Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Little Envelope

Just about anyone who knows anything about Greece and her economic woes will have heard of the "fakelaki". What's a "fakelaki"? You cry? Well, it literally means "little envelope". Got it now eh? Thought so. The whole scenario whereby one passes a little brown envelope under the desk to one's lawyer, surgeon, accountant or other professional is so well known here that it's almost part of the culture.

It's odd isn't it, that the very professionals who we're all supposed to look up to seem to have made an art form - if what we read and watch in the media is to be believed - of accepting cash for doing stuff that ought to be done officially and thus the appropriate amount of tax paid for the sum earned. 

I'm sure you know the form. Someone needs surgery, so the surgeon says "It'll cost €5,000, but if you like, I can do it for three if you accept a bill for two and I pocket another grand from the fakelaki you're going to give me. Great eh? That way we both win, agreed?"

But, I wish to make an observation here. See, if the professional in question offers something shady like that to avoid paying tax on the full amount, then OK it's just plain wrong. It's robbing the government of taxes that it is justifiably entitled to collect, right? If I had a Euro for every Greek I've heard complaining about the austerity measures, while at the same time fidgiting so they can sit comfortably at a kafeneion table with such a huge wad of notes in his back pocket that it makes him lopsided then I'd have a pretty penny by now. Probably be in the tax bracket.

But there is another way in which cash changes hands that I confess I do have a little sympathy for. There are occasions when someone sits with a surgeon in the municipal hospital and agrees for a surgical procedure to be carried out. The surgeon says, "I'll book you in on such-and-such-a-date" and that's it, all done and dusted. It's not a private consultation. Then, at that point the patient thrusts an envelope at the Doc across the table and says "This is a token of my appreciation for your professional expertise." The surgeon may not even know how much is in the fakelaki, but there it is before his eyes just the same. Now, OK, one could argue that the surgeon should refuse, or at the very least tell the government abut this extra windfall he's being gifted for his services.

But, see, the last I heard is that many medical staff working in the public sector aren't getting paid all that regularly, yet many soldier on, going from crisis to crisis in their own personal financial affairs.They do this because they're dedicated to their vocation. They care about the patient. What would we do if such dedicated professionals upped and left and went to live in another country because they simply want to get paid on time?

You see where I'm coming from here, yea? OK, the letter of the law would say that the surgeon must declare that gift from his patient. That's the thing though, it is a gift, not a fiddle being worked by the surgeon. Plus it will probably help him pay a few bills until he gets his next paycheck, whenever that may be.

I only mention this because when I had my hernia op., I was in a ward with a couple or three Greek men, all of us receiving the same professional care and treatment. None of us had been obliged to offer the surgeon anything, yet for sure one or two had. If you or I were that surgeon, what would we have done?

Didn't Christ once say, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"  Well, actually he may not have done, that passage is in dispute, but the principle holds true though doesn't it?

And before I sign off of this post, I'd like to mention that I have a good friend of many decades now living in India. Some years ago he told me that to simply purchase a train ticket there one had to also make a "gift" to the ticket seller in the booth at the station!! If you don't grease his or her hand with a little extra, suddenly that train is full and no more tickets are available. My friend told me it was normal. In India everyone budgets for the bribe.

So, I'm not making any moral judgments here, just making an observation.

Now, where did I put those envelopes..?


  1. Having arrived at my local hospital for minor surgery on my hand at 7am this morning, and finally gone into theatre at 1.15pm for a procedure that took 30 minutes, I wish I'd been able to read this while I was waiting because I finished an entire Greece themed book during the intervening hours ! Please could you send some of your brown envelopes , preferably already filled, in case I have to go back at another time and want to jump the queue!

    1. For the benefit of others who maybe don't know Vicki, she is here talking about the UK. Could manage the envelopes Vicki, but alas not with the filling I'm afraid!

  2. Difficult topic, I can see your distinction. I imagine that if a person is in pain they pass the envelope rather than blow the whistle. Just hope my EHIC card, with the guarantee of payment, suffices should I ever need medical care. That said, my husband has needed minor, but emergancy care twice, and we were amazed at the ease and efficiency of the minor injuries clinic. X

  3. I think you got it wrong. Giving "fakelaki" is frowned upon no matter what the situation is. This "giving fakelaki as a gift" that you mention simply doesn't exist.

    It is tax avoidance that is perfectly justifiable by the majority of Greeks (the 1st scenario you described). Don't tell me you've never heard the phrase "Me apodiksi?/Theleis apodiksi?".

    1. I can assure you that I haven't got it wrong. I have lived here long enough and know enough people to be sure of the facts. I am not expressing a view here anyway, merely observing something. Of course I know the expressions you refer to. They are part of everyday life here! Also, you only have to watch UK TV during the day time if you want to see tax avoidance at work there too.

    2. I may be many things, but a liar I certainly am not. TBH you quite upset me with those words "...simply doesn't exist." I don't know what planet you are on, but it isn't this one.

  4. A brave excursion into the minefield where most fear to tread. It is all too easy to get responses that one does not want. You are, I think, drawing a distinction between tax evasion (for want of a better word) and a gratuity; a nice distinction. The gratuity is defined as tax avoidance which is legal, and obligatory in the Americas. I admit to paying €6K for my Greek car and receiving a receipt for €2K. Had I not done so I doubt I would have got my car. I have reached the conclusion that the Greeks do things differently, it is their country, it is their choice, and I must accept things the way they are. However, like you, I do find it grates when I hear the complaints about Europe, and specifically Germany causing “austerity”.
    The question I have to ask is, “If the Greeks do not do all the things that we, and the rest of Europe, find bizarre would they still be ‘Greek?’” If we answer “No”, are we patronising them? If we answer “Yes”, will we ever convince the Greeks to change? It makes the Schrodinger’s cat paradox look simple!
    For myself I cannot embrace the American obligatory gratuity, but I have to accept that too.

    1. Most erudite as always, Simon. I was tempted to say Araldite (other fixatives are available), but last time I did that the person didn't get the joke and actually thought I was THAT illiterate!

    2. You might say that; I couldn't possibly comment!