A beautiful sunny, Sunday morning. All the more surprising because it´s the penultimate day of January. But just warm enough to brew a pot of coffee while I feed the dogs and get myself a little breakfast sorted out before Big Man and I head off for a walk. It´s been dry for two days with rain before that. Perfect weather for heading up the mountain and looking for wild asparagus. I have to confess I´m not the biggest fan of these beautiful fronds. Although I love strong flavours, they´re just too bitter for me. But Big Man loves a little tortilla made from these for a light supper and I enjoy a simple poached egg on toast – so everyone is happy and minimal cooking for those evenings when you just don´t fancy spending time at the stove.
I do enjoy my breakfast. I don´t go all faint and feeble if I miss out on it, but my favourite quick and easy breakfast here in Spain is fresh bread, drizzled with olive oil (from our olives if I´m lucky) with crushed fresh tomato and seasoned with sea salt and a good grind of pepper. All you need to do with the tomato is blitz a ripe tomato with the hand blender – remove the skin or not, your choice and that´s it. It´s usually tastier in summer when the tomatoes have more flavour, but if I come across a gorgeous specimen outside of the warmer months, it´s earmarked for my breakfast. If the bread is a little stale, it´s toasted lightly on my griddle pan. If I fancy some spice, it´s sprinkled with little fresh or dried chili at the end (not so Spanish), and if I´m extra hungry a few slices of jamon are added. But the truth is, the simpler the better.
That´s not to say I don´t enjoy a Full English, or a Bacon Buttie when the mood strikes. Come to think of it, a bowl of porridge in winter always goes down well too.
It´s a grey old Saturday in January here, with no particular plans for the day. I hear a loud “toot, toot” outside and my heart lifts. Fish Man is here. Although we live in an isolated part of the mountains, we´re not entirely cut off. In fact, food-wise we could probably survive without ever going shopping. We have our chickens and the vegetable garden of course. We have goatherds who sell us a goat for the freezer, or a lamb too come to think of it. Bread Man stops daily and leaves me a lovely crusty loaf, the grocery man comes at the weekend with all sorts of exciting things, even the man with gas cylinders stops at my door. But two or three times a week we have the excitement of Fish Man.
The downside is that we´re pretty much the last stop on his route, so he often doesn´t get to us until about 1pm. Sometimes he´s sold out of most things, but if I ask him for something specific, he saves it for me. Usually that´s Pulpo (Octopus) or Raya (Skate) which we love. The upside is that he´s usually keen to get back to Malaga, where he lives, for his own lunch, so prices come down so that he can shift the last few things, or he throws in a few goodies for free. He gets up early and heads off to Malaga fish market then sets off up the mountains to the villages around where we live.
Weekends in Spain are not about the weekend roast but about Paella, which we all know and love. In Andalucia, they just call it an Arroz, a “rice” which is just like Paella but often served with more stock. A soupy Paella, if you like. Otherwise it´s a Fideua, which is exactly the same but made with short, thick noodles, called Fideos. This morning I bought half a kilo of small prawns and eight medium sized squid. I grabbed a small packet of mussels (removed from the shell and frozen) from my freezer and a couple of small fillets of hake which were also in the freezer. Because it´s a bit of a trek to the supermarket, and of course there are things that can´t be bought our of the back of a passing van, I tend to keep my freezer pretty well stocked with things I can grab in the morning and defrost quickly.
I asked Big Man what he fancied – Paella, Fideua, Seafood Soup, Stew? A stew, it was decided, so I started to get things ready. What you need for four people with “normal” appetites, or three “greedy guts”, or two “greedy guts” with enough leftover to turn into a soup that evening with a drop more stock, is:
About 2 cups of peeled prawns (keep those shells, we´re going to make stock)
About 500 grams of cleaned squid cut into chunks
A cup of mussel meat
A medium fillet of white fish, cut into chunks
Half a red pepper, finely diced
A stick of celery, finely diced
Half and medium onion, finely diced
A third of a courgette, finely diced (optional)
Three fat cloves of garlic, crushed
Half a tin of chopped tomatoes
About a litre of fish stock. Either cover the prawn shells with water, add a few bat leaves, a chunk of onion and boil for about 8 minutes or use a cube
You can use any fish or shellfish you like really, and if you don´t have a lot of fish, you can thicken the stew up with a few noodles, or serve it as a soup with plenty of stock. Otherwise you could use rice and turn it into a paella – it´s up to you!
So, you start by sweating the peppers, onion, celery, garlic and courgette. Again, if you have other vegetables you want to use, feel free. Peas or broad beans are good, but best thrown in at the end with the fish as they don´t need much cooking.
Add your tomatoes and continue cooking gently for a few minutes. I usually cook this in my favourite pan – a large, deep, non stick frying pan.
Now add your stock. It will look rather dull and unappetizing at this point, rather like watery tomato soup. Fear not. Now you´re going to boil it, but not too fiercely, for about ten minutes and reduce it by about a third. Pour yourself a glass of wine if you don´t already have one in your hand. If not, why not? If you want to serve this for guests, prepare it to this point, even the day before (but keep it in the fridge) and forget about it.
When you´re ready to eat, heat the stock to a simmer and put all your fish in. Start with the squid as it will take about 30 seconds longer than the rest. Simmer gently for about 3-4 minutes and then serve.
If you think it´s not going to be enough to go round, or you fancy something a little more “robust” add your noodles before the fish and when it is almost cooked through, add the fish. About a mug full would be good for this quantity leaving you with some soup and some thickness to the finished dish. The temperature has dropped here, and we´ve lit the fire, so we´re going with some Fideos today for a more filling meal.
