Living in Spain, warts and all

When when is whenever

I have a need to talk today about the flirtatious but casual relationship that the Spanish conduct with the clock.

Coming from a culture as I do of strict time slots, an unhealthy obsession with timeliness and an intimate acquaintance with deadlines, I still, nine years on, struggle with the laissez-faire (¿dejad pasar in Spanish, perhaps?) attitude to all things remotely associated with time-keeping.

Oh, appointments may be made – I have been presented with enough of them recently to last me a life-time, thanks very much. But whether they actually mean anything much is a hugely questionable matter.

I have never – that’s never - managed to see anyone here at a designated time. And this holds across all manner of appointments, whether it involves me sitting in my car waiting for the appearance of a passenger, waiting in a bar for a friend to take coffee, waiting in a medical establishment for a precise appointment (lunes el 01 octubre a 08:47 – what’s that about?), waiting to see an official of el iltmo. Ayuntamiento, or my asesor, or a dog-owner.

The latter has exceeded all records to date for belatedness.

If I’ve been informed on booking-in that a dog will be collected on departure day in the morning, you can bet your life I won’t see a soul until 7pm. I have even waited until 8pm for an owner to appear for a mid-day pick-up , finally to concede defeat and call him, only to establish that he had been delayed and would be there the following morning.  And then still have had to ‘phone him the next afternoon after his non-appearance. The approach to punctuality is so laid-back as to be horizontal.

I have also experienced a different aspect of this temporal disregard several times to date.

I have fed and watered the guests at the kennels with their evening repast. I have cleaned up after them, sung to them and tucked them up for the night. I have closed their garden doors, so that I comply with the curfews regarding noise imposed upon me in my licence. Then I have returned to the house, to tackle the matter of my sustenance in all this and to pursue that most of elusive of all grails, an evening of relaxation.

Only to be rudely interrupted by the orchestral background of a car engine playing on the camino above the house accompanied by a strong solo on the horn.

This is, without fail, the music of an extended Spanish family who have decided to take a drive out into the campo to demand, unannounced, an inspection tour of the new kennels.

So I am obliged to drag myself back up the hill, to unlock all that I have only just locked, disturbing the recently-settled hounds who subsequently decide that, since I’ve mentioned it, it is high time for choir practice.

I then have to walk the crowd of sightseers around, pointing out in raised tones all the (multitudinous) luxury features of the accommodation while concurrently being deafened, and then hang around discussing the wondrous characters of their own pooches, before compiling a precise quote for a potential, provisional and unspecified stay for Lula or Macu or Nemo or Niko or Nuca.

Now I am at this point compelled to mention the guy who turned up last night in exactly this fashion, except that he had managed to deter the wife and kids and mother-in-law and next-door neighbour from coming along for the ride and was therefore solo apart from his dog.

“How much would it cost me to leave Rocky here for a week?” I was asked. Medium-sized dog rate, less discount for a stay of seven days or more – I calculated quickly and gave him his answer.

At which he promptly handed me the lead, with Rocky attached.

“See you next Friday, then”

Okayyyy. Don’t mind me, I live and breathe my work.

Dogs, on the other paw completely, are obsessive sticklers for time. They know exactly to the nanosecond when it is time for breakfast or supper, and will shout out to remind me of the fact with pinpoint accuracy.

I am convinced that all these smart-arsed animal behaviour experts and veterinarians who think that they know all there is to know about the dog have missed a fundamental evolutionary development in the species. Every dog, I have come to realise, is born with a miniature atomic pocket time-piece cunningly concealed about his anatomy – and he’s not afraid to use it.

The Bitch is Back

Forenote: I did actually write this four days ago. I posted it to my WordPress account (which has mutated somewhat since I last used it), lulled into a false sense of security by the invitation on the front page to make a new post. I typed it, edited it, tweaked and polished it, added a diagram, hit ‘publish now’ and was met with an error message and the complete deletion of all my work.
So I have sulked until now. Sorry.


My excuses for my lamentable lack of productivity of the verbose kind in the last six or so months  are manifold. I shall, for anyone interested, regale you with them now.

1) I have a rather incapacitating herniated L5-S1 disc (lower back) that precludes me sitting in one position for too long;

2) Point (1) has resulted in a plethora of medical appointments and the incalculable amount of time involved in actually trying to procure these appointments.

