American in Spain

Encounters with the Guardia Civil

August 22, 2011

Guardia CivilI had my third ever run-in with the traffic division of the Guardia Civil, Spain's national police force, this past week. I was on my way out of Higuera de la Serena, the small town in Extremadura, southern Spain, where we spend a week each August drinking beer and complaining about the heat. Luckily, it was early in the day, before the day's imbibing had begun. Before I explain what happened, let me briefly summarize my first Guardia Civil encounter, because the lessons it taught me came in handy this week.

Close Encounter of the First Kind

It was before we moved to Spain. My future wife and I were living in England and had flown to Spain for August vacation. The first time I went to Extremadura with her family was in 2003, and I think this encounter with the law probably happened the second year, in 2004. We had flown to Madrid and rented a car. To save money, I agreed to be the sole driver. My future in-laws' car didn't have air conditioning, so we took most of our excursions in our rental car. We were on our way to my future father-in-law's hometown of Zahí­nos, which took us through the lovely town of Zafra.

In the middle of downtown Zafra, there was a cop directing traffic. He had one arm straight up in the air and was waving his other arm under the other one. I saw his waving arm and thought he was waving me to continue, so I continued, as my future wife and father-in-law erupted in "What are you doing!?" dismay. But by then, it was too late. The cop was whistling and gesturing angrily for me to pull over. I understood this gesture, at least.

As the policeman was approaching, my father-in-law had a brilliant idea: he told everyone in the car to be quiet and "let Erik do all the talking". My Spanish at this point was very, very limited. When the cop asked for my carné (license), I wondered what piece of meat he wanted me to show him. From a general knowledge of how these things go, I figured I should show him my license. "Americano," I said. The cop took one look at my North Carolina driver license and decided dealing with a foreigner with a foreign language and documentation while he was supposed to be directing traffic in a busy intersection was too much of a hassle for such a light infraction and he waved me on and said something about "más cuidado".

The lesson here is, when dealing with an overworked, underpaid cop, the bumbling foreigner tourist act can save you a lot of trouble. I plan to use it as the first line of defense should I ever find myself under mild legal scrutiny.

Close Encounter of the Second Kind

The second time I had to deal with the Guardia Civil, they actually gave me a ticket for not having proof of car insurance in the car, a stupid law that has since been repealed.

On a side note, did you know that, in England, you don't even need to have your driver license with you. If a cop asks for it, and you don't have it, you just have to send proof that you have one to a certain address within a certain period of time. How reasonable is that?

Close Encounter of the Third Kind

Last Thursday, August 18, 2011, I was driving my wife and daughter to a nearby town to take my daughter to the emergency room. Well, not really to the ER, but we did go in the ER entrance before getting directed to the main reception area and sent to the pediatrician. She had a bug bite on her foot which was swelling considerably. The doctor gave us a topical antihistamine and the swelling went down in a day or two.

As we were headed to the nearby town, a traffic cop was waiting at the edge of town and flagged me down. I rolled down the window, and, without thinking, some Spanish escaped my lips. But I was feeling pretty innocent, so I just wanted to be helpful and be on my way. He asked for my license, and I opened my wallet to search for my Spanish driver license, but I couldn't find it. I dug around for a bit, but could only find my American driver license, so I gave him that and explained that I was an American. He examined it and addressed me by my first name, asking for the car's registration. I found it in the glove box and gave it to him. "The car is in your wife's name?" he inquired. I answered in the affirmative. He gave me back my documentation and sent us on our way.

When I was driving away, I had two thoughts.

First of all, why the heck were my tax euros paying two officers (his partner had been leaning against their car) to stand out in the heat in Middle-of-Nowhere, Spain (14.5 inhabitants/km2, 37.7 inhabitants/mile2), to check drivers' documentation? Their primary objective must have been to check for seatbelt use and people driving without a license, but I can't imagine that would be very fruitful. Oh, and also, I was taking my child on an emergency visit to the doctor!!

My second thought was to congratulate my own cleverness in outwitting myself. I remembered that I had intentionally hidden my Spanish drivers license deep in a part of my wallet that I normally never put things specifically for this situation to make sure my future self didn't chicken out, get too obedient, and proffer my Spanish license first. Sure enough, the nerves of dealing with an authority figure was enough to preoccupy me enough to the point where I was unable to find my Spanish license (and I was trying to find it). Not that it would've been a disaster, but giving him a document that he knew how to read would not have helped my cause in any way, and it might have led him to discover the traffic law I was actually breaking: driving with non-prescription sunglasses.

I often find that my future self is a bit of a clueless idiot that needs all the help he can get.