I wasn’t suppose to be here because I never intended to return to Spain, or should I say a communidad in Spain. (Some would argue I’m not in Spain, I’m in Basque Country but that’s another story). I pinch myself every now and then to remind myself this isn’t a dream, this is where my life has lead me.
“Why Vitoria- Gasteiz? How did you end up here?” Basques and Spaniards inquire with surprise. Vitoria is small and not a place they’d except guiris to end up. Why not Madrid?, some wonder. They asked me the same when I was in Roquetas de Mar, a beach town where Spaniards descend upon in the summer but the rest of the year is quiet, often feeling like an abandoned town and is not the first place most foreigners would choose.
And I tell them: “I didn’t choose the city, the city choose me.” Well, the the Spanish Ministry of Education made the decision for me, when I applied to be a Language and Cultural Assistant and work in a bilingual school. The only choice I had was selecting the commuinidad of Pais Vasco, one of seventeen communidades, autonomous communities of Spain. Heck, when I selected Pais Vasco, I sneakily wrote down San Sebastian next to it, in hopes the person looking over my application would feel a sense of pity for me and place me there. Who wouldn’t want to live in stunning, romantic and gastronomic capital of the world?
Exactly. But I wasn’t so lucky.
Yet I had no intention of returning to Spain. I didn’t see myself living in Spain for a second year but I liked the idea of another year abroad in a Spanish speaking country. I’ve come along way with speaking and comprehension in Spanish but I still have a long haul to be a confident and fluent Spanish speaker.
You know what, I didn’t even want to re-apply. I didn’t want a back-up plan. I kicked and screamed and tried to find a way out of re-applying but was forced to do it. That is, if I wanted to do things the right way. I’m American, after all. We’ve been trained to follow rules and do things the right way. I was taught to color within the lines, especially when it comes to the law and more importantly, laws in other countries.
When I found out my Visa expired on my last day of work, May 31, I shrugged my shoulders thinking it wouldn’t be an issue to get a tourist visa. After all, as an American you’re granted a 90 day free tourist visa to enter the European Union and the UK. I arrived on a 3 month student visa that I had to pay $140 for and naturally assumed I could trade in my student visa for my 90 day tourist visa. Fair?
That’s what I thought.
Being the information seeker I am, I contacted the director of the program in Andalucia and asked what my options were:
1. Re-apply to the program, receive your contract letter so you can apply for a autorización de regreso 90 day grace period to be in the country
2. Leave by May 31 and if needed, my school should let me leave a day early to pack up and get to the airport in time.
I didn’t like either of the options. There must be another way. I told my coordinator at my school who was surprised to hear my Visa expired on the last day too. He agreed it was stupid and shook his head in acknowledgement of the bureaucracy in Spain. He wanted to help me and called the Director, who called the foreigners office to find out alternative options. The extrajeneria response, “there is nothing that can be done.” He even accompanied me to the extranjeria to later help me get information about obtaining an auto de regreso to stay legally in the summer and despite him being Spanish, he didn’t even understand the process- it didn’t make sense to him either and the woman didn’t really want to help us.
Why did I expect anything different? I’m in Spain, afterall. They play by a completely different set of rules.
But do you think I stopped there with my questions?
I went to the Embassy in Madrid and talked to a woman for 20 minutes- she handed me forms and gave me contact info but none of it applied to my situation. I kept asking and explaining, enough so she shut the window (everything is private, you know) to ask her colleagues. Each time I thought she was going to give me pertinent information because she seemed to have words on the tip of her tongue but she never said them. Instead, she ended the conversation with call these contacts but whatever you do, “Don’t overstay your visa or you could be put in jail.”
Gah. Isn’t my Embassy suppose to help me and not instill the fear of the devil in me?
Then I called the US Consulate to inquire. They have to know something… but instead the man tried to freak me out by saying the same words as the woman at the Embassy: ” Don’t overstay your visa or you could end up in Jail.”
I thought Embassies and Consulates were suppose to help their fellow citizens, not scare them. Overstaying a visa can have varying consequences, none appealing, but I hoped they could offer helpful suggestions and alternatives.
No such luck.
