I didn't know about this until I was sent to Italy to sort out the company's tax affairs over there.
The tax counsel and I flew from Bermuda to Milan. We went straight to a very chic part of town to meet a learned "Dottore" from one of the country's finest accounting firms. This particular doctor's office was sumptuous, as were his fees. He was immaculate. We talked first of Princess Stephanie of Monaco, whom the Dottore was apparently coaching in some capacity.
Suddenly, he said "Seven and a half." I smiled. "Ah, Fellini," I said, knowledgeably. "One of the great film directors, and a compatriot of yours, Dottore."
He raised an eyebrow. "Seven hundred and fifty millions."
"Is that what the film cost?" I asked.
"Zabaglione!" the Dottore said, exasperated. Seven and a half was how many hundreds of millions of Lire (old Italian funny money) my company owed in tax. In actual dollars, a nice dinner for two would have cost about the same. The Dottore's bill would be far more deleterious to the company's economic health.
I asked if there might be any way to reduce the tax number, and a chill entered the room. To this day, I don't know what I said, but everyone started looking out of the window. The atmosphere for the balance of the meeting was so heavy you could have sliced it thin.
Little more was said, although the Dottore mentioned something about cash, a newspaper and a tax inspector, and said I should sign the check. I declined and he said "Insalata mista! It is done that way. I give the inspector an envelope wrapped in a newspaper, he lets you run your company in our country."
I didn't sign the check. I couldn't be associated with that sort of thing. I'm British, for God's sake. We bade the Dottore ciao after kissing his abacus, a curious custom dating back to the 12th century. In the lobby, a dozen other Dottores poured out of a meeting just as we did, so there was an inordinately long round of hellos, some all-purpose arm-waving, and then a profuse round of goodbyes.
"Ossimbuco!" I said to the Dottore. "Gelato!" he replied. All fake smiles, I opened the door, turned and walked into a broom closet. For reasons not clear to me now, probably just momentum, I pulled the door closed behind me and shut myself in the dark.
The embarrassment which the Englishman suppresses the whole time he's not in England got the better of me: I just sort of stayed in the closet. Time slowed, but I soon saw the shortcomings of spending the rest of my life in there. I emerged with a mop in my hand.
As if I had just finished an investigation, I handed him the mop.
And with that, my pal and I shoved off through the real door and laughed all the way to the hotel bar.
Someone else wrote the check and I got a new job with an even bigger bunch of crooks.
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
March 1, 2011
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