You knew you were going to be exhausted when you arrived at Irkalion, Crete. Waiting all day at the Port of Pireaus–9 hours to be exact–and then taking a 9-hour boat ride leaving, of course, at 9pm, would leave you with a fitful few hours of sleep. Here you are, at your host’s flat, utterly grateful for a safe place to sleep and “recover” from 18 stressful hours of feeling totally exposed.
It’s not possible to let your guard down. Not in a region in which you feel as though you are a moving target. Tall, with your ever-lengthening blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, you are a magnet for unwanted male attention. “I love you! Tu es tres jolie! Can we be, how you say, un couple?” said one male in a mixture of French and English.
When you logged into Couchsurfing.org from Athens to arrange a place to crash in Iraklion, you received 6 random requests to meet up for drinks and fun. One man messaged your with particular zeal and persistence. When you wrote, “I don’t suppose telling you that I’m 183cm, 91.5 kg, and a lesbian would make the least bit of difference to you,” he responded, “Even better! It’s nice to have something different.” Different.
Your backpack pack is the size of a small person, and you’re constantly walking with your face buried in a map. You feel as though you are screaming, “Rob me! Rob me!” In a city like Athens, with a population bordering on 4 million, its not a good idea to let your guard down.
Even on the ferry, you were tense. A man began to talk to you, since you appeared very lost as someone on the ferry began calling directions in Greek. “You have to go up another floor. This floor is just for people who have a cabin.”
His name was Cheda (like the cheese, dropping the R). He was from Serbia, on his way to spend a month on Crete and work for his brother. You became friends, and the conversation was welcome, because you’d been keeping yourself company all day long.
A man sat directly behind the two of you. You wondered vaguely why he would decide to sit in the row direction behind you, when the entire room when hundreds of seats was available. You figured he wanted a particular view of the television, which was broadcasting a football match.
Cheda’s English was superb, and while he had a dorky sense of humor, you were glad he could even make jokes. You explained your plans to travel in Eastern Europe, and inquired about Serbia. “Don’t go there,” he said. “Especially alone, as a woman. It’s a very poor country, not well taken care of.”
The conversation turned to staying safe as a single woman. You told him a few stories about occasional sexual harassment and misunderstandings. The rude comments and gestures in Spain, the Turk in Holland who thought you and Alexis were prostitutes, the three Romanian guys who took you off-road, and of course, the flasher on the Amalfi coast, who’d whipped out his penis in order to receive a thrashing from you.
“Sometimes I’m so tired, so hungry, that I sit there waiting,” you said, “Just waiting for some guy. I’m thinking, ‘Try it, asshole, and I’ll kick your teeth in.”” Cheda laughed. You liked that he was so good-natured.
“In general, I’m not too worried,” you added. “Most of the time, guys just want to get a reaction out of you. They do things just to scare you, without much intent to follow through. Rape is about control, not about a man’s irrepressible sexual desire. Making someone fearful is about control.”
10pm rolled around, and you decided to make a bed on the floor by your seat. You pulled out your sleeping bag, curled up in it with you back facing your seat, and tried to get some much-needed sleep.
After a while, you felt something poke you in the butt through your sleeping bag. It was so abrupt, you flipped around with a start. You didn’t see anything. Cheda was trying to sleep near you, on your other side. He seemed unaware. You settled down again.
Maybe 20 minutes later, you felt a light sensation on your butt again. Very light. You ignored it, thinking it was in your head.
You began to drift off. You were unsure how much time passed, but when the poke–a proper prodding–came again, you sat bolt upright, turned to look behind you, and could have sworn you saw the man sitting in the row behind you retracting his leg. His eyes were cast coolly at the television mounted at the front of the room, as though nothing were out of the ordinary.
Cheda’s eye fluttered open. He looked at you sleepily, but without comprehension. You were still sitting up, feeling around yourself, trying to decide if the culprit were indeed the man’s foot, if not by accident.
You turned your body, in order to face the man.
An accident? The way someone’s shifts in his chair and accidentally hits something with his foot? Impossible. The man was too many seats away. He would have had to make quite an effort to reach your ass with his foot. There was no doubt in your mind. He was definitely poking you.
You felt angry. But you were unsure what to do. After all, he seemed so harmless, so small, and so calm that you still doubted whether it could have been possible. You watched his feet. He shifted around in his chair often. Again, you wondered whether the offense could have been on accident.
Slowly, your indignation cooled. You fell asleep, properly.
At midnight, you awoke needing to pee. You unzipped yourself, stood up, and made your way to the toilet. You noted that the man had moved to two rows behind you, and was fast asleep on his stomach. You felt relieved, that he had given up the game and at last put a proper, culturally appropriate distance between himself and you–given the amount of space in the room.
You fell asleep again, easily enough, but the warmth of the room soon had you tossing, unzipping your bag and your coat, and eventually turning onto you back to let some air in.
