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I'd almost forgotten the wine. The thought of Lisa's expression when she opened the door to find me without a bottle of Samos muscat sent me hurrying down the streets of Plaka, weaving my way past cars parked on the sidewalk and neatly stepping over the occasional offering from one of Athens' stray dogs.
Some forty thousand city dogs, at last count. Lounging in store front doorways. Waiting at stop lights to cross the street. Somebody proposes a new scheme for getting rid of them about once a month, but so far none seems to be making headway.
A travel tip: don't go walkabout in Athens without looking down.
I passed the monument of Lysikrates and made the jog over to Adrianou Street. The light breeze brought an acrid reminder of Athens traffic, the despair of all of us who love the city.
Ah, fair Athens! The Parthenon above, the mopeds below!
The kinetó-my cell phone-beeped softly three times, signaling a text message. I flipped it open to find the expected words marching across the screen, in repeat.
[eleni wr are u wr is wine eleni ... ]
Lisa. My patient friend.
I rang her back.
"Eleni! Where the hell are you? Where is the wine? Why--"
Lisa's voice was tinny but distinct, and I wondered if any of the passers-by on Adrianou Street could hear.
"Coming just now," I interrupted. "I'm getting the wine at Giorgio's."
"Giorgio's! Eleni, that's half-way across town! You'll never get a taxi at this hour!"
"I'll catch the Metro."
"The Metro! Eleni--"
Lisa Haliwell's idea of acceptable transportation did not include the Athens subway, no matter what anyone said to try and convince herotherwise.
It's quick! It's easy! It's cheap! we keep arguing.
It's underground! she replies.
Lisa claims to be claustrophobic below street level. And I challenge you to argue her into much of anything. But me? I far prefer the Metro to being trapped in Athens' traffic, inhaling car exhaust and listening to my taxi driver hurl curses at the swarms of mehkanáki-the ubiquitous Greek mopeds-darting by on every side.
"Son of a vitch!" This bit of English is used by every cabby in the city, along with an epithet that Greeks refer to, discretely, as "the M word."
But more on that later.
"Five minutes," I assured Lisa, and crossed the street, dodging a motorcycle as it zipped past a double-parked Mercedes. I was heading toward Giorgio's, a small grocery store in the center of Plaka, which is immediately east of the Acropolis and one of the oldest sections of Athens. Plaka is a maze of winding streets clogged with traffic, walkers, illegally parked automobiles-and dogs. Tourist shops are everywhere, selling the usual array of tourist goods. T-shirts. Jewelry. Authentic Reproductions of Ancient Greek Vases.
Not to mention a wide variety of spectacularly pornographic postcards, featuring Unusual Ancient Greek Customs.
We're an imaginative people.
I squeezed between two cars parked on the sidewalk and arrived at Giorgio's, which, albeit small, is one place you can find some of the better island wines.
"See?" I told Lisa. "I'm here already."
"Yeah, you and a thousand other people. Eleni, you're going to be stuck there forever--"
I let Lisa complain, forgetting the kinetó as I pushed open the door. This was no trivial accomplishment, as the store was jammed with shoppers. Exclamations of complaint greeted me. I smiled and complained back.
The Greeks take their leisure time seriously. Giorgio's was always busy on Friday afternoons with Athenians preparing for Sabbatokúriako-the weekend. Like me.
I was edging forward through the crowd, hoping to snag a free shopping basket, when I felt a shift in the normal, noisy rhythm of the store. I looked around. People were staring and clucking at something off to my left--
I craned my neck to see. A blond man stood at the check-out counter, open-faced and smiling, a bag of oranges in his hand. He towered above everyone else in Giorgio's, like some Nordic god in Athens. The exasperated clerk rattled off instructions to him in rapid, gesturing Greek.
"Kýrie-sir-you must have them weighed first. The weight-how many kilos-do you understand? Katalavénete?" The clerk took the oranges and shook her head, pointing to the back of the store.
The man seemed bemused. He looked at the oranges, back at the clerk.
"I beg your pardon?" he said in English, still smiling. "I'm sorry, I--"
"Ókhi! Ókhi! No! No! They must be weighed first!"
American, I thought. And a small shopping contretemps now in progress. A queue began to form behind the man, the rest of the customers waiting patiently, without expression.
Oh, come on, I thought. Help the poor sod. One of you speaks English.
Which was probably true, but it was February, and the winter was tourist down-time in Athens. During the summer, yes, the Greeks speak English, French, Spanish. Even Japanese. In the winter they prefer to have the city to themselves.
So I couldn't really blame the Giorgio's crowd for their stubborn silence. Other Europeans rarely spoke Greek, and Americans-although admittedly fair-minded, good tippers, and blessed with a great sense of humor-were notorious for speaking only one language. Their own.
