Man of Sorrows

The plumply built officer clicked the plastic clasp of his belt together, his holster resting against his fat hips. He put his mirrored sunglasses on and stooped to lock the door to his γραφείο. His face still resembled a youth in his twenties but the rest of his body already revealed the aubergine posture of the man in his forties to be. On his office door hang an aluminum plaque with black letters spelling διαβατήριο. It was eleven thirty in the morning. The small and skinny colleague with the childish face sat behind the reception desk and rolled back his office chair. A small electric heater was placed under the reception desk for the cold winter days. This morning was not cold and winterly, the light was bright, the sun creped through cracks and filled the room through the open entrance. On the wall behind him, between the door to the commandant and the passport office, hang a silver icon in a wooden frame of Christ as a Man of Sorrows. He reached for his fanny pack, scrambled and took out four mobile phones. He chose one while placing the other three on his desk. His short fingers tabbed on his phone keys looking for a phone number or browsing new messages perhaps. After a minute, he placed all phones back in the fanny pack. Then the reception officer and the passport officer followed each other out the front door.

Next to the port’s old ferry landing, a long staircase led through a narrow alley to a two storey white washed building. At the top of the hill, in the left wing of the ground floor the police station was located, the right door led via an unfinished staircase to the tax office where I had picked up my ΑΦΜ, my tax number, a few weeks earlier. The unevenly plastered walls of the police station were colored bright blue, including the police cell. Behind the dark green bars a bearded man with uncombed hair and fiercely white eyes stared at me. The man looked authentically Icarian, a mountain rugged glance perforated with silent friendliness. I walked to the visa office at the end of the room, and waited in the door frame directly next to the prison cell. The prisoner and I stared into each other’s eyes, I smiled, he threw his shoulders in the air and smiled back.

‘I am Albanian and I do not have a visa,’ he lightheartedly explained.
‘That’s a problem,’ I sighed disgruntled.

I recognized the young officer’s face, as he quickly looked up. He stood bent over in front of his desk, as he was about to leave. He too sighed, realizing his whole morning would be spent behind his desk on horrific paperwork instead. Visa are a punishment for everyone who has to deal with it, the person applying for it, the officer processing it, the officer enforcing it, the worker being denied one, the good natured Albanian in the cell without one. The only people who took a wicked pleasure in immigration restrictions, the prohibition of movement, were most likely the people who never set foot outside their periphery of comfort and learned about the possibility of immigration from their television sets. The idea of having to leave their home was so dissettling to their settled rigid minds that something needed to be done to ease their disgruntled hearts. And so, the police station in Agios Kirikos this morning was filled with men of sorrows.

As he set down again, he simply beckoned to give him the required documents. I pulled out the papers from the catalog envelop and handed them to him. I walked out to the main room and sat down on one of the wooden chairs against the wall, prepared for a numb long wait. The Albanian prisoner was speaking loudly in fluent Greek on the phone, as if the person on the other side of the line couldn’t hear him well.

‘Can you send a fax to the police station, that I am working at the house.’
‘Yes, yes, to the police station, I am at the police station.’

A fragile old man with an unshaven face weathered by sun and wind, and wearing a green jacket walked in, turned his face around, and bellowed to the Albanian: Ρε το μαλάκα! You idiot! What did you do now? Laughing loudly, the old man walked up to the cell and placed his hands on the bars at ears’ height. He held out a cigarette to the Albanian and offered him a light. A cloud of smoke twirled up from behind the bars as the aroma of tobacco spread across the room. I had to think of Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, who was so terribly feared, and the only other Albanian I knew. Ali Pasha was an Albanian warlord who had allied himself to the Turks but had become a liability. The Turks decided to pursue him and he became a prisoner on his own island before killing himself. What good reason was there possibly to lock this friendly, working man with his fierce white eyes up in the island’s only prison?

The visa officer stepped out of his office.
‘Religion?’ he asked.
‘Uh … no religion.’ I replied.
‘No religion?’ and he disappeared again.

The island had been a prison in the past to others, also without religion. The now revered composer Theodorakis spent some time in Vrakades as an exile, a noteworthy footnote to the island’s chapter. And others had been sent to the island during the civil war of the late 1940s when the democratic government of Tsaldaris turned Icaria into a penal colony for communists. It had given the island the epithet of κόκκινο νησί or Red Island, a name that was protested at the time, but now many on the island took pride in it. But the young officers at the police station now were not the cruel men who controlled the prisoners population then, and the prisoner in the cell now was not a revolution fighter but simply an Albanian working man, and now the exiles were left wing youth from Athens vacationing in the summer at Livadi beach or at Nas. I wondered if the current wave of hostility against immigrants in Europe would also turn with the tides of history, and seem as absurd as the Albanian man behind the dark green bars in his blue cell.

From the far room I heard the short clicks of a stapler, then a little later, dull forceful blows of documents being stamped. I imagined the jerking movement and the concentrated expression of the police officer. A middle aged man with plain jeans and an American baseball cap walked in the station and knocked on the door of the διοικητής, the commandant. As he turned the door handle, he peeked his head through the crack. A man with slickly combed black hair, hamster cheeks and a jolly glance in his eyes, walked out. The commandant’s uniform fit his posture better than any of the other officers, the light blue stiff collar of his shirt stood as straight as firm, a signature of his character that allowed him to rise up the ranks throughout the years. ‘Ali,’ the commandant shouted as he walked up to the cell, ‘I will go and eat something, but I will bring you something to eat, okay.’

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