My New Favourite Builder

I’ve got a new favourite builder.

After everyone else has left site he is still here, working solo, and trying to set the world record for the largest free standing stone built chimney. He wears a floppy hat by morning but switches for a large brimmed ladies straw hat when he gets back from lunch at two, when the afternoon and the sun is at its strongest. He spends all his time complaining that he is too hot, and makes no allowance for my lack of Spanish by speaking at machine-gun pace enabling me to catch about one word in every ten.

When the others were here they called him ‘Stoner’ not because he is a pot smoking hippie, but because he is their stone walling expert. I explained to Angel, the foreman, that ‘Stoner’ had some unsavoury connotations but that just increased the labourers hilarity and made them use it at every opportunity.

Yesterday morning Stoner decided that he needed to make the chimney another half a metre taller and sent me to a local builders merchants (with which I was not familiar) to buy a piece of stainless steel tube of 20cm diameter and 50cm length. I checked I’d got fifty euros in my wallet and programmed the satnav on the Spanish phone and set off.

A 5km journey turned into a 20km journey as the useless navigation system took me past the suppliers, unnoticed, and up into the hills and villages before bringing me back to the merchants some twenty-five minutes later. The shop was deserted save for a lady of advanced years who finished making her cup of coffee in the back kitchen before coming out to see why I was interrupting her morning of magazine reading.

I explained what I wanted and she said that they had one. Then she disappeared off deep into the bowels of the cellars for long enough to make me seriously consider calling the emergency services and have me racking my brains to try and think of how I would explain the predicament to the 112 operator.

When she returned she didn’t have the right thing, it was 40cm long, so I asked whether they actually had one of 50cm. She said yes and disappear again, this time returning with the correct item. I told her it was what I wanted and asked the price.

imageShe eventually found the price list and after another five minutes studying a single page of figures she told me that it was going to cost me €125. I was somewhat aghast and told her that I thought it expensive but she just shrugged. Knowing I only had a fifty in my wallet I set off to walk to the bank to raid the cash machine, and returned to reluctantly hand over a kings ransom for a bit of stainless steel tubing.

When I got back home, an hour or more after leaving, Stoner asked if I’d been to Madrid, as it would have been easier for him to walk to the merchants and pick it up himself.

In my defence I told him that it was very expensive and in my limited Spanish that I had been forced to ‘visit a bank, with a gun’ to enable me to pay for it. He thought that highly amusing so I followed up by telling him that Amanda and I would be surviving on bread and water for the rest of the year. He spent the rest of the day repeating ‘visit a bank with a gun’ and ‘just bread and water’, and chuckling to himself.

Now that is where I thought that the story would end, with one of the most expensive pieces of stainless steel in the world, but this morning there was a final twist.

On returning to his shop last night the owner was in discussion with his eighty-six year old mother who asked how much she should have charged for my stainless tube. When he enquired what she’d actually charged and she told him, he held his head in his hands before asking who she had ‘fleeced’.

When she told him she didn’t know me he was distraught, and retired to the pub to drown his embarrassment where he bumped into….Stoner.

He told Stoner the story of what had happened and said he’d no idea who I was, but Stoner knew and regaled him with stories of the one-hour long five minute errand, the bank robbery, and our diet of bread and water.

This morning the red-faced shop-keeper turned up on our doorstep bearing €100, a humble apology, and a detailed explanation.

So that’s why Stoner is currently my favourite builder.

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What a Difference a Week Makes

I had spent the last six months diligently working on the bread oven house. Occasionally with the much welcomed help of Amanda, but more often on my own with just my iPhone playing music in my back pocket, or perhaps listening to the latest ‘wittertainment’ BBC Five Live movie reviews podcasts.

Over that six months I/we have; stripped out loads of vegetation from both inside and around the building, carted away tonnes of rubble and old slate, rebuilt the collapsed front wall, re-inforced the rear wall with concrete and steel bars, demolished and reconstructed the side walls, and finally pointed all the walls with a nice sand coloured mortar.

