Oddly, our time in Athens revolved around the Indian Visa process.
Before leaving Dubrovnik, I spent a few hours online completing application forms for the family’s Indian visas. When we arrived in Athens I arranged to have the completed forms printed and we headed to the Indian Visa processing center. After looking at the address, a taxi driver said it was only 10 minute walk up the street. An hour later we were still walking. We finally arrived at the small processing center around noon and waited for 30 minutes to speak to one of the women behind the counter. As I sat down in front of her I confidently said “I read the web site and I completed the online forms, brought pictures, copies of the passports, the required letters, and I have the cash. I think I have everything prepared.” She looked at me and gave a slightly amused smile, “We shall see”. First she looked at the passport photos – the ones we purchased in Berlin when we thought we would be able to get a Tanzanian visa. After a quick glance she announced, “These photos will not work, the background is not white enough.” I couldn’t help myself, I said “You must be joking”. The amused smile returned and she said, “You must get new pictures, there is a photo shop just 150 meters up the road that can do it for you and they may be able to process quickly. The application system shuts down in 45 minutes. We will keep it up for you as long as we can.”
So we hoofed it up the street to the photo shop. I explained to the photographer that we needed passport photos quickly for an Indian Visa. He said “sure”, and ushered in to take our picture. After all our photos were snapped the photographer said “It will be an hour or two, you might want to get a coffee and come back.” I said “We are on a very tight deadline, is there any chance you can do this in 30 minutes?” He said he would try – and started to work.
The shop is small, with a counter space for four customers to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder. There was a constant flow of people crowding into the little store and I was concerned that paying for the pictures would end up causing us to miss the deadline. In an attempt to expedite my process, I approached the old guy behind the counter (let’s call him the Old Athenian) and said I would like to pay for the pictures now, so when the pictures were ready we could run back to the processing center. He looked at me and said “Why are you in such a hurry? You relax. You pay later.” I tried to explain that every minute was important to make the deadline. He lost interest in my story and started to “aggressively ignore me”. I’m familiar with this technique; my grandfather used passive aggressiveness like this when he was offended him in some way. As I stood there trying to make eye contact and complete the transaction, the Old Athenian straightened paper on the counter, rearranged memory cards, and called other customers up in front of me.
At this point I realized I had no hope of making the deadline – so with difficulty I pushed my frustration aside and did my best to get some perspective and find the humor and absurdity of the situation. My inner narrator told me that the Old Athenian doing his best to frustrate me, has spent years in a hot, dusty, crowded camera shop on a loud and smoggy street, dealing with local people who didn’t like their vacation photos, and occasional tourists who come in thinking that their visa problems are the most important thing in the world. In comparison, my problem was that I might need to spend an extra day touring Athens rather than lounging on a beach on a Greek island. I needed to calm down. He had the power to slow the process down even more, and anything I said at this point would make the situation worse.
Eventually the pictures came out of processing, and the Old Athenian refused to process th payment, so the photographer stepped up, took our money, and explained that he had tried to hurry but the Indian requirements are very strict and he needed to correct several reflections in the photos. With pictures in hand, we made our way back to the processing center – the woman behind the counter gave the same smile as before and shook her head – we missed the deadline. We then discovered that tomorrow was Gandhi’s birthday, an Indian national holiday. Bummer! Add one more day to our stay in Athens – and take one more from our lounging on an island.
Thankfully the woman behind the counter reviewed our visa applications to see what else needed to be corrected. She found many changes needed in my applications. For example, rather than indicate that I am unemployed, I should indicate that I’m on sabbatical to avoid issues with the embassy (even though sabbatical is not an option on the form). Also, even though the form and online directions asked for the city of birth – I should have put in whatever value is on the passport to avoid problems. I also needed to write a letter stating that I would cover the expenses of the children during their time in India. They also required many more copies of our passports than the web site indicated. I asked if anyone had ever completed this process the first time – she said, “No one completes this process successfully without talking to us first.” I believe her!
We spent the next two days seeing the sights of Athens (I’m working on the Athens post), then arrived back in the visa office with our completed forms, letters, pictures, passports, and a stack of euros. The Indian embassy would keep our passports for seven business days to process the visas, and we could pick them up after 3 PM on the seventh business day. It was uncomfortable to be without our passports for so long in a foreign country, but it was not a problem. We took a ferry to an island called Naxos (working on the Naxos post) and had a wonderfully relaxing time while the Indian embassy “worked hard” to process our visas. When we returned from Naxos I was so relaxed that I forgot the instructions to not show up before 3:00 PM. When I showed up at 11 AM. The same woman, with the same slightly amused smile said “See here at the bottom of the papers we gave you, your visas will be ready after 3 PM – they have not even been printed yet”.