A Very un-Sevillano Summer

I knew I had become the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ (or perhaps toro out of España) when I hopped in the car for the first time yesterday. My mom’s van was parked on an incline, and I was nervous it would roll unless I gave the accelerator a hard kick when I threw it into reverse. I reached for the gear shift to find a stack of magazines.

Oh, right, Americans drive automatic cars. I should probably not rest my left foot on the brake, then.

It’s going to be a long, strange summer back in the Grand Old Republic.

As a teacher, I relish in my two months off. Over the past seven school years, my vacaciones have allowed me to explore other parts of Spain, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit friends and family at home in Chicago and attend world-famous festivals.

At 9:30 pm on June 30th, the Novio picked me up from work and drove me straight to a friend’s bar for a celebratory beer. I had fifteen days before returning to Chicago, and my sister was coming to visit. I’d spend the morning working on COMO Consulting issues, and after a long, midday siesta, he and I would pick out paint colors and furniture for the dream house we just bought before deciding to just have a beer as the nights cooled off. Just your average veranito in Seville.

And then the mierda hit the fan we didn’t even need to turn on because it wasn’t even hot there yet. Expat life, man.

On July 1st, I made my annual trip to the unemployment office to ask for a bit of financial help during my vacations. During July, I’m normally in La Coruña directing a summer camp to be able to make it through August without regular pay, and with a new, unfurnished house in the mix, I needed a bit of a cushion.

Per usual, I was sent away and asked to come back the following morning, first thing. On the 2nd, Manolo took a crawling 80 minutes to enter my new data into the INEM’s system. Little did I know that this would be merely the start of a stressful summer.

My summer days in Spain follow a strict routine: waking up early to run errands before the midday sun hits, returning home and drawing all the shades, making yet another batch of gazpacho, treating myself to a four-hour nap/going to the pool, and finally having a few beers somewhere in la calle when it’s finally cool out, or even a drink at a terrace bar. Weekends at the pool or the beach, depending on how lazy we feel.

Then the Novio presented me with a list of things I’d have to do. Turns out that picking out furniture and paint colors was only the start. I cancelled all of my plans but World Cup games to be ready for home inspectors and furniture deliveries, changed appointments to be able to change my mail forwarding and pay my IBI during reduced summer hours and stayed away from the gym. My leisurely start to a two-month holiday was already stressing me out, and I only had to look at my agenda to remind myself that siestas were totally out of the question.

By the time my sister and Rick arrived on July 5th, I’d successfully signed up for unemployment, had all of my bank accounts frozen because of FATCA and cried to my mom about the stress over Skype. The emotional upheaval became too much to bear that  I cursed my new house and the Spanish system of doing, well, everything.

The bank issue was by far the worst – the US law to prevent tax evaders, called FATCA, went into effect on July 1st, sending banks with American customers into a frenzy trying to report tax-relevant data. On the 2nd – the same day I was signing up for unemployment benefits – ING announced that I was not only a co-signed on a join account with the Novio, but that I also had to sign and turn in a form called a W-8BEN. I got no notification of any immediate consequences.

Normally, I’d sign and mail the form off, but I was curious about this new law and how it might affect me, given I file taxes in both Spain and the US, and now had a mortgage in the mix. Surely this law wasn’t trying to tax me and my teacher’s salary in America, too?

I went to IKEA to clear my mind (or not) and do 588€ worth of retail therapy for my dream house. After resisting the urge to also throw in some rugs and throw pills and just stick to the basics, my ING debit card was declined. So was the credit card. Not wanting to face the Novio empty-handed, I drove to Nervión and asked at the bank. The teller assured me my cards were valid and that the TPV unit was probably to blame.

So I drove back to IKEA, picked up the heavy furniture we’d decided on, and tried to pay again. The same thing happened. Defeated, I wheeled the cart to the holding area and reached for my phone to call the Novio. I had left it charging at home.

