Sunday, 22 December 2013

Newly impoverished (Πρόσφατα εξαθλιωμένος)

The bell at the village church was tolling in mourning mode. This is the first sign to most of us that someone in the area has died. The funeral service was for an old woman who had been bedridden for a while. One could call it a 'happy' funeral, of a person who died in old age, having been through the whole cycle of life as Greeks often know it: prosperity, descendants and a life surrounded by the love of one's family. The funeral gave us a chance to catch up with neighbours who we do not see very often. In the dearth of winter, we are all trying to keep our heads above water by staying inside the warmth our homes can offer, and we rarely venture out unless we have jobs to do.

I didn't recognise Mattheos immediately - it had been at least a year since I last saw him, and maybe two years before that. Our lives never really had much in common, apart from my husband's line of work (he owned a taxi but did not operate it) but every now and then, we bump into each other, on occassions like these. But this time, I mistook Mattheos for a very old man who had not slept in a proper bed for many weeks. His face was gaunt and hollow, he looked depressed, and his vision was more of a gazing stupor.

"How's it going, Mattheo?" my husband greeted him cautiously, aware that something was not quite right.

"How can it be going?" he replied, puffing nervously on his cigarette. "No one can work out where things are going these days. But when you're surviving on your mother's €400 monthly pension, it certainly isn't going ahead." His reply did not hide his own fate. It was shocking to hear Mattheos speak like this; we had known him in much better times, when he was living with something like a personal €4000 monthly income.

"€400? But what about your rental income?" my husband prodded him a bit more.

"Rental income? Oh, that's over. Who pays rent these days?" To a certain extent, Mattheos has a point. Tenants don't always pay up because they don't always have the money to pay. To avoid payment, they may abscond and change address. Those that stick it out are always owing in arrears. And even if landlords ask them to leave or get them evicted, who will come after them to take their place? So Mattheos' apartment block - built by his father - is now a white elephant and a costly one at that.

"But weren't you taking that businessman to court over non-payment?" Mattheos had once discussed with us taking the tenant of the ground floor to court because he had not been paying him. Many apartment blocks in Greece are often built in such a way that the ground floor is some kind of store/firm while the other flats are homes.

"Oh, that," Mattheos replied slowly. "Well, to get to court, I need to pay the lawyer €2000 to continue with the case... but I really can't afford that now." He sounded lost, as if he could not believe that this fate should have befallen him.

"Are your tenants at least paying the property tax?" This tax is tacked onto the electricity bill; the tenants of homes are still paying that on behalf of the landlord, but it is deducted from the rent.

"Well... I don't know," Mattheos said. He had already lost count of the expenses that he had to maintain and he was beginning to show signs of not understanding the situation he now found himself in.

"But your father had left you some money, hadn't he?"

"Oh, that's all gone now," Mattheos said, shaking his head. "If you keep withdrawing and you aren't making an income, then eventually, it all runs out." Mattheos' father was a hard-working family man. Over the years, he had amassed a small fortune working a licensed delivery truck, and had built a small apartment block with 4-6 flats in each one, on each of two sections of land that he had bought as he worked, earned and saved. These were inherited by his children, one for each of them, as well as some money he had put aside for a rainy day, which never seemed to come, because Mattheos' father never stopped working, even when he retired and gave up the truck work. The truck license was converted to a taxi licence by Mattheos, while his father continued to maintain the family land, inherited plots covered with olive trees, vineyards and orange trees.

"Well," my husband said, realising that the conversation was not leading to a good ending, "you must have plenty of time to spend working on the fields." My husband knew that Mattheos had given up working the taxi a long time ago; he didn't really need to work, in essence because he had rents coming in, and since he hadn't created his own family, but continued to live with his parents in their modest home (compared to the apartments they had built), he didn't really have many expenses. Most of the money he made from the rents went on maintaining an expensive car, hunting trips and taverna meals. He had various girlfriends from time to time, but no relationship lasted very long. Mattheos had inherited quite a lot of olive trees and sometimes sold the produced oil to the olive press. In fact, we had bought olive oil from Matthoes' father when he was alive, at a time when our olive trees were not producing enough olives: our fields had burnt to the roots of the trees, but eventually sprang back to life, after two decades of being carefully nurtured and tended, so we don't need to olive oil any now, as we can exist on our own supplies.

"Oh, I haven't worked the fields in the last three years," Mattheos replied. "I leased them out to another farmer because I got tired of packing 20-kilo sacks on my back."

"Ι see.. so I suppose you get a share of the harvest for your own needs?" My husband was trying to sympathise with him, as he knew what back-breaking work olive harvesting is. We don't do it ourselves, as we are both working, and we are very happy with our hired help, an Albanian family living permanently int he area. They get a share of the produce in lieu of payment, which they can then sell or keep. As they harvest many land-owners' fields, they often sell it.

