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.

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!

Jaded Expat: Four (and a half) Things I Dislike About Living in Seville

Truth be told, Seville was never on my list of places to study, let alone live. My plans included free tapas along Calle Elvira, views of the Alhambra from my window and weekend ski trips to the Sierra Nevada. But the Spanish government had other plans for me, sending me to work as a Language and Culture Assistant in the town of Olivares, 10 miles west of the capital of Andalusia.

In retrospect, it was a disappointment that initially had me thinking twice about my decision, then became perhaps the best choice I’ve ever made. Indeed, it has worked out in wonderful ways: learning Spanish to impress my new Latin amante and take on pesky bank tellers, finding a career choice that I enjoy and leaves me time to blog, facing my fears of living without my family to run to.

aaaand I shall call this photo “Spain, you wack sometimes.”

But my vida in Seville is more than sunshine and siestas, tapas and trips to the beach. My life is Spain is still life: I have a job that requires my presence, bills to pay, and enough headaches with bureacrazy to make someone’s head spin. Just like anywhere else on earth, I have irksome moments. As much as I love living in Seville, there are elements that make me roll my eyes and utter an Hay que ver (alright, ME CAGO EN LA MAAAAA) under my breath.

The Weather

When I initially moved to Spain, I toyed with the idea of returning to Valladolid. The promise of living with my host family in exchange for English classes seemed too good to pass up, and I have a soft spot for Vdoid and all of its castellano goodness. Then I remembered that I was there during a drought, a far cry from the stories I’d heard of the city of Cervantes turning into a tundra during the winter and early spring months.

Vámanooooh pal South!

While Andalusian winters are much more mild than their Castillian counterparts, the summers are also unbearable. Come May, the city turns into a hide-and-seek from the sun game. temperatures spike from a blamy 22° Celcius to 35° in a matter of days, which also means that I can’t sleep at night, I take multiple showers a day and gazpacho becomes the basis of my diet. Air conditioning is non-existent on buses, whereas the Corte Inglés department store is an enormous ice cube that, upon spitting you out and onto the hot pavement in Plaza del Duque, gives you an automatic cold. Just like in Goldilocks, the weather is either too hot or too cold, and rarely just right.

The Transportation

Seville is a sprawling metropolis, at least by Spanish standards. While one can get across the city in about 30 minutes by bike, traffic and frequent bus stops make it an absolute pain to moverse in public transportation. While I usually take my bike or my own two feet everywhere, there are rainy mornings or extremely hot afternoons where I have little choice but to swipe my transportation card.

Seville has oodles of bus lines and a new app that lets you see waiting times and investigate routes as well as one metro line and one light rail. If you’re in the center, you’re well-connected. If you live a bit further away, like me, your options are much more limited, and I often have to pay for a transbordo, or transfer, to be able to get to places like the gym or the Alameda. I’ve since opted to pay for a Sevici pass, which is a city-wide bike share, paying 25€ yearly instead of the 1,40€ charges by bus or metro. Still, the big bikes are clumsy and not always maintained, and acts of vandalism are rampant. There are days where actually moving around the city seem like such a big ordeal that I prefer staying at home.

The Bureaucracy

Ah, yes. The pain of my expat existence. Nothing is ever easy for a little guiri from America, from registering for a foreign ID card to even picking up my mail; it seems that Spain keeps coming up with ways to drain my wallet and make me spend my mornings waiting in line, testing my patience and willingness to be in a relationship with Spain. Is there any doubt as to why my fingers unintentionally write bureaucrazy?

Case in point: my recent tryst with getting a driver’s license. I learned to drive in 2001, and since then have not a parking fine to my name in America. When I rented a car with some friends to drive to La Rioja, the GPS guided us right into a roadside check and a 100€ fine. My suegra proclaimed that getting a driving license was absolutely necessary, and that she would even float the bill (Mujer is a saint, de verdad). Still, I spent two whole weekends in a driving course, had to deal with both my first and middle name being wrong on the theory exam, and am forced to learn to drive stick shift. Turns out, non-EU residents who have lived in the Eurozone for two years or more and required to take both the theory and practical exams. I swear, it never ends. Ever.

