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Showing posts with label bureaucracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bureaucracy. Show all posts

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Overnight in Madrid

We made an overnight trip to Madrid this week, just for the purpose of picking up a new passport at the Danish embassy and then leaving it, together with my own new passport, at the Vietnamese embassy. They needed these to process our visa application for the trip we have planned in late August following the World Library and Information Conference of IFLA in Singapore. Our train left from Alicante just after noontime on Thursday and we arrived in Madrid's Atoche Renfe station at 3:15. Amazingly we managed to catch the underground metro mass transit to Serrano station and get into the Danish embassy before 4:00. It took about a half hour there and then we were back in the metro to Santiago Bernabeû station. When we came up to the surface I saw a huge structure. If I were a sports fan I would have known earlier that we were headed for the stadium where Real Madrid plays. I am not a big fan of professional soccer, but even I can recognize an important landmark like this one. There were several groups of people in the green median on one side, photographing themselves and their friends. We could have stopped and spent time there, but we had to walk a few blocks to the Vietnamese embassy, and they were staying open a little late just for us.

We found the embassy after having walked the full length of two sides of the stadium and then three or four more blocks, up a hill. The business didn't take long, and when we were finished, moving on toward 6:00, we stopped finally to catch our breath and rest with a cold drink and a small montadito sandwich at a café back toward the stadium and station. Then it was back underground for yet another metro ride to the hotel, more correctly the hostel, where we had reserved a room. As we made our way through a couple subway connections we realized with glee that we had absolutely nothing else that we had to do before our return train left at 2:00 the next afternoon.

Every time we go to Madrid we stay in a different section of the city, depending on where we need to be in this huge metropolis and what has on offer. This time we got off the metro at Sevilla station, one stop past Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Spain. We walked south and realized soon that we were in a very old part of Madrid. Many of the buildings along the very narrow streets had intricate ceramic tile designs at their gates, and even the street signs were ceramic. We found the small hostel after passing right by it the first time, so intent were we on observing the various restaurants we passed by, wondering whether we should have an Indian or Peruvian meal later on this evening.

For that is always the issue with us when eating dinner out in Spain. Just how late would we have to wait for the restaurant to open its doors for the evening cena? Since many people work until 9:00 it is no at all uncommon for a restaurant's kitchen to be unavailable for hot meals until 8:30. On occasion we have observed that a place may open at 8:30, and in very extraordinary circumstances, 8:00. After checking in and finding our room,  I spent an hour browsing Maps on the iPad in search of what was interesting, within easy walking distance, and opened early.

When we left our room at a little after 8:00 it was still light and pleasantly warm outdoors and we stepped into a bustling evening world. I had despaired of finding a convenience mart in his old part of the city, but on the first corner we spied a cellar store and popped in to buy water and a little wine to take back to the hotel. But, revitalized now, we continued walking among throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the early spring evening--hundreds at sidewalk cafes or, like us, moving along the streets to do some end-of-day shopping or to meet someone. We sauntered through several blocks, pausing on occasion to check a menu--I had decided by now that I didn't want much to eat--not one of those voluminous three course Spanish evening meals--but I wanted something hot. Pizza would do, so would soup. Trying to decide among a huge selection of tapas would be too much trouble.

Finally we found ourselves on Calle de las Huertas, Orchard Street would be the direct translation, though I think first of a garden of vegetables (hortalizas) rather than fruit trees when I hear the word huerta. And I found vegetables. The picturesque brick-walled restaurant that we wandered into after seeing pasta on the menu posted outside the open doorway was full of people at the bar but had no one else in the dining area. It was, after all, not yet 9:00. Johannes had the pasta, but I spied a vegetable wok dish listed as one of the house specialties. In meat-heavy Spain, this may have been designed as a family side dish accompaniment to more protein-heavy entrees, but I had it alone, with just a small glass of warm soy sauce for dunking. My hortalizas on Calle de la Huerta included long thin slices of peppers in three shades, onions, mushroom, carrots and green beans, at least, all stir-fried to perfection, still crunchy. It was delicious, and I felt satisfied and virtuous--at least until the excellent bread came when I was almost finished--then the virtuous feeling disappeared, though satisfaction did not.

During our entire supper we were entertained with the sound of a street music duo just outside the open door, a young woman playing oboe and a young man playing a trombone. Their selections were eclectic and lively, some jazz, some klezmer, some haunting, some indescribable. We talked with them when we left the restaurant. He is from France, she from some country that we did not find out in Africa. They are two-thirds of a group called Conchindon (the third plays banjo).  They gave us some links, so you can listen and catch the spit, too.

They were packing up as we talked, or rather, they looked as though they were packing up, because the police had been by and I guess they didn't have a license to play street music. Indeed if everyone who plays street music in Spain had to pay money for a  license, there might not be a financial crisis going on. On the other hand, if the police really make young, struggling, but enthusiastic musicians keep quiet if they can't afford a license, the city is going to be a much more somber place.

