I, along with just about everyone I know in Greece, foreigners and Greeks alike, have a horror of anything to do with Greek bureaucracy. The thought of stepping inside a Greek government building fills us with fear and usually loathing for anyone behind a desk, especially when they are taking their time over a cigarette or sipping a coffee with room full of people waiting to be attended to. If they are laughing and talking at length on a mobile that only makes things worse.
So, you can imagine my trepidation as I set off to an office to pick up the final papers authorising my Greek pension. I pushed open the door on the third floor, expecting the worst, but an unexpected sight greeted my eyes. I stepped into a large, quiet, air-conditioned room, with green plants lining the walls and just a handful of people working at computers. I turned to leave, assuming I was in the wrong building, until a friendly lady asked if she could be of help. I immediately distrusted her, but explained anyway why I was there, after which she invited me to take a seat while she dealt with my papers. She came back 10 minutes later, handed me a file and said that everything was in order.
I briefly considered head-butting her or removing her glasses and poking two finger in her eyes, as I assumed she was making fun of me, but luckily I held back. Then to my astonishment she added.
‘There you are, Mr. Davidson, now if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to call.’
I left the building in a daze. The whole procedure had taken less than 20 minutes. Whatever next? I ordered a cappuccino in Omonia Square, expecting a cup of dishwater, but instead I was served a cappuccino which could have held its own against the finest in a Rome cafe, and I was wished a pleasant evening by the waitress. What was happening to the Greece I know and love?
Two days later, however, things were back on track when I went to pay the electricity bill. Two queues stretched out of the main door and halfway down the building. The screaming and shouting inside was deafening. The man whose job it was to tell people which queue to stand in, told me to join queue A. It took me nearly 40 minutes to reach the front of the queue, at which point the unsmiling girl behind the counter said I should have lined up in queue B. I went back and started again.
By this time the third or fourth screaming match was in full swing, and the miserable man behind computer 3 looked as if he were about to start a fistfight with one of his customers, who was leaning in a threatening manner over the desk, grabbing at the computer man’s shirt. Two women were crying, one man was punching a wall. Maybe he was upset at having to take a day off work to pay an electricity bill. An old crone in black was shrieking blue murder because she hadn’t taken a number (she didn’t understand the system) and was trying to get to the front of the queue to the cashier. Other people were shouting at her for queue-jumping. That’s more like it, I thought. I was getting a bit worried there.
Two hours and forty-seven minutes later I lurched out of the office, exhausted and mentally scarred, but proudly holding in my hand the slip of paper proving I had paid the electricity bill.
Next, the telephone bill.
Bring it on.