It’s a blurred margin that separates the traveler’s desire to interact with his foreign hosts and the cautious reserve to prevent falling prey to scams and hustles, or worse. I stepped into the blurry zone at one corner of Athens’s Syntagma Square that is lined with deluxe hotels, expensive cafés, travel agencies and other business concerns, and, on its East flank, the Parliament and former royal palace. It is as likely a place as any in the city that one might encounter a familiar face from back home.
The little old man who approached me reminded me very much of my late grandfather, Sebastian. I’m told that I have a few Greek corpuscles coursing in my veins, so this genial old guy with the wiry build and wisps of gray hair on his leathery dome seemed as much kin and kindly.
Having observed me checking out the bus schedule so I could escort my small group of ‘students’ to the National Archeological Museum he offered his assistance.
“You are from America,” he declared with only a trace of accent.
“Yup, and I’ll bet you’re from Greece.”
He smiled. “California?” he asked.
“Right again.” I lowered my gaze to meet his eyes. At the level of his eyes was the easy clue of the logo and address of a San Diego café silk-screened on my T-shirt.
“No, Pireéfs . . .Piraeus,” he replied.
“Close,” I said, deciding to not to mention that I am originally from New York.
“Which bus do you want?”
“The one that goes to the National Archeological Museum.” He showed me the bus number, nut then said that one just passed and the next wouldn’t be along for thirty minutes.
“Well I guess I’ll march my group down the street and we can kill the time watching the Evzones at the Parliament.
“Why don’t you have them go there, and I will buy you a cool drink. I like to talk about America. I lived in Chicago for almost ten years.”
“Where?” I inquired, not wanting to end up in one of the expensive cafes or bars on the square.
“I have a bar. It’s just over there,” he said, pointing to one of the tall buildings lining the square.
“Yes, my family’s bar. Please, let me but you a drink.”
It sounded better than seeing the Evzones again in their rather silly-looking white pleated skirts, white blouses and tights, and shoes with red pompoms. They looked more like cheerleaders for some high school in Iowa that the highly-trained and tough warriors they were reputed to be. I told the students to the Parliament and I’d meet them there in twenty minutes.
The old guy’s bar was only about fifty yards away, not on the square, but in a little courtyard behind the façade of the office building that was accessed through a tunnel-like corridor. Anyone not knowing exactly where they were going would walk right on by. He ushered me in to the small, cozy bar with a half-dozen bar stools and a couple of booths.
“Be seated,” he said, motioning to one of the bar stools, “I will use the washroom.”
I plopped my camera bag atop the bar, sat down, and quicker than one could say Heidi Fleiss, there was a hooker on the adjoining stool with her hand on my thigh. And before you could say Dolly Partonopolis the most buxom lady bartender in the hemisphere had splashed out drinks for me and the wayward daughter of Aphrodite.
“Damn!” I hissed through clenched teeth. I looked around frantically, for “Gramps,” for a moment thinking that he would be my way out of here. But he had greeted the bartender and said something in Greek as we entered. The devious little pimp! How dare he look like my grandfather. I wanted to wring his lying throat.
My throat, however, was a bit parched from the Athenian heat and dust, and now the anger welling up in me. Reflexively I grabbed the glass in front of me and took a gulp. Straight gin! They must think I’m British. My next thought was: that was stupid! You have no idea what the hell that gin is laced with and you might be floating around on some Olympian cloud in a few minutes! Panic was added to my fury.
“Where’s the guy I came in here with?” I demanded of the bartender. She just looked blankly at me and said something in Greek to the hooker. Her hand had moved upward a bit and I pushed it off my thigh.
“You don’t like me?” Aphrodite moaned, making her eyes big above a hint of a pout. It was the first real look I took at her and something in me said: “Hey, this is a rather nice looking girl. She was actually quite pretty, and to her credit she hasn’t gotten her outfit at Trollops-R-Us.” She also had that sort of vacant look behind those olive eyes that can evoke a dangerous combination of sympathy and lust. Fortunately rationality trumped libido.
I started to say, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in . . .” when she put her hand back on my thigh. I went to push it off again but she grabbed it had held on. When the bartender came over and topped off my drink it occurred to me that Miss Aphrodite had not touched hers. Panic was going to win the contest of my multiple emotions. I yanked my hand away.
“You don’t like me?” she repeated. Maybe that’s all the English she’d been taught.
“I’m just crazy about you, but can we can discuss our wedding plans after I take my group to the museum? Sorry, gotta go.” I reached for my camera bag.
Simultaneously the bartender growled: “You pay now,” as Aphrodite moaned her little mantra once more. I slid off my stool.
“Pay now, twenty-five dollars for three gin.” I couldn’t help noticing that as she said this she was swabbing perspiration for a good ten inches of cleavage with the bar rag.
“Sorry, ‘gramps’ said he was buying the drinks. I wouldn’t want to insult his generosity.” She dropped the bar rag and seemed to be reaching for something under the bar. For what? A club, a gun, maybe a call button for a couple of guys named Hercules and Ajax? I wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
I heard her yelling something in Greek as I slammed the door open. The courtyard was empty, and I wasted no time getting though the tunnel and back out into the bustle of Syntagma Square.
Later, in the National Archeological Museum we were standing before the magnificent gold burial Mask of Agamemnon, one of the treasures unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann. The chiseled features and close-set eyes reminded me of my grandfather, and his pimp look-alike in Syntagma Square. I made a fervent wish that the latter would endure a fate like the fabled king of Mycenae.
©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.1.2004)