Thursday, March 27, 2014

Vuelva Usted Mañana, Or: Adventures in the System

Monsieur Sans-Delai made a proposal to install improvements in a certain government department which I shall not name, since it is highly regarded. In four days we returned to learn whether our plan had been approved. “Come back tomorrow,” the doorman said. “The Chief Clerk did not come in today.”
“Something very important must have detained him,” I said to myself.
We went out for a walk in Retiro Park, and we met – what a coincidence! – the Chief Clerk, very busy taking a stroll with his wife beneath the bright sun of Madrid’s clear winter skies.
The next day was Tuesday, and the doorman said to us: “Come back tomorrow, because the Honorable Chief Clerk isn’t seeing anyone today.”
“Some very important business must have come up,” I said.
And since I’m an impish devil, I sought an opportunity to look through the keyhole. His Honor was tossing a cigar butt into the fire, and had in his hand a puzzle from the Daily Mail which he must have been having some difficulty in solving. “It is impossible to see him today,” I said to my companion. “His Honor is indeed very busy.”

That passage is from"Vuelva Usted Mañana" -- in English "Come Back Tomorrow, Sir." Written by Mariano Jose de Larra in 1833, it is a Kafka-esque satire of the unique culture of bureaucracy that mired Spain at the time, depicting the narrator's attempts to help a foreigner (the cleverly named Monsieur Sans-Delai) navigate the complexities of Spanish working culture.

Despite the exaggerated nature of satire, the personal demons de Larra was battling (he committed suicide three years later at the age of 28), and the passage of time, there is still quite the kernel of truth to be found in "Vuelva Usted Mañana" almost 200 years later. In general, my experience with bureaucracy in Spain has been just as thorny, surreal, and infuriating as that which de Larra describes, like the worst DMV--for non-Americans, Department of Motor Vehicles--you can imagine. (I should pause here to say that I have heard similarly nightmarish scenarios about foreign people living in the US. I know our government can be just as bad.) Here, the worst offender is definitely the Extranjeria, or Foreigners' Office.

Foreign non-EU nationals living in Spain need a residency card called a NIE, and the process to obtain one is hilariously complex. After filling out all the correct forms in triplicate and obtaining the right-sized photos (white background, no hats, no smiling) and documents, one must pay tasas, government fees that, for reasons that I'd guess are connected to anti-corruption, can only be paid at certain banks and not at the office itself. One goes to the bank, pays the clerk in cash, and receives a receipt that one then returns to the office as proof of payment. Sounds simple, right?

Well, first of all, when I renewed my NIE this year in Toledo the process had been designed so that you needed to pay two tasas, presumably to different entities. So far okay, just pay them both at the same time at the bank next door, easy peasy.

Except that the bank next store was open for exactly an hour each day for people without accounts who wanted to pay tasas; except the NIE process was such that one needed to pay the first tasa and come back to the office to get the documents needed for the second... then rinse, lather, repeat; the whole process had to start again, for no reason I can imagine.

I waited my turn in that taupe-walled purgatory full of crying babies and sullen faces, then gave my documents to a woman who hardly made eye contact as she read through them and asked questions so clipped she seemed to be swallowing the last three words. She gave me the first tasa and instructed me to come straight back to see her when I had finished.

The line was out the door when I paid the first fee, but I was lucky enough to make it in during the allotted hour next door. By the time I got back to the office, it was 1:00. I was starting to worry: the office would close in under and hour, and if I did not complete my paperwork it would mean disaster, as I was leaving to return to the US for the summer in five days. This would be my only chance.

The door was frosted glass, but I did the equivalent of the narrator in de Larra's story peeking through the keyhole: I peered in through clear, non-frosted edge of the door and saw that the desk was empty. 
"Do you know when the woman in that office will be back?" I asked the security guard.
"She went out," he said.
"Out? Out where?" I asked
"Sometimes she goes out. To smoke, or you know. She's just out."
"When will she be back? She told me to come see her, and I know the office is going to close soon."
He shrugged and turned to the next person in line.

I waited 20 minutes, cursing the empty chair. Finally, the woman appeared again. I got the second tasa, then sprinted around the neighborhood trying to find a bank that hadn't already closed (many banks close at 1:30 PM for lunch) and that would accept my non-account-holder money. The first two were closed, the third was members-only. At the fourth I hit pay dirt, paid my tasa, and sprinted back with 10 minutes to spare. 

"Sometimes I think they make the process so complicated to weed out people who can't handle it," another would-be immigrant said to me as we waited to drop off our paperwork.

“Permit me, Monsieur Sans-Delai,” I said to him half in jest and half in earnest, “permit me to invite you to dine with me on the day you have spent fifteen months in Madrid.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will still be here in Madrid fifteen months from now.”
“Are you joking?”
“Certainly not!”
“I shall not be able to leave here when I please? The idea strikes me as very funny indeed!”
“You should realize that you are not in your bustling, businesslike country.”
“Ah, you Spaniards who have traveled abroad have acquired the habit of speaking ill of your country so that you can feel superior to your compatriots.”
“I assure you that during the two weeks you are planning to devote to these matters, you will not even be able to speak to a single one of the people whose cooperation you need.”
“What exaggeration! My energy will rub off on all of them.”
“Their inertia will rub off on you!”

