The Charca: Coming to Grips with a Life Abroad

Lisa is perched on the white mortar bench, manipulating her camera to get the best shot of the Alhambra. Al-i-Al-i-haaaambra, the Gaga fan sings to herself before turning the camera around to ask me to snap the cobalt blue clouds that hang low over her head and the majestic sight behind her. I smile at the friend I sometimes liken to a bobblehead – always cheery and pleasant – and shake my head in disbelief that she’s sitting two feet in front of me and across the valley from the most-visited site in Spain.

She, my dear high school friend and college drinking buddy (more times than we’d like to admit), was my fifth visitor to Seville this year. Between Beth, Jason and Christine, and Jackie, I’ve seen Cádiz, Córdoba, Jeréz, Granada and my own Sevilla through the eyes of long-time friends. There’s something odd about sharing your life in one country with someone you’ve lived the better part of your life with in another, a pressing need to cling to something familiar while demonstrate just how foreign you’ve become.

It goes back and forth with me, though.

Driving to the airport Thursday morning, Lisa recounts her busy 10 days ahead – plans for Bears games, her fiancé’s 30th birthday, family events and back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners upon landing.

“Oh, right!” I say, “Happy Día de Acción de Gracias!” and pull into the ramp marked Salidas, silently giving thanks that she could make the trip in the end, what with her eminent wedding and lack of wanderlust.

I go to work exhausted from two full weeks without so much as a respiro. Kat and I meet at the door to cart in six pies she’d ordered, two of which were pumpkin. I give the box to María, not wanting to be tempted to make off with it and call my parents from my cellphone to ask how their annual Christmas Tree shopping is going. Luckily, my picky niños saved me enough breakfast for the following day: tarta de calabaza, save a few small nibbles taking out by curious but cautious students.

More than ever, as my Spanish raíces grow firmer and deeper, it’s harder for me to completely uproot from America. I almost feel like I have a foot in each country, spanning the vast Atlantic Charca. Love my tortilla and jamón, but won’t turn down a hamburger. Can dance flamenco (lite, desde luego) and line dance. Miss my mommy, though I can’t complain at all about my suegra, either.

Last night I met Lindsay and Kelly for one last beer and nachos at Flaherty’s, a Sevilla institution I often choose not to go to for its overpriced Guinness and abundance of drunk guiris. But, come on, this place was MADE for us, and it closes its doors indefinitely today. We reflected on the times we’d drank more than la cuenta there, or watched a World Cup game, or met friends. A little piece of Angloism is dying here in Seville, I thought.

Then I hopped in a cab and directed the driver to my house. He was listening to a conservative radio program that was discussing American consumerism and Black Friday. Knowing full well I was foreign, he guffawed upon hearing that President Obama’s website had a deal on products available from the online store. Under his breath, he said, “You Americans are crazy.” I smiled to myself, happy to know we’re still as important to the rest of the world in the wake of economic crises, elections and FC Barcelona’s record.

Today we’re celebrating Thanksgiving at Jenna’s house. She promises no turkey, apart from the ones we’ll make with our hands and hang on the wall. We did this two years ago in what will go down as the greatest Thanksgiving of all time – one full of non-Americans, spilling turkey gravy on made-from-scratch apple pies and more laughs than one should handle on all of that turkey. I remember writing the names of all of the special people in my life, with more Spanish Marías and Josés (and, clearly, José María) than American names. I feel thankful for the company of all of these amazing people who make handling the holidays a bit easier and are sure to bring Cruzcampo.

I can’t say I’m anything more than 100% American, despite having lived a good part of my life away from its borders and military bases. My native tongue, blue eyes and freckles define me as the opposite of mu’daquí , yet they don’t marginalize me. I even told the tribunal and examiner at the DELE speaking exam that famous story about Chicago de la Frontera.

Sometimes Hayley and I talk about how boring our lives have gotten, now that we’ve settled into our Spanish lives with a sprinkle of American holidays and outings. Over beers in la Encarnación last week, she confessed that she no longer feels interesting.

But we’ve chosen this life, I suppose, to not be entirely in one country or another, but rather straddling two cultures. I don’t know, it could be worse. I kind of like it.

How to Survive The Foreigner’s Office

Author’s Note: This post seemed fitting today, considering my first experience with the dreaded papeleo started on July 3rd, 2007, when I applied for my student visa to come to Spain. Likewise, I just picked up my five-year residence card on Friday.

On my first trip to Sevilla, six years ago nearly to the day, I was breathless at the site of the half-moon, colonnaded Plaza de España, nestled just out of the historic center and at the helm of the plush María Luisa Park. The Triana tiles gleamed in the early July sunlight as I sat writing on a bench in the mural depicting Valladolid, a city I had just moved away from. I brought my travel partner, Catherine, the very next day. While not as bowled over as I, she did know that it was the fictional Planet Naboo of Star Wars fame.

Two years in the future, I was applying for a visa at the Chicago consulate. The deal was that Spain put a shiny visa on an entire page of my passport in exchange for 90 days in the land of toros and tapas. From there, I would need to go to local police and present a mountain of paperwork claiming I had a salary and health insurance. Seemed easy to present a few pieces of paper and stand in line.

Think again – what ensued has been a very ugly battle between me and the central immigration offices of Andalucía, a little bit of trickery (ok, flat-out lying) and finally securing a five-year residency card after thirteen months of appointments, photocopies and a lawyer.

