This is an on-going record of an in-part disappearing way of life in El Maestrat, Castellon. Please click on ANY photo on the home page to read and see more – all posts are updated with new photos as I take them! The finca diaries have the latest posts at the bottom.
Here, because so many people are asking about Masia Lavanda, I will be concentrating solely on this mad finca adventure; its beginnings, middle and yes, even somewhat of an end.
As it is entirely off-grid, it has been quite a project. This is a blog in progress, in retrospect, slow, probably too slow for the protocol of modern blogging, but please check back for updates. They are coming soon! Or maybe much later. I say this because many of my experiences have been quite painful to write down and I have felt the need to take breaks. Has it been worth it though? Yes, absolutely, and totally life changing. This I will state right at the start
“The small stone house spoke to me, I was in awe, I showed other people – most were horrified or alternatively amused”
I don’t think I would have bought Masia Lavanda if it had not been for the fact that I was recommended a builder “who was very reliable, spoke English and loved old construction”. When you live two thousand miles away and do not even speak the language, the prospect of undertaking any renovation is daunting, let alone of a place that has no mains water or electricity, and defniitely never will.
So highly was this man praised, that I got in touch with him and Paco was indeed charm personified, that is until he got my initial deposit. After that our meetings were brief and hurried, as he was always rushing off somewhere else, to some other project. Admittedly he obtained a proper building license for me, but the plans did not reflect my clearly stated wishes, and the building project bill was huge.
The main problem was that Paco actually really did not understand old materials and proposed extending the house with rendered breeze blocks and modern bricks at the wall angles. We fought over this, and the use of materials and I tried to find a way to marry the new with the old. The other main problem was he just could not accept that I did not want any walls downstairs. The house was small, and would continue to be small even with an extension, and my theory was that everyone lives in the kitchen no matter what its size, so why not make the ground floor one big kitchen/living space with a massive terrace outside? After all, the weather permitted outdoor living for about 9 months of the year, if not more.
Despite all my stipulations, including in lengthy translated letters, every time I returned to Spain, there was the same small kitchen stuck in a corner like an afterthought, partition walls, and the same massive staircase taking up a disproportionate amount of the ground floor. It could not go elsewhere, he explained, and it could not be smaller. To me it seemed it could, on both counts, after all I had been in many old masias like this and seen the little space a staircase could take up.
Paco’s charm wore thin, his building estimates alarmed me, and his arrogance in regards to my wishes depressed me. With this triple three negative, I forcedly found myself looking around for another builder.
I thought I was wise and had a lot of experience under my belt, but truthfully I was a romantic fool and so it was that I ripened perfectly to be plucked by the next conman who came along, at this time more than ever.
“The old front door seen past a carob tree – this was to be expanded so that the masia could be made into an L-shape”
So there I was, not happy with Paco, and I meet a man, even more charming and decidedly intelligent who I related my woes to. He was a man whose wife had cooked an amazing meal for me already, and he had seemed more my type of person, an artistic type. I certainly had never thought of him in terms of a builder, but that day he took me around, and showed me some places he was doing up that he owned, and to make a long story short, I hired him to oversee the project, get a proper honest builder on board, and find me better quotes.
As it happens, his idea of the agreement did not tally with mine. At the time I remember thinking, well, I will give him a few weeks, and if it is not working out, then we can call it quits. We both agreed we would still say hello to each other in the bars. He was on a retainer, and he swore blind he would work his socks off for this, and in fact he added that, he would treat my house as if it were his own.
That comforted me. But in truth is should have alarmed me, for eventually, so much did this person consider my house his own, that he did not even consult me about major decisions such as removing the roof, and eventually, hard to believe but true, knocking most of the whole house down altogether, including bits I had already paid to have “re-inforced”.
But he sort of plodded on, for after the first month, I had the beginnings of a small stone cabin elsewhere on the land, converted from an old pigsty, and I thought, I really want a place on the finca to stay in. So I gave him another month, although he had not obtained any quotes, and the proper builder was nowhere in evidence, and I had no idea how much his work on the cabin or anything else for that matter, would cost.
Basically, I was caught between the devil and the deep blue Maestrat sky, and living in a far away place called Liverpool. I was taken in by a rogue.
“I was impressed with the large beam and the beginnings of an arch. I kept on thinking, if this is built I can check out of that basic hostel in the the village”
Before this man knocked my house down, he took off the roof. He then charged me a small fortune for this, also to rake out the stone work, and then consolidate the walls with cement on the inside. I had not actually asked him to do any of these things, but he did and I was not disappointed. As you can see below, it had promise and with my sepia coloured glasses on, I thought, well, at least there is some progress. However, at the same time I was thinking, where are all the competitive quotes he promised to get me from proper accredited builders? A bit of pointing any able-bodied man can do, but the rest required experienced tradesmen.
“The newly raked out stonework promised a fine sold house”
While I was considering this scenario, and how best to approach it, over a long lunch in Atzeneta at Casa Ramon, unbeknownst to me, this man was having a powwow up at my masia with his gang of mates and they decided that despite having gone the restore direction for the last month, in hind sight it would be better just to knock the house down and start all over again. I am amazed at how quickly five men can reduce a stone house that has stood for hundreds of years to a few feet from the earth. I am also STILL amazed that this man did not even come back and seek me out and say “Stephanie, we are going to knock your house down”, or even “we just knocked your house down”. No, he went home to his wife and ate a nice meal and thought nothing more about it.
I, by chance, went up to masia Lavanda in the twilight hour to commune with my stone lover once more, and gasped in horror at the sight. A cold blinding wave of panic shot through me and I turned around, facing the black black mountain in front of me that reflected perfectly my frame of mind, and sunk into a deep dense hole.Stumbling into my rental car, I raced erratically back to Atzeneta, straight to casa Ramon. This was followed by Fonda Gilber, then Bar Almendros and finally Bar Tasca, where I got truly totally drunk, the thing I tend to do in a crises. A local ex-pat joined me in my sorrowful bar crawl, and we railed against the world and men builders in particular, both with construction stories to share. At around one in the morning, after watching a drunken Spaniard with a belly the size of a brandy barrel swallow a dozen raw eggs, I knew I had reached rock bottom and so crawled back to Fonda Gilber to sleep whatever I could sleep off.
“How could I turn the clock back?”
The next day we had it out, me and this man who thought he owned my house. As he was charming and highly intelligent, he managed to persuade me that he had done the best thing, and I, despite feeling very uneasy with this, agreed to continue for a while. Actually the truth was that I could see no way out. I reluctantly went back up to my ravished finca and watched while he traced out his grandiose plans on the bit of wall left standing, but all I could see was technicolor stubs of fine stone walls surrounded by demolition. Yes, I was now the proud (or not so proud) owner of a pile of rubble in the Southeast of Spain. This man assured me that he was not only on the way to transforming this rubble into something marvellous, but would also finish that little casita I so craved. I left Spain, in a total turmoil, and wondered what the hell I had got myself and my family into.
“I looked at the technicolor devastation and felt trapped”
A month later I was back, extremely nervous, to see what lovely surprise awaited me now. I was also very anxious about the bills for of those there had been many. It was a blustery cold day when I arrived, really sunny, but the wind blew me horizontal. Talking of horizontal, I looked around at the thick strands of builders plastic clinging to the gorse, streaming in the wind. Sodden bags of emptied cement sat like alien landings around the midst of these bushes – so far into the thickets that I knew I would never be able to brave the prickles and fetch them out.
I went up to the masia with this man and some walls of the house were beginning to go up, but although it had received a roof, the little casita has been neglected and I could see that in a month of Sundays I would not be able to live there. There was no floor, no glass in most of the windows and a bit of a bomb site overall. that aside, the main house, the masia if you could call it that, was wrong. The doorways were ridiculously wide (you told me to do them like this he said – I did not). The truth is that when he had asked about door widths in order to get proper quotes from proper builders, in particular one, I had given him a width and height and he had taken the height for the width and the width for the height and so there were all gaps, but not enough walls to open these future wide doors into.
Then I saw that In the to-be kitchen some strange Salvador Dali type shelves had appeared in a corner, hewn in rough stone, and all I could think was “no way could I place anything on these without it toppling over”. How middle class am I? I was also not too sure about the concrete floor which had been started straight on the soil though truthfully it looked pretty ok.
I asked where were my quotes? No need for those, can’t you see the work we are doing? But I need quotes, otherwise I do not what it will cost and if I can even afford it – what about the builder in town, what about Manual? Oh, he comes once in a while and tells us what to do, and also the technical architect from your building project came, and we get on very well, and he said everything was great. Don’t worry, I have got everything in hand. And the casita? Oh, that it nothing, it will take use a week to finish.
