Angels & Demons in the City of Gods: 72 hours Couchsurfing in Athens

The sun was fading behind clouds as we swept onto the tarmac. Huge gusts of wind drew goose bumps up our bare arms and sent us scurrying to the waiting bus. It was not exactly the arrival I had envisioned in the city of sun worshippers. It was not exactly the arrival I had planned either.

IMG_9313Sitting on a computer in my Sicilian hostel three days earlier I had suddenly decided I couldn’t bare the 48 hour bus-ferry journey from one side of the Mediterranean to the other.

Impulsively I booked the cheapest flight I could find and told Dareios and Anastasia, the couple I would be couchsurfing with, that I would see them the following evening. What I hadn’t foreseen was that I would now be arriving two days earlier than my American friend Camilla.

Two days early, one hour delayed and zero ability in the local language, I arrived in Athens on a windy summers night feeling moderately prepared for my first solo couchsurfing jaunt. ”Lucky they’re a couple,” I assured myself as I exited the metro at the stop they had suggested.

IMG_9123
My Dreamy Transport – Aci Castello, Sicily.

The first siren I should have heeded came in the form of a young Romanian couple out on their evening stroll. I had already been wandering for twenty minutes, attempting to decipher the badly maintained Greek street signs when I stumbled across the pair. Eyeing my out of place backpack in the residential zone of Attiki, they approached to see if I was lost. In relief I showed them my directions and asked if they new the way to my hosts’ address. Spotting the street name the young man suddenly stepped back and eyeballed me with concern.

“Why are you going there?!”

“Friends. I have friendsss there?” I retorted, attempting confidence and certainty.

“Oh…ah… but you know that area? That’s the prostitute area. What do you say, red light…?”

Red light. Red light. Red light.

The words hammered inside my skull as I followed the couple’s directions further into the blackened back streets.

My mind at this point was a combination of naïve optimism and petrified doubt. I could turn back, make my way to a nice prostitute-free hostel, message the hosts, “I had been caught up in Sicily”, then meet Camilla in a few days and head to the safe, sun-drenched islands. There was no obligation but something made me continue. I had already come so far… and I didn’t have to stay. I’d just arrive at the building and then see how I felt. No harm, no obligation.

Ten minutes later I was standing outside a seven storey, cigarette stained apartment block in a shadowy residential zone. The street was silent aside from the frenzied drone of a flock of crazed insects, ploughing themselves into the dim street light above.

“Hmmm…” I sighed loudly over the suicidal frenzy. It didn’t seem like a prostitute’s workspace…then again what did a prostitute’s workplace seem like?

I stood frozen for a moment staring at the panel of apartment buzzers plastered to the wall.

“Piiiitros…Piiiitros…”

I searched the panel for the couples buzzer. At the bottom right corner a shiny, metallic circle with the letters “PITROS” printed neatly to the side shone.

Nothing seemed untoward…my finger wavered hesitantly a few centimetres from the button. Suddenly aware of my physical self I felt the aching knots under the straps of my backpack throb. A gust of wind turned the thin-layer of sweat clinging to my back into a sheet of ice and I shivered with tiredness and exhaustion.

They’re a couple. It’s going to be fine, I assured myself as I lent forward and pushed the buzzer. Once…twice…finally a loud, elongated “buzzzzzz” met my shorter buzzing sounds and the latch to the apartment block door clicked open.

That’s it? No, “Hi”. No, “Hello”. No, “Is that you Tash?” Nothing.

Nothing had occurred to calm my fears but tired and hopeful I decided I’ld just go inside, just get to the door, just check out the corridor… and then I’d make my decision.

I clambered into the toilet-sized cubicle lift and headed up to the seventh floor. Exiting the lift I found myself in a slim corridor with hospital white walls and gaudy, speckled floors that immediately sent me back to my underground university psychology building, not so affectionately named, The Dungeon. Before I could plant my feet firmly outside the couple’s door and spend another 10 minutes making a poor decision, a large, three-legged white dog bounded through an open door at the end of the corridor and made an a-line towards me. Ugly but clearly of no harm, I patted the beast and drifted towards the opening.