If you want to make a paella (although the courgette is not very traditional, but hey, it´s your dish, you can do what you like with it), add the rice before the fish and cook for about 20 minutes. A mug and half would be good – you want it drier than the soup, but keep an eye on it and add a little boiling water if it looks like it might dry out before the rice is cooked. Add the seafood, stir, lower the heat and cover with a lid and leave to simmer for 3-4 minutes. Turn the heat off and then leave to “rest” for about 5 minutes.
Serve in large, deep bowls with plenty of fresh lemon to squeeze over and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Crusty bread and a salad are all that you need to go with this. Delicious. The Mediterranean in a bowl.
The morning dawned bright and sunny. Nothing new there then. Paco’s head popped up over the fence with a cheery Hola and a Buenos Dias to me. Dressed in his customary straw hat, adorned with the Festival of San Isidro ribbon he told me that he had been out since quite early that morning collecting things. However, he was a little concerned as I had been up very late last night but very quiet. Was everything all right? Yes, of course it was, I had just been watching a TV programme I had become addicted to. Oh, of course, he said, the Spanish dancing. Erm, no, it was an American series, which had been dubbed very badly into Spanish.
Prickly Little Critters
“But don’t worry,” I told him, it had been the final episode of the series the night before (although I was still none the wiser with regard to the plot) therefore I was unlikely to have any more late nights which did not involve me either being outside on my patio, and therefore where he could be sure I was alright, or out dancing at a Fiesta. Good, all ok then with regard to my health and well being.
“So, what have you been collecting then?”
The answer involved much gesticulating and waving of a long prodded instrument, rather like a pair of giant tweezers, and a sturdy pair of gloves.
“Churros,” I said “are you sure?”
“No, not churros, but chumbos.”
Please note the first is a deep fried doughnut, which does not grow in abundance around here on trees, the second is a prickly pear. Aha! I was enlightened. Now of course I had to go next door with a tub – not a plate or a bowl, but something sturdy please, made of plastic – for the peeling and collecting of the chumbos. I decided that a bikini and a sarong was probably not appropriate attire for the task and put some clothes on.
Two rickety chairs had been set out, to make the whole experience more comfortable I was told, and we sat under a fig tree. “Crikey, how long is this going to take?” I wondered as I looked into the giant chumbo bucket. There was a procedure to be followed, and no messing around as chumbos can be deadly things if anyone inexperienced tries to tackle them. They had apparently been picked very early that morning. Well, 7.30 which is very early around here. It would seem, I was soon told, that the spines which cover them are less “aggressive” at this time. This task can also, I was additionally informed, be carried out when the heat of the day has died down. I was on no account to attempt the dangerous picking of the chumbos on my own as no good would come to me. Ok, I had been warned.
Next, the tasting of the first chumbo, which was pronounced by Paco to be perfect and off we went. Paco was in charge of peeling and I was responsible for lifting them off the skin into the plastic tubs. Delicate, ladies work. In between we talked about country things like animals and crops. As you can imagine, I had little of interest to add to the conversation but Paco seemed most pleased with our chat. I learned that figs are called Brevas before the feast of San Juan (which is I think around 23rd June) and Higos after this date (didn’t I know anything?!). I was advised too that the pomegranates would be ripe after the feast of Santa Teresa (October some time?). Note to self, check my mother’s calendar of the Saints.
After this gentle activity Paco decided that it was time for pool cleaning. The word for clean here is Limpio, the verb is Limpiar. There is an awful lot of limpiar-ing going on generally much of the time. Mostly it involves waving a hose around and “refreshing” things such as the patio or your own feet. Anyway, pool limpiar-ing is a much more serious business so I decided to switch back to the bikini and sarong. Paco seemed to think this was a good idea too.
The first stage in the procedure is to scoop off any dead flies, wasps, olive leaves etc which have landed in the pool overnight. Easy. Paco got the big boy’s net and I got the little one which looked as though I was about to go winkling round Morecambe Bay.
Paco then got onto his stomach and started trapping the poor suckers who had succumbed to a watery end in the deep end of the pool. As my net had broken in half the week before – I pleaded Not Guilty – I could not even reach the bottom of the shallow end so jumped in and wandered around for 15 minutes or so fishing out spiders. I have to confess that I dragged this out for a bit as it was extremely hot and I was keeping cool.
Next came the fixing of the hose to the attachment, the letting in of air to the pipes and the starting of the motor. Easy, yes, seen this done before. No, there was to be no sitting around for me whilst Paco “hoovered” the pool. I was sent to collect the special plastic broom (don’t even ask) and as I was the only one out of the two of us who could swim, I was sent down to the deep end to sweep. Yes, you heard it right. The next half hour was spent with me trying not to fall out of my top – as you can imagine, the Lycra has to work pretty hard for its living – and stay at the bottom of the pool whilst manoeuvring a plastic broom. Being a particularly buoyant girl this was no easy task but Paco seemed to find it all very entertaining.
Finally, the pool cleaning session was over. Paco took to his sofa for the next five hours or so. I collapsed onto a sun lounger wondering if I could make a new career as a Cabana girl.
As Big Man was out and about today, and not home for lunch as he usually is, I thought I´d make the most of the opportunity to cook a curry – he´s not a big fan of them. So, not having a ton of spices to hand but finding a jar of curry paste in the “despensa”, that´s a Spanish Larder, I concocted something quick-ish and delicious from what I found in the fridge. Please bear in mind that I am not great at giving measurements. This recipe could well have been made with no meat and lots more different vegetables. I also like my curries with a lot of “sauce” so how much water you add to your curry is entirely up to you. Start with a mug full and when is has reduced stop, if you like it “drier”, or add another mug and reduce just a little more. It´s all down to personal taste.
