On a short trip to New York

On my left, a 40-inch television with 600 cable channels has been drilled into the wall. On my right, the cold remains of a sandwich, with still enough sliced meat stuffed in it to open a deli. Outside in the heat, traffic snakes and shoots through walls of sunlight, sounding their horns and  shouting out to the world: “I’m alive! I’m alive in New York!”

If Paris is a city for walking, then the Big Apple is one for skipping: mainly because you get around faster and, at the same time, you can display that air of optimism (while hiding deep-seeded depression) that you can only pull off in the USA.

Fortunately you don’t have to skip everywhere. Thanks to the subway and grid system of Manhattan streets, getting around New York is piece of a generous serving of your favourite cake (which, by the way, you can get on every corner along with a bucket of watery coffee). The only hassle is trying to not get sidetracked by the mayhem: there are traffic cops screaming at cars, cars tooting at other cars, blinking signs, crazy people in bare feet, diners brandishing “All day burritos and jugs of beer”, flocks of garbage trucks and of course, the thousands of residents and tourists from everywhere and, judging by the mixture of fashion, every when.

New York could be described as London pushed into a tube and stood upright, sprayed with essence of extrovert. But it’s best not to make comparisons. This city is exciting in its own skin and I’m just about to walk out the door of my west mid-town apartment right into the thick of it.

Tips for a standards martyr

Q: How does a spectacularly immense organisation go from tables and HTML 4 to web standards and XHTML strict without breaking a sweat?
A: They don’t.

A large company that shall go unnamed to which I have a particular affiliation has recently updated the standards to which all new websites will be developed. This is after having spent the last nine years using the same, table-based layout for 1000s of sites, mini-sites and single pages. Nearly half of this rubbish contains elaborate CSS hacks for IE 5. Imagine that.

The first, and potentially most difficult battle has been won: getting the support of management across the organisation and the resources to research and develop the new solution.

The second, and arguably most fun part of the task has been completed: you’ve created a flexible, standards-based template using a new brand or design that works in every browser you care about.

Now comes the dirty work.

The particular concoction of 100s of developers, a gigantic online catalogue and nine years of “internet time” has created a labyrinth of hacks, validation nightmares and enough <td>s to crash View Source. Resource-wise it would have been impossible to go through each and every page of HTML to upgrade the templates. We all know that this essentially means a rebuild and in some cases a redesign – not just dumping content into a few div tags.

So what do we do?

I’m not an expert in change management but I have played various roles in the evolution of a company’s code, thinking and practice from old to new. Each experience was different, but I’ll try to provide an outline of what to look out for.

New sites – a new way

It makes sense that all sites in development will follow the fresh standards since you now have your new code and the rules in which you can implement them. This teething period should weed out any structural problems with the code and allow time for designers to explore the possibilities and limitations of their new space. Make sure you share what you have learned!

If you work with a team of developers, get together before starting and ensure that everyone understands how the new code works and should be used.

You can also use this opportunity to document new guidelines and show off recently-built sites to other staff and indoctrinate them in the ways of standards. Content editors in particular deserve a training session in coding for standards and using semantic markup.

It’s a good idea to discard old dependencies unless you really need them. Importing JavaScript or a CSS file that was used in your old site will create confusion later. These files may even be deleted three years down the track when someone considers the migration “complete”.

Old sites – a new project

You will be updating the landing page of your portal, or parent site. That is clear. However, there will be a period when your network of sites will not be consistent. This may cause some minor panic in the creative or marketing department and elsewhere where brand consistency is considered important.

Take care of the vitals first:

  • Your brand – if the branding changes, try to modify this across all your sites first. The process will be a pain but not as great a pain as the designers and brand managers will be when they realise that your sites don’t represent the company’s “brand-spanking new persona”.
  • New navigation elements – unless you want people to get lost when moving in between your sites, you’d better update any changes to the global navigation. For example, network bars in the header, footers and links to new content like updated help/accessibility pages (which you will update to reflect site modifications, won’t you?) 🙂

Again, depending on your resources, you should then organise a new project. At the very least you have to:

  • Evaluate your online properties and decide upon the sites that are priorities for migration.
  • Book time with your most efficient designers and frontend programmers to determine the methods, timeline and resources.
  • Start one at a time – after the first site has been completed you’ll have a better idea of what to expect as you go down the list.

Things that will go wrong

A portion of your audience won’t like it and they will tell you. They would have grown accustomed to navigating around the old layout, if indeed that has changed, and the former look and feel. A simple task in web education should suffice to address discontent even if it consists of one page describing the reasons and advantages behind the changes. You can then direct any complaints and queries to this page and then hope that they will understand. You will never please everyone, but an explanation is usually considered polite.

Even though we are in 2008, a few members of staff may not possess the sufficient skills to code according to your new standards. Sometimes it is only a misunderstanding of simple concepts or a gap in their knowledge regarding new standards or elements. For instance, thanks to a generation of “Dreamweavers”, we often see this:

.myclass {border-top:0px;border-right:0px;border-bottom:0px;border-left:0px;font-size:12px;}

For CSS best-practice and accessibility issues a one-day session should suffice.

