Saturday, 31 January 2009

Fresh fields and Internet pastures new!

Now, where was I up to?

We'd got the flat sorted. Now we needed Internet access. It really was tedious having to go to an internet cafe when we were both used to having access 24/7. Besides, we wanted to skype friends and family and, what's more, Phil had a translation deadline looming!

Internet access proved to be another little Spanish mystery. We kept seeing hardware on offer at really good prices but software and systems seemed harder, or at least pricier, to come by. R-Galicia, a local provider recommended by many, including our friendly estate agents was only contactable by Internet or by Spanish phone (uh oh, I see another catch-22 coming up!) so we bought Spanish mobiles: a bargain at two for 39 euros! You see what I mean about the cheap hardware?

Talking to R-Galicia, I discovered that for a largish price they would install cable to the flat, provide us with a phone and a broadband connection. Great, just too costly, too complicated and we would need the landlady's permission. So we began to trawl around Internet and the shops for offers on broadband. (You can become heartily sick of repeating over and over again: Hola, somos ingleses .... etc, etc, explaining just what it was we wanted. And it had to be me with my superior Spanish. My smile was getting a little forced!) Everything came back to the need for a phone in the flat to make the broadband connection work. Surely a refurbished flat MUST have a phone line. Rummaging behind curtains, following odd wires to see where they went, eventually we found what looked remarkably like a phone connection. Hooray! A quick photo so that we had something to show the retailers and back we went to the IT provider outlets.

Yes, that was a phone socket, yes, there was a line to the flat but, what a shame, it needed to be activated by Telefonica, once again at great cost. If we paid out that sum of money, they could offer us wonderful deals on broadband, free calls to all sorts of other phone numbers in Spain and any amount of other stuff as well. Grrrrrr!! We were beginning to get a teensy bit fed up but, always a silver lining, we were getting to know which were the best Internet cafes in our area, including one just around the corner from chez nous but just too far away for us to piggyback onto their network! Pity!

It was at this point, finally that we spoke to Angel in the The Phone House. Angel by name and angel by nature, he told us about Internet Everywhere, a mobile modem provided by Orange. It was still more expensive than the service we had used in the UK but it was a solution.

His little branch of The Phone House, however, was about to be closed down so he sent us to a branch in the Alaxe shopping centre (a large blue building, a veritable temple to consumerism, down by the port, cleverly placed to dominate the area and spoil the view of the islands) where his colleague had obviously been warned to expect two apparently mad, rather aging English people. We signed up and then discovered that if we wanted to take it away there and then and not wait until Monday we needed ID, proof of address and proof of bank details. Aaaargh! We traipsed back from the port to the flat, picked up all the documents, went back to Alaxe, did the deal and headed for home with our modem. By now it was about 9.30 on a Saturday evening and the girl in the shop had not shown any signs of impatience. What a treasure!

We signed up! Phil spent HOURS making it work. We were back online! Since then we have discovered that most of the time it works fine although sometimes it slows down to snail's pace, possibly affected by the number of users at any one time or, since it works on some kind of mobile phone connection, maybe affected by atmospheric conditions. Who am I to understand such things? I just use it and keep my fingers crossed.

Having organised this, the following Monday I took a trip to the bank to sort out a few things: a standing order for the rent, putting the "Aval" (rent guarantee) money onto a high interest account, picking up a debit card (posted to the bank for security reasons - once activated the PIN - numero secreto would also be posted to the bank for security reasons) and setting up Internet banking. All seemed in order and so, about a week later I checked online that our first month's rent had indeed been paid.

Yes, it had but there appeared to be only 135 euros left in the account!!! What was going on? Where was the money which had been transferred from England? What about the piles of 50 euro notes collected with such effort from ATMs, leaving me almost unable to go past a hole-in-the-wall without compulsively withdrawing my daily limit? Orange were soon going to debit the account for a payment on the mobile modem. Were we going to be overdrawn within a few weeks of opening the account? Would we have a bad credit record from the word go?

On closer inspection I discovered that almost all our finds were in the high interest, fixed term account. Back I scurried to the bank once more and learned that the wonderful, helpful Monica had indeed put the bulk of our cash into the high interest account, arranging for a sum to be removed each month to pay the rent. Was that not what I wanted? Er, no! Why, oh why did I never study business and banking Spanish? What use is it to be able to have great political and philosophical debates and know all sorts of things about Spanish literature if I couldn't deal with the bank? Why had I let myself be carried away by Monica's amusing anecdotes instead of concentrating on the nitty-gritty of opening accounts? But in the end it was not a problem. Monica transferred funds across and all was well.

Wow, perhaps now we could just get on with living here!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What Anthea did next

Soooo, why did it take so long to set up this blog?

