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?

Preguntas Ardientes: Is an International Bank Account Right for Me?

I get loads of questions from you guys about moving to Spain and settling in, how to handle money and how to learn Spanish (and what to eat, duh). Up and moving to any country has its own set of headaches – both before and after – and I try and answer as best I can when readers ask questions on everything to how to work in Spain to how to deal with homesickness. That’s where Preguntas Ardientes comes in – a series dedicated to the ins and outs of expat life in Iberia. If you’re curious or have a burning question, email me at sunshineandsiestas [at] gmail [dot] com – I’d love to hear from you!

Recently, the Novio and I were at a gala for his squadron’s anniversary. Most of his coworkers are aware that his partner is foreign with a flair for sevillanía, so I often become the center of attention during cocktail hour when they shoot a million questions at me (and I’m really more interested in the canapés, jerks).

The most common? What was the hardest part about moving abroad? After adapting to the language and finding friends, the most challenging part of daily life was money (and it’s something you guys ask me about often, too!).

I had and still maintain an income in Spain, whereas as all of my bills were linked to accounts back in the US. I had no idea how to pay taxes in either country (or if I even needed to), and transferring money between euros and dollars soon began to eat into my savings account. Having one foot in two places can be difficult – but then again, I expected to be in Spain for just one year.

While I have kept three bank accounts in two different countries, I never considered offshore banking or international accounts. No, this isn’t the stuff of international spies or crime rings, but a convenient way to handle your money while abroad thanks to flexible options and lower costs of account maintenance.

Let’s face it – Spain is a country that has a high international population, and these people often have ties to their home country – both mentally and financially. For expats who still receive payments of benefits from their home country (such as retirement or payouts, or even freelance work), considering this type of service is one of the biggest benefits of an offshore savings account. You don’t need to worry about converting dollars to euros to pounds and back in your head, nor deal with spending more money to make transfers between bank accounts, as an international account will allow you to do this all for a small monthly fee.
Is an international bank account right for you? If you’ve still got one foot in each bucket, then it’s worth considering. If you’re looking for extra perks, such as travel insurance to cover you wherever you go, then you should more than consider it. Sometimes, you can get more financial benefits from having your assets in just one account, rather than splitting them up between different institutions. Doing your research really does pay off (I love puns and you should, too).
Do you have an international bank account? How does it work for you?

Seville Snapshots: Quiosco El Gato Negro

When I first came to Spain, I loved how the tiled-lined abuelo bars would be full of octogenarians who would spend their pension’s pennies on the loud and brightly-lit slot machines in the bar while they sipped their morning cortados. The gambling and betting has been a part of Spanish culture since the mid-18th Century when the Lotería Nacional was formed, though its modern form didn’t roll around until the early 1800′s.

It’s common to see people lined up during big weekly draws, but especially when the Primitiva hits in September, and for El Gordo, the annual Christmas drawing that is one of the largest prizes in Spain. Even watching the children of Colegio San Ildefonso in Madrid sing out the numbers is like a national holidays. I was once on a train to Madrid during the drawing and the event was broadcast over the loudspeakers, and last year watched it in a bar near Plaza Santa Ana as the other patrons clutched their tickets, hoping for a win.

Colleagues and families often buy large blocks of tickets to have better odds, agreeing to split the money por si toca (if it happens). I’m not a big player, but I have to smile when I see the old men pulling coins out of their pockets to take their chances on a few numbers.

Just adjacent to the opposing cathedral is El Gato Negro, a small storefront where people queue up to buy lottery tickets and likely Seville’s most famous quiosco. There’s an A-4 sized tile of a black cat, the universal symbol of bad luck, that patrons reach up and pet when they’ve bought themselves a ticket for good luck. You can see where the tile has been worn during years of serving the public trying to strike it rich.

I didn’t get a shot of anyone petting the kitty, but in the three minutes I creeped around, nearly a dozen people walked in and out, trying their luck.

Preguntas Ardientes: Should I open a bank account in my home country?

Six years ago, I was facing the uncertainty of up and leaving for Spain and starting a new life in Seville. Even with the visa and job sorted out for me, I spent hours scouring the Internet for information about renting a flat, getting a mobile phone and setting up a bank account, perhaps the most important factor to take care of before leaving Chicago. Tripping between local banking institutions, I spoke with countless tellers to see whether it was worth my while to keep an account open at home.

In short: it was, and it continues to be.