Two small chicken breasts (from our own hens) diced
One medium tomato, peeled and diced (or about a third of a tin of tomatoes)
A mug full of split lentils, rinsed then cooked in twice their volume of water for about 10 minutes and drained
1 small onion finely chopped
About an inch of fresh garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
A small red pepper (the last from our vegetable garden from last summer, can you believe it in January?!) finely chopped
8 leaves of chard (again from the veggie garden) with the white stalk removed (and given to the chickens) finely shredded
Three large tablespoons of Madras Paste (or whatever you fancy)
About a third of a block of cream of coconut dissolved in 150ml of hot water then beaten – but feel free to leave this out if you want a lower cal version of the curry
So, in a medium (but deep) frying pan I softened the onion, garlic and ginger in about a tablespoon of oil for several minutes until it was transparent then added the tomato and red pepper for a further 5 minutes or so. The heat was low to medium, so everything was “sweating” rather than frying.
Then I added the curry paste which I cooked off for about 2 minutes then threw in the chicken pieces, stirred it around for a few moments and added a mug full of water and the lentils. I let this reduce, then added the shredded chard (but you could use spinach or just leave it out) and another mug full of water.
When this had reduced by about half I added the creamed coconut, cooked for about 3 minutes gently and that was it! If I´d had some fresh coriander to chop finely and sprinkle over, I´d have added this too. Unfortunately I didn´t, so I just had to imagine it…
I served it with basmati rice, poppadums and a small bowl of yogurt to dollop and dunk.
It serves four if, especially if you make a side dish to go with it, two hungry people if not…
I soon settled into my new, relaxed, Spanish lifestyle. This typically involved lazy days, with lots of sunbathing, splashing around in the pool and plenty of good food and wine. My landlords came and went randomly, and various tractor driving locals passed by my gate at different times of the day. I would wander through Paco’s allotment and pick vegetables for my salads, lemons for my drinks and peaches for my pud. I would feed the dogs and cats and, when feeling particularly energetic, I would strike up halting conversations with the bread man.
Although the days were laid back and stress free, life at Dolores’ Cortijo was never dull, let me tell you. As well as looking after the various animals, watering vegetables and waving to tractor drivers, I was a woman in charge of a swimming pool.
Actually, during my first few weeks I was never actually expected to clean it which was a relief as it’s pretty hard work cleaning a pool. I was allowed to dip a little plastic bottle in the deep end to collect water and when I got really good at this I was also allowed to add the chemicals to the “specimen pot” to test the chlorine levels. By the end of my stay I moved on to taking huge tablets of chlorine out of a tub and adding them to the floating chlorine tablet holder and skimming dead flies off the top of the pool with a fishing net. Responsible stuff.
As you can imagine, I was pretty popular with my pals back in England, and soon lots of visitors were queuing up to come out to stay with me. Ria, she of best friend fame, was soon on a plane to check out the tractor driving farmers and swiftly signed herself up to join the future frequent visitors club. Best friends are always good company as you never run out of things to say to each other, but you also don’t feel the need to fill the silences. They get you through the bad times and share the good ones. They tell you honestly what your new trousers look like and bring you painkillers after a big night out. On extended Spanish holidays they help out around the house when they come to stay. This is particularly good when they are damn fine cooks. And they are always up for a game of cards or a walk round the local lanes and tracks with the adopted dogs. As Best Friends go, Ria is a star performer and will soon be getting a gold carriage clock in compensation for her long and dedicated service to the job.
Ria likes to sit in the sun like me, and although not quite such a water baby (ok, I really am more of a whale than a dolphin – but we can all dream), she soon got involved in pool maintenance. A typical late afternoon would involve a couple of hours of advanced-level sunbathing – I do find that after many years if practice, I am now a particular expert at this – followed by a five minute fly skimming session and 30 minutes of the Lilo Olympics before happy hour.
The Lilo Olympics, for anyone not yet in the know, involves two, or more, adults straddling cheap inflatable mattresses and racing up and down a small pool while trying to knock the other person off their own lilo. This is repeated until exhaustion, bought on by excessive laughing, forces you to stop and have a large glass of wine. Sometimes the Olympics come to an early end due to the cheapo lilo deflating – mainly because of a puncture or an overly large adult sitting on something designed to take the weight of a seven year old child.
Honestly, you’d think a 2 Euro mattress would last longer than half an hour. Shoddy plastic aside, I really do think a session of Lilo Olympics should be prescribed by all doctors to patients suffering with depression. I challenge anyone to not laugh while trying to get on (and stay on) a Lilo.
Paco and Dolores quite often drove up from Malaga and stayed in their Cortijo for the weekend. They had arrived for a day or two and decided to give the pool a bit of a clean. After hovering, skimming and topping up the chlorine, Paco felt that the water level was a bit low. Undoubtedly this was the result of an earlier extended session of the Lilo Olympics. He decided to top it up before heading back to the bright lights of Malaga.
Ria and I arrived back from a shopping jaunt looking forward to a refreshing dip in the pool. When we had peeled off our hot, sweaty clothes and slithered (Ria) and squeezed (me) into our cozzies, we headed over to the pool. When we got there, the pool was overflowing, water was flooding through the ceiling of the pump house and the olive trees had been watered by a pool-full of chlorine….Paco had left the hose from the well running and in the pool.
