A Full Moon Night in Athens
The first night of the July full moon in Athens. My friends and I have gathered at our local tavern with plans to view the spectacular full moon from the Acropolis, while enjoying classical music played by the Athens Symphony.
A strange young man enters the tavern. He is dressed in sandals, short tunic and carries a homespun wool bag. His hair and beard are long and blonde. He is an apparition of someone from Biblical times, like a modern-day version of John the Baptist. Mike, a British painter who has a studio in the area, says he has seen this odd character many times. He thinks the young man lives in one of the caves on Philipappou Hill, near the Acropolis.
The young man appears to be a deaf mute. He does not speak, and gestures to Anna, the tavern owner, indicating he wants food. She gives him a souvlaki and he leaves. But we are curious. We wonder where he has come from, and how he makes his living here? Clearly, he is not Greek. Who is he?
The second night of the July full moon. Anna Britt, a Norwegian classical scholar; Vesa, a Finnish architect; Lena, a Danish girl studying Greek, and myself, a writer from Canada, decide to have a picnic up on Philipappou Hill to celebrate the moonlight. The hill is opposite the Acropolis. Footpaths wind up through the pine groves to the crest of the hill where there is an impressive monument to Philipappou, a Prince of Syria who was exiled to Athens by the Romans and died here in AD 116.
From the crest of Philipappou Hill we have an eye-level view of the Parthenon all lit up with golden floodlights. In the brilliant, star-studded sky, the beautiful moon beams down, bathing the hillside with a soft silvery-blue light. We sit at the base of Philipappou’s monument and share our snacks: a bottle of wine and a bit of brandy, some crackers, cheese and olives.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, like an apparition, the strange young man we had seen at the tavern the night before is standing in our midst.
We are stunned speechless, as his appearance is so sudden and eerie. But because we are also still curious about him, we invite him to share our food and drink. He refuses the food, but snatches the bottle of brandy out of Vesa’s hand and quickly drinks down what is left of it then smashes the bottle on the rocks. We are startled by this abrupt, rude action. He takes a bottle of ouzo out of his bag and offers it to Vesa. Vesa, who has been drinking the brandy, refuses. I have been drinking wine and decline the offer too. Lena is pregnant, and doesn’t drink. To be polite, Anna Britt takes a couple of sips of the ouzo, then hands the bottle back.
We invite the young man to sit with us. We want to know all about him. What is his name? Where does he come from? Where does he live? He squats down, not speaking but evidently capable of hearing everything we say to him. It doesn’t take long before we grow suspicious of his ‘mute act’ and wonder if he merely belongs to some odd cult and has taken an oath of silence. Anna Britt takes another swig of ouzo and tries another angle to engage him in conversation. He says nothing, but occasionally laughs in a derisive manner, laughing at us. His attitude is arrogant and rude. We are beginning to feel very uncomfortable in his presence.
I decide to challenge him about his inability to speak. He knows exactly what I’m saying and laughs. Anna Britt says she is feeling dizzy and decides to lie down on a flat slab of marble. He finds this very amusing. Our suspicion increases. We are feel uneasy and wish he would leave. All the other moon-watchers have left the hillside. We are alone with this weird guy. Anna Britt say she is feeling nauseated and tries to get up. She can’t move. She is very frightened, almost hysterical. “What was in that ouzo?” she asks the young man.
He laughs maniacally and as suddenly as he had appeared, like a disappearing ghost, he is gone… poof! Vanished into thin air.
Anna Britt tries to move, but her limbs seem to be paralyzed, and she begins to retch violently. She is conscious, but now we are certain there was something potent in those few sips of ouzo she drank from the young man’s bottle.
I volunteer to run down the hill to find help. Halfway down, I meet two Greek men and explain what has happened. We race back up the hill. They try to help Vesa pick Anna Britt up. She is crying, and vomiting every time she moves, but somehow, even though she is a dead weight, the three men lug her half-way down the hill to the parking lot. One of the Greeks runs down to the street to find a telephone, and calls an ambulance. We are so thankful for their help. Without them, we would not have got Anna Britt down the hill.
