Puttin' me in my place

When it rains, it pours. The internet is still in flux, so what follows probably should have been three posts, not one:

Sometimes Spain and I have a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, life here is so mellow–there was an article in yesterday’s paper about the fact they don’t have a translation for “workaholic.” Today, like last Friday and next Thursday and Friday, was a holiday. So many people work from 9 to 2, at which point they go home, spend time with their family, eat together…and then there’s time for walking around the neighborhood, for kids’ soccer games and dance classes, for shopping or meeting friends for coffee. Spaniards live in the streets–at 11pm on a Tuesday, the street in front of my house is filled with people chatting, kids playing. One of the teachers I work with told me this week that sometimes she feels like other countries don’t really appreciate the day–the whole day. On the weekend here, the bars are filled with young people, but there are also many couples, people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, out, dancing, having a good time…at 3,4 in the morning. Social life is huge and doesn’t seem to ever slow down much.

At the same time, the fact that no one really works all that much, along with the fact that Spaniards have a certain affinity for paperwork and no real need for efficiency, can make certain “simple” things much less so. I’ve been reminded of this on a couple of occasions in the last couple weeks. Luckily, events like these are fairly rare–certainly a lot more rare than holidays around here.

Despite all of the pains with my visa, along with paying the couple hundred dollars required to get one, the one I received is only valid for 90 days (which happens to be the same amount of time Americans can be in the Schengen states WITHOUT a visa….but apparently that’s beside the point). In order to work, I needed a visa, mostly because it serves as a ticket to the next level of bureacracy: the dreaded NIE (número de identidad de extranjero, or foreigner identity number). I had read on other auxiliar blogs about this process and had come to see it as a rite of passage here. But even when you know what to expect from Spain, it can still surprise you with its absurdity.

NIE Step One: Get a bank account. Simple enough, right? I opened one when I lived in Murcia, so I thought it would be fine. Well, after much asking around about good banks (some don’t have sterling reputations here), I was directed to choose between la Caixa, BBVA, or Santander, all from País Vasco (Basque region) or Cataluña (where Barcelona is). Funny that super-nationalist Spaniards recommend banks from separatist regions, but that’s beside the point. Since there’s a Santander near my house, I woke up early one morning to try and open an account, a requirement for a NIE. I gave myself over 2 hours. It was early and I was exhausted. After 45 minutes of being told surely I have two last names (as all Spaniards do), surely that isn’t my postal code in the U.S., surely I don’t understand the woman, so she should just keep repeating the same things over and over, surely my phone number is longer, or shorter or whatever, I looked up to see a little tiny sign for CajaSur, a local bank. I went into the wrong place. So I try to say I’m in a hurry, that I will come back another day, but after the hour-long interview, the woman wasn’t backing down. I left with a CajaSur bank account and was supposed to receive a PIN in the mail in a few days (note: it has now been over two weeks)

As I exited CajaSur, I decided (foolishly) that I had time to try again at Santander, that I would just close the CajaSur account. Santander and CajaSur both have red storefronts, have really similar logos…and are about 20 feet apart. There are more banks here than euros, it seems. No wonder I screwed it up.

At Santander, you walk into a front entryway and then have to step up to this glass door. It’s fairly common here to have to slide your card to enter a bank, though usually only after hours to use the ATM. I step up and another door closes behind me…it’s sort of like a phone booth, but smaller. I’m claustrophobic. Then I figure it out: Santander is from País Vasco, and it’s a metal detector to detect bombs. A woman gets on the phone to tell me to leave my metal objects in one of the lockers in the entryway. I can’t figure out what metallic objects I might have, but I put my purse in one of the lockers, minus my passport, and try to lock it. No go. Fifteen lockers, almost all with keys in the door, and I can’t get any of the keys to turn. I’m not going to leave my purse in the hallway while I’m inside for God knows how long. I go back into the scary glass box, hoping to ask her if there’s something I am missing, but she just shrugs at me. She’s not going to come out here and help a possible bomb-toter like me. Fifteen minutes later I decide I really don’t want an account at a bank I can’t seem to enter, and I head off to class. I’m a CajaSur account holder.

NIE Step Two (Americans only): Go to a random government office to get your ID number, so that you can put it on your application for the residency card. My principal only learned that I needed this a bit ago, so she tells me at 1pm on a Thursday afternoon. Friday is a holiday. I push my luck and catch a bus at 1, hoping to squeeze in before they close at 2. After entering two wrong doors, I find the office–about 1:45. Every chair at every desk is full. Magically, no “take a number and await your turn” machine, as there are at the post office, to buy bread, etc etc. A guy from the office asks me “How did you get here?” I reply, “Bus.” All 15 people in the office laugh, a bit too heartily. “No,” he says. “Work visa, student visa….?” Silly American.

NIE Step Three: Submit your residency card application at the main police station on the outskirts of town. Finally, I felt somewhat prepared. I’d read about what a nightmare this is. I’d seen photos of thousands of immigrants lined up in Madrid. Córdoba doesn’t have as many immigrants as most places, and certainly not as many as Madrid, so I knew it wouldn’t be quite as bad here, but I wasn’t sure how bad. I woke up at 5 am last Friday, took a cab to the station and arrived about 5:45. My spirits were high when I saw there were maybe 10 people on the curb. But within a few minutes, I realized the car across the street had 4 people in it, and 4 in the next car, and the next one…all the way down the street. They had slept there. Might be a long morning. I listened to my new iPod (thanks again, Megan!) for a little while, as subtly as possible, before deciding it wasn’t the greatest idea. The woman next to me had a big plastic bag with her–suitcase replacement? All she owns? I couldn’t be sure. About an hour into the wait, I realized people were walking to this random red car. They must have a list, I figure out. So I go up, knock on the window, and the Bulgarian guy insides hands me a pen and a piece of paper with handwritten names. Not the most official, but I am not going to be all high and mighty and then at the end of the currently non-existent line. I add my name to space number 31, after probably 5 or 10 people who arrived after me. Great. Two British girls I know (one I work with) and an American, all in my same program, arrive around 7 and I direct them to the random red car. “I feel like I just took part in a drug deal,” one of them says.

At 9, the station opens and all of us immigrants are directed across the street under a big tree, so we won’t be in the way of Spaniards going to the station. There’s two lines–for EU members and non-EU members. I thought being a non-EU would be a drawback, but I didn’t consider how many Romanians and Bulgarians, both recent EU additions, would be there. When the policeman came out and handed out random photocopied tickets with numbers, five for each line, I got No Comunitario 5. And then we waited. Apparently, every morning there are 25 appointments–but one has to get an appointment months in advance. Right now they are taking appointments for 2008. After that, they start admitting people from the lines. I didn’t know this at the time, so waiting outside for so long without hearing anything started to get to me a bit. Finally, at 11:30, a policeman deigned to walk to the lines and get those with numbers, myself included. We were lead into a small waiting room (of course, with more people than chairs) where a magical door would open every few minutes, a Spanish woman would present herself and yell out a number or a strange Spanish approximation of a foreign name. If your name/number was called, you ran to the door or she’d move on. Then she’d slam the door. Over and over again for almost two hours.

The woman next to me had two kids, one about 2 and the other about 5. She hit the 5 year old so hard, really slammed him on the head, on the chest, but no one seemed to think child abuse was strange in the police station. I had to move away when another seat was vacated. And then there were the Bulgarians and Romanians. All of the rest of the immigrants were from Central or South America (or one rando americana…) so they all spoke Spanish. But the Bulgarians and Romanians didn’t, there was one translator that they brought along for about 50 of them, so the scary Spanish woman would yell at them “Soltero o Casado?” (“Single or Married?”) again and again, then roll her eyes and slam the door. I could recognize the absurdity, but couldn’t really laugh about it until later, about the same time that I discovered that the tree under which we waited apparently had many birds, at least one of which had left a present in the hood of my sweatshirt. Let’s add insult to injury. I am smiling and shaking my head now, wishing I could tell this (very long) story in person. Brevity has never been my strength.

A little after 1, my number was finally called. They needed the original letters from the GF and Missoula police saying I wasn’t a criminal, the letter from my doctor (although the woman spoke zero English and couldn’t read it…), a couple other things, my fingerprints. Then I had to leave, go to a bank and deposit 5.59 euro, return to the station, wait for another 15 minutes, and give them the receipt. That’s it (well, except that I have to return in 30 days to get the card). My actual appointment lasted about 5 minutes. In the time the station was open between 9 and 2, a total of maybe 20 people from the lines were able to submit their applications. Another 75 or so, I would guess, will have to return another day. I got lucky. Despite the eight hours in line, the slamming door/child abuse room, and the bird poop, I feel like I’ve conquered the system…at least for the next 30 days, or until I try to submit my library card application. Or get the internet, for that matter. The customer service guy hung up on me yesterday when he heard my foreign accent, after about 10 words. Welcome to Spain.

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3 responses to “Puttin' me in my place”

  1. Mom

    I typed in a message, but now it doesn’t show up. It says “no comments yet,” so where did that one I just typed go?? I’m a bit fumadilled with this technology, I guess. We’ll talk later.

  2. ann

    holy god.

    that is a really funny terrible story, and i shouldn’t even say this, but my experience was totally different.
    a) didn’t have to open a bank account before the NIE app
    b) didn’t get a govt ID number for NIE app
    c) probably spent about……1.25 hours total waiting at the police station – had to go take pictures, make copies of documents – didn’t have my original medical note or police report (thanks new orleans consulate!!) and didn’t make copies (i don’t know how that happened since i made like six copies of everything else, including my diploma and my transcripts)….but the NIE woman just sighed and stamped my application and told me to check back in 45 days.

    i finally opened an account at la caixa, which was pretty simple, and i didn’t have trouble with the doors. (the “surely you don’t know how to spell your own name” thing is really funny too.) actually i was under the impression that i needed my NIE (or proof i’d applied for it) to open the account – since it’s preferable/cheaper to have a resident account.

    if it makes you feel better, on my first day in granada i tried to go buy a towel – having no idea what kind of stores sell towels in spain, i went to the grocery store in desperation – after a quick assessment i determined there was no way in hell this tiny ‘super’market sold towels and tried to leave – but could not for the life of me discern how to exit the store. the entrance had a turnstile; the two empty cashier lines were blocked off with do not enter signs; i didn’t want to stand in line for the one working cashier, only to hold my hands up when i got to her and say “i’m not buying anything” – for fear of either looking totally stupid or being suspected of shoplifting. in desperation i purchased a bottle of water so i could get out of there.

    also, “by bus” is pretty much classic.

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