In an effort to feature writers from all walks of life, today I am featuring straight lady, Hayley from Savvy Girl Travel.
Last October I got on a motorcycle in Athens, Greece with a man I’d just met. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Are you crazy? You could have been abducted! Or worse, raped!
Your fears are not unfounded. But hear me out before you pass judgment.
Earlier that day I had been discussing with a friend my complex misunderstanding of relationships. As we parted ways she said, “Maybe you should just put yourself out there more. Be adventurous, take a few chances. You never know what might come your way.” She waved as she turned away, and I wandered, pensive, deeper into the touristy marketplace, clutching my camera with both hands.
“Are you a professional photographer?” I turn to look over my shoulder: there’s a man standing there, wearing a pea coat and a scarf despite the fact that it probably reached 75 degrees F today.
I smile slowly as I take him in: a young-ish guy, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail parted harshly in the center. He has several elaborate rings on his fingers and a wooden (coconut?) gauged earring fashioned to look like a fish skeleton. Not really my type, but definitely interesting.
“Oh, no, not really.” I motion to my Nikon D90, a DSLR on loan from my father, “I’m just a blogger.” Just a blogger.
“I want to show you my favorite place to take pictures,” he says, “Most beautiful spot in Athens.” He looks at me curiously.
I’m skeptical, “Far from here?”
“No, no, five minutes maybe.” He steps toward me; I take a step back.
“Oh, ok, which way?” I look up the cobblestoned street; the streetlights are just starting to illuminate.
“I can take you there,” he says, “on my motorbike.”
“That’s ok, but thank you,” I turn away.
“I can get you into the old stadium,” he says, taking another step towards me.
This makes me hesitate, and I look into his face. He has blue eyes and furrowed eyebrows. “You mean the historical one?”
“Yes,” he says, relaxing, “It’s closed after dark, but I know of a way in – for locals.”
“How far is it from here?” I ask.
He shrugs, “No more than five minutes, definitely.”
I let my shoulders relax and turn to face him. “Alright, let’s go.”
He smiles and touches my shoulder, leads me to his motorbike parked near the souvenir shops.
When I see it I realize he had passed me on the street earlier, helmeted, anonymous, and I had smiled vacantly at him as I do most people – a harmless invitation to start a conversation or to share a wave, a moment with someone you’ll never see again.
“I’m Or-ee-on,” he says, offering me his hand. It takes me a minute to translate: Orion. As in the constellation.
“Hayley. Nice to meet you. I have to confess, I’ve never been on a motorbike before,” I say as he cranks the engine and motions for me to get on the back. He offers me his helmet, but I wave it away. “It’s yours,” I say.
Then we’re off, weaving through pedestrians and street vendors, down alleys until I am lost. Lost, but exhilarated, enjoying the air passing through my hair and whipping my cardigan around, relishing in the glances passersby give us, heads turning to look at the pale, helmetless girl clinging to the pea coat of an anonymous Greek man.
A few minutes later, we arrive at an overlook on the side of a hill. We’ve parked and now Orion is trying to guess my astrological sign. He ticks off the air signs – Gemini, Aquarius, Libra – before I save him the trouble and confess to being a Taurus. His surprise gives way to a somewhat conceited understanding. “Ah,” he says, “that explains why you were reluctant to come with me. All Taureans are very boring.”
Or leery of strangers with bonefish earrings, I want to say, but instead I ask, “So where is this view you were telling me of?” I’m careful to keep a “safe” distance between us. Recently I’d been taking Japanese Ju Jitsu classes back in Edinburgh, and the knowledge that I had some combat skills felt like a knife in my back pocket. Or at least a can of pepper spray.
He leads me up the hill and turns left into an alleyway. It’s getting dark, but still I recognize the quaint beauty of this place: the traditional white Greek houses with tin roofs and laundry lines strung between them, small gardens tended carefully and lovingly decorated. These steps are the only access to the neighborhood, and I am aware of how alone we are. If Orion tried something here, there wouldn’t be anyone to hear me scream.
“It’s too dark back here to take pictures without a tripod,” I say. “Let’s go on to the stadium.”
He looks reluctant to leave, but we walk back to the motorbike regardless. The stadium is farther away than the hill was, and we have to take a major thoroughfare to get there. Orion accelerates down a long stretch, forcing me to grab fistfuls of his coat and grip the bike with my legs. My heart leaps to my throat and I let it out on a laugh.
This may be crazy, but it’s better than boring.
We drive past the stadium’s tourist entrance and skirt the high marble walls to an alleyway, skimming past a pedestrian whose head turns as we park and dismount. We’re at the seam of the road – where a forest begins – and Orion leads me down a dark path that soon runs parallel to the stadium walls. Orion points out joggers up ahead, “Locals come here to train.” Then he tries to put his arm around me, but I avoid him, jogging up ahead to a set of stairs.
“Does this take us to the interior?” I ask.
