Mount Athos has its monk-confessors. New York has its shrinks. Athens has its cab drivers.
In most big cities, cabbies are about as talkative as subway drivers. But in Athens, every time one of those yellow cars pulls up in front of you, you are about to make a new acquaintance.
Your cab driver may be young or old. He may resemble a sea dog, folk singer or nuclear physicist. He may have inherited the “business” from his father – until recently a taxi license cost about as much as a small apartment – or have hit the roads to make a living after the economic crisis that began in 2010 hiked unemployment in some sectors to over 90 percent.
Despite the economic challenges, cabs in Athens have become surprisingly modern in recent years. You’ll rarely see a driver flicking through a dog-eared map book to find your destination or those who rely solely on memory turning your journey into a mini-odyssey. Most Athens cabs today make use of technology and are equipped with GPS, online calling services and surround-sound stereo systems that initiate you into the depth and breadth of Greek music, from old-school rebetika to the kind of eastern pop tunes that are such a hit not just here but across the eastern Mediterranean.
The average Athenian cabbie views himself as a host in his four-wheeled home, but also as a guide. As soon as you step in, he’ll strike up a conversation. If you appear willing to engage and encourage him with his English, you’ll learn things about the city that are not written in any tourist guide or newspaper.
Your cabbie will tell you about Athens’ past and present. He will tell you the story of his life, his love affairs and childhood dreams; he will reveal which party he votes for, what soccer team he supports and who – in his opinion – destroyed the country, as well as who will save it. And if you too open up, he’ll jump at the chance to offer advice on how to deal with your problems. Even if it is only the first time he’s laid eyes on you. Even if he’s never been to your country.
The length of the ride determines the depth of the personal revelations. A short drive in central Athens may conclude with you both agreeing that ISIS is a terrible organization and a major threat. If you are traveling all the way to or from the airport, don’t be surprised to receive along with your change an invitation to his village next summer: “I swear! It’s the most beautiful in the world.”
Cabs in Athens are still quite cheap compared to the rest of Europe and the US. If you add the experience, they’re a real bargain!