“HEEEEELLLLooooo?” I called in the most relaxed voice I could gather.

“Hi there.” A thirty-something with short, bleached-blonde hair, dusty blue jeans, a t-shirt at least one size too small and a crooked, menacing smile appeared under the doorframe.

Silence.

“Hiiii…I’m Tash. Are youuu…”

“Yes, yes and I see you’ve met Yaso”

“Oh that’s the dog is it? Yes, cute dog,” I lied hoping to build some rapport and encourage the man to say something that would assure me of his normality.

“Yea yea”

Nothing so far.

“And Annnnastasia?” I queried, hovering in the corridor.

“She’s on a shoot.”

“Ah. O-kaaaay.”

“Come in. You’re hungry. I’ll make you a sandwich.”

The man turned and walked further into the dimly-lit house as the poorly-coordinated dog thundered behind him. I wasn’t convinced but in awkward politeness I followed.

Entering inside my fears and anxiety only grew. Directly opposite me six long swords loomed above a doorframe. To the right I could see into a room where pistols of varying sizes decorated a bookshelf. Beside them an old pot plant holder had been converted into a canister for swords. Looking even further I spotted the radiator with a large machine gun slung across one side.

Sword and armoury collectors I winced, trying to assure myself I wasn’t going to die in this tiny, cluttered apartment.

Entering the kitchen I half expected the man to apologise, to abashedly explain…

“We’re collectors! None of them have ever been used. Purely display pieces. I work at the museum.”

But as I should have by now expected there was nothing. No explanation. No apology. Not even an acknowledgement of their existence. Instead the first proper conversation Dareios decided to instigate as he unnecessarily, brandished a large, butcher’s knife to cut my regularly sized sandwich was the tale of how his dog lost its leg. A seemingly benign subject I thought, hoping that it may reveal some of the man’s more compassionate, non-murderous side.

“You noticed the leg yea?”

“Oh yea! What happened? Poor thing.”

“Cancer. You know she was walking around with this lump hanging off her leg for ages. I couldn’t bare to see her like that.”

“Awwh wow, poor girl, must have been sooo painful…” I responded looking towards the dog and attempting to rouse more human emotion out of the man.

“Yea yea. You know I did it.”

“Sorry, you did what?”

“I did it. I cut the leg.”

“Ohhhh, you mean you assisted the vet? I guess that’s normal?”

“No, no, I cut the leg. I wouldn’t let anyone touch my dog, not like that. I cut the leg off.”

“Ahhh…” I smiled nervously, trying to nod in agreement that it was all a very normal series of events, a perfectly normal piece of light chitchat to recount to someone who had just arrived in your armoured apartment.

“And Anastasia? When does she finish again?”

“Later, later. Come in here, I’ll show you our portfolios.”

As I entered the living room, machine-gun decorated radiator before me, Dareios casually rustled through the pistol-laden bookshelf to retrieve his and her portfolios. Modelling portfolios. They were models of course. Just a normal Athenian modelling couple, with a house full of guns and a three-legged dog. A stock standard picture of suburban living really.

I sat awkwardly on the patchy, stained couch flicking through the albums as Yaso licked my ugly backpacker feet.

“Nice stuff,” I said unaware of what was the go-to dialogue to share with gun-possessing, dog-dissecting models about their work.

“Wine,” he barked handing me a full glass of dazzling red.

“Oh, oh, thanks,” I said immediately placing the glass on the coffee table beside me and vowing never to consume a drop.

I glanced out to the balcony, “must be a great view!”

“It’s ok.”

I stood up and moved as casually as I could towards the balcony, hoping to make myself seen. More piles of clutter and garbage dotted the once white outdoor tiles. In the far right I could make out a number of large, black stains splashed across the ground.