Furious once I arrived, he called the bank and they confirmed that my accounts had been frozen because of FATCA, even though the bank was supposed to have been compliant with the US’s demands by the day before. Until I turned in the W-8BEN, they would remain untouchable.

And so set off the frenzy of paperwork, lawyers, denuncias, and tears as I tried to take legal action against a bank that had frozen my accounts without warning (only a judicial order has the power to cancel or suspend an account with previous warning), and the fact that the W-8BEN serves for non-Americans. 

Thirteen days later, on the day before I left for the US, my bank accounts were finally restored. I had refrained from rebajas, from overspending and from visiting the terrace bars I loved frequenting in the balmy nights in summer – un verano poco sevillano, indeed.

But the beers and the ice creams and the laughs and the joy of sharing my city with my family put a band-aid on top of the financial struggles I was having. We spent afternoons strolling from bar to bar before they’d have siesta, escaped to Granada and Zahara de los Atunes and ate out every single night (I clearly didn’t pay).

Needless to say, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was sitting on a plane bound for good ol’ America. Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’m focusing on not stuffing my face and building my second site, COMO Consulting Spain. There will be a few surprises here and there, but I’m not ready to spill yet!

What are your summer plans? How do you cope with re-entry into your home country?

On Nostalgia and Expat Life

It always creeps up on me – whether it’s seeing the plastic grocery bags and hearing the clinking of bottles from within on Thursday night as I ride home from the academy, or passing the trendy bars from which people overflow, gintoncitos in hand, onto the sidewalk in El Arenal.

Sigh. Nostalgia always gets to me.

My life as an expat and guiri in Spain has seen its up and its downs. For several years, Spain was a momentary pause between college and real life, a hiccup of time to travel, learn Spanish and enjoy my early 20s.

Then Spain became my long-term plan, and things changed.

Just last week, the Novio and I were talking about looking for a house to eventually start a family. In talking numbers, mortgages and neighborhoods, I had to tell my head to stop spinning. What happened to renting and dealing with ugly, heavy furniture and noisy roommates and hustling to pay the Internet bill?

Did I grow up that fast? Surely I didn’t do it overnight, but when did I start to feel so….adult?

Danny and Javi visited at the end of February, and Javi caught me off guard when he asked, “Do you miss your life as an auxiliar de conversación?” over a plate of croquetas. Without even thinking about it, I said no. Turns out, Danny does.

I got to thinking about it while they had a siesta later that afternoon. Did I miss working 12 hours a week as a job where I didn’t do much but speak in English to a bunch of teens and take advantage of a few free coffees a week?

Well, yes and no. 

Did I miss having a job that was fun and carried little responsibility?

Yes and no.

Did I miss having my afternoons free for siestas, flamenco class and coffee with the Novio? Hell yes.

Did I miss fretting over whether or not my private classes would cancel on me and leave me without money enough for groceries and bus rides? Hell no.

The first three years in Seville were some of my best. I made friends from around the world, spent my many long weekends lugging a backpack on overnight bus rides and budget flights, stayed out until the sun came up or my feet couldn’t take it anymore. It was my second shot at studying abroad and at squeezing another year out of “learning” as if Spain were my super senior year.

Dios, was it fun. I remember so fondly those afternoon beers that turned into breakfast the next morning, the nights in with giggles, the Guiri Whoa moments. And the hard, hard goodbyes.

But the first three years in Seville were also marred with problems and annoyances: I had to live with roommates, learn to light a bombona, factor shoes into my budget and live off of dry pasta and tomate frito. The Novio and I broke up. I struggled with knowing if Spain was a good idea or a waste of my time. I was doing a job that was easy, yes, but not as fulfilling as I had hoped. 

All of those soaring highs were met with desolate lows. I had to decide to love it or leave it.

Making the decision to spend the rest of my life in Spain meant my days went from siesta and fiesta to frantically looking for a job and spending wisely. Then came nóminas, afiliación a la seguridad social, pareja de hecho, car insurance, sick pay and all of those other “adult” words.

