Running out of gas!

La Rioja, otherwise famous for producing excellent vines, is the only region in Spain with some natural gas resources.

I spent 20 years in Taipei, where you pay your water and electricity bills in less than half a minute at one of the almost 8,500 7-11 or Family Mart convenience stores strategically distributed all over the island, or directly go to a service point run by state-owned Taiwan Water Corporation and Taipower. I don’t recall that in those two decades I ever had any trouble with a bill, neither with the amount nor the payment. Regarding gas supply, I used small companies nearby that would deliver a full butane cylinder in about 15 minutes, with no extra charge during weekends.

On the contrary, dealing with any gas, water and electricity company in Valencia is an extremely unpleasant experience, which is directly related to the lousy service that Spanish banks offer. As the time to pay bills in cash is limited to around six hours a week for two weeks every month (!), you are almost forced to create a standing order for each of those energy suppliers, who are very aware that there’s no real alternative. Basically, it´s like signing a carte blanche for irresponsible behavior, if not outright fraud. That’s´ what happened to me personally!

Until I finally got rid of it after my apartment’s refurbishment was done, and I installed an electrical stove, I used to cook with gas provided by a particularly nasty firm called Naturgy. Out of the blue, considering that their product is already ridiculously expensive compared to Taiwan, that like everywhere there is a basic charge no matter if you use their services or not, and that VAT is added on top of the consumed quantity and the extra regional taxes, they started to overcharge me in an outrageous way. From 25 euros on average, the sum jumped to 85, 110 and the 120 for only two months. So I had to take some action, which meant riding a bus for at least 20 minutes into the city center, because they don’t bother to operate a branch anywhere near the harbor, and provided phone numbers are mostly useless.

Again, the treatment at Naturgy was just the extreme opposite of what I was accustomed to from East Asia, where thanks to the excellent service mentality you usually feel very welcome as a customer and the person in charge will honestly try to help and not make things even worse. There, the exception proves the rule and makes life rather pleasant. You don’t have to waste lots of time on minor things because others don’t do their job, and instead can concentrate on making money. Here, your precious time has absolutely no value and seems unlimited everywhere. “Come back tomorrow”! is the phrase you hear most often. By the way: I don’t think that at any of these places I ever heard an apology for anything!

Well, like in all of these companies I had to deal with in one and a half years, I enjoyed the dubious pleasure of encountering an unfriendly, (sexually) frustrated middle-aged woman, which most likely considers herself a victim of patriarchy who deserves a much better position, independently of her working attitude. I could sense that she hates the job, but at the same time there´s the awareness of how much power she enjoys over her defenseless clients, me included.

The first time I didn’t bring a bill from home, because I thought that my personal documents would be more than enough. Maybe mentally I was still somehow in Taiwan! That lady proved me wrong very quickly, as she wasn’t capable (or willing) to find me in the system, neither by name, street name, passport number or NIE identification number for foreigners in Spain. But at least she told me straight into my face that lately it was quite common for them to first overcharge clients, only to return the money later on. Did she consider that to be an explanation or even a justification? Is Naturgy a stock brokerage firm or a casino? Of course, as it happened three times in a role, it could not be considered a coincidence by any means.

All in all, I had to return four times to that chamber of horrors. On one of those occasions, I lost it and banged on her desk as again I had made the long trip for nothing.  I stated that obviously she worked for a state-owned business. Slightly irritated, she assured me that it was actually a private firm! I responded that it made things look even worse! At least I got a service number where somebody would pick up the phone.

That proved crucial to have the gas meter removed relatively soon, which was located outside the kitchen window. It only took me two months and I mean it! The first attempt by an Argentinian expert failed miserably, as he didn’t bring the security belt he deemed necessary after inspecting the location. Somebody else would have to do the job from the terrace!

At the end that wasn’t the case, as after two weeks two very professional guys unscrewed it in no time without pretending to be Spiderman. They were extremely punctual and left after 20 minutes as initially scheduled. Interestingly, one of them had a girlfriend who was learning Chinese, so we had a nice chat about how things are done in Taiwan. He told me that as his company was the monopoly subcontractor of Naturgy for the whole of Spain, I could have easily waited for a year to get that kind of work done. Somebody had commented earlier that there was a good chance they wouldn´t come at all. So I had indeed been very lucky..

Though this seemingly endless story wasn´t over yet. These bandits tried to extort more money from me by miscalculating the point in time when we had formally ended our contract. I first decided to ignore that last bill. Nevertheless, that´s not my style. So I had another date with that lovely lady to try to solve that problem. It turned out that she wouldn´t deal with it, referring me to their service center in Barcelona. At least, she offered to pass my letter of complaint through their internal channels. How nice! I really had more than enough and just didn’t bother anymore about them.

As a consequence, they reminded me one week too late that they would cut off supply if I didn’t settle that payment immediately. In their next letter they confirmed their previous announcement and threatened to sue me for 12 euros. What would Franz Kafka have written about Naturgy?


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