So I have to tell you all a little anecdote from my recent trip to Greece. I’ll start by saying that for six days straight, I found the people of Greece to be, without exception, warm, friendly and helpful. I was there for work, touring the country with the makers of a popular video game set there, and my trip was busy, with events packed morning until late every night, with very little sleep and a healthy dose of stress. While I enjoyed it, by day seven, I was mentally and physically exhausted, and very ready for my flight from Crete back to Athens.
I had an early flight home from Athens the following morning, so the PR team had booked me a place to stay near the airport. I’d glanced at the booking in a cursory way when I got my trip itinerary, but didn’t really pay attention to the details until the day before departing the group in Crete. When I did, I realized it was a private villa rental (villa basically meaning stand-alone cottage or apartment in this case), similar to an Airbnb. The villa name I had been given didn’t have a website, but I could find it on Booking.com and Expedia listings, and while the reviews were mixed, they seemed okay. But I couldn’t find any concrete information about how to get there, what to do once I’d arrived, etc. I had a phone number and two addresses, which was confusing, so I asked the PR rep traveling with me if she had gotten an email with instructions for me (since she had booked it), like maybe a lock box code or driving instructions. She had received nothing, so I resigned myself to turning on my data that day so I could call the number listed.
I got a guy named Adrian, who spoke English, and assured me they had my reservation and knew I was coming. I told him I’d be arriving in Athens at about 10:30 pm, so I needed to know if there was a combination code I needed for the villa and what address to go to. He told me he’d arrange a driver for me, ‘so I didn’t have to worry about it and wouldn’t get ripped off by a taxi driver’. I pressed again for the address, explaining I’d been in the country for a week and didn’t mind getting my own transportation.
“No, no, we’ll have a driver waiting for you at the airport,” he insisted, “because you have to come get the villa key from me before going to the villa.” He also asked me if I’d like to have dinner reservations arranged as well, and I told him that I had an early flight so I would not need dinner, and needed to go directly to the villa. He assured me this would be ‘no problem’.
I didn’t love this idea of two stops, but this did explain the two addresses. I relented, thinking that having a driver waiting for me would be nice, since the taxi line at the airport is ages long, and knowing it would still be a metered cab driver, who had been called for a specific pick-up. (I’d already learned this was how it was done there, via the Uber app.) Uber itself is not used in Greece, but the app can be used to order a metered cab. I could do it myself, but Adrian seemed to think I couldn’t be trusted to write down the address, which might have been correct…I’d definitely get those Greek words wrong, relaying them to my own driver.
That night, I arrive at the baggage claim, and…no driver. I call Adrian again, who assures me the driver is there, but had to move his car, since I’d been delayed by about 20 minutes. I tell him I understand, and wait for the driver at the airport cafe Adrian specifies. About five minutes later, the driver, Antonio, does indeed show up. (By the way, names have been changed to protect the possibly innocent.) Antonio looks homeless. There’s really no better way to describe his completely disheveled appearance. But he does have my name on a sign and he does lead me to a metered cab. So far, so good. I ask him if he has the address, and realize that he doesn’t speak any English. I’ve taken about 20 cab rides in this country by this point in my trip, and had yet to encounter any driver who didn’t have at least a decent command of English if not an excellent command, so this is odd, but we manage to communicate enough for me to feel assured that the name Adrian rings a bell.
I get in the cab, and immediately begin tracking the ride on my maps app, and yes, it does seem as though we’re headed to one of those addresses I had. Antonio lights a cigarette, which I don’t terribly appreciate in the cab, but whatever. I roll down the window. He’s an older guy, kind of pudgy, and smiles at me weirdly a lot, but I choose to think that’s his attempt to break the communication barrier. At one point, he tries to ask me where I’m from, and when I say the U.S., he says, “Texas, bang bang!” pointing his finger like a gun. I say, “Not Texas,” then stare out the window. This isn’t the first time US gun violence has been brought up to me in Greece, and I’m too exhausted to try to erase stereotypes or educate Antonio in hand gestures.
We drive into the suburbs of Athens, still by the airport, and all is going fine enough until Antonio pulls to a stop in front of a restaurant and indicates for me to get out. I reiterate that I’m supposed to go to Adrian and a villa, wondering if he doesn’t understand me or didn’t understand his instructions, or both, because honestly, he doesn’t seem too bright, but he latches back onto the word ‘Adrian’ and says, “Yes, yes, Adrian here.”
Someone’s already trying to get into my cab, which I’m now not at all sure I’m ready to leave, and I hesitate, trying to ask him again what address he was given. I indicate that I want to see it on his phone and double check it with the addresses I was given, but he doesn’t seem to have a phone. A waiter from the restaurant appears, and Antonio confers with him in Greek, and I catch the word ‘villa’ and ‘Adrian’ and lots of pointing at me. The waiter knows some English and assures me that Adrian will meet me here with the key to the villa. I want to know when, and get a vague-sounding, ‘soon, soon’.
