When I walked, 34 weeks pregnant and shivering in my paper gown, into the operating room for an emergency c-section to save our unborn Little Angel, I was extremely surprised to hear an enthusiastic Irish jig playing in the background!
This was June 2009. At age 33, I'd watched characters head into surgery in a gazillion TV shows and movies. Typically they were wheeled into the O.R. on gurneys, rather than walking in on their own two feet. So walking in was my first surprise... but even more eyebrow-raising to me was this music! Not once had I ever heard of a surgical crew listening to music. (Obviously, I'd never asked!)
Operating rooms in television tend to be silent and tense, with only the sounds of machines whirring or beeping and the patient's heartbeat. There are often grim-faced doctors in scrubs saying serious things to their operating team like, "Pass me the smaller scalpel please." Yikes!
Yet in this brightly lit surgery room, spirited music was playing and the surgeon and his nursing staff were joking around with the anesthesiologist while they laid out and checked the sterile operating tools. They all seemed completely relaxed, as though they were casually getting ready to go out for drinks together.
(Maybe they were! My c-section took place at 2pm. Happy Hour at 4?)
I must have looked as surprised as I felt, because before they began the surgery my world-class perinatologist/surgeon explained, "You'll know everything is going well today as long as we're joking around."
Luckily for me (and for our sweet Little Angel, born about two minutes after surgery officially began - and promptly whisked off to the NICU!) the physicians and nurses in the O.R. that day talked baseball. They discussed the San Diego Padres throughout my short surgery and also while my amazing perinatologist stitched me up. Thanks to the spinal block I'd felt a vague tugging and pulling but no pain... stayed awake the whole time... and faster than I could ever have imagined possible they were wheeling me out to the recovery ward!
I learned something that day about professionals working in high-stress situations.
A light-hearted, jovial atmosphere among experts doing their job means that things are probably going to be okay.
Yesterday, 11am. Nearly seven-and-half years later.
Our family of five (including beloved Little Angel) is standing inside a sterile room at the police headquarters of a small town outside of Barcelona, Spain. The door behind us is open and waiting in line are a married couple and two other people. One of these people, a woman who appears somewhere near my age, wears a very elegant Hijab and kaftan. She is standing alone and her expression is somewhat unreadable, but when I look closely at her eyes I sense worry.
I wonder where she is from. I wonder if she has seen us holding our American passports, and if so, what she thinks about America. I wonder if she is here today for the same reason that we are. I wonder if she needs assistance. Under other circumstances, I would speak to her and perhaps make a friend.
Usually in life I am the helper, the teacher.
Today though, I need help too.
Our family is waiting together with baited breath to see if the clerk in charge of registering us for the year-long Spanish residency card is going to accept the children and me, even though we have accidentally overstayed the 30 day registration deadline given to us by the Spanish consulate. Technically, we may now be a little bit illegal?!? It's a gray area... we're not entirely sure. We fall somewhere on the spectrum between 'completely legal' and 'sort-of not'.
The children are wearing their school uniforms, with (fairly) neatly brushed hair and grubby Pokemon cards clasped in their hands. They are trying to play quietly, although it's hard to stay quiet when you are nervous and excited.
I have chosen a blouse and a long skirt for the appointment; not knowing what to expect, I've decided to simply try to look respectful. There has been no time for makeup today, I've been too busy filling out forms all morning.
Señor Aventura is dashing as always, and he has already begun to chat up the government clerk sitting in front of us in his warm, genuine way. My husband has rarely known a stranger in his life, as he makes friends easily with just about everyone he meets. It's a gift!
I am now standing off to the side a bit, camera in hand. I am so relieved that Señor Aventura has taken over the conversation... I tried to talk to this clerk while my husband was parking the car and it was difficult! Unlike the salespeople and school representatives who have been so patient with my growing ability in Spanish, this guy immediately pummeled me with questions in rapid-fire and I found myself racing to keep up, stumbling over my verbs as I tried to answer.
Now that my husband is here though, the tenor of the meeting has changed. It is calmer, and the government clerk is nodding and even smiling a bit.
"So you entered the country on the 3rd of August?" he asks my husband in Spanish.
"Yes, but I am already registered. I have completed the full process. For my wife and children it was more difficult, more complicated. The online signup was tricky, the signup website didn't always work."
"I see, okay... okay. But this other child - his passport says he has arrived on the 27th of July?" he frowns and looks up at my husband again.
"Yes, you see we flew in separately. I took one child; my wife brought the other two."
"I see. You did not fly here together as a family." He frowns slightly.
"And you arrived in Barcelona on different days?"
"Will you be working here?"
"No... we are not allowed to work here according to the terms of our visa."
"And what is your work in the United States?"
Their conversation continues. The clerk studies our passports and papers carefully, and my teeth clench a little in my mouth. What will he say?
Then comes our big moment... the moment of truth. He looks up at my husband and speaks in very precise Spanish.
"You have seen the show, "Making a Murderer?"
"What?" responds my husband, confused.
"You have watched, 'Making a Murderer' on Netflix?"
"No," says Señor Aventura with a growing smile, "But I have heard from many friends about that show! It sounds really great. I love those original series! I am enjoying another really fantastic show right now, also very well done, called 'Narcos.'"
The man's face lights up in recognition. "Sí! I have seen this show and I agree with you. 'Narcos' is an excellent program! The acting is impressive - very realistic. I really like these Netflix series."
Señor Aventura and the clerk begin to chat together amiably in Spanish about the merits of these two shows (and others, like 'Breaking Bad'). Their conversation strikes me as almost surreal... and then I realize what has just happened.
Suddenly, I know everything will be okay.
Our residency cards will be approved, and we will stay in Spain for at least a year.
