Here is a surreal story about a friend of mine who bought a casa in the village of Vilafames. She told it to me over a bottle of Rueda white and those scrummy lamb chops you get in Almendros these days.
I just had to write it down, because as bizarre as it is to a foreigner, it probably is just how things work here.
I will call her Jane, not her real name, and the reasons for this will become clear.
She already has a masia in the countryside, not far from La Poblo Tornesa and
has spent a good too many years doing it up with sweat, blood and the odd
accident. Until it was habitable she stayed in El Rullo, a modest hotel in
At that time Vilafames was truly dead, both day and night. At least the old
picturesque bit of it was. If it were not for the proliferation of plants outside the
windows and doors, you would think it deserted. No bar to call a name, and the only restaurant happened to be in her hotel. She could not count the incredibly pretentious El Jardin Vertical near the town hall that always seemed closed. Besides the fact that it was not in the budget of people doing up masias, the snooty owner only let paid guests through the door.
The red stone casas of Vilafames fascinated Jane, and one in particular, very old and clearly empty. The ground floor window was always wide open behind the traditional ironwork grill. When the sun hit, you could just about see the dust dancing across an encaustic tiled floor. Once she even saw a pigeon taking what appeared to be a puffed up owner’s stroll across the room.
Though a modest casa in comparison to many others, its façade was still handsome, with intricate balconies, one to each of its 4 floors. There was a street behind it, not that far either, so it was not too deep and would have light. A house “a dos calles” commands a bonus in Spain.
If that ever comes up for sale, she told her friends I would love to buy it. If I can.
Fast track 12 years later. Vilafames has undergone a resurgence and is now a popular weekend destination. The old streets are peppered with bars and restaurants and delicatessens. The museum of Modern Art, housed in a huge and magnificent “casa senorial”, is gaining a deserved reputation (all it needs now is a cafe!). El Jardin Vertical still points its nose at everyone and the El Rullo has added L’Antic Portal to its portfolio.
In the meanwhile Jane is enjoying the fruits of her masia, but wondering if one day she might want to stay in the village sometimes, or indeed forever. The years and hard work have taken their toll on her joints. Some mornings she struggles to get out of bed. Where is this going to end, she asks herself?
She meets a friend for lunch in Vilafames, at the new trendy La Vinya, and afterwards they take a walk up and down the steep cobbled streets to work the rabo de toro (oxtail) off. Jane’s doctor has told her that she must keep moving as much as possible and its true; somehow it eases the morning back pain.
They pass THE casa, and Jane notes that the bottom windows are now shut and shuttered. Unlike in France, Spanish shutters are traditionally sited interiorly so Jane had never noticed them before. These are robust, with delicate engravings at the corners. She peers closer. There are no signs of woodworm or termites. Then she sees the sign “Se Vende” fastened askew at the top of the grill. Two phone numbers are scribbled on it, extremely hard to read. She takes a picture on her phone and the numbers come into focus. What a godsend the smart phone is! They go to the nearest bar.
Number one does not work – a typo? She tries the other, a landline, and what is clearly a very old man answers in Valenciano. Yes, the house is for sale. It is 2 million pesetas, he thinks. He will talk to his sister who knows more. Jane leaves her number and tries to work out how much that is. It seems is might be 12,000 euros. He must be mistaken, she tells her friend. Maybe he got the decimal place in the wrong place. At 100,000 it would be cheap. At least in this village.
About 30 minutes later a woman calls and says she is the owner and can show Jane the place on Sunday as she is coming up from Castellon for a fiesta. That was my older brother you spoke to, she explained. He was confused about the price; it is nearer 15 million pesetas. Oh, Jane exclaimed, but how much is that in euros?
We will talk Sunday.