3) The luxury boarding kennels esPerro, which opened after years of battling with building materials (hence the back) and bureaucracy (hence the attitude), are now fully up and running. This summer I have, therefore, undergone a time-consuming baptism by fire – not only due to the sustained and unnecessarily high temperatures endured in Spain this year, but also as a result of the clamber up the steep learning curve of dog boarding that has resulted in the need for many tweaks in design and the concurrent invention of new swearwords;

4) We have had no rain here for several decades (please note: this changed dramatically on Friday, following my penmanship on Thursday!!) and so I have been obliged to coax and wheedle and point a hose at our garden and crops for inordinate amounts of time that could more profitably be spent elsewhere;

5) Ryanair’s spat(s) with the Spanish aviation authority, together with the usual school holiday price mugging and exacerbated by the UK’s hosting of the Olympics, have conspired to render air fares at such dizzy heights that one is required to sell one’s first-born to afford them. The upshot of which is that John has been here in Spain to assist me practically never.

6) It’s entirely possible that I am a lazy bugger.

All in all, I find myself constantly juggling – my physical bits (to carry out the simplest of tasks, like drive, walk, bend to place dog food at one end of a dog and collect the output at the other, etc) without sending hot daggers of pain shooting through my back and various attached parts, and my time (to take account of feeding and cleaning schedules and medical appointments in far-flung places, all within the framework of the usual crap with which we are all beset). Oh, and the construction of two new websites, the groundwork of a new business initiative, the ongoing beading classes, the promotion of the new edition of Bitten by Spain (the book) plus a new anthology called Forced to Fly 2 (due out in October), of which I am a contributor (the rest of it is very good, though!), the redecoration of much of the house following the earthquake last year and so on and so on….


So writing has been relegated to the bottom of a rather large pile. That’s not to say that I don’t continue to write stuff in my head, as it occurs – that has continued apace. But it hasn’t got any further than that for some considerable time. And, on reflection, it’s probably as well, since a Venn diagram of my mind recently would probably look something like this:

Probably best not released


But as I was lying on the magnetic resonance bed in the Hospital de la Real Piedad in Cehegín at  09:00h this morning (as I have done for the last five days and have yet to do for the next nine) for my rehab (-ilitación – but telling people that I’m in rehab gives me a small amount of twisted  satisfaction), it occurred to me thus:

In common with the other walking wounded in this place, I am a captive audience. I am staring vacantly around at the cool and reassuring duck-egg blue walls, washed by the aseptic glare of harsh white lights which glint off various instruments of torture physiotherapy. I am listening to mind-numbingly tedious radio emanating from a tinny silver globe, punctuated by the occasional squeak from the equipment interspersed with the odd involuntary fart (which hurts my back terribly, in that I am prone and inactive and the fart is not mine, and for some reason other people’s farts are hilarious and I am therefore heavily suppressing the mirth that desperately wants to burst forth at each apologetic little ‘blaaaat’).

Apart from that, I am terminally bored.

But then I realised that I have a notebook and pen in my bag.

Time to write. Tough luck, guys!


I recently made my way home from the airport during a late October evening into an absolutely vivid and glorious late autumn dusk. To the west, marching along a classic Mediterranean skyline, were the black silhouettes of tall palm trees reaching exactly as they should into a pink and orange firmament framed by deep turquoise darkening to indigo. Completing the picture, as is only right and proper, were the myriad dark specks of birds streaming southwards before the cold winter weather envelops this land in earnest.

There was, however, a jarring note in this idyllic scene. While the colourful skies were behaving themselves perfectly, with all the hues merging beautifully in all the right places, and the black palms were waving obligingly and elegantly in perfect time, driven by the fresh breeze, I was dismayed to note that the flocks of migrating birds were flying in V-shaped formations as sharp and as clean as warm blancmanges. Never before have I witnessed such a straggly, unkempt and frankly disgraceful display. I can only imagine that, charged with the mission of fetching along the Christmas duty-free to their southern relatives, these aviators, to a bird, had sampled one too many in the Spanish bodegas.

I have just had reason to spend a substantial amount of time watching birds flying overhead in the area local to the caravan, too. A loud and unexpected firework, let off early one morning for no apparent reason whatsoever, put the fear of God into the parrots and caused Jack, the African grey, and a recently-added little cockatiel Joey, to take flight through the open barn door. Both were clipped, and neither were in good flying form since they never really had the opportunity to practise, but the strong thermals in the valley were obviously enough to give them lift and we watched horrified as both soared up and disappeared from view.

The area here is densely covered with tall pine trees, and the terrain is mountainous, folded, and ideal for two birds to lose themselves thoroughly. It was therefore with a heavy heart and next-to-no hope of recovery that I turned out to hunt for them.
We had a rough idea of their outward-bound direction, and I know that domestic parrots will usually stay within a mile radius of home for at least a week, but still the task seemed more daunting than the proverbial needle in a whole county full of haystacks.
John was obliged to fly back to the UK that same day, so when I turned out the following morning I was accompanied by Lisa and Donna, who, troopers that they are, arrived early on my doorstep and spent all morning trudging round the near neighbourhood letting the bemused farmers know of my losses, and handing out phone numbers on the off-chance that any one of them should spot either of the birds. To no avail, of course.

