Identity Crisis

Posted on April 13th, 2010 by Valerie

A lot of people from the UK react with shock horror when I say that I am still Valerie Collins. They expect me to have a Spanish married name: some sort of aristocratic double or triple barreled mouthful: at the very least an exotic and probably unpronounceable surname.

But many of them don’t realise that even in the UK it’s not legally obligatory to take your husband’s name  – it’s simply a custom, albeit a very deep-rooted one.  And even though Spain has always been pretty poor on equality and women’s rights, we have always kept our own names. As we explain in In The Garlic (see Apellido),  everyone has a double surname: your father’s first surname followed by your mother’s first surname (her maiden name) (traditionally – now, in the interests of equality, I think you can do it the other way round.)  And your ID will also say that you are hijo/a de (son/daughter of followed by your parents’ first names:  your afiliación). This really makes sense when it comes to identifying people, as a true  story of mine shows.


An elderly Australian friend died. She was twice divorced and always used her second married name, which was the one that figured on her NIE (foreigners’ ID).  Her married daughter arrived from Australia just after she died, and our group of friends were helping her with the funeral arrangements. To cut a long story short,  Barcelona funeral services refused to go ahead. Why? Because Gwen’s daughter’s only ID was her passport in her own married name.  The papers of the two women, Spanish NIE and Australian passport respectively, showed no documentary proof of their relationship.  If you look at it from the Spanish bureaucratic point of view, they were right. British people, many of whom consider the ID card to be the final nail in the coffin of personal freedom (as if we weren’t already fichad@s all over the place!), think that Spaniards are far too fussy about paperwork.  But in a country where charlatans, impostors, masqueraders and dissemblers of all kinds are a way of life, you can understand why.

Conversely, Spaniards think we are incredibly lax and irresponsible about ID.

Recently we decided that my mum, who lives in the UK, should give me a power of attorney. A friend who works in a law office in the UK sorted it. Mum signed the papers, then sent them to me to be signed by a witness. I asked my Catalan lawyer and he duly signed the paper sitting across from me in his office. No notaries were involved.

And then he said, deeply puzzled:  “That’s it? That’s all?”

“Yes. Thanks so much.”

“But how do they know I really am who I say I am?”

Good question.

So what happened with Gwen?  Well, a quite venerable Catalan friend (actually he was a retired vice-dean of the Universitat Autònoma) yelled and shouted: they should be ashamed of themselves. This was the 21st century and Barcelona was an international city and they ought to know full well that Brits and Aussies have IDs with their married names and if they didn’t believe him they should call the British Embassy…  Sometimes authoritative native bellowing works, and the cremation and funeral service were arranged.

But there was worse, much worse to come: the sorting of the will…. (to be continued)

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4 Responses to “Identity Crisis”

  1. Jan Says:

    The spanish way is definitely better than the british. I once horrified a catalan friend by informing her that I was on my third surname!

  2. Valerie Says:

    Exactly, Jan! Many years ago, a friend of mine got into trouble at Heathrow Airport because she had a British passport with her Spanish husband’s surname (sort of Mary González), and a Spanish passport with her official Spanish name which was in fact her Spanish first name and British surnames (Maria Smith Jones) Sounds confusing (it was!) and I can’t remember the details, but I don’t think she realised that she wasn’t obliged to take her husband’s name in the UK.

  3. Antonella Says:

    I had a somewhat horrifying mixup relating to last names at a German airport on layover from New York to Barcelona. I was travelling with my three-year-old daughter only who, in the traditional American style, only has her father´s last name. I kept my maiden name. So here we arrive at the desk and he looks at our passports and doesn´t believe that she is my daughter (even though we look so alike!). He wants to confirm I’m not kidnapping a child across international lines. He leans over the desk and asks her to identify her mommy. Of course she´s only 3 and looks blankly at me. I could have died and cursed myself for not carrying her birth certificate, which I normally do. Meanwhile, I’m stumbling through my wallet to find my daughter’s NIE, which I remembered had my name on the back stating the relation as mother. Of course, I was so nervous, I couldn’t find it. He finally let us go with a warning to carry better papers. A few steps later I finally find the NIE and ran back, showing it to him to prove she’s my daughter – and so what if we have different last names!

  4. Valerie Says:

    Thank goodness it turned out well in the end, Antonella. Sounds like a good idea to carry a birth certificate.

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