The bubble of suburbia

Street art in central Athens

Street art in downtown Athens – a rare glimpse of light in a desperate city

The effects of the crisis are not invisible in our relatively unscathed slice of surburban Athens. But you don’t get an immediate sense of panic or despair whilst strolling around Αργυρούπολη. The evidence of the tragic state of the Greek economy -at least in our neighbourhood – is not written on the faces of the ντόπιους (locals), but in the rows of boarded-up shops, restaurants and businesses that line the high streets.

Whether it’s stoicism, resignation or apathy, the residents of our little patch of surburbia are clinging on to what dignity they can afford, whilst they weather an economic hurricane that threatens to destroy any lingering notions of hope and optimism.

But venture into the capital and the scene shifts dramatically. Step out from any number of central Athens Metro stations and within minutes you’re thrust into a misery and wretchedness that belies any notions of a functioning, civil Western democracy.

Greeks and immigrants alike litter the sidewalks, hands outstretched, faces stained from the scorching sun and the dirt of the city. The hungry, the disfigured, the limbless, the homeless, the junkies, the old and the young – united in a common desparation – compete for our pennies, and beg for scraps of food. The entrepreneurial ones rummage amongst the stench of the waste bins, seeking treasure in the form of an over-ripe banana or some half-rotten vegetables.

Of all the heart-wrenching vistas, I’m most affected by a young toddler, crouching barefoot in a filthy doorway, as his dad rolls a smoke on the concrete steps. Where is his mum? Dead? High? Who really gives a shit anyway? I consider what opportunities this little one will have. School, employment – I doubt it. Crime, poverty, addiction and an early death are a more realistic trajectory. For a split second I consider what it would be like trading my existence with this gaunt, ashen-faced father and son. Then I feel an overwhelming urge to embrace my eight-month old. That’s enough for today. Fuck the city. All I want to do now is get back to the burbs.

Driving in Greece: The ten commandments

 

Parking in Greece

Parking, Greek style

1) Thou shalt not indicate

In Greece, there are many ways to signal an intended change of direction. The usual method is a sudden sharp turn of the wheel, preferably in the middle of high speed, high density traffic. The second most popular way to tell someone you’re about to turn is to use your hazard lights. This way, instead of letting your fellow drivers know where you’re going, you give them the added cognitive workout of guessing whether you’ve broken down, are about to reverse, or have had a heart attack. AT NO POINT SHOULD YOU USE YOUR INDICATORS!

2) Thou shalt not observe the speed limit

In Greece nobody knows what the correct speed for a given stretch of road is. If people knew what the actual legal limits were, they would feel obliged to ignore the law as a matter of national pride. So, like Brownian motion, the mean velocity of traffic is determined by the exact number and temperament of drivers on the road at any one given point in time. This self-regulating effect has its pros and cons. If you’re old and senile, you are entitled to drive along at 5 km/h on a busy street without anyone batting an eyelid. On the other hand, if you’re a braggadocio with a supercar, just find a clear stretch of tarmac, put your foot down  and watch the heads turn.

3) Thou shalt always tailgate (whenst upon the highway)

Potholes, dents and cracks. The municipal byways of Athens are as lumpy as an acne-ridden teenager’s arse. But the story changes once you venture out of the city. Greece’s privately run highways are superfast and efficient, their mirror-like surfaces gifting a silky smooth luxurious ride. However, this Greek autobahn-like experience has it’s own set of rules. Contrary to traditional notions of safety and preservation-of-life, the technique is to try to drive as physically close to the car in front as possible. The rules are simple; the faster the car in front of you, the closer you must approach. So next time you’re doing 120km/h and the driver behind is so close his breath is steaming up your rear-view mirror, don’t fret, tailgating is actually a form of friendship in Greece.

