Best-laid plans in Galicia

For the few who’ve asked how I’m getting on with everything here in Galicia, here’s an update.

First steps towards residency

When I arrived in Santiago in July I easily obtained a ‘foreigner ID number’ (a prerequisite for absolutely everything) and registered at the town hall as a city resident.

Bank problem

Also in July, armed with the above, I opened a bank account, explaining that I would transfer euros into the account each month in order to support my residency application. After three months, without any prior warning, the bank (Santander) started blocking my transfers in, apparently due to some law designed to prevent money laundering and terrorism by non-residents. This meant that when the bank honoured the university’s direct debit of my master’s fees, I became slightly overdrawn. I tried to transfer 100 euros in order to put the account back into the black, but these too were confiscated. After several increasingly frantic emails to the bank explaining that their actions were very likely to jeopardise my residency application I was called in to sign a piece of paper stating that I’m a UK taxpayer, at which point they un-blocked my account. However, my statement still shows a 50 euro charge for ‘unauthorised debt’, which is hardly something I want to show to immigration officials. (In total, 900 euros are currently still ‘missing’ between my Spanish and UK accounts.) One of my housemates told me people usually take the day off work when they need to go to the bank here…

Summer in Galifornia

During the summer I enjoyed the Galifornian weather, cycling the Camino to Finisterre, walking the Camino from Ourense, and visiting the famous Cíes Islands, amongst other things.

Residency application

I finally have an appointment in A Coruña next Friday 16 October to lodge my residency application under the terms of the Brexshit withdrawal agreement. While I have met all the eligibility criteria I am brexshitting myself that I’m going to face problems because something isn’t presented in the correct way. Most likely, that my print-outs of my Spanish and UK bank and mortgage statements are not considered ‘official enough’ evidence of my resources.

Castilian (a.k.a. ‘Spanish’)

I arrived in Santiago in July planning to take the university’s intensive summer Spanish course in order to meet the entry criteria for the master’s degree I applied for. When I contacted the language centre to enrol they told me all their summer courses were cancelled.

I was finally able to take a crude ‘level test’ at the University of Santiago language centre on the first day of the university semester in mid-September (!) and was placed in the sole face-to-face ‘B2’ class (most other courses being online this year), which means I am, as I expected, at least one level below that required to begin a master’s degree. Having been surrounded by Latin American Spanish for three years my comprehension and vocabulary are leagues better than my productive skills. My grammar is particularly woeful which means I struggle to express all but the simplest of ideas.

My Castilian course is three evenings a week for one semester. Social distancing and face masks don’t exactly facilitate language learning but the class size (5:1) is great, I love the group (Korean, Chinese, Russian, German, Brexile) and it’s a relief to finally get some help with my Spanish. I will of course continue with Castilian Spanish in the second semester. The courses are very cheap.

I have three language exchange partners found via the university’s electronic noticeboard. Two whom I meet face-to-face once a week to talk Spanish and English for 45 minutes each, and one with whom I exchange Whatsapp audio messages. Three intelligent and delightful women in their 30s (two Galician and one Andalusian), committed to improving their English and helping me with my Spanish.

So far I also have two lovely friends of my alt.queer species, a Galician and a fellow Galegophile from another part of northern Spain. I am honoured to have been told by the former that I may consider myself a ‘.gal person’ (.gal being the domain extension for Galician websites!).


Galician is the other official language here and I’m going to need (and want) to learn it in order to integrate. Now that I have more time on my hands (see next para) I have joined the waiting list to do a Galician-for-beginners course this semester too.

Master’s degree in International Studies (international relations, international law, regional integration, global economics)

In early September, two weeks before the start of term I was offered a place on the master’s degree I applied for in July. (How odd to do this so last-minute!) I immediately explained to the course coordinator that (due to the cancellation of all the summer courses) my Spanish was probably not yet good enough and asked if I could do the master’s part-time. The coordinator encouraged me to do the master’s (full-time) in parallel with my B2 Spanish course, on the basis that the former is taught entirely in the mornings and the latter in the evenings. I decided to give it a try and enrolled full-time. (Spoiler: it turned out he didn’t actually have the authority to tell me this, so I have had to drop out after three weeks.)

My first week doing the master’s and Spanish in parallel was incredibly exciting. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the sudden change in pace, I felt remarkably energised. In spite of the much higher register of (peninsular) Spanish and the complicating factor of face masks, I was relieved to find I could follow the gist of the classes most of the time, so long as I concentrated like mad. While the classroom atmosphere generated by the styles of most of the teachers was startlingly ‘not postgraduate’, I nevertheless felt excited to be part of such a potentially interesting programme. I enjoyed rushing about from my rented room in the old city to the two leafy campuses, getting my virtual student card, buying a Spanish keyboard, figuring out Libraries in the time of Covid, being part of something for the first time in ages, and so on. I loved having four mornings a week of (albeit rather dry and hierarchical) master’s classes, afternoons to decompress, three evenings a week of buzzy, informal Spanish classes, then Thursday lunchtime to Sunday completely free.