Four months ago he had said it would be done in a month, and in this month I had expected to see quotes. How had I let it get this far? When did it become too late? There is a terribly funny movie, or rather a terrible movie that is funny, totally exaggerated, called The Money Pit and I may as well have been in it. I saw myself sinking and did not know how to get out, and there was no getting around the fact that the language difference was a terrible barrier. This man and I spoke French together. Imagine. Really, do.
He gave me a pile of bills from the local builders’ merchant to pay and so I went to pay them, good little girl that I am. One thing led to another and I started to blubber in the middle of their office. I think it was just looking at the sheer amount of the sums and trying to work out what I was getting, or not getting for my money, which was rapidly drying up, and basically feeling totally as if I was in a visual and oral fog.
Carlos and Gemma, whose builders’ yard it was, spoke no English and no French, and started a frantic phoning around to find someone who did. Eventually they came up with a distant cousin called Pilar who spoke with an impressive Geordie dialect (she was an English teacher and had spent her year abroad in Newcastle), and between the three of them it was decided that I should ditch this man, and then `Carlos and his builders’ yard would build me a lovely house instead.
I wanted to be grateful, and I guess I was, but another part of me said, here I go again, another builder, and is that what I should really do, wasn’t I in a builders’ yard in any event, and did he really know about old stone? And besides how was I going to get rid of “this man”? I really did not feel that I had the strength needed to tell him, thanks, but no thanks, and actually I felt physically intimidated. Not for the first time in my life, I wished I was a man, a strong man, but not “this man”.
“I had given him a width and height and he had taken the height for the width so there were all gaps but no walls to speak of – it would not have been possible to install a door that opened property”
As it happens the dilemma of getting rid of this man was solved for me very easily, and dramatically. At my request the technical architect came back to see the finca the next day. It was all very well being told how much he approved of the build so far, and how well he got on with this man, but I wanted to meet him.
Carlos called him and it was arranged to liaise at Bar Elias around 10 am. I love the way so much business is conducted in bars. It is kind of relaxing, and I must say, Miguel was a pleasant man with a pleasant appearance. About 38 I should say, of medium height and build, and I immediately felt comfortable with him. We both had a carajillo, which turned out to be a good thing as it would steady my nerves for the events that would unfold later. It was decided that we should travel together and so I climbed up into his massive 4×4 BMW and buckled up.
Being a technical architect in Spain was a very lucrative job at one time, before the “crisis económica”.
On the way I tried to explain in my truly terrible Spanish about my concerns re lack of quotes and not knowing what on earth was going on, in particular why the house had been knocked down in the first place. He nodded and appeared to take this one board, but of course I was not exactly sure.
I need not have worried. As soon as we arrived at the finca, this man started to walk down towards us across the mess of the work site; the empty plastic bottles, the shreds of cement bags, the stacks of rejected stones, the cigarette butts, sardine cans, and bits of thermal bricks. The sun beat down on the compacted earth and we walked up, meeting somewhere in the middle. I could not help but thinking that we were in the Wild West as I had seen it in old black and white movies.
They greeted, and then Miguel immediately asked this man why he had not obtained any quotes for me, and that I needed them. This man then proceeded to shout at me in French, pointing back up at the masia with its Gaudesque shelves and wide doorways and yes, a half-finished concrete floor, and screamed, “what do you think I am doing? What do you think all this is?”
Miguel countered with, but this lady needs quotes, she needs to know what things will cost and how they will be done. That resulted in more screaming at such a high pitch that surely it could have been heard across the whole of EL Maestrat? The only people who did not appear to hear it were this man’s work force steadily hacking away at the stones while a noisy cement mixer churned in the background. This man’s face went various angry shades of red and purple and I tried to reason with him, in French as usual, while Miguel looked on helplessly, obviously not understanding a thing.
“What do you want me to do?” he yelled, “You are impossible to please, do you want me to stop, I will stop if you want?” I felt a kernel of panic rise in me and looked around. Yes, there was some progress, but none of it had structure or made much sense to me. Walls and piles of stone. Did this make a house? I felt lost, at sea in its disorder, and the fog of our broken languages. I wanted to examine a piece of paper that explained the process of this house, its wiring, its plumbing, its windows, their sizes. I wanted to be able to see how it sat together, what it would cost, and I wanted to be able to think the puzzle through, see the pitfalls, and the solutions. But I could not for no pieces of paper had been presented to me, and no plans, and no costs. Just bills, lots of bills for far too much.
And pretty piles of stones.
As all these thoughts were rushing around my jumbled head, this man approached and faced me in the midst of all the ugly chaos, and set his feet wide apart. A frisson of dread swamped me, as if I had intuited what was to come. Was he about to charge me like a bull? No, what he did do though was proceed to jiggle his balls up and down at me through his dirty baggy trousers while screaming obscenities that thankfully I could not understand. A hot angry flush of adrenalin swept through my body and at the same time I thought, “his testicles seem very loose”. He jiggled them a little bit more as if to verify my findings and screeched just a little bit louder, and now, even one of the men in the the ruins of my masia looked up from his broom. “So do you want me to stop????”, this man yelled. Miguel threw his hands up in a gesture, imploring calm, and this man continued to scream and jiggle and I said finally, “Yes, yes, please stop. Yes”.
And that is how this man came to be known as “Testicles” and that is how I shall refer to him from now on. Testicles proved to be a very dishonest man, and because of him and my stupidity in putting my faith in him, my debts would escalate exponentially. Quite simply, I lost control of my budget, well, our budget, James and mine, and whereas before I carefully noted each and every expense, in the future I ceased to. It was far too painful, and I really could not cope with the stress. Not that I avoided stress, just that I shoved it into the background and refused to acknowledge it. In due course though it would rear its ugly head, but of that I shall write much later.
” Yes, there was some progress, but none of it had structure or made much sense to me”
There comes a point when you decide to get out and cut your losses and this maybe should have been one of those. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was like throwing euros to the wind and this particular wind was that of recession. It had bitten deep in Spain now and its first victim was the inflated property boom. It had all but dried up, prices were tumbling and the British buyers had disappeared along with their dwindling currency. The pound had billowed back and forth with the highs and lows of the housing market – at its peak buying 1.80 euros and now not much more than an euro. At times I wondered if there was not some deliberate conspiracy somewhere in the secret financial chambers of the world to equalise the euro, pound and dollar and therefore render them interchangeable.
Despite the clouds of financial gloom compounded by my naivety to date, I still harboured a romantic notion of Masia Lavanda, or rather for myself and my family AT Masia Lavanda. Strolling through olive groves, picnics in restored animal pens, growing our own vegetables, the perfect tan (on unwrinkled skin ha ha) – that kind of thing, not profoundly deep, but there. Something I wanted to hang on to, to fly in the face of defeat.
So I went back to Atzeneta and found myself sitting back in Carlos’s office, tears streaming down my face, with his perennially cheerful wife Gemma, and being told that what I needed before anything was QUOTES, and the little casita finishing, a wood burning stove installed, and while I was at it, a bathroom too so that I had somewhere dignified to stay when the main house was being rebuilt. I sat there sniffling at Gemma’s desk, nodding in agreement, wanting to attach myself to this beacon of hope, this something I could imagine and actually had tired to make happen without success before, and feeling at the same time that events were being taken away from me again.
Carlos came up with an affordable quote overnight, not only for the bathroom, but also for the main house in stone. It was clear and detailed, and furthermore, he said, that is what it will cost you not a penny more. If there are problems, then that is down to me. It was really very reasonable and so I left to think about it, naturally in a bar, and there I came across Tracy who looked strong enough to beat ten men up and by all accounts was a handy tiler, painter and decorated. She already knew my story and so we went up to the finca to have a look. Tracy said she could install a brick floor, and would also sort out the plaster, and paint and do a general tidy up of all the sloppy loose ends, and so it was decided by me, or possibly those around me, that I would carry on.
“I still harboured a romantic notion of Masia Lavanda”
I went back to Liverpool, bereft, and yet strangely full of hope. Another part of me wondered if I was a lamb (ok an old sheep) being led yet again to the slaughter. However when something happens that you have no control over, well, you just get on with it. That is my experience anyway.
