This morning I played around with an article I had written some time ago called “Greek Rules of the Road”. It was meant to be a humorous piece, flippant even; in it I postulated what the laws would sound like were they composed to reflect the way Greeks actually drive. When I was done I asked my wife to have a look at it; as one driver to another, I thought she’d get a kick out of it. Instead, she didn’t like it. It was exaggerated, she said. She insisted that things were improving, that it wasn’t that bad anymore.
I didn’t understand her reaction, and I pondered it for a long time. I respect her too much to simply dismiss her opinion, so I wondered how I could have so misjudged what it would be.
The answer, I think, is in the comparison. She is comparing what it was like to drive in Greece a decade or so ago, and what it is like now. I am comparing what it is like to drive in Greece with what it is like to drive in the United States.
Here it is common for drivers to go twenty, thirty, or forty kilometers per hour over the speed limit and think nothing of it. Nobody else around will think anything of it either. Sometimes when I am hugging the speed limit cars or motorcycles pass me as if I am standing still. I have never seen the police give chase in such an instance; were they to do so that is all they would have time to do, at least until people got the point. Here it is common, not everywhere but at certain less-traveled intersections, to run through red lights if one can see that no one is coming from any other direction, or to not bother to slow down at stop signs if the way seems to be clear. In the village where we used to live there are some one-way streets that drivers routinely ignore and drive up the opposite way; if you honk at them they will either ignore you, think you daft, or gesture at you obscenely. It is a common tactic on the highways for speeding vehicles to signal their intent to pass and desire for you to pull over by coming up behind as if they intend to ram you, wildly blinking their lights; this they will do even if you yourself are already going the speed limit or beyond. Another common tendency is that many drivers, if you with a turn signal indicate your intention to move into the left lane to pass the slow-moving car in front of you, will step on the accelerator and speed up so that they can get ahead of you first before you make your move.
These habits, which are so second nature here that people don’t even give them a thought, would be appalling to US drivers. It wouldn’t be long before the perpetrators of such deeds lost their licenses and faced huge fines. But here, there is no basis for comparison. Yes, I might admit that things have gotten slightly better than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but then again, things go in cycles. I remember several years back, for a week or so, police were stopping motorcycle riders everywhere for not having helmets – and fining them too, I heard. Now they drive with or without helmets with impunity, according to taste. True, a few more might wear helmets than used to do so in the past, but then again, many do not, and they are not called to task for it. I have heard of the odd occasion when the police stopped drivers for infractions and fined them; but, as I say, it was the exception – so unusual as to become a topic of conversation. Usually when police set up checkpoints they are looking for illegal immigrants, or for vehicles without proper papers. A year or two ago signs appeared everywhere on the highways warning that speeds were being checked by radar; I have yet to hear of anyone brought to task for an infraction, or to see anyone slow down because of the signs.
Having said all this, however, I must add that it is not too difficult to navigate Greek roads. One adjusts; one goes with the flow, gets used to doing what the other drivers are doing. By this I don’t mean flagrantly breaking the law as the worst of the offenders do; no, I mean carrying on about one’s business and avoiding the frequent nut-cases on the roads.
This also brings to mind what I have noticed as both good and bad points of Greek character. Greeks can be friendly, magnanimous, helpful, willing to bend rules for friends, neighbors, relatives, and other acquaintances, loving freedom more than rules and restrictions; however, they can also be stubborn, irascible, feisty, and bull-headed. Both their good and bad traits manifest themselves on the road.
Americans though, for all their love of freedom, are much quicker to obey rules, to stand in a straight line and wait their turn, to accept whatever correction authority might deem proper to give.
I believe that part of this tendency among Greeks to take rules lightly stems from the fact that many, at least here in Thessaloniki, just in the last generation, have moved here from villages. In the villages it is standard practice to bend rules; after all, everyone knows everyone and can predict what they will do and when they will do it. If you see your friend by the roadside you stop your car, double- or triple-parked if need be, or even right out in the middle of the road, and have a chat. If other vehicles come along and want to pass, you leisurely conclude your conversation and then get out of the way. I have seen this in the villages in which we live, even up to the present, with a fair amount of frequency. It works fine when you are only dealing with a few thousand inhabitants. But when such an attitude is transferred to a city of a million people, it doesn’t work so well anymore. Adjustments need to be made. And they will be, eventually. In the meantime, one copes as best one can.