I knew I was back in Madrid: it had been approximately thirty six hours, and already I had been for drinks in Chueca, smoked about two packets of cigarettes, accepted an illegal substance, smoked a joint at a party, I had a hangover, the beginnings of a migraine, I’d had drinks in Lavapies, a delicious and nutritious dinner consisting entirely of fried items and/or garlic: croquetas, calamares, patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo, I’d slept less than is humanly advisable, not eaten a single vegetable, been startled out of my wits by an unfeasibly large cockroach, been regaled with a horrible story about a robbery, and now I was being shouted at by a civil servant with serious mala leche.
‘Well, don’t bite my ears off because Jorge went and made a mistake! That’s not his job. He shouldn’t have told you that, Madam, that’s not how it works-‘
‘That may not be how it works,’ I replied ‘but that’s what I was told, and you can hardly call that my fault, I tried to organise this weeks ago, and that’s what he told me.’
‘Well, it’s not my fault. It should have been dealt with by a different department, that’s not how we do things round here.’ He stood up, looming over me in the small airless room with its smart formica table-top and its wilting pot plant. I wasn’t really interested in whose fault it was anyway, I didn’t want to play the Catholic blame game, I just wanted someone to sort it out.
‘Look, can we just try and sort this out?’ I asked him wearily, my migraine starting to throb like some alien life force taking up residence behind my left eyeball.
He agreed grudgingly to try and ‘do something’ and I went for coffee.
‘But,’ he reminded me as we walked down the corridoor toward the bright outside,
‘I can’t guarantee anything, and I don’t know how long it’ll take. If you come back in an hour I might be able to do something, but I can’t promise.’
What was my problem? Halfway through the process of renting my flat with the Sociedad Publica de Alquiler de Vivienda, a Government rental agency which manages flat rentals for absent landlords, we seemed to be sinking up to our necks in beurocratic nonsense and incompetency. Back in Madrid from a Tuesday to a Tuesday, I had pleaded for a pre-arranged appointment to sign hand-over paperwork. After chasing this up for several days I had been granted (very efficiently, I thought) an appointment on the Friday morning. Which I then found out was a national holiday. Three days of further phone calls and emails revealed that it was, in fact, in the system for the Thursday and this was a typo in my email. Lucky I had checked. Then on arrival at this meeting to sign the contract, on opening it and reading it, it appeared that there was a mistake with the proposed rental amount, which was at the original sum, when I had been told it had been raised after I had negotiated it with the agent. Mr Uncivil Servant was now going to re-negotiate my rental amount for me with the correct department.
He wasn’t ready after an hour, so I waited in the waiting room then I sat on the grass bank outside the office on the Castellana, baking in the high sunshine and watching people go in and out. Oddly, the waiting room by reception was the same for property owners and tenants, and I was treated to a cabaret of distressed ex tenants pleading for their deposits. One young woman sat defiantly in the waiting room with a large suitcase, stating,
‘I am not leaving here until I get my deposit back. I left that flat three months ago. That’s my money and I want it back, you’ve got no right-’
A young man wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Running sucks’ shouted,
‘You people! I’ve been calling twenty times a day every day for three weeks, the same number, nobody every picks up the damn phone, so I come down here, all the way across Madrid to speak to someone in person about this, and all you can tell me is they’re not picking up the phone and there’s nothing you can do for me? I want a complaint form.’ Another family sat, grim-faced and muttering darkly between themselves. They were all ‘served’ by a hard-faced receptionist with a straight line of lipstick for a mouth who raised the receiver to her ear and listened into it, shaking her head and refusing to make eye contact. Her replies were curt, defensive. Again I heard ‘…not my fault… nothing I can do about it…..Ya. what can I do about it?’ She probably dealt with this level of hassle every day, but these were clients. Distressed clients.
Was I doing the right thing renting my flat through these people? Mr Uncivil Servant called me back into the office finally, and informed me he’d been able to raise the rent by twenty euros a month. He informed me of this as if he expected the same level of gratitude for having raised it by three hundred a month.
‘You’ll never rent it at that price,’ he said, sliding the contract at me over the table. ‘You may have an inflated idea of what your flat’s worth, but believe me, Madam, we have far better apartments than yours on our books, flats in Goya and Serrano with swimming pools, flats which are not ground floor, which have light, terraces, and are much bigger than yours.’
‘Well, you can take my lovely, cosy, little designer flat off your books and shove it up your arse, can’t you?’ I said. Actually, I didn’t, I opened the contract and next to the drooping pot plant I signed my name. I’d come too far now to back out. As we walked once more down the corridoor to the bright entrance-way, and he coldly shook my hand, he said,
‘Your flat won’t rent for ages, you know. I shouldn’t be surprised if it sits empty for a long time. And another thing- Lavapies is a dangerous barrio. A very dangerous barrio. It’s full of squatters. All it takes is one kick and they’re in, one kick to the door and they’re in and squatting, and then there’s nothing you can do, they’ll trash it and you’ll never be able to get them out. So I would ask an amiga to come in and air it and put lights on, because you don’t want them to think it’s empty, do you?’
‘Thank you so much for your help.’ I told him, tight-lipped.
If my flat looked like this:
I might have understood his cautionary words, but it doesn’t. And believe me, it takes more than one kick to knock down a puerta blindada (reinforced steel door). And they’d have to get past Carmen. So, thanks for the vote of confidence, mate. Just another case of Lavapies as Soddom and Gamorra from some uptight middle-class Madrid snob. And these were the people who were going to be marketing my flat to prospective tenants?