Spanish Bureaucracy – Doing It Yourself

Since we started this journey in 2017, I’ve hired help. A LOT of help. Assistants, Gestorias, Abogados. I’ve almost never had to navigate getting documents or going to a government office alone with my sad Spanish. It’s a bridge too far.

Sure, I did go to the Jefatura de Trafico (DMV) by myself. And that gave me a bit of confidence I could do it. But Spanish bureaucracy is legend. Forms, stamps, tarifas (taxes). You need the right form(s) and to pay the tax for the service in advance at a local bank branch. And finally you need to get a stamp. You need to have booked una cita (an appointment online – well in advance). Then you turn up on the day and time. If you don’t know how to do it you can’t get what you need. But I’ve watched the professionals, and I’ve learned.

Our lawyer is in Barcelona. We live in Valencia – for the next 15 minutes. Our NIE cards are issued to our Valencia address and our padron (townhall certificate) is here too. So I have to get my Criminal History report from the Ministry of Justice here in Valencia. Have I ever done this before? No. It’s not the police station where you get your NIE cards and fingerprints taken on the outskirts of town. It’s down near Colon. My lawyer said I had to go asap but they couldn’t accompany me since they’re so far away. Covid. Ugh. So it was on me to get it done. New visa requirement.

So a month ago I got the first available appointment – one month out. I print the forms the lawyer sent me and I told myself I had plenty of time to pay the tax at the bank. But life got in the way and I found myself last night realizing I hadn’t done it. And my appointment was at 9:00 this am. Oops! Luckily, my bank opens at 8:15. And they’re two blocks from the Ministry. I was there when they opened.

Banks here are where you pay all your taxes. They’ll take the income tax directly from your bank account. But any time you visit a government office you have to pay a tax via a Modelo 790 form for that ministerial department, and you indicate the amount you need to pay based on what you’re having done. You must bring this form with the proper stamp from the bank to your appointment, demonstrating you have paid it in advance. No Modelo 790 – stamped? No Dice. You’ll go to the appointment and come out empty handed because they will not give you what you need. They don’t take money at most government offices (except the Jefatura). So be prepared.

Jeff and I walked down to Colon and I got my tax paid myself. For the first time ever. Then I stood in the loose group outside. Doesn’t matter that you have an appointment. There is still the ‘Ulitimo‘ game of who do you stand behind. Finally, at 9am the security guard opened the door and took everyone with a 9am appoint to check them off the list. I went in and because my appointment was actually at 9:10 I was asked to step outside for 30 seconds before she called me back in.

Senorita?’ She said as she waved me forward.

I haven’t been a Senorita in a very long time. But it made me smile. Maybe I should wear a mask even after. I was validated on her list (and personally by the senorita comment) and then climbed the stairs to the small waiting room. Even in the small space you are, again , validated by the receptionist and told to go to the kiosk to take a number. Sitting very, very socially distanced from other people. They only allow one person per row of tightly packed chairs. After 3 minutes I was called to a window where a woman who was having a very bad Friday ‘helped’ me. I explained that my Spanish isn’t good and begged for her patience. I understand more than I can speak. She grunted, then proceeded to complain about foreigners under her breath as she typed and finally gave me what I needed. I was out of there in by 9:15.

I hear people complain about Spanish bureaucracy. But I will say, in the the midst of Covid, these people know how to do it. It’s a lesson in industrial engineering. They limit entry but keep the flow going. Impressive. And I felt pretty proud of myself that I was able to navigate to get what I needed by doing it all myself. Every time you do something new – tackle the unknown – you gain confidence. It seems difficult at first. But in reality, it’s not so bad. Next time I’ll execute it like a pro.

And the World Keeps on Turning

This is a time of great change in Spain. Covid has ushered in unprecedented unemployment and the impacts to the economy of Spain, as well as the rest of Europe, has been like a bomb went off. Taking small businesses and the tourism industry with it. Spain, more than any other economy in the Europe, is reliant on it’s very small businesses. And the tourist industry here is king. Without them Spain’s economic engine withers and dies. And this year there are no tourists.

On top of all that, Brexit is come up fast and furious. The transition period ends on New Year’s Eve at midnight. When the clock strikes twelve, or 00:00 here in Spain, the Brits are no longer operating under EU rules for trade, fishing, immigration, emigration, and a whole host of other areas. What this means is that those Brits who live in Spain and do not have ‘settled’ status will have to apply for a visa – just like us Americans – if they want to stay more than 90 days. Aka live in Spain. Doesn’t matter if you own a home here and have done so for 30+ years waiting to retire to the Costa del Sol. You will need to apply, and qualify via your proof of income, and be granted a visa. It means that Brits will now have to purchase health insurance here to qualify. No more National Health reciprocity that all EU countries enjoy. Covid aside – this has sent a shockwave through the Brits who own second homes here. And we are now the wonderful recipients of the aftermath. Imagine Arizona or Florida seceding from the US. It’s like that.