We continued on our way after wishing them well. We meandered back to our hostel, people watching all the way. There were still people in the streets and at cafes, and now in restaurants in large groups having dinner. We had found a delightful part of the city and looked forward to exploring it more in the morning, when it would be equally interesting but not quite so magical.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Austerity Measures

Agreement between Spain and the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund--are those all the players?--has now been reached, and Spain's president of the government, Mariano Rajoy, announced a new series of austerity measures this week. Here's the list, as I interpret it, from an article in El Pais the day after the announcement. Since there was an awful lot I did not realize or understand about the Spanish economic system before the crisis and the announcement of improvement efforts, it can certainly be that I don't fully understand some of the measures announced. 
  • Changes to IVA, the value added tax on almost everything, will certainly affect the most people--literally everyone. Spain having had "one of the lowest VAT rates in Europe," the current base rate of 18% will go up to 21%. I have previously written about the ins and outs of the IVA tax and I am sorry to see that now it is changing and becoming even more complicated. But I am glad to see that there will continue to be a reduced IVA for most food items, sanitary products, transportation, hotels, and admissions to cultural events--even though that category will go up from 8% to 10%-- and that the super-reduced IVA of 4% for basic necessities of bread and vegetables will remain the same. A subsequent story later in the week, however, alludes to several categories of the "reduced IVA" products being moved to the regular 21% category--primarily entertainment products like TV and entrance fees (Internet services?)--but not food.
  • Government workers--including elected members of parliament--will lose their annual Christmas bonuses for, at least, 2012, 2013, and 2014. A long tradition in Spain, the Christmas bonus typically was equivalent to one month's salary, so in essence these people are taking a 7 1/2 percent pay cut for three years. 
  •  Unemployment benefits will be reduced, starting in September, for new recipients. Nearly 25% of Spaniards are unemployed.
  • "Green" taxes will be increased, including at least a 3-5 cent per liter hike in fuel taxes.
  • The pension system will be reformed to make it more sustainable. It looks as though early retirement will be targeted.
  • The number of municipal workers will be reduced by 30%. Mayors and city councilors will be required to make their salaries public. Provincial government will play a greater role in order to maintain public services evenly throughout regions.
  • A popular tax deduction on the purchase of new properties will be eliminated.
  • Taxes on energy will be changed. Details to follow.
  • The government will continue reducing and even eliminating state-owned companies at the local level that "duplicate or even triplicate services."
  • Subsidies to political parties, labor unions, and business organizations will be reduced by 20% --they have already been reduced 20% this current year.
Lest anyone think that Spain has not already taken some stringent fiscal steps, let me tell you some of the ways that the country is already cutting back spending.

First of all, the regional governments are paying some bills very slowly. This has been going on for months, but it is coming closer to home now. Local pharmacies were closed for at least two days in the past month in protest because they had not been paid by the Valencian autonomous comunidad for medications they had issued to customers.

Co-payments are being instituted for drugs and medications. Whereas you used to be able to have prescriptions filled for free, as long as you had the script from your local public doctor and a valid health car, consumers are now going to have to pay for part of the cost. How much? Some reports have said 10%; others imply more. A list of at least 400 drugs has been targeted, some for them for "routine but chronic ailments" such as diabetes, blood pressure, and heart disease.

Spain has cut down on those who qualify for free medical care. Undocumented residents, or those who have not successfully completed the process of acquiring accepted documentation (and I was in that category once) will no longer receive health services. Exceptions are made for certain groups: infants and children under the age of 18; pensioners, age 65 and older; pregnant and nursing women.

Life here is definitely becoming more expensive. Some will feel it more than others, but I think we will all feel it somewhat from now on.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Renewing Residencia, Part 4

Today was the day to go to Alicante to get finger-printed--the last formality before I could get my renewed card for continued legal residency in Spain. I had received a letter in the mail giving me the address to go to (Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil, on Calle Campo de Mirra), plus the list of papers I should bring with me: this letter, two photographs of a certain size, shape, and color (carnet), valid current passport, old residencia card, certificate of empadronamiento (my legal address), and stamped form verifying I had been to the bank to pay the residencia fee. For good measure, a new three-part form for the fee was enclosed. But I had previously paid a fee and had a copy--would that be good enough?

When we checked with the bank, they said there should only be one fee for one tramite, and I had paid it way back at the beginning of this tramite, when I went to Orihuela in November. The same cannot be said for the certificate of empadronamiento. These certificates are only valid for three months, and the one I had gotten at the beginning of these proceedings ran out, very inconveniently, less than a week before today. So last Thursday we dropped by the ayuntamiento in our town, with a copy of the escritura, our house deed, to request a new certificate of empadronamiento.

No problem, and since this was the second time we had requested one (it was actually the third, but who's counting?) the woman at the town hall told us we didn't need the escritura. We just needed to pick up the copy on Monday--it takes two days.

So yesterday we picked up the certificado de empadronamiento at noon, checked and re-checked that we had all the papers needed, and investigated how to get to the Policia Nacional in Alicante. The designated time--it would be too much to call this an appointment--was between 9:00 and 2:00. I set the alarm for 7:00 AM, which is a somewhat unusual occurrence in this household now, but I woke up at 6:00 and used the extra time to find the Policia Nacional on my iPad. The directions sounded correct, and when I viewed the location using Google Maps, I knew it was right--the static picture showed a line of people waiting outside a boring looking building, so it must be a police station. I also found the address on a paper map of the city, to get a better idea of the larger picture than I can find on a screen, and when we got in the car at 8:00 my trusted driver found it on the GPS.We listened anxiously to Gloria Perez Sanchez as we drove off, wondering whether she would agree with Google Maps on the iPad.

Forty-five minutes later, we knew that she did, and shortly thereafter we drove into a parking lot next to the police station. Only about 20 people were in line in front of us, and the line was moving. As we got to the front, a police officer checked my papers and directed me through a door to the inside of the building. But no, my husband could not accompany me into the building--no compañeros during this procedure--he had to wait outside.

I went inside with the number I had been given: no. 26. Five rows with about 20 seats in each comprised the waiting room, and I was directed to a seat in the third row. The number machine showed that we were on no. 4.