Well, first things first, we had to find us a place to live. We came out to Vigo during my Easter hols last year, not actually Easter because the festival was so early that my college just took off the Easter weekend and saved the holiday itself for a couple of weeks later. Whatever! We came out in early April and, in between visiting places of tourist interest (all rather windy and slightly damp at that time of year), we trundled along to a few estate agents, told them about THE IDEA and left them our details, swapping emails so that we could arrange to visit some flats when we arrived in September. We also had the great good fortune of being put in contact with the sister of one of my La Coruna friends. Now, Pili turned out to be an angel who drove us around Vigo, pointing out good places to live and pooh-poohing others; just what we needed, a bit of insider knowledge!

The estate agents trawl was a good plan but in the event only one replied when we emailed them prior to coming here. Of course, by then la crisis was starting here as well as in the UK and estate agents were going out of business by the dozen. The one which replied fortunately seemed to be the best possible, with the MOST helpful people, prepared to go the extra mile to set up things that we needed. At my most cynical, I could say that, of course, they were guaranteeing business for themselves but all the same they were amazingly useful. A very big GRACIAS!!!!! to Roseta, Jorge and Blanca!

We looked at a number of places, the bottom end of our budget proving to be dingy and poky and probably likely to drive us mad through living too much on top of each other in the long term. After all, we were going to live here for a year and were used to having enough space not to get on each other’s nerves. We were living in a hotel and didn’t want to spend too long doing that, although you CAN get used to having someone make your bed and clean your room for you, a bit like going home to mum without having to ask permission to stay out late. So we worked at it and quickly narrowed it down to two possibilities one of which we ruled out because it didn’t have anywhere obvious to eat. I’m a sociable person, like cooking for friends and don’t really like asking people to eat with a plate balanced on their knees.

So we ended up with a nice spacious flat near the centre of Vigo with plenty of room for friends and relations (I feel like Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh!) to come and stay, rather at the top end of our budget but we decided that its location made up for that.

As we were shown round the flat by the grandparents of our landlady – they live next door, she lives in Madrid – we were given strict instructions on how to use the water heating boiler, an apparently amazing device, fuelled by gas “from the street” instead of from the huge kind of camping gas 'bombona' which is still the norm for many Spanish haouseholds. They and the young man from the estate agents were amazed to learn that gas 'de la calle' is the norm in the UK and that we only use gas canister for camping holidays and or if you live in a caravan.

We were also advised to go to El Corte Ingles, the nearby department store, for all our household needs. 'Tienen de todo', said the old lady, and it is true they do have everything. However, we quickly found a cheaper source of gadgets such as tin-openers, screw-drivers and so on: the 'Bazar Chino' just a few doors down the road, a kind of Aladin’s cave, run by Chinese immigrants, the older of whom speak little Spanish, selling everything from bras to blankets, from jumpers to jugs, from kites to kettles! An amazing place and mostly dirt cheap!

As it turned out, finding the flat was the easy part. We told the estate agents we wanted to rent it and then hit the Spanish catch-22. To rent a flat you need an aval, a bank guarantee; to get that you need a Spanish bank account; to open a Spanish bank account you need a Foreigner's Number; to get that you need an address. Aaaaagh! Well, the estate agent pulled some Spanish strings and got someone she knows who works in the bank to let us open a bank account using just our passports - hurrah for the Spanish 'it’s who you know' system!

We chose to open our account with the Spanish bank that owns our bank in the UK, thinking that it would be easy to transfer money that way. Silly us! Of course they don't talk to each other in that way! The helpful contact in the bank spent hours finding out what we needed to do to organise a transfer - fax copies of passport, bank debit card, driving license (not quite intimate parts of the body but almost) to the our UK bank, wait 48 hours and expect a phone call. No such luck. No such phone call. Soooo, I started phoning bank numbers, talking to strange people in call centres in unknown places where no-one had any idea what was going on. Finally I faxed them all the details again and then phoned them again from the bank, gave them a million security details and eventually the money came through.

(When we went home at Christmas we discovered a partial explanation for the cash transfer problem. There in the pile of mail which our helpful daughter had been looking after for us was a form from the bank for us to fill in and sign to allow the money to be tranferred. The efficiency of the banking system is truly staggering! Is it any wonder they are in crisis?)

In the meantime our deadline for signing contracts on the flat was running out. We needed to have about 6 months rent in our account for the bank guarantee. So we found a new leisure activity: getting as much money as possible out of ATMs every day and putting it in the safe in our hotel room. Every time we went out we had fits of nervous tension. Would someone work out what we were doing and would we be mugged carrying huge amounts of money? What if the safe in the bank proved to be less than safe? What about the exchange rate? (Hindsight, that wonderful thing, tells us that we did exactly the right thing as we now have no need to transfer money at the current disastrous rate of exchange!) All these problems to take into acount but finally we ammassed enormous piles of 50 euro notes, carried them carefully to the bank, deposited the money, saw the notary, paid his fee, signed the contract on the flat and moved in - WHOOPEEEEE!

