Athens Street (©2012 Andreas Economakis)
“Ela Re Malaka”
by Andreas Economakis
I awake suddenly from a deep and catatonic sleep. In a dream that quickly flutters away, I am pinned underneath a bulky red Lancia, desperately trying to lift it off of me. At the wheel is a gel-haired dude, smiling and oblivious to my predicament. Every time I manage to lift the car a bit, Gel-dude honks and the Lancia gets heavier. To make matters worse, the car horn sounds like a new age Vangelis ditty. Panic seizes me. That’s when the ground starts shaking, like there’s an earthquake.
Trumpets are blaring in my head and a tremendous pressure is weighing me down. It feels as if someone is sitting on me, blasting air-horns and juggling anvils. What the…? I open my eyes and notice that my cat Rufus is busy cleaning himself on my chest. That explains the juggling anvil earthquake. With his wet paw smoothing his forehead, he looks a little like the Gel-dude.
The horns continue blasting outside. What in tarnation is going on? Has Panathinaikos just won a match against Olympiakos? I live so close to Panathinaikos’ football stadium that riot-police often park their blue steel-cage buses on my side street when there’s a game. Bewildered, I look at the clock. 7:45AM. It can’t be a soccer match. Besides, I don’t hear any tear-gas canisters clanking against the pavement or bricks thumping on riot policemen’s plastic shields.
The honking continues. I shoo the cat off, ready to tackle the day like a bona fide Athenian. First on my list of things to do is find the cretin who’s honking the car horn and give him five fingers. No, ten! I peel the covers away, ready for battle. Bad mistake. I am greeted by an unbelievable blast of cold air, the kind of polar cold that frostbites all your extremities and freezes your lips together into a pucker. I gasp for breath, the wind literally knocked out of me. A notorious bareback sleeper, I quickly scurry into my clothes, layering them on like an attack-dog dummy. The horns outside keep sounding like there’s an air raid at hand. I cringe and waddle over to the radiator. Ice cold. Just then I remember that my apartment doesn’t have autonomous heating. This is true of most pre-‘90’s apartments in Athens. There is one boiler for everyone in the building and it is turned on whenever the building manager sees fit, which is generally for a couple of hours in the evening. Mornings are radiator free, the philosophy here that people will either sleep in late or bolt for work fast. It doesn’t matter if it is colder than Minsk outside, rules are rules. My apartment building is no different, with one slight exception. Strangely, the heat also goes on between 1 and 2 PM. I soon find out that this is the magical hour in my building when the young folk wake up and the old folk take their afternoon nap.
I pull my ski cap over my bedhead and turn on the thermosifonas (hot-water heater) to take a shower. At my dad’s place I learned that you must turn it on only when you intend to use it. The thermosifonas consumes egregious amounts of electricity and electricity does not come cheap in Greece. I’ll always remember my dad’s expression of horror when he got the electric bill after I’d spent a month at his place a couple of years back. I had left the thermosifonas running the whole time, accustomed like a good American to taking a hot shower whenever I damn well pleased. Only after seeing this bill did it finally make sense why the power switch to the hot water heater is clearly labeled in every Athenian apartment. And I thought it was because the pansies were worried about getting electrocuted while showering.
Highly irked by the honking, I step out onto my balcony and peer over the edge to the tiny street below. A middle-aged man in a suit looks up at me. He’s standing next to his blocked Nissan Micra, his right hand jabbing the horn trough an open window. His face is a portrait of anger, frustration and righteousness. It’s the car-honking cretin.
“Ela re malaka! Vgale to aftokinito sou apo edo gia na figo. Kornaro 10 lepta, gamo ton Christo mou!” (“Come on you masturbator! (sic. asshole). Move your car so I can get out. I’ve been honking for 10 minutes, fuck my Christ!”) he yells up at me, waving a hand that’s holding a cigarette. (A note to the readers: calling someone a masturbator or asshole in Greece isn’t necessarily an insult. It falls in the same category as “dude” if properly intoned. This guy however definitely just called me an asshole. And it isn’t even 8AM.)
“Who are you calling a masturbator, you masturbator! It’s not mine, that stupid Lancia!” I yell back, hand poised, ready to flip him five fingers. This guy is really frazzling my geraniums.
“Ah, signomi re file! Mipos xeris pianou ine?” he responds with a goofy smile, his tone noticeably friendlier. I look around for a bucket of water.
“No, I have no idea whose it is. But Jesus, can you honk a little louder, please? They can’t hear you in Kabul.” I respond, blood boiling.
“What do you want me to do, buddy? It’s not my fault!” he yells back, leaning on his horn once more and exhaling a stream of curses and smoke into the air.
Steamed, I reenter my frozen apartment. I feel hot. Getting into a shouting match first thing in the morning does the trick. Maybe this is how the locals keep themselves warm in the winter.
