Monday, August 12, 2019

Travel Tales from Greece ~ 'I Got Arrested. . .'

'I got arrested in Corfu. . .' 
 ~ began the Facebook post of a friend visiting an island to the north of us.

For more than a week we'd been following the Greek travel adventures via Facebook of our Pacific Northwest friend. She and her two teenage children had joined other family members on this tourist-magnet in the Ionian Sea.  

Summer fun - Ionian Sea

Her posts - up until this one -- had been a series of reports telling about the joys that a trip to Greece can bring:  photos of Greek dancing at a local taverna, beachcombing on long stretches of sandy beach and posing with happy smiles in iconic settings.

We'd last seen her in Kirkland last February. Over wine we had discussed plans for her spring trip. She was excited about introducing her kids to Greece; a place she and her husband had so loved visiting before his far-too-early death three years ago. We were pleased that she found this adopted country of ours to be as fabulous as she had remembered it..

So we were stunned when we read her final post from Corfu:

'I got arrested in Corfu! Fingerprinted, mug shots, fined 1,000 euro, hired a lawyer, missed a flight. Can't say that was the best way to end my time in Greece.'

It's been a few weeks since her experience and she agreed to share her story with you in hopes of saving others from a similar experience.

Sometimes you fold the side mirrors when driving in a village

Let's set the stage by saying, she's driven in Greece before so she knows how nutso driving here can be: animals in the road, Greeks speeding up to pass as many as four cars approaching a curve. Why she even knows you need to fold the side windows in on narrow streets to keep from ripping them off. 

Road construction stop signs in the asphalt

She also knew the rules of the road - or so she thought until she was involved in an accident near the Corfu airport. She was returning her rental car to the airport prior to her flight, when she was hit broadside by a Greek driver (who managed to leave the scene without authorities getting any identification).  

Sometime you guess at a sign's message

If the accident wasn't bad enough, it was when the police officers asked to see our friend's International Driving Permit (IDP) that things really went downhill, because. . .

She didn't have one. 

Left side washout marked with rocks- warning light is resting.

And further more, she didn't know she needed one as they'd never been required during previous trips to Greece.  

(We know from first-hand experience that when we began visiting Greece -- several years before moving here -- we were only asked once by one rental company if we had an IDP. We rented many times without it being mentioned.)

However, in early 2018 Greek transportation authorities had toughened up the rules about the IDP; they were made mandatory. Visitors supposedly can't even rent a car without one.  Not all rental agencies are apparently enforcing the Greek directive though.(Greek social media sites continue to have lengthy debates about the need for them. Commenters differ as some claim they were able to rent vehicles without the IDP and others tell of being denied rentals for lack of having one.)

Road block ahead

Our friend did miss her flight as she was taken to jail and 'booked' - the reason for the 'arrest', she was told, was  because of the size of her 1,000 euro ($1,100US) fine that they had levied against her. And she was advised that she had to hire an attorney (another 300 euros) to represent her in court three weeks later.  

The attorney was hired, she was released and caught a later flight to rejoin her family at their next European stop.

"This entire experience left me feeling embarrassed that I didn't know the law, sad that my beloved Greece was now a place that has left a very bad taste in my mouth. . .'

What Happened to Us. . .

IDP required to rent this quad on Spetses Island

Last year as we were returning to the Mani from Athens we were pulled over for a 'document check' as we pulled away from one of the toll booths along the four-lane divided highway that crisscrosses the Peloponnese. We saw the officers standing by their patrol car at the side of the road.  They paid no mind to the car in front of us, but we were motioned to pull over.

We handed over the car's registration and insurance papers, proof of paying our annual road tax, the passports, the Washington State driver's license AND the International Driver's Permit that we've routinely carried with us in recent years (frankly, we'd always thought someone unnecessary until that moment). They gave a cursory glance to all the paperwork with the exception of the passport and driver's permit.  Those they took to a small laptop computer set up on the hood of their car, and  tap-tap-tap on their keyboard. Then the officer came back and as he handed back the documents wished us a good day. 

