As I’ve talked about in the past, at times I feel like I’m both Greek and English. My grandmother was Greek, but for various reasons did not pass on her Greek nationality to my mother or uncle, and they were brought up in 1950s post-war Britain as ‘Britishly’ as possible. However, our Greekness has lived on, thanks to my mother’s insatiable desire to be foreign, which led her to move to Greece after graduating from university and living in Athens as an English teacher throughout the whole of the Greek military dictatorship, and then when I was born, insisting that I became as passionate and patriotic about it as she always was. She spoke Greek to me when I was little, and I grew up with the stories of old – the myths, the nursery rhymes, the history, the occupation(s), the food and, of course, the sea. Greece was always alive for me. I couldn’t look at Salamina from the plane while approaching Eleftherios Venizelos Intl without remembering the story of the famous naval battle with the Persians, I couldn’t look at an olive tree without thinking about how Athens got its name; the summer, and Christmas, for me meant Greece, garlic, sunshine, and hours spent in the sea snorkling, looking at fish and coral, and finding 100 drachma coins rotting in the sand.
That is what I tell people when they say “Well, surely you’re not really Greek?”. But, they have a point: despite our enthusiasm, as we would wait in the immigration queues at Athens airport taking in the fresh, familiar smells of our second homeland, my mother and I would eventually have to ashamedly produce our tattered British passports with their miserable looking, faded unicorns and then promptly be told – in English – “Enjoy your holiday”. Getting Greek nationality is something we have been talking about for years, but has always seemed impossible. Until now.
My mother made her application in 2008, but due to our complicated family history, had to wait until 2012 to finally receive her gleaming, Acropolis-engraved little burgundy book. I immediately made an appointment with the Greek consulate in London, and after three more visits my forms were finally sent off to Athens today, and have been told to expect a decision in about six months.
Today was my fourth trip to the Greek consulate, and hopefully one of my last. Having said that, it is definitely a place of great entertainment and somewhere to experience one of Greece’s greatest exports: drama. It’s difficult to describe the scene to those that haven’t experienced it. Mayhem comes close to it however, but really I should explain from the beginning. To visit the Greek consulate, you have to book an appointment online due to staff shortages. This is done through the rather ominous www.greekembassy.org.uk, although this is not the Greek embassy’s website any more. If you survive the maze of drop-down menus, ambiguous translations (and frequent website maintenance problems) you will then receive a confirmation email. Then, ten days before your appointment, you will be asked to reconfirm that you’re actually going to turn up, and if you forget to do that, they will automatically cancel it for you. Needless to say, this is what happened to me, but there seemed to be a lot of vacant appointments for ‘Nationality issues’ (apparently not so popular at the moment), so I was able to re-book my original one.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the appointment system is a lie. Every other time I have been, the people at reception have had no record that I ever booked an appointment, on two occasions have tried to deny me access to the building, and each time I have had to wait over five hours to be seen, despite the consulate officially closing at 14.30 (this is also a lie). Once you get in, they put you in a queue of people waiting to see the only lady there that deals with everything other than passports. So, to cut down on waiting time, this time I got to the consulate as soon as it opened at 9.30am, although my appointment was at 11 and, to my absolute astonishment, my name was on the list. But I still had to wait, and certainly was not disappointed by the entertainment on offer.
As I’ve mentioned, drama is definitely the word. Possibly hysteria, too. That is the way that the place seems to operate, and today the problem was that somebody had had his passport and ID card stolen and couldn’t prove his identity to get new documents, had subsequently lost his job and had come to the consulate to get it sorted out. On hearing this story, the receptionist started screaming “What can I do? What can I do?” and called the woman in charge of passports in, who threw her arms up in the air and declared helpfully “I raise my hands!” and together they made it very clear that there was no chance in hell that this guy would leave the consulate that day with his new documents. He had brought an English friend to testify who he was, but they simply snapped that an ‘Englezos‘ couldn’t perform the task. “Don’t you have any Greek friends? You must do! There are so many in England! It’s impossible!” the receptionist exclaimed. The man replied that no, he had been working in construction in North London for 9 years and only knew English people. In response, the receptionist suddenly called to someone waiting with a newborn baby and asked if she would identify him. She initially agreed, but then stated that it might be problematic that she didn’t even know his name. As this was starting to unravel even more, and the passport-woman came back to shout at him some more and accuse him of having been irresponsible with property of the Greek state, I was called in.
It’s experiences like this, I suppose, that explain why everybody asks why on earth I am bothering to get Greek citizenship. To those that have it, it seems to be like a burden, a chain round their neck that forces them to spend nine months in the army and go through hell every five years to get a new passport. Equally, based on this sort of evidence (Greek only) about how well the Greek state looks after its citizens in their time of need, I’m not really sure that getting it would give me any greater sense of security on my travels. But then, I have spent years collecting documents and having them apostilled and translated at great expense, and drooled over Greek passport covers for as long as I can remember, not really for any practical reason other than that I feel that I am Greek enough to qualify for one. That, and the fact that UK and US passport holders have to pay a premium to visit Russia and countries like Iran which, with my collection of Israeli stamps, I would never otherwise be able to visit. I am not going to speak too soon though, it’s been an incredibly long process so far. But now, for the first time, I feel the end may be in sight. Χτύπα ξύλο.
Next step: military service exemption certificate.