Thursday, March 29, 2012

tax office

No one looks forward to going to the tax office, especially in Greece. Especially now in Greece. Every year I file taxes electronically, thus avoiding the tax office entirely – no need to stand in line all day to submit forms, waiting for sullen employees to bang their rubber stamps on your documents… So for years submitting electronically seemed too good to be true. All you needed was a “code” or password to file electronically. Up until now, every year this code would be sent to you via email. Simple. Well, it was too good to be true. Now, according to new rules, in order to file electronically you have to appear at your local tax office in person, wait in line, show your ID and the employee will hand you a printout with your coveted code, necessary for your online submission.

So, one day I headed to the tax office to face the crowds, the long lines, the apathetic employees. I trudged up to the third floor because the only elevator was taking too long and was too small anyway, only accommodating about four people at a time. Upon locating and entering the right office, a look of bewilderment came over my face. On the left there was a long counter with a glass wall above, separating the waiting area from the office area. Behind the glass there were four desks and two employees. There was a door next to the counter and a long line in front of the door. It snaked along the length of the counter, making its way back around and down again, and the “end” of the line was basically a crowd of people, vying for a spot at the end of the “real” line. I reluctantly joined the back of the crowd, pushing my way through the line trying to find the end. “Who’s the last person?” newcomers would grumble and someone would sigh, “I am. And he’s before me, and she’s before him” and so on. There was a small table in the corner with no chairs, only a few cracked pens hanging from string which was taped to the table. Near the entrance to the room was a small row of airport-like seating. But most of the plastic seats were broken and instead of a seat there were round poles sticking out of the metal base.

A heavy-set woman sat on one of the few available chairs, arms crossed over her large stomach, surveying the scene. The office closes at 2pm every day and it was already 12:30. I doubted that I would make it to the front of the line in time. A wiry old man with long straggly white hair stepped out of line and looked through the glass partition, glancing at his watch and scowling at the people being served by the two employees inside the office. “That guy’s been in there for 15 minutes already! What’s he doing??!” I could hear everyone making mental calculations, counting the people in front of them, trying to figure out how long it would be before their turn came. The wiry old man became agitated, inhaling and exhaling loudly, flapping his arms, glaring, pacing, as his stringy white hair blew in the wind generated by his arm-flapping fury. “Hey you in there! You’re time is up!! Get out! There are others here too and we need our turn! I’ve been waiting for an hour already!!” he said, knocking on the glass. This got no response. He banged his fists on the counter and shouted “Hey in there! I’m gonna smash this place to pieces!!” Still no response. He stuck his head in the doorway and this time, aimed his comments directly at the employee, “Madame!!! This cannot go on, it’s not fair for this person to monopolize all of your time on his case when we are all waiting outside like idiots!!” The woman glanced up, shot him a deadly look and stated in a strong, stern voice “I will spend as much time as it takes to finish each person’s paperwork!”

The heavy-set woman piped up and added “Humph! In France all you do is punch your ID number into a machine, press a button and out comes any document you want. Yeees, that’s right. No standin’ in line! No, sir! In France, they ain’t waitin’ around for hours like us!”

A short middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap looked up and smirked. “Yeah, but half the people in France are gay,” he retorted -  which got a roaring laugh from the crowd of haggard tax-payers.

“Go ahead and laugh” she snapped, “but we’re still stuck here waitin’ like morons” as she pulled a sandwich from her huge black bag, unwrapped it and started chomping on one end. Her son, who was waiting in line, figured it’s no use, he’ll never make it by 2pm and wanted to leave. “I ain’t leavin’ son. You hand me those papers and I’ll wait here. I'm gittin’ served today, no matter what. And that’s that. Yes, sir. Gittin’ served today.”

At 1:55 I finally got to the front of the line and eventually got what I came for. I was too tired to notice what happened with the wiry old man or if the side-lining heckler eventually did get served. All I kept thinking was that there certainly is an easier way to do all this, and I left feeling saddened by the fact that in the Greece of 2012 standing in line for hours on end for a simple transaction is still a part of “normal” life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New faces in my neighborhood

I live in a suburb of Athens, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Syndagma Square. I’ve been in this neighborhood for over 11 years. The area has always been considered a middle-class / upper-middle class neighborhood. There is a pleasant pedestrianized square here, lined with shops and cafes, and a large green park nearby making the city seem more livable… The economic crisis can be felt everywhere and many shops in and around the square here have closed their doors and stand empty. The area looks and feels… different. The places I see are changing and so are the people.