The narrator's blase attitude to the lack of "bustling, businesslike" behavior is entirely true to life. Much like Americans are resigned to the unpleasantness of the DMV, most Spaniards I've met have been annoyed by but resigned to the pace at which things get done in this country and the attitude many people take towards work schedules-- the same attitude that allowed the woman at the Foreign Office to take unscheduled breaks without telling anyone where she was going or when she would be back.

Take my roommate, Judith: at the beginning of this year, she needed to send some important documents via a private firm similar to Mailboxes Etc. I was present during at least a half a dozen attempts Judith made to catch the proprietor of the store while she was working, all during what were supposedly business hours. Each time we would arrive at the store to find the door locked but the lights on, the "open" sign mocking us. A couple days Judith even called beforehand to make sure the store was open. She was assured that someone would be there to attend her, but by but by the time we arrived the worker had stepped out. Where? It was anyone's guess. Judith was annoyed, of course, by all this-- as any human would be. But she was not surprised.  It's just how things work here, she said.

I even found myself repeating the same mantra during the aforementioned adventures within the public healthcare system. As the schedules changed with no warning, required document lists seemed to alter overnight, and I was told over and over "come back tomorrow with [x] and see [y], instead," I felt first frustration, then a heavy resignation. "It's just how things are" is a dangerous attitude in some ways, but it can be a comfort.

Very early the next day we went out together to look for a genealogist, which could be done only by asking one friend or acquaintance after another. Finally we found one, and the good man, stunned by our haste, declared frankly that he needed some time for this; we pressed him, and he finally told us as a great favor that we should come around in a few days. I smiled, and we left. Three days passed, and we returned. “Come back tomorrow,” the maid told us. “The master is not up yet.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she told us the next day. “The master has just gone out.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she said on the following day. “The master is taking his siesta.
“Come back tomorrow,” she answered the next Monday. “Today he has gone to the bullfight.” At what time can one see a Spaniard?
Finally we saw him.
“Come back tomorrow,” he told us, “because I have forgotten the document.”
“Come back tomorrow, because the final copy needs touching up.”

After all that trouble, I was supposed to wait for a document in the mail assigning me a date for a second appointment at the Foreigners' Office. Since I didn't have an apartment in Talavera yet, I put down the address of my school. However, throughout the summer, the document did not arrive to the school. It didn't arrive in September or October, either. This was a problem because not completing the process and receiving my residency card meant no health insurance  (the application for which was a separate long, boring adventure in Spanish bureaucracy in itself) and no ability to travel abroad. I called the office in Toledo every day for 10 days, and it either rang indefinitely or was busy for hours on end.

I could have ended up like Monsieur Sans-Delai, stuck in an endless parade of "tomorrow-itis", waiting for a resolution that would never come. I thought perhaps I would never get my card at all. Perhaps I would be stuck forever fruitlessly fighting the women working in the Health Center to assure them that I deserved insurance despite my difficulties. Maybe I would simply never be able to use my credit cards or travel outside Spain this year. I was even convincing myself that maybe that might be okay. Who needs a doctor or to spend Christmas with loved ones? 

Luckily, I discovered that there is one cure for "mañana-itis" Perhaps you'll have guessed it; I certainly should have. The key is Knowing Someone.

I had reached my wits end, getting busy signals and non-answers and "call back tomorrows" until... it came to light that the parent of one of the students at school knew someone in the Talavera branch of the Foreigner's Office. One day I was trying desperately to get anyone to answer the phone in Toledo; the next day I had all my documents stamped and was missing only the physical card, which would arrive the next week.

That day went by in a blur. At 9 am I arrived at school; I was informed at 9:30 that they had managed to get me an appointment in Toledo the next week, despite the missing document; at 10 that I needed to provide my passport information to the school administrator immediately; and at 10:30 that we would leave at 11:15 to meet the friend-of-the-student's-parent during her coffee break at the Talavera foreign office. At breakneck speed, the principal of the school whisked me around town to pick up my passport, take the requisite passport photos at a novelty photo machine, pay the tasa (only one this time), and then... somehow by 12:30 I was sitting in the Foreigners' Office, all problems resolved, never having had to return to Toledo, uncertain what was happening, but assured I could come and pick up my new card before traveling abroad to Luxembourg the next week.

A deep breath and a mental shrug are the only viable reactions to such things. With that level of confusion comes a kind of zen peace. Accepting the sheer opacity of Spanish bureaucracy means understanding that these things are out of your control, and sometimes you just need to let yourself get swept along in the tide and hope someone who knows better is working in your favor.

