A morning wasted on the bookshelves of giants

I’d booked a bigger car than normal.

The main reason was to aid visiting Mothers vehicular ingress and egress, which despite her protestations that she isn’t yet ready for ‘a new knee’, seem to be getting increasingly difficult.

The larger vehicle also gave me the opportunity to collect the pair of bookshelves that I’d had our carpenters in La Roda (about a 45 minute drive from the house) construct from some rudimentary technical drawings sent out a couple of months ago….or so I thought.

march14carI’d earmarked Saturday morning for the solo trip, and after a leisurely breakfast I travelled the fifty-five kilometres over the border to Asturias to find a closed and shuttered workshop. Fortunately there were several cars parked outside the proprietor’s house.

Three rings of the doorbell and Mari Luz appeared, bleary eyed at 11am, at one of the upstairs windows. After a few seconds squinting she recognised me and simply said ‘los estanterias’ (the bookcases) and disappeared, to emerge at the front door a few minutes later.

‘Have you got a van?’ she asked. I was a little concerned.

‘No, a car’ I responded.

‘A large car?’ she quizzed.

I’d taken the measurements from my technical drawings the evening before, and calculated that although it would be a tight squeeze, I should be able to get both bookshelves in the car with the back seats down. After our opening verbal exchanges I was now imagining constructions of titanic performances and hoping that I’d not put the dimensions in centimetres when I meant millimetres. I had visions of constructions as large as the barn, book cases for giants.

I followed Mari Luz into the workshop and she went for the big theatrical unveil, removing the dust sheet draped over the units with a well practiced flick of her wrist.

They did look big. Starting to panic I got out my tape measure, an essential piece of permanent Galician pocket kit along with a Taramundi knife and a pair of PU coated black nylon working gloves, and checked against the memorised dimensions. Everything seemed to be in order and I made all of the right ‘thank you, they’re great’ noises and I reached into my wallet to conclude our transaction.

As I handed over the cash, Mari Luz took seventy euros from the pile and gave it back, telling me that construction had not been as time consuming as they had quoted and so the cost was less.

I was flabbergasted, money back was another Spanish first!

bookcasesWe carried the smaller of the bookcases through the front door of the factory to my waiting car and as soon as she saw it I could tell that Mari Luz was losing confidence. After opening the boot we manoeuvred the bookcase into the most likely position for it to fit, but there was no way it would go through the opening. I quickly worked out that there were another seven permutations as to how the shelving may go in, but I was less than hopeful that any would be successful. Mari Luz insisted that we try all seven before admitting defeat and manhandling the bookcase back into the shop.

Having already got seventy euros back I was further taken aback by Mari Luz’s next offer, ‘Would you like to borrow our van? You can bring it back on Monday!’

Now, there is customer service, and seemingly there is Carpintero Mendez service. I was so surprised by the offer I immediately did the English thing and said ‘No’ without thinking it through. ‘I have a friend with a bigger car, I will come back later’, hoping that Neil would be answering his phone; willing to lend me his 4×4; and that the 4×4 was actually roadworthy.

I arranged to return after three, thanked her again, and set off back to the barn after a fruitless trip. Fortunately the long suffering Neil was at home, his truck was running, and nursing an elbow ligament injury he was willing to have an afternoon run out to La Roda to once again be my saviour.

I’d forgotten that Neil’s truck did a maximum of 55 km/h so the round trip took just over two and a half hours. The shelving did go in the 4×4, but was a tight squeeze, but was well worth the effort once we got them back to the barn as they look terrific.

I’m now relieved that our ‘deathtrap’ lounge is now safe again and the I can no longer accidentally fall down the stairs from the kitchen. These are the last structural additions and all that the barn now needs to be complete is a few pictures and homely keepsakes.

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The Cost of Carpentry

One thing that seems very expensive in Spain, and I’ve probably mentioned this before, is carpentry. Given that about ninety percent of Galicia is covered in trees, and that the raw materials have always been surprisingly cheap, I can only suspect that most Spanish carpenters value their skills at a level just below those of a brain surgeon. I’m guessing that they have a secret cartel which meets once a year at some special ‘carpenters conference’ where they set the prices artificially high for the forthcoming year.

