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.