Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Independencia...an outsiders view

In my last blog (which some might have considered slightly negative, but was brought about by my frustration so apologies) I touched briefly on the issue of Catalan Independence. Since then, with an Independence referendum looming in Scotland in 2014, the calls for the Spanish Government to allow Catalunya to hold it's own have increased tenfold. David Camerons attitude towards Scottish  calls for a referendum should go a long way to showing Madrid how they should react ( and should have reacted) to the same calls from the Generalitat.

Allow me to elaborate.Recently, on the 12th of October, the rest of Spain, and some people in the vicinity, celebrated the Dia de Hispanidad, or Spanish National Day. This celebrates the day that Columbus showed up on the shores of Cuba and asked the nearest Cigar-smoking native paddling an outrigger canoe the best way to Calcutta. Generally a quiet event around this area, this year the day seems to have taken on more sinister undertones.

One of the main things I've noticed is that mainstream TV here, and by mainstream I mean Television Espanola and other Spanish channels, has suddenly become very Pro-Spain/Anti-Catalan, and a lot more Politicians seem to be crawling out of the woodwork to denounce Catalan calls for Independence as "High Treason", "Illegal", & "Unconstitutional", with Catalan Nationalists being labelled "Nazis" by many in the Partido Popular (Spains ruling Party). This is, in itself, pretty rich, considering the way Catalans have been treated over the last three centuries, and more recently during the Franco years, when every effort was made to eradicate, not only suppress, the Catalan Identity, with their language made illegal, and pro-Catalan sympathizers - or anyone suspected of being one - often rounded up by the Guardia Civil and shot in the street or thrown in to prison on trumped up charges. The fact that many Catalans born during WWII grew up in exile in France, were bombed by the German army and many more were put into Nazi Germany;s infamous "Camps" just adds insult to injury.

This latest insult has come about as Catalans are being accused of indoctrinization in schools in the region as José Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, said that a lack of emphasis on Spanish language and history in the schools in the region has helped foster support for independence. To claim that teaching Catalan in schools, and other subjects through Catalan is on par with Mr. A. hitler and Co's brainwashing of a generation of the stereotypical Blond-Haired Blue-Eyed Hitler Youth is Laughable - with a capital L. Even more so when, on Spanish TV, the PP's second in command claimed to have heard a 6 year old child claim she favoured Independence because otherwise her classmates would call her a "Fascista". Six years old!!, just goes to show how far playground bullying has come since I was that age, because I sure as hell had no idea what that meant, politically or otherwise.

Of course, the irony in this latest insult is entirely lost on Madrid, especially when you take into account recent declarations by one of the Spanish Army's General(issimo)'s, and I quote: "Catalan Independence...will happen over my dead body, and those of lots of other Spanish soldiers (sic)". Madrid's Pro-Spain propaganda machine has been at full tilt recently too, a la Goebbels, with a "Keep Catalunya in Spain" rally in Placa Catalunya on the 12th said to have attracted over 100,000 people. I work in an office overlooking the Placa. I was there. That many weren't. They just about filled the Placa, with their double sided flags, Spanish on one side, Catalan "Senyera"(minus the star on Blue triangle which shows support for Independence) on the other. Many of my colleagues also overheard people say that they had only come up from Madrid for the day and weren't even Catalan.

On top of that, on the 11th of September, the Catalan National Day (Celebrating their stubborness in holding out for 14-months during the Spanish War of Succession against the Spanish King Philip V. The city finally fell on September 11th 1714) a march of almost 1.5 to 2 million people - 25% of the population in Catalunya - calling for Independence filled Placa Catalunya, Passeig de Gracia and surrounding areas, but was said, again by the media in Madrid to have attracted just over 600,000.

Many Spaniards will try to make out that anything pro-catalan is just propaganda, that there is no ill-feeling , that they respect the Catalans, and many probably do, however even I, as far from Catalan as you could probably get, have been insulted when I've spoken Catalan to the wrong person, and whether they like it or not, as an outsider looking in, I can see plenty of antagonism towards the Catalans. Am I pro-Catalan?.....More than I'm not. Can I see any referendum/Independence happening in the near future?...not really. Would I vote if required to?...yes.

 I do feel that Madrid should take a leaf out of David Cameron's book in his dealings with the Scottish. If they feel so confident that the majority of Catalans don't want to secede (Although threatening comments like the one from the General above bely that sentiment) let them have their referendum, and hopefully both sides will respect either outcome.

*Disclaimer. These are my own opinions and observations, you don't have to agree with them or like them, just respect them.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Customer Service, Red-Tape, & Taxes

So, it's been a while since my last (first) post....I guess I could blame lots of things, but mainly the art of getting settled - again - trying to make a new home feel like home, the added stress of a new job, training for said job etc would be the main culprits, so yeah....lots of things will be blamed.

First of all, we are slowly settling, the commute to work has been negotiated (sleeping on the train have become a fine, calculated art, as has waking up on time :-P...), the girls have started in the creche, and we've even managed to hit the beach a couple of times, despite living a few hundred yards from it. The weather has been, well, "Scorchio", and rain dances don't work.

The most stressful part of moving back to Spain has to be, above all else, the sea of Red Tape. A big warning to anyone planning on moving out, be prepared, be very very prepared, you'll drown in a sea of it ....and even that won't help. Be prepared to spend lots of time in queues, making phone calls, being told one thing by one person, something else by a colleague of theirs in the same department, and something entirely different again by someone else in the same building.

Case in point, Jany and I had lived here before, we had our own NIE's (SOFI number in Holland, PPS number in Ireland), had our own Social Security numbers("SS" going forward, not to be confused with soldiers wearing Black Uniforms, Jackboots, and goosestepping), all we needed to do was get the girls added to our existing SS numbers and we could get the local medical cards. These are, needless to say, very important, mainly because it means that you get free medical care (If only in Catalunya). Unlike Ireland, however, you have to be working to qualify for one, as your SS contributions go towards any medical care you might require...and yes, that means that if you're not working, basically, don't get sick.

Anyways, back to getting the girls written in. Piece of cake, or at least it should be, I mean we've our details done from before, and the girls are two and a half and one and a half years old, seriously, to quote Clarkson, J., How hard can it be? what could they possibly need....?

See, I'm no expert on Spanish Beaurocracy, and what I'll say next might sound like I'm being unnecessarily critical about what is essentially an outdated system. It feels, quite often, that the Right hand doesn't know what the Left hand is scratching, and that both hands are unable to find their arse witha Sat Nav and a seeing eye dog. It might be down to the fact that during the Boom years every man and his dog was  given a job, especially in the civil service, and with the (inevitable) cutbacks brought in with austerity measures, people are overworked and understaffed. They also manage to give off an air of "why are you bothering me with this? I'll get it done when I feel like it", not an unusual feeling to be left with by anything remotely or directly related to "Customer Service", essentially the job description of these public servants. The Customer Service "problem" here - i.e. in Spanish Companies, is that agents are often not given any training, are thrown in at the deep-end, are paid SFA - the minimum wage here in Spain is just over 600 Euros- and are afraid of getting any negative feedback for fear of getting fired. This has led to a complete unwillingness to help, or a habit of redirecting to other departments, and is obviously very very frustrating....

I'll elaborate.

Firstly, the CatSalut Cards. In order to get one, you have to be registered into the Census Roll (Called the Empadronamiento) in your local Town Hall, cos you need this to be able to apply for one. Buuut, I'd just started the four weeks training course at my new job and couldn't go. So we pass by the Town Hall on a Saturday morning. "'scuse me, can my wife register me as I won't be able to make it?"; "sure, just give her a signed letter granting authorization to get you registered". Of course, come Monday, "Sorry, can't do it as you're foreigners, and you both need to be here" (As someone here once opined, Franco never died, he just got a Job in the Ayuntamiento, or Town Hall in Malgrat), down to the local medical Centre (CAP), "CatSalut card, yes, you'll have to go to Calella (Three stops on the train) and get the girls registered on your Social Security numbers", show up in Calella..."yeah, they need NIE's...", "ah for f.......".

