Yesterday, on my way to work again, I was crossing Vassileos Konstantinou, the street which, further down, goes past the ancient stadium. The only approaching traffic was a small truck signalling a left-hand turn. As I was further up the street, after the intersection, I decided it was safe to jaywalk. But the driver decided that, in fact, he wasn’t interested in turning left, and kept going straight, and kept signalling left the whole time.
When I reached the other side of the street, I saw the shattered remains of a tail-light on the curb.
It’s true that drivers here are inconsiderate and dangerous. It’s not a question of culture; people die because of this behaviour. They know it’s a problem. They just don’t address it properly. I saw a commercial once that showed some elegantly dressed people at a dinner party standing around a table, picking at hors d’oeuvres and drinking red wine. A man comes along and nudges a woman out of his way to get at the caviar, causing her to spill her wine on the person next to her. Then another woman trips someone to beat him to some pate. The commercial was about being more considerate on the road.
I must also add that Athens is a large, overcrowded, chaotic city, and sensible people are often too tired to care any more.
And they do expect good manners from people. Taxi drivers are almost universally despised here, because they are, with very few exceptions, obnoxious cheats. (One of the exceptions explained to me that they’re not properly unionised, and they get the wrong kind of people.) I know people who boycott taxis as often as they can because they don’t want to give them a single cent.
To give you an example: I took my parents to the airport a few years ago, and when the driver who had picked me up realised I lived here, he promptly asked another driver at an intersection to continue taking me. The second driver explained that he had gone back to the airport to pick up a tourist he could more easily cheat.
But the main reason I like living here is precisely because people are not as polite as they are in Canada. Politeness, for me, implies a certain cold hostility, a way to avoid conflict and misunderstanding by keeping people at a distance. In Canada, I never knew quite how to act. People seemed uptight. Greeks don’t care. They don’t have such misunderstandings. If you do or say the wrong thing, it’s quickly forgotten. I feel freer and more welcome here.
I find them much warmer. Despite the machismo and homophobia prevalent among men, good friends will kiss each other on the cheek when they meet. It took me a while to get used to that.
Basically, like the good Dr, I believe that “wallowing in stupidity and working it out on the hoof will always make more appeal than having to remember which knife cuts which meat and which key opens which social door.”
None of the politeness of Canadians would ever make me want to go back to live there.