Thursday, April 05, 2007

A guilty conscience needs no accuser . . .

It's tax time everywhere, isn't it?

One of the nice things offered through the American Embassy/American Consulate here in Portugal is free tax assistance. Don't get me wrong, the American Embassy doesn't help you fill out your tax return but they provide space to a volunteer group that does just that. I try to take advantage of this as often as I can (work permitting).

Above is a photo of the American Embassy in Lisbon (which I obtained from the embassy's website). As you can see the complex, which houses the embassy and the consulate, sits majestically atop a small hill with beautiful gardens framing it. Washed with sunlight, it seems stately yet approachable.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As one approaches the embassy (located very near the zoo) he/she notices the armed guards immediately. The two guards dressed in black with automatic weapons slung across their chests can't be missed. It's all a little alarming - I'm just coming to have my taxes done for Christ's sake. It's impossible to enter the Embassy gate with a car (or tank for that matter) as barriers have been constructed behind the strong gates (to avoid car bombs???). There is another guard who asks your business and looks at your passport before ushering you into a small room. Once inside the "reception" room an attendant looks through your belongings (contents of bags/purses/pockets). Your things (including your coat) are put into trays and (like at the airport) are placed onto a conveyor belt which carries the items to be x-rayed. Once this is accomplished, the individual who is trying to gain access to the embassy/consulate passes through a metal detector. One is then given instructions to take the stairs and enter the first door on the left. While I was permitted to take most of my things with me (purse/mobiles phones (turned off)/contents of my purse) - they kept my tube of lipstick. (Go figure!)

The doors in the building are glass - but solid. They were built to last (I wonder to myself if they are bulletproof?). Another guard greets you as you enter the main room of the consulate services. He opens the door for you and asks you what your business is. I told him I was there to have my taxes done and he showed me where I could sit. This was a big room with 5 or 6 long rows of identical blue chairs. Although there were scads of empty seats, I sat where I was told to. The main room seemed to be where most of the people with consulate business were being served. There was a small room off to one side where you could renew your passport. I'm not really sure what kind of business was being conducted while I was there. I do know that although we are in the capital city and everyone is always rushing about in Lisbon, that noone (except me of course) seemed to be in a hurry. There was a "counter" where clerks (?) attended to the needs of people. A wall of glass above the "counter" separates the clerk from the person he/she is attending. There are 4 counters - each equipped with a wall phone (not even cordless) to communicate with your clerk. (Just like we see on TV when one of the Sopranos is in jail.) Looking through the room where the clerks are enclosed by glass, you can see bars on the outside windows.

Sunlight floods the room and allows the plants to flourish. As I admired the skylight, I noticed louvers. But they looked like more than normal slats. They appeared extremely thick and I decided they were designed to protect the skylight from attack (terrorists/aliens/angry taxpayers?) rather than shade the room in summer. Another thing that dawned on me was that like in church, people spoke in hushed tones. There was no laughing in this building. All business was conducted quickly and solemnly. Although everyone I encountered (guards, etc) was polite and helpful - I couldn't wait to get out of there!

The world's a dangerous place (thanks to the bad guys - who, by the way, are indistinguishable from the good guys- so maybe I should just say "all guys" lol :-) and I understand that we need to be careful and take precautions, blah, blah, blah. But what the hell kind of world have we created that you must be scrutinized by men in black carrying guns to get a little tax help?

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