Sitting in the border control office at the Athens airport on my back from Turkey, having just been informed that, since I had violated the rules of my tourist visa, there was absolutely no way that I could be allowed to re-enter the country, I considered my situation. I had packed for a quick trip across the water to Turkey, so had a carry-on bag with two days’ worth of dirty clothes, a phone that would soon die and no charger (why would I need a charger for a two day trip during which I wouldn’t even use my phone?), an Ipad with a dead battery and no charger, a bank card, a credit card, and 80 Turkish lire. Where would I go? Fly to the States and land on a friends’ doorstep somewhere, asking them to put me up for three months until I was legally able to return to Greece? To Mexico where we had lived for a few years? Back to Turkey, where I didn’t know a soul and didn’t speak a single word of the language? I had no idea.
I have written previously about my somewhat humorous, somewhat confusing experiences with Greek border officials as I have periodically entered and left the common European (“Schengen”) migration zone. But there was nothing funny at all about this latest experience, when I thought I was actually going to be deported.
I knew it wasn’t a good sign when, at passport control, the officer began scrutinizing all the stamps in my passport. This meant that, once again, I would have to go through the complicated explanation that I was married to a Greek citizen, was in the country in order to help care for my elderly and disabled Greek mother-in-law, and that I had been prevented thus far from obtaining my residency permit due to a conflict between the name on my wife’s Greek identity card and on her U.S. passport. In previous such passport control conversations, the words “Greek mother-in-law” or “Greek wife” had had a magical effect, causing the entry/exit doors to open wide with a smile.
“You have exceeded your permitted number of days,” the border official said, as he paged through my passport, reviewing the dates on each entry and exit stamp into Greece.
“But I was in the country less than 90 days, then left, now I’m coming back again. I haven’t exceeded my maximum of 90 days,” I protested.
“You are only allowed 90 out of every 180 days on a tourist visa. You overstayed your time. There is no way we can allow you into the country.”
This was news to me—in all my previous conversations with Greek border officials they had often mentioned the 90 day limit, but never the 180 day clause. I had had numerous conversations with my friend B. who had been living in Europe for the better part of 15 years, without ever having a residency visa, and he had never mentioned the 90/180 day rule. (He later told me that this was almost never enforced with US passport holders in Europe, but that the Greeks had recently begun to crack down on their borders.) But I had been through this before and was confident that my story would open the doors again.
I was brought into a back room with a young man who appeared to be the chief officer, who repeated that I could not be allowed into the country. I asked him if I might be allowed to explain my situation.
“You can explain what you want, but there is no way that I can allow you to enter the country.” At this point, I began to realize that this was serious. I explained my story, half in Greek, half in English, in an attempt to establish my credentials as a bona fide member of the Greek tribe.
“Do you have any paper showing that you are married to a Greek woman?” No. “Any paper from the Greek government showing that your residency papers are in process?” No.
“Okay, so where would you like to go? Do you have a home in the U.S. that you want to go to?”
He was serious. He really was planning on deporting me somewhere. At this point, I realized that my best strategy was to beg and grovel. I apologized for my screw-up and promised that if he released me, I would immediately begin pursuit of my residency papers. I did my best to look pathetic, miserable, and contrite, which was not difficult because, in fact, I felt thoroughly pathetic and miserable, if not 100% contrite, since I didn’t feel that it was entirely my fault that the Greek courts were demanding of my wife a paper certifying that her ex-husband has never appealed the divorce to which he had voluntarily agreed many, many years ago, a paper which did not exist and would never exist. Without this paper, it seemed, I would be stuck in limbo, unable to prove that I was legally married to my wife, despite the marriage certificate we had presented with all the requisite internationally approved seals, and that she was not practicing bigamy.
Unlike in an American border interrogation, I imagined, I had been allowed to keep my phone and had begun frantically texting my wife, who was waiting to pick me up outside the airport. She sent me our family attorney’s phone number and, within a few minutes, I was able to get her on the phone. Meanwhile I overheard the hard-nosed official talking about my case with a colleague. I heard him mention Romania. Were they really going to put me on a plane to Romania? Is that where Americans who overstay their visas are generally sent?
I put my attorney on the phone with the border official. I tried to read the signs on his face to figure out if I had any hope of getting out of there. He scowled, he grimaced, he looked skeptical. But then something changed. “I see, yes. Um-hmm. Okay, okay. Well, fax me those papers now and I’ll have a look at them.”
After a couple more conversations with the attorney and a couple faxes, they told me to get my wife on the phone. They told her where to meet one of their agents and sent someone out to bring her back to the office. After being convinced that we were, in fact, a legitimate married couple, the official’s entire manner changed. He bantered with my wife in the usual Greek way about family origins. “Your father is from Volos, you say? What do you know, my family is from right near there…”
Our attorney’s explanation of the vagaries of the Greek court system and the presence in the flesh of my apparently genuinely Greek wife were enough to persuade him that I was a member of the tribe. I was finally released. “Get him papers,” were the official’s final words to my wife.
I couldn’t really complain about the border security official. After all, I had been complaining constantly since arriving in Greece that no one in this country seemed capable of either following rules or enforcing them consistently. I had to respect the fact that he was doing his job of enforcing the visa rules as written, not by some arbitrary interpretation of them, which seems to be the common practice among both Greek and other Schengen Zone border officials. And that he was applying the law evenly to me, a pale-skinned American who claimed to be married to a Greek woman, just as he would in cases of dark-skinned Africans or Bangladeshis. Equal opportunity closed-border policy here.
It was my fault—I had not adequately researched the rules for the short-term 90 day “tourist” visas in the Schengen Zone. I was under the impression that one could simply leave the Schengen area after 90 days for a short period of time and return, thus re-starting the 90 day clock. But I was grossly mistaken—as clearly stated on the Schengen visa webpage, it is a “90/180” rule—you are only allowed to stay with a tourist visa for 90 days out of every 180 day period. No hopping out for a couple days and returning to re-start the clock, despite the fact that many people have done just that for years.
Παθηματα μαθηματα—hard lessons. A phrase I learned early in my time in Greece, but had not had the opportunity to employ until now. Time to get to work on that residency visa. I won’t be leaving the Schengen zone again without it.