1:30 in the morning, the poke came back, more deliberate than ever. Your eyes snapped open, and your stomach flipped when you realized yourself face to face with the man, his hand just inches from your ass. He was pretending to sleep. He moved! That sonofabitch moved and was groping you!
“Hey!” you yelled, and you made a move to strike him. Something about how peaceful, how asleep he looked, took the energy from your blow; or maybe it was the sleepiness that inundated you. It was more like a sharp tap when your fist did make contact–a sharp tap against his arm–but sharp enough to wake anyone.
He didn’t stir.
Clearly, he was guilty. Only a guilty man would pretend to sleep through a strike.
Cheda woke, hearing your call. You sat there, dumbly looking at the man, then back at Cheda, who said, “What is it?”
“This man has been touching me all night,” you said flatly, anrily. Stupidly. It sounded stupid. Why would you let someone touch you all night? All night?
You were too fucking tired to think straight. You explained in a few shallow sentences how it all began, and how this man had deliberately moved closer to you to fondle you.
“Now I don’t know what to do. He’s just lying there, pretending to sleep.”
Cheda didn’t know what to do either. He was, in your esteem, a good man who would predictably rally to your defense if you asked him to. But you weren’t asking anything of him, besides advice.
“How about we trade places?” Cheda offered.
Brilliant. You eagerly swapped places. Cheda positioned himself next to the man, keeping a watching eye over him.
Nobody is that still when they sleep. This guy was practically playing dead.
Cheda couldn’t fall asleep again, as his mind raced to come up with a solution on your behalf. You wondered whether you should have gotten up, dragged the guy by the heels into the aisle, and given him a swift kick. You had no doubt in your mind he was guilty, but the response seemed too late in coming, and you were so tired you could barely think straight.
When Cheda went to the deck for a smoke, to weigh his options on how to be a good man on your behalf, you saw a crew member walking by and stood up to tell him what had happened. When he came to you, you said, “I don’t know what you can really do about this, but…” and you said that the man pretending to sleep had been touching you.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” you said, as Cheda re-entered the room. A bystander was listening to your discussion with a bemused expression, looking between you and the sleeping man.
“Is that your friend?” you demanded.
He put up his hands in defense and shook his head hastily. He walked to the crew member and joined the conversation he was having with Cheda; you later learned that he verified to the crew member that he watched the perp deliberately get up and move next to you.
Through all the talking, the perp continued to feign sleep.
The crew member said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I can do. You should have told someone immediately.”
The comment was both stupid and reasonable. You expected it. You hadn’t been sure the first three times. Too much doubt. Doubt, Cheda said later, though he believed you, was enough to prevent him from punching a guy who appeared to be fast asleep.
“You don’t have to do anything,” you said. “I’m just telling you, in case it happens again. I guess I would just like him to move.”
The crew member gathered his resolve, walked down the row, and shook the “sleeping” man. The perp allowed himself to be shook for several seconds, then artfully “woke up” from the deepest of “sleeps.”
Four men began talking. You thought idly back to when you asked the Dutch men to save you from the Turk ready to pitch a tent for a threesome with you and Alexis.
Men are useful for making other men go away.
You felt despicable for leaving it in their hands, and for having allowed doubt to hinder you generally prompt law enforcement.
The crew member returned. “He says he doesn’t have any clue what your talking about.”
“Big surprise there,” you said. “Listen, I don’t make these accusations for fun.”
“I don’t know what to do from here. Do you want to take this to the police? Press charges?”
Jesus, are you serious?
“No,” you said. “Just make him go away.”
Part of you felt guilty on behalf of all women. The other part remembered the girl in Rome who got raped at the Ivanhoe Hostel. How authorities, at least in Italy, do very little to defend women’s rights.
“I’ll make him move to another deck and keep an eye on him,” said the crew member. That was all you wanted.
When they were gone, Cheda seemed to be agonizing–perhaps over his inability to do very much but stand there and look intimidating (all you could have asked for, really)–perhaps over the behavior of other men.
“I just don’t understand why people do this kind of thing.”
“Cheap thrills,” you said simply. “Like shop lifting.”
You thought it quite appropriate that the whole thing happened just after you’d talked to Cheda about having to deal with sexual harassment as a solo female traveler.
You and Cheda fell asleep with great difficulty. You awoke two hours later, with an urgent need to pee, and stumbled to the bathroom. When you came out, you jumped with surprise when you rounded the corned and bumped into Cheda.
“I woke up and you weren’t there. I dreamed I heard someone calling for help. I saw you were gone and thought I was hearing you. I thought maybe something had happened to you.”
You smirked with bitter amusement, but found the comment endearing. “I don’t exactly worry about being abducted,” you said.
Chivalry isn’t dead.
Cheda stuck with you until the end of the boat ride, escorted you to the dock, and then, despite his rotund and out-of-shape stature, insisted on walking with you for 30 minutes into the Iraklion city center, to help you find your couchsurfing flat.
He also gave you his phone card, so you can make local calls in Greece and give him a ring if you make it to the southern coast.