Did I mention I am the unluckiest person in Spain, and quite possibly the whole world?
Either that or the luckiest. My friends back home in Virginia used to have a running list of “things that would only ever happen to Liz.” And damn, my last six months dealing with the legal system and border police in Spain certainly top them all.
Where do I even begin?
Rewind to October 2011. I had just moved to Logroño, and I skipped my morning classes to head over to the foreigner’s office to pick up my NIE (Foreigner’s identity card in Spain) for the year. After waiting forever, it was finally my turn and I went to the desk to get my new card. Before handing over the goods, he showed me the card details, and I noticed it was going to expire on June 31. “All the auxiliar teaching assistants in La Rioja are given cards that expire at the end of September, can you fix that date?” I asked him nicely.
“Wait a minute and let me check with the boss.” Uh-oh, I didn’t want him to check with the boss. That boss didn’t like me after I cried all over his desk last summer. Unfortunately everyone in that office knew who I was after the May 2011 Incident. As he tottled off, I took a deep breath, it would be ok, maybe he wouldn’t remember me.
The boss came out and took one look at the computer screen, then at my face and said, “you?!” Damnit.
“Actually there has been a mistake in the system and your card should expire in May 31.” As my jaw dropped he said, “Because your situation is different from everyone else’s, unfortunately your card will only go til May.” Talking about UNFAIR! ALL-CAPS! Also, way to shoot myself in the foot. Why did I have to go and open my big mouth?
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to leave Spain by May 31, there is a grace period and you can renew your card up to 3 months after it expires.” After asking how long was said grace period and would I get in trouble for staying in Spain after it, he replied with the ease of a typical Spanish man in charge of a bureaucratic office, he waved his hands and said, “meh, no one really checks these things. Don’t worry, no pasa nada. Nothing will happen.” Great. Thanks. He clearly doesn’t know my bad luck history.
Step 1: that’s how I ended up with a residency card that expired four months before everyone else’s.
As the beginning of May rolled around, I started to panic. I hadn’t received word about getting a position teaching in Logroño the following year. After harassing the ministry officials in Madrid via email and telephone, they promised I would hear something in June. It was ok, I had til August 31 to turn in my renewal paperwork. Then June passed, oh I would definitely hear something by July. Nope, then August, nada. By the last week in August, I called again and was finally told that there was a mistake and I was not going to get a spot. Thanks Spanish Ministry of Education for dragging me along all summer only to say, “oopsies, actually no job for you after all Oh, you overstayed your visa by 3 months and are now living here illegally? Not my problem.”
At this point I had been accepted to the Blog House in September in Cataluña and had already bought tickets to BIG travel blogging conferences in Girona and Oporto, Portugal. What was I going to do? I couldn’t afford a last-minute August flight and I would lose the deposit on my apartment if I left early. I had already overstayed my visa by 3 months accidentally, what was an extra few weeks? So I bought a flight back to the US the day after the conference and decided to risk staying a little longer. Spain is notorious for having the most lax border control in the EU, especially leaving. After over 3 years there, I have never, EVER had to show my residency papers at the airport and I knew lots of Americans living there without papers. Everyone I asked, including lawyers and policemen assured me no one would say anything. What’s the worst that could happen?
I clearly had a case of short-term memory loss and forgot that if anything could happen, it WOULD happen to me.
So I decided to forgo the 1 hour-long flight from Madrid to Portugal and take a 15 hour train ride as to not risk passing by airport border control and having to show my passport. No problem going in, but on my 6 hour bus ride back to Salamanca, guess who stopped our bus at the Portugal-Spain border? The Spanish border police.
As the passed down the aisle checking everyone’s papers, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Clutching my passport in my sweaty hands, my head filled with visions of getting dragged off the bus and thrown in a Portuguese jail in the middle of nowhere and being banned from Spain for the rest of my life. I hadn’t even gone to the Blog House yet and all my beautiful Zara clothes were still in Logroño! Wrecked with fear, I handed over my passport as the police came up to me; I didn’t know if I was going to pee my pants or throw up right on the border cop. As he flicked through the pages, the other border control guy came over and both began looking at it. I knew they were looking for my entry date into Europe, which was over a year old. Everyone was staring at me. Talk about an “oh, s*** moment.”
I decided in that moment to play the only card I had left on the table: the dumb blond American girl card.
I pulled my old expired NIE card out of my wallet and said in English, “Oh, do you need this?” pretending I didn’t speak Spanish. Then I said in English, “I’m sorry, I haven’t gotten my new card yet” and shrugged my shoulders, “that isn’t a problem, is it?”
Glancing at each other, I could literally read the look between them; they didn’t want to deal with some idiot American girl who “forgot” her new card and the only English they knew was “Hello, I’m Juan and I’m from Espain” back from middle school. They replied at me in rapid Spanish, “you have to bring the paperwork next time,” gave me my passport back and got off the bus. Phew.
Tossa de Mar, Spain
Holy cow batman!. As I slouched back down in my seat, I felt like I aged ten years. That was by far the scariest incident I had in Spain. Until I had to pass through border control at the Madrid airport 3 weeks later.
After the longest travel weekend of my life, I threw my life into two suitcases and a backpack and trundled off to the Madrid airport to move home after living in Spain for a few years. After checking in and (maybe) bribing an airline official, I passed easily through security.
Now came the tricky part. Since I was flying directly to the US, I had to pass though Spanish customs and passport control and get the exit stamp from the EU. Spain should ask me to show my NIE and papers to validate my being there for so long. By this point I had technically overstayed my Spain visa by 4 months. Oops. All I had was my expired NIE and several shaky outlines of stories, ranging from forgetting my paperwork to being robbed on the overnight bus from Logroño.
What’s the worst that could happen? I could be fined $1000+ and be banned from my beloved Europe for years.
Barajas Airport, Madrid (source)
As I got closer to the desks, I started to get nervous. I was just hoping and praying they wouldn’t actually look at all my stamps; I’ve got over 50! I pretended to look in my bag for something, and tried to scope out the border control officers from the corner of my eye, James Bond style. Two middle-aged women, and older man and a young guy. Young guy it was! Probable the most susceptible to female tears if I had to go that route.
I took a deep breath and walked up to him; there wasn’t any line. I said buenos días in the most gringo accent I could muster. I thought I was going to faint again I was so nervous; I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet! He started chatting to me right away, flipped to the last page in my passport, stamped it, and handed it right back over to me without even properly looking through it! He then started flirting and asking me about Spain and if I enjoyed living there! I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t even need to play dumb American!
I was shocked, but then I started chatting too, telling him about La Rioja and how I was sad to leave. We had a good little conversation before I headed off to have my last café con leche. Probably the nicest border control experience I’ve ever had. England should take a leaf out of Spain’s books; I always get grilled and yelled at in London for having too many stamps! Afterward, I made my way to my gate, and feeling jaunty and on a great high, I bought a bunch of Spanish ham to smuggle back to the States on a whim. I am ridiculous! What is wrong with me?
So what to take away from this story?
I guess my bad luck turned into good luck and I wasn’t banned, fined, arrested or deported. I escaped unscathed with nothing but a few gray hairs to show for it. In my defense I felt like I didn’t have much choice about my situation. The thought of overstaying my visa stressed me out for months, and I met with many public officials trying to sort everything out to no end. Given a second chance, I would probably do everything differently, but for now, I did the best I could under rather unlucky circumstances.
Have you ever had visa or passport issues while traveling? Have you ever overstayed your residency abroad? Any scary airport or border control incidents?