After a lot of searching we found a brilliant company over the Asturian border in La Roda, about a 40 minute drive from the house, who made our windows, doors and staircase at a reasonable cost and a very high quality. Their price was half that of our most expensive quote, and fifty percent cheaper than the next cheapest. Their work was great and we were delighted with the results.

The identical twins who own the company, most unsettling when you never see the two of them in a room together, are willing and eager but until recently we have found them to be stuck in their doors, windows and staircase ways.

Having previously failed miserably when enquiring about internal doors and fitted wardrobes, with a polite ‘no’, we decided to give them one final throw of the dice and sent them a couple of technical drawings for structural bookcases which we need to turn our lounge and kitchen from its current ‘death-trap in waiting’.


At the moment there is nothing but the ‘thinnest of air’ to stop you from having a horrible accident by carelessly stumbling down the opening for the staircase and falling two metres to the ground floor. While it is just Amanda and I, neither of whom are knowingly prone to clumsy calamity or dangerous sleep-walking, that isn’t a major issue. But with Mother tagging along on our next trip in mid-March, our hyperactive young neighbour Oscar visiting regularly to ‘borrow’ and play games on my iPhone, and various other friendly ‘drop-ins’, it has become a priority to make the upper floor of the barn people safe.

I’m no technical drawer. The last time I held a ruler and set square was when I was fifteen years old and Mr Lister was trying to instruct a rowdy all-boy class on ‘plan and perspective’ when his charges would have rather been kicking a football around the playground. I’m also far from convinced about my ability to take accurate measurements and when undertaking simple woodworking tasks I tend to go with the ‘measure five times, cut once’ approach. And I am definitely not a designer, not even of simple bookcases.

To our delight one of the twins from La Roda responded, but only after a second prompting e-mail, with a cost and a few questions about my drawing, which had clearly fallen somewhere short of the mark when scrutinised by someone who had to translate it into a tangible thing.

We answered the questions, gave the go-ahead, and enquired whether the shelves would be available to collect on our next visit. But then the expected silence for it is the Spanish way. So now it is ‘fingers crossed’ that there will be something to pick up when we travel in March, and that they will fit in the car that I have hired.

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Any Excuse for a Party

The Spanish will throw a party to talk about organising parties. Personally I think that as a nation it is one of their most endearing qualities, indicative of their all-embracing sociable nature.

Spain has almost double the amount of bank holidays that we get in the UK. They  have a habit of not forcing most of them into Mondays, when the celebration date truly falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday many people create a Puente (bridge), on the day before or after, to extend to a four day weekend. A proper break.

But they don’t only rely on public holidays, they will throw a fiesta at the drop of the proverbial hat, and some for the most obscure of reasons and causes.

I’ve previously mentioned the Trout Festival in A Pontenova, and the nearby Chestnut Festival at Saldoira. There was the very  late night music festival associated with the consumption of Wild Boar in Taramundi, and ever since I heard about it I’ve wanted to be in Galicia for the Percebes (goose neck barnacle) festival in Rinlo. And that barely scratches the surface. Every village, no matter how small, has its own annual fiesta and in rotation over a number of years each village fiesta gets elevated to the top festival in the region where the villagers fund food, drink and entertainment for their near village neighbours.

The last time we were out in Galicia our Spanish friend and mentor Dolores trumped our offer of a trip to the market in nearby Meira, with the suggestion that we visit the ‘Cockle’ (Berberecho) festival in Foz, a fifty kilometre drive from the barn.

A party dedicated to celebrating the humble cockle!

fiestasignWe were intrigued and not a little amused.

So on Sunday lunchtime we took a jaunt through torrential winter downpours to the windswept summer surf capital, now abandoned by the summertime throngs of VW Camper vans, knee length wetsuits and bronzed bodied barbecues, leaving the locals to their own off-season company.


