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Sunday, December 25, 2011

In the Middle of Christmas

Merry Christmas. Glaedelig Jul. Feliz Navidad. It is Christmas Day, and if you think Christmas will be over and done with tomorrow, you have not spent Christmas in Spain. It is a slow and relaxed holiday here, spanning a couple weeks, at least.

We did start Christmas celebrations a little early this year, last Sunday, the 18th, when we were invited to an early Christmas dinner at the home of English friends. They needed to do dinner early because they were going to Benidorm for the holiday itself. As it turns out, they were one of three sets of friends who chose to relocate to Benidorm for Christmas this year. We had thought of that ourselves, but too much travel in November made us change our plans. Perhaps next year will be the year we go to Benidorm.

The real, though unofficial, start of Christmas in Spain is on the 22nd, the day that the national lottery, the Sorteo de Navidad, is drawn. This is the biggest lottery in the world, giving out more money and drawing more participants than any other. It takes four hours just to pick the winning numbers and amounts of earnings; it takes place in Madrid every year on the morning of the 22nd and is televised live throughout the country. The 22nd was Thursday this year, which was also the day that we took a small overnight trip to Alicante city. Our excuse for the overnight was an evening Christmas concert at the Auditorio de la Diputación de Alicante (ADDA), the new theater that opened this year and which we have enjoyed before. We were off to Alicante first thing in the morning, and that gave us time to walk through the unusually fine mercado central building that was just across the street from our hotel, and then sit in the Plaza Nuevo in the sunshine, having a glass of wine and light lunch. There happened to be an office of the lotería just next to our cafe, so we could listen to a young member of the chorus sing each number, and then hear a second member respond by singing the amount that ticket had won. For the first time, I had bought a ticket this year--actually only a décimo, one tenth of a 200 euro ticket--and I was hoping to hear one of the children of San Ildefonso sing "ochenta y nueve, cuatrocientos, noventa y siete" and follow that with a mil (thousand) or so euros, but no one did.

Since I didn't have to claim a winning, I had time to pass through the gift and kitchen departments of El Corte Inglés looking for small gifts and enjoying the other shoppers (a surprising number of whom spoke Danish, as we had also curiously heard in our hotel). Then after a brief siesta back at the hotel (more Danish in the elevator) it was time to walk four blocks or so (400 meters--we don't talk about "blocks" in Spain) to the ADDA. Since the concert began at 8:00 we were not going to have a chance for a proper dinner before the music, but we were counting on finding a bar and tapas to tide us over, or more likely, substitute for dinner itself. We didn't find that, but that's another story. We did make it, pleasantly full, to the concert early enough to stand in line for a few minutes before the doors opened at 7:30--although the seats are numbered, the tickets never seem to be, so it is first come, first seated (and it helps if you know the layout of the venue, which we do now, because you seat yourself). The auditorium was festive, the musicians and director in good form, the musical selections enchanting, and it was a lovely evening. The next morning we enjoyed the typical Spanish breakfast buffet in our hotel, and finally asked one of our fellow guests what the occasion was. Turns out that there was a bridge club of some 34 members from Denmark, who were off on an annual year-end excursion, which explained a little bit why we had heard nothing but Danish spoken by other guests during our stay.

When we returned home the tiles for our new terrace--our Christmas gift to ourselves--had been laid and the workmen were doing the grouting and cleaning up very well as they went. They finished the job and on Saturday morning, the 24th, came around for the final payment. Over the years we have been in Spain we have had a number of house improvements made in December--new windows, a gas fireplace, and now a terrace--and they never fail to get done, and paid in cash, on Christmas Eve Day. We had just enough time on the 24th to get ready for another Christmas celebration--this time Christmas Eve dinner Scandinavian style, at a Swedish restaurant with Danish friends. The company was wonderful and the food equally so, with the typical cold table buffet of herring, salmon, shrimp, and fish, plus all the traditional hot dishes, including more salmon, and finishing with at least three desserts.

So this morning when Christmas Day, the 25th dawned, it could have been a little anticlimactic, and indeed we took off on our traditional Sunday activity, wandering through the Sunday outdoor Zoco market. I had seen signs the previous week at several stalls that had said they would be there on the 25th. Well, there were a few stalls open--maybe 20 percent. We commented that it was now easy to see who the Morrocan and other Muslim vendors were--they were the ones who were there on Christmas day. Spaniards have their big Christmas celebration on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and it consists of a big and long dinner, which starts at 9:00 and lasts at least until midnight, and then there may be extensive sobremesa (after dinner) into the wee hours. The only Spanish voices we heard this morning were talking about the wonderful fiesta they had had the night before.

