I lost my daughter in Athens Greece, and neither of us spoke the language. Find out how she was lost in Athens, and the lessons we learned from this terrifying experience.
On our Mediterranean cruise that departed from Athens, I was so excited to show my university student daughter around one of my favorite European cities. We arrived a couple of days before our cruise, so we could settle in and have plenty of time for sightseeing. I was looking forward to shopping for bargain leather goods at the Plaka and Monastiraki, enjoying some delicious Greek specialties at a taverna or two, and revisiting some of the ancient historical sites that I had visited as a college student some twenty-five years before.
I had no idea that only a few minutes after entering our first destination, I would lose my daughter for an hour, in a city of 3.75 million people where neither of us spoke the language. You know why it happened? Poor planning on my part. Please read my sorry tale of how she was lost in Athens, so hopefully this will never happen to you.
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We didn’t think it could happen if we stayed together. I lie. We didn’t think about it at all.
We were planning on walking around Athens together. Although my daughter has spent time overseas without her parents, and could have gone off on her own, we pretty much wanted to see all the same touristy stuff.
Just in case we got stuck somewhere, or if there was an emergency at home, one of our first stops was to purchase an inexpensive prepaid European cell phone. Although getting lost together was a possibility, the idea that we would be separated from each other hadn’t crossed our minds. We’ve been to lots of large cities, huge theme parks, and stadium concerts together, with no problem.
Did we even think about choosing a meeting place? Nope. We’d be together all day, and she wasn’t a child! In reality, you could easily be separated from your friend, spouse, or parent if you don’t choose a spot to meet.
I became too accustomed to having a smartphone
As a teenager and young adult, I traveled extensively in Europe, both by myself and with friends. This was in a time before the internet, and well before smartphones. I would take guidebooks and paper maps with the routes I was taking, carefully highlighted. My friends and I may have had disagreements about what we wanted to do or see, but we always had a plan.
One friend was hell-bent on a pub crawl, and another wanted to check out the boutiques? I wanted to do both, but also visit a museum? Whether we stayed together or split up, we would all agree to meet at a certain place at a certain time.
With the advent of the smartphone, a lot of the planning that we used to do was forgotten. Even while traveling in a foreign country without a data plan, travelers can now pop into a café and update travel buddies as to their whereabouts. But although free WiFi locations are easy to find in commercial districts, you can’t count on finding a connection outside of those areas.
We head out to the Acropolis
Thinking that we were all set to explore the city, we took a quick taxi ride from our hotel to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and the other ancient ruins located there.
(Just as an aside to those of you who have never been to Athens, or maybe you have? The Acropolis is a citadel on a large hill, located west of the Plaka and south of Monastiraki. The Parthenon is an ancient temple on that hill. Lots of people get them confused.)
July in Athens is very hot and very crowded. After standing in a long line to buy tickets, we made our way through the hordes of other tourists to climb up the hill and visit the ancient temple site. We weren’t able to walk side by side most of the time, so I led the way, stopping and looking over my shoulder to make sure she was right behind me.
Panic sets in
After about fifteen minutes, we reached a crowded area with sets of ancient stone steps and landings after every set. We’d walk up the steps, regroup on a landing, and then keep going. Then, I turned around on the next landing and my daughter wasn’t behind me.
I stayed where I was, scanning the crowd below. Maybe she had stopped to take a photo, or to get a rock out of her shoe? Maybe she had spotted something interesting and had paused to inspect it? But I didn’t see her.
I looked up the hill above me. There was no way she could have passed me without us seeing each other. I called her name over and over, still searching the faces in the crowd. I went up the steps and down the steps, growing more and more alarmed.
Would she stay in one place if she couldn’t find me? Or would she keep going, and hope that I would catch up? Would she find a security guard, or just go back to the entrance? I had no idea. I just knew that she wasn’t anywhere in the area where I was standing. Panic and dread overwhelmed me. She was lost.
Here are the ten things I didn’t do right that caused me to lose my only child at the Parthenon for an hour:
ONE: Not having a planned place to meet if lost or separated…or a time and place to meet if going separate ways.
When my daughter was a kid, we always had a plan around what to do if someone couldn’t find the rest of the group. On family vacations, school field trips, scouting events and tour groups, everyone knew the time and place that the group would meet up. If one of us was lost, there was always a meeting place to go to and wait.
If you’re the parent of an older teenager or young adult, you might get some eye-rolls when you tell your child that you need to have a plan if you’re separated. But it’s so important, especially when you don’t all have phones that work in a foreign country. The internet is not always accessible, and even at cafés and restaurants that offer their WiFi password with a purchase, sometimes the signal is too weak to send or receive messages.
