• Fakelaki in action. (Peter Papathanasiou)Source: Peter Papathanasiou
In Greece, the “fakelaki” refers to paying a bribe in order to expedite service. This infamous tradition has been cited as a factor in the country’s current economic crisis. But how did the fakelaki impact Peter Papathanasiou’s family life over the years?
Peter Papathanasiou

30 Jun 2017 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2020 - 2:54 PM

In Greek, the word “fakelaki” literally means “little envelope”. But symbolically, the word is used in Greek jargon to refer to the slipping of bribes to public servants and private companies by citizens in order to expedite goods and services.

This may sound like an old world practice, but the fakelaki remains very influential in the Greek economy. When you consider the country’s ongoing financial woes, things start to make more sense. Today, merit systems exist on paper, while cloud computing is gradually removing the element of human influence. But, according to my understanding and experience, so much of what is done in Greece is still with a nod and a wink: job interviews, medical appointments, building permits… even babies for adoption. But more about this last one shortly.

In fact, the fakelaki is so entrenched in Greece's culture that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

The illegal practice of the fakelaki is a Greek tradition, and has even been celebrated nostalgically in films like Zorba the Greek. It pervades every level of society, from politicians to plumbers. In fact, the fakelaki is so entrenched in Greece's culture that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

Few Greeks have their hands completely clean, and even fewer have fought to fix the infamous fakelaki. A notable exception was in 2012 when the website edosafakelaki (translated as “I paid a bribe” in Greek) was created for citizens to anonymously report fakelaki payments. The site received over a thousand reports in just its first month of operation alone. It was created after its founder was forced to pay a fakelaki for her 90-year-old grandfather, a war veteran with terminal cancer, who was left waiting for hours in a hospital emergency room. Once the notorious fakelaki was slipped into the doctor’s white coat, the grandfather was admitted within the hour.

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With such cultural pervasiveness, it came as no surprise to learn that the fakelaki had also touched my own family’s life over the years. I just didn’t quite expect to hear how much it had influenced my very own existence.

My uncle Vangelis, who ran several businesses and owned multiple houses, used to say:

“You want anything done in this country, you take a fakelaki. You go see the doctor, you slip him a fakelaki under the table. The taxman or inspector comes to your shop, fakelaki. You open any business, build anything, go anywhere, you need the magic fakelaki. It’s the way business works. Without it, nothing happens. It’s an ancient and noble tradition. Like growing your best olives on land the taxman can’t find.”

In our village of Florina in northern Greece, my grandfather Vasilios used to work in what they called the “foro”. This was a small room on the outskirts of town where he collected entry fees for the government. A toll booth, essentially.

"It’s the way business works. Without it, nothing happens. It’s an ancient and noble tradition. Like growing your best olives on land the taxman can’t find.”

Whoever came from the nearby farms to sell their produce – chickens, milk, vegetables – in the weekly market was required to pay for the opportunity to enter Florina as a merchant. So my grandfather collected the tolls for the government; and, of course, took a little for himself. During World War II, when no one had any money, the fakelaki came to be filled with food. My papou took an egg here, some tomatoes there. Mum claimed that the fakelaki concept kept our family from starving at a time when Greece was occupied by German forces and people were forced to boil and eat wild grass.

I’ve previously written about the time my adoptive mother went to a Greek orphanage to adopt a baby. This was in Thessaloniki in 1973. At the time, my mum had been living in Australia for some 17 years. The orphanage asked a raft of questions about savings, properties, assets, inheritances. Once they heard Mum was living outside Greece, they rejected her application.

Mum returned to Florina to break the news to her family. She sat in the kitchen of our family’s small home with her brother Savvas and now elderly father Vasilios, the former toll booth operator. Both men listened carefully to her story before Savvas finally proposed to have another baby for Mum and her husband to raise in Australia as their own. The rest is history – I was born in 1974 and then taken to Australia by my adoptive mother, who didn’t tell me the details of the adoption until 1999.

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But there was something that came about in the kitchen during the family’s conversation in 1973. This was a story told to me, handed down through the generations.

It came after Mum told her family of the orphanage’s rejection but before her brother’s proposition. Vasilios had sat forward in his chair, pressed his hands together with the fingers interlaced, and slowly asked:

“My child, did you offer a fakelaki?”

Mum’s face went blank.

“What?” she said, “when? Today, you mean, at the orphanage?”

Savvas extinguished his cigarette and rubbed the bridge of his nose with yellow fingertips.

“Yes,” he said. “An envelope, you know the one. It basically kept us alive during the war, eh Baba?’

Vasilios smiled knowingly, nodded.

Mum was silent, speechless. Eventually, she said:

“Oh. Was I supposed to?”

Vasilios sighed. Savvas groaned. He couldn’t quite comprehend how his baby sister had travelled all the way from Australia on such an important mission and somehow failed to follow the necessary local custom.

“I didn’t realise you still did that here,” Mum said. “No one does that in Australia!”

Today, I owe my very life to my mother’s accidental honesty that came with living in a more transparent country like Australia. It was a lucky outcome, and completely unintended.

Again, Vasilios sighed and Savvas groaned. They massaged their temples and lit cigarettes. Great plumes of silvery smoke were soon glistening and choking the tiny room. Mum found it hard to breathe, and for more than one reason. Her thoughts went to her husband in Australia. She feared what he may do on hearing his wife had forgotten how business was done in Greece.

“But would it really have made a difference?” Mum added. “I mean, I was asking to take a baby, not buying a bag of beans!”

Apparently, the famous fakelaki made all the difference. The orphanage had asked a slew of questions about Mum and Dad’s finances, and seemed to set all manner of conditions on adoption. But in reality, the fakelaki would’ve blown them all away. All they cared about was the handover of a bribe. Had my mum produced a fakelaki, she would've likely been given a baby for adoption. And I, as a consequence, would never have been.

Today, I owe my very life to my mother’s accidental honesty that came with living in a more transparent country like Australia. It was a lucky outcome, and completely unintended.

Because, if there had been a fakelaki, the reality is that I would probably have never existed.

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