While I did open a resident bank account in Spain to receive my paychecks and be able to take out money while around Iberia, having a separate savings and checking account at home has allowed me to keep my money matters at bay and makes my mom to have her own card for any transactions she needs to complete for me! I cannot stress enough how at ease I feel knowing that I have an emergency stash of cash in the United States.

What’s more, it’s far easier for me to save for other trips or big expenses when my money is not staring at me in my Spanish bank account!

What should you look for in a bank account back home? To be able to compare bank accounts effectively, there are several criteria to keep in mind:

Online Banking: This is perhaps the deal-breaker for many expats and digital nomads today. I was adamant on having free online banking to be able to make transfers, pay my credit card, and have a handle on how much money I had. And online banks don’t bow down to time zones, anyway. This should be at the top of your list if you’re planning on living abroad.

Card and Account Fees: If you’re trying to maximize your savings, the last thing you want to do is pay exorbitant fees for just maintaining an account. Check with your branch to see if there are discounts for young adults or recent grads, and you could have a few years’ fees in your pocket, rather than in a banker’s.

Interest Charges and Money Back: You should also take into account if your bank gives you anything back if you’re using it for bill pay. This is, after all, more dinerito for you!

ATM availability: Spain is a country that is not without bars, bulls or banks – it’s rare to go even three blocks without seeing one! When choosing a bank, be sure that there are cash points available throughout the world, especially if you want to travel.

Partnerships with other banks: Thankfully, my bank had a few branches in my home base of Seville, and this made taking out small quantities of money for everyday expenses not only easy, but also far less dangerous. They also have partnerships with other internationally banks, thus cutting down on pesky ATM fees, so ask about this possibility.

I don’t go home more than once a year, but when I do, I can roll up to the branch knowing that I’ve got money already, and that the same tellers who helped me open a account six years ago will greet me with an, ‘Hola!’ and know just how to help me. And the lines are far shorter!

Got any other burning questions about banking or moving to Spain? Get in touch with COMO Consulting Spain, a relocation company dedicated to helping you move to Spain.

 

Preguntas Ardientes: Tips to Get the Best Exchange Rate When You Move to Spain

Thinking of moving to Spain, like me? Among the questions I get weekly, from what to pack, to how to find a job and secure a visa, is about money. I don’t have very much of it, don’t make very much of it and spend farrrrr toooo much of what I do have, so I had to go to an expat money expert to get the answers to your questions, especially regarding whether or not it’s safe to buy euros before coming over. Here are Peter Lavelle of Pure Fx’s six tips to get the best foreign exchange rate when you do make it across the Charca.

If, like Cat, you’re relocating to Spain, you may have seen the news about the Eurozone crisis and wondered, “Is it safe for me to buy euros?”

Yes, it’s absolutely safe to buy euros. So go crazy.

There’s practically no risk of the euro collapsing, nor of you waking up one morning to find Spain has left the common currency as had been discussed, and your euros have been converted into pesetas.

Here’s why:

Since the height of the crisis last Summer, the “existential” threat to the euro has been removed.

This is thanks to European Central Bank president Mario Draghi who last Summer promised to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the common currency, which means he’d pump unlimited sums (we’re talkin’ billions and billions) into the financial system, if need be. This means that the confidence in the euro has come back from the abyss just in time for all of Europe to take their summer holidays.

What’s more, there’s massive political will holding the euro together.

If there’s one thing we learnt last year, it’s that Europe will endure a lot to hold the euro together, including bailing out 5 (count ‘em, 5) countries. This is because, for many Europeans, the Eurozone marks a concerted effort to put an end to centuries of conflict in Europe, which culminated of course with World War II. Were the euro to fall, it would bring an end to the post-war consensus, and a half century of European integration.

Given that, the euro isn’t going anywhere. You don’t have to worry when you buy the common currency!

So, how can you get the best rate on your euros before crossing the Charca? Peter lists several tips, as simple as researching the exchange rate the moment you’re even considering a move to Spain, matching up the exchange rates on Google using their tools that date back to 2009 and know that the euro and the almighty buck are never, ever getting back together (as in evening out…those were the days!)

And this gem: If you like the exchange rate, but don’t want to send your money to Spain, set up a forward contract.

This is because a forward contract lets you “lock in” the exchange rate at a point you like. For example, you may lock the US dollar in at 0.80 to the euro. Then, when you finally come to exchange currencies, you’ll get 0.80 to the euro, even if the exchange rate has fallen to 0.75 in the meantime. You’re therefore protected against future declines in the exchange rate.

