Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Taxing Woman

Today I had a visit from the tax folks. This was not a surprise. I've been getting, and not opening, letters from them for a couple of years. No, it's not the income tax folks. It's the TV tax.

This is an aspect of life in Europe that surprises a lot of Americans. Every radio-operated device you buy requires that you register it with an agency which regulates public broadcasting, after which you are asked to pay a tax on each device. For me, it was one radio and one television, and the levy was €35 every two months.

This money goes into a central account in Cologne, and is then disbursed into the various local, regional, and national public stations. Once upon a time, that's all there were here: commercial TV was only beginning to come into the larger cities when I first came here in 1988, and I believe (but don't take this as gospel) that commercial radio came even later. And, like the way NPR and PBS used to be in the States, it ensured a certain level of broadcast quality, and gave the stations money to do all manner of creative things. Karlheinz Stockhausen's early career was bankrolled by the regional radio station in Cologne, and most major cities had a radio symphony orchestra subsidized by this tax. Television stations had the budget to produce superb news shows and documentaries, and to acquire films to show, uninterrupted by commercials. One of my favorite memories was the all-garlic meal Les Blank cooked one night for a guy from WDR, who wanted to lease the rights to a couple of Les' films for a short while. Les figured to get him stoned on garlic (which actually has a tranquillizing effect when eaten in large quantity) and then hit him up for enough money that he could finish his work-in-progress, which became Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. It worked.

In principle, I support this fee, of course (as if you couldn't tell from the preceding paragraph). If the U.S. had a similar program, PBS wouldn't have to prostitute itself to every corporate pimp with a dollar, and NPR could not only commission new works from deserving American composers, but the very show I work for, Fresh Air, would have enough money to pay me the high fees I so richly deserve. But I suppose the Republicans would screw this up the way they screw everything up, cutting off funds to stations that use foul language like "condom" or "breast" and declaring Rapture-oriented programming to be in the vital public interest.

But there's another aspect to the fee that I like less. I didn't know about it until a guy showed up at the door one day, showing identification from SFB, the local public station. I was puzzled. They owed me money for some work I'd done, but I didn't expect them to show up to pay me. It wasn't until he spoke that I realized what was up: "You have a television?" he asked. "A radio?" Uhhh, yes, I said. "Sign this." And there was a form that said, from that moment on, that I was registered with one radio and one TV at my house. The bills started coming immediately. Now, I'd been caught because I live on the ground floor, and the guy had seen the TV through my window. But they also patrol the streets with specially-outfitted vans, plainclothes, and scan people's apartments. Hmmm, two TVs playing in this place. Check the list: are they registered? And if not, they can fine you. I got off easily. (Worse, although I haven't seen this in Germany for what may be obvious reasons, but in other countries, they run ads on TV portraying people who aren't in compliance as criminals. I saw a Dutch ad one night where the cops came and took "Daddy" away while his kids watched, and the last shot was a tearful young boy asking "Why didn't he obey?" I asked my friends where the pot was, since I assumed this was a drug bust, but they told me it was just another heavy-handed pay your TV tax ad. Brutal!)

Anyway, I was caught, I wasn't hauled off, wasn't fined, and I paid the tax like a good German. But in the summer of 2003, not long after my financial catastrophe hit, my TV died. It was okay: I never used it to watch television. I've never been a big TV watcher, and I'd been renting videos and watching them on it. But one night as a friend and I were waiting for the commercials on a videotape to end the picture tube just winked out. Ah, well. Small loss.

But there was something I didn't know. Just as you have to register your devices (anmelden), you have to un-register (abmelden) them as well. And I didn't abmeld. And the fees just kept piling up. Now, paying these fees slipped right down to the bottom of my list of priorities: I didn't have the devices, and I didn't have the money. And I didn't know how to abmeld, either.

So I've been caught again. The dancer came over the other day, lured by my offering to buy her a bowl of ramen at the spiffy new totally authentic ramen and yakisoba joint, Makoto, over on Alte Schönhauser Str. 13 (not a paid commercial, but damn sure a recommendation), and helped me fill out an Abmeldungsformular and write a letter to the local TV authorities. Then, as we prepared to go out for some good hot soup, she helped me sneak the corpse of the TV out into the alley, where it vanished in a matter of hours.

When the tax lady came this morning, she was exasperated in a friendly way by my clueless-foreigner act (which is how they expect you to behave anyway), asked me some questions as she filled out a form ("Do you own a house?" she asked with a grin. "Do I have to tell you about my castle in the Loire Valley now?" I asked. "No, that's in France," she said and kept writing), and said (I think: she had a really, really thick Berlinisch accent, which can be impenetrable) that she'd see if there were some way I could pay off the €386.49 I owe twenty Euros at a time.

It could be worse. I once visited a couple in England the day they finally solved a huge problem with their cats, who'd not only been getting their asses kicked when they ventured outdoors, but were attracting other cats who'd come in the cat door, kick their asses some more, and then eat up all the cat-food. The guy in this couple, like me a total gadget-head, had found a door that worked in conjunction with radio-controllers mounted on cat collars. He'd spent quite a lot on it, took out the old cat-door, and installed the new one. The gal had gotten the collars on the cats, and so now it was time for a cup of tea and reading the manual.

"Oh, no," he wailed. "We've just bought two low-powered transmitters and have to add them to the telly fee!"

No cats, no television. No money, either, but that's only temporary.

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