An Unexpected Christmas Eve

Dusk had already long since fallen on Christmas Eve.

I was outside testing the motion detectors on some new lights I’d installed to give Amanda additional security while I was away in Belfast, standing motionless until they went off and then waving my arms about like a nutter until they came back on. We were planning to start preparations for Christmas dinner, have a snack, and hit the sofa in front of a raging fire for the traditional Christmas Eve watching of ‘A Christmas Carol’, the 1999 version with Patrick Stewart.

Then a car drove up the hill and there was a knock on the upstairs door, Amanda answered, as I was in a ‘standing still’ phase of testing.

It was Manolo, the brother of Elena, who lives in the bottom half of the village. He’s previously invited us for ‘a coffee’ and we’ve smiled nicely and never actually gone, but this time he’d deliberately driven half a kilometre to come and invite us to his house later on that evening. As it was already after eight, Amanda explained that we had prepared our evening meal and that we wouldn’t eat, and asked him to be more specific on a time. He said ten to ten thirty, when they would have eaten their traditional Christmas Eve feast. He was thanked for his trouble and we said we might see him later.

We had no real option but to go, as we felt that ignoring his kind offer could only offend, despite us having already planned our evening not to include either visiting a large local family or getting so drunk that sleep was the only option.

At ten thirty we set off to walk to Manolo’s place, clutching a solitary and inadequate box of English Chocolates, and followed by Kit the Cat. Our repeated attempts to tell her to ‘go home’ fell on deaf ears as she ran ahead of us, coming back regularly to check that she was going in the right direction, until she heard Manolo’s dog bark causing her to disappear into the undergrowth.

When we arrived at the massive farm house we were met at the door by one of Manolo’s daughters who explained that they’d just finished their starter but inviting us in and giving us a plate.  Within minutes we were welcomed and kissed by everyone, had been sat at the head of the table, and each of us had a glass in hand and a bottle of red and white wine uncorked and set down in front of us. We watched, feeling like spare parts, as they noisily ate the rest of their meal while practicing their English on us. Every dish which arrived was offered to us by a different relative, and courteously declined, and whenever we took a sip of wine, someone came and topped up our glasses.

queimadaCoffee followed the meal, then Champagne, then ‘Orujo’ (the local fire water), then the bottles of spirits hit the table and finally the lights were switched off for a local Galician traditional Queimada supported by enough blocks of sickly Turron to build a small house.

It was getting close to midnight. Any thoughts of watching a grumpy but ultimately ‘saved’ Patrick Stewart were a long gone memory, and I was feeling rather the worse for wear at having accepted our neighbours alcoholic hospitality in quite the quantities that had been offered.

We were trying to get out of the door and off home before the witching hour, and Santa made his annual appearance, but there was no chance. The kids in attendance ratcheted up the volume another notch and the distribution of presents signified that Father Christmas had indeed arrived at Manolo’s house.

Around one in the morning we finally managed to make our excuses, with the party now in full swing. We called Kit, who had been entertaining herself hiding and probably mostly sleeping for the last three hours, and stagger back up the hill home, clutching a gifted bottle of precious home-brewed lethal ‘Orujo’ from Manolo.

It had been a privilege to be invited into the heart of a local families Christmas, and we had both enjoyed it tremendously. The whole episode also goes to serve as a reminder that you can never expect to stick to your own plans in Galicia, and all too often, events totally outside your own control do take over.

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Taking the Queens Shilling

My four month absence from the blogosphere has probably passed mostly un-noticed but if you have been logging on regularly to look at the latest instalment from our Galician odyssey then I can only apologise. I promise to try and do better over the coming months.

belfastfromapartmentTo be honest the reason for my silence is that I took the Queens shilling, almost literally. When we were visiting the UK last September I got a phone call out of the blue from a previous central government client (who I last worked for five years ago) who asked if I’d be interested in a three month contract based in Belfast. The project sounded interesting, suitably short and well remunerated so I said ‘what the hell, why not’. After jumping through a few hoops which included setting up a new UK company, insuring myself up the wazoo, and dusting off my old suits, I started work in the middle of October and the last three months have just been a blur.

Three months has turned to six and my thoughts of alternating weeks in Belfast and Galicia soon proved unrealistic. I hired an apartment on the dockside near Belfast city centre and swapped my rural idyll for the shrieking sirens, crowded streets, tempting restaurants and late night cinemas of a modern metropolis.

Amanda stayed back in Galicia, although she did visit the bright lights briefly but was very restrained with her flexible friend.

All this has meant that the house development is stalled. We finally got the licence for replacing the roof, and it only took nine months, but with the on-going work in Belfast we decided to postpone our builder until January so that I could be on-site to ‘advise’ and ‘assist’.

The extension of my contract in Belfast until the end of March has led to a second postponement and we are now hoping to start work on or around the fourth of April. This pleased the builder who I think was under some stress on other jobs due to some appalling weather over the Christmas period.

So you are now mostly up to date, although there is plenty more I can tell you over the coming days/weeks until work starts including the latest on Kit the cat who is currently residing in the animal hospital after an operation to remove her ‘lady bits’ and hopefully stop us from becoming over-run with kittens that we couldn’t bear to give away.

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World Turned Upside Down….Twice

The difference between rural Galicia and suburban West Yorkshire has been brought into sharp focus over the last three weeks, and our attempts to fit in and become local yokels are being severely tested by a little one kilogram bundle of fur.

Some of you will already know through other means that about six weeks ago our hearts were broken when our gorgeous, nearly sixteen year old, cat Bonita finally succumbed to her congenital heart failure. After an early hours of the morning coughing fit signalled fluid in her lungs, as well as that already filling her chest cavity, there was no medical procedure, miracle tablet or mythical potion that could give her any relief, and we were left with no option but to have her put to sleep. It was the hardest thing that we’ve ever done and it still brings tears to our eyes just to think about her.

She was our fourth cat, all of whom have been the most beautiful natured, affectionate, and pampered felines. When we left the UK with a terminally sick cat, we knew her passing would occur sooner rather than later, and indeed we’d made three previous visits to our Spanish vets (an hours drive away) not expecting to be bringing her home, but our loss after just ten months of us living the Galician dream hit both of us very hard.

The barn felt empty, quiet and strangely cold without her. It took a lot of adjusting to train ourselves that her welfare was no longer our first thought on waking, finishing work for the day, or returning from one of our fore-shortened trips out to give her food, a life-extending tablet, or just cuddles.

We both vowed that while we weren’t ruling out getting a new cat, we would not be getting one in the near future, and when we did that the moggie/s we obtained would be outdoor cats which we would feed in return for them keeping the local mouse and rat population to a minimum. They would not be pampered, cosseted or allowed to take the role of surrogate children.

Then, at around one hour after midday three Wednesday’s ago, our life was turned upside down.

Not upside down in the way that it had been when Bonita took her last breath, but upside down in a more gradual way like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or a rose bud blooming into a perfect flower.

We were out talking to a neighbour when I heard a cat crying. It didn’t sound like any of the local cats, it was more kitten-like, a screechy little cry. We finished the conversation, which was mostly about potatoes, and when the neighbour left I mentioned the crying cat to Amanda and we went looking for it.

Eventually we found it, the tiniest little grey and white thing, sat in the middle of a bay tree and totally inaccessible to humans behind thick brambles. After an hour of trying to coax it out we gave up, expecting that its Mum must be close, and as soon as we left that she would come to its rescue. We never expected to see it again.  We went home, had lunch, watched a bit of TV, and then decided that it was time to go back out and do some more work.

On leaving the barn we could hear the same crying but this time it was much closer, and it didn’t take long to realise that the kitten had moved in to our woodpile, a six foot high mountain of beams and old wood ready to be chain-sawed and split as fuel our wood burner this winter. Try as we might it couldn’t be enticed out but it was crying quietly and consistently.

Just two days earlier we’d given all of Bonita’s remaining food to a friend who, as well as having three house cats, also feeds the neighbourhood strays. We had nothing but a tin of tuna for our new, and as it turned out, ravenous squatter.

We agreed to give her (for we think it is a female) a little food and then hope that her mother would come and find it, and our consciences would be clear.

But she was still in the woodpile as darkness started to fall so we fed her again with more tuna and put some water down. As long as we kept over six feet away she would warily come out and eat, one eye on us giants, having a couple of mouthfuls and then scampering back under the pile of wood.

Every suburban West Yorkshire instinct was to try and catch her, wrap her up in a towel and bring her into the barn for warmth and treats. But we’d both pledged that there would be no more house cats and that we had to stay strong. Neither of us are religious but we separately said a small prayer that its mother would rescue it overnight.

The following morning it was still there. As soon as we opened the shutters and she saw us she started crying. It got more tuna and this time she allowed me to touch her with an outstretched hand.

We went to the vets (an hour each way), without the cat, and were given some kitten biscuits and pouches of wet food, a great marketing ploy from our vets, and over the space of the next three days she progressed from running to hide when she saw me, to running up to me and demanding a cuddle.

We’d got a trip to the UK planned and would be away for eight days. Hastily we arranged for a neighbour to call round and put down some food, still hoping that she may be reclaimed while we were in the UK. We agreed not to name her until we got back, and that if she was still in our wood pile then she would be adopted, named, de-flead and vaccinated.

Surprise, surprise. On arriving back from our vacation she squealed with joy at seeing us and came for a cuddle, purring herself to sleep on my lap.