Money and banking in Spain – especially with financial commitments in your home country – can be a huge, time-consuming pain in the culo. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll get the best possible exchange rate when you move to the land of sunshine and siestas! Got any other questions? Leave them in the comments below, and we’ll try and answer them for you.

Peter Lavelle is a currency broker at foreign exchange specialist Pure FX.

Sleeping in Spain: A Guide to Accommodation (and 30€ Voucher Giveaway!)

If there’s one thing that’s weathering the Spanish economic downturn (no doubt tied to the weather itself), it’s the tourism industry. Accounting for nearly 11% of 2012’2 GDP, Spain constantly pushes the envelope within the tourism industry and has grown to be the second-largest in the world!

Where will you be pillow hugging tonight?

One aspect that sets Spain apart is its ample offering of accommodation and luxury brands. Iberostar, Melià and Bareclò hotels are considered some of the best brands in the world, and backpackers can find a haven nestled on cobblestone streets or just steps from a private beach. Still, in an ever-changing industry, there’s quite a bit of confusion as to each type of accommodation, and sometimes where to find it at an affordable price (don’t worry, there’s an entrance to a voucher at the end of this explanation!).

The view from the rooftop bar at Seville’s Hotel EME.

Hotels, like in any country of the world, are plentiful and of varying quality. There’s also been a recent surge of new hotels offering boutique accommodation, quirky decor and plenty of character. Spain’s tourism board has instituted a nationwide ranking, using the Q of quality and between 1 and 5 stars. Hotels are marker with a white H and the ranking below. High season is during the summer months, local festivals and Christmas time, so expected steeper prices and less availability.

The Spanish government now controls a network of historic buildings converted into luxury hotels, called paradores. From castles to convents, a night in the sumptuous lodging will typically run you more than an average hotel, but booking during the low season can ensure a one-of-a-kind experience in a historically important building.

Tiles on the outdoor terrace of the parador in Carmona, Andalusia.

Hostels and Albergues  are often considered a common type of backpacker accommodation, they are as varied as one could imagine. Typically, they can be found in city centers and offer beds in shared or private accommodation, shared bathrooms and common areas such as living rooms, rooftop terraces or kitchens. Most beds in a shared dorm are less than 20€ a night, making it an ideal place to meet other travelers through free events and walking tours.

A typical dorm room in hostels. This one is Grand Luxe in Seville.

Slightly nicer than hostels, pensions (pensiones) are more budget-friendly than hotels and are typically smaller, too. Most similar to boarding houses, one can expect loads of hospitality and often meals!

Thanks to Spain’s varied landscape, rural accommodations are becoming popular, particularly for families wishing to escape city life.

A bed at Almohalla 51, a luxury rural house in Archidona, Spain

Apartment Stays are also becoming a popular way to live like a local in larger cities. Available for days, weeks or months, a piso turístico will allow travelers the privacy of their own space while having access to amenities. Typical rates for a month can be between 500 – 800€, depending on the season.

Camping remains a cheap and popular option for staying in Spain, particularly on the coast. Rates are low, even during the summer season, and most offer on-site food and washing facilities.

No joke, I spent a night here in the Islas Cies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in a tent on the pristine Playa de Rodas in Galicia, an ancient piso in front of the Basilica Santa María del Mar in Barcelona and a friendly pensión within earshot of the tingling churchbells of Santa María la Blanca in Seville. My head has rested in sumptuous hotels from Toledo to Valladolid, as well as old fortresses, which is why I’m excited to present you all with my newest giveaway.

I’m teaming up with Your Spain Hostel to offer a giveaway of a 30€ voucher to be used on Your Spain Hostel on any property in any city you’re interested in visiting in Spain. Simply enter by leaving your email address and telling me in the comments where you’d like to travel to in Spain should you win the voucher (extra points if you send a postcard!), or otherwise!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

From a bungalow on the beaches of Ibiza to a casa rural in Cangas de Onís, Your Spain Hostel is your one-stop destination for unique and quality accommodation around Spain. The site also provides discounts on tours, entrance to sites, food and even taxi pick-up! You can win extra entries by following both Your Spain Hostel and Sunshine and Siestas on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy travels for 2013! Where are you headed, and where do you like to rest your head at the end of a long day of tourism and tapas? Got any great recs?

 

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