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.