Just two months ago when we rented that little quad on the island of Spetses, an IDP was required by the vendor before we could tootle off on the machine.

Neither example can compare to our  friend's experience, but enough for us to know the IDP is important!

International Driving Permits

IDP are folded paper documents, stamped with photos

International Driving Permits are an off-shoot of a long ago United Nations treaty that allows a person to drive in another country on the driver's license issued by the government where they live. It is considered a supplement to the license; it is not a stand alone document.

The U.S. government authorizes the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance to issue the permits.  Passport photos are required (and can be taken by AAA staff). The permit is good for up to a year.

From the website of the American Embassy in Greece I found this cautionary note under the International Driving Permit section: "Some Greek rental car agencies rent cars to tourists without informing them of problems that might occur if one is driving without the proper documentation.  If you drive without one of these documents, you may face high fines or be responsible for all expenses in the event of an accident.'

From an article dated back in June 2018, I noted that the Greek Car Rental Companies Association had asked the Greek Transport Authorities to 'reexamine and clarify' the regulation that required those renting cars to have an IDP.  The association argued that the fines being proposed were hefty and travelers to the country might not be aware of the mandate requiring the IDP.  I saw nothing that said any such clarification or review was conducted.

Get the Permit!

Check before you go: these countries accept IDP

Our mantra these days is: get the permit if you are coming to Greece! Even if you don't think you will rent a car - it might be wise to have one in case you find yourself in an emergency situation that requires a car rental. Our permits cost $25 at AAA.  

This is the main highway as it goes through a village to our south in  the Peloponnese.

For that matter check with the Tourist Bureau of any European country you are visiting to determine if the IDP is mandatory; Greece isn't the only one requiring them nowadays.

The US State Department's page on international driving is also worth a read:

And be sure to read those 'links' on car rental sites (the 'small print') that often are labeled 'additional information about renting a car in this location'. Required documents like IDP are often listed there.

Ferry 'tale' in the Ionian Sea

That's it from The Stone House on the Hill on this extremely hot August day.  We thank you for your time; as always, it is appreciated.  And we do ask that you share this post or at least the information in it to help get the word out about IDP in Greece.   We don't want to have another friend post to FB that they've been arrested while visiting Greece!

We'll see you next week for some armchair travels in Greece - no IDP's will be required for it! Until then, safe travels to you and yours.

Linking this week with:

Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday

Saturday, August 3, 2019

In Greece ~ Is this it?

With due respect to the original lyrics of this popular 'Drifter's' song. . .

. . .And then it happened, it took me by surprise. 
I knew that he felt it too, by the look in his eyes. . .

It was a look of disbelief, actually.  

The text message had arrived on our Greek phone Monday morning. But, as with regular mail, we've become rather relaxed about checking for texts in this expat life of ours. So it was late Tuesday when I noticed the message that seemed different from those of  the usual telemarketing kind.

'But, of course', as we say here, it was in Greek ,as most text messages we receive are. We tried sounding out words. Google translate indicated two of them were something to do with 'residence permit' and we promptly forwarded the message to our attorney with the question, 'Is this it?'.

It was at our attorney's house last Sunday morning, while chatting on her porch (it was an appointment; we were picking up legal documents, but as I've said before, we do things differently here) that she'd reminded us to watch text messages: that is how we would be notified of our residency permits.

Now for those who've been following the saga here and on Facebook you know that we've been in the midst of the renewal process for what feels like forever.  Those plastic cards are what allow us to live full-time in Greece and conversely, to leave Greece. Back in December we began identifying the required documents. In February we gathered them, had them notarized and apostilled. They were translated into Greek and submitted to immigration officials in mid-March.

At that time we received  temporary -- papers with our photos stapled to them -- residency permits which would serve as identification until the small plastic cards were issued.

Two years ago after receipt of our first residency cards -

Two years ago when we first went through the process, it took - what we thought at the time - a very long seven weeks to get the cards.

