Matrimonio all’italiana and the taxman

Writing the story of the Belgian dockworkers was like eating sand.

Once upon a time he’d persuaded himself that technical facility was its own reward: a sentence singing hymns to the attainment of coal production norms in the Donets Basin was, nonetheless, a sentence, and could be well rendered. It was the writer’s responsibility in a progressive society to inform and uplift the toiling masses.

From Dark Star by Alan Furst

I have my favorites. Writers whose work I turn to again and again for enjoyment, inspiration and to steal phrases. The American novelist Alan Furst is one of the best. He is a superlative craftsman and storyteller — each re-reading of his work offers new insights into the human experience as well as being just plain fun.

To my mind, this passage from his 1991 novel Dark Star illuminates the internal processes of reporting. For every scorcher or exclusive, for every fascinating glimpse or profound discussion of life, God or the world — I’ve turned out hundreds of stories on committee meetings, speeches and conventions. The eating sand imagery is quite real to me, as is the sense of pride and pleasure a writer takes in mastering his craft.

A tax story from La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian national daily newspaper is an example of the writer’s craft at its best. I say this not because the story is fascinating, or the topic of international or moral significance, but because the author, Laura Anello, has done a great job with what could have been a tedious story about the wedding business and Italian tax policy.

Gli sposi sotto il torchio del Fisco” (“Newlyweds under pressure from the taxman”), has a lightness of touch and the story is infused with a wry humor. I especially like her phrasing. However, I do think there is one hole in the story — the religious one.

The story essentially is this. The Palermo Inland Revenue office is sending newlyweds “belated gift … that requires a response” — a tax questionnaire that asks for a full accounting of their wedding expenses. The lede, as translated by Worldcrunch, states:

Life as a newlywed couple is never easy. After months of preparations, the wedding celebrations, and the return from the honeymoon, the new twosome should be set to finally start their new life together. But in Sicily, rather than happily-ever-after, newlyweds run in to a visit from the taxman.

The tax-collection agency for the Sicilian capital of Palermo has launched a crackdown on tax evasion in the lucrative wedding business.

Some 2,000 couples from Palermo who have gotten married in the last five years have received a form from the local tax office requiring a full accounting for every detail of their ceremonies, which in Sicilian tradition tend to be extravagant affairs even if the bride and groom come from modest backgrounds.

The newlyweds are required to list who provided flowers, photos, wedding gifts, and the bride’s bouquet, how much they paid and, most importantly, if they have received sales receipts, which are supposed to be mandatory for every sale or service in Italy. Despite the economic crisis, the wedding business is still very successful in Sicily, where an average ceremony costs 25,000 Euros. On the other hand, many dodge taxes. The sales receipts are the proofs that they are paying VAT. Too often they do not.

The story quotes a variety of Sicilian newlyweds who report their experiences of having received false receipts, no receipts or payments in kind from florists, photographers, beauticians, restaurants, car rental agencies and related service providers.

Under pain of a fine for non-compliance and a visit from the Guardia di Finanza, newlyweds must return an itemized form to the tax office. As Italian law does not require consumers to keep receipts, they will not be required to defend the veracity of their wedding tax returns. However, the Treasury wants:

newlyweds to speak with the same voice that they used at the altar to say, ‘I do.’  Speak, denounce, give names, addresses and numbers. And tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … not claiming the  bouquet was made of wild flowers gathered by the groom and catering by the grandmother. If a check on the couple’s bank account finds a discrepancy, there will be trouble. But there is a third way: taking refuge in a series of ‘I do not remembers’. While it is hard to believe in collective amnesia, they could be excused their forgetfulness as there may have been too much emotion before the altar. Or, perhaps, it was a desire to escape.

Given what Ms Anello had to work with, this is very good. It strikes the right tone, offers both sides a voice, while also being crisp and light. My only addition would be to ask, ‘what about wedding fees to the church?’ Is the taxman checking up on this too?

In the Church of England clergy are required to turn over wedding fees to the parish. From time to time stories will appear about a crooked priest pocketing the cash — sending some to jail, while in the US we see stories about tax fraud when clergy don’t report their fee income. Do the churches and clergy of Palermo charge fees? If so, how is this reported?

A line or two about church fees would have rounded this story out nicely. Or, it may well be that Sicilian clergy more honest than florists. What say you GetReligion readers?

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  • Shadow

    The Palatine Chapel used to illustrate this post is used for a great many weddings, but as it is in a government building, I hardly doubt that the rental would have been tax free.


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