in the Cradle of Western Civilization
By Eanet Fischer
The air had a palatable heft to
it as I quickly made my way through the Monastiraki
Central Flea Market en route to the cold Italian marble
and classic ironwork of my hotel. Intense sunlight
mixed with ozone cast a soft washed-out haze on everything;
peddlers, kiosks and the surrounding chaos morphed
into 15-year-old faded full-motion photographs. Part
of me believed that at any point I could have stopped
and engaged, but part of me couldn’t. I was five thousand
miles from home on an under-planned trip to Greece,
and as alone as I could have been anywhere else in
I had just returned from my obligatory
exploration of the Parthenon and the accompanying
ruins and I decided to briskly return to the safe
confides of my hotel room, where I could lay in bed
and let the shitty euro pop music videos wash over
me. The room had a balcony with nice view of the Acropolis,
and in bed I didn’t have to futilely attempt to speak
Greek to anyone. I had the entire city of Athens at
my disposal, and I couldn’t think of a thing I wanted
to do other than sleep. I was overwhelmed by the scope
of this place. I had already done the museums, ruins,
broken my vegetarianism to eat moussaka and any other
food whose name I could recognize from my days patronizing
diners in New York. Paralyses began to set it.
I had heard two things about Athens.
It was a city that seemed to polarize people, half
the people recommended I skip it and make my way directly
down to the Greek Isles, on account of how polluted
it was. This was hard to reconcile with the other
faction, that couldn’t stop gushing about the people,
history and food.
The truth lay somewhere in the middle.
Athens is polluted to the extent that residents are
only allowed to drive their cars on alternating days
of the week determined by the last digits of their
license plates. The pollution starts to get to you
after a couple of days, and by about the third day
I acquired a newfound sympathy for toll both workers.
But the pollution doesn’t detract
from the aura of the city. The Parthenon spectacularly
looms overhead, visible from much of the city, as
an inescapable reminder of where you are. Ancient
Greek (and often kitsch) iconography borders on omnipresent,
from billboards to bedposts. Athens is a collection
of voices whispering, “Here, on these streets you
wander, western civilization metabolized.”
Back in the Monastiraki Central
Flea Market, I hear a crackly voice coming from behind
me. I glance around and see nothing of any significance,
so I continue walking until I hear the raspy voice
again and turn to see a stout and jovial looking man
in his early seventies talking to me in near perfect
English. He is an archetypical grandfather, replete
with thick wrinkles, slicked back white hair, potbelly
and a pleasant smile.
“Do you know what time it is?”
I frantically try to figure out
how he knew I spoke English. Eventually, it occurs
to me that I was betrayed by the back of my t-shirt.
I don’t know what time it is, so I look at my wrist.
I have on an analogue watch and the only thing I am
worse at than telling time is alphabetical order.
This is significantly exacerbated under the pressure
of telling time at a stranger’s request and wanting
to avoid giving them the impression that I am mentally
impaired. I study my watch face for two seconds that
feel like they last for two weeks and sheepishly proceeded
to extend my arm and turn my wrist outward.
The old man nods his head in acknowledgement,
and begins to make conversation.
“How long have you been in Athens?”
“So, what do you think of Greece?”
“The food is great, no?”
“Where are you staying here?”
“Do you have a wife?”
A prerequisite for successful solo
traveling is some degree of outgoingness and an ability
to suspend your ingrained distrust of strangers. Being
a New Yorker, I naturally lacked both of these qualities,
and relied instead on my almost preternatural ability
to make things up.
Using deliciously canned answers,
I affirm that I am having a wonderful time in his
homeland. He tells me he has a grandson who is a little
older than me and mentions that they run a restaurant
together. If I have the time, I should stop by and
bring all my friends. I ask where it is, having vague
intention of actually visiting, wish him well and
begin to walk away.
But I wasn’t about to get off that
“Friend,” he says, “we have some
excellent specials today, I would be honored if you
were my guest for lunch.” I politely decline, explaining
I can still taste the béchamel from the 73rd
serving of mousakka I had ingested in the past five
days, an hour earlier.
“How about a drink then?”
And I am about to say no when, for
some reason against my better judgment, I think, “what
else do I have to do? This could be my portal to an
authentic Greek experience.” I hesitate for a moment
and then accept.
“It’s only a couple blocks from
here,” he says through a weathered serene smile, and
we duck off into a narrow alley.
Red flags start unfurling after
about 15 minutes of navigating Athens’ labyrinthine
alleyways in silence. Restaurants appears nowhere
in sight and I have long lost track of the multifarious
rights and lefts that could shepherd me back to safety.
I begin to question the logic that encouraged me to
follow a stranger into a dank, secluded alley thousands
of miles from anyone who would notice or care if I
“Five more minutes and I run,” I
think glancing around in the hope of finding some
sort of affirmation that we are nearing a destination.
I’m fairly confident that I can outrun an elderly
man. Several minutes pass and I start planning my
“Here we are. It’s right there.”
“Right where?” I think, standing
in front of a grimy, concave ten-story apartment building
adorned with outdoor concrete staircases and balconied
landings, blocks from any commercial real estate.
Perplexed, I watch the old man ascend
a set of stairs and approach an inconspicuous second
story door flanked by two blacked out windows. I notice
a small sign protruding from a top the doorframe,
that I assume reads “bar” in Greek.
I relax my guard for a moment, anxiety
assuaged by a ridiculously undersized sign. My fantasies
of organ harvesting fade to the periphery. For now,
it appears as if I will be spared waking up in a bathtub
filled with ice. I follow the old man up the steps
and enter a room with all the charm of a velvet coffin.
The place is about 10 by 12
feet, dismally lit and covered floor to ceiling in
a smarmy deep purple fabric. A bar on the left of
the room seems to be stocked exclusively with cognac
and brandy. Opposite the bar are three small tables.
At the table closest to the door, two stocky men in
dark suits sit muttering occasional monosyllabic words.
One of them is wearing sunglasses. Lunch
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