How the Clarks Finally Got Their Spanish Visas

Per the plan, on the last day of August we flew back to the United States from our newly established life in Spain. At the Spanish Consulate in San Fransisco, we had to apply–in person with the whole family–for my work visa.

Not So Quick

Leaving months behind schedule to take an additional international trip for paperwork purposes isn’t quite complicated enough, though. So we layered on a bit more before leaving.

Spain has a registration process called empadronamiento. It’s done with the city and most resembles a census/voter registration in the States. Importantly this lets you do things like register your children for school. We got our padron during our final week in Spain before heading back to the States. This in turn landed us at the school administration offices the morning of our 4pm flight. Combine that with missing a critical piece of paperwork (birth certificates… cue the foreshadowing), and let’s say it wasn’t the most stress free departure we’ve ever made. But we left Spain with assurances that we’d be informed of our children’s school assignment soon. Tick that box off!

First Stop, San Fransisco

We flew into Oakland where our friend Megan surprised us at the airport. She had been working weeks down in the Bay Area and flying back to Portland on weekends. This weekend, though, she chose to hang out with us instead. Megan took care of our kids regularly when they were little, so it was a huge treat to spend the long Labor Day weekend with her around San Fransisco.

Family pho time
Family pho time

The following Tuesday was the big day: our appointment at the Spanish Consulate. We’d gathered, copied, checked, and rechecked the papers a dozen times. Honestly, I was pretty nervous. While I felt certain we’d get the process complete eventually, I really didn’t want anything avoidable to get fouled up.

Sigh.

Our appointment was at 9 in the morning, so we hustled out of the hotel and caught a cab to the Spanish Consulate. It’s an unassuming, relatively missable building if you don’t spot the flags flying over the door. We settled into the waiting room until our names were called. Leaving the waiting room we hit the first big snag: no picture-capable electronics were allowed through. Phones and iPads all had to be stowed. We had promised the kids that the presumably long wait at the consulate guaranteed plenty of electronics time. In an instant that option evaporated. The kids viewed this, understandably, as The Greatest Injustice in the History of the World.

Sigh.

We proceeded to the window with our massive stack of papers. The woman working with us didn’t seem to want all the papers at once, so we passed them through a tiny slot as required. A computer screen mere inches away from the slot made it awkward getting the papers through.

One set of the papers, FBI clearances, she held up unhappily. “What’s this?” I had taken the pages apart when making the copies our lawyers had highly recommended we make. Apparently the clasp holding the sheets together was important. You-invalidated-the-document-by-removing-that type of important.

Eek.

The woman continued typing, taking papers, saying little, while I quietly melted. Here we were, two months and an extra international flight late for this appointment. Our lovely new home seemed to drift further away because of… copies? Amber says my eyes took on a flat, despairing look in that moment.

At long last, her attention returned from the computer to us. “So, you’ll need to have the FBI clearance re-apostilled,” (a process for certifying foreign documents) “but the birth and marriage certificates were issued more than 3 months ago. They aren’t valid either.”

And my despair turned to anger at the lawyers who apparently hadn’t checked our documents’ validity prior to the appointment.

“Oh, your company’s contact information isn’t fill out. You’ll need to add that.” Because cell phones weren’t allowed inside, I ended up having to leave, look up my employer’s phone number and address in Spain, write it down, then rejoin the line back in the consulate to hand it in.

Grrrr.

Northward

While we waited for a rental car to head north in, I sat in surprisingly warm sunshine scouring the internet for the fastest way to get certificates reissued. The FBI papers I’d ruined weren’t too old, so I assumed we’d just have apostille them again. But the birth and marriage certificates needed a full reissue.

This wouldn’t have been a problem from Portland–you can just walk into the county office and be done in an hour or so. But we wouldn’t be reaching Portland for days. We’d be stopping in North Bend on the Oregon Coast to see Amber’s parents, then dropping into Albany to see my parents and my brother with his family. All told, we were most of a week from being physically in Portland.

Blessings arrived, though, as a totally legit website you can order documents from if you know the right numbers (key among them a credit card with plenty of spare room haha). I jammed the numbers in on my phone, fuming as I fumbled at the too-small buttons typing in SSN after SSN into clumsy webforms. I threw money at every expedite option they presented and was assured of more status “in a couple business days.”

We drove out of town over the Golden Gate Bridge, brilliantly happy to be leaving San Fransisco and wondering how these delays might impact our departure date on September 23rd.

Later SF--Golden Gate Bridge
Later SF

Waiting

Status web pages are a miracle of modern technology… but only when the status occasionally changes. When eventually I read the fine print, I realized the final status this website would provide basically boiled down to “We mailed it to the government.”

We visited with Amber’s folks, then headed toward my family with no sign yet of reissued certificates. Reaching Albany, we were only an hour and a half from Portland, so Amber drove north to just get physical copies. It was a good thing she did, because the online order took a couple more days, which would have entailed further delays.

I’d been in touch with the lawyers about getting documents reprocessed. It involved a complicated back and forth between translation and notarizing. At the last moment they refused to redo the existing FBI clearance (even though the consulate had said we could), so we threw wads of cash at that problem to make it go away.

At long last everything was winging its way, we presumed, to the consulate.

We spent a solid week in Portland, hanging out in some dear friends’ basement and catching up with as many others as we could that we’d missed on our earlier departure. Funny thing, nearly twenty years in a city, you can stack up enough connections it’s tough to say all the goodbyes efficiently.

The delays gave us enough space to visit Amber’s family in Montana. While we were up there it became clear we weren’t going to make our departure. At last we concluded we’d do something I’ve never done before–we simply didn’t show up for a flight. Rebooking options were expensive enough that with the lack of a firm date, it just didn’t make sense to try and guess any more.

At Last

I’d asked the lawyers status numerous times, but through bits and pieces I finally understood that they weren’t actually hearing from the consulate either (what are we paying them for?) They were just looking up the status of our application… on a web page.

Baa-dum-bump.

We’d returned from Montana to Portland, then back again to Albany with my family. While it was a gift to get those extra days with family all along this path, by this point we were antsy to be done but unsure how much longer it would take. Would it be the next week? Two weeks? Would we know before the visa approval to plan any travel? Meanwhile September ran its course, school started in Spain (without our children there… or any word yet on which school they would attend).

Then magically, the moment arrived. An email in Amber’s inbox told us our visas were approved! (Sidenote: my email address was written incorrectly as jasmclark; glad Amber was on the list too!)

Approved!

It was a Tuesday, and the consulate asked for our itinerary. Having missed our original flight, we didn’t have one. But hastily buying plane tickets for Friday evening fixed that problem. This gave us enough time to reach San Fransisco, pick up papers from the Consulate, and fly!

Driving saved some money and most importantly afforded us the chance to visit the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA as we left the country. If there’s a more fitting send-off from the States than a candy factory, I don’t know what it is.

Don't be jelly of the Jelly Belly
Don’t be jelly of the Jelly Belly
So. Much. Sugar.
So. Much. Sugar.

Picking up the visas didn’t have a specific appointment time, so we showed up to the consulate pretty early. We gave our names and IDs, waited, expecting some a process. There were fingerprint scanners in back we’d never used, and this time we’d prepared the kids for the lack of electronics.

The guy at the front double-checked that our drivers’ licenses looked like us, smiled at our kids, and gave us our passports with the visas pasted in the back. After all the waiting, the two weeks additional delay, getting the visas took about ten minutes.

Visas in hand, we drove our rental van to the airport, hopped a plane (no premium this time on short notice) and at long last were on our way home.

Heat

As lifelong Oregonians, weather was among the larger changes we expected moving to Barcelona. But we didn’t expect to land in the middle of a heat wave.

We arrived during July 2018, with record temperatures popping up all over Europe. Many of my coworkers confirmed–this was abnormally hot, even by their standards. In Barcelona this meant every day exceeded 90F/32C, often by quite a bit. Oregon summers hit those heights; in fact, during those first weeks, Portland often had a higher max temperature. But that comparison excludes a crucial factor: humidity. Nestled on the lovely Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona’s humidity hung anywhere from 75-90% day in and day out, remorseless and thick. You could practically swim in that air, though not a swim that would refresh you.

Our first two weeks were in a hostel where, thankfully the room and common areas had some air conditioning. The hallways between were left as a broiling challenge, though, the moment you left your door. The front lobby was extra chilly, and I was often willing to run errands if they afforded the chance to pass through that frigid air.

Space in the shared fridge was tiny, but we sacrificed a chunk to a big jug of cool water since the taps provided little relief on their own. We would often treat ourselves by ducking out to the big grocery store 10 minutes walk away for a bag of ice. Hurrying home, we’d paint the pavement with sweat and melt-off from the ice almost the whole way. Once back, we’d stuff every water bottle we owned with what remained frozen and rejoice.

A key tactic for dealing with heat is simple avoidance–don’t go out unless you have to. Unfortunately in those early weeks that wasn’t an option. We had to explore neighborhoods, visit flats, and purchase necessities from stores often long distances from Poblenou. These activities rarely happened in the early morning, so it wasn’t uncommon to set out on a mission in the heat of the day. Needless to say, our energy for completing all those tasks wasn’t what it could have been in a cooler period.

There’s a particular feel to that humid air, a speed with which your shirt starts sticking and your forehead moistens. I haven’t felt anything like it since Mali, and there at least rain every couple of days broke the humidity a bit. I started commuting to the office while the heat persisted, and descending into the Metro proved particularly stifling. Each step you could feel the heat climb a degree, while the air closed around you like an unwelcomely warm blanket. Blessedly, the subway cars had air conditioning, a small relief to anticipate, quickly chilling all that sweat you’d accumulated on the walk and wait to the station.

The beach (which we’ll discuss more later) also provided respite. The water was perfect for swimming on these blazing days, just cold enough with no threat of frozen limbs as on the Oregon coast. We trekked out to the beaches every few days, risking sunburns to bob in the soothing water.

Our flat also has two air conditioners, which proved perfect for keeping things under control. We’ve continued cooling water and introduced a Brita filter in the process. There’s always a refreshing drink to be had in the fridge.

And worst come to worst, if you’re willing to break away for a couple minutes down the rambla, there’s always gelato to soothe your fevered head.

PS. Hilariously, since we’ve returned to the US for a month to finish our visas, Amber has found herself freezing all the time. Admittedly, San Fransisco was a bit cooler than Portland, but I didn’t expect that the tables would turn in just six weeks. I’m ready to return and see what October in Barcelona looks like.

PPS.

Touring the Flat

At long last it’s arrived… the (photo) tour of the flat!

Location, Location, Location

As mentioned a few times before, we’re in El Poblenou, a neighborhood in the eastern part of Barcelona. I’ve been told that it means “new village” and in the not too distant past was an industrial zone. You can see evidence of that in many of the buildings around. More recently it’s been revitalized, though, with an influx of residences and young tech businesses settling there.

We’re a block off the Rambla del Poblenou. Ramblas in Spain are streets blocked off largely for walking traffic. Most are home to restaurants and shops, benches for resting, shade trees. Rambla del Poblenou is no exception.

Here’s the basic layout for those who like reading plans:

Layout of the flat
Layout of the flat

Entering In (entrada)

Our flat begins with a modest entry hall. Along with hooks already there, we’ve added storage for our somewhat outsized collection of shoes. That’s been super effective at keeping the entrance tidy.

From this entryway the space splits, which works well for dividing the ~90 square meters (970 square feet) into a couple different zones.

Make sure you have your keys when you leave!

Kitchen (cocina)

Left from the entryway is the kitchen. As anyone who knows us can testify, the kitchen is the heart of the Clark household, so this was of particular interest in our search for a flat.

One of our biggest worries was transitioning to a smaller space. Fortunately, the flat proved totally workable. This was aided by our past year renting a much smaller place in Portland.

From kitchen doorway
From kitchen doorway

Past the dishwasher you can see the utility room, home of our hot water heater and our soon-to-be washing machine.

Main counters
Main counters

Our kitchen features a dishwasher, a reasonably sized fridge, and a gas stovetop. The only thing we’ve really missed is a microwave, which we’ll fix soon.

The window overlooks the Rambla. Not a great view, but we can often hear music and muted crowd noises drifting up as we do dishes or cook. So lovely.

Living Room (comedor)

If you turned right in the entryway instead of left, you’d end up in the main living space. This long room includes both a seating and dining area. Notice how bright it is, even on an overcast day with the single light in the room turned off.

Seating in the living room
Seating in the living room
Dining in style
Dining in style (and ready to go!)

The white cabinet by the table holds our dishes, a valuable way to save cabinets in the kitchen.

Bedrooms

From the living area a hallway runs back to the bathrooms (2!) and bedrooms (4!) I’ll admit to skepticism about fitting all that in only 90 square meters at first, but the layout is key to it working (and it does!)

Master bed
Master bedroom (Hab 4)

Our bed is a Brimnes from IKEA, and it flips up to reveal a HUGE amount of storage underneath it. This has proven perfect for all our not currently-in-use luggage. Eight bags is not much to fit your life into, but our small flat isn’t much to fit all those empty bags in without the help this bed brings.

Master closest
Master closest

The master closet has built-ins which are nice if a little shallow to use. We’re planning to get end tables but haven’t yet.

Each kid has their own room for the first time in a few years. Cora’s came with a bunkbed set that can be folded up against the wall. We built her a small wardrobe from IKEA and she’s in love with having her own space.

Cora in her room
Cora in her room (Hab 2)
Bunk beds folded up
Bunk beds folded up

Asher got the unfurnished bedroom. At his request he got a loft bed. This provided room for a desk–the only one in the flat actually. Each kid also has had a decorating budget, and Asher spent his on plants.  He wanted to make a jungle for “his boys” to fly around in.  Three dragons, a giant snake, and a teddy bear comprise his little family of which he is the daddy.

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle (Hab 1)
Asher's desk under the loft
Asher’s desk under the loft

Bathrooms

It’s the first time in our adult life that Amber and I have had two bathrooms. Excitement!

The main bathroom is decent sized. Not much storage–just a bit under the sink–but full-sized shower and bath. There’s even an as-yet-unused bidet (fancy!) Note your knees can hit the door if it’s opened when you’re seated.

Main bathroom
Main bathroom

The second bathroom is much smaller, but still has a shower. Just having a second toilet is totally life-changing. Note your knees hit the paper holder, which then hits the door.  🙂  Also, I bonked my elbows on the walls the one time I tried that shower, but the additional option is fantastic.

Smaller bathroom
Smaller bathroom

Hanging Out

A feature we haven’t used much with the summer heat is the back balcony. The view isn’t scenic–just a blank wall on another building–but it’ll be a nice escape during more moderate weather. It also provides a place to hang dry laundry, since we likely won’t have an electric dryer.

Join us on the terrace
Join us on the terrace

Oh, on the topic of weather, did I mention that we have AC? When it’s too hot to hang on the porch, it’s just right inside.

One More Thing

The detail oriented among you might notice I mentioned four bedrooms but only showed three. Well, we even have a guest room!

Guest room
Guest room (Hab 3)

Doesn’t look like much, but that bed extends to a queen. If you happen to be near Barcelona, give us a call. We’d love to have guests!

Festa Major de Gràcia

A week or two ago several coworkers asked me the same question.

“Are you going to the Festa Major?”

“Huh, what’s that?”

When multiple people are checking you know about something happening in your new city, it definitely gets your attention.

Each major neighborhood in Barcelona has a yearly festival. These often last for days with decoration in the streets, food, music, all the things you’d expect from a festival in Spain. This week was the one for Gràcia, a relatively central neighborhood we’d considered living in until we found our flat in Poblenou.

My ladies walking at Festa de Gràcia
My ladies walking at Festa de Gràcia

Festa Major de Gràcia is one of the larger events and lasts a whole week. We didn’t make it out until the last day. From what we hear about the crowds earlier, it’s probably just as well!

Different streets decorated to themes and competed with each other. Some were mostly art displays, others host to large neighbor dinners or elevated musical stages. Talking with a coworker the day after he said, “Lots of those streets are kind of weird.” As a Portlander, I mostly just felt at home.

Unisheep
Not baaaaaad Unisheep!

We wandered out around 8:30 as dusk closed in. Life in Spain runs as late as you’ve heard. Festivities were just starting throughout Gràcia. We toured several streets, had a baby gelato cones (so itty bitty!), and then found our way to pizza and pasta for dinner before more streets.

One had a video game theme 🤖🎮👾

Another got Cora especially excited… Miyazaki movies!

🎼Totoro, To-toro
🎼Totoro, To-toro
Porco Rosso
Porco Rosso
Howl's Moving Castle
Howl’s Moving Castle

Near the close of the evening we heard noise and commotion up ahead. A scent of burning wafted through the air, and we turned a corner to find this.

Not bad Barcelona, not bad at all!

Flattening Barcelona

While I’ve traveled many places before, I’ve never had to figure out how to rent a place to live.

Research

The first step began months ago. Since almost the moment we decided to relocate, Amber started cruising real estate sites for Barcelona. In particular, she spent hours on idealista. Coworkers confirmed that as a top site on the topic, and as time approached Amber favorited dozens of flats to consider.

During our first weeks in country we took the next step of exploring neighborhoods. That confirmed our initial list of target areas: Gràcia, Poblenou, or Eixample. Each had different things to recommend it. Gràcia had narrow streets and old-world charm. Poblenou had relative quiet within walking distance of beaches. Eixample had the bustling urban heart of the city.

Next we finalized our need vs want list. We wanted three or four bedrooms so the kids each got their own space, and ideally we could support visitors (hint hint, come visit!) Multiple bathrooms, outdoor space, pool (?!), washing machine, laundry all fell on the nice to haves.

The biggest change to reckon with, though, was our very American notions of space. Obviously we were downsizing… but how much? We got pretty good at translating meters squared into square feet, and with some uncertainty capped the lower bound of our search at 90 m2 (about 970 ft2). This left us feeling by turns absurdly American and nervous at the transition we might find ourselves making.

Visiting

Idealista lets you contact the flat owners straight from the website, so we shot off messages to a handful of our favorites. Here we encountered the difficulty of Spain in high season… much of the country is on holiday for weeks at a time during July and August. I’m convinced that a different time of year we might have heard from more of them, but we ended up getting four bites.

This revealed a big difference between renting in the US and Barcelona. Everything on idealista ran through real estate agencies. Back home I would have expected to directly contact apartment owners, or at least someone whoever managed the place. Instead, every time we were talking to a real estate agent. Apparently with effort you can avoid this–and the agency fees that come along, which are more than a month’s rent!–but with our timelines and inexperience, we just rolled with the agents.

We ended up seeing three places near Eixample and Gracia, and one in El Poblenou. The flats in Eixample were largely along Avinguda Diagonal, a large busy street, but all were surprisingly quiet behind closed doors and windows. These were close to my work, and two of the three had excellent space and layout. The parks nearby were lovely, and Amber loved the architecture nearby.

Despite all this, the flat in El Poblenou drew us continually back. It’s highlight feature was unique, and unlikely to show up for us wherever we move in the future–Mediterranean surf and sand just a short walk away. It’s also a quieter neighborhood, with a nice little Rambla full of shops and restaurants. Just the vibe we were after.

Rambla del Poblenou
Rambla del Poblenou

Signing

Having chosen the place, we visited a real estate office to sign papers that we intended to rent through their agency. At this point we paid the agency fee, although the agreement clearly stated if the rental didn’t happen it would be refunded. At this point after two weeks in a single hostel room with the kids, my attitude toward shelling out money to get into a place was roughly like this:

That commitment in place, our agent contacted another agent (really) representing the owners. Between them, they sorted out the details. The only mild hiccup was a type of insurance the owners wanted which our work status presented some issues for. After a little negotiating we found a way to settle that to everyone’s satisfaction.

A few days later, we had yet another round of signing at a different real estate office. Although the stack of papers was nowhere near the mountain of paperwork for buying a house, I did feel déjà vu signing page after page. Beyond the contract, we even signed pictures of the various meters with the understanding we could confirm the values once we moved in.

Papers signed, the keys were ours!

The keys are ours!
The keys are ours!

Moving In

The owners weren’t present as they live in Germany, but their father, a friendly man named Antonio, joined for the signing. Afterward, he took us to the flat and showed us the place in more detail. He gave us a great tour of the various systems–locks, windows, AC, bunk beds–with the knowledge of someone who had really been around the place. He even introduced us to Dino’s Gelato just a block down the Rambla. Danger!

After Antonio left, the day presented one more task… moving in as best we could. Eight maximized checked bags and four sizable carry-ons were still stowed at the hostel. The kids’ room had a bunk bed, but Amber and I had nowhere to sleep. While we’d have liked nothing better than to just stay put for the night, instead we journeyed out, drawn to that place we’d spend so much time over the coming weeks: IKEA.

We purchased a queen mattress and a rather large pile of other items with which to start our new home. It was almost 10PM when we got out, with nary a taxi to be seen. I honestly doubt most taxis could have accommodated all our stuff. Fortunately, at the front of IKEA there are almost always unbranded vans with men hanging around, ready to help you haul. That evening there was only one, and he didn’t have room for the whole family. We finally got a taxi, and the family headed home while I set off for the hostel after loading everything from IKEA into the back.

The night was hot, continuing the smothering heatwave that we’d run smack into when we landed in Barcelona. The van didn’t have AC, and I sat with sweat pouring down me as we wove through the darkened night toward the hostel.

Our friends at the front desk at Twentytú graciously helped to ferry the gargantuan mass of luggage to the van. This saved time, and calmed my paranoid (?) concerns about the van suddenly vanishing with all our worldly possessions while I was inside locating that one last bag.

Another broiling hop in the van, and then we shuttled all the stuff into the entryway of the build. Hilariously, the driver mirrored my nerves, but about everyone else around us as we unloaded.

By the time I hoisted the entire world upstairs, my clothes were soaked through, and I was ready to collapse. We sliced open the plastic wrapping on the mattress, flopped it on the floor, took a quick cold shower, and then collapsed into a deep, contented sleep.

(Wondering what the flat’s like? Don’t worry… a tour will be forthcoming soon!)

A Simple Shopping Trip

Last week I started back to work at New Relic’s Barcelona office. Located downtown in an area call L’Eixample, I’ve been transiting (mostly Metro) between there and our flat in El Poblenou (more details forthcoming!)

On Thursday Amber sent a list of nine things, and asked if I’d grab them from the store on my way home. A bus ran from near the office, past a major shopping center I was familiar with within talking distance of our flat. Easy!

Since I only had a laptop bag, I snagged an unused paper bag from the lunchroom, patting myself on the back for my forethought to avoid buying a new bag at the store (cue ominous music).

Outside, not only was the bus line nearby, it was literally steps from the door. This whole urban living thing was really coming together.

Shopping rubbed off a little of that shine, though, as I worked down Amber’s list. First off, shopping in an unfamiliar, large grocery store is always grounds for some mild frustration. Compounding that, Spanish groceries aren’t arranged quite like the “standard” layout in the US. The differences are subtle, but real. For instance, the baking soda (bicarbonato de sodio) was with spices, but the the baking powder (pulvo de hornear) hid out with the boxed cakes eight aisles away. Ibuprofen isn’t even available at grocery stores, only at separate pharmacies. I did manage to find peanut butter, a nice touch given how often I’ve heard that held up as a strictly American thing.

Packing the paper bag full, I headed into the kilometer walk home. About a third of the way there, a familiar sensation began, missing since my arrival in Spain. Was that drizzle? The sky did hang low and cloudy, but I’m from Oregon. A little rain doesn’t scare me.

Cue the downpour.

I wasn’t about to let this spoil my outing, though. Worst off I’d end up wet, but if it stopped afterward it might even cool things down. But as my clothes soaked through, drips turned to small streams from my hair, and a thick fog smeared over my glasses, I noticed a problem.

The front corners of the paper bag were softening from the rain.

I clutched the groceries closer, craning uselessly to shield them. Picking up my pace, I was certain I could make it down the rambla and home before things got dire.

Wrong.

The bag disintegrated all at once. Half of my groceries flew from my arms like angry magnets, scattering on the pavement. Glass shattered. With my left eye flaring (yeah for detached retinas!) and fog over my glasses, I could hardly see the extent of the damage. As I clutched the remains of my groceries, I didn’t even notice for a moment that the bag of flour had burst open. My entire right leg was plastered wet and caked in white.

  

A kind stranger saw my predicament and said in relatively clear English, “That’s not going to work.” Um, yeah, agreed. He immediately offered to run and grab a bag, though. Almost on his heels, someone else offered me a large reusable bag. I thanked them profusely as I tucked what remained into the bag. Flour and broken egg smeared everything.

With the surviving items finally safe, I picked up the broken glass I could, gripping them in the soaked shreds of my brilliant paper bag, and tucked the lot in the nearest trash can before scurrying the rest of the way home.

Shopping… easy as pie!