It smells bad in Fylis Street, a small street in the centre of Athens, a few hundred metres from Omonia Square. And even though I see garbage bags, many half opened, their contents spread out on the streets, that’s not what I smell the most. Urine and faeces, both human, is the predominant smell in this street.
However, Fylis Street is a normal street. I’m pretty sure that ordinary people live here: plumbers, students, housewives, and many unemployed people. Undoubtedly, some of them have a studio as a neighbour. A studio – there’s no business that uses as many euphemisms as the world of prostitution. Working girls is what prostitutes are called, that’s one euphemism, and the hotels in lots of countries, including Singapore, where clients and hookers rent a room for an hour (or two) are called transit hotels. Officially meant for airport passengers who need a bit of rest, before moving on… And in Fylis Street there are many studios: dimly-lit, run-down places that serve as brothels in Greece’s capital. There are no written signs advertising these places, just a white light above the door.
I had to enter over a dozen of them, before I finally found one with a girl who 1) was prepared to talk and 2) was able to speak a language that we both understood. That is how I found out that most studios look the same. You enter through a windowless living room, some of which have a couch and disco lights. A hostess, never the girl, welcomes you. She tells you that one girl will present herself; only one even though there are more girls working. But that’s the Greek law apparently: prostitution is legal, provided that the girls – male prostitution is illegal – are at least 21, registered, and have health checks every two weeks. Brothels are only legal if they are registered and most aren’t, but if there’s only one girl working, for herself, and you hand her the money, the place is not considered a brothel.
Anna is from Romania. This line of work seems to be the country’s main export product.
‘How old are you?’ I ask. I’m sitting on a stool in her room, while she sits on the bed, an iron colossus that takes up almost the entire room.’
‘20,’ she says, meaning that she’s one year short of being legal. Later on she mumbled an unclear ‘yes’ when I asked her if she had a permit, if she’s registered.
Anna is wearing a little black dress, is about 1.70, dark haired, chubby and when she talks she almost closes her eyes. I’m guessing she’s copied that from someone she’s seen on television, a pop star probably.
‘How did you end up here?’ I ask.
‘Because of the money,’ she says, not completely understanding my question. She is from Constanta, on the Black Sea, a bus ride of about 1,500 kilometres away.
‘How much do you make here?’
‘More than 400 Euros per month.’ Her price is 20 Euros, ‘for normal sex’, but she doesn’t want to tell me how much is hers and how much for the hostess, a fat old lady wearing slippers. We can hear her shuffling around, opening a bottle, putting it back in the refrigerator: the thin blue walls between our room and the kitchen don’t reach to the ceiling.
Anna also works in another studio. ‘A better one.’
‘Do you like your job?’
‘No, I don’t. I like the money, only the money.’ She smiles shyly.
‘Are people nice to you?’
‘Many aren’t. The Greek men are vaffanculos.’ Assholes. We communicate in a mix of English and Italian.
‘They are dirty and they always want without condom.’
Two years ago, in 2012, a big scandal revealed that many prostitutes in Greek brothels were HIV-positive. Their pictures were shown on the front page of major Greek newspapers, as a warning. As a consequence many brothels were shut and health checks became stricter.
‘Would you prefer another job? In a shop maybe?’
‘No, that doesn’t pay enough.’
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘No, a boyfriend costs money.’
‘What will you be doing 5 years from now?’
‘I will be home, with money.’
‘Kalispera,’ says a vaffanculo to the slipper-wearing granny, who is one metre away, in the living room. Anna looks at her watch.
‘Do you like Europe?’ I ask.
‘Si, it’s easy to travel. I don’t need passport.’
‘Do you see the other girls from Romania?’
‘No Greek girls?’
‘No, they are sick in the head. And they’re divas. Turkish are okay.’
‘Have you seen other parts of Europe?’
‘Yes, Lloret de Mar, Palma de Mallorca, Ibiza.’
‘No, I don’t. But I do smoke. Because of the stress.’
‘Because of these clients. The Greek ones.’
Time for me to go.