Nevertheless, I’ve come across many cases where there is a misunderstanding of fundamental concepts such as inheritance and syntax, or of the accepted usage of markup such as using unordered lists for navigation. Teaching people even elementary JavaScript or CSS 2 in one day is not realistic and will require a more extensive training program assuming the person is a valued member of the team.

Some members of your team may resist. Generally I found it was the content editors who didn’t understand why they had to change what they had been doing for four years. Since you have management support, they will have to comply but being nice and explaining things in simple terms will work better.

Going the distance

After all the hard work is done, keeping abreast of new standards and then advocating them wherever possible is the best way to ride out with greater smoothness the wily waves of the ever-changing web. Given the nature of large companies with disparate teams and financial objectives, a full migration will probably never happen in your employment lifetime but with planning you can go close. You can pick out even the tiniest success story and make it into something huge. Is there someone out there who, because of your changes, can now access your site more easily than before? What are your SEO results like these days?

Don’t stress if you don’t get the W3C green light. Unless you have full control over all aspects of your sites, achieving 100 per cent validation will be like trying to dig a hole with a defrosted fish-finger. Liberating your sites from tables and font tags will feel better than any endorsement anyway and you can always work on these points later.

Ode to my Saturday morning newspaper

“Adapt or perish”, “turn new corners”, “invest in people”: yeah ok, enough already. If you haven’t already heard about the rise and rise of online news then you may not have had the pleasure of hearing such responses to the perceived challenge of the internet from media executives. But if all the hysteria and rapid investment in the web by media companies is any gauge, then there is actually some substance to what they are saying.

Countless paragraphs have been published on the implications of the digitisation of news media, particularly surrounding the fate of traditional media at hands of its precocious digital cousin.

But what it boils down to is consumer behaviour patterns – how people consume news media, how they are told to and how they want to. The behaviour of the market is what drives our capitalist system. It’s not the actual presence of the internet or the web or the ipod – it is that people are using or prefer to use these methods of information retrieval and delivery. But are we all heading towards a plugged-in future?

Personally, I enjoy the whole weekend newspaper ritual. You buy two kilograms of recently pulped Tasmanian rain forest, discard anything related to motoring, sport, advertising or the insidious tabloid journalism that is infecting the major dailies these days, haul it down to the local café and spend the next two hours skimming. I could just as easily take along my laptop which weighs about the same and utilise the café’s free WiFi, thus gaining access to all the adblocked news, entertainment and porn I could ever want at 10pm on a Saturday morning. However, until the concept of e-paper is commercially realised, a newspaper will always have the following advantages over online news:

  • Convenience

    The portability of paper is why it’s still quite popular. In fact, you can take it nearly anywhere except to places where you might indulge in a little swimming or fire dancing. And we all know that sand and keyboards don’t mix and that’s a fact. Furthermore, in the absence of sudden blindness or total solar eclipse, you can assume full control over your reading experience. There are no cords, no electricity and no download limits and you can read a newspaper in bed and on the toilet. Hoorah!

  • Readability

    Unless you are the terminator, I’m guessing that prolonged reading from computer screens makes your eyes tired and your mind mush. Reading a newspaper is just easier. Black and white. No white on cotton blue, or 10px Arial with 80 per cent opacity, marquees or whatever some designer considered cool on the day.

  • Static structure

    The static nature of newspapers can sometimes be a disadvantage, but it is dependable. It presents you with a sequence of information that can be accessed as part of an unchanging index. There’s no danger of losing your way, and if you decide to skip or re-reread a feature on battery-hen farming practices it will be there when you return, just where you left it and unedited by a nervous copyeditor who has just received a call from KFC’s lawyers.

  • Information underload

    Newspapers and websites provide distinct reading experiences. Unlike modern news websites, newspapers don’t contain flashing advertisements or promotions tempting our brains and fingers to click away from what we really came for. Of course,  a newspaper contains publicity and, at times, grossly over-sized advertisements but there are no popups or 1000 links to divert your attention from breezing past these and onto the next page. I know a great deal of money is poured into online information architecture these days however with a newspaper you don’t have to spend hours figuring out why the letters section isn’t listed in the navigation, and is linked from the right hand side of the op-ed main page.

  • Enjoyment

    Reading, whether on the web or through the printed medium is fun and when combined with another activity, such as sunbathing, it can be terrific!

Online news is tremendous nevertheless and gives us access to a seemingly unlimited and close-to-realtime resource of world and local news, weather and facts. And although the web’s influence on modern journalism and news production is undeniable, I am confident that we won’t see a radical decline in the stuff that ends up as birdcage liner in the immediate future. Newspapers will change the way they present information and we will see more references to online editions, but I speculate that we latte-lovers will continue to have our moments of newsy solace every weekend for a long time to come.

Web professionals? Quando, Quando, Quando

Can we call ourselves professionals? Given the age of the web, it can be claimed that a huge chunk of people in our line of work have really only been doing what they’ve been doing for maximum of ten years. I’m excluding folk like Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and other over-achievers of course.

Ten years is a long time for our small brains but not for an industry. We take for granted the existence of solicitors, accountants, nurses, politicians and so on, because well, they’ve always been there. Society has already categorised, stigmatised and attached symbolism to the people and places involved in these professions.

