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Paperwork and Patience

Greek Post-Wedding Paperwork

 

Our marriage behind us, and our wedding legally registered, it was urgent that we proceed with the paperwork required for me to stay in Greece longer than the 90-days allowed for Americans.  Without that permission, married or not, I would have to leave again.

 

Greek calendar pages. The days are flying by.

 

Several readers have asked about citizenship, but that’s a long way off.  After living continuously in Greece for eight years, I will be able to apply for Greek citizenship which involves a Greek language proficiency test and plenty of paperwork.

 

Austerity measures have closed many government offices in the smaller towns like Molyvos, so most official paperwork needs to be completed in Mytilini, the capital city of Lesvos.  For us, this means a 90-minute-bus-ride to the city which first ascends a windy narrow road offering spectacular views of rocky landscapes and olive trees for as far as the eye can see.  Then we enter the flatland where we pass the Bay of Kalloni, a massive lagoon teeming with wildlife (including flamingos!) and the place where Aristotle observed and wrote the first theories of biology in the history of science.  Finally, we arrive in the bustling port city of Mytilini.

 

I’d been warned about paperwork in Greece and the incredible and sometimes insurmountable levels of bureaucracy which stifle progress, but it was amazing to actually experience it.  I’m also aware that I couldn’t have had it any easier, being a passport-holding American married to a Greek citizen is about the easiest path possible to get permission to stay in Greece and yet, still — wow.  Although, these days, I doubt if it would be any easier if Stelios were trying to stay with me in the United States.

 

After arriving in Mytilini, we rush from the bus to our first government office, landing at the back of a long line of people.  Waiting, I scan the gloomy and sparse beige surroundings.  Joyless, like most government offices.  Signs in English declare that people must speak Greek or bring an interpreter.  The line leads us to the window where I meet my first government employee (she will forever be in my heart).

 

 

The middle-aged woman behind the plate glass was disguised by a motherly appearance; she had a salon-coiffed hairdo and a gold crucifix hanging gently around her neck and falling onto a fuzzy red tight-knit sweater.  She looked so sweet.

 

After presenting our papers through the window and Stelios asking one question, she glanced at the papers, quickly sorting them into stacks.  Within seconds she was yelling at us which continued for what seemed like an eternity while shoving the papers back through the window hole and dismissing us.  Of course, I couldn’t understand a thing or comprehend what we had done to deserve such a response.  Stelios continued to try and ask a question, but to no avail; we were dead to her as her dark eyes peered over my shoulder to the next in line.

 

With a huge collection of papers clutched in my hands, we left the office and walked out onto the sun-saturated street edging the sparkling harbor.  I realized I was shaking.  What was that?

 

Stelios was unfazed.  Using our usual broken-English/broken-Greek communication style I understood that we needed another paper from another office before returning to her — a twenty-minute walk to get that paper. And twenty minutes back.  Off we go.  Can’t wait to see her again.

 

Lucky for us, we had to see her four times that day.  Each time we psyched ourselves up by talking about how we were going to visit the “sweet lady who was full of love and helpfulness”.  Humor helps.  This “fake it till you make it” strategy worked because she slowly softened and by our fourth visit you can be damned sure we had our papers in order and she was kind and efficient and we left with what we needed.  Persistence is essential.  Eternal thanks to the sweet lady who was full of love and helpfulness.

 

Continuing on, we went to office after office, waiting in lines that seemed meaningless.  People would shove their way to the front or stand next to us in front of the plate-glass window, their breath kissing my cheek, demanding immediate attention while interrupting our business.  Apparently, this is normal and the only way one gets things done.  I watched in shocked horror as Stelios pulled this same move, interrupting other people, and all my rigid sensibilities about proper etiquette and politeness vaporized.  Clearly, I have to learn a whole new way of operating.

 

I was amazed to discover that when office workers yell at people, citizens yell back.  What delightful passion!  There is no hiding the frustration on both sides.  It’s going to take me a long time to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to understand that in Greece yelling does not necessarily mean anger.  It’s just a more enthusiastic way of communicating.

 

To further destroy my rigid beliefs about how things should be done, citizens bypassed the plate-glass windows completely and walked through the employees only door directly into the office, forming another line inside the office where people got immediate attention.  This was an insanity I’d never experienced before and confusion and frustration rippled through my body clogging in my throat and choking me.  All my expectations about how things should work were confronting a new reality and it hurt!  That’ll teach me about the suffering caused by having rigid expectations (for the millionth time).  Going with the flow, or lack of it, would be a better choice.

 

Without fail, every office we visited needed just one more paper which was usually a paper that was taken by another office that we had just left.  Across town.  Maddening does not begin to describe it — I thought my head was going to explode.  Admittedly, patience is not one of my virtues.  Sega, sega, Laura. Slowly, slowly.  Surely, we walked 20 miles that day.

 

By 4 PM, it was clear that what we thought could be done in one day would not get accomplished.  So we booked a hotel for the night and enjoyed our time in the “big city”.

