September 11, 2013

On Greek Driving

Unlike most European countries, Greece does not have a train system, so the only proper way to see the Peloponnese and Meteora is by car. In honor of our burgeoning Greek history knowledge – and because our car was such a powerful force to be reckoned with (just kidding) – we affectionately nicknamed it Agamemnon.

The surprising thing about Greece is that it’s very mountainous. That normally wouldn’t be a big deal except that everyone is driving underpowered smart cars. It’s like a battle of micro machines going up the hills. And as if this didn’t already kill our time-to-destination estimates, the mountain roads are curvy and covered in loose gravel. 

So there we were…Steve, me, and Agamemnon, driving in the mountains over Kalamata. We had just passed an old Grecian woman wearing traditional dress and walking her donkey. We were entered into a heated debate about what American traditional dress would consist of when we looped around what was probably our 100th switchback and slid straight towards a cliff wall. Agamemnon was such a gem that Steve had to pump the brakes even though it had an anti-lock system. We missed the cliff by inches and then spent the rest of the drive going about 50 km/hr.

It’s also really hard to read road signs when you’re dealing with a Greek alphabet going at 100 km/hr. Maybe you can catch the first two letters, and based on that, you hope you're headed in the right direction. 

(Athens, Delphi)

When you finally get where you’re going, you then have to deal with the city streets. In general, they are a complete mess. Cars are always double parked and facing the wrong direction. Everyone just flashes their hazard lights and temporarily leaves their cars in the middle of the road.

On that note, you can park anywhere. Even at a grocery store that has a huge empty parking lot, we still saw people parking in the middle of the road…with their hazards on, of course.

Before arriving in Greece, we had read that it’s the most dangerous European country to drive in. But after spending 2 months in Southeast Asia driving straight into oncoming traffic, we weren’t worried. As it turns out, we should have been worried. Here are our 5 steps to driving like the Greeks:

1.  Roll down the window and hang one arm outside.
2.  Pass going into blind corners.
3.  Blaze at least one car-length past every stop sign.
4.  Completely ignore the stop signs near railroad tracks.
5.  Share the lane.
#5 is a real doozy. Standard operating procedure is for cars to drive in the shoulder. This is so that another car can pass while staying within the same lane, or just a little left of center. This lends a false pretense of safety which spawns ubiquitous passing. But if everyone is always just a little left of center…

Maybe that’s why there are alters in the shape of miniature Orthodox churches sprinkled along the roadsides. They look like little doll houses, but something tells me they’re not there as a beautification project.

On our last day with Agamemnon, we were on a rushed 4-hour drive to get to the airport to catch a flight to the islands. Per typical protocol, there was a truck parked on the highway with its hazards flashing so we squeezed by to avoid him. We were promptly pulled over by two police officers who barely spoke English and accused of crossing the center line. The ticket price? 400 Euros. For a country that’s desperate for its tourism industry to revive, it’s probably not the smartest idea to be giving tourists really expensive tickets for bogus charges.

We were already in a rush and worried about missing our flight, but this was such an upsetting injustice that we tracked down the police station 20 km away to fight the ticket. While we sat waiting for the Chief of Police, we found a desk officer who spoke just enough English that we could get him on our side. We warmed him up by asking him for some travel tips and then complimented him on his English.

20 minutes later we finally met with the Chief of Police, who also spoke a little English. While we filled out a formal complaint, he reminded us that it was 9/11 and asked us where we were going next. When we replied Crete, he lit up and proceeded to give us tips on beaches and restaurants. I wanted to shout, "We might not even make it there if you don't hurry it up!” but instead we kept smiling and nodding. We needed him to like us. We submitted the form and the Chief told us to call him in 2 days for the verdict.

An hour after getting the infamous ticket, we were back on the road to Athens and sweating bullets. We barely made the cut off to check our baggage. Our only saving grace was…you guessed it…parking illegally at the departures doors and putting on our hazards. We have had some close calls making transportation connections, but this one will go down in the record books.

Two days later we called to hear our fate. Our new friend, the desk officer, answered the phone. After a little bit of commotion in the background he proudly told me, "No problems. Does not exist. Happy holidays! Good morning!!"

It might have almost caused us a heart attack in the process, but I cannot tell you the satisfaction of trying to beat the Greek system…and winning.

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