Before moving to Greece, the riskiest thing I had done was to eat a pot of yoghurt that was over a week past its expiration date. If I wanted an adrenaline rush, I had only to wait for a bus on my own in the wee hours of the London morning, watching every shadow and rattling garbage can for the hidden serial killers.
My severely underworked adrenal glands got a new lease of life on experiencing what it was like to drive here. Driving, such an innocuous task in the UK, becomes in Greece the motoring equivalent of throwing yourself off Niagra Falls in a barrel.
Maybe that’s a poor analogy. Imagine if you will the entire waterfall teeming with such falling barrels, the occupants of each vessel screaming at you angrily to get out of the way while talking on a mobile phone with one hand, drinking coffee with the other and steering their barrel into the abyss with a knee or an elbow.
If I want an adrenaline rush in Athens, I don’t need extreme sports. I need only to slip behind the wheel of my battered little Fiat Seicento and let the games begin.
It will probably explain a lot to anyone who has lived the agony and ecstasy of driving in Athens that almost everyone they see driving alongside them has bought their driver’s license rather than passing the test fair and square. Greek friends would be baffled when I would tell them that it took me three tries to pass my driving test in the UK. “Three tries?” they would say. “You took the test three times? Why didn’t you just bribe the examiner the first time round?”
When my beleaguered husband tried to take me driving in Athens after I had passed my British driving test, it was a minefield of terror and near-misses. “When you see the Audi TT coming up from the left, change lanes.” he would instruct, with my response, mid-traffic and in a sweaty-palmed panic, going something like “What do you mean Audi TT! I don’t understand! Tell me shapes and colours! Tell me the little blue car, or the red car with the dent in the back!”
In the end after a few precarious voyages, my husband declared that I knew nothing and was too unsafe for the roads of Athens. I would never survive. I wanted to laugh. My driving was too unsafe? What about the roughly 80 per cent of drivers alongside me who hadn’t actually passed a driving test?
“They taught you nothing in the UK,” he repeated. “They just taught you how to pass the test. You don’t know how to park in Athens and you react too slowly to the other drivers. You might as well be invisible. They may have bought their licenses, but they are street wise drivers. You’re not.”
He was right. Parking spaces in Athens are like gold dust. A few years ago, the authorities came up with a fabulous plan to ease the city’s downtown congestion and reduce the pollution that was starting to impact the beautiful archeological treasures.
They declared that on even-dated days, cars with an even number as the final digit on their number plates could enter the centre, and likewise for odd-dated dates and number plates with penalty fines in place. It seemed like a brilliant plan to cut the centre’s traffic by around 50 per cent, until hordes of Athenians went out and bought a second car so that they had one even and one odd-number plated car.
With parking space being so hard to find, the ability to shoe-horn your car into a parking space is a survival skill in the urban jungle. So I was packed off with a driver instructor to learn the wise ways of driving in Athens.
Here is what you need to know.
- You need to register the speed limit and at least double it.
- Be prepared with a list of insults for fellow drivers — don’t be afraid to get personal. Mothers and wives of drivers are particular targets of insult, and μαλακα is used liberally. For example, someone has just swept past in front of you where there is a stop sign. You may respond as so: “Malaka! Can’t you see the malakismeno stop sign? Go f*uck yourself and the mother that gave birth to you can go get f*cked too! MALAKA!” Translation: “Excuse me sir, I believe you should have stopped at that stop sign. Kindly, do not make such an infringement again as it is dangerous to others. Good day.” Insults to granny are strictly off bounds.
- Act like yours is the only car on the road and then act completely surprised and outraged that other drivers even exist.
- The only people immune to this road rage are the over 80s, of which there is an alarming number of on the streets of Athens.
Last and not least, missing wing mirrors, loose hub caps, flat tires and temperamental batteries are all fine to drive with. But do not even think of driving if your horn doesn’t work.
It may sound like driving in Athens is a daily nightmare but it does have its perks. For one thing, it’s a great way to let out some stress and is a lot more inexpensive than therapy. And once you can drive here, you really can drive anywhere. In a gladiator, go-kart style, end of the world NASCAR drive-off, the Greeks would always win.
Published in part in the Khaleej Times on 28 Feb 2014