“Mushrooms. Anastasia’s attempts!” He laughed suddenly appearing behind me and pointing towards the stains.

“Ahhhh, great,” I replied, in another attempt at nonchalance.

“Look, the Acropolis,” he directed, moving casually to the edge of the balcony and pointing down the long street to a golden-lit structure, seemingly a float on the horizon.

Sure enough, there in the distance of his “ok” view was the Acropolis. In a strange way the sight was soothing. It was really all I had come to Athens to see. If I died now at the hands of a gun-wielding, self-proclaimed model, at least the strange circumstances would warrant an evocative frontpage headline.

Just as I turned to start another awkward conversation about the spectacular structure Dareios’ phone rung. Anastasia. She was finished. He would pick her up. I would wait here.

Good I thought, gives me time to check everything out and tell everyone exactly where I am. At least then they’ll know where to retrieve the body from when the murdering is all done.

As the door clicked shut behind Dareios I immediately got my phone out and messaged everyone I knew in the “vicinity”. Vicinity for a kiwi meaning anyone I remotely new in Europe, bar my parents who would obviously commit themselves to a mental ward at the thought. Once I had sent out the address and voiced my fears of murder in the least alarming fashion I moved quickly around the premises. Passing the armoured cabinet I took a photo that I hoped I would one day laugh about with friends.

Now moving towards the main door I nervously turned the handle. The structure lurched  opened. I could leave. There was my exit, my escape, but an escape to where? The doddgy, lurker-filled streets I had arrived on…at midnight…in the middle of suburbia with the metro stopped for the evening. At least here people would be able to find me fairly quickly…and he left the door open. What kind of kidnapper leaves the door open? I probably have them all wrong…

I just need to confirm Anastasia…partner Anastasia exists.

For all I knew she was his last victim…trapped behind a wall somewhere, watching, screaming but too strangled for me to hear…I had watched far too many episodes of “Criminal Minds” to disregard this as a possibility. Turning around I scanned the walls for any eye-filled cracks.

Nothing. I was probably paranoid. I glanced up at the weaponry…or not.

I just need to confirm Anastasia, another regular, non-kidnapped woman lives here.

I headed to the bathroom. Pushing the heavy door open I immediately eyed a long, thin, violet-tinted bottle of perfume and two toothbrushes. Relieved I returned to the couch.

Twenty minutes later I was tapping my thumbs incessantly on the screen of my phone, attempting to calm my friends’ fears and settle our discussion as to whether I should stay, when Dareios waltzed in. I turned to greet him and felt another wave of relief as I spotted the gazelle-like figure talking on her phone behind him. Strawberry blonde hair, thick, black glasses, legs…lots and lots of leg. That was Anastasia.

Ecstatic to see a normal, non-kidnapped woman I smiled.

Anastasia smiled too, threw her phone down and collapsed onto the couch beside me. Sitting up she folded her legs underneath her, grabbed a pack of roll-your-own from the side table and began pressing together a joint.

“Long day?” I queried

“Horrible. Photographers, sometimes, such idiots,” she responded in a strange, almost Russian accent.

“Ah…”

“Yea you know, they tell me…lie on ground, head up, to the side, more, more but they don’t know my angles. Ugh…if only I could do it all myself.”

“Yea…that must be a hard.”

“You are tired,” She announced, finally acknowledging me as someone who had just arrived in her house. “You get Dareios to give you a massage. He’s good.”

“Oh yea you know… it’s a hobby. I learnt from a friend. He does it for natural therapy…very good. Great full body heeling. I can give you one,” Dareios seemed a mixture of seriousness and enthusiasm.

“Oh thanks…” I replied visualising the scenario with terror, “maybe tomorrow”.

“Good idea, you need to have a shower first, fully relaxed.” I smiled through gritted teeth. I would not be accepting that massage.

