Mercadona Saga – Chapter 137

We were up at 3am. Why? We don’t know. But by 9am we were hungry and it was time to venture forth out into the wider world. And what we required for this Tuesday lay nestled safely in the dreaded – wait for it – Mercadona. There was nothing for it – we had to go.

Jeff slowly put on his shoes and prepared to leave the apartment. Like a man beaten. I gathered all the recycling – why make two trips out into contagion – and we set out. After a stop at the recycling bins on the street, we made our way down the block through masked traffic. Those not wearing one were given a wide berth. Luckily, it’s sparse on the sidewalk these days and most of the people out on the street were over the age of 75. These are not people debating masks. Their lives depend upon it.

We arrived at the Mercadona and immediately noticed something different. No hall monitor was directing and sorting customers at the door in the vestibule. The lone sad torn-open bag of plastic gloves lay in the window sill by the hand sanitizer dispenser, like a dead fish in the Valencian sun. I took my life in my hands reaching into it to pull out four sets of gloves – including a pair for Jeff – as we pre-slathered, then post-slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer. I started to wheel the trolley into the store and Jeff stopped me, concerned.

‘You can’t take that in there.’ He cautioned. During the State of Alarm we had to park it at the trolley stand. Too much risk.

‘Look at that lady down the aisle.’ I told him, boldly. ‘She has her’s. There’s safety in numbers.’

He shook his head and hung back. Knowing danger was lurking around every turn of the aisle. The Scolder was surely here somewhere.

We went to the fruit section and I picked up everything I needed. Like the professional fruit bagger I am. SuperMercado be damned! After perusing the entire store and filling my food stroller we approached check out. This is the most dangerous time in the Mercadona experience. It’s when bad things, very bad things, can happen. And this time, it’s where Jeff bailed out on me.

‘I’ll go stand at the front. I don’t want to get in trouble for having two people from the same family in line.’ And he walked away – leaving me to whatever fate awaited me in the belt loading experience. My hero.

As I waited until directed forward, I watched the checker watching me. She beckoned. At the last possible moment I turned my food stroller around and positioned it appropriately with the handle forward. After unloading my cart I looked up and the checker smiled. Actually smiled at me. I could see it in her eyes. And she inclined her head.

‘Bien.’ She said.

I beamed like a kindergartener who’s received her first gold star for finger painting. You just wish your mother was there to see it.

We had no further chit chat other than her asking me if I needed my parking validated or wanted to purchase a bolsa.

Packing the trolley, I paid, then made my way to Jeff.

‘Did she say ‘bien’ to you?’ He asked – shocked beyond belief. We haven’t been smiled at by a Mercadona checker in months.

‘Yes, she did.’ I said proudly. ‘I wanted to to tell her ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’ but I didn’t know the word for ‘rodeo’ in Spanish. Come to think of it, maybe ‘rodeo’ is a Spanish word that means rodeo.’

Jeff laughed. ‘You could have tried ‘No es mi primero matador.’

Huh? ‘I’m pretty sure you just said ‘This isn’t my first bull fighter.’ And I’m not sure that would have been well received. By either of us. We have a tenuous enough detente with one checker at the Mercadona, now. Let’s not get cocky.’

But I will say we walked home a little taller. Today we won the Mercadona. Maybe things are getting back to normal. And I’m pretty sure I need to buy a lottery ticket to celebrate.

A World Gone Mad

The Spanish government response to the pandemic seemed extreme to many. Yes, it was difficult. But as the virus struck close to home we knew what they were doing was vital in saving the people of the country. No matter how tough it was going to be on the economy. The measures they have taken were the right thing to do.

On June 21, the borders of the Schengen Area within the EU were opened to member countries. Most had the virus under control. Yes, there were some outbreaks but they were being swiftly dealt with. Fingers crossed. As of July 1st, the EU will open its borders to many countries in the rest of the world – who have demonstrated they have functioning pandemic policies in place, and test and trace capabilities. I’m very glad to say my own country, Estados Unidos (EEUU), will not be one of those countries. They need to get their act together over there before they allow one American to come over here.

But I am alarmed that the Brits will be allowed to travel to Spain to their holiday homes and spend the summer. Britain is second only to the US in their utter nonsensical handling of this pandemic and their callous disregard for their own people’s lives. And I’m very worried we’ll end up paying for their stupidity, like New Zealand, who was Covid-free until 2 British women flew from London and both tested positive upon arrival. And I don’t think we’re alone in our fears of this.

