Thursday, 5 February 2009

Spanish Bureaucracy for Beginners.

I'm definitely coming down with Administration Anxiety Complex. Or filloutaformaphobia. Or something like that.

When I was living in the UK, my encounters with government bureaucracy tended to leave me baffled at best - efforts by the Plain English Campaign notwithstanding, their forms might just as well have been in Spanish, for all the sense I could make of them. Especially the annual tax self-assessment. I haven't had to do one for years, thank god, but the thought of it still gives me the horrors.

But bureaucracy that actually IS in Spanish is a whole lot worse. To be fair, I don't think Spanish red tape is too bad, compared with some places (German friends confidently tell me theirs is the worst and I suspect they're right about that). But officialdom is a dialect in itself and when it's a dialect of a language you find largely incomprehensible at the best of times - well, you can imagine the problems.

Unfortunately, I have no choice but to plunge into the administrative maelstrom if I want to actually get paid for my English teaching endeavours. The company I work for has given me several life-belts in the form of idiot's guides, step-by-step instructions and sample forms to copy out. But no matter how well-prepared I am, a single query from the person at the desk sends the teetering edifice of my understanding crashing onto my head.

Take today: I had to visit a local tax office - any would do, I was told - and hand in a completed form to register myself as an official freelancer, or autonomo. The first office, which I'd painstakingly researched, Googlemapped and pinpointed on the Metro plan turned out to have closed down. Some time ago, if the graffiti covering the door was anything to go on. Rather than leave the area straight away for the address suggested in the window, I decided to visit a nearby police station so I could change the address on my Certificado de Registro (another necessary document when it comes to being paid - with the all-important "NIE" number. People have killed for less.). "You can stroll into any police station and change the address", I'd been told. Except you can't. The policeman miraculously understood my explanation in halting Spanish of what I needed and gestured me and (an increasingly weary) Theo to another office up the street. We duly followed his directions and I joined the queue at the bustling building where they were processing extrajaneros. When my turn came, the woman at the desk babbled something at me several times. Eventually, the bored policeman beside her, treating me like the imbecile I must have appeared to be, wrote another address on a piece of paper. "Go here," he instructed. I nodded meekly and went out.

By this time Theo, who had heroically got up early to accompany me on my expedition, ran out of patience. Traipsing to three offices in a decidedly un-Spanish-like steady drizzle went above and beyond the call of duty. He gratefully took my suggestion to go home and left me to carry on alone.

The central tax office I eventually arrived at was huge and impressively high-tech. There was an automated and highly complex queueing system, which involved several different zones, large electronic displays, which looked rather like Airport departure boards and acres of desks, each with another electronic display, which lit up with the relevant number once the clerk was ready. None of the old, "cashier number six, please," nonsense of UK post-offices and light years ahead of the ticket-dispensing supermarket deli counter.

I painstakingly translated the instructions and pressed the button for my number. I sat and waited with a chatty South American on one side of me (I didn't need to know any Espanol to work out that she was complaining about how long it was all taking) and an English-speaking woman who either had a severe case of Tourette's or whose patience had been so severely depleted by the Spanish tax system that she'd lost the ability to communicate in anything except expletives.

When your turn came, the departure board gave you a little fanfare, which for those who had thirty of more ahead of them in the queue, was probably well-deserved. A neat and smiling middle-aged woman dealt with me and it all went swimmingly, until she pointed at a cross I'd made on the form and said something in a questioning tone. I responded like a landed fish. Despite patient repetitions by the clerk, I was still none the wiser, so eventually resorted to ringing up the Human Resources lady at my employer's in the hope her superior Spanish would untangle the problem.

It did - as an English teacher I was indeed IVA (VAT) exempt, whatever that may mean - my documents were stamped and I was free to go.

My next stop was to the comisaria to try and do the change of address on my Certificado de Registro. When I arrived the woman guarding the entrance took one look at me and gave a piece of paper telling me how the system had recently changed for Romanians and Bulgarians. Not very helpful, really. Eventually, I managed to convey to her the reason for my visit and was waved to desk 7. Once there, it all seemed straightforward, until I was handed yet another form to fill in and told I had to go and pay a ten euro administration fee at a bank.

Grumbling, I filled out the form using educated guess-work (I'm definitely getting better with all the practice) and traipsed off to the nearest bank. The cashier there said something unintelligible to me several times and after a while I got the message that I would have to return at another time. I tried another bank with the same result. After trying three more, I gave up. They had all allocated particular days and hours to the business of accepting government administration fees and most of them had stopped accepting that type of business at 1030. It was 1230 by now and I'd had enough. Deciding a partially-successful mission was better than an outright failure and needing to regroup, I turned back for home.

Tomorrow, with renewed vigour, I shall tackle the next stage - arranging my social security payments. I can hardly wait.

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