While brewing coffee, I get to thinking about the Lancia incident and the chaotic car scene in Athens in general. It’s a classic Greek problem, with deep roots. See, most of modern Athens was built without an urban plan. That is to say, after the dark ages of Turkish and colonial occupation and the mass repatriation of Greek refugees fleeing the Asia Minor Catastrophe in the 1920’s, everyone and their cousin built their apartment buildings wherever they could, generally leaving nothing more than a donkey-cart path below. The government just wasn’t strong enough to control the rabidly anti-authoritarian Greeks who wanted to build wherever a shovel could strike dirt. This was particularly true in the populist second half of the 1900’s. Needless to say, throughout this crazy building boom in Athens, donkey parking spaces, garages and wide streets were never considered. No one could afford donkeys or cars anyway and living space was far more important. Besides, the small village footpath was all most people knew. Not unlike the rest of medieval Europe really. The only difference is that the Middle Ages were long gone elsewhere in Europe, replaced by the Renaissance and the 20th Century. Not so in Greece. You would think that this free-for all building mentality would change once Greeks started getting more affluent and could afford cars and garages. Wrong. Renaissance, or rebirth, is just a word in the Greek vocabulary, not an action or period of time.
Every Greek I know subscribes to the philosophy that you can fit one more straw on the camel’s back, no matter how loaded up the poor beast is. If you can’t find a parking space on the road, park it on the sidewalk. If you can’t find a spot on the sidewalk, double or triple park. Many people go a step further, illegally saving a space on the street in front of their store or house with whatever object they can find (chairs, garbage bins, flower pots or the merchandise from their store). No one worries that the cops will do anything about this, because they don’t. Even fools know that cops don’t enforce the law in Greece. And when -on the rare odd occasion- they do, then everyone has a “friend” or “relative” in public service who will make the ticket or fine “go away.” Finally, because the streets are so small, many people buy a smaller second or third car or a motorcycle just for the city. Greece has the smallest cars and greatest number of motorcycles in the world because it has the smallest streets in the world.
To confound matters -and spurred no doubt by the government’s own megalomania, corruption and mind-boggling nepotism- upwardly mobile nouveaux riche Greeks have run out in droves and bought enormous cars. Desperate to show their newfound wealth, these Armani-Exchange small penis types are content to spend hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, polluting the air and clogging the lanes. They are also fine with squeezing their Abrams-sized vehicles down medieval alleyways, destroying all side-mirrors in their path. After all, a Land Rover is a Land Rover, even if it is scratched and has no side-mirrors. Stand back and admire my size, you poor sods!
Embarrassed by the government-toppling extent of traffic in central Athens, the authorities have tried repeatedly to solve the problem. They have done this in four ways, all without success. First, they have levied huge taxes on automobiles, especially on big, luxury cars. Instead of scaring people away, this taxation has had the opposite effect on the nouveaux riche. Almost as if excited by this rise in prices, these perfumed materialists have run out and unloaded every last penny on these overpriced cars in order to parade the fact that they have the clout. Many are the stories of families with 2 Porsches and a SUV that live in hovels and sleep on blow-up mattresses. In Greece the automobile is the undisputed heavyweight status symbol of choice, followed closely by the Rolex watch, the ring-side table at a posh night club, the summer vacation to Mykonos and the ubiquitous powerboat, moored as close to Athens as possible for everyone to see.
In its second attempt to deal with the crisis, the government has passed strict odds-evens regulations in Athens, in a ring around the center of town otherwise known as the “Daktylios.” In the Daktylios, cars ending in odd numbers can only circulate on odd days and so forth. If you are caught, get set for a hefty 200 Euro fine. Leave it to the Greeks to figure out a way around this restriction too! In fact, the government’s crafty plan has backfired horribly. What the bureaucrats didn’t count on was that everyone would rush out and buy a second car, with a different ending license plate number, of course. Now more cars than ever clog the streets of Athens and finding a parking spot is like hitting the lottery. And so the double and triple-parked cars on the streets. As if by universal accord, if a blocked car needs to get out, it honks incessantly until the occupant of the offending car hears him from whatever neighboring apartment building he is in. This can take a long time and grate one’s nerves to pulp, but people don’t seem to mind.
In its third attempt at solving the traffic and parking crisis, the government has excavated the streets and built bunches of new parking lots all over Athens. To a foreigner, this seems like a pretty darn good solution to the parking problem. Does it work? No. The reason for this is multifold. Firstly, no matter how clueless a Greek person might be, he’s definitely no sucker when it comes to money. Even the richest Greek will be a penny-pincher when it comes to certain types of spending. I’m not sure if this is a left over from the Dark Ages when my Greek forefathers had to eat fried dirt and pickled thistles to survive, but your average Greek will not drop a cent into something he thinks he can get for free. Paying for parking falls into this category. Paying for parking is for losers. (An exception to this rule is when your nouveau riche Greek goes out clubbing in his fancy car, paying dearly for parking directly in front of the club). There is simply no way in hell Dimitrakis and Fofi will park their new Yaris in a pay parking lot when they can circle the block 30 times and eventually park on the sidewalk. Even if it is illegal, it is far better to risk a possible (albeit unlikely) fine than to pay a certain parking fee. Let the pedestrians use the streets if they need to walk. They don’t matter anyway, they’re pedestrians for crying out loud!
