This is an entry from my journal a few months ago. I didn’t post it sooner because I was disputing a charge with my credit card company. Now that it has been resolved I’d like to share this story with everyone. It’s a little long, but I think you’ll find it entertaining nonetheless!
February 25, 2012 Athens, Greece
What is it about Athens that has me always leaving on less than ideal terms?! I was here seven years ago with my friends, Jackie, Jason and Blair, and because we were in the middle of our European backpacking adventure, we were very cheap. Because we were so cheap and ill-prepared, we ended up spending our final night in the port suburb of Patras, where we would be catching a ferry to Italy the next day. To be clear, we spent that night in a park, next to the ferry, with homeless men and one of my friends woke up to discover he had been sleeping on an ant hill. The morning of our departure we showered using bottles of water and boarded the ferry to Italy. None of us have ever forgotten the night we spent with homeless men and Greek ants.
Fast forward seven years, and I’m back in Athens. That’s seven years wiser, more prepared but probably comparably cheap. Unfortunately, I now find myself in similar circumstances on my final night in Athens, because I’m at the Airport a full 17 hours before my flight. What follows is the three-part story of how I made my way from Athens to China. It plays out like some weird reality show hybrid that might be called “The Real Lives of Aspiring Models: Project Athens”, and combines Project Runway/The Real World/Prison Break. In the next few posts, I’ll explain how I was screwed by X-Ray Models in Greece, my experience with ex-KGB members, and what I thought of Russian hospitality.
Part One: ATHENS
By all accounts, the situation in Greece seems to be on the up and up, rewind 6 weeks however and its future was quite a bit bleaker. The demonstrations, violence, and burning buildings you saw on t.v. were only the tip of the iceberg though. Clearly, despite its reputation for developing international models, this was not the best time to be strutting my stuff in Athens. It was against this backdrop, and the knowledge that there wasn’t much work available, that Ellen and I decided it was time to move on.
It was a Friday when I spoke with X-Ray Models (my Greek agency) and was given consent to leave, and to book my flight. Saturday morning however, I awoke to a casting call. The job wasn’t going to take place for two weeks, and would be for a “Look Book” being shot in Paris. I figured the professional thing to do would be to show up, even though I had no intention of working the job should I get it (I know better now). Keep in mind that I had now been modelling for 6 months with limited success. In my mind the odds that I would get this job seemed fairly small. Not to mention that this was the first time in 6 months that I had shown up hung over for a casting, looking very casual, and far from well-rested. So, my history didn’t offer much hope and neither did my present state.
I left the casting with the same impression I usually got. They seemed as interested as they always did, nothing special. I relayed this information to X-Ray Models and they told me that it was ok for me to book my ticket out of Athens which I proceeded to do.
Well, wouldn’t you know it. On Sunday morning I received a call informing me that I had booked the job. What are the chances that my first big job in six months since leaving Vancouver in September would be the one job I couldn’t work (and in Paris of all places!). I had already made travel arrangements however, and I was expected in HK and Guangzhou.
X-Ray Models was none to pleased that I was unwilling to change my plans. I tried explaining that it wasn’t a matter of being unwilling, rather, that I was unable to do so. The job in Paris wasn’t going to pay much and if I were to stay another two weeks, I’d lose the money I spent on the tickets and have to support myself another few weeks with no income. After a few exchanges I thought they were resigned to the facts. It was final. I was leaving with their blessing. Another lesson learned: Hell hath no fury like a Greek fashionista shunned.
That evening I went to the concierge to inform them I would be checking-out in the morning.They however informed that there was now a problem. You see, the agreement between X-Ray Models, elite models and myself, was that I would pay my airfare, and they would cover my accommodation. Suddenly X-Ray Models had a change of heart and wasn’t going to cover my one month stay unless I stayed and worked the job.
This put me in a tough spot, but ultimately I wasn’t going to pay for something they had agreed to pay for. All I could do was leave. So Ellen and I packed our bags in a hurry and prepared to sneak out. This is where it gets a little funny though. We were staying at a hotel which is commonly used to house models, most of which we had since befriended. After catching them up on what was happening we came up with a plan to get us out of the hotel (which is small!) It actually almost backfired on our first attempt. With 6 pieces of luggage making its way down the halls and elevators, the manager came into check on us. the 7 of us had to scramble back up to our room and one piece was left downstairs in the entrance so I had to go downstairs and pretend that I was doing laundry hahaha. Our second attempt 20 minutes later was successful and we made it outside and into a Taxi. With any luck nobody would be the wiser until the next day when we would be long gone.
So once again, 7 years later, my departure from Athens wasn’t pretty, but it sure was going to be memorable. At the time with 17 hours until my departure and sitting in the airport, I figured we were home free. Little did I know that we were only 1/3 of the way there.
Please make a note: NEVER WORK WITH X-RAY MODELS!
Part 2: MOSCOW
Oh my gawd. This evening marks the culmination of what has been the most stressful and frustrating trip of my life. My previous entry left off when I was in the airport in Athens having just snuck out of the hotel. Lets pick up there.
Having settled into our seats and trying to pass the 17 hours we had ahead of us until our flight we juggled Facebook, reading and watching movies. It was via Facebook at around 4am that our friends from the hotel told us that the hotel had discovered that we had left the hotel without paying and had informed the police, who were now going to stop us from leaving the country because they had our passport information.
