Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ehis Konneh?

No, that is not the name of a Hawaiian football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers or Albania’s longtime former Stalinist prime minister (Enver Hoxha), it’s a Greek idiom borrowing in part from an English word.  It means, “Do you have [ehis] connections [phonetically, konneh]?” and is what one hears whenever you must wander off into the fairy tale land of Greek bureaucracy.

We’re not talking about anything corrupt here…that would fall into the category of “Did you bring the fakelaki [little envelope]”…we’re just talking about getting through the civil servant maze—or perhaps since this is Greece I should call it labyrinth—within a reasonable period of time somewhat less than the eighty-million-year half-life of plutonium-244.  Think of ehis konneh more on the order of an informal ombudsman system.

Mykonos Harbor

I arrived in Mykonos last Saturday night knowing I had to renew my residency permit by the end of the week.  I’m familiar with the process, I know the people, I like the people, and they like me.  But this is Greece, and my Greek friends kept saying things are more difficult now, what with the financial disaster forcing civil servants to take a cut in pay, a loss of benefits, and an increased workload.  They shook their heads at the thought of my trying to get something done without their ehis konneh.

Obviously, none of them ever had to deal with the U.S. Healthcare system, for if they had they’d realize that anyone who’d successfully done that was as well trained and experienced in mission oriented tactics as the Navy Seal Team Six that took out bin Laden.

After all, dealing with any flesh and blood live bodies standing between me and my residency permit could not possibly be as challenging as overcoming the U.S. healthcare industry’s computerized stealth techniques of non-cooperation: the telephone message, “Press 5 for another example of how we’re going to cause you to lose such patience that you hang up and quietly go off to die,” and the letter, “Please feel free to appeal this denial of life-saving care if you wish to spend whatever remains of your miserable life battling our lawyers.”

Mykonos Tax Office
So, first thing Monday morning, armed with my passport, documents, four photos, patience, and a smile, I began my modern day Odyssey (how could I not use that word).  My first stop was the Mykonos tax office.  It’s located next to the busiest pizzeria on the island, and there was not a legal parking space to be found.  I had to park on the sidewalk…and even then it was a struggle to get one.  Inside, the lines looked as if the tax office were giving away, rather than taking in, euros.

I stood at the door of perhaps the most overworked person on Mykonos.  Her desk was covered in files, pens, pencils, stamps, coffee cups and family memorabilia, and surrounded by a half-dozen people.  Four were taxpayers making their pitches at the same time, and two were tax office employees asking questions and handing forms to their boss to read, stamp, and sign.  It was a virtuoso performance by a ringmaster who knew how to maintain order with a smile and courteous words, all the while keeping a whip firmly in hand for when necessary.

She saw me at the doorway.  “Please, come in.  What can I do for you?”

I explained what paper I needed and she said, “Could you please come back the day after tomorrow, I am so very busy today.”

That was cutting things a bit close, but there were documents I still needed elsewhere and her request was reasonable.  Besides, what else could I do?  So Wednesday it would be.

Now to find the lawyer to translate my English-language documents into Greek.  The one I used before had moved her office over the winter and was not picking up her phone.  That could be a problem because what I needed wasn’t a very productive (or profitable) use of a busy lawyer’s time.  I reached her in the early afternoon and we made an appointment for the next day.

With nothing more to do on Monday, I decided to go to the beach.  Life can be tough at times but one must make the best of it.

The next day I stopped by the lawyer’s office and left off the papers.  She said she would try to finish them “by tomorrow.”

That was better than I expected.  I could pick them up after my appointment at the tax office.  Things were looking pretty good.  Time to head back to the beach.

Wednesday morning the tax office seemed just as crowed and hectic as it was on Monday.  I stood in the same doorway and watched more taxpayers make their pitches.  The ringmaster motioned for me to sit in the chair in front of her desk as she heard them out.  One of her staff stuck his head in the doorway with a question and she told him to bring her a form, all as the taxpayers kept on talking.

I was getting the sense this would not be any better a day for my getting what I needed.  As if reading my mind she said, “See, I’m not as busy as on Monday.”  A minute later the staff member returned with the form and handed it to her.  She started writing on it, but stopped to speak to the taxpayers.  When she finished they all left at once, and her office became as eerily quiet as a shoreline the moment before a tsunami swept in.  She went back to filling out the form.  I didn’t know what to say so I just sat there until she finished.

“Come with me,” she said.

We passed a line of people snaking toward God knows where, and went into another office where she handed the form to a staffer who read it, stamped it, and gave it back to her.  With a smile she handed it to me and said, “See, I promised you I’d do it today.”


I called the lawyer.  She said she was really busy and would call me at six that night.  More time to kill.  Back to suffering on the beach.

At six the lawyer said the translations wouldn’t be ready until the next morning, Thursday.  I said I was running out of time to file.  She promised they would be ready by 10 AM.

She kept her word.

Mykonos Town Hall
Then it was off to town hall, with a day to spare.  Now all I needed to do was turn in the papers and get the filing receipt.