On the way to the supermarket today, I passed the usual places. The florist was outside busying himself with arranging and re-arranging the pots around the entrance of his store. The shoe repair guy was hovering around the doorway to his shop, smoking a cigarette. Only the pro-po shop or “pro-potzidiko” (lottery/betting agency) was busy. This is no ordinary pro-po shop. They used to occupy a tiny space a few doors down from their current location.  However two years ago, a large Chinese restaurant on the street closed its doors and the space became vacant. That’s when the tiny pro-potzidiko moved a few doors down and rented the larger space. The new and improved pro-potzidiko is booming.  The former Chinese restaurant has become the neighborhood betting mecca, complete with colorful screens and monitors all around the shop, displaying lotto results, sports scores and electronic betting games. Long tables line the front of the store, and through the floor-to-ceiling windows I could see the usual neighborhood characters inside. They sat chatting and smoking, checking their lottery numbers, filling out new lottery slips, scratching their instant tickets hoping to become instantly rich. The tables always seem to be filled with people hoping to catch a break, hoping that today is their lucky day, hoping to walk out with a winning ticket in their pocket... 

I headed for the supermarket. Lots of people hustling and bustling around the square, running their daily errands. Rushing past, talking on their cell phones, clutching the hands of whining kids who lagged behind them. The cafes were filled with people. I noticed a hunched figure on the sidewalk. I’ve seen her around for years.  Almost as long as I can remember. An old lady with a black kerchief tied around her head, white hair poking out in messy locks, black threadbare clothes, brown wooden cane with a black rubber stopper at the end. She approaches whoever is near her, a gnarled, wrinkled outstretched hand, each time repeating the same plea in a shaky voice: “Please, just a little something for a little old grandmother.”

I finished with the supermarket and as the glass doors swooshed open I looked up to see some new “familiar” faces outside. A young dark-skinned man with a thin face, hand outstretched holding a plastic cup, eyes beseeching everyone who exits the supermarket: “Please, kind lady, whatever you can give me” he says as everyone walks past him.

A bit further down, I saw another new familiar face.  A few months ago, the first time I saw her, I didn’t realize what was happening.  She was neatly dressed in clean clothes, she didn’t look scruffy or disheveled, and there was nothing about her appearance that would make her stand out. As I walked past her, I heard a soft voice “Please, ma’am. I’m unemployed. I don’t have enough money.” I glanced around, not realizing where the voice was coming from. She does not stand with hand outstretched, audibly begging, approaching people. Rather she just blends into the scene, looks like a “regular” pedestrian -only when someone walks near her does she make her quiet plea, making brief eye contact, pausing for a second, trying to decide if she should keep walking or wait.  So I saw her again this morning, people rushing past her, not noticing. She has light hair and fair skin. She seemed to dissolve into the background of the noisy street.

And just a bit further down, I noticed a guy walking along. Skinny, dirty, spaced out. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy, on drugs, homeless or all of the above. He scuffled along the busy sidewalk, paused for a second, pulling down the back of his sweatpants exposing his ass. He walked along nonchalantly scratching his butt with both hands, face outstretched to the warm spring sunshine.  I looked around and my fellow passers-by were completely oblivious. No one blinked an eye.

Sounds surreal. Sounds like it can’t possibly be true. But this is what I see every time I leave my house and walk around my neighborhood.

I made my way home, thinking about all these new familiar faces that have popped up in and around my neighborhood during the past few months, past year. Am I the only one who notices them? No one seems to talk about this new change in the neighborhood. Are we looking right through them? Pretending they are not there? Are we too scared to talk about them because we fear one of us might soon become one of them?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

For whom the drum beats…

This Sunday, March 25 is Independence Day. A day which marks the anniversary of the beginning of the War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821. Across the country, in each town and city, small and large, school children (from elementary to high school) participate in parades. In downtown Athens, a grand military parade is held, with all branches of the armed forces participating. 

The last national holiday which was celebrated with a military parade was October 28 (“Oxi Day”), in Thessaloniki.  Or at least an attempt was made to celebrate this holiday last October, which commemorates the day in 1940 when the Greek Prime Minister rejected an ultimatum made by Mussolini to allow Axis forces to enter Greece. At this parade, protesters stormed the street, disrupting the parade, causing the Greek President and most of the officials present to depart and for the parade to be cancelled. Similar incidents played out at parades all over Greece that day. I spent most of the day like most Greeks - glued to the TV, clicking from one channel to the next, as news reports and footage of protesters storming the parade routes in Rhodes, Crete, Patras, Trikala and other cities flashed before our eyes.

