Today I learned the that terror and gratitude are not mutually exclusive.
Today was going to be the day that we finally became legal in our residency here in Athens. After months of misinformation, bureaucratic insanity, and interminably long hours in smoke-filled, inefficient offices, I was going by myself to an office that I’d been to before with a stack of required documents (another story in itself of compiling the documents and the trail they had to take to get to this final step) and the necessary cash, which is a lot more than I typically carry. In fact, it’s more than what I paid for my first car 20 years ago.
As I went into the building, I felt confident that, having been to this office before, I would know where to go and how to somewhat navigate. Of course, I was anxious and slept little because the last time we were at this office, there was a mob scene where the police were called. What we learned last time is that the crowd of people waiting outside are going to an office to apply for refugee status. As my 9 year old daughter put it not-so-subtly: “Mom, I don’t want to be rude, but were you the only white person there?” And, the answer is pretty much yes. It is unbearably sad that there are people from places in the world who need to seek refuge, work, and a life, and that they have to endure a mob scene in a government in crisis to seek their asylum. The office for people seeking the residency of the variety we’re seeking — the spouse and children of a Greek citizen — is on the same floor as the office for refugee seekers, but not nearly as crowded. Still bleak and smoke-filled, but simply not as crowded.
The last time we came to this office, we learned which of the several unmarked nondescript offices was the correct office for what we needed to do and what all the necessary documents and fees were. So, today, with all the documents in hand (no small feat) and the fees tucked away in my wallet, I ventured to go on my own. On our last visit, we also learned that the crowd begins assembling before dawn, and that there is no rhyme nor reason in getting the crowd into the building. Greeks for sure don’t get in any lines of any sort, and people in Greece who are desperately seeking their asylum status are more interested in getting their documents in order than in standing in any sort of line. But the office we wanted to go to was a different office, so today I decided to go just a little bit after they opened and let the crowd at the front of the building thin out, and I could go to the office I needed to go to, which is across the hall from where most of that crowd is looking to go to.
When I say I set out confidently, that is only partially true. In fact, I was anxious — my language skills are barely passable to order a coffee, I was carrying documents and cash that made my antennae pulsate with awareness of my surroundings, and I know how emotionally charged people in these offices are. But, I knew where the offices were located, I had everything I needed, and I was going to the office after the initial crowds had thinned out and gone into the waiting rooms (or so I thought). So, I figured I’d have to wait, and I thought I was up for the language challenges that would inevitably arise.
I walked into the building, listening to an NPR podcast on my iPhone about the latest Lars Von Trier hedonistic cinematic offering — could I be more ridiculously, stereotypically, stupidly American? But really, it was my armor against the fear. I took off the earbuds when I saw that the stairwell I needed to get to was packed. Packed is the only word that accurately describes the absolute crush of people that made the stairway impassable. Somehow, I thought that taking the elevator was a good idea, because in that moment I thought that I would get out of the elevator, and turn left into the office I needed to get into, while everyone else was needing to get into the office to the right of the elevator.
When the (typically Greek tiny) elevator came, I pushed myself inside. The people in the elevator, puzzled, looked at me, and said incredulously “Pano?!” which means “Up?!” and I should have taken that as a sign. Mustering up my confidence, I answered yes I was going up. That is the point where the terror began. We went up one floor, and the crush of people outside blocked the elevator door from opening. I was packed in an elevator with 6 people, and we could not open the door due to the mob of people outside. Even as I shouted that I was going in the other direction (the door to the office I needed to go to was about 10 feet, and probably 10 people were between me and that door). Somehow, two of the people in the elevator pushed their way out. I made it about half way out of the elevator (under the arm of the very strong man who was holding it open as far as he could, against the pushing of the crowd outside), and as I came back in, my backpack got stuck outside while I was inside. I could barely open the door to get the backpack into the elevator, but I managed to salvage my backpack. We finally (the four remaining in the elevator) went up another floor.
I got off on this floor. At this point, there is no way down (I do not want to get back on to the Elevator of Terror) because the staircase was a mess of people, pushing and not giving way. So, I went into the office directly above the office I want to be in. It is a big empty space, and I merely want to be about 20 feet below where I am standing, but there is no way to get there. I try asking people, but everyone is trying to take care of their own issues, so I am completely ignored. I am calling Yannis, trying not to be hysterical (not being so successful there) and asking if I am on the right floor, because now I’m doubting myself.
