Appropriate Professional Attire in Vari-Voula-Glyfada and Athens: or, Ho to Dress for Success

July 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

I’m afraid my phone and its camera have been conked out, so I will have to paint you a picture of the white-collar working woman of this region with these puny, insufficient words.

I had complained previously about Greek women wearing drab colors. Black, gray, brown, olive. Drab! I based this complaint on three winter visits to Athens. Despite the fine sunshine and soft breezes, everyone was in shades of mud. “How Balkan,” we said.

Then we and summer came to the municipality of Vari.

Today I went to the tax office to get my AFM, or tax number.* Edgy people clutching bales of documents waited with unusual patience, with only one major inter-citizen screaming match interrupting the tranquility of the half-hour line. Luca explained that the procurement manager of the lab had been here twice for an hour each time, trying to get a piece of equipment out of purgatorial customs, but no one at the tax office knew how to let him do that. Bureaucratic procedures are maintained via an oral culture, passed among employees by word of mouth, like gossip or family history, and frequently have an improvisational air. Sometimes only one person in a given office knows anything at all. Therefore, it is possible that if one person should get into one of these exceedingly frequent Greek car crashes, an entire category of governmental function could die with her.

A small, brisk Greek woman about my age behind me in line, wearing exercise clothes, helped me fill out my form. She explained that everyone was there to deal with the paperwork required for opening or running a small business. Greece is succeeding beyond all expectations in its goal of preventing economic activity. I asked her why everyone in Greece did not up and move. “I love my country,” she said vaguely and helplessly. Then I turned around. Among several persons I had leisure to observe in front of me were

(1) a zaftig, fortyish woman in a strapless, skin-tight, white one-piece jumper melding tube top and microshorts, belted with a large brown sash,

(2) a bony woman with bleached hair and a face cooked to false antiquity, wearing an entirely bare-backed canary yellow tank top held closed by one slender string, over wide pleated black shorts, and supported by avant garde shoes composed of a blue suede boot shaft attached to a sandal, held together with leather thongs,

(3) a hulking man, six and a half feet tall, with a rounded posture, copious subcutaneous fat, and a loose sheer t-shirt with a wide draping neckline that showed (above the neckline and through the fabric) an ample, opaque pelt of dark back hair, contiguous with the hair on his head.

At the IKA (health insurance) office where I had begun this journey last week, the exhausted, pale, overworked woman at the desk was levitating by sheer willpower a bright yellow, sleeveless, strapless babydoll top, which clung only to the lowest part of her breasts and required her to give little tugs at the armpits every few minutes to make sure things stayed professional. It looked like a joke nightgown friends might give at a bachelorette party. Her considerable cleavage swung about so perilously as she fetched papers and keyed in data that I found myself staring deeply into the chasm and in sympathy with men who are always hissed at for doing this. A plastic charm necklace full of blue resin flowers dangled into that abyss. Her hair was the color of straw, but near the scalp it showed a two-inch margin of deep apricot. Her eyebrows were black.

Also at the local branch national bank, where I have not yet been, it has been reported there are two women in transparent blouses and microskirts and vertiginous heels, who address the needs of the omnipresent furious pensioners with grim efficiency.

“It is probably in their dress code,” mused a female Greek acquaintance. “It is all the fun the pensioners get out of life.”

To prove these were not merely suburban flukes, there was the receptionist at the lawyer’s office in Athens where I had gone for the official translation of my marriage certificate, with important stamps and signatures all over it, without which I would not be allowed to exist. The first floor lobby had an air of seventies neglect: a floor of waxed beige concrete with specks in it, flickering fluorescents, an uninhabited metal desk, a frosted glass door. An ancient flimsy wooden wardrobe stood in a corner, with bits of tape and pale patches where attempted tape removal had torn up the varnish. A neglected dracaena huddled in the shadow.

Upstairs, in the cool waiting room of the translator, we were greeted by a receptionist, who stood between us and the wainscoted mysteries beyond. Her hair too was straw blonde with blackish roots. Her face was powdered a fantastical shade of orange without reference to the tint of any underlying skin. Her eye makeup was inspired by the panda. Half naked, her shoulders and chest were covered only by a sheer violet tank top with thin straps, which clung at all points to her generous shape. Around her neck and dangling across her bosom was an enormous gunmetal colored chain, with links as large as pretzels, which followed exactly her low neckline and heaved when she breathed. Her wrists jangled with varied metallic bangles and enameled watches. She looked quite like a roadside LA barmaid, and in the air conditioning she was going to catch her death.

So there you have it: how to dress for official business in Greece in summer.

* I was told that to get a Greek residence card I needed proof I had insurance.** I was told at the national health insurance office that to get that insurance I needed a residence card and a tax number. I was told at the tax office that to get a tax number they needed my residence card, and also that the rental contract for our home did not have the proper stamp.

** I was told by the European Union website that all a member country could require from me for right of residence was my passport, my husband’s passport and residence card, and our marriage certificate. An office called SOLVIT is supposed to resolve compliance problems within member countries of the EU. I wrote to the SOLVIT representative in Greece explaining that I had been asked to show proof of health insurance to get a residence card, which I believed to be an illegal requirement under EU law. After three weeks, I got an email back which told me that the municipality was allowed to ask me for translations of my marriage certificate. I wrote back pointing out that they had not answered my question. They did not write back.

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