The time has come for my first rant here.
Today as I was walking down my street, I was sort of hit by a car.
I came to a corner, and this young guy drove past. When he had passed, I started to cross, but he suddenly and quickly began to go in reverse. I didn’t have enough time to stop and step back. I put my hand out on the hatchback and leapt forward. I can’t remember to what extent the car made contact. I only remember that the tips of my fingers hurt, and that he hit my leg, right on the ankle. If I hadn’t reacted so quickly, I would have ended up under the car.
In an instant I was on the sidewalk. I turned to the guy and said, “Are you crazy?” He merely looked at me. Perhaps he didn’t understand what had happened. His window was rolled up, so he couldn’t hear me.
I continued down the street, feeling jittery. It was the closest I had ever come to a real accident. As I walked, the guy in the car passed again, and I realised he was looking for a place to park his car. This time I was on the driver’s side, where the window was down. He didn’t look at me, and I said nothing.
When the adrenaline wore off, the anger kicked in. The guy hadn’t even asked if I was all right. Now I wanted to pound his face in.
And it reminded me of how dangerous certain kinds of acculturation can be. Greece has the highest death rate per kilometer of road in Europe. One reason is that it’s easy to bribe someone to get your license. Examiners expect to be bribed, so that if you don’t, they’ll fail you on something ridiculous. This could be fixed by cracking down on them and making sure people learnt how to drive properly.
The other problem, however, is much more serious, and harder to deal with.
Greek individualism and belief in personal freedom are not cliches. They’re a euphemism. The truth is that, as civilians, they are largely inconsiderate, reckless, and ignorant. When you observe them as pedestrians, it’s no wonder they’re so dangerous behind the wheel.
When walking down a narrow sidewalk — as most sidewalks in Athens are — it is very rare that you will see someone make way for you. They just plough ahead, knowing that you’re the one who’s going to step aside. Sometimes they’ll stand in the middle of the sidewalk talking, not caring at all that they’re blocking the way for others.
When I was young, my mother told me that in Greece, the last one in the line is the first one on the bus, and I thought it was funny. Now it annoys the hell out of me. Nowhere does this rudeness reveal itself more than when Greeks are on public transport.
They crowd around the doors of buses, pushing to get on before anyone can get off. When they get on, they stand near the door, even though there’s room in the middle of the bus, so that it becomes impossible for more people to get on. And why do they do this? Because they don’t want to miss their stop. (I’m assuming some people have actually thought about it, but most people seem to get on and stop, not concerned in the least if there’s anyone behind them.) And why is there a chance they might miss their stop? Obviously because there’s so many people crowding around the door.
In fastfood restaurants, when someone has ordered at the cash register, he doesn’t step out of the way to let the person behind him place an order. He stands right there so that you have to order over his shoulder.
In my first or second year here, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about this. He was annoyed at having to live in a city where everybody seemed to go around believing he was the only person who existed. Those were my Greek salad days, so I just laughed and called it the collective solipsism.
I still laugh, most of the time. But sometimes I get pissed off. When I see somebody coming towards me on the sidewalk, I don’t always move out of the way. I walk off the bus into people who don’t let me by, as if they didn’t exist. As the years go by, I become more and more like them.
(And just to be clear on one thing. Although I say Greeks are largely inconsiderate, reckless, and ignorant as civilians, I don’t subscribe to any notion of racial characteristics. I’m Greek, after all. But I was raised in Canada, where people learn to be polite. Even the Greeks there.)