Yesterday we made a trip to the Bauhaus (Home Depot of Spain) in our car. We headed down to the parking garage in the sub-basement and to our surprise there were very few cars left. It was like a ghost town down there – which means our building is cleaned out of residents. As we pulled out onto the street we saw empty places all over the streets. Street after street. None of the usual higgly-piggly parking jobs. Nope. Parking for ALL! And it made us wonder.

There have been a few outbreaks in Aragon and Malaga. Spikes that no one wants to see. One at a Red Cross center and another after a family party where they said ‘But it was just our family and friends.’ As though your family and friends can’t possibly have it, because, well they’re your family and friends. Jeff thinks people are in Valencia are scared and instead of waiting to get stuck in their apartments in the city during August, they’ve gone to their second homes now, while they still can. Even if it’s more than a month earlier than normal. I mean, if you can work from home here, why can’t you do it from Gandia or Denia or up in a mountain town? A village has a smaller population than a big city like ours, and an outbreak can be well controlled. Many of these mountain towns will just dump a pile of gravel on the access roads and shut it down like they did in March.

Last evening we went to our favorite local restaurant in the neighborhood – Saigon Saigon. They serve pan-Asian food and they know us. When we sat down at our socially distanced table, the waiter asked if we wanted our ‘usual’. I can’t tell you how much that meant to us, after 4 months he remembered what we like to eat and drink. And he brought us a free appetizer. He had some customers but the place was pretty deserted.

We’re looking out the window today and there is no one on the streets. Even traffic looks more like lockdown-level traffic. Jeff looked concerned.

‘I wish we were leaving for Galicia this coming Saturday. If they lock us down to Phase 3 again we’ll be stuck here in the province.’

With the Brits allowed in on 1 July I’m worried he’s right. But I’m going to think of the upside. Our parking space in the garage is so narrow, usually we can barely get in and out of the car – let alone backing it into the space without one of us directing the other. But now? Without any other cars, we can drive around the garage like mad men and not hit anything but a pillar. And that seems completely appropriate in a world gone mad.

Learn Something New Everyday

Ah. Yesterday I had the first lunch out with friends I’ve had in 4 months. I won’t lie, it felt a little weird to be on the terrace eating with people I don’t live with and without masks so we could eat. Although, I had to do it some time on the street, people we know walked by and stopped to chat and I found myself leaning away from them as they spoke, masked up. Like a reflex now.

After months, I collected the random used books I had accepted virtually, to support the clean up and restoration of the British cemetery here in Valencia. And I was happily surprise Jane Austin was hidden in the mix. My all-time favorite – Pride & Prejudice – greeted me warmly.

It was nice to spend time with other people. But a lunch that would normally have been hours long, stretching until the early evening, was surprisingly short. I found after the main course I was ready to skip coffee and desert and to go home. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I had this need to get back inside. Weird – I know.

During lunch our conversation turned to real estate. One of the people we know is selling a house she inherited in the UK and she was talking about how it’s going. And it was an education.

In the UK, they have something called ‘chains’ where houses are stuck in this long line of offers and agreed contracts where each house’s sale is contingent upon the the sale of the buyer’s house, who’s contingent upon another seller’s house, and another buyer’s house, etc. There can be an unlimited number of homes in this chain. And there is no time limit as to when this long line of a pyramid scheme has to take place. In the meanwhile, everyone who has ‘agreed a contract’ has their property tied up, including earnest money in escrow at risk if they pull out. Madness. It can take years.

In Britain, they also do the real estate listings like they do in Spain. Where the agent lists the property but the buyer and the seller will need their own solicitors to handle the contracts. And I learned something I didn’t know about purchasing a home here and it will come in handy.

In Spain, as in the UK, we will find a house. Before we make a formal offer – but after we have a gentleman’s agreement about the price with the owner (we had this on two properties before) – we will have a survey done (ours fell through before we completed this). That’s an] home inspection for my US readers. Once that’s complete, contracts are drawn up and exchanged by the buyer and seller. Yes, I knew all that.

But what I didn’t know, in Spain – unlike the UK – there is a time limit on the closing date. So you have to set it at least 3 months out – maybe more just ot be safe – to get everything ticked and tied, because as the buyer, if you miss this date for any reason the seller takes your earnest money. As a seller, if for some reason you ‘don’t deliver the property to the buyer’ you will have to pay them twice the earnest money for wasting their time. One of my friends at the lunch yesterday was the beneficiary of this for a new house here in Valencia when a builder couldn’t deliver on time. She explained how it all worked. Interesting.

