“I was not meant to dance on countertops for a living,” I would say to myself as I surveyed the cheering drunks below, and smashed my glass to the floor.
Four months earlier, I had crossed my university’s stage and accepted a degree in Ancient Religion. My thesis was on the daily religious practices of women in ancient Greece as gleaned through gynecological references in ancient medical texts. I wanted to test and hopefully fortify the thesis that I had set forth by living in a culture more similar to ancient Greece than Berkeley, California had been. A small village on Crete seemed the best candidate for my criteria. My intention was to live there through one full agricultural cycle, then pop back over to America and work my way into the upper echelons of academia. “I want to learn with my body instead of my mind,” I told my friends and family as I packed my bags. I arrived on the island of Crete in October.
I didn’t have enough money to live in Greece for a year without working. The archaeology season had ended and the olives weren’t yet ripe for the picking. So, I became a bargirl.
The bar was called, “Time In.” And the owner’s name was Tiriago. He would eye you up and down distastefully and then interact with you as if you had forgotten to wipe something foul smelling off of your shoes on the way in, so he just wanted to end the conversation as quickly as possible in order to get away from the stench. Tiriago spoke about 50 words of English; enough to hire me, but not enough to really communicate.
The hiring process went like this:
He gave me 10,000 drachmas to buy a dress and some shoes and told me to come back the next night. The next morning, the woman in charge of the youth hostel where I was staying pointed me towards a dress shop. I chose a long black number with a slit up the side and some high heeled shoes to go with it.
Time In was centered around a bar island. The black marble countertops of the bar were danced upon regularly by drunken men, and, eventually, me. When I showed up in my new dress and shoes, Tiriago looked pleased in his own constipated way. Everyone else stood up and cheered upon my entrance. Tiriago placed me prominently in the center of the bar and all 50 or so men in the room turned their stools toward me and ordered more drinks. Now, Tiriago looked genuinely pleased. I asked him if I should do anything.
“No, Katherina. Ola kala. You are very good. Very, very good.”
So I just stood there. One man bought me a drink. I raised my glass to him in a toast. Seeing that this kind of interactivity was possible, several more men bought me drinks on the spot, but I am a bad drunk and didn’t have anywhere to put the ones that I wasn’t drinking. In order to avoid being rude, I didn’t accept all of the drinks they bought for me, much to Tiriago’s chagrin.
The music was deafening Greek stuff. I later found out this type of music was called skiladika, which means, literally, ‘dog music’. Skiladika is the oompapa music of the near east. The night wore on and everyone got drunk. The music became more and more dramatic and occasionally, someone would rise from his chair, drink in hand, and start swaying, spinning and stomping in place. His cronies would all jump up from their seats, get down on one knee in a circle around him, and clap in time to the music. The dancer would continue to sway, spin and stomp theatrically, waving outstretched arms in the air, and at the climax of the song, smash his glass down to the floor. His friends would cry, “Opa!”
Fantastic! I always loved breaking glasses! I wanted to try! But first I needed to learn how to dance like a Greek. The only dance I knew was the white man’s two step with a shoulder bob thrown in here and there, adding little leaps and claps if the music really spoke to me. This Greek stuff was different; it came from the hips and the belly.
Every night I put on my dress and went to the bar at around 10 PM. Invariably, the whole bar rose and cheered upon my arrival. The adulation was marvelous. During the day, as I walked down the street, men who were not sitting with their wives at the time would call out, “Ela re, Katherina! Pama na fama!” (Hey! Katherina! Come and eat!”) Of course, I didn’t know what they were saying back then and just assumed it was something flattering, so I gave them a big flirty showgirl’s grin and continued to strut along like a movie star.
Only men patronized the bar on weekdays and there was enough room to move around a bit. But on weekends and holidays, when some women came, too, people packed into Time In like sardines. Because there was no room to move around, people would climb up onto the counter to dance while their party clapped to the beat, sang along with the song, and bought bottles of cheap champagne for the dancer. They’d pop a bottle at the dancer’s feet, hand up a sparkling glassful, and the dancer would toast the others below with a, “Stiniyamas!” take a sip, and smash the glass down to the floor. Opa!
