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Saturday, 19 October 2013

Roma (Ρομά)

Before the sensible polite hard-working very poor Albanian couple rented my home and made it theirs, I had a Roma family living in it. When they asked to rent the property, I decided to overlook their Roma background, and I signed a renatl agreement, in the full belief that they would be nice to me because I would be nice to them. That's what happens when you are raised in a liberal melting-pot background like I was in New Zealand. You never judge people by thier background, you never accuse them of being something just because of their background, and you always treat them fairly. (I believe this has changed somewhat in New Zealand since the influx of foreign migrants - covert racism exists everywhere at any rate).

Everyone around me told me that I was making a BIG mistake, but I didn't believe them. First and foremost, I had to be a nice person, and I believed - and still do - that you can lead by example. So I put Kosta and Venetia into my house, and their five children: Maria, Lemonia, Carolina, Georgia and Kostaki, the baby boy who was the last to be born, before Venetia had her uterus removed. "We needed a boy," she told me. "Only boys look after the parents in their old age. Girls are for other houses."

I gave Kosta a bank account number, and he said he would deposit the rent in it. The first month, no money went into the account. "What did you expect, Maria?" my husband said. "They are Roma. They never pay anyone." I called him up, and he wouldn't answer his telephone (which he did while he was trying to work out how to rent my house, and he had to chase me up because I reminded him that I couldn't sign a lease until I got the rent in advance - he was hoping he could pay in arrears).

So I trotted off to the house and found his mother and father there. I asekd when Kosta would be back, and she told me he was away on business in Italy. Then she asked me if I could install a phone in the house. Of course, I couldn't, and I didn't, but she kept asking me the same thing. I explained that she had to go to OTE and ask for a line, but she kept telling me that she couldn't read.

Eventually I caught up with Kosta, and he explained to me in that pseudo-polite way that Romas have when they want to pull a fat one over you that he lost his phone and he still hasn't got round to buying a new one. I gues he was paying off the plasma TV that was in the room where I talked to him. All around the house, there was chaos, but then it is none of my business to ask why they don't slpee on beds (they had no chair or beds or tables in the house). I picked up the rent and left.

Naturally, I had to return to the house every month to pick up the rent, because, as Kosta later told me, he couldn't read either, and nor could Venetia, and this depsite seeing the children's names scrawled on the outside walls of the house, spelt correctly in Greek letters. The chasing up of rent money went on for over two years. Sometimes when I visited, the house was full of strangers, sometimes it was full of children and no adutls, and some other times, it was empty. During the summer, they never lived in it. This made me think in the first summer that they had left and deicded not to tell me to abscond from paying the rent. This was the only time I entered the garden area of the house. It was filty, with human excrement lying under the two mandarin trees in the yard. Lice-filled combs were found in various corners; interestingly ,tehre was no actual damage to the house.

I decided to hire a lawyer that first summer to see what I can do about the situation, but just before I did, the miracle happened. The Roma returned. I was given the rent I was owed, at the same time as getting an earful from the neighbours who told me that I should never have allowed these pigs to rent my house, but I decided that it was none of their business anyway, and I did nothing else about it. If you are picking up the rent, you can't really do much about evicting them. You can only do that when yo do not pick up the rent.

After two years of being harassed in this way by these ungrateful Roma, I decided that I had had enough. This was exacerbated when the local council told me that I owed a lot of money on water usage. At the time, I could not change the name of the water user on the property, so it was still in my name. The Roma owed over 800 euro on water use, and I knew in my heart that no amount of niceness would help me get back my money. I decided to evict the Roma, so I hired a lawyer to take the case to court.

(Nor were they paying the electric bills, but the disconnection in such cases was swift, so they could never owe too much at one time; but cutting off water supply is seen as a holier need than electricity, which is why the council was a little lax about cutting it off, until I told them that if they didn't do it, then I would take THEM to court, too).

I finally decided to do what the law entitled me to do since I wasn't collecting any rent in that third summer of having to put up with their little games. While they were away, I never made any contact with them. I simply got the legal proceedings started as early as possible. For my good luck (as the lawyer said, not everyone is as lucky as I am), the court proceedings were not being delayed that year, the lawyers' union had not called so many strikes as they used to in the past, and the Roma did not even try to make contact with me, not once suspecting that I might have been up to something. How thick of them; how much they underestimated me; how dare them!

In three months after the proceedings started, the eviction was passed. The Roma never appeared in court, they never bothered to follow up the bailiff's orders, who would spy on them while they were completely unaware of what was going on, at the laiki (street market), and they never opened the mail that was addressed to them ("we are illiterate", they would lie to us). They were evicted due to their absence in court, not even sending someone to represent them. I was told that I could enter the house only after the eviction was passed and the eviction sign was posted for a certain period of time (I can't remember the details now).

The last day before they eviction could take place and I could enter the hosue, the Roma called up my husband on his phone. (Kosta had stopped calling me a long time before this, because, as he said, it was not in his culture to have business dealings with women. What a wanker.) I was with my husband on that day and I heard the dialogue: "How could you do this to me? What have I done to you? I always paid the rent! Come and take whatever I owe right now! You know I always paid my dues!"
"Maybe you recognise this child?"
Lies, lies, lies. In three days, they had removed eery single item they owned in the house. Unfortuinately, they house had suffered some minor damages - possibly due to the 20 or so people living in it at the same time at different periods - and the water and electric bills had not been paid. I ended up paying all the costs, including the lawyer and the bailiff. I have no regrets though: I gave them a chance to be nice, and they did not take it. I couldn't take any more more abuse, and I simply demanded my rights. The house was left uninhabited because I could not afford to repair it. The Albania couple who live there now begged me to let them repair it themselves. Seven years later, even when they cannot afford to pay me the rent, they always phone me first to let me know. And in the end, they never owe me anything because they have too much pride to sink so low.
Has this episode in my life changed the way I think about Roma? Not really. I always had the subconscious feeling that they were not above board, but I was simply in denial, because that's what a good New Zealander would be thinking like: innocent until proven guilty. And throughout this discussion, note how I avoided using the word 'gypsy'.

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