It has been a labour of love through the cold winter mornings and the stifling summer heat and after six months all I really had to show for my toils was a shell, an outline, four almost vertical walls.

Then, in the space of just one week, my builder and his men have transformed it back into a building with a gorgeous new slate roof and three new (old) beams.

There is still a lot of work for me to do including; lowering the floor inside, installing a door and window, pointing the inside walls that will remain exposed stone, and eventually laying a floor and building an internal wall across the back of the building with tanking to allow the spring that emerges from the cliff face in wet weather to drain harmlessly away.

Below you can see a before and after photo of the front of the bread oven, the side that we can see from our barn, and the side where we will eventually enter with our big bowl of dough ready to magically turn it into bread.

Horno_front_BA

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Here is the roof as seen from the roadside, now much more safe than a dangerous three metre drop through some ivy to serious injury.

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The neighbours have all been to visit, as is the Galician way, and all love it. Our neighbours who herald from Madrid have a bit of ‘horno envy’ and Nati wants me to get it working as quickly as possible so that she can get baking.

It’s the first time, almost in living memory, that this building has been roofed. I haven’t found a single person, or at least one that I understand, that can remember previoulsy seeing it with a roof.

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Out With The Old, and In With The New (Old)

We must be paying our builder Facundo too much, either that or he’s won the lottery without telling us, or perhaps someone else is paying him too much (but I doubt it). I know this because after four years of driving around in a little silver Fiat van he’s gone and bought himself a big truck (grúa as they are known here) with a massive yellow crane.

He arrived in it on Friday, struggling to get up the hill to the barn, in a newly painted (blue and yellow) second hand truck laden down with a new (old) central beam, two new (old) perimeter beams, and about twenty new (really new this time) intermediate beams, all for the bread oven house. His new truck boasts a shiny six metre crane, it’s all about the length with these things, and as he only picked it up on the Thursday he was still far from an expert in deploying it, or come to it, driving it.

He used just a fraction of his available length to offload the beams, transferring some of the new truck paint onto our new (old) beam, giving me another job to sand it off prior to treating and staining.

Facundo is getting used to us and our weird British ways. He now knows that we like old and gnarled and irregular and shun the new and shiny and straight so beloved by Spanish renovators. He was very proud that he’d salvaged (which I hope isn’t a euphemism for stole) a marvellous beam from another old house which is being renovated, and which was surplus to requirements. It had been roughly sanded with an angle grinder and it looks fantastic and will form a great rustic centrepiece in the soon to be roofed bread oven house.

Up until a year after we’d bought the property we’d not been in the bread oven. It was dilapidated, overgrown, and the only way in was through a door which was wedged firmly shut by the roof collapse behind it.

About three years ago I broke in and spent several weeks digging out the waist deep detritus to expose a glorious and complete bread oven and decided to make it ‘my’ project to get it back working.

Since then the weeds had re-established themselves, there had been a big collapse of the wall and cliff that form the back wall, and one of the front walls collapsed on us not long after we moved out here. I’ve spend the last six months cleaning, re-enforcing the rear wall with two tonnes of structural steel and concrete, rebuilding the collapsed walls (front and back) and pointing the whole thing with sandy coloured mortar.

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We now need to get it finished so that we can store tools and equipment in it and empty the big house in readiness for its re-roofing in the Autumn so we asked our builder Facundo for a quote, and put in the correct license application. So on Friday the rotten old beam was removed and the new (old) one lifted in to place signalling the start of the works.

I’ll add some photos and updates over the coming days as it takes shape.

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Finding What Two Acres Of Grass Is Really Worth

The barter economy is alive and well and living in Galicia…and it is possible for you to get involved in it totally by accident.

