The week it was Christmas

Although our Christmas was spent in Germany with family, this blog is about Spain, so here are some highlights from the lead up to Navidad in Tortosa.

The Christmas spirit is alive and well here, although not officially until the long weekend of the 6th to the 8th of December. Before that time the fairy lights hung throughout the town lay dark. The 8th of December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a public holiday across Spain. Since then, the streets and buildings have been covered in Christmas lights and signs wishing you Bones Festes or Bon Nadal (happy holidays and Merry Christmas in Catalan). It’s beautiful.

Christmas_lights
Christmas lights along our street. The picture does them little to no justice.

In Tortosa, the long weekend was also when the Christmas market was held. Local crafts, crepe vans, and a vat of melted chocolate that was given out free to children (and lost-looking Australians) were all part of the party. While not quite as Christmassy as the German Weihnachtsmarkt, it still made us feel very festive.

As Christmas came closer, more and more decorations were put into shop windows, and more and more Santas appeared. The weekend before Christmas we spotted three giving out lollies in the street, one on a stage posing with children, and one being pulled on a tricycle with an accompanying Santa-dog behind a drumming band! This is weird because Spanish children generally receive their gifts from the Three Kings on January the 6th. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of that one.

Nougat also seems to be a big part of Christmas here, although maybe it’s important year-round and I just don’t know it yet. There are beautiful little nougat (or torrens) stores selling slabs of the stuff, along with almond meal cakes baked into the shapes of animals.

Tio_waytogo
Our own little Tió measuring about 10cm long. Not much room for nougat in there…

Nougat plays an important role in the story of Tió de Nadal the Christmas Log. Tió is  ubiquitous Christmas companion around these parts, and we’ve seen him in shops everywhere. Tió’s job is to sit at the fireplace and get ‘fed’ by the family every day from the 8th of December until Christmas Eve. On the 24th, little Tió is beaten up until he craps out nougat and candy, and not a stinky herring. There’s even a song about it! Apparently Catalonians also install El Caganer, a little pooing man in their nativity scenes, another glorious faeces-based Christmas tradition.

Feliz Navidad y Bon Nadal!

The week we made it into the system

Also known as the week we slept outside in the street for a night to apply for our “alien cards”…

When we finally picked up our Spanish visas last month, the Melbourne consulate said we needed to present ourselves to the Oficina de Extranjería (foreigner or alien office) within a month of arrival and apply for a Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero (TIE, or Foreigner card) to make sure the visa stayed valid. No worries, we thought, easy!

Obviously not quite that easy. When we arrived and spoke to some other extranjeros, they told us that we needed to go to the Policia (or Comisaría Local) because there was no Oficina de Extranjeía in town. Most of the people we spoke to were also from other European countries, and didn’t know about the TIE process because they don’t need one.

So we visited the Police station, and after several trips and conversations, the smiling El Jefe told us that we need to provide proof of where we live, some more documents, some photos and a copy of our passports. For anyone playing at home, more specifically you need:

  • A volante empadronamiento, a form from the local town hall that shows you are a registered resident of the area. To get THIS form you need a bond form (or Model 2) from your landlord or real estate agent. It took three visits to the town hall before we cracked this nut.
  • A photocopy of your visa
  • Two passport photos
  • A copy of your resolution, a letter from the Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social authorising your residency (you need this to get your visa as well)

We have by some miracle managed to cobble together these documents already. Great! Can we apply now? No no, says El Jefe. You need to be one of the first 20 extranjeros here in the morning. Come at 6am, we will hand out the tickets at 8am.

We get there at 7am the next morning. Too late. There are 25 names on the makeshift list taped to the wall next to the police station and everyone there looks cold and tired. The next morning we write our names on a new sheet of paper that has been stuck up at about 10am for the following day. We get up at 6am and rush down to the station but that new list has been replaced by yet another list, and our names are not on it. Instead there is a mob of tired, slightly scary extranjeros that tell us no, you need to be here all night to ensure your spot.

And so it was that we spent the next night, one of the longest of the year, camping out. We were there from 7pm until 8am when the policemen arrived to hand out the 20 numbers to those who would be seen that day.

waiting
Waiting outside the police station with the other extranjeros

I’m not sure how I would have felt if I had been there alone as a woman, but with my man there I felt perfectly safe. All of the other extranjeros, from Pakistan, Algeria, Romania, Belarus, were very friendly. Some were lining up for their partners, their nieces, and many were old hats at the process. Apparently you need to go through the same process to renew your residence card, which needs to happen every one to five years depending on your visa.

We ate snacks, listened to audiobooks, huddled under a blanket, rested on some cardboard boxes and kept a beady eye on the list. At around 4am, the original sheet of paper was taken down and a revised list was made, crossing out the five or so people who had simply written their names down and walked away. Fools! we thought as we shivered. Despite the unofficial nature of the process, there was a real sense of dignified procedure to it, a sense of earning your place.

As the sky slowly grew lighter there was some kerfuffle as the list finally hit its limit and the people who had not stayed over returned to find themselves gone. This was one of the only times we’ve been glad to not speak much Spanish, because all we could do was watch the discussions play out while making sure the list was still taped securely to the wall.

List
Man with the list. The first list…

At 8am the policemen arrived and we formed the order that had been decided at 4am. We were numbers 7 and 8. The cops did not seem to care how the order was determined, as long as they didn’t have to do it. After we received the numbers we had an hour before we would be processed – just enough time for some food and rejuvinating hot tea.

Finally we made it through to the police administration lady who processed our applications in about five minutes and sent us off to the bank to pay the 15€ taza (tax). After we had returned with our receipt that was it! Well, not absolutely it. We are now in possession of two justificantes, or letters to say that our application is in the pipeline. We’re in the system! In 45 days we can go to the police station between 1pm and 1:30pm and start asking if our alien cards are ready yet. Isn’t that civilised?

