Locked in with the locksmith

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‘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.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

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?

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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.

How to play the idiot foreigner (1)

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 of an Immigrant (3)

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.