Monday, 7 January 2013

Angry birds

All my 2012 receipts are in this bag.
Together with the 2010 and 2011 receipts,
I could burn the house down.
People who work for themselves (freelancers - doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, singers, etc) and business owners of all forms (shops, restaurants, nightclubs, etc) are the biggest tax evaders in Greece. They also rip off the pension system, with a whopping 45,000 pensioners not having turned up to sign a life certificate to show that they still "exist" (and are therefore entitled to continue to pick up a pension - the deadline was extended, in case these "ghosts" turn up at some point, but they seem to remain elusive). To fight tax evasion, the state has made it mandatory for citizens to collect receipts for every purchase they make, in order to show that freelancers/businesses have passed on (some of their) profits through to the main tracking system, the cash register, which calculates the tax paid on these items. In other words, taxpayers are expected to keep an eye on things on behalf of the state. It's up to suckers like myself to make sure things are still rolling.

Collecting receipts from all your purchases in Greece has now reached the point where the state recently made a law out of it: if a receipt is not brought to you at the table of a food/drink business, you do not have to pay for it. The same has not been said for goods and services in other businesses, but the idea is firmly entrenched in Greek people's minds that cheating must be stopped. Our tourists do not always seem to know about this law, mainly because it does not concern them directly, as their income is derived from another country. This has interesting consequences in the way some businesses operate, something I discovered the day after New Year's Day, a normal working day in Greece. I needed to get some chores done at various services, so I took my daughter along for company and we took a long walk around the town together as it was a very fine sunny day.

We had just finished our chores when my daughter suggested a walk to the port. Banks and services are open on the 2nd of January, but shops are not because the owners do their stocktaking for the year on this day, so I was surprised to find some shops open by the old Venetian harbour. There were a few tourists milling about there, so the shop owners must have thought it a good moment to catch some business. A few customers are better than no customers, after all.

As we walked down Halidon St, the jewelry stands on the footpath caught my daughter's eye. She is growing up and glittery golden stuff grabs her attention quite easily. From her purse, she took out the €2 coin that she had won from the cutting of the vasilopita the day before (she knew where it was because we made the cake together) and a few copper coins. The ring cost €3.50. We went into the store to pay for the ring.

Some tourists were buying some warm hats. They were smiling and making sounds of contentment because they just found out that their goods cost less than the price stated on the tag. "Special price for you," the middle-aged shop assistant said in English, and more happy cries were heard. No sounds came from the cash register. It was wide open, as if there was noting of value in it.

We were next. "Τρία ευρώ," the shop assistant said in Greek, when she saw my daughter's ring. "€3. They're all on special. Everything is on special," she said, waving her hand in the air towards the direction of the ample merchandise, in case I didn't realise what she meant. As soon as we paid her, she wrote the price down on a page of a tiny notebook. Admittedly I didn't ask for a receipt; at that moment, another ring caught my eye, this time for my tastes. I tried it on, asked my daughter for her opinion (in English), she liked it, and I bought it, for the same price as my daughter's ring.

I haven't indulged in a while in buying frivolities but with my daughter, I now see them as an investment.
"You're not from here?" the woman asked. Silly question, as my daughter was speaking Greek with a native accent the whole time. But not many Greeks go shopping in this area, since it is mainly a tourist zone; she probably thought we were visiting diaspora Greeks from another country. I explained that we live here, but I was born in another country, which is why "I speak funny", as we laughed about that: she probably laughed because she thought I was an "Amerikana" (a way of saying 'Greek foreigner = rich Greek'), while I laughed because I thought she was ignorant.

