Friday, 5 June 2009

Inconvenient allergy

When I was a teenager I was diagnosed as being allergic to – among other things – paper dust. A touch inconvenient for a book addict who started her working life in an dusty, musty, old-school newsroom.

But as I’ve grown, and my working environment has become more sterile and allergen-free, I realised that I am suffering from a far more debilitating affliction: an allergy to red tape.

That’s a problem in Greece - a big one.

Every single move you make here seems to be wrapped up to strangulation point in red tape. It’s no mistake that the Greek for bureaucracy is ‘grafeokratia’ (the marriage of ‘grafeo’=office/writing & ‘kratia’=rule).

Opening a bank account, renting an apartment, buying a car, taking maternity leave, getting a phone line, probably even sneezing in public – they all require inordinate amounts of paperwork extracted (and I use the word advisedly, as in ‘painfully extracted’) from a variety of public offices staffed by bored, indifferent public servants who can never be fired. And that means you have to take the morning off work to achieve anything.

While you agonise about the work piling up on your desk in your absence you have to wait patiently and uncomplaining as civil servants get their morning coffee, file their nails, take an age to open their computer (although all paperwork still seems to be done painstakingly by hand, before being sent to the other end of the building for an official stamp after which you have to come back to where you started for another signature and rubber stamp), and sigh heavily before they turn their sloth-like attention to you… …I could go on, but I don’t want to risk my chances next time I have to deal with the Greek civil service.

If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. If you don’t, count your blessings.

As a foreigner, I feel at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with bureaucrats. Although my Greek is pretty good, there’s no ‘Campaign for Plain Speech’ here, so most official documents might as well be written in Swahili for all the sense I can make of them. It’s complete goobledygook and I suspect there is many a Greek as much in the dark as I am, but reluctant to admit it.

It’s all very well for politicians and others to talk about creating a user-friendly, accessible society where the citizen is empowered, but frankly it’s all talk. To actually put those words into action would mean taking the kind of radical measures that no politician hoping to get re-elected would ever risk. So Stalemate continues to rule – yet again.

Meanwhile, my red tape allergy has morphed into that worse of personal monsters - a phobia. The very thought of filling out official forms scares the bejeezus out of me. And the prospect of completing the annual tax return brings me out in a cold sweat: I’m petrified of getting something wrong and paying through the nose for it from here to eternity.

But aversion therapy doesn’t work, and the tax man won’t go away – even if I do bury my head in the sand. So I have to get my finger out, fill in the tax form (in triplicate), dutifully staple all the supporting bits of paper to it and then get myself down to the tax office before it’s too late.

Like they say, death & taxes, death & taxes...

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