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Travel Image: Athens
 Photo: Irina Kats
Travel Image: Athens
 Photo: Mimi Lee

Athens: Paranoia 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 the world.

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 easily.

“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 disappeared.

“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 escape route.

“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 specials, indeed.

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