Highway to hell

«Shakira is praying for us,» Costis, my 9-year-old son, said from the back seat. In the rear-view mirror I stole a glance at his little face as a car passed us, heading in the opposite direction. His two sisters laughed as they listened to the Colombian pop diva’s song on the CD player, which starts off with something resembling a chant before sliding into more familiar Latin pop rhythms. But my little boy was dead serious. He was probably aware of my fear and anger. It was the day after Orthodox Easter and we were returning home on the criminally misnamed «national highway» that connects Patras to Corinth in the Peloponnese. I was trying to guess where the next danger would be coming from – either from one of the hasty fools rushing up from behind or some obstacle that might suddenly appear ahead – as we tore along at an obviously unsafe speed. Like a massive herd of animals in blind panic, fleeing some unseen predator, the cars were racing along without any concern for safety. They were almost touching each other in the narrow confines of the one-lane road, bursting out of bounds into the oncoming traffic lane or onto the road’s overgrown verge. Like everyone else who decides to leave Athens over Easter, I expected a lot of traffic. I did not mind on our way out nor on our way back that a five-hour trip took more than eight. I expected it and, in any case, I wasn’t in a hurry. But nothing had prepared me for a game of Russian roulette in the madhouse that our national roads become whenever the Greeks go on holiday. I had got a taste of this during the exodus, when, thanks to the fact that the toll posts at Kiato were operating, cars had queued up for kilometers. As thousands of vehicles stood still in the bright afternoon sun, the only things moving were the cars and trucks screaming along in the opposite lane, headed for Corinth, and those cars that had broken away from the stalled river of cars on our side and were sailing along in the oncoming traffic’s lane, relying on the reflexes of other drivers and the unearned kindness of strangers who would make way for them to duck back into our lane and escape a head-on collision. On our return, in a queue of 34 kilometers from Mesolongi to the start of the bridge at Antirio, as thousands of cars edged forward in fits and starts, a couple of dozen superior specimens of our species would overtake the rest very casually, driving in the oncoming lane. They would leave us all behind and then, like mice, would dart into the slow-moving traffic whenever the need arose. In these cases, the danger to the rest of us was relatively limited, barring the bits of wreckage that would rocket in every direction when the mindless drivers finally ran out of luck and had to confront the harsh consequences of their gall. But on the Patras-Corinth road we were all obliged to take part in the madness. Even when we tried to keep to a speed that the darkness and road conditions allowed, from hundreds of meters behind us the nation’s better drivers would blind us with their headlights before almost ramming our rear ends in an effort to push us out of the way. Others, even more sure of themselves, overtook several cars at a time by thrusting out into the oncoming traffic. But the top guns went beyond even that: They overtook those who were overtaking the rest of us. In that way, we frequently saw four cars abreast racing down the highway, blocking it from side to side, in a sick, real-life parody of film parodies like Mad Max. And all this at night and after the judgment and reflexes of all the drivers were impaired after long hours on the road. There were no traffic police vehicles visible, to provide some assurance that the country had not been given over to anarchy, nor were there any ambulances parked at intersections to remind everyone that mistakes on the highway are fatal. It was a jungle where only the fittest and the luckiest would survive. Enraged by my inability to ensure my family’s well-being, enraged by the behavior of my fellow citizens, I kept asking myself why things were so. The state and citizens are caught up in a dance of death, where each gazes on the other with indifference: We, seemingly surrendered to our fate, do not demand better conditions on the roads and the state does not try to provide them. But what makes so many drivers behave with such violence and such indifference to the consequences, placing at such great risk their own families and the lives of others? Is it only stupidity or does it suggest that for many of us – far too many – exhibitionism and bad behavior are nothing but an expression of evil toward ourselves and others? We are not happy with the way we live; faced with the arbitrary enforcement of laws, we do not know how to judge what is right and what is wrong; we don’t know how to behave, and so, to protect our fragile self-esteem, we become aggressive. For years, Greece has been shamed as the most dangerous country in Europe for drivers and pedestrians. And still we won’t wake up. One can only wonder why even more people are not killed every day. Maybe we are very lucky. Or maybe someone is praying for us.