I was living my dream of becoming fluent in foreign bureaucrazy and those of becoming a champion siesta taker seemed to fade away. I had made the transition from language assistant to a full-fledged member of the work force practically unscathed (but very, very poor).

As I adjusted to a full-time schedule and work commitments, I began to miss the old me, the girl who never turned down plans for fear of missing out, who would leave on the next bus out-of-town on a whim. Friday night became catch-up-on-sleep night, and Sundays were devoted to lesson planning. I began to lose sight of the things that were important to me and took out my angst on everyone from my students to my suegra.

Something wasn’t right, and I needed to make a change.

I found myself longing for the Spanish life I had before the private school, even with the stress over money and friends and language and life direction. I wanted to enjoy going out and enjoying Seville without just going through the motions.

So I chose. I chose a pay cut and an arguably less prestigious job and the uncertainty of the job market in the throes of a financial crisis. I chose to be happy and to open myself up to other opportunities, lest it be too late. Even with a master’s and a job and a blog and a boyfriend, I managed to regain a sense of myself and purpose. I realized that I end up setting my own limits for work, relationships and happiness.

Life continues as normal for me, six years after moving to Seville. When I pine to not be tired at midnight and to live close to the action of the city center, I remember everything that came along with it: language frustrations, scrounging for money, sharing a flat, drinking cheap and terrible liquor and eating cheap and terrible food.

I finally have a work-life balance that I craved during the first five years I lived here. Like Goldilocks, it seems I finally have found what is just right.

 

I may miss the carefree days where I could siesta for three hours and never have to worry about what to do on the weekends but how to fit it all in and under budget, I freaking miss my friends.

but at 28, it’s not me anymore.Whenever the pangs of nostalgia hit, they’re quickly quelled when I reflect back on how much I’ve accomplished, how much of the world I’ve seen for choosing plane tickets over drink tickets, and remember that I’m where I intended to end up.

Do you get nostalgic for your study abroad days or college days? How do you cope?

Eight Reasons Why You Should Teach English in Spain NOW

The most common question I get when meeting new people in Spain is, ‘Why did you originally come here/go to Spain/decide on Seville/move abroad to work as a teacher?’

I could answer this question in volumes, but it’s just easier to say, to travel, to learn Spanish, and to try out teaching English as a foreign language.

In March 2007, I found out about the Auxiliar Program, known in the United States as the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program. I gathered the recommendation letters, drafted a letter of intent in my best 101-class Spanish and sent off a packet to Madrid. Spending a year in Spain for 631€ a month sounded like a good plan.

This is where I shake my head and think, If only I knew that this was the start of everything.

I spent three years working as an auxiliar de conversación in a high school in Olivares (Seville). It has been, to date, my favorite job, one which I looked forward to going to every day. I got to talk all I wanted, plan activities as diverse as a gap fill about Evil Knievel to a Halloween party, and my coworkers bought me breakfast every day.

My last day at IES Heliche was gut wrenching, but I came away with skills I didn’t think I’d ever acquire, and the job has led to others in the same sector in Seville. There are many nay-sayers who are quick to blame the program for its lack of organization or slow payment process, but I firmly believe that  you get out what you put in.

And now they give you materials about how to teach. I was thrown to the lions (lions that looked a lot like 13-year-old kids).

I receive emails everyday about teaching abroad. Given how difficult it’s getting to stay under the radar without a visa, I always recommend the auxiliar program or a similar gig which grants you a student visa and health insurance, along with a stipend. There are 3,000 jobs up for grabs around Spain which will pay you between 700€ and 1000€ a month in exchange for working 12-16 hours, and now countless companies are offering similar positions.

Let’s practice a bit of first conditional, in which we talk about circumstance which can be true in the present or future.

If you go to Spain to teach,

You’ll learn Spanish.