So I just got on with it, and re-adjusted the amount of money all this would cost, and enquired at the bank about the possibility of increasing our mortgage. Six weeks later, I returned, and there it was, my casita with stove, beautifully floored, painted, and in possession of a dinky little ensuite bathroom; adorable as long as you did not venture past the front of the cabin and see how its exterior clashed with the mountain landscape.
I plotted the positioning of slender trees, cypresses, to hide the rectangular monstrosity and drove down to Castellon to sort out a few basic necessities such as a camp bed, sleeping bag, and candles for my new home. Luckily I did not need wood as there was already a nicely matured pile left by the previous owner, chopped and ready to use under a copse of trees near the cabin.
That night, with Tracy, I lit (well she lit) my first fire and we burnt chicken and aparagus over it on an in-built grill thing. We could not get it to fit in all the way due to the pile of wood so kept the stove door open. Our bird spit and sizzled and sprayed fat all over the floor. We ate the charred carcass and blackened spears with relish at a make-shift table made of thermal bricks and wood planks. Licking our finger, we toasted the future with copious amounts of Rioja, much of which also joined the fat on the floor. However it was a night to celebrate, and by candle light you could not see much.
Eventually after much drunken conversation and far too many confidences, Tracy staggered off to her beat up truck and drove off home. After waiting for the sound of her diesel motor to fade down the mountain, I staggered onto my camp bed and drifted asleep, vaguely worrying whether she was in any fit state to drive. In the morning I received a lovely thank you text from Tracy, much to my relief. In time I would realise that everyone drove drunk around here. As long as it was local, they rationalised it. I will admit that I came to do the same.
Later, in the clear light of day, and after recovering from a dreadful hangover, I saw what a truly dreadful state Tracy’s beautifully laid floor was in. I should have realised how porous brick would be – I had chosen it because it looked like old terra cotta, but traditionally these bricks are used for window sills. I set about scrubbing and scraping it with vinegar and soap, then when that did not work, all the cleaning products I had bought for the new bathroom. But the grease and wine stains would simply not disappear. Eventually I gave up and covered them with salt and left for the airport, back to Liverpool. This little thing depressed me. It was symbolic. My first steps in the right direction, tainted. My beautiful floor besmirched and all my own doing. It did not take long.
It was agreed that the masia would be re-built come the 7th of September 2009 and I would spend three months living in my new lovely cabin supervising. I re-arranged all photo jobs around this date and regularly emailed Carlos for updates and confirmation of the start date. No replies were forthcoming, and finally, at the end of July I decided this was NOT going to happen and I began to fill the days intended for Spain with commissions. It was disappointing, but on the plus side, the English pound was not showing any sign of recovering against the euro, and yet I thought that in time it would.
On the last day of August Carlos finally got in touch with a start date for the end of September which I turned down. I flew to Spain for a few days and explained that I worked full time, and if I was going to embark on this project, then dates had to be agreed and adhered to because every day I spent in Spain was a day of lost income in Liverpool. Carlos gave me another start date of January and after thinking of how cold it would be, I lied that I was now booked up until the end of March.
Secretly I congratulated myself for playing hard to get as it seemed to have the desired effect. We agreed the end of March, and between September and then Carlos replied to all my emails promptly. In this time I also managed to source an off-grid system to run the cabin at a competitive price from a retired ex-pat policeman. It is just great what you can do with the help of the internet. When I arrived on the mutually agreed date, the men were in full throttle and I could actually see the start of the window holes. In front of my cabin stood Bill, the ex-policeman, together with a solar panel, inverter, charge controller and all the other things I previously never knew anything about.
Pigs’ heaven. Things were happening at last! But it was bloody cold…
So to get back to my arrival in EL Maestrat, and the start of a very long adventure, I back track over the last post a little. Near the end of March James fixed a roof box to our Skoda estate and I packed it to the brim. Setting off in sunny weather from Liverpool, I drove to Folkstone, took the channel tunnel, and then traversed the length of France, staying in cheap hotels along the way. It was pelting with rain. In fact, the further South I went, the more it fell. This was not at all what I had hoped for, but never mind. I still hoped.
On the 1st of April 2010 at 10pm, two days before my eldest son’s 20th birthday (don’t make a fuss mum, he said, I am spending it with friends), I arrived in Atzeneta by the skin of my teeth. The rain was so heavy for the last 45 minutes that the CV10 after Sant Mateu had become a torrential river of sorts and I feared sliding into a premature watery grave at the bottom of a ravine. I pulled into the village at about 2 miles per hour, clutching the steering wheel for dear life and looked at the grim and grey village. Abandoned. Everyone was home and shuttered against the storm and I could not blame them.
There was no way I would make it up the mountain to my cabin, not without a 4×4, and maybe not even with. I pulled up to Fonda Gilber and entered the empty bar. Tall skinny Anton from Romania was standing forlornly behind the counter and gave me a weak smile. Business was not good, and yes I could have a room for the night. I took a key, a bottle each of water and red wine, and ascended the ugly cement stairs to a room that I had hoped never to see again.
I got myself settled; book, thermal long johns (no heating) and a big swig of wine. Before I knew it, morning had broken to reveal a clearing sky, my book was on the floor, and a puddle of red wine was spreading across the thankfully tiled floor.
Let me tell you something that may come as a surprise. It is not always sunny and warm in Spain. Spain is a very large country and the climate varies enormously depending where you are. As it is, where I ended up there is quite a large need for ski jackets as evidenced by the selection on offer in the local Poc de Tot (Home and Bargain to you and me).
I struggled through April with the aid of a day and night fire, thermals and a four seasons sleeping bag on top of a very uncomfortable camp bed. I developed an acute pain in my lower back, which I mistook for a kidney infection, and then when that was dismissed, I feared that my wine consumption was finally catching up with my liver. Thankfully none of this was true as evidenced by the arrival of a proper bed and the disappearance within days of my symptoms.
Symptoms or no, nothing could daunt my spirits. The masia seemed to be rising out of the ashes like a phoenix with extra wings and the world was my mountain. A young mason called Ramon was assigned to the construction and though he did not possess a large variety of expressions, he sure had a way with stone. His sidekick Juan cleaned, swept and mixed lime cement with a perennial cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I spent the evenings after they left collecting fag ends, empty plastic bottles of water and the odd wine bottle. My finca was also littered with sardine tins, their curling lids ripped asunder. There were other tins too, all of fish, names with which I was not familiar and I tried (but failed) to imagine British workmen tucking in to this fare.
When things finally get going, and there is nothing much there to start with, every bit of progress seems a giant step forward for home-dom. By the time May arrived, the countryside was awash with poppies, the second floor was nearing and the weather took a turn for the better. It seemed that nothing could stop my soaring spirits. Not even the rubble.
May rushed by, and then June arrived with the dying wild flowers and an increasing heat. The masia went up, the roof went on and my hero of the moment was Carlos. It was the honeymoon period. I could not believe that there was actually a structure there, with stone walls. Stones that came from the land. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse and know exactly what was going on at all times. The workmen appeared to respect him. He was always cheerful. He was extremely competent with a can of spray paint, marking the positions of walls to be and innards of the masia. And he was extremely fit.
In early July James came to stay for 7 days. The landscape was parched and not a drop of rain in sight. The first night we toasted the masia from the interior of the little casita, finally falling into bed bathed in sweat. It was too hot to even sleep. In the morning the temperature mounted along with the flies. So many flies. We bought plastic swats to keep them at bay and paced the land looking at our trees, laden with bottles of water to calm our thirst. Carlos’s men laboured on, seemingly immune to the heat. I worried that Juan might start a bush fire with his ever present cigarettes.
On the third day the roof tiles were started, and then came the weekend. James and I climbed up the precarious scaffolding and had a look. It was a mess. The lines of tiles were far apart, too far I thought, for water could easily get past the overlaps if the cement developed cracks. This seemed likely as the cement was sloppily applied. It seemed that corners had been cut, both in materials, and in time. We worried. After all this we did not want a leaking roof. No matter how long we looked at it, it did not look any better. Why did this always happen on the weekend? Answer. We had not looked during the week.
Come Monday morning I took James to the airport and then went straight to the almacén to speak to Carlos. The roof is perfect, he assured me, that is the way it is done here. I looked around the village and saw many roofs like this indeed. But not all. There were ones with tight narrow rows of neat tiles.
This did not re-assure me. A house without a solid watertight roof is a disaster. The thought of water ingress after all this work was worrying. Was I being paranoid or were the cracks were beginning to show?
“Was I being paranoid, but did the tiles look too far apart and the lines crooked?”