When things got really festive, Tiriago would open up a family sized pack of napkins and start throwing them around. Ever the attentive anthropologist in search of an undiscovered ritual to study, I asked Tiriago, what was up with the napkins? Why did he sometimes throw them individually and sometimes in bunches? Was there a specific song that called for napkin throwing? Did it only happen on certain holidays? He just shrugged his shoulders and said that it was fun to throw napkins and offered me a fistful from his package to give it a try.
On weekends, when the music was throbbing at its loudest and everyone was heaving in a solid mass around the bar, Tiriago and his two bouncers, who doubled as bartenders, ran frantically up and down behind the bar to keep up with the demand for drinks. They would usually run out of glasses at which point it would become my job to wash glasses in the little sink in the middle of the bar. In my efforts to keep up, the entire front of my dress became sopping wet with water and suds as I frantically handed back just barely cleaned glasses to the impatient bartenders.
When I got tired of washing glasses, my only option was to climb up onto the counter and dance. Sometimes, I danced alone. Other times, a Greek man would pull me up to dance with him. My bobbing, lurching dance style must have looked ridiculous in contrast to his sensuous hip swiveling and delicate rhythms, but I got away with it because I was a novelty to them, tromping around up there in my tight dress and long curly, blonde hair. Tiriago would occasionally get my attention and give me his sign language to be more ladylike, with two hands on one hip and a little bellydancer’s shimmy, his head cocked to one side, kissy lips on.
The numbers started to go down after the first few weeks I worked there. Tiriago bought me a new dress. This time I bought something short. And red. From that moment on, I was forbidden to wear anything long again. It was just too much fun to look up my short skirt, I guess. The numbers went back up.
One night, a shepherd came down from the hills with his flock of goats and decided that he loved me. One of the bouncers magnanimously translated his declaration of love:
It is a Greek man’s prerogative to attempt courtship with every female who crosses his path. They even have their own word for the act – making kamaki. The literal definition of making kamaki is to go fishing with a spear, underwater. However, when you are passing by a row of restaurants in Greece, and the waiters are all calling out to you to come into their restaurant to eat, they are making kamaki. And, if you are a woman and you are passing by a row of men, and they are all calling out to you to come and talk to them, they too, are making kamaki. The fishermen, the waiters, and the players land a very small percentage of their targets, but it is a numbers game, and they do tend to land more fish, patrons and women than those who do not fish so aggressively.
Occasionally, a pair of European girls on their gap year between the college and work force years would visit for a week or so. They were like kids in a candy store, with all of these handsome Greek men with their soulful puppy dog eyes, love songs, sunsets and bouzoukis. The men’s lack of discernment rarely deterred the girls, who were generally only in town for a week or two. They didn’t really care what anyone in the village thought of them, but it was disturbing for me to watch the married men so easily seduce these girls because it perpetuated the village-wide belief that all western women are easy.
Olive season arrived, and the hostel filled up with migrant workers. I could have easily switched careers at that point and picked olives, but by then I was too entrenched in the drama of my bargirl’s life to leave it for something so humdrum as agriculture. A big family from the country of Georgia showed up, and later a band of Polish boys, none of whom spoke a word of English. A young Swedish couple and a few weeks later, a second Swedish boy arrived on the scene. The Swedish girl broke up with her boyfriend and switched to the other Swedish boy. The Georgian family took over one room in the hostel and the Polish boys another while the Swedes and I spread out through the rest of the place. We lounged around the hostel, made marvelous stone soups and became backgammon experts.
The Polish boys and the Georgian family left for the olive orchards early every morning and returned tired and dirty every night. I went to work at 10 PM and returned at 4 AM every day. Dogs started barking and roosters started crowing about an hour after my return and I desperately searched for effective earplug materials.
I was having money trouble. Namely, I didn’t have any. Tiriago had said he would pay me for my work, but deftly avoided me at the end of every night. He always became deeply and suddenly involved in some crucial business transaction and would irritably wave me away when I approached him, or he would simply disappear. On the nights when it was quiet, I would take the opportunity to ask him to pay me and he would say, “Ah de, Katherina! There’s no one here! I don’t have any money to pay you. There is no money here. What do you need money for? You have a nice dress. You can eat at my brother’s restaurant when you are hungry. You can have free beer. Here. Have an Amstel. Stiniyamas.” And that would be that.
Three months passed at Time In and my tourist visa expired. Christmas was coming and there hadn’t been any tourists around for a long time. There was much gossip about why I hadn’t gone home yet. The general consensus was that I was either on the run from the law or was unable to find a husband in America, and had come to Greece to find one, because everyone knows that Greeks are the best lovers in the world.
They would say to me, “Where you from?” And I would tell them, “America.” “Ameriki! Ameriki! My brother lives in Detroit. Or maybe it is not Detroit. Maybe it is Memphis. His name is Yannis Tsantakis. Do you know him?” I would reply that I was not from that particular place in America. They would ask, where in America I was from, and I would tell them, “California.” Much hand waving in the air and exclaiming ensued. “Ah de re! California! California!” They’d launch into the song, “Hotel California”, which along with “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley were the only two songs in English that they played at Time In. After a little singing, they’d stop abruptly and ask, “But this song, what does it mean, re?” After listening to the whole song carefully and thinking about it, I answered that I honestly didn’t have a clue.
They wanted to know why I, who came from the land of milk and honey, where everyone drives a big shiny Cadillac on streets paved with gold, would leave such a place behind to work as a bargirl in their village. It was considered a fate worse than death for these men to be separated from their families. The fact that I was able to leave mine and be here all alone with no familial protection was a sure sign that something must have gone horribly awry back in America.
I would tell them that America wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and they would nod knowingly, lean in and say with great compassion, “Ah. Mafia, eh? Too many guns.” And this from someone who stepped out into the street to shoot his gun into the air after every single goal, near goal and halftime of every soccer game that was aired on the television in the village taverna along with every other local man.
I grew increasingly disgusted with the men, who would fawn over me during the week but during the weekends, when their wives were by their sides, would refuse to make eye contact. I didn’t make any friends at Time In, but I did make allies. Some of the men seemed to be just a little bit more enlightened than the rest. I suspected that they knew I didn’t really belong up there, dancing away. When I was soaking wet with dishwater on a crazy Saturday night, my allies were the ones who held dry cigarettes to my mouth and made sure I always had a fresh beer by my side. It was the most I could hope for.
There was a certain level of abuse I was expected to endure, but there was an unspoken line that was rarely crossed. This involved holding me too close, touching me unnecessarily, or openly treating me like a whore or a slave.
The bouncers wondered why I hadn’t had sex with either of them, since they were both single. In fact, after three months at Time In, many of the regulars wondered why I hadn’t had sex with them. I heard a rumor that I was a lesbian. Another rumor was that I was not actually from America, but was from Albania, which explained why I couldn’t translate Hotel California.
The Polish boys thought I was a whore. That was the rumor which made the most sense. After all, I left the hostel late at night wearing too much makeup, a tight dress and high heels, returning tipsy and disheveled every sunrise. There was no lock on the bathroom door. The shower was a hose end. The water was not hot. My only mirror was a palm sized compact. I did the best that I could to make myself pretty in these conditions.
The Polish boys started playing chicken with me when I was in the shower or getting dressed for work. They’d take turns pushing the door open and seeing how close they could get to me before I started yelling. But there wasn’t much I could do to get them to leave me alone. I was a little bit afraid of them. They were big guys, there were many of them, and they didn’t follow the same unspoken rules as the patrons of Time In. I slept with my Swiss army knife open and under my pillow. I dreaded the night that they came into the bar because I didn’t want the locals to get any ideas about how disrespectfully they could treat me and get away with it. Eventually, they showed up.
I saw them as they arrived even though it was a busy Saturday night. They were a full head taller than most Greeks. I tried to make it to the bouncer before they saw me behind the bar. We made eye contact just as I reached the bouncer, who spoke about the same amount of English as Tiriago. My Greek was still pretty bad but my pidgen was getting there.
“Those boys. Bad boys. I no want them here.”
That was all it took. Both bouncers did a Dukes of Hazzard over the counter and went right for the Polish boys. The boys saw the bouncers coming at them and fled. They caught one boy and I looked away as he was dragged outside; it had already been a very rough week at Time In and I was determined to get through the night without tears.
A half an hour later, Paniotis, the bouncer, came back in and said, “Ela, Katherina. We go talk police now.” The police station was the last place I wanted to go; I was working illegally in Greece on an expired tourist visa. But I had no choice. We zipped over to the station on his moped and passed through the main station into a back room deep inside the building. There was the Polish boy all beat up. There were the police with black ski masks pulled over their faces and big shiny knives in their hands. There were the terrified eyes of the Polish boy with his pants down and a knife held to his dick looking at me and knowing that his fate lay in my hands. This was vendetta in action.
“Katherina! Is this the boy who makes you problema?!?”
“No! It is not him! He is good!”
They threw the boy back out onto the street banged up but in one piece.
I hadn’t known until then that the Cretan concept of vendetta is still practiced. As an honorary member of the Time In crew, I was under Tiriago and his boys’ formal protection. To hurt me was to hurt them. It was their familial duty to exact violent revenge on anyone who caused me injury. But after I indicated that the Polish boys had ‘caused me problema,’ and then retracted my accusation when they had their chance to do something about it, I became an untrustworthy liar in their eyes. From then on, if someone got gropey, I couldn’t count on the bouncers to so much as look up from their drinks and help. I had taken for granted how cared for I had been up until then.
Shortly after I lost my protection, a very drunk man came in and, banging angrily on the bar, he demanded, “Korepse sto bar! Tora!” (Get up and dance on the bar! Right now!) When I refused, he threw glasses into the full, sudsy sink where I was washing glasses, cutting my hands and shaking me up.
Two Greek sisters showed up from Ierapetra, in southern Crete. They stormed the place, and showed us all how it was done. Argiro and Katerina were brazen, gum-snapping, slutty-dressing professionals. They brought that song, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” along with them, and when it was played, they would climb onto the bar, stalk up and down in their spikey shoes, enthusiastically bumping and grinding their crotches against the counters. When the sisters were dancing, the locals had the alarmed look of being suddenly thrust into a wind tunnel. These girls were more voracious predators than they. They maintained a steady chatter, drank only tonic water, threw ice cubes into the air, and caught them neatly in glasses balanced on their high-heeled feet. They demanded rooms in the nicest hotel in town along with three square meals a day. The sisters cornered an alarmed Tiriago at the end of every night and extracted ample payment for their performances. Their movements were dictated by the weather, their moods, and their horoscopes, which they consulted religiously. They fell in and out of love with a different man every week and you could tell who was their latest victim only by who was being treated the most brutally. A few weeks later, they left without warning as suddenly as they had arrived.
The Swedes left. So did the Polish boys and the Georgians. It was Christmas and I was lonelier than I had ever been. I would wake up in the afternoon and stare at the ceiling until nightfall. Women wouldn’t talk to me because I was the bargirl, and all of the men in the village had already made kamaki with me to no avail, and had lost interest.
Christmas eve was the loneliest night of all. And the busiest. The glass shortage had reached critical levels. I was having the pity party of my life that night, bawling over the dishwater in the middle of it all, and frantically washing glasses in a soaking wet dress. Tiriago was irritated that I was crying, but he needed me to stay there and keep washing. I ran outside to get myself together for a few minutes despite his wishes. There was a boat dock out in front of the bar and I went to the end of it and sobbed.
I gave myself a little pep talk: “Katherina Louise. It is Christmas eve. You are 10,000 miles away from anyone who cares if you live or die. You are lonely and sad. Why don’t you give yourself a Christmas present and not wake up alone tomorrow.”
I went back in.
There was a boy named Manolis who had seen all of this happen. He was one of my allies. When I got back to my station at the sink, he handfed me cigarettes all night and twice, pulled me up onto the counter to dance with him, glass shortage be damned. He had seen me crying and assumed that I was in unrequited love and was determined to alleviate my pain. I liked the way Manolis danced; the way he took my hips in his hands and lined them up with his own and moved us both to the music. I was a better dancer when I was dancing with Manolis. And he was cute.
