First-time visitors to Athens often complain about the same three things: a perceived high number of stray dogs; the service provided by Greek taxi drivers; and, the traffic. However, with a little background knowledge and advice, these things can just be seen as some of the many characteristics that add to the uniqueness of this fantastic city.
Stray dogs and cats
The number of stray dogs and cats wandering around the city can surprise visitors to Athens, who back home may only used to seeing animals accompanied by a human owner. I have come across one or two people who actually cannot stand to see a dog or cat alone in the street because they believe “it must be unhappy" and would rather have it put to sleep by a vet. This seems a little extreme and anyone who believes this surely cannot be a true animal lover. Of course one of the reasons why there are many of the dogs on the street is that they have been abandoned, but this happens in every city. The word “stray" has connotations of an animal that is malnourished and in poor health, however, it is very rare to come across animals in this condition in Athens. Stray animals, although without a “home", are often taken care of by various people and therefore live much longer than they otherwise would – this contributes to the increased visibility of stray animals in the city. For example, in the coastal suburb of Glyfada, quite a number of stores along the popular main shopping street have adopted a stray dog. The staff provide food and water every day and in turn the dogs feel a loyalty towards them and often sit in front of the store all day long, lazing around in the sun, sometimes even completely blocking the store entrance so that customers have to step over them! Through informal networks of animal lovers in many neighbourhoods, strays often find their way to new homes – most people I know have never bought a pet, but instead just wait for a stray dog or cat to wander into their circle of friends and neighbours. The Greek attitude to stray animals can perhaps be summed up by what happened during the preparations for the Athens Olympics in 2004. There was a significant outcry among the city’s population when there were rumoured plans to round up stray dogs in Athens and put them to sleep. What happened in the end was that many were rounded up, but instead were given any necessary veterinary care, and then released. If you live in Athens and you want a dog or cat, rather than buying one, just put the word around and a grateful furry friend will find it’s way to your door in no time.
Visitors to the city sometimes complain about taxi drivers. It can sometimes be difficult to find a taxi because taxi drivers are quite picky about whether they are prepared to take you – your destination needs to suit them as well as yourself. When you are standing on the street waiting for a taxi, they will reduce their speed and you are expected to shout your destination to them. If they like the sound of it, they will stop the taxi so that you can get in; if not, they will gesture to you in the negative (see my article on Greek hand and facial gestures or you might miss it!) and speed up again. Another thing that bothers people, particularly visitors to Athens, is that once you have found a taxi and are on your way to your destination, the driver will sometimes look for and take on other passengers heading in the same direction. If you take advantage of this practice yourself and get into an already occupied taxi, just make a note of the meter reading when you get in. You will pay the driver the difference between the amount on the meter when you get in and the final amount shown at the end of your journey. For example, if the meter reads 4 Euros when you get in and 10 Euros at the end of your journey, you owe the driver 6 Euros. These two unorthodox practices are not officially permitted and may come as a bit of a shock to some, but they must be seen in the context of what it actually costs to use a taxi. Since the introduction of the Euro, the cost of living in Athens has rocketed, but using a taxi is one of the few things that have not increased in price. Taxis are still so cheap that a much larger proportion of the city’s population use them to go about their daily business than in other European capitals, such as London, where taxis are prohibitively expensive for use by most people on non-essential journeys. So if taxi drivers do what they can to make a living (short of ripping you off of course) what harm can it do? Your driver or your fellow passengers may even have an interesting tale to tell, to while away your journey.
Yes there is a traffic problem in Athens, but most capital cities have one these days. It seems that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. By some estimates, the number of cars in Athens is set to increase by some 40% by 2010. There are some measures in place to try to tackle the problem, but in stereotypical Greek style, people bend the rules. For example, you can only travel into the centre of Athens by car on alternate week days, determined by whether your car licence plate ends in an odd or even number. However, many people get around this by buying a second car or by holding onto an old car, whereas they would otherwise have sent it to the scrap heap. Public transport is improving though. The metro system introduced a few years ago is excellent and there are plans to extend it. The new tram system put in place just before the Olympics, appears to have overcome its teething problems and is now becoming a viable and pleasant mode of transport. Until more radical traffic management policies are put in place, do not let this spoil your time in the city. Just put a little thought into when and how you travel in order to avoid any significant delays to your journey.
Emmanuel Mendonca moved from the UK to Athens in 2004 and is getting to grips with life in Greece. Emmanuel publishes Greece travel and living articles at http://www.athensroom.com/greece_travel_guide.html