Sleepless in Athens

2008

Chicken is kotopolo. Accent on the to. If I'd known that, it might have saved me.

I was almost too tired to be hungry, but I knew I should eat. I had been walking for an hour, trying to stay on my feet long enough to adjust to Greek time. It was about nine. I'd been traveling for over 24 sleepless hours. If I stayed awake two more hours, I might wake up at in sync with the Greek morning. The streets of Athens had been disappointing; soot-stained and desolate, populated mostly by African vendors offering knockoff handbags to an absent clientele. I'd had enough. I started back to the metro. It was a long ride back to the airport hotel. I should eat.

A garish, neon-lit takeout souvlaki joint looked promising. Unlike most of the cafes, it boasted a few customers. But all the signs were in Greek. What was the word for chicken? I stood on the sidewalk, thumbing my Lonely Planet phrasebook, when a little man sidled up. He was unremarkable - middle-aged, swarthy, the cheap dark clothes of a working-class local.

"Can I help? I speak Greek, I speak English"

"I'm okay thanks. Just need the word for chicken."

"Chicken? Chicken is kotopolo. But you don't want to eat chicken from that place. That's American style. You want real Greek kotopolo, it's just around the corner. One minute this way. I show you. Come, come."

Many times, traveling alone, I have been rewarded by the kindness of strangers. This guy"s insistence gave me pause, but I followed. He introduced himself as Antonio, and spoke in relentless, unpunctuated sentences. He was Italian not Greek but he knew Athens he came to Athens often to visit his sister she lived in Santorini with her beautiful baby he would fly there tomorrow he was a mechanical engineer and in Athens he always stayed in that hotel over there with the big red sign you can see it the red sign.

The alternative takeout was, as promised, authentic: steamy, ancient enameled tin walls lit by yellow flyspecked incandescent bulbs. The sills on the takeout window were worn to furrows by the elbows of countless customers. Antonio placed the order in Greek and kept talking. Two greasy bundles arrived and he quickly paid for both. I objected, insisted on buying my own, but he was firm. I was a visitor and it was his privilege and I should just accept and say thank you and that was that and now we eat and then we go for a drink at a real Greek bar with Greek music and Greek people the real thing.

Antonio was getting on my nerves, but I couldn't see how to lose him without being rude. After all, he had just bought me dinner, and the kotopolo was good. I agreed to a drink. One drink. I would buy him one drink, and then I would go back to my hotel. We walked down a side street, then another.

It was a small, dark, smoke-stained dive with a long bar and a few low-slung booths. There was no Greek music, just banal pop from a cheap speaker. Half a dozen bored night denizens propped up the bar. They glanced at us briefly and resumed their positions. The bartender followed us to a booth and loomed over us hopefully. He was a full-sized specimen with a heavy jaw and gloomy eyes. When he took the order, only his mouth smiled.

Two ouzo and orange, coming right up. His English was good. He poured fast. The drinks hit the table within a minute. A minute later, the girls arrived.

I don't remember their names. The one that marked me was a bottle redhead. Pretty enough, in the dark. Somewhere around thirty, dressed in skintight cashmere. Her breasts were assets and she positioned herself to advertise them. Her partner was a younger black girl, slim and surly. She parked beside Antonio but vacantly ignored him.

The redhead interviewed me in perfect purring English. I told her the truth: I was exhausted, I was leaving after this dr'ink. Tomorrow I was flying to the islands, to Kalymnos, where Sharon my girlfriend was waiting for me. I hadn't seen her for two weeks. I missed her. Sharon was beautiful, yes. Yes I was in love with her. The girl got the message: I wasn't shopping.

"Okay so will you buy us a drink anyway?"

Antonio had been mercifully quiet. He perked up. Will we buy the ladies a drink? I didn't feel like I had much choice. I shrugged yes. Antonio nodded to the bartender, who was ready for it. He didn't ask for an order, just attacked the table. In one hand, he had two champagne glasses, in the other, two demis of Moet Chandon. He popped the corks, poured and wheeled back behind the bar. Nobody said a word.

I had 55 euro, a credit card and a debit card. How much had I just spent? The girls drank fast. The redhead leaned into me, cooing flattery. I was handsome I was slim I had a nice voice. Antonio leaned in too, pulling pictures from his wallet, babbling something about his sweet sister. I fell silent. A hallucinogenic claustrophia crept over me. I felt cornered. I felt like prey.

I knocked back the dregs of my ouzo and announced I was leaving. Antonio objected. This was rude, it was not the way things are done, you must stay, just one more drink. And one for the ladies. I stood my ground, waved to the bartender. Bill please. Bring the bill.

This time the bartender was in no hurry. He ignored me, busied himself with ashtrays as Anonio persisted. But when I stood up and made a move to leave the booth, he was there to block my exit.

"You split the bill? Half and half?"

"Yes fine, half and half."

He went back to the bar and began to scribble. I remained standing. An awkward silence descended. Antonio pouted, the girls stared at their empty bottles. The bartender returned with two slips of paper. One for Antonio, one for me. I checked the bottom line. 145 euro.

I exploded.

"This is fucking outrageous. You're fucking robbing me. I've been set up. Then to Antonio: You, you little shit, you set me up."

I was standing, back to the wall, hemmed in by the table and the booth. The bartender was blocking my exit. Between us was the redhead, trying to make herself small. Antonio and the black girl had slouched into the darkness. The bartender had lost his smile.

"You ordered, you pay. That is the price. Do not be rude in front of the ladies. You have the company of the ladies, you buy a drink for the ladies, that is the price. You pay."

"I didn't ask the ladies to sit down, and I sure as hell didn't order champagne."

"You buy a drink for the ladies, that is what they drink. You pay. You have the money? Cash only. No cards."

I calculated my options. I was bigger than the bartender, but it would be difficult to get past him. And now, behind the bar, another large man had appeared. He was wiping glasses, watching us. I would never make it to the door. There were no options.

"I have 55 euro."

"You need 90 more. You go to the bank machine. I will go with you."

"Move aside then. Get out of my fucking way."

"There is no need to be rude in front of the ladies."

"Fuck off."

And so we walked in silence through deserted, grimy, alien Athens. The bartender pointed directions. The veins were bursting behind my eyes, my stomach was full of anger, fear, humiliation. I was having a frantic conversation with myself: I could probably run fast enough to lose him. But If he caught me, could I take him? Don't be stupid. Do you want to see Sharon tomorrow or not? Do you want to get bloody in this fucking street? Do you even know the name of this street? I kept walking.

We reached the bank machine. I took out 90 euro, handed it to him, turned and walked away. He said thank you. I said fuck you. A passing pair of lovers pointed me to the metro. I caught the last train back to the hotel.

I tried to sleep that night, but it was pointless. I went to the lobby and watched the dawn break. I asked the concierge to find me a cigarette. He found three, and I smoked them all.