This year it took 4.5 months.  

Why we live in Greece - views like this

While one can speculate on any number of reasons why there was such a delay, the most universally accepted one seems to blame the country's "Golden Visa" - an enticement for investing in the country. The Golden Visa' is a five-year residency permit offered to those who purchased property valued at 250,000 euros or more. A plum, you might say, while the rest of us apply for two- and three-year visas. The Golden Visas applications have overwhelmed the centralized review conducted in Athens. Recent media reports say some hopeful purchasers were told they'd have interview/application appointments in 2021!  And some investors, according to the same report, have decided to look for property elsewhere in Europe where the visa offer is the same, but the processing time far shorter.

With that kind of backlog, we probably should have been pleased back in early July when we stopped at the Immigration office and was told by Mr. Milas (the face of authority who sits behind the glass enclosed counter holding your life in his computer), that we needed to be patient as it would likely be six months and we'd maybe have cards in September. . .

We couldn't leave Greece so we flew to Thessaloniki from Kalamata

He clarified again that we could not leave Greece (other than to go back to the US) without those cards.  So the spring and summer travel seasons passed us by and as we've watched them go, we learned several important truths about ourselves:

 * We really aren't good at being patient! ('We've already lived here for two years! How long can it take to issue two plastic cards?!' we'd snarl periodically.)

* We are getting older and our travel days are limited. (Do we really want to be in a position of not being allowed to travel while we are able? - That well may be a question that determines whether we decide to renew our residency permits again in three years.)

Greece - we can call it home again for another few years

 * Our move to Greece was to be a launch pad for travels on this side of the world and when  grounded, we get cranky. (Yes as we watched great travel deals come and go on the computer screen, we'd sigh and say, 'If we weren't being held in detention. . .')

*We value our freedom yet have taken it for granted. ( We Americans pride ourselves on being from the 'land of the free' so when some government tells us that we aren't free to travel, it feels very uncomfortable.)

*The immigration process is humbling and intimidating. We finally understand the concept of being square pegs trying to fit in round holes.(Do we meet the financial and health insurance requirements? Did we get the right documents? Will they accept 'xyz' document as proof of. . .?) 

 *We empathize with immigrants. 

 *We have learned and grown. When I first wrote here about our frustrations of 'being grounded', I received many interesting responses from you, telling of your own, or the experiences of your friends and family members when applying for residency in the United States. They were enlightening, some downright amazing.

You are not allowed to smile in these photos but you can laugh out loud when you look at them!

The text message turned out to 'be it' and the next morning we raced to the Immigration Office to collect those precious cards.  It was all over in less than 10 minutes, and really rather anti-climactic. 

But I can assure you that as we handed over the temporary permits, our passports and watched as the official checked one document against another and studied his computer screen, we held our collective breaths (we've learned nothing is 'a given' in this process). It wasn't until we had the cards in hand and were leaving the parking lot that we breathed a sigh of relief.

A toast to you all for your support and encouragement: Yamas!

Let us offer a toast of thanks to you all! You helped ease us through a most tedious process.

So many of you have been  cheerleaders -- and you know who you are. You left encouraging messages on FB posts, you wrote comments on the blog posts,  you wrote emails inquiring about the process, you let us know you were out there cheering us on. 

Our friend and attorney, Voula

Also a 'shout out' to our attorney, who has held our hands and gone 'to bat' for us with Immigration officials.Voula Spireas came into our lives nearly four years ago at the recommendation of fellow American expats.  She divides her time between her law practice in Kalamata and her family home in Kardamyli, now called Yioryitsa's Backyard.  There she operates an Airbnb and the courtyard has become a gathering place for special events. Voula is a stalwart of the arts, culture and historical community. And the best part of this process has been that she's gone from being 'our attorney' to being a good friend as well.

I close with a promise no more posts about residency permits (for at least two and a half more years when the renewal process starts up again).Safe travels to you and yours!  And next week I will get around to telling you about driving in Greece. . .I've got a real horror story for you!

