A boring, unnerving, and ultimately enchanted evening
Three young men at the next table kept trying to talk to me. But I, a woman traveling on my own in Greece, had been warned: Don't make eye contact with strangers - especially in the Plaka, hold onto your handbag, and stay in well-lighted areas at night. For my first trip to Athens, more-experienced friends had been generous with sensible advice.
The young men persisted. The blond - a real storybook Apollo - was their spokesman. He was the one who spoke English, anyway.
"You are English maybe? American? Yes? We are so nice chaps. You talk English with us, please?"
He was so pretty, I was almost tempted. Instead, pretending not to notice them, I buried my nose in a guidebook.
Earlier, after dumping my bags in a modest hotel, I had hit the tourist trail: the Acropolis and the Agora, a bit of shopping. This was a flying visit, one day between the end of an island vacation and the 3 a.m. departure of a cheap charter flight. I planned to sightsee, but most places close during lunchtime till late afternoon. That was how I found myself eating in a taverna on the edge of the Plaka, an enclave of 19th-century island architecture in the middle of Athens.
The young men were persistent. They laughed and waved to get my attention. Without acknowledging them directly, I discovered they were firemen. Athens is a tinderbox in the dry summer. The small van parked at the curb was a fire truck in which the three men patrolled, looking for small rubbish fires.
"You like music?" asked Apollo. "Greek music? You like that?"
"Yes," I finally replied.
"Bouzouki music? You know? You like bouzouki?"
"Mmm, I guess so."
"You come with us later. We play for food, you know. Where you stay? We take you. Eat. Listen to music. Don't say no. You come. Say yes. You eat. You listen. We play."
There was no stopping them or refusing them. To extricate myself, I agreed that if I was in at 10 p.m., when they got off work, and if I had nothing else to do, I might join them. I never really thought I would.
Ten p.m. Footsore and bored, trapped in a grim hotel room, I had hours to kill before my flight. I considered three hours on a lumpy bed, staring at peeling, yellowed wallpaper, and hoped the firemen wouldn't show so I could be sensible. But they did show, and by then my caution had been eroded by the dripping faucet.
Outside, Apollo took charge. In a flurry of commands, a taxi was summoned, all my bags were loaded into it, and one of the threesome climbed in. Another hopped on one of two motorcycles. Before I could climb in the taxi, Apollo slammed the door. "You ride with me," he said. The taxi bore all my possessions - passport, tickets, currency - off into the Athens traffic.
Motorcycles scare me. Now, as we left the bright heart of Athens, I had more to worry about. I had no identification and no money. I couldn't communicate in Greek - even to call for help. Where were they taking me? How could I have been so stupid? I had to keep my wits about me.
We rode into deep residential suburbs; down deserted streets, past closed shops and silent, shuttered houses. I pictured terrifying scenarios and mentally rehearsed self-defense strategies, discarding them one after another. There were two of them, only one of me. They knew where the heck they were. Feverish imaginings added hours to the 15-minute ride.
At about the same time that I decided I was doomed, we arrived at a local party. A half dozen people sat at candle-lit tables arranged on the pavement. There were no neon signs, no blazing windows, no menus or waiters to indicate that this was, in fact, our destination - a typical local taverna.
Inside, a motherly woman hugged my companions and ushered us to a table where the third fireman - with my belongings - waited. A typical Greek meal, steak and French fries, appeared on the table. Then two mandolins and a guitar were produced. For the next two hours, my new friends sang and played for our supper.
Other patrons joined in. In between songs, we four struggled to converse.
I could've danced all night, as they say. But my appointed hour at the airport approached. I asked Apollo to ring for a taxi.
"Oh, no," he said. "We take you. We sing for you. We go together, everybody. Yes?"
It was not a question.
Once again, my bags were loaded into a cab, this time accompanied by two mandolins and a guitar, and we left in a convoy - the taxi and two motorcycles.
The 3 a.m. flight to London was delayed; nobody knew for how long.
"Don't you worry," said Apollo. "We don't leave you to be alone."
My firemen - by now I had become proprietary - settled on the floor to tune up.
"How old you are?" Apollo said.
"That's not a very polite question to ask a woman," I said. I guessed I was at least a decade older then any of them.
"I think you are same old as my Auntie," he laughed, "but she is very young and pretty Auntie.... So now you tell me, what music you like?"
The only bouzouki tunes I knew were "Never on Sunday" and "Zorba the Greek." So Apollo chose; one song after another.
Soon, we attracted an audience. In groups of twos and threes, the backpackers who throng the airport were drawn to the music until we were encircled.
Now and then, slim, tanned young girls approached my troubadours with requests. Each time, Apollo nodded at me. "We play for her," he'd say. "You ask her."
So I was serenaded until my 6 a.m. boarding. And here is the best part: They never asked for anything; wouldn't accept a cup of coffee, never even told me their names. Perhaps, like me, they found sheer joy in a gallant gesture.