House Hunting Headache in Madrid

View from our bedroom window: Lots of Parks, Plazas, and a Palace!

As soon as we landed in Spain we couldn’t wait to start looking for a place to live.  After simply taking over a previous teacher’s residence in Japan we decided this time it would be fun to look for our own place.  We were able to research all the different barrios of Madrid and view lots of apartments for rent on the internet before we landed so we felt like it would be pretty easy to find a place once we got there.  We would even have people helping us with scheduling and looking at potential places.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to live downtown or near the school but we knew we’d be happy either way.  We were very flexible and therefore thought we’d have lots of options.

Shopping galore on Grand Via in Madrid

We were warned it would be HOT and we’d be doing LOTS of walking so we were ready for that. What we were not prepared for was the fact that 90% of the Spaniards are on vacation for the whole month of August, thus making it very difficult to look at rental properties.  Every day we would make a list of 15-20 potential places to look at and end up only being able to view only 3 or 4.  We also weren’t aware that they doctored their photos to make their places look a whole lot nicer than they actually are.  Needless to say, after 4 days of searching and mostly seeing less than desirable options, we were very frustrated.  The one place we were interested in, no one could get ahold of the owners since they were in Mexico.  We decided to rent a serviced apartment for a week so we could continue our search.  We then realized it would be at least another week before people would return from vacation AND that we had to find a place sooner rather than later (since we had to register our permanent address within a month of landing in Spain).  We went into panic mode and started looking at ANYTHING that was available for viewing.

Luckily, we ran across a place that we liked.  We initally hesitated because it was smaller than we wanted (1 bdrm vs 2 bdrm), but everything else about it was great.  We figured we should try to reach the owner since that seemed to be the biggest hurdle.  After finally finding someone that could get us the owner’s contact number, we learned they were on vacation too; however, they were answering their phones and email and one of the owners even spoke English (a British woman who married a Spaniard).  This was a BIG positive.  She was extremely pleasant to deal with and very willing to work with us.  She still keeps in contact and has even added additional items to the apartment for us.

Our Complete Functional Kitchen 🙂

The rent was a bit more than some of the other places we were looking at, BUT we didn’t have to pay an agency fee (equal to one month’s rent) and they only wanted 1 month deposit (rather than 3 or 4).  The apartment is on the 26th floor so it has incredible views of the city.  It was totally remodeled last year.  The price also includes a great 24 hour gym, internet, TV, and a community room we can reserve for parties.  It’s close to a couple big parks, the new river walk, lots of shopping, and even downtown.  We really like the neighborhood and it’s very convenient for Robert to get to work.   Another great thing about our new place is that (unlike Japan) we actually have a real kitchen so we can cook! 🙂  We had to wait a week to move in but that was ok.  Once Robert started working, I continued to look at a few other places (just for the heck of it), but I never found anything that I liked better.

I’m not sure if we’ll stay here the whole time we are in Spain or if we’ll eventually look for another place but for right now it’s great.  I know one thing, I’ll never get tired of the views.

Here are a couple more views of the city:

View of the Northwest part of the city from the Gym

View of the Southern Part of the City from the Community Room

One of the many beautiful sunsets from our dining room. 🙂

 

The Chance to Live in Madrid

As noted in our previous post, there was a long pause in our blog due to a life changing event.   That life changing event was the the opportunity to live  in Spain. Robert received a job offer in January to work at a school in Madrid and we just couldn’t pass that up.  Had we known what that would entail, we might have stayed in Japan.  However, I can now happily say, it was all worth it.

City of Madrid

The whole process to obtain our Spain VISAs was incredibly stressful, slow, and inefficient.  It disrupted our lives like nothing else we have ever experienced.  We’ve lived in 4 other countries and none of them made it anywhere near this difficult to live there.   We started the VISA process on the 24th of January and we finally had both VISAs on September 25th.  It took 8 months for us just to get our VISAs.  By the time we both get our residence cards it will have been almost a year!  When we moved to Japan, the whole process took less than 2 months and required maybe an hour of our time.  Kudos to Japan!

In a nutshell, we were each given a list of 14-15 different things we had to do BEFORE submitting our application to Spain.  We had to get criminal background checks from both the USA and Japan, we had to get certificates of health, and we had to prove we had health insurance.  We also had to prove we were married, that Robert had a job in Spain, and that we had sufficient income for both of us to live there.   All these documents couldn’t be more than 3 months old when we submitted them with our application.  The school in Madrid had warned us that it would take 7-8 months.  If everything went perfectly, Robert would barely get his VISA before the next school year started.  If we made one mistake along the way, we’d have to start all over and Spain would not have happened.  On top of all that, what made this process even more difficult and stressful was that the governments we were dealing with primarily communicated in either Japanese or Spanish (of which we know neither ) and, in the case of the USA, it was a 17 hour flight away which made it impractical for us to deal with directly (so we had to ask family to help us).  Working with these three different governments was truly an eye-opener.  Japan is light years ahead of the USA and Spain when it comes to government processes.

Our VISA Application Instructions – one in Japanese the other in Spanish

The background check for Japan was easy.  It required us a visit to the police station, pay $5 dollars, and get a 20 second electronic finger print scan. They had the official report ready for us within 10 days.   The background check for the USA took 3 months and cost $50.  It required getting a set of fingerprints done the archaic way where you “roll each finger in ink and place on a card”.  Do you know how hard it is to find someone in Japan that still knows how to ‘roll fingerprints’?   Surprisingly, US Embassies don’t provide this service and the closest US military base to us was 2 hours away.  Fortunately, the office staff found someone in the Prefecture Police Department that still knew how to do it.  The finger prints had to be perfect, if they weren’t, we’d have to start the process all over….so we had 3 sets of fingerprints done – just to be safe.  We mailed them to the FBI in Washington DC on Feb 1st.  Ten weeks later, they sent the reports to Robert’s mom.  She then had to mail them back to Washington DC so the State Department could give it an Apostile (which is just another document saying the FBI report was real and authentic) which took two more weeks.  How inefficient and redundant does that sound?  I still can’t believe it took 3 months for the US government to issue non-criminal reports.  How sad and embarrassing for them. 🙁

The health check was easy.  It merely required a visit to our doctor in Japan who signed a form letter indicating we had good health.  The proof of insurance and the proof of work & income involved filling out more forms, making lots of phone calls, and collecting lots of additional paperwork from the new school.  It was time consuming and at times very confusing.  The proof of marriage required Robert’s mom to go to the court house in Red Lodge to get a recent certified copy of our marriage license which then had to be mailed to Helena to get an Apostile from the State Dept in Montana.  She then Fed-ex’d all the US documents we needed to Japan.

Some of the many Documents we sent to Spain

Once we had all the required documents together, we had to get them officially translated into Spanish (and then make 3 copies of everything).  It was already April and we were running out of time.  Fortunately, the translation agency in Tokyo would accept scanned versions of the documents, and they could do an express service for us.  Four days later, we flew to Tokyo (which was the closest Spanish Embassy to where we were living) and submitted all these papers and our VISA application.  We were told it would take 3-4 months to process the applications… as there is no express service.  The applications were sent to Spain for processing.  Once approved, we had to return to Tokyo to pick up our VISA.  We had no way of tracking our applications.  Hopefully everything was right.  We later learned that they don’t process family applications together.  They do the working applicant first and then they start on the dependents applications.

Sample Spain VISA – What we waited so long for

There was a small chance that Robert’s VISA could possibly be done before July, so we stayed in Japan an extra two weeks in hopes that his VISA would be ready.  He got it the day before we left Japan.  I was not so lucky, which meant I would have to return to Tokyo from either the US or Spain (depending on when they approved it).  Every few weeks we’d email the Embassy in Tokyo to see if they’d heard anything.  We were already living in Spain (which was a little risky and presumptuous actually) when I was finally informed my VISA was approved and I had 2 months to pick it up.

Now, this is what confuses me about Spain:  Here they are in a depression and instead of enabling people to just pick up their VISAs in Spain (or anywhere close to them) they make us fly all the way back to where we applied.  Most people would pay them a LOT of money to avoid that hassle.  They could make even more money if they’d just offer an expedited VISA service.  Neither of these options would be that hard to implement.

Now, when you get the VISA – it’s not over.  Once you arrive in Spain, you have one month to inform them of your permanent address, and then go to the police station to apply for your resident card.  Fortunately, the school made this very easy for us.  We just had to show up when and where we were told.  Their lawyer met us there and we were able to skip ahead of the people waiting in line.  The residency card is only valid for one year, so next year we have to apply for a new one.  When I went to apply for my card, Robert’s was ready.  By December, I should have my card and we both should be official residents of Spain. 🙂

 

The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap