Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Short Stories about Greece
The Great AFM Hunt!

He is large or, to be more accurate, he is fat. His necktie hangs loose around his unbuttoned collar. It is conceivable that, long ago, button might have reached buttonhole. If such a result could ever have been achieved it certainly is not the case now. An unlit cigarette hangs precariously from the man’s lower lip as he growls a torrent of words that fall harshly upon my English ears. Was it a a mistake to come to this police station? It is certainly less than wise for us to have entered the building and thereby expose ourselves to this protector of the Greek state.

In Greece there is only one way for a foreigner, albeit one from a European Union country, to approach the gaining of a tax certificate, an AFM – pronounced aff-eee –meee, that being to treat the whole process as an amusement, a sort of slow-moving farce. Stay in the country for a short holiday and you may well not encounter the wonderful bureaucracy that slows this already relaxed country from gentle inaction to a pace that would not disgrace a slug. Couple this with a complexity that would baffle a chess Grand Master and you have the Greek System.

What I want to do is to buy a used car. This is something that most people will have done in the UK, where it is an easy enough matter. All you need is to place a large cheque in the seller’s hand in return for the keys.  Sending a simple slip of paper to the licensing authority in Swansea completes the transaction. But this is Greece!

Besides the need to treat everything as a somewhat over-long form of amusement you will, unless you are a proficient linguist, require a native Greek-speaker – and best that you choose one from the immediate locality. If you have a lawyer friend in Larissa do not set him or her upon your quest for an AFM in Thessaloniki. The guidebooks will tell you that, with the exception of Crete, there are no regional accents in Greece. Do not believe the guidebooks!

So having chosen a pleasant sunny day when I feel both relaxed and in need of some light entertainment, I equip myself with humour and my Greek friend, Maria, and sally forth in her car to have an afternoon of jollity and form-filling amidst the labyrinth of Greek officialdom.

“You drive, Gordon, you need the practice.”

“So where first?” I say.

“We will go to the KEP, take the main road. Follow that van – no not so close. Mind the pedestrian.” I am being treated as if I am a learner driver. “Turn left NOW. Ochi – sta dexia! Gordon, what are you doing?”

“You said ‘turn left’.”

“Well I meant right. I said ‘right’. Turn round.”

Changing the subject seems the best way to keep the peace. “What is a KEP?”

Maria explains that it is a Public Service Centre - a sort of clearing-house for local authority matters.

Surprisingly the place is almost empty although the lines of lonely-looking empty chairs suggest that this is unusual. A man, presumably the Manager, is on the point of leaving. Well it is just after mid-day and he has no doubt been at work for more than an hour. His two assistants remain, possibly intending to stay for a further half hour before shutting up shop. The rather more doe-eyed of these paragons of the people, runs a comb through her hair, pouts at her colleague, and blows a kiss to a passing boyfriend before beckoning us forward.

At Maria’s side I adopt a pose of casual indifference such as might best befit a foreigner who does not want to appear too interested in the minutiae of legal matters. I attempt nevertheless to appear as if I understand every word of the conversation, however the dialogue swoops and soars without the need for either help or hindrance from me.

Greeks can talk. And I don’t mean that they can say a few words. In fact I doubt if the concept of ‘few words’ has ever entered the Hellenic consciousness. No they talk earnestly, and perhaps just a shade aggressively to English ears, non-stop hardly pausing for breath for hours on end. They also have an uncanny ability to speak and listen at the same time, thus conversation really is a non-stop two-way thing with each party gabbling on at the other whilst picking up the gist of simultaneous incoming words. This tends to obscure the process of question and answer and continues until both participants are exhausted. Oddly to my mind this moment occurs to both protagonists at exactly the same instant. There is silence. Maria turns to go.

“Efferisto!” I say in my best Greek accent. Either such a nicety is superfluous to the situation or my best Greek accent lacks a certain something. Doe-eyes ignores me whilst Maria whisks me firmly out the door.

“I thought we were going to fill in some forms?” I say, fumbling passport, birth certificate and last year’s tax return back into my trouser pocket

“We have to go to the Immigration Office,” she says.

“But I’m not an immigrant! The UK is a fully paid-up member of the EU and there are all sorts of treaties about mobility of labour and the like.”

“Gordon, you have to understand me, this is Greece! Anyway the immigration office will be closed by now. Lipone, we will go to the Police Station.”

For reasons that are far from compelling the local police station in Greece is a further bastion of this country’s bureaucracy. It would seem that if you require a passport, an ID card, or a Residency Permit it is to the local cop shop that you should turn your footsteps. I try to explain to Maria that this is not how things work in the UK, that policeman in Britain prevent crime and catch criminals and do not involve themselves in civil matters. She seems surprised and not very impressed.

We drive through the northern outskirts of the city. I approach a multi lane junction. The traffic lights are not working.  I proceed with caution. I halt, looking left and right. Behind me a car horn blasts, then another joins in. I am holding up a string of cars. I start off across the road.

“Look out! What are you doing Gordon, trying to kill us?”

“Don’t your traffic lights work in Greece?”

“You have to watch out, especially for motor bikes.”

“What about the Highway Code?”

Maria looks at me a little oddly. I can only assume that the Greek Highway Code is not high on the bestseller list of this country.

The police station is just an end-of-terrace building on a street corner, however its appearance is not far removed from the barbed-wire encampments of the Ulster Constabulary at the height of the Troubles. Maria approaches a young uniformed officer who is ensconced in his over-size sentry box. His words of welcome, if they are such, compete with barked messages on a radio strapped to his shoulder. He waves his hand towards the main door. Things seem to be going well. We have gained consent to enter this fortress.

Inside all is chaos. Police everywhere, donning flak jackets and strapping pistols to their waists. What can possibly be afoot? Perhaps there has been a terrorist attack, a school shooting, or is there a mass murderer on the loose? We are shouted at. I do not understand. Maria clutches my arm protectively as, stopping barely short of serious physical force, we are summarily ejected from the building. Any conversation will now have to take place on the doorstep.

“What’s happening?” I ask

“Some sort of urgent Criminal Investigation is going on.” Says Maria, “It’s very confidential so they are chucking the public out of the place.”

I contemplate with glee that this emergency might involve the anti-corruption squad arresting a senior politician. But the rich and the powerful in Greece protect themselves well from any such exemplary measures.

Thus it is that on this sunny afternoon we are facing a flabby-looking, scruffily dressed and totally disinterested policeman. I again adopt my attitude of slightly haughty indifference reasoning that such a pose might strike some distant chord of discipline into the man. However he seems totally unaware of my presence. His gaze is firmly fixed upon Maria, but not upon her eyes. This time it is a one-way conversation punctuated by the occasional pause as the man shifts the still unlit fag from one side of his mouth to the other. Then suddenly it is over, for him Maria has ceased to exist. He turns in an equally disinterested manner towards the next person in the queue.

“Not good?” I say.

“He says you do not have to have an AFM.”

“But the garage people won’t sell me a car unless I produce one.”

Maria shrugs. “This is Greece,” she says. “Come on, that’s enough for one day. Let’s go and find ourselves a coffee.”

Clearly such entertainment is to be savoured, not hurried but sipped as slowly as the Greek coffee that now sits before me. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or the one after that we will tackle the Immigration Office, or the Tax Office, or some other wonderful Greek institution. In the meantime my car-to-be awaits me.


Back to ' Greek Short Stories' menu
Distant Fells
Inspiration from this glorious world.