Yikes! Ria yanked the hose out of the pool and I scampered off into the wilderness of the various orange, lemon and olive trees to try to find the well the hose was attached to and switch the water off. Alas it was all plumbed in properly, for a change, and connected to an electric motor, and I couldn’t work out how to stop it. Despite feeling quite pleased that we now had an infinity pool, drastic measures were called for so I ran (ok, I walked – I most definitely don’t do running) to get my dictionary and mobile phone, babbling on to Ria about what a good opportunity it would be for me to practice some new Spanish words.
After a quick practice of “when we got back from our shopping trip the hose pipe was running and in the pool” I rang Dolores. I thought I did pretty well given the circumstances and my lack of experience with this particularly specialist vocabulary, but Ria seemed to think that I had somewhat over-dramatised the situation making it sound like the nearby lake had overflowed and flooded the valley to biblical proportions, and that the house was about to be swept away by a tsunami of chlorine scented water.
Anyway, Dolores said – at least, this is what I understood that she had said – that they would come back to sort it out. For an hour or so, I have to admit that I wasn’t too sure if they were really coming back as the word for “to come back”, volver, sounds remarkably like the word for scrambled eggs, revueltos, and I was a bit concerned that there was a Spanish equivalent of “don’t worry about it, let’s have a nice cup of tea” which equated to “don’t worry about it, sit down and have yourself a nice plate of scrambled eggs”.
Fortunately a couple of hours later they turned up (we could hear Dolores screeching at Paco from about a kilometre way) and not a single scrambled egg was consumed in the process.
Paco rummaged around in the pump house and switched the water off via a mission impossible style control panel and I watched and learned. The pool started to drain and we all sat down to celebrate the aversion of a major crisis by having a few drinks. A couple of hours and several drinks later I asked Paco if he thought maybe he should check on the pool. Off he trotted with his straw hat on his head, for added Spanish country man style, to check things out. A few minutes later he stumbled back a little shame faced.
“So, was it all ok?” Dolores asked.
“Fine, fine” lied Paco.
As they pulled out of the house in the car shortly afterwards, Paco whispered to me to turn the hose off again in a few hours as he had found a paddling pool full of water and had turned the water back on as the pool needed to be topped up again to reach a swimmable level. Oh dear, a pool girl’s job is never done.
On the road to my new found freedom and happiness I knew I was nearly at my destination because John had given me good directions. Once I was through the village of Ventas de Zafarraya, he had told me, I would pass a petrol station and then go through the Boquete, or mouth – which is a rather large crack in the mountain. The road would then move down from the plains I had been driving through, to the valley and round to the Lake (in actual fact another valley which had been flooded to make a reservoir) which is where he was based.
It was rather like the part in the Wizard of Oz film when it changes from black and white to colour. I drove through a village that would win no prizes in a beauty contest, past the petrol station, on through the gap in the mountain and suddenly the world changed colour. Spring was turning gradually into summer and the campo still looked fresh and green. The last of the poppies were still in flower and I was tempted to behave like Dorothy when she just lets go of her quest to find Oz for a few moments and runs through the field of poppies and falls asleep and dreams of home. But no, I couldn’t. I was on a mission, a journey, and I hadn’t got to Oz yet, I needed to keep going.
So I did. On I drove, down the mountain road, twisting and turning with my sweaty palms (again) clutching the steering wheel until the beautiful, crystal blue lake was in view and I finally pulled up outside the Yellow Bar. Not its name of course, but the colour it had been painted. And boy was it yellow. A bright sunshine coloured beacon in a world of white-washed villages. And what tasted like the best gin and tonic in the world at that moment in time. John had poured a gin down my throat to revive me – not that I had put up too much resistance – and I was soon smiling again through a few final sniffles.
The it was back into the car for the final few hundred metres of my journey and we pulled up at the top of a narrow track. I was a little puzzled as I wasn’t too sure where the house was. Up the slope. Of course. A bit like Rome being built on all those hills, it seemed to me that all houses in Andalucía were built on a slope. Well, I guess it kept the drivers of those big digger things in business levelling all those pieces of land for people to build their houses on.
To get to the house, we had to walk uphill across a neighbour’s field. And most obliging he was too. It seems that there was another route in, but this involved, unsurprisingly, a very steep road down through the village. With very little room to turn the car back round, John sensibly realised that I probably wasn’t up to reversing back uphill on a narrow unmade road to get out again. Or perhaps, having known me for many years, he remembered my history of car incidents and made a prudent decision to avoid the possibility of me driving my hire car into the lake.
The problem of how to get my serious amount of luggage, shopping and wine bottles into the house was soon solved with the aid of a wheelbarrow and the Kiwi boys. We looked like a small army of ants carrying a heavy load back to the nest, but the beers I had bought which were still, remarkably, cold soon revived us.
Life began to take on a new rhythm for the next few days. Spending time with all my new pals, the builder boys, my Spanish came on a treat as apart from John, who spoke some Spanish, no one else spoke anything apart from English. By default I became official interpreter for our little group. I guess they must have been pretty desperate to have to rely on me as, at this point, I was mainly speaking Italian and throwing in a French word or two when I wasn’t sure what else to say. My dearest friends were a Spanish/English Dictionary and a book of Spanish grammar which went everywhere with me. Fortunately I had a very large handbag. All conversations outside of the house took a very long time to conduct as I inevitably had to look most things up.
Before going anywhere, mainly to visit Estate Agents, I had to prepare a little speech in preparation for what I was going to say. I became quite proficient at saying “I am looking for a house or apartment to rent from now until the end of June either by the sea or in the campo, preferably with a swimming pool”. I even got to the point where I could understand the answers. Mainly because these were generally of the “You must be joking Señora, you can have something for either a fortnight,” although they say fifteen days here, which seems a little odd “or a year”. Hmmm.
I did also learn lots of other new and useful words as I needed to repay my kind hosts and help out where I could. These were predominantly of the technical kind such as “trailer”, “cement” and “a hundred weight of rubble”. As John and the boys were doing a bit of property refurbishment, my role as translator mainly involved accompanying John on visits to builder’s merchants and at one point an immense ironmonger-like warehouse to find a bolt for the wheel of his broken trailer. I believe I was, at one point, in negotiation for a medium sized tractor and an aluminium trailer with a man called Antonio who had a tendency to blush every time anyone addressed him. Being a typical “entrepreneur” he also ran an estate agency business and had a house he wanted me to rent. Somehow it all seemed to be tied in with the tractor/trailer deal so I thought it best to put that one on hold.
Of course, those few days were not without another car drama and I lost the hub cap from my hire car down a rather scary road. I returned to the scene of the incident the next day and found it next to the rock I’d had the altercation with and retrieved it. Remarkably the car was completely unscathed (apart from now having three pristine hub caps and one very dented one) but I was convinced that I had lost control because I had been on another serious food and wine shopping trip and was rather weighed down with bottles.
I think I must have spoken to every Estate Agent within a 50km radius, and believe me, there were plenty of them, before I finally found myself somewhere new to set up base. Home for the next six weeks or so was to be an old, very traditional-style house in the campo i.e. in the middle of nowhere. I would have neighbours though, the couple who owned the house – Dolores and Paco – and their dog Nacho and the cat Miso. I found out, several years later, that I had misunderstood and that the cat was not actually called Miso. It turns out that this is the sound that Spaniards make when calling a cat. Rather like the English saying miaow or “here kitty, kitty”.
When the Estate Agent took me to view the house we set off down another twisty turny track. I remembered thinking that even if the house was perfect I couldn’t take it on as I would never be able to drive down this road alone. I had been forced to pull over to hug the left hand side of the road because, on the right there was a huge crater and we would have fallen down a large gulley into the valley below if we had hit it. There were pot holes galore. Luckily I had taken out the extra insurance offered to me at the airport which covered damage to the under carriage of the car and I knew that it had been a wise investment. There were bits of the road which had simply fallen away, there were narrow parts (in the style of Montefrio) which squeezed between houses through a tiny hamlet en route and random goats, sheep, cats and dogs either sitting in the road or wandering across it all the way there.
Dolores met us at the house to show us around. The Estate Agent had warned me that she was very chatty and a little bit loca – crazy in an endearing way. No sooner was I out of the car than I was being hugged and kissed by Dolores as though I was a long lost family member. The dog was jumping up at me and covering me in Spanish dog slobber kisses and the house was just waiting to cast its magic spell on me. Old, it most certainly was – but in a crumbly, charming way, rather than the damp and decrepit style of my previous accommodation. It had a terrace with a grape vine over it, big double doors into a huge farmhouse kitchen with a fireplace, mismatched sofas and chairs, five bedrooms with beds for fifteen people and the smallest bathroom in the world.
It was love at first sight. I had another “Dorothy” moment. Honestly, I felt as though I had clicked the heels of my ruby slippers together and was back home in Kansas. Well, it was called Los Marines to be exact, but it just felt so right.
My new neighbours were due to be around for a few days getting the swimming pool ready for me (get me eh?!) as they lived mainly in Malaga City Centre and came out to the campo at the weekends and for the hot summer months of July and August. Getting the swimming pool ready meant that Paco had to spend two very hot days up a ladder, inside possibly the deepest swimming pool in the province of Malaga painting it swimming pool blue, before filling it up – another two day job – when the paint was dry. Why waste good money tiling a pool when you can spend a week of your time every year sorting it out again? In my care they were leaving behind Nacho to be my own personal guard dog and companion.
I moved into the Cortijo, as we locals call our country houses, only to find – horror of horrors – that there was no corkscrew. At that point I very nearly threw in the towel and got on the next plane back to London but luckily Dolores came up trumps by digging out a very old fashioned corkscrew from the depths of her own house. Dammit – I wasn’t going to be defeated at this point by a bendy corkscrew. I beat it into submission and soon it was popping corks out of bottles for me left, right and centre.
On my first evening of splendid solitude and calm, my kindly landlady also bought me over a basket of still warm peaches from the many peach trees on their finca. That’s an Estate to folks like you and me. She proudly presented me with a bag of lemons from, of course, their lemon trees for my gin tonicas. What luxury, fruit that tasted of what it was supposed to taste of. That was it. My Spanish life had finally kicked off properly and I immediately got into the swing of taking it slowly. Mañana, mañana. The house was lovely (no mould, no gypsy riots) with loads of room, plenty of privacy and lots of sunshine. Perfect – all I had to look forward to was weeks on end of peace, quiet, an almost all over tan and gallons of cheap wine. And hopefully, not much else. More fool me.
Clearly, drowning my sorrows in a carton of cheap wine was going to get me nowhere, so after a fairly sleepless night I got up and started to make plans. The night was sleepless because it seemed that in my new barrio (that’s a neighbourhood to the rest of us) there were either no phones, or people preferred not to use them. The common means of communication appeared to be the Spanish Yell. This involved sticking your head out of your door or window and calling for the person with whom you wished to speak at the top of your voice.
As most people seemed, to me, to be called Maria or José I was at pains to establish exactly how whichever Maria or José that was being called knew that it was their turn to respond. To this day, I still struggle with addressing members of my own now much extended Spanish family who all share the same name. Somehow, the folks round here seem to know who they are calling for or talking to through either use of a new variation of the same name, or the tone of their voice. Men called José are also often called Paco, but Paco is also generally attributed to men christened Francisco. Another name given to a Francisco is Curro and the truly young and trendy also use the abbreviation of Fran. So there you go. Easy, when you know how. The sound of a long, loud and extended “Paaaaa-co” being yelled by a woman is generally the “husband call” and a softer, gentler “Paquito” is the same woman calling out to her darling little boy. Aged 34, weighing in at fourteen stone and still living at home in an upstairs apartment with his wife and three young children.
