An Aussie in Galicia: Discovering that bureaucracy is Spain's national sport

The Local Spain
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An Aussie in Galicia: Discovering that bureaucracy is Spain's national sport
File photo of a council office in Spain. Photo: AFP

This week, Heath Savage, who moved from the Sydney suburbs to rural Galicia, discovers the challenges of Spanish bureaucracy.


“Spanish is The Loving Tongue”, sang Bob Dylan in 1973. It was always, to my ears, a more romantic, sensual sound than French, which I learned to speak reasonably well during my years working in Belgium, as a chef and bar manager. Spanish, or, as we have learned to call it in our new home, Castellano, sounds no more like Gallego than Italian sounds French.

Castellano is the tongue in which we have conducted all of the documentation and processes required to make our dream a reality. Documentation - completion and discussion of - is, we discovered, the national sport.

On May 20th 2018 we flew to Santiago de Compostela, which sits 114km north-west of our village, to view the house we had decided, from our study in Sydney, to purchase.

Yes, it sounds mad. You buy books online, not houses! We did not commit until we had a building inspection, and a full report by architects. The Registro de la Propiedad and Cadastre were also inspected by a property lawyer. We were told that  usually people just use a gestor, but we are thorough types, and we opted to spend some money on research rather than buy blind and find, beyond the point of no return, that we had fallen foul of the infamously complex Galician property laws, or that the house required more renovation than was evident on amateur inspection.

That trip back in May was all about matching the dream with the reality. Reality meant legal necessities: obtaining a Número de Identidad de Extranjero – identification number for foreigners - and opening a Spanish bank account. These are chores that require patience, and dozens of photocopies of passports/ID/Birth Certificates, as well as numerous unflattering, unsmiling photos of self.

We arrived like new kids at school, with a neat folder all ready to go. That old “castaña” - all Aussies are descended from convicts – is always a conversation-stopper when we meet expats from other countries. That said, in my new photos, all that was lacking was a jacket covered in little black arrows and a number in front of me.

I had read a few expat rants that complained of how labyrinthine Spanish bureaucracy is, and how unhelpful its bureaucrats; as if encountering government departments and their snarling, slavering gate-keepers is a joyous experience in any country!

Rubbing up against a jobsworth in Australia, the UK, or anywhere else, is usually an unpleasant necessity. Government employees are bred in small cages on factory farms. They have their sense of humour removed surgically by HR before being leashed behind a desk and given a computer.


Photo: Billiondigital/Depositphotos

We took deep breaths and bashed on. We were dropped at the police station in Monforte the day after we landed, jet-lagged after a 30-hr non-stop journey. The mission: obtain an NIE each. We took a number, we sat down. We were summoned after ten minutes. The young lady who suffered our Google-translated Spanish, sorry, Castellano, smiled that smile that we all paint on when someone weird and smelly sits next to us on a long train journey, and we wish they had sat somewhere else.

She processed us promptly. We had to leave the station, pay a fee at a bank, then return to have the requisite rubber stamps applied to our new NIE paper. The man at the bank could not have been lovelier, and even welcomed us to Galicia! On return, our young lady was just leaving for lunch. She spotted us, turned around, sat back down at her desk, and finished the job for us. So, we didn’t have to queue again or re-explain. Job number one done! Not painful at all!

Job number two: open a Spanish bank account. A particular bank was recommended by a Scottish expat. of our acquaintance (If you want advice on banks and money, ask a Scot – they did, after all, invent modern banking as we know it - Alexander Hamilton, Philadelphia 1791).

The word’s most cheerful bank teller greeted us with genuine warmth. She conducted all the necessaries via our friend Google, created our account, and provided us with all that we needed to proceed with the house purchase. We went back in and gave her a box of chocolates next day. Months later, we met her again, sitting behind us in our village church with her mother. Our new world is a small one. We like that.

Fifteen months, on we have registration cards, a Spanish driving license, and social security cards.

At each day’s end we watch the sun set. We have forgotten the form-filling, and the minor frustrations. We wish our passing neighbours “boas tardes”, which trips more easily from our foreign tongues.

READ MORE: Follow the adventures of Heath in Galicia



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