Single Handedly Ending The Spanish ‘Crisis’

We’d planned to go to the stone masons near Mondoñedo on several occasions and on one occasion had even got part way there before turning back. We were interested in a couple of things; an old stone trough to go under the outside tap on the overhang (where there was a big concrete and brick clothes washing contraption which we wanted to demolish), and a quote for carved stone quoins and lintels for all of the windows and doors on the big house.

Then in mid-June we looked up the relevant Spanish words, and finally completed the forty-five minute journey to middle of the Galician countryside, navigating solely from the memory of a visit with Facundo the builder about four years ago, and located Canteras Licho, although at the time we had no idea what it was called. But rather than buy an antique stone trough, or solicit the required quotation, we bought a massive granite table and two benches, and in doing so we gave ourselves a whole load of hard work.

We both fell in love with the white carved granite table and despite it costing as much as a small car, and weighing considerable more, we decided that we must have it. It was a proper ‘grown ups’ table, seats ten in comfort, and we decided that it would look fantastic under the overhanging roof. The area we had in mind is sheltered from the midday heat and perfect for an al fresco lunch, but also gets the far less ferocious late afternoon sun until it dips behind the barn.

Canteras Licho had made the table and benches around six years ago, just as the financial crisis struck in Spain. They told me that they’d been selling around one a month prior to the ‘crisis’, replacing the sold one with a newly made one, but this one had remained unsold since then. I think that they hoped that it was a signal that the crisis was coming to an end.

Eventually it would be in a communal area and guests using the apartments would be free to use it for family meals or simply sipping a glass of local wine and picking at tapas.

We negotiated a price, to include delivery and installation (subject to the boss coming to our house and ensuring that he could get the necessary crane close enough to lift it into place), and set a delivery date for the second week in September, just ahead of a visit from my Mum and cousin Sue. We would keep it a secret from the world until then, no social media, no hints to anyone, and much care when Face-timing and SKYPE-ing relatives.

But now the real work began.

Over the next seven weeks we; cleared the area, raked out and pointed the walls, moved the tap to a different wall, put in drainage and built retaining walls, backfilled with hard core, laid a metal reinforcement bar mesh, mixed and poured forty-five wheelbarrows full of concrete (with a slight pause for a trip to Neil’s for him to weld the cement mixer back together), faced brick walls with stone, built stairs down to the barn, and cut and laid fifteen square metres of old roof tiles as a floor.

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The second week in September arrived and good to their word the installation team arrived with the table. After much head-scratching, and the construction of a ‘Heath-Robinson’ contraption fitted to the truck-mounted crane to enable it to get underneath the overhanging roof, three hours passed very rapidly and the table was finally swung into place.

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The antique trough, bought elsewhere, arrived the same day courtesy of our builder who collected it and helped us install it. The electrician attended to fit the lights, that we’d had shipped over by a UK company, and some electricity sockets. And now we have a proper grown-ups seating area.

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Mum and Sue were amazed. They were amazed at the change since their last visit, but more amazed that we’d both managed to keep our exploits off social media for the duration.

From mid-September the table has been put to use on many occasions for snacks, drinks and we even forced our English friends to sit outside for a chilly evening meal, but sadly it is now too cold to spend much time out there. We’re looking forward to the Spring and taking full advantage of our new outside room.

We’ve still not got a quote for the quoins and lintels.

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Getting Back In The Saddle

I’ve sat down to write a new blog entry on many occasions since my homeland voted to leave the European Union.

Sometimes I’ve managed a few paragraphs, other times just a few words, and it has always inevitably led me to a rant at the patent absurdity of my countrymen voting to reduce their personal rights, willingly crash the economy, and isolate themselves from our continental neighbours.

But last nights events in the United States of America have just gone to show that the whole World has lost its marbles, not just the United Kingdom. How a majority of people of a supposedly civilised country can cast their ballot in such a way as to knowingly elect a misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, racist to the lofty position of the leader of the free world simply takes away my breath.

After agonising and worrying about our future since the momentous decision on the 23rd June, I have now come to the conclusion that we should keep quiet, keep our heads down, get on with our lives, and be prepared to fight with every ounce of our strength should someone want to take away what we’ve earned. I am quietly confident that, whatever xenophobic actions the UK decides to take against European citizens, Spain won’t reciprocate and force our repatriation.

Spaniards that have been willing to discuss our predicament all assure us that we’ll be okay because ‘Spain is a more enlightened, tolerant, liberal, and forward thinking country.’ While I would have argued for the UK in all of these categories in the past, I now find myself conceding on all points, and hoping that they are right.

So…we are going to get on with it. We will plough what is left of our life savings into our property and business, and we will trust that the Spanish government will treat us like human beings rather than the shameful ‘bargaining chips’ approach that the UK government has decided to take to EU nationals.

The last time that I prepared a dispatch the roof was under construction on the big house. After ten weeks of hard labour of a team of four, with me watching on and supplying beer and water, it was finally completed in the middle of July. It looks superb, no longer the hobbit house with a natural shower or two in each room. It is dry for the first time, possibly ever, and from the outside it looks fantastic.

