"I'm over it," I told my friend and fellow auxiliar though WhatsApp as I began my three-hour (yes, three!) wait for the bus to arrive.
A moment later, he'd asked: "Over what?"
"This country," I typed away bitterly. "I'm just going back to America. It was a fun couple of weeks, but I'm done."
I had done everything right. Determined not to end up as one of those horror stories on some blog collecting dust in the recesses of the internet, I'd done my homework. I meticulously read every article I could find, carefully printed out each document, made several copies, and packaged everything in a nice new folder. With the bus fare, tax, and a little bit of food, I'd spent nearly 30 € and sat around in a stuffy waiting room for two hours only to be turned away thirty seconds after my number was finally called because of an imperfection on my tax form.
Have you ever seen a grown man reduced to tears out of sheer frustration?
That's a feeling you should acquaint yourself with if you're going to spend any length of time in Spain--frustration. Though many of my coworkers have dispelled the "daily siesta" myth, there's one stereotype I've found to be painfully true: no one knows what they're doing. The general populous are a wonderful people, always friendly and eager to help, but spend a week here and you'll get the distinct feeling that the government can be a bit...disorganized.
Before I had even left the United States, CIEE had told me upfront that their TEFL program was "hands-off." For me, it was an intimidating statement, but ultimately one that I felt was the best for me. After all, I was going overseas to work, not study in university; I wanted the freedom to live on my own terms, even if I was in a foreign country. Even though I knew what I was getting into, however, I never could have anticipated just how much I have had to grow and adapt these past few months. The truth of the matter is, it's going to be difficult no matter how much you prepare, but hopefully you can learn what to expect though my experiences (and frustrations), and make the "hands-off" experience a little less stressful.
Before you arrive
As I've mentioned in a previous post of mine, the mess of paperwork begins long before you ever arrive in Spain. Don't make the same mistake I did--get these things done as soon as you can. Waiting on the US government can be a slog (though nothing compared to what it's like here in Spain!) and it's far better to have extra time than not enough. As far as paperwork goes, there are two main things you need to worry about:
If you already have one of these, don't worry. But if you're like me, a guy from the middle of Midwestern nowhere who had barely been outside of the state let alone the country, then you'll need to have this done before you can even think about getting your visa. A passport is fairly straightforward to get; all I did was stop at my local courthouse and pick up the form, which I filled out and enclosed with passport-sized photos I got taken at Walgreens, as well as the sizeable fee* for a first-time passport. If not for the fact that I was in the process of getting a new birth certificate and social security card, this would have been the easiest part of the entire process. Well, if I'm being honest, it probably still was.
Oh, the dreaded visa. As far as the United States goes, this is the most challenging part you'll face with the American government. It's not so much "jumping through hoops" as it is working with several bodies of government to achieve the same thing, and it feels like none of them have ever heard of or considered the other parts involved. There are a number of steps included in this process, which you can find elsewhere online in more detail than I'll be listing off here, but this is more or less what I had to do:
- Make an appointment with the Spanish consulate of Chicago (around a 7 hour drive away from me).
- Fill out the application form.
- Get another set of passport-sized photos.
- Print off my acceptance letter from the Ministry of Spain.
- Get a signed and stamped medical certificate from my doctor.
- Get my fingerprints taken at the courthouse.
- Fill out and send in a form to get my background check from the State of Wisconsin.
- Wait for the background check to arrive.
- Send the background check in to the state to get an apostille.
- Send the appropriate documents to a translator in Minnesota.
- Pay for all of this stuff (filing fees, USPS envelopes, etc).
- Make copies of literally everything...twice.
Add in entire weeks of waiting time, and I spent more or less my entire summer doing this part. In fact, I only managed to receive my visa mere days before my (non-refundable) flight to Spain. It is not worth procrastinating on, so start on this paperwork as soon as you can, because it will make your life a lot easier by the time you're actually ready to fly overseas.
*Now, there's a third thing you'll have to prepare only tangentially related to bureaucracy, and that is money. As anyone who is familiar with the government of any country will tell you, doing just about anything has a fee involved, whether it be applying for a passport, TIE card, or just filing documents. I scrimped and saved all summer and managed about 2000 USD for my trip over, and believe me, I've needed every penny. Take it from me--you can never have too much cash.
Once in Spain
Ah, yes. At last, after a summer of wondering if you'll ever even make it out of your country, you finally arrive in Spain. Well, good luck, because now the real stress has begun. Looking back, I laugh at the younger, more naive Sebastian, who thought the visa process was the most stressful thing he had ever endured. Of course I had read all of the fear-mongering articles online, the ones from disgruntled auxiliars who talked about being paid several months late, or nearly being deported for not having the appropriate documentation. Well, I thought with a haughty snort, they clearly weren't as prepared as I would with no doubt be. What I didn't understand at the time was it doesn't matter how prepared you are, the Spanish government will always find new and creative ways to make sure you're wrong.
The good news about doing paperwork in Spain? You can buy a bottle of wine for 1 €.
I had already been teaching a week or so before I received an email from the Ministry of Education, letting me know that I needed not only a Spanish bank account, but I needed to go into the city of Murcia (an hour away) and sign a piece of paper at their offices. Oh, and I had to get it done by Friday. And this was Wednesday night.
Remember when I said doing things here was frustrating?
One of the first things I learned living here is that the Ministry is extremely disorganized. Now, every single person I've ever worked with has been kind and understanding (more on that later) but I often felt like the blame was getting passed on to someone else. After all, they hadn't contacted me at all upon my arriving in country; I'd emailed my schools and gotten my work schedules all on my own, found my own transportation, and began working without any help. I didn't realize I needed to sign papers, and I certainly didn't realize there was a due date. The only way I ever felt "in the loop" was when I spoke to the other auxiliar I work with (the one mentioned at the beginning of this article--shoutout to Darryn!).
My advice? Take the old adage "if you want something done, you have to do it yourself" to heart. Don't wait on the Ministry to contact you, email them if you have any questions. They were prompt in their responses to me, and more than willing to help with answering my questions, and they even met with me in person without an appointment when I was having a rough go of it (I'll return to that later).
Of course, they still have their problems. I could go on about how all of the auxiliars were required to come to an "orientation reception" (which was neither of those things) in the city of Murcia, during which they gave a room full of Americans and Brits a short speech entirely in Spanish (seriously, what was the thought process there?!), or how we were suddenly required to send a scan of our bank information to the Ministry so that we could all get paid on time, a dilemma that was given to us with only a weekend to complete it and the reliance on 400 people to actually do it or else no one got paid, but I won't. The Ministry is disorganized and it's always someone else's fault; I can accept that much. It was dealing with the foreigner's office that was the real source of my problems.
Spanish residency card
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, getting my residency card, or TIE (tarjeta de identidad de extranjero) had stressed me out to the point of nearly packing it in and going home. That was only the first of three trips to the foreigner's office, upon which I was at last given the paper I needed to come back and pick up my card in a month. There are many guides online which list the necessary documentation needed for the appointment, but none that properly convey the amount of frustration you will no doubt feel.
The first thing you need to do is actually make an appointment, which is easier said than done. I was told by one of the gentleman at the Ministry office that they have something like 400 auxiliars but the foreigner's office only makes 60 appointments available. It is really a matter of trial and error--and believe me, I was trying (and failing) for weeks before I managed to get my first appointment. However, I was fortunately given the advice that new appointments open up on Fridays anywhere from 3-6pm local time, so I managed to snag one after refreshing the page every 15 minutes or so.
This is why it was so frustrating to be turned away only a few short minutes after my appointment began. I found out very quickly that many of the workers in the office just don't care about you, which is something the other auxiliars I know have enthusiastically agreed with. I've had very few rude experiences in Spain, but the only ones I've had have been only in the foreigner's office. The woman didn't care that the bank had already accepted my tax form and that I'd paid the 15 or so euro fee, because a box at the bottom was partially cut off due to a printing error, which meant waiting three hours for the bus to arrive, taking the local bus back to the station, then taking another bus back to my city, going to the bank again, paying the tax again (with no refund, of course), and then refreshing every fifteen minutes the next Friday afternoon to get another appointment, and doing it all again an entire month later.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a very nice officer on the third (yes, third!) attempt, who had processed my application in a matter of minutes. It was more or less pain-free, and as I left the office I felt like I'd taken my first breath in weeks. Working with the office was downright infuriating at times but unfortunately there's nothing short of a pinch of good luck that can help make it any easier. My advice is to just accept that things are probably going to go wrong, do your best to be prepared, and tell yourself not to give up even if it seems tempting. For all of the stress involved, I would do all of it again so long as I got to teach my students--in fact, they were one of the only things that kept me from buying the first ticket back to Wisconsin.
Registering in your city
After the mess that was getting the TIE, your empadronamiento is extremely easy, and you can get it done very shortly after you arrive. All you need is your landlord's signature and the correct paperwork filled out, and you can have the whole thing finished in an hour. It's something you should do and take advantage of, but really it shouldn't take up any real estate in your mind. And if you're as unfortunate as I was, you'll have plenty of time while waiting to get an appointment at the foreigner's office in order to stop by your local ayuntamiento and pick up the forms, which take all of ten minutes to complete.
All the rumors are true: working with the government here is a pain in the neck. Unfortunately, there isn't really much that you can do to prevent something from going wrong, but as long as you prepare for the worst and hope for the best, you'll be able to slog through it all with your head held high.
As I've mentioned, there were times when I honestly wanted to go home. I wondered if I had ever really been cut out for a "hands-off" experience, or if I had gotten myself in too deep. Despite all of my many (many, many...) difficulties since arriving here in Murcia, there have been few things more satisifying in my life than after finally having a successful appointment, and knowing that I had done it all on my own. After years of being dependent on other people and starving for some independence of my own, having even the smallest amount of success was nothing short of liberating. As my parents would tell you, I've had to learn a lot in my life "the hard way" and this experience has been no exception. Still, I'd do it again in a heartbeat--and none of it would have been possible without my TEFL training through CIEE.
If you're concerned about whether or not you will be able to do these sorts of things on your own, the TEFL course is actually a good way to test the waters. Not only did the course provide me with the cultural understanding I needed to make the move to a foreign country, but it helped me to manage my time and gave me a taste of independence outside of the rigid classes and schedule of university. Even though they offered no direct in-country support, they still provided me with the backbone I needed to make any of this possible. If you're like me, and independence is something you crave, then trust me when I say that it's all worth it in the end. And if you find yourself in a situation like me, well, being stuck in a Mediterranean region with good food, cheap wine, and white beaches isn't much of a problem.