MUGGED IN ATHENS

The next post will be on or before Sunday May 28th

MUGGED IN ATHENS

Last Friday I almost had a heart attack in Piraeus after something very alarming happened. To put things in context, I usually enjoy being in Athens’ enormous and bustling port, for it is a sprawling city in its own right, with a character all its own, some parts rampant with elegant bars and tavernas, others spectacularly down at heel and reminiscent of the days when it was notorious for hashish dens, mafia style crime and the music of the sublime Vassilis Tzitzanis. Wherever you are these days though, you will find a certain unabashed elan and confidence, especially amongst its older citizens. Old guys in particular strut about nattily dressed in designer denims and stylish shirts and with a cigarette on the go of course and the other hand whirring round their komboloion worry beads (what worry would that be?) and they always look as if they own the whole city as they tease and banter the good-looking waitresses and genially insult each other. Compare that with how old English guys bashfully hide themselves as much as they can in public, usually by timid innocuous banter and predictable and pallid gags as if to declare themselves a 100% harmless and well on their way to oblivion. At any rate my previous visit to Piraeus had been last November, on my return from a fine weekend in Athens with Jan, where everything had gone perfectly: exquisite Indian meals on Ermou, lazy wanderings round Thiseio and Monastiraki in pursuit of books, knick-knacks and jewellery for presents, and a perfect coastal path amble between Voula and Vouliagmeni. The two of us had sat down at a lovely shack café a dozen yards from the sea and the sense of lambent peacefulness evident in everyone there, confirmed yet again that eesikhia, or that special and transcendent Greek tranquillity is something very real and not a case of wishful thinking.

Then, as Jan headed for the airport and the UK, I took the metro to Piraeus and it was the most crowded I had ever seen. We were like sardines alright, and there was a faintly unpleasant and scowling lad of about 30 was jammed up against me for about 3 or 4 stops. It was only when I reached Piraeus that I felt for my wallet on standard foreigner abroad autopilot and, lo, or rather fucking hell, it wasn’t there! As you can imagine a sweating panic seized me and total disbelief likewise, and like a fool I must have felt a dozen times in every possible pocket, as if the wallet would suddenly leap back into substantive life from nullity as things sometimes do in fairy tales. The consequences of that little bastard’s theft were appalling: bank card gone, boat ticket gone, all my cash gone. I needed to get home to Kythnos in an hour and I had no ticket and no money to buy another. I felt like a pathetically stranded orphan aged 66 and indeed I wasn’t far from tears. After 10 more pointless searches for the wallet I had the sense to ring Jan at the airport who was very practical and very calming and she paid for my boat ticket over the phone as I explained my dilemma to a friendly lady travel agent. Then a text to my daughter Ione saying please wire me a loan to Western Union on Kythnos as without a bank card I could not access a single euro. Next the gleeless nightmare of ringing the bank to tell them that the card had been stolen. The woman at the call centre was wonderfully untrained or maybe just dense or underpaid or all three, and couldn’t track down the account by my very striking Greek address, nor by my name. By a miracle, I eventually recalled my sort code (can you do that?) and I even took a stab at the account number and I was half way through it, when at last she found I existed and promptly cancelled the stolen card.

Thus it was that on my recent trip to Athens via Piraeus I took no chances and hid all my valuables inside a thin plastic money belt which was tucked away inside my underclothes, unlike those jaunty external jobs which are crying out for any self-respecting thief to fish inside or even to violently yank free. No one could get at my wallet, passport, cash now, myself included half the time, as it is not at all decorous behaviour to grope laboriously inside your underwear while the waitress is waiting to be paid. I ended up going to the bathroom to get the cash I needed, rather than being turfed out of the ouzeri on my Kythno-Cumbrian ear. At any rate, last Friday I was a good deal more relaxed than that time in Piraeus when I was traumatised by the theft, though even now the sheer quantity of street hustlers as well as those in central Athens was exhausting. I give as often as I can especially to kids and old men and old women, but eventually run out of change. Then there are the Indian and Sri Lankan lads doggedly selling torches and IT gizmos and bargain batteries, traipsing back and forwards in the gruelling heat, and I have never seen anyone buy anything from them apart from me. However, I had found myself my favourite perch at a souvlaki joint smack opposite gate E9, whence would depart the Kythnos boat that afternoon. The guy who runs it provides a brilliant vegetarian pitta for a paltry 1 and a half euros though he has to be coached to desist from adding sausage as a bonus gift, as he can’t imagine life without meat and also half thinks banal old sausage is a kind of effeminate transgender vegetable anyway. I plonked myself down at an outside table a yard from the busy main road, where streams of cars were whizzing past with all the drivers, middle aged women included, talking hell for leather on their far from hand free phones, a punishable offence in the UK of course.  I had 4 hours to wait for the boat leaving but I didn’t care. I had 300 pages of The Idiot by Dostoievsky left to read and I knew that this place stocked pop bottles of Malamatina retsina, the one whose label is adorned with the quaint silhouette of an infant from whose navel a large key protrudes. Everybody laughs at that picture albeit nobody understands it, though believe me Malamatina is one of the finest of retsinas, alongside splendid and equally acceptable Liokri, and venerable and impeccable Kourtaki.