After we’d bought the house we were initially exposed to this the oldest of trading types when we agreed to allow Carlos to keep his donkey on our land, grow potatoes, and for a few month each summer, keep his pig in our big house. Until of course it was time to cut its throat and turn it into sausages.

In exchange he used to strim the grass and weeds around the buildings and make of point of telling us that he had done so whenever we visited. Having used a corded Black & Decker twenty quid special back in our postage stamp garden in the UK, I was never terribly impressed at his claims and always thought he was looking for some kind of financial recompense, which he never got.

Now I’ve been forced into my own strimming, with four hours of sweaty face-guarded toil required to reach the lowest standard of ‘that’ll do, I need a beer’, I’ve come to realise that what he was doing was quite a service and perhaps is was a bit tight for me not to have shoved him the odd fifty euros as a little thank you.

And it was grass which unwittingly got us in to our current barter situation.

Earlier in the spring, just as our two acres were turning into a jungle and I was beginning to rue asking Carlos to remove his donkey, a neighbour from the next village stopped and asked whether I would be prepared to allow him to bring his machinery down and cut our grass and take it away for him to feed his animals.

My initial Yorkshiremans concern was that he was going to charge me, but after I got Amanda to clarify the situation with him, it turned out that it wouldn’t cost us a penny. What a result, we get our grass cut and taken away and I don’t have to lift a finger, or burn a litre of two-stroke in the process.

Alberto and his wife have now made about ten journeys with a ride-on mower, and an ancient tractor with trailer, and taken away heap after heap of freshly mown and dried grass and we couldn’t be happier as the land looks much tidier and is no longer a fire risk.

But then the ‘trade’ side kicked in, most unexpectedly, and most unnecessarily.

So far we’ve had two boxes of potatoes, a box of onions and three dozen eggs, all deposited on our doorstep as a thank you for our hay. Hay which we didn’t want anyway.

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Now I’ve lost track of UK prices for potatoes, onions and eggs, but I’m guessing that overall that would be a good twenty to thirty quids worth.

Now this is where I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but in the bartering scheme of things I think that potatoes, onions and eggs must be fairly low down as they are pretty ubiquitous. Today’s twelve eggs join the two dozen already in the fridge that we’ve been given by other various neighbours (and it would be very rude to refuse). The box of potatoes is now sat in an outhouse ready to be consumed as we wade though a daily diet of Spanish Omelette and egg  and chips, but also bear in mind we’ve got a field full of our own bloody potatoes and onions, all ready for harvest.

Why can’t barter involve a neighbours excess of diamonds….or gold?

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A Dozen Things That We Now Know, That We Didn’t Know Before

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been living in Spain for seven months.

Sometimes it feels like just yesterday that we were packing our worldly chattels into the big red van and making the exhausting 1,300 mile journey from Huddersfield to Liñeiras (twice in my case). And sometimes it feels like we’ve been here forever, settling into a relaxed lifestyle, integrating with the local community and being schooled in the ways of the country from a myriad of willing teachers.

In that seven months we’ve learnt lots of things, some the hard way, about Galician life and with building work stalled awaiting licenses it seems like a good time to share a dozen of them.

1. When driving it is mandatory (under punishment of punitive fines) to carry all sorts of things with you including; your driving license, proof that you have paid your car insurance, your vehicle registration, a pair of spare spectacles (if you wear glasses to drive), and a fluorescent yellow jacket for all occupants (inside the car and not in the boot).

2. In the spring you can literally watch the grass grow. It never really gets cold enough here for the grass to stop growing but with the warmer weather and regular rainfall of spring it just goes mental. Within the space of a fortnight our finca changed from ankle deep grass and weeds to chest deep meadow. As a result we had to invest 800€ on a ‘big boys toy’ petrol strimmer which should come with a health warning, shin pads and a cricket box.

