What’s in a Face?

Gail Milissa Grant

For starters.  During the aforementioned trip to Athens, I decided to buy a fur coat because Greece has a centuries-old tradition for making some of the best. It was the 1970s and PETA* had yet to be founded, so you’ll forgive me, ok? I was teaching at a university, had a few extra pennies, and this was a BIG deal for me. A French friend, who was living in Athens, said he’d help me out so we waited until the sun started to set because no one with any sense shops during the day in summer. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and thought I knew what hot was . . . until I spent a week in Athens in August.

We made our way through the muddling market that tumbled forward and backward along cobblestone streets. As the sunlight dove into the Aegean Sea, electric light bulbs strung along the streets took over its job. When I finally found ‘my’ coat, we sat down with the store owner and bargained politely over steaming coffee that soothed my throat and surprisingly didn’t spike my temperature. Once we agreed on a price, I cheerfully handed over my credit card.

Plaka Shopping Athens

“Sorry, Miss, but your card doesn’t work.”

“But,” I stammered, “that’s not possible. I know it’s good.”

George (yes, his name was the ubiquitous George so many Greek men are named) then explained that there was a spending limit on my card for any single purchase. I was beaten, I thought.

“That’s all right,” he continued. “You can wire me the rest when you get back to the States.”

“Huh? But you don’t even know me.”

“Oh, but I do. Everything I need to know about you is written on your face.”

Well, that just about knocked me off my feet and into the mountain of fur coats piled up behind me. I immediately thought of how many times my colored ‘face,’ had gotten me kicked out of a restaurant or gotten me called the ‘N’ word, or gotten me turned away from a movie theater growing up in my own backyard. And here I was in a very foreign and distant backyard with a complete stranger telling me that my face was all he needed as collateral.

“That’s so kind of you but isn’t there another way? I’d really like to pay you now.”

He rubbed his brow, took my card and disappeared but returned quickly with a fellow shop owner waving a receipt for me to sign.

“We’ll split the amount in two. You sign his and mine.”

With my coat bundled up in a shopping bag, I left but not before hugging them both.

I’ve thought of that incident time and again. In fact, it resonates whenever I experience this type of color-blind kindness abroad. Don’t, however, take me for a Pollyanna. I know the times they are a-changing and Europe ain’t what it used to be. But it still happens. Trust me. 

Gail Milissa Grant

Fur coat shopping Plakka Athens

*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)