As it happens no cracks showed. James returned to England, as I did for a while in order to sort our two boys out in further education. Then I returned to the finca at the end of September. The roof was on; the house though was a shell. As slow as molasses, work proceeded. It is always this way. At first everything goes fast and you are in a kind of euphoric bubble about it all. The builder is your God. The sun shines from his caterpillar boots (in this case his own company’s boots). Then, not so suddenly if we are being honest, he drifts off somewhere else, but keeps on coming back from time to time to keep you happy and collect his bills.
Well to collect his bills. Not sure about the happy bit.“It was still just a shell”
And I have to be honest. Carlos was very good at running after euros. Some of the work he did without quotes carried an enormous price tag. I would look at the figures on the paper and think, how on earth can this be right? 800 euros for a 600mm by 250mm shelf? Maybe it is? It is a solid 350mm height after all. But then, let’s be realistic; how much has he ripped me off by? Maybe it is only a little? And as I was contemplating this, the end of the month would arrive and I would get an urgent phone call from him, exclaiming” Stephanie!” – my name is always expressed as a stabbing exclamation in Spanish, probably because words that start with “st” are foreign to the Spanish so they have to make a real effort to pronounce them. So, “SSTTephanie! – when are you going to come to pay your bill? “
Now, if I was ever late in paying my debts, I could have understood, but I never was, and never have been, and this began to upset me enormously. But still, good little girl that I am, I would go to pay my bill, including all the extra bits that in some cases seemed to dwarf the original quote.
And so things continued, things did get done. For this I was grateful. And Carlos was still my God, even if a bit of a demi one now. I would ask, “in what order do we proceed next? Like, when do we put the windows and doors in? Before or after the plaster?” And so on.“What gets done when, I kept on asking?”
Carlos always had a speedy reassuring answer, reassuring in that his lack of hesitation made you feel that he must know exactly what he was talking about. A bit like when you go to a new hairdresser and he seizes your hair confidently, you feel you are in capable hands. So when Carlos insisted that the doors and windows should go in before the plastering and floors, I nodded respectfully. In acknowledgement of his expertise and experience I proceeded with his scheme of things, even though I paid through the nose for repairing damage caused by subsequent labours. For instance the wood – it was varnished and perfect, and yet with all that passed after I ended up having to pay a substantial additional sum to put the damage caused by the plasters, and floor layers right…“Perfection had to be continually touched up after the carelessness of others”
The other thing was that I also conceded to the outside contractors Carlos chose for me after seeking fruitlessly for prices of my own. Recession or no, the Spanish did not seem in any hurry to give me any quotes. The eventual bill for the carpentry was enormous. Gigantic. And in time I would learn about the commissions Carlos received from recommending certain companies. In fact any company he recommended (and with quite some force) gave him a more than generous kickback. Kickback should be the national motto of Spain.
And so November came, and December, and the house received doors and windows and plaster and even got painted. Then at the end of January all the visible damage of things I paid a king’ ransom for in the first place was reversed at an additional cost that I could just about bare. I have to say that that this story is not unique to Spain. Not from what I have read. Which is exactly the point. You would think that being triply fore-warned, I would have been able to steer this common scenario away. But I couldn’t which just goes to prove that history always repeats itself.“The rubble kept on building up the nearer to completion the job came”
This aside, while all this was happening I pottered around my casita, looking up from time to time at the handsome stone house at the top of my mountain. I was perplexed, for as amazing as this creation was in the middle of nowhere, I did not feel any longing to live there. It was still some impersonal thing I could not identify with. It had no electricity or water or heat of any kind and all in all it seemed a distant unfriendly place. Four walls with no soul, and new windows, no stove, bits a pieces unfinished, and a lot of cleaning to do – which was a bit of a sticking point.“It was done, at least from the outside, and was finally begin to blend in with the landscape”
In addition, these hardwood, double-glazed windows were so perfect and new that they did not move me. On contrast, down in my casita I was happy as a pig in shit, reveling in the old leaking windows and wood-burning fire and the old world charm of it all. Quite apt really to be as happy as a pig in shit as this may at one time been a pigsty, though more likely it was a donkey stable.
Who could say? Not even the locals who came by to visit.“I had no desire to move to my new home – apart from the mess, it just seemed too hollow”
Of course I did move in eventually, but it took some time. Bit by bit I carted sacks of clothes, pans and also my generator (not a joke) 300 meters across stoney uneven ground up to the new build.
Each haul was assigned a section that was first rigorously cleaned with a cocktail of home made cleaners to remove the cement and grout left on the tiles by Carlos’s sloppy builders. He did do an initial clean, but only after a protracted fight. “In Spain a clean final surface, that is an extra” he insisted. I thought about that. Surely that would mean anyone could do a lousy job? In situations like these I liked to imagine myself as a little old lady (not something I relish at other times although think of the alternative). What would she do? Or more to the point, what could she do?In Spain we do not include a clean of the floor tiles in the quote”
So I withheld payment and Carlos grudgingly did a clean. And then I set about the house on my knees to do mine. I have learnt that there are two kinds in the construction business. The builders’ clean that removes the mountains of detritus, fags and sardine cans (Spain), and then, the one that is totally and absolutely essential, the woman’s clean. One is a sweep, with a random amount of cement remover, and the other is a sanitisation that in my case took eight months! That said, I am very happy I did it, and did not accept the professional steam cleaning quote of 1200 euros (!), because in this way while I became intimately familiar with the flaws of the build, I finally bonded irretrievably with Masia Lavanda.“It took me 8 months to clean the house properlyr”
But I was also getting embittered, if that is the right word, looking at what could have been done better. And I was getting unbelievably stressed. I began suffering from alarming attacks of engorged dermatitis around my eyes. The doctors were puzzled, and at one stage I was actually diagnosed with Lupus when a violent crimson swelling spread across my face, joining over my nose like two mutated butterfly wings.‘My face puzzled the doctors”
But I think in the end it was just stress, mountain water full of builders’ rubble, and my homemade cleaners, a concoction of ammonia, hydrochloric acid, window spray and vinegar. Not only was it very effective at removing the mountains of grime and lime scale, but evidently also at dissolving human skin. My knees became raw, my hands cracked, and the house sparkled more and more, day by day. Even if my skin was a textbook case of chemical warfare, at least I got very fit and slim (have done my best to reverse that since). Boot camp took on a new twist.“The grout was cracking between the skirting and floor and sometimes breaking the tiles as well”
At night I collapsed in a heap back in the casita surrounded by the relative comforts of warm and cold dirty running water, a few low energy light bulbs, and music to accompany a blurring bottle of local white. The blur helped distract me from contemplation of the masia’s defects. Perhaps the most alarming were the spreading cracks between the terracotta skirting and floor. It some cases it went through the tiles themselves, but in most it was restricted to the grout which simply fell out and left an unattractive gap between the two. “It’s the under floor heating”, Carlos announced cheerfully, “Its normal; the floor moves, just leave it”. But the architect did not agree. “Let it settle for a year”, he told me, “ then have him re-do it with flexible grout. You have a two year warranty from the time the final certificate for the house is stamped anyway”.
Yes, I thought, yes I do. But try telling Carlos that.“The house seemed years away from my casita”
In the meantime I was bracing myself for the most important part of the eco new build. Installation of a solar system and some kind of boiler to drive the underfloor heating, and maybe water, and of course solar panels for this? Who knew? I certainly did not have a clue despite many late nights combing through the crap on the web trying to find something truly informative that did not try to sell me products. Google sit up and take note! The plethora of off-grid non-commercial articles in 2010 were aimed at geek men, usually it seemed in some back wood, USA.
The sexes are very definitely different. I am pig-headed, much too forthright and have often been accused of being manly. I beg to differ, at least on that last point. Articles with the title “How to build a passive-solar food dehydrator” did not make me salivate. I was not interested in using the metal racks from a disused fridge (if only I had a fridge at all!) and actually I just wanted some down to earth sensible advice without references to amps, watts, volts, wires, plugs, invertors, generators and dispersion rates. In other words, I needed some one I could trust to explain simply what to install, not how to build it from a collection of scrap metal.
But what I got was a series of quotes, 6 in fact, from an assortment of people that were for the most part meaningless. One quote consisted of three sentences for a total of 35,000. Another for the plumbing part from a man who smelt like he had just that very minute finished distributing pig shit around his almond trees – and got most of it on him! Carlos just did not understand why I was loath to accept his quote. “But plumbers here don’t just do plumbing”, he protested. I could not get my head around that, but eventually concurred that maybe he was right when I came across a carpenter who ran a funeral business as well. I did not use him either.
