- Misread your Spanish calendar (which is laid out from Monday to Sunday). See from the colour code that the second day is a dia festivo. Take it for granted that the second day is Monday (as it would be on an English calendar).
- Assume that everyone will be back at work on Tuesday. Plan accordingly how you will get your tarjeta sanitaria from the relevant local health centre now that – miracle of miracles – you have all the necessary papers.
- Make a list of the other things you need to do – bank; photocopies; shopping. Congratulate yourself on being so well organised.
- Work out how to travel the 3 miles from your urbanizacion to the designated barrio and back again with the minimum delay, now that the local authority has taken off most of the buses.
- Make yourself presentable and go to the bus stop punctually at 11.00 a.m. Think it odd that no one else is there, but when the bus arrives, board as normal and get off at the appropriate stop.
- Walk through the quiet residential barrio to find a bank. Don’t worry when you see that it’s closed – it’s probably bitten the dust because of la crisis. Get money from the machine, making sure it comes in €50 notes.
- Search through the streets for somewhere to make photocopies, noticing that not a single shop is open. Assume they must be on strike.
- Go to the supermarket – a big Mercadona. Expect a sinking feeling when you find that it’s tightly locked and shuttered.
- Walk to the health centre. Resist being too hopeful when you see a gentleman limping from an ambulance. Note that he’s going in the opposite direction, and that the doors of the health centre are firmly closed. Conclude, reluctantly, that today is also a holiday. Suppress sarcastic thoughts about mañana.
- Consider your options. As there are no taxis in this residential area, and the shops in the distant town centre will also be closed, return to the bus stop. Be prepared to see what you suspected – that there is no bus back to your urbanizacion on dias festivos for nearly three hours.
- Reject the idea of spending three hours in a cafe over a €1.50 beer which you will have to pay for with a €50 note.
- Resist the idea of having ten or twelve beers.
- Decide that the best option is to board one of the ever-active buses to the airport, getting off at the stop nearest the turning for your urbanizacion. This will mean a 1-mile walk after crossing a major road and a railway line, but be thankful that you are fit and healthy and that the sun is shining.
- Wait for ten minutes or so until the bus arrives. Establish with the driver where the nearest stop will leave you. Get out your tarjeta de autobus to pay for the fare. Try not to be sarcastic when he tells you that it is only valid when the bus goes right to your urbanizacion, not if you get off before.
- Ask to pay with a €50 note. When he refuses, resist the urge to throttle him. Get off the bus, if possible without tripping.
- Begin your 3 mile walk, together with the happy families promenading in the splendid palm park. Take the narrow pavement alongside the exceptionally busy 4-lane highway, and when the path peters out, notice that local people and fisherman cross to the rocks which run alongside the sea. Do the same, dodging the traffic.
- Climb up onto the railway line and over the single track, being thankful that a train is not coming. Proceed in the direction of home, trying not to stumble in your best shoes on the loose stones alongside the track.
- Despite your handbag and unsuitable attire, adopt the expression of a hearty seasoned walker when you encounter the local fishermen.
- After two miles of clambering on rocks, arrive hot and sweaty at the open scrubland and heave a sigh of relief that you can walk along a broad, level albeit sandy path beside the sea. Rejoice in the glorious day, along with the dozens of family trippers.
- Arrive at the urbanizacion, fight your way through the holiday crowds, and go straight to the tiny convenience store to order a pollo asado for lunch.
- Once home, check your calendar and see that – with the aid of your glasses – Tuesday is clearly colour-coded as a dia festivo. Realise that the circle around Monday indicates a link to the weekend, hence the popular term puente (bridge) for this type of extended holiday. Mentally rap your knuckles that this is a commonplace word which you have known for years, and will certainly never again forget.
- Collect your pollo asado and some beers, put your feet up in the sun, relax and enjoy. Reflect on this, the day’s second lesson.
The idiot foreigner’s been on holiday, playing at grandmas down in Oz. Oh, the simplicity of a well-ordered society. But now it’s back to reality and another dose of life as an immigrant.
At the local health centre, the receptionist tells us to come back another day. Her colleague’s off sick and she can’t cope with any more people. The truth is they’re all working to rule, because the public services are in crisis. Making life as difficult as possible for the public they serve is becoming a national pastime.
The next day we brave her fearsome glare and manage to get some answers. As a foreigner I can’t register with a doctor until I have a Spanish medical card. Ah, but I can actually phone the social security office and book an appointment! That beats queuing in the street. What’s more they send you a reminder by text. Wonder of wonders, we’ve entered the age of technology.
Buoyed up with optimism, I set off for my appointment, taking with me the documents that the health centre told me I’d need. I’ve even thought to get photocopies – oh yes, I’ve wised up to that one – originals AND copies of all documents are ALWAYS required – and they won’t do the photocopying for you. You have to visit a seedy little shop in a back alley and pay 60 centimos.
When I get to the social security office, the long queue throws me slightly. Don’t we all have appointments? Oh, of course, you still have to get a ticket with a number. Silly me. Anyway, the queue’s moving quickly, as are the numbers being called on the screen. Only five or ten minutes late, mine appears and I make my way to desk 9.
A weary looking woman asks what I’ve come for, and I explain that I want a medical card.
‘Have you brought your S1?’
‘My S1? But I gave it to the police.’ At least, I think I did. I’ve been to so many offices (not to mention Australia and back) that I can barely remember. But yes, I’m sure it was the police – I had to queue for a second time at 7 a.m. to give it to them.
‘Oh no,’ says the woman. ‘We’re the ones that need it, not the police.’
‘But they wouldn’t give me my certificate of residence without it! And they told me that the certificate was all that I needed to get my medical card.’
She shakes her head. ‘We can’t give you a medical card without the S1. The police shouldn’t have kept it.’
I can see she’s not going to back down so I try another tack. ‘The health centre didn’t say anything about the S1 either. They just told me to bring my UK health card.’ (Which I don’t have, because as far as I remember paper cards went out years ago with the advent of computers. What a brilliant idea – a computer data base – have they thought of that here?)
She’s not impressed. ‘Well, if that’s what the health centre told you, they’re misinformed.’
‘Look,’ I say, launching into surprisingly fluent Spanish, ‘there seems to be a breakdown of communication here between the various offices. Each one tells you something different.’
No answer. She turns to my other documents. My certificate of registration with the local council took several visits to obtain but she’s not happy with it.
‘It’s dated November,’ she says. ‘That’s quite a long time ago.’
‘What?’ I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. Of course there’s no point saying I’ve been away in Australia.
‘We consider these certificates to have a life of 3 months,’ she explains.
‘3 months? You mean I’ve got to go back every 3 months and get another one?’
She must sense that I’m angry because she begins to back down. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll probably be all right. But we must have the S1. You can’t have a health card without it.’ She embarks on a monotonous spiel about reciprocal agreements between countries in the European Union.
I can see I’m getting nowhere. ‘So I’ll have to go back to the police station,’ I say. ‘Or ask for another one from the UK.’
She gives me a nod. ‘It might be quicker to get one from the UK.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I think it might.’ Going to the police station would either involve another early morning queue, or throttling a policeman. Which might get me arrested. Or deported.
I wonder what papers you need for that?
Captain Mainwaring is alive and well on the Costa Blanca. I saw him on the number 27 bus, wearing a check shirt, stay-pressed trousers and plimsolls. His wife was with him, freshly coiffed and perfumed, in a jewel-encrusted black wool poncho. It must have been his wife because he hectored her throughout the ten-minute journey.
‘No compras nada! Then when he comes to the house you can tell him, there’s nothing here. Nothing! If he doesn’t like it, he can stuff it.‘
Who is ‘he’, I wonder? Do they have a son? A ne’er-do-well, who sponges off his parents? Or maybe he’s just a poor relation, or a chance acquaintance that Mrs Mainwaring has taken under her maternal wing. She’s been getting in food, it seems, in case he turns up with another hard-luck story.
Whoever, he is, he’s no match for Mainwaring. ‘Poor?’ he rants. ‘Of course he says he’s poor. He’s the bueno and the rest of us are the tontos. Well, if he turns up again, I’ll call the police, and then we’ll see who’s tonto.’
Under fire from the Captain, her resolve weakens. The young man will have to defend himself. She’s only got energy for her own survival.
‘But he phones me on my mobile. What am I to say to him?’
‘Tell him to speak to me. I’ll tell him where to go.’
By now her voice is barely audible. ‘But he doesn’t have your number.’
‘Well, give it to him, woman. Do you know it?’ He makes her repeat it, write it down. ‘Now if he calls, there’ll be no excuses.’
She says nothing. She’s shrunk into her poncho, ready for another few decades of oblivion.
Today I got to know Felipe. I’d often seen him walking around, confident and cheerful, weaving in and out of the strollers on the promenade, along the paths through the gardens, over the grass and under the palm trees.
From time to time he’d turn up on the terrace of the cafeteria where customers drink coffee and read newspapers.
‘One of these days I’ll kill that dog,’ said Paqui, the waitress, when he nearly tripped her up with a tray of cups.
But today she runs out in bare feet to greet him. ‘Felipe!’ she cries. ‘Where have you been? It’s four days since you came to see me.’ She carries a bag of broken biscuits, and leads him off for a private feast.
‘Where does he come from?’ I ask, intrigued. Is he a waif and stray, or simply a free spirit, scorning the discipline of outings on leads?
Nobody seems to know. The dueña thinks he belongs to the people who run the restaurant of the arrozes. They feed him on kitchen scraps and leave him to fend for himself. An elderly customer says, no, he arrived with a family who owned one of the villas and when they left, he chose to stay. Life is good here with all the bars and cafes, and if he’s not after food, he spends his time following a lady dog.
‘There used to be three or four of them,’ says the dueña.
‘No wonder, with him and the lady dog,’ says the customer.
‘Now the others have all disappeared,’ the dueña tells me. ‘Maybe they died off in the winter. It’s a big problem – people come here for the summer, then go away again, and lots of dogs get left behind.’
‘The problem is the children,’ says the customer. ‘They want pets but don’t realise the responsibilities.’
We nod, three old people with the wisdom of experience. Down on the beach Paqui is running along the edge of the sand, skipping in and out of the waves, swinging her arms.
There’s no sign of Felipe.
1) If you have no car or printer, walk to the pueblo and find the cybercafe. Chances are it’s a tiny room in a back street, pitch black inside, with half a dozen people waiting to be served.
2) Use your best Spanish to make your request. Don’t be offended when the reply is ‘Preeent?’ as if you’re a child or a half-wit. Remember your accent is a giveaway.
3) While you’re waiting to log on, open a bottle of what you think is water, making sure it explodes over clothes, desk and floor. Realise too late that the label says gaseosa.
4) Forget your glasses so that, even with the economy lights on, you can’t read the keyboard. Where have they hidden the @? Feel pleased with yourself that you know it’s called the arroba. Smile at the customers watching you learn how to find it. Ah, it’s up with the 2, selected with Ctrl + Alt. Nod wisely.
5) Realise you need a semi-colon and squint at the keyboard. Hold it up to the light in a vain attempt to distinguish between punctuation marks. Ask for help again. If you don’t know the Spanish word, request pen and paper. Smile apologetically at the audience of waiting customers. ‘Ah, punto y coma.’ Of course.
6) Log onto gmail and realise you’ve forgotten your password. Make several attempts at remembering and give up.
7) Start a migraine so that the visual disturbances interfere with your eyesight. Don’t even ask for a farmacia. They’re on strike due to la crisis – the government hasn’t paid them since May.
7) Succeed in printing documents from other websites and log off. Leave your jacket on the back of the chair so they have to remind you to take it.
8) Count out 80 centimos in small change, rejoicing that it’s so cheap. Don’t be offended when they stop you at 77 – they probably think that it’s worth 3 centimos to get rid of you.
Life as an immigrant has metamorphosed into ex-pat living. Gone are the early morning queues and long waits in government buildings. It’s the weekend and everyone is off-duty.
Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the beachside bakery, I sip cafe con leche and nibble at a delicious ensaimada, a crisp coil fresh from the oven, dusted with icing sugar, meltingly soft inside. I’m playing at being a lady writer, scribbling in my Mslexia notebook, earwigging on the conversations.
Six Spanish women of a certain age keep up a loud and lively conversation at the table next to me. They have tinted hair, wear sunglasses and sweaters or quilted jackets (it’s November after all), silk scarves looped or knotted round their necks. Their table is littered with empty coffee cups, plates with crumbs, cigarette stubs and screwed up paper napkins, but they show no sign of moving. A rat-like dog of indeterminate breed, fed up with waiting, starts yapping under the table, trapped by their boots and trainers.
‘Caillate ya,’ says one, but it takes no notice.
‘Give up smoking?’ says another, lighting a cigarette. ‘Why? The stuff they give you to stop is far worse than tobacco.’
A third woman blows a cloud of smoke. ‘To give up you need willpower. You have to decide you want to do it, and ya esta.‘
At the table next to them is a grown-up family of four, or could it be parents with their son and his same-sex partner? The two young men are well-groomed and handsome, with dark curls and expansive smiles. One in a v-necked sweater, the other in a soft sweatshirt, they sit with their jeaned legs spread, knees apart, feet crossed, dipping in and out of the conversation, laughing at the mother’s jokes. She is plump and prosperous with freshly coiffed hair, painted lips and fingernails, designer sunglasses and gold earrings. The father quietly presides at the head of the table, his crisp blue shirt open at the neck, but it’s Mama who is the centre of attention, entertaining them with her anecdotes. Their breakfast has still not appeared, but they are leisurely, relaxed, in no hurry. Life is too good to rush.
A grey-haired man and woman appear on the terrace and hover by an empty table. How do I know instantly that they’re English? By the way they creep to the seats and settle there in silence. When they speak, their heads move closer, their voices are subdued and the snippets of conversation punctuate long pauses. No hairdresser has touched the woman’s hair, and her cardigan is a little crumpled, and shapeless.
They are ex-pats, like me. Enjoying life on the costas while the Brits back home battle with floods. Trying to feel relaxed and outgoing like the Spanish but not quite making it. Their days of queuing for residence permits are probably long gone, but mine, alas, are due to begin again once Monday morning comes. In the meantime,Viva the weekend!
The gas ran out on Saturday, just as I was preparing lunch. The spag bol simmered and sank. My order for a new bombona of butano had failed to materialise. With no car, and the nearest supplier a couple of miles away, it seemed like a good excuse for eating out.
Not such a bad solution with several beachside restaurants just a short stroll from the apartment. Mmm, esparragos followed by a tasty paella-style arroz with plenty of cool beer and a view of foam-crested waves whipped up on a turquoise sea. But knowing that we’d have to survive for a week until the next delivery of gas spoiled our appetites. It looked as if we were in for days of cold food just as the weather was turning nasty.
What do you do alone in a strange country where you know no one? Luckily we have family with numerous brothers and sisters. Ivan lives nearby and he has a car, but a quick call to his mobile set our hopes tumbling.
‘I’m in Madrid for the weekend.’
Nothing for it then but to go out for lunch on Sunday, too. Oh well, I could get used to this. Tapas of calamares, gambas, mejillones and patatas bravas with a bottle of vino tinto. While we were eating, the family network sprang into action. Pilar in Madrid put us in touch with a cousin who lives just up the coast from us: Jose Manuel, who has a daughter who’s a dancer married to a Russian, also a dancer. They run classes in salsa which I’m hoping to join once I can work up the energy for them.
A few texts later and we’d arranged for him (JM, not the Russian) to come across that evening and drive us to the nearby gasolinera to collect a bombona. When siblings can’t help, primos are the next on call.
By the time Jose Manuel arrived it was dark and a gale-force storm lashed the palm trees. His comfortable Mercedes glided through floods to the petrol station while he entertained us with tales of his grandson. Hope was glimmering.
‘Butano?’ said the dour attendant in answer to our request. ‘No queda.’
They’d sold out, and so had every other garage for miles around. I know, because we spent the next hour or so visiting them.The onset of the worst weather that most people in Alicante can remember had sent everyone scurrying for supplies.
Defeated, we drove home. Jose Manuel suggested that we should ring the supplier in Alicante first thing the next morning and ask for a delivery.
Oh that life were that simple. Monday morning dawned with an uncanny stillness. We phoned the number he’d given us.
‘We don’t deliver your way until Friday,’ they told us.
Back to square one. No point in bothering Jose Manuel until we were sure that supplies at the gasolinera had been replenished.
By the time I set out to walk the couple of miles to El Altet the wind had lifted and rain was falling. ‘So what,’ I told the elements, Lear-style. ‘Do your worst to me. I’m English, I can stand a bit of rain.’
As I reached the village the heavens answered me with a downpour of tropical proportions. I dashed into a couple of shops, tramping over their clean floors in my muddy boots, then crossed to the petrol station, dodging the floods.
A different attendant this morning, but equally expressionless.
‘Claro,’ he shrugged in answer to my question. ‘We always have butano.’
‘You didn’t last night.’
‘That’s because it was Sunday.’
Must be some local logic that I’m not up to speed with, but no point in arguing. The happy truth was that supplies of gas were now abundantly evident.
‘Could I reserve one and come and collect it later this afternoon?’ I asked. ‘Of course I’ll pay for it now.’
The way he looked at me made it clear that this was a preposterous suggestion. ‘At two o’clock the shifts change,’ he said. ‘We’re two different teams.’
Sod you. How d’you say that in Spanish?
By now I was feeling bullish. I battled back through the rain, dodged into a kiosko for a cafe con leche, and as I finished it, the rain began to ease. With a new spring in my sodden boots I walked home over the wasteland past the flooded oasis of palm trees and texted Jose Manuel.
A couple of hours later his car drew up and we revisited the gasolinera and stocked up with two bombonas, just to be sure. The spag bol tasted delicious, and with a celebratory bottle of tempranillo (1.50 Euros and quite drinkable) life as an immigrant was looking distinctly rosy, despite the rain.
At 7 am I joined the queue outside the police station. Storm clouds threatened but at least it wasn’t raining. A couple of dozen people lined the building, North Africans mainly, leather jackets, jeans, hunched against the wind, smoking and chatting. A couple from Slovenia, studying pharmacy on an Erasmus scholarship, chatted to me in English. They’ve been here a month and picked up more Spanish than most tourists learn in a lifetime.
At 8.30 a policeman unlocked the gate and handed out tickets. Mine was K13. We filed inside, passing through the security scanner and into a huge room with palms and rubber plants reaching to a high glass ceiling. Rain started to lash against it as we collapsed into the seats.
At 9.00 they started calling people. K1 went in and came out at 9.20. In the seat next to me a Portuguese guy told me he’d come to escape the crisis there, but still hadn’t found a job. By 10.30 they’d reached K9. Behind me a Mexican, fluent in English, French and German as well as his native Spanish, talked in English to the Slovenians about his business trips. Two children, one African and one South American, jumped excitedly in the base of a dry fountain.
It was past 11 when my turn came. ‘Ah,’ said the young officer, ‘if you’re a pensioner you need an S1 form from your government before you can get the authorization that you’re a member of the European Union and access services here. In the meantime you can apply for an NIE (pronounced nee-ay – numero de identificacion estranjero) But first you have to go to a bank and pay 10 euros. Once you’ve done that you come back with the receipt, a photo and a copy of your passport. Then tomorrow at 1 o’clock you return to collect your number.’ The reason it’s so busy here, he said, is that all the Moroccans come across on the ferry to buy houses, now the prices have fallen.
By the time I left the building rain was lashing down and my umbrella flew open. Finding a bank wasn’t easy but when I did I had to join another queue. Then to a shop with a photocopier. A cafe con leche – hair-raisingly strong – perked me up a bit before I headed back to the immigration centre with the documents.
I then made a quick visit to the British Consulate to see if they could help me with the S1. The Union Jack was dripping in the rain from a first floor window of the building in a back street. No signs, just a staircase to a security door with intercom, and inside soft-spoken diplomats,courteous but unable to help. ‘You’ll have to phone the Overseas section of the Pensions service in Newcastle.’ Ha ha. On a mobile from abroad. Imagine how long that will take to get through all the menus and muzak.
A quick dash through the rain to a bar across the road, a copa of Rioja and a pinchito of goat’s cheese, grilled pepper and lomo, and the world seemed altogether a more hopeful place.
You’ll get fed up with me gloating about how wonderful the weather is – so hot this November morning in Alicante that I was gasping for water by the time I’d visited four different offices in
an attempt to register me as a resident.
Spain is certainly living up to its reputation of tiresome bureaucracy. The ayuntamiento is where you have to register but after waiting in a long queue I was directed to another building a few streets away. Off I went, only to discover that as a member of the European community I first have to get an identification number from the police station. Another walk in the hot sun. ‘Oh no,’ said the fearsome looking officer on duty, ‘this service has now moved a mile out of town.’ So back to the car I went.
At last I found it, only to be told that I’d come too late. You have to be there at 8.00 in the morning to join the queue. If you’re lucky you’ll get one of the 40 tickets to see someone later that day. After that I have to go back to the ayuntamiento to start the process all over again.
Oh the joys of being an immigrant. Still, at least the sun is shining. Next week they’re forecasting rain.