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Odysseus At The Immigration Office



Odysseus wasn’t Greek. Well, not this Odysseus anyway. This Odysseus was American. He bus, plane, trained himself to Athens with his matching set of “United Tourista: American Made” wheely suitcases to begin a new life in the ancient metropolis; visa in hand and smile firmly in place. The weather was fair on the day of his arrival with a high, clear sun and a touch of breeze to ferry the sea air from the port to the city center. 


Regarding the procedural aspects of his new life, Odysseus had read a good deal on the hottest expat forums and he had a plan. 1 - Check into an Airbnb, 2 - visit the office to apply for (and receive) his new Greek identity number, 3 - use this number to help him land an apartment, 4 - use his ID number and apartment contract to open an account in a Greek bank, 5 - use his visa, ID number, Greek bank account, and new address to obtain his residence permit, 6 - begin his new life of fresh mediterranean food and mild winters with occasional trips to the sea for some R&R on the beach. It was a good plan, well researched, and his confidence showed brightly when he plopped down on the unstained Ikea couch in his newly refurbished AirBnB just a stone’s throw from the acropolis museum in the city center. 


And his plan began with a successfully smooth landing. He visited the ID number office for alien residents the following day (pictures, passport, visa, and appropriate forms in hand) and obtained his all powerful AFM number. Step one and two, check, check. Over the next week he searched on facebook marketplace for an apartment of suitable size, location and price, and visited several. All owners were a little wary of letting an American move in, but Odysseus anticipated this problem and (from his research on the hottest expat forums) he knew a little financial nudge would get those landlords rolling in the right direction. He’d saved up enough to grease those wheels if need be. And need did indeed be. After just nine days in his Airbnb, Odysseus packed his things and moved them to his new apartment. 


He settled in quickly after a trip to the local euro store and the dutiful stroll through the Ikea maze. His smile was still in place. The weather was still fine, the food agreeable, the people warm, and the beaches still waiting just over the horizon. Next he needed to set up a Greek bank account. With his visa, address, ID number and patient attitude firmly under control he managed - just - to convince a manager at the local branch to walk him through the process. Just two weeks later, his application was approved and he received (in the mail) his shiny new bank card with instructions to set up an online account. So far, his move had been smooth as whip cream, and he only had a single step left in the process that would lead him to his new life of mediterranean bliss. Research pays off after all, he thought brightly. 


But of course, this story wouldn’t be about a man named Odysseus, wouldn’t be a story at all in fact, if he just sailed through life, winds at his back, fair seas ahead without a pinch of spice to give him the runs. Odysseus was a writer after all, working on his second novel at that (the heroic retelling of his great grandfather’s trials and travails amidst the Nazi occupation of Greece). And he knew what it took to make a story worth telling. All great stories really begin with a hiccup.


So - on a fine autumn day, our hero Odysseus searched the map for the nearest immigration office and was delighted to find it less than a five minute’s walk from home. He navigated to the online form to schedule an appointment and quickly booked himself one for the coming wednesday - it was a Friday… This was fortuitous according to his warrior brethren on the forums. Sometimes the next available appointment was weeks or even months in the future.


On Wednesday our hero strolled jauntily out of his light grey apartment building and down the busy street to the immigration office. He found the appropriate line and waited his turn. Finally, after about 20 minutes, he was able to present himself to the authorities. He stepped up to the window and handed them his packet of documents. The bored clerk with her heavy glasses (deep purple bruises on the sides of her nose) stared blandly at the paperwork. After a minute she asked him something in Greek. Odysseus, despite his Greek lineage was thoroughly American, and he still struggled with the new language. He was limited to a few basic phrases and a winning smile. Embarrassed by his lack of understanding he asked her to use English. So far, in Greece, Odysseus had rarely encountered a person who was unable to communicate the necessities in English, but this basset hound of an immigration officer seemed unperturbed by her largely non-greek clientele and gave him the sad look so characteristic of that breed before waving over a security guard and handing Odysseus back his paperwork. 


