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Death and ...

Rebecca Winke

Everyone has a code word. That special word that signals to the outside world that just one more straw and the camel's back will not only be broken, but his legs will fall off and he will be diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disorder and pinkeye.

My husband's word, or phrase I should say, is sixty thousand. I know, it's weird in English, but in Italian it really does glide off the tongue quite gratifyingly ... sessssSANTAMEEEEllllla!!!. When he starts going on about how the phone must have rung sessantamila times in the past half hour, or how that new dent in the car is going to cost at least sessantamila big ones to fix, or how he must have told so-and-so sessantamila times such-and-such, it means it is only a matter of minutes before we have a total meltdown on our hands and he starts bringing out the power tools. My words are "incredible" and "insane". Traffic can be incredible, the phone bill can be insane, the line at the post office is often incredibly insane.

So, when my husband came home from work a few months ago and did his Mr. Brady impression of "Hi Honey, how was your day?" and I answered with a very un-Mrs. Brady-like "Incredibly [effing] insane", he knew. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building. Defcon 5. The only sane recourse is to head for cover. So my husband, who, despite what some would consider a considerable lapse on our wedding day, is nothing if not sane, quickly grabbed our son and made for the door, mumbling something about a bike ride (it being the hottest June on record and approximately three hundred and six degrees outside), leaving me to stalk around the house hissing and spitting like a caged wild cat and muttering under my breath (when not screaming like a banshee) about ... taxes.

Yes, my friends, taxes.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I am a fourth generation Chicago democrat. I do not have a problem with paying taxes. I believe in taxes. I believe in national health care, Head Start, and smart presidents with interesting sex lives. There is a funny story about how I became the fourth generation Democrat, but it doesn't really fit here. I wish I could footnote. Ah, what the hell. If random tangents in a storyline bother you, you've come to the wrong place.

Here's the story: My paternal great grandmother and great grandfather were both immigrants from Greece - she from Mykonos, he from Zakynthos. They met in Chicago. My great grandmother fell in love with him on sight and concocted a way to meet him ... she ran him down with her bike. True story. She was quite a gal. Anyway, my paternal grandmother, their only daughter and raised Greek Orthodox, met and fell in love with my paternal grandfather, the son of two German Catholic immigrants. They wanted to marry, and preferred to practice the same religion, so my grandmother decided to convert to Catholicism.

She tells how one night at the dinner table (she was still living at home, of course), she cleared her throat and tremulously announced to her parents that she had decided to marry, and, by the way, she would also be converting to Roman Catholicism. My great grandfather gravely finished chewing his bite of lamb, swallowed, and sat silently staring at his plate for what seemed like forever. Then he slowly looked up. Now, in my great grandparents' dining room there were two prints on the walls, one hanging above the head of the table depicting FDR and one above the foot of the table depicting The Last Supper. I know this is true, because it was that way until the death of my great grandmother six years ago at the age of 105 (ish - another story).

My great grandfather took a deep breath, looked his daughter in the eyes, and pointed to the print of The Last Supper. "You can always change religion," he intoned. Then he lifted his other arm in the direction of FDR and growled, "Just never change political party." And that's why we are all Democrats. It's a religion to us. I have relatives who have come to blows over the primaries.

So, like I said, I don't have any fundamental quibble with paying taxes. But the taxes in Italy truly drive you to the brink, both financially and psychologically. Part of the problem is that I believe I am one of perhaps seven people in Italy who don't cheat on their taxes (the other six have all been institutionalized).

This is not because I inhabit a higher moral plane; I'm just chicken. I've never had the balls for stealing. Even in middle school, while all the other cool girls were nonchalantly nicking Teen Magazines and blusher from the Walgreen's left, right and center, I was the only fool actually fishing out my hard earned 99 cents for a Bonnie Bell Cherry Coke Lip Smacker which was the size of a small flashlight and worn on a cord around your neck. Just the thought of sneaking that out of the store sent me into a cold sweat. Plus, my mother was a formidable woman in her prime. Civil disobedience was one thing, getting a call from the corner store manager with your daughter in his office was quite another, and I can guarantee you that I would still be serving out my lifetime grounding sentence in my room if that were ever to have happened.

Unfortunately, this pervasive tax fraud amongst Italians has led to an vicious upward spiraling cycle in which the state assumes the citizens are going to cheat, so taxes them to kingdom come in the hopes of bringing in at least enough to keep the show running, and the citizens, under the incredible weight of ridiculously high taxes are pushed ... okay, tempted ... to cheat even more. So more taxes. And more cheating. And more taxes again. Just look at what Italians declare as the value of their home. I don't think I have ever heard of someone actually declaring their home's true value, or buying a house without paying a portion of the price under the table here in Italy. It's almost comic.

