. It could have been something much more fundamental, however. I had the sense that Nunzio was lost, he was running, his eyes focused simultaneously on his past and future and simply running on autopilot in the present, doing what he felt he must to escape to and from. I think Nunzio and I had something in common.

There were two flights of stairs leading to the club, appropriately deep underneath the ancient streets, hidden from the average tourist. Rounding the corner of the first flight, I could make out the layout of the place. There was a long bar at the bottom of the stairs and booths lined the other three walls. The middle of the large room was left open for dancing and there were four poles spaced evenly apart. Two women danced alone at opposite ends of the floor, both naked. European techno blasted from four speakers mounted in every corner.

I should have left right then but I didn’t. It wasn’t the naked women that kept me there, nor was it the prospect of a drink. Nunzio disappeared as soon as we entered and I stood alone in front of the bar feeling very out of place. It didn’t take long for a well-dressed older man to approach me and escort me to a booth. He had a kind face that hid his intentions, years of deceit had worn smile wrinkles in his face, the kind of face that made it hard to say no. He suggested ouzo, the national drink, and I agreed. Less than a minute later a tall, blonde, Russian-looking girl of about twenty scooted in next no me. She was pretty and smiled at me awkwardly, I can only imagine what my pathetic grin must have looked like. I was seriously in over my head and needed an escape plan. The old man came back to the table with my ouzo and a small bottle of champagne. He placed the murky glass of ouzo in front of me and popped the cork on the champagne. “You like it?” he eyed me while pouring my new friend some bubbly.

“It’s great.” I said, holding up the glass. “It’s different.”

“Bah, yes, ouzo is good. Good drink. I mean girl. Beautiful no?” His eyes shifted from me to the girl, there was clearly fear in her half smile.

The bastard backed me into a corner, “She’s beautiful.”

“I leave you two alone. Talk.” he clapped his hands and walked away.

There was a pause. “You want I should dance for you?” the girl broke her silence. “I dance first out here then maybe we-”

I cut her off mid sentence, “I have to go, I’m sorry.” She looked a bit surprised but made no protest. I shimmied my way out of the booth, stopping part way to swallow the rest of my drink. “Sorry.” I offered again. Secretly, I hoped she wouldn’t get beaten for this. I quickly made my way to the bar to settle up for my ouzo, fearing how much a place like this would overcharge. The old man, seeing that I was leaving, came out from a doorway.

“Hey, my friend. You want to leave already? Have a drink. Have ouzo, you like ouzo.” He spoke with his arms spread wide in a show of friendship, a huge grin on his face.

“No thanks, I need to get going.” I explained, preparing to have to say it at least two more times.

“Ok, ok. You must go, you go.” he said with a clearly false sense of sadness. He was letting up in his act, preferring, I guess, to spend the energy on the next mark. There was something dark behind the curtain.

The bartender slid a small black tray with a white slip of paper along the bar and under the waiting fingers of the old man who, in turn, passed it on to me. I picked up the slip and my stomach dropped, I immediately felt sick. They had made the conversion for me: four hundred and seven dollars. The ouzo was seven. I had been charged four hundred dollars for a small bottle of champagne and a girl that I had not asked for nor wanted. This set my temper off and I allowed it to flare for a moment before I reigned it back in. “What’s this? I didn’t order this? I’m not paying four hundred dollars for something I didn’t order.”

The old man’s face was still, the wrinkles that had made him look pleasant earlier now framed a dangerous expression. I pulled out my wallet, and checked my tone, “I don’t have anywhere near that much.” I spread my wallet to reveal about twenty dollars worth of drachmas. “This is all I have.”

“Ok, we see what we do here.” the old man said. His faced eased a bit and he gave a look to the bartender as he turned back towards the door he had emerged from that made it clear to both of us that I was his responsibility while the old man was out of the room. I sat at the bar, feeling helpless and scared. I had just walked into such an obvious scam I couldn’t believe it. How could I be so stupid? Now I was screwed.

Things did not look good as I was escorted back to my hostel with two large men on either arm whom I had given them the names ‘Lefty and Guido’. I had no idea what their real names were and I didn’t care. Only one of them spoke English and it was nearly broken beyond repair. They had walked me the handful of blocks to my hostel and sent me inside to get my travelers checks. The checks had been with me the whole time but they were my plan of last resort. I had picked up the checks in New York on the advice of a friend and I was suddenly very glad I had listened. I had planned on living off cash and a credit card and realized how screwed I could have been.

“We wait here.” Guido grunted. By ‘here’, he meant one on each side of the front door of the hostel. I felt like the hero of a book only uncertain of a happy ending. I was inside for five minutes during which time I attempted to hatch a plan of action. I thought about bursting through the door, my bag on my back and leaving it up to my legs. I considered a change of clothing and even briefly cutting my hair. I paced the shared room of the hostel and figured I better just give up the checks and cancel them as soon as I could. It came down to the fact that I didn’t truly know who I was dealing with. I could have had agents of Europe’s biggest mafia outside the doors for all I knew or they could have been the common, sleazy criminals they appeared to be, it didn’t seem worth the risk.
I pushed open the door and the warm, Mediterranean air mingled with the air-conditioned coolness. Yup, they were still there, leaning against the wall, each with their arms crossed in front of them. “Ok, come.” I was ordered.

I did not see this coming, I thought I would hand off the checks and be done with this miserable adventure. I was wrong. I followed Lefty and Guido down the now familiar path back to the club. You could smell it before you could see it and I felt sick as I approached. Guido said something to Lefty then thumped his way down the steps. A minute later he emerged with the old man. The four of us then walked a few blocks to a busy street. Guido hailed a cab and my heart raced. “I have a friend downtown. We go see him” the old man’s ominous words didn’t match his smile.

