I clutched my pockets in disbelief.
Shrewd eyes follow the western stranger in Greek railroad stations. My husband, Chuck, had just bought our tickets for the morning Athens-Thessaloniki express. Caution dulled after a sleepless night on the ferry from Crete, he shoved his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. As we followed the crowd of passengers up the risers of the idling train Chuck stopped short, grabbed his back pocket–and cursed his carelessness. Our credit card; $500; 13,000 Greek drachmas–gone. All we had left were our passports and two fifty-dollar bills.
We stumbled to our assigned seats; Chuck squeezed his eyes shut. I clutched my pockets in disbelief. It was October, 1998. We were six weeks into a three-month walkabout following the end of our Peace Corps service in a small former Soviet republic. Now the rest of the trip we’d planned had vanished in seconds, wrested from us by a watchful opportunist no doubt smirking at tourist naiveté as he melted into the crowd.
The train lurched out of the station; crawled through industrial suburbs thick with bottling and textile plants, truck depots, warehouses stacked with spooled wire, and peach canneries. Industry thinned to vegetable plots and plastic greenhouses; then we sped north into open country. I stared, numb, at the muted autumn landscape. Fields of squash, cornstalks, cotton, and wheat; olive groves, vineyards, and apple orchards slid past. We plunged through forested mountain gorges, snaked along skinny trestles rooted in whitened streams far below: misery made it hurt to witness beauty.
Chuck looked grayest; it had been his pocket, after all. But no one could miss my crazed whispers. We were the parents. Our children were in no position to rescue us with cash wired from American Express. Looking up from their newspapers or knitting, passengers across the aisle must have sensed agitation between the two foreigners with backpacks at their feet: one white-haired and both clearly too old, in their opinion, to be traveling like students. They gave us an occasional glance and murmured to each other. Almost beyond caring, I was just as glad I understood no Greek. Shock and fatigue jellied my brain. Chuck dozed; I gazed. At concrete station stops I watched exiting passengers rush into the arms of loved ones.
Two hours passed. We’d skipped breakfast, and now I tried to ignore mounting hunger pangs. No lunch for us; one hundred dollars wouldn’t go far in Thessaloniki. Worse was coming: a massive food cart rolling down the aisle, piloted by two starchily uniformed attendants and redolent of a deft mother’s cooking.
At first, this duo and their fragrant cargo seemed to attract only the lucky passengers with drachmas to spend. A closer look and I saw the entourage stop at each seat. “No one’s paying,” Chuck observed, puzzled. When the cart reached us, the female attendant, all smiles, greeted us first in German, then English, and handed us hefty, foil-covered boxes.
the two foreigners with backpacks at their feet: one white-haired and both clearly too old to be traveling like students.
The lunch in front of us almost tasted of home.
“We didn’t have time to change money,” I muttered, knowing how foolish the lie sounded.
“No charge,” she assured us.
“Free?” Chuck asked, incredulous.
The woman’s male colleague doffed his white chef’s toque. “This is Greece!” he said, his smile warm and proud.
“Only on this train,” added the woman, pointing to words on the ticket, which were, well, Greek to us.
They moved on: to our fellow passengers mere wait staff, to me robed angels of mercy.
We opened our boxed treasure. One half held a container of chopped cucumbers and peppers, and a foil-wrapped golden apricot turnover. In the other, plump, oniony meatballs poked up from mushrooms and tomatoes (my nose detected whiffs of oregano and garlic) in a steaming little casserole flanked by perfect rice–each grain separate–and glistening carrot ovals. Eating our way through Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, we had reveled in exotic new treats. Lamb mansaf downed decorously with fingers, ful on breakfast bread, hot cinnamon and milk, seconds of rose water pudding, za’atar and baharat on our eggs. The lunch in front of us almost tasted of home: its extraordinary appearance spoke to my soul and told me we might survive our rotten luck. We’d decide how when we arrived.
Once off the train at the cavernous Thessaloniki station we suddenly felt cut-off, anonymous. Should we hope for compassion from whatever consulate we could find? Not yet, Chuck argued. Peace Corps had taught us to be resourceful. In minutes he sketched a plan and we divided the work. I could walk faster and at least I spoke French. While Chuck guarded our packs in the waiting room and fished for his copy of our documents I set out on a quest for lodging. The lift from our serendipitous lunch galvanized me, even after I discovered a commercial capitol studded with hotels charging as much as we had in my money belt.
I stopped strangers on the street–fish mongers, a bookshop clerk, cafe customers, anyone with a kind face who could speak a little English, French, or unlikely Romanian–to ask where I could find a cheap pension. I said we’d been robbed. Two hours later it was a fashionably-dressed British-accented woman on the sidewalk who led me to a tiny hotel wedged between a cell phone shop and a furrier, laundry flapping on balcony lines across the narrow street. A $17 room, cash only, deposit required. The owner’s daughter would throw in morning coffee and pastries.
Back at the station I marveled at news of the pickpocket’s speed. Chuck had telephoned Visa’s 800 number. The thief had already racked up just over $4,000 in charges. Mammoth color TV? Diamonds? Furs for a girlfriend? New to credit-card theft, I wept with relief to learn no charges would apply. They’d send a courier from London with a replacement within a week. Elation gripped us even as we began tightening our belts.
One week to survive on two fifty-dollar bills. We had no choice but to discover the city the same way we’d chosen to discover other cities: through its parks, street scene, cathedrals, and its playground soccer teams. A free museum exhibit on the history of gold in the Aegean reminded us further of our temporary penury. Still, we didn’t starve. I made our drachmas stretch enough for bread, tomatoes, pasta, feta, and watermelon, all delivered to our taverna table by waiters who questioned us only with their eyebrows. A grudging promise from Chuck to start using his money belt came before the week was out.
A $17 room, cash only, deposit required. The owner’s daughter would throw in morning coffee and pastries.
This is Greece!”
On the night bus to Sofia eight days later I reflected on a certain symmetry to this escapade. We’d been taken and we’d been given. After living two years in an even poorer country, who was I to censure sticky fingers closing in on a careless tourist’s wallet? I silently thanked Greece’s rail system for its surprise gift –a lunch that felt free even though we’d paid for it with our tickets.
Nineteen years later I still see their smiles and hear the pride in their voices, the two people who handed us that restorative meal. “This is Greece!” “Only on this train!”
Even with the country’s tattered economy a first-class ticket still comes with lunch on the Athens-Thessaloniki morning express.
Cover photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, "Train station Peraues, Athens, Greece"