I was as you see in an amiable seventh heaven, quite without a care in the world, when suddenly something dreadful happened. An individual or possibly more than one approached me from behind and put their hands tightly around my eyes and held them there an endless while and uttered not a word for what seemed an eternity. The light had gone out of my world, and there was a deathly silence and nothing else, and I was absolutely petrified. Logic and reason raced out of the window as I feverishly imagined it was an ugly double act where someone blinded me from behind and their accomplice came round the front and stole whatever was stealable. Remember this was central Piraeus where sometimes it seems half the population are hustlers, and where late at night especially the harbour front can seem worryingly sinister even though objectively it is not. One is not at all logical when blinded from behind, and the notional accomplice intended to ensure  a successful outcome was highly unlikely, given that all my valuables were in my underpants (one incidentally quite priceless and unreplaceable) and the only thing worth nicking was Fyodor Dostoievsky, and how many Greek pickpockets do you know that curl up at night languorously to peruse the great man and especially in an English translation?

The silence ended and the hands were removed, but only after they had turned my head through 180 degrees to behold the wicked thief or thieves as no less than…bloody old Tasoula Martinos.

“What the hell!” I bawled at her in Greek. “What the bloody hell are you playing at?”

The thief was certainly well known to me, for she was from Kythnos and she was the island port’s chief eccentric to put it politely. More accurately she was a short and dumpy and comical woman touching 70, with a face like a gawking puffin who remorselessly chewed everyone’s ear, and who everyone tolerated but always wished she were sat next to someone else. Her activities included at the benign and civic-spirited end, keeping the area around the rubbish skips tidy and even planting flowers there to make it look surprisingly pretty. At the other end, she was an inveterate gossip and had once even fabricated a baroque tale about me, something so wonderfully ludicrous I hadn’t even got angry about it.

“It was a joke,” she grinned as if I ought to be much delighted by both it and her. “You see, I crept up behind you here and-”

Mallista,” I agreed incensed. “But this is Piraeus and 2 yards from a thousand bloody cars flying past! This is not Kythnos, winter population 800 souls, where a smack on the back or a jokey blindfolding wouldn’t frighten anyone.”

She digested this after her puffinlike fashion, but didn’t look even a whit abashed, and I could happily have crowned her.

“But it was a joke, ella re, as you are my friend.”

I shouted, “Bugger that! How about simple common sense? I thought you were a thief, I really did! I was terrified, and I even thought it might have been two thieves working together to assault me. I nearly had a bloody heart attack.”

They talk about the bland leading the bland, but Tasoula was wondrously self-led and she would never ever understand anything that was clear as day to anyone else.

She countered with an infuriating smirk.  “But I am obviously not a thief. I am your old friend instead.”

Thus ceased the cut and dried ethical debate as far as she was concerned, whereupon she sat herself down and having gleaned I was waiting for the afternoon boat, said she would be taking it too. How fortunate then, she babbled on, that we would be able to sit together for the journey as I was such first rate parea = company. I stared at her amazed and more than horrified. The crossing would take 3 and a half hours, and a full 210 minutes with gasbags Tasoula would be worse than the most refined of mediaeval Ottoman torture techniques, up to and including execution. As my Dad would have said, my assailant had a gob like a torn pocket, or in my mother’s colourful words she could talk the blinking robin off a starch box (google starch boxes if you are stumped). But this was only a preparatory nightmare scenario for one who only wanted to be left in peace with his Dostoievsky and his retsina, the antipasti or orektika to what jovial little Tasoula who hailed from obscurest Makedonia, had in mind. She disclosed that she was staying in a dirt cheap and rather claustrophobic hotel nearby, having come over to Piraeus for a study course of all things. Rather than linger there in the squalid dump for the next few hours she would sit at this sunny cheerful table and discourse with me who was such an excellent parea.

Do your sums and consider my options. 7 and a half hours or 450 minutes with a rabid torn pocket merchant, would that be humanly feasible? She had already started on about the subject of her 4 day study course. It had been all about the history of ancient Greek philosophy as well as its connections with oriental philosophy and oriental religion. Esoteric stuff no doubt, and as far as I knew Tasoula was long divorced from a Rumanian and her son lived in Bucharest, and she would be the first to tell you that as a Makedonian Greek she was lonely and often felt quite isolated in Kythnos, which of course begged the question of why she had ever located herself there in the first place. One of the few interesting things about Tasoula was she could speak Rumanian whose only words I knew were bunu ziwa, drum bun! and omul, which mean respectively ‘good day’, ‘good journey!’ and ‘man’, the last one clearly cognate with the Latin homo ille.

I simply couldn’t be bothered to fabricate anything convincing for someone who had frightened me half to death, and refused to accept she had done so. I got up roughly and said I needed to do some shopping for my house, some essential kitchen gear especially. Anyone else would have known I was lying, but fine, she murmured sunnily, her skin so thick she hadn’t even noticed the blatant rudeness. Fine she repeated, and she would naturally look after my suitcase till my return as her excellent parea. No, I said gruffly, lifting up the case and turning my back on her, and I told her that I might be stopping to drink some coffee elsewhere, perhaps even 2 or 3 different places, though I didn’t know where as yet.

Bunu ziwa, I said. Then I walked off for an ouzo with mezes but without any ice, as a retsina would simply not do the trick after being assaulted in public by Tasoula.

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