Young industries like ours have an advantage: because the rules are still being written, we have had the extraordinary ability to help define professionalism for ourselves, based on accepted levels of commercial practice nonetheless. But what I’m talking about deals more with culture. For instance, whoever said “no” to suits at the start, deserves free beer forever. I can tell you that the most daunting thing about becoming a lawyer in a city office was that you didn’t have a choice about what to wear. It sounds trivial but the lifestyle difference it makes is unbelievable. The standards of professionalism in the legal sector had been decided eons ago and the probability of changing the system is as stratospheric as the probability of any movie written by L Ron Hubbard becoming a success.

So how does the real world view what we do and the industry in general? Have we already reached status of web professionals? My answer is yes and no.

I only like to rely on dictionaries for scrabble, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. Let’s take a look on how our word professional, the noun, is defined:

Professional
Wikipedia: A professional is a worker required to possess a large body of knowledge derived from extensive academic study (usually tertiary), with the training almost always formalized
Merriam Webster: engaged in one of the learned professions [where a profession is defined as a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation]

Please excuse the North-Americanised spelling.

Hmmm.. extensive and intensive academic training. Doesn’t sound like most web developers and designers I know; these talented people gained probably 98 per cent of their knowledge doing what they do best which was just doing their job or through personal or freelance projects. In fact most of my colleagues and acquaintances who now call themselves web professionals gained their formal education in disciplines far removed from the internet, for example, law, archaeology, English literature and even the armed forces.

The lack of formal qualifications related to our careers says nothing about our willingness to study – we do it every day. I think it is more related to the ever-evolving nature of the industry. Already the division of labour in whatever call it – the web industry, internet, new media, computergeekdom – is mature and hundreds of new roles have emerged. Who had ever heard of a SEO consultant pre-Google?

Furthermore, we’ve all had to learn various protocols, languages, software and standards all of which change every week. Keeping up with all this requires many mornings of coffee and blog-reading. So while the basics can be taught and the sources of information passed on, the industry is so young that the main type of educational choices that we see are usually short courses on “Web publishing” or “Dreamweaver” hastily put together for immediate consumption. Creating a three to four year syllabus seems almost impossible unless we treat it like the humanities, that is, to establish a web design and technology faculty provided teaching in an array of disciplines. Until that happens we use the best tool available: the web.

Therefore we can throw the formal definition out the window. Many people don’t fit it, yet an officious bystander would clearly label as professional anyone who is:

  • aware of the latest standards of their industry and uses them
  • an intelligent communicator in relation to their area of expertise
  • a producer of excellent work

So we are “professionals”. But we always knew that.

If we had to further argue the point, sociological thinking lends a great deal of weight to prestige. We behave and react according to standards of prestige be they related to language, careers or the things that we own. Stereotypes about professions and careers are usually influenced by prestige and, together with academic qualifications, the main source of prestige in relation to a person’s career is “how much money?”. Fortunately for us the web is big business today and with million-dollar deals going down everyday there is no shortage of evidence that what we do is and should be taken seriously. I guess that when the epoque arrives in which everyone will have been born or have grown up in the internet age, we will be like the lawyers, doctors and pilots: just there because we have to be to make society work. I just hope our successors don’t have to wear suits.

The fruit stall

Marjory brushed away the morning flies that were circling around the crate of apples, her chequered apron swishing against the cold concrete floor, keeping a cotton beat to her low hum, soft and petered, like the light which came in from the car park entrance. She was the first of a few stall owners who had arrived before sunrise. Brian, the book seller was there and Owen, from the hardware stall, both unfolding their tables, thumping and chinking their wares, talking among themselves and tuning in their radios.

Marjory sold fruit under a small shopping centre near the sea. Her and her husband Jim owned twelve acres of land an hour west of the coast in the highlands and her gardens were plentiful in the summers, with gnarled lemons, passionfruit like tennis balls and glowing sweetcorn, all of which she neatly laid out on the table with an elegant slant. There was never enough passionfruit to last the entire day, the customers who came in before seven always selected the biggest and ripest. Every Saturday, Melvin, a restaurateur from across the road, wandered in and chose some eggplants for his vegetarian bake. “The best in the east”, Melvin would say each time, making Marjory blush. A fisherman, who spoke little, and whose name Marjory never remembered bought bananas before setting out to catch the fruits of the sea. All these people kept Marjory in her garden bent over crooked, her fingernails black with soil and at her stall – erect and proud at the Saturday markets until two-thirty in the afternoon.

Her space was just inside the car park where the roof was low and the alleys were narrow. She had always been at the entrance because she had always been one of the first to arrive. People always remembered that they needed fruit and vegetables at the end of their visit to the markets she reasoned, or not having found a home-made gift or a discount decoration for their homes, they justified their outing with a bunch of carrots or a fluffy lettuce. The space to the right of her was forever changing tenancy. For a few months it had been Roy, who sold woollen carpets, blankets and boots, then for a good while after it was Eileen, peddling her home-made cakes, biscuits, jams. Eileen often swapped a chocolate dessert for two kilos of potatoes or a large pumpkin.