In the middle of all of this, offspring number one and his young lady came to visit us. They had been walking in the Picos de Europa and were flying home from Oporto airport in Portugal so calling in on us was a logical bonus for all of us. We showed them around, took them to one of our favourite eateries, paid for a night in our hotel and did not get up to see them off as they were leaving at some ungodly time in the morning. In exchange, they left us with their walking poles which they could not take on budget airline flights without paying an extortionate fee for extra and unusually shaped luggage. A few days after their visit we moved a couple of streets from our hotel to our newly acquired flat, pulling our wheelie-suitcases behind us, our small rucksacks on our backs and walking poles in our hand, for all the world like strange pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Still to come: how to get an internet connection, the NIE and other vagaries of Vigo life.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Problogue

Well, birthdays come and birthdays go but it's not every birthday that you receive your own blog as a present! That's what happened today, however; I got up, checked the email and found one from my Phil, in lieu of a birthday card (the poor thing has been hibernating because of the rain which has poured down on Vigo in the last week and has barely set foot outside the building!) and with a web address for my own blog - hip, hip, hooray!

Before we came out here on our Vigo adventure, I promised various friends and (soon-to-be-ex)colleagues that I would be setting up a blog. Some even said that they looked forward to reading it. How very kind! In the event, however, in between all the things we needed to do on arriving here (of which more later), setting up a blog sort of slipped through the spaces.

And now, here I am, another year older but with my very own blog and all the potential of the empty space to fill! What a responsibility! Can I do it? Will I manage to amuse, inform, entertain? Will anyone read it? Or will I just bore the pants off the first ever reader and never ever again have a single follower?

So, here goes, by way of a start: The "problogue".....

About 15 to 18 months ago, on holiday Galicia, northwest Spain, we spent a hot day in Vigo and Phil came up with THE IDEA, the idea which went on to dominate the next twelve months. So, what was THE IDEA? Upsticks and spend a year in Vigo, with a view to moving there permanently if the climate and the people proved friendly: that was THE IDEA.

And so it began, the start of the great adventure. I went back to college in September 2007 and quietly told a few friends what I intended to do. When my head of department started to demand a five-year plan, I let him know that mine was to get to the end of the year and disappear. A number of friends and colleagues did not believe that I would, or indeed could, do it. Comments about my commitment to my students, the energy I put into the job, the satisfaction I clearly got from the job, all these flew around as arguments why September 2008 would still find me at Pendleton College working as Curriculum Leader for Modern Languages. They were wrong because here I am now, not quite living la vida loca, but still, in Vigo.

All the same, the idea (not yet THE IDEA) of disappearing into the wide blue yonder had been there for a long time. So why Vigo? When first we mooted the idea, long years ago, of living in Spain, we imagined a place with a pool, somewhere near a quiet beach or something similar. As time went by, however, we felt the need for something more: bookshops, nice but in expensive restaurants, cinemas, theatres, PEOPLE. A holiday in Almeria convinced us that we did NOT want a place with lots of English expats. Italy called and we learned Italian with that possible destination in mind.

Learning Italian was, as we heard a young American in a film say, "a whole 'nother adventure". It really was the best fun we'd had in a long time, going off to language schools in Sicily and Tuscany, learning the language and exploring a beautiful country. It was also a wonderful and salutary experience for me to sit on the other side of the desk in a language classroom, giving me a new perspective on language learning now.

However, Italy was not to be our long-term destination. We might talk about the cost of living, our dislike of privatised beaches in Italy, our greater knowledge of Spanish society and the fact that we have friends in Spain: all true, none of them deciding factors. No, it was the mosquitos that did for Italy in the end! The worst were the "zanzare tigre", tiger mosquitos from Africa which attack anyone and everyone and gave Phil a major allergic reaction leading to emergency first-aid and antibiotics. So Italy is strictly for visits outside the mosquito season.

There we were then with the grey winters and only slightly less grey summers of Saddleworth and two sets of itchy feet. We had visited the north of Spain for long summer holidays several times. Through a college project I had made friends in La Coruna and liked the city but La Coruna suffers from BAAAAAD winter storms. Santiago de Compostela and Pontevedra are both perhaps more picturesque than Vigo but, from our first visit, we felt Vigo was a place where we could live.

And that, more or less, is how THE IDEA became a reality. So far so good. More details of the great adventure another time.