Our friends told us stories from their experience where models had done what we had done and had gotten caught. In short, they really thought we should pay our bill before trying to pass through customs. In fact X-Ray Models was not just ripping us off, they were also “renegotiating” other contracts as well, and making models pay for things which they had not agreed to, but couldn’t avoid…like say, your hotel bill.
We faced a dilemma. Do we call BS and try to board the plane as usual, or play it safe and pay. After some debate and consulting with family via Skype, we decided to pay. The prospect of not being able to board the flight, and having to book ANOTHER flight in addition to the hotel bill was just too much. So I called the hotel and settled, explicitly saying that there better not be any issues from here on in.
After another few hours of waiting and a bit of cursing, it was finally time to board. In the past 6 months, we have flown nearly 6 times and know what to expect at check-in. Ellen doesn’t pack light, so we know that we’ll have an extra piece of luggage to pay for. Even with that piece checked though, there is still lots of stuff, but we usually get away with it. This time as luck would have it, we weren’t so lucky and had to check another piece of luggage. The 17 hour wait in the airport, having to pay for the hotel and two extra bags were all reminders that I never seem to leave Athens gracefully.
OK, so we are now on the plane. Well there is a reason these are the cheapest tickets I could find, and that’s because Aeroflot really is a no frills airline. No individual entertainment, old school leather seats, and very, very, very bland food. At this point however, no complaints because you get what you pay for. Things go sideways during our stop-over in Moscow though.
For some reason, our flight scheduled for 7:30pm (1.5 hour layover) isn’t scheduled to leave until 5am! I’m not sure how many staff we spoke to from this point onwards, but we spent the next 5 hours navigating a huge airport (absolutely FULL of duty-free stores…literally 95% of the stores) arguing with airport personnel and Aeroflot staff. Absolutely nobody cared about us (passengers) and the way everyone worked was so painfully inefficient. They wrote everything down by hand, using handwritten lists that were constantly being rewritten. Our entire flight, as well as all the other flights were being managed by 1 lady who was using this system in an office with a tiny window.
We were promised a hotel and meal, but by the time we got everything sorted, it was midnight and we only had two hours to sleep! When one of our fellow passengers had the audacity to ask when our flight would depart, the Aeroflot employee simply said, “I don’t care” and walked off…NO JOKE! That epitomizes our experience in that airport.
The time we spent in the hotel was something I imagine jury duty/prison being like, only with a Soviet/KGB feel to it. Heavy cigarette smoke, snow, a 1980’s design for everything, and older burly Soviet men in suits who escorted us to and from our rooms.
At 3:30AM we were escorted back to the airport where our flight was set to depart at 5:00AM. Things got better from here. I slept for 8 of the 9 hours we were airborne and once we landed, I was able to book a $60 hotel in Wanchai while on a bus, that dropped us literally directly in front of the hotel I had just booked 10 minutes prior (god bless wi-fi). We were in our beds and sleeping within an hour of leaving the airport.
Please make a note: NEVER FLY AEROFLOT!
Part 3: HONG KONG
Alright, now its Wednesday morning and we are up at 7am for another big day. First things first so we grab a quick breakfast and coffee (on this visit to HK I was able to fully enjoy my HK style breakfast of instant noodles, egg, hot dog and milk tea because I was relaxing the strict diet). From there we went to the photo shop for visa pictures and then straight to the travel company that would process our same day visas. We were told to come back at 6pm.
We then booked our train from HK to GZ and our train was set to depart at 7:20pm. This was the last train of the day, and since our visas wouldn’t be ready until 6pm, it was going to be tight because our baggage was checked into the hotel and it would be rush hour. We decided the best way to go about all of this was to take our luggage to the train station via taxi and avoid the MTR during rush hour. I would then come back and grab the visas, and then go back to the train station.
A few minutes into our journey, having heard our predicament, the taxi driver offered to help us out by assisting Ellen with all the luggage. This meant I could hop out and go straight to the visa office. I arrived right at 6, but had to wait. It was then that I realized that I had given Ellen the money for our visas (I tend to not trust myself with large amounts of cash and/or important documents). So I had to run to the nearest ATM and hope that I hadn’t already withdrawn my daily limit (which was a real possibility given the 48 hours I’d just had). My heart was beating mighty quickly at the prospect of not being able to pay for our visas…and having to spend yet another night on the road…but it worked.
At 6:20PM in HK you can’t do much running because it’s wall to wall people. Since I had literally spent all day using the subway I had my route memorized and I was able to quickly get myself to the train station within 30 minutes. I got there at 6:55pm and Ellen had never even realized that she had ALL our money on her, or just how close we had come to missing both our train and our interviews (scheduled for Thursday AM).
The terminal was full of people at this point and we were winding our way through the customs and security. It really felt like we were leaving the West behind again. We had departed Athens, been held hostage in Moscow and spent literally one entire day hustling our way through HK…but when Ellen very vocally threatened a 70-year-old Chinese woman and her 20-year-old grandson who were being extremely rude and pushy, I knew we were back in that very special place called China, a place we would soon be calling home.
Now sitting here on the train drinking my Johnny Walker straight from the bottle, I can only hope that the surprises are over and that our path through customs will be a smooth one. What a 72 hours it has been, and how odd it is to be so excited about my return to GZ.