So, Sunday Jane is there in front of the casa, a Spanish friend in tow. The lady, Lola, is quite old, very elegant and even-featured. She is accompanied by her husband Manolo who seems younger. They shake hands and then he opens the heavy front door, which matches the shutters and is probably of oak. The space inside is bare and welcoming, but clearly needs a great deal of love. Lola admits it has lain empty for circa 35 years. The sparse wiring twists off the walls and swift nests cushion against the few ceiling lamps that remain. There are no bathrooms or even any plumbing. The kitchen is just a space where once it might have been. All this aside, the house has perfect proportions and in Jane’s eyes is actually better for the lack of restoration.
She holds her breath.
She tries not to look excited and as they approach the final floor this is in fact easy to do. The roof is a sorry sight. Rivulets of water ingress darken the beams. The old canes are still in place, meaning no insulation at all, and are laced with yet more swift nests. An upright beam in the middle of the last stair provisionally supports the roof where a number of half-hearted repairs have been undertaken.
Possibly just prior to putting up the “se vende” sign?
Jane mulls this over. The top floor would make a magnificent terrace. So it could be half a roof replacement. Less costs. Except then the terrace would have to be like a roof. The floor as it stands shakes lightly under their feet. It is populated by mounds of bird excrement and she carefully navigates a path through.
They leave the house and go to a bar. Lola asks for an herbal tea and Manolo a cortado. Jane opts for a beer. The mystery of the price hangs in the air. When Jane asks, Lola replies, how much do you want to pay?
I can’t say, Jane replies.
It does not need much work, Lola states; I had my builder look at it. What do you think?
It needs everything doing, Jane says. Your builder is wrong. Who is he?
It turns out they have the same builder, Rafa.
Then it is revealed that there are 8 siblings, therefore 8 dueños.
But we all want to sell, Lola insists quickly. We have decided.
So how much?
My family want 85,000 euros, but will take 80,000 at the minimum.
Jane is disappointed. Saying it would be bargain even at 100 was before seeing the true extent of its condition. She repeats that it needs a lot of work and asks if she could borrow the keys and have their builder-in-common look it over with her. Then she has another beer and they leave on good terms.
The process of acquiring estimates takes 8 months, partly because of the summer fiestas, and partly because no one actually thinks she will buy this place. Jane does not mind because it gives her time to make sure this is what she wants. After Rafa, she has in the carpenter, the painter, the plumber, the electrician and the furniture maker. The quotes pile up. So does the bird excrement. Jane wonders if she is completely insane. The house remains unvisited by anyone but her and her tradesmen.
One day it rains heavily but the rain does not enter the casa. Heartened, Jane takes matters into her own hands and has the top floor cleaned up and points of avian entry sealed. She calls Lola. Her husband Manolo answers the phone. They agree to meet on a Friday in the same bar. Jane takes along her Spanish friend again, and a copy of all the quotes for the negotiations.
Straight off Lola gives her a hug and a kiss. Manolo shakes her hand. They all order cortados. Jane is very nervous and has been prepared to offer 60,000, but looking at the expectant faces, she instinctively knows it would be an insult. So she lays the quotes on the table and offers 62,000, telling Lola it is based on the quotes. Pushing the stack of paper back towards Jane, Lola says her family does not care about the quotes. All any of us want to know is how much money we will get.
This goes back and forth for a while, and in the end Lola asks, do you have a copy of these quotes, and Jane says, yes, these are for you. And please remember, this is simply to put the house in good condition. It does not include any bathrooms or kitchen or boiler or heating. It would still be an empty house.
So it is a house that is not a casa, interjects Manolo.
Jane laughs nervously.
Well, Lola announces, we are 12 dueños.
I thought you were 8.
7 brothers and sisters and 4 nieces and 1 nephew.
One of us has died in the last eight months.
Oh, I am sorry.
At this price maybe one of them will want to buy it themselves.
Oh, That’s good. At least it will not fall down.
Of course Jane is crestfallen but determined not to let it show.
They go their ways, still on good terms, and Lola’s parting comment is, remember I am only one vote.
Somehow Jane takes this as a good sign.