Every day Jeff checks the real estate listings, both on the Med and elsewhere in Spain. Just on the coast south of Valencia hundreds upon hundreds of homes, apartment, estates, small farms – are going up for sale daily. It’s a buyers market. People are putting houses for sale and slashing the prices the next day. They can’t wait until December 31st. They want out now. And it’s driving down all housing prices here. How does that impact you guys, though, Kelli and Jeff? You might well ask. Here’s how.

In Valencia, landlords around the city are wanting to dump their rental properties. Air BnB’s are empty. No one to fill them up. But more than that, even just someone who inherited an apartment long ago and used it for extra income wants out. Last week alone, we know 3 couples who have been notified that they have 60 days to find a new place. And then our wonderful landlord, Javier, called. He came over last evening and gave us the news.

‘I must sell. January 1st the housing market in Spain is going to crash. I have to get out now. I have listed the apartment and need to bring people in to look at it. I can not wait.’ He said, apologetic. But he has a small family who rely on him. He has to think of them.

If we had gone through with the house in Portugal we would be moving now, so no problem. But now? We need to decide if we rent another short term apartment here – competing with all the other people we know looking for places. Or do we do something about heading to Galicia – as we’ve planned all along?

When we got home from Portugal I was ready to take a breath. But it seems the Universe is telling us we need to get a move on. Don’t fall back into what’s familiar and easy. It’s time to make a move towards where we really want to be. After we said goodbye to Javier, Jeff smiled.

‘When we moved here we said we’d live in the apartment for one year. We’ve been here nearly 3. You don’t even like this place. It’s just easy because it’s the known. You were ready to let another 6 months go by. I know you. But we do need to get on with our lives. This just puts a time limit on it. And I’m kind of glad. ‘

And he’s right, of course. Did I think we would be heading back up to Galicia so soon – before Christmas? No. I mean, I like change but whiplash is a whole other ballgame. Yet that’s how things go and we need to react. We’ll find a place we like because more and more homes are going for sale, even up there. Yesterday, I started a search on Idealista. Today I got a notice that one house in my custom search area has slashed their price 50% overnight. Maybe the universe it trying to tell us something. The time is now. We can’t wait. Because the world keeps turning and we need to go with it.

Meet Me in Pamplona

The past 6 months has been very difficult in so many different ways. But emotionally it’s been a dumpster fire. Being physically ill was hard. But I’ve never lost hope that I would recover – eventually. Yes, I’ve had tough days when I questioned if it would ever end. But I kept going. I knew I could make it. Maybe it was magical thinking. Yet it’s the emotional side now that has had me really struggling. But how to solve it. I didn’t really know.

I am a problem solver by nature. I don’t like to remain planted in indecision or to allow inertia to set in. Forward is better than back. Its how I’ve lived my entire life. But what do you do when forward isn’t arriving? When you take one step forward only to find you didn’t really take a step at all? Jeff knows me better than anyone. He’s watched me take on a ‘fake it til you make it’ and we’ve both seen how that’s worked out. He’s gotten angry with me for pushing things. ‘Rest. It’s not a crime.’

But I couldn’t allow myself to lay in bed or on the couch on a day when I felt even slightly better. But I could feel myself losing strength in every area. And I didn’t like losing strength because it felt like I was losing myself. But I couldn’t keep up with any kind of pace. And it felt like the more my body seemed to slip, my emotions did too. Have I been depressed? I think so. Have I tried to pull myself out of it? Constantly, like a salmon swimming up stream. The more I struggled against the current, the worse it got. Until one day, sitting at the house in Portugal after we determined we would not go through with the sale, I just sat down and cried buckets. And finally I said to Jeff ‘I’m struggling’. And he said ‘I know. I’ve known it for a long time. But now you’re ready to admit it.’

It’s funny. Just saying the words was like the million pound elephant that has been sitting on my chest decided to move to other lodgings. And I took the first deep breath in a long, long time. But what to do now? We came back to Valencia and one of the first friends who reached out to get together is a friend of mine from the UK who is a therapist. She also does mindfulness training and was the one who initiated the abundance meditation group we all did before I really went downhill with Covid at the beginning of April. She had finally returned to Valencia in August after being stuck in Newcastle in the North of England. Sometimes the universe sends in the angels. There are very few fully fluent English speaking counselors in Valencia. Spanish National Health, and even my private insurance, had no one. But she referred me to someone in the UK who will be happy to see me over Zoom. She can’t be my therapist because she’s my friend. Check.