Linking soon with:

Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Expat life An Alternate Reality; but, of course!

You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, like you’ll not miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.
                                             -- Azar Nafisi (Lolita in Tehran)
Sun sets in The Mani

The debit/credit card issued to us five years ago when we opened our Greek bank account expired several years ago.  On occasion since the expiration we've thought about getting a new one. . . but it has seemed more trouble than it is worth. It is a much different process here than the one used back in the States.
In our former life, we must have had three or four cards -- all unsolicited -- arrive weekly in our mailbox. Each from a different bank or lending institution and each activated by a single phone call. New cards for accounts we did have, were sent weeks before the card expired and each activated in a similar manner with a phone call to some faraway toll-free number.
Fruit and vegetable vendor in Stoupa - a new way of buying

Not so in Greece.  The process for getting a new card -- like so many things here -- is so completely different, that it sometimes feels like we are living in an alternate reality.  The way things are done here and the way we react to it,  just can't be reconciled with what was once our lives and behaviors.

We can thank our friend, Bill, who owns a taverna called Hades in the village for helping us get a grip on this upheaval to our senses. He says, 'It is an alternate reality. The light turns green and you think you should go, but everyone else is waiting for red.' 

Yes! That is it exactly! What once seemed logical, well, . . .just isn't.

He offered his insight several weeks ago while some of us were discussing our most recent experiences, often chuckling, sometimes shaking our heads at the stories being told. All the while knowing that each tale was true because we've all had the experience or similar alternate reality moments since moving to Greece. When telling these tales we usually exclaim with howls of laughter, that our friends and family 'back home' just wouldn't understand.  

A Greek balancing act in The Mani
But today I am going to try you out: we've had some realities this summer that are too priceless not to tell you about; realities like renewing the debit card. . .
Several months ago while having our passbook brought up to date(yes, banks here still record account activity in passbooks), I said to the teller that I'd like a new debit card. For some reasonat issuance, the card couldn't have two names, so mine had ended up on it.

 'But, of course!' he said, with a smile, using the ubiquitous Greek answer, we've learned, to any and all questions asked of a Greek, from a doctors to wait staff and bank tellers.

'You will need to bring in copies of your latest Greek income tax return, a form from the phone company verifying that you have a phone number and a copy of your latest utility bill.'  He then looked toward the section of the bank lined with a dozen desks -- only two of which were occupied -- and said, "And then you'll talk to one of them."
Now we've obviously gotten along without the card, but at that point it became a matter of principle for me.  I dutifully made copies and obtained forms and marched back to the bank a few weeks ago, ready to get our new card. (After all it accesses our account with our money in it so it would be nice to have a current card, I reasoned.)
Dining out, is one of the many things, done differently here

The Scout hasn't been sold on the need for the card and was skeptical about my efforts and insistence that very warm morning but humored me as we stood around the empty desks awaiting our turn to speak to one of the two people working at them. The customer ahead of us was getting a new debit card. It was taking awhile.
After nearly an hour's wait, there we were, seated at the desk, my paperwork laid out before the banker. Passports to the side. Ready for success!  As she called up our account on her computer, she began alternatively drumming her fingers on the desk and frowning at the screen. 

The absurdity of the situation hit me with such force I nearly fell off the chair. I looked at The Scout who seemed to be staring off into space somewhat in a self-saving trance and I thought I was going to start laughing. Who were these two people sitting here? This couldn't be us?! We don't do things like this  just to get a debit card. . . 

Ahh, but in this reality we do! And did!
This wine tour was more fun than a trip to the bank!

Meanwhile the banker examined the documents I'd presented, then returned to her computer screen and said, 'You still have a U.S. address. Do you have proof of your U.S. address with you?' 
I was ready! "Yes! I have a government issued driver's license from the State of Washington with my address on it and a photo as well."
Turning from the screen to look at us, she shook her head, 'I can't accept that. But, do you have a current utility bill from there with you?' 

