I learned two important lessons one afternoon in Athens, Greece.
The first: If a strange man compliments your hat on St. George's Day and offers to buy you an ouzo, you pick the bar.
I was in Syntagma Square across from the parliament building, dressed, as usual, in a Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed hat.
"Hey!" shouted an elderly man, dressed in a three-piece suit, from across the square. "I like your hat!"
"Thanks," I said. "Me, too."
"Oh," said the man, crossing traffic to reach me. "You're American! My son went to Texas Tech! I know all about America!
"My name is George," continued the man, reaching my side.
"You know today is my day," he said, slightly slurring his speech.
The day was, indeed, St. George's Day, and George obviously had been celebrating early.
"Yes, it's my day, so you must let me buy you a drink!"
I tried begging off, but George was insistent.
"I buy you an ouzo, we talk about America, where my son went to school! It's my day!" George's story had enough verisimilitude that I was momentarily off my guard.
"OK, George. You can buy me an ouzo."
We ducked into an alley, with George leading, past a group of men who gave me strange, knowing looks.
We passed through a door, and I saw, up a short flight of stairs, a fairly busy, fairly typical Greek ouzo bar. But instead of ascending, George steered me downward.
At the bottom, through another door, was another bar, a very quiet bar.
The only others I could see in the dimly lighted room were an attractive middle-aged female bartender and a young woman with her back to me, apparently stacking glasses in a corner. "An ouzo for my friend Steve!" said George.
I glanced at the bartender as if to say, "Do you know this crazy old guy?"
The bartender poured the drink but otherwise paid me no attention whatsoever.
Then George made a very odd gesture. He pulled out his tongue as far as it could go with one hand while slapping it with the other. I don't know what that means, but as soon as George put his tongue back in his head he began telling me of his sexual prowess.
"Yes, look at me. I'm 67 but still very virile. My wife, she is like a statue in bed. That's why it's important for a man to have mistresses."
I again shot the bartender a "Help me out here!" look.
Still no response.
And then, moving faster than I would have thought possible, the young woman was on the barstool next to me, leaning very, very close in a very low-cut blouse.
"Hello. My name is Katya. I'm from Ukraine. Where are you from, Steve?"
In retrospect, it's easy to see that my best move at this point would have been to bolt for the stairs. But Katya was pretty, in a waifish sort of way. And I was a gentleman who still had half a glass of ouzo to finish.
"Ohio," I replied, moving my barstool away from her a bit.
"George had buyed for you a drink. Now you buy one for me. It is only hospitable," she said, leaning in on me.
Again, I tried to be gracious.
Again, I tried to be gracious.
"Really, I don't think that's a good idea. You see . . . " But in the three seconds it took me to utter those words the bartender had poured a tiny amount of a pink-colored liquid into Katya's cocktail glass, and Katya, quick as a bunny, had downed it.
Whatever spell I was under broke. I jumped up from the barstool.
"Sorry, folks, sorry. I think I know what's going on here and I'm really not interested. I'll just be going now."
"Wait," commanded the bartender. "You must still pay for her drink. Twenty euros."
"Twenty euros? Oh no. I didn't even offer to buy it."
"Yes, you must pay."
From somewhere Katya whipped out a price list that confirmed, in English, that whatever she had consumed indeed cost 20 euros -- about $25.
I figured I could take the two women and the old man. But then I'd have to get past those men at the top of the stairs.
I took out my wallet and handed over the money.
"And Steve," said George, about to teach me my second lesson, "in Athens, never, ever keep your wallet in your back pocket."
I panicked as my hand went instantly to my empty pocket, forgetting for a moment that my wallet was still in my other hand.
I took a deep breath.
"Thank you, George. Thank you, Katya. It's been an experience."
And I went up the stairs, unmolested, and continued on my way.
-- AUG. 18, 2004