There were very few English voices at the market--most English here celebrate on the 25th with a big roast dinner at 2:00--but we found two Scandinavian cafes open, and had coffee first at the Danish one, and then the Norwegian one, though the Norwegian cafe seemed to be staffed only with Russians today. Then we took a nice long drive along the Lemon Tree Road to Guardamar and walked the beach, and then continued south to Torrevieja, inspecting road improvements along the way that were finally done, only two years late, but are now quite impressive.

In a few minutes I will go downstairs to prepare our simple Christmas dinner: specially cut inch-thick steaks of Argentine beef (such a thick cut must be specially ordered in Spain), fresh asparagus and mushrooms, Spanish potato bollitos, and a Spanish custard dessert that is a gift from our cleaning ladies. After partaking of cold and hot salmon yesterday, I decided to put aside the salmon first course I had planned. Tomorrow is another day, and even though life gets sort of back to normal before New Year's, Spain doesn't finish Christmas until January 6, when the Three Kings bring gifts to the children. That means, yes, that the stores are still busy and festive. There are indeed twelve days of Christmas, and still a lot of celebrating to do.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Renewing Residencia, Part 3

We are still married. That's what we had to prove to the Spanish immigration authorities to move paperwork on my residencia renewal forward. (See part 2) Although we did not have any idea how to prove this, we had been told to go to the Danish consulate, since my application rests on the fact that my husband is a European Union citizen. We were hoping that one bureaucracy (the Danish consulate) would be able to communicate to another (the Spanish immigration office) and know how to verify this status.

On Tuesday we called the Danish consulate in Alicante. I was hopeful after the conversation. Sure, come around tomorrow morning at 10:30, a very Spanish man said. So Wednesday we piled in the car with Gloria GPS again, and after braving city one-way streets and parking shortages, we arrived at the consulate, which turned out to be a tiny office in a multi-story building that also housed the German and British consulates. We got there shortly before 11:00--we are becoming adept at living according to Spanish time--and explained the situation: We were renewing my residencia; we have our marriage certificate from the U.S., plus a Spanish translation, and we have proof of my earlier residence in Denmark, another European Union country, and a Spanish translation. What we are asked for now is a statement showing that we are still married.

The consul hemmed and hawed a bit. I told him that we had copies of our separate empadronamientos, each showing our legal address, which was the same. Wouldn't that be indicative? No, that was not important; he didn't even look at them. What he needed, he said apologetically as he pointed to a list of fees for various consular services, was 109 euros. That, plus about 45 minutes to type up the statement.

Without much choice, we agreed to pay the fee and to disappear for a cup of coffee while he took up the task of producing the paperwork. He would call us if he finished early, because that might give us enough time to get to the immigration office this same day and complete the whole process.

Off we went for coffee. Not much gets accomplished in Spain without stopping for coffee in the middle of whatever is underway, and fortunately the coffee is good. After coffee we went next door to El Corte Ingles, a nice department store, where we intended to buy tickets to an upcoming Christmas concert. But after standing in line for ten minutes, the phone rang. As good as his word, our papers were ready, so off we scooted to pick them up.

I laboriously read through the bureaucratic language of a short (16-line) document. It repeated already known facts--when and where we had gotten married--but contained the important phrase siguiende actualmente casados (continuing married through the present). Wonderful! We paid the fee, got the original, two copies, and a receipt, and rushed off to the immigration office.

By now we knew the procedure: In through the security check, stand in the triage line, get a number, then proceed to the waiting room. We were pushing the end of the day--it was almost 1:00 by the time we got there and we knew they closed at 2:00. But the triage director assured us that if we took the number and waited, we would be seen that day. What was there to lose? Once again I became number M-002, and we waited, more than an hour. We used the time to sort through all our documents and place the originals and a copy of each document together, in order, in a notebook.

At 1:55 there were only three other parties in the waiting room. Finally M-002 was called, at a little after 2:00. The gentleman who attended to us was efficient and pleasant, but it was good that we were prepared. He asked and we were able to supply the right paper almost instantaneously. For most, he examined the original, glanced at the copy, kept the copy and returned the original to us. He took the six photographs that I had in one set and cut out three of them, then returned the other three to me. He kept two and affixed one to a copy of my application form, which he then stamped several times and gave to me. Approved! Within two months I should get a letter telling me where to go to be fingerprinted; then I can expect to get a laminated card that looks very much like the one I have in my possession now, which officially runs out today. It will have one of those pictures, my name and other identification details, address, and a fingerprint on the back. I suspect that it will also expire five years from the date of my application, which means I should have the opportunity to revisit bureaucratic hell yet one more time. But in the meantime, I am legal.