The ambulance arrives, but the drivers appear to be helpless. It is Vesa, and the other Greek men who tell them what to do. “Put a cover over her. She’s in shock!” (By now Anna Britt was shivering even though the night was very warm.) We asked if they had equipment with them to pump her stomach. They did nothing but cram her and us into the back of the small ambulance and drive off to an unknown destination.
We arrive at a hospital, but we have no idea which hospital or where in Athens we are. Nobody speaks English and even with our elementary Greek we get no straight answers. We are deposited in the emergency room. There are several nurses lurking in the office drinking coffee and smoking. Nobody rushes to help us. Eventually a doctor comes. By now we are frantic, because Anna Britt is clearly in serious distress. We explain to the doctor what has happened. Can she pump Anna Britt’s stomach, please? Obviously she ingested something toxic and it needs to be flushed out of her system. The doctor’s response was simply: “We have strong drinks in Greece.” (Referring to the fact that Anna Britt had drunk some ouzo.) We try to explain that Anna Britt only had at most five sips of the ouzo. That she was not drunk. That we were not ‘stupid tourists’, we were scholars, living in Athens while we researched and studied.
This did not impress the doctor. Anna Britt continued gagging and vomiting. Her limbs were still paralyzed. There was nothing she could do, the doctor said. We would have to wait until she ‘slept it off’.
I decided to phone the tourist police. I still had no idea of what hospital we were in. A man in the waiting room talked to the police officer and explained. The police officer said that we must make a report the next day.
Several hours had passed by now. Anna Britt was not improving and the doctor and nurses were doing nothing to help her. We are more than frantic. What if she dies? What shall we do next? I decide to phone Mike.
Four o-clock in the morning, Mike drives across town to the hospital. We tell him what happened on Philippapou Hill. He speaks sternly to the doctor and tells her she must do something, that this wasn’t simply a matter of ‘too much ouzo.’ Mike has lived in Greece for many years, and is fluent in the language, and whatever he said had some impact. With that, they put Anna Britt on an IV. But it isn’t for several more hours that she recovers enough so she can move without vomiting and get off the gurney by herself. She is weak and shaken, but she is alive.
The next day, Anna Britt and I set off to make the police report. First we visit the tourist police office, as I had been instructed. They sent us to another precinct downtown. When we began to describe the weird young man dressed in Biblical clothes, the police officers simply laughed at us and dismissed us.
“Too much ouzo. We have strong drinks in Greece,” was their only response.
Frustrated, we stop by the tourist information booth at Syntagma Square and report our dilemma. The woman says Anna Britt should inform her embassy.
We go to the police station in our district. The officer in charge is cordial and invites us to sit and chat. We explain who we are and why we are living in Athens. “How interesting! Would you like to talk about archaeology?” he asks. He is not interested in taking a police report of last night’s incident. He suggests we talk to the officer in charge of patrolling Philippapou Hill.
By now it is nearly six p.m. and we have been roaming around Athens since early morning trying to make a police report. We go to the place where we are told the Philippapou patrol will be waiting. But when we start to describe the weird young man with the unusual biblical costume, and explain that he lives somewhere on the hill, is obviously making a living out of doping tourists so he can steal their money, the officer snickers, waves his hand, and dismisses us. He is not the slightest bit interested in what has happened or who this dangerous young man might be. He lights up another cigarette and lounges over to the kiosk to buy a Coke.
Completely frustrated, we give up our quest to make a police report. We return to the tavern where our friends are waiting. Word has gotten around about our terrifying experience. The general attitude of the Greeks is a shrug. “Serves you right!” is the basic message.
Anna Britt contacts her embassy. There is nothing they can do unless a police report is made and charges laid. The entire episode is dismissed. The weird guy in the biblical costume with his drug-laced ouzo is still at large somewhere on Philippapou Hill.
We all agreed on one thing: When we were children, our mothers warned us: “Don’t take candy from strangers.” It might be an old-fashioned adage, but it’s still true. And it’s something that, even though we are now adults, we still need to keep in mind.