I sat bitch in the cab nearly swallowed by five hundred or so pounds of man. The old man spoke with the taxi driver who seemed to understand. I was sweating and I could feel my pulse in my neck. I had no idea where I was going, who we were going to see or how I was going to get out of it. We finally arrived in Omonia Square, a district I would later learn was one of the seediest in the city.

The old man and I stepped up to a booth that appeared to cash checks, send money orders and the like. There was no one in line so we approached. The man behind the glass did seem to know the old man but I would not describe their interaction as friendly. I found myself relieved that this was the friend, not a man with a cigar cutter and collection of fingers as I had been imagining. I was ordered to produce the checks and I obliged. There was a lively conversation through the glass and finally, a salutation that seemed to me strange between friends. “Its too late. We cash tomorrow” the old man spat. I glanced at my watch, it was 2:05 a.m..

We drove back to the club where I was ordered to return the next day. The old man slipped my checks into his pocket and shot me a dangerous look as though to say, ‘don’t mess with me or I will kill you’. I slipped back to the hostel and fell almost immediately asleep.

I woke up the next morning with the sun. I took a brief shower and left the hostel. Sometime during that shower I had made my mind up to run. With the clarity of a half night’s sleep I had become unwilling to give those guys any of my money. I had begun to see the scam for what it was, common, and felt better about my chances of survival. I bought a calling card at a kiosk and contacted the bank to report my checks as stolen. That felt good. I was getting my feet underneath me now.

One of my main draws to Greece had been the Acropolis and I had even seen it from below the night before. I was determined to get a closer look before I fled the city. I followed a maze of streets, all quiet in the early dawn hours and found my way to the entrance, still closed. I had no idea what day it was and just hoped that it would open soon. Within a half hour it did open and I was allowed to enter. It must have been around 7 a.m. and I had the place to myself. The sun had crested the hills and glowed from the east. I felt at peace for the first time in several days and was happy to be there, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I toured the site until slowly other foreigners began to pollute my peace at which point I left.

I thought I would walk to Piraeus, the port city of Athens to catch a ferry, not realizing that it was four miles down the road. I somehow managed to choose the correct direction but the road was long and the weather hot, all making for a difficult journey. The forty five pound bag on my back wasn’t particularly helpful and I could feel blisters forming on my feet. I could finally smell the ocean when I made my first wrong turn of the day.

I found myself on a small, narrow street lined with chain-linked fences. This seemed to be an area where boats would be maintained or junked. There were no longer any pedestrians, stores or even cars. In fact, I hadn’t seen another person in about fifteen minutes. The streets wandered in no particular direction, frustrating me as any progress towards the sea I made was washed away as the street meandered back inland. Then I heard them. It started with a single ‘woof’. I turned and saw a dog behind one of the fences that lined almost every bit of the road. Another dog joined and also began to bark in my direction. Then three more. Another dog came running from behind a building and the five others began to follow. It was then that I noticed that the fence gate was not closed as it had appeared from a different angle. Uh oh. I had had a few run-ins with some mangy dogs already in my 18 hours in this country but they had all been alone and relatively harmless. This was a pack, however, and they were scragglier than any I had seen so far. These were junkyard dogs and I had the sense that they meant business. They tore out of the gate and turned in unison in my direction. They were a mixture of mutts, all fairly large and all very skinny. That is what I remember most, how skinny they were and thinking that they were seeing me as food. Time slowed and I thought of the little outdoors training I had picked up; namely, to try to look big. I already looked big, I had a huge backpack on and, with it, weighed almost 200 pounds. That did not seem to deter them so I also threw my hands in the air to expand my profile and steadily walked backwards. This, too, failed. They were on a direct path to me and closing fast; 50 yards out then 40, 30. I frantically looked around to see what I could climb, I had no chance of out running them and figured my best bet was to try to kick them in the jaw, I had no intention of being dragged down from behind. There was a car parked in the road about ten yards from where I was. I picked up my pace and moved towards it. There was no way I could have made it in time though, they were too fast and too close. 20 yards, 15 yards. Jesus Christ, I was going to die. It was then that perhaps the most amazing thing I have ever seen happened. I became suddenly aware that there was a noise behind me and it too was ferocious and very fast. I turned to look and saw an Athens police car speeding towards me. The officer in the passenger seat leaned out the window and produced a megaphone. Instead of putting his mouth to it, he pointed it at the dogs – now less than ten yards from me – and pushed a button that set off a series of amplified dog barking. The car did not slow down and neither did the dogs but the latter changed direction, a complete 180, and began chasing the car in the opposite direction. I was a few yards from what I was convinced was certain death, an opinion I still hold, and I was spared. The timing and narrow margin still blows my mind. I collapsed, took about ten deep breaths and hurried my way out of that maze towards any other district I could find. I landed at the ferry station and chose a destination at random.

As the ferry pulled out I watched the white water churn at the back of the ferry. I stood at the rail, smoking a cigarette and thinking about my escape from Athens. The air was hot and the heavy diesel fumes from the exhaust were beginning to make me nauseous. I was still a bit shaken as well and that was fueling my sick feeling. This was, by far, the most crowded boat I had ever been on and the only free spaces could be found in the parking lot below or in the stern. Both options were full of exhaust and at least this way I had some air. I watched as Athens faded to a grey blanket covering the Peloponnese. It was around six p.m. and I had been on my feet for twelve hours. I was free though, and that felt good.

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