By this time, I had forgotten about the receipt I should have picked up. Normally, I always pick up receipts after every transaction, no matter where the transaction is made. I don't always bother to wait for an assistant to ring up the receipt on the cash register when I buy a local newspaper (€0.60c), but these occasions are rare. But it is also rare these days not to be given a receipt  I never need to ask for it. Of course, it may depend on the kind of store you shop from, but if you're buying food stuff, electrical equipment, DIY materials, and all sorts of other mundane things we all need to buy on a daily basis, these things require a receipt anyway if you need to exchange things. The same is true with clothes and shoes. I also notice a guilt factor in the store owner when they 'forget' to give you a receipt. Greeks are learning, albeit very slowly, that taxes are no longer voluntary (like Starbucks and possibly Amazon seem to think).

The shop was a cornucopia of touristy objects: jewellery, clothes, souvenirs, hats, scarves, gloves, olive wood kitchen ware, ceramics, and a host of other things, all of which looked very enticing. Everything seemed to have a good quality look. Some women's clothing caught my eye. I began to browse through them on the rack. Like a good shop assistant, the woman beckoned me to try them on.

Written on an ornamental ceramic tile:

If you empty it, fill it
If you make a mess, clean it
If you open it, close it
If you spill it, clear it
If you cook it, share it
(cost of tile: €11.50)
"I've sold more than 70 jackets like this," she said, pointing to one of the items. These clothes were expensive (anything more than €30 is expensive in my opinion - these items cost more more than €50). But they were in a style that I particularly liked, which is somewhat difficult to find in conventional clothing stores and boutiques, which Hania is full of: pure cotton, flowing cut, multi-coloured. They were also winter clothes, which was unusual because tourist stores usually sell summer clothes only. The tags all had "Made in Nepal" written on them, a nice change I thought from the usual ones found on nearly all my clothes ("Made in PRC"). "And they are all on sale, too," the woman reminded me. While I was thinking about what to do, the woman served a couple of other customers (one Greek and another tourist).

"Try it on, Mum," my daughter urged me. It's difficult to say whether she wanted me to try on the clothes for the shopping experience  or because she really thought they suited me. But the truth is that I too wanted to try it on, but the price tag was not within my normal spending range, and I felt guilty buying clothes from a tourist shop, which I know in my heart overprices everything. While tourists are aware of prices when they buy things while holidaying in Greece, they are also unaware of the real value of something in Greece because product prices vary from one country to another. The random prices found in a toruist shop reflect this: for example, anything made with 'olive oil' will sound 'pure' and 'healthy' to a tourist who comes from a country where olive oil is both highly priced and highly prized, so they may not mind paying €2-3 for a bar of olive oil soap with a pretty packaging, because where they come from, it might cost even more. (You can buy a 4-pack of XL green olive oil soap bars for less than €2 at the supermarket.)

Young fashion victim
I couldn't resist trying on these clothes; I have never seen this style of clothing anywhere in Hania except in the touristy harbour. Hania dressers have always been very traditional, but I notice that this is not the case any more. These days, they are not necessarily conventional dressers in themselves; shop owners are at fault here more than shoppers. Shoppers have now been exposed to the foreign market through travel and the internet, enough to know that anything anyone desires to wear can be found and ordered/bought somewhere on the planet. But shop owners bring in the fashion, and individualised clothing is not often found off the peg here. You need to go to specialised stores for that; Hania is too small a town for such shopping experiences.

The shop owners of Hania are actually only a few people; they open and close multiple stores, keeping the one that is working best, they are clever at making up new catchy names for them, and they have been in business for a long time (often taking over their parents' stores, whose photos still stand on the wall - a very telling sign, no matter how modern a store looks). When you see a closed store window in Hania, don't put it in your mind that someone has lost their job due to its closure - it's most likely the case that the previous occupant is trading elsewhere in the town.