Immersion learning is one of the best ways to acquire a language. From dealing with the bureaucratic mess that can be the Spanish government to living with international students or workers, there is no doubt that your spoken Spanish will improve. Try turning off the subtitles on the TV, reading the local paper and chatting up the abuelos in the bar down the street. When I first met the Novio, he told me my castellano was gorgeous, but my mistakes made it difficult to understand me.

Nowadays, he’s threatening to not take me to anymore Betis games because my potty mouth is too much for the other fans around me. Spain is a great place to put your textbook Spanish from high school to use (and you’ll finally get to exercise the “Oh, they only use that in Spain” vosotros form!).

Spain is also home to several dialects and even another language, so if you geek out about linguistics, Spain will be an audible treat for you. 

You’ll have ample time to travel.

Ever heard that Spanish people love to party? It’s true, to an effect, but there are multiple holidays that will make a long weekend (you’ll likely work just four days a week) even longer. There are a dozen national holidays that fall within the school year. Plus, you’ll get local and regional holidays off, plus two full paid weeks during the Christmas holidays and another during Holy Week. If you’re in Málaga or Bilbao, you also get another week off somewhere because the local festivals are during August.

You’ll travel for cheap.

The running joke when I was an auxiliar was, “Where is Cat going this weekend?” Since coming to live in Spain as an English teacher, I’ve been to every autonomous community and 20 countries. Budget airlines abound in Europe, and Spain has several hubs along the coasts and in Madrid. Sign up for offers from every airline that flies out of your nearest city, and you’ll be surprised how cheap it can be to get around Europe.

Apart from that, Spain’s network of public and private transportation is top-notch. All major cities are connected via rail, and private bus companies are a comfortable way to travel both long and short distances.

You’ll have people looking out for you.

When my mother first met my boss from the auxiliar program, Nieves, she gave her a hug. It had been three years since I’d worked in Olivares, but Nieves and I have remained close. My mom thanked her over and over for looking after me when I first arrived to Seville without a single contact and flailing Spanish skills.

Now that the language assistant program isn’t new, its participants know you’re likely in your 20s and far away from home. I was taken care of like one of their own, even offered winter coats, free rides to work and the opportunity to take part in several cultural experiences (I spent the first weekend in Seville betting on horses at the Pineda racetrack and then stayed out until 8am). That said, everyone has a different experience with regards to coworkers, but attitude can go a long way to forging healthy relationships with them.

You’ll gain international experience.

Getting a job in America seems scary competitive, so having international experience on your resume will be a great talking point in an interview. Apart from learning Spanish and trying out something new, be sure to tell a potential employer that you’ve picked up valuable problem-solving skills and explored diverse interests. Network on LinkedIn before returning home, keep a blog of your experiences and be sure to make your year or two teaching in Spain stick out.

You may just get sucked into it, too.

You’ll learn about Spanish culture, and not from a textbook.

They say experience is the best teacher, so forget all of the business you learned in high school from your textbook. Without a doubt, living in Spain and working as a teacher has given me first-hand knowledge of Spanish schools and Spanish life. 

 As a tutor, I became friends with several of the families who employed my services. This meant offers to attend first communions, family luncheons and even ride in horse carriages during the Feria. Inviting me into their homes meant I got an idea of how Andalusian families lived, from crowding around their braseros when it got cold to checking out what Spanish kids ate for merienda. While I only moonlight tutor now for one family, I’ve remained in contact with several of the households who once paid my groceries and travel habit.

You’ll have the visa and health insurance figured out.

Coming to work in Spain legally if you’re a North American is difficult. The various teaching programs offered to native speakers have the advantage that you’re awarded a student visa for the duration of the program which is available for renewal, as well as private health insurance during that time. I’ve had all sorts of work-ups and check ups done, just for the sake of milking it for what it’s worth. The student visa will also entitle you to student discounts and the ability to travel around Europe longer than a Schengen visa can provide.

To be clear, the auxiliar program through the Spanish government employs you for either 12 or 16 hours a week, which also gives you time outside of work commitments to try other things. I’ve taken flamenco and French class, worked for a student travel company and still found time to do tutoring and partake in the siesta culture.