In an effort to prevent this from happening all over again, the government is preparing for this weekend’s parades in advance. On Saturday, school children will parade through Syndagma Square. This weekend in downtown Athens 4,000 police officers will be on duty around the parade route, which has already been lined with metal barricades.  Streets surrounding the parade will be closed to traffic. Three metro stations in the downtown area will also remain closed.

And so the country waits to see what will happen. People talk about it with a sense of nervous anticipation. For the past week, almost every afternoon I can hear students in a nearby schoolyard practicing for the parade – marching to the sound of a beating drum, trying to synchronize their steps, keeping time to the rhythm. I watched them closely one day from my balcony, marching in circles with two drummers leading the way.  Many students have already said that when they march past the platform where government officials will be sitting, they will turn their backs, look the other way – a deliberate sign of disrespect and disgust.
Many Greeks feel that politicians and the government are responsible for the current sorry state of the country. Others say that our ancestors fought for freedom while current leaders have willingly enslaved the country via EU policies and austerity measures. Anger, rage, and disregard for authority – these feelings have trickled down to even the school children in Greece.

This year the true meaning of this national holiday seems to have been forgotten.  The country is not in a celebratory mood. Every day this week I listened to the ominous sound of beating drums and instead of conjuring joyful images of commemorative processions, the sound brought to mind the image of criminals being led to the gallows…

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the brink of a nervous breakdown...

In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympic Games, which were a great success despite worldwide reports that the Greeks wouldn’t be ready in time and the entire event would be a disaster. We worked hard, we pulled it off. Athens (and all of Greece) was at the height of optimism. Greece’s new image as a truly modern European city made us breathe a collective sigh of relief as we all proudly thought:  watch out world, we’ve finally arrived.

But the stadium lights were turned off, the Olympic flame was distinguished and the thousands of foreign journalists, athletes and spectators packed up and went home. And for years, we basked in the afterglow with our shiny, new, confident modern face.

That was eight years ago. The Athens of 2012 has long lost its Olympic gleam. What happened? I won’t talk about how and why this crisis happened. There are countless experts out there who have written many in-depth reports and articles and are far better suited than I am to discuss the intricacies of economics and politics.

All I can do is describe what I see on the streets and write about the changes I experience all around me, every day. All I can do is show you the view from my seat - in an effort to explain how an entire country has gone from feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future to feeling hopeless and pessimistic. We have lost faith in our leaders, in our political system, in our institutions, in our future.

The gap between the upper class and the lower class is getting wider. For the past 30+ years, the middle class enjoyed steady growth but today, middle class families have slipped to poverty line levels.

The new austerity measures have cut salaries, pensions, benefits and have imposed new taxes – on goods and services to real estate. Although we are earning less, we must pay higher taxes, new taxes, as other costs like utilities have increased as well. Unemployment is increasing each quarter and is currently at 20.7 percent.  Shops and businesses are closing one after another – in Athens overall, 30% of the shops have closed and on major shopping streets in downtown Athens like Stadiou Ave, the rate is higher, where 42% of shops have shut down.

The crime rate has risen, with home burglaries up by 125% in one year. People have become fearful and suspicious. The number of suicides and attempted suicides have risen nationwide – from 507 in 2009 to 622 in 2010 (a 22.5% increase). Strikes and protests are a daily occurrence and new initiatives like the “potato movement” have gathered force. Across Greece, consumers are buying directly from agricultural producers (cutting out the overpriced middlemen). Local municipalities announce a “potato sale,” take orders, and then announce when and where people can go to pick up their order.  Over 15 million kilos of potatoes have been sold this way, for about 25 cents per kilo (as opposed to the cost in supermarkets, about 40+ cents per kilo).

We have all been affected by the crisis in one way or another. No doubt the hardest-hit group is average, working class families.
I watched a recent TV news report where residents in a working class area of Athens lined up to receive bags of rice at a reduced price, in an initiative similar to the potato movement. Housewives shouted at cameras – “we were proud, hard working families, we were able to provide for ourselves and our children, and now they have reduced us to this,” one woman stated with tears in her eyes, adding “my son is 22 years old. He has a university degree but can’t find a job. He is deeply depressed and feels hopeless. They have taken his future away.”

I can’t help but think that a growing population of unemployed, depressed, angry, hopeless young people can potentially be a very dangerous force in an increasingly unstable society...