"Oh, Mum, it really suits you!" my daughter cried. "You look so good in that dress!" She was right. I trust her judgment on clothes more than I trust mine. She was born a fashion victim. Not only did I look good in that dress, but I felt good. I decided that these clothes were really what I wanted to be wearing, and the price is what I would have to pay if I wanted to wear them, because these shop keepers will not sell these clothes for much less than what they are selling them for now. Forget the false discount sales promises the woman was making - these kinds of places do not worry about getting rid of their stock. Tourists don't come here to buy the latest fashion: they like to buy something they can't get in their country, something that will remind them of a Greek holiday, something they came across that they have never seen before. So these shop keepers do not look to sell out their stock; they know that if they don't sell the items now, someone else will come along next year and buy it, at maybe a higher price. That;'s tourism business all over the world - it's not limited to Greece.

I've always liked the ethnic look 
but it's not cheap to  kit yourself out like this in Crete.
I liked the long-length long-sleeved t-shirt, and I also liked the long-length jacket that I tried on. I was also surprised at how well they fit. I'm short and bulky; it's hard to find clothes in the style I really want because of my size, so I often end up wearing stuff I don't really like. I sacrifice fashion for comfort because I can't afford the time and money required to buy the perfect fit and style for me. In Greece, we have a saying about clothes: Φύλα τα ρούχα σου να έχεις ("Look after your clothes, so you can have them", ie they are for functional purposes).

I decided to buy them with my credit card as I never carry much cash on me. Wads of cash are easily lost or spent. When you are a frugal spender, having a credit card means you end up saving more money than if you had cash in your pocket. Besides, credit cards are usually accepted in most places in Hania. When I think that a card may not be accepted, I don't bother shopping there. I find it inexcusable not to be able to pay for anything by credit card. "Do you accept American Express?" I asked the shop assistant.

"No problem," she said, "we are in the tourist area, and we accept all credit cards. And here's the price: €50 for the jacket and €60 for the dress." The discount was absurdly small, as if someone had found a good sucker to flog some unsellables onto them. The shop assistant took my card and passed it through the machine. Then she packed my clothes in a bag and gave it to me.

"I want the receipt too, please," I reminded her. She had made absolutely no attempt to ring anything up on the cash register. What was it the TV news reported recently? "Businesses are the biggest tax evaders. It seems they are allergic to issuing receipts."

The woman tried to ring up my receipt in the cash register, but the machine kept making a beeping sound. It wasn't working. Quite frankly, it sounded as though it hadn't been used in a while. Well, what do you expect of a tourist store in Greece? They generally don't deal with tired angry Greeks; they deal with foreigners who do not know our laws and do not care for worthless pieces of paper.

All this time that the machine was making beeping sounds, the shop assistant was cursing. Her day had started off so breezily before I stepped into her shop, so the curses were most likely my doing. She was making a right fool of herself. She clearly didn't know how to use the machine. One wonders if she had ever used it. "I can't seem to get it to work," she said to me, without any remorse, other than that I had stuffed up her day by asking her for a receipt. "Could you come back another day to pick up your receipt?" She really had a gall, didn't she?

"No, I bloody well can't," I replied, making her realise that I was not some rich/foreign ignoramus, like she might have hoped I was. So she made a call on her mobile to another woman, who tried to help her work through some instructions to get the cash register working, but to no avail; it still wouldn't work. That set me off: "That till should be working," I retorted. "I'm not your first customer for the day." I had seen quite a few customers come in and out of the shop, one of the biggest tourist stores in the area, big enough to spend at least an hour browsing through it. It's really quite a nice place for all your tourist needs.

"Um, my friend said she'll be coming to fix the problem, but she may take a while." The shop assistant was now speaking rather sheepishly. She had lost her she'll be right (as we say in New Zealand) attitude. The nonchalance she displayed when she was making all that tax-free money from all those other customers was now gone.

"Of course I'll wait," I said, raising my voice just enough to make her realise that she was an asshole. "I've paid €10,000 in taxes this year, so if I wait patiently for that receipt, I'll make sure you pay some too," I added. Naturally, she realised that I wouldn't be a pleasant sight in her shop, especially since there were other customers milling in and out. So she mustered up some extra help via another phone call. Until the man arrived, there was an eerie quietness in the store. You could have heard a pin drop, so to speak.