You’ll get to live in Spain for an academic year, and you’ll get a stipend to do it.

You get paid to talk in your native tongue a dozen hours a week. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.

Not too keen on an assistant teaching position, or you’ve already gotten around the visa issue? In Seville alone, 26 new English language academies opened for the 2012-13 school year, and it’s a growing sector. Once you’ve got a TEFL degree, finding a place to work is far easier. There are also many alternatives to the auxiliar program that still get you the necessities to live here, and I’ve broken them all down for you.

If you are an auxiliar, tell me about the good and the bad of your position. Would you recommend it to a friend?

The 3500’s: How Not to Despair with a High Inscrita Number When Applying to be an Auxiliar in Spain

Around this time six years ago, I was waiting to receive my visa for Spain. My passport was held hostage, and I ticked off the days before my flight left, bound for Madrid. I recall not knowing if the pit in my stomach was from nerves or just anxiousness to leave and see what it would be like to live in Spain for a year and teach English at a local high school. Look at me now! This post was written by Tamara from Traveling Natural as she prepares to head off to Galicia, one of my favorite parts of Spain.

I started this post AGES ago and by ages, I mean in April, but so many turns of events have happened since then, that it must be re-written. Initially I wanted to inspire the masses of procrastinating future auxiliary language and cultural assistants (which I will refer to as LACAS) with extremely high numbers, of better planning and execution for next year.

But then I decided to take the Peace Corps philosophy of (yes, I have applied to the PC, and probably every awesome program known to twenty something’s that have changed careers a million times already since graduating college, you can read about that here) “hurry up and wait” and see what happens.

First of all why did I apply late? Because I decided that I only wanted to apply to BEDA and take my chances, especially since the ministry program had so many issues last school year. But the coaxing from a friend and the fear of getting waitlisted with BEDA, had me fumbling around PROFEX for over an hour the next day, March 27th to be exact.

Well I received my number–à 3,543 

…and thought “This is a complete joke and I’m never getting placement with such a high number!”

A word of advice:

  1. Apply early! Especially if you have your heart set on living in Madrid ( I actually didn’t)
  2. Set an alarm on your phone and a reminder in your calendar to apply early!!!
  3. Apply to more than 1 program
  4. Wait

Yup! You read número cuatro correctly. Just wait! See what happens. Future LACAS drop out of the program all the time for various reasons and slots open up.  Or maybe that’s all you can do since you didn’t follow #3 and only applied to one program.

Well this, my friends, is where the turn of events happened.  On June 27th, exactly 3 months to the day I applied, I received placement in Galicia, España!

And according to the website they have placed up to 3,765 LACAS thus far! So there is hope if you are in (or above) the 3500’s!

I actually ended up getting into and accepting the BEDA option instead. So número 3,544 lucky you!

Future LACAS I hope this was helpful to you. If you take away anything, remember to just wait it out…and everything will fall into place! Or in the words of Cat Gaa “it will work out in the end.”

You can catch Tamara blogging over at www.travelingnatural.com. When she is not blogging she is looking to create an extraordinary experience out of this thing called life.  

Have any other questions about the auxiliar program? If you’re waiting on a high number, or unsure if the program is for you, why not consider an internationally recognized TEFL degree with job placement help? Mine has been the difference between getting the job or not.

On the Road Again: Getting a Driver’s License in Spain, Part II

Miss the first part of how I fought bureaucracy and came out semi-victorious? Read Part One of On the Road Again here.

Miguel dangled the car keys to his Auris in front of me. Vamanoh, he said, inclining his head in the direction of the car.

I got in, doing the mental check I’d been taught to do in the car years ago: adjust the seat, adjust the mirrors, put on my seatbelt. Miguel got in and asked me to turn on the car. Easy enough, I thought, but the car roared forward as soon as I took my foot off of the clutch. Cuidaaaaaado, Miguel cooed, busy whatsapping.

