Sunday, 8 April 2012

Cheating (Απάτη)

Happy Easter holidays to those who aren't Greek. 
We Greeks will have to wait for only one more week.
Today instead of roast, we're having fish to eat.
And not just any fish - bakaliaro forms the feast.
And for the next six days, it's lenten food, no meat.
But come the seventh day, and we'll be roasting sheep.

It's customary to break the fast of the Christian Orthodox church on Palm Sunday (Κυριακή των Βαΐων) with bakaliaro (salt cod). Theoretically, according to strict religious practice, you are not allowed to break the fast twice, so if you broke the fast with salt cod on the 25th of March, it's considered cheating to break it again today. Then again, cheating seems to be so normal a part of modern Greek life, so much so that it could be considered business as usual to do so anyway. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

I was brought face to face with this conundrum last year, during the strikes, when Greek cab drivers were blocking the streets, preventing/delaying tourists from boarding their flights or ferries, and, generally speaking, causing a melee. During that time, someone had run up desperately to my husband when they saw him in his cab in the middle of the town, asking him to take them to the airport. My husband was driving his cab as a private vehicle. He explained to them that he couldn't take them anywhere because there was a strike on, and anyway, there were some other cabbies in the area, who would have seen him picking up passengers (they had luggage). He would have been labelled a strike breaker, which isn't really a big deal in Greece, as fewer and fewer people seem to be going on strike by choice, even though the global press makes Greek strikes (and protests, demonstrations, unrest, and all manner of disruption) sound like a nationwide event.  But in his colleagues' eyes, my busband would have been a strike-breaker, and in a profession that is often viewed as running according to underworld rules, this will have caused outrage.

Then someone contacted me through my blog, asking about taxi hire to take them from one side of the island to the other. They were Northern Europeans here on holiday, presumably warming up their bones, enjoying the warm Mediterranean sea, and eating good food for a couple of weeks, before they went back to their colder homeland. They had contacted me during the strikes, so I had to explain to them that my husband was striking. But the person complained that they had no one else to turn to and they didn't want to hire a car to drive themselves. 

Later with my husband, we discussed the whole issue from both sides. Business-wise, it felt wrong,  immoral, illegal, this, that and the other to work the cab on a paid basis when the cab is not supposed to be working. But at the end of the day, we decided that it would be wrong to say no, because someone genuinely needed a taxi, and while we were playing the morality police, other taxi drivers were using their private cars to drive tourists (and locals) to their destinations, while on the other hand, non-cabbies (unlicensed Greek, Albanian and Bulgarian individuals) were being caught red-handed doing the same thing. If we weren't going to be the ones to make money from these people, then someone else would have come along to take our place, and at our recommendation, as we would have suggested someone to them that we knew was actually breaking the strike secretly. Not all of us can afford to stay away from work on unpaid leave - one person I know actually bought a second-hand car just for this purpose, as he had no other vehicle than his cab, and he had a personal agreement with a hotel to handle their customers.

My husband felt quite inferior when the tourists who had been insisting on using his services mocked his private car - our at the time 11-year-old Hyundai Accent. One even asked if the car would make it as far as the southern side of the island (it has already made it three times round the country). But he also told me that they were amazed by his English skills, and astounded by the running commentary he gave them, like a private tourist guide, while driving them down to the south coast. He had reduced the price because the cab wasn't being used, and because we both felt it was wrong tax-wise since the money wasn't going to be declared. If these tourists had been in someone else's cab, it is unlikely that they would have got such service - most cabbies in Hania don't have such good English skills, and I doubt that they know their homeland so well. I think the tourists got much more than they bargained for in the end.

Our cheating the state of a few cents couldn't be helped. Worse still, if we hadn't cheated the state of a few cents, then someone else would have, and if we had been adamant that we would not help strangers in their hour of need, we would have been branded by them as inhospitable, small-minded, mean-spirited, professionally unethical. Damned if we did, damned if we didn't.

Looking at the wider picture, we are mere pawns in a system where the state has been cheating people for at least the last three decades, handing out fake disability pensions (the island of Zakinthos, for example, had 700 'blind' people where only 60 of them turned out to actually be blind), accepting bribes (by global companies like the German Siemens, to buy expensive machinery which could have been bought more cheaply from another company), filing fake health claims (a group of public health employees were paying out handsome sums to themselves for pregnancy leave - the unmarried childless daughter of one of them had received five maternity salary payments in successive years), buying diesel fuel for heating public buildings (instead of buying the cheaper heating fuel, so that it can be siphoned off as private vehicle fuel for the non-paying privileged), leaving electricity and telephone bills unpaid in ministries (while the public is threatened with disconnection if they don't pay their home bills with the property tax stamped on it), and, generally speaking, misusing public funds at every level (a classic case is in the medical sector where storage rooms full of medicine and surgical equipment had been left unused past its expiry dates, while hospitals around the country suffered from a severe shortage of basic items). Worse still, no one to date - absolutely no one - has ever been to prison for the crimes committed against the state, nor have they had to repay everything in full.

It feels good to know that all this cheating is now being discussed in the open, which means that the attitude towards it is changing. It gives greater hope that the cheating mentality that seems so inherent to the Greek identity - even to Greeks who believe that they have never cheated the state - can and will be changed. I believe it will - but not among my generation. Maybe they will not be able to cheat in the same way as they did before. According to a rhyming Greek proverb: Για να φας, δουλεύεις, για να έχεις, κλέβεις.  

Anyone can turn on you at any moment in spite of their admiration of you. We are all quick to profess our admiration for something, but the tables can be turned on us quite easily. It's a fitting tale for Palm Sunday - one minute they like you, the next minute they don't - until they need you.

*** *** ***

We're definitely cheating with our bakaliaro meal this year, but we cheat on most days, because we don't practice the fasting rules to the letter: "Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone's fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must 'keep our eyes on our own plates.'"

I initially bought a large piece of bakaliaro (over 2 kilos) for the 25 March Sunday meal because it was being sold very cheaply, unfilleted at the supermarket, for €5.90/kg, at a time when the mass media was reporting that it was selling at the price of at least €7/kg (I saw filleted pieces of bakaliaro selling at €13/kg at a top-end supermarket). After removing the skin and every single bone in it (I must have lost no more than about 150-200g of the weight in the process), I cut it into small pieces, fried half in a light beer batter (no egg) and froze the remaining pieces so that they would be ready to cook today - all I need to do is to defrost it, make a batter and fry it. The beetroot was boiled the night before, and the skorthalia (garlic bread dip) was also prepared the day before to let the flavours blend.

Cooking can sometimes be mundane, but with a bit of preparedness we can still enjoy our traditions with less fuss.

The photos were taken on 25 March, where we visited a friend and ate a meal at his house by Kalamaki Beach.

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