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Is There Customer Service in Spain?

11 Nov

I love most things about living in Spain, but customer service is not one of them. I have even contended they should remove the Spanish words for customer service, “atención al cliente,” from the lexicon. I have previously recounted my problems in receiving packages with my personal belongings from California. When I first reported no monetary value for the old personal items mailed to me, the Spanish authorities returned the package to the U.S. I tried unsuccessfully twice more to have my belongings sent. The last time, I completed all the requirements within the mandated time period, paid nearly 100 Euros in customs fees, and they still returned my package to California. By this time, all the potentially breakable items had broken. I never received the refund I requested. One package I did eventually receive was gaping open and the contents from the top of the box were missing; the Spanish postal service was not even professional enough to tape it closed. Then the postal worker who “delivered” the box claimed it was heavy and asked me to help carry it into my apartment.

 

If I mail order something from the U.S., there are huge import taxes, but there are some things worth paying extra for that I cannot get here in Spain. I have also mail ordered items from Spanish companies, and more often than not, the couriers claim they tried to deliver my package, even when I had been home the whole day. When I call the number they provide for the supposed missed delivery, they argue with me, saying they did come to my place and ring my doorbell. They are never wrong, and never apologize. One agent insisted they had a photo of the courier at my door, but when I asked them to send it, I was told they could not.

 

My friends and I have had similar difficulties when using a taxi. Some drivers will ignore directions I provide to avoid traffic snarls. They may bark at you for having an inadequate command of Spanish. The other day, our cab driver from our town of Altea was unfamiliar with any of the streets or major landmarks in our village.

 

Most of the time the food here is great, but there are occasions when the restaurant serves sub-par food. If they ask how the food was, and you give an honest assessment, most of the time, I have received the blank “Bambi in headlights” look, with no offer of any reparations. Once, when I tried to return or exchange a podiatry device which broke after one use, the pharmacist looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said there is no guarantee on products they sell. WHAT?!

 

I recently learned of an even more ridiculous incident. A woman bought a pair of shoes, and when she got home and looked at them, she discovered they had given her two different sizes. When she went to correct the error, with receipt in hand, they insisted they had made no mistake, even suggesting she may have gone to another store to buy another pair to make a mismatched set. Her husband had no better success in attempting to rectify what should have been a simple exchange, accompanied by an apology.

And I won’t even start on confounding, changing requirements of the government bureaucracies in getting required documentation for a visa, registering your living address, getting a bank account and more. There is even a hilarious videos representative of many people’s  exasperating experiences, which I have previously viewed on YouTube, although it seemed to have been removed when I tried to find it.

My recommendation in Spain is to remember, The client is always wrong.

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A Humorous Guide to Smoking in Spain

2 Nov
  1. img_1410Although smoking is not allowed indoors, it doesn’t count if you light up while heading for the door.
  2. Nor does is count if you stand in the doorway and smoke.
  3. You can stand at the outside window counter of a bar/restaurant designed for serving people outside, and while facing the inside, blow smoke inside.
  4. You can smoke in an outdoor restaurant patio, even if enclosed or babies/children are present.
  5. You can hold your baby or child while smoking.
  6. You can throw your lit cigarette into the street when finished, regardless of whether you are walking, driving, or are on your third or fourth floor home balcony.
  7. You can publicly smoke at your job.
  8. You would rather sit outdoors so you can smoke, even in inclement weather.
  9. Don’t worry if your smoking bothers anyone else.
  10. You can smoke outside the gym door before and after exercising, and if you need a smoke break during your workout.
  11. Buy household items that can be used both as vessels for serving food and as an ashtray.
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    Cups that can be used to serve food such as allioli (Spanish version of aioli) or can be an ashtray.  I’m not kidding. See the four protrusions on top designed for putting cigarettes when vessel is empty.

Taxi Travel Perils and Moros y Cristianos in Altea Spain

9 Oct
Moros

Moros

“The taxi driver wouldn’t follow the directions you provided. He said, ‘Moros y Cristianos’ and ‘impossible,’ then stopped, unloaded our luggage and told us to get out. We don’t know where we are.” This was the first comment from my friend who had just arrived in Altea from California. In addition, the WhatsApp wouldn’t work for her, so I hadn’t gotten any of her prior calls. Having not heard from them at the expected arrival time, I then called her via regular (expensive) international mobile rates, which is when I received her panicked statement.

 

Camels with Moros

Camels with Moros

In anticipation of the arrival of my two girl friends from California, I fretted over possible, or should I say probable, problems with the cab driver getting to my apartment during the annual Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christian) festival. This was not my first problematic experience with Spanish cab drivers. My fear was realized, in spite of spending several days providing a map and writing out the directions in Spanish (and English so my friends could see if he was going the right way.) At the beginning of the directions was the admonition in Spanish (which my friend read aloud) not to go the usual way due to the Moros y Cristianos festival. In response, he simply entered my address into his guidance system, and drove to the starting spot of the parade, at which point he dropped them off on the highway (Carretera 332) that runs through Altea.

 

Christian fila party across from my apartment

Christian fila party across from my apartment

After eventually figuring out where they were, I found them near the start of the Moros y Cristianos parade route. With luggage in tow, we then proceeded to the seats on the parade route a local friend had saved for us. Although I had told them they would be in Altea during the Moros y Cristianos festival, they had no idea of the magnitude and pageantry of it. The festival commemorates the Christians reconquering the areas of Spain that had been conquered earlier by the Moors.

 

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King in the procession to the church plaza from my window

Nor did they anticipate the incredible level of noise associated with most festivals in Spain. In the early morning, there is the despierta (wake-up) when the local filas (brotherhoods) proceed up the hill toward the church plaza while their respective brass bands play and others fire noise-making guns and firecrackers, all the while drinking and smoking. (Having attended the festival for two years, I have only seen one Muslim participate.) Throughout the day, the many filas have parties at their individual sites, with food, alcohol and music. The fila Moros across the street from my balcony, Els Malvins, have a fabulous group of musicians, which I am privileged to enjoy without having to leave my home. In addition, there are many other adjunctive activities such as midnight fireworks, re-enactment of battles between the two groups,

 

Solemn religious procession

Solemn religious procession

The festival culminates with evening parades, first the Moros, the next day a solemn religious procession, and finally the Christians. After those parades, the filas return to their home sites where they continue to party until the early hours of the morning. In addition, there are live music/dance venues that start after midnight and go for many hours. I don’t know how they can stay awake that long, let alone, party that intensely. Tellingly, on the day after the festival ends, almost all of the local businesses are closed, apparently for recuperation and clean up.

 

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Quail with apple slices, grapes fruit compote

 

My friends were thrilled with the Moros y Cristianos festival, as well as many other aspects of Spain, including the friendly international locals, the many varieties of activities, day trips to other towns, fabulous food and the ambience of beautiful Altea.

 

 

Sant Joan Festival in Altea Spain

26 Jun

BOOM BOOM BOOM. The sounds outside were so loud as to cause my dog, Pepper, to run to hide under the bed. I peered out of my window which affords a view of the cathedral at the top of Altea’s old town, where I was surprised to see fireworks midday. The fireworks signaled the start of the day’s Sant Joan Festival.

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Waiting to be doused with water at Sant Joan festival in Altea

Sant Joan Festivals are very popular in Spain, particularly in the Province of Valencia where I live, as well as in Catalan-speaking areas, and Galicia. Sant Joan is the Valenciana and Catalan languages way of saying Saint John. The Sant Joan festival in Alicante is Spain’s largest, and one of Alicante’s most important festival. The festivals occur around June 23, the day of Sant Joan, typically with numerous days of activities that vary with the location.

In Alicante, there are large “Ninot” characters that are set on fire, much like the famous “falles” festival in Valencia in March. The Ninot are amusing parodies of famous people or politicians made of wood, cardboard, mud, and other items. This year’s Alicante festival occurs for four days. There are noisy early morning (for Spain) wake-ups, parades, costumes, music and many more activities.

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Sant Joan parade with masks

In my town of Altea, when I first heard about the impending festival, I had no idea what to expect. My initiation to the festival was the booming fireworks midday, followed later by a parade of locals with cartoon character heads. There have been three early morning wake-ups by noisy participants yelling, playing instruments, and more fireworks. My apartment is on the street where all the local parade participants go as they head up the hill to the cathedral in Altea’s main plaza. One afternoon, there was a huge pan of traditional paella cooked in the plaza for all to sample. One midnight during the festival, people wade into the ocean. After all, St. John is remembered for baptizing Jesus.

This festival requires stamina. The first group of parade participants, which included many musicians, continued to march and perform for more than 12 hours. During the second afternoon parade, the noisy participants of all ages wore torn t-shirts and were soaking wet as they made their way up the hill. There were two groups, each carrying a tall tree, many drinking from large jugs or other vessels of wine, while the people watching on from their apartments above dump and spray water on the giddy participants.

 

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Raising the tree

 

Once done with the procession, in the plaza the trees are hoisted to stand erect. Men attempt to climb the tree as high as possible onto the unstable trees to tie on their ripped t-shirt. An ambulance was waiting nearby for anyone who might fall. However, I think it is nearly as dangerous for the women who wear spindly high heel shoes while walking on the uneven, rocky plaza surface, or dancing when the late night band plays.

 

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Climbing the tree to tie on a flag

Today, Sunday, parade participants wore traditional costumes while trekking up the hill to the accompanying music followed by a “solemn” mass. There are numerous activities scheduled including more music processions. (Altea music schools for youth and a professional school for adults so music is always a prominent part of any festival.) There will be more fireworks, and in the plaza another giant communal paella, and disco music starting at 11:00 p.m.

 

What has been your favorite festival experience in Spain?

Alluring Alicante: Top Stops

4 Apr
Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Alicante with Santa Barbara Castle on the hill

Living in the beautiful, low-cost Mediterranean area of Spain known as the Costa Blanca offers many advantages, not the least of which is the opportunity to travel to enticing, affordable historical and cultural places in the country. Since moving to the Costa Blanca, I have been enjoying nearby venues, all within about an hour’s drive. Almost everything in Alicante is centrally located, so no vehicle is needed once you arrive, although local trams are available if one wants to explore outlying areas.

 

The cosmopolitan area, now known as Alicante, has been inhabited over 7000 years, with periods of rule by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. One of the iconic sites visible from much of the city of Alicante is the hilltop Santa Bárbara Castle, which dates back to the period of Muslim rule starting in the 8th century. It was named for the saint day on which Castilian forces captured it on December 4, 1248. Over the centuries it endured many captures and bombardments, and was sometimes used as a prison. After a period of disuse, it was opened to the public. Entry is free, but there is a small fee to use the elevators to get to the top, or one can walk to the top. The panoramic view is spectacular.

 

Alicante Barrio

Alicante Barrio

Located near the Santa Bárbara Castle, is El Barrio, “the Old Quarter,” which features narrow pedestrian streets, with colorful homes and flowers, a photographer’s delight. There are numerous interesting historic buildings including St. Mary’s Church, built between the 14th to 16th centuries on top of a former mosque. Its ornate baroque façade and interior are a worthwhile stop. The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) is a baroque building located behind the Explanada Park. Besides the beautiful architecture of the exterior, inside there are historic archeological remains, the famous “blue room,” a chapel, and cota cero, a reference point inside the building from where the height of sea levels throughout Spain can be measured.

 

El Barrio also has shops and stores featuring everything from handmade crafts to luxury brands. Leather manufacturing is a major industry in the Alicante area, so inexpensive quality leather products are widely available.

 

alicante-axplanade

Iconic Explanada

Alicante is well-known for its regional cuisine. There are many dining options, from informal to formal including traditional tapas to innovative gourmet tapas, paellas, fish and seafood, as well as other types of regional Spanish and international cuisines. For foodies, a visit to the Mercado Central will delight the senses with abundant displays of fresh and unique offerings. There are places to purchase prepared food in the market, and cafes just outside. Another area offering quality cuisine is in the marina area, which can be reached by taking a stroll down the Explanada de España, which is the palm-lined walkway along the Mediterranean. It is paved with six and a half million marble floor mosaic tiles laid in such a way as to create a wave-like appearance; many consider this one of the most beautiful beachside walkways in Spain.

 

Spaniards love friends, family, fun, and festivals. To that end, in both the Old Town and in the Marina areas, there are many inviting sidewalk cafes for socialization and rejuvenation during the day, and lively bars or discotheques where people party until the early morning hours.

 

Prices for a nice hotel typically start around 70€; an apartment or vacation rental may be even less expensive with two or more bedrooms, kitchenette, common living areas and laundry facilities; most beverages including wine, beer, water, and soda for around 2€; and menu del dias (two or three course special menu of the day for as low as 10€.)

Bringing Pets to Europe

27 Feb
Pepper

Pepper prior to move

Bringing pets to the European Union (E.U.) from the U.S. is much easier than what it once was. No longer are there long required quarantines. The United Kingdom has relaxed their requirements and no longer have quarantine requirements. https://www.gov.uk/bringing-food-animals-plants-into-uk/pets-and-other-animals Non-E.U. countries, the policies can be different. Finland, Ireland and Malta also have their own pet import regulations. The following reflects the current requirements for up to five dogs, cats, and/or ferrets coming to an E.U. country from the U.S. As governmental regulations can change, it is advisable to check the website for the USDA APHIS (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.) Then click on the “Live Animals,” and enter your EU destination. For Canadians, the regulations are similar. Up to date guidelines for exporting pets from Canada to the EU can be found on the website: Canadian Food Inspection Agency under “non-commercial export of dogs, cats, and ferrets to the EU.”

 

  1. As far out from your desired departure date, check with individual airlines regarding their pet transport policies. Start by checking their websites, and then speak with an actual airline representative to get the specifics. Weigh your animal to determine whether they are eligible for travel in the cabin, under the seat in an airline-approved carrier. The weight allowed includes the pet, carrier and anything else placed in the carrier. Including his carrier, my dog, Pepper, was just at or slightly above the weight limit allowed by many airlines, so I booked on airlines with a more generous 8 kg. /17 pounds limit, including Swiss Air, Alitalia, and Iberia. Since my last flight which was in early 2015, several of the major carriers have increased their in cabin weight allowance to be 17 or 20 pounds. Also, some types of dogs are not permitted, such as snub nose dogs, in which case you can consider a pet relocation service. There are different policies for very young, unvaccinated pets. Airlines charge varying rates for transporting pets, from $50 to over $500, so take that into consideration during your research. Check to see if there are periods of time they do not transport animals in the cargo hold due to expected inclement or extreme weather. Some airlines don’t take pets via cargo in hot months as they have had animals die. If your pet will be in the cargo hold, consider booking during months or times that are typically temperate: morning or evening in the summer and midday in the winter. Also, direct (non-stop) flights are better for pets. Make sure the carrier purchased meets the airline’s regulations. Carriers or crates must afford the animal to move around, and typically have an absorbent cushion or rug with adequate ventilation. A carrier with wheels will make moving your pet through the airport far smoother. Because there are so many different airline regulations, costs, weight limits, etc., when deciding on an airline, I made a written grid to record each airline’s policies for easy comparison.
  2. Book your flight as soon as possible to guarantee a spot for your pet as they have a limit to how many pets can be on a flight. Space availability for pets is also determined by the type of aircraft, cabin and seating. Make sure your pet has a reservation. During the three times, I flew back and forth between California to the E.U. I was charged for my pet when I checked in at the airport. If you will be using other ground transportation once you arrive, such as a train, bus or car rental, check their pet transport policies. The first time, I brought my dog from Madrid to Alicante via train, and the second time directly to the Alicante airport via plane.
  3. Well in advance of your travel date, get your pet used to the carrier or crate. In the beginning, put the pet in it with a toy and snack. As s/he gets comfortable, leave the pet in the carrier when you leave home. Take your pet in the carrier on walks and in the car to get used to motion. For pets who will transported in the hold, it is especially important to get them used to being in their crate and moving.

    Pepper in transport crate

    Pepper in transport crate

  4. Well in advance of your scheduled flight, find a veterinarian who is certified and experienced in pet relocation to your scheduled EU destination. I strongly recommend meeting with the vet for an initial session to make sure s/he is qualified and experienced in completing all of the required steps within the tight timeframes necessary. Make sure the vet has the correct form (ANNEX II) and has previously completed them. If your pet is not already had a microchip inserted, this is an ideal time to do it. Let the vet know it is for travelling to an EU country. For EU countries, it must be an ISO 15 digit microchip, either 11784 or 11785. After the chip is placed, the pet must have a rabies vaccine, even if it already has a valid rabies vaccine. The rabies vaccine can be on the same day the animal is chipped or at a later date. This rabies shot must be administered at least 21 days before your flight departs. I did not understand that my dog needed to get a new rabies shot, nor did my vet inform me at the time of the dog being chipped. Thus I had to delay my departure date which resulted in a several hundred dollar change fee. During your initial appointment with the vet, I recommend having the vet do a physical to make sure there won’t be any last minute health issues. I also got him to prescribe a slightly sedating medication for the long flight. If you get a calming medication, make sure it is not contraindicated for flights, as was the first medication my dog was prescribed by a less experienced vet. Some airlines do not permit dogs to be sedated. Since my dog was flying in the cabin, I felt it would be in his best interest to take a sedating pill since he would be in his carrier for 12 to 15 hours, and I would be able to monitor him. Twice I gave him a trial of the pill before departing to make sure there were no adverse side-effects.
  5. The vet has to fill out the ANNEX II form about 12 to 15 days before departure. Then that form has to be mailed or taken by hand to your local USDA office, for certification. You have to enter the EU country within 10 days of the USDA certification, which is a very tight timeframe. This means that you should schedule the final vet exam and paperwork completion, at an early enough hour to allow you to get it to an overnight mail service. Make sure to check the USDA website for the mailing address for your region, mandatory fees which you must include, and include a return overnight mailing document with your address. Keep in mind some “overnight” mail services do not deliver on the week-ends.
  6. Prior to departure date, check for pet relief areas at the airports which you will be using. Some have indoor pet areas. For example, at the LAX airport international terminal in Los Angeles, near the business lounge, was a pet play and relief center with artificial grass. Arrive at the airport at least three hours in advance of your scheduled departure. About four hours prior to checking in, feed and provide water for your pet, and play to get them tired. At the airport, let the pet relieve himself one more time. Put the pet in the crate which in advance you have supplied with a “pet potty pad,” empty water dish, and cherished toy. Make sure the crate door is securely closed. Keep the pet paperwork handy in the pocket of the in-cabin pet carrier, or for a checked crate, somewhere else easily accessible. The pet must remain in the carrier in the airport and during the flight. If you have an airline transfer and there is no inside pet area, if you go outside, you will have to go back through security screening. Make sure to allow enough time in case of long lines.
  7. Once you are to your new EU home destination, find a good vet by asking local ex-pats who demonstrate attentive and caring behavior toward their pet. Ask around, and eventually, you will start to hear one or more of the same names recommended. Unless you are fluent in the language of your new country, make sure the vet can speak English. Introduce your pet and yourself to your new vet, instead of waiting for an emergency. At your initial appointment, find out about local health issues, get any vaccines or preventative medicines for your new country, a dog name tag with your local phone number, and a European pet passport (which is legally required.) Then, get out and explore your new home.

    Pepper (aka "Pimienta" in Spanish) at outdoor beach concert

    Pepper (aka “Pimienta” in Spanish) at outdoor beach concert

Quirky and Different Customs in Spain

6 Feb

I love my new life in Altea Spain. However, there are some quirky and unexpected things which I have encountered or needed to adjust to.

 

I recently read that when local children were enacting a bull run using toy wooden bulls that this year they would not be allowed to have the bulls’ horns lit on fire during the run. Apparently this was perfectly fine in prior years.

 

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Tree on which people climb to tie on their t-shirt at the St. John festival

During the many Spanish festivals, people sometimes engage in dangerous behavior. At the local St. John festival, participants carry a tree to the church plaza while encouraging observers to throw water on them. Once in the plaza, they pull the spindly tree to a vertical position and fueled with alcohol attempt to make the perilous climb to the top. What I found particularly interesting was the ambulances that were waiting just a few feet away. One has only to think of the running of the bulls in Pamplona for another example. Or the “baby jumping” festival near Burgos, where people in costumes jump over a mattress on which lie babies born in the prior 12 months. This ritual serves to rid the babies of evil spirits and guard against illness.

 

As I have mentioned in prior posts, dealing with the Spanish bureaucracy is nearly always fraught with difficulties, often because what you are told you need to do changes with successive visits. Similarly, I have had my rental cars towed two of the four times I rented them. In one case, I parked in a handicapped spot and put up my disabled placard. When I returned to retrieve the car, it was gone. When I contacted the local police, they informed me I had parked in a handicap spot reserved for a specific car, as indicated by the numbers on the handicap parking sign. I said I have travelled to and driven in many countries, and have never seen handicap spots for specific vehicles. I received a blank look, and was told I had to fork over around $150 to get the car out of impound.

 

I have also previously mentioned the multiplicity of problems I have had in receiving packages sent from the U.S. One box arrived gaping open, with items missing. Then the postman asked me to help carry it because it weighed a lot. Another box of household items was twice returned to my son, first because I declared there was no monetary value to items which were only sentimental, and the second because they did not see the documentation that I had submitted the nearly 100 Euros customs fee. I have been trying unsuccessfully for more than two months to get a refund for that, and there is no chance of getting a refund on for the hundreds of dollars I spent in having the box mailed here twice.

 

The sidewalks in my village are made of attractive, but incredibly slick tiles, especially when wet. It is so precarious that people typically walk in the road when it rains. I see many more people here with arms and legs in splints or casts, which I would bet is related to the falls people have. I have jokingly suggested that maybe the tile sidewalks were the idea of the local orthopedic physicians.

 

Moros Y Cristianos festival 2015 in Altea

Moros Y Cristianos festival 2015 in Altea

The Spanish definition of opening early means 9 or 10 in the morning. Such opening times are understandable in light of the lengthy afternoon siesta, and businesses and meals occurring late at night. Often when businesses close for several weeks or months, there is no sign informing the would-be patron of the closure. Nor are there websites for businesses which provide that information. Businesses including grocery stores are closed for national and local holidays, which can sometimes last several days. After the several day local Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) festival, all businesses were closed for the day, not for the holiday but for a day for people to recover from the festival. After four days of festivities and drinking starting at 8 or 9 in the morning, and ending around 4 a.m., they need a recovery day.

 

I find Spanish people generally genial, and polite. They always greet you when you enter their business. In their vehicles, they are very good at stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. However, when walking, they may suddenly cut right in front of you or stop and block the sidewalk while conversing. When picking up my dog’s excrement from the sidewalk, I have had people step over my head, and roll over my foot with a stroller.

 

Sometimes there are what seem to be arbitrary rules. When we recently went to a high end musical and dance variety show which featured a choice of two dinner menus, we were told everyone in our group had to order the same menu. Otherwise, we would be placed at separate tables based on our dinner choice.

 

Have you ever encountered unexpected behaviors/customs while living in or travelling to a new country?