I keep returning to check on the impassable stairway, and nothing is changing. People are smoking and pushing and the smell is unbearable. My heart is breaking for the desperation that everyone feels. I am grateful that I am not a refugee from war or poverty. I am grateful that I have a (unheated, but warm with love) home to go back to. I am grateful that I reliably know where my next meal is coming from (and it’s often from the amazing kitchen of Yiayia). I am grateful that I have the documents and cash needed to be here legally.
However, I am terrified. Terrified that I can’t get out of this office. Terrified that I almost got stuck in a crowded elevator in an unbelievably crowded stairwell. Realizing that I would not be getting anything done, I decided that I would just leave and come back another time, or see about calling an attorney to help navigate the process. I tried to get out of the stairwell into the atrium of the building (away from the stairwell), hoping that I’d find another stairwell, hopefully passable. However, the terror only intensified when I found that those doors were locked. Now, the crowd was on the stairs going up another level. I was truly trapped. Everyone in the stairwell was, unless the crowd started moving in the opposite direction. There was no way out of the building.
This is when I think I got to be hysterical (funny side note: Hysteria comes from the Greek, ὑστέρα “hystera” = uterus, and a hysterectomy is when doctors remove the part of the body that makes a woman “hysterical”). I called Yannis again, and by now I was a crying mess. Not only was I not going to be unable to complete the paperwork we needed to be legal, I was stuck in an office with no way out and an angry, desperate crowd. I went again into the inner office with the woman who is yelling at everyone to get out, and she ushers me out, not listening to me tell her that the glass door out of the stairwell is locked. She tells me to calm down, that the police are on their way as she leads me out. When she sees that the glass door leading out of the stairwell is locked, her face falls, and she sees why I am crying.
So, this is where it’s helpful to be a hot mess of weepiness in this country. People here can hardly deal with a crying toddler, much less a middle-aged woman in the throes of a full on panic attack. There is no candy in the world that will calm me down. So, the nice women in this back office lead me back to the office to sit down while they call the building management to open that door. Again, Yannis calls, helpless that I am literally stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare mob scene. Finally, the women (who are telling me to calm down, not to cry, because, clearly being upset is an *unreasonable* response to this insanity) let me know that the glass door is open, and that I can get out of the building via the fire stairs in the back of the building.
Getting through those glass doors, with tears streaming down my face, there is a moment of absurd comedy. A man stops me. He appears to be African. He speaks Greek to me. With bloodshot eyes, I say in Greek: Sorry, I don’t understand Greek. He then asks, in English: oh, you speak English. Yes, I do, I say. Oh, are you a lawyer? Can you help me? He asks. I am not sure whether to laugh out loud or cry more. I don’t even speak nor understand Greek, but he is in such desperate need for an attorney that, simply by looking the part, he thinks I can help. I apologize to him and turn around to leave. The absurdity of this entire situation would make Samuel Beckett’s head spin and provide Stan and Laurel with new material.
As I leave the building, having accomplished nothing, tears still streaming down my cheeks, I am filled with a mixture of emotions. Frustration, that I didn’t accomplish the goal and that we are verging on being illegal in this country, no matter how hard I am trying to follow all the rules. Terror at the hell that people must endure to escape their particular nation’s hell.
And I’d like to say that most of all I feel gratitude, but I can’t because I don’t. Because really, we are lucky that we have comfortable beds, great friends, the opportunities to travel, reliable safe drinking water, and all the trappings of a first world existence. But, seeing what life could be like if I were born in a place like Syria or Afghanistan and risked my life to get to a European country in crisis and not so hospitable to outsiders, fills me with sorrow. My gratitude for what I have is borne out of the luck of the draw of the country of my birth. And while I am immeasurably grateful, it just seems wrong to feel that gratitude as I leave the building, calling a friend for a referral for a lawyer, calling my mother in law to come back to this office with me another time, and knowing that I can always return home from this adventure we have chosen.
I have options, and the real terror in life is not having those options, and having no choice but to wait in that crowded, smoky, stinky, scary stairwell hoping that a beleaguered bureaucrat will stamp your documents and allow you to feel at home in a foreign land.