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3. The one rule of Galician driving is that if there is a line of any description painted on the road, it must be straddled. This results in cars approaching you around blind bends with at least two wheels and sometimes their entire car on your side of the road. It is up to you to take evasive action, and entirely pointless to honk your horn or make any gesture. The practice is not limited to cars, and indeed the bigger your vehicle, the more likely you are to drive on the wrong side of the road.

4. Spanish tea is undrinkable. During the ‘Liñeiras tea crisis of February 2015′ we tried several different brands, some of them with English names and English packaging, but they were all awful. Nothing can come within one hundred miles of a nice cup of PG Tips. It just goes to prove that you can take the Englishman out of England but you are never going to fully purge him of his Englishness.

5. Our neighbours eight year old son doesn’t do subtlety. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great kid and it’s nice that he feels that he can visit without invitation to practice his English, play games on our tablet computer, or simply come round for a game of football. With no other kids in the village for him to play with it seems that we are his surrogate chums, despite being forty years his senior. The issue is that despite us dropping subtle hints that it is time for him to go home; such as ‘what are you having for tea’, ‘where do your parents think you are’, ‘don’t you have homework to do’ and ‘I’m sorry, we’ve got work to do’, the only thing that seems to work is ‘Oscar, you need to go home now!’. At what age do kids get subtlety?

6. The Spanish are the largest community of self medicators in the world, a dangerous trait when they are also a nation of chronic hypercondriacs. What seems bizarre is that you can but almost anything you want over the counter at a chemist, including super strength painkillers, anti-biotics, and diabetes medication, but if you need a tablet for your cat you have to get a prescription from your vet (which is then filled at the chemists).

7. There is little to no point in having a TV aerial as there is nothing on Spanish Television that is worth watching. The Spanish are fed a diet of; news and weather with loud and often inappropriate music playing in the background; game shows which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1970’s sitting room while you consumed a fondue while seated on your velour sofa; and, chat shows where it seems that the only rule is that you shout louder than everyone else, usually while trying to drown out what they are shouting. The next time a lightening storm takes out our aerial I don’t think we will bother replacing it.

8. While Spain now has more draconian drink drive laws than the United Kingdom, the legal limit being under one pint, there are very few people who pay any attention to it due to the minute likelihood of getting caught. When you are socialising with the Spanish and you cite the argument that you are driving as the reason for not having ‘another’ beer/wine/chupito then you will become a laughing stock. I’ve seen people drink a full bottle of wine with lunch and drive back to work as a normal occurrence, but we do the ‘nominated driver’ thing and take it in turns, after all, you never know what will be hurtling towards you on your side of the road at the next blind bend.

9. The Spanish love a party. It doesn’t need to be a good party, or even a mediocre party, any party will do. From the middle of March you can find a fiesta somewhere within a 20km drive on any given weekend, sometimes several on the same weekend, and these can be themed on anything from; iron to cheese to tractors to trout to flowers. There is nearly always food and there is always at least one band, usually a rotund woman in a very short skirt and a guy in his forties with dyed hair on the keyboards. They churn out euro pop with every song sounding like the last and you can hear them wafting through the valleys from dusk until the early hours.

10. The simplest thing can throw a Galician neighbour off-guard, such as a radish. Our lovely neighbour Elena has helped us establish our allotment and is always at hand for advice and some manual labour, but when she saw the radishes that we’d planted she was flummoxed. We gave her a handful and explained that you should slice them thinly and use in salad. Her feedback was that they were very nice but she has declined our offers of more ever since. The radish was just a step too far. We don’t have the heart to tell her that we sometimes cook curry.

11. Galicia is not a renowned landing point for the English but it does seem that being English is a magnet for other English people. There have now been several occasions where we have been talking quite happily to one another in English and then been approached by fellow countrymen who we’ve never previously met but who are happy to have a natter and a coffee with someone of their mother tongue. It gives the impression that Galicia is wall-to-wall Brits, which it isn’t.

12. Flies serve no purpose to man or beast but to annoy….and the ones with white bums give a nasty nip!

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