The tall man was still standing at the check-out counter. Waiting for assistance, I supposed. That's the thing about Yanks. They are open and generous and hail-fellow-well-met, and they expect the same from everyone else.
I suppose I could have left him to the fate decreed by the god of minor cultural misunderstandings. But I could also help.
And he was very ... attractive. Borderline gorgeous, really, dressed in standard American fashion, blue jeans and a cotton shirt-a dark plaid of some sort-with the sleeves rolled up. The jeans fit him quite nicely. His arms looked strong.
Why not? I stepped forward.
"Excuse me-sir? You must ask an assistant to weigh your produce and mark it before check-out. They have no scale at this counter, don't you see?"
Giorgio's went unnaturally, expectantly quiet as all eyes shifted to me. The American turned at the words. A lock of blond hair had fallen onto his forehead. He brushed it back. Grey eyes, flecked with green--
"Ah, yes," he said. "Thank you. I didn't realize--"
His voice was deep, unhurried. And he smiled at me, that broad, easy smile that the Americans patented years ago.
I found it difficult to look away.
"Eleni!" squawked the kinetó. I had forgotten about Lisa. "Where are you? Who is that? Is that an American?"
Her voice was perfectly intelligible in the hush. The man laughed. "Yes," he said to the phone. "And you're ... Eleni?"
This last was directed to me.
An American flirt. Bah. Don't look at his arms, I told myself, and made a small, dismissive wave. "Nai. Malista." Yes. Of course. Then I retrieved the oranges from the clerk and motioned him away from the queue.
"Eleni-?" he prodded.
"Just Eleni. Come on. I'll show you what to do."
"Eleni!" squeaked the kinetó, but I was distracted by the tall man at my side. He seemed to have accepted me as his guide for the moment, an island of English in the surrounding sea of Greek.
We started toward the back of the store, people staring as we inched through the narrow aisles. I'm usually accepted as a native, although I'm a bit taller than the average Elenídha. But my temporary companion was definitely from the States. He had that lanky, raw-boned look that I associate with old American westerns. In black and white, I thought. Starring Gary Cooper.
Lanky. But with strong arms.
I have this ... thing about biceps.
We pushed our way along the hot foods counter with its various trays of fagetá-prepared foods, a Greek institution. I saw the usual suspects; mousakás, fat slices of fried potatoes, fava beans in olive oil, and keftédes. The American glanced down, and I grinned to myself, waiting for the usual series of touristy questions to erupt.
"What do you call these? What's in this? Are those French fries?"
Like all the rest of them, I thought, feeling suddenly uncommunicative. I pretended not to notice the American's interest in the fagetá, and steered him away, only to bump into a neighboring distraction, the pastry counter with its assortment of baklavádes and sweet muffins.
Sweet muffins are the newest Athenian rage.
Walnut. Lemon. Poppy-seed. Where the hell was the manávis?
The manávis-the greengrocer-was hunched over in a narrow aisle, half-hidden by other shoppers and arranging a basket of tomatoes into perfect red rows. Even in February there are fresh tomatoes in Athens. My mouth watered at the smell. She looked from me to him. Back to me. I handed her the fruit.
"Eínai Amerikanós," I told her, as if that explained everything. He's an American.
"Poh, poh." She shrugged and put the oranges on the scale.
Mission accomplished, with the fruit weighed, marked, and returned to its owner, I prepared to make my escape. But Gary Cooper caught my arm.
"Eleni?" He raised an eyebrow. Eleni is a traditional Greek name, as common for a woman as Niko or Kostas is for a man.
I could make a good guess at his next question.
But-you speak English like a Brit-
Right you are, Yank, I thought. But it's a long story. And I don't have time for complications just now.
"Eleni! What's going on?" I was still clutching the kinetó. I pictured Lisa back at her flat, cell phone jammed to her ear. Desperate for information.
"Endáxi, endáxi! I'll be right there!" I said into the kinetó, and flipped it closed.
The American chuckled. "You have a cell phone. You must be Greek."
Well, not quite. A phrase that was currently in the political news popped into mind.
We can neither confirm nor deny..."
So maybe I'm oversensitive about the question of nationality. You'd need to hear my mother, my brothers, and my cousin-in-law Basilis weighing in on the subject to understand. Still, I didn't owe this xénos-this stranger-any explanation of who I was. Better to keep things simple and be done.
"I've got to run," I told him. "Good luck." I smiled brightly and walked away. Yes, he was American and I was British and we spoke the same language, and yes, it was winter and perhaps he wasn't the usual tourist, but really, was I the only person in Athens who wasn't allowed a moment's peace?