Then, or course, there’s the post office: I live not 200 meters from a post office and another 800 meters from another. Still, I was assigned to an oficina de correos that takes me 20 minutes to walk to, and inquiries into how to switch have been met with head shakes and shoulder shrugs. Worse still, any non-certified mail not claimed within 15 days of the original delivery date is returned to sender. I’ve lots checks, books and information packs because of this rule, in many cases can’t be avoided because of my time out of  the country during the summer and Christmas.

The enchufe starts early. This kid will probably be the amo of all of his friends when he gets beer here at age 16.

As an off-shoot, there’s the concept of enchufe, too. An enchufe is an outlet (like where you’d plug your computer in), and it refers to the business deals and underhand deals. Iñaki Undangarín, much? This concept has been both a benefit and a curse to me, giving me jobs and taking me out of the running for others, allowing me to have a great time at Feria (or not). Like in America at times, it’s all about who you know.

The Social Circles

The saying goes that sevillanos are the first to invite you to their house, but then never tell you where they leave. In my experience, making friends with sevillanos, particularly females, is quite difficult. I’ve thankfully got a great group of American female friends, but I’ve found that breaking into social circles in Seville is tough. The Novio has been close with his best friend since they were six – o sea, my whole lifetime. I have many friendships that are still close and have grown even as I moved away and they got married, but I have many more non-Spanish friends than Spanish ones. Plus, a majority of them have come from the Novio and not my own cultivation.

Another pitfall to moving abroad is the inevitable goodbyes when someone moves away – even the Spaniards! When my friends Juani and Raquel moved to Chile a few months back, it was like losing our social coordinators and my little sister at the same time. I remember the dozens of friends I’ve made here who have since moved on or moved back to their home cultures and often wish that they could have stayed. My group of friends often ebbs and flows as the years pass by.

My guiri girlfriends

What’s funny is that many of these gripes would be the same if I were living in Chicago – the bitter cold winters and heaps of snow, the expensive CTA system and highways choked with cars during peak times, and the hoops that would no doubt need to be jumped through if I moved back. It’s the kind of thing that I seem to warn bright-eyed guiris about when they first come to live or study in Seville: they’re often fascinated that I’ve been able to make a life here after so much time, but it’s not like study abroad. I’ve experienced grief and loss, heartache and even strep throat, found out I’m allergic to OLIVE BLOSSOMS in one of the world’s foremost producers of olive oil and had many tearful goodbyes.

My friend Kelly, a wise-cracking Chicagoan-turned-sevillana puts it well: if these things happened to us back in Chicago, we wouldn’t bat an eye. Not break ups or headaches would have us on the first plane back to what we know. Life is life here. It’s just Spain being Spain.

Besides, where else is it socially acceptable to drink sherry at noon, stay out until 4am on a school night, have crushes on Gerard Pique despite an extreme dislike for FC Barcelona and use Spanglish as your tongue-of-choice?

Do you have any headaches where you live, or any stories to tell about what you don’t like about your city?

Things I’ve Gotten Better at Since Moving to Spain

Coming from a family of teachers (and officially calling myself one on paper), my mother always taught me the value in learning outside the classroom. Though she counts on her fingers, lady’s a wiz with fractions, teaching my sister and I as we baked Christmas cookies. She taught us animal care by taking us weekly to the barn to groom and feed our first family pet, Pudge, and made us join Girl Scouts.

Any wonder who was my biggest supporter when I decided to move to Spain?

I was recently talking to my friend Gonzalo, one of the Novio’s compañeros from the military academy who lives in Zaragosa. He told me that his parents were amazed at how I’d come to Spain alone and with very little Spanish…and then stayed.

Call it the evolution of a species if you like: adapt or die.

I’ve learned to live without peanut butter, accept that baking here is nothing like it was in Nancy’s kitchen, and spend copious amounts of time on Facebook and Skype in the name of staying involved back home. But, with all of this, I’ve also learned a thing or two and have improved skills that I never thought would be necessary.