So, Shayne has to take an hour or two off work the next day to get signed in the Town Hall. Then he has to take another couple of hours off work later on in the week to get the girls NIE's in Mataró, half an hour by train. Show up in Mataró, bit of a queue, but "Comunitarios" and people with appointments can skip it, walk in, explain what I need, "Do you have the CatSalut card?", "What?, no, I need this before I can get it for them", "Oh, right, they might only give you a provisional NIE", "Come again?", "The girls might only get a Provisional one, you'll then be able to get the cards, then you'll be able to get a permanent NIE (Exactly the same number, only the form is green, not yellow). But because of their ages, they might just decide to give them a permanent one. You can pick them up in a week"

Brilliant, just feckin'brilliant. More time off, not great when you've just started a job, and they're worried about your commute affecting your job, but at least they were understanding. So fast forward a week later, Shayne's picked up the NIE's (Permanent ones!! Punch the air, "You beauty!!"- or words to that effect), now to get the SS aspect over and done with. Ring ring, "Can our Au Pair go on our behalf if we give her authorization?", "Sure, but the girls Birth Certs need to be translated, actually hang on I'll DOUBLE CHECK.........yeah definitely need to be translated"...double "ah for f......"
See, they need to be translated by an official translator from the Irish Consulate in Barcelona, more time off work, more stress, more expense. So Jany decides to call the SS Office next to her workplace..."Sure, just bring in the documents....Translated? No, no need"...

All together now "AH FOR F.......!!!!!"


The other reason we wanted the Social Security thing sorted out quickly is the Income Tax rate. Part of Rajoy's austerity measures were to increase Income Tax to 24.% on roughly the first 17,000 Euro earned, (plus your six percent SS Contributions). But this could be halved if you could show that you had lived in Spain for at least six months leading up to you starting the job, or if you could prove that you had worked for at least six months - which I blatantly had, after spending over seven years there previously. This tax rate is, in its own way, similar to the Emergency Tax system in Ireland and the UK.

In order to prove that I had worked here before, albeit three years ago, I needed something called a Vida Laboral, literally your personal History of Employment in the state. In order to get this I was first told that I needed only to register in the Town Hall, and then I could apply to the Social Security Office for the relevant documentation. So thats done, I do that, email reply two days later "The Address we have on file does not match the Address that you want the document sent to, please go to your local Office and change your details...". So, just like those old Dungeons & Dragons books (People over a certain age will understand this) please scroll up three paragraphs to see how easy it is to get something like this done. Again, fast forward a five weeks, its all done and its arrived in the post. So finally, I can get that sorted out. I'm one of the lucky ones...

I say this because a colleague of mine has been living and working here since October of 2011. He is now currently trying to get his Vida Laboral, or alternatively, in the case of having lived here for at least six months, prove that he has been a resident by getting a form saying he has his Residencia Fiscal. This has been complicated by the fact that he hadn registered at his first address (Empadronamiento) as it was an employee flat provided by his first job. He has therefore been told that he can't get the tax break as he only recently registered at his new address, even though he can prove that he was working here through his payslips and contract, but apparently that's not good enough. Although it might seem slightly confusing, he should be able to get his Vida Laboral because he has been making Social Security contributions but again, right hand, left hand, sat nav etc.

Taxes are, at the moment, a bit of a contentious issue in Catalunya, not least because of the recent meeting between Mariano Rajoy (Spanish PM) and Artur Mas (Catalan President), where Mas proposed a change in the way taxes are collected from the region and how the Generalitat (Catalan Government) benefits from them. Currently, the Spanish Government collects the taxes from all the autonomous regions in Spain, and then share out some of the income between them. This has caused resentment here as it has resulted in the residents of Catalunya paying 8% more tax than the Generalitat is receiving, with some claiming the figure to be as high as 16 Billion Euros being lost to other regions and the Central Government.  Mas proposed that the Tax be collected by the Generalitat, who could then send on a percentage to Madrid, but this was rejected outright by Rajoy (Not surprising when you consider how much money Madrid gets from a region that produces 20% of Spains Economic output). There is talk of a Referendum about Independence being on the cards, as a poll recently suggested that the figure of Catalans favouring this course of action is now well over 50%. How well that would go down with the Central Government is....well....let's cross that bridge when we come to it....

In no way do I want to come across as someone who is unhappy here, if anything, I love Spain/Catalunya, it's culture (apart from quite possibly "la Sardana" ;-P) it's food, the weather, and the lifestyle. I just feel that certain things in certain areas could be improved upon considerably and remove a lot of stress from a lot of peoples lives.

Rant over.........

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Back again...

I'll start this off by being honest, when my then Girlfriend - now Wife - and I left Malgrat de Mar, just north of the Cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, back in November 2009, I never thought we'd be back, at least, not quite as quickly as our return has been.

We decided, then, to go back to Ireland as our first child was on the way. At the time we were both working in the Tourist Industry on the Costa Maresme, and we felt that working a max of 7 months a year was not an ideal lifestyle to bring up a child. It's all well and good when you're single or child free, but when you're working up to 14+ hours a day, and nearly always seven days a week, you don't want to have the added pressure of looking after a little one. Needless to say, although the decision was fairly easy to make at the time, it was still a wrench for me, as I'd graced (ha) this part of Catalunya since 2002, when I'd arrived as a fresh-faced (double ha) 19 year old, and most/all of my friends lived here.

Anyway, fast forward two and a half years, two kids, a years unemployment spent as a stay-at-home Dad, and a year and a half working in one of the largest companies in Ireland, during which I rose fairly quickly through the ranks, plus a wedding, and we're back. We decided sometime back in June that we would start looking for jobs in Barcelona with a view to returning, or at least, the better half decided (I kept schtum for the time we spent in Ireland, but she knew I wanted to come back, so I played that well ;-P). We also knew that we were getting hitched at the start of July, so it had to be after that.

Now, I'll be honest, I was also keeping a beady eye on Economic reports in the Papers with regards to Spain, as we'd been lucky enough to arrive back in Ireland a few months before Brian Cowens "Read my Lips" moment, and I felt that showing up in a country about to receive the "Troika"treatment as Ireland had was not unlucky, but just plain dumb. As the saying goes, "fool me once...". Things seem to be looking up at the moment, and hopefully Ms. Merkel might just lighten up enough to do things that will be helpful to the Eurozone. She might just crack a smile too.....

Now we set out with the idea that while our recently acquired experience in a more mainstream Industry (Run-of-the-Mill Customer Service for myself, IT Helpdesk for the missus) would give us more opportunities, jobs-wise, than our Tourism experience had at the beginning of 2009, when we both searched for, and found, to varying degrees of (un)success, "Office"Jobs in Barcelona. I ended up doing a two week stint in a dodgy "Forward thinking Travel Agency" - Not Time-Share, we promise, just selling a possibly non-existent product to people who were "stupid" enough (Their words, not mine) to have invested in Time-Shares ("They'll fall for - i.e. buy - anything that sounds too good to be true"). The B-H got a Job in a big Multinational, as a Sales agent, turned out to be a freelance position, and it was cold calling, something which you really need to have a hybrid of Rhino & Elephant Skin to put up with the abuse you recieve from "Clients" on the other side of the phone line. We also felt that our language skills - She speaks Dutch & English, myself English & Spanish - would give us more options again.

Again, fast forward a couple of weeks, numerous CV's sent out, a couple of Skype interviews for herself, nothing concrete, some "please re-apply when you're in the country" emails in my inbox, and out of the blue, she gets a call from a reputable IT company in BCN. "We've seen your CV on LinkedIn, possible position, interested?". A couple of Phone interviews later, and she had a job!, earning more, gross, than she was in Ireland. I say Gross, cos the income Tax rate is slightly higher in Spain, and more so in Catalunya. Still, no complaints, there are ways around that, and being married with two kids is certain to give some breaks. Now came the dilemma, do we let this opportunity go and leave when we both have jobs, or do we chance it and go out anyway?

In the end we decided that, career-wise, this was too good an opportunity to pass on, after all, who knows if it'll ever come round again? I felt, and feel, pretty confident, that the experience gleaned and cajoled, and the Team Leaders that I annoyed and pushed for more authority in my most recent job would and will allow me to find a job pretty soon. As I write this, I have a final group interview for a Customer Service position in a large international Bank coming up, so fingers crossed.

