Got The NIE!

One of my top priorities upon arriving in Spain was to apply for the número de identidad de extranjero (foreigner’s identity number), or NIE. This is a taxpayer ID number for foreigners, and with it one can work legally, pay taxes, and engage in other transactions like buying real estate. I’m not sure of all the things I can do with it, but it was a priority because with it I could be paid legally. Since I quit my job and moved here with savings to do a Master’s, earning some money would be a great help. I also hope to find full time employment after I complete my studies.

Although I’m an American, I have a built-in advantage since I also have Italian citizenship. Thus, with my Italian passport number, I was able to schedule an appointment online with the local police. But even that was no mean feat. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the online scheduling service reports that no appointments are available. (Of course, it tells you this after you go through all the steps, including inputting your data.) But I’d heard that 9:00 a.m. was the witching hour for this online system, so on Monday morning this past week I tried to schedule an appointment. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I repeated this, taking breaks to eat my breakfast, until 9:25 or so, when suddenly, I was brought to a page with a calendar. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t include appointments available the same week. I’d heard that waiting times were a month or longer, but I was able to schedule mine for Friday at noon. (Talk about lucky – I even got a time that didn’t require rush hour travel.)

Now, I’ve been through some bureaucratic webs before. My Italian citizenship, for example, was recognized after several years of compiling records, and five consular appointments between my parents and me. But I persevered and found success. Even if you’ve been to a DMV, you know that you have to prepare for anything. So I told myself, as I called my taxi, that I might not get the NIE today, but at least I’ll know something about the process.

The police station was a small building behind the Estación Norte in central Valéncia. Like anywhere else, you go to a window, they confirm your appointment and give you a number. Then you sit in a waiting room with one of those digital signs alerting everyone to who’s being served next. After about 20 minutes, my number 27 appeared, and I went through the door.

The gentleman who helped me was nice, but spoke quickly. I had trouble keeping up. First, he informed me that I’d paid too much for the required bank fee, 12 euro instead of 9 and change. I took this to mean I had to start over. After much confusion on my part, he got through to me: You can go back to the bank to get the difference back, or not. I laughed and said, “for less than three euro? And in this rain?” He replied, “Of course, but I’m duty-bound to inform you of this.” A-hah.

He also asked me if I really was a widower. What? I’d checked the wrong box, widower instead of divorced. But that was fine. There were a couple of other minor hiccups, but he processed everything, filed my papers, and printed a certificate and stamped it. It contained my NIE. Success.

“Toda lucha trae recompensa.” That’s what a classmate of mine told me. Every struggle brings a reward. So far this experience has presented some interesting struggles, many unexpected. But luckily, other things have been easier than expected. On to the next challenge.

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Expat’s First Haircut

What, you were expecting a recap of a bullfight?

Well, dear reader, the life of an expat is not all adventure. Not in the Hemingwayesque sense, anyhow. There is more than enough room for the mundane. What Christopher Moltisanti called “the f—ing regularness of life.” Look, squint. There’s your adventure, friend. For there’s nothing quite like the roller coaster ride of a haircut going wrong.

It’s hard enough in my homeland and my mother tongue. How many times have I said “not too short on top” and “blend it” only to have an overeager tonsor set his clippers to warp speed? It’s hard to find a good barber or hairdresser. If you found one, by God, hold on to that person, tip well, and if s/he moves across the country, well…think about it.

So imagine that feeling of lack of control, haircut going rogue, but in another language. How do you pump the brakes?

“Señor,” I said sternly. “No muy corto arriba,” I repeated. Not too short on top. He was going for it, getting closer to my scalp. He backed off a little. In fact, I think in the end he left my top a little long, but I’ll take it. I have a pretty ordinary/classic hairstyle and a full head of hair. Someone once compared it to Principal Skinner on The Simpsons, and yeah, my hair kind of has that shape. It shouldn’t be hard to understand if you’re a barber, but maybe next time I’ll just bring a picture of Principal Skinner. (I did bring a picture of myself with a good haircut.)

Nevertheless, the barbers were amiable and the barbershop was very nice. These were two Pakistani gentlemen, now living in València. So they were like me: Expats.