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We’ve done a few jobs since then, which I will bring to you in blogs over the coming days and weeks, but I’ve been hampered by injury. I’d been suffering with a freezing right shoulder since just after Christmas, but a couple of months ago it took a turn for the worse with very limited mobility and a constant aching pain. After a month of sleepless nights I acquiesced and agreed to go and see a physiotherapist.

Vanessa is the daughter of one of the local village matriarchs (a lovely lady who organises regular dinners at a local community hall). We’ve bumped into Vanessa several times in the past and since Amanda found out that she was a physiotherapist she went out of her way to spend a few minutes at each fiesta complaining about my posture and general malaise.

We arranged an appointment at her practice in Vegadeo (a twenty minute drive away) and Amanda tagged along to translate. An initial consultation was followed by the attachment of some pressure pads around my shoulder and twenty minutes of relaxing electronic massage (it feels a bit like ants running over your skin) to loosen the muscles around my shoulder. With the machine switched off I thought I was finished for the session, but Vanessa had not even started.

How such a petite lady can inflict so much pain on an ageing and overweight ex-rugby player is beyond reason. She stretched and cajoled, kneeded and prodded, squeezed and twisted, bringing me to tears on one occasion, and prompting me to cry ‘Please Stop Vanessa’ twice. She then prescribed me; deep heat gel, magnesium and turmeric tablets (the latter of which costs €45 for a fortnights supply) all to aid in my recovery.

Four sessions, and a great deal of pain, later and I’m starting to notice some improvement in shoulder mobility. The downside/upside is that I was banned from any labouring for the first three weeks, and am only now re-assuming light duties.

So very little has been achieved in the last month as I have worn a groove in the arms of my favourite chair and tried to write this blog on several occasions.

After a break of six months I will try and report more frequently…promise…while keeping my head down and not watching the news for fear of another global disaster.

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Fools Gold

Since the day we first bought the house we’ve been told, nay assured, that it contained a small fortune in buried treasure.

The onset of the recent works means that the local gossip has reached fever pitch with neighbours we’ve not seen for months making a special ‘casual’ walk past the property, take us to one side, and remind us that we need to be on the lookout for the hidden wealth of gold within the big house walls.

We’ve been advised to watch the builders every move, as if they were to find anything of value it would be spirited away, and the next we’d see of it was when one of the workers turned up in a brand new Rolls Royce.

Local folklore would have us believe that the original owner and builder of the house was one of the richest men in the area. During one of the many phases of building that we’ve uncovered during the renovation, he apparently hid a fortune in gold, and then forgot where he’d put it. It remained hidden until his death over two hundred years ago, and has done ever since. It’s a story that all the neighbours know, and one which they are happy to whisper to us, out of the earshot of the builders (who are nothing short of pirates!).

Amanda and I just smile and nod. We know that for the thirty years before we bought it, our house was in the guardianship of Carlos (the owner’s brother) who used it as a pen to fatten his pig and keep his chickens, a barn for his donkey, and a store for his potatoes. We know, that he knows, the rumours and if there was anything of value to be found, we’re damn certain that he’d have found it at some point in the last three decades.

There are local stories of treasures being found in old properties, and more commonly hand guns wrapped in oil cloths, which were secreted during the civil war. So on the first day that the builders arrived I joked with them about gold and guns.

Frequent shouts of ‘oro’ (gold) have been heard to ring out around site, followed by laughter, but never a reveal of the shiny stuff.

Despite me thinking I had ‘cleared’ the house in advance of the works, there have still been a few discoveries, but sadly all worthless.

These have included; four porcelain ornaments (two of which have subsequently mysteriously disappeared), a congealed bag of boiled sweets, a full bottle of white wine (subsequently smashed), two pairs of rusted pliers, a small child’s prayer stool, a copper and brass manual crop sprayer, two pairs of football boots (size 43), a small black & white TV set, and the most macabre find being a hoof and ankle joint of an ancient ham (pictured).

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Despite the odd break to examine and discuss these finds the work has been proceeding at a fair pace, mostly in the bright sunshine which prevails between the odd shower. The builders start at 8am, stop at 11 for a nice cold beer (from our fridge), break for a 75 minute lunch at 1pm, and then carry on through until 7pm. There is definitely no mañana attitude in Galicia, these guys work hard, usually while I stand and watch and give the occasional thumbs up.

Amanda and I have worked hard though. To save a bit of money we took just under five days to treat and colour 290 square metres of timber planks, and over sixty new joists, which are now being hauled and battered into place.

The result, even on a half finished building, is nothing short of superb. All of the original beams were in good condition once three hundred years of soot and woodworm had been cleared from the outside centimetre or two, with a sand-blaster and angle grinders/sanders. Now they’ve been cleaned down they look fantastic, and once the builder has finished his work we will be spending time finishing these, treating them, and making sure that they are a real architectural highlight of the house.