So, Notice handed in at work by both of us. We knew that one of us had to go out earlier to sort out living quarters and the like. We eventually decided that I should go, as I had a bit more leeway with the amount of Notice I could give, whereas she had to give a full four weeks. I also speak Spanish fairly fluently, so this would help in the search for Apartments. Luckily, too, we had my Best-Man Costa-side, so after trawling through all the Online Letting agencies we were able to send him on some numbers and he started calling trying to arrange appointments, find out the Deposit system, which I'll get on to in a bit. However, before I arrived back, we had only managed to arrange viewings for two apartments.

Now, to anyone searching for an apartment in Spain, a bit of advice. If there's no photos online, there's a damn good reason for it. Not that the apartment would be uninhabitable - this would be illegal, and Landlords in Spain are subject to very strict guidelines - just very badly planned out, like the first one we saw. TV unit in the Dining area, no view of said unit from the "Living" Area, kitchen big enough for half a person at a time, oh, and most importantly, 4th Floor, no lift. No Thank You. Second one? Better planned out, 5th Floor, NO LIFT! once again, No thank you.
That was the Sunday, I'd arrived the day before, and then came Monday. Lets phone a couple of Agencies, see what they have.

Oh, that sounds nice, how much?...
ok, sounds good, now, about the deposit?.......
Thanks, see you later.

Now, I feel there needs to be an explanation made regarding the penultimate line above....
Apparently, the Spanish Letting Agencies haven't cottoned on to the fact that the country is, allegedley, smack bang in the middle of an Economic Crisis. Where, Irish Agents have realised that, fundamentally, if you want to rent a property, ask for a payable deposit, i.e. one month. More people will be able to afford it, ergo, more houses/apartments leased. The Spanish ones have obviously decided to go with the "Can't see you, can't see me" approach, flatly deny any possibility that any phrase with the words "Economic" & "Crisis" exists, and ask people to fork out One months rent up front (Reasonable and Normal), Two Months rent as deposit for the Landlord (Slightly Excessive, if not downright greedy) plus an EXTRA MONTH as their Commission (Taking the Piss). Some even had - and have - the gall to ask for FIVE Months up front. 

In the end though, we had to go with an Agency. Luckily we had the savings to be able to afford 4 months rent up front (A big plus to the EC is the fact that Rents have dropped by almost 50% since 2009) but damn, it still hurt. On the upside, we now have an apartment that can't be more than a decade old, has all the Mod-Cons, is 200 metres from the Beach - and the MED :-) -, an hour by Train from BCN (Public Transport goes like Clockwork, and, unlike Ireland where 2+ hours in a train will only get you from Cork to Dublin and relieve you of around Forty yoyos, the most you'll pay for a return trip to BCN is just under Nine Euros), and is far enough away from Touristy areas to be quiet at night.

Now, the owners were good enough to let me store our stuff in the Apartment until the day I needed the keys. Our stuff came from Ireland thanks to my Dad and Brother - although father dearest did all the driving, brother was apparently a capable Co-Pilot, apart from deciding that it was quicker to go through Paris (hahahaha) than around....My parents had decided that their Wedding present to us would be the transportation of all our stuff, by car and Ferry, from Cork, to Malgrat. This represented an Epic round trip of over 4000 Miles, which my father was able to complete in a total of five days, and for which he has our full respect, gratitude and appreciation, "thank you" not being enough to say to someone who has just completed half of said distance, has rested one day, and then gets behind the wheel to put up with another 2,000 Miles, exploding bottles of Wine, Customs Agents, my brother's annoying cheerfullness early in the mornig (plus navigational skills) & French Drivers.

So that was the first four days back in the country. Apartment and stuff sorted, beach seen (from a distance), just waiting for the ball &....sorry, wife and kids ;-P. They arrived safe and sound, with my mother in tow to help with the passage (and see a bit of Sun in 2012), with our eldest regaling me of the "ewoplane", the youngest quiet as a mouse, and everyone struggling with the heat (30+ Degrees most days, and we're coming up to the hottest part of the year).

It's still early days yet, now it's up to us to find an Au Pair, a Creche (prices considerably lower again, you pay in a month what you'd pay in a week in Ireland) sort out Mobile phones - preferably with a provider that doesn't request a deposit, even though you've contracted Internet and TV with them a week previously and nothing was required then (300.00 Euros please...Why? Because...) -, and sort myself out for a job. Should be fun, and hopefully I'll have enough energy to post regular updates.

Laterz :-)