Marjory ripped off a piece of bread and chewed, surveying her table with its clumps of colours, smelling its sweet, earthy aromas. She looked in her tin money box to make sure she had enough change to last the morning. Inside were mostly coins, a few small notes, some orange seeds and a fine, brown silt. She shook the box, looking for the gold coins, but there were none.

Outside, the sun was beginning to creep up the road, now animated with morning walkers, dogs on leads and the odd car. A pale, blue Volvo station wagon, pulled into the car park entrance, as it idled, the engine rattled and choked, spitting out black clouds of exhaust smoke which wafted into car park. Marjory spread a tea cloth over her produce but it hardly covered everything and her grapes caught a blast of the dark clouds.

The Volvo went forward and then reversed into the car park so that the car boot was just in front of Marjory’s table. The engine hummed at a higher pitch for a few seconds and then shut down with a rattle. A thin woman with a patchwork jacket and a shaggy mass of yellow hair popped out of the car. “Hello, I’m Sue,” she said.

Marjory raised her eyebrows.

“I’m in number three for a few weeks,” Sue said as she opened the rear door and began pulling boxes out of the car. “Got all these boxes to unpack. Yes, there’s a table. Did I bring my chair? Hey, those apples look good there! Save me a couple for lunch.”

“Whatcha sellin’?”

“Fruit-eze.”

“Frooties?”

“No, Fruit-eze. It’s powdered vitamin supplements. They’re imported from the States where they’re all the rage, has the diet circuit doing cartwheels. There’s one for everyone, mums, athletes, teens, elderly people and it comes in all sorts of flavours: banana, cherry, apple, rockmelon you name it; there’s even kiwi fruit. Would you believe it? Kiwi fruit! And it’s made from real fruit. I’ve already sold a heap down in Melbourne but I think it’s going to be a hit here too. Now that one was banana, oh yes, kiwi fruit, here it is – see the little picture of the running kiwi fruit? I think it’s so cute.”

Marjory screwed her face and put her hands against her wide hips. She stared as Sue struggled with a long table. Marjory had never had any problem erecting her table – Jim had made it especially for her from pine wood and metal hinges, which, thanks to Jim’s constant vigilance, assembled and collapsed silently with fresh grease every week. Sue’s tables on the other hand looked as if someone had attached four pool cues to a door.

Sue dropped the table and it hit the concrete floor with a sharp clap. “You’d think I’d be used to it by now,” she said and continued to work, singing successive choruses of ‘tsk tsks’ and exasperated sighs. She draped a white cloth over the table and arranged small glossy signs at each corner. The signs had the words ‘FRUIT-EZE’ printed across the top, above a cartoon image of an running man carrying a fruit basket. Sue stacked tins of Fruit-eze and arranged pastel coloured leaflets in front of them. “That looks just wonderful then,” she said and began singing ‘What a wonderful world’ in a growling Louis Armstrong voice.

As Sue trumpeted beside her, Marjory restacked the bananas and made sure that all the pieces of ripped cardboard had the correct prices and were sitting nicely on top of their respective piles of produce. Then she recalibrated her set of scales and weighed a couple of avocados she guessed to be about a kilo. The arrow bobbed up and down and then rested at nine hundred and seventy eight grams. Satisfied that everything was ready, Marjory sat on the edge of her picnic chair, rubbing her hands on her apron, waiting.

By six-thirty the market was yawning as stalls began to multiply and interested buyers drifted in from the street. Melvin, the restaurateur, came in looking tired and blurry-eyed. He bought four eggplants and a sweet potato and then left, mumbling something about Irish people and wine. He didn’t compliment Marjory’s eggplants. Marjory checked the others to see if they had blemishes or were too small. The fisherman didn’t come for his bananas but three tourists ambled in and bought two each. Marjory had not taken many bananas with her to the markets because, for the third time in two years, the trees on her farm were infested with fruit flies. Marjory didn’t like to use spray on the trees, but there had been no alternative. It was a pity, she thought, because bananas were always the best sellers.

A women of about forty walked through and paused at Sue’s table. She picked up a leaflet.

“Good morning!” Sue tanned face and yellow hair burst forward like an exploding sun flower. “If you’ve ever tried to diet and failed miserably, I know I have, or just looking to complete a balanced diet without the calories then I really recommend that you have a look at Fruit-eze.”

The woman smiled and nodded for Sue to continue. Marjory tried to appear disinterested and looked out onto the street. She coughed and edged closer Sue’s table, one hand over her mouth, the other on her hips.

“It’s got all the goodness of real fruit and all the flavour, I might add. Do you like fruit? Good. Well you’ll love Fruit-eze. It’s got twice the vitamins of real fruit and lasts up to three years in the pantry. You can take it anywhere too! No more rotten apples! If you just want a moderate intake of nutrients, try the rockmelon variety – it’s one of my favourites, not too sweet…”

Sue rummaged around in one of the boxes from which she produced an orange and white tin. She held it up high like a trophy. “For just thirty dollars, I’ll throw in a banana starter kit too.”

“No, thanks,” the woman said and left.

