It turns out there is quite a lot involved in setting up life in a new country. I considered all the life admin we all do over the years: finding places to live, setting up bank accounts, registering with doctors and dentists, sorting out tax affairs, renewing phone contracts, haggling with utility providers – the list goes on. And for some crazy reason we had decided to do it all over again, in a short time frame, and in another language.
One of the “joys” of Brexit was all the ADDITIONAL things we would have to do to ensure the new life we had chosen in Europe would go as smoothly as we hoped it would, committed to the pursuit of the “Mediterranean dream”.
We made sure to follow what little guidance there was and do what we could sooner rather than later in what is sure to become a panic time-frame (although we defaulted to “blame it on Brexit” whenever appointments were scarce or difficult to book)!
Early one morning we made our way across Madrid to make the nerve-wracking exchange of our driving licenses, which we had read about on various expat groups on Facebook.
Finding our planned metro route disrupted, we jumped on the replacement bus service and arrived at the Driving License Centre with minutes to spare, only to find our 9am appointment was delayed. Of course it was. I sensed it was going to be one of those days…
When we were eventually summoned, it was by a lady whose desk was busy with a distracting array of religious figurines and framed cat pictures. Both having an ‘off’ day it seemed, we struggled through the appointment. There were whole sentences lost in translation and we asked her to repeat most of what she told us, more than once. But we dutifully signed every page of every form (a quirky rule here in Spain) and then, we handed over our precious UK driving licenses in exchange for a temporary piece of paper and a promise that we could expect our new licenses by post.
It was all a bit stressful. And it wasn’t over yet!
What I gathered from the lady’s limited hand gestures (pointing to her eyes and ears and then out the window), was that we had to undergo a medical test, obtain a certificate, and then return with it. Confused and caffeine-deprived, we allowed ourselves to be led away by what thankfully turned out to be a trustworthy tout, to one of several odd little medical offices nearby.
This one looked just like a house from the outside and when we entered, we were split up and I watched as R (who was my language comfort blanket in the early days) was led away by a woman with a clipboard and I, by a man in a lab coat. So far, so weird.
First, I worked my way very slowly through a questionnaire (todo en Español). This time there were no hand gestures, only raised eyebrows and disappointment, and a few comments about my LACK OF SPANISH. Not a high point.
While R was in the other room playing an 80’s video game (to test his reactions, I think), I was then subjected to an eye test. Completely unprepared, I cursed myself for not cleaning my smudged glasses as the grouch in the lab-coat pointed his stick aggressively at the smallest line of letters on the board. Not only could I not see them, but I had to guess them, and guess them in Spanish! If I got one wrong, he would point again and sigh dramatically. Panicking about the consequences of failing, I just started shouting out all the letters of the alphabet I could remember, even throwing in ‘ñ’ for extra brownie points. The thought of having to re-sit a driving test here was enough to terrify me in any language!
I think we were glad to see the back of each other when he eventually released me, and I went, sweating, into the other room to try my luck with the video game. With a joystick in each hand (which is not how I remember driving a car), I had to keep the little red dot within the lines, the machine beeping aggressively if (when) I strayed. R did his best to reassure me – I’m not sure he was finding it all that traumatic!
But by some miracle, we passed and settled up €70 for the ordeal before returning with our certificates to the next part of our lengthy appointment.
After 3 hours, we were done. Breathing a BIG sigh of relief, we headed straight for the nearest café where we ordered strong coffee and croissants, sat in the sun, and debriefed over our floundering language efforts. The more we shared, the funnier the whole morning became.
I’m sure we will suffer further bouts of Brexit bitterness as we go through the next steps, but we must carefully ensure not to drive a wedge between the countries we call home.
And what I first thought was a “disaster” of a morning, I came to realise was just another valuable experience to learn from.
I learnt never to attend an appointment before my morning coffee, for navigating the infamous Spanish bureaucracy can be lengthy and requires fuel. I learnt that not everyone will be sympathetic to our language learning efforts but why should they be? Being made to feel uncomfortable only spurred me on more.
It also made me realise that I really should think about getting behind the wheel here as soon as possible. And that I’m sure a quick revision of the alphabet wouldn’t do any harm!