Athens Portraits [4]: Driving force

more than a year ago
It takes special talent to tackle the streets of Athens with confidence – narrow streets, erratic traffic police, unexpected roadworks, colourful displays of temperament – and most of the city’s drivers are convinced that they have that talent in spades.
The Athens driver is a unique breed – reckless, selfish, dog-eat-dog, hyper-critical of other road-users, and convinced of his superiority behind the wheel. It’s almost a badge of pride for him (and it usually is a “he”) to break the speed limit or weave madly from lane to lane without getting caught, to get where he’s heading before anyone else. And if that means going the wrong way down a one-way street, or mounting the pavement in the process, then so be it.

Visitors must quickly learn that the rules of the road as they may know them simply don’t apply here. The Athens driver regards pedestrian crossings as mere ‘street furniture’.
The car is king, and the man behind the wheel its driving force. So, when you step on to a crossing, you’re taking as much of a risk as you would if you simply walked out on to the busy street. Instead of expecting the traffic to stop to let you pass, you must carefully time your progress, dodge the cars and bikes zooming past, and say a little prayer til you reach the other side.

Any Greek will tell you that they’re a creative nation. And to be sure, there are many examples of Greek artists, poets, composers – even accountants – who regularly display huge creativity to back up that claim. But the most in-your-face examples can be found on the city streets.
The Athens driver loves his car. With a passion. Even if it means bankrupting himself, he WILL have the latest model and he WILL be seen driving it at every opportunity.
Despite choking city centre congestion, despite the horrors of finding a parking space, despite whole blocks downtown being pedestrianised, even despite the convenience of the public transport system, he and thousands like him prefer to sit in traffic jams every day, honking horns loudly and cursing fellow drivers, rather than be separated from his beloved vehicle.  

Even the challenge of finding somewhere to put his car once he arrives at his destination doesn’t deter him. That’s where real Greek ingenuity comes to the fore. A quick walk down Athens’ side streets will reveal to the bewildered visitor the secret of the capital’s drivers: creative parking.
Pavements are not used for those walking the city’s streets, but to accommodate (usually at a variety of improbable angles) the vehicles that swarm into it every day.
Two wheels straddling the walkway (in order to allow other traffic to pass safely by), or head-first and diagonal to take advantage of every metre of potential parking space (even if it’s not enough to accommodate the length of the car), are just two examples of this peculiarly Athenian art-form.
A walk along the pavement is a major obstacle course even for the able-bodied and streetwise, and virtually impossible with a baby carriage or wheelchair. And while the average non-Greek visitor to the city may brave the perils of the pavement, squeezing past parked cars, negotiating potholes and dodging bags of rubbish, the locals have the answer: just walk in the street instead.
But watch you step - remember, this is a city where wheels rule and legs must yield...


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