I’m a softie I know, but she has won me over. She is still living in the woodpile but it is taking every fibre of our bodies not to just bring her inside and make her a comfy bed and leave her food and biscuits twenty-four seven, buy her a collar and toys, and take her to the vets for a check-up.

Someone in England suggested that she is ‘a gift from Boni to say thank you for looking after her and to help us get over her loss’. I’m not a believer in fate or destiny but whatever the reality, she’s definitely fallen on her feet.

And now she’s got a name….please meet ‘Kit’.

kit

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The Panic That Strikes When Your Toilet Refuses to Flush

When Amanda turned on the kitchen tap to fill the kettle at 10:30 at night, and all that issued from it was a splutter and air, it had all the hallmarks of one of those Galician sagas that would run and run.

Our first port of call to check the status of any of our services like electricity, Internet or water are our nearest neighbours, a lovely family who live about three hundred metres away and who moved here from Madrid about three years ago to escape the ‘crisis’. ‘Have you got water’ we asked, mainly to ascertain whether is was a problem with our property, or something more general in the village. ‘No, we’ll sort it tomorrow’ came the response.

So we did the British thing, had a cup of tea from the bottled water in the fridge, and went to bed, using the water in the cistern for a single flush. The neighbours didn’t seem to concerned so neither were we, it would all be sorted in the morning.

The morning came and our taps were still only running with fresh air. We messaged the neighbours again but as it was before 11am, there was no answer, our neighbours don’t get up very early. When we did eventually make contact they said that they had still no water so they had switched over from municipal town water to their own private well, which goes a long way to explaining why they weren’t too worried the previous evening!

We, however, don’t have a private well. We have plenty of unharnessed springs which spew water onto the land in the winter and even create boggy areas in the height of summer, but nothing that we could get to the house with any ease.

We don’t pay any water rates here, not a penny, which obviously has a big financial upside. The downside is that if you pay nothing for your water then you can’t have any expectation of continuity of service.

In our naivety we went down to the local council and explained the predicament, focussing on the lack of a functioning water closet, and the guy who answers the general enquiries did well to mask his snigger. ‘It’s not our responsibility’ he said ‘it’s a village thing’. He did, however, give us the number of the Clerk of Works, who confirmed the situation, but graciously said he’d send someone to have a look.

Since we bought the house back in 2010 almost all of our neighbours have been telling us that we have town water, and not to worry as it never runs out. Well, in our first year of occupation, it had run out… and now we couldn’t flush the loo, or take a shower, or fill the kettle, or water the allotment, or wash our clothes, or run the dishwasher.

Our neighbours were all fine, they’d switched on their wells, they had water, and flushing toilets, and clean clothes, and washed plates, and coffee!

While in town we bumped into Carlos, another neighbour from the village who I’ve written about on numerous previous occasions, and when we mentioned the water he grew a big grin. ‘I warned you’ he said, for he had done so a couple of summers previous hence us checking with the other neighbours, all of whom said not to worry. ‘There won’t be any water until November’ he added.

At this point I had all on to stop a full scale Amanda meltdown. I dragged her into the car with soothing words and talk of chocolate and we went to see the neighbours from Madrid. They showed off their well, even switching on the hosepipe to water the plants as a demonstration. I was livid, they were watering their plants and I couldn’t even flush the bog, but I tried hard to mask my fury.

It turned out that our ‘town water’ is actually a large deposit (around 50,000 litres) about half a kilometre up the road from us with a pipe running out of it which then feeds about 25 properties in two villages. Oscar had a key and I accompanied him to take a look at the deposit.

deposito

It was almost empty, just 10cm in the bottom of a 2.5m deep indoor swimming pool, and the water that was in there was just trickling into the pipe and down to the village. The spring entering the deposit seemed to be in full flow so we went to the source, about another five kilometres into the hills, to ensure that there was no blockage at the source.

The diagnosis was that there was plenty of water entering the deposit, but that we were using it faster than it could replenish, and then the finger pointing started!

It appears that we live in the middle of a community of water abusers, people who leave taps, and troughs, and irrigation system running and using up all the free water that normal folk, such as Amanda and I, should be using to flush their toilets.

On returning home I tried the tap again and we had water. Not a lot, and not flowing with any great pressure, but nevertheless water. I quickly flushed the loo.

After getting a deposit key cut I visited the little concrete bunker up the hill several times over the next few days and in the space of half a week it filled to the full 2.5 metres and then started running into the overflow and thence into a small stream outside.

Whoever was the main abuser/s had either seen the error of their ways, or much more likely when they realised that the town water had run off, they had switched over to their own private well which they were now happily using to water their livestock, or irrigate their tomatoes.

I am keeping an eye on the levels and now I have a key I’m prepared to use it, and woe betide anyone I find misusing my toilet flush water.

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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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