If I could have a do-over, right after we bought our tickets I would have said, “OK, we need to stick together because this place is huge and very crowded. If we get split up, go back and sit on this bench and I’ll come and find you.”
TWO: Don’t hold hands, that’s weird
Until my daughter was about five or six years old, we always held hands when walking anywhere. Then, of course, she grew more independent and could not be seen in public holding her mother’s hand “like a baby”.
When I’m in a packed arena at a sporting event or a concert, I’ll hold hands with the people I’m with if we’re trying to navigate through a crowd. I don’t mean that we make an impenetrable wall and try to barge through people. We just grab the hands of friends in front and back and snake through the crowd without getting split up.
Had I taken her hand, even just while we were navigating the crowded stairs, I never would have lost her.
THREE: Relying on just one cheap Greek cell phone
My cell phone plan doesn’t have international calling or data. It’s super expensive! Before our trip, I researched the best way to stay connected overseas. The two options I found were to get a foreign SIM card, or to buy a cheap prepaid phone when we got to Athens. I didn’t want to take my SIM card out and chance losing it, so a prepaid phone it was.
Some phones will only work in certain areas, so I needed to make sure the one I bought would work in the countries we were visiting: Greece, Montenegro, Italy and Spain. When we arrived in Athens, our first stop was to a Vodafone store. I let the salesperson know where we were traveling, and that I wanted an inexpensive prepaid phone that I could text and call with. It only cost €20 plus the phone card. (It was a flip phone with the game Snake on it…I kid you not).
I felt a lot safer traveling with this little phone in case of an emergency. However, we only bought one phone. When our emergency happened, we couldn’t call each other because I was the only one with a working phone.
Our US phones worked when we found a strong internet signal (we could text or FaceTime), but there’s no WiFi on the Acropolis.
(In case you’re reading this and thinking you should just take long-range walkie-talkies, don’t do it without doing your due diligence. Many countries have very strict rules about using them, as they can interfere with emergency service communications. Will a set that you bought at Wal-Mart work on the Acropolis? Probably. But you don’t want to risk putting others’ lives in danger AND a fine of thousands of euro.)
FOUR: Trying to be psychic and figure out what she’d do
When I first realized that my daughter was lost, my instinct was to stay put. After all, I had just seen her right in that area. But if she was in another area, and she realized that I was lost, would she stay where she was, hoping that I would find her? I knew that we weren’t in the same location, and if we both stayed still we’d never find each other.
Would she go back to the entrance and wait? Would she walk around and look for me? There were thousands of people on the Acropolis that day. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Would she look for a security guard? Or would she feel that trying to find me was a lost cause and take a taxi back to the hotel, knowing that I’d eventually return? I really had no clue. I had to find someone who worked at the site and see if they could notify security.
Get the word out that you have a lost person and move. Tell as many staff members or security personnel as possible. They don’t necessarily communicate with one another. Tell all of them that you’ve lost a family member or friend. Tell them where you’ll be waiting. Have a sense of urgency. It’s OK to look upset…you are! Don’t feel that you’re making a big deal or bothering people. If you’re not sure if the staff member understood you, ask them to repeat what you told them, and ask them if they can help.
FIVE: Not speaking any Greek
I can speak three languages, but Greek isn’t one of them. Sure, I can say “good morning” and “thank you”, but can I say, “Oh my goodness please help me I lost my daughter she was right here and now she’s not?” Nope!
After climbing up to the top of the hill, looking for any official-type person, I spotted a security guard. She thankfully could speak a little English, but not much. In desperation, I tried French and Spanish, but quickly realized I’d have to explain with English and improvised sign language.
It took a while, but I was finally able to calm down and speak slowly enough to get my point across that I had lost my daughter. “How big is girl?” asked the security guard. I put my hand up to my shoulder. I’m on the tall side, but my daughter is petite.
“Little one, little one,” said the security guard, as she picked up her walkie-talkie to inform her colleagues in rapid-fire Greek.
“No, no,” I said, worried that she was telling the other guards to be on the lookout for a small child. “She’s not a child, she’s just short. She’s eighteen.”
The guard shook her head, not understanding.
I thought for a moment. “University student,” I said. She understood. More fast talking on the radio.
“They look for her. We look for her,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Can you tell them I will wait at the entrance?” I pointed to myself and then down the hill.
What did I learn? I should have learned how to say (in Greek) “I don’t speak Greek. Can you speak English?” Although I was in panic mode, I should have slowed my speech immediately to help the guard understand what I was saying. I know that when a native speaker talks very fast, those who learned the language later often have a difficult time deciphering the full meaning.
