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As well as this blog, there are now pages on my debut novel, Fragments of a Dream, (set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra), other novels in progress, writing courses I’ve attended, the joys of ESOL teaching, and some – but by no means all – of my life experiences.
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I’m at my Spanish bank, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, alone behind a glass screen, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between the two, trying to see which moves faster.
Yesterday, in a different part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already stood for ages in one long line, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what I should do. I must have raised my voice, because several people, waiting patiently, swung round to look at me.
It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch to collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old card gave up the ghost. With blood pressure rising, and already weary from other bureaucratic nightmares, I steeled myself to accept that this was one more of those mysterious Spanish norms I hadn’t yet mastered.
So here I am today, waiting my turn and trying not to get rattled while clients in front of me deal with their transactions — mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit — when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip in a torrent of broken Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has stood for half an hour, first in the queue for the cajero automatico, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.
From behind his glass screen the bank employee, looking pale and frazzled, tries to explain the reasons for this problem and why he’s not authorised to deal with it, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. The dozen or so other customers, all Spanish, standing in line or resting in comfortable armchairs, are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, aware that this could so easily have been me, exploding with frustration in front of an audience. I feel relieved, restored. It’s as though the young man has taken all my pent-up exasperation and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else.
Despite this I’m uneasy. Because the young man is black. Everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even more riddled with errors than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the ageing employee with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I cringe for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own powers of expression have cracked up in offices with regulations as absurd as anything Gulliver encountered in Lilliput. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am retired, one of the tribe of ex-pats who help prop up this country’s economy. He is a survivor, almost certainly African. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve heard about since the Brexit referendum in England, with insults and calls to go back where you came from?
I glance at the other patrons of the bank, middle-aged, middle-class, prosperous, wondering how they will react. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment.
The young man is not calm. He is clearly distressed. His voice rises and wavers with emotion as he accuses the teller of treating him differently. He keeps repeating:
‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant you don’t help me!’
At this point the woman in front of me steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old, even older than me, well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else who comes to this bank. The clerk is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish, think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.
The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and goes with him to the machine to help with his transaction.
The woman rejoins the queue and we strike up a conversation about how hard it is for foreigners to navigate Spanish bureaucracy. I say that it often seems bizarre and illogical and she agrees.
‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we are like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’
I’m amused, it’s so true, and I nod in admiration. How deftly she’s defused the tension. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have panned out in Brexit Britain.
‘Get the lock changed,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘And fix a new security bolt as well since you’ve lost the key.’
Times are hard, and this place has been robbed before, even if they did only take a pile of old blankets. But a poor pensioner with a sick spouse can’t afford to lose the little she has.
I prepare the new vocabulary so I can call the locksmith. Bombin is the lock, cerrojo FAC the security bolt. Never a lover of telephones, I brace myself to explain what I want in Spanish. Serves me right for forcing my ESOL students to make all those phone calls in their speaking exams, I suppose.
After just one ring, I’m through. ‘Of course,’ says a very nice woman, politely overlooking the fact that I’ve said bombon (sweet) instead of bombin. ‘I’ll send the chico. If he can’t do it, my husband will come.’ Like many here it’s a family business, cousins, aunts, brothers, all playing their part.
I give her my address, being careful to pronounce numbers and letters correctly. How well I remember the Spanish students who tripped up on English vowels. It’s hardly surprising when the English letter ‘A’ sounds like the Spanish ‘E’ and the English ‘E’ like the Spanish ‘I’.
But my rendering of ‘E’ doesn’t convince her.
‘English or Spanish?’ she asks.
‘Spanish, Spanish,’ I say, and we laugh. With thousands of British ex-pats living on the costas, she’s clearly come up against this problem before.
We agree a day and a time. Right on the dot, the chico arrives, toolbox in hand, muscles rippling, beaming a beautiful smile.
Communication is fine. We discuss what he should do and he sets to work, removing a long screw from the existing lock. At this point he realises that he hasn’t brought a vital part.
‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ he says and goes out, shutting the door behind him.
A few minutes later I hear his footsteps coming up the steps. He knocks at the door and I go to let him in. The handle won’t turn. I wriggle it this way and that, but without the screw nothing moves.
‘The door won’t open,’ I say.
‘What? It won’t open?’
I try again. Nothing.
‘I’ll pass the key under the door and see if you can unlock it from outside,’ I say.
But he can’t.
‘If I had my tools here,’ he says, ‘I could do it.’
But his tools are on the floor beside me, and there’s no way those will go through the small gap.
Now this is a dilemma that I hadn’t foreseen. I’m locked inside my own flat, with the tool-less locksmith outside.
‘Is there another way in?’ he calls to me.
‘Only through the window. And it’s rather high up.’
I cross to the balcony, slide open the window, and the chico’s head appears below me.
‘Oh, I can get up there,’ he says confidently.
‘Are you sure? I don’t have a ladder.’
I have clearly underestimated him. Even before I finish speaking, his hands grip the rail, his head appears, his shoulders and his torso, and he propels himself inside and onto the floor. Now I know what those muscles are for.
‘Blimey,’ I say, ‘if you can do it, than so can a burglar.’ Mental note: remember to shut all windows when you go out.
Inside, with his tools, he changes the lock in no time and – hey presto! – the door opens.
One job done. Now to the security bolt.
‘Since you’ve lost the key,’ he says, ‘I’ll need to order a new cerrojo FAC. So I’ll come back on Tuesday.’
Sod’s law, I suppose. Not long after he’s gone, we discover we’ve got the key after all. Never mind, we’ll change it anyway, just to be sure.
Of course it might all be a waste of time. If there’s anyone else around who combines the skills of a locksmith with those of a cat-burglar, all the locks in the world won’t save us. Better get that insurance policy sorted.
- 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?
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.