Living in Spain, warts and all

Wrong wrong wrong …

There are a couple of comments that people invariably make to me regarding my life choices that annoy me intensely and are (depending on my level of stress at the point of hearing them) likely to elicit a response littered with expletives.

The first (and by far the worst) is, “you are so lucky to be living in Spain.”

Lucky? Lucky? Where in heaven’s name did luck ever come into it? Did some distant and unknown Spanish ancestor bequeath me the land here, along with the wherewithal to run it? No.

Were we just beamed up in Star Trek style one day whilst enjoying our comfortable home (and income) in the UK, and then deposited here to enjoy a better life? No.

Has the path upon which we have limped in locating, buying, reforming, fighting for justice and so on been an enjoyable saunter strewn with rose petals ? NO!

We have had to jump though barbed wire hoops of fire with local authorities, we have sweated blood and tears carrying out immensely heavy work, suffered the vagaries of all extremes of inclement weather and lurched up the steep learning curve of opaque processes here.

Never tell me that I am lucky. All this has come about through our intense efforts, and our efforts alone.

Yes, we now live in a beautiful mountain valley in southern Spain. Yes, the house is well-designed, very comfortable and (though I say it myself) simply gorgeous. Yes, the land is slowly becoming more cultivated and so yields us ample reward.

But please don’t for one moment think we released a genie from a bottle one day and found ourselves magically bestowed with these things. We have toiled more than most to achieve it all.

The second one, which I can forgive a little more readily although I still need to challenge it, is, “you are living my dream!”

Bugger off. You have no idea.

People often expand upon this by waxing lyrical about living in the countryside, away from it all, surrounded by a collection of various and sundry animals of choice, growing produce for the table, enjoying the use of “green” systems, lazing about in the sun sipping local wines …

Yes, I can in part forgive this sort of delusional idea of our fight for existence here, mainly because it was my dream too!

However, in common with most ‘dreams’, the reality of it includes the other side of slumber’s imaginings – the nightmares.

Please don’t get me wrong – I love it here. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that the good aspects of it outweigh the bad, I admit that they do make it worth struggling on. But you should be aware of the downsides, and so I will attempt to disabuse you of some of your misconceptions.

Animals: I love my motley collection of demented beasties (currently five dogs, three cats, six parrots and six chickens). But I didn’t intend to have so many, in truth.

Of the dogs, I came to Spain with one only – my poor old Lady Jade, who is now in the twilight of her years. Marcos, the bull whale cross yak rug, I accepted from his owner as a puppy. The other three I have taken in because they were abandoned. I see abandoned dogs daily here, as I’m sure do most people living in Spain (and many other countries) but though I certainly have the space, I do not have the resources to offer sanctuary to more. And it breaks my heart.

The cats have all come to me of their own accord. Again, it stretches my meagre resources to the limit to keep them in food and treatment. We live in a beautiful valley, yes, but it is certainly not populated with good and kind faeries. It is full of savage and aggressive things that can, and do, cause harm to other living things. Snakes, spiders, ticks, caterpillars, sand flies – all of these things demand that I provide defences for my crew (and myself!) And even then, I cannot protect them entirely. Saphi, one of the newest additions, has leishmaniasis, due to bites from the sand fly vectors, despite the fact that all the dogs constantly sport the expensive Scalibor collars to discourage the bites. Smokie, the oldest cat, is (being an excellent ratter) constantly riddled with intestinal worms, which ongoing treatment never seems to eliminate fully. Qivi, the husky, could have died last year when he took a bite out of a large toad that had wandered into the dog yard.

Then we have the inevitable and frequent deaths. I lost one of the chickens last week to some wasting disease that left her weighing almost nothing. I didn’t realise this until she collapsed, although I had earlier separated her from the other six because they had begun to attack her quite viciously and would, I think, have killed her. In retrospect, I’ve learned another lesson – that which seems savage and cruel to me obviously would, in fact, have been an act of compassion.

I opened the parrot house ‘airlock’ yesterday to find that a young sparrow had managed to squeeze its way in through the mesh. As I shoo’d it out through the main door, Marcos, against all laws of gravity, managed to heave his huge carcass into the air in an unbelievably elegant double pirouette, and snatched the poor little thing mid-flight, killing it instantly.

Then I find chewed-up lizards, mice heads and bird corpses all over the place courtesy of the cats. All utterly distasteful to an animal lover. Death is of course a fact of life, but it is so much more immediate out here.