And I decided that I needed to start – very slowly – trying to get back inside my body. A body, I now realize, I’ve been afraid of for more than 6 months. I did purchase all that gym equipment last Spring. So I got out my yoga mat. And I also decided that I needed some physical goals. I find when I’m challenging myself physically – however small – I feel better. My brain goes to a happier place. But how do you do that inside an apartment in the middle of a pandemic?

So I sat down and mapped out some rides. I would challenge myself to complete specific trails on the stationary bike that I’ve been on before. No matter where they are in the world, I can imagine them. Places I remember well on days of sunny weather and cool breezes. Shady rides where there was no hurry. And if it took me all day I would happily take all day to complete them. So I’ve been doing one every day. The first day was just a few kilometers. And it wasn’t easy. I did a few more the next day. Then I increased it the next. Each day I try to do a bit more than the day before. Last night, I rode 20 km. At about 10 km I got off and got a glass of water and sat down for a few minutes. Jeff came in.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘I’m drinking water in a cafe.’ I told him. ‘Look at the sky. It’s beautiful here.’

‘Where are you headed?’

‘I have a bit more to go. 10 km. Come back and meet me in Pamplona.’

He smiled. ‘Ok. Keep going. You can do it.’ Then he went back into his office.

Its funny how you can trick your brain into something. You can make a decision, start small, and your mind – through some wizardry – is so hungry to feel better it decides to go along for the ride. And I’m lucky. Jeff has decided to go along, too. And it’s working. A little more each day. And at the end of my ride last night, Jeff did indeed meet me in Pamplona. Because of course he did. My biggest cheerleader never lets me down.

These rides are helping me feel strong again. Giving me hope that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. This long dark tunnel that, by hook or by crook, I will ride myself out of and into the light. I just have to keep going.

One Less Thing

We got back to Valencia and now we’re on Spanish National Health. It was in the works before we decided to make the sharp left turn to Portugal in July. But now it’s official. And it feels kind of good. Like we have a net under our safety net.

I was telling another expat friend about it and she said ‘But the private hospitals are so good here. Are you willing to give that up by giving up your private insurance?’

And it is true. Private insurance is cheap here by US standards. The private hospitals here are excellent. I should know. But during the pandemic the government conscripted them all to manage the capacity. So I likely would have ended up in a private one anyway. And after our friend had his stroke this past February, and I visited him in the public hospital – La Fe – I feel great about the quality of the building, the state of the art equipment, the high quality of care, and staff that speaks Ingles. Because when you go to the Dr. you want to communicate in your native tongue. No matter how good your local lingo skills are.

So for now we have both private and national health. But after the first of the year we will be switching over to just Spanish National Health. As of October 1st we have begun contributing to the Social Security system in Spain. This means that we qualify for medical care at 60 euros per month – for the whole enchilada. That’s like $65-70 per month total to my fellow Americans out there. No copay. No Insurance company saying ‘Yeah, no. You don’t seem sick enough to us, 3000 miles away, for that treatment your Dr. has decided upon since he’s actually seen you. We insist you try 2 Tylenol and a well documented nap before we allow a Dr. to prescribe any real treatment. And then we’ll take 6 months and 5 appeals to approve it. Good luck!’ Here, the Dr. just gets to decide – today. Funny how they don’t just order tests willy-nilly – like they tell you Doctors are prone to do in the US. (Psst…it was never true). Just imagine it, America. Meds covered at 90%. And when I say 90% it’s 90% of a $2.00 prescription that would cost $100 per month in the US. So I’ll pay 20 cents. I could pay for my meds from the change jar by the front door that I keep for when the little Falleras come to collect for Fallas. Or the change I find in the couch cushions. And No limits on coverage. I can break all my limbs, twice, and they won’t scream ‘Pre-existing condition! No soup for you!’ Holy Moly. Spain and Italy lead the world in the quality of healthcare. I could almost cry.

This means that we’re also contributing, along with our taxes, to the retirement scheme. Will we ever get a payout? Probably not. But who knows what the future holds. After 2020, I will never act like I know anything, about anything, past lunchtime.

Will we still go see a private dentist? Yes. I love mine and will see her next week for the cost of more change from the couch. But for everything else it’s good to know we’re covered and it won’t break the bank. We can grow old and grey on Spanish National Health – happily. And they have reciprocal agreements cause it’s all part of being members of the EU. So we will get full care no matter where we are in the Europe. No more travel insurance. In annual surveys, they say the happiest people in the world live in Scandinavia. They pay the highest taxes in the world but they are cared for cradle to grave. Parental leave, day care, health care, education (including university), assistance with job losses and retraining, and elder care. I’m past the parental leave, daycare and education, and I don’t know what kind of coverage Spain has for these things. But the soup to nuts health care here in Spain I will happily enjoy. As Forest Gump famously said ‘Just one less thing.’

Slow Down, Kid

We are back in Valencia after taking a meandering road home via Santiago de Compostela. Pulling out of the hotel in Sao Pedro de Moel, we both looked at each other and said ‘Ok. What now?’ It was Jeff who said, ‘Lets head north to Santiago.’ So we did. What a difference a year makes.

This time last year we did a short Camino from Sarria to Santiago. I walked for my Dad, who has since passed away. Jeff walked for his Mom, who is healthy and doing well in WA state. This year we stayed at the Parador right on the square in front of the Cathedral of St. James and were one of only a few guests in the massive ancient convent with the arched cloisters now converted into lodgings. The hotel mirrored the town. It was relatively deserted and made the creaking of the centuries old parquet floors hidden under thick woven custom carpets sound that much louder and creepier. You could almost hear the sounds of nuns past singing their daily prayers. No tourists in the town. A few Pilgrims walking into the square soaking wet.

We went to find food at my favorite place – Malek Bistro – with an East meets Middle East fusion. Wonderful food. But it was boarded up. As were so many places. Half the town is gone. Covid took the Pilgrims away. And Pilgrims are the life-blood of Santiago. Without them the city can not survive. And it seems there are so many casualties. It was eyrie walking through the warren of streets in the old area near the Cathedral. The larger cafes have survived but not the small ones. A few knick-knack stores for Camino souvenirs. But that’s it. 2020 has been a bad year for Santiago.

We went into the Cathedral – the interior is under serious restoration. Scaffolding takes up all the space under the arched gothic columns where the Botafumeiro usually swings after a Pilgrim Blessing during other times. There would be no room to swing it now. And it was dark inside. No lights other than those highlighting the restorers as they did their work. Perhaps 10 people there lighting candles or praying. I lit my candles to pray for my family and we visited the crypt of St. James. There was no one to compete with. It’s like the cathedral sits lonely and resting waiting for the Pilgrims to return.

We decided to take a little walk on one of the stages of the Camino. It would do my heart some good after what are months of feeling unwell, and after our loss of the house in Portugal. We needed to clear some cobwebs so we parked the car in Palas de Rei and took a walk. It was a sunny crisp fall day. No cafes open along the way until half way to Melide. We only saw a few people walking. All speaking Spanish. When we got to Melide we stopped at a favorite cafe. Conchi, Maria and Francisico are lovely people, who encouraged us to choose Galicia as our home. Perhaps the Camino that lured us from Portugal up to Santiago the day before was trying to tell us something. Perhaps that’s where we belong after all. I’m a big believer in signs. If you pay attention the arrows are easier to see.

We spent 3 hours in the cafe eating, drinking and talking about life and the state of the world. Conchi has a lot of opinions. I LOVE IT! Francisco had gone fungi hunting that morning.

‘He woke up and said to me – ‘This is the day” Conchi told us. ‘You must wait for the right conditions and today is perfect after hard rain.’

She brought them out on a tray for us to see. Very proud of his efforts.

‘You are our only Americans this year. The others are stuck. They can not come. Yesterday we had our first Canadians. Other than that, it’s just Spaniards. It’s been a difficult year.’

But they are still there. The food is divine and the company is even better. Just another sign that perhaps we belong somewhere nearby.

We drove back to Valencia the following day and began the unpacking. At cross roads it’s time to rethink things. How you do the business of living. We rearranged El Compartimento so our view is a bit different than before. There is something to fung shui that changes the flow of energy in a space. So we took the opportunity to do that and now we’re settled back in. We will begin the new hunt for a home after the holidays. I have heard my Dad’s voice so much lately. ‘Slow down, kid.’ I’ve decided I’ll take that good advice.

‘We did get annual passes for the Valencia BioParc right before Covid hit.’ Jeff pointed out. ‘Maybe we’re meant to get the value out of ’em.’

In the month since we were last in Valencia the cases in Spain have exploded. No one was wearing a mask when we were here in early September. Now that has changed. Everyone has them on now. They’re taking the second wave seriously. And for that we feel safer.

I have never been a big believer in regrets. They’re pointless. There are only lessons in life if you humble yourself enough to look at them in the face. This adventure in Portugal wasn’t something to regret. Two beautiful Covid-free months by the sea. And a masters class in Portuguese real estate. I know I’ve suffered from terrible PTSD and anxiety from being ill. Rational or irrational? Who can say. But I feel better now. Covid is a humbling experience. But as we all awaken, as if from a long slumber- after this is finally over next year -I hope it’s the beginning of us collectively rearranging our global furniture. Rethinking how we operate in the world. How we treat each other and how we treat ourselves.

Maybe, in the end, it will have taught us all to ‘Slow down, kid’. And as always, Buen Camino. 🙏