Sunday, January 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Aunt Mary meets Greek gods

When you are taking a dead woman into a foreign country, you might expect a certain amount of scrutiny at the border. But then again, this was Greece, where a tourist is a tourist regardless of the pulse rate. And so we breezed through customs at the Thessaloniki airport with less curiosity over the contents of our luggage than if it contained a bootlegged copy of Yanni's greatest hits.

We had come to this northern port city to fulfill a promise made by the Bombshell of the Balkans to her late aunt, who died at 100 some months ago, to spread her cremated ashes over Mount Olympus, which Hellenic mythology holds is the home of the Greek gods. Now it is also Aunt Mary's final resting place.

You simply cannot take a dead person into a place like Greece without voluminous paperwork, if for no other reason than to keep legions of rubber-stamping government bureaucrats gainfully employed. Or at least that is what we were told by the Greek Consulate in Tampa.

For months the Azalea of Athens had gathered the paperwork to meet every rule and regulation required by the Greek government to enter the country with a recently deceased person in one's luggage. Had we attempted to bypass the law and fly into Thessaloniki passing Aunt Mary off as a 5-pound bag of talcum powder we had visions of experiencing the Greek equivalent of Midnight Express and languishing away in a dank Cretan prison. But upon landing at Thessaloniki International Airport — nothing. You would probably invite more attention to yourself from law enforcement flying into Lakeland.

This seemed odd. Perhaps it is because as Americans, especially since 9/11, we have grown accustomed to navigating a maze of security at airports — shoes and belts off, pockets turned inside out, scanners and humorless officers perusing our identification documents. So it was a bit of surprise and yes, a bit perversely charming, that after we entered Greece, we probably didn't see anyone with a badge until the obligatory rousting of panhandlers in Aristotelous Square a few days later.

When we returned to the United States on Tuesday evening it took more than a hour and three separate security checks before we could exit John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — just in time to be ripped off by a New York cabbie who claimed he couldn't find a Radisson Hotel less than 3 miles away.

And yet at Thessaloniki airport, after being directed to the solitary international baggage claim carousel, we collected Aunt Mary and walked out without encountering a single Greek customs official. The two airport lost and found counters were beehives of bustling activity with several employees attending to the missing property of arriving testy passengers. The cricket-chirping customs offices were unoccupied.

Perhaps this suggests a certain Greek attitude that if you are lucky enough not to have your baggage diverted to Crimea, you should consider yourself fortunate, so let's not get too hung up on homeland security. Now it is certainly true that since we entered the European Union, of which Greece is a member, through Frankfurt, Germany, our passports and luggage had already been examined.

Still, not to get all Jason Bourne-ish here, but when you land in a city not far from the Turkish border, which has been a gateway for malevolent, unpleasant people trying to make their way into Iraq and Syria, might it be a good idea to have a few guys in uniforms hanging around to at least pretend to be paying attention?

After all, it wasn't as if we were taking Aunt Mary to Bermuda.

In the end, the Greek approach to customs and border control might be summed up in a more elegantly simple term. Over the centuries this incredibly beautiful land has been occupied by Romans, Venetians, the Ottoman Empire and, of course, the Nazis. The nation is surrounded by water, offering plenty of opportunities to enter the country unnoticed. And yet, for all the occupations and intrusions, Greece has prevailed over those who would wish her ill.

And up on tranquil Olympus, in the company of the gods, Aunt Mary couldn't be in safer hands. This is probably a good place to pause for an "Opa!"

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