Over the past several months, I have expressed my concern about my lack of legal status as a resident of this country a number of times to our family attorney, who expressed a distinct lack of concern about my concern. She suggested that the likelihood that I would be stopped on the street and asked to show proof of my legal residency was remote. Given that the police in our town, as far as I can tell, spend the entirety of their working hours lounging on their motorcycles, drinking coffee, and looking studly (at which they are very successful, Helena tells me), our attorney’s take on the situation seemed plausible. But what she didn’t take into account was that if you leave the common European border zone known as the “Schengen Area,” your legal status does, in fact, come into question, as I discovered recently.
At the Athens airport on my way to Manchester, UK, where I had been invited to speak at a conference, I was surprised to find that I had to go through a border control area. I was puzzled by this, since I thought that all the EU countries were within the unrestricted travel zone, only later being reminded that the UK is not. So I arrived at the booth and presented my passport. The young female guard paged through it. And paged through it. And continued to page through it, with an increasingly troubled look.
“You have entered most recently when?” she asked.
I explained to her that I most recently entered Greece last month after having gone to Germany and the Czech Republic.
“But when did you last enter Europe—the last stamp I find here is from April 6th.”
It was only at this point that it occurred to me that the visa that I obtained on April 6th was for the European Schengen area, not for Greece. Which meant that I when I returned from our summer trip to Berlin and Prague, I had not “re-entered” Greece and started my visa clock ticking again, as I had thought.
I admitted that, yes, April 6th was when I entered Europe, which caused the pained look on her face to become more of an “Oh shit, I’m going to have to do something about this,” look.
“This stamp only gives you three months, you know? Follow me.”
Which I did, into the back office where her supervisor and other officers were sitting.
“Do you live in Greece? Are you working in Greece?” These questions are asked politely and with more of a puzzled tone than a threatening one. (One young waiter in our plateia, on learning that I had moved recently to Athens, replied simply: “Why? We’re screwed here.”)
I explained that I didn’t work in Greece and had no plans to do so in the future—and after all, what work is there to be had in this country now even if I did want it?—and that I was most diligently making every effort to obtain the proper photographs and documents to prove my identity, solvency, and general worthiness as a person and proof that my wife was not actually still married to another man, even though her Greek identity card, which she has been trying to get changed, still carries his name, but see, the authorities are now requiring a certification from him that they are, in fact, divorced and that he has not contested said divorce, so that I can obtain my legal status in this lovely country in which I absolutely would not be a burden and I was beginning to sweat, thinking that it would really be most inconvenient if I were to be stranded indefinitely in Manchester (Manchester of all places for crying out loud! I couldn’t be on my way to Bologna or Barcelona or Paris?), unable to return to Greece, having blatantly flaunted their national sovereignty and right to control their borders. I wasn’t entirely sure they were catching all of my English, so I switched to Greek to say that I only came to Greece with my wife to help take care of my mother-in-law.
“Exete petherá Ellenida? You have a Greek mother-in-law?”
“Why didn’t you say so?” the young official says with a big smile and a laugh. “Exei petherá Ellenida! He has a Greek mother-in-law!” she shouts to all the others in the office. Suddenly, I was a welcome guest, smiles all around, my passport stamped enthusiastically. All a big misunderstanding. I was ushered like a VIP out of the border control area and on to the gates.
I wandered toward my gate in a bit of a daze. What does this mean? Now, whenever I am questioned about my legal status do I simply say “I have a Greek mother-in-law” and all is well? Am I, as my sister-in-law Steph would later say on hearing the story, now in the possession of a special “Mother-in-law class” visa? Who knows? I still don’t know. In the meantime, we continue to pursue the more traditional residency visa route, which may or may not come through before I ultimately leave the country due to confinement in an old folks’ home, death, or other change of plans.