"Why didn't you call me earlier?" the man was angry with the woman.
"But I called Koula," she said, 'and she's on her way."
"You called Koula?" Now, he was angry too. "I was only across the road, for goodness sake!" He fiddled with the cash register to get it working. But it wouldn't work no matter what he did. He turned to me.
"I think I need to call in a technician," he said meekly to me. I gave him a blank look. "Do you live in Hania?"

I used to play computer games in the past, but I now I find that blogging is much more fun.
The kids have even started blogging too. But they still play games.

"I refuse to come in another day, if that's what you're asking," I said to him. "I'd like my receipt now." An angry customer is worse than a tax official in your business. You don't know where an angry customer may go. She may stop where she is now, or take things further, in all sorts of unpredictable ways - will she go to the tax offices? is she a tax officer herself? will she report it to the papers, tv news, or worse still, the social media or blogs?  The taxman has a set routine. Even if you are caught unawares, as a businessman, you generally know what they want when they turn up randomly, so you keep your books in order for them, but you will simply ensure to hide the notebook you write down your real takings on. But an annoyed customer is just trouble. They may take out their telephone, and the news will spread like wildfire. Or take photos - what could be worse?

"He'll be here within an hour, if you can come back." As it was, I did have something else to do in the region. I had promised to take my daughter for a hot chocolate by the harbour, only a few steps away. So we could in fact be kept busy happily, on this warm fine sunny cold day, typical of a Mediterranean winter. So I said I'd be back, because I didn't really want to stay any longer in his shop anyway, and we really did have something to just down the road. But I would have liked to have been able to turn into a fly and hide myself in a dark spot within earshot, so that I could hear what those two would have said about me and my antics, and I would also like to have seen the technician arrive at the store, just to see if the cash register would start working, because I don't really know if the receipts I got into my hand later that day actually came from the tourist shop I visited. As I explained above, one person runs a lot of shows in the business world of my little town, and the man did actually come from another shop across the road. He has many cash registers...

A typical winter's day in the Mediterranean: hot sun, cold temperature.

At the harbour, I noticed an enticing sign: €3.50 for something to drink, something to eat and a bottle of water (as opposed to a glass, which means it would have come from the tap). The deal was being offered by Starbucks, one of the few food business multi-nationals in Hania (joined by Domino's Pizza, and not much else), which has an outlet by our harbour. We were just about to turn in there when I noticed an old friend of the family sitting at the opposite cafe, who ended up treating us to some coffee and hot chocolate (which cost about €3.50 each according to the receipt that came to the table, which my daughter snuck a look at before our friend took it away from her). This is where I talked to my daughter about the provocative way the shop assistant avoided paying taxes, and why Mama acted like an angry bird in the store. My children have had many experiences with their parents, so they are quite tough. Psychologists will have something to say about that, I am sure, but they are not raising my children, so they can say all they want. Their words won't make much of a difference to me.

The receipt is only barely visible in the top-left hand corner.

Some people pay taxes, others don't. Some people think it's everyone's duty to pay taxes, others don't. Some people think the country is being harmed if not all people pay their taxes, others don't. I have never felt that I must accept what others do. If I did, I wouldn't be living here. They would, and I would have left. It's not me that needs to leave, nor is it me that needs to change. And I really don't feel sorry for businesses that aren't making much money these days and need to close down 'due to the crisis': the government has announced that it will start paying business owners unemployment benefit for the first time ever (this privilege used to be reserved only for salaried workers in the past).

There is a chance that tax avoiders are right in not paying taxes. After all, so many people in Greece make money illicitly: officials with offshore companies, friends and relatives of government ministers, bankers, publishers and those involved in the black market. All this tax-paying business belongs to another world: the West, with its competition, science, modern medicine, democracy, consumerism, and the (Protestant) work ethic. But Merkel isn't really making a mistake in showing trust in Greece these days - it's the Greeks she needs to keep in tow.

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