Monday, November 7, 2011

I've moved!

"Kata Goes Basque" was becoming increasingly unfitting for a girl living in, you know, not Basque country.

As promised, I've moved my blog. The new address is - that's "blue armadillo," if you're wondering, and it's going to be a more image-driven (but still adventure-filled) website.

See you there!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apartment Hunting Abroad: a guide

So enough about the locura that was my final weeks in the Bilbao apartment. After all, yes, it was difficult and weird and overwhelming, but the things that stand out when I look back? My pastor going far, far out of his way to help me know my rights and get me out of there. My friend Bryan who let me crash on his couch for that last week. Ismene (one of the original, awesome roommates) taking me out for a relaxation drive, then protecting me when Ione started calling everyone she knew I knew to try and hunt me down. Everyone else who sought me out, cheered me up and reminded me that the good far outweighed the bad in that last week.

And the lessons, those "hindsight is 20/20" things that I would have liked to have known going into renting abroad. So, if you're looking to rent abroad, or you might someday, or you know someone who is, this is for you.

1. Red flag: you aren't offered a contract to sign. If you aren't on a contract, you're probably subleasing, which (in Spain at least) is illegal. It turned out I was on a long chain of subletters in my apartment, all of whom were paying the landlady untaxed money and living on the down-low.

Maybe that's OK with you, but keep this in mind: a landlord or landlady who is comfortable with black-market housing is also probably comfortable with letting other things happen that violate your rights as a tenant.

2. Red flag #2: the phantom landlord/landlady. A good property owner is going to be around when you're signing your contract, going to want to meet you and make sure you aren't a sketchball, going to want to make sure you know what they're taking care of around the place. If they're not doing that, don't mess with the place.

3. Red flag #3: you're thinking of settling for the place out of fear. "What if I don't find a place to stay?" "What if I totally drain my budget and I never find a side job teaching English?"

News flash: you will find a place to stay. You will find English lessons. Do yourself a favor, save up a little cushion fund for the apartment hunt, and relax. Treat the search for an apartment like something fun, because it can be.

4. Know your rights. Just finding out that my roommates had no legal ground to demand (more) money from me helped me to relax and realize the Guardia Civil wouldn't be knocking on my door and hauling my terrified guiri butt off to jail with the etarras and graffiti-ing teen boys anytime soon. Which helped me to stand my ground and not start forking over hundreds of euros.

5. Reach out.. If you don't know your rights, I guarantee you, there is someone - your pastor, your bartender, your intercambio conversation partner who will explain things to you or help you find someone who can.

This is helpful when you're first searching for a place (they can help you to understand what's normal practice and what sounds like under-the-table shenanigans), and it becomes absolutely necessary if you do get yourself into some kind of a pickle.

 Don't be afraid to be a little vulnerable and ask a few people for help. This was the difference for me between being able to enjoy my last week in Bilbao and me spending that week in an overwhelmed, twitching heap.

6. Trust your gut. This applies to picking an apartment in the first place, obviously: if everything seems good but the pit of your stomach is doing gymnastics, walk away. See Red Flag #3, enough said.

This also applies to interviewing potential new roommates. As my mom reminded me, when Ione first met with us to move in, I had a bad feeling. I kept it to myself. In retrospect, my roommates would have been totally understanding and probably agreed with me that she didn't seem right.

 People come and go a lot in shared apartments, so if you wind up in the position of helping your current roommates replace someone who's leaving, remember, if you have an uneasy feeling about someone, speak up. Those cool people you took your time to select as roommates should be understanding.

 Hope this helps! Anyone have other tips to add? Adventures in housing abroad to share? Leave 'em in the comments!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Misadventures in Spanish Apartments, Part the Second

OK so I've been postponing and postponing writing on my blog (for months - crazy!) because I promised a conclusion to the story about my roommates taking a turn for the super-aggressive and demanding money. I honestly just didn't want to dwell on it or mess with how stressed-out I felt when I left Bilbao!

But... I promised.

So here's the long and short of it: I went to my pastor's house and he had a friend come over who actually worked in Spanish housing law.

The friend explained to me that not only did the roommates have no legal ground for demanding I pay them for every month they couldn't find someone to replace me (looking at it now, it's a bit of a "duh" - what would stop them from refusing all potential roommates, then charging me for the empty storage space they could use?); I won't go into all the details here but what they were trying was actually illegal. He offered to go to a lawyer's office and have the lawyer call the ringleader and tell her to stop threatening me!

We decided it was best for me not to mess with lawyers, just go home, don't talk to my roommates at all (which, by the way, is a surefire way to make apartment living super comfortable and not at all awkward). We decided I'd move out early and stay on a friend's couch so I wouldn't be in Awkwardlandia for my last couple of days in Bilbao.

