As 31st December approaches with EU-UK talks dominating the news, I thought I would share this small anecdote…
Three months ago, I paid a visit to a Greek police station. It was a beautiful sunny morning and my husband and I had driven to Vryses, a small town in Crete. We were there to collect our Greek residency cards – so not anything illegal, yet I still felt a little nervous and now, upon reflection, I realise why. Not only had I never ever visited a police station before, but I was also dealing with the Greek law enforcement – a complete unknown.
As I write this, I fondly recall my student days in the late 80s when I had two encounters of a very brief and distant kind with the British law: firstly when marching in Central London against the poll tax and secondly when protesting at Earl’s Court meat market with several other like-minded vegetarian individuals. I’m not even sure they can be considered as police encounters but that is as close as I get, so thankfully my contact with the police has been few and far between. And just to be clear, for the record, I have none.
With the uncertainty of Brexit and possible restrictions on time spent in mainland Europe for UK citizens, Greek residency had fast become a popular topic of discussion and so we had decided to pursue the process to at least get us into the system; nothing would be lost from applying. Having uploaded and sent all the necessary paperwork, we had received an email from the police informing us that our cards were ready and that we should visit the station to collect them.
In the heat of mid-morning, it took a few minutes to work out which building was the actual police station. On the right hand side of the road stood a proud church – clean and charming looking as though it had recently received a fresh coat of paint; similarly, the adjacent building – the town hall – was smartly dressed in cream with terracotta highlights.
Opposite these two buildings was a slightly different story. An empty concrete shell of a bungalow stood within a bed of overgrown grass which had long since seen a mower. This unkempt green mop extended to a second, yet inhabited bungalow. This, we soon discovered, was the police station, a building that was hardly visible from the road as it was hidden behind a metal railing fence and leafy trees. Despite the neglected grass, the well-established trees growing in front of the station gave the impression of wholesome heartiness with a twist of love where lemons hung from the branches.
Approaching the bungalow, we saw a dark doorway ahead where we could just make out some evidence of life and so that’s where we headed. I cautiously peered into the dark room and hesitantly took a step over the threshold and smiled with a friendly ‘Καλημερα’. A hand shot straight up from the back of the room to indicate that I should go no further. This hand belonged to a balding, bearded, somewhat fierce-looking man with a solid physique who sat behind his desk directly opposite the door. His expression of apparent disdain was in fine tune with his hand gesture. At least, however, he did have the courtesy to acknowledge my existence since the lady sitting at a desk to my immediate right must have been so busy that she hadn’t even seen me.
‘You come back in one hour (slight pause) because I am busy,’ the policeman ordered sharply in a deep throaty guttural – and possibly cigarette fuelled – voice.
I stood for a moment feeling slightly surprised, awkward and indignant. If I’d been in England, I would have politely requested clarification on the specific time that I should return to ensure that I was actually going to be seen; however, given that I was a foreigner here to complete an application for residency with the joys of Brexit looming on the horizon, I certainly wasn’t going to rock the process by being a disgruntled customer. I sensed that my reaction could easily sway the decision of this somewhat formidable looking man; there was no messing with him. After he had spoken these words, I hesitated, looked around and walked meekly away, whilst inwardly fuming at the apparent lack of manners. However now was not the time to raise a complaint about being told to wait an hour. Now was the time to step away with reserved British politeness.
After a short wander around the town with a caffeine stop at a local cafe, we returned to the police station an hour later as instructed. A few random tourists were now hovering outside the office with an air of uncertainty of what to do, where to look or whether to speak. Clearly the power of the man inside had got to us all and clearly this was his allocated hour of doom where he had to deal with a motley crew of vague and bewildered foreigners, who were expecting residency but who hadn’t yet perhaps mastered the Greek language.
With the pecking order established amongst us, I didn’t have to wait too long to approach the doorway, but I was very quickly stopped again with a hand gesture, this time by a younger policeman who said that no one should enter the office. Perhaps he had been called as back up?
This time, the balding man (who had forgotten to say hello the first time) had transformed into the jolly, friendly giant; he completed our application and issued our residency cards with unexpected ease and efficiency. My nerves had been causing a riot inside as I hoped he wouldn’t notice that the four passport photos, which we had had to submit, didn’t match. Of course he noticed but it didn’t matter, he only needed three photos after all. Perhaps his initial brusque attitude and the strict instructions for the application were a clever ploy to set the fear of something among us?
Handing us our residency cards, I noted, as expected, that they were dated until 31 December 2020. We knew that this was the case from other people who had already applied (and given that the Brexit deal/no deal was still without conclusion), but I felt compelled to risk asking why they were stamped only until the end of this year. The reply from my new law enforcement friend was a deep loud smiling guffaw, ‘Will you still be alive after that? Fingers crossed, see if we are all alive then!’
Head held high and clutching the freshly stamped residency cards, my optimism refused to dwell on his parting words of an uncertain future and I left with a smile of success.