 

The next day, refreshed, we began again.  The walking continued, as did the shuffling from one office to the next.  In each place, I was signing documents I could not read and that Stelios could not translate because he doesn’t speak English.  What a ridiculous situation.

 

Let me tell you, friends, for a woman who actually reads the “fine print” on every boring legal document, this was perhaps the most intense “It’s in God’s hands” moment of surrender this non-religious woman has ever had.  

 

Several weeks later, dear bilingual friends helped translate everything I’d signed and helped me categorize the papers.  It was a tremendous relief to find out that I hadn’t signed any deals with the devil.

 

Victory is Mine and Ours

 

After all that running around, we finally solved the bureaucratic Rubik’s cube and every paper, photo, and fingerprint required had been delivered to the correct office.  As a beautiful reward, I was presented with a document that allows me to stay in Greece for one year while my application for residency is being considered. Victory!

 

Also, I now have health insurance.  Which came in handy when a painful ear infection flared up that night in Mytilini.  Stelios insisted on taking me to the hospital and I insisted that there was no way I would do that, thinking of the expense.  That would just not be an option in the United States.  Hailing a taxi and insisting I get in, he won.  To my shock, we literally walked into the emergency room, and within fifteen minutes I was seen, diagnosed, given a prescription and we were back in a cab.  Fifteen minutes.  It was free.  American-mind blown.

 

But back to the residency, we were informed that in two to three weeks we would get a call to be interviewed to determine if our marriage was real.  This makes me nervous not because our marriage isn’t real but because when you live your life outside the box, your whole life seems suspicious by those inside the box.  Anyway, we will cross that bridge just like we have crossed all the others.

 

Jumping ahead, two to three weeks turned out to be nine weeks and our interview is now scheduled.  I’m so thankful it’s finally going to happen because I’m a bit stranded in limbo while we wait.  If all goes well, once I have an actual residency card, I am free to travel again freely.

 

It’s clear that “patience” is this year’s theme word for me.

 

 

It’s worth the trouble.

 

All the quick efficiency of my previous life is gone.

 

The efficiency has been replaced by sea breezes and cobblestone paths, the rays of a sunset illuminating seagulls’ wings; making a show of fiery flying silhouettes, ferocious winds that whistle through gnarled cypress trees, nectareous and generous wisteria flowers draping a fragrant curtain over the streets, an unhurried pace, the scent of jasmine carried over humid breezes, ambrosial oranges for pennies, air that’s fresh and pure, birdsong night and day, time for daydreaming, time for naps, friendly village dogs and cats, the absolute quiet save for the rolling ocean waves and the occasional catfight, a household rich with laughter, and best of all the company of a fantastic person who is, amazingly, my husband.

 

As frustrating as all this bureaucracy can be, and it is often very, very frustrating, I’ll happily endure it for the beauty.  And be thankful.

 

11 Comments

  1. Wow what an amazing adventure. Despite all your troubles you sound as a happily married woman and I am glad fir you. Thank you for sharing your fantastic stories. I enjoy them greatly. Stay well. Hugs from a Mexican friend.

    • Many thanks, Hortencia. 🙂

  2. You took me on quite an adventure, Laura, as I sit here in my small bungalow in Oakland! Your life sounds amazing! Frustrating and fun too!

    • Thanks for reading Karen. Yup, it’s all of that…and then some!

  3. I warned you about the Greek bureaucratic insanity. Good job for surviving it…until the next time that is 🙂

  4. Hi Laura,
    SO happy to hear you sound so wonderfully happy and grounded. You sound as if you are perfect for each other – wonderful teachers, enthusiastic learners and loving with your whole hearts. How rare and beautiful!

    • Thank you, Cecelia. We are very lucky.

  5. Bravo on your persistence and your ability to see yourself clearly! I enjoyed this post so much…

    • Thank you, Diane. Just caught up with your great blog. Your life there sounds so idyllic. I so want to meet you there someday soon.

  6. Laura, ITS so good to hear from you! I have been hoping and looking for an update about your well being. I love your writing and your spirit. You are an inspiration!

    My trip is coming along…I leave Middle of Sept for Ireland ( 5 days), France (2 weeks) , Spain (1 week), Sciliy and Italy (2 weeks), Japan and Thailand (10 days) and New Zealand (1 week) and then return to L.A, then on to JFK for a visit with my kids in CT. now. I almost every location (other than Sciliy and Italy) I have a friend meeting me and traveling. I’ve been to Sicily and Italy so that solo period is welcomed! I have VRBO’s and small places lined up for short stays along the way. All plane tickets are booked (Airtrek) and I think I’m ready to go. Thank you for this inspiration…

    Next trip…I’m coming to visit Greece – and I’ll look you up!

    Hugs and high five and thanks again for a great story…when the movie is made I can say I knew you way back when…

    • Thank you, Mickey. Your trip plans sound incredible – what an adventure! And just around the corner!

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