The whole fair was contained within a single big white tent down on the harbour, with an industrial heater at one end and a local gaita group piping their pipes and drumming their drums.

We bought a book of vouchers for food and drink, selected cockles three-ways to share and three plastic beakers full to the brim of local white wine. With great culinary anticipation we joined the throngs of locals on the communal tables to sample the fare and shout to one another in an attempt to be heard above the local Celtic music.

confabasWe shared our three dishes; cockles cooked in white wine and garlic; cockles with local beans (fabas); and a cockle empanada, all with lovely locally baked fresh bread.

They were delicious, a cut above your usual fast food kebabs and burgers, and washed down with a ridiculously good local white wine for 80p a glass (plastic beaker).

Yet another storm moved through, drenching those brave enough to make a run from their cars to the tent, but we were warm inside with full bellies and ruddied cheeks thanks to the heat from the jet engine heater in the corner.

Another fiesta under the belt, but I’m still waiting for my goose neck barnacles (Percebes).

The berberecho fiesta was sponsored by the local council and ran for three days, during which time three tonnes of cockles were consumed by the hungry residents, and temporary party visitors to Foz.

And believe me, that is one hell of a lot of cockles.


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Learning About Leccy

I’ve learned more about electrics and cabling over the last weekend than I have in the last forty years. My crash course started early on Saturday morning when the need for toast blew the barns power supply. At the time we were using two lights, the hob extractor, a small electric radiator, the water heater and one of the rings on the induction hob to boil the kettle. I put four slices of toast into our lovely new art deco style toaster, pushed down the sliders, and everything went off.

After the initial shock I made my way to the new fuse box to flip back whatever switch had tripped, but to my consternation they were all good. It seemed that our problem was more serious than it first appeared.

fuseboxsmallWe called the electrician who had installed the whole system in the barn and he asked whether the switches had tripped. When we told him that they were all fine, he said he was on his way. We’d heard that before and settled in for a breakfastless long wait.

Within five minutes his little red van pulled up the road and parked outside the barn. What service! He looked at the circuit board and then asked about the trip switches in the main house. We weren’t aware of trip switches in the big house, so we found the keys and followed him down the path. Sure enough, the switch was tripped, and two seconds later we were back on full power thanking him for his prompt action and breakfast saving expertise.

But my education was just beginning.

In Spain, apparently, you pay a standing charge based on the maximum amount of kilowatts (KW) that are supplied to your property. This is around 1.7 Euros per KW per month. As our big house hadn’t been inhabited since the village was connected to the mains, we were getting the very lowest supply at just over 2 KW, just about enough to run a washing machine.

As soon as we hit our limit then trip switches blew, the desire for a simple continental breakfast had overloaded our system. We had asked the electrician to increase our supply threefold at the time he did the installation, but it must have slipped his mind, or been too difficult, or been delayed in the tangled web of Spanish bureaucracy. He worked some black magic at the main control box and told us that everything should now be alright.

While he was there I asked him to show me where the TV aerial cable emerged in the big house as the main job for this trip was to install a television. He took me to a tube emerging half way down the big house and confidently told me that ‘this is the one’. I committed it to memory, ready for Monday’s pre-arranged aerial implementation with the assistance of my friend Neil (although I knew I’d be the one doing the assisting).

Monday’s implementation started brilliantly. The aerial that I’d purchased was the right one, I’d got enough cable and fittings, and within half an hour the antenna was in position and awaiting its connection to the barn.

The basic difference between the professional (Neil) and ham-fisted amateur (me) is knowledge. On my own I’d have tried feeding the cable through the pipe from the house, and probably got into a horrible mess, but Neil had a set of ‘push rods’. He fed them through the tube as I passed each new length, pointy side up, to be screwed into the end of the ever lengthening plastic snake disappearing into the depths of the house.

When we reached about 15m, Neil hit a dead stop, he grimaced trying to push the rod through its barrier. But the rods were going nowhere. We went back to try from the barn end. This time the push rods went just over a metre before hitting the blockage. It seemed that we’d reached the impass directly under the floor of the beautifully newly tiled porch.