“You must leave, this is the wrong office for you.” It was the security guard who spoke.

“Wrong office?” Odysseus asked. 

“You must go to the office for your area,” he said.

“But my apartment is very close. I walked here.” Odysseus said as the security guard showed him to the door and motioned the next person in line to step forward. 

“Where do you live?” The security guard asked. “Let me see your document there.”

Odysseus handed over his application form and the contract for his apartment. 

“Okay, for this address there is an office in Neos Adis.” 


At that moment, the security guard noticed a man approaching with a cardboard sign hung from his neck. It read ‘Free assistance, your questions answered.’ The man himself appeared to be in no state to offer assistance, he wore two left shoes after all and he had the distinct smell one receives after a long night keeping the bartender company. Everyone gets lonely after all… The guard hurried off to meet this oncomer and left Odysseus with his paperwork pressed under his arm and a lost look on his face.

But being our hero, Odysseus quickly composed himself and walked home. If this was the only bump along the path, then he would be quite happy with the process. But it wasn’t long before he encountered bump number two; the website for scheduling appointments was down for maintenance. 


“Well, it was up last week so I’m sure it’ll be fine tomorrow. Probably just routine…” Even though no one was around to hear, he said this aloud for emphasis. But the next day the site was still down, and the following day, and the day after that. Odysseus, a little put off, tried calling the office in question, but his call went straight to voicemail. He tried again several more times over that bumpy week but never managed to achieve more than a distinct feeling that no one was attending the voice mail service on the other end. Although this did cloud his otherwise sunny view of his progress so far, Odysseus (being of heroic disposition) decided to set out to the office and just make an appointment in person.


Unfortunately it was nearly an hour away by public transport so the trip was a full morning affair. He got there when it opened, but he was quickly stopped outside by an extremely heavy guard with a grey shirt that, try as he might, would never stay tucked around his belly. This guard had a chair, and in it he sat from the moment he arrived until the moment he left, and no person or situation (it seemed to Odysseus) would be enough to rouse the man from his throne.


“You have an appointment?” this six legged sentry asked in Greek.

“Ah…” Odysseus stammered. “I need to make an appointment.”

“For what?” Thankfully his adversary used English this go ‘round.

“Apply for a residence permit,” Odysseus replied.

“Only online or by phone.”

“But the website is down. I tried calling and it just goes to voicemail. I left a message but no one responded.”

“Only on the website, yes. Or you call.”


Odysseus was just a little phased by this lack of communication. It was, in fairness, his responsibility to be understood in Greece, not the other way around. Odysseus whipped out his phone and typed ‘The website is down, and I tried calling but never got a response.’ into his translator to show the man. 


The immense man nodded with a little jiggle in the fold beneath his chin. “Yes, this is the contact.” From a pile of pamphlets he pulled out a simple white paper with an address (the office where they were) a phone number (the one Odysseus had already called) and the website (that Odysseus had just explained… was permanently down). 


But our hero took the paper reluctantly, inspected it briefly, folded it and stuffed it in his pocket. “I tried these options. Are you sure I can’t just make the appointment while I’m here? There’s no one I can talk to?” he pled his case.


“You can not come without an appointment,” the man said perfunctorily.


Odysseus tried to peer past the man and through the sliding doors, but he couldn’t see anything useful. With a huff of resignation he took himself, together with his useless piece of paper, back to the bus stop. The digital bus schedule was broken. A scrolling message rolled past at such a quick rate Odysseus really had no chance of reading it, so he resigned himself to the wait. He sat down on the bench and let his eyes shut. He day dreamed of the next chapter he’d write in his book; his great grandfather alone in the wilderness except for a few comrades in arms, smuggling munitions from one village to the next.


