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

I love my adoptive city, but life in Seville is not all sunshine and siestas.

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.

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 balmy 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 33€ 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. The one bright spot is that Seville is one of Europe’s best cities for biking, so I’m more inclined to hop on my bici to get to work or play.

The Bureaucracy

Ah, yes. The bane 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.

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.

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?

Applying to to the Auxiliares Program: How to Apply to be a Language Assistant in Spain

this post was updated in February 2016.

Nine years ago, I began researching a way to make it back to Spain. I was a senior at the University of Iowa, finishing a degree in journalism and minoring in the inter-disciplinary “how the hell do I get abroad.” 

Fast-forwarding to the present day, I’m sitting in the sunlight basking into my new home with a café con leche. My one goal post-college was to move abroad, and thankfully the North American Language and Culture Assistants gave me a visa, a job and the ability to make Spain my hogar dulce hogar. And since it began nearly a decade ago, loads more teaching programs in Spain have begun.

Remember Mike? He wrote about his intention to start a new life in Spain through the same program, and has gladly shared his experience of tackling the application process.

Tips on How to apply to teach English in Spain on the North American Language Assistant Program

Well, the application period for the Auxiliares de conversaciones extranjeros en España finally opened up. However, I felt that I was going into this application process basically blind. All I really knew is that I had to login to Profex (the application system they use), and upload documents. Everything I had read of various blogs and forums said that you should apply AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE! Basically, once someone applies they are assigned a number, and then once the application has been approved, placements in regions and schools are given out in the order of the application received. First preference being given to those who are renewing their current placements.

The website has a program manual that outlines the application process and a Profex manual that detailed each screen on Profex and how to navigate the page. Once I was actually in the process of applying, these documents were actually very helpful. I was able to begin working on the list of documents on the website which needed to be submitted for the application:

  • The main page of a U.S. or Canadian passport
  • A copy of college transcripts or college degree
  • Letter of intent or statement of purpose
  • Medical certificate (if not a U.S. citizen) – to be turned in during VISA application process
  • Letter of recommendation

Before the application period opened, I was diligently working on the collecting all the items above. The passport page was an easy photocopy, as was the copy of my college transcript. I browsed many forums and blogs, as well as the Facebook group for this year’s auxiliares to see if it mattered between the transcript or the degree. Everything I came across said that it didn’t matter as long as one was uploaded. Needless to say, I chose the transcript. The letter of intent was fairly simple, as I had to put into words why I wanted to teach in Spain. However, the only glitch with it was that it had to be 300 words, so my 750 word first draft had to be significantly reduced. Who knows if they really even read it though?

The website had a guide for how to write and submit the letter of recommendation. The letter had to come from a professor or former professor unless the applicant has been out of school for over five years. I contacted my former professor and faculty advisor. She was ecstatic to be writing the letter for me. I was thrilled because I had been nervous that since I could not ask her in person she may say no or put it on the back-burner and finish it later than when the application opened. My professor wrote the letter in the format they requested and mailed it in. I asked that she send me an electronic copy so I could upload it online just in case it got lost in the mail. Luckily, she obliged and I was able to upload a copy when I was applying.

On January 10th and 5:01 p.m. here in Milwaukee, WI, (00:01 a.m. in Madrid), the application period finally opened. I began logging in and creating a user account, while following the Profex manual. After I had created a username and began entering my personal information, the system started to load very slow and kept shutting me out. I attempted to login a few times and kept receiving an error message from the website. Quickly, I began searching forums to see if others were having this problem, and I found out that others had the same exact problem. It seemed as though the mad rush of applicants had overloaded their server.

I attempted to login nearly every hour, sans when I briefly slept; however, it was to no avail. The same error message popped up every time. Since it didn’t work through Friday Spain time, I figured it would be down through the weekend, which it was. Although, it did not stop me from constantly checking to see if for some reason it would work! On Monday, I was able to login and finish my application. The Profex Manual was a breeze to follow with actually having the web page up in front of me. Most of the fields that need to be filled in are personal information, college information, any teaching experience, and any study abroad experience, fairly straight forward.

After all that information was completed, the fun part began: selecting region, type of city, and school preferences. For regional preferences the applicant put each group in order of preference, from 1 to 3, and then selects one region within each of those three groups. The options for regional placements are:

Group A: Asturias, Cueta y Melilla, Extremadura, La Rioja, Navarra, País Vasco

Group B: Aragón, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Cataluña, Galicia, Islas Canarias

Group C: Andalucía, Castilla y León, Islas Baleares, Madrid, Murcia, Valencia

The regional preferences are followed by the type of city preferences, which allows the preferences of a rural community, medium sized community, an urban community, or no preference. Then, the school preferences consist of primera, secondaria, or no preference. Personally, I found this to be the most exciting part, as I was actually selecting where I would prefer to be located. Now, I know that I may not get placed in any of my selected preferences, which is perfectly fine with me. I was just excited to be actually submitting something that said where I would like to go and what I would like to do.