After an hour of smokey, red wine conversations and naked chests (just Dareios) I was confused, slightly disturbed and more than ready to escape to my allocated room. I had been informed of the importance of eating only one vegetable at a time (fruit salads were terrible for digestion), how to use the powder in the bathroom for “cleaning out my ass,” apparently brimming with “toxic oils” (shudder) and why the world had adopted English as an international language, not Greek (N.A.S.A. was behind it all of course, stalking and conspiring against the Grecians for decades). While I still hadn’t been given any explanation as to why two thirty-year-old models required an arsenal of weapons, I imagined there was some logical connection with N.A.S.A.’s vicious plans to cripple Greek society and the couple’s patriotic desires to defend their culture.

Just a night, just a night, just a night, I chanted as I lay in my bed wishing Camilla had already arrived.

I woke at 4am to a plastic bag crackling on the floor. The air was heavy and moist, windless. Either someone was in my room or the plastic bag was alive. I threw myself up and swiped my hand along the wall, feeling for the light switch. Heart thundering my fingers swept across the recognisable panel. I immediately swiped downwards. Sharp, hospital light filled the room, blinding my eyes with shadowy, gold-splotched images as I turned towards the sounds, willing my eyes to adjust. As the shadows retreated into crisp lines my predator became clear. There beside my bed a soup spoon-sized, black cockroach rustled through an empty plastic bag. I had never been happier to see a giant cockroach in my life. Cringing I lay back down and closed my eyes, leaving the light on in hope that my predator would retreat back to his home and leave me alone on the bed.

The next day followed much as the first, strange and unsettling. I was taken to purchase local meats, accompany Anastasia to a haircut and peruse the shops. This was all normal. The unsettling part came in the form of the strange comments and gestures made by Dareios. A hand on my shoulder, a wink across the street, a possessive “my ladies” comment.

When he proclaimed he had managed to borrow a trailer to move some furniture up to the country (murder) shack I tried to respond with normality, “that’s nice, good friend.”
“Oh no, I gave him drugs,” he retorted adamantly.

Pulling the tourist card, I managed to escape the pair for the rest of the afternoon. After visiting The Acropolis and markets I sat in “Starbucks” considering the latest time I could arrive home without seeming too rude and at the same time, absolutely avoiding any more late night chats. Camilla would be there in the morning. Just 12 hours to endure. I contacted the couple and said I would be home around 10.30pm. No response.

I arrived back at 10.45pm. Buzzing intermittently for five minutes I felt much like I had the first evening; anxious, unsure and feeling that something was slightly amiss. No reply. Suddenly I realised I had no wifi, no hostel and no contact with the couple. Refraining from a panic-stricken meltdown I walked into the bakery next door and purchased a biscuit and a cup of coffee. I was just about to attempt a series of Greek-English miscommunications with the shop assistant when I felt someone behind me. I swivelled around to see Dareios and Anastasia standing, silent, smiling as if they had been there the whole time.

“I thought maybe you had gone out for the evening?”

“No, just sorting out the trailer.”

“Did you get my message?”

“Oh, yea yea. We’re having a dinner tonight. My friend, the one who lent me the trailer is coming. We’ll cook traditional orange chicken for you.”

“Ok,” I responded unenthused.

Anastasia and Dareios’ generosity seemed to be dressed in obligation. It was hard to say no. I cursed my choice of backpacking destinations, anywhere other than southern Europe and I could’ve laughed at the offer of a midnight dinner.

We made our way upstairs and Dareios immediately took off his top (again), poured wine and began cooking. Fondling the chicken he attempted to enlist me as an assistant, I politely declined and said I was more than happy to watch.

“Why don’t you go have a shower then,” he begun, “after we can do your massage.”

“You know what, I’ve got a really bad headache. I think I’ll pass on the massage.”

“Fine. I was only doing it for you,” he retorted, a palpable atmosphere of irritation drifting through the air.

Things were definitely escalating on the weirdness front. I sat awkwardly in the kitchen when the buzzer finally rung. A balding, pot bellied, fifty something stumbled through the door.

“Acario, Yassoo!”

“Yassoo Dareios!”

