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Driving, In Retrospect

March 1, 2007

I wrote this back on February 9, 2005

When we decided to come to Greece, I resisted at every turn the idea of driving. I found every way to transport us through, into, out of and around the area that didn’t involve me getting behind the wheel. I’d read many reports about driving in Greece and how dangerous it was. I read heresay about how terrible the drivers were, and I envisioned death at every turn. As it turns out, we needed to drive, so we rented a car and (chin up) we were off.

It’s not as bad as I feared, but it’s a good idea to go over the rules. The primary rule I can see is that when on a ‘national road,’ no matter what speed you are going, you drive with the outer white line between your tires. If someone comes up behind, you pull further out to drive on the berm. Also, not a rule, but more of a guidline, the boy scout motto works well…be prepared, for anything, but especially for people or animals or vehicles (scooters!) popping in front of you to weave through the auto traffic. Many a person has been not killed only because drivers here are always on the lookout for people trying vainly to do themselves in by disregarding the nature of a car. That is – to move and weigh a lot.
Driving though Xania city last night, I felt like all the driving I’ve done until now has been specifically for preparation to drive here. The long distances of open highway with never an officer in sight where there is a mandate that you pass anyone who’s tailights are visible takes me back to Detroit in the middle of the night. The one way, double parked (on both sides) streets are exactly like some parts of Manhattan. Even driving a car, I’m feeling gratitude to my dad, who insisted that I learn to drive a stick shift before anything else. Odd that driving a manual transmission comes so easily back, though I’ve been driving automatics for many years. People pulling around me at a stoplight to wedge themselves into traffic, making a left on red; this has to be illegal…well, that doesn’t take me back to anything but nightmares about bad traffic. I’ve long maintained that Massachusetts drivers are the worst of all, because they will tailgate when you encourage them to pass, and even in the black of night on a curve in the rain, they happily pass you while honking your horn in anger that you dare to not max the speed on whatever car you drive. They all drive like blind, senile people in a hurry…and it seems to me that people here are the same.

One thing that’s always made me nervous about driving in city traffic is that I can’t tell who’s beeping, or if they’re beeping at me. Thankfully, people here mostly beep to say “watch out for me, I’m acting crazy!” rather than the “you’re an idiot” I’m accustomed to.

Last night while walking to check out a restaurant recommended by our host G, we saw an accident. One man pulled past a stop sign (why are all stop signs in English?) into an intersection where the cross traffic had no stop. The oncoming car hit him, but both at slow speeds (it is impossible to build any momentum, even if you aren’t trying to drive safely) and the crunch that rang out was apparently worse than the damage, since both simply stopped their cars, got out to glance, then hopped back in and proceeded in their original directions with a wave and a word. They weren’t terribly shaken; I guess they’ve both been through it before. A man passing muttered something in Greek, which I took to be “they’re nuts” and R said, “they should call the police.” Then he wondered how the police would come and what would happen to the traffic in the mean time. There is no possibility that the police could drive to the scene of an accident…cars are already backed up anywhere from 1/2 to 2 blocks in every direction…would they arrive on foot, bike, helicopter? I’ve seen only 2 official looking people in the two weeks since we arrived, and I took them to be more of the ‘whistle and point’ types than anyone with any real ability to solve a problem.

When we were at a loss to find a parking place and absolutely had to stop, we followed the native path and parked with two wheels on the curb in an obvious no-parking area. We asked the office workers across the street if this was okay, they said, “for five minutes, sure.” We drove off and found a legal (I think) spot and made our way back, got directions and headed off on foot for an hour or so…when we returned, the red truck that was parked in the ‘okay for five minutes’ place was still there, though now there were people getting in and leaving. I didn’t see a ticket or boot…so I guess it was a Greek five minutes.

Two years later I’ve only added to my understanding of driving in Crete. I’ve seen some manouvers which curled my hair, like when an oncoming fuel truck passed another big-wheeler going up a steep mountain two lane road. On one visit to the courthouse, we returned to our properly parked car to find ourselves blocked in by an illegally parked fancy-schmancy car. When the owner arrived 45 minutes later, we asked, “Is this your car?” Her response? “Why?” I learned where the parking garages are in Chania and that if we arrived during siesta, I could navigate the city and maintain healthy blood pressure. I learned that the most dangerous drivers of all are the tourists who’ve heard that ‘anything goes’ on Crete.

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