We went back to El Corte Ingles to buy our concert tickets and enjoy a celebratory luncheon on a sunny pre-Christmas weekday. Life is good. And we are still married.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Renewing Residencia, Part 2

Filling out the application forms for the renewal of my residencia permit was tedious (see part 1), but I completed them this past Monday morning. As it turned out, my Spanish class was cancelled, so no sooner was Johannes' piano teacher out the door after his lesson than we were out the door and on the way to the ayuntamiento to pick up the promised certificate of empadronamiento. It was ready--not at desk no. 3, where I had ordered it, but at the Informacion desk immediately inside the town hall door. Then we walked across the plaza to the bank to pay the 10 euro and 20 centimo fee required. The bank turned out to be very busy--with Tuesday a holiday, everyone was trying to get their business done on Monday. We continued on with errands and found a bank that was slightly less busy--at least they had time to try to sell me a private health insurance policy while we processed the payment...but I paid the fee, the multipart form got stamped four times, and two copies were returned to me to take with me that afternoon.

Monday afternoon at 3:30 we left for the 4:00 appointment, and arrived comfortably on time at 4:30, having come into Orihuela and to the policia nacional via yet another route and scrambling for a parking place. The room which we had originally approached the week before was the examination room, and every chair along its periphery was taken. We nosed around, trying to find out whether they were calling names. Someone said they were, but I had not heard a single name in more than ten minutes. We asked a woman seated in the periphery what number she was--she was no. 5. I was no. 21. We went across the street for a coffee and a tapa.

Only fifteen minutes later we returned, and somehow they had gotten to no. 31 in the interim! No problem. Johannes went to the front of one line and started translating the official's Spanish to the Irish couple that were petitioning there. For this courtesy, I was promised the next session. And it came quickly, but no sooner had I sat down and presented my papers, my current residencia card, and my passport, than the official said, "No, no! Alicante!"

But my town official told me to come here to Orihuela, I told the official. No, he was wrong. Orihuela is for petitions from people who are European Union (EU) citizens. I am from the United States--estados unidos (EEUU) in Spanish, but not EU. Those who are not EU comunitarias must go to Alicante. Jose, my town official, had made the simple mistake of assuming that I was English, or perhaps Danish, as my husband. Or maybe he just didn't know that there is a separate office for non-EU citizens, since we are in such a small minority.

What with two legal holidays during the week, plus a couple days with a bad cold, it was Friday before we had the strength and the time to enter "bureaucratic hell" again, which is what one American friend terms this type of typical Spanish paperwork. After my Spanish class we jumped in the car with every important piece of paper we have in our files. We were going to be prepared--even if we expected to do nothing more than to find the correct office in Alicante and get an appointment time for a later date.

Luck was with us. Our GPS buddy Gloria Perez Sanchez got us to the right building straightaway and we found parking easily. A guard at the door instructed me to put my papers and purse on the security belt and walk through a metal detector. I passed to a short line and waited for five minutes or so before being greeted by a woman who looked at my papers, performed some unknown triage, and gave me a coded number: M002. Then we got to pass through to the "plaza" courtyard of the building, where I first discovered that there were 50 or so people waiting. By this time it was noontime, and I was grateful that they were still assuming I could be seen before the office closed at 2:00.

An electric sign periodically flashed numbers and what desks the people holding those numbers should go to. There was a series of I numbers, C numbers, and R numbers. There was also a line showing what numbers had been "recently called." One of those was M-001. It continued showing M-001 as recently called for over a half hour. Finally I saw, and heard, M-002.

A young woman greeted us pleasantly when we got to the private desk, but immediately glanced at the papers and told us we didn't have the petition. Well, we had the wrong petition--we were still carrying  two copies of the petition for EU citizens. She gave me the proper paper, the one for non-EU citizens, and I wondered whether I would be able to fill it out at her desk or whether I would have to go back to the "plaza" and wait for another attendant later today or on another day.

That was the least of my problems, it turned out. Since I am not an EU citizen, it seems, there is absolutely no reason for Spain to grant me permanent residence on my own merit. The "condition" that has given me legal status as a resident so far is that I am married to an EU citizen. I become eligible through my husband. Though this is not welcome to hear, it's not a surprise, either, and we are prepared for it. We have copies of our marriage certificate (from the United States) and of the legal notice showing the change in my name from the one that was used on the marriage certificate to the one I use now (also from the U.S.). We have copies of official records proving that, for a brief time, I lived in Denmark and thus have a Danish "person number." And we have official (costly) translations of these documents from English and Danish to Spanish--we used them all the first time I applied for legal residencia status five years ago and was finally granted it after a couple years. But what we don't have is any official statement showing that we are still married.

We are still married.