4) Thou shalt always honk at traffic lights

Although the tempers of southern Europeans tend to have a low boiling point , the agreeable climate has the net effect of ‘chilling out’ it’s citizens. The Brits, by comparison seem to internalise their stress and anger. That is, until it’s Friday night, when they indulge in binge drinking, vomit contests and, if you’ve had a really tough week, a fight just before the bar shuts. However the Greeks do exhibit one particular stress response. A type of red-mist which causes drivers to incessantly honk their horns at traffic lights. But this is no ordinary “get out my way” protestation. Greek drivers, it seems have telepathic qualities that enable them to predict the changing of the lights. So when you’re quietly waiting at a junction and wondering why drivers are beeping like mad at a stop light, don’t fret, it’s not your fault, it’s just your psychic powers that are lacking.

5) Honour thine elbow (motorcyclists only)

As Orwell once said, “Two wheels good, four wheels bad“. Greece shares a similar appreciation for the motorbike too. It’s common to see whole families perched on a single contraption, youngsters clinging on for dear life. On first impressions you might equate the lack of helmet wearing with a total disregard for personal safety. But you’d be mistaken. Motorcyclists here are very wary of injuring themselves. However in Greece the body part that’s most precious is the elbow. This anatomical preference results in legions of bikers cruising the streets with crash helmets perched not upon the head , but worn on the elbow. In fact the practice has been immortalised in the proverb, which roughly translates to “a helmet on the elbow is worth two on the head”. Go figure.

6) Thou shalt not worship thy bumpers

Many car owners miss the point. Bumpers are not a design feature – the true raison d’etre is in their name. In Greece they have a healthy respect for the proper function of these flouncy addendums. So whenever there’s an opportunity for a bump, they’ll usually find one. There are numerous benefits to this approach. It makes parking a breeze. No need for those pesky beeping sensor thingy-ma-jigs. They do it by touch. In addition, the national bumping obsession provides for a healthy number of always-busy car body repairers. If I were to open a business in Greece, this would be my first choice.

7) Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s parking space

In my native Britain, we are acutely aware of being an island nation. With 60 million inhabitants and no option to expand the borders, every square inch of land is spoken for. So parking spaces are pre-allocated at birth, to save the unpleasant notion of having to actually raise a dispute with your neighbour. In Greece, there are no such hangups. Although the capital is crowded, there’s never a problem with parking. The reason is, the whole of Greece seems to be one big car park. So, road junctions, pavements, pedestrian crossings and airport runways are all fair game when you have a parking emergency – such as…..going to the hairdresser, hanging out at the cafe, popping out for souvlaki, etc etc.

8) Thou shalt not worship false images (or road signs)

One of the most celebrated features of Greece is the landscape. If you’re not staring at mountains, you’ll most probably have a view of the sea, considering that Greece has the 11th longest coastline in the world. Because of these constant visual cues, it’s immediately apparently if you’re heading in the wrong direction. Thus road signs have become more or less obsolete. In addition, there are certain idiomatic uses of the language which often result in confusion. For instance, “STOP” as written on a Greek road sign, actually means, “WHY STOP WHEN YOU CAN GO?”  A subtle, but important distinction.

9) Thou shalt not overtake (when you can undertake)

Undertaking is usually frowned upon, seen as a dangerous practise that spooks unsuspecting drivers. But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Why only use one lane to overtake, when you can use all the lanes. If in doubt, the safest practise to adopt is to firmly plant your self in the middle lane, regardless of whether it’s a filter lane or a turning. Then if you feel like getting ahead of the car in front, switch on your hazard lights (see Commandment 1) and choose the least busy lane to overtake. Simple, logical, what’s your problem?

10) Thou shalt always travel in both directions

One way streets are a useful traffic management concept, reducing rat-runs, easing congestion and making residential roads safer. Well, that’s the theory. But if you happen to live on a one-way street, you’re obliged to travel the wrong direction as often as you see fit. Not only will you get to your destination earlier, you will also save fuel, and possibly get a chance to practice your reversing skills as you meet on-coming traffic.

Photo by Dave-D