And for those of you who suggest that law enforcement of parking regulations would help curb the sidewalk parkers, think again. The very last people in Greece who enforce the laws are the cops. They are the most visible and ironic part of the anti-authoritarian culture that keeps Greece running like a rusty Citroen 2-CV. Cops in Athens rarely ticket illegally parked vehicles. They only target specific high-profile blocks downtown, where rich politicians and well-connected ship-owners live and work.
One more thing. It is every Greek’s god-given right to park directly in front of his destination. Heaven-forbid if Efthimakis has to walk more than a few meters to where he is going. Aside from risking a certain heart attack on account of the nonstop cigarette smoking, he might throw an atrophied muscle and wear down his new Gucci loafers. And if he parks in the parking lot no one will see and admire his brand new Kompressor. I saw this happen a couple of months ago on Skoufa Street, in the posh downtown shopping district of Kolonaki. A fat man smoking a cigar and looking like he had one foot in the grave (health wise) held up traffic for 20 minutes as he tried to maneuver his big, shiny silver-blue X-5 4×4 onto a bus-loading zone sidewalk, in front of a church where a wedding was taking place. Not only did all the waiting bus passengers have to step into the street to accommodate the fat bastard, the bus itself couldn’t fit down the street when it finally arrived. Only after the bus honked incessantly did cigar-man finally exit the church, cursing and annoyed as hell at the bus driver for wrecking his cool. A 10-minute chest-pounding argument ensued between the bus driver and the fat bastard, cut short only by the symphony of car horns behind the bus and an embarrassed groom intervening. I’ve come to believe that illegal parking is as much a part of the Greek psyche as is night clubbing and chain smoking.
In its fourth and final attempt to curb the traffic problem in Athens, the government has set about creating new highways and extending the metro line. These seem like smart solutions, but they too have backfired. On the short-term, these public works have grievously exacerbated the traffic problem in the city as countless trucks and piles of dirt impede virtually everything that moves. On the long term, the beneficial effects of the metro are cancelled out, paradoxically, by the new roads. Now that Dimitrakis and Fofi can take their Yaris on the super-duper new German roads into town, they wouldn’t be caught dead in the metro. After all, the metro is for the unfortunate who cannot afford cars.
Almost as if they intended to add salt to their wounds, the incompetent government bureaucrats have encouraged the banks to provide low-interest car loans to virtually every mammal with an opposable thumb in Greece. Even more paradoxical, the government always lowers the automobile taxes right before elections, in a criminally obvious attempt to sway voters. Greece has to withstand a car-buying explosion every 4 years, further clogging the already suffocating streets. They call this progress. Truth is, the guy in the Kompressor does feel 100% more important and better off today, even if he’s spending 17 hours a day trapped in heart-stopping traffic. The paradox.
The situation is pretty hopeless. There isn’t a single Athenian who doesn’t list traffic congestion as the greatest problem afflicting Athens today. Nary a day goes by that the traffic problem isn’t the focus of every single TV channel in the evening news. My favorite is ALTER TV, a fun, yellow press station on the verge of bankruptcy that plays anthemic music over its broadcasts and has a hilarious muckraking mono-brow anchorman. Mono-brow loves to incite people, especially those trapped in their cars when they are stuck in bottleneck traffic.
Scene: Split-screen. Monobrow in the studio stares at us from one of the screens. On the other, an ALTER-TV reporter walks up to a shiny Jeep Wrangler stuck in traffic. Cameras are rolling live, with Mahler blaring in the background. The driver rolls down his window, angrily, and stares at the reporter.
Reporter: “Sir, how long have you been stuck in your car?”
Driver: “An hour and 15 minutes!”
Reporter: “And how far have you traveled in this time?”
Driver: “Three blocks!!”
Reporter: “Really? What does it feel like?”
Driver: “Grrrrrrr!!! What do you think?”
Mono-brow: “Excuse me Sotiris, allow me to intervene. Sir, Mono-brow from the studio. The question at hand, is this: Is the government to blame?”
Driver: “Of course it’s the government’s fault, the good for nothing bureaucrats in their traffic-clogging Nazi limousines!”
Mono-brow: “Does this justify the boys of November 17 or The Cells of Fire?” (homegrown terrorist groups)
Driver: “You damn right it does! After all, it’s all the Americans’ fault. Why if I had a rocket propelled grenade, I’d…”
This story is a segment from the author’s book: The Greek Paradox.
Copyright © 2012, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.