The Greek island of Kos is a fascinating place steeped in history but for us it will always be remembered for the anxiety and stress caused by officialdom there.
We were checking out of Greece to go to Turkey as our 90 days visa free Schengen period was well over – due in large part to our extended Covid19 lockdown stay in Athens.
Our first preference was to stay in Greece as it was very safe compared to Turkey from a virus viewpoint, plus exploring the Greek Islands had been a long-held dream. What could be better than to do this post-lockdown when hardly anyone else was cruising this amazing part of the world?
To this end we decided to go to the Immigration department to enquire whether we would be allowed to take a day trip to Turkey leaving on our Australian/NZ passports and return on our British passports.
The port police told us that the Immigration Office was a short walk away round the bay and we would see it on the right hand-side.
It was extremely hot and by the time we had walked to the building that we thought was the Immigration Office, we were feeling sticky and uncomfortable so we were dismayed to see a big queue of people and no shade to wait in.
Fortunately it didn’t take us long to realise that this was actually a building belonging to the electricity company and we still had a way to go!
When we arrived at the ferry terminal where the Immigration Office was situated, we asked the security guard to direct us. He looked at us and said “Immigration is closed, there is nobody here” and after a phone call advised us to go to Customs which was back round the bay near to where Sunday was moored under the shadow of the 14th Century castle.
So we went round to Customs and as we walked through the door the guy at the front desk held his hand up in the universal sign meaning “Halt” and shouted “masks, masks”.
That was quite fine with us but it was a little disconcerting being yelled at in such a rough way before we had even approached within three metres of the guy (also he didn’t have a mask on and there was a glass screen between him and us. )
We asked if we could talk to someone about our visa status and suddenly the quiet office erupted into mayhem. One man (the boss we learned later) started yelling on the top of his voice – barking instructions to the staff.
A lady who, we gathered from Mr Shouty, was called Maria, came to the reception area and asked to see our bill of sale, our transit log and proof of payment for the cruising tax (tepai). For some reason she was insistent that she wanted to see the actual receipt for the tepai even though we had the certificate to prove we had paid it. All the while her boss was yelling out instructions from an out of sight cubicle (I never did get to see what he looked like!)
Eventually we remembered the Greek lawyer that had been employed on our behalf had sent us the receipt and we were able to show it on our phone.
We then asked about the possibility of returning to Greece on our British passports and before we knew it, Jonathan as skipper, was whisked off to an office and asked to list all the places we had been to in the last few years. As we had been travelling for over five years by land and by sea this was a mammoth exercise. Feeling puzzled he did his best and then said he would have to consult with me as he couldn’t recall exactly where we had been at what time.
All this while, the uncouth boss was yelling out instructions to “Maria” in Greek – often shouting (yelling) over her so we couldn’t hear her questions. It felt very threatening and uncomfortable especially as we really had no idea what was going on.
Then we received a drubbing from Mr Shouty via Maria for having been given a transit log for six months (instead of one month) as though we had been responsible for this “reprehensible behaviour.” In fact, the Customs guy in Athens had done this as a favour in the hopes we would be able to negotiate an extension to stay in Greece (due to Covid) or to leave and return using our British passports.
This transgression would have to be investigated and the Athens Customs questioned by phone we were told.
In the meantime after more excited yelling from the loud but unseen boss, the list of countries and times spent in each was copied, stamped and squirrelled away.
We left feeling mystified and none the wiser about whether we could come back to Greece on our British passports although we had gathered that right then there were no ferries going to and from Turkey so it didn’t look at all likely. We were no longer wondering if we would be given an extension to stay on in Greece – it was quite clear that this just wasn’t going to happen.
We were told that the boss would call Athens Customs about the transit log and we would have to come back the following day. Jonathan quietly suggested that he didn’t need a phone as they could probably hear him in Athens the way he was yelling.
I think that might have endeared us to “Maria” because as we left Customs she told us that it might be an idea to let our lawyer know what was happening. When we rang her she nearly had a pink fit!
“They are cat-fishing you” she said. “They know you have British passports and want to try and prove that because you have been out of Australia for a long time you are no longer a resident there and therefore liable to pay VAT on your boat in Greece, get out as soon as possible!”
We felt utterly sick. What if they impounded the boat and started the process to try and get us to pay the tax?! We knew that we legitimately didn’t have to pay in Greece as Australia is definitely still where our home is, and ultimately where we would have to pay the relevant sales tax if we entered on board Sunday but we didn’t know to what lengths Mr Shouty was prepared to go to.