But I diverge.
These quotes came over an 18-month period, long before the house even had four walls. Let me tell you how confusing it is. There were no water pipes or electricity grid to connect to and in essence I felt like I was starting a new village, or at least hamlet. Only without the aid of the utility companies. My head swam, and it swam more and more with the plethora of odd quotes. No one seemed to agree on anything. That is until I got the plumbing/heating quote from Paco. It looked slick and he made a convincing case. He even gave me the number of another ex-pat whose installation he had done. I went to see him and his house was of outstanding quality. On top of this Paco TAUGHT plumbing and heating at Castellon college. That impressed me no end.
And that is how I made a very big mistake and doubled it by employing a teacher Paco recommended for the solar part of the installation. So two teachers.
Looking back I realise that the ex-pat whose house I saw was a water engineer himself, and worked on big projects in Dubai. I guess he could a) oversee with knowledge and b) not have the wool pulled over his eyes. I had none of these advantages and blithely proceeded down the road of great expense and lots of mistakes. As one of the expats in the village unkindly said later, “it seems like you have more money than sense”. And at this point I will deviate from the boiler drama to the drama of living amidst a bunch of English people that you would never socialize with back home. It is a much a part of setting up in a new country as are the stones and cement of your dream masia. The storm clouds were brewing…
So I was in Spain, trying to fulfill a dream like everyone else, being drawn in more and more in many ways, not least of all financially. I was trying to learn the lingo, many of us were. We smiled at the locals in the local shops, and they smiled at us too. We thought we were doing well. But somewhere along the line comes the time when YOU NEED TO HAVE A REAL CONVERSTATION. And that my friend is why you start to hang out with other ex-pats. You all have similar problems and are there for not too wildly different reasons. You can rattle on without thinking about verb declensions and it is so much easier. Suddenly you become … drinking buddies.
The problem is you are more buddies with “some” than with “others”. And as you realize that “some” are not actually buddies, you become buddies with the “others”. It is repeated like this across Spain, Bali, France, anywhere that expats go in search of paradise non-existent. Us expats are not bad. It is human nature and totally understandable.
And that is how I got myself in the caca. Because what happens when you need to talk to someone who speaks the same language, is you drink and talk too much. And invariably it boomerangs back on you. Especially when interpreted through a drunken haze.
So while I was angsting over my masia and its progression and finalization, I was talking to expats who were thinking, you fucking rich bitch, how can you talk about your roof when all I have is a self-composting toilet that does not even compost. They would not have been thinking this if they were cosy and hunky dory with their own situations, but the fact is not many of us had experienced our dream like we had hoped.
It was a recipe for disaster.
I now “almost” regret that I ever spoke to one English exile. They are not more or less “nasty” than I am, any more than in any country or society more or less). But our insecurities, mine included, make for a very potent molotov cocktail and I am afraid I did not withstand the blast. With each detonation a segment of my dream was shattered. We did not come to sunny Spain to deal with coronation street dramas, nor school day style cliques. But it seemed this is what happened, to me, to them, to us all.
Shall I give you the details? Yes, maybe, but not now. I leave that to your imagination. Suffice to say that while I was dealing with the problems of building something practically unimaginable for a solitary untrained person (and a woman no less!) in the back of beyond, I also became the object of much speculation, downright lies spiked with inebriety. I guess you could call it bullying for grown-ups. At least, being a grown-up I was more able to deal with it. That is I did not contemplate slitting my wrists. But it did at times make me feel pretty miserable.
Actually, I’ll be honest. At one point I started to question my sanity, my purpose for being there. I passed some very dark days. For a while the pool of ex-pats sitting outside Almendros next to the supermarket every Saturday and Tuesday filled me with dread. They watched, drank endlessly, were ever ready to criticise. This was not why I had come to Spain.
In time, I pulled myself together and continued my Spanish fantasy. Let me explain. On my 21st birthday my mother came me a jigsaw puzzle of a magnificent Bavaria castle rising towards the skies. On it she wrote, “She painted fairy castles in the air, but I must admit it got her there”. I never forgot that and it has been my modus operandi ever since.
So that is off my chest (according to some ignorant ex-pats, inflated artificially) and we can get back to the finca business.
The house was finished. The pipes were in. A kind of freestanding kitchen was built. The septic tank was commissioned. Actually, sorry, it has a new name now, ‘The Sewage Treatment Plant’. EU regulations.
And it stank. I called the distributer and he put me in touch with an extremely arrogant man in Holland. “It cannot stink if it was properly installed”, he stated, “It’s a Biorock.”
But it did stink, and it so happened that it was not quite properly installed. Soil was entering the primary tank and blocking up the works, so to speak. The filter pipe brush thing was caked in shit and clay mud. But that was because the distributer had shipped me half Biorock, and half generic. There were two tanks at the same height in the brochure, but not in my finca. One had to be cut down and this caused problems. I really cannot blame Carlos. He talked to the distributer and did what he said. Now the rude man in Holland turned around and said that was what happens when you employ amateurs. I told Carlos this. He got extremely agitated, but nevertheless did nothing.
However, good old Felix came to the rescue and made a gravel draining area around the tank with lovely artistic stones, and he even disguised the whole revolting thing with a sculpture of an ibex erected without any cement or internal straps. I wondered whether it would stand, but 18 months later it still does.
The stink improved, but not entirely and it transpired that I needed better aeration through the chimney. The eco whirly bird cap thing that Carlos had installed was not level, did not cover the whole chimney and neither the two pipes in it. It made a hell of a racket in winds. Also the pipes inside rocked back and forth in the chimney, eventually causing the cap to warp. None of this was his fault, Carlos claimed as he only installed what the distributer supplied.
“The chimney needed a better extractor than the flimsy tin thing here – and level at the same time if you please!”
So I took the whirly bird down myself. Another went up, and that came down when the noise did not disappear either. Carlos came back and super-moussed the pipes into immobility, and when that did not work, I imported a proper storm-proof cap from Australia, much to the amusement of everyone. I just could not find one in Spain and believe me, I became an expert on eco chimney extractors! The chimney was re-built to accommodate the skewy pipes and finally it seemed to work. No smell no noise, and a final overall bill not far off that of the sewage treatment plant!
Let me tell you, I have been to stinky hotels with stinky bathrooms all over the Med. There have been days when I have driven into Atzeneta and reeled from the sewage odours. I have even driven down the motorway through Tarragona and smelt crap (sorry – could not resist!) sewage installations wafting malodorously across the tarmac. A long long time ago I spent 4 months in Tokyo on a modelling contract. My everlasting memory is the sulphurous cabbagey stench rushing from every manhole on every street corner.
Not nice, definitely not nice. You want your “Sewage Treatment Plant” to work!
II had paid my deposits, signed my contracts, and solar man Antonio applied for a EU solar grant. In fact I can honestly say that this was what tipped the balance in his favour. He had given me a competitive quote, was extremely pleasant and keen, and then later suggested the grant as well, saying he would fill in all the paperwork.
Normally a quote is given on the basis of applying for the grant and thus highly inflated – as was the boiler to be discussed at a later date. But Antonio’s quote for a state of the art Outback system came in below every one I received without exception. Unlike every other one too, it was clearly laid out and explained.
The ex-pats in the village did not hold their breath. They will do everything to stop you getting the grant, they pronounced with decided certainty. It’s the Spanish first and us at the bottom. Why don’t you use… and then they would mention some ex-pat that had ambitions in the solar department. I could not help but detect a bit of hoped-for schadenfreude here, but that did not daunt me.
One ex-pat, Stan, told me he and his wife had filled in all the paperwork, crossed the “t”s and dotted the “i”s, but been rejected at the final hurdle because he had missed the final deadline to enter the last bit of paperwork. It was Christmas and the letter had been delayed by Santa. I filed that valuable nugget away and used it later when it transpired that the deadline was inconveniently December 26th, as it had been in the years before. It was the most helpful thing anyone ever told me since starting this adventure.
But I jump ahead. I was very happy with my choice of solar guy and he bent over backwards to do the job right. I know this contradicts what I said in an earlier post, but actually no – I was in the beginning. Not only was he civil, but he actually answered my emails promptly! The job was big, even bigger after I learnt of the possibility of a grant and so taking a gambled, expanded the installation. Antonio was happy to have it, therefore the trimmed-to-the-bone quote I suppose.
