It is Monday, June 10th, 10:45 a.m. at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens. After checking in for my Air Canada flight, I proceed to buy a little something for my son. The gift costs 150 euros and, as a non-resident of the European Union travelling to a non-EU destination, I am given a tax refund form by the saleslady in order to be reinbursed for the approximately 15 euros in value added tax.
Confidently, I head to the customs office to have the document stamped only to find that there is no one there. After a ten minute wait, a female officer appears to inspect my Canadian passport, my boarding pass for Montreal and the original receipt for the purchased item.
Suddenly, she shoves the papers in my direction and informs me that she will not authorize the refund as my Canadian passport has no Greek entry stamp, inferring that I am not a resident of Canada. I explain that I travelled to Greece via Switzerland and, given that the two countries are Schengen Agreement signatories, there would be no passport control upon my arrival in Greece.
Addressing me in a most rude and authoritarian manner, she informs me that, although I am a Canadian citizen and the item in question will be accompanying me to Canada, she is refusing my request. I press my case, indicating that I am simply demanding that to which I am entitled and do not understand her intransigence.
"Ma'am I am not going to stamp your paper," she blurts with an arrogant tone of superiority that is all too familiar among Greece's public sector employees. Undaunted, I ask for her name but she refuses, telling me to address my concerns to the Chief of Customs. I insist on seeing her supervisor and, clearly unnerved, she hollers at me to go back through passport control and make my way to the arrivals area.
Calmly, I indicate that my flight is boarding shortly, that she has no right to treat travellers in this manner and that her duty, especially given that Greece is mired in economic crisis, is to address tourists in a courteous manner. Her obstinate demeanor is unflinching and, insultingly, she continues to point me in the opposite direction to my gate.
Knowing it is futile, I seek out someone that may be of assistance. Spotting a policeman, I ask if he can call the Director of Customs on his walkie-talkie but to no avail. Frustrated, I sit at the coffee shop to gather my thoughts and come up with a brilliant idea. Rummaging through my purse, I retrieve my Canadian health card and Canadian driver's license, proof of my country of residence.
I race back to the sour official, sure that I can finally convince her of my right to the tax refund only to find her ruder and bossier than before and abruptly showing me the way to the arrivals area.
How is it possible I ask myself, in Greece of 2013, with the country begging for tourists given the prevailing economic climate, that the public sector continues to be staffed by individuals that are extremely rude, that deal with tourists in a highly combative and provocative manner and that are ignorant of the laws they are there to enforce.
Isn't it about time that the Greek government proceeds with a much promised rating of its employees where pay will be commensurate with performance, beginning with the personnel in sensitive industries such as tourism. It is the responsibility of the Greek state to oversee this restructuring as an ultimate act of duty towards its long-suffering populace by stamping out the abusive attitude of a public sector that has enjoyed a priviledged, untouchable status for much too long.
In the country's airports and at its cruise terminals, there can be no further room for intolerant officials. They must be held to the highest standards if the country is to achieve the position it hopes to command on the world tourist map.