Researching online didn’t prove fruitful. I wasn’t overstaying a tourist visa but wanted to transfer my student visa to a tourist visa. Apparently no one had ever been in this situation before and wrote about it online yet the auxiliars facebook group was littered with questions and fear about overstaying our residency card expiration date.
Finally, I gave in and re-applied. All the while frustrated and annoyed I had to write an essay in Spanish about why I wanted to participate in the program again. All seemed like wasted effort (though clearly I put tons more time in trying to find answers, I’m an information seeker, I can’t help it!) Turns out writing in Spanish wasn’t that bad. Though you can bet your boots, the 300 word essay was littered with grammar mistakes but I knew it didn’t matter because this is one of those rare jobs where your application is protocol rather than screening to see if you’re a good candidate- this job is about following all the steps and turing documents in on time.
Yup that’s right. Step right up for a guaranteed job, just apply early!
I wrote the essay in less than an hour ( so much for all the resistance, easy than I thought) and submitted it a week before the deadline. I wondered if I would even be granted a job- a position that I needed only to prove to the foreigners office I had a job the following September to process paperwork and renew my residency card.
And then I was going to deny the job. Yup. You’re heard me. Easy as pie job to get and I was going to say “No thanks.”
And then out of the blue my then-boyfriend surprised me by telling me he was considering applying for the program. Instead of being happy, I was annoyed with him, knowing full well this program is first- come first-serve and he was finally considering applying a month before the deadline when he had 5 months to apply. But I didn’t discourage him, even though I knew his chances were slim to none.
We talked about communidades we’d want to live in and thankfully hadn’t mailed my application just yet. Timing. ya te digo, I tell ya. And knowing Spanish bureaucracy I worried if changing regions would interfere with attaining necessary paperwork to be legal in the summer. But I was excited for this new, unexpected possibility. Now my attitude was: We are doing this program together or bust.
But life often has other plans.
He never submitted his application or it got lost in transit, who knows. The day I received the job offer, my brother and him were traveling with me in Spain and the only thing I know was I got my first choice- Basque Country.
But it didn’t matter. Returning wasn’t happening.
Until I headed home two weeks early and everything changed. I had been eager and excited to be back home, see my friends and family, start a new life, new job, find
an outrageous priced room in San Francisco but the moment I was home, I felt uncertain, scared, indifferent. Oh and there was a break-up- That can really change things up.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what came next.
And yet, I didn’t even think about Spain until I spent a day with my brother at the beach, a week after I was home, who played Devil’s advocate, “Why wouldn’t you go back to Spain?” Are you really wanting a 9-5 job? That’s not you, that’s not what you want, is it? Why wouldn’t you take this opportunity? You have the rest of your life to work.”
“You have the rest of your life to work”
“You have the rest of your life to work”
His words echoed throughout my mind. Shit, he’s got a point but I still struggled with the idea. And I still had no idea what the name of my town was- if it was a city or un pueblocito. After a year in a small town, I needed a bigger town, or better yet, a city.
I wondered what had happened to my brother in the 9 months I had been away. This isn’t the brother I know but I certainly liked this new guy. All of a sudden, he was using my lines, my philosophy about life and handing it right back to me. Right in my face and I couldn’t ignore him.
Yet I still wasn’t sure.
Was it the right decision? Is there such a thing as a right decision, anyway? What’s 9 months? Is there a reason for all this because I didn’t try to make this a possibility. Is the universe trying to tell me something?
I warned ya-I’m an information seeker.
Everytime I talked to my brother on the phone, his didn’t greet me with the typical, hey, how’s it going” but instead he inquired, “So have you made a decision yet?” For him it was obvious. For me I struggled for 5 weeks until I finally though my hands in the air and said to myself, “What do I have to lose? I can only gain!”
Heck, high cost rent and the awesome Bay Area isn’t going anywhere!
Well, you know what I decided…
Four months in Basque Country and I’m happy with my decision. I’m settling in nicely, have made friends from Spain, Basque Country and around the world just as I hoped, have a routine, earning extra money with private classes, studying Spanish as much as possible and am learning daily- both what I want and don’t want in life! I can’t believe I’ll be touching California soil in 5 months! Sounds to soon, right? Or maybe not soon enough for my family and friends at home?
Time is a funny thing. Life- you just never know where it will lead you!