Tara and I sat perched on a mustard, moth-eaten couch. On the facing wall, a yellowish stain—vomit or urine, I couldn’t tell—congealed in drip-dry formation down the peeling white paint. It was almost midnight. Two dirty, sweaty men leered at us, thick forearms hanging through steel bars crisscrossed on a large wooden cell door. It reminded me of the dungeon scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, except this was a Greek jail.
A tattooed “police officer” sporting a black leather jacket sauntered around us. He was massive. His greasy, bleach blond hair slicked back in a bun nearly brushed the caving ceiling. His thin lips expunged heavy breaths, agitating the smoldering cigarette wedged between the gap where a tooth should’ve been. He eyeballed us. My instincts flared, I didn’t trust him at all.
We were in jail because of a thief. We met at the Athens airport two hours before—Tara flew in from Madrid, I flew in from London. The promise of spring break, six days filled with gyros, beaches and the Parthenon, absorbed our attention. It happened in a second. The thief vanished into the March night, on the metro platform with my friend’s $600 camera—an elusive shadow.
Our immediate—and admittedly panicked—reaction was to find the police station. Surely Greece had police reports.
At the directions of a sympathetic stranger, we headed to the nearest police station a half-mile away. Outside, five men with M16 guns strapped across navy blue and white uniforms stood in a circle, smoking and spitting on the concrete.
We desperately explained the stolen camera situation and that we’d please like to file a police report. They laughed. Their amused dark eyes saw only three things. Young. American. Women.
Nonetheless, they took us into the station motioned us into an elevator. Were they serious? Their fingers on the trigger told me yes. My mind took off. I wrote my own disappearance headline as I stepped inside: Two American college girls missing in Athens, whereabouts unknown. The missing shaft wall exposed the pulley system. I watched the floors pass, counting as we jerked upward — one, two, three, four, five.
Thirty minutes later, Mr. Leather Jacket handed us a document—supposedly a police report, although I’m certain they later filed it in the garbage. Tara hastily filled it out. Mr. Leather Jacket lurked around, smoking his cigarette, cursing in Greek at the criminals behind bars. My instincts raged. The whole situation felt wrong. Very wrong.
Another officer looked at Tara’s police report, and tore it in half. He angrily told her to redo it, stating that she “lost” the camera.
But it was stolen! she declared, frustrated. STOLEN, NOT LOST.
Everything escalated at once. The officer Tara argued with turned an unusual purple color. The criminals behind bars taunted filthy broken English, come here babies, good vacation? Mr. Leather Jacket strode around the corner to yell at the criminals. She snatched a blank report and scribbled that she lost the camera.
I grabbed her hand. She tossed the police report on his desk, and we lunged toward the elevator. I pushed the call button a hundred times. An eternity later, we tripped out on the ground floor pushing past a bloody, bruised man in handcuffs escorted by two machine guns.
The next day, in a Greek heritage parade, I saw that same betraying white and navy uniform. And I gripped my bag a little tighter.