The following day, unsure how to proceed, Odysseus tried calling the number again. He was met, as always, with the familiar beep of the answering service and he ended the call. But before he could leave his ‘phone’ app he noticed something strange. The contact for the number he’d called had a long string of symbols and letters in the section labeled ‘home.’ It was meaningless gibberish, but for some reason he decided to expand that field to see what else might be written there. When he did, he found that what he’d in fact seen was the tail end of a very long web address. It wasn’t listed as a link so he had to copy and paste it into a web browser, but the url took him to a very old website with a single page. It appeared as though it hadn’t been updated since the 1990’s. That original, simple, html structure was still intact. Near the bottom of the page he found an email address. It wasn’t clear whose inbox the email was addressed to but he quickly wrote out a message. “Hello, I’d like to set up an appointment for a residence permit application at the Neos Adis immigration office. My name is Odysseus Smith, and my AFM number is 187934823. Thank you,” Odysseus read it back to himself and hit send.


Days passed.

Weeks passed. Finally after more than two weeks, Odysseus awoke one morning with a response awaiting his attention. It listed the documents he would need and told him his appointment had been booked for the end of the month. Lucky again! He thought. So quick each time!


But there was a snag. He would need a birth certificate. He had a photocopy but he wasn’t sure if that was official enough. How have I never read about this in the forums before?


Odysseus’ reply: “Hello, I’m happy to attend the appointment at the stated time, but I don’t have a birth certificate. Is a photocopy allowable? Thank you for your time, Odysseus Smith”


Days passed. 

A week passed. 

Finally, on Monday morning the following week he was delighted to see the familiar notification in his email. He’d received a reply: “Original certificate required.”


This was a problem. Even if he could get one from his home town hospital, it would never arrive in time unless he could convince them to send it overnight at great cost. But our hero was not one to shrink at such an obstacle, so that afternoon (When the people of the North American continent had all awoken) he made a call to the hospital. “Of course we can send a copy to you hon, but we won’t be able to send it via express service, especially not to Greece.” 


“Yes, I see the issue,” he consoled. “Hmmm, what if I give you my mother’s address. She can send it via express.”


“Absolutely hon, what’s her address? And I’ll need a credit card number from you for the 20 dollar fee.”


Odysseus gave both dutifully and hung up with a gracious, “Thank you very much, you’ve been a great help.”


The administrator at the hospital where Odysseus was born acted swiftly and just a few days later a message arrived: “Got the gift certificate in the mail, I’ll overnight it to you tomorrow. *birth certificate, stupid auto correct!” And sure enough, three days and 120 dollars later, the piece of paper was dumped unceremoniously on the ground in Odysseus’ apartment building. This was to be expected, of course.


Early on, Odysseus discovered that the invention of the mailbox hadn’t found its way to Greece yet, so everyone had their mail thrown on the ground or (in the more civilized buildings) piled on a narrow shelf with everyone else’s mail. Odysseus’ building was of the former persuasion.


Feeling like he just dodged a bullet Odysseus scooped it up and the following day he made the trek up to the immigration office. Confidence swelled from him. He had the documents, he had the appointment, he was on time… Nothing could stop him now!


But as we all know, the stories of heroes like Odysseus don’t ever go the way we expect. And he was soon to be reminded of this fact. Upon arrival he quickly found his way to the correct line, and eventually to a seat in front of the official in question. He gave his documentation to this man, and Odysseus sat back in his chair, hands clasped across his chest in what he hoped was a casual manner befitting his solid foundation of apartment contract, Greek bank account statement, receipt for processing fees, receipt for application fees, correct identity number, correct visa, ORIGINAL birth certificate, passport photocopy, original passport, passport photos in triplicate, and checking account statements dating back one year from his American bank. Absolutely it was a pile, but a dignified pile at the least.


The man handed it all back to him immediately. “You need an original birth certificate,” he said and cast his eyes to the door where he might spy his next victim.


“But this is an original birth certificate,” Odysseus replied, his confidence evaporating quickly.

“Where’s the apostille?” The man asked. “This is not original.”

“It is…” our hero began. “Wait, what’s an apostille?”

“It comes with the original birth certificate. It says it is original.”

“Well, this is an original birth certificate, and it didn’t come with one.” Odysseus was falling into the void he’d been dancing around for several weeks now. The all-too-familiar back and forth of meaningless pronouncements of which everyone spoke so loathsomely on the forums. 


“No apostille, no application, NEXT!” This last sentence, in its entirety, was spoken in Greek. Odysseus didn’t understand the words of course, but the meaning couldn’t be any more clear: get the hell out of here with your insolent lack of correct knowledge! And Odysseus did just that. He got the hell out of there, folder of papers hugged to his chest, head down in shame, quick time march in effect.


That night he researched apostilles. He discovered they’re extra pieces of paper, attached to an official document with stamps denoting that document’s true official nature. He’d never come across one in his life, but through his research he found he could request this extra tag of approval at the time he requested his original document. He needed to get it from the town hall of the hospital where he was born… This would prove to be something of a problem.


BUT nothing our fearless hero couldn’t tackle. If his namesake could handle Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, one eyed shepherd monster and man eater, he could handle an immigration office. It would be expensive though. Again he would need to ask someone at the hospital to create the certificate and then drop it off at the townhall to receive an apostille. After that he’d need it to be sent to his mother and she in turn would have to send it to Greece. It would take several weeks and nearly 100 dollars more, but needs must, he supposed. He tried not to think about why they might need an original birth certificate. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing on it that can’t be discovered and verified with simpler means. 


In the meantime Odysseus emailed the secret scheduling service a second time and waited for a reply. He soon got it, three weeks later. His new appointment was scheduled for nearly two months from the time of the message. Being of optimistic disposition, Odysseus thought, “well, at least it gives me plenty of time to receive the correct certificate and apostille!”


The weeks passed by and the seasons began to change. His arrival in Summer faded in his memory and the mild chill of Greek winters set in. ‘Ahh, to be in such an easy climate,’ Odysseus mused the morning he finally received his original, apostilled, birth certificate. 


Finally the day arrived. He’d had enough time to regain his confidence and he made the hour-long journey up to the immigration office for the third time. He waited in line, found his way to the exact same official he’d met with on his second visit and handed his documents to The Man.


This time it took the official a full ten seconds to review them before he handed them all back. “You must have an original birth certificate with certified translation,” he said without the slightest hint of recognition that they’d met before.


Odysseus, unperturbed in all but the most extreme situations, was -for lack of a better word- significantly perturbed. “But last time I was here, you told me I needed an apostille, you didn’t say anything about a translation!” He tried hard not to raise his voice.


“It must be translated. How can I know if it’s real?”

“How can you know? You’re here speaking English with me now. You clearly have an excellent grasp of the language. The document isn’t magic. It won’t suddenly change its meaning the moment you look away!” Odysseus stopped there, before he dug himself any deeper. He could see, from the completely stone faced expression worn by his adversary across the desk that his pleading had absolutely no effect. 

A rather long second passed before the official blinked and then he immediately called, “Next!” and motioned for Odysseus to take his (now rather expensive) folder of documents and ‘get the hell out of there with his insolent lack of correct knowledge!’ Odysseus stood to leave but he’d grown wise these past few months. He suddenly understood in a flash of acuity, he must ask this ogre what else he didn’t do correctly with his application. 


“Before I go, is there anything else I should do to these documents? Anything I’m missing besides a translation for the birth certificate?”


The king of pencil pushers stared at him for a long beat and finally sighed as if to acknowledge it was his duty, at least in part, to answer a question of this nature. “You must have your bank statements translated too.”


“My bank statements?” Odysseus said flabbergasted. “But they’re just numbers.”

“NEXT!” Similar to his second trip, this was spoken in Greek but Odysseus got the meaning and he scurried away before the tidal wave of bureaucratic nonsense could drown him in its murky chaos. 

Like a beaten dog, Odysseus retreated home. He knew by now, if only instinctively, that this was not the final leg of his journey. He would need his stamina. He would need to build a stouter wall around his psyche if he wanted to survive the madness. 