The line moved surprisingly quickly. By 9:20 we were on no. 13, and at 9:30 my number 26 was posted. I went through the glass doors, waited again,  and eventually was directed to one of the six or seven desks handling these affairs. I had all my papers in my hands (and all my back-up papers from the previous excursion in a folder in my bag). The clerk looked first at my proof of payment and laid it on a stack. Whew! Then she looked at the computer screen, my passport, former card, and the letter. Then she took out a unique square-shaped set of scissors and cut out two photos from the set of three that I had given her. She pressed some keys on the computer and out came some papers. I had to sign my name in two places, she asked if I understood Spanish, and when I said "si, un poquito,"  she told me in Spanish that I could pick up my card in a month in Orihuela, and gave me my old card attached to a paper indicating Orihuela. Then she directed me to the fingerprinting office immediately behind me.

I was pretty sure they wanted my right forefinger, but I was not prepared for the fact that I could not press the finger onto the inkpad or the receiving paper myself. No, the officer had to guide me in that, because there is a very special way to roll the finger horizontally from right to left. We did that twice, on two separate sheets of paper--one for the files, I suppose, and one for the card that I will pick up in Orihuela a month from today. After I rolled my finger--or rather, after the officer rolled my finger--I got a little paper to clean my hand. ¿Listo? I asked. Listo, said the officer. Hasta luego. Well, not any time soon, I thought to myself. I'm going to Orihuela in a month, not back here. I don't expect to be back here for the next ten years, which is when this card will expire.

As tramites go, this one was not traumatic.We stopped at the cafe bar on the way out and had a cafe con leche and media tostada con atun y tomate. And we were finished with that by 10:00 and had the rest of the beautifully sunny day to enjoy ourselves. Since we were in a part of Alicante that was new to us, we decided to continue on a different route and see something new before we left the city and went back to our area to do banking and go to the grocery store. We did pursue a different route, and we did see something new, though not what we had planned as we sat with our cafe con leche. But that's what happens when you go joy-riding in a new part of the city without listening to Gloria Perez Sanchez. Since we hadn't turned her on, she couldn't warn us about what roads not to take. But at least we didn't get caught while going down the ambulance- and taxi-only lane in an otherwise one-way street next to the hospital. I guess we were far enough away from the police station by that time.

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!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Local Elections

Sunday, May 22 is election day in Spain. As in many European countries, elections are held on Sunday so it is easier for people to find time to vote. I had been looking forward to this day for almost six months, which is when I found out that, as a legal and registered (empadronada) resident of Spain, I was allowed to vote in the local elections. At the time we registered, we were told to check in January to make sure our names were on the voting rolls, just in case.

So in January we took a trip to the ayuntamiento to make sure we were listed. Well, the voting rolls were not up yet. Try next month. In February we tried again, but no lists. In March we asked again when the voting list would be up. "Probably in April," which was a month before the election, and conveniently after the deadline for registering.

At some point around then we gave up worrying about whether we were on the list, because we realized that we had inadvertently scheduled ourselves to be on vacation out of the country on election day. I didn't even dream of going through the rigmarole of pursuing an absentee ballot. I just opted out of the election.

But last week all the free foreign papers carried articles about how to vote on Sunday, and I'm sorry that I will be on a plane before the polls open at 9:00 AM. You go to your polling place (probably the closest school, but if not, check at the town hall and ask your way from there). Once inside, select the paper ballot of the party you wish to vote for. That's right, you don't vote for individuals; you vote one party line. Of course, variety in Spain comes with the number of parties; I have seen ads for four or five, though the two most powerful parties are the PP (Parti Popular) and the PSOE (the Socialists). Foreign residents are only allowed to vote in local elections, which are white ballots. Pink ballots are for the autonomous comunidad election, in which only Spanish nationals can vote.

Once you have selected the paper ballot of your chosen party (and you may have brought one with you that the party had dropped off at your house earlier), you must be very careful not to make any mark on it. No X's, no pen or pencil marks of any kind--if there is a mark, the ballot will be invalidated. You place the unmarked ballot in one of the white envelopes and proceed to an official table, where you present your identity documents: a picture ID, which may be a passport, driver's license, or national identity card (though newer national identity "cards" no longer have a picture on them--go figure).

Your name will be checked against the official voting register for that polling place, and if it is there, you may drop the envelope with the unmarked ballot in the transparent urn on the table. That's it. Polls are open until 8:00 PM.

Our local community has been run by the PP for the last many years, I am told. They did some door-to-door convassing this week and dropped a ballpoint pen and a fan off, together with a sixteen-page glossy brochure voicing their commitment in English to community betterment. We also got one of those pre-ballots in the mail, and on both Thursday and Friday nights a cavalcade of 15 cars, with honking horns and blaring loudspeakers, drove by, exhorting us to vote PP. Almost enough to turn you socialist, or green. It will be interesting to see, when we return from vacation, who has won the election in our small town, and whether much change occurs in municipal services.

In the meantime, on the national scale, young people have been protesting against the current national PSOE government, and perhaps government in general, in Madrid. Now demonstrations have spread to most major cities and captured the attention of news agencies worldwide. The demonstrators are primarily young, because, in a country where more than 20 percent of people are unemployed, but 43 percent of young people are unemployed, they obviously have the time. No doubt I will not need to return to Spain to find out the results of the broader comunidad elections, nor the progress of the demonstrations.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spanish Bureacracy and the Coffee Break

A friend sent this link to a short YouTube video about Spanish bureaucracy. It is hilarious and shows a situation that is only slightly exaggerated. My sole quibble with the film is that I have never seen a public functionary (or any other office worker, for that matter) enjoy a cup of coffee from a thermos at his desk. No, I wrote back, they would not drink coffee at the desk; they would leave the desk, disappear to the corner café, drink their coffee and perhaps enjoy a tostada, and then return to their office 30 minutes or so later.

