Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Athens Portraits: Where to, luv?

A couple of years ago, London Transport honoured 92-year-old Alfred Collins for 70 years’ service as a cabbie in the city’s streets. He drove his first passenger in 1937 and over the seven decades since then I’m pretty sure that he's never followed up his “Where to, luv?" (or Guv, as the case may be) by asking his fare how to get there.

I know it’s too much to expect the same from an Athens taxi as I would from a London cab. For a start, compared to their London equivalents, Athens cabs are dirt-cheap (sometimes quite literally).

Apparently, Greek taxi-drivers don’t have to learn the equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’, the detailed test of city streets and the best way to get there that every London cabbie has to commit to memory. You don’t tell London cabbies how to get there – they know. And if they don’t, they're not the genuine article. But if you happen to find a Piraeus taxi-driver in the northern suburbs of Athens, you will have to tell him every single twist and turn along your route.

Then, you must be prepared for the fact that you will probably share your taxi with a total stranger.

Imagine my surprise, as a newcomer to Athens nearly 20 years ago, when the cab I was riding in suddenly stopped and a granny loaded up with the week’s groceries climbed into the back seat with me! Then, she took us literally all around the houses to be delivered to her front door, which meant I arrived half an hour late and paid extra for the privilege. I wanted to get mad and make a fuss, but my Greek wasn't good enough. Anyway, I felt sorry for the ‘old dear’ (though I now know that if I had challenged her, she'd have given me a run for my money). I just spent the rest of the day kicking myself for being such a wimp.

Then there is the taxi-driver himself (or occasionally, herself). Alfred, our long-serving London cabbie, says that life is all about communication. Not so in the case of your average Greek ‘taxitzis’ (let’s call him Mitsos).

Mitsos will probably furiously puff his way through at least five fags during the course of your ride, despite the prominently displayed 'No Smoking' sign. He may only communicate in monosyllabic grunts in between the wailing demotic clarinet blaring out of his radio – or he will take one look at your face, decide you're a good listener and tell you his life story, including his trials and tribulations dealing with the ingrate public.

In my experience, we then play the ‘Apo pou eisai?’ (‘Where are you from?’) game. Invariably, the first guess is the States (despite the fact that my accent owes much more to the Home Counties than those Good Ole Boys Back Home), but in my time here I have been labeled Dutch, Swedish, Australian, Irish, French, German, Russian, Slovakian and Albanian.
No wonder I get confused!

When I finally reveal that I’m English, I'll either be berated for everything from the Elgin Marbles to Maggie Thatcher, or subjected to a love poem dedicated to my homeland, on the basis of a week Mitsos spent in Southampton back in 1973, when he was a merchant seaman.

All this time, the meter is running…… Tick, tick, tick…

I never said that Mitsos is Athens' answer to Alfred Collins, but he's certainly an experience.

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