I shall confess to you that I do nothing today that can be put off until tomorrow; I shall tell you that I get up at eleven in the morning, and take a siesta in the afternoon; and that I spend seven and eight hours at a stretch loafing at a table in a cafe, talking – or snoring – like a good Spaniard. I shall add that when the cafe is closed I drag myself slowly to my daily appointment (because out of laziness I make only one), and that I can be found glued to a chair smoking one cigarette after another and yawning continually until twelve or one o’clock in the morning; that many evenings I do not dine because I am too lazy, and that I am even too lazy to go to bed!

In the last paragraphs of de Larra's story, he offers this list of some of the nicer aspects of Spanish life. Perhaps it's not how he meant them, but for me the passage serves as a reminder that it's not all bad here; in fact, far from it. It highlights for me some of the lovelier luxuries of the Spanish lifestyle and the motives and values that help make them reality. The pleasure of a siesta after school, a two-hour coffee outside under the trees in a cafe terrace, a long lunch on Sunday with friends, a leisurely walk down the Calle Mayor, a late-night beer in a tapas bar-- they all come from that same impulse to relax, to keep a less-hurried pace. If the price of all that is "Vuelva usted mañana," well... I suppose it's a price I'm willing to pay.


*The passages in this piece are excerpted from the website To read the full story, click here

Monday, March 24, 2014

Deep thoughts at the frutería

One of my favorite things about living in Europe is the commonness of butchers, greengrocers (known in Spain as fruterías), and small markets. I always prefer to spend my money at small businesses, and living in Spain makes that easy. One of my favorite things about my apartment this year in Talavera is that I live in a plaza that includes a mom-and-pop butcher shop, a frutería with an extremely chatty owner, several South American bodega-style shops that sell a little bit of everything, and a supermarket for whatever is leftover.

Today, while stocking up on produce, I overheard the following conversation (which, I may say, would never happen in a supermarket.) I assure you that it sounded even more lyrical in Spanish.

Customer: How are the clementines today?
Greengrocer: Sweet like love
Customer 2: But how sweet is love, really?
Greengrocer: Love is the sweetest thing! It's us who add the salt.

And that, friends, is your deep thought for the day.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Photo Post: Open House at the Bullring

Let me preface these photos by saying that in my three years in Spain, I have attended one bullfight. I had deeply mixed feelings about it-- a combination of, on one hand, fascination and respect for centuries of tradition and an aesthetically beautiful sport and, on the other hand, disgust, discomfort, and sadness at the celebration of the death of a living thing. I have talked with interest to people on all sides of the issue and have found something to agree with in all of their perspectives.

But this post is not about bullfighting. 

You will not see any photos of bulls at all. The photos below were taken during an open house held at the bullring in Talavera de la Reina, outside of the bullfighting schedule (in any case, a second string ring like this one only hosts a few fights a year.) The guided tour I went on was an opportunity to peek behind the curtain to see parts of the ring that the audience at a bullfight cannot, and the images presented here seek to share this glimpse with you. They do not put forward any opinion except that every controversy is worth investigating and that things that make us uncomfortable can still provide beauty.

"La Caprichiosa" bullring, reinaugurated in 1890 after some years of disuse, as viewed from outside in the gardens of Nuestra Senora del Prado. The ancient basilica, whose roots date from the year 602, can be seen in the background.

Perhaps my favorite shot of the day. The open house included a workshop in "toreo de salon" or "bullfighting for the living room," which attracted a number of adorable wannabe bullfighters. I caught this little boy living out his dreams with a traditional bullfighters cape, undoubtedly with the roar of an absent crowd in his ears.

The empty bullring encouraged exploration. Here, just by the divider before the ring itself, is where officials and ringworkers (including the all-important veterinarians) sit

The empty arena, with the Basilica rising behind it


Toreo de Salon from above, this time adding a practice bull made from an augmented wheelbarrow. I'm told all bullfighters start training with the wheelbarrow. These boys had stars in their eyes, just practicing in the ring.

This fence separates the "shadow" and "sun" sections of the bullring, which represents a significant difference in ticket price. Such concerns are paramount on summer afternoons with temperatures reaching above 100 F/40 C


At this point, our tour left the public portion of the bullring. We went first into an area from which we could see into the paddocks where the bulls are kept the day before a fight. (League rules require that bulls arrive at least 24 hours before a fight.) Bullring workeres use a series of catwalks above the paddocks to be able to check on the bulls' wellbeing from above, without startling the bulls or risking their own safety.
Here: a view through a chestnut tree growing in the paddock, looking up at the Basilica.

A small detail: door number 4 in the "chiqueros," the stalls where the bulls are kept directly before a fight


A more complete view of the chiqueros. They are closely guarded to assure that no one tampers with the bulls before a fight. In the cutthroat world of bullfighting, it has happened before.


A view of the "toreo de salon" action through the small door by which the bullfighter historically enters to greet the crowd


The sign says "All outsiders are prohibited entrance." I was pleased to get a shot from behind the door.

A terrifying look behind the scenes: the infirmary, in case of Worst Case Scenarios. (There is also a chapel on sight for similar purposes.)


The caretaker lives permanently inside the bullring, making sure everything is okay 24/7. He has quite a view out his back window... out his front window, too, now that I think about it.


Another blooming torero practices