But where does one get such proof, I wondered? And why do they think we would be sitting here together in bureaucratic hell if we were not still married, I asked myself rhetorically. The official tells us to go to the Danish consulate in Alicante--apparently there is one--for a statement verifying our marriage status. This seems illogical to me, but I am hoping that it will make sense to another bureaucracy. Regardless, it is too late in the day to start to find the Danish consulate. Besides, as we discover later in the afternoon when we look it up online from home, they are only open until 1:00 PM. So now we have another goal for our next week in bureaucratic hell. I wonder what we need to do to prove that we are still married?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Renewing Residencia

Don't let anyone say that you never get anything free from Ryanair, the budget airline that we took between Alicante and Denmark two weeks ago. A helpful check-in counter clerk in Denmark remarked off-handedly, when she examined my residence card for Spain, that it was due to expire this month. What! Sure enough, my official residence permit runs out on the 18th of December 2011, so off to the ayuntamiento (town hall) I went on Tuesday morning this week. Bureaucratic paper work--trámites--is not something you put off until the last minute in Spain.

I got my first residence permit while we were living in Roquetas, and we had a gestoría--one of those wonderful Spanish legal/management agencies that have the knowledge and patience to work their way through bureaucracy--help us at that time. So I wasn't quite sure what I had to do this time, in a new town and different comunidad, and by the way, the process has changed and I did know that now they no longer give cards, but an A4-sized paper certificate, or letter, instead. So we started at the town hall.

José, the helpful man at the Información desk immediately inside the door of the ayuntamiento in Algorfa, told me that I had to go to the policia nacional in Orihuela to get the renewal. It's a two-step procedure, he said, and even grimaced apologetically: first you go to Orihuela to make an appointment, and then later you go back for the appointment. But, he volunteered, you also need to take your empadronamiento, the certificate that shows your official residence address in Spain. And where do you get the empadronamiento certificate? Just across the aisle at desk number three. That seemed easy enough.

The woman behind desk number there understood my request, but she said I needed to show a copy of the deed to the house. Oh dear, we were unprepared for that. It seemed as though we had every other official paper that pertained to our individual person, but not the house escritura. I didn't even ask what would happen if my name were not on the house deed, or if we didn't own our own home. We do and it is, we just didn't have the paper with us.

Oh well, we did have the address of the policia nacional in Orihuela, and it was a beautiful day for a drive, and we didn't need to be back home for another few hours, so we decided to drive to Orihuela and make the appointment with the policia. Might as well kill at least one more small bird with this stone. We set Gloria Perez Sanchez (our GPS persona) to work, because Orihuela is a big city and an old city, with lots of one-way, winding streets.

It took only 20 minutes or so to get to Orihuela. It took probably twice as long to walk into the building in Orihuela where the police offices are--Gloria is not up to date on the one-way streets, and of course she knows nothing at all about parking places and the lack of them. Two or three desks were open in the large room we entered into, and only a couple people were waiting, so I thought that this might proceed rather quickly. But someone pointed us to the Información desk--it is the one farthest away from the entrance door--and that person told us that we should go through another hall and into a waiting room. There were two other people there, clients before us, and two closed doors. No other signs. No official.

The other occupants spoke a language that I could not identify. We waited. Eventually one of the closed doors opened and two of the clients in front of us went in. A Spanish-speaking client appeared and we let him know that we thought this was the right place, but we would see, and by the way, he was after us. Then, another quarter of an hour later, the second closed door opened. No invitation to come in, but we didn't let that stop us. We just barged in and asked for an appointment. Yes, I could have an appointment the following week. Not Tuesday or Thursday--those are holidays. Is Monday OK? Yes, Monday at 4:00. That means, we discovered, that they open the office at 4:00, after siesta. The officer showed us the list of appointments scheduled for 4:00 on Monday--at least 20 names preceded mine. I made a mental note to not show up before 5:00. How late are they open? At least until 7:00 PM. What else would I need? Fill out two copies of this form, and bring a photo in the standard size that is used for a passport, driving license, library card, or any other official paper work in Spain.

That all seemed successful. I found one of those unused photos in my wallet and I read through the forms and saw that it would be a pain to fill them out, but I could. Then on Wednesday we remembered that I still needed to get the empadronamiento. No problem, I said. We had found the escritura, and I would pick up the empadronamiento on Friday before or after my Spanish class, which is just down the street. And then Thursday morning I woke up and it hit me--perhaps getting the certificate of empadronamiento was not an immediate, on-the-spot event.

Off again on Thursday to the ayuntamiento, this time with the escritura. Desk 3: No problem; I showed the escritura and my passport, and signed my name. The woman stamped the paper and said nicely "El lunes" (Monday). It takes two business days to get the certificate. Good thing we had made the special trip on Thursday!

Now I am just hoping that tomorrow morning when I go to the ayuntamiento at 9:30, the certificate is ready. If not, I may have to go back again some time later in the morning before they close for the day at 2:00. And then I can plan on a long afternoon at the policia nacional in Orihuela. And right now, I had better start filling out those papers that are required. All this for a renewal!