Estés dónde estés, here’s a few tips to make your trip to Extranjeros a little more smooth:

Brush up on your vocabulary
The people who work in the oficina de extranjeros are called funcionarios. Spain, like Italy, has a high number of civil servants, and those Spaniards wishing to have job security and work short hours take an exam called an oposición to be able to be one. If selected, they are entitled to have breakfast at the precise hour you arrive to the front of the line. You’ll need to turn in all your papeleo, paperwork, to these people, so follow the advice below, too.

At the office, you’ll need to queue up and get a ticket. When your letter and number is called, you turn in your documents and receive a snobby-ass look and the word that you’ll come back for your fingerprints – your huellas, in addition to paying a tax and presenting two or three recent photos. Note that in Spain, these foto carne are much smaller than their American counterparts. After that appointment, you’ll have to wait 45 days to pick up your plastic card, and chat up a security guard to let you cut. I learned that two prorrogas in.

Know what you need to bring, and bring photocopies
Tres fotos carné? Form EX-##? Best to do your research, as every official act performed in the office has a different set of requisites. For pareja de hecho, for example, I had to present a certificate stating I wasn’t already married, signed and stamped by an official US Notary. Not necessary for an extension on your student visa. Speak to your consulate or embassy, download the forms to turn in here, ask about tasas, or fees, and bring a few small pictures. That said, made at least two photocopies of each document and have anything notarized if it’s a copy to turn in. Believe me, this will save you headaches, as this woman can tell you. Got a stapler? Toss that in your bag, just in case.

Dress appropriately, and bring a Spaniard along if you can
Showing up and looking nice can really make a difference, especially here in Sevilla, where appearances are everything. I have been in a skirt when everyone else is in flipflops and board shorts, but am generally greeted with a smile and a willing attitude.

Likewise for bringing a Spanish friend. My dear amiga Kelly told me this as she was applying for a work visa last year. She swears that having her saint of a boyfriend along meant more efficiency and no Sevillana stink face. If you’ve got a willing friend, invite them to a coffee in exchange for a few hours of quality time with you (And by quality time I mean you pulling out your hair time).

Go at the right time
Officially, winter hours in the office are like a banker’s: 9-5. In the summer, don’t expect the office to be open past 2. I remember my first trip to the office in October of 2007, clutching a paper folder with all of my documents. I left my house barely at 6am, arriving to stand at the end of a very, very long queue. At 8am, you can get your number, but our dear friends the fucnionarios won’t roll in until after 9. For this reason, I tend to show up either right at 9am, or after everyone has had their breakfast rotation at 11.30. It’s also advisable to go after 1 p.m., as the wait times are generally shorter. Note that some tasks have only a certain number of tickets assigned each day, so if you’re merely renewing a student visa, go whenever te da la gana. If it’s something like asking for your marriage book, the earlier, the better.

Be patient
Chances are you’ll be sent to multiple offices, to numerous people. The rules for every type of trámite are complex and must be followed precisely. Use message boards, other expats from your countries and the consulate to be as prepared as possible before you go, and realize there will be lines to wait in, documents missing, frustrations to be had. But, really, it all works out. I waited thirteen months to be able to hold a little red card in my hand, and now don’t have to go back (barring a residence change) until February of 2016. A little patience goes a long way in Spain, especially in the foreigner’s office.

All you expats: Have any extranjería horror stories? Tips for making the process any degree less painful? Got enchufe somewhere? Tell me about it in the comments!

Two month mark

September 12 is the day I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Granada, Spain to begin an eight-month stint as a high school English language teacher in southern Spain. I start October 3, just one day after my orientation.

The day I got notice that I had one a grant from the Ministerio de Educación y Cienca de España – April 30 – I screamed so loud I lost my voice. I couldn’t believe I had to wait until October to start my job and move away. I started doing a ton of research – reading books, planning itineraries, researching Andalucía, talking to people who had lived or studied in the South. But every day, I find something else I’m going to miss about the US. Even really stupid stuff, like watching football on TV or going back to school for tailgating. All that stuff will be here when I come back, and I’m sure I’ll become a huge fútbol fan anyway.
This past weekend, I was in Iowa City for one last time before I leave for Spain. It was strange being back while Jess was talking about 401K plans, and I realized how ungrown-up I feel. My “job” will be working for 12 hours a week. I realize that I can always get a real job when I come back to the States, but I want to feel grown up and not have to worry about spending too much money when I go out downtown. Everyone else is going to be all together, while I will have no one! I can’t even imagine how I’m going to budget or if I’ll ever get used to everything being closed for siesta (though I could definitely get used to napping in the middle of the day!). knowing that I will have to start my big kid life in another language is already overwhelming me, and I can’t say for sure whether or not I’ll be prepared. Yikes.
The town I’ve been placed in is called Olivares, and it’s about 10 miles outside Seville. I’ll be teaching in a high school, which typically means students will be 14-16. The town has about 8,500 people, so I decided to just commute and live in Sevilla.
The last few weeks have been crazy. If I’m not working so I can afford to live and travel, I’m doing research or running around trying to get things ready to leave. The last two months have gone by insanely fast, and I can only imagine that I’ll be boarding a plane to head to España before I realize it!
Hasta pronto!
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