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Strollering Through Athens

From Spearfishing in Skatahori by Matt Barrett

A friend with a baby asked me if Athens was stroller-friendly, a term now obsolete in America with stores, sidewalks and buildings of its towns and cities totally accessible to baby carriages and the physically impaired. It didn't take long for me to answer, that saying Athens was not stroller-friendly would be giving a false impression, as if Athens is merely unconscious or unaware that people have children and a popular way to transport them is by stroller. Because to anyone who has tried to get around the city pushing a small child it would seem that Athens is not indifferent or unaware, but is actually in a state of war with them. Perhaps Athens is merely the innocent bystander and the war is between the automobile and the pedestrian, of which the woman pushing a stroller is at a serious disadvantage due to it's lack of agility and flexibility. But a war it is, and I, being the type who loves a challenge set out for battle. I believe that a battle can be won in this war, with enough intestinal fortitude, a trustworthy co-pilot (My wife Andrea), a child willing to take the risk (my daughter Amarandi, heavily sedated with ice-cream), and superior machinery, in this case our MacLaren B-63 stroller. A standard lightweight design that I would put up against any of the heavier, slicker European models. It is a rugged route that will take us from the shadow of the Acropolis to the flatlands of Kypseli, and back.

After a hearty breakfast of double Greek coffees we set out from the Hotel Adams in the heart of the Plaka. We don't foresee much difficulty in the first leg of our journey since most of it will be on pedestrian streets, but on Kydatheneon we are nearly run over by a speeding motorcycle. Luckily there is a cop at a nearby cafe who absentmindedly blows his whistle at the offender, then continues with his conversation and coffee.

"I guess we won't have to worry about him again", I tell my co-pilot Andrea, but she seems unconvinced.

We continue up Kydatheneon easily sidestepping several delivery trucks, a BMW and a Mercedes. Apparently these pedestrian streets are off limits to only certain cars, perhaps those costing under ten million drachma. We easily cross Nikis and head towards Amalias where we find one of the dreaded uneven pedestrian crossings which even those without strollers fear. These are unsynchronized lights that only let you get as far as the median before stranding you there for five minutes between eight lanes of cars racing by in both directions at eighty kilometers per hour. Adding to the difficulty is the width of the median which can accommodate the stroller, or myself though not both. I must decide whether I will stand in the street and risk certain death, or have the front wheels of the stroller in the street which would merely endanger my daughter from the knees down. I compromise and stand next to the stroller though should any of the vehicles veer into the median I am in a poor position of response and we will both be killed leaving only Andrea to react quickly enough to save herself and tell our tale, upon finishing the journey of course. But after what seems like an eternity we are rewarded by seeing the little walking man in the traffic signal turn green, and a minute later traffic actually stops and we can proceed.

The National gardens are as safe a place to have a stroller as any in the world though our progress is frequently stalled by packs of ducks who cross the pathways wherever they please. It's the one setback we had not counted on and we are forced to change our plans and exit the park on Vassilias Sophias rather then Irodou Attikou to make up for the time these creatures have caused us to lose.

As we walk down Vassilias Sophias, we marvel at the brand new metal barriers that have been erected to keep automobiles from driving and parking on the sidewalk. We are impressed at this giant step in Greek traffic control until we realize that the spaces between each barricade are large enough for a car to get through, though they may still impede large trucks.

On Panipistimiou the traffic lights are working to perfection but there is a policeman directing and nobody is sure what to do, most of all the pedestrians who are all trying to get his attention. He finally notices the large crowd and lets us pass. I urge my crew to stay in the middle of this crowd since stragglers and old people are frequently separated from the pack and run over.

Across from the University there is a small traffic jam on one of the side streets. No problem for the twenty or so motorcycles who deftly avoid it by driving down the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians and leaving us shaken in their wake.

"This is insane", screams Andrea through the din, and I can see that she is starting to crack. It could be time for a break though all the cafe tables are dangerously close to the street. "We've got to push on", I tell her.

We decide to take Acadamias street towards Omonia and possibly increase our chances of survival. We begin to notice that at every traffic signal, the first to race through the changing lights are twenty or thirty motorcycles that have squeezed their way through the traffic to the front. We see them at every light and we are curious. Are they the same motorcycles or is this the accepted style of driving?

On Acadamias we discover that the sidewalks are too narrow for our stroller and on-coming pedestrian traffic to share, but people are more then willing to squeeze against the buildings and allow us to walk by. The Athenians are generally good-natured when it comes to children and are more willing to let us pass then they would be if I was pushing a shopping cart full of groceries. They smile at Amarandi and step aside. I tell myself that I need to get a realistic child-sized mannequin to use for downtown trips when Amarandi grows up.

We cut through Green Park after spending twenty minutes trying to cross Alexandras Street, with another woman who had somehow gotten her stroller wedged between a car parked on the sidewalk and a traffic signal pole. As we look back from the safety of the park she is still trying to disengage herself while trying to dodge the cars that are cutting the corner closely to save time. There are very few vehicles on the paths through the gardens and we feel a sense of security. We stop for frappes while Amarandi plays on a coin operated car ride, pretending she is running down people with strollers.

As we enter Kypselis we discover that we cannot cross the street because cars are bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see. When we find an opening on one side there's none on the other. We decide to walk in the street where our chances of being run over are only slightly worse then on the sidewalk.

