Breaking Rules and Breaking Down

I was six the first time I got sent to the principal’s office.

Still had the little boy haircut, still loved school and my teachers, still had no idea why boys and girls ever ended up getting married. Then, Josh Rollins and David Damby lifted up my dress to reveal my underwear on the playground one afternoon at King Elementary School.

I was horrified. The sixth grade safety guard told me to run and hide, but I knew the consequences would be far greater if I did. So I hung my head and marched into Mr. Damby´s (yes, the boy who lifted up my skirt was the principal´s son) office, willing to miss after-recess story time if it meant my mom would never know. If it were anyone else´s kid, I would have been thought to provoke the curiosity of a bunch of little boys, but Mr. Damby knew his kid, and I got off without even so much as a slap on the wrist. For at least five more years, I wore bike shorts under skirts and dresses.

Senior year of high school, I got my first and only detention. Perkins, my gymnastics coach and dear friend, gave it to me for not remembering to bring my freshly-laundered District 200-issued gym clothes to school. I met her promptly at 2:20 and asked for my task. Rubbing skid marks off the gym floor? Recording grades? She waved me away, knowing I was a good kid.

Moral of the story? I´m not so into breaking rules. I´m as straight as Spain´s steady descent into non-Euroland.

That is, until recently. In February, I started getting together documents together to study at one of Seville´s two public universities. This involved countless trips and countless aggravations with María Gracia, the woman in charge of the Masters Oficial. I finally had to pay 110€ to get my transcript translated, and am still waiting for the sign-up to open. This was my back-up plan, to get a student visa to at least allow me to get a cheap masters and stay in Spain.

As of June 15th, it´s still not open. So I needed a new plan.

I found out in May that I couldn´t renew my grant to be a language assistant another year, so I started preparing early by making lists of possible places to work, spending free time writing cover letters and addressing envelopes. Just after Feria, I sent out 43 CVs to colegios concertados, which are private schools paid for in ‘art by the government. I´ve gotten a lot of support from other teachers, friends who pass along job contacts, and my own willingness to put everything Í´ve got into the job search.

To date, I’ve had seven contacts. One no for working at the school (but an offer for the afterschool program), two interviews done, two more this week, and a “we’ll contact you.” although I´ve had good response, it´s hard not to be disheartened when you see yourself as a good candidate and willing to do what it takes. I’ve been more anxious than the day before moving away to school, ready to cry at any moment. The only thing certain is that I want to stay in Spain, not how I’ll do it or where I´ll work.

Everyone had the same response: Can you at least get student papers? Find some way to be legal?

All of research and calls to lawyers were kind of coming up empty. So I had to think of something else. I am not a criminal, and I don´t have so much as a parking ticket to my name. I pay taxes even though I don´t live in America, never run red lights and donate money to charity. So what´s to say a law-abiding citizen can´t bend the rules a bit every now and then?

Kike and I decided to do what’s known as a pareja de hecho. While, during the first year, the benefits to me are slim, if we can prove that we´ve lived together for 12 months without me being away for more than three months, I´ll get a residence permit. Not job permission, but at least I can´t be kicked out of the country for the next 12 months. It took several trips to the social security office, an all-day excursions to Fuengirola (Málaga) to the American Consulate to get what´s known as a Fé de Soltería, or a 23€ document stating I´m not already married. For once, all of this paperwork, the dreaded papeleo, was done within a week and it became official on June 7th.

But, as I mentioned, this was no way to get work permission. I have tried everything, spending my entire three weeks of summer vacation standing in lines trying to get some answers. I even tried getting unemployment, thinking my pareja de hecho could get me in the Spanish Social Security system. Hours at the Oficina de Extranjeros were good for asking questions, but it wasn´t until I visited the American Consulate here that I had the solution.

Mary Theresa said: Stop being so Anglo-Saxon about things, Cat. Go and use what you´ve got.

So I gathered everything I needed to reply my student visa, bought an overnight ticket to Madrid and left Wednesday night after my classes. I arrived to the capital a few minutes after six to cold, rainy weather and immense ganas to sleep. My plan was to have a coffee and churros and sit outside in the cold at the Foreigner´s Office. But the 15º weather deterred me, so I was shocked to see that In was the first in line at 8am. In Sevilla, the office is swamped by people waiting for their numbers early, eager to get one before they run out by 10am.

Just before 9am, a security guard opened the door and asked me if I had an appointment. I learned before leaving Sevilla that the office only takes appointment, but having a document that expired in one week was like walking around with a bomb in my wallet, and I had good faith someone would help me for having come on a dreaded overnight bus from Sevilla. The guard, instead, gave me the shortcut for calling and speaking to a human (in my defense, I did try for the appointment). The woman on the other end informed me that someone had JUST called and cancelled for Monday, so she could get me in at 4pm. I snatched a bank form out of the guards hand, walked down the street to the Caja Madrid, and paid my 16,32€ for the new card before boarding the Metro back towards the bus station to close my ticket. It was cold, ym news shoes pinched my feet, and I was being tortured by coming back again.

Sunday night, I left again, feeling a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. After all, I was kinda stretching the truth for this NIE, but letting it expire was like opening Pandorás box: a whole new level of despair. I was, of course, seated behind the woman who fully reclined her chair and a dude who had no idea what personal space was, so I got scattered sleep in, finally succumbing in my weird gymnast positions with limbs draped wherever I could get them to fit.

I arrive at 7am, took the Cercanías to Atocha and resolved to just walk around until my friend called for breakfast. Nine hours to kill is a lot in an expensive city where you´ve been countless times before (no, I really can´t remember how many times I´ve been to Madrid – I think I went five last year alone!). Jeremy called at about 9am, so I scooted over to Palos de la Frontera, where we have a long chat over coffee (mine a manchaito with less coffee, since I was already trembling) and porros, the thick, Sevillian-style churros. He then suggested I take a nap, so I followed him to his house and konked out on the couch.

We later went to our date place for lunch, an unassuming Chinese restaurant in the parking garage of Plaza de España. By the time I got off the Metro in Puerta de Toledo an hour later, 40 minutes before my appointment, the sky had opened up and I was soaked after the 50 meter walk down the hill. I told the guard that I was early, and he insisted I not stand outside and just get in line straightaway. This cita system is genius, and I waited a mere 15 minutes for my number to be called (compared to four hours in Sevilla the week before). I had to practically Jedi Mind trick my feet still so as not to appear nervous, but all of that washed away when I walked in.

The blonde woman who helped me looked like Charo at first glance, minus all the plastic surgery. I quickly explained my situation with her, even leaving out that I had already been here, and she put her hand over mine and said, “Your current NIE is from Sevilla. Have you lived there a long time? I love Andalucía.” I swear she never even looked down at my paperwork, chattering away about how funny my accent is (she likened me to the Korean woman raised in Utrera who now appears on a late-night talk show), how funny Andalusians are, and how much success she wishes me in the future.

Phew. I was about to pee my pants!

I walked out of the office and called Kike and my mom, the stamp freshly planted on my documentation. Sign, sealed and LEGAL!

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. […] Read How to Deal with the Foreigner’s Office and how to trick funcionarios and pretend you’re smart. […]

  2. […] So, with all of the rumors floating around about not getting paid on time, about indifferent coworkers and kids who could pasar tres kilos when it came to English. Believe me, I had a few issues with other teachers or students, but the day the envelope arrived telling me “Thanks for your time, but get the F out and let someone else have a turn,” my boss and I had a few tears as I realized I’d be jobless in a matter of weeks with no student visa. […]

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