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The roof is going on in two phases, the first is half complete but the second has not yet started. This means that there is still a part of the building which has not been stripped and the roof removed. Perhaps this is where our untold treasures will lie, and where our fortune will be found?

Rest assured, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the builders.

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Ankle Deep in Sand

Tomorrow, the 17th May, is a local holiday, the Galician Day of Letters.

With a Tuesday being a day off, there is obviously no point in working on a Monday, so we got a text from the builder last night to say that we’d not see his crew until Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday they will be accompanied by 290 square metres of chestnut planking which Amanda and I have the unenviable task of sanding, treating with anti-woodworm solution and then staining ready for installation once the beams are in. I’m not sure how long it will take us, or how long we’ll have before they need it to install, but I’m not really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a gruelling few days.

We’ve used the few days downtime over the weekend and todays ‘puente’ to get the allotment (huerto) started. Following last week’s potatoes we now have onions, broad beans, peas, carrots, parsnips, lettuce and radish. Tomatoes, chillies and melons are all in seed trays, germinated, and ready to go.

The downtime which meant a cessation in the clank of heavy machinery and the shouting of Spanish workers has also meant that our ‘outdoor cat’ kit has felt brave enough to venture out. She played in the field while we were working in the huerto and in the space of a couple of hours she’d murdered; a mole, a rather large and fierce looking rat, and had managed to get herself a small bird from somewhere. All were strategically placed to ensure that we found them on the way back to the barn. It’s not as if we don’t feed her.

On the house the work is continuing at a rapid pace. It is difficult to comprehend what a team of four can do in six days.

After stripping the roof on Monday and Tuesday, the rest of the week was spent using an industrial sand-blaster to strip three hundred years of soot and grime off all of the internal walls which we are intending to leave as exposed stone.

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As the machine was on site they also used for a first pass on the chestnut beams which they ended the week sanding with angle-grinders and sanding disks, and which I will finish to a smoother end result once the roof is on and I can get some quite time to potter at my own leisure. They’ve made a tremendous job but the down side is that the whole site is now covered in five centimetres of sand and crud from the four tonnes which they blasted over the course of three days. The heavy rain over the weekend has meant that the clean-up will be a nightmare.

The house looks magnificently different. It seems twice the size that it did with a roof on and Amanda and I are even more excited at the prospects for using its myriad or rooms, levels and nooks and crannies. Just a small lottery win and we’re laughing.

There has also been some very sad news since my last post. One of our neighbours, a lovely man and good friend, lost a long struggle with cancer and passed away at the age of 79. It was Amanda and my first experience of an open casket in a funeral home and, on Friday, of a Spanish Catholic funeral. I am hoping that neither are things that we have to attend with any frequency in the future.

 

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After 301 Years

After the terrible start to the Spring, with daily downpours, strong winds and un-Galician temperatures the day finally came for us to plant our potatoes. The lunar vegetable calendar, which is probably as accurate as the Daily Mail horoscopes, said it was a bad day for planting root vegetables but this was the only day that the barely decipherable ‘Pepin’ could attend with his ancient tractor and potato plough. It was a day of ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. 

It was the first time I’d met Pepin, and I don’t know whether that should be Mr Pepin or whether Pepin is his first name. He’s a man with the highest voice in Galicia, and hence the reason why he is impossible to understand. It’s one vowel from ironic really, as Pepin drives an ancient ‘Pascuali‘ tractor, a joke which I suspect would be lost on the Spanish. 

Just as I put in the last potato of our 25kg batch for this year, hopefully blight resistant so as not to repeat last years heartbreak, Facundo arrived in his lorry which was precariously stacked with scaffolding, wheel barrows, pallets of wood and shovels.  

Amanda stayed with Joe….sorry Pepin…. while I went to oversee the unloading. 

The great re-roofing day had finally arrived.  

I’d been responsible for postponing the work in October when I landed a three month job in Northern Ireland, and again in January when that same contract was extended for another three months. But almost six years after we bought our place in the sun, the big house was about to get re-roofed and begin its transformation. 

Just after we bought one of the neighbours told me that the main part of the big house was built in 1715, so one year after its three hundredth anniversary it was about to get a shiny new roof. Two days spent demolishing internal false ceilings and partitions and the erection of internal and external scaffolding set the scene.

We’re so pleased that things are finally moving that Amanda even begrudgingly agreed to move her beloved little garden to make way for the crane, and we smiled our way through a few hours without water after one of the builders ruptured a pipe and had to turn it off at the mains while they went for lunch and called at the plumbers merchants.

It was not without some sadness that we watched the builders start work today removing tons and tons of old, crumbly, blackened with soot slate. Our once ‘hobbit-like’ house was being opened to the daylight for the first time in many generations as it started its’ long journey from ruin into something habitable.

Now we’ve finally got activity I’ll be blogging much more over the coming days and weeks on problems and progress on Phase I of ‘fix the big house’.

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