And we proved it this week. It was time once again for Johannes to go to the local health clinic, the centro de salud, to get a renewal of a prescription. He dropped in at about 10:00 on Tuesday morning but came home later without the prescription. He had not gotten beyond the front door, he said, because the receptionist wasn't there--she was out on a coffee break. No sign saying she would be back in fifteen minutes, or 30. Nothing. But the other people waiting in the room reported she had gone out for desayuno, the light breakfast that many Spaniards customarily eat out, because they usually leave their house in the morning having had only coffee and/or juice).

Wednesday morning he tried again, a little later. Not enough later. She was still gone, or gone again. Again he came back with no prescription. I reminded him that the centro de salud opens at 8:30 or maybe 9:00, and it might be better if he got there earlier, rather than later.

Bingo. Thursday morning he was off at 8:30 and home again by 9:15. He had managed to catch the receptionist before she disappeared for coffee, and this time he had been lucky enough to get the prescription, not just for one month, but for the next three. So that little aggravation of planning a trip to the doctor's around someone else's breakfast can be postponed for another three months. Hopefully we will remember then that the time to go is 8:30.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Smoke-free bars in Spain?

This Sunday morning, I am not in Spain, and therefore I cannot see whether the new law banning smoking in all enclosed public places--including bars, cafes, and restaurants--is having the sudden transformational effect that has been hoped for by some and lamented by others.

A 2006 law regulating smoking in public spaces was disappointingly ineffective in regards to cafeterias, bars, and restaurants. Larger establishments were permitted to create smoking areas within the otherwise smoke-free premises. Though they were supposed to have separate ventilation systems and be positioned so as not to require patrons to pass through the smoky area when entering and leaving, I have seen some clumsily constructed structures that failed miserably in containing the abundant smoke generated by the faithful. Worse, establishments of less than 100  square meters of public space were permitted to exempt themselves from the no-smoking policy, as long as the management posted a sign at the entrance saying that smoking was permitted. For five years now, almost every little bar that I have entered has posted a "Se permite fumar" sign on the front door.

The new law took effect on Sunday, January 2 so as not to suddenly interrupt anyone's Nochevieja revelries as they celebrated the new year and downed their good-luck grapes. My own New Year's Eve day was spent in already smoke-free airports and planes, but I got the first inclination of a change when I checked in to a hotel next to the airport the night before my early-morning flight. For the first time in Spain I was asked voluntarily by the desk attendant if I wanted a smokeless room (thirty percent of hotel rooms may be reserved for smokers).

Toward the end of 2010 I read in the newspaper that bars and restaurants were investing in outdoor heating devices to enable the use of terrace and sidewalk sitting in even the colder months of the year. I remember now my surprise that the back terrace area of Bistro Alex, the restaurant within walking distance of my house, had been transformed into a pleasantly warm dining area with awnings and multiple heaters when I was there a couple weeks ago. I wonder if movable awnings--whether down or up--mean that an area is not "enclosed" and therefore may be exempt from the smoking ban. Most of all, I look forward to returning to the always-crowded  Carrefour cafeteria where we frequently enjoy a cup of coffee after making our purchases, but usually have trouble finding a clear table. I had noticed not too long ago that there was double the amount of seating space, with better views, farther beyond where we usually sit. It was, however, a glassed-in area for smoking. By the time I get back to Spain, that room should be cleaned and opened and a more pleasant space to recuperate from shopping.

The unusual thing I have noticed in all my reading about the tough new anti-smoking law in Spain  is that no one is attacking people who smoke, or denying their right to do so. The focus is on making more pleasant and healthy areas for everyone when they are eating and drinking, two activities that are major social occasions in Spain. Smoking is still permitted on the streets, in open air (except around playgrounds, schools, and hospitals), and in private areas in Spain. And I expect to see even more sidewalk restaurants and bars than there already are.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Your Tax Dollars on Vacation

We were off this Sunday morning to the Moncayo outdoor market, which I've mentioned before as one of the three Sunday markets in our area. It had been a few months since I was there last, and then I had purchased two interesting summer house dresses for three euros apiece. (You can't go wrong with a 3€ dress, I say--you can always use it as a nightgown, chuck it in the clothing recycle bin, or cut it up for rags if it doesn't work out, or if it falls apart after the first washing.)

The Moncayo is just off the N-332 road, a national highway running along the Mediterranean coast, adjacent to the immense Procomobel furniture store that is situated in Guardamar at the intersection of the N-332 and a local byway known as the Lemon Tree Road. One of the reasons that we had not been to the Moncayo recently is because the area was under obras--highway work. We had read that the road was to be completed by the summer ... of 2009. Then we read that it would be done by the summer of 2010. When we were last there, lanes were still in disarray and you took your life in your hands getting just driving through or turning. When we were there this morning, it was still not done.

Nor was there a market. It was "closed for renovation," a sign said. It had been open for less than six months! But the Moncayo market was only part of our destination this morning. We also wanted to go into the Procomobel furniture store, because it was host to one of its many changing art exhibitions, we had spoken with the artist last Friday, and we were interested in seeing her work.

We turned south on the N-332 and prepared to take an immediate right turn into the Procomobel parking lot--made difficult due to the interminable road work. We knew the routine because we had been to Procomobel several times while the road was under construction. But this time that right turn had disappeared! We almost missed the new entrance, which was identified after we passed the store by a sign to Urbanizaciones and underneath a smaller sign to Procomobel.

The furniture store was open, the art exhibit was still there, and a new café was doing business inside the store. We enjoyed a café con leche and media tostada con atún y tomáte while we browsed through furniture magazines and chatted with the proprietor of the café. We asked if she knew when the obras were going to be completed--we had remarked time and again that they must be damaging to the businesses in the area, and by now there had been detours in front of the stores for over a year.

That question hit a chord. She immediately ran and retrieved the newspaper from this past Wednesday. We had missed a great sight. The owner of Procomobel, frustrated with the length of time that it was taking to get this work done--and with the lack of any explanation from the authorities--had taken matters into his own hands, so to speak. At least he had tried to get the show on the road.