He immediately messaged his secret scheduler and began to scan the forums (after all, none of the relevant information was listed anywhere on an official Greek website, and certainly not in the lingua franca of resident aliens). He found the address of the translation department for the Greek government. The next day being a Wednesday of fine-sky character, he made the thirty minute walk over to the office and even stopped for a donut on the way. It was of middling quality but he’d spent the previous evening building his psychic wall and a middling donut wasn’t enough to throw him off course. He waited in line for nearly an hour (as was to be expected) and finally met the translation official at the gray, laminate counter. 


“Hello,” Odysseus began jauntily. “I need these documents translated.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t do translations,” came the swift reply.


In any ordinary situation this statement would have sent Odysseus’ jaw straight to his waistline at the least, perhaps even to the floor, but this was not so surprising to our hero now. After all, why would he expect the translation department to do translations. “Of course, if I want it translated, where might I go?”

“You must go to a translator,” the man said. This time his voice was tinged with a little exasperation. 

“Aren’t you a translator?” asked Odysseus with a puppy dog look.

“Yes.”

“So am I not in the right place?”

“No, we no longer do translations here. We used to do them, but we’ve recently outsourced the duty to our official partners.”

Odysseus just couldn’t help himself. “If you’re the translation department, and you no longer do translations because you’ve outsourced this duty to official partners, what exactly is the point of your department?”

“The point?” The man seemed fairly confused.

“Why does this department even exist?”

“To do translations,” The man said as if such a stupid question was almost beneath answering. 

Not wanting to take the bait, Odysseus moved on. “Okay, makes sense. Can you direct me to your official partners?”

“Of course, there’s a list on the wall outside.” And being a thoroughly helpful bureaucrat, the man showed Odysseus to the correct spot.

“Ah, okay, thank you,” our hero said as the man retreated back inside. 


‘The List’ as it were, consisted of dozens of minutely typed names, email addresses and physical addresses printed from an excel spreadsheet. Not knowing how else to choose, Odysseus simply noted down a few of them at random and left. Fortunately - because at some point he was bound to trip over a bit of fortune, if only by accident - the first person he tried said they could do the translations for the tidy price of one hundred euros. The very next day, Odysseus found the office, dumped his bank statements and birth certificate onto the older lady’s desk and paid for the service. “It will be a three day turnaround,” she informed him. 


“No problem,” he said. He supposed it would take months to get his next appointment at the immigration office if the trendline continued on its current course. 


And sure enough, that very afternoon he received a reply to his appointment request; ‘You must appear at the office of immigration and naturalization on June 10th at 14:00.’


If this worked, Odysseus mused. The saga would just squeak to its conclusion in under a year from the time he arrived.


TIME PASSED.


And on June 10th at precisely 14:00 in the afternoon, Odysseus marched through the doors to the immigration office and, as luck would have it, was assigned (again!) to the same official he jousted with in his previous visits. He gave all his documents to the man who looked them over. Odysseus had a good feeling when, after three minutes, The Man still hadn’t said a word to him.


Finally, the official wordlessly looked up from the heap, pulled out a rubber stamp, plopped it down haphazardly on a pre-filled form so that it barely stamped anything at all, signed his name to it, and handed it to Odysseus. 


“NEXT!” 




Note from the author: This story is of course based on my real life experiences as an American living in Greece. And I must pat myself on the back when I say that in fact I’ve gone quite easy on the Greek government in this story. My own experiences were actually filled with far more trials and tribulations than I bothered to note down in this mildly fictionalized account. In fact, my own saga only sputtered to the finish line when a lawyer got involved. Either way, everything they say about the mild weather, beautiful beaches, warm people, tasty cuisine, fascinating sites, and rich culture is true. And it’s a small price to pay to occasionally battle with the bureaucratic dragons in their drab, grey government office blocks when you compare those battles (however harrowing) with the quality of life gained from the aforementioned attributes. 


Happy “No Day”! 

Greece, October 28, 2023

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