Living in Greece

A practical guide to moving, living, working & traveling in Greece, plus musing and misadventures from an American in Athens

The first time I drove in Athens

Greek traffic policePhoto from Getty Images

The first time I drove in Athens was today.

You may be asking, “You’ve been here 10 years, how is that possible?” The answer is: There has never been reason or opportunity until now.

I’ve had a California driver’s license (or CDL, as we call it) since I was 19. As we’re all sort of forced to take driver’s theory and training as part of our high school coursework, most people get their driver’s license quite early in life and 19 is considered old by local standards. I attribute the delay to subconscious scarring by my driver’s training teacher singing, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” by Culture Club, whenever anyone was in the car. I’m kidding! He really did that, but I believe I waited because I had no car.

Since then, I’ve owned, parked and driven all kinds of vehicles while working at Porsche, BMW, Toyota, Chevrolet, VW and Mercedes dealerships. And I still drive in big cities in America, Spain, Sweden, UK, Mexico and even Crete…but never Athens. Why?

It’s simple — no money. Although my salary by Greek standards is considered above average, the majority of it has gone toward rent, electricity, phone/DSL, insurance and food for the past 10 years; any residual is used for a steady flow of bureaucratic fees, name day gifts, dry cleaning, a night out or emergencies. A car, registration, taxes, gas, tolls and the rare ticket just aren’t possible, unless I move out of the country or rob a bank. The neighborhoods I’ve lived in are also parking unfriendly, and my friends call to curse me for it after driving in circles for an hour.

Aside from the occasional strike and malodorous scents, taking public transportation has been a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, stress-free convenience. The bus stop is two blocks away, it takes me where I want to go, I don’t need to worry about getting lost, finding parking, getting in accidents or paying a ticket that could deprive me of food for a month. As a non-EU citizen, it also saves a few documents from the pile of bureaucracy that is essentially my life.

My ex-boyfriend twice gave me permission to drive his convertible BMW which, if you knew him and how much he worshiped that car, was the equivalent of a marriage proposal. I twice refused. Visions of my corpse being dumped somewhere and the pressure were too much.

Since meeting my fiancé, a whole new world has opened because he has a car. He encourages me to take it on days he rides his bike to work, but I hate stick shift transmissions and it’s too much trouble for all of the reasons I mentioned. As it is, I often wish I had a sedative to cope with the way he drives; I don’t need the added pain of driving alongside thousands like him. Plus I’ll be crucified on the road because of gender, even if I drive quite well.

Today there was no getting out of it.

He needed me to drop him at Kalimarmaro, from where he’d carpool with his team until the race is over tomorrow night. As with all events ending in ‘on’ — marathon, triathlon, pentathlon — it started at the hairy butt crack of dawn. I was happy that my first time would be on near empty roads, but a bit doubtful about finding my way back in the dark since I have great familiarity with Athens except in the north, which is where we live as of a few months ago. I joked that I would abandon the car if I got lost and walk home, leaving my fiancé to find it when he got back.

But it turned out the route home was pretty straightforward, and I quickly regained confidence on the road. Buses pulled into my lane on either side of me at top speed without signaling, and people sped like demons — normal. No one tailgated me, no one honked and no one flipped me off.

My only moment of panic was when a police car got behind me with lights flashing. What would I do if I was accused of stealing the car? I wasn’t carrying any proof of our relationship or that he’d given me permission to use the car. They’d detain me, impound the car and he’d need to come back or I’d have to call my future mother-in-law to come bail me out.

In the end, the police guys just wanted to cut over a few lanes and take the fork going right instead of left. All is well, and it was no big whoop.

So will I be driving more often? Residents of Athens beware. Muhahahahaaaaaa! 😉

In the News

Driving in Greece a parable to living in Greece” — Kathimerini

Related posts

Walking in the Big A
Tickets and fines in Greece
Driving and driver’s licenses in Greece
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  Athena wrote @ September 22nd, 2007 at 16:53

Wait a few years…. and the humor will evaporate. What Athens lacks is civilization, manners, thoughtfulness, cleanliness…

Best wishes from someone who was not able to take it anymore!

  vasilis wrote @ September 22nd, 2007 at 17:00

Well, I’m writing you at last. I was prepared to post about the Greek elections, but comments were closed. Excuse my English, but it’s been a long time since I last spoke and wrote it. I may need to use a dictionary, so please use simple words just for me. (OK, I’m joking!)

Driving in Athens is like an Odyssey. Each time I had to drive for my Job in Athens, it was a different experience full of destroyed nerves and sometimes destroyed cars too. 🙂 Now I’m near Athens -in Halkis- a much better place to drive and live. But Greece and Athens are beautiful if you find people and humanity. Good blog, Kat. Continue.

  arammos wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 01:20

I’m driving everyday for my job. Pagrati – Gerakas. I love this part of my day. I have my coffee, my cigars and pink floyd… 😉

  EllasDevil wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 01:33

Right… Kat’s on the roads so it’s time for me to get myself a metro pass.

