Thursday, December 16, 2010

Culture Spain: living in Spain with officialdom (‘make ‘em larf!’)

Culture Spain: living in Spain with officialdom (‘make ‘em larf!’)



It is a moment of relief tinged with dread!  You are living in Spain and encounter officialdom.  This a part of Spanish culture that can challenge the best of us.  However, if you are living in Spain then, somehow, you will need to find a strategy that works…

Imagine, after waiting for what usually seems like hours, your number finally comes up in lights and you walk across that large space separating the waiting area from the chair that has just been vacated. No matter whether it is Telefonica, Endesa, Hacienda or the local town hall, the look on the waiting face says it all.

You don’t have to be a mind reader to interpret that, ‘Oh God, another ****** guiri (foreigner) with a sheaf of papers, this will take hours’ look. No doubt the offical is thinking that they will be late for their coffee break or actually have to do something – all because of this unwelcome intrusion into what they had hoped would be a morning’s light workload.

What should have been a simple bureaucratic exchange becomes, inevitably, a confrontation, with the official doing all he/she can to show the foreigner, even the ones with good language skills, that this is Spain.  Not just ‘this is Spain’ but ‘this is how things are done when you are living in Spain’ – however illogical it may appear to the uninitiated.

In the worst type of encounter, voices become raised and only the fear of disciplinary action stops the official from throwing you out of the office.

However, I have a formula that usually works…

Before each encounter with officialdom, I make a bet with myself about how long it will take to get the first smile or the first laugh.

As a first step you have to weigh up the opposition, but there’s plenty of time for that and while waiting you will be able to predict whether that spotty youth in number 4 will succumb to your wit more quickly than the well-endowed matronly lady in number 2. (Forget the bald but with side-hair-combed-over-the-top-of-his-head guy in number 3; he will never smile, much less laugh). And watch out for how they interact with their fellow countrymen.

In a large town or city officials will probably not recognise the person sitting face-on, but in small towns they will certainly know their cousin, ex-, mother, cousin, son/daughter. This makes my formula easier to operate, even guaranteed to succeed in such places, although I admit I have never had the opportunity to try it out in the great urban centres that are now as impersonal as the USA or the UK – but a sense of humour is a sense of humour wherever you are.

The trick is to make that grim, unsmiling, face lighten up and for the first time look at you as if you may be something other than a stupid guiri.I am not boasting when I say I can usually crack it in the first 60 seconds from sit-down, but then I have had a lot of practice and have studied officials’ Achilles’ heels, humour-wise, for decades.

Of course, when dealing with officials, you have to stretch the truth a little. I have never seen a football match in my life (sorry Clive!), but who knows that – apart from my wife and a few kindred souls? Therefore, when you ask the boredom-personified official shuffling his papers in front of you, “Didn’t I see you at the Málaga match last Sunday?”, he will prick up his ears.

Quite likely the official doesn’t like football either and, almost certainly, he was not at the match (nor were you!) – but he may just be an aficionado and that fact will allow him to react to what he believes to be another aficionado, at least with courtesy. I promise you will get a smile and, if you can follow it up with a remark like: “Actually, this was my first football match and I was taken by some Spanish friends….” Then the chasm reduces to a crack.

This is only an example. There are many such remarks that will melt the ice and that are critical to anyone living in Spain.

I asked a lady at Hacienda (the Spanish tax office) the other day whether it was true that they were all going out on strike in sympathy with the air traffic controllers and I got more than I bargained for. She broke into guffaws of laughter, nearly fell on the floor, and shouted around the office what I had just said – with a correspondingly gratifying response from her fellow bureaucrats. They will never forget me there.

It won’t always work though. I was stopped at a police checkpoint the other night and asked to take a breathalyser test. I made some obviously inadequate remark to the young officer about: ‘was it true that the government cutbacks had reduced the number of hours he had to be out late chasing drunken drivers like me (I had just left a funeral)?’ 

Unsmilingly, he told me: ‘Pongase serio! (‘Be serious!)……’

It was a rare failure.  However, if you intend living in Spain then it really is important to understand Spanish culture and recognise that dealing with officals here is an art form and one worth studying carefully – if you want to succeed quickly in getting anything done!

RELEVANT INFO:  How to Move Safely to Spain

Written by Andrew Linn who has lived in Spain for over forty years.  Andrew also writes for Spanish wine and food – a Blog for anyone with a passion for Spain, Spanish wine and the food of Spain.

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