Chapter 1: An American in Athens: Driving
Just because you have a license from the US does not give you permission to drive in Greece. That’s because what you have grown up used to in the States does not apply. If you actually do the logical thing and follow the rules, you will wind up causing an accident. Following the signs and traffic signals will get you lost. That’s because independent-spirited Greeks have a mind of their own and make up their own rules. Not only that but the driver behind you, next to you, the one overpassing you will tell YOU how to drive. Here are some of my weekly anecdotes in this department.
As a conservative driver with a child in tow, I don’t go beyond the speed limit say 60 km per hour. But holy shishkebab I ventured but three minutes into the left lane and the guy behind me in a black Hyundai with a black license plate with the word MAFIA honks repeatedly and flashes his high beams. At least he wasn’t nasty. The BMW on the Attiki Odos, who thought I was going too slow for a road that was obviously built for him, flies by me and utters some livid profanity. This ticks me off so badly that before I can check myself I have my left hand stretched outside the window with a very visible middle finger pressing on the bloody honker non-stop. As my cursing in Greek is not very good, I hear myself spewing all sorts of foul four letter words about his mother and private body parts. I couldn’t help myself. Something happens when you get behind the wheel of an automobile; your psychology changes.
As a good American of the 4-land highway, I follow rules; that has gotten me in trouble in Ellas. When I signaled a right turn 300 kilometers before the actual turn, the guy driving behind me, obviously annoyed yells out, “eh gira pia. Poso tha anivosvini to fotaki? Más eprikses.” (Roughly: “What the hell turn already. How long is the light going to keep blinking? You’ve bloated me.”)
Another time I had to decide whether to slow down or speed up when the traffic light on Mesogeion Avenue turned orange on the way to red. I was 30 kilometers away from making it over the intersection and I was revving at 40 klm per hour. So I did the American thing. I stopped, jolting handbags to the front and swaying the air freshener in the shape of Greece like crazy. What a mistake! I almost caused an accident as the Alfa Romeo behind me thought I would rush through it to make the light. He nearly rear ended me. Boy did I hear it! “Malako, píos se ematge timoni. Pigene spiti na peines paita.”
That raised my feminist flag and I had to get out the car to personally tell him that he should go home and do his own dishes and let civilized people who follow the rules drive. Go back and drive a donkey, moron.
Greek drivers are so good at passing judgement they tell you without you having to ask them if you are driving according to their rules. When I was maneuvering into a tight spot on Veikou Avenue, always packed with cars driving to the string of cafes, an old driver passing by takes the trouble to roll down his window and let me know, “You are turning the wheel the wrong way. Pull it the opposite direction.” I don’t know whether to take his concern as a friendly gesture or as purely an obnoxious one.
And speaking about parking, what rules inform that? “Mommy.” my six-year-old noticed, “Greek people don’t know how to park. Their wheels are on the sidewalk.”
No wonder all the pedestrians, especially the most difficult to drive around– little old ladies in black with their shopping carts and mothers with baby carriages–walk on the street. This makes driving an even more stressful event. “Stay on the street people,” I keep muttering to myself. “That’s what sidewalks are for.”
I can’t navigate through any neighborhood of downtown Athens without a GPS because I can’t tell by looking at the direction of parked cars if the street is going up or down. When I pull in reverse to go back from a street I know I’ve entered the wrong way, my retired Greek American friend who has lived here for a while yells, “Never mind now. Just go ahead. Nobody follows the rules. Ti eise, xazi? Only fools follow the rules.”
OK, OK, I’m getting it. Don’t follow the rules. When in Greece, drive like the Greeks. But I can’t. If I did, I’d be dead already. If I hadn’t gone at 25 klm through an intersection in Psychiko last week, the guy trying madly to get through the intersection at 60 would have rammed into me and spun me and the child into kingdom come.
I heard about those episodes during the craze of the election season when drivers would fly through the toll booths erected in their opinion to enslave the Greek populace shouting, “I won’t pay! I won’t pay!” I heard about the drivers who would haggle with the toll clerks,”I am not giving the 2.80 Euro. I’m only going 3 kilometers down the National Road, I’m going to give you 1.20.”
I am thinking I have to go through a Greek driving school to understand how to drive like the Greeks.