The two slapped hands and stood a meter a part, babbling in Greek. Hearing the arrival, a towel-clad Anastasia darted into the kitchen, planting a kiss on Acario’s cheek before frolicking back to the bedroom. There was a strange excitement in the air that I was not ecstatic about.

Before long Dareios was ushering us all out to the balcony with another bottle of red. I sat at the table, trying to make small talk with a distracted Anastasia as Acario guzzled down glasses in the corner.

“So the Acropolis was pretty amazing. I can’t believe you guys live so close. Do you go up there quite a bit?”

“Ah, not so much.”

“But we use to!” Dareios exclaimed, carrying the roast chicken onto the balcony. “Well… not there, there’s another hill, best place to smoke pot. Way better views. We might go there later.”

Later?! When did these people sleep?

“Ah look at him,” Dareios laughed as he lifted the carving knife and pointed at Acario, head slumped, belly brimming, snoring volcanically in the corner as a lit cigarette rocked between his two middle fingers.

“Ah,” I feigned amusement, “we should probably put that out?”

“Yea yea.”

Back at the table I had just put a piece of dry, near-dessert chicken in my mouth when Anastasia decided it was about time to make her (“their”) intentions clear.

“So what do you think of polygamy?”

All the saliva in my mouth that had not already been absorbed by the chicken suddenly vanished and I found myself gulping down wine, signalling the, “I’ll reply when my mouth is empty” gesture. I chewed, gulped and swallowed, chewed, gulped and swallowed…teasing out the seconds till it would be even more socially awkward for me not to reply.

At face value the question was benign, interesting even. It was a question I had discussed with most of my twenty-year old friends at some time or another, in a light-hearted fashion, usually over a wine and with reference to the Mormon T.V. series “Big Family.” But here the question took on new meaning, for Anastasia wasn’t so much asking a question as throwing out an invitation. In that statement she was at one time trying to gage my interest in her apparent fetish, as well as invite me into whatever strange event she had been planning since I arrived. At the same time she had unknowingly filled in all the weird, massage-giving, health advising gaps I had been trying to decipher…I was still a tad confused about how the weapons fitted into all of this.

I thought as fast as I could back to my university psychology lessons. I had to answer the question, it was unavoidable, but I would do it with as little emotion as possible.

Intellectualise. I had to intellectualise my answer. Just another casual question between adults, I tried to convince the part of me that was screaming to escape from this strange predatory meeting.

“Oh, interesting question…Yea… you know… it’s a really interesting idea – I guess from an evolutionary perspective… it doesn’t really make sense for us to be with only one person… but for me personally, I’m really just a one-man kind of lady. Are you guys in an open relationship or something?” I cursed myself for asking the question but the people pleaser in me couldn’t bear to leave the conversation on a clifftop.

“Oh no no, not so much open… we both just really like girls. Blue eyes, long dark hair – I go crazy for it.”

“Ohh interesting stuff…hey you know, that was a delicious meal, just what I needed. Think I’ll have to hit the hay, sleep it off – got to be up bright and early for Camilla.” I avoided acknowledging the fact that I was the description of the girl that would send her into an incrazed frenzy.

“Suit yourself.” Anastasia shrugged as her coy smile retreated back into a bored, despondent gaze.

“Whatever,” Dareios added with contempt.

I stood up as causally and nonchalantly as I could, attempting to project a degree of naivety and the idea that their invitations had flown right past my blue eyes and meters clear of my dark brown hair. I stepped off the balcony and scurried to my room.

7 hours.

7 hours till I could hug my American friend. 7 hours till I could escape this strange hell. 7 hours till I could tell Camilla everything that had happened in the last 72 hours and reaffirm that I was not crazy. I closed the bedroom door and waited for morning.

guns edited
The photo I snapped of the couple’s living room wall
acropolis
The “ok” view down to the Acropolis from the couple’s balcony
Disclaimer: While the events mentioned in this story are true, all couchsurfing hosts’ names have been changed.
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