BY BIEKE STENGOS
Bieke Stengos’ The Education of a Wayward Greek is part of a collection of stories that are based on travel experiences with the family. Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN WE HAD the opportunity to live in Cyprus for a year during the prosperous 90s, we crossed the ocean to Belgium where we bought a car. From Belgium we drove to Italy to sail to Greece. There, our car was broken into and a document went missing that was important in establishing ownership of the car. Blissfully unaware of this, we joined a long overheated line-up to get a little blue slip that would allow our car passage onto the Nissos Kypros, which was scheduled to set sail for Cyprus that afternoon.
With the blazing sun at its peak, Leandros reached for a document that wasn’t there and a wall of fortified bureaucracy, larger than the one at Troy, went up. When he explained our unfortunate circumstance to the uniformed customs official behind the wicket, the man sent him the disinterested look of one who had been at his job far too long.
Not one to give up easily, Leandros stretched out his arms and started to plead.
“I beg of you, my friend!” With palms upwards, he pressed his fingers against his thumbs. “We were robbed. My position in Cyprus! The children! My wife!”
The wicket man, with a long look at the line of hopeful passengers, passed on the problem to a higher official, who ushered us into an enormous hall for arrivals and departures. From there I could see both the wicket man and the office, where Leandros now sat down across from another uniformed man.
The purpose of this hall was not apparent, as people were lined up outside, in the hot sun, and with only one man to admit a whole boat. What was clear, though, was our situation and it was precarious. We had an apartment waiting in Lefkosia; Leandros had a job to go to; and the children didn’t find much pleasure in this desert of dirty concrete that surrounded the quays, where boats promised venues to unforgettable islands that dot the Mediterranean like leaping dolphins.
Clearly fed up, our youngest started throwing the most beautiful tantrum any two year old could manage. My arms strained to hold on to her. My face, meanwhile, turned into the very picture of distress because my angelic four year-old was quickly discovering the concept of rebellion. She looked at me with big silent eyes that told me that running away was a distinct possibility.
Wheeling by us, at this point, Leandros uttered, “What the hell are we going to do about this?”
I sucked in a hot wallop of air. “The tantrum? Our little jail breaker over there?”
My arms ached, my reserves were running low, and I was sure that our youngest was just about to flip her body backwards. Meanwhile, our four-year old, who was still looking at me with eyes full of determination, put one foot in front of the other.
“No, no, let them, that’s good,” their father said.
Confident that the theatrics of children would add to the urgency to see us dispatched as soon as possible, he strode off again to meet with the official, who ranked a small office for himself but seemed quite unencumbered of work. From the movement of his hands, I knew Leandros was not giving up anymore than his daughters were. With great skill, he started to explore the intricate web of regional ties.
The next time he came back to us, he muttered: “I think this guy is going to do something. His wife is from the same town as my father.” When you hit on a bond, you know you’re halfway there because respect for a shared place of birth runs as deep as respect for the history of this very nation.
Leandros grew up believing it.
Being an outsider, I wearily looked at the man behind the wicket, who sent a wan smile in our general direction. Then he went back to doggedly processing sweaty passengers while the fan his little cubicle was purring like a cat in heat.
Leandros, meanwhile had started walking up and down the line-up, explaining his situation to interested passengers, who clearly were eager for some diversion. They had been standing for close to an hour in this overheated line up, waiting for the little ‘fascist’ bureaucrat to give them a tiny square of blue paper that would grant their vehicle passage onto the Nissos Kypros. They offered him encouragement. They offered him cigarettes, which Leandros fingered nervously while looking in my direction.
As the Greek bureaucracy clattered forth on its square wheels, my husband became an instant hero. My mind meanwhile conjured up refugees all over this world, who have ever tried to get to their desired place while tending their babes. To keep the children distracted, we walked back and forth to the car: then for a little croissant (my children and all refugee children’s favorite snack), then for some juice, then for a pee-pee in the gutter because there wasn’t a washroom in sight, and then just for the hell of it.
On one of our trips to the cool hall, which remained empty, I witnessed another uniformed customs official with time on his hands approach Leandros. To this day, we have no idea what his function was but it was clear that he had nothing better to do.
“Just go to the boat,” he said. “And tell them that you lost the little blue piece of paper.”
Grateful, Leandros offered him the cigarettes he had managed to collect. After this, he ushered us into our overstuffed car. With this faint glimmer of hope, we drove to the boat only to be stopped by a long skinny young man whose hands were full of blue chits. When Leandros explained our state of affairs, he looked down the straight line of his nose.
“I can’t let you on without one of these,” he said, “and the Cypriots won’t let you in without that missing document.”
When he, a mere youth, who was there to collect little pieces of blue paper, told us that we couldn’t count on the Cypriots, Leandros was fit to burst.
“They had the British there,” he roared.
The young man, who undoubtedly was determined to do the best job his mother told him he could do, wouldn’t budge so all that was left for us was to dutifully back into a parking spot. By then, something had started to dawn on me: the lower you were on the rungs of this mighty machine of bureaucracy, clearly, the more diligently you understood your duties.
Leandros, meanwhile, decided that we should capitalize on the fact that we were now only within five meters from the Nissos Kypros. So, leaving me to fend for myself, he went back to take up the quest once again.
The rest of his tale of bravery I have on hearsay only, except for the part where he stumbled back towards the car some half hour later. Gasping for breath, he began to throw carefully stowed away luggage all over the place in order to find another piece of paper that would get us the piece of paper that would get us the blue chit. Victorious, he sprinted off once more to the mighty men of power while I went back to restraining children.
When Leandros got to the building, the wicket man was still holding on to his position and the man with the Nafpaktos connection was, once more, holding the phone. It appeared that he had gotten hold of yet a higher official, who merited an office away from all the action.
“Well,” he finally told Leandros. “My boss says that all that is needed is to have you sign a declaration of honesty and trust and for me to make copies of every available piece of ID that you have on you.”
To the great merit of these men who found themselves a job in their country’s bureaucracy it needs to be said that no money ever changed hands and, what’s more, no mention of it was ever made. The reward these uniformed officials gleaned was the knowledge that, as a small but important part of a mighty machine, they had done a good day’s work.
And in such a mighty machine, paper talks to paper. The bit about photocopies managed to sway the man behind the wicket, who happily processed every piece we needed. It must also be said that, besides doing a good day’s work, nothing gives greater satisfaction to a Greek than to find a way to foil the system.
So there, at my moment of deepest despair, as I was trying to keep the children from biting my arms, my husband returned. He was waving the slip of blue paper triumphantly in the air as if it were a giant banner.
We drove the car into the belly of the boat and slipped it into a slot so tight we had to squeeze ourselves to get out so that we could make our way upstairs to the reception desk. There, our fellow travelers welcomed us. They congratulated Leandros on his tenacity. Leandros smiled left, right, and centre as he walked on looking like the very incarnation of a minor god, all the while pocketing cigarettes that admirers bestowed upon him.