Disappointed, with an unconnected aerial, and visions of having to dig up the floor, we did what every Englishman does in this situation; we retired to the warmth of the kitchen for a cuppa and a nice piece of cake.

I called the electrician again. Over two, short, badly-connected, phone calls before he switched over to his answerphone, I told him that the pipe was blocked and we couldn’t install the aerial. As the first cup of tea became a second, and a third, is was clear that he’d not be so responsive this time.

Ever eager to please, Neil said he had one more thing to try, a very flexible but much shorter push rod that could go round more acutely angled bends. He retrieved it from his car and decided to start at the barn end, quickly threading past the earlier blockage and eventually pushing ten metres of flexible plastic push rod into the pipe.

Then he reached another impasse, so I went looking to see if I could see the emerging probe. It wasn’t where I’d been told by the electrician that it should be, but at the end of the big house closest to the barn I found another tube, with a sealed end. As I rattled it, I could tell there was something inside. I cut the tube and there was the most welcome of sights, the white plastic bobble on the end of the push rod. In the descending gloom we attached the coaxial cable to the push rod, pulled it through the tube, and connected it at both ends.

We had signal, we had a functioning TV, and so we had a couple of beers to celebrate. We’d overcome misinformation, and through sheer dogged determination had snatched victory from the jaws of what had looked like a crushing defeat.

Let’s just hope that our electrician never decides to hang up his multi-meter in favour of a career in gynaecology!

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Bah, humbug!

This is probably, and hopefully, our last ever British Christmas.

PerfectChristmasSmallThis time next year my racing imagination has us warm and cosy by the wood-burner, a locally cut Christmas tree decorated within an inch of its life, and friends popping in for Christmassy treats,  with plenty of alcohol and good conversation.

By then the big house will be a building site with progress being made towards the establishment of the self-catering apartments and all will be well with the world.

Spanish Christmas is very different to British Christmas. It is less materialistic, more family oriented, less commercial, and a little bit warmer, and less rushed. Nothing much happens on the 25th December as the big party is ‘Día de los Reyes’ (Day of the Kings) on the 6th January when children are gifted a small number of presents.

Call me a ‘bah, humbug’ if you want, but I think I fell out of love with the British Christmas when I was in my early teens.

2013 is hopefully the last time that we will be subject to the overt consumerism which makes me weep more than feel Christmas cheer, where people feel obliged to buy bigger and better presents that they can ill afford and then spend the rest of the year trying to pay for, before it all starts again in eleven months’ time. At a time of austerity people should be concentrating on surviving and putting food on their families table, not on buying little Jimmy the latest games console because ‘all his friends have one’.

This is the last year that we’ll be told by the supermarkets what to eat, told by the TV schedulers what to watch, and told by the government how to act.

My only real Christmas tradition is watching the Patrick Stewart version of ‘Scrooge’ always hoping that either I will find enlightenment and embrace Christmas (for I would dearly like to) or alternatively,  just for once, Ebeneezer would be as grumpy and anti-Christmas at the end of the film as he is at the start, thus justifying my own festive grumpiness.  I have it on DVD so it is a tradition which can continue in Spain.

But over time I have found myself mellowing a little.

In religion I’ve slowly made the transition from atheist to agnostic, hoping beyond hope that there is life after death for the ‘too many’ people that I have known, loved and lost, but at the same time knowing that an omnipotent being and beautiful afterlife goes totally against logic and science. In the same way I’d love to be able to have the Christmas spirit and embrace the festivities but in thirty years the sceptic in me just hasn’t allowed it.

Perhaps Spain and Navidad 2014 can be a fresh start for me, away from people’s expectations that I am a grumpy old sod in December, and a chance to spread some festive cheer with a clean slate. I want to enjoy Christmas, I just can’t bring myself to do so.

Next year, as I promise myself every year, I’ll be different.

Oi, Santa, pass me another mince pie will you?

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