In all seriousness, you’ve now learnt there’s nothing to this driving nonsense. I’m sure you’ll be driving like the rest of us before long.

That by the way won’t be a good thing!

  melusina wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 05:05

We didn’t have a car while we lived in Athens (thank god) but I had to drive through it once to get from the port to the “interstate” at some ungodly late hour. It was not a very successful or quick drive through Athens, and I was pretty much terrified the entire time.

I drove like a champ on Kos and in and around Litochoro/Katerini. I hate driving around Thessaloniki. Hell, I hate driving in general, no matter where I am. But honestly, I’ve seen worse drivers than Greek drivers.

Good luck with your driving. =)

  greekamericaningreece wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 12:22

I agree 100% with Athena’s comments. I just cannot justify a reason to live in Greece anymore – I would definitely vacation in Greece but at the same time I would be extremely careful on the road, and keep on saying to myself I am only here temporarily so what the heck, I will be back in civilization shortly, let ’em have it their way, it ain’t worht getting into an argument during my vacation ( BTW consider yourselves lucky if you ever were in an accident and the police showed up, and even luckier if you were picked up within minutes by an ambulance and you survived the famous “Hellenic Hospital Medical Care”.

  graffic wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 14:03

Stick shift transmissions are very common in Europe. In the driving school we learn how to break and how to gain more power to overtake using different gears. Of course it doesn’t mean that when you get your license you know how to use them 😛

I drive in spain usually, the only thing I hate is to bring the car out of the garage, and find where to park.

In Athens I tried to drive an Audi A4, but it was to big for me, I was really scared becase I couldn’t control the space an you know; here in greece if a fly can pass, there is more than enough space 😛

But using a car to go to work is a bit suicide. You usually end parking in a private place an paying for it. And of course, the traffic jams, litters of fuel wasted, that means pollution and money.

I don’t know how people can have a car here

  The Scorpion wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 16:25

In my younger days of driving in Athens, I used to yell, swear, get out of the car and challenge idiots, drive down (wrong way) on one-way streets, run red lights, speed etc.. I thought that I was right and they were wrong because I was the better driver and more sophisticated than the “One Generation Greek Driver.” I realized later that I was no better.

Then, as I matured, I realized that it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong if someone is hurt in an accident because you are still hurt. That along with wanting to keep my blood pressure at a safe level, I made a CHOICE to give them (Greeks) the right of way all the time, and I drive with the flow of traffic and apply other defensive driving tips I’ve acquired over the years.

In the end, once you make the CHOICE, you will feel in control no matter the natives try to do or scream at you on the streets of Athens.

  Kat wrote @ September 23rd, 2007 at 21:43

Athena – I’ve been here 10 years, which I attribute to small breaks away from this country and well-developed patience. To be honest, I have plans to leave. However I believe it’s better to try and enjoy one’s life and find the humor and beauty in things. There are people in this world who have it so much worse than I. I’ll never stop being realistic or seeing reality, but I’ll never stop being grateful for small things either.

Vasili – Hi, hello and greetings!!! I’m glad you stopped by to add your thoughts, humor and stories. What you say is true. There are little annoying things we encounter each day, but there are also nice people and nice things to appreciate. And heck, we can also forgive, forget and move on.

Toli – My friend Niko tells me that he only drinks coffee, smokes and listens to music is in the car, and nowhere else. It’s his way of coping and trying to find a little escape.

ED – Don’t get a metro pass, I’m still using mine 😉 I already had my speed racer days in my early 20s — got 5 tickets in 3 months. When they went to suspend my license, something the judge said made an impact and it’s been with me ever since, so I kept my license and changed my behavior. I don’t give in to peer pressure either…though I’m sure you figured that out!

Mel – No driving for you in Athens then? We’ll pick you up if you’re ever here again. And to be clear, I never said Greeks are bad drivers because you’re right, there are bad drivers all over the world. I mainly need a sedative to cope because of the impatience and speedboy mentality that makes people lose their mind over nothing. My fiance can’t really drive a stick (he thinks he can), jerks the car around, curses and yells at people who don’t jump off the line immediately, passes people who aren’t going twice the speed limit. I find it all insane and unnecessary, and I’ve asked him to stop or let it go because I have an unconscious physical reaction to the experience. I don’t need my life endangered and nerves broken to get somewhere 2 minutes earlier. I reward taxi drivers with more money if the ride is calm and pleasant.

Graffic – I learned on a stick shift and owned a few (who gets a Porsche or BMW with automatic trans? blah!), though anyone who has ever driven the hills of San Francisco will tell you it’s suicide with a stick. Generally I believe it’s better to not own a car in a big city, such as NY, etc. It is fun to drive on the open road though, especially in a convertible. My next vehicle will likely be a Harley.

Scorpion – Wise commentary. That’s exactly my point above — one can choose to be upset or not, drive irresponsibly or not, find humor or not. I don’t fit in here because I choose to be myself; it’s a choice.