A few days later Lola’s husband calls. He starts to lay out the process of acquisition, in what village or city they might go to the notary, and the practicalities with 12 dueños traipsing inland from Castellon all at the same time, and so forth. At no point does he state that the offer has been accepted. Jane is a bit confused for he speaks neither Castellano nor Valenciano, rather a mixture that leaves her guessing as to its real meaning. Also he is not one of the dueños.
Two days pass and he calls again with more details and she guesses that her offer has probably been accepted.
But she is still not totally sure.
Christmas is around the corner and she is returning to Holland to stay with her parents, as she always does. It is left that they will be in touch in the new year.
On Christmas Eve day Jane receives a phone call from Lola’s brother Paco who happens to be a gestor. The nephew dueño thinks he might like to buy the house, he states.
Jane spends the next 24 hours distressed. She realizes how much she wants this place. It would be good to move to if one day I cannot manage it in the countryside anymore, she tells her baffled parents.
The truth is that the casa is in her heart. It always has been since she first spotted it 12 years ago. It was “amor a primera vista”.
The next evening she calls Paco. Tell your family I will pay 40 on the house contract and 22 under the table. It takes some time to get that across as Jane says on top of the table by mistake. She is nervous. She also calls cash “liquido” instead of efectivo. All becomes clear when she stumbles upon “pasta” during a hasty Google search. Pasta, she says. She likes this word. There is a sea change down the phone. Forget about the nephew, Paco said. I will call you in January.
Jane allows herself a glass of champagne, hoping it is not too soon.
As soon as she returns to her masia, a Sunday night, the phone rings. Her electrician who she left the keys with wants to know if she has bought the house as he is interested in it too. Her Spanish friend says he has been looking at loads of village houses with his son. Damn, she should not have had it cleaned. Jane wastes no time and starts to arrange her under the table pasta accumulation.
By Wednesday she is sitting in Paco’s office with 4 of the dueños, going through the process. Paco passes her a paper detailing 13 bankers’ drafts for 13 people. My goodness, she comments, you are multiplying! It transpires that another brother has died shortly into the new year and his part now goes to his two daughters. Jane suddenly understands why they want to sell. The pot share is decreasing rapidly.
A week later she is sitting in a notary’s office in Castellon around a table with the said 13. Her Spanish friend is with her again to provide moral support. Everyone shakes hands. Then Jane sits down and places the cashier cheques on the table. They had caused much hilarity in the bank as she had to sign a paper for each and every one of them before they were handed over. Her manager read out the names and amounts, Jane signed and ticked her list, and around cheque 8 they both dissolved into giggles. They are now all in an envelope. In her handbag she clutches a cloth sack with the efectivo.
Nothing much seems to happen. Jane glances around the room anxiously. The notary fusses with scraps of empty paper and eventually leaves the room.
At this point Paco beckons her and friend into an anteroom and enquires about the cash. Jane gives the sack to him and he empties it on the table, carefully looking inside to make sure nothing has been left behind. He counts efficiently like a man used to doing these things. He hands it back to her, watches her place it in the sack, and they return to the main room. Shortly afterwards the notary re-enters, sits down and states that the purchaser Jane understands sufficient Castellano to proceed.
Jane nods. It is all so obviously orchestrated.
The escritura is read out. 45 minutes later it is passed around for all the dueños, to sign, old and one new. The notary takes a picture of them together that looks like a still from The Godfather. Then she leaves the room and in a mad rush all the dueños surge forward into the anteroom. Paco holds Jane back and asks for the efectivo. As Jane hands it to him, she suddenly realizes he looks just like Groucho Marx. You do not need to come in here, he says – Jane thinks he sounds a bit gruff. Once he has the money, he closes the door on her face.
There was nothing more to do than go and celebrate with her Spanish friend. Except they both had petty errands to run. Going to Castellon is like that.
And so that was it. And you see, it is surreal. And it is exactly as Jane told me…. Well almost!