So, there I was, groggy from lack of sleep, cold from the damp and facing another day of torrential rain. What’s a girl to do? Well, go shopping of course. I consulted my very expensive road map bought from the map shop in Covent Garden and worked out that Granada, home of the beautiful Alhambra Palace, was only 4.5 cm away. Or 60km or so as the crow flies or I drive. I worked out which road I needed to take, which junction I needed to pull off at and remembered that I would need to drive on the right and not the left. Actually, not such a challenge for me as most of my friends in London will tell you that I spent most of my time in London driving on the right anyway, so I had had plenty of practice with that aspect of Spanish road rules. And all this was in honour of a trip to The Hypermarket. I was going to do a “big shop”, which for a foodie like me is a way of setting down roots wherever it is that I happen to be. I was damn well going to make this hovel a home.
Of course, nothing went to plan as I could barely see the road, let alone keep to the right as the rain was, by now, torrential. I had also mis-timed my departure and got to the ring road around Granada during the rush hour so crawled along looking out for my junction. At least this meant I could see the hypermarket from a distance and managed to pull off at the correct junction. After buying enough food and drink for a family of eight and almost, but not quite, succumbing to a burger in a moment of feeling sad and pathetic I loaded up the car to head back home and fill the hovel with good home cooking smells. Of course, I didn’t realise that I needed to look for another, completely different exit when I pulled out of the supermarket and ended getting back onto the same ring road, going in the same direction as I had been going earlier that day. At a complete loss and unable to work out how to get off at the next exit and turn back – still a tricky manoeuvre at times – I ended up going all the way round Granada ring road before eventually picking up my road home again. I was trying to feel positive and kept telling myself that I was killing a few hours on a rainy day. Not the most fun I’ve had in a Renault Mégane though, I have to admit.
After the, now familiar, struggle back through the narrow gap (mercifully incident free this time) and up the slope with the bags I decided to head into the village and complete some tasks:
· Find the number of a Spanish Language Teacher
· Buy a Spanish SIM card
· Go back to the Estate Agent and see if I could swap to another house
The first two were pretty easy, even with my limited Spanish and, as a result, I was beginning to feeling a bit cocky and over confident. Old Derek was nowhere to be found. His “office”, which seemed to be a shared affair with several other disreputable estate agents, was dusty and boarded up. Mmm, rather suspicious I thought. Perhaps he was a Costa del Crime fugitive using an Estate Agent´s office as a cover for some more serious activities. Several phone calls to him later, I established that I could indeed swap to a house on the edge of the village with a pool, but only for six weeks of my eight week stay. Well, I thought, it’s an option. Oh yes, and it was going to cost me £4,000 and he wanted payment in cash. It didn’t take me long to realise that it wasn’t going to happen, was it?
Finally, the sun came out and I set out my chair on the patio. The promised sun loungers were nowhere to be found in the sloping hovel. Pretty soon children from the barrio were literally trying to climb over the railings into my garden and were bombarding me with questions.
“How old are you Señora? Where is your husband? Why don’t you have one then? What are you doing here? Why, why, why?”. I felt very stressed, very single, and very much in need of another carton of cheap wine and a friend to share it with.
The highlight of the day for most of the neighbourhood came when one of the local women walked, most ceremoniously, up to the gate.
“Hola Señora, tengo algo para usted.” I have something for you.
“Hola, muchas gracias.” I was conversing, in Spanish no less, with a neighbour.
She handed me an envelope which contained a “Welcome to Your New Home” card. It had been sent, with all the very kindest of intentions, from my best friend. The woman was not alone as she had bought a dozen or so of her own neighbours along with her to meet the crazy English lady who had paid good money to stay somewhere they were trying desperately to leave. I managed to hold the next flood of tears back until they eventually, reluctantly, returned to their own homes and I decided that it was most definitely time to stop feeling sorry for myself, to pull myself together and move on up. And out.
Ok, so I would move down to the coast, rent an apartment by the sea and lie on a beach all day getting brown and fat. Perfect. The next day I set off in the, now quite exhausted, car. It was quite a long drive and fairly scary for me as part of the way there I realised, thanks to a promotional sign, that I was driving across one of the highest viaducts in Europe. A panic attack threatened and I spent a lot of time that day trying to figure out a way to drive back to the hovel without going back over the viaduct. After ruling out a 200km detour, I braced myself for a repeat death drive back to the jaws of hell. Ok, so I am exaggerating a bit but I was feeling rather melodramatic at the time and felt entitled to a bit of prima donna-ish-ness.
I did find an estate agent to speak to and as we spoke about my dilemma I could see the pound signs rolling around in his eyes. I could hear a big old calculator clicking away in his brain working out how much commission he could make from a desperate woman but when I asked him to please not dick me around he had to admit that he didn’t have any suitable properties for me to rent.
Very much down, but not quite out I decided to treat myself to lunch in one of the chiringuitos, which are beach side restaurants. Clearly a woman dining alone in Spain was, and still pretty much is, outside of a large city, rarer than snow in July. I was given a beautiful table between the toilets and the kitchen. The food was ok, but I was soon hassled out as I was clearly an embarrassment and I headed down onto the beach to enjoy an hour of sun before I attempted the dreaded drive back.