Once this part of the application is finished, Profex generates a .pdf print out. It is necessary to print this out and sign it because it needs to be mailed in to a specified regional coordinator along with a checklist that is initialed and signed.

An application becomes Inscrita once the online part is complete. When the regional coordinator receives all the documents the status is changed to Registrada. This is where my application is at this point. Admitada is the next stage, which is when all the submitted documents have been accepted. So far, no one that I know of has been placed past this stage this year.

According to everything I have read, it takes a long time to reach the next stage, Adjudicada, which is when they send the autonomous community assignment that the applicant has been placed in. You have seven days to accept or reject this placement. Assuming it’s accepted, the status becomes Aceptada. The final stage is when you receive your Carta de nombramiento, your school placements. These latter stages of the Profex application process are exciting to think about, but still seem far off for me. I’m just looking forward to being Admitada!

This whole Profex process was not actually as difficult as I had anticipated. Current assstant blogs and forums were incredibly helpful and reassuring throughout the process. Unfortunately, I discovered Facebook group for those applying to teach after I applied, otherwise that would have been pretty helpful too. In the end, I wound up with number 780. While it’s not the best number in the world, I still feel as though it is respectable and feel very comfortable that I should get a placement. I’m checking my applications status every hour, if not even more frequently, and I look forward to keeping everyone updated with my thoughts about this whole process.

Got any questions for Mike or me about the program?

How a misguided GPS lead us to a good find, but bad luck

“BUT I CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE PARKING LOT!” I wailed, confused at how to even put the rental car into reverse.

“Dude, let’s ask PSY,” T suggested, and the site of a Gangnam-style doppleganger set me into a fit of giggles. Today was going to be a good day. After loads of back luck during 2012, I finally felt blessed, and that our trip would be  luck at the end of a bad streak.

I asked the car rental guy the easiest way to get out of Madrid, and he asked our destination.

Burgos, I said, as H responded with Logroño, our final destination.

The GPS navigated us out of Madrid and out towards Burgos. Being together outside of camp felt almost strange, but we chattered away to make the kilometres pass by as quickly as they got racked up on the dashboard.

Just past the border of Madrid and Segovia, the GPS spoke again to tell us to turn off the main road and onto a secondary highway.

“It’s probably just avoiding the toll roads or something,” H suggested when I told her that the Internet had suggested driving up past Burgos and veering off on the highway that stretches across the North, following the Ebro river that feeds the grapevines of La Rioja.

The mountain range that separates the two comunidades rolled out on the right side of the window as the vegas turned into golden-leafed forests. As we snaked into Soria – the most sparsely populated region of Spain – my eyes and brain begged for a coffee.

The GPS sounded, as if it read my brain. It directed us into a town on the banks of the Duero, San Esteban de Gormáz. I saw the town’s castle spires on our way in, and we drove as high as the rental car would take us into the town’s midget bodegas with cracked, wooden doors. The place felt a bit like Guadix with the homes carved into the walls, the creaky stairs and catwalks leading across the sides of the mountain. The ancient stones of the small town had lead the namesake to write El Cid Campeador, the famous novel of Spain’s chivalrous knights of the middle ages.

After a quick stop for coffee, we set out towards Soria, passing small towns not big enough for even a church. Coming around a bend in a small aldea, we came across a truck and a guardia civil car. The young office signaled us over to the shoulder and I gulped hard, stone silent in my fear.

Here’s the thing: I knew that the crime for driving without a license could be a 500€ fine and up to six months in prison. 

“Play STUPID!” T hissed as I rolled down the window and uttered hola with my best guiri accent. The cop asked for the car’s registration and my driver’s license. Kike had warned me something like this could happen not two days before, and to be extremely careful. I wasn’t breaking the law, but had been pulled over by a routine check on small country roads.

Using his iPhone as a translator, the cop told me I needed an international driver’s license to be able to rent a car and that we would be fined 100€ on the spot and get a “get out of jail” card until we made it to Logroño. I felt waves of nausea as I forked over two fifties and tried hard not to let onto the fact that I understood, even stifling a small shudder when his partner said, “Wasn’t it 500€ for driving without a license?”

As we drove away after a hurried buenos dias at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I felt my heart stop racing as we laughed nervously. Luckily, wine country was our destination, and it wasn’t long before I was taking the edge off with a glass of Rioja and cheap tapas. My friends were glad I was driving and that my guiri-speaking-Spanish impression was spot-on.

The rest of our weekend included me losing a cell phone, breaking a few wine glasses and having the worst wine hangovers of our lives, but there are few things I appreciate more than a good glass of tinto, my friends and new places.

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.

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 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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