True he did tell me to do things in preparation, and then change his mind, each time with immense certainty. Actually the plumber/central heating guy was more to blame here – I think. These oscillations cost me needless additional expense. Carlos worked around the clock changing things and ended up building a separate casita for the solar and boiler stuff. It was subsequently faced with dry-laid stones by Felix and became known as the Hansel and Gretel shop. I do not want to know what all this cost! It is in the land of financial amnesia. At least the resulting job was pretty to look at, and the solar installation was neat and tidy and worked from day one.
Not the generator – that was a puzzling nightmare and took a year to sort by someone else in the end who simply changed a fuse, removed the hornet’s nest inside (very pretty too) and sealed the exhaust pipe properly.
But the Outback installation was a dream. Well, to be honest, it was pain the early months.
Later when mysterious things began to happen, and after countless phone calls, Antonio finally pulled the plug on his wonderful helpfulness. One night he shouted at me down the phone “Its ten o’clock at night, why are you bothering me?!!!”
“ Well, Antonio, for one, I have no electricity, two the generator will not even work, and that means I have no water either. There are ten people staying here in all, including my mother who is crying at the table in the dark and there is no moon so it is pitch black. She is 86 and has a bladder problem and the toilets will not flush without water…”
He had grown tired of my demands for a system that worked (is that too much to ask after only 9 months? Is anyone surprised if I was a bit hysterical?) – and furthermore he had just landed a full time job at Marina d’Or, a tacky massive tourist resort chain, but a great coup in a time of recession.
To be fair, he did come the next day and removed a gadget he had recently declared that I needed to stop, well, God knows what problem that had suddenly appeared. The main thing was the system worked again and my mother could flush the stinking toilet. Antonio clearly considered himself done though for although in the ensuing weeks we were subjected to wildly flickering lights and sudden cutouts, he stopped responding to emails or telephone.
I think you call that washing your hands of the situation. He blamed the electricians. I was very confused.
Eventually I contacted Outback USA in desperation and luckily they came to the rescue, sending me their European representative. As happens, it was all down to the programing, perhaps the worst part of which was buried deep in one setting – amps set at 70 instead of 48 and volts at 110 instead of 230. So basically, an American setting. The default.
“Sis is your problem”, the man pronounced. “Don’t worry it happens all the time”.
“But he teaches in the college!”
“I never learnt anything in college that I could apply in real life”, he answered.
Friends for life.
Luckily no permanent damage seemed to have occurred, but I now understood why the super-silent fridge had begun making such a racket.
The moral of this story is that using a novice is not a good idea, but a bit better in my opinion than an ex-pat who might not be there in six months. But not a good idea all the same. Antonio meant well, and had potential. However, Antonio needed hands-on experience, years of it. In the end the errors were beyond his practical knowledge and he retreated as fast as he could.
All this faded into insignificance however when I got a letter from the EU saying I had been awarded a substantial grant. Remembering the December 26 deadline, I had pestered the hell out of Antonio and the plumber Paco. Thank you Stan! And in the end, thank you Antonio!
P.S. One year later I am still waiting for the money, but Antonio did warn me of the likely delay. Will it come? EU will give it yes, give it no, give it yes. Anyone have a daisy?
Before the solar installation, I needed to create an access road to the house. In my official, very expensive authenticated building project there was permission for one. I had asked the architects repeatedly to bend it discretely behind the casita and have it emerge unobtrusively at to the side of the house. The intent was to flank it with cypresses in due course.
However, in the final plans, although the road was curved, it passed IN FRONT of the casita. If I had built it like that it would have gone through the swimming pool (no I haven’t built that yet – no money and terrified of complications) and ended up by my front door. No one wants a road going straight to their front door do they? Won’t bother asking about the swimming pool bit.
So I told Jose the tractor man to build it where I had asked it to be in the first place. Jose is quite a character and is known to frequent the bars, all of them, more than he should. He speaks with a heavy, often drunken local accent and I find him practically impossible to understand. But he is a genius behind the wheel, apart from the time he and tractor toppled over into an ex-pats ditch after one too many carajillos!
When he came to look at the job I made sure that Carlos was on hand to translate. He looked at me most strangely and it later transpired that he asked Carlos what kind of woman was I for he had come up once and I was in my nightie! God forbid.
The problem with Jose is he says he will be there at 7am but often it is 4pm, or even 7am the day after which is exactly what happened in the nightie incident. I remember the garment clearly. It was a white lacey floaty number that ended at the middle of the knees. Since feasted on by moths. Possibly a bit see through with the early sun.
What with my fine morning just-got-out-of-bed hair sticking out all over the places, I must have looked like one of those naughty fairies at the bottom of the garden – you remember those stories read to you when a mere sprat? Walter de la Mare stuff.
Jose asked if I had planning permission for the road and I presented him with the documents. He looked at the official stamp and nothing more. I will be here tomorrow morning at 7am, he pronounced. Yes sure, but by golly, he was. And I was up and washed and dressed in armour plating with straightened hair.
When Jose works, he works hard, neatly and fast. Within a few hours he had created the backbone of the road, exactly as asked. Carlos came by to inspect and we were all happy. Especially Jose who was off for his 10am breakfast in Ramons. These can and usually do last well into the afternoon, fueled by all sorts of liquors. Until shortly before 4pm actually…
But before he could climb into his tractor and head off, we saw a 4×4 belonging to the forest ranger department climbing purposely up the drive. It pulled to a stop in front of the casita and a bald headed stocky man smoking a cigar climbed out. At the time the irony if his smoking on the job passed me by completely. Not only is smoking on any job prohibited these days, but especially in the mountains when your principal job is to ensure fire safety.
What sidetracked me was the man’s menacing demeanor. He asked if I had “permisos”, and when I produced the document, he was not happy. “You have already two roads here in front of the house”’ he declared, waving at two hideous stony tracks created by the endless delivery of trucks with building materials. He ignored the fact that I had placed boulders in front of them to encourage the gorse to grow back and prohibit the random passing of vehicles.
Despite my protests the forest ranger was adamant these were roads, despite the lack of substructure or gravel. Then he inspected the document more and added that the road I was creating bent the wrong way according to my project. Actually so did the tracks but that did not seem to concern him. He was hell bent on having his moment of power. “You should have informed the forest department before you started,” he admonished, “then everything would have been be okay”.
“But I have planning permission. I only changed the bend a bit!”
“Well you cannot do it that way”. He declared smugly, ‘I am going to make a denuncia…and if you plant any more fruit trees” he added while looking pointedly at a small vineyard I had started, “ I will make another. This is mountain land”.
I started to cry. He softened a little and gave me his mobile number, but refused to give me his name. Just a number. 005. When I wrote about this incident in my syndicated blog after his third visit, he actually sent me a threatening email for daring to publish a photo of him smoking on my land. I do not wish you any harm, he wrote, “but…
“I stared at the “but” on my computer screen, a red hot flush of anger creeping up my neck. Friends who are normally quite antagonistic towards mainstream society urged me to remove it so after 4 weeks I reluctantly did. Not here.
It was a particularly hot summer and my little vineyard died. Oh well. The road remained a track for 6 months while I was put through the financial wringer by the town hall, the courts and the architects. All I had done was build the road as I had asked for in the first place. It was much more respectful of the environment than if placed in full view and had not resulted in any cutting of mountain trees or protected species. It was actually the same length as the road I did have permission for and is in principally the same place apart from the curve taking it sensibly behind the casita to the Hansel and Gretel house, instead of the main house. Today you cannot even see it, not from afar, and not even on the land. It is flanked with young cypresses.
But this little exercise in illogical control cost me a further 4000€. To date, because the case is ongoing. In fact last week, after I wrote this and as if having ESP, papers arrived at the ayuntamiento via the Valencian courts describing my crimes. The soft spoken secretary Pepe has assured me that they will write and say all is in order, but…
Always that “but”.
The last time the forest ranger arrived unannounced, with a companion, smoking his stinking cigar, I lost my temper. Be careful Carlos, warned, stay calm. But I did not. “Get off my land”’ I screamed at him, “This is private property and you have no appointment. Whoever said you had the right to trespass?”
He looked at me with a mixture of coldness and uncertainty.
I added,” And if I ever see you smoking again in the mountains, I will make a denuncia of my own”. The two of them hotfooted it down the mountain. The next week a chain went up at the bottom of the drive.
Some months later I saw him looking at the finca from a distant hill with binoculars. Felix was with me. We were having a fine Rioja and celebrating his spectacular terracing around the house – and the planting of more trees. Two olives, two cherries, two pomegranates and a quince to join the almonds and carobs already there. God forbid – fruit! Felix looked at me. “Shall we?” he suggested, a glint in his eyes. “Yes, yes, let’s,” I entused in Rioja spirit!
