You really get a sense of a city from its infrastructure (or lack of). It’s equivalent to the impression a person gives you from the type of clothes he wears. In all its vehicles of transport, Greece can be summed up in one word—CHAOS.
Take driving first. Greeks behind the timoni are driving hazards. They can perform up to eight separate acts behind the wheel simultaneously. They light a cigarette, argue with the mother-in-law in the back seat, curse at the “ilithio” in front of them, change the Giorgos Alkaios CD, apply mascara, window shop down Patission, talk to Hariklia on the kinito, read a credit card statement while zipping through rush-hour traffic.
A staple of the Sunday night news broadcast is the weekend “Atihimata” Report: “And this weekend 478 Greeks lost their lives on the National Roads while another 312 were seriously injured.” For a country of ten million, Greece has an exorbitantly high number of car accidents. On a road trip to Delphi along the steep, treacherous slopes of the hills on the outskirts of Athens, I could spot the carcasses of many rotting vehicles. There was a particularly black train of burnt rubber that swerved from our lane. It disappeared beyond the mortal break in the dwarfish fence, the only pitiful divide between the rushing road of the living and the great unfathomable abyss of the presumed dead. Perhaps that driver had been arguing about the superiority of Panathenaikos with his mother-in-law, a fan of AEK in the back seat, and had churned the wheel a little too much when he turned around to put her in her place?
The “rules” of the road are equally erratic. They wedge their cars into the same intersection, prohibited by pride to let the other car go first. They do not accept competitors to cut them off and so speed up to lay claim to the stretch of road before them that becomes an unalienable extension of ego. The two cars narrowly escape each other’s brush with death, defying even the physical law that states that two Fiats cannot occupy the same space at once. So, when two males reach the fatal spot within seconds of each other, then, of course, a crash course of wills ensues.
“Ti kaneis re malaka,” the young man whose fender collided into the passenger side of the other’s car screams.
“Ma kala re pousti, den echeis matia. Vlepe ti kaneis brosta sou–”
“Ego re malaka, Ftes esei pou den stamatas ekei pou prepei—‘
“Me tin mana sou— ” the other ends the altercation short by screeching away, a Ray-banned bandit into the sunset.
Cars stop spontaneously in the middle of the road because the driver recognizes an old girlfriend walking on Leoforo Alexandras. Tires lie on top of garbage cans, Yugos wedge themselves into the space between a post office box and a stop sign. Half the body of a Renault straddles the sidewalk, the other half, the street; a street that is only meant for one-way traffic but is de facto used for two—depending on which car manages to enter it first from its opposite ends. Cars, small-bodied but with extra large diesel engines that blast storm clouds of infernal smoke, dart forwards and backwards, following the wayward whims of their masters. They scamper through unmarked streets like tiny ants in a downpour.
Traffic signs are insane. “Elefsina 258 kilometers” one shouts in dusty white lettering on a small side street of a tucked-away neighborhood. An apocryphal arrow points to the Venezelos Airport on a street where schoolboys play a game of soccer. Destination signs pop up arbitrarily from behind a stone wall hiding some widow’s orange grove. Half way down an avenue, in front of a line of cafes, crazy arrows point to the general direction of Kolonaki, Cholargos, Aghia Paraskevi, and the wind-swept, wide places beyond. To have a direct clear route through the labyrinth of streets that snake around each other like Gordion knots is a luxury. The streets lack numbers and blink at your every turn like mystic strangers—street names that entrap crumbled empires within their metal plaques, Amazona, Mycenae, Doriou; street names that reliquary forgotten gods– Athinas, Aeolou; extol battle heroes—Miltiades, Alexandros, Parsimeonas; street names that tempt the mind into envisioning sun-slapped shores of places that could unfold under one’s feet if the land extended further onwards—the distant reaches of Mitilene, Santorini, Zakinthos. A tourist can be trapped within the small confines of Thissio’s threaded streets for hours.
There is also another particularly annoying habit of the Greeks that I adore: the tendency for the driver to flirt with the right hand passenger of the adjacent car when both come to a stop in front of a red light. Spontaneous small talk sparks during the time it takes the signal to change. “Pame sti thalassa” is offered as a part suggestion, part pick up line. Or a polite “E, patrioti, gia pou pame,” offered as a legitimate verification of the way and as a conversation starter. Greeks are never at a loss for words to spark a chance conversation. Everything from “Ti tha mas kanei o Mitsotakis,” a blanket complaint geared at the reigning political party, to a playful snatch of a popular Rembikiko song, “Ta matoklada sou laboun, bre. Ta matoklada sou laboun.” These traffic-light discourses get heated just as the light is about to change and continue for drawn-out seconds after the light turns green, to the consternation of the impatient lines of drivers behind. The waiting lines catapult long angry discharges of horn-blowing that do little to sway the stationary strangers embraced in each other’s words.
Lastly, the traffic law that everyone abides by is—“Pedestrian beware!” Greece remains one of the few places where the car has the right of way, not the poor old pedestrian. The streets of Athens are governed by survival of the quickest, with the highest rates of collision and death, especially among the elderly. Between the cars and trees, there is hardly any room for people.