The following day, Donna and I went out even earlier, before dawn, with the idea that we would drive a little way into the suspect area and holler at the tops of our lungs as the sun came up, as recommended by internet sites on lost parrots . On our way, we spotted a patrolling Policía Local car, so I screeched to a halt in front of it, leapt from my car and waved them down. Poor guys; they blanched visibly at the vision of an ungroomed and clearly demented Englishwoman coming at them from the dark flailing like a windmill, but they gamely took details and said they’d pass them on to the forest rangers further up into the mountains. They also gave me permission to put up some “Lost” posters (which is handy, because I was going to do that anyway).

But it turned out to be another fruitless journey.

On the way home, disheartened and thirsty, we made our last port of call with the posters to a local dog kennels, probably less than three hundred metres downstream from me as the crow (or parrot) flies but much further by road. I knew that this was run by an English lady I had never previously met. Mavis, who has subsequently become a good friend, had her daughter Trina and four grandchildren Tom, Becky, Lewis and Chelsea staying with her, and all agreed to keep a keen eye out for my wayward birds.

That same day, Lisa and I had arranged to travel down to La Casa de Coko, a parrot sanctuary in Cartagena, about an hour away, to pick up a new bird I was adopting. This adoption had arisen following a prior visit to the sanctuary in which Lisa had conducted an interview for a magazine article she was writing for her North West Murcia Gazette, and I acted as her photographer. Noodle, a green Indian Ringneck parrot, provided one of the star photos. She is a disturbed little bird who has plucked herself right down to oven-ready chicken with a big green pom-pom head (which part she physically can’t reach to pluck, or she would) and I fell in love with her, even though she would surely take out my jugular if I was incautious with her.

So we drove down to pick her up, with me feeling immensely fraudulent to be taking a new feathered friend into my care when I was clearly an unfit mother hen.

Lisa stopped for a coffee when we arrived back at the caravan, and then disappeared with the promise of extra help the following day in the great hunt.

As her tail light disappeared around the bend of the camino, the phone rang. It was Mavis.
“I think we can see your African grey in a tree just across the river. He’s been whistling and calling, and the kids have been calling back to him to keep him interested”.
I got there within three minutes (the Policía Local were fortunately somewhere else) – and there, indeed, was Jack, perched at the very top of the highest pine I have ever seen.

Quivering with relief, I walked very slowly down towards the river until I was about ten metres away from the pine, looking up at Jack. I spoke to him, using the phrases and whistles we use to each other as “flock calls”; he looked down at me, with his head on one side, and whistled back. We kept up this interchange for about ten minutes, while I held aloft a peanut as an offering to tempt him down to me.
Then a car full of young Spaniards drove past at speed, with all the windows wide open, stereo blaring, making as much noise as only Spaniards can, and Jack took off.

I immediately took chase, along with Lewis and Chelsea, in the direction of his flight. This, for us, involved a frenzied scramble uphill from the river through all manner of undergrowth and brambles, insect nests and dog turds (I hope), in a vain attempt each to follow on two (clumsy) legs a creature soaring free on two wings. But we did manage to spot from afar his next landing place – a tree high up on the edge of a cliff at the bend in the river, beyond a fenced villa. Scrambling noisily across treacherous terrain towards the landward side of the villa, I saw a man with his back to me working in the gardens, and so I ran towards the fence to accost him and to ask him to watch the “gris con cola roja” (grey with red tail) in the tree on the other side of his place.

But as I hurtled towards him, and yelled, “¡Perdoneme, Señor!” (excuse me, Sir!) I fell into a ditch immediately before his fence and disappeared entirely from view. The poor man spun, startled, to see absolutely nothing at all. The only evidence that he had been so rudely interrupted was the sound of gentle moaning from a point just below ground level beyond the fence.
I hoisted myself from the cleverly-concealed man trap and arose, now clad in an assortment of grasses and copious amounts of dust, with ripped trousers and beset by a severe limp where I had also torn something vital in my knee during the descent. I made my request about vigilance with regard to the bird in the tree… that was no longer there. Bugger.

We limped back forlornly to Mavis, who announced that Jack had flown back full circle and was somewhere nearby. So we agreed that I would bring his cage to the kennels courtyard and leave it there with food and water in the hope that he was running short of both.

For four more days we continued our look-out. The kids were marvellous – they’d heard my whistles and the expressions I used with Jack, and they used them repeatedly to keep him focussed on the courtyard and his cage. Each morning, I would arrive just before dawn, with Cookie Cockatoo– who was not best pleased about the early mornings and was getting increasingly bad-tempered about the whole thing, but who would, therefore, let forth a tirade of abuse as we arrived which aroused Jack’s interest immensely. We would talk to Jack for up to an hour each day, before he took off into the wild blue yonder just to underline the point that he was free so to do.

