From HELEN MURLIS IN ATHENS
The beginning of Lent in Greece allows us to observe two parallel universes and the huge contrast between local and national perceptions as the country continues to wrestle with economic crisis.
It’s business as usual at the farmers’ market or laiki in the beautiful town of Chania in Western Crete which is full of noisy, good-humoured shoppers buying ten kilos of juicing oranges for just three euros, slabs of delicious Graviera, cheese made from sheep’s milk, and local chickens and rabbits – live at the point of sale.
Seasonal vegetables and herbs look good and the keen cooks are cleaning up on organic carrots and heritage tomatoes at gourmet prices — more expensive than the equivalent at Waitrose — before the stalls sell out late morning.
It’s crowded on Clean Monday morning as everyone buys the traditional Lagana flat bread and shellfish consumed at the beginning of the Lenten fast. Traditional kites to be flown after the family holiday lunch are being sold by gypsies who appear in the streets with these ‘one trip wonders’ a few days before the festival.
In spite of the crisis, restaurants are full and diners who did not book ahead have to wait for their table. Once there would have been wild ordering of food and drink and when the party eventually left, the table would resemble a battleground of untouched or half finished plates. Now ordering is more modest and little is left. What remains often gets taken home to be eaten later – and not just by the dog.
Restauranteurs report that spend is down even though numbers are up. But the mood is cautiously optimistic helped by the fact that tourism was good last year. An increase of seven per cent is widely quoted and families are living on last summer’s revenues hoping that continued problems in less stable countries nearby will give them another good summer this year.
But there are still soup kitchens with long queues of both young Greeks and migrant men stocking up early morning on calories before trying to catch a day’s unskilled work. And the food banks are still busy giving boxes of basics to needy families. This happens away from the shops full of tempting new spring arrivals. A tourist might easily miss them.
Athens feels different. It’s much closer to the action of course. People are watching closely how the newly sworn-in Syriza Government is tackling delivery on its pre-election promises.
The stakes are high; most people seem to want this bold new generation of politicians to succeed. There have been several significant, peaceful demonstrations in Syntagma, the square in front of the Greek Parliament, in support of Syriza’s efforts since its election.
But there was also an angry meeting of the Communist KKE party which believes the new Government is already ratting on its promises on scrapping the bailout agreements.
Extraordinary promises which present extraordinary challenges have been made by the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, whose first legislative plans include free electricity to some 300,000 households living below the poverty line.
Demands for overdue taxes could be paid in up to 100 instalments, while anyone owing up to 50,000 euros may now not be arrested for their debts. Foreclosures on primary homes with a taxable value of up to 300,000 euros are also to be outlawed.
Now the finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, he of the black leather coat, has written an 11 page letter to the eurozone authorities with a load of sensible suggestions for bringing more tax in.
But he has one crazy idea — bringing in non-professional inspectors, including tourists, to report on VAT evasion using audio and video equipment to catch lawbreakers in the act.
Any H.R. professional knows this is an idea which cannot fly.
Varoufakis clearly knew nothing about recruitment and vetting processes for people entrusted with tax inspection and enforcement.. Tax professionals across Europe must be laughing up their sleeves. It’s a pity no-one in the Greek civil service warned him off.
Let’s hope his other suggestions are good enough to stop Greece going over the financial cliff it faces if the money runs out, as it could, very soon.
Tax simplification is a pressing issue. With mind - boggling legislative productivity, the previous government approved six tax legislation packages comprising 177 articles, 17 laws, 71 new measures, 111 ministerial decisions and 138 circulars in its final 30 months in office. Just the kind of thing that tax accountants seeking loopholes love.
In a commentary on the Greek Tax Drama in last weekend’s Kathimerini, we were reminded that the U.S. has only voted in 10 tax laws - in the last 250 years.
Helen Murlis is a management and HR consultant who divides her time between London and Greece.