Establishing your new life in Spain can be enormously exciting and stimulating. However at times, engaging with the system can be a rather frustrating and very bizarre experience. How you react to it depends on whether you are in Terminator or Monty Python mode. Here is my story of trying to get the water service for our apartment put into my name. This was first published in The Weekly Telegraph early in 2005.
Do many of you remember Flanders and Swan? I doubt they have much of a following here in Spain, but they were once famous in Britain for their comedy duets. One was entitled something like "The day the gas man came to call" and was a humorous tale of a simple household job requiring the attendance of the gas man. However as is so often the case, the simple job required just a little input from another trade before it could be completed, which then required work from yet another specialist. Before anyone realises it, two weeks have passed, several people have called, and now all you need is the gas man back to do the job he already has done once - which has been undone by all those who followed, and you are sorted! Most people laugh at the recording yet how many can laugh when it happens to them?
More than 40 years on from Flanders and Swan, you soon come to realise that life on the Costas of Spain in some ways hasnít moved on very much. But, are you able to laugh at you own experiences, or are you left raging, red-faced and about to start pulling at what little hair you have left? We all have our stories. Here is one of mine.
We moved here finally in January 2003. We had been going back and forth for the best part of a year, while I finished winding down my psychotherapy practice in the U.K., and had begun to find our way around here. This experience had seemed, on one level, like a succession of holidays, but now we were here in our Costa Blanca village with mountain and sea views, and all the boring but necessary things in life needed sorting. I chose to start with the water service, principally because a bill had arrived addressed to the previous owner of our apartment.
Not sure how to go about it, and at that point having very little Spanish, I asked in our bank Ė here they were helpful and spoke pretty good English and seemed to know their way around. "Oh, thatís easy said Maria, just go to the Tourist Information office up the road. Go on a Monday because the water man is there in the morning". Well my partner thought I was mad, but I insisted that was what I had been told, so the following Monday we were up early and in the car complete with passport, escritura (the purchase contract for our apartment), the unpaid bill and anything else I thought might be required - having been short of necessary items at the police station when trying to get at NIE number (needed to buy a place and another story), I was taking no chances.
A short ride and a long park later we were out of the car and heading for Tourist Information with me rehearsing my lines in Spanish like some mantra. We arrive, I give my all in Spanish and the woman on the desk looks at me, so, as is usual I say it all again, resisting the temptation to turn up the volume. This time my accent must have been O.K because she tells me that the water man isnít here today. "But the bank said he is here Monday mornings I say". Then it gets complicated because she tells me, in Spanish, that next Monday he will be here but this Monday he is at the Town Hall in, as it happens, the village we live in and have just driven from. I get the point. The water man does indeed work at Tourist Information, but only every other Monday. A few thanks later we rush back to the car and drive home in silence. My partner now is not talking to me because in the Tourist office I have had to ask him to shut up. He wants me to translate the exchanges in Spanish and his constant "What did you say" and "What did she say", wipes out my ability to follow in Spanish the conversation I think I am having.
Back in our own village, by the time we have found somewhere to park and got into the town hall, the water man is gone. So 2 weeks into getting the water bill in my name we at least understand the system (or so we think). We go home for coffee and Neurofen, and await week 3.
The following Monday morning we retrace our steps and this time when asking for the water man, the lady points at a door. Passing through it, there he is. I explain myself. He can help. He has a laptop and uses the reference of the bill we have brought and, there is our apartment on his system. So we are sorted?
Oh no. We canít take over the service, as bills prior to the one we have are outstanding. Here frustration and bewilderment take over having been told that this canít happen in Spain because paid bills for all services relating to the property are produced for the notary (a sort of solicitor for both sides in a sale and purchase) when the escritura is signed by all parties. But going into this now wonít help, so I ignore my partner who is telling me "Thatís not possible" which is at least different from his usual, "Whatís he saying?"
I enquire how much these bills total, and the water man adds them up, which in addition to the one we started with, come to a little more that 200 Euros.
So, anxious to end this 3 week saga I get out my wallet. "Ah, you cannot pay me" he says, "You must first have copies of the bills". I ask for copies, probably by now somewhat louder than when this discussion started. Yes of course you can, but not today. It is not possible because today the water man has no printer with him. "I can give you these next week at the Town Hall", he says. We go off to live our lives until the next meeting with the water man.
Monday of week 4 we are back in the impressive stone built Town Hall. The water man is here too and his computer and printer are working and yes, he has paper! After explaining all over again who I am and what I want, the 3 outstanding bills are produced and with a sense of achievement I get my wallet out again. "You cannot pay me", says the water man, "You must got to the bank and pay and come back with the receipt". Defeated again we leave with our 4 bills. "But we can just get to the bank and back again if we are quick", says my partner in an unusual burst of positivism. So we rush to the bank in the village, there to learn another lesson of administrative live in Spain. We learn that we can indeed pay these bills here, but, but not today, only on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. One of us is nearly apoplectic and one of us unable to stop laughing, making the enraged one go even redder. Defeated and humiliated we head off for coffee, more Neurofen and a siesta, worn down by the rigours of the day Ė it is not yet 11a.m.
The next day, alone and with 150 Euros in my pocket I head for the bank to get this job out of the way, or so I thought. "You canít pay that now" says the clerk, smoking a cigarette as if this is the norm, which of course it still is in many Spanish shops and offices. "But I say", thinking this might be a joke, but, as we are in Spanish, really having no idea, "Yesterday you said Tuesday to Thursday were O.K" It was no use arguing because back came the answer "Yes, but only between 8 and 11a.m". Afraid to go home with this news I must have given cigarette man a look, because he relents, mutters incomprehensibly and takes my money!
Monday of week 5 we are back with the waterman in the Tourist Information office. I have my receipts, all 4 of them and his PC is working, as is the printer and Lo and Behold, we have an agreement for the supply of water, or at least several sheets of closely printed type which has my name and address on it. I dutifully sign as directed, here, here, here, here and what seems like everywhere until it seems like I might have signed over the apartment rather than just to have water supplied to it. Everyone is smiling now and there is just one more piece of paper to sign and then the water man tells me there is a fee for taking on the supply. It is 12 Euros, which is nothing compared to actual bills, petrol costs, and general wear and tear on my thinning hair. But, and yes youíve guessed it I couldnít give the water man 12 Euros. Instead he gave me a new bill which I smiling took to the bank the next day at the appropriate time.
Monday of week 6 it is smiles all around at the Town Hall as I am presented with my supply contract. We shake hands and I am off, never to see the waterman again. We started this simple job in January and now we are in March and I am triumphant at its conclusion. Now where is that electricity bill that arrived for the previous owner!