Not only are the taxes disproportionately high here, they are also almost ridiculously numerous. There really is little in Italy that one can do that is not taxed. Most documents needed for any sort of official transaction, from renting a property to applying for a driver's license, must be presented "in bollo", meaning with a tax stamp affixed. Even if you want to put up an index card at the local grocer's to try and sell your used skis, the thing has to have a "bollo" on it. There is a tax on keeping your passport current. There is a tax on car ownership. There is a tax on your driveway (passo carrabile). There is a tax on the sign above your store. You have a business and would like to put some sort of marker along the road to help people find you? Taxed. This is over and above your property tax, income tax, and social security (health and pension). You really begin to understand why tax fraud is so pervasive in Italy ... it's fudging for survival.

I would have no problem with these sorts of taxes if the services that they paid for were exceptional. Unfortunately, that's generally not the case. You pay all this money for health care, but often have to go to private specialists which are paid for out of pocket because the waiting lists for the state provided specialists are so long, all this money for public schools, but textbooks must be bought by students, who are also required to bring toilet paper and photocopy money to school, all this money for garbage pick up when our closest bin is a kilometer away so we have to load our garbage in our trunk to take it to the dumper (which means that half the time it ends up getting tossed in some random dumper 30 kilometers from home, because I always forget I'm hauling a couple of bags until the car starts to reek of melon rind, coffee grinds and dirty diapers and I suddenly remember that I have a week's worth of trash in the back of the car), all this money for infrastructure when every time it rains we are out filling in the potholes on our road ourselves with our own wheelbarrow, shovel, and gravel. Where does all this money go?

My breaking point came last summer. It was mid June, so both income and social security taxes were due, which just about cleaned me out. Just as I was coming to, this guy showed up at my front door. He was a representative of the SIAE, which is a sort of labor union for artists (writers, actors, journalists, etc.). Anyway, he came to inform me that as the owner of a business which provides television sets to the public, I was required to pay an annual tax.

Never mind that we already pay a tax to the state TV RAI for the privilege of watching incredibly partisan news and shows like "Marry Me!" where these poor sad individuals get on national TV and tell the story of how they've been dating this guy/girl for 14 years but they just never seem to be able to take the plunge and get hitched, and so they get all dressed up like a bride/groom and then surprise the other party by proposing live right there and, if accepted, getting married. If not, getting humiliated. Hello, folks. If you've been dating someone for more than a decade and he or she still hasn't married you, there is probably a reason, and most likely one which you do not particularly want announced and subsequently dissected in front of 57 million viewers.

This is neither here nor there, because before we got satellite the only state station we were able to pick up here in the mountains was a very snowy RAI1 between the hours of two and six, but we were required to pay the tax anyway for the simple reason that we owned a TV.

Anyway, I responded with a big gaping mouth and an "Incredible!" to which this guy, who was just doing his job, after all, replied that this was a tax that had existed for years but no one ever paid it (no wonder - who knew?), and to demonstrate the SIAE's goodwill there would be no fines for back taxes. To which I responded, "Insane!" and told him that he needn't bother with me, I would rather burn the TVs than pay one more red cent to the Italian State. This should have been a warning sign of my state of mind. But our valiant state employee pressed on. "But, Signora," he said, "the tax applies even if you only have clock radios in the bedrooms. An answering machine that plays music in the office. Newspapers and magazines in the reception area."

Okay, this was not one of my better moments. Here I am, hot, sweaty, (not to mention broke) dressed in a halter top and cut offs with my unwashed hair in a pineapple and barefoot, holding my squalling infant son on one hip (stark naked except for a snorkeling mask ... don't ask) and my arm akimbo on the other, with two hounds snapping and snarling at my feet and my father-in-law nearby on the porch swing dressed in a wife beater and feed cap, screaming at the top of my lungs about where this man could put his taxes and how he and the horse he rode in on could go to hell on the next train and if I ever caught him on my property again I'd be after him with a shotgun and lots of other really, really bad words. All that was missing was a couple of abandoned carburetors on blocks on the front lawn and a Marlboro light stuck to my bottom lip.

Of course I went into the office two days later, showered and humbled, and paid the tax with gritted teeth.

But I've made a new resolution. It's time to start doing as the Romans do and cut some corners before this whole tax thing just gets too incredibly insane. I'll let you all know if we need to change the title of these essays to Rebecca's View from Cellblock Uno.


Rebecca's View is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2003

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