Friday, 7 January 2011

Vous N’Avez Pas La Priorité

My wife and I were walking around a small village on a Greek island when we came across an elderly lady dressed in the customary full black dress sitting on her doorstep contentedly preparing vegetables for lunch. My wife, who is Greek, started chatting with the woman who asked the inevitable questions: are you married, how many children do you have, where are you from, etc., etc. When told that the husband, me, was a xeno – foreigner – the old lady clucked her tongue. A look of infinite compassion and sorrow crossed her deeply lined face, and she gently patted my wife’s arm. “That’s all right, dear, someone has to do it.”

It didn’t matter if the ‘foreigner’ was from another island, the mainland or, God forbid, another country. You’re still foreign. My wife didn’t dare mention that I was not even Orthodox. The old lady probably would have demanded that the priest perform an instant baptism to sort out that little problem.

My favorite French traffic sign sums up the position of foreigners in any country;
Vous N’Avez Pas La Priorité. And indeed you do not have priority. Among other obstacles there are countless forms, forms whose ultimate purpose will forever remain unknown, that you have to fill out just to find any place at all in the line. You want something simple like a home telephone? Well now, you have to get Form A to prove you have the right to be in that particular home in the first place. And then Form A requires three signatures from Form B that you have to get before you can even think about Form A. Oh, and by the way, you do have your birth certificate, marriage certificate, high school and college diplomas – all translated into the appropriate language– don’t you?

Until you move overseas you never really appreciate the meaning, the power, of the official stamp. Bureaucrats often have four or more of these treasures on their desks and act like the praetorian guard protecting them from abuse. You stand timidly in front of the guards’ desk holding your breath while they examine your meagre offerings hoping against hope that they meet with approval. You don’t dare breathe and you’re starting to turn blue as they slowly pick up one of the stamps and ponderously adjust the date before slamming it down with all the authority of a petty dictator – which they are. You start to exhale, but you’re not out of the woods yet. He now turns your document over, reads it word for word, and reaches for yet another stamp. The motion of slamming the second stamp on the back side of the document dislodges the five inches of ash on the end of his cigarette and he spends the next few minutes wiping the ash off his shirt and your document before producing the third and final stamp. Then you resume breathing normally.

In addition to the bureaucratic hurdles there are the countless cultural differences to deal with. Some of these have their humorous side. In Greece, for example, a husband is required to sign his wife’s tax return. This has led to some interesting discussions with my wife who happens to be one of the few Greeks who actually files a return. “Let’s see now,” I intone as I scan the return line by line, “this is an interesting item. How did this get here?” These comments are met with a low growl and testy questions about just how I want my dinner served.

Signing her tax returns actually has a happy consequence. Because of this signature I now have a Greek tax number – without which I would never have a bank account or an ATM card. In order for me to buy a car my wife had to prove she owns property in Greece and then produce our marriage certificate – which happens to be in Turkish because we were married in Turkey – to prove we’re married. Given the expression on the salesman’s face when confronted with a Turkish wedding certificate it was an act of mercy to say we really didn’t need the car after all.

Changing the name on a telephone line can also upset the gods. The phone line in question was in the name of my wife’s grandmother. No problem, says the phone company official. Just have her sign the form and we can change it immediately. We say that might be a problem. The grandmother has been dead for more than 20 years. Ah. Now we’re talking about producing death certificates, proof of relationships, etc. etc. Sometimes the official in question sees the humour in all this, starts to laugh with you, and, by magic, the all powerful stamp appears and is thumped down on the document.

A career outside your home country can be fascinating, seldom dull, and a life-long education. Or it can be a bureaucratic and cultural nightmare that sends you screaming for the first plane home. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are or what country you’re living in. You will face the same issues. Waiting in countless dingy government offices for one form or another I have seen Frenchmen, Germans, Japanese, Italians get red in the face, stamp their feet and bellow at some hapless official about seemingly idiotic regulations. Fortunately for them, no could understand a word they were saying. The key to survival is to forget the word ‘should’. ‘They should do this, they should do that’ simply do not apply. They will do it at their own speed and in their own time. I once saw a French women sit by a traffic official’s desk for more than hour, never raising her voice, making her point over and over again. Finally she got what she wanted. I couldn’t help asking her what the secret was. She smiled knowingly, ‘Patience, mon brave, patience and persistence.’

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