Spanish Bureaucracy: A Pleasant Surprise

As everyone who reads this blog knows, life is not perfect – in Spain or otherwise. We learn as we go. I thought I knew it all when we lived in Valencia. I was able to dispense advice (when asked) about all sorts of topics relating to moving to and living in Spain. Where to find the elusive peanut butter and sour cream in a regular grocery store, for example. Things like that. But also how to obtain a driving license or renew an NIE card. I had all the links and most of them are on this blog. But, then we moved from Valencia to Galicia. And all bets were off. Again.

Not to worry. I swiftly learned where to get my sour cream and peanut butter. We learned how to change the address on our driving licenses. And, we learned that when you purchase a car and have it registered in another province that is where you will pay your car tax every year. Surprise! But it’s not a problem. I just took care of it at a local bank for another year. Then our visa renewals came through at the end of September. Something every foreigner in any country celebrates. It was then I realized all the old processes and procedures I had memorized were up for grabs.

I went out to the Ministry of the Interior’s website and swiftly made an appointment for the Comasaría de Policia Nacional in Lugo. It’s not even the same name as the place you go in Valencia. So I wasn’t exactly sure if I got it right. But we waited for our appointments today and made our way 40 minutes to Lugo on this grey rainy morning. I Googled the address and saw that it was, in fact, a police station. And I learned something new. It had 4.3 stars on Google! People actually take time to leave Google reviews for Police stations here. Seriously. I have only recently started caring about Google reviews because of the food truck. It’s like getting a report card every day. A first grader’s nightmare! Reading through the police station reviews gave me confidence that this wouldn’t be anything like the experience we had at the Oficina de Extranjeros (foreigners office) in Valencia. Which was more like the entrance to a rundown military base. Curious now, I looked them up, as well. They have 1.9 stars. They deserved less. But, this new office in Lugo has, mostly, five stars. And one person’s review made me laugh out loud.

This guy wasn’t happy with his police station accommodations, apparently. A criminal who writes Google reviews of his stay in lock up. Only in Spain. Expecting that a free stay should be more uptown than downtown. But since we weren’t planning on sleeping over I figured we were going to be OK.

We arrived early. I had learned from our Valencia experience that arriving early is important. You needed to get in the line that would snake through stanchions outside, in any weather, and you needed to be ready with your docs for the incessantly grouchy uniformed officer calling out names. So the yelling could commence. The last time I had to do this dance I had been just released from the hospital during Covid. Jeff was not allowed to stand with me on that cold January day.

‘If your wife can not stand in line on her own then she should come back another time.’ The officer barked at Jeff when he begged not to leave me standing alone. It had taken months to get that appointment in Covid times. I wasn’t going to miss it no matter how bad I felt. But I ended up back in the hospital for my heart only a few days later. What a jerk.

So I girded my loins for what would surely be a decidedly unpleasant experience today. Especially since I would be doing all the talking this time. Jeff’s español is still in the toddler stage as he talks to Americans all day. The food truck has afforded me a skyrocketing comprehension, if not an ability to spit out Spanish words accurately at rapid fire. That is what this winter is for. Five months of intensive study, each and every day. I am at defcon 5 because of the business. I have to crack this nut.

On the way from the parking lot, a ten minute walk away, we stopped to get a coffee and take a deep breath. I wasn’t sure how long this would take. In Valencia they were always running late. It could be two hours to get our stuff done. Finally, cold, we both reluctantly arose from our chairs.

‘This card isn’t going to renew itself. We might as well start the clock.’ My words weren’t encouraging, but this was not our first NIE renewal rodeo. We knew what we could be in for. How wrong we were!

We were greeted by them opening the door for us at the station. An officer checked off our names and directed us to a warm waiting area. No standing out in the cold for hours. I was confused. ‘This is too nice.’ I whispered to Jeff suspiciously. At precisely Jeff’s appointment time they came to get us. I had my own appointment for 15 minutes later, but they took us at the same time because we are married. Imagine. Like humans. Not like in Valencia where they would separate us – loudly. We sat down nervously. This is where the women working in the office in Valencia would be less than helpful. Jeff’s last time picking up his NIE, they refused to give him his card since his visa type had changed. The woman wouldn’t believe it and he had to refuse to leave the office until she got a supervisor who forced her to give Jeff his card. So we have a history with this stage of the card renewal. And a heavy dose of PTSD.

I handed the guy my papers. Of course, I had documents I didn’t need in my plastic folder, but you never know what one office/bureaucrat will ask that is different than another. You have to be prepared for anything. I had even brought office supplies, including a stapler. He sifted through the pages then handed me back the extras. The police guy cracked jokes and was very nice. It took 20 tries to get my fingerprints printed. As per usual. I swear, I could rob a bank and no one would be able to get a decent print – I am very sure. In the US, the FBI had to do my prints 20 times, too. And my Global Entry for swift pass throughs in passport control and customs in US airports was almost abandoned. The agent said he would try ‘one more time’ but that I had ‘bad fingers’. Today, it was no different. The guy made swift work of my renewal paperwork. I signed. Then I got up so he could do Jeff.

‘California (where I was born was on the NIE card). Then Valencia. Now Galica.’ he said as he waited for Jeff’s paperwork. I didn’t fill in that I have lived in other cities all over the world. ‘You really live in Palas de Rei?’ He had my padron (town hall certificate) which shows I am registered in Palas. People are always surprised we live in such a rural place that is the least exciting location we could possibly choose in Spain. Or even in Galicia. Or, maybe anywhere.

I smiled. ‘Sí’

‘And what do you do there?’ He asked ‘For work?’

I told him what Jeff does and for whom, surprised he was asking me since I am on Jeff’s visa as his familiar. This wasn’t my first indication that nothing in Spain is digitally connected. We’d sent all this paperwork from Jeff’s company in Barcelona to the Ministry of the Interior in Madrid for our visa approval, and yet this police person in Lugo can see none of it. He had to type all my information for my NIE card in, again.

‘No.’ he said. ‘What do YOU do?’ Clearly, he figured I would be bored out of my mind.

I laughed. ‘I run a food truck on the Camino de Santiago.’ I said.

His eyes widened. ‘Really?’ Then he got all his colleagues to come talk to me. ‘What do you sell?’ They asked.

I told them and they seemed excited. ‘I go there often. I will come and have some tostada aguacate.’ Avocado toast.

I wanted to tell him that a couple of his compatriots had recently visited me for some free harrassment – perhaps not on official business but just as a favor to their cousin at the cafe down the road – but I refrained. This entire exchange was in español. I even understood their jokes. I was more than a little proud.

They went back to work as Jeff handed over his paperwork, new photos, and passport. The guy processed them all and told us we could come back the first week in December to pick up our new cards. We know the drill. Leaving the office, we were almost disappointed. We had been ready for the usual rigamarole, but none of it had materialized. Less than 30 minutes – in and out. Score one for Galicia. Next time, I won’t lose sleep over our police appointments for our NIE cards. And it just goes to show you that I don’t know everything about everything. Even Spanish bureaucracy can provide a pleasant surprise.

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