Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Passport (Διαβατήριο)

My friend Emilios* turned up to my place last night. I hadn't seen him for over a year, when he had asked me to help him with lodging a New Zealand passport application.

"So why do you want to leave Greece?" I asked Emilios.

"Life," he said. "I'm bored of the life I am living here. There is no possibility to change it. Got an ashtray?" he asked as he lit up a Marlboro.

Emilios is right. Here in Greece, we generally do not think about how we can change our life. We generally think about how we can live comfortably without life being too taxing on us (pun intended).

Emilios could be said to be doing just that right now. He owns his own home (which his parents had built for him), he runs a successful local business (after his dad reitred and did not want to continue to run it himself), and he has no debts. But Emilios also exhibits the classic problems of people whose parents worked hard in foreign countries in order to ensure that their own children would not feel the poverty that drove them out of their country in the first place: he has never actually worked to build something up for himself. Emilios has an added problem: after finishing high school, he never continued with his education (presumably because his parents told him that he was set up for life, through them).

So Emilios is looking for an exit to his personal crisis - he is dead bored.

Emilios began thinking about emigrating after his uncle Stelios, another New Zealand passport holder (also helped by yours truly to lodge his New Zealand passport application), left the country two years ago. In Stelios' case, he was desperate to get away from a failed marriage and a mountain of debts (Emilios is unmarried and childless). Stelios' Kiwi citizenship secured his escape - he went to Australia to join his brother (who had taken flight a decade before the crisis, because he was always being paid in arrears for the piecemeal work he did in the construction sector - it wasn't enough to support a wife and baby: he often had to tell his employer that he needed money to buy baby formula). Stelios found work in the mining industry in a remote part of the Australian outback. I do occassionally ask about the name of the area, but his relatives here really don't know it, simply telling me that he comes back to Perth every six weeks or so, by plane, where he spends a week with his brother's family, and then flies back to work. They tell me that he's making good money, and above all, he is paid regularly. (And since he presumably has nowhere to spend it, he saves it, and will come back to Crete a rich man.)

Both Emilios and Stelios (and his brother) had both left New Zealand when they had just started school, so their English skills didn't develop much further once they came to Greece. Their educational advancement was stunted due to their own parents' lack of education, who managed to survive without knowing much, so they expected that their kids would learn to survive in a similar way. Yes, they all survived - but they aren't happy with the way they are surviving, just like their own parents, who emigrated for a second chance in life. Unlike my parents, their parents got homesick too soon after their arrival in the New World, and they returned home. This is why Emilios' knowledge of English is very limited, but he doesn't see this as a problem. Emilios tells me that his uncle says he'll pick up the language very quickly, and besides, the people he'll be working with all speak a rudimentary form of English that is intelligible among themselves. "You don't need a university degree," he reminds me.

Emilios handed me a box of mini ice-cream sticks which I put into the freezer before printing out the latest copy of the New Zealand passport application form, which I noticed looked very different from the older form that I had helped Emilios fill out the last time he had visited me.

"What's taken you so long to decide whether you really want to leave the country?" I asked him.

"Apathy," he replied. "Another friend left last week, with his wife and kids, and I thought it was about time I started making the move to leave too."

"Who was that?" I asked him, thinking it must be another Kiwi passport holder.

"Oh, you don't know him, he's Greek, but his wife's Greek-Canadian."

I could have guessed. The people leaving Greece are generally dual-passport holders; they have easy access to enter another country. Generally speaking, Greeks don't make the grade when it comes to emigrating to a country where they don't have personal links. Very few have the qualifications required to be accepted as part of the skilled or work visa program of the countries they are generally interested in. When you don't have the skills required, you need to prove that you will make a positive economic contribution to the country, by bringing in loads of money or providing a guarantee that you will make a significant financial investment to the economy of the country. Personally speaking, I have only come across dual passport holders leaving Crete for New World countries. People leaving Crete for European countries are usually students who have landed a university scholarship or are involved in paid research projects with very stringent work conditions.

Emilios doesn't have any money (it's all his parents'), nor does he have any noteworthy skills or qualifications - only his citizenship status in a foreign country has given him the right to enter it (or should I say, enter another country, as he isn't going to New Zealand). He has no expectations to improve his status. He just wants to add a bit of spice to his life. Scorching temperatures don't scare him, nor does dusty outdoors/underground work. He is prepared to leave behind a temperate climate, a loan-free home, a successful business, his family, the clean free beaches, the local food and everything else that comes with living on a small Mediterranean island.

I gave him the application forms and handed him a pen.

"What, I'm going to fill it in myself?" he asked me with a surprised look on his face. While I was printing the forms, he was listening to Cretan music on his iPhone.

"That's what it says in the instructions," I reminded him. I wrote all the responses for him on a scrap piece of paper, and he copied them awkwardly, looking up and down from my notes to the applicaiton form in front of him. He seemed totally unfamiliar with the English language - or maybe it was writing in general, as most people don't do much writing in their life after they leave school: maybe a shopping list and some txtmsging at the most (Christmas cards are pretty much a thing of the past).

"My e-mail? Don't have one," Emilios insisted. Nor does he have a credit card with which to pay the passport fees. I wondered how either could be possible when you own a business these days. I admire Emilios' simplicity. I thought I was a simple person.

Old East and West German passports at the Wall Museum in Berlin

He's not looking to escape the financial crisis, he's not interested in self-advancement, he isn't even thinking about the future. As a young man in his early 30s, he just wants to have a reason to get up in the morning, and he thinks a New Zealand passport and a remote Australian mining town with 50C temperatures will give him that. Καλή του τύχη.  

*All names have been changed.

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