At town hall I stood between two women peering out at me from behind pillars of paperwork as I told them why I was there.  The one in front of me said very courteously, “The person who takes those papers isn’t here today, but she should be in tomorrow.”

Oh no!  Could this be one of those what we called in the U.S. “it’s not my job moments”—the sort that could destroy the best laid of plans?   Then I heard the sweetest of voices say, “Here, I’ll do that for you.”  It was the woman buried in paperwork behind me.  My savior had arrived.

Okay, I admit this is a rather boring story.  Strike “rather.”  But trust me on this, when you go up against bureaucracy that is precisely what you want: A BORING STORY.  Exciting stories mean aggravation and lawyers.  I will take “boring” any time in this sort of situation and save excitement for other aspects of my life on Mykonos.  Stay tuned.  Someday I might even tell you what happened on the beach.

By the way, today in Greece is considered the first day of summer.  It’s when the military changes from dress blues to whites.  Kalo kalokairi. 

And, yes, the drawings are by Honoré Daumier.



  1. OMG - a legal alien finally ;-)

  2. We all know how you feel, Jeff. My personal favorite is trying to get the tax authorities here to validate that I'm a South African Taxpayer for our German publisher (for royalty payment purposes). I have developed a system which means that instead of taking two weeks it takes half an hour. It's top secret though and took me three years to work out!

  3. Things have improved greatly since driving licenses can now be renewed online, but the soul-killer in most jurisdictions is usually the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    In Massachusetts, as in most states, licenses have to be renewed every few years by birth date. With an October birthday, it is reasonable to show up toward the end of September. One lovely morning I arrived to join a line of about six people 10 minutes or so before the DMV opened. When it did, we politely and calmly progressed into the office that had a long counter and places for six DMV employees to serve the people.

    When we entered, no one was at their appropriate station. Three of four people were busy lining up the supplies that might be needed that day; the other two or three were not in sight. After a few minutes, one DMV official took her place at the counter. By this time, the line is out the door and on to the sidewalk. Then the other DMV people appeared and those near the front of the line could see they were carrying large boxes.

    No, Jeff, it wasn't donuts: it was Thanksgiving Day decorations which they began to carefully place/hang around the office. In that Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, this enthusiasm for a very important holiday was not met with appreciation by the people in the line which had now snaked along the front of the building. How did I know this? Periodically, a representative from the line would come in to see why it was that the line had not yet moved. This individual would mumble something unprintable but it could only be heard by those in the immediate vicinity because everyone knows the unwritten rule: if the mob gets testy, the workers get even slower.

    The only reason that no one at the DMV is murdered is that licenses do have to be removed and no day is ever better than another.

    Thank the state for automation. Now we don't have to appear in person as often and things move better but no one faces the DMV happily. They control the lives of just about every resident of the state over the age of sixteen and a half.

    No DMV offices have beautiful beaches nearby as an alternative way to spend the day.


  4. A top secret way to get to PAY taxes? Now that, Michael, would be a first here!

    And, Beth, back in the good ole days, when files were paper and lines were as long as those the DMVers must have been doing on their frequent breaks, I actually remember a judge accepting, "But I was in line at the DMV since first thing this morning" as an excuse for a tardy lawyer's almost noontime appearance in court.

    Moral: It's the same everywhere in the world, only different.

  5. If you have to suffer through all that, I guess the beach is a good place to do it ;-)

  6. You Americans want to try and get an American tax number. Now that was one hell of an undertaking. Took me half a year. Kafka would have baulked at the twists that saga took...

  7. Thanks, Lil, for appreciating my suffering.

    And, Dan, I'm amazed at your experience. Usually, the Federal Government embraces anyone willing to pay taxes--as the separate states vie to pick at whatever is left on the bones.

  8. Bureaucratic DNA must be the same anywhere. I received a South African pilot license way back in 1979. When I returned to SA periodically and wanted to fly, I had to renew my license. Unfortunately I had misplaced my radio license - a necessary requirement for obtaining a license. Off to Pretoria, the administrative capital of SA."No Sir, we don't have a record of your radio license," said the bureaucrat in a think Afrikaans accent, closing the fourth large ledger book in which all knowledge was recorded. I sighed.
    "You agree I have a pilot's license," I said politely, handing over my license.
    "Ja," came the reply.
    "And you agree that I had to have a radio license to get my pilot's license." Again a model of politeness.
    "So can't you just issue a duplicate?" Now fawning.
    "No. The record are not in the book."

    And so on and on and on.

    I ended up flying in South Africa on a validation of my US license, with the process thoughtfully lubricated with large boxes of chocolates (purely as an advance thank you gesture) to a cheerful and very large Afrikaans tannie (auntie) who lived deep in the Civil Aviation building. Stan

  9. Thank you for that story, Stan. Now I understand why so many Greeks lived in and relate so well to South Africa. Not sure though which came first, the chicken or the egg.