What a nightmare! Neither of us slept well that night thinking about the rabbit hole we had inadvertently taken ourselves down.
The next day we went in search of Immigration so we could check out of Greece ASAP. The people at Customs told us to go the Police station in the massive Italianate building on the sea front.
So off we went and on arrival were conducted through a beautiful courtyard to an office marked “Immigration”. We were met by a lanky, very young man with bad teeth, dressed in ripped jeans and an old t-shirt.
We said we had come to check out. He made a phone call, hung up and said as he casually started to roll up a cigarette “You are not allowed to leave.”
With a sinking heart and a feeling of panic we said “We have to leave otherwise we will be in big trouble.”
Mr Lanky made another call. “My boss says you definitely cannot leave as the border with Turkey is closed.”
“So what you are saying? That one government department has told us we must leave Greece but another says we must stay?” we questioned.
“No, I did not say you must stay, I said you cannot leave “ he replied.
At this Jonathan and I just cracked up and started giggling as this really sounded completely ridiculous. He started laughing too as even he realised that the situation was ridiculous.
We told him that Turkey was opening it’s borders in the following day or two, we had our visas and an agent was expecting us and would handle all the paperwork. Could he not just stamp our passports and let us leave?”
Then Mr Lanky said “Well I have no stamp so you had better to go to the Immigration department near Customs and see what they say. “
Feeling just a tad exasperated we walked back to Customs and after asking around found the correct building (right next door to Immigration- why didn’t they send us there first?!)
We walked into another courtyard which had beautiful proportions and asked directions to Immigration. Once at the window we waited ten minutes for the lady on the phone to attend to us (there was a man doing nothing at another desk but he studiously ignored us.)
We went through our story again and were asked many questions and had to have our documents once more gone through with a fine tooth comb. Eventually it was established that we had been directed to the wrong place yet again.
This Immigration office was mainly for refugees looking for temporary visas. On our way out we realised that there were no notices indicating the location of the office we had just visited – just a big sign saying “WC”!
Finally, we were directed back to Immigration at the docks where we had gone originally and found the office closed. On the way we dropped in at the Port Police to get our transit log stamped by a delightful port policeman who was very kind and who we thanked profusely for his kindness and efficiency (which worked in our favour later on.)
This time, at Immigration there was a nice smartly dressed officer on duty who ushered us into his demountable office and actually offered us a seat (everywhere else we were left standing).
He went through our passport forensically trying to match up the stamps and make sense of them. They of course, made little sense as last year and earlier this year we had been ducking in and out of multiple countries in our camper van – some within the Schengen area and others not but often where there was no passport control and therefore no stamps in our passport to chart our progress.
“I’m sorry, I have to do this, I don’t want to get into trouble,” he said.
We had also been to Australia and back and again although there was no stamp because eye recognition was used. There were several trips to England made (the UK is not in the Schengen group) but yet again our passports weren’t stamped as we arrived and left by ferry.
It was a bit of a muddle to be sure but had we been able to leave Greece after picking up Sunday in March, instead of being trapped in lockdown for almost three months, we would have been OK. Certainly there were no questions raised about overstaying when we left from Amsterdam airport in 17 March.
Eventually, he phoned the port police and as luck would have it, he spoke to the kind guy who we had thanked so profusely.
He came down to the port and the two of them went through the passports together. All this time, after learning the hard way that offering information can get you into trouble, we had kept totally quiet, just answering questions and not offering information.
Eventually, Jonathan told them we had spent a couple of months in Australia last year (we had been back for our son’s wedding) and suddenly they seemed happy with that and decided to stamp our passports.
They were actually very nice and really didn’t want to fine us for overstaying and after another ten or so minutes while they searched for a blue ink pad (theirs had dried up from lack of use and our black one was the wrong colour) our passports were finally stamped!
We felt such a sense of relief as we trudged back round the bay once again. We celebrated with a nice lunch and a walk round the interesting but ramshackle archeological site of the ancient agora which was discovered after the catastrophic earthquake of 1933 destroyed Kos city centre.
What a few days it had been. We felt exhausted after all the stress and despite loving the Greek islands, we couldn’t wait to put Greece and the treatment dished out by Greek bureaucracy behind us.