And without a moment’s hesitation, we turned our backs on 005 and lowered our trousers. I can vouch that mine was lily white.
Ever since I published my ex-pats post, the shit has kind of hit the fan, so to speak, and in fact has proved that what I said was true.
For instance, how would you like to be sworn at publicly by an inebriated person and called a liar? One who you have actually given work to and not complained about when that work had to be redone by someone else to the tune of an additional 1200 euros?
Well, that is what happened to me. I have ruffled more than a few feathers and some of my words have not been appreciated. Tough. I feel that I have been fair and not pointed fingers at anyone, just explained a global situation. If I have something not nice to say about a person, I always change the name or use none at all. If I have something nice to say, I use the name. It is as simple as that. In the ex-pat post, I put myself in the same “boat” and this is exactly what has offended. Apparently I wrote “sinking boat”. I was horrified when I heard this. Surely not? I checked and found the words “meandering boat”. This has a totally different connotation.
I genuinely have no recollection of this purported phrase. Let me explain. When I write a post, it goes through many revisions. In the case of the ex-pat one, 40 to be precise. I checked – it is listed clearly on word press. In the ideal circumstances, the last revision is the only published one. However, it does not always happen that way and sometimes typos and clumsily worded sentences get through. Especially when you are dyslexic, which I unfortunately am (and thank God at least for spelling check). Often I am not able to correct a mistakenly published post immediately because I live off-grid up a mountain (didn’t you know?) and my Internet connection is by proxy and randomly prone to not working for all kinds of reasons.
So if I wrote the sinking boat thing, it has been corrected and lost a long time ago. I am truly sorry. I went back through the posts as far back as December 2nd and found only meandering boats all over the place. At that point I gave up, becoming confused by the plethora of HMTL and so forth swimming before my eyes. And even if I had written sinking boat, it pales into insignificance next to the verbal abuse I have suffered over the last year or so.
I have been accused of so much that is incorrect and quite ridiculous that I shall not repeat it. After all, it is not “nice”. This has happened both face-to-face and behind my back while I have been battling with severe health problems that only those close to me know the full extent of.
It beggars belief that some people do not stop to think. In a small village such as Atzeneta the source of malicious or any other gossip is easily pinpointed. I would say that gossip is the modus operandi of all small communities and from this derives the phrase “small island mentality”.
I know who has said some, and for the rest I can imagine it. It would be easy to say that I do not care, but that would be a lie. I do not like to lie. So, you who-you-are can gloat for I do care. I care very much. I care because it does not have to be that way, and I care because I do not want to hurt anyone or be hurt, and I care because we should be able to express opinions and live our lives without condemnation.
I have thought hard about publishing this and I just have to. Against all advice. I am not a punching bag and I feel like I am being bullied. I guess it is easier to bully some people rather than others. I left school, those petty cliques and all that many years ago. Just thinking of it makes me grind my teeth.
I want to end on a positive note. The other side of the coin. Ever since I published the ex-pat post, subscriptions to masialavanda.com have escalated beyond belief. They were already going up nicely, but now they have gone a bit viral. And with each further post, they increase by the day. This heartens me. From time to time I even receive personal emails from people saying how much “it” is the same where they are. Others ask me how to do things in Spain. As if I know! I do believe there is no magic answer. Forewarned does not protect you as every situation is different. You just bump along in your rocky boat and hope to reach shore.
I think I can see it. It looks most inviting. Hallelujah.
So. It has been a long time since I have been on this page, maybe two years. Something that John Lennon said “life is what happens when you are busy making plans”. I am not going to bother looking this up – if it is slightly wrong, all the better. Life has certainly been happening.
Re the forest ranger, which is where I believe I left off. He sent me a nasty email to the tune of “I do not want to do you any harm, but take your photo of me off your blog or else”. I didn’t and he never bothered me again. I actually think he was moved to a different area. The court case got filed in Valencia and was then thrown out when my local town hall insisted I had followed the rules to the letter. So that was a very costly that. Ever since I was very careful about that book and its rules, and I put a locked hippy-like gate at the entrance of my finca to keep out intruders.
The house slowly gained character inside. I thought everything looked amazing but going back over the photos I now realise how bare it looked. Still if you bear in mind the house I once DID not have, the pile of rubble in the middle of nowhere you can understand how exciting any and every improvement was. And the outside may have been a total bomb site – we already know that Carlos obviously did not believe in builders’ cleaning – but hey ho, this would change.
Talking of Carlos, of which.
I stopped using him for work bit by bit. Then I stopped everything with him. Yes, bit by bit my god tumbled from the deep blue sky and hit the ground somewhere around his incompetently laid pipework.
How did it come to this, and no, not again. Maybe his escalating corner cutting and ridiculous extras had something to do with it? That he once charged me 800€ twice for the same tiny job. It was quite difficult to spot as my Spanish was still very poor and I believe I did not spot all the discrepancies and now neither would I want to. On top of this Carlos was ALWAYS right, only he wasn’t. He just could not accept any criticisms, even when blindingly obvious. The cracking floors comes to mind. The initial reasonable keys-in-hand quote that was not going to cost anymore had long ago been superseded and forgotten. Never believe a builder when he says that.
For a while I continued to order materials from him. – in the interests of peace. Felix was landscaping the grounds and this was always on the cards so there was no risk of Carlos feeling ditched. As far as he was concerned I was just taking stock.
However the final symbolic straw came when Carlos delivered a shower door with a broken guide – tiny, plastic, but vital. It is always the small things that tip you over.
I waited 4 months for the replacement part while the door kept on falling out of its rails. I cannot count the number of times I went to his yard to ask where it was. Then when it finally came he had the cheek to bill me 18 euros for putting it in place! But it was broken, I protested. His wife pipped in, not it wasn’t, I checked the door before having it sent to the masia.
Oh, really, I thought? How did you do that when it was shrink-wrapped? – I remembered how difficult the umpteen layers had been to remove. I kind of stood there at six and sevens, not knowing how to approach this insult, and then I just blurted out, “That’s too much. After all I have spent!” And I did a half pirouette, nearly tripping over myself in the process, and stormed out less than gracefully, totally unhinged.
It could have been a better exit. Later I would think about what I should or could have said. How petty they were being, how I had always paid my bills on time without fuss, how high those bills were. But all this with its infinite permutations took place in my head and to this day I have not had closure on this – a real altercation with my greedy builder if you will.
Some would say I did the right thing, not having it out “á la testicles”. I do not know. What I do know is that I would not have him or his workmen on my finca again. Never. I was not just angry, but also hurt, astounded. A mixture of all kinds of feelings really. Including that I was the biggest mug in the world.
Later when things went wrong and his “plumbers’ help” revealed itself incrementally as a gigantic smelly joke, I refused to call him. It was not only that I did not want him to step foot on my finca, but also I had totally lost confidence in his skills and integrity. I preferred to cut my losses (once again) and pay some one else to do an honest and proper job. Hell hath no fury like a lady let down. You get the gist.
Felix continued putting form in the land around the masia – re-distrubiting the stony ground, building dry stone walls and terraces and so forth. He put all the old character back into the finca that the building project had destroyed. The little animal pens and corals were repaired and re-invented for other uses – a barbecue hut, a viewpoint bar, a place to rest in the summer heat, a meditation room with views of Penyagolosa.
The tractor man dug countless holes and filled them with decent soil for the trees that we sought here and there at bargain prices in sorry nurseries suffering the effects of a deep recession. No point in planting these, Felix stated, without proper preparation or you will wait 50 years for them to grow a centimetre. Looking at the bare mountain opposite one side of the finca I had to agree. It had burnt down 35 years ago and still looked largely barren.
As well as holes, slabs of stone were sourced from the very land and relocated here and there as rustic tables and stools. At times I looked from the masia windows in fear. Felix re-assured me repeatedly that they would not tumble over and crush some hapless individual.
During dry weather a neighbour spent hours watering our newly acquired orphans twice a week. Actually so did I in between, happily I must say, though it was hard work with only buckets under the heat and piercing sun. Any tree has to be thus pampered in the first two years of plantation. A lesson from my mum.
I also planted loads of lavenders, from wherever I could source them. And any plant I could find that was purported to repel flies. There were so many flies that year. I thought they came from the numerous empty sardine cans thrown around by the workmen. And whatever else they discarded will-nilly. In time I would learn it was the Maquis, the prickly oak scrubland all around me. Interestingly enough also the name for Spanish guerrillas during the Franco resistance, no doubt because they hid out in it.