Parallel Parking

Recently, my friend Sandra of Seville Traveller and I were attending the Evento Blog España. The rain was pouring down, so we took her car to a nearby barrio for lunch. I watched as she maneuvered her compact car into an even tinier parking spot in a garage littered with cars, scooters and the like.

I’m American, from a place with wide open (parking) spaces, often the diagonal type that are simple to pull in and out of. Coming to live in a place like Spain means that I’ve had to adapt to their bumper kissing, doble fila and maneuvering Kike’s enormous vehicle when it’s my turn to drive. Something to work on? My tendency to panic when driving in a place I don’t know.

This, of course, has not been without oops moments – two years ago, Kike’s tank of a car got a big scratch from my carelessness when pulling it into a parking space, rather than backing it in.

Eating fish

Nothing says Midwesterner like my love for beef and grain. I accidentally consumed fish before realizing that I actually liked it. Since I had never learned names of fish and seafood, I often ordered sea creatures – as well as tripe stew, kidneys and coagulated blood – without knowing what I was really eating.

I’ve also learned how to clean it properly, from pulling the ink sacs and backbone out of a chipirón to lifting the bones of a white fish. It reminds me of a picture of my sister and I during a fishing trip in Wisconsin when we pinched our noses and stuck out our tongues as my father cleaned and grilled the perch we’d caught – it seems I’ve come full circle.

Travel has also made me an adventurous eater, in that I’m the first to try whatever is on the menu – even bugs, weird organs and live oysters.

Cutting Onions Without Crying

When I met Melissa, she told me that part of our monthly rent would go towards things we’d need in the house: cleaning supplies, olive oil and onions.

Onions have also crept into my diet just as fish have, but the hardest thing was learning to cut them without crying – I used to have to wear sunglasses to stay dry! Now, I usually cry while cooking the onions, but that could just be the smoke.

The secret? Doing it fast and cutting on a slant.

Sticking up for Myself

When studying for the DELE exams last November, I had Kike read all of my writing prompts. His conclusion is that I’m really good at reclamaciones, or complaint letters. I used to be the girl who would gulp down food that should have been sent back, or turn on my heel and not stand up to the funcionarios when they turn me away.

That all changed when a taxi driver took me the wrong way and wanted to charge me for it. I asked him to leave me at a cross street, but he insisted it was a shortcut and that would take me to where I needed to go. When I asked him to leave me off and let me walk the rest of the way, he tried to charge me the full amount. I insisted on him stopping the meter, leaving me a receipt and taking down his licence number. With that, he charged me just half and let it go.

I’ve learned to be proactive and not let people or silly rules walk all over me. Not the Vodafone salesman can turn me away when I start running my mouth about how they never signed me up for the insurance I had paid for on my bills, or to a nurse who was verbally abusive to a friend (we filled out a claim in the much-advertised LIBRO DE RECLAMACIONES). I’ve also told a few little lies to the people in extranjería to help speed up the process of getting paperwork done.

In Spain’s current economic situation, people are trying to squeeze as much out of every person as they can, which means that foreigners sometimes bear the brunt of their bad service and overcharging. Being assertive won’t cost you anything.

I still think I’m a little lost guiri whose luck just happens to never run out. Living abroad is a test in patience and resilience, yes, but it’s a lot about stepping back, taking a deep breath and remembering that it could happen the same way in your country.

What have you learned to do better during your time abroad? What do you want to improve on?

Five Places You’ll Wait in Line in Spain

I asked my First Certificate students to tell me their strengths and weaknesses during our last class. We were talking about how personality factors into the type of job you choose and your success in your profession.

My weakness? I am crazy impatient (an obvious reason to not teach babies). The problem with living in Spain, then, is the amount of waiting one has to do in order to be a productive human in society here. Even the simplest of tasks can take an enormously long time, and with the ongoing stream of budget cuts, there are less personnel in the office and more people free in the am to stand in line.

source

 Extranjería

By far the biggest place you’ll waste your time in Spain is at the Foreigner’s Office. Getting a NIE is a three-step process, asking information requires parking it on an uncomfortable plastic bench for hours and arriving after 7am ensures that you’re likely to not receive a number. The hours (perhaps days) I’ve spent in the office – particularly when trying to determine my status in 2010 after losing the Ministry of Education grant – are immeasurable.