As I sat there trying to work out the next move, a woman sat herself down not far from me. Not a Spaniard, as sunbathing outside of the months of June, July and August is only for foreigners or mad folk, she was oblivious to what anyone thought of her. And bless her, she made me smile and feel like a glamour model as she was about 16 stone in weight and was wearing nothing but a very small flowery thong. Hurrah for women like her. There she was all big and strong and feisty and doing what she wanted to do. I set off back up the roller coaster motorway ready to face another day but with little idea of what it would hold.
Day three in the hovel and a knight in shining armour came to my rescue. Actually it was the best friend’s brother-in-law, an ex-fireman who had recently bought a piece of land off his own brother-in-law somewhere about an hour or so away from where I was staying. His plan was to build a house of his own. A complicated and convoluted connection, but a lifeline nonetheless. Anyway, John, as he is called, rang me to see how I was getting on and quickly realised that I was one very miserable lady. You see, men do have emotional intelligence. He picked up on this in just a short phone call. Perhaps the barely contained sobbing and descriptions of sleeping between damp sheets that felt like defrosting chicken breasts also gave him a bit of a clue about life in downtown gypsy-ville.
“Right,” he said “get yourself into that car of yours and come and stay with us. You can either stay here for the rest of your trip or you can talk to some estate agents around here and we’ll sort something else out for you.”
My hero. What a man. So that’s exactly what I did.
I peeled all the clothes back out of the damp wardrobes and layered them, like moist slices of boiled ham, back into the suitcases. I loaded the wine and food into bin liners as I didn’t have enough luggage to hold the results of my excessive gourmet shopping trip. I unplugged the George Foreman Grill and dropped the keys through the door of the empty estate agents with a great sense of satisfaction. I half hoped no one had the key to get into the shop to retrieve it and to this day I have never heard a word of apology from the nasty Mrs B. I walked away hoping that her miserable little house would be infested with a damp fungus so that she couldn’t rent it out again and ruin any more holidays for unsuspecting travellers. I really am over it now though. Honestly.
I made a final trek back down the slope, through the gap and onto the road to freedom. What a great feeling it was, and the fact that John was accompanied by two young New Zealand lads who were helping him with some building repairs in no way added to the feelings of anticipation I had about moving into my next new temporary home. Well, maybe just a little bit.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I guess it all started when my little dog, Maisie, died. She was thirteen years old and I loved her to bits. She was what made me get out of bed in the dark, horrible days when he who shall be known as The Big Shit, walked out the door one day and disappeared into the ether. Husbands are not supposed to do that are they? I had to get out of bed to walk her otherwise she would have driven me completely over the edge with her snuffling and barking – so I had no other option really. Of course, she wasn’t the only one who got me through those testing times, but looking back (which I try not to do too often) it’s what I remember most.
So, there she was, a little old lady on her last paws and I knew what was coming. And there I was, working like crazy, but loving almost every minute of the rush, confusion and general mayhem that comes with being an Interim in the world of Management Consulting. A divorced, half Italian, English woman. Still just about the right side of forty. Unfortunately on the wrong side of slim. Optimistic, realistic and easily bored. Changing clients every couple of months. Meeting new people. Some great, some hideous beyond belief – but that’s a whole other set of stories. Meeting new men, but never The One. It was time to take my foot off the gas for a month or two and go away for a while. Time to just sit back and smell the roses. No need to worry about who would dog-sit as she would be, I was convinced, somewhere in dog heaven sleeping, farting and eating to her heart’s content.
Everyone has something special about them. Some people are brilliant scientists or mathematicians. Others excel at sports or can wiggle their ears. Some are outstandingly beautiful and earn their living from their looks. Others are incredibly clever at doing things for charity. I, unfortunately, am none of the above. However, some small talent for Latin languages and a passion for food (rather too passionate actually as my ever expanding waistline is testament to), led me to choose to escape to rural Southern Spain. I would learn a new language, I decided. I would sample the local delicacies and lap up some sunshine. It would be the perfect antidote to a stressful job, a lack of holidays and for filling a small dog sized crack in my slightly battered but still hopeful heart.
I approached the task with my usual dedication and complete faith in the internet. I trawled through site after site until I found what I believed would be the perfect house for my two month break. It was on the edge of a medium sized village in the province of Granada in Andalucía, Southern Spain. Called Montefrio, which translates as Cold Mountain, this should have fired a warning shot across my slightly smug bows. The village had, so I read, various bars and restaurants, an historic centre and a temperate climate. The house had two bedrooms – perfect for all those pals who planned to come and visit – a delightful, secluded, private patio and access for all villagers to the sunny, outdoor village pool.
After spending many hours tapping figures into my trusty calculator, and taking into account the money I would not be earning while I was away, I figured out that I could afford two months off. What luxury. Never before had I taken a break like this. And then I started to factor things like cheap wine and food into the calculations. Blimey, I would almost be saving money by living in Spain for two months. Well, apart from paying my mortgage in London while I was away and the price of what seemed to me to be quite a high rental for the property in Spain.
My temporary landlady was to be a Mrs B from Rotherham who shall otherwise remain anonymous. Only because I am a lady (well, mostly) and aware of causing offence to others. She, on the other hand, proved herself to be no such thing. I don’t think this had anything to do with her coming from Rotherham though, so no offence meant to anyone from that vicinity.
I arrived to unexpectedly grey skies and a chill in the air one early May morning in 2004. I then stood in a very long and slow moving queue to pick up my hire car – Book Ahead, Beat the Queues! Yeah, right. I eventually set off alone driving on the “wrong” side of the road clutching a page of printed directions. No GPS in those days, just good old pen and ink. Considering it was the first time I had driven alone abroad (I had always had a co pilot to scream “move over, you’re about to hit the safety rails” at me in the past) and that I faced a couple of hours’ drive to an unknown location using nothing but my own ability to steer and read and the same time, I don’t think I did too badly.