On the morning of day five, Jack sat at the top of the Washingtonia palm tree in the courtyard and talked to us for ages before soaring off. And looking, I have to say, so beautiful and natural in flight that I felt (still feel) pangs at the thought of him caged.

But the day turned nasty, as low cloud came in and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. That evening, the thunder and lightning were much closer, and the rain heavy, so that when I made my way to the kennels, there was no sign of him at all, and I returned to the caravan after a couple of hours’ vigil without any sightings and completely dispirited. I spoke to John that evening, and told him that I though we’d lost him for good, in that the weather had probably forced him to take cover in the denser forest higher up. I was also ever-fearful of the large birds of prey overhead.

I said that I would give it one more day.

The following morning, I got there early as usual; the kids were already all up and about in their pyjamas, and were telling me that they were returning to the UK that evening but that they really didn’t want to go until we got Jack back. I told them that I was in agreement and not to worry, because I would be keeping them hostage until his return, as they were doing such a fine job of communication with him.
Mavis made me a coffee, and I stood outside in the drizzle, while the kids hovered about under the porch, buzzing.

We spent about twenty minutes making all the usual noises and calls to Jack, with no response. I was now convinced that I had been correct the previous evening – he’d gone. I drank my coffee morosely, wandered over to his empty cage and took out a handful of sad-looking wet peanuts without enthusiasm.
“Jack wanna peanut?” I called out over the persistent patter of the rain, holding aloft a soggy and unappetising sample. “Wanna peanut?”

“Oh”, replied Jack, from a low palm branch about two metres up and some five metres away from me.
I froze. The kids froze. The rain continued.

“Hello, Jack. Love you.”

“Love you”, replied Jack.

“Wanna peanut?” I repeated, turning slowly and holding one out directly to him, as I started to inch carefully, cautiously closer, talking softly to him all the while. The kids, bless them, remained utterly still and as silent as church mice. After what felt like an eternity, I stood below him, almost near enough to touch him. He dipped his head and I gently reached the peanut up to him, just far enough away from his beak to make him strain down a little way for it, which, after only brief hesitation, he did.

And I grabbed him. He bit me, but not too hard, as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to come home, get dry, eat and sleep in safety – but don’t take it for granted”.

The kids screamed loud and long, and danced around in their PJs in the rain like some demented heathen tribe giving thanks, with Trina watching aghast, knowing that she had to dry all their clothes before leaving. I, to my everlasting mortification, howled like a baby. It was a fantastic end to the kids’ holiday, and Trina took them home happy.

I never saw Joey again, though.

Battered and Fried

I was not put on this earth to be decorative.

As children, both my sister Sue and I were extreme tomboys, eschewing dolls and prams for footballs and model spaceships. And we were dangerous.

Such was our reputation that the headmaster of our primary school, at first assembly of each new term, would routinely ask, “Which of the Cassidy sisters is in plaster this time?”

So there you have it. My maiden name was Cassidy. In the summer of my eleventh year, just before I was due to move up to my first grammar school, I managed to break my leg on roller skates. I was, therefore, christened by some perceptive (if not a little out-dated) wag with the nickname ‘Hopalong’ – and so I remained throughout my school days.

For some reason, Fate feels duty-bound to type-cast me forever. I am widely-known as being accident-prone, although in my defence I have to protest that often my injuries are not my own fault – that I am more unlucky than clumsy (although I may be that, too).

I mean, a spider bite (Bitten by Spain) is hardly an act of ineptitude on my part, although drilling a hole in my own leg (Tractors and Drills ) does admittedly fall into that category. And I will confess that I do sometimes take risks, like groping my way along the top of a high wall in the dark, in the wet, in heels ( Falling Rain) and clambering across a steep roof to recover a pathetic cat (Rescue!).

However, it is also true that often I am at the mercy of events that are foist upon me, rather than attributable to me.

Last week, I almost managed to modify my nose for free. I was looking after Ollie, the blue and gold macaw that resided with me for a year or so before he was adopted by Linda and Trevor, who have worked wonders with him and have turned him into a real cuddly bird. The trouble is, he is now so very friendly that he wants to be in someone’s arms all the time – not a possibility when I am trying to clean his flight. So as he swung down from the roof to grab me, I feinted sideways … into the end of a metal perch, face-first, and almost sliced off the tip of my nose.

There was a fair bit of blood, and a resulting effect of having been slashed by a lion. It elicited some raised eyebrows when I ventured forth into public places, but it has settled down now to a mere couple of fine lines that can be covered with a small trowel of concealer.

