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September 16, 1998
The day of my departure from the Aegean island of Paros had come. I took my bag down to the front desk of the pension where I had just spent a week, and rang the bell. The owner, a roly-poly fellow in his forties named Vangelis, emerged from the side room, grumbling and wiping the sleep out of his eyes. I handed him my key.
"Thanks. Have a good trip," he said, scratching himself, and began shuffling back to his room.
"Vangelis, you forgot. I need a receipt."
He knew exactly what I wanted; the last time I had spent a week at his pension I had asked him for a receipt, too. (He had told me that "tomorrow" he would issue one, but tomorrow never came.) This time I had alerted him the day before that I would need a receipt, and I resolved to stand firm. I needed the paper for tax purposes. He wished to avoid writing out receipts, of course, for his own tax purposes -- namely, tax evasion, which is something of a national sport in Greece. No Greek worth his tzatziki gives the state a drachma unless forced to. Partly this has to do with the perception that the state is corrupt; partly it derives from a tradition of attempting to outsmart the authorities, who were once rapacious Byzantine overlords, and then, later, Ottoman Turkish oppressors.
"A receipt!" he muttered in alarm. "You realize it's Sunday. I can't write out a receipt on Sunday. Our week begins on Monday here."
"Vangelis, come on. We agreed on this yesterday. I really need the receipt."
He inhaled deeply several times, as though preparing for a thousand-meter-dive, and ran his hand through his thick brown hair. He rubbed his cheeks and huffed.
"Okay, a receipt. Well, it's Sunday, and although I believe in God and don't want to disrupt the paperwork schedule, I'll write you out a receipt. But of course it will take some time."
"I have time."
"It will take an hour."
"I'll wait an hour."
"An hour to do the paperwork after I go across town and get the forms. You know, I -- "
"Vangelis, we had an agreement."
He scratched himself and redirected his shuffle to the reception, unlocked the little door, and slipped behind the barred-off counter.
"A receipt. I'll write you out a receipt. I obey the law; the law is sacred to me; I'll write out a receipt even though it's Sunday and you aren't giving me enough time, and who knows if I have the right forms. Ahh, here are the forms. Now, if I could get this pen to work ..."
He shook his Bic, tapped it on the desk, and spread his arms wide as if in defeat. I handed him my own pen. He took it with a sullen reluctance.
"A receipt. Now, let's see if I even have enough information to write it out! You stayed how many days?"
"Right." He scribbled and scribbled. Sweat began dribbling off the tip of his nose.
"I've broken into a sweat. Got to get out of these clothes." He stripped off his shirt, stood up and waved his arms for air, and sat down again. Undressed, he looked like a deshelled clam topped with beady blue eyes and a toupée. He wiped his brow.
He stared at the paper, peeked up at me, and went back to scribbling. His pen danced; he spread his elbows; he threw his bangs back, casting a spray of sweat behind him. His pen danced again. He stood up and stretched, then sat down and shook the crook out of his writing wrist. He peered under the seat, grumbling about the need to repair the chair.
"Right," he said. "This is not simple. I have two kinds of tax here. This might take a while ... Okay, you have time. No problem. These sandals are killing me, and of course it's Sunday, but I'll write out the receipt."
Twenty minutes later he stood up, called me over from my seat on the couch, and showed me the receipt through the bars of his cage. It was for the wrong amount -- for too little. I pointed this out. He peered with histrionic surprise at his scribblings.
"Well, I should just void the whole thing then! I --"
"Oh, that will be fine. Just give it to me."
He extended the receipt through the bars. I grabbed it but he gently tugged back, then let it go.
"Have a good trip," he said.
Stuffing the receipt in my wallet, I headed out into the sunshine and to the port, while Vangelis, slumped in his chair, padded the sweat off his brow with a beach towel.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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