I translated for a living. That was enough.
Although he was very handsome.
I was heading for the exit when I realized I was still wine-less.
Bloody hell, I thought, wondering if I would ever get out of Giorgio's. I hurried toward the wines and found several bottles of a good Samos muscat, grabbing them over the head of a tiny, elderly woman who was stocking up for the next few months-apparently-with liters of retsina. I pushed back through the crowd to the front of the store, extracting a twenty-euro bill from my purse. As I paid I saw the man, oranges once more in hand, advancing toward the check out. He waved and I nodded, looking quickly away.
Why do Americans wave at everything?
The kinetó beeped again. A text message waited from Lisa.
I shook my head, collected my change and left.
The walk back to the station was quick and tourist-free. But it was late, and my feet were starting to hurt, and I welcomed the sight of the Metro escalators. You can see the Parthenon from the top of escalator at the Acropolis stop. I watched it disappear as I descended.
I suppose I could have invited the American to Lisa's party.
I waited underground for the train that would take me to Syntagma, and from there to Evangelismos, which is the station closest to both Lisa's apartment and my own.
I waited with the rest of the Friday crowd.
I'd never see the him again.
The unexpected thought was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of loss. Irrational. Disconcerting.
Bugger all, Eleni, what is your problem? I had to fight the urge to run up the steps of the station and back out into the streets, to find him.
Be spontaneous, Lisa tells me.
Why not? A little voice was urging. You're always saying you're in a rut. That you'd like to meet new people. Expand your horizons.
Sod off, I told the little voice.
Besides, I'd never find him. Not in Plaka.
Spontaneous is too complicated. I didn't even know the man's name. I returned my attention to the station, to the crowd, all of us half-listening for the sound of an approaching train. With luck and a good connection at Syntagma I'd be at the party, muscat in hand, before ten. As promised.
A rumble started in the distance.
Melina Mercouri, the late and lamented Greek actress, still beautiful in her sixties, stared down at me from the mural on the Acropolis station wall. Never on Sundays, I thought, remembering one of her best-known movies. I never translate on Sundays. I never help stranded Americans who don't speak a word of Greek on Sundays.
But it was Friday. Close enough, I decided. I imagined Gary Cooper at one of Lisa's parties. Tonight, for example. There he'd be, lanky and smiling, in the middle of half the international community of Kolonaki, which was our bit of Athens.
One tall, blond male, clean-shaven and in jeans. He'd be drinking beer, of course. American men always drank beer. I could almost see him there, standing bemused and clueless in a swirl of conversation, not half of it in English.
He was certainly good-looking. A hunk, as Lisa would say.
You could use a hunk, she would say.
Hah. My life was neatly organized, these days. A good job, good friends, a nice flat- Everything in order. I didn't need any hunk-shaped complications.
The rumble got closer. The crowd edged forward, but it was the train going the opposite way, to Daphni.
Something else nagged at my thoughts, a fragment of yesterday's to-do list. Had I remembered to call Aunt Sophia and tell her that I wouldn't be at Ariadne's for Sunday dinner? I hoped so, because otherwise Sophia would be calling first thing Monday morning, to find out where I'd been--
A kinetó rang nearby. Being underground doesn't block transmission, but it does seem to encourage people to shout. Not having any other choice, I listened to the conversation.
"Símera! Éna Phíat! Nai!" The young man with the cell phone had apparently just purchased a new car. He didn't seem too happy about this. In fact, he sounded almost frantic.
"Maná, ókhi. Ókhi!"
Ah. His mother. The Greek experience personified.
"Sovará, maná! Ókhi tóso akrivó!" No, it wasn't too expensive! Really!
I glanced away, hiding a smile.
How could Lisa know what the American looked like, anyway? He could have been a skinny seventeen-year old with pimples.
Not with that voice, I supposed. My toes curled at the memory of the man's voice. Deep, rich, with a husky edge to it--
Maybe Lisa wanted to meet him herself. Maybe she was ready to abandon her recent no-males policy (instituted as a result of her last boyfriend, The Mistake) and indulge in a nice, tall drink of home-grown comfort. I told myself that didn't bother me. Not in the least.
But even in the middle of a cleansing phase, Lisa enjoyed window-shopping. I could just imagine her reaction to the American.
Lisa's favorite Greek word, at least with reference to men. Tasty.
He was handsome. In an American sort of way.
My own kinetó was beeping, the sound almost lost in the roar of an approaching train. Our side, this time.
I glanced quickly at the message--
[american? eliaki what american?]
I sighed. Not from Lisa, this time. From Paulo Cristâo.