Marjory wiped down her apron and smiled. It was getting warm and the whirring engines of ice cream trucks on the footpath outside indicated that the day’s markets had awoken. The plant sellers had erected a temporary jungle at the mouth of the car park and the fresh smell of herbs began to swim around the market floor, joining the scented pool of donuts and saw dust.

Sue was wiping down a gigantic stainless steel milkshake maker with twin blenders. She smiled at Marjory.

“You make it like a milkshake,” she said. “You just have to add water and maybe some ice and then you stir it up! Some people even put ice cream in it! I mean, you go on a diet for a reason don’t you? It’s the athletes who can afford to do that I think, but I’ve heard that some mothers keep drinking Fruit-eze after pregnancy – they’re addicted to it! Are there any power points near here?”

“You got power up there – cuts off at two o’clock. And the taps are round back near the newsagent’s,” Marjory said and moved around some eggplants that had fallen on their sides.

“Thanks! Do you want any? Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I’m gone?”

Marjory waited until Sue had walked some way and then shuffled over to look at the multi-coloured tins. She picked up one called ‘Bouncing Berry’. “Flavour agent D89, non-crystallising solution, beta-Gluconates, Gum-Arabic…” Marjory turned her up nose. She didn’t know a lot about the new trends in health; she’d seen infomercials about intestinal cleansing diets and machines that helped you lose weight while watching television, but could never understand why people chose to eat things, the origins of which they knew little. She lifted the plastic lid and sniffed.

“Excuse me.”

Marjory fumbled and dropped the tin. It hit the concrete with a clang and exploded in a cloud of blue powder.

“Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the man. He looked about sixty and wore a blue track suit. An Alsatian puppy was running in circles around his ankles tied to the end of a red leash.

“Oh no, you-“

“I was hoping to try out some of this stuff; a friend of mine said it was quite good.”

“Well, I,- ”

“The banana I think, yes, that was it. The banana. I think I’d like to try that one.”

The dog yapped at the man’s feet. “Settle down, Ginger,” he said.

“I’ll just clean up.” Marjory bent over and picked up the empty tin. With her tea cloth, she began sweeping up the dry powder. Clouds of grey dust rose from the ground with every pass.

“You don’t mind if I take a look at some of these do you?”

“Uh, no,” Marjory said from under the table. The man went to each variety and read the contents, um-ming and ah-ing. From under the table, Marjory could see the Alsatian pup, nosing at the man’s black leather shoes: they had polished gold insignias. Marjory was the first to admit that, with her knitted striped jumper and rotten joggers, her sense of fashion was questionable, but she had rarely seen anyone wearing a blue cotton track suit with designer shoes. She got to her feet and put the re-filled tin of Bouncing Berry back on the shelf.

“Um, never mind about the banana,” the man said, putting back a tin of Cherry Chaser. “I might come back later. Will you be here?”

“Yes, but-“

“Goodbye!” And with that he darted out of the car park dragging Ginger behind him.

Marjory looked up and saw Sue’s yellow hair bouncing up the alley; she quickly went back to her stall and began rearranging potatoes.

“Thanks for that,” she said. “Anyone come by?”

“No, no.”

“Oh well, early days yet! I met the nicest man – Brian his name was – he was selling books. He gave me this vegetarian cookbook to read for the day. What great people you’ve got around here. Nothing like back home in the city. A girl could fall in love with a relaxed place like this but it’s a pity I’ve got to go north tomorrow.”

The day wore on and the sun crept its way into the car park. Groups of children walked passed the entrance carrying surfboards and smoking cigarettes. Marjory had not sold much that morning and was irritated when she looked down at her tired-looking tomatoes and browning bananas and then at Sue, who was chattering at the passing crowds with her permanent smile and high-pitched voice. And they came and they bought. From the corner of her eye, Marjory could see Sue’s money belt getting thicker while her tin box laid barely untouched beneath her chair.

“What about you sell me some of those great looking apples?” Sue asked Marjory around noon. “They are just crying out to be eaten. How much? A dollar? Great!”

Sue took the apples away and washed them in a bucket of water. As she crunched on her first apple, a siren wailed. Outside, people’s heads turned towards the road but Sue and Marjory couldn’t see what was going on. “Can you see? What is it?” Sue said just as a police car swerved in from the road and screeched to a halt at the entrance. Two burly constables trooped out from the rear doors. The front passenger door flew open knocking over one of the plant seller’s ferns and out stepped another. This one pointed at Marjory – it was the man she had seen in the blue track suit. Marjory’s heart raced and she stepped back, knocking her chair to the ground.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s the one whose been selling stolen goods. The vehicle matches the description.”

“So we’ve finally got you, eh?” said the Senior Constable. “To be honest you look a little different to the description. Just goes to show that anyone’s capable of hijacking a truck and ripping off the driver. And I see you’ve made quite a little business out of it.”