Home produce: This cannot be described as anything other than hard work! Without doubt, it is pleasurable beyond measure to consume delicious organic products of your own labour. But the labour is intensive and demanding. Planting, weeding, picking out and cropping all takes an inordinate amount of time and effort.

The sun is unforgiving – watering is an essential chore. We have installed an irrigation system for the vegetables, which affords us a degree of labour-saving, but we have found that the automatic timers fail disappointingly quickly in this climate, and so we need to open taps manually. The drippers along the lengths of the irrigation tubes become clogged with fine dust and so need frequent maintenance. The tubes themselves are prone to split in the dry heat. It is a constant battle to keep the system running.

We have to use fifty-metre hoses in each of three directions to supply water to the new olive trees planted on two terraces, and to the fruit and nut trees planted on a third. This involves a good hour’s worth of labour dragging the heavy water-laden pipes across the terrain and directing them at the trees one by one. It is also necessary to do this either early morning or late evening, to avoid sunstroke – but the former involves being tormented by flies, and the latter invariably leads to a large number of mosquito bites.

Then, when produce is ready to crop, there is suddenly a goodly quantity of stuff that needs to be preserved, which unavoidably entails a huge effort in the kitchen. I work far harder now than I ever did when I ran a full-time business, though I never would have thought that possible.

Being ‘green’: We have tried to utilise natural resources where possible here. We have solar panels to provide our hot water and to supply the underfloor heating in winter. We have nine thousand litre storage facilities for ‘grey water’ – water harvested from the roofs of the house and the parrot flights, and from the exhaust of our reverse-osmosis water purification system. This grey water is used to flush the loos and to irrigate. We have a depuradora, or total oxidation sewage treatment plant, for dealing with residual waste, which yields an end-product of water that is 95% pure and therefore can also be used for irrigation.

All good stuff. All needing constant attention to keep the systems running, and running efficiently. I’m very fortunate in that respect – John is the most practical person I know and can turn his hand to stripping down most pieces of equipment and coaxing them back to life. Without him, I know it would cost a small fortune in expert help. But it all takes a lot of time and effort.

Sitting in the sun? Hah! When would that be, then?

Yes, when we’re not driving to and from the airport we often sit and drink a glass of wine or two in the cool of the late evening air, but we are generally too knackered to last long.

So much of this certainly didn’t feature in my dream, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feature in yours.

They say that you should be careful what you wish for. I concur whole-heartedly!

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Comments on: "Wrong wrong wrong …" (29)

  1. Liam Brennan said:

    Love this post. Hilarious and so true, true, true. Brilliant.

  2. Go girl, tell it as it is and don’t take any prisoners 🙂

    I guess the real point is whether the achievement is worth the sacrifice and hard work. I sneakily suspect you think it is. Few people (including us) would or could do what you have both done. It would have been easier to parachute into a ready made white-washed house on the costas and sipped wine ’til your heart’s content. You didn’t do this. You’re made of sterner, more imaginative stuff and not yet ready for your pipe and slippers. Most expats of our acquaintance spend their days propping up a bar, complaining of all things Blighty and all things local. It’s not much of a life whereas your lives are full of richness and depth.

    I set you a challenge. This evening at 7pm (8pm here), following yet another wilting day of hard labour, open a bottle of red, pour a glass and congratulate yourself on the luck you’ve made for yourselves. We’ll do the same here.

    • Thank you, Jack. You are, of course, right on the button regarding our perception that the ends justify the means.

      Sizin iyi bir sağlık 🙂

      • technically correct; if you went to a dictionary it would put it like that. In real life nobody uses it because it is too clumsy. What they would say is ‘Sağlık olsun’ – health to you. Not that I could tell you this, I’ve just rung J in UK; she speaks Turkish like a native from S Yorkshire!
        Your post really rang a few bells and jangled a few nerve ends – these really are the most inane comments imaginable with not a moments thought given before the mouth is engaged. I think I’ll have to learn your post off by heart so I’m able to reel it off instead of being left spluttering.
        This post I really like.

      • Thanks, Alan (and J, of course) – now I just need to know how it is pronounced.

        I think this probably strikes a chord with all expats. I’m absolutely certain that we have at the very least all heard the ‘you are so lucky’ refrain, and subsequently felt like ripping off the head of the utterer and peeing in their neck.