In the US, licensed but not legally educated grandmas sell multi-million dollar houses simply by filling out forms. The buyer has their own agent and the seller has their own agent. The agents talk to each other about prices, repairs, etc. The buyer and seller never meet.

Here, estate agents can show houses but the contracts will be initiated and overseen by solicitors (abogados) who are lawyers and legally liable for the accuracy of their contracts – along with the notarias who will physically write up the contract. Notaria is a job for writing up contracts. If you’re a notaria in Spain you are a powerful person. Nothing happens without you and your stamp.

We have to decide, when the time comes, if we will use our Abogado in Valencia or if we’ll retain one in Galicia to help move the the process along up there.

One other thing we have noticed is that if the seller is Spanish and they hear we’re American, the price will sometimes go up. The agent will tell us ‘Oh, the owner says the price has changed.’ Even though they just lowered it on the website. I think it’s because they think we’re all rich. Ha! But I did hear of instances where the sellers said ‘If American’s are coming here now I am probably asking too little.’ Crazy. Sadly, they’ll be disappointed to learn Jeff and I are not trend setting Instagram influencers back in the US. A year later these houses are still for sale.

Only two weeks to go before we start our road trip to Galicia. It’s been a long time coming. Never thought our only ‘vacation’ for the year would be a one week house hunting trip, and that I would lay awake at night and imagine the freedom we will feel doing it. Yesterday, it was nice to see my friends for lunch and I always learn something new when I do.

The Law of the Papaya

We are not married to any particular grocery store in Valencia. We frequent certain stores, but there are times when we must travel further afield for particular things that we can’t get near our home. Usually, we go together on these jaunts and it’s back packs only. But yesterday, I went to El Corte Ingles with the trolley, where the Supermercado is located.

For reference, if you’re an American, it looks just like an upscale Safeway or a Fry’s foods. And they have a gourmet section with 400 different kinds of olive oil, and truffles by the mile. Jeff had given me a list, but even he knew I wasn’t going to come home with just what he sent me for. There would be more.

Like any grocery store anywhere, generally, you enter through the produce section. Or very near it. And the first thing I saw was my giant papayas. I love these things and you can’t easily find them in the US. It’s as if three papayas melded together into one Jurassic Park papaya. I made a beeline for it, picked it up and put it in my cart. This is where the trouble began.

At the dreaded Mercadona I am allowed to pick up my own JP papayas. Even there, Our -Lady-of-Perpetual-Scolding trusts a gloved up layman to handle her own produce. But, apparently in a pandemic, at the Supermercado it requires expert training. She shouted at me to drop the papaya. I set it back down – appropriately chagrined.

We’re both already mandatorily masked, but then she freshly gloved up and slathered herself with hand sanitizer before picking up my offending papaya and slipping it into a small paper bag that was itself overwhelmed by the size of my Fintstone’s-sized papaya. It was sticking out. Then she weighed it and stickered it before handing it back to me with a grunt. I wanted to roll my eyes and move on but, after that performance I figured I’d need her again.

Consulting the list – Jeff wanted broccoli and celery. So I made my way to the broccoli and determined the one I wanted. Then I went back to the woman who had chastised me about the papaya and told her I need some broccoli. She looked at me like I had flown in from the moon and told me to get my own broccoli. Huh?! However, she informed me, I had to change my gloves having illegally touched the papaya. What?!

Whatever. So I re-gloved and selected my broccoli, bagged, weighed and stickered it myself. Of course my gloves stuck to the sticker and they came home with me – Jeff laughed. The woman watched me flail stuck to the produce sticker like glue, without amusement. Apparently, broccoli wrestling isn’t her thing. And she didn’t offer to assist me, either.

Then, I gingerly approached the celery., noticing it was hermetically sealed – not like celery in the US or even other stores here. I felt her gaze upon me and turned to see produce lady watching me closely. Eyes narrowed.

Oh no! I thought. What should I do? She wouldn’t allow me to bag my own papaya – and that has it’s own protective skin. But she made me bag my own loose broccoli. Where did celery fall on the verdura spectrum?