The class of about 30 students consisted of three Latinxs, two Chinese women, me, a couple of folk from other parts of Spain, and more than 20 Galicians, mostly coming straight from their first degrees.  Only 3/30 students were over 30. Every professor started by asking us what degree we did, and nothing else. Most had done law or political science, a handful had done journalism, languages or history. Apparently I was the first 'social psychologist' (sic) to enrol. It was abundantly clear that the potential contributions of international and/or mature students have not been factored into the admissions criteria, design, delivery or assessment of the programme. As one of the other mature students wrote to me this morning, 'I don't understand the USC wanting to have an 'international' character while valuing more that you speak Galician than English'.

Notwithstanding the old-fashioned pedagogy and inclusion of an exam for every module (!), the master’s programme seems to me quite well-designed, with four parallel strands as follows:

1. International relations

In the first semester I was doing ‘History of international relations’ (optional, 3 credits - really loved this course) and ‘Global governance’ (mandatory, 6 credits). In the second semester I would have done ‘Transformations of the international system’ (mandatory, 6 credits).

2. International law

I was doing ‘Structure and functions of the international legal order’ (mandatory, 4.5 credits). In the second semester I’d have done ‘International human rights law’ (mandatory, 3 credits) and ‘Peace and armed conflicts’ (optional, 3 credits).

3. Regional integration

I was doing ‘European integration’ (mandatory, 6 credits - a hard course but interesting for obvious reasons). In the second semester I’d have done ‘International organisation and regional integration’ (mandatory, 4.5 credits).

4. Global economy

I was doing ‘Global economics’ (mandatory, 6 credits - with the most accessible teacher) and ‘Development and international cooperation’ (optional, 3 credits). In the second semester I’d have done ‘Economics of solidarity’ (optional, 3 credits).

The second week I felt slightly deflated by the grave situation with the bank, the realisation that following the gist of the classes wasn’t going to be enough to complete assignments and pass exams (6 in January and 5 in May/June!), and feeling slightly under the weather (sore throat, slight cough, but no temperature!) probably due to having to sit by an open window for 6.5 hours a day!

At the end of the second week I received an email from the university giving me ten days to provide my non-existent B2 Spanish certificate. I wrote to explain the agreement I had with the master’s coordinator to do the two things in parallel, but this turned out to count for nothing. I asked him to help me resolve the situation so I could continue trying to do both things, but he could not. I was offered a bizarrely ill-conceived option to take just 25% of my six first semester modules, followed (if I pass B2 by Christmas) by the whole of the second semester, then the masters thesis, and finally the 75% of the first semester foundational modules I’d have missed.

Given the obviously interrelated and progressive nature of the strands and modules I asked if I could instead take one or two of the four strands (e.g. economics, which seems the most free-standing) in its entirety during this academic year and the other two or three next year, or defer the whole thing by a year. Staggeringly, neither of these options exists. So I have, with great disappointment and not a little exasperation, accepted that my Spanish simply isn't good enough and withdrawn my enrolment. I will probably apply again next year when I hopefully won’t have to push against so many closed doors in such difficult circumstances. (I fully expect to have to push at a load more closed doors to get my fees back.)

So now what?

It’s now very much autumn in Galicia. I’m getting the hang of always carrying my umbrella, layers and hats and scarves and a thermos of hot coffee or tea. My favourite place in the city is still the market, where I have my favoured vendors for veg, mushrooms, ham and cheese, eggs, bread, and wine. (I haven’t bought fresh meat or fish regularly yet.) Doing things in town is a challenge because my glasses are constantly steaming up, but at least we’re allowed to remove our masks when we’re sitting at a table in a cafe or restaurant. And it only takes ten minutes to get out of town and into the woods. Last week there was a film festival and this week there’s a book festival. It’s that kind of city.

The seven-bedroom student house I live in is very far from being ‘me’ and there are a few issues, but I have a nice room overlooking the garden of a convent and so far the location outweighs the hassle of moving.

What will I do with myself for a year? I guess perhaps I will think about selling my house in London while the market is apparently booming and buying a place here, while focusing on my Spanish and Galician. That is assuming, of course, that I do not fuck up my residency application next week. If that happens, there is no Plan B.