You call them cheese pies but they’re really cheese sandwiches. Or cheese croissants. There really is no accurate translation. The cheese – pie – to – go is one of those fabulous Greek inventions that should be praised the world over but somehow managed to stay in the relative international shadows. It is a delicious, melted feta cheese and crust concoction, ideal for either a big snack or a small meal.
October 2012. A baker in Larissa (large, productive, meat loving northeast town) loaded his van with 650 kilos, I repeat: 650 KILOGRAMS – much more than half a ton, of assorted bakery goods intended for customers. His heavy doughy load was accompanied by all the official documentation required by law for transporting goods which are to be part of a commercial transaction.
Inside the van, probably grabbed from the store at the last minute, were 4 of the above mentioned cheese pies ‘intended for personal use’ as the baker later put it.
I would love to be able to tell you that the baker set off on his merry way, delivered his goods and made it home, or wherever private he was going, to eat the cheese pies in peace.
Because as fate would have it, his journey was interrupted by the tax police who demanded to inspect his van and his documentation. And so they did. They found all 650 kilos of merchandise in order, but, failing to find any documentation for the evil cheese pies, all of which put together weigh –at their heaviest – considerably less than a kilo, fined him with 800 € (minimum wage is 570 € a month and falling) and a two – week confiscation of his van’s permit and license plates.
Oh yes they did and and you can see the official document here.
Perhaps the officers found this ‘personal use’ stuff rather cryptic. Why did the baker not disclose who he was supposed to consume the pies with? Why did he not say ‘I’m taking the pies to friends or family’? The thought that maybe the baker wanted to eat all four pies on his own and that he was too embarrassed to say so did not for a minute enter the minds of chaste, frugal people such as the officers of Greek tax law.
The irony and joke of this last paragraph will have been lost on you if you are not Greek.
The baker later went to the Tax Office from Hell aka Eforia to ask for some understanding, but he was met with irony and malicious rebukes, culminating in the statement ‘You are guilty, you shall pay’…..Quite.
You notice that I’ve put down the baker’s claims as true by default, without any ‘according – to’s or ‘the – baker – claims – that’s. The political incorrectness of this will have been lost on you if you are Greek. This is not because us Greeks are uncouth, unkind individuals incapable of objectiveness, but because us Greeks tend, as a rule, to have actually been inside one of the Tax Offices from Hell aka Efories.
OK, technically the baker was guilty. Although one would have to wonder why a merchant who wants to commit fraud would choose to do so via the medium of 1‰ of his legally documented products. Laying within arm’s reach.
But I will concede this to you: from this incident only you would be right to think that the Greek tax officers are sticklers for precision, perhaps a little overzealous but certainly vigilant professionals with a Germanic attention to detail and order.
I can see you wondering now: a glazed look takes over your eyes as you perplexedly ponder on the paradox of how a country with such conscientious tax officers can manage an annual numeral of estimated tax evasion high enough to feed the entire Third World – 10 times over. Feast your eyes http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2012/09/tax-evasion-greece
Let us keep you in suspense no longer and solve, in the mere few minutes it will take you to finish this post, this paradox that we shall now call ‘the cheese pie paradox’ just because we can.
Without further ado, here are the possible explanations for the 800 € fine and license plate confiscation:
There are two possible kinds of tax check, random and non-random.
Let’s first assume that
A. THE CHECK WAS A RANDOM ONE
In which case, one of three things might have happened:
- The tax officers were sticklers for detail and merely did their job, albeit a little over-zealously.
- The tax officers, operating under a headquarter – set quota or order, were intent on finding something to fulfill it, wanting to get over with what was asked of them as part of their job description as quickly as possible. (A method also highly popular among traffic wardens.)
- The tax officers searched the vehicle, found nothing, asked for a little bribe anyway, were refused it and took their vengeance by fining the baker. Do not be shocked, this is a known practice. I personally know two owners of small businesses who were subjected to the following drill: a random check was performed on their books, at the end of which the taxmen stated: ‘The books are A – OK, we want so many thousand euros’. On the perplexed query ‘Why do you need a bribe if my books are OK?’ the answer was: ‘Oh but we can always find something’. And it doesn’t have to be a bribe in the thousands or even a proper, unabashed demand either. A hint, a silence, even a wanton look towards the cheese pies would have done, for those that are capable of discerning the meaning of such gestures, that is, i.e. not me. Inexplicable obstructions and refusals to serve my comparatively menial demands upon various civil servants have been oft abruptly explained by a: ‘Oh for Heaven’s sake, why did you not just slip him 20 euros?’ The baker did not mention such a demand for a bribe either because he was afraid, or because, like me, he did not have the presence of mind to ‘just slip them 20 euros’. Or even just the cheese pies (total value of less than a euro wholesale-but it’s the thought that counts isn’t it?).
Let us go on to our second assumption:
B. THE CHECK WAS NOT A RANDOM ONE
- It followed a legitimate citizen complaint. In investigating it the tax officers were sticklers for detail and merely did their job, albeit a little over-zealously.
- It followed a legitimate citizen complaint. In investigating it the tax officers, operating under a headquarter – set quota or order, were intent on finding something to fulfill it, wanting to get over with what was asked of them as part of their job description as quickly as possible.
- It followed a legitimate citizen complaint. The tax officers searched the vehicle, found nothing, asked for a little bribe anyway, were refused it and took their vengeance by fining the baker.
- It followed a legitimate citizen complaint. In investigating it the tax officers were so pissed off at not finding anything and at having had to abandon the comfort of their offices and work-to-rule practice of late for nothing, that they decided to punish the baker accordingly.
- A commercial rival or personal enemy of the baker snitched on him by unfair means. As in bribed or used their personal relations with the tax officers to induce them to ‘find something on the s.o.b.’. The tax officers had to find something, naturellement, so they found the cheese pies. After all, they ‘can always find something’.
- A commercial rival or personal enemy of the baker snitched on him by unfair means. As in bribed or used their personal relations with the tax officers to induce them to ‘find something on the s.o.b.’. The tax officers searched the vehicle, found nothing, asked for a little bribe anyway, were refused it and took their vengeance by fining the baker.
- Urban planners, health inspectors or other members of the civil servant professions had asked the baker for a bribe, he refused them, so it was time for ‘the family’ to take care of its members. I will not joke about this one for it is too shocking for words, even for a seasoned alien such as me. If you refuse to pay a bribe somewhere along the way, it is apparently perfectly possible that you will pay it at least double further along this long and winding road that is professional life in Greece.
So we have ten possible explanations, of which only 2 include overzealousness. Given the estimated annual tax evasion numeral mentioned above, how much weight do you think these two explanations carry as fruits on the probability tree?
The remaining 8 possibilities tell a tale best summarized under ‘Corruption, Laziness, Work- to –rule and Plain Old Meanness: The extended version’. Within them lies the explanation to our cheese pie paradox. A concept so disgusting that if these completely imaginary 8 hypotheses were penned in Greek the title for this post would be 4 ΤΥΡΟΠΙΤΕΣ ΚΑΙ ΜΙΑ ΑΗΔΙΑ.
Yes, I did say ‘completely imaginary’. I cannot speak but from pure personal and peer experience and I certainly do not have any material proof for any of it, so I am choosing to call the contents of this post ‘pure fiction’. After all, I do not wish the tax cops to fine me for undocumented possession of 0,50 euro pet food next time I pop out to the neighbourhood feeders.
This post is dedicated to the lovely memory of one Δ.Ο.Υ lady who used to come into the store where I once worked as manager, declaring: “I am so and so from your friendly neighbourhood Tax Office from Hell aka Eforia! Your boss knows me! I want a discount!” So help me she looked ready to slap me! Especially when said boss refused to give her more than 10% (he was Cypriot). I am sure she was just a figment of my imagination, but so long as we are telling fairytales…..