By now my solar system was properly sorted and purring along nicely, but the same could not be said of the biomass boiler, a boiler that was the last in a “highly recommended” line from a plumber who changed his mind about everything every step of the way. We started with a hybrid solar/oil boiler and suddenly, after waiting months and having the site prepared at some cost, he announced that I really should get the biomass boiler because THERE WERE GRANTS AVAILABLE. I like grants. So not only for the solar, now for the biomass. I accepted the boiler Paco recommended because I still trusted him and then he demanded a 5000 down payment, which stunned me, but he had a logical-ish explanation. Then he told me to build that Hansel and Gretel hut thing.
I might be repeating myself here a bit but if I have forgotten what I have written, you probably have too and it might be worth a mutual update.
4 months later no boiler and Paco announced that it was on back order from Austria with a further backlog of people in front of me and that we had better take another one, a Lasian because it was Spanish made, excellent quality and could be had immediately. Ok, I said, somewhat wary and fed up with all these delays, so put the 5000 towards it. Oh, that Paco replied, you owe me that in work so you will have to pay the whole boiler again.
Me smelt a rat, anyone would have. I tried to work it out but Paco’s bills were so convoluted, I gave up. Money was leaking out all over the place, seemingly seeping into the parched mountain though the stone clad shed in the corner where there was a gaping hole. Once again I paid up.
Yes I know, fool, fool you. Yes a fool all alone on a mountain wanting to get her home signed off and all these men away, done with, with their sardine cans. I felt stuck and that I could only burrow forward towards some light somewhere. Also, all along, a bit of me tried to reason, maybe Paco was right, and no, it was just an expensive business, kind of like building the beginning of a town in the middle of nowhere, and he must be honest, mustn’t he?
At the time I was a happy camper when the boiler arrived September 30th, even though Paco was not there, just his vain sun-glassed son with yellow rubber gloves on. And some Lasian accredited technician who seemed pleasant enough. The boiler was commissioned, all seemed to work and the men left after demanding 50 euros for lunch which I refused to pay.
This was the new me. I was not paying for stuff that was not on the bill. They left in a cloud of screeching dust while a cloud of black smoke bellowed out of the boiler chimney. It smelt vile. The boiler site was littered with cartons and pellets that had missed the silo. A holy mess batman. No matter. I cleaned it up cheerfully (lie), casting a reddening eye at the increasing black smoke. Now that I know this works, I reasoned, and it is 30 degrees C outside, I will turn all the thermostats in the house to zero as instructed and the smoke will go. Oh goody goody. Every thing was done! Later on that night I toasted the boiler with a few friends and then stumbled to bed.
I woke up around 3am in a sweat. It seemed VERY hot in the house. Having no radiators however, it was kind of difficult to know if the heating was on. The floors did not feel exactly cool, but neither were they warm. We are just having a heat wave I reasoned, and opened the windows to the cool dark night.
And so it went on for 5 weeks, and it really was an Indian summer. Once in a while I put the thermostats at 10 figuring that nothing would happen, but when I saw the black smoke I turned them down again. The boiler stopped twice. Paco came out once, with another fat bill which I paid, then the second time his son came to fix some default in the house with another fat bill which I did not pay.
My boiler is not working properly, I told him; it is racing through all the pellets for no reason. You have your thermostat at 25 c, sunglass son retorted, I saw you do it when we commissioned the boiler. No, I said, That was just to see if the heating worked, two hours later I turned them all to 0. You did not; he had the cheek to say. Excuse-me, I screamed at him, what do you know? How dare you! You do not live with me!
He hotfooted it out of there, but not before carefully removing his marigold gloves and applying a bit of moisturiser – or was it wiping off my spit? I watched trembling from the house, already sorry that I had lost my temper. Father and son never came again when I called repeatedly during the next month, ostensibly because I would not pay the final bill. Who would handover the final payment for a system that did not work as it should and often stopped altogether? In 5 weeks it burnt 2500 kilos of pellets and I did not even have the heating on! That was 1200 euros with transport and worked out at 100 kilos of pellets a day. For nothing.
I think back at this incident with a kind of pleasure now, as above, the start of standing firm of telling someone where to get off even it meant they never came back again. What was the difference? They did not know what they were doing, not fully at least. In an effort to find a solution I went through three plumbers who scratched their heads and did f-all. That cost 500 euros more and I gained a few fancy electronic thermostats in the house that changed nothing. I trawled the Internet to find answers and all I found was an awful lot of Lasian biomass “nearly new” boilers for sale.
I was beginning to understand why. This product was, quite simply, a crock of shit. That is was also badly installed from A to Z did not help. All I can say is thank you for Raul, my last plumber who deserves a page of his own and saved my bacon for the following years, coming late a night and staying until midnight once trying to get the damn thing to work and the consumption down. Eventually we changed the fuel to pulverised almond shells which worked for a while and reduced the consumption to 50 kilos a day (!), then not so old Lasian began breaking down on a daily basis – when my grant came through, I threw my hands up and said “Get this damn thing out of here Raul, please!!!!” That was when I found out what the real problem was.
Raul is the most frustrating plumber I have ever met. He says he is coming to do a job and he comes 6 hours and two months after the promised time. If you are lucky. You swear you are never going to use him again. And then you do because quite simply he is the best. Full stop. No-one else comes close to him, not only in all the province of Castellon, but also higher up in the province of Teruel and further afield in the city and surrounds of Valencia.
For a while I looked around for an alternative, but there was none really so I always came back to him. When I asked him to install a nice traditional oil boiler, the same he had in his house, I received a very honest and reasonable quote within 2 days. My 68% grant would just about cover it. I bit his hand off and the installation was planned for 2 weeks hence. I was encouraged by the fast quote. Said boiler was installed 6 months later when the biomass groaned and died and he responded to my desperate SOS as per my previous post.
The job was a total nightmare and no one else would have been able to do what Raul managed without partially demolishing my house. But he thought and persevered and came back day after day and did not charge me a penny more. All my pipes from the Hansel and Gretel Shop had to be cut which meant excavating underground. Folks! The insulation was cheap interior house quality and although we were in the middle of a prolonged heat wave and it had not rained in 6 months, this disintegrating sponge was sodden and riddled with rat gnawings.
Raul showed me a photo of the kind of insulation he used. “What your builder installed,” he said, ” is totally useless for once it is wet, it will never dry. You have been heating the ground for 35 meters between the hut and the house.”
“What about the teeth marks from our not so welcome friends?”
“They did not seal the pipework – the pipes are not even in plastic! But it does not matter, they are not needed now – we will connect direct just next to the house.”
How it should have been done in the first place. Now that it was being done in the second place however the pipe run conduits had been filled with detritus no one could be bothered to remove at the time of build. Unlagged hot water pipes ran (!) next to electrical cables and also this in an open unsealed chimneystack. Through all this Raul managed to find a safe way to install an 8 meters high double stainless steel chimney vent for the boiler. And the rest.
The old boiler had faced an impossible task. No boiler would have coped, but in addition the biomass design meant that had to be on 24/7 or it would go off and need re-lighting. The Lasian did not seem to do anything but burn at 96c! We tried everything, but the electronics did not want to know and I am sure that is why it kept on breaking down. Thermostats at 0 or not, it was running at full steam, sending water to the house and pulling it back again in a loop, not knowing what to do with all this heat apart from send protesting clouds of black smoke up its chimney.
But some heat did escape thru the cheap valves Paco installed. I certainly sweated a lot. And in the winter I would have at the very least have suffered frost bite if it was not for the fireplace. A luxury addition that did not turn out to be such a luxury as naturally the boiler was busy heating the ground outside first, and then my house as an occasional afterthought.
I am happy to relate that since I embraced traditional boiler technology, I have not had ONE SINGLE problem and my running costs have plummeted while the system WORKS. Now the fireplace is as intended, a romantic focus for those few days. Raul and family have become firm friends and we have shared many conversations around various tables. Theirs, mine, in restaurants.
This is it, this is the end of my finca diaries, but it is not. I will relate the other disasters in a short entry that follows. Carlos and his cheek which unraveled bit by bit after the house was stamped and validated and signed off and he had milked every centimo from me that he possibly could. However I do not want linger on the negative anymore, because the rest is good. All good. The finca diaries will continue on an upbeat note, as much as possible of course because you have to be realistic. Next after next blog disaster sign-off, the good times begin. Vive El Maestrat! Well, apart from maybe the minor niggle. Nothing is perfect after all.