      • ‘Saaaluk olsun’ the ğ is silent and extends the preceding vowel. Dead easy really 😉

      • to go on a bit – the ğ is referred to as ‘yumuşak gay’ in Turkishş ‘yumuşak’ (yumushak) means soft (are you following this, Jack?).
        As for peeing in necks – there was once a time when I could do that!!!

  3. Su buen estado de salud!

    • OK, I’ll correct yours if you’ll correct mine!

      The Spanish tend to say, “salud, dinero y amor” – which means health, money and love; more often than not just shortened to “! salud !” (pronounced ‘saloo(dth)’)

      In Turkish?

  4. Oye, less of the Turkish! Och, all right then.

    Deb, this is a truly wonderful post – article in fact – and I´ll be re-reading it a lot. It´s not whingy (whingey?) whiny in the least but a well thought out and clear account of issues that are hard to grapple with. To echo Jack, I wouldn´t be up to all that and would happily settle for a canary and some geraniums. I´d drop into a cute wee white-washed house and proceed to have my white wine on the patio with little desire to struggle with the harsh terrain of Spain as you are doing. However, what I really take away from this is how you show that luck had B.All to do with it. It should be made an official offence for one person to say to another “you´re so lucky” as it erases all qualities and virtues from the “lucky” person. It´s a lack of empathy and an ignorance of the complexity of life, anywhere. I´ve hated being told how “lucky” I am “not to work” as though I´m a lazy person who came here with no other idea in mind than to sloth about. So your lovely piece resonates with me. Thanks for defending hard work, risk and mixed blessings.

    • Olé to that!

      Thanks for recognising that this wasn’t a rant against the conditions and the hard work I have encountered here, but an objection to the trivialising of it by those who know not.

      Though I may be perceived to rail against all things here, I am not by nature an angry person – it’s just that other people do the beautifully moving and descriptive stuff far better than I, so I pursue the style that suits me best – but I do get very annoyed by the ‘lucky’ comments.

      My reply often runs along the lines of, “well, if you think I’m so ‘lucky’, why don’t you get off your arse and make it happen for yourself? Then you’ll see just how ‘lucky’ I am!”

  5. Just don’t pronounce the funny G and the I without the dot is an er kinda sound.

  6. Last time I saw yumuşak i thought he looked a little bit gay.

  7. This is absolutely freaking great! Seriously. What a great comeback to all of the folks who automatically assume life elsewhere is a day in the park. Friends back home assume we’re living the high life 24/7. Ha! (And we’re certainly not doing anywhere near what you do in terms of labor/upkeep.) People fall in love with the ideal of vacation living, and think that’s what life abroad is like. Thank you for disavowing them. In the end, we all choose (overtly or tacitly) where we are by what we are willing to do/give up to be there. Love this post.

    • As an addendum, I should say (and maybe need to blog this!) that those people that make such comments are often the very same visitors that descend upon us as holiday makers and add to our burden and stress by expecting us to be tour guides / cleaners / restauranteurs / waitresses / translators / entertainers ….

      • Ain’t that the truth and we’ve carelessly lost a few shallow expat friends recently which is a bit of a relief. So there’s no more ‘can we just pop in and talk about our issues?’ out of the blue requests. Er, no. I’m trying write a book, you fools! Mind you whinging on here isn’t getting the book finished either!

  8. Turkish really is a challenge of a language! Spanish is still a challenge to me (not that I bother doing much about it now, I´ve given up on direct and indirect object pronouns and just sprinkle them liberally like smarties) but a language that has so many unfamiliar characters and twirly bits must take along time to master, or mistress. I´m glad I just took the “easy” language at school while other girls with glasses and long beards took Russian. I wonder how you and Liam get on with the language, Jack, or is that why you´re threatening to come to Spain?

  9. Great post. I sometimes ‘dream’ of moving somewhere else–somewhere warmer (Im an American expat in the UK) but I know the realities of building anew life overseas! I just wrote a post today about being homesick and feeling sorry for myself (after 20 years!!) but trying to cure it by remembering that to many people’s perceptions I am ‘lucky’. That didn’t work but just getting on with stuff did.

    What I loved about this post besides the honesty was the detailed snapshot of your life there, something I haven’t had a really good picture of before.

    • Thanks for your kind words – this really did hit a nerve with expats!

      I’m sorry to hear that you’re homesick. I’ve been here eight years now and that particular emotