A story about a Chinese tourist visiting Germany made interesting reading this week. In many ways, it is a sad story, but the innocence and bewilderment expressed are very similar to situations that many of us find ourselves in when living as newly arrived expats in a country where the rules, customs and language are not clearly understood.
The Chinese tourist had his wallet stolen and so, sensibly, went to the police station to report his loss. Sadly, he did not enter the police station, but instead found himself in the Town Hall where he inadvertently signed an application form claiming refugee status, handed over his passport, which led him into a bewildering nightmare of official German bureaucracy – stranding him as a refugee in an asylum centre for 12 days.
Instead of enjoying the delights that German tourism has to offer in a pleasant hotel, the man spent 12 nights on a less than comfortable camp bed in an asylum centre. Although he was well treated and given food and spending money like other refugees, he was also fingerprinted, given a medical examination and taken over 200 kilometres from where he had planned to spend his holiday. Staff at the reception centre were puzzled, since the man was so well dressed, and kept asking for his passport, which was uncharacteristic of asylum seekers.
Eventually, the staff realised that something was badly wrong and called in help from the local Chinese takeaway, as well as using a translation app on a mobile phone. Finally, they released their visitor and he continued his travels to France and Italy, no doubt relieved that his German ‘holiday’ was over.
This story reminds me of a number of emails that I regularly receive from British expats who find themselves in trouble with the Spanish authorities, simply because they do not understand the customs, or documents that they are asked to sign. I often hear British expats complaining about what they perceive as “burdensome Spanish bureaucracy”. Of course, in reality, expats living in the UK comment about exactly the same problem with the British system, as do expats living in Germany, France and Italy.
The problem is rarely to do with bureaucracy, but is more than likely to be combined with issues relating to a poor understanding of local customs, laws and language.
When moving to Spain or any other European country, expats face a bewildering array of legal paperwork. In haste, and to swiftly move on with our business, we often sign things that we should not without first asking questions and seeking clarification. Many do sign, trusting that the bank, town hall, traffic or police authorities will have their best interests at heart, but this is not always the case. Even if you have taken the trouble to learn Spanish, it is always wise to have documents checked by a lawyer, gestor, or someone who really does understand what you are signing, before you sign on the dotted line.
Even if we do speak the language, I have always maintained that in matters relating to health, finance and the law, it is better to seek clarification in our own native language. Yes, it may cost a little more, but this disappears into insignificance in circumstances where you may lose your home, face a criminal charge or severe financial penalties. I suspect that the Chinese visitor will be much more careful about what he signs in future.
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© Barrie Mahoney