Manolis didn’t speak English but he understood that I wanted a ride home on the back of his motorcycle. He understood that I wanted him to come upstairs with me. He also understood that it was only proper to sweep me off of my feet, carry me into my room like a new bride, and make love to me all night. He led me onto the balcony, and held me in his arms, as we watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean sea on Christmas morning.
The next day was a little bit awkward. It turned out that Manolis spoke even less English than I realized. In fact, he knew exactly two words: “Baby” and “Explain.” I thought “explain” was a funny one to know, because even if I did try to “explain,” he still wouldn’t understand a word I said. He would scrunch his slightly simian brow, look at me earnestly, and say, “Explain.” I would collapse into a pile of giggles. His delicate, macho feelings would be hurt because he thought I was making fun of him or that he was saying his word wrong. I decided to teach him English, assuming that he wanted to learn. I pranced around the room, holding up objects and speaking slowly and clearly as I named them. He didn’t really care about learning English at all but he was quite pleased to be the guy who got to bang the bargirl.
Manolis still lived with his mother, as all unmarried Greek boys do, and he went home every morning to eat breakfast before work, so that she wouldn’t worry about him. I don’t know what his job was but his hands were very calloused and had lots of cuts on them, which were treated with mercurochrome. Manolis was as uninterested in practicing pantomime as he was in learning English, so I never found out what it was he did to earn a living. Once, he snuck me into his room in the middle of the night to show me pictures of himself posing with different guns in his military uniform, during his mandatory year and a half in the Greek army. But most nights, after work, we drove up to the view overlooking the village and fooled around for a few hours, after which he would drop me off and go home. I felt like I was in high school, but popular this second time around.
Once I chose Manolis, he became the toast of the town. Men high fived him and women thought that he had a magical penis. I didn’t get this back then. I just thought he was a popular guy. On the weekends, when local women came to the bar, they surrounded Manolis. He sat there proudly in front of me, smoking his Marlboros and drinking his Famous Grouse whiskey as the girls glared at me from behind him.
One night, I looked up and saw Manolis was making out with one of the women. The music was very loud and he wouldn’t have understood what I said, anyway. So, I jabbed him in the back and he turned around from his makeout partner to face me. I pointed to him and then pointed to me and made a cutting motion across my neck. He gave me the famous Greek shrug. I grabbed him by the front of his flannel shirt and slapped him hard, twice. Once across each cheek. He left with the girl.
We dragged out our affair for a few more weeks but the whole village seemed sick of me by then. I was too complicated and foreign. After I chose Manolis, it became disrespectful for other men to buy me drinks and dance with me. Eventually, they stopped coming to see me altogether. I was old news, anyway. A cute new foreign girl showed up looking for a job and took my place.
The police suspected I was a prostitute because I wasn’t making any money at the bar and was still around. The truth was, I had been living on beer and bar nuts for months. I didn’t have any money but I was too stubborn to go home. One night, the chief of police came in and Tiriago grabbed me and pushed me fast and hard outside of the bar island to sit with the other patrons. That ended my career at Time In.
Now would have been a good time to hightail it back to America and get those graduate school applications in. But after four months of dancing on tabletops, a life in academia seemed unappealing. My old thesis was in tatters. After witnessing weeping Greek men sing and dance passionately through the night to beautiful, old Rebetica songs, as others threw glasses and napkins in the air, I realized there didn’t always need to be a deeper, hidden subtext behind strange rituals. And when there was an underlying message to be gleaned, it was usually best left unspoken. Sappho wrote: “If you are squeamish, don’t prod the beach rubble.”
I packed my backpack, leaving half of its original contents behind in a heap on the floor, along with all of my filthy bargirl clothes except for my favorite little red dress. I had heard that there was a monastery in the mountains where I could stay for free. Or, I knew that I could always follow the migratory path of the Greek bar girls, and knowing the rules better now, maybe make a living at it somewhere new. Perhaps there were still some olives left to pick in the south. Lighter now, with fewer expectations, I swung out my thumb and headed west.