Looking for a flat.
Since I left Oviedo I’ve lived in eleven flats. Eight in Barcelona, two in Madrid, and one in London. And I always tell the same story: when I went to take my suitcases to the first one, I realised that my room had no door. It had a hole through which you could enter and get out, but nothing to lock it with. It was quite a rough way of losing my virginity when it comes to comfort. And, since then, I carefully count the number of doors and frames in any flats I visit to make sure the number of both match. This little habit always seemed very extravagant to Milona, my girlfriend since four flats ago, until we got to London.
Already before moving, we worked out that with our wages we wouldn’t be able to afford a flat as big as the one we had in Barcelona. And after a brief research on the Internet, we decided to reduce our possessions to all we could fit in 40 square metres. And we also guessed that if the international moving truck took at least three weeks to get to London, that would give us time to see it departing in Barcelona, grab a plane, find a flat, leave the boxes there and, with a bit of luck, enjoy a week of holidays. We could return the keys to the old flat right after seeing the truck departing and that way we’d save a month’s rent, which would come in handy with the economic situation awaiting us.
In order to accelerate the process and make sure we got everything right, we had done some research about how to open a bank account in England and had discovered that Barclays offered a welcome account to all ex-pats. All you needed to do was taking the three quarters of an hour that it took to fill in a very long form demanding all sorts of information on your work situation and genealogy dating back to king Pelayo, scan it and send it along with your passport and make an appointment with any of their London branches in order to, as soon as you set a foot there, be able to pick up your new credit card. We’d rented a small studio in Bethnal Green in which to spend “those first days”, so we chose the nearest office, the Whitechapel branch; although by the look of its employees and customers we could have been in Mangalore.
It’s clear that we were guided by the same wild optimism that pushed General Custer to order his 600 men to charge, by a blast of a bugle, against Crazy Horse’s 9,000 Indians in Little Bighorn. And by the same strategic capabilities. It’s clear now, but at that time it seemed like a good idea.
And, indeed, the illusion lasted exactly the three minutes that the bank employee took to tell us that there was a computer problem and that it would be impossible to process new accounts that day. “Well,” we said, “we can come back tomorrow.” But the woman, in seeing that we were new to this immigration thing and weren’t getting it, felt obliged to explain herself further and told us that even if the computer programme worked perfectly on the following day, we’d still be unable to open an account until we had a “proof of address”, that is to say, until we had an electricity, water or phone bill to our name sent to a UK address.
It was useless telling her that we’d arrived two days ago and that we’d filled in a very long form for non-residents that said nothing about a “proof of address”. And it wasn’t very useful either the fact that we had jobs rewarded with more or less good wages or that we were citizens of the European Union. We also tried to specify the obvious fact that, in order to rent a flat and process all the bills, we needed an account to pay them! Nothing, all that had nothing to do with her. She invited us to leave and not come back until we had the damn “proof of address” and, just in case, she added: “Three months ago we still opened accounts to Greeks, Italians and Spaniards, but not any more.” The “Spain brand” they call it, right?
Right then, and for the first time in my life, I put myself in the shoes of those crossing the ocean in order to make a brand new start in places where they are neither wanted, nor understood, where nobody tries to understand them. I don’t mean I didn’t care about them before. But, even though my situation was a lot better off, the feeling of defencelessness that lack of understanding produces is something difficult to explain and to assume. That made me realize the bravery in the step we’d taken, of the importance of leaving your comfort zone and taking risks and perspective, of facing new challenges. New scenarios compel us to look within us for the solutions that no one is offering and that end up turning true the stereotype: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
After that cheap epiphany I considered the (not so cheap) experience paid off and said to Milona we should return to Barcelona that very same day. With a bit of luck, the truck might have not left the city yet. But the motion didn’t take hold.
And that was only the threshold to the complex, bureaucratic and supersaturated English banking system; where, so it would seem, they don’t need more money and a Spaniard is, by definition, an idle good-for-nothing with no career and unwilling to work that, somehow, will find a way to rip the bank off. As if we were the same as our governments.
Anxious, we ended up asking my new agency for help to open a bank account. Winky, who in his working hours is the person in charge of personnel movements between Europe and the Middle East and on his free time I guess he saves planets in distant galaxies, offered to act as an intermediary with HSBC, the agency’s bank and at the same time a client. We almost cried! He sent an email to Vik, an agent and friend of his, to make an appointment, prepared a letter of credentials with all the information included in my contract, filled it with signatures and stamps and handed it to me with a plain “Good luck”. Oh, my god, good luck! He was quite right. From my first meeting with HSBC I came out with a strawberry and coconut bonbons box, red and white being their corporate colours. From the second one, I left with a pencil. From the third one, finally, I left with an account number. The cards, they said, could only be sent to our flat and in a few days, so we had to find a way to open the post box of our Airbnb apartment (sorry, Andrew!). Inexplicably, only mine arrived, as Milona’s were sent to the branch, the exact place where my cards couldn’t be sent to. I kind of remember that I cried out of happiness, even though my girlfriend still had no cards. We’d used ten of the twenty one days we had in opening an account, and the flats we’d seen up to then could only be considered inhabitable if your name is Gregor Samsa and you’ve had a rough night.
In fact, more expert ex-pats and specialized blogs on the subject say that the real state market in London has been living in a permanent bubble since Queen Boudica and the Iceni tribe fried the Roman legions living in the area and flattened the land; that you have take cash when you go to see a flat in order to book it right away and that it’s quite usual to enter a live bidding with the rest of the people interested in that mousetrap: a bidding you can only lose, because in London there will always be someone more desperate than you, or with more money than you. And, most of the times, both at once. And so I ask myself: why then all those real state agents keep on calling you at all times, try and convince you that you’ll never find a flat unless you stick with them, offer you the worse shacks at a price they know you’ll never be able to afford and make you go see them at the other end of London only to, half of the times, inform you upon your arrival that someone else already rented them? The only possible answer is this: they do it for pleasure. You are their sex toy.
During those brief visits, I also like to imagine that real state agents find themselves in a professional impasse before they make a definitive jump into politics. If you are able not to move a muscle on your face while you sing the praises of a thirsty six square metre flat divided in three floors carpeted up to the ceiling (two of them at basement level) with a gradient bigger than that of the Angliru, you can perfectly be able to look at the eyes of humanity and affirm that there are weapons of mass destruction hidden in Disneyland in Paris and leave the place whistling with your hands in your pockets.
With all this, we used up all the time we had saved for moving without knowing what to do next. We’d lost our capacity for reaction, although the answer to the problem was quite obvious: no matter what budget you have when you look for a flat in London, raise it by a 20% before you start and be ready to keep on raising it as you go along. But even more important, no matter what your expectations are, lower them by a 50% minimum. In our case, we decided to use the war cry my friends from Oviedo used to use on our nights out before entering the last open bar looking for girls: “sometimes you have to set the bar as low as possible in order not to stumble into it.” And, at least, it has doors!