Archive for August, 2012

A helping hand

Greek bureaucracy – a byword for inefficiency, corruption, lazy staff? According to much of what we see in the press or on the television this is the picture shown to the world. I’m happy to relate that it is not always correct – at least in this small town.

Most of the world will not know how this works, but when, recently, we received a “summons” to our local IKA office our first thought was “what has the builder not paid”. Under Greek law, whoever commissions building work is, ultimately, responsible for the payment of Social Security contributions (IKA) for the workers. Of course, the main contractor is supposed to pay, as part of the contract for the work but sometimes (and for various reasons) this doesn’t happen and the hapless client is landed with the bill. This is what has happened to us – 6 years after the construction of a water tank to contain agricultural water. Obviously, various parts of the Greek bureaucratic machine are being audited at the moment, as part of the austerity programme, and our case has, therefore, come to the surface. We had no idea that this payment had not been made and were horrified when we discovered that the bill was 2,000€!

What to do? First – find out precisely why it hadn’t been paid. Saw the builder. First response was that the work had been subcontracted out and that the subcontractor was, therefore, responsible. Not an acceptable answer. Second response was that the builder couldn’t find a record of our payment to him of a large sum of money to build the tank (the sum to cover all the expenses of so doing – including, obviously, the IKA payments). Our lawyer (who had made the payment on our behalf) was on holiday, so once we’d traced the date of the payment ourselves we waited for her to return, so that we could get a copy of the receipt. Having done so, we had further correspondence from IKA about a payment schedule. A friendly, English speaking, clerk got involved – she couldn’t quite understand why we’d been charged so much for a simple concrete structure which, according to the paperwork, was painted and had tiles on the bottom – ie it was a swimming pool! We took photographs to prove what we were talking about, and, after several phone calls to the main office in Athens it was agreed that the sum be reduced by about 500€. Now all we had to do was chase the builder. Everyone we had spoken to was of the opinion that we stood no chance of getting the money, as his business was shaky, to say the least – the crisis having done its worst.

Once we were able to show the builder the receipt for the money, and the adjusted payment due he decided, obviously, to be sensible and paid up. It may have been something to do with sheer persistence on my husband’s part – he isn’t the sort to give up easily – or the fact that the builder wanted to preserve what little reputation he has left.

So – don’t let anyone say that all Greek bureaucrats are useless. If it hadn’t been for the thoroughness & kindness of our friendly IKA clerk we would now be around 2,000€ worse off; a not insignificant victory in today’s difficult economic times.

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Happy days, and unhappy thoughts.

Well, we passed our organic inspection, so that’s that for another year, and means that we will get the best price for our olive oil. The lady who came to inspect us spoke only Greek, but we managed to muddle through between us; all we need now is a good harvest!

August is holiday time in Greece. Our little town is full of Athenians and their shocking driving habits. We have a young friend who works in the town and who normally drives a baby Mercedes, which is her pride and joy. When the Athenians are here she rides a tatty scooter and the car is left at home. The Greek relaxed attitude to life disappears when they get behind the wheel of a car, and city dwellers are worse than most. As the number plate system is based on the town where the car is registered, it is easy to spot the “foreigners” and give them the appropriate amount of latitude. Many people who come for their holidays originate from here and come back to see family members during the big holiday period, which revolves around 15th August, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. All women named Maria (or any derivative thereof) have their “name day” that day; there is much partying and all the shops are shut.

It seems as though the world has forgotten Greece and her problems. When I was recently in the UK there was barely a mention of Greece on any of the news bulletins – do they think all the problems have gone away? I was incensed, too, by the way in which the Olympics completely took over even international bulletins. The BBC was particularly irritating in this regard. We watch BBC here in Crete – the World version –  and it is, normally, excellent. Greece, Spain & other countries are falling apart, people in Syria & elsewhere are DYING because they want to live in a country free of oppression, and sport tops the news. This made me very angry, and I upset more than a few people by saying so. I was told that it was nice to have good news for a change! I don’t have a problem with good news; indeed it is so rare that it is good that it is reported, but NOT at the top of every bulletin when people are suffering so horribly in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places.

I feel, sometimes, that I’m in a Victor Meldrew frame of mind; “is it me?” For a long time I’ve felt out of step with most of the world and the constant search for ever more trivial things to care about. Living here has re-adjusted my perspective, thankfully, as most of my Greek friends are serious minded people who care, passionately, about things which are really important – their families, their work, their friends. From time to time pettiness arises, and upsets occur but, by & large, we live in a far more balanced society than that which we left in the UK. People enjoy frivolous things, of course, but they do not dominate as they do in the UK. One of the young women who works for the Animal Welfare group with which we are associated, for instance, is a beautician. I met her recently at the vets’ surgery. She had a street dog with her, which she had brought to be sterilised. The dog was in beautiful condition, a real credit to her care (she fosters him and 3 others). She’d found him on the streets covered in fleas, ticks etc and taken him home, cleaned him up and got him well. It is a messy business caring for street animals, yet this young woman still had beautifully painted finger & toe nails in a multitude of colours; a really good mix of the passion she put into caring for animals and still being a fashionable (and rather beautiful)  young woman. It is a pity that many in the UK are not able to find that balance in their lives!

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Red tape

Had a call the other day to say that we are due for our annual “biological(organic)” inspection. This is normally a simple procedure – we have to adhere to some fairly straightforward rules in order to maintain our status as organic farmers; we have to produce a diary to detail how we deal with the land throughout the year – when we water, what fertiliser we use, when we prune the trees etc. I make up the diary as a spreadsheet in English & Greek, so that it is clear to whomever inspects us! I’m not sure that my Greek is always totally correct, but it seems to be comprehensible. We have, also, to produce all the receipts showing what we’ve bought in terms of fertiliser (of the appropriate kind) and insecticides, ditto. The inspector usually checks that we have tape marking the boundaries (to show that we are “biological”-to avoid our neighbours over-spraying), and asks us about what oil we have sold and to whom. I just hope that whoever comes speaks at least some English – we can muddle through between us if they do. If not, it will be sign language time!

The inspection is fairly stringent, but I think this is important. Organic products attract a premium price and those who pay deserve to know that the rules have been followed.  We have been very fortunate in our dealings with the organisation which oversees the certification – they are incredibly helpful; our first inspector lived locally and spent hours with us at the place where we had to do all the original paperwork, and gave us masses of advice. The second chap we had was also local and runs a shop where we can buy fertiliser etc, so we always know we are getting the right stuff.

Sometimes living here and dealing with Greek bureaucracy drives me crazy – everything seems to take so long! When we are dealing with people like the organic lot, though, it looks different. There are so many kind people here who have been willing to help us through all the red tape, that it has made it possible to get our certificate. Just hope this year will be the same!

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How much do we change?

One of the things I like best about living here in Greece is the connection we have developed to the land. We were “townies” in the UK, though we’d both been brought up in the country and wanted, more than anything, to get away from suburbia. Our main criterion, therefore, when we were looking for a place to live, was that we should be able to have sufficient land around us to grow a few vegetables and have space to “breathe”. Little did we know that having land would become so important to our wellbeing – both in terms of being able to produce some of our own food, but also economically. Our olive crop has taken on far greater significance than we could possibly have imagined, and we are very aware, at the moment, of keeping an eye on the development of the olives and looking out for signs of disease. We water them regularly, and once it is a little cooler we will be starting work to prepare the land for harvest. In the meantime all the summer vegetables are over, so the garden needs sorting out as well. The heat means that most of these jobs need doing at the beginning and end of the day, which has altered our “normal” timetable. It is surprising how long it has taken to adjust to living with the rhythm of the seasons, but it now makes sense. I still can’t do the late night Greek hours, though!

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