But, of course, I didn't! 
At which point The Scout gave me one of those 'husband-to-wife looks' that carries the proverbial death threat and I said to the banker, 'We will obviously have to get the card later!'
Outside the bank's double security doors I raised my voice and announced to anyone within earshot, 'Done! Defeated! No card!'  Not now! Not ever! (I know I saw The Scout smiling out of the corner of my eye.)
I don't think we are in Kansas anymore, Toto!
              -- Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
From The Stone House on the Hill 

There are eight homes on 'the hill' as we call our slice of The Mani. They are accessed by traveling on 'our road' ,a narrow asphalt track that winds through the olive groves, connecting the villages of Agios Dimitrios and Platsa. The road was destroyed two and a half ( 2.5!) years ago during a major storm. When we asked locals about when we could expect to have it repaired, the answer we got was,'nothing will happen to the road until the election.'   

The Scout working on a traffic jam on our road

And they knew what they were talking about because it seemed that about the time we saw posters going up for hopeful candidates back in March we also saw huge machinery lumbering up our road. Finally, repair crews began ripping out its storm-damaged sections and preparing it for a new surface.

Silly us! In that old reality, we expected the surface to be put on immediately. Not so in this reality. The concrete trucks didn't lumber past until May. (Of course the election was set for June so timing may have been influenced by that fact.)

Platsa, the village above us

The concrete trucks rolled past for several days as they repaired the section of roadway just beyond our homes. We talked of all the guests we could have this summer; people who've been afraid to bring their cars up our damaged road. We talked of a street party as the concrete truck dumped its first load on the damaged section we drive to get home.  They emptied the truck said they would be back.

In this new reality, we should have asked, 'When?'  as they haven't yet returned.
Several of us who travel that torn up roadway regularly decided we'd had enough. It was time to visit the Municipal Office and ask when the road would be repaired.  

The first husband-wife team was told, 'The contractor said It is done!' No one from government had checked his claim. But the team was armed with photos of the still unfinished road. So a quick call was made from the Mayor to the contractor and the new completion date was set for the next Friday. Nothing happened.
In early June the second delegation (The Scout and I) were also told the road was completed. Pictures were again shown. And soon the lady helping us reported: "The Mayor extends his deepest apologies but the contractor has run out of money and can't complete the job until he has money."  We (back in our old logical reality mode) asked when that might be. "When he submits a bill to the Municipality, we will pay him for the work and then he can buy more concrete to finish the work."  But, of course, we should have known that!

Repaired section or road above us
So the third husband and wife team went to the Municipal offices and the answer they got, was that the Municipality has no money to complete the job. 

But, of course, they were told, if we residents would like to pay for the repairs that would be most welcome. But, of course. . .,the government official added, we must first apply for a license to do so. . .

View of The Stone House on the Hill

Some of our alternate reality moments are much lighter and less frustrating than dealing with business and bureaucracy. One takes place each summer in our part of town. There is a family who has a home here and uses it only in the summer months. Wonderful people and we are always happy to see them arrive.  It was another alternate reality moment when we realized last summer that the male head of household likes to garden in the nude.  Now, after the initial stuttered conversation, I am able to greet and chat with him as though it is the most natural of things; me fully clothed and him fully nude. Sure wasn't like that in our old world though. . .

These are but a few of the many examples we have from the 'alternate reality' in which we live these days.  The quote with which I began this post is ever so true about becoming ex pats and leaving the old norm, that old reality behind:

'. . .but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.'

To alternate realities

Each expat we know here recognizes that he or she has changed. It isn't always easy. It doesn't always make sense. It certainly isn't how we used to be. We do things very differently. We see things differently. And then we think,

But, of course. That's why we wanted to be expats!.

Hope you have a great week and that you and your loved ones have safe travels.  Next week we will be talking about driving in Greece. . .that is another reality of Greek life!

Thanks for being with us today. Your time is always appreciated! And thanks to those who've written and commented, we so enjoy hearing from you!

Linking soon with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday


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