“I… I… I just sell fruit,” Marjory blinked. “It was her. It was her! Look there she goes!” Sue had run off down the alley, bumping into market-goers, squealing “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”. She crashed over a plastic bin filled with empty cans and napkins hitting the floor hands-first. Someone tried to help her but she thrust them back. As she did, a burst of yellow flashed into the air like a fire. Sue’s shaggy wig had flipped over her head and landed in a crumpled heap on the concrete, was now covered with a mixture of cordial, juice and soup from the fallen bin. The police gave chase, but Sue, now brown and scruffy, leapt through a hole in the throng of shoppers and disappeared into the hum of the day’s market. Marjory watched the police run off and then looked down at Sue’s wig. Its sandy curls were straightening out in the dregs of the morning’s market as it edged slowly towards the iron bars and into the drain hole.

How to get your NIE in Barcelona (for EU nationals)

The Número de Identidad / Identificación de Extranjero (NIE) is a necessity in all fiscal or legal matters in Spain and pretty much anything else. It’s not difficult to get, if you know what you’re doing.

Unfortunately I didn’t.

But after listening to many variations on the correct procedure, shipping myself around the city in a sweat of panic and waiting in impossibly long queues, I finally cracked it. Now I pass this information on to you, oh brave traveller. For those who are interested, this is how I got my NIE in Barcelona – the quick way*.

Firstly, I will try to address some of the bullshit I had heard before successfully applying. All of this you can freely ignore but it’s handy to know so that you might be able to separate it from fact. I didn’t, and it cost me time and sanity.

It takes six weeks for the authorities to issue you with a NIE

Verdict: BULLSHIT

You are issued with the number on the spot. It takes some officious administrative ghoul less than three minutes.

You can apply for a NIE at the police station

Verdict: BULLSHIT

Yes you have to see the police, but that will come later.

You need to get your empadronamiento (register your address in Spain) from the town hall before you apply for your NIE

Verdict: BULLSHIT

You’ll have to do this to get Spanish residency and there are benefits in relation to health care, but at this stage, it’s just a pain in the arse so don’t bother unless you really have to.

You can get a social security number without a NIE

Verdict: This is just so wrong that I can’t express it. I was told this by at least five intelligent Spanish people that it was possible. Maybe for them, but Spanish people don’t need NIEs so it’s no wonder they haven’t a clue about what it is or how to get one. This is not to say that you shouldn’t trust the advice of locals, but on this matter, all the good intentions on the European continent won’t make you feel better if you listen to them. Listen to the officials, yes, they have it half right, but not local laypeople. Sorry guys.

As of April 1, 2007 you must apply for your NIE at the Oficina de Extranjeros (Foreigners’ Office) at Avenida Marques de l’Argentera 2. It opens at 9am and reaches capacity well before then so go early. What you need to bring:

  • Your passport
  • One photocopy of this passport
  • An Ex 14 application form (filled out). It won’t hurt to photocopy it but I didn’t need a copy
  • Plenty of patience

WARNING: as of the time of writing this, all the Ex 14 forms available to download on the internet are out of date. All of them. There are several available, one from 2001 and one from 2004 etcetera but you need the one from 2007.

Some things that you might need (I didn’t):

  • A few passport sized photos
  • It also wouldn’t hurt to bring an official letter from your employer, bank, university or school to show that you are here for a reason.
  • A photocopy of your pre-filled application form (assuming you can get your hands on the latest before you go)

I didn’t need any of these items, but it’s better to be prepared than despondent, to rework an old cliché.

It’s not unusual to see people queuing up at 7am to get in. These folks are not crazy; they are very clever people because they know that if you waltz up at the official opening time, like I did twice, you will be joining an impossibly long queue of sometimes 300 people, and you can be assured that you will be turned away. Like all Spanish government departments and banks, the Foreigners’ Office closes at 2pm and can only handle a mysterious yet evidently well-defined number of people before they close the doors.

If you’re unlucky enough to be refused entry, but lucky enough to be at the front in the line of rejects you may receive a number that will allow you to enter the following day. Even for this you will need to queue early. So assuming you’re somewhere towards the front (100 or so people back), expect to wait outside the building for about one to two hours. You will notice Barcelona waking up around you and will have a bucket of time to appreciate the architecture of the building before you. It is a very large stone edifice that would probably seem very beautiful if it wasn’t for the horror that lay within.

That first moment when you cross the threshold brings an unsurpassed level of elation. You pass through security and enter a well-lit court yard where some kind soul has placed rows of pews for you to rest your tired body. It doesn’t matter that sitting on them increases your chances of developing a debilitating case of piles by 500 per cent – you have earned this luxury and can now relax and pour scorn on the poor fools who are still waiting outside, probably on the verge of being told to return tomorrow.

Once inside a man in a clear plastic box gives you a ticket. Depending on what you’re there for, you’ll receive a different ticket. NIEs begin with the letter C. I don’t know what the other numbers and letters mean. At this stage you should ask for the latest Ex 14 form if you don’t already have it. Expect no-one except your fellow applicants to speak any English, although some of the staff do and may help you depending on their mood. The general mood on my day was grim.

There was a young woman behind me who, like everyone else, had been lining up for a few hours. I saw her ticket; the number was B221. It takes hours for your number to be called and the waiting can be mind-numbing. So you could have forgiven her for nipping outside to smoke a cigarette. Unfortunately for her, by some unusual spasm of efficiency, the numbers between B218 and B220 were all dealt with in 15 minutes and so B221 flashed on the screen twice and was then gone minutes before she returned.

