This glorious building is the former Palacio de Comunicaciones in Madrid. It used to house the headquarters of Correos – the Spanish postal service – and in my early days in the city the arrival of a parcel would involve the added joy of a chance to roam around the vast interior, tracking down the right delivery point, maybe climbing the spiral stairs of one the turrets, whose walls were decorated with ancient ceramic tiles, or venturing upstairs in the central building where you had a marvellous view down into the great hall.
I’ve sort of lost track of what’s happened in the capital over the last few years, but I think they now call it the Palacio de Cibeles and it houses the Ayuntamiento – City Hall.
When I walked past yesterday I didn’t have time to check out whether the interior has been conserved as well as the external structure has, as I was hurrying round to Hacienda, just round the corner. Well, I’d been told the tax office was in calle Montalbán, but I walked the length of the street without finding it, and was reduced to the very English solution of asking a policeman for directions. It turned out that the building was hidden from view under a shroud of scaffolding and tarpaulins.
It used to be that when you tried to do any official business in Spain, you would wait for hours and be sent back and forth between desks and departments, always ending the morning either arriving at the right ventanilla just as they were closing for the day, or, if they were still open, finding that you were still missing the last critical fotocopia needed to complete the trámite.
It was bureaucracy raised almost to an art form and on one occasion I was delighted to spot that although there were pens available for use by the public they were actually tied to the counters with red tape.
This time, though, it all seemed rather less bureaucratic. Yes, there were security guards scanning bags at the entrance, but there was no-one queuing at the information desk and a machine dispensed numbered tickets for all the different departments, so you no longer had to ask the traditional “¿Quién da la vez?” and remember which of the dozens of unmemorable people milling about was “el último” when you arrived.
All the staff seemed to have time to spare and to explain things; some of them even managed to smile. Instead of demanding I go away and return with six more documents and certified photocopies of everything, they handed out a detailed list of what I’d need to take on my next visit and even printed out some papers from my own tax records that I didn’t know I wanted.
I think perhaps the secret was the tarpaulins: I mentioned them to the young lady and she laughed, saying that they were in fact a cunning ruse to reduce the queues; it seems so few people actually find their way into the building now that the few who do can expect reasonable treatment.