"Well, this year, there won't be any olives to harvest, because our fields cropped last year." Olives bear in alternate years, which is why we needed to buy olive oil when we ran out of the year's harvest. But in the last two harvests, the trees bore enough olive oil for us to keep for two years until the trees bear again. Cretans generally use olive oil that is up to 2 years old for this reason, despite what the most learned olive oil expert will tell you, that olive oil loses its quality after 18 months. (This is true, as it is of any stored product - το ίδιο που μας κάνει: Cretans continue to use their own oil supplies like they did in the past, without any fear of loss of quality. If that is all you have, that is all you use.)

"Well, I needed to sell the oil last year to make ends meet, what with the new taxes and all that other shit we've been loaded with, so I don't have any oil left at the moment. I suppose I'll be buying some cooking oil soon, maybe when my mother picks up her pension next month." If Mattheos is living off his mother's pension, I guess he's ruined. Eventually we said goodbye to him, and left the funeral ourselves. He did not drive off in his luxury car, and I wondered if he still owned it, or at least maintained the costs needed to run it. We saw him driving off on a motorbike, his mother sitting behind him on the side.

In a nutshell, Mattheos once had a lot of money to play with. So he stopped working, and just played. He must have felt extremely rich to not be able to feel the need to look after anything he owned, as if there were a bottomless pit full of money that he was drawing from that would last him a lifetime, and he could just toss away what he didn't need, or not cover the pit for fear that some notes may fly out when it got windy. Now he may feel as though he is being defrauded by the state because it continues to ask for money in the form of property taxes, money which Mattheos is clearly not making, nor is he able to pay his dues to the state.

Matthoes is typical of the newly impoverished Greek: just like Mattheos, many Greeks find themselves in similar situations for various reasons, the main one being that when they had had a lot of money, they were not adequately educated about how to keep it or make it grow. They were not taught how to invest it to make it work for them them in the future; maybe the future did not worry or interest them, as the present once seemed as good as it could get. The main problem for these Greeks now is that they face the prospect of sliding into lawlessness as their debts accrue. No one is immune from irregularities, as the recent arrest of a former Greek minister of transport shows: he was caught driving with fake licence plates on a luxury car, which he couldn't afford to maintain now that he is a pensioner; despite having 28 properties to his name (he is related to two former prime ministers), he is now subject to hefty luxury and property taxes (supposedly when he returns from his Christmas holidays in Kuala Lumpur - he didn't even show up at the trial the other day). So he de-registered the car from use, stopped taking out insurance on it, but couldn't bear to part with it, and drove it illegally. He was detected by police during routine checks while driving through a red traffic light.
Πριν κάποια χρόνια αγόρασα το σεμνo και ταπεινo jeep που βλέπετε στις φωτογραφίες. Μου στοίχισε περίπου 100.000 ευρώ, αλλά τότε έβγαζα από μίζeς και bonus στο Υπoυργeίo μας δεκάδες χιλιάδες ευρώ κάθε μήνα. Τώρα είμαι ένας απλός συνταξιούχος, με λίγα μετρητά στη τράπεζα και μόλις 28 ακίνητα στο όνομά μου. Αυτό δεν μου επιτρέπει να κυκλοφορώ με 4.200cc και να πληρώνω 1350 ευρώ τέλη κυκλοφορίας ανά έτος, αλλά και άλλα 1000 ευρώ ασφάλεια και εκατοντάδες ευρώ για σέρβις. Αποφάσισα μετά τη χθεσινή μου περιπέτεια να πουλήσω το αυτοκίνητό μου όσο όσο για να πληρώσω τα πρόστιμα αλλά και τα δικαστικά έξοδα από τη σύλληψή μου με πλαστές πινακίδες, ασφάλεια και χωρίς δίπλωμα. Είναι σκληρός ο αποχωρισμός μου από το αγαπημένο μου Touareg αλλά δεν μπορώ να κάνω αλλιώς. Έχω κάνει το σκaτo μου παξιμάδι και πιστέψτε με θα μου στοιχίσει που θα το δώσω, αλλά έτσι είναι η ζωή. Πληρώνουμε τα λάθη μας. (This 'ad' for a used car appeared in three days ago - the entry was deleted as soon as it was detected. It translates reasonably well.)
Financial security ruins you, as Nigella Lawson once said, which is why she doesn't want to leave her kids too much to inherit. She knows what she's talking about: she had so much money to burn that she herself would leave it on the toilet cistern. I suppose that if she ran out of toilet paper, she could use the paper notes instead, as money meant so little to her. The perception people have of an idea perpetuates the idea, a bit like a brand - once that idea is challenged and people's perceptions of it change, the brand collapses, with little to take its place.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.