After passing the driving theory exam, I’d have to do a few classes to learn stick shift and prepare for the practical exam. Miguel told me the median amount of classes he gives per student was 30; he gave me a limit of seven. Gulp.

I drove stick once when I was 17, an exchange for convincing my mom to give my teacher, a high school friend, a horseback-riding lesson. Being a visual person, Kike had drawn me a motor and explained how the gears worked to propel a car and control his speed. Still, I wasn’t prepared to actually get behind the wheel without so much as an instruction about when to ease off the clutch and brake. Cue my 15-year-old self, nervous and convinced I’d crash into the first tree that crossed my vision.

There are two words for the verb drive in Spanish – conducir, which refers to actually steering the car and controlling the pedals, and circular, which is used for obeying signage and giving way when necessary.

Miguel steered me towards Dos Hermanas to practice highway driving while I experimented with the gear speeds and got used to the car. I was immediately relieved that I was already ahead of the learning curve and knew how to circular, so I could concentrate on what my feet and right hand were doing.

Every morning at 11:15 a.m., I became Miguel’s chauffer, taking him to drop off paperwork at the DGT or test center, picking up other students and even driving my father-in-law to the doctor’s office, just like I did when I was 15 with my own dad. I began to feel more and more comfortable behind the wheel and remembered just how much I love driving. I learned on the fly that I’d need to be in second to enter a rotunda, that right turns on red are illegal and reason to fail the practical exam, and that it was in my best interest to not speak Spanish too well.

The day before I was slated to take my practical exam, Miguel explained to my driving partner, B, what to expect. We’d be asked first to show the examiner the insurance and circulation permission, turn the lights on and off, and open the hood to point out the different parts of the mechanics. The driver then gets ten minutes to drive “de forma autónoma” or by themselves, after which the examiner would steer him through different situations, asking him to parallel park (man was I thankful I’d finally mastered that) and safely exit the car.

The driver is allowed up to ten small mistakes and automatically fails if the driving instructor, who sits in the front seat, has to slam on the brakes.

I slept horribly the night before the exam, trying to map out possible routes in my head where I knew the signage and circulation rules, careful not to pass near a school, lest any kiddies dart out between cars. What’s more, I’d freaked out the day before when I made one mistake, which led to a whole string of them. As a former gymnast, it was like falling off the beam on a mount and falling ten more times.

Rainstorms were on the forecast for that Tuesday morning, but I was convinced this would work to my advantage. Miguel picked me and another student up and took us to the testing center to wait our turn. Waiting is something that I can’t stand about Spain, and it added to the nervous feeling in my stomach when I saw the amount of cars in the lot, all waiting for the examiners to point to them and strap into the car.

When I did my driving test at age 16, my dad forced me to drive four times the minimum amount of practice hours. I arrived to the DMV to a stern-faced examiner who announced she was getting a divorce and then failed me. The last thing I wanted was to have history repeat itself.

B went first. I could tell she was nervous as she pulled out the insurance papers and tried to turn on the lights, but got the wipers instead. The examiner, named Jesús (talk about final judgment), scribbled on a piece of paper and I prayed to Saint Christopher, patron saint of motorists, that Blanca would calm down and pass the exam.

Within five minutes of leaving the testing site and driving towards Dos Hermanas, she had been failed. It was then my turn, and I was actually glad I was in an area I didn’t know – I didn’t feel over-confident. All of the flubs I’d committed the day before didn’t even creep into my conscience as I navigated around curves roundabouts and yield signs. Jesus told me he wasn’t surprised that I drove well because of my experience, and I relaxed and started to enjoy the sound of the rain outside of the car and the swish of the wipers. When we pulled into the testing facility again, Jesus didn’t ask me to show him anything under the hood, instead having me sign a waiver and promising to have my name changed on the paperwork as soon as possible (it took several days, clearly).

I got out of the car and whispered to Miguel, “¿Me ha aprobado?” He eagerly nodded his head and I began the barrage of calls to announce the good news.

For all of the horror stories I’d heard about driving exams in Spain, I was surprised at my good fortune in passing both tests quickly. I’ve even bought my brother-in-law’s old car, a Peugeot 307, and can’t wait to be back on the open road again. And see that lovely green L? I’ll have that in my car until March 2014!

Have you ever considered taking the EU driving exam? Were you successful? Have more questions? Direct yourself to my sister page, COMO Consulting Spain for all things Spanish-red-tape!

On the Road Again: Getting a Driver’s License in Spain, Part I

It’s my argument that Spain doesn’t want me to grow up. At 27, I’ve never had a Spanish credit card (I’ve been denied three times), paid a mortgage (that’s what the Novio is for) or had to shop around for health coverage (yaaaay Socialism!). I also got away with driving the Novio’s car without an EU-license because he’s got an automatic in a country of manual cars and I figured I could play dumb guiri if I was ever caught.

But then I did get stopped and fined 100€ in a rental car. This sent my mother-in-law into a tailspin, and she told me I could be banned from driving should I get caught again. This also came on the tail of getting a speeding ticket in the Novio’s car, so she promptly announced she’d be floating the cost for a driving course as my Christmas gift.

She always knows just what to get me!

A new law, passed January 19th, 2013, now forces non-EU citizens who have resided in the Euro Zone for more than two full years to get a driving license issued by a member country. This comes from an effort to make everything in Europe more standardized, and to make me shake my finger once more at bureaucracy for making my life more complicated.

Pues, nada. I no longer had any excuse, which for years had been that I didn’t have the time, the necessity or the money to complete a course. Plus, I’d heard that the exam was difficult, particularly for a native English speaker with completely different driving rules. My mother-in-law spoke to a friend of hers who owned a chain of driving schools, and I was signed up.

My experience getting a Spanish license was similar to my first few months in Spain: I felt like I was fumbling around in the darkness, touching and feeling my way around a room, looking for the light switch and my aha! moment.  I received frantic phone calls from the driving school, asking me to bring in photocopies of my residence card, several small pictures of myself for their records, or a medical history.  Since nothing in Spain is ever easy, I had to get a check-up before I even sat in a classroom to take the theoretical course.

My theory: Don’t hit people or other cars. What more did I need to know? As it turns out, I had a lot to learn about how the Spanish system works, not to mention exactly what a clutch is used for.

Driving exams in Spain – and Europe, for that matter – consist of two parts: applicants must first pass a 30-question theory exam with a maximum of three incorrect answers, and then complete a 30-minute driving exam. I was able to do everything within just over a month, though I waited to do both the theory and practice exam due to my master’s program.

Step by Step.

The first thing you need to do when signing up for a driving course at a registered school is do a reconocimiento médico at a medical bureau. Thankfully, my in-laws run one and could get me in for free, though these certificates tend to cost around 20€ in Seville. You’ll be asked to steer two knobs to stay within the lines (think an ancient arcade game), and then have your eyes checked. That certificate is then turned into the autoescuela, who in turns sends it to the Departamento General de Tráfico, the people in charge of the roads and drivers. Have I mentioned how much I love middlemen in Spain?

Miguel, owner of the driving school, gave me a CD-Rom with practice tests to complete at home before the weekend course. Knowing that only three errors are admitted, I completed tests, frantically looking up new words like retrovisor (rear-view mirror), rebasar (to overtake) and remolque (trailer). Time and time again, a crash test dummy flashed on the screen, letting me know I’d failed with a thumbs down. I was disheartened.

On February 1st, I showed up at Autoescuela San Sebastián at 10:30 a.m on a Friday morning. My classmates didn’t show up until 5:30 p.m., so Luisa got me caught up to speed.