There are ways to make the whole experience a little bit better, but listening to people tell you their sob stories while you’re surrounded by one of Seville’s most enchanting plazas is just torturous. My advice is to arrive later in the morning, after all of the civil servants have had a chance to eat breakfast, bring extra photocopies of everything and to be polite, even when the funcionario sends you away for the third time in one morning. Being polite can go a long way to a civil servant who’s really just wishing you’d get out of her hair so she can chat with the guy at the desk next to hers.

Bank

Banker’s hours in Spain tend to be 8:15 – 14:15. This means, of course, if you’re a normal human being, that you can’t make it in to pay bills, make a deposit or complain that your card has been swallowed up again. What’s more, Saturdays and Sundays mean the place is chapá.

To avoid the line waiting, and banks for the most part, I’d sign up for either La Caixa, which offers great rates for students under 26 and a full-service ATM that allows you to do everything from deposit your check to top up your bonobus at any hour of the day. Likewise, ING Direct offers extended hours AND they’re open on Saturdays (you’ll just need a paycheck stub to open a cuenta nómina).

Post Office

Another place you’ll wait in line, thanks to budget cuts, is the post office. In Spain, your address assigns you to a certain correos office. Mine happens to be a 15-minute bike ride from my house, while there is one not 250 meters from my front door.

While I was home visiting Chicago, I won a book contest put on by Books4Spain. The book was sent to my house, but no one was home to receive it. A notice was left in my mailbox to pick it up at the correos office, so I found a bit of time to go immediately the first morning I was back in Seville, arriving just as the doors opened. I was the fifteenth person in line, but still waited 45 minutes for them to tell me my book was returned two months earlier. Word to the wise: if a letter or package is not picked up within 15 days, it goes back to the sender, though if it’s not a certified letter, you can send someone else in your name, so long as they carry a piece of paper giving them the power to do so, signed by you with your NIE number.

Frustrated, I got a tostada with ham and a big cup of coffee. Even at the crack of dawn, the place was still packed!

Government Buildings

Recently, I had to get a page of stickers with my IRS tax code on it. I walked into the Hacienda building at opening time on a Monday morning and was delighted to find only half a dozen seats full. I got a number and watched the screen. Only one person was in line in front of me, so I turned on my Kindle and began reading.

…and waited for nearly 45 minutes. When my number was finally called, the three women behind the desk were sitting, chattering away. I cleared my throat. Nothing. Being the cara dura I am, I finally asked for their assistance and a woman slowly rose and wordlessly took my passport. No more words were exchanged while I stood for an additional five minutes waiting for her to print my stickers. If only I could have used TurboTax Online, things would have been so much easier.

Let’s face it, I was cutting into her breakfast time. She had reason to be mad.

Be it Hacienda or even the Distrito office, allot way more time than you think necessary. And bring a book.

Supermarket on Saturday

Everyone is here, since they’re all closed on Sundays. Even I have thrown my hands up in an, “Ok, Spain! You win today!” gesture as I drop my potato chips and litronas of beer at the counter and walk out. I can wait if it’s important enough, but why wait for beer if I can walk across the street for a fresquita anyway?

Rules for Waiting in Line

People in Spain tend to ask the person in front of them to save their place in line. When I say their place in line, I also mean their place in line with their whole family, who will take turns standing their place.

Banks are utterly confusing if there’s a lot of chairs available. Whenever a new patron comes in, he or she will as for el último? and memorize that person’s face. It’s up to you to remember who you’re after and to be aware that people are ruthless when it comes to money matters.

There are VERY special rules for the abuelitas. They’ll come at you, all nice and calling you hija and corazón and mi arma, just one loaf of bread and some eggs in their frail little arms. Then, once you’ve given into the cuteness of little María de los Sietes Dolores, she’ll call over her granddaughter and the cart full of everything Dolores will need for the three weeks of winter she hibernates and cooks for her two dozen children and grandchildren. DO NOT, under any circumstances, give into an abuelita!

Have any more to add, Spain dwellers? Where do the rest of you expats wait in line in your respective countries?

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