I was slightly worried about the last few lines of the directions I had been sent which went something along the lines of:
“Once in the village take the third turning on the right off the main square. Follow this road for 100 metres when it will narrow quite dramatically. Even though it looks as though you can’t get a car through, don’t worry – we’ve driven our caravan through here with no trouble at all. Once through the gap (another 100m or so) park the car as the walk up to the house (another 100m) is very steep and there is no turning space for the car. Our local agent, Derek, will meet you at the house with the key and take the remainder of the rental money. Please ensure you pay him in cash.”
Well, amongst my special talents I forgot to list a quite advanced ability to scrape cars or to reverse them into bollards. And all without training. Amazing. I haven’t actually had any head on collisions in my many years of driving, but I do seem to have a bit of a spatial awareness problem which means that driving through narrow gaps leaves me practically hyperventilating with fear. The sweating palms don’t do much to help with controlling the steering wheel, so I was naturally quite anxious about the last few minutes of my journey. I also gave myself a moment to wonder about the kind of people I was renting from. Caravans, indeed. And in a picturesque Andalucían village – why on earth?
I managed the squeeze through the gap with only minimal damage to one of my wing mirrors. I thanked God for fully comprehensive car rental insurance and parked up outside what seemed to be a view over a rubbish tip to one side and a slum dwelling on the other side. Beginning my weary trudge up the last 100m of the journey (and mentally banishing my high, strappy sandals to a long holiday in the suitcase) I breathed in and took a look around at what would be my new neighbourhood. What it screamed at me was not charming, whitewashed, geranium clad paradise but riot hit, falling down, smelly ghetto.
The Beautiful Alhambra and not downtown Montefrio!
Derek was waiting for me smiling nervously. I suppose he was smiling because he knew he was about to be handed a big wodge of crisp Euros. I think the nerves were because he feared for his life in down town, gangsta-ville Montefrio.
“So, what made you decide to stay in the gypsy quarter then? And when’s your husband arriving to join you then – you’ll feel so much happier with someone to keep you company”. Hmph.
If you’d asked me even a day before what the words “gypsy quarter” brought to mind I’d have said violins, smoky barbecues and hot sultry summer night parties with lot of clapping, gold hooped earrings and wild flamenco dancing. Clearly this was a whole different gypsy quarter to the romantic novel image I had in my mind. Derek was in good need of a slap. Not to mention the plans I had for Mrs B.
After handing over the keys and grabbing the cash (counting it too if I remember correctly) Derek was soon scuttling back down the slope to the safety of his town centre, security gated house. What can I say about my new home? The patio, also sloping, was surrounded by railings which seemed to have been put there, more to keep intruders out than for growing scented jasmine up. The front door opened directly into the kitchen. I use the word kitchen loosely as it was more like a corridor with a sink, a two ring hob and, most bizarrely, a George Foreman Lean Mean Grillin’ Machine. A left turn led into the dining room which was actually a large area under the stairs and then up a very steep staircase to the sitting room. Yes, the house too was built on the slope.
Compact is a word I would also use and all the windows were made of those plastic frosted panels which generally appear on cheapo shower doors, so the room was bathed in a permanent murky twilight glow. Off to one side of the sitting room was an avocado bathroom suite, with no shower or windows. To the left was a bedroom which was, again, another space under the next set of steep stairs which led up to the final bedroom. There were no doors separating the bedrooms. There was no heating. There was no air con. There was, however, plenty of damp. It was all very dark and cold.
Had I not looked at photos on the website? Of course I had. All I can say is that Mrs B of Rotherham clearly had a good friend who was a skilled photographer and she was the queen of bullshit.
Ok, so I was upset. But not so upset that I couldn’t click back into sensible grown up woman mode. I phoned Derek, I phoned Mrs B. Remarkably I managed to speak to both of them but no amount of pleading (of both the hysterical and the calm kind) was going to get me my money back.
So, there it was. It was my choice. Stay and make the best of it or run back home crying. Of course, I do have some modicum of pride so I trekked back to the car and dragged my suitcases back up the slope, up the two flights of steep stairs and unpacked into the damp wardrobes. I went back to the car when the shops finally opened again at 6pm. I can remember how I felt at this point about Spanish working hours. I then drove through a thunderstorm to buy some basics (wine, food, wine, water, wine) and unloaded my many shopping bags back up the slope and into the “kitchen”.
As I ripped open the second carton of cheapo wine – times were desperate – I toasted my independence, my new adventure, my marvellous self and then allowed myself the indulgence of a good sob which was drowned out by the sound of rain on the plastic windows.
Way back in 2004, I was working as an Interim Slut in the hectic world of Management Consulting. For those of you fortunate enough not to know what an Interim Slut is, I´ll explain. Overworked consultant type person who “does” the grotty work and doesn´t just “advise” others on what to do. Underpaid enough to have to take anything that´s offered. Well, as long as it was legal. Any time, any place, any where…that was me. Almost. Travelling extensively and living largely out of of a suitcase, I decided it was time to take a break, enjoy some sunshine, learn a new language and relax. So far, I´m still living the Southern Spanish life and can’t get my head around going back to a “real” job. Here’s the story so far…
So in 2016 I turned 50. I was in Italy for my 21st, 30th and 40th. To keep this birthday tradition going I always knew I'd be in Italy for my 50! This blog starts with my 5 week adventure in Puglia but my love affair with Italy continues.....