SIX: Not having Greek loaded for offline use in Google Translate
I had the Google Translate app on my phone, but I hadn’t thought to download Greek in case I needed to use it offline. Why not? I never needed it before.
If I couldn’t speak the same language as people I encountered in my travels, I’d make do with smiles and gestures. In a restaurant, I can usually somewhat decipher the menu, and I’ve learned to point and make an attempt to pronounce the name of the dish. When buying a souvenir, I don’t need to say very much; but I make sure I smile and can say “good morning” and “thank you”.
I didn’t think about emergency situations where quick, accurate translation is crucial. It would have helped me quickly explain everything to the security guard. Even more importantly, what if one of us had a medical issue and had to explain the problem to medical personnel?
SEVEN: Not having a picture of her that I could access
When someone asks me if they can see a picture of my daughter, I whip out my phone. Facebook, Instagram, VSCO, there are thousands of pictures of her that I can show off. I also have all of my own phone’s pics saved to the cloud. With no data service, I had zero access to any pictures of her.
We had taken a whole bunch of pictures just past the entrance, on a wall overlooking the city. But since she wanted photos for Instagram, I had taken them with her phone. I could have shown a picture instead of trying to describe what she looks like.
A picture from that day would have been the best thing to have. Even if our security guard hadn’t understood a word of English, she would have recognized the location and could describe to the other guards what she was wearing as well as give a physical description.
EIGHT: Not knowing what she’s wearing
So I have the worst visual memory. I can spend all day with a person and not remember what they were wearing, unless it’s something unusual or we actually have a conversation about it.
When we were getting ready that morning, I ironed my favorite blue and white sundress. My daughter came out of the bathroom wearing…a blue and white romper. With a similar pattern. Twinsies! Ugh.
I didn’t want to iron something else, and she had to wear THAT SPECIFIC OUTFIT (because Instagram). So I did know what she was wearing, kind of. But on any other day, I wouldn’t have been so sure.
She also put on a baseball cap with her school’s name on it. She has so many of these caps in different color combinations that I couldn’t remember which one she had put on. Was it orange with blue embroidery, or white with orange embroidery? No clue. The problem? In a crowd, a hat might be the easiest thing to help spot someone, and I had no idea what color it even was.
So of course the security guard had asked me, with a combination of English and hand gestures, what my daughter was wearing. The romper was easy to describe, but when I said she was wearing a hat, and it might be orange or maybe blue, but it could be white? Not very helpful.
NINE: Assuming that my emergency is the first priority of the staff
As I made my way down to the entrance, I passed several other security guards. Although I knew that the first guard had radioed to her colleagues, I did stop to talk to each of them to see if they had received the message, and to ask if they had seen my daughter.
Not a single one had heard that there was a missing person.
Since not all of the guards had heard the radio message, it was up to me to make sure that I got the word out. I had to explain the situation all over again to each of the guards that I met on my way down the hill. I let each of them know that I was going to wait at the entrance, in case my daughter approached them for help. Begging them to please be on the lookout for someone fitting her description, I asked if they could repeat the message on their radios.
TEN: Thinking I have to follow all the rules
When I reached the entrance at the bottom of the hill, I noticed that there was a sign stating “No Re-entry”. I wasn’t concerned about having to buy another pair of tickets once I found her. That wasn’t the issue at all. I was worried that if I passed through that gate and she wasn’t there waiting for
I’m a super rule-follower. I have no illusions of my own specialness. If a rule is posted, it applies to me. It’s a good thing that I realized that in an emergency situation like this, I didn’t need to get hung up on the posted rule. I let the ticket-taker know what was going on, and that I was just going out to see if my daughter was waiting for me outside the gate. He understood, and said that he’d let me back in after I looked for her.
Relieved, I headed through the gate and looked around. “MOM!!!” That shriek was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard. “Where were you?” she cried. “I stopped to take a picture, and then I didn’t see you! Where did you go? I went looking everywhere, but I couldn’t find you!”
I gave her the biggest, squeeziest hug ever, and took her hand. “Stick right with me,” I said. If we get split up, we’ll meet right here, OK?
She nodded. “OK,” she said. “But I don’t want you to get lost again.”
“I won’t, I promise,” I replied, holding back a sarcastic remark about exactly who had been the lost one. “Your hat is navy.”
“Yeah, and?” she said, confused.
“Never mind,” I replied. “Hang on. Let me take a picture of you with my phone.”
Have you ever been lost in Athens or separated from your group in a foreign country? Do you have any other tips on how to not get lost, or what to do if you are? Let me know in the comments below.
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