He had driven a van bearing a huge billboard to the opposite side of the road from his store and parked it. Pictured on the billboard were the President of the Government, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, and the Minister of Development, José Blanco, together with the words: "These are the only two who know how to get to Procomobel."

It was funny, and it worked. The reason that there had been any sign at all as we came by this morning was that newspapers and TV stations had publicized the situation and finally a directional sign had been erected and allowed to remain.

This small and humorous act of defiance, uncharacteristic of Spanish life as I know it, got media attention. I hope the media attention gets the roadwork done. The Información story says that people were told in August that the reason for the stall was that the workers were entitled to vacation. Vacation has now been over for almost two months, and the work is still not done. But it's been less than a week since the billboard and the media coverage. Maybe that will change things. I think I won't wait too many more weeks to check on the N-332 obras again.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health Care in Spain

This Sunday in Spain I am going to be watching the health care vote in the United States. Whether it passes--and whatever it may be that eventually squeaks through--it will still be years, or decades, before the U.S. has overall health care as good as that in Spain.

The key word, of course, is "overall." The U.S. has excellent health care for those who can pay. It's just that fewer and fewer individuals and companies can afford to pay exorbitant rates for health insurance and procedures. In Spain, if you are a legal resident, you can get pretty good health care for free, and if you want to pay, you can get health care equal to the best in the world. Spain has a public healthcare system that is administered through its 26 autonomous regions. That's why, when we moved from Roquetas de Mar in Andalucía to Alicante in the Valencia region, we had to get new health cards. Spain also has a thriving industry of private healthcare providers. I have used both public and private services during the years I have been in Spain.

This week I was approved in the public system for a cataract operation. Yes, I have to wait. There are three boxes on my authorization form: my condition is not Urgent, nor is it Preferred. It's just Ordinary. Within three months, the ophthalmologist at my regional Centro de Especialidades told me, I will get a phone call from the Vega Baja hospital. Then I will go in to talk with the specialists there, and it may take up to a month after that before the operation can take place. Well, I don't mind waiting, since with my particular eye history and my complicated schedule, I'm not quite ready to look this laser in the eye just yet. But it is amazing to me, as an American who has experienced several private insurance plans over the years, been in a few HMOs, and paid a lot for private individual insurance, to think that I might have this surgical procedure without producing money or processing paperwork. All I have to do is show my card.

All my previous eye care in Spain has been through private providers, because it occurred before I became a legal resident and obtained my health card. It was excellent, with the most up-to-date equipment and knowledgeable personnel. Because I had experienced the same procedures in the U.S., I can say that the Spanish care was equal to that in the U.S. The costs, though considerable, were significantly less--about half.

I have also used private care for a couple minor walk-in problems--a bad back spasm, a mysterious skin rash--and paid prices that I believe are comparable to what I would pay in the U.S. as a non-insured patient. When I severely twisted my ankle on a Saturday night just before getting ready to leave for Argentina on Monday, however, I went to the public clinic, because it was open on Sunday, and they sent me on to the public hospital for X-rays, binding up, and prescriptions for crutches, a painkiller, and injections to avoid complications during air travel. Since I did not at that time have my health card, I got a bill for that service a few weeks later, payable to the teller at the corner bank--a total of something like 117 euros and some cents, obviously the amount that some accountant has figured that particular event costs the system.

I do have some complaints about health care in Spain. Over-the-counter medications are expensive, so my suitcase on returning from the U.S. is always packed with the Meijer or Target equivalent of aspirin, vitamin and mineral supplements, and Ocuvite (which I can get here, but at more than twice the price). Medications prescribed by a private practice are also expensive, but the same compound prescribed through the public system is free. Dental care is not a part of the public system, so there is lots of competition among lots of dental practices.

Spaniards can buy medical insurance if they want to use the services of private practices, and judging from the number of Spaniards I have seen in the waiting rooms of the private clinics I have been in, they do. Private practices are also heavily used by foreigners who do not have access to the health card or who prefer medical staff who speak their own language, or at least English.

Public and private health care seems to work quite well in Spain, providing several options for the diverse population. I expect to continue to be a consumer of both. I wish the options were as good for people in the United States.

Monday, August 3, 2009

If It's Tuesday...

Tuesday this past week was the day we set out to be at the office in Orihuela early to go through the trámite of getting my social security number. We didn't make it quite by the 8:30 opening time. Just as well. When we arrived at 8:40 there were already people outside the door, standing, some smoking, most talking, waiting their turn. We hurried inside and picked up our number: number 105!

The inside office was packed, but it was air conditioned. Needless to say, the few seats were already taken. We stood at a counter-top desk along the far side of the room and worked on a sudoku. After a few minutes, we checked the sign that told what number was being served. It was number ten.

At 9:30 we went outside for a little air. We walked around the corner and found a cafetería with tables in the sun. The air was still fresh, and we sat out with a cup of coffee. There was a kiosk down the street, and we added a morning newspaper to the paperwork we had with us to pass the time.

Back at the social security office, we checked the number sign again. As in offices everywhere of this nature, there were multiple desks--at least six--and as in offices everywhere, not all of them were working. I saw three in operation, and we calculated that the numbers were moving along at the rate of about 30 per hour.

More sudoku. More newspaper reading. More watching the people as they came to the intake desk to get a number. And then we noticed that no more numbers were being given out. It was only 10:30, but the "appointments" for the day were filled. The lady at the reception desk simply said that there were no more numbers: "Mañana. Come back tomorrow." This was small comfort for the multitude of people--Spanish, English, a few German--who were coming in to an office that is open from 8:30 to 1:30 and who had expected to be served that day. It's not an unusual state of affairs in Spain, and most Spaniards took it philosophically. Some English were a bit more panicked. One woman explained that she had been there before and never seen it so busy, but now she was going to England on holiday at the end of the week, and needed the European card that extended her healthcare rights out of Spain and throughout the EU. Some new EU regulation had revised procedures and required the issuing of new cards.

We went out for another coffee and a tostada, this time at a cafetería in the shade. Thus fortified, we returned for our final wait. At 11:30 we passed the 100 mark and began to inch our way toward the front of the room where the consultation desks were staged. For the first time, I saw that the room was much larger than I had noticed before, and there were many more seats toward the front. But they were still all filled. Finally, number 105 was called for desk number 6.

We explained to the young woman at the desk that we had moved our residence from Andalucía, that I had to exchange my previous health card for one valid here, that we had completed empadronamiento, and that we had been sent here by the Almoradí centro de salud. My heart sank as I heard her explain that, since I am not a European citizen, I qualify for the health card only through my husband, who is a European, and could she please see our marriage certificate. We had gone through that process before, when I originally got the card in Roquetas. It involved finding the original of our Ohio marriage certificate, going to Denmark, establishing the fact that we had indeed been legal residents there long ago, and getting an official translation (to the tune of 300€) into Spanish of the marriage certificate and the Danish residence papers.

Presumably we have that paper in our files somewhere, but it had not occurred to us to take it with us this morning, because I did have my Spain residence card and the prior health card, which I could only have gotten after showing those marriage papers. Too much logic! But in time, we convinced the young woman that she didn't need to see those papers once again. At noon time we left the office, a signed and stamped letter authorizing me to receive health benefits in hand.

Wednesday, we took that valuable piece of paper back to the centro de salud in Almoradí, where it took a relatively short time (a half hour, but that's another story) to get my health card.

We had intended to have a day out and play tourist in Orihuela after getting the paper, but by early afternoon, we had energy only to find our way to the tourist office, pick up a map and brochures, and retire to a cafetería for a bit of lunch and leafing through the literature. Seeing more of Orihuela than the 50 meters around the social security office will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Trámites of Moving

Trámites in Spanish refers to to steps to be taken, or to procedures. Inevitably, these are bureaucratic procedures, and even though the word exists in singular form, it is most often seen in plural. There are always many steps to be taken. This week we have been occupied in the trámites of moving, the procedures one follows to officially re-establish residence in a new residence.

The first step is empadronamiento, the registration of your new address at the local ayuntamiento, or town hall. Even though we moved some two months ago, we had not taken this step yet because you need to produce evidence of the fact that you really live where you say you live. Evidence can be a water or electric bill, but since most people living in Spain these days have those bills paid automatically by direct debit from a bank account, and since monthly accounting statements have dropped to bi-monthly or quarterly statements, you may have to wait some time before collecting that evidence. We took a copy of the deed to the house we had bought, which itself took a few weeks to be forwarded to us from the registro of deeds.

That evidence plus our NIE cards (an ID card showing we are foreigners, but legal residents--Spain's version of the U.S. "green card") was accepted by the man behind the Información desk at the Algorfa ayuntamiento. We moved on to another desk to receive the paper copy of our empadronamiento. In addition to this certificate, we had to fill out and sign a paper to be included in the local census. Questions included age, place of birth, level of education attained, and occupation. This is important, we have learned, because it establishes officially that there is a large foreign population in certain areas, and it helps increase services to those growing populations.

In addition to what we are required to fill out for the census, we could elect to register to vote. I am pleased that my official residence, despite the fact that I am not a Spanish citizen, allows me to vote in local elections and in EU elections for representatives to the European Parliament!

Next task was the transfer of our health care cards from Andalucía, the comunidad where we previously lived, to Alicante, our new comunidad. This involved a couple trips, because the first centro de salud (health center) in Algorfa wasn't open and then we found we had to go further up the chain to the centro de salud in Almoradí. My husband came out with his new card and a new doctor, and therefore can now make an appointment for any health matter he wants to discuss or investigate. There was a glitch in my transfer. For some reason that was not important in Andalucía but is in Alicante, I don't have a social security number--that's right, there are not enough numbers in my life.

We had to go to yet another office in yet another administrative center further up the bureaucratic chain to register for my número de seguridad social. We found the office in Orihuela--I think we only had to stop the car and ask four times for directions--but at almost noon, the office was not accepting any more clients for that day. The remainder of that trámite awaits completion this coming week, when we expect to be at the office when it opens at 8:30 on Tuesday. Then, presumably, back to the centro de salud in Almoradí for the health services card. But perhaps not before playing tourist in Orihuela for a few hours and seeing what that old city has to offer.

We also spent time at the tax office finding out what taxes are due when on the car and the house property, and we still need to change the address for the car and driver's license. That gets done at the Dirección General de Tráfico in Alicante. Another day, another trámite. And another opportunity for a day out to explore.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back in the World

We were in the process of moving out of our Roquetas apartment. Experience told us that it took a long time to close or cancel a utility service contract. So we asked a gestoria (management company) to stop or transfer accounts for telephone, water, and electricity, to be effective immediately after we left the apartment.

Suddenly, Thursday noontime, May 7, a full day before we were due to close on our sale, and some hours before I had planned to write business and personal contacts to say that the time was now that we were making the move that had been in the works for months, it went black. There was no phone. There was no Internet.

There began 18 days of disconnection from my world. I already knew that I lived, professionally and personally, through the Internet. If I had not realized it before, I would surely know it now. Wi-fi spaces are few and far between in Spain, Internet cafés are open limited hours, and resort hotels are more interested in providing a sandy beach, pool, tennis or golf, proximity to the paseo, good restaurant service, and live entertainment than access to the Internet.

We moved temporarily (for a planned two weeks) to a gorgeous holiday apartment in Torrevieja, perfect in every way except no Internet or even land-line phone. During that time we spent four days in Madrid at a lovely reunion of engineering college classmates and their wives. But I could buy wireless in-room Internet access from Telefonica for a rather high 14€ (US$20) for a 24-hour period. Balancing the social life and the hours available, I was able to stretch 2 periods of access over the time I was there.

Back in Torrevieja, it turned out that our host's offer of using his office's network connection was his home office. Fine, except for the fact that my U.S. conference calls and meetings were scheduled from 8:00 PM until 11:00 PM Spanish time. Perhaps OK for the Spanish, but a little too intimate for a new acquaintance, and definitely too late for me to venture outside of my home-away-from-home to conduct business at that hour.

Because it had been reserved by others, we had to move out of our temporary apartment two days before moving into our new house, so we found a beautiful four-star, newly renovated beachfront hotel for two nights. You would expect Internet purchase options similar to those I found in Madrid, right? But no. I was invited to use one of the two desks in the lobby, for free, to connect via the wi-fi that was available in the lobby only. Again, would I want to conduct business in a public hotel lobby at 10:00 or 11:00 PM?

And then, two days before signing papers on the new house, we called to order the installation of broadband Internet service from Telefonica...only to discover that Telefonica could not guarantee accessibility in our nine-year-old, well-established "rural" area of 177 homes. This in spite of the fact that other residents already had Telefonica contracts for broadband.

Panic set in, but we located iAksess, a microwave provider, that promised to come and check the signal and then, it proving good, to place an antenna on our red-tiled roof to receive microwaves, and to install the wires down through the tiles and terraces and even behind the yucca and prickly cacti growing around the house. Thanks to the guys from iAksess, who spent the entire morning here, I am able to send this Sundays in Spain post from my new, connected office on Spain's Costa Blanca. And I feel as though I am back in the world again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Road Signs

Well, I haven't done very well with my intention to spend the winter learning to drive in Spain. In fact, I barely cracked the book that I finally bought from an autoescuela until this past week. When I did open the book, I kept getting bogged down in Chapter 1, which has colored pictures of almost 40 different vehicles, from a bicicleta to a tren turístico. The idea here, I gather, is to be able to recognize the ones that require a driver's license to drive (not needed for the bicicleta, and I'm not about to try for the special license for the tren turístico or tractor de obras, either).

So this week I finally just skipped over to Chapter 2 (of 18): Road Signs. This is the first mention of anything that really has anything to do with how to drive, or how not to, as the case may be. I have noticed, of course, that some road signs follow international norms of which I am already aware, but others are not very familiar to me. And I'm looking forward to reading an explanation of what one is supposed to do when navigating through the hundreds of roundabouts (rotondas) that Spanish roads use to manage many intersections. They look like the rotaries that are common in Massachusetts, but the Spanish drivers don't seem to get in and out of them in quite the same way that Massachusetts drivers do.

I haven't come across the rule of the rotonda yet. But the first thing I found in the Road Signs chapter was the five different types of road signs. They are:
  1. Signals and orders from Traffic Agents (these are humans)
  2. "Circumstantial" signs that modify normal traffic signs (as for road work or emergencies)
  3. Traffic lights (of the red, yellow, and green variety)
  4. So-called "vertical" signs, the metal ones that are anchored vertically to the ground on the right or left side of the road
  5. Signals painted on the pavement
Now I've spoiled the surprise by giving them to you already in priority order, but the first, mind you, the first sentence in the chapter says, "When the signals are contradictory, you must obey the sign that has the highest authority."

I'm sure I would have guessed that special "circumstantial" signs took precedence over normal road signs, and that if a human traffic agent told me to do something, I'd better follow that order rather than whatever any inanimate sign said. But all the examples show situations in which the lower three priorities of signs are contradictory! Now why would someone deliberately erect a traffic light, or a vertical metal sign, or paint signals on pavement and make them contradictory with what was already there?

And why, I wondered as I got deeper and deeper into contradictory road signs and what to do when I encounter them, did the book go into such detail about the proper course of action when it had not yet even introduced me to the meaning of all the individual signs themselves?

I'm only on page 38.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Three Countries

It's been anything but a quiet week in this place so far across the Pond from Lake Wobegon. It's been a week of politics, intervention, mediation, and reconciliation.

President Obama went to London on Monday for the G20 meeting, reportedly wanting more stimulus money from European countries for the economic crisis. Germany and France, on the other hand, wanted stricter financial controls. Who did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown call in to mediate between Merkel, Sarkozy, and President Obama? None other than José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, president of Spain.

Further into the week, many of the same leaders moved to Baden-Baden to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NATO. This time the disunity was between Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was aspiring to become the next General Secretary of NATO, and Turkey, which was upset over Fogh Rasmussen's handling of the Muhammad cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005. Who mediated the conflict this time? President Barack Obama.

Fogh Rasmussen was successful in his bid to become head of NATO. He spent today, Sunday, in audience with the Queen of Denmark, resigning his post and passing the Danish government over to Lars Løkke Rasmussen (no relation except political) and will appear in Istanbul tomorrow to speak to the Turks. Then he'll move on to Prague for the European Union meeting, where President Obama spoke today to huge crowds about nuclear non-proliferation.

Reportedly, Obama and Zapatero held a 45-minute private meeting in Prague today.

It's been a week of diplomacy, in which the heads of state of all three of the countries which in some sense are "home" to me played major roles. And they each did a creditable job and took actions of which I approve.

That's a first.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Greetings from the TSA

Every time I return to Spain from the U.S. I bring two crammed-full suitcases. Every time when I open them on arrival, one bears a now-familiar Notice of Baggage Inspection from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It is usually the larger of the two suitcases that has been inspected, and I never--until this time--have seen evidence that the second piece of luggage was inspected.

I've often wondered what the TSA officials think when they see the hidden treasures I choose to bring back. I know that some people think that placing dirty underwear at the top of the baggage will ensure privacy. I doubt that and anyway would not waste space and weight on such trivialities. My limited baggage space is reserved for small family mementos, work and personal records that cannot be sent digitally or trusted to postal systems, books in English, a mini drugstore, and the odd comfort item that cannot be bought easily in Spain, or at all. Here's a selection of what may have raised eyebrows at the TSA this time:
  • A box of Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate brownie mix, perhaps to be shared with dinner guests (and perhaps not)
  • Kroger brand Crunchy Peanut Butter, a brand presumably not on the recall list
  • Valentine candy hearts, from Necco, the New England Confectionary Company
  • A five-month supply of generic multivitamins, calcium, and vitamin C and E supplements--generics don't seem to exist as an economic alternative in Spain
  • A couple bottles of a vision supplement--Ocuvite can be purchased here, but at a much higher price
  • An incredible number of Tums peppermint antacids and Extra-Strength Excedrin, for the man who presumably finds it rather trying to live with me
  • A total of five 2009 calendars, three where the week starts on Sunday, and two (from OCLC and Wolters Kluwer) where it starts on Monday, as calendars do in Spain
  • The Book of Sent Sovi: Medieval Recipes from Catalonia, which I intend to give to an academic library in Catalonia
  • The New Spaniards, by John Hooper, a book I can't recall buying but I think it's time for me to read

The TSA looked at all my stuff this trip. My original flight was cancelled, and I had to collect my baggage and repair to an airport hotel before the next day's rescheduled flight. Even though my carry-on would have sufficed for the night, I couldn't keep myself from sneaking a peak at my bags at the hotel. Sure enough, the TSA notice was already in the larger one. I simply replaced it, resisting the temptation to add a clever note. And when I got home in Spain and opened the bags again, there they were: this time a TSA flyer in the small bag, too, and a second flyer right by the first in the larger bag. The TSA didn't pen any clever note to me, either.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Driving Me Crazy

It's past time for me to become a legal driver in Spain. I had been told that my U.S. driver's license is not valid here after six months of residence. But how to do it? None of my English or Danish friends could tell me what to do to get a carnet de conducir. Being citizens of another European Union country, they can just use their native license.

My Spanish teacher said I probably had to go to Alicante, the capital of the province, 30 miles away. I couldn't believe that a city the size of Torrevieja (about 100,000) didn't have a drivers registration office--after all, there are motor vehicle inspection stations in every little berg--there's even one on our street! Surely if they make it so easy to regulate the cars, they wouldn't make it so hard to regulate the drivers, I thought.

I haven't found anything like a Yellow Pages in Spain, so, of course, we tried Google, And we found the website of the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT). But understanding and responding to information needs is not the best thing that Spaniards do. I saw dots on a map showing where provincial offices were located. Apparently the nearest one was indeed somewhere in Alicante city. No address, no telephone number, no email address.

We dropped in at the police station around the corner. These would be the people who would stop me and demand to see my license if I ever dared drive without one, I reasoned, so they should be able to tell me where to get one. Well, not exactly. They gave me two phone numbers in Alicante city, but no address. One number didn't answer. The other one was busy.

So I headed out to Alicante on a sunny Thursday with the legitimate driver in the family. We planned to ask for the address at the tourist office or the Alicante police, whichever we came to first. We found the tourist office first, though that also was not without asking three times--there's something wrong when you have to ask where the tourist office is when you've seen it on a map and also have observed the traffic sign telling you to turn left! The office staffer only looked a little puzzled when we told him that the tourist attraction that we were most interested in finding in Alicante was the DGT.

But we got the address and traipsed to the office in the city center. It is commonly understood that in Spain, if you need to do government paperwork, you allow a full day (that would be the whole day the government office is open--until 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon.) There were seemingly endless lines with at least a hundred people. But I spied the small sign that let us skip picking up a number and pushed us toward the Información counter. Only two people before us, and then a young lady listened to me telling her that I have a valid license from the U.S: but that I have residencia in Spain now. She scanned the list of countries with which Spain has agreements, did not find EE.UU., and gave me a one-page flyer telling me I would have to apply for a carnet as though I were just learning to drive: take a theoretical test and then a practical one. Oh my! Within the past five years I have taken the theoretical test in Indiana and then again in Ohio. They were hard enough, and they were in English.

The usual way to learn to drive in Spain is to take a course at one of the numerous driving schools, but you can also take the tests at the DGT, we learned. Of course, I'm not really learning to drive all over again; I'm learning to drive in Spanish. Or more accurately, I'm learning how to pass a multiple choice test about driving rules, in Spanish. After I get beyond that hurdle, I'll worry about actually driving in the Spanish roundabouts, I mean, rotondas.

I had to go to another office upstairs to inquire about the test preparation book. No, you can't get it here, they said, with more than a little surprise. You have to buy it, but you can get it "in any bookstore." And by the way, it also comes in English. You can't take the tests in Alicante in English, but you can if you go to Murcia or Valencia, the provinces to the immediate north and south of Alicante province.

I haven't found "any bookstore" with the test prep book yet, in Spanish or in English, but I've seen sample tests online. Passing the driver's tests has become my winter project and the new focus of a specialized language course. I have every intention of at least studying the book in Spanish. Whether I actually take the test in Spanish or in English depends on how much weird stuff they pack into those questions. I'll never forget having to know all the rules about driving farm machinery in Indiana, though I do admit I've forgotten the rules themselves. But I haven't driven any farm machinery and have no intention of doing so. I do, however, intend to drive on Spanish roads.