Not good enough for Fate. I have another parrot boarding with me this week. Mr. Pedro, I have already had cause to mention (The Good, the Bad and the Snuggly ), hates me with a vengeance. Despite constant protestations from Chris, his owner, who assured me when she left him this time that he hardly ever bites now (!), this parrot would kill me if he could but find the opportunity.

This morning I went into the flights to change water and dole out breakfast to all the parrots. In Pedro’s flight, I keep my distance – I wouldn’t even consider an attempt at handling him, as I find two hands are generally not enough and I cannot sacrifice one of them. Further, I enter that particular space bent double, to keep my face firmly pointed down and out of reach of his perch, since he has been known to swing upside down in an attempt to take out my eyes. A face full of parrot does not appeal.

Generally, I find that this works, provided I am quick with the removal of the food bowls.

Today, he was having none of it. As soon as I was in and at his mercy, he actually flung himself bodily off his perch and landed on the back of my head. There, he dug all his claws into my scalp to make sure I couldn’t shake him off, and proceeded to bury the point of his upper beak under the skin, while grinding away with the flat edge of the bottom beak in an attempt to scalp me.

The scalp is a thin piece of skin stretched tautly across the skull. When it is split, it bleeds profusely. I could feel blood running through my hair, but I didn’t dare raise my hands to dislodge my stowaway, for fear of macerated fingers. So I had to grit my teeth and bend further so that he was actually hanging upside down from the top of my head. Then I was able to brush him against a lower perch until he disengaged from my tattered skull.

This occurred almost twelve hours ago. The wound is still weeping dismally, and I am feeling sorry for myself. All ‘ aaah’ and ‘poor you’ expressions of sympathy will be welcome.

This all happened at stupid o’clock this morning, a time at which I am routinely having to heave myself out of bed these days. The cool and changeable weather we were dealt in April has given way to meltdown this week, and I have to get out to water the baby vegetable plants in the huerta before the sun gets to them. I also have to feed and water the parrots and my own pack of hounds before ascending from the house to the kennels to see to residents at around 7am.

Who said I came to Spain for the relaxed lifestyle, the mañana mañana attitude? What went wrong?

Of dog kennels and goats

We had our fiesta de inauguración for the kennels on Sunday, following a week of frantic activity involving the procurement of vast quantities of food and drink, and the mobilisation of friends with fistfuls of paper to spread the word.

It was, general opinion has it, a great success. We had advertised that gates would be open from 12 noon to 8pm, so of course our first visitor arrived a quarter of an hour early and the last turned up at 8pm on the nose, by which time we were beyond tired and ready for a serious bout of doing absolutely nothing – but hey! In between, we had a good show of visitors, some with their dogs along to check out the accommodation, and we registered a cluster of clients and actually took some bookings on the day, too.

Checking out the kennels

My plans, which had run like clockwork through the preceding week, collapsed like a vampire exposed to sunlight into a pile of dust on the morning of the open day, and I have to thank our dear friends Avril and Iain for slaving in the kitchen getting all the food prepared and out to the tables as John and I fielded the early visitors. Likewise, I am indebted to Andreas, our intrepid builder, who put on his barman’s head and manned the beer pumps for a good part of the day.

Kitchen wallahs

Pedro, our obliging though noisy neighbour, kindly demonstrated the sleeping accommodation for us, after the umpteenth visitor had asked if we would take winter bookings for homo sapiens given that the heated beds and the wood-burning stove would surely render the kennels warmer than the normal unheated Spanish property.

Testing the beds ...

The weather was very kind to us, despite dire forecasts of a rainy day – we enjoyed blue skies with patchy clouds of teased cotton wool and the temperatures were probably ideal. A small problem arose mid-afternoon as the wind suddenly got up and whipped all the serviettes and half the sandwiches away to flap madly across the valley like white bats, but apart from that we were pretty blessed.

Some people covered a fair distance to support us during the day, including friends from our previous hunting ground some 80km away here in Spain. But we were most honoured to be joined by the unsurpassed blogger Mo of Spainstruck fame and her hubby Ramón and adorable daughter Sara. Mo has been an e-acquaintance (which is a bit like an imaginary friend – someone to whom you speak via the ethernet but never expect anyone else to see) for about a year now, and she shocked me rigid when I put up the general Facebook invite to the open day and she informed me that they planned to drive in excess of four hours to attend!

And attend they did. Now, Mo was one of the very first people to read the second edition of Bitten by Spain (the book) which was published recently by Summertime Publishing. Which means that she arrived knowing far too much about us and feeling as though she was already familiar with the motley crew of animals, el Cabrón, Pedro next door and all other characters that appear in the book. So I found myself in that strange state of anxiety whereby I was petrified of being a total let-down: of having talked us all up so much that the reality is a wash-out, an anti-climax, a nothing.