Did you know the DGT classifies some highways as good, and some as bad? Or that those with a license to drive a car can also drive a small motorcycle? After three hours with Luisa, my head was spinning, my hand hurt from taking notes.  She assured me that the nearly dozen years I’ve been driving in the US would be of great help with the exam, but I knew my nose would be buried in a book the rest of the weekend.

After a long break for lunch and a siesta, I returned to find that my classmates had come and that Luisa had been replaced with the owner’s daughter, Macarena. She immediately rushed up to me and gave me a hug, despite having never met me. As it turns out, she and the Novio have known each other since they were kids, when they went to sister schools and my mother-in-law would pick them up from school together. As with most things in Spain, I was getting the hook up through the age-old encuhfe that I so dislike.

My group was comprised by several others: Patricia, who had already failed the theory test half a dozen times; Marta, who had studied at another school and failed twice; Nuria, a gypsy who could hardly read and was memorizing the questions and answers; Jonni, a young boy from the barrio whose mechanically-inclined brain was of a lot of help when answering questions; Fátima, a woman from Guinea who had been studying for months and was in no rush to take the exams; and Iván, a mechanic who took more smoke breaks than practice tests.

Macarena herself was a character, as the Novio had already warned me: she compared arriving to intersections like taking a number at the butcher’s and waiting, or entertained us between practice tests with tales of jaleos she’d had in her younger years. She spoke over everyone, jumping in to help us answer questions on the practice tests until she was hoarse. Then, she randomly change her shoes and leave us alone to complete tests while she went out for a run.

Apparently this school functions on enchufe and confianza, trust – the owners would often just leave the keys at the bar next door and allow students to open as they pleased.

After close to 24 hours at the autoescuela that weekend, my head full of numbers as to how many seconds a reaction time multiplies by in the snow to how many centimeters something can stick out of the back of the trunk, I wondered how long I’d actually remember everything. I suddenly became more aware of how the Novio drove, or I’d mumble driving rules under my breath.

A week later, Miguel called me to tell me I’d be taking the theory test at the driving facility on the road to Dos Hermanas. I’d have to bring my NIE and a pen, showing up at 9:30 a.m. to complete it. I arrived by and found Jonni, who pumped me full of confidence. My heart sunk when I saw my name was spelled CTHERINE MAY on the official sign-up sheet, knowing that it would prove to be a huge coñazo when I passed both exams. I immediately told a monitor, who waved me away and told me to let the autoescuela know.

The examination room was stark with close to 30 long tables placed in rows and facing a stage in which five examiners (with novels in hand) sat. Applicants are required to turn off their phones, display their residence cards on the table and complete the 30-question test within 30 minutes. Miguel had warned me that the questions are taken from a pool of nearly 3000, which is why I was required to study the entire manual, which covers not only signage, but also mechanics, maintenance and the effects of alcohol, drugs and fatigue on a motorist.

Of these 30 questions, about twenty are giveaways whereas the other ten can be a bit trickier. I finished, confident, in about 15 minutes, knowing full well I had another chance to pass before I’d have to start paying myself for the exam. I took a deep breath, turned the test over and left out the back door.

The next day, I signed onto the DGT page promptly at 1p.m. The exams are sent immediately to headquarters in Madrid to be marked, and the scores are available at 1p.m. the day after the test. Holding my breath, I punched in my foreigner’s number, birthdate and test date and waited for the page to load.

No result found for this data.

CÓMO!? I tried again and again until it was time to leave for work, chalking it up to a delay in the paperwork once again. I checked again after work and was surprised to see there was, again, no result.

The following day, I marched over to Autoescuela San Sebastián and called Miguel. I had passed with one error, much to my relief. Miguel had even called my father-in-law to let him know to call me and give me the good news, who had then allowed me to suffer for 12 hours.

Spanish bureaucracy – 409, Cat – 1.

I’ve also published a follow-up about the practical exam prep and driving stick shift (spoiler: they just threw me in the car and expected me to know). Have more questions? Direct yourself to my sister page, COMO Consulting Spain for all things Spanish-red-tape!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...