This was my first haircut abroad. I’d never backpacked for months on end or anything like that. This, the haircut, was one of the concerns in my mind when I considered moving. Maybe I’m still 17 at heart and just don’t want to have that feeling of going to school with a bad haircut. Though, when I was 17, I tried to cut my own hair, failed, went to Supercuts and had them take it down to a buzz cut. So I’ve been through worse.

The point is, this is one of those little victories. A haircut that turned out okay, my first haircut in Spain. It’d been on my mind since day one. But like a lot of challenges, once you get there, it’s not so difficult to surmount. You just do it. There have been other such challenges, mostly bureaucratic in nature, too boring to write or read about, that I’ve met. The haircut, that’s universal. It was another piece of the puzzle. I’ve been here a month now…my clippings are in a garbage bin headed for some Spanish landfill. That’s got to count for something, right?

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How To Get An Apartment In Spain Exactly The Way I Did

If you landed here expecting a magic bullet while hunting for Spanish flats, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m no more an expert on what I just did than a rat in a maze. And that’s exactly how I’ve felt this week, but the good news is, I’m eating that cheese, son.

The bottom line is, you don’t want to do it like I did it. I arrived in València on a Sunday, last Sunday as I write this. I had a temporary apartment booked through the following Saturday. That gave me six days to find a place. I do not advise doing this, but there were a few factors at play in my situation that gave me the short window.

Not that I would have gone home if I didn’t find something. In fact, as of Friday afternoon, I was not sure where I would be the following night. I was looking up airport hotels because, while still pricey, they were the cheapest option to buy myself another week. I was also asking myself questions like “So, does the YMCA have a branch here?”

It didn’t come to that, and my resourcefulness and – let’s face it – charmed life came through, big time. This evening I sit in a very nice, modern, furnished apartment. And I didn’t pay a realtor’s fee!

It turns out, realtors in València charge the finder’s fee to the tenant. This is not a new thing to me. I lived in the New York City area for 18 years, and I’ve paid a fee or two. It’s just that I thought I’d left that behind. There’s not a lot of looking out for the little guy in the Big Apple; agency fees are just one more item to add to the list of “reasons other people wonder why you live in New York.” But they do it in València too. I’m not sure about the rest of Spain.

Landlords also want proof of income. This is totally reasonable. I don’t have income. I have money, and I could pay a few months’ rent in advance. But anyway, you see where this is going. I don’t even have a Spanish bank account. Who would want to rent to me?

Well, I came close with one very nice, renovated apartment in Camins al Grau (I’m saying that neighborhood name like I know something about it – I don’t). It was through the owner, and things seemed to go swimmingly. “Tomorrow we’ll do a contract, you’ll bring the money, you can move in Saturday.” Then she slipped in that there were other prospective tenants looking at the place. Uh oh, I’ve seen this movie before. By 2 p.m. the next day, a family had rented it (and offered more money for it).

There were a couple of other places, which I thank sweet Jesus I did not rent. They just seemed run down and, frankly, a little gross. Suffice to say the photographs on some of these real estate sites deserve Pulitzers for their amazing presentation. You see a place online and it looks palatial and spotless. You get there and…all I can say about one creepy, dimly-lit relic was that if David Lynch ever moves to València, boy, do I have the spot for him. The broker who showed it to me took the stairs to the fifth floor because, she said, she was afraid of elevators. This seems like a prohibitive fear to have as an apartment broker, but I guess she makes it work.

Then there was the university residence. I’m here for a master’s program, and when I met with one of my professors on Tuesday, he told me about a residence hall across from where my classes would be. I went to check it out. It’s privately-owned, and the gentleman who showed me one of the rooms assured me that there were plenty of postgrads living there, that it wasn’t just 18-22 year olds. I certainly didn’t hear “Louie Louie” blaring from any of the rooms, which was a good sign. The single occupancy room he showed me was tiny, with a kitchenette, private bathroom, and small bed, desk, and table. But, I reasoned, I’d be around other students, and the building had study lounges, a cafeteria, and a gym. Plus, I’d never be late for class.