  Harry wrote @ October 9th, 2007 at 15:40

Driving conditions in Athens (and Greece, in general) are primitive. Of course, people who have lived there all their lives don’t bother or even notice – take a look at the Athenian taxi drivers. So many cars in such a bad infrastructure means that a typical 20 minute journey takes 2 hours. And this is when drivers have to make up their own version of the highway code.

I was born and raised in Athens and until I migrated abroad, the traffic conditions of the city seemed perfectly normal to me. When I drove abroad I was amazed – to say the least. I would never imagine that things like road surface quality, lighting, and proper signposts would make such a big impression and also make my driving experience more pleasant.

As for Greece, I’m just wondering where all the tax and toll money is going…

  photene wrote @ October 13th, 2007 at 16:42

Long time visitor – 1st time commentor – I liken driving in Athens or in Greece generally as “go-cart” driving – the rule is to just change a lane, speed up, slow and / or brake whenever you feel like it – it works for me in all but one place – Lycabeto – which is a nightmare with the small winding streets which suddenly just end. I grew up in Greece, live in the states, get to Greece every year and really looking forward to spending 6 months out of the year. Interesting to see your notes about work etc., wihch is good to know because I just plan to “work from home” when there – just overseas. By the by – I enjoy this site very much.

  Fanis wrote @ October 18th, 2007 at 00:10

You know what, I really tire of people compalining all the time about Athens, the suposed lack of order, law, coordination etc.
Well for those who find it too bad, please get out. Go live someplace better. God knows we could use the space…

  Ellada wrote @ October 18th, 2007 at 11:56

Woostaro na request from all my brothers ellinares to quit whining about foreigners. Do you forget we greeks were cleaning tables, toilets and be servants for many american, austrailia people in past time. now we have more money and rich and we think we better. No we not better. we should be nice to albanian and others because we greeks were the Albanians of many west countries in past.

dropee mas

  Leo wrote @ October 22nd, 2007 at 20:00

I will be visiting Athens from 11-11 thru 11-24. I am an educator and am interested in visiting a vocational school which has programs in automotive, heavy truck, and aviation. I have had difficulty finding any on the web. Any suggestions?

  Kat wrote @ October 23rd, 2007 at 08:18

Harry – That’s interesting you should say that. It goes back to what I say to people, “if you have nothing to compare it with, you never know the difference.” Ironically, I’m saying it to people telling me how crappy the UK or USA is without ever having been there. In any case, my fiance had the same experience as you when he drove in California for the first time last year. He couldn’t believe what a positive difference there was, and his driving habits changed as a result. Cause-effect.

Photene – Thanks for commenting and your compliment. I used to divide my time, much like you do, and hope to again. Everything seems more tolerable or quaint after taking a break, eh? 😉

Fanis – I never complained, nor did the majority of the commentators. You complained, however.

People like you seem to confuse stating reality with complaining. Btw, you don’t even live in the perfect city called Athens, you live in the UK and attend the University of Essex (probably on your parents’ money). So who’s “we?” It’s certainly not you. Do us a favor — go away and keep quiet. God knows we could use less pots calling the kettle black. P.S. Your comment has nothing to do with the post. I allowed you to speak off-topic once, but no further comments will be published.

Readers: Funny Fanis’ three further comments confirms he’s getting his PhD on his parents’ money, does not live in Athens full-time and hasn’t worked a day in his life. He says when “you cannot debate, you insult.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but if someone tells me and other readers what to do and where to go for no reason and without prior provocation, I and others have a right to respond in the same manner because the portal has been opened.

Also, there’s nothing to debate — his claim that “honest Greek immigrants in the USA” were nothing like the “criminal Albanian immigrants in Greece released from prison” is absolutely false.

This post is about driving in Athens, so further comments should be on this topic. Thank you.

  Yeo wrote @ July 22nd, 2008 at 18:11

I read a lot of articles about bad driving habits in Greece and how dangerous the way the Greeks drive as I plan to tour Greece.

I self-drove when I toured U.K., Malaysia, Jordan, Oman and Australia. It seems to me that Greece is the place that I get scary feedback.
Can anyone advise me is it really so dangerous and risky to drive in Greece?
How should we drive or what precaution to be taken?

  Kat wrote @ July 26th, 2008 at 13:33

There is already an article about driving in Greece. “Driving and driver’s licenses in Greece

Deciding to rent a car and drive yourself while in Greece is a personal choice. Cars are useless in big cities, where you’ll spend more time in traffic and looking for parking. Public transport is best. But outside cities or touring on your own on the islands and the countryside is worthwhile if you don’t have a problem with rising gas prices. “Petrol prices in Greece

  FMS wrote @ July 26th, 2008 at 23:44

My father visited Greece a few years back, and rented a car on one of the major Cycladic islands. Prior to this, I had warned him that everything here is illegal — and he refused to believe it. After terrible difficulty in finding a car to hire (in October) at a very high price indeed, he told me that the seatbelts were non-existent and it was fairly clear that the car was two broken cars welded together (illegally, of course). He was scared sh!tless to drive the thing, as it was clearly a disaster waiting to happen.

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