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