However, we fed her plenty of wine and a Thai banquet so I think we may have got away with it. In truth, it was an absolute delight to have met them in the flesh, rather than through Mo’s blog, and we hope very much to return the compliment and travel up to Alcalá de Henares some time soon.

Clara turned up on my doorstep on Monday. Still anxious to show us her appreciation of our efforts to apprehend her thieves (The Hills are Alive…), she wanted to give us a trailer-load of steaming goat excrement. Now this might strike you as odd – but last year, we had to buy the same from a local farmer and it cost us 100€, which surprised us considerably at the time but proved, upon investigation, to be the going rate, so her gift is in fact a generous one.

But it wasn’t enough for us to accept it with our profuse thanks – we were also summoned to the goat farm for a grand tour. I have previously put off this visit a number of times, for several reasons: 1) I don’t eat meat, apart from chicken and fish, and so I don’t find a livestock farm to be a particularly attractive venue; 2) Clara can talk the hind leg off a donkey and therefore a visit to her enclave as a captive audience would be likely to take a considerable chunk out of a day; and 3) it stinks. Nonetheless, on this occasion we were not given much choice, as Clara insisted with an emphatic “Venid! venid!”

They boast over 1000 goats and sheep on the farm. I have to confess that I can’t tell one from t’other – they all look like some kind of hybrid of the two to me. A goodly number of the goats were eating from huge trenches full of old oranges, lemons and red peppers, a process which appears to be a close approximation to perpetual motion to me – food goes in the top end, and farts come out of the bottom in a constant stream.

Other goats were inside a large holding shed waiting to be hooked up to the milking machines. Clara showed us the milk vats – 800 litres of milk are collected per day and are then sent off to become cheese, and she tells us the milking process takes about three hours each day.

The next shed was populated by some seventy-odd three/four-month old lambs, still young and clean enough to be considered cute and cuddly. “They’ll be off soon for meat,” she announced. Bugger – I really didn’t want to know that.

The last shed, when the door was opened, contained a smell that hit the sinuses like a huge bottle of smelling salts – the eyes watered profusely, the pain was akin to having red hot needles shoved up each nostril and into the frontal lobe, and the throat automatically closed off to prevent terminal damage to the lining of the lungs. This shed housed the tiny lambs and kids, just a week or so old, and was therefore kept warm – the effect was like putting a sodden nappy in the oven (definitely not to be tried at home). How those poor wee things were still standing – and breathing – beats me! They must have a far sturdier constitution than I.

We escaped two hours later, when Pedro, Clara’s husband, appeared with our gift loaded into the front bucket of his tractor (a proper grown-up tractor, not a wee distractor like ours). Clara clambered up onto the running strip and they took off for our vegetable patch looking for all the world like the Clampetts.

So we now have a rich and fertile (if a little dubious in the olfactory department) plot that John then prepared for the planting of all our vegetable plugs, which I fully expect to reach hitherto unheard-of size – which matters, despite all rumours to the contrary.

I wrote piece this a few years back – long before the other issue of “Thinking of opening a compliant business in Spain?” reared its ugly head …

I thought it was time to resurrect it!

Thinking of renovating or building in the campo?

Then you may need to consider the following points – from one who has been there, done that, failed dismally…..

(1) The reality check

OK – so you have trawled extensively around various bits of Spain in the economy hire car to discover the mountainside or valley or olive grove that most closely resembles the picturesque setting for your dream home that has been plastered inside your eyelids for many a year. Having avoided untold pressure from various agents specialising in rural properties, you have finally found The One.

Is the situation of the property or land really tenable? Are you happy to replace your shock absorbers every year traversing the potholed and rock-covered camino that leads to it? If you intend to build, is it accessible for lorries to bring materials to it? Are you prepared to use a car each time you need bread and milk, and to pick up your post from an apartado de Correos, or to collect from a more civilised meeting point anyone who needs to get to you? Is it legally for sale?

You can ask to see the Catastro entry to establish who owns it. Not a bad idea to attempt to speak to the owner, too, if humanly possible – the estate agent will be adding a large amount to the sale price for himself, which may mean that you pay much more than the value that will eventually be entered on the escritura. Is the entire area fully represented on the escritura? Historically, much smaller areas than actually exist have been entered, to reduce contributions. If there is a property on the land, does it appear on the escritura (or even on the Catastro)?

If not, insist that it is entered before you consider buying (this one is a case of “do as I say, not as I did”, I regret to say). This process requires the measurement and certification of antiquity by an architect and a valuation by a tasador, plus a visit to the Notary, and does not come cheap If you intend to renovate or build, is it likely to be feasible? You need to know something about the local requirements and restrictions.