Then, Monday night, I returned home to a screaming confrontation. "BUT, IMAGINATE, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE AND WE HAVEN'T FOUND SOMEONE TO TAKE YOUR PLACE?" I shut myself in my room. Overwhelmed, I called Pastor Tony in tears. What do I do?

Ten minutes later, Tony called me back. He had called Bryan, my friend with the couch, and asked him, Can Kata come tonight?

How fast can you be ready, he asked me. I told him two hours and spent the next hour and a half throwing all of my belongings into suitcases. Tony, his son Aitor, and Bryan arrived just as I finished packing. We carried my stuff downstairs (without confrontations - my roommates were all in their rooms by then).

I left my keys on the coffee table.

Coming next (I won't wait 3 months this time, promise): the "Hindsight is 20/20" guide to renting abroad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

living abroad: when good apartments go bad (Part 1)

With Jenny, one of my very sweet original roommates

A year abroad wasn't supposed to end like that. It wasn't supposed to end with me hiding in my bedroom and calling my pastor in a panic; three roommates ganging up against the other two of us in a move that was questionable at best; an adrenaline-filled late-night escape to my friend's apartment, where I spent my final week in Bilbao.

Wait, back up. Kit, didn't you love your apartment? Weren't your roommates super nice girls who took you to special events at Mango and to see their beautiful hometowns?

Yes, yes they were. But first Maite and Jenny (who is not American, I promise) moved in with their boyfriends, then Ismene got a sweet internship in California, then Maria got a sweet job in Vitoria. So over a 4-month period I got all new roommates.

And as it turned out, the living situation was fairly sketchy to start with, made OK only in the beginning by the awesome original roommates who lived there. There was no contract, for one thing. None at all. None of us had ever met the landlady, for another - it was just done by a long, questionable chain of subleasing (which - and this would have been interesting to know circa September - is illegal in Spain).

And so it came to pass that I awoke one morning - a week before my flight home, in fact - to what I have to admit was a pretty gutsy letter that one of my new roommates had written. I'll call her Ione, because her name is Ione. The letter, written in pseudo-legalese, was to me and the other girl who was also moving out at the end of the month. Boiled down, it declared that we were legally bound by "tacit agreement" to pay the rent every month that we didn't live there that they didn't find someone to replace us.

It was signed - and I think this is a spectacularly catty touch - "Un abrazo." A hug.

I was, and this should come as no surprise, completely clueless in regards to Spanish housing law. On the one hand, I was terrified; what if this was true? What if I really owed them for every month I couldn't find a replacement to their liking? On the other hand, something seemed wrong. I took a picture of the letter and emailed it to my pastor, who is native to Spain and an ex-attorney.

What do I do? I asked him. Is this right?
He replied that it wasn't, that I shouldn't worry, and invited me over for lunch with him, the family and a Spanish housing expert. Perfect.

Continued with what happened, plus a guide to shopping smart for a rental abroad (hint: never-present owner = no bueno).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

an update: new camera, and yes, I'm still here

So in the works is a post series about finding housing abroad - my terrifying and (in retrospect) hilarious experience, plus a "how you can shop smart for an apartment/room rental abroad" guide.

But I can't keep my thoughts on it, because I have more breaking news to share. I got my camera.

It's a Canon 5D Mark II and it is rocking my world.

First picture. Taken on full auto before I learned how to work the controls.

So for those of you who have been wondering: yes, this blog will continue even though I don't live in Bilbao anymore. It'll be a different format, different content and probably move. I'm working on it.

And thank YOU, beautiful new camera, because the quality of images is about to go way, way up. I'm too excited.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

that last daytrip: vitoria-gasteiz


People always think Bilbao is the capital of Basque Country. Frankly, this is because it is the most badass and awesome of the three major cities, but unfortunately it is also incorrect.

The actual capital of Euskadi is Vitoria-Gasteiz, located in Alava. It was my destination for my final daytrip in Basque Country. Three friends and I packed onto a bus last Sunday morning to see what it was all about.

Los Indignados - and my friend Cat has already done a great summary of what that is all about, if you don't know, which you can read here - occupied the main square, the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca with their tent village.


"Yes We Camp"

my friend Thomas was good enough to sit for about 689789 portraits

We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the city and noticing that it feels more, well, European than Bilbao (or even Donosti in some ways). One friend kept getting reminded of northern Italy. To me, the big, glassy windows on many of the buildings in the center of town were reminiscent of A Coruña.

For lunch we stopped in a couple of the bars that line the small streets of the old city, sharing pintxos around.

Bull's tail stew and carrillera (veal cheek) - from the first place we stopped

All in all a solid little adventure to say "farewell" to Euskadi. For now...