B222.

B223.

She looked up in shock. First at the electronic board and then at the emotionless administrator standing at the door, barring her entry. First came the rejection. Then the bewilderment followed by pleading and then crying. When she realised that the stout man in the blue uniform was not going to allow her through because she had missed her turn, she flipped: “Joder! ” (“Fuck!”) she screamed and stomped away emitting curses that, although I didn’t understand them at the time, most certainly would have involved inviting the bureaucrats to fornicate with various members of their own family and possibly placing uncomfortable objects up their anuses. The uninitiated would describe this behaviour as erratic; off the handle perhaps, or overly emotive and irrational. Yet, when you know what it’s like to deal with the waiting, the impossibly strict bureaucracy and bizarre operating hours it seems appropriately justified. Who knows how many hours she had invested in the exercise. I personally thought she could have sworn a touch more and thrown in a bout of aggressive spitting too.

Ok, back to us. So you have your ticket. Don’t lose it! This ticket, apart from your passport and internal organs, is now the most important possession you have. It allows you to freely exit and re-enter the building while you wait for your number to be called. Prepare to wait three to five hours. You can risk exiting the building for a coffee or a cigarette (there is no smoking in the courtyard) or you could bring water and a sandwich or anything else you might need to survive an entire day. Want to end up like B221? No? Then hang around. C179!!! That’s me! Order your body to get up and climb the stairs to the desk. You will see a peturbed individual wearing tight brown clothes. He or she will look at your documents, photocopy your passport (on top of the photocopy that you must bring yourself) and type a few things on a computer that looks like it has the processing power of a mousetrap. Three minutes later, you will have your NIE. It is written on the form that you filled, which is stamped and returned to you. This the form you will be taking to the police. It shouldn’t need to be said now, but you guard this form with your life!!! You guard it well. Brown boy will also give you a form to take to a bank to pay the tax (6.70 euros) and a stamped paper to present to the police after you have paid this tax. All this done, you are ready to register as a foreigner living in Spain. Best thing to do is to turn up at the bank at 8:30 the following morning. Pay that damn tax and then head directly to the police station at Passeig de Joan de Borbó, 11. You’ll need:

  • the proof of payment (blue and yellow forms stamped by the bank)
  • your passport
  • your stamped NIE application and a photocopy of your passport for good measure, although they’ll probably let that one slide if it’s Friday, the day before a public holiday or they’ve had wild and satisfying sex the night before.

They’ll then type and stamp a few things and then issue your official NIE: a lovely blue document that states your name, nationality, address and that special, special number. Congratulations. Life can nearly resume.

Now you can skip off to the Department of Social Security, fill in your form, throw a photocopy of your passport and NIE document at them (showing them the originals) and they will hand over a Social Security Number immediately. Opening a bank account will also be a cinch (same documents required but with no photocopies this time). La Caixa requires that you open an account at a branch near your house. A few friends had recommended this bank to me and I found them very good. There is literally a cash machine on every corner in Barcelona and the service is reasonable. They come in two flavours: red (Catalan branches) and blue (not sure how to describe them, but I guess they are more neutral in their views regarding the independence movement in Catalunya). Anyway, unlike Neo in the Matrix, you should go for the blue pill – at least you’ll be assured that they will speak Castellano to you and, if you’re lucky, they may give you a mint to suck on while they photocopy your passport.

I hope this has been helpful to somebody. I’m sorry it doesn’t cater for non-EU nationals but I didn’t have to venture down that route. I can only imagine the horror of trying to do this without citizenship of an EU country.

Obligatory foreigner’s disclaimer lest he be hounded out of the country by proud natives

Let me say now that I do not describe this experience with the intention to whine about Spain or the Spanish people in general. I like and respect them both, very much. It’s just the experience of an Australian in a foreign country attempting to deal with a new system, language and culture. Please don’t sue, stalk or assault me. Come to Australia: I can show you many weird, beautiful and highly annoying spectacles.

*This guide is current as of April, 2007. I won’t be updating it so apologies in advance to future readers if the information is incorrect due to any changes in the procedure, place names or documents.

Renting in Barcelona

A real travel diarist would take notes, remark on small details, meticulously noted. I’m afraid that I have accepted my limitations and am not one of these. Paul Theroux, another implausible over-achiever can write his way to hell for all I care.  What I give you are floury descriptions and pointless padding, whereby if you grasp an iota of what I’m describing, I will feel that I have done my duty. However I will attempt to make an exception in this case because it would be a shame not to document such an interesting experience as searching for rental accommodation in Barcelona.

“No students!” said Olga as I walked into the door of her fifth floor apartment, a few streets up from La Sagrada Famila. Olga was from Russia and being tall, blond and serious, she looked the part. If she had told me that she was a former officer in the Russian army but occasionally sat on the bench for the former Soviet Republic’s women’s basketball team I wouldn’t have quivered a nostril. She gracefully swept me around her neat two bedroom unit as if she were demonstrating the inner workings of a nuclear power plant.

“This is the living room. This is where we watch TV, talk and drink tea.”

The tile floors were clean and the whole place smelled like a combination of pot pourri and pine-o-clean.