When the serious government clerk in charge of immigration at the police station chats in a relaxed fashion with your husband about original Netflix programming; laughing and discussing the personalities of different characters as he carefully processes your paperwork and expertly takes your fingerprints, it's not terribly different from going through surgery with a team of perinatology specialists listening to lively Irish folk music while talking about baseball.
"As long as we're joking around, you'll know that everything is fine."
My stomach unclenches and all of the non-permanent wrinkles in my forehead smooth out. I feel elated and exhausted all at once. "I'm ready for a glass of champagne and a nap!" I haven't realized until now how long I've been holding my breath, just waiting and hoping. The rest of the day passes by in a happy blur.
Later in the evening after the kids have gone to sleep, I sit in front of our fireplace and reflect for a while about the most important things I will take away from this intensive application process for our Número Identidad de Extranjero (NIE) and Tarjeta Identidad de Extranjero (TIE).
Despite all of the lines, documents, stress and time spent traveling from office to office preparing for this day, what I will remember most about the process of registering our NIE and getting the TIE will be the interesting people we've met along the way.
In addition to the Netflix loving government clerk, we've met...
Copy store guy. I don't know his name... he looks like a 'Señor Alfredo' though.
Señor Alfredo appears to be about 70 years old and is always standing, alert, at his front counter. He is ready all day long to greet anyone who may walk through the door of his stationery shop. (Don't his feet get tired?) He has helped me on three different occasions to make copies of our passports and visas for the NIE/TIE appointment, along with other documents. Señor Alfredo is a little gruff but strikes me as a heart-of-gold type. I'm glad to have him on our team!
In Barcelona copy stores are not automated, and real humans hold jobs that are self-service in the USA (or conducted by machines). If you need copies made you go to a copy store where the proprietor takes your documents behind his/her counter and makes copies for you. You do not make your own copies! Copy machines are stored away from customers and treated like treasures.
Photo shop guy. We've spoken to this guy so many times in the past three weeks. I'll be truly embarrassed to ask him his name again... not sure if I ever knew it. For the purpose of this blog, I'll call him Agustin.
Agustin is a younger, dark-haired man who runs a Kodak Express shop two blocks from our apartment. I think he may be in his late 20s or early 30s. His face is usually serious and focused but he is always kind, patient and helpful. He typically works in the shop alone, selling everything from prints to memory cards to picture frames. Over three weeks he has printed us a variety of school photos and government required photos.
Agustin's corner photo shop has been especially deluged recently by Catalan mothers and children who need official pictures for their schools and other documents. "It's that time of year again," he recently told me. He takes photos of the children with his high quality camera, prints them out digitally, and then cuts out each individual picture one by hand. This job was surely automated years ago in the USA, but here it is providing a stable living for Agustin and his family. I love this about Spain!
Agustin's Dad. Or his grandpa? While waiting for our passport-sized photos to be printed and cut out this week, the kids and I talked for a while in Agustin's shop to an older man working with him. Impeccably dressed in a suit, this gray-haired gentleman (perhaps in his 70s or 80s) was very outgoing. He shared enough of Agustin's features and mannerisms to make me feel fairly confident that they're related.
"Where are you from?" he quizzed me. "England?"
"We come from California."
"Ah! The United States!"
"My English is not very good," he added, and then promptly quoted my kids and me an elaborate, lengthy passage from Geoffrey Chaucer in perfect English with a thick Catalan accent.
When he finished reciting his piece, he grinned broadly at my children. "I remember memorizing this a long time ago in school!"
We loved him instantly.
Friends At The Bus Stop
Señor Aventura and I have struck up a lovely friendship with a younger Catalan couple we talk to every morning and afternoon, waiting together at the bus stop to put our kids on the bus and take them off. They are the kindest people, extremely intelligent and warm. Their three year old son has bouncy brown hair and the biggest smile I have ever seen! He is always the first to exit the bus when it arrives in the afternoon and he springs like a little monkey into his papa's waiting arms... giggling and full of joy. "Papa!" he sings out every day. "Where is Mama?" He carries a tiny backpack with a cartoon animal on the zipper pocket.
We've been updating these friends daily about the residency card process, and every afternoon they've checked in with us to see what progress we have made. "I have a good feeling about it," the wife has encouraged me. "I hope it will work out." Together we have lamented red-tape and bureaucracy that come with going through government processes in every country. They explain Catalan history to me and we often discuss similarities and differences between our culture and beliefs.
I cannot wait to tell them now that everything has been settled in our favor!
These are just some of the people who have helped us along our path to get residency cards, but for me they represent countless others who have also welcomed us here over the past two months.
"Where did you learn to speak Spanish?" our new Catalan acquaintances ask. "Are you here for work? Are you settling in okay? Do your kids go to school here? How do you like living in Barcelona so far? How long will you stay?"
Locals here are kind to our children, and patient with us. They seem warm and interested in our adventure. The good people of Catalunya have given us a sense of belonging; a sense of being known.
When we explain that we come from the United States, California to be precise, their eyebrows sometimes lift in surprise. Barcelona hosts a lot of British residents, not quite as many Americans... at least not in the neighborhoods where we've been spending our time.
California is a place well known to people here from movies and television - yet geographically so far away from Spain, it could be another world. It is almost mythical. Shopkeepers often tell me they would like someday to visit the United States. They have never seen California in person. They would like to watch the Lakers play. For them, California is as exotic a place to hail from as Spain might seem to many Americans.
In these exchanges we laugh a little together, and swap small stories.
"Welcome!" they tell my family and me. "Welcome to Barcelona. ¡Bienvenidos! Benvinguda!"
Now that we are fully legal with official residence cards en route from Madrid, their warm welcome feels even more real.
"Gracias!" we exclaim. "We are so happy to be here!"