Before he can answer, I’m at the peak of the stairs, stepping around a woman doing crunches so I can see into the Panathenaic Stadium: warm lighting illuminates dozens of marble stairs that encircle a track and a playing field. Later I discover that this stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It was originally built in 329 BC on the remains of an older stadium from 566 BC and then was renovated in 1869. It feels like I am staring at the bones of civilization.
As we move down one of the main staircases and onto the lower landing, Orion says from behind me, “They say there are secret tunnels underneath the stadium.”
I glance over my shoulder, “Oh yeah? Let’s go find them.” I step over the chain roping off the stairs to the stadium’s center and descend to the track. I’m prepared to race to the other side of the stadium, but am taken aback when the ground gives under my weight. I pause and inspect the track. The surface is loamy rubber; reminiscent of the kind we used to mix with sand in our horseback riding rings back home to create optimal footing for the horses – back when the business was doing well.
Orion joins me on the track as I give in to pretense and dash down the lane, letting my cardigan fly to the ground, visualizing a crowd cheering me on as I race to a neck-and-neck finish, DSLR bouncing like a bulky plastic medal. Then I pull up, out of breath, and skip to the center to do cartwheels – or attempt to, anyway.
“You’re crazy,” Orion informs me.
I laugh and retrieve my cardigan, lying in a heap on the ground. We wander around the perimeter, within sight of the guards, but they don’t flinch. “We should probably be getting back soon.”
Afterwards, Orion convinces me to let him take me out for a real Greek dinner. He takes me to this local hole-in-the-wall with a green façade and only Greek patrons. Then he orders his favorite Greek tapas for us to share: “Cretan” snails (chewy and not buttery like escargot), a beef dish — my favorite – reminiscent of beef brisket, an odd over-easy egg dish with some kind of polenta (good with the bread), and a delicious Greek aperitif called tsipouro/raki (the most refreshing, light alcoholic beverage I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing).
Orion takes his pea coat off and hangs it on his chair; underneath he is wearing a t-shirt that has a satirical drawing of Jesus Christ with a marijuana leaf and some snarky text – similar to many of the touristy tees sold in the markets. He eats with his hands on the table, and I look closer at his rings: they’re decorated with modern, metal designs, and he sports a wrist-cuff with capoeira figures on it. “That’s a cool bracelet,” I say, pointing.
Up till now, he had been strangely sullen, but now he perks up. “I made it,” he says. Then he tells me about his desire to move to Florida and sell his jewelry, how a friend goes every year for six months and comes back to tell him stories of his success. He is tired of working in the souvenir shop in the market – which hasn’t brought in good business lately, and he really wants to go out on his own. Preferably in America. “It’s a miracle that I met you,” he says, “since I’ve been thinking so hard about America.”
I smile tentatively and change the subject, and Orion sinks back into his earlier melancholy, pushing around bread crusts on his plate. Later, as the food is being cleared away, he says, “I’ll be right back. I want to go check on a football match.”
I narrow my eyes as he leaves the restaurant and wonder if I’ve backed myself into a trap. Is he actually going to watch a footie match, or is he convening with comrades to plot my abduction? I consider bailing, but decide to stay put. The waiter brings the bill as Orion returns, who settles into his chair looking worried. He pulls out his wallet and thumbs through a couple of wrinkled bills, then looks up at me, “I wasn’t prepared for our meeting,” he says, “I don’t have enough money to cover the bill.”
I feel like a fool. Could this guy have really gone through all this just to get a free meal?
“We can go by a cash machine, and I’ll pay you back,” he looks desperate.
I wonder if this is a precursor to something worse. “It’s fine,” I mumble, “I’ll get it.” The bill is about €35,00 (40-50 USD at the time) – not as bad as it could have been, not enough for someone to go out of their way for, but still almost my whole food budget for my 5-day trip.
As we leave the restaurant, Orion says he’s going to run ahead and check the footie match. I clench my jaw and watch him jog across the square to another restaurant, preparing for the worst. But when I arrive at the restaurant thirty seconds later I find him standing under a television set on a terrace staring up at a football match with a half-dozen other pairs of eyes glued to the TV, shouting words of encouragement to the players.
“We’re winning,” Orion says, “Finally scored.”
I stay silent, still peeved about dinner.
“It’s almost over,” he says, “just a few more minutes.”
“I’ll go wait by your bike,” I tell him.
True to his word, Orion finds me a few minutes later, leaning against his bike with my arms crossed.
He’s finally shaken his bad mood (his team won the game, as it turns out); he puts his arm around my shoulders and says, “Let’s go to the beach.”
“I need to get back to my hostel,” I say, shrugging off his arm. “My friend will be worried about me.”
Orion frowns. “She would want you to go. Come with me. Please?”
I’m no longer worried about sparing his feelings, so I insist on going home, giving him only the name of a metro stop near my hostel. Finally, he capitulates, and drives me back in silence, his bad mood returned.
At the metro stop, I dodge his attempted kiss and give him a hug instead, thank him for showing me around and wish him a nice night. He looks at me like a child just struck by his mother, then gives a slight tilt of his head and walks back to his motorbike as I turn down the now-familiar road, looking back only to ensure I’m alone.