“And the kitchen. We keep it clean. There are cockroaches in summer.”

“Big ones?” I ask.

“I like potatoes,” she replied with a straight face.

I felt oppressed just being in the place so I thanked Olga and said my goodbyes. We both knew we’d never be living together unless forced to at gun point. As I exited I passed two Japanese women who’d come to see Olga’s lair. I thought that maybe it would have been interesting to stick around to witness yet another cultural collision but thought better of it – I had another appointment.

This time with Tere, in the same area, who had responded to my advertisement the minute I’d posted it. In any other situation this would have made me apprehensive, and I was to an extent, but it was Saturday afternoon and I had less than 24 hours to find a central place to live otherwise I was heading out to Sant Cugat, 30 mins away by train, to the company flat. Free rent: yes. Kind offer: of course. Perfect chance to save some money: why not? Lightyears away from the action and where I wanted to be: that was the clincher.

Judging by the facade, Tere’s building seemed nice enough. The streets were clean and there were quiet cafes and shops. The illusion was brought to an abrupt halt when she opened the door. The flat had potential – it was small and modern, but all had been squandered by the greasy-haired woman who stood before me. There were boxes stacked against the walls filled with books and clothes. There were more clothes lying over the floor, and the kitchen (I only presume it was a kitchen as it was the greasiest room in the flat) reminded me of a forest cave. Her protruding teeth spat out Spanish like a fascist machine gun firing down upon hapless African immigrants.

“Lo siento, todavia no hablo mucho espanol,” I said.

“No problems, I can teach you. I don’t speak much English, so you’ll learn.”

Great, I’ll learn how to talk to fisherman and hookers.

“Ok, this is the room, the living room, the bathroom… blah blah blah… 350 euros”

“What’s that scratching noise I hear?”

“Oh that is my cat, Bonita. You like cats, yes? He is playing with my son Gonzalo. You like children, no?”

Ok, walk slowly away. Keep eye contact and don’t panic.

Next was Paolo an Italian fashion designer who, with his tight shirt wrapped around a tight body, a shaved head and undeniably radiant tan, definitely looked the part. He also looked the part of the lead dancer in the ABBA stage show, but he was a gentleman and presented his flat with professionalism.

Paolo’s place was no haven of IKEA goods: there were designer lamp shades, low and long coffee tables made of dark woods from extinct Indonesian trees, shag rugs and wooden blinds. Hanging on the walls were framed abstract paintings. The room was huge; pricey, but amazing. One double bed and a sofa, a large desk, a chair, a single cushioned chair for reading in the sunlight that was streaming through the large window. It was the perfect inner city Eurpoean bachelor pad. Paolo knew it, so did I. Our eyes met and before I could ask the question of price, which I expected to be 400 plus, he stabbed at me with his Italian accent:

“I work many hours so I don’t like de noise at night. And you cannot bring de people home. You play guitar? I don’t like de noise.”

Ok, what about breathing? Can I do that or does it have to be under my bed covers? Do you have a toilet inside or is there a vacuum chute to which I have to hermatically seal to my arse so that I may shit outside?

Shame, but goodbye.

There were others not really worth mentioning in great detail. For instance, Hussien: a Pakistani gentlemen who informed me in polite Spanglish that the three Bolivians who were currently occupying the room were soon to vacate and that for a mere 350 euros a month the urine-smelling shoe box and stained mattress could be mine. I wanted to inquire whether I had to pay for my own cockroaches or the ones that I noticed scuttling away from the room were free. Hussein was clearly in no mood to bargain however. It seemed as if he had had plenty of experience ripping off foreigners and I didn’t want to shatter his illusions of Australians. I left without saying goodbye, content in the knowledge that even such a trivial display of humanity would have been wasted on that jerk.

Bu in the end, a softly-spoken Catalan homosexual was my saviour. I took a risk going to see Jordi’s* place as time was short – it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, hungry and ready to pack my bags and head up to Sant Cugat. But what the hey, I thought. So I followed the map into the centre of the city, climbed the four flights of stairs and knocked on the door.

“We wear earplugs to go to sleep,” he said. There was no humour in his voice.

“People are out on the street until five in the morning every night in summer. We’re on the top floor so it’s boiling in summer and there are eight Columbians living across the hall.” His eyes were sunken like two pits of molten tar.

“I’ll take it,” I said and slapped down a 100 euro deposit.

Life it seemed had given me one more roll of the dice and this time it came up sevens. I finally found my “auberge espanol” moment – something rare and perfect. A room right in the centre of the city, at a low price with cool international people my age, who all had jobs! Sure it was like sleeping in the middle of a university orgy every night, but I got used to it and became one of the revellers on most evenings.

Finding a place to live was what I might euphemistically label as ‘fun and interesting’, yet after a few drinks I would probably reveal the truth: it was tiring and frightening. Deciphering the advertisements (anuncios) I guess, in any big city, requires some local knowledge, or more importantly, an awareness of how far people can tip the scales of bullshit. My advice is to see as many places as you can, talk to people you think you can trust, and be aware of idiots looking to exploit foreigners.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy however just about everyone with testicles in Catalunya is named Jordi or Xavi.