UPDATE 16 February 2015: We are with cards!! This afternoon I picked up my tarjeta de extranjero. It has a big smiling picture of me on it (none of that neutral face stuff you need to do for your passport in Australia) and it valid until the end of October. October! Which means we will have to do this all again in eight months.

The week we found a house

Actually, it’s a flat. Un piso. Not quite the orange orchard we dreamily aimed for on arrival, but we love it. The four (!) balconies look out across a winding pedestrian street that is currently full of fairy lights, and the rooms are warm enough, furnished and comfortable.

Nuestro_piso
Four of those balconies are ours!

Renting a place in Spain has been a good introduction to the people here. Everyone we’ve spoken to has given us the number of a real estate agent they know, or a friend who might be able to help. We’ve had landlords and agents drive us from our hotel to check out apartments, meet us with a smile and try patiently to communicate, even though our Spanish is still woeful.

It’s also been an interesting interaction with the economic times in the country. I don’t pretend to know anything about it really, but there are hundreds and hundreds of places for sale here; ‘En Venda’ signs (for sale in Catalan) cover many of the balconies. To cover costs in the meantime many of the flats are also available for rent. Our apartment falls into this category. Goodness knows what will happen if the flat sells while we are here.

Given the level of bureaucracy associated with many other aspects of Spanish life, the turn-around time from finding our apartment to getting the keys was surprisingly quick. On Tuesday morning we looked at it – we liked it, tried (unsuccessfully) to bargain the rent down, and got the keys at 6pm on Wednesday afternoon. Easy! To sign the contract all we needed our NIE (those all important National Identity Numbers we waited for in Australia), a bank account, and the cash…

If you do not rent directly from the owner you need to pay a commission to the agent who helped you out. This is normally one month’s rent. That, plus a month’s rent for bond and the rest of the month’s rent in advance meant that we shelled out almost 900 euro in half an hour. BUT, considering that our monthly rent here is similar to a week’s rent in Melbourne, I can’t really complain.

spanish_pillowcase
A big long pillowcase for a big long nap.

Now comes the filling of the house. We have done three junk shop and supermarket runs in the last three days and have got all the essentials: tomato sauce, wine, cutlery and sheets. Did you know that pillows and pillow cases in Spain are sold as one long pillow slip, the same length as the bed? The lovely sheet salesman across the road got his mamá to cut ours in half, to fit our two pillows meant for single beds! The more you learn…

 

The week we arrived

I hope to write every week about our experiences here in Tortosa, highlighting the key event that happened over the previous seven days. You know, like on Friends, where each episode is ‘The One where Ross did something something’. But on this, our first week in Spain, I could write a post for every day. So much has happened and everything seems momentous!
It’s the week we said goodbye to our loved ones and spent 26 hours travelling to get to Tortosa, a little town on the Ebro River and our home for the next year. We bore the travel quite well really, considering we left blistering Melbourne heat and went straight from the pub to the airport. The movies we watched were a credit to the airline, and we even got a bit of sleep. The internet makes the world seem very small sometimes but travelling by plane for 23 hours, and then 3 hours on a train makes you realise that it is still pretty big. I find that somehow reassuring.
Tortosa_at_dusk_
My view on the walk home. Not too shabby!
We are yet to find a house at the time of writing, but we both feel pretty comfortable here. The people are amazingly friendly (and patient with our lack of language), the views are incredible and even though the water tastes rotten (thanks for spoiling us Melbourne), we are getting used to it (or cutting it with juice). The Spanish attitude towards food is very real here – today I googled ‘how to eat like a Spanish person’ and yep, it’s exactly like that. Chatty morning tea, lunch from 2 until 4, dinner from 10. We are yet to stay awake until 10:30…
whitebait
Some delicious whitebait treats to get us through to Spanish dinner time
This week also marks the week I started my new job as a climate researcher for UERRA at Catalonia’s Universitat Rovira i Virgili. Some would argue that starting a new job 42 hours after arriving in a new country is a bit foolish and I would agree with them. My jet lag made it pretty hard for me to take on any new information about the job or the tasks that lie ahead. However, I did get a bit of admin done, including a swipe card and a bank account. That last one required us to sign no less than 13 forms!
We were in purgatory for months in Australia before our arrival, waiting for our Spanish visas and all important NIEs (National Identification Numbers) to be sorted. More on that at another time, when we can look back and laugh. Already I’m so glad we got to wait at home, rather than going through that process here. There are a few more steps before we can call ourselves legit Spanish residents, and I’m sure there will be more on that later too.
For now, we will force ourselves to stay awake until it is a respectable teatime like 9:30pm, and get ready for the long weekend! Monday is a holiday across Spain, and Tortosa is celebrating with a sunny forecast, a Christmas market and a poultry exhibition. Obviously. Hopefully we’ll make the most of all three. Hasta luego!

28 June 1836: Snowfall in Sydney

My PhD was on the past climate of southeastern Australia. This involved looking at lots of different sources of old weather data from the 1800s. Newspapers, government records and farmer’s diaries: each source an important clue to the history of Australia’s climate.

While my work focussed mainly on quantitative data (numbers) rather than qualitative descriptions of what happened (words), using both sources of information can improve our understanding of the weather of the past. Plus, much like music and lyrics (great film), they tell a much better story together.

I want to share some of the more exciting events in the archives of Australia’s weather. Everyone loves talking about the weather, and extreme events, woah! Can we talk about anything else? So let’s start with an easy one. A classic. Sunday 28 June, 1836: snowfall in old Sydney town.Read More »