For example, in my area (Bullas, Murcia) you will need a parcela of at least 20,000m2 in order to even consider the building of one house. Is the parcela in an area set aside as National Park or otherwise protected? My (illegal) house is sited in an area considered to be non-urbanisable because it is in an area of natural beauty– something we didn’t know when we started it. It doesn’t matter that the parcela we bought, which occupies the south-facing slope of a river valley, was full of rusting car parts, dead dogs, old beer cans and a rubber plantation of condoms all lurking in shoulder-high overgrowth before we turned it into something much more beautiful. Be very careful, and …..

(2) Trust no-one

Except a very good and knowledgeable interpreter if you don’t speak the language, and possibly even if you do. Estate agents here have no obligation to be accurate, fair, or even truthful, let alone qualified or affiliated with a professional body. In my experience, truth is to many agentes inmobiliarios what a bicycle is to a fish. You are likely to be misled, misdirected, misinformed and be told downright lies – even the solicitors and the Notaries have been complicit in this, especially if they are local and (likely) related to the estate agent, builder, vendor…..

While I don’t usually subscribe to the notion that it is best to use English-speaking people to carry out all that is necessary to achieve your desired ends, I would highly recommend seeking out a firm of Solicitors from the UK but firmly based in and knowledgeable about Spain. As Brits, we suffer very much from the expectations that arise from having lived in a country where processes are prescribed, and we believe that in paying a professional here in Spain our interests will be guarded and all necessary procedures will be carried out on our behalf.

Certainly not so. Having sold our first house in Spain and bought our particular little piece of heaven here late 2005/early 2006, I am still struggling, in 2010, to remove my name from the Catastro for the first and get it onto same for the second because I only discovered mid 2007 that this was not done at either point of sale. I’m still not even clear who should have done it, in the time-honoured Spanish fashion of not being able to elicit a clear answer from anyone on the subject.

Ask your Solicitor to detail the processes for buying and for applying for permissions to renovate or build, and check that they are happening.

(3) Be prepared for a long wait

The “mañana, mañana” attitude holds never more true than in dealings with the Ayuntamiento. They are hopeless. Even after we were told by way of a denuncia, that our house-building was illegal (point 1) and that the paperwork our builder and architect alleged to have had in place to commence the work was, in fact non-existent, it took three years to obtain a resolution and the fine from the Ayuntamiento – and even then because I made such a fuss almost daily in the Oficina Técnica that they hurried it through just to get rid of this “crazy English woman who won’t be content until she has given us many thousands of euros to settle a fine”.

Our builder and his architect, by the way, had disappeared off the face of the earth at point of denuncia, leaving us to face the music.

(4) Sourcing the tradesmen

So you have your parcela and your planning permission. To source the tradesmen, insist on seeing their work and talking to their previous clients. Word of mouth is not enough. Be sure that they will be compliant with your requirements, including materials and methods. Anyone who has lived in Spain will know that their methods are a continent apart from the ones we have always known – and, while some are better, some are definitely sub-standard. You may find that some builders are not entirely up to speed with current regulations regarding, for example, sewage disposal treatment units rather than the old concrete soakaways, or solar tanks for hot water. Make sure that you do your homework so that you can keep a tight check on their compliance.

Know what you want in terms of insulation, windows, electrics, plumbing, waste – and demand that it is done to your satisfaction. Be actively involved in decision-making (they hate this, by the way, but it pays off). Do not pay before you are satisfied, or before the job is complete and functional. Above all, BE THERE.

(5) Befriend your Spanish neighbours

They are likely to be your biggest allies in times of trouble. If nothing else, it may at least minimise the encroachments on your land that could otherwise arise (“oh, actually, this particular field is mine … yes, I know it’s shown on your escritura to be yours, but it is an error, and everyone here knows that it is really mine…”).

Be aware that you may need to fork out extra to prove your entitlements. Are you sufficiently deterred? If you still believe, as I did, that you will only be happy once you have realised this particular dream, then go armed and prepared.

Above all, the very best of luck to you.

Believe me, it is worth it, if you have the stamina.

The kennels are now open for business at last (YAY!!), although I still have some additional papers to submit.

One such piece of paper is a contract for cleaning. I actually have that in my grubby paw now, having exchanged it for four crisp 50€ notes. It was handed to me, along with a thick maintenance book, by a technician who at the same time placed four black mouse traps full of poison at strategic positions in the three barn zones that are not a part of the business, and in the kitchen, which is. Whether or nor I approve.

He also tells me that he has sprayed some sort of insecticide, although where, I didn’t witness.

Further, he has totally disinfected the loo. Which is brand new. And use of which I can count on one finger. He went in with a ghostbusters pack on his back, but no mask, and emerged a few minutes later instructing me to keep out for five minutes, for my own health.

No problem, I hear that from John all the time.

So – good money for extremely old rope? But at least it satisfies yet another requirement of the iltmo ayuntamiento, and leaves me just two itsy bitsy things more to sort: the plan of the fences, and the fianza (deposit). Until they up the ante again, of course.

I did hear mutterings about disabled access when the three wise men of the oficina técnica were here to inspect. They were debating the possibility of giving me grief about the step into our reception area. In this PC world, it wouldn’t surprise me at all – although I am, in all honesty, unsure quite how many people are going to drive their limited mobility vehicle into the campo with dog and wheelchair on board.

Then, of course, we would by extrapolation be asked to fill in all potholes in the camino so that the same wheelchairs can slalem down the camino to the river without upending (or at least, not until they reach the bottom).

I mentioned in passing earlier this year (Three deaths, a murder and a plethora of paper cuts) that I have a mangled thumb. This came about late October last as John and I were insulating and lining the roof of the kennels.

John was perched on a ladder guiding a sheet of plasterboard (2440 x 1220mm, if you’re interested) into place while I was stood below winding the lifter. This particular piece of machinery is one of those simple but indispensable tools without which the job would involve ten times the struggle, twenty times the sweat and a hundred times the swearing, and we were immensely grateful to have it onside.

The job required some fifty sheets of plasterboard in total. We were, typically, within striking distance of the end of it. Then, as I turned the winder for the final push to hold this particular board up to the rafters, the cable broke.

The whole platform, together with its load, came crashing down about my ears. My right hand, which had been on the winding handle, was thrown into the wheel, which spun violently in pace with the descending platform.

It took a mere two seconds, at the end of which I was bent double floundering in a sea of intense pain and nausea. John shouted at me. This, I have to say, is his usual reaction. As a firefighter, he is a qualified trauma technician and is the one who has to deal with some unspeakable injuries in the course of duty. But when it comes to any sort of damage to me, he keeps his distance and yells at me.

Always full of abject apologies after the event, he confesses that he cannot deal with injuries I might sustain and he shouts because he is scared.

That’s OK, then.

Anyhow, the thumb. I went to A&E for x-rays, but was informed that it was just tendonitis – that I had to take anti-inflammatories and wear a thumb support. I did this for several months, but nothing much seemed to be improving. My thumb is still swollen and distorted – I cannot straighten it, I cannot clench it, I cannot open jars, write, or pick anything up without dropping it again. It’s a mess, in a word.

So I then visited the GP, who sent me back to hospital to trauma, who then sent me for an MRI scan this past Tuesday.

Upon being called, I entered an antechamber, to be met by the radiologist who told me to strip off completely and don one of those see-through paper gowns with no back ties. I looked at him askance. I’ve heard bad jokes that start like this. Undress? For a poorly thumb?

Yes indeed. Unaccustomed as I am, I was unaware that my entire body would be thrust inside the huge torpedo of electromagnets and so needed to be, to all intents and purposes, naked. My hand was locked tight in a small box by my side – so small that I emerged with additional bruises, in case it wasn’t already uncomfortable enough. A pair of headphones were stuck unceremoniously on my head and I was instructed in no uncertain terms not to move. Not a muscle. Not a twitch nor a flutter.

No pressure, then. I’m lying there trying my damnedest not to breathe, but in fact I’m almost panting because I’m a tad claustrophobic and I am not enjoying the confines of the tube in the slightest. Then began the immense cacophony of noise.

Zip-zip-zip-zip-zip CRASH! rumblerumblerumble … ye gods, I can see the need now for the headphones. Twenty minutes of this (not long, he’d stated) was going to feel like an eternity.

But then, given my current inability to satisfy my need for nightly rest, I must have drifted into sleep.

Only to be startled back to the present by another sudden particularly loud and intrusive explosion of noise. Now I don’t know about you, but one of the parts most likely to move when I am rudely awoken is my hand. Then the headphones crackled into life. “Deborah!!” I heard his voice, tinny yet undeniably furious, “You must stay completely still. It’s ruined – we’ll have to run it again!”

So my twenty minutes stretched to forty-odd, and I lay there desperately trying to stay alert this time but unable even to pinch myself.

At least I fared a  little better than Marcos, though.

Marcos is our Podenco/Irish Wolfhound/bull mammoth/donkey cross, named for the saint on whose day he came to be mine four years ago. At the outset, he was a large and fluffy puppy. As he’s grown, he has become more and more hirsute, and his shaggy coat has become pretty disreputable with knots and snags and various embedded pieces of tree.

So I decided it was high time for a trim. I have in the past attempted to carry out this operation myself, but after the total ruination of several sets of John’s hair clippers, I have come to the conclusion that they are not man enough for this particular job, so I booked him into the veterinary clinic for professional grooming.

“A good trim,” quoth I, “To remove all the tangles and make him look tidier.”












Thank the gods it’ll grow again …

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