I edged closer to the bin. Her brow deeply furrowed. I reached out and stopped. Neither of us breathed. My hand closed around the giant stalk (celery is huge at the Supermercado). Still she didn’t react. I noticed it already had the price on the plastic. I quickly plopped it into my basket, looking to run from the produce department toward the leche de cabra – I needed goat milk. I looked back but the produce lady just shook her head as made my swift exit. I’m still not sure if I was in full violation territory or if she was just tired of dealing with me.

I completed the rest of my shopping without incident, then I went to check out stand. The man in front of me was still paying so I hung back on my 2 metre distancia social bright red floor dot – not wanting to violate the airspace by putting my things on the belt prematurely. The checker beckoned me to come forward but, still I hung back. My PTSD from the Mercadona was kicking in, big time. I’d seen this movie before. Her trickery couldn’t fool me. Finally, the man left the area so I turned my cart around backwards – as I’ve been trained at the Mercadona Shopping for Dummies course I’ve taken, and failed, a hundred times now, and I put my purchases on the belt to check out. The checker looked at me like I was crazy. And I know this because she told me.

So that, my friends, is what happens when every store makes up their own procedures on how to interpret the Valencian laws of social distancing and hygiene. Jeff calls it the Mercadona Law. I call it the Law of the Papaya now. Because its a crap shoot as to when they’ll allow you to pick up your own fruit.

Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s

I’m very strange. You don’t have to tell me – I already know. I’m one of the only people you’ll ever meet who enjoys paying bills. From the first moment I got bills after college – had to pay rent – I would sit down and pay them and feel a special satisfaction afterwards. First, it felt good to know I was set for another month. And second, I felt like a responsible adult. Someone who could ‘Cover her nut’ as they say. It’s a squirrel reference I got from my Dad.

But this extends to that odious task most people hate – Paying Taxes. I love the moment when I file our taxes for the year. I know I’m good to go for 12 more months. Whew! It’s not about getting a refund. We haven’t gotten a tax refund in zillion years. We always owe. But I like knowing we can pay our fair share.

It’s that time of year again. Tax Time. And being expats, we have to pay taxes in two countries. Super fun! Due to Covid-19, the due date for taxes in the US was pushed out to July 15. But here in Spain it’s June 30th – just like always. Let the count down begin.

We hired a firm out of Barcelona to take care of this for us. They know all the ins and outs of the tax treaty between the US and Spain – so we don’t pay double taxes. The US is the only country in the world that makes it’s citizens, who don’t reside in the country, continue to pay taxes there. And though, yes, the tax rate is higher in Spain than for the same income in the US, you do get credit for what you pay in one country, with what you’ll owe in the other.

Unwinding the mysteries of taxes in the US was something we relied on experts for, too. Ed, the magician, has handled our taxes for a decade. And he is still our go to for anything on the fiscal front. In Spain, we have a junior member of the firm helping us navigate the maze that is the Agencia de Tributaria.

When I first saw this name on a building, and on an envelope in our mailbox from the previous tenants, I thought it was from the water board. I mean ‘tributary’ sounds like something to do with a river. But no, unless its a river of money – it’s actually derived from ‘tribute’ as in ‘paying the tribute you owe to the king.’ In Espanol – it’s the Tax Man. And we won’t pay this tribute in bushels of wheat from our fields. Or sheep. They just want cold hard cash. But unlike the US where, as a private citizen, you pay everything you owe in one go on the due date (usually April 15) – here you can pay 60% on June 30th and the remainder on November 5th. Interest free. And you don’t sign your tax forms. The government figures if your gestoria is filing your forms, you probably agree with what they’re doing.

Moving to Spain, you hear many expats discuss paying taxes – or avoiding paying taxes, at all – very frequently. But I’m a big believer that when we live in a civil society we are responsible for each other. That means we need to pay our fair share in the country where we live. Many times on this blog I’ve expounded on my love for the Spanish health system and much more. And recently they passed a minimum income scheme that will top up those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder. No – it’s not welfare or unemployment – like in the US. It’s where those who still work, yet don’t earn a minimum amount to live are assisted in topping up their monthly income.

We love living in Spain and I like knowing we’re contributing to all of it. When we drive on roads, we helped to maintain them. When we walk through the park, our taxes are keeping the grass mowed. We’re paying back in the US, too. Into the social security system that we don’t use but others do. And the younger generation will pay for us when the time comes. Maybe that sounds Polly Ana-ish. Perhaps you’ll call me naive. But it doesn’t matter – I’ll still smile as I see the Euros leave our account on June 30th and write the check to the US. It’s all good. For 12 more months.