I get my bags from the cab and watch Antonio head off with his new fare. Oh, and by the way, Antonio charged me 20 Euro, which is a solid ten more than the ride is worth, so I guess Adrian didn’t protect me from getting ripped off by a cab driver after all (eye roll). I had suspected as much, and at this point, I don’t really care. I’m actually fairly okay with getting somewhat overcharged in foreign countries, especially if I’m a willing participant. But then the waiter tries to get me to sit down and have dinner, and I put two and two together from Adrian’s question about a reservation earlier and realize he probably owns this restaurant and wants to convert a villa overnight to a dinner and villa overnight. This annoys me, so I say pretty firmly that I just need to get to the villa, no dinner, no thank you.
He seems surprised by this, like maybe Adrian had told him otherwise, and now I am super annoyed and tired and over being swindled. I tell him again to get me the keys to the villa and the address. The waiter consults with a few other restaurant employees in a huddle, all of them speaking Greek in undertones, and I seriously consider just getting another cab, booking a reservation at the airport hotel (which is about 400 Euros per night, so not my first choice), and departing. Before I can decide whether getting to sleep at a semi-decent hour tonight is worth almost $500 to me (no), yet another waiter comes over and assures me again that Adrian will ‘be here soon’. He offers me a seat and a glass of wine (on the house, how nice!) and I sit down and try to reason this through.
I am very conscious of not being an ugly American and respecting cultural differences, and I try to decide if this is what’s happening here, other than the cab and meal tomfoolery. Maybe European guests of the villa really wouldn’t mind sitting here in this pleasant restaurant (because it is pleasant…open air, right on the sea) with a glass of wine and waiting for a bit. I wouldn’t mind, if I wasn’t so tired. Maybe it’s just my American ‘now, now, now’ sentimentality at play. But then the waiter brings me my wine and changes his tune to, ‘about an hour’, and I decide nope, no way, an hour is ridiculous. I tell him so, and he can clearly see that I’m getting upset, so he brings over yet another restaurant employee, this time a young woman who seems about college-aged, who smiles at me and tells me perfect English that everything is being handled.
This woman immediately puts me at ease, and that, my friends, is when the first real alarm bells go off. Because the second I feel this relief at seeing another woman, I think, this is exactly what they’d do if they wanted to put me at ease. Which is maybe a crazy thing to think, but I thought it. And then instead of just feeling inconvenienced and probably swindled, I felt fear. And like any other woman traveling alone, I do not appreciate being made to feel fear.
So this is my internal reaction at this point. My anger kind of doubles down with this surge of fear, and I try not to allow myself to feel reassured by her friendly, unthreatening face and smile. I tell her an hour is not acceptable, and that I want to go to the villa now. My suspicion of this whole thing is such, at this point, that I don’t touch my glass of wine. I actually have the thought: I didn’t see this opened, I didn’t see it poured. I guess I’m in full survival/suspicion mode now.
When she sees I’m serious about the villa, suddenly, the key is procured. Just like that! (Another eye roll.) She tells me there’s someone who can drive me there right now, just like I asked. This driver is yet another waiter, a young guy who runs to get his car.
Now, this is the point in the story where all you armchair quarterbacks will have opinions. And if I was watching this on Dateline, this is the part where I’d yell at the TV, ‘what are you thinking, woman?’ but please try to remember how tired I am. And I’d just had a fit about leaving right now, and here they were accommodating me. And dammit, even after years of trying to reprogram it, I still have this female wiring in me that wants to be cooperative and helpful. So after only a few questions, like, ‘hey, what’s this guy’s name?’ and ‘where, again, is Adrian?’, I get in the private vehicle of a man I’ve never met. Yep. I’m nothing if not adventurous, with an alarming lack of self-preservation.
I do take a photo of the restaurant and a photo of the car, drop a pin, and start once again tracking the ride. I ask this new guy how far away the villa is, and he tells me five minutes. I like this answer. My Google map is telling me that we are indeed heading toward the second address I’d written down, but still, I don’t put on my seatbelt and I do the ‘if I jumped out of the car at this speed, would I break my leg’ game in my head. Five minutes fly by in this manner, and we start winding up into the hillside.
Now, I’m sure it’s super charming on his hillside tucked against the Mediterranean, but it’s very dark and the roads get smaller and then turn to dirt, and I realize this villa is in BFE. Point not in my favor. At one point, we plunge down a really dark and rutted alleyway. We arrive, however, and the guy points out the villa, and it looks fine…a little ramshackle, but nothing out of the ordinary. There are few other houses nearby, but they’re all dark. That I don’t love. He pulls up, and I ask for the key. He says he’ll show me inside. I say no thank you, just the key please. We go back and forth about this for a minute, and then he flat out ignores me and walks up to the door of the villa and unlocks it for me.
I thank him (I’m still so accommodating, right?) and ask again for the key, and he says, “No, this one’s yours,” and gives me a duplicate that’s on the kitchen table. He then wants to show me the WiFi and the heating system. It’s at least 80 degrees outside and I don’t care about WiFi at this point, and I stay in the doorway and just continue to say ‘no thank you, that’ll be all, that’s fine.’ Finally, finally, he seems to hear me (though never seems to realize he’s made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe, which I do think most American men would be conscious of, driving a strange woman alone to a dark house) and he closes the door behind me and leaves.
Or at least, I think he leaves, I hope he leaves, but I can’t hear the car start from inside the villa and there are no windows on this side of the house. So I stand there with my heart racing for a good two minutes, waiting, then open the door a crack and see that the car is, indeed, gone.
I walk through the little villa, which, to its credit, is very bright and clean and quite adorable really. I admit I did drastic things like check all the closets and peer out at the back balcony, which overlooked a few other villas and then a big blackness beyond, which I knew would be a great view of the ocean in the morning. Did I mention how dark out it was, though? There were very few lights. I heard dogs barking from just about everywhere, but didn’t see anyone else in dark windows of the other houses or anyone on the dirt roads. It was about 12:30 am by now, so maybe this was perfectly normal.
Honestly, the entire situation would have felt different, I think, had I been with companions or if it had been in the daylight. But without anyone else to bounce this weird night off of, my imagination definitely went into overdrive. I dropped another pin at my location and told myself that I was now safely locked in and no one was going to kidnap me and sell me into sex trafficking. Then I realized Adrian and his crew of restaurant wait staff and cab drivers still had the other key, and I checked all the windows and closets again.
Now it’s at least 1 am, and I am so. tired. I really hadn’t slept the night before, either, in Crete. All I want to do is crawl into bed, but of course I have adrenaline pounding through my body, so sleep is out of the question. I call my husband, even though it’s the middle of the workday at home, just to get some healthy perspective on this crazy story. He immediately tells me to call a cab and get out of the villa and get a hotel room, no matter what it costs. This is not the assurance I had been looking for, and dammit, I begin to cry. A quick check on my Uber app tells me there are no cabs around here for miles, and on the kitchen counter, the only number listed on the helpful information sheet under ‘transportation’ is the number for the restaurant, so I basically just tell my husband it was good to know him and to tell the kids I love them. No, what I really said was something closer to, ‘I’m too damned tired to do anything about this.’ And since he was half a world away, unable to do anything about this, either, I hung up so he wouldn’t have to hear me crying.
In the end, I told myself it would be idiotic to run a human trafficking ring from a villa you rent out with people’s names documented on Booking.com, then realized I didn’t know for sure that I was actually in the villa I’d rented, since I’d had no control over my transportation. I really could have been deposited anywhere, because the address hadn’t been precise, and my phone now stated, ‘location cannot be found’. I then tried to reassure myself that prime kidnapping victims would surely be younger than me, then told myself not to sell myself short, in an odd twist on feminism and self-esteem. I played the ‘will I break my leg’ game again, this time gauging the distance from the balcony to the ground, then wedged a kitchen chair under the front doorknob and Googled ‘how to dial 911 in Greece’, then laid down to go to sleep. That went super well.
I did manage to sleep a couple hours, with the lights on and the dogs barking, somehow drifting off while wondering if the dogs would bark louder if a car approached on the road, then wondering if the dogs were barking louder, or if that was just my imagination. When I woke up, it was to the lovely view (seen above) I’d anticipated of the sea from the balcony. The dogs had quieted, cars drove along the dirt streets, and the sun shone. I was just so happy to be alive, I didn’t mind that I had 24 hours of travel ahead of me on no sleep. Adrian called (scaring me all over again when the phone rang while I was making coffee), asking eagerly if I liked the villa and offering to send a cab for my ride to the airport. I said sure (oh yes, I did). I figured I’d give him one more go at me, just to be sporting. No seriously: no cabs or Uber, remember? At this point, I just wanted to make my flight.
Antonio showed up again precisely at 8 am, looking every bit as homeless. He pointed to himself and said his name, then indicated he needed mine, and I realized I’d correctly assessed his intelligence the night before. He was a big guy, but going back into survival mode in my brain, I decided if it came down to a battle of wits, I felt sure I’d win. I could totally see tricking Antonio into locking himself into the villa or something. I smiled at him and he returned his creepy smile and I reminded him that he’d picked me up the night before. He got me straight to the airport, and I overtipped him yet again.
So the moral of the story, friends? You’re almost never, or at least probably not, going to be kidnapped, raped or murdered while traveling solo, even when you think the odds just jumped to a percentage you’re not okay with. I loved Greece, but will not be re-booking that villa, which is a shame, because it really was quite pretty. And if I get myself in this sort of situation again, please make sure they find a kickass actress to play me on Dateline.