Going Undercover in Athens
Travel Stories: When she landed a luxury assignment while backpacking through Greece, Emily Badger assumed a dual identity. Could she pull it off?
05.17.10 | 11:00 AM ET
Vaio kept asking for the name of my hotel, presumably to send over a car, or a fruit basket, or a decorative box of baklava. She seemed deeply concerned, just a few years after Athens’ rough brush with the international media during the 2004 Olympics, that I take away a positive impression of every detail of my stay—right down to the Greek bath mat.
I offered excuses that grew less plausible by the day.
“Oh, I just can’t pronounce the name!” I’d say.
“Gosh, I’ve forgotten what it’s called, how silly of me!”
Or: “Boy… it’s Athens, or Athena, or Aristotle Something!”
I tried satisfying her with proximity: “It’s near Amonia.”
Another time, I simply pretended not to hear the question.
I had gone to Greece in the fall of 2007 with a cheap plane ticket and five spare days to see a country I’d never visited before. Along the way, I picked up an assignment to write a luxury real estate piece, which is how I came to be talking to well-connected Greek real estate maven Vaio—and how I came to desperately conceal my actual accommodations.
I hadn’t forgotten the name of my hotel, and I knew perfectly well how to pronounce it. But, unfortunately, the Hostel Aphrodite didn’t have a phone number where I could be reached because it didn’t have a phone. My bottom bunk in an eight-person dorm room cost 13 euros a night—an extra euro for a top sheet. The toilet was across the hall and the shower up the stairs, and there was definitely no bath mat to speak of.
I was traveling as most 20-somethings do in Europe: staying in grungy hostels and maximizing pocket coins for street food and museum fares. This particular grungy hostel also allowed me to bank nearly every penny of the real estate assignment as profit, more than paying for a personal trip I’d already been planning to take. I’d bang out a couple of interviews, I figured, and spend the rest of the visit touring ruins in Athens and ferrying to the automobile-free island of Hydra, where a guy I’d met on an organic farm in France had instructed me to tell the first person I could find that “Andrew Kimberly sent me.”
The story, though, wound up consuming most of the trip and, very quickly, all of the professional clothes I had packed. I found myself, on my second day in Athens, having five-euro cappuccinos with Vaio and another elegant woman in the lobby of a five-star hotel—the kind of place where Vaio probably imagined I was staying. I caught her glancing down at my sandaled feet and realized I hadn’t touched up my toenail polish in about two months. My toes looked as if they had been inside heavy-duty farming galoshes for the previous couple of weeks (because, well, they had). And here I was also wearing the same black dress slacks I would turn up in for each of the following three days.
That night, I snuck under my one-euro sheet back at the hostel and fished out an old bottle of red nail polish from my toiletry kit. I was as terrified that my bunkmates would see this as I was of being found out by Vaio. I could just imagine them recounting the scene to fellow weary travelers in the next town: “I once saw a woman actually painting her toenails in a hostel!” And everyone would gasp before collapsing in laughter at such an obvious violation of backpacker code.
I went to bed that night across several empty bunks from Darren, a 19-year-old South African on gap year. When I woke up the next morning, four more people were asleep in the room, including a middle-aged man who dozed in only a pair of flesh-toned boxer briefs. I showered, pulled on my dress slacks and blouse and, like Clark Kent armed behind his thick-rimmed glasses, headed out for another meeting.
I spent the rest of the stay in this schizophrenic state, throwing back ouzo shots with unshowered German college students by night in the Aphrodite basement bar and trying by day to talk about the “Greek market” with Vaio and the many well-heeled people she introduced me to.
“So do you remember the name of the hotel yet?” she asked later in the weekend, and even though it was ridiculous that after three nights I would not, I stuck to my story. My greatest fear was that she would insist on dropping me off or picking me up there. She suggested we have dinner one night together at a swanky restaurant overlooking the Acropolis, and I lied my way out of it for this very fear of transportational logistics.
“Don’t you see how wonderful Greece is?” she kept asking, and I knew it would kill her more than it did me to know that I was seeing the place through the windows of a characterless, gray dormitory that went on lock-down every night at 8 p.m. Of course, the hostel didn’t color my view of Greece at all. This is a traveling truth that all backpackers live by: The accommodation is a means to an end, not the destination itself. It reflects on a country’s hospitality only as far as 13 Euros will allow, and if you’re not OK with that, you wouldn’t be staying there in the first place.
It did turn out, though, in the case of my trip to Greece, that my impressions of the adventure—and all my memories of it two years later—were entirely defined by the tension I felt: the sense that I would inevitably be found out as some kind of traveling fraud. Or at least, as the most basic kind of journalistic fraud: a writer who has absolutely no relatable experience with the topic at hand.
On my last day in town, with my twin identities fraying but intact, Vaio was taking me to meet a government minister when she announced that I just had to go with her that night to a cocktail party at an up-scale jewelry store. It was a thoughtful offer on her part, and I’m sure one designed to further impress upon me the glamor of this cosmopolitan city more often associated with its dusty relics and stray dogs. She pulled the invitation out of her purse. It spelled out in cursive font two party-going specifics I had never seen before:
Champagne: Veuve Clicquot
Dress Code: Glam Chic
I had no idea what constituted Glam Chic, but I was sure I didn’t have it in my bag back at the Aphrodite. I demurred with another excuse as vague as my descriptions of my mystery hotel. After a last cup of coffee, I slipped out of the café and up the street in relief, my flight out the next morning finally within sight, feeling like no less a hero than Superman himself.