A story of when we were young and stupid, Part 2

Posted by jdg | Thursday, April 19, 2007 |

[This is the second part of the story of what happened to us in Greece ten years ago today when we woke to find everything we needed to survive had been stolen while we slept on a ferry to Crete; the first part is here]

After an hour's worth of searching and pleading with the unhelpful officers of the docked and now-empty ship, we were shooed down the gangplank. There seemed to be a small village, Souda, to the east. The ship's purser had told us to go see the Tourist Police, but nothing seemed to be open that early in the morning, so we sat down on the vast concrete pier and considered our options. There was no American embassy on Crete; we would have to get back to Athens. But we had no money to buy tickets back to Athens. We didn't have enough money to buy a phone card to activate a pay phone so we could call our parents collect and beg them to figure out a way to get us some cash in the middle of their night. I feared that we would become beggars, or throw ourselves upon the mercy of a band of gypsies. Wood, I thought, would make a pretty hot gypsy, at least. That line from Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" kept running through my head: "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." God, I kept thinking: if that's true, freedom totally fucking sucks.

What I found interesting about this crisis was the way Wood and I exchanged panic and comfort. When Wood stood there on that empty pier, shaking with fear and wailing with uncertainty, I would be calm, holding her close and stroking her hair, whispering that things would all be okay, at least we were alive, this would be a big pain but that's all it was. As she would regain composure, I would start to slip. I would think about everything that was gone. The money, the plane tickets, gone. The passports, gone. All gone. A few months earlier, Wood had gotten her long red hair cut short, and I was so distraught I'd asked the stylist to save me a lock of it, which I'd kept in my wallet. The thought of some thief with that precious hair made me so angry. I swung wildly at things. I might have cried. And Wood held me, calm and close, whispering the things I needed to hear. We sat there islanded by cement for a long time.

At some point, the purser came out and stood at the top of the gangplank. He shouted Wood's full name. We looked at each other with great hope and rushed up to him. They had found her purse. It was empty except for a few photographs and her Trinity College Dublin ID card. It was found by a janitor emptying a trash bin. Still, it was something. This could prove who she was to some authority. We waited anxiously, hoping something else might have been discarded, but about an hour later the ship belched out smoke and slipped off into the Aegean. With no options left we stood and wandered into the village of Souda.

I found a couple of cookies in a garbage bin by a bus stop. That was something. We sat and ate them in a small plaza. Those cookies were delicious. Eventually we decided to try the police station. They might be able to tell us what we should do. But really, I thought: what do you tell people who have wandered into your town like time travelers, people with nothing but their clothes and a deep need for mercy? Still, it felt like we ought to do something and not just sit there. I found a map of the village with a building that said "civic law" in Greek, and we headed that way down a residential street lined with olive and lemon trees. When we got to the building all we saw were a couple of squad cars and a typical old peasant woman in a black dress sweeping the walkway. She looked up at us with black eyes nestled within the parabolas of age, and I said, "Police?" She nodded her head sharply. She pointed into her own house, and we followed her past faded oriental rugs and some dried plants piled on a table, over to a staircase. She pointed and urged us up, eager, it seemed, to get back to her sweeping. We climbed the stairs in this old woman's house to discover a fully-operational police station on the second floor. Fully operational in the Greek sense: several mustachioed men lounged about in an office setting, one pecking lazily at an old-fashioned typewriter, another fully asleep at his desk.

They looked up at us as though they had never seen anyone other than their fellow hirsute, worry-bead clicking countrymen walk through that doorway. And of course, not one of them spoke English. They were charitable enough, tolerating my effort to explain what happened in a language that must not have been spoken in those parts since the age of Pericles. Plato himself might have been able to discern something from my barbaric mispronouncements, but not Sargent Balki Bartokomous there. It was like walking into a police station in rural Arkansas and explaining that you were just carjacked using only words you remembered from Beowulf.

One of the officers knew the word "wait," so we did. We had nothing else in the world to do. After about an hour, a hot lady cop showed up to work---not hot in the Jennifer Aniston sense, but hot in the sense that she was the first Greek woman I had seen in 48 hours without a mustache. Even if she'd had a beard I would have thought she was hot, simply because she spoke English. Beautiful, beautiful English. Wood and I stumbled over each other's words trying to get our story out. She looked at us with a mixture of pity and confusion. Finally, she spoke: "Why do you come here? We can do nothing. You need the tourist police." She led our mournful asses down out of the station, out through the old lady's living room, and drove us back to the plaza where we'd started. Taking some pity, she handed us a 500 drachma note, and we thanked her until she probably wished she hadn't. It was enough money to buy a phone card and a bottle of water, so we were able to terrify our parents and rehydrate ourselves from the loss of all those tears.

Once we sat down we realized it was our anniversary. Exactly one year before we'd gotten drunk and made out all night. This was not how we'd envisioned celebrating it, trying not to cry into each other's shoulders in a nondescript plaza waiting for the tourist police whose office might never open.

About an hour later a car driven by an attractive young man pulled up in front of us. He was wearing a uniform of some sort. "Camera?" he said. I thought he was another one of those con artists trying to sell us a broken camera. "Ohee," I said, and he shook his head. "We find camera. Yours, maybe?" We jumped in the back seat; we would have followed him anywhere. He drove us right back to the old woman's house; took us up the old woman's stairs, through a maze of cubicles. The hot cop and the sleepy cop and the typing cop all looked up and stared as we passed their desks.

And there, on a sturdy wooden police desk, was everything. Everything. Our passports. Our plane tickets, credit cards, traveler's checks, cameras, film, Irish money, American dollars, and a wad of drachma notes so big it looked like it belonged in the fist of a blinged-out Hellenic rapper, not tossed casually in a pile of treasure the likes of which had not been seen in all of Greece since Schliemann dug out the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae. I saw the lock of Wood's hair peeking out of my wallet.

Then there was that feeling you get when you're dreaming of something wonderful but you're slowly starting to realize that you're dreaming and you still just want it all to be real. But this was real. I am not a religious man, but at that moment it felt like the gods had intervened in our lives just to show us what mercy they were capable of.

The lady cop came over to the room. "We caught a man who does drugs, a wanted man. We recognize him, find this in his bag. Do not touch it. He is dirty. It is dirty. A bad, dirty man he is." I realized that if we had not wandered far into the village to find the wrong police station, they would not have known about us. They wouldn't have sent the young cop to get us. By some stroke of luck, we'd wandered into that old woman's attic.

Then a new voice spoke in English from the other side of the station. "I took no Greek money," it said. "Only American money. Tell them I took no Greek money!" It was him. Standing in a small closet with a window cut in the door, a window affixed with bars he was banging and hanging from. This was the guy who'd seen two rich foreigners sleeping together on the floor, saw the bag under one's head and took it and everything it contained, leaving them to spend so many hours fearing the worst. "Quiet you!" (or its equivalent) one of the cops barked at him, raising a nightstick threateningly as the thief shrunk back grumbling.

"A ginger thief," Wood said aloud. He was redheaded and redbearded and they were right: he was filthy. He looked just like a satyr: there was a peculiar goatishness about him. "I took no Greek money! The Greek money is not yours" he shouted at us. "Tell them." The thief spoke better English than the police.

The cops gave us latex gloves and allowed us to take everything. I'm still not sure all that money was ours, but they insisted we take it all, as if to spite him. "Noooooooooooo," wailed the thief from his cell. I will never forget the feeling of that cold, dirty cash in my pocket, the sight of those passports and plane tickets in my hands. I thought of our parents, awake and terrified for us. If only they could know what had transpired, and rest their heads against their pillows with a smile.

There was still paperwork to be filled out. I was given copies of the mimeographed police report, much of it typed in Greek. At one point, the officer filling out the report grunted something at the girl cop, who was acting as translator: "Do you wish to punish him?" she asked. The typist looked at me expectantly over his Mexican-bandit mustache. I had visions of cat'o'nine tails and iron maidens. What he had done to us was still fresh on my mind and I would have happily punished him. "Yes," I finally answered.

"No," Wood said at the same time. She had already forgiven him. So Christlike, this wife of mine. I wanted blood. Welts, at least. The Greeks waited for us to make up our minds. "We have everything now, we should just let it go," Wood said.

"I don't want him to think he can just do this and get away with it," I replied. The point was moot. In order to "punish" him, we would need to stick around for months to testify. I was disappointed I wouldn't get to dole out any punishment personally, but the man was already in trouble for possession of heroin. The Greeks made us wash our hands with a foul-smelling soap, then we shook all their hands and said, "efharisto" a thousand times. We heard the thief pitch a fit as we climbed down the steps: "I took no Greek money!" I could have kissed every hairy mole on the cheeks of the old hag still sweeping her front porch outside.

* * * * *

Crete is a beautiful island, but you have no idea how beautiful it is when you are flush with cash just hours after having nothing. I counted the money and could have sworn we now had a little more than before the theft. We took a rickety bus across the island, down to a hippie beach town called Paleahora on the southern coast. Wood fell asleep with her head on my shoulder for the entire ride while the bus radio blared bouzouki and tambourine chants. I might have whispered myths into her ear: "On this island, something new was born: demarcation between barbarian and Greek; Crete stole Europe from Asia, back when things like continents were sexed. It was just the first of many thefts, when Zeus, guised as bull, swept Europa across the sea; later Jason stole Medea; Paris, Helen; from this very mass of rock Theseus reversed Crete's crimes: he took Ariadne but left her somewhere in between. Here we are, at the source of it all. From these mountains and these valleys, chieftains of ragged tribes emerged to give us light; from these craggy hills, the Cretan mists, they started stories that still pass human lips." I might have said those things. I wouldn't put it past my former self. She might have smiled, cooed, and nestled deeper into my neck. Kissed it even.

We got off the bus and headed right to the beach. We met the woman who wrote the Lonely Planet Greece, and she helped us find the a wonderful room with its own rose garden. For a few days it was though I was not Dutch, it was like I'd been replaced by some profligate Irishman willing to spend all his money on all manner of fine food and drink. I ate a whole octopus. Wood went topless at the beach. Hot. We became so sunburned we could hardly move. It was one of the best weeks of our lives.

But before we left town, I booked tickets for the voyage back to Athens. Although I cannot pretend it wasn't difficult for me, I spent three times as much to get us a private berth. With a door. A door that locked.