On Odos Kypseli we are almost run down by three motorcycles who have made an illegal u-turn into the bus-only lane. We are frustrated by the terrain which is rough and un-even. A four-wheel-drive stroller might be more suited for the broken pavement and shifting geological strata.

At this point we take a break and have lunch with Andrea's two aunts who remember Athens the way it used to be with dirt streets and sand piled high on the sidewalks for the construction of apartment buildings. We long for the good old days and cannot focus on our meal knowing that the hardest part of our journey is yet to come.

We begin walking back down 28th of October street towards Omonia. We notice that many of the cars illegally parked have tickets on them, given out by uniformed meter-maids, a giant step for Athens. We finally catch up with one and marvel at her style of ticketing. Three copies are made. One for the offending auto, one for her and the record keepers at the newly formed Ministry of Illegal Parking, and one copy to crumble up in a ball and leave on the sidewalk by every car. More work for the Dept of Sidewalk Litter at the Ministry of Government Waste.

Amarandi is taking a nap but as we walk over a small section of tiled sidewalk she is rattled awake just as we pass a pile of rubbish waiting to be picked up . There is barely room to pass and in the pile is a stroller that looks like it has been run over and mangled by a tank. My daughter looks worried and Andrea begins petitioning that we give up this journey and take the bus back. I stand fast. There will be no surrendering as long as I am in command.

As we are crossing Panepistimiou Street we are hit head on by a tidal wave of pedestrians coming from the opposite direction. We momentarily lose sight of one another and I know from experience that we have about twenty seconds before the lights change and traffic will be roaring over this very spot where we now stand in confusion. I still have control of the stroller but Andrea has been swept away with the crowd back to the other side of the street. I have a decision to make. I can turn back and wait with Andrea for the light to change again, a proposition that does not sit well with me because this particular light is notorious for favoring vehicle traffic. I see Andrea motioning me to continue on. She will try to catch up with us. "Don't worry about me", she shouts above the din of autos revving their engines waiting for the light to change. Her last words are lost as the motorcycles and cars take off sending the last remaining pedestrian street crossers leaping for their lives. I lose visual contact with her. Though it worries me that we may not see each other again for awhile I know that I have a mission and must push on. It's what Andrea would have wanted.

But without her navigational skills the going is much rougher. Pieces of missing and uneven pavement take me by surprise. I fasten Amarandi's safety belt just to be sure that she is not bounced out of the stroller. We are approaching the Athens market. Should she fall out here she might be lost forever among the thousands of feet that wander past the stalls buying meat, fish and vegetables.

It's worse then we expected. Not only do we have to deal with the cars and trucks as we are jostled off the pavement onto Athinas Street, but the crowds in the market are oblivious to the stroller, their eyes fastened on the produce, looking for bargains. All Amarandi can see is a sea of legs. She's packed in like a pepper in a can of spicy Portuguese Sardines. I don't know how much longer I can hold on to the handles. One of my wrists is badly strained, laying useless at my side. I am pushing one-handed but mostly we are being swept along by the current of humanity. The Mclaren B-63 is groaning from the pressure and it's only a matter of time before the rivets begin popping like metal projectiles from a pellet-gun, perhaps seriously injuring innocent bystanders. We have got to get out of this crowd. But the melted ice from the fish stalls has coated the street and I'm having trouble getting traction, the strollers wheels are spinning madly and the tread of my Airwalks are rendered useless by the scaly fish water. I know that if we don't get out of here and up to the pedestrian street of Eoulou there is no way we will make it back to the Plaka by ouzo hour. Suddenly I see an opening in the crowd and like a fullback breaking through the defensive lines to daylight I am free. I stand on Evripidou Street and catch my breath among the canned and dried good stores. I check Amarandi's pulse. She's OK. Just a slight case of traumatic shock. Nothing a little more ice-cream won't cure.

As I am planning the remainder of our course Andrea bursts from the crowd like an olive pit, spit from the lips of a Cyclops. She picks herself up off the pavement. She's shaken and bruised but no permanent damage as far as I can see. We take a break at a bench on Aeolou street, watching the Athenian housewives walk in and out of stores, some of them with children in strollers. We realize that apart from the wrecked one in the rubbish and the woman stuck between the pole and the car on Alexandras, these are the first strollers we have seen. Apparently there are places in Athens that strollers are an acceptable mode of transportation and places where they aren't. These pedestrian areas are perfect and because they lead right into Monastiraki and the Plaka we know that the rest of our journey will be easy. The trip was much like white-water rafting on the Colorado. We had just passed through the last major rapids and all we needed to do was lazily paddle our way back to the Plaka to our favorite place for ouzo and meze.

As we cross the pointlessly bumpy stones in the square in front of the main cathedral we are all smiling to ourselves thinking about our journey. Not many families had tried to do what we had done and fewer had succeeded. Though we know there will be no medals and no parades we realize there is no way to underestimate the importance of our accomplishment. We had proven that it could be done. Others would come later with corporate sponsors and special equipment and they would be the ones to reap the financial rewards and the fame. But it would be us who they would acknowledge as having been the pioneers of this dangerous land route to Kypseli and back by stroller.

And they can keep the riches and fame because I think I can speak for myself and the whole crew of the McLaren B-63 when I say it's not the money. We did it so others might follow. So that one day all of Athens will be safe for stroller pushing pedestrians. To know that we have brought that day a little closer is reward enough for us.

From Matt Barrett and the crew of the McLaren B-63  

Read Matt's Book: Spearfishing in Skatahori

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