“Just go to our website and apply, it’s easy,” he said. “Within a day you’ll be accepted and you can pay and check in.”

I went home and applied. A day passed: Nothing. I emailed them asking why. “There are no single rooms left,” they told me. “Only shared doubles.” I would rather have heard them say “we don’t rent to your kind” than to be put in the position to consider, even for a second, the notion of sharing a room with some 20-year-old. The dorm system – I stopped calling it a “university residence” once I found out it I wouldn’t be living there – made no sense to me when I was in college, and it still doesn’t. I don’t think I have to go into reasons why.

All of these swings-and-misses left me pretty down in the count. But, there was one other resource. My professor also told me that there were faculty listings on the university website. That is, employees at the university with spaces to let posted ads on the site. I logged in and messaged a few of them. Long story short, one got back to me on Friday, and that evening we were agreeing to terms. The next day, I moved in.

So, when you move to Spain, you can try it my way, or plan a little better.

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The Big Move Is Ten Days Away

Well, here goes nothing.

In ten days, I will be on an airplane bound for València, Spain, and a new life of some kind.

Okay, so I’m not making history. Plenty of people have changed countries and continents. This includes millions of our ancestors, who didn’t have the luxury of air travel. Even today, for some, it’s a perilous decision, risking life and limb. I’m just a Yankee with two passports and a college education.

But hey, I’m not everybody else, I’m me. That can’t be helped. And like a lot of people out there, perhaps like you who are reading this, I dreamed of making this move for many years, but failed to act.

There was college, when I had every intention of taking advantage of the study abroad program my school had in Valladolid. That was torpedoed by sluggish grades, indecision, and Spanish class fatigue. By the time I got around to declaring my Spanish minor, I was on year four with one more to go.

Then there was age 27, when I was fortuitously laid off from a job in Los Angeles. Neither the job nor the city was a great fit for me, and I resolved to move back in with my parents in Wisconsin, save some money, and move to Barcelona to teach English. Fate intervened that time. It turned out living with one’s parents after several years of independence was constricting. Someone at NBC in New York called me about a job, and before I knew it I was back in the Big Apple, my independence reclaimed.

In the ensuing years I considered it, but it was never the right time or the right financial situation. Those weren’t excuses, necessarily. I made the best decisions based on the situations I was in. Still, Spain beckoned.

If you’re reading this blog and found it by searching “moving to Spain” or something like that, I’m sure you know what I mean. By now you may have surmised that this isn’t a kneejerk decision, and that I’ve probably been to the Kingdom of Spain at some point. I have! It was the first place I visited outside North America, in 2000. I had just moved to New York the first time, and was already restless. Walking through Midtown Manhattan one evening, I was stopped by a young lady who asked me directions in Spanish. I struggled to give them, and after the exchange, thought, “I don’t want to let my Spanish skills go.” The next day at work I booked a flight to Barcelona for around $360 on Lufthansa. (I didn’t consider the Catalan factor.) Then I decided to figure out how to get a passport. I spent eight or nine days in Barcelona, sleeping at a raucous youth hostel on Las Ramblas. Days were filled with sight-seeing and nights drinking.

Years later I enjoyed a too-brief layover in Madrid, and a few years after that, a few days in Malaga and Sevilla. All told, I’ve probably spent less than a fortnight in Spain. Obviously I have reasons for choosing it which I’m sure will make for some “listicle” in a later post. But for as much I’ve seen, researched, and talked to people about, there’s a lot I don’t know. And I like that. It means I’m going to learn some things – about Spain, and about myself, I’m sure.

So yeah, I’ve got some advantages here. I’m not fleeing persecution or malaria. But I am “burning the ships.” I’m leaving a dependable job after 11 years, and a metro area I’ve called home for most of my adult life. My family all live in the U.S. and so do most of my friends. Though I’ve networked and been referred to some friendly people by email, I don’t know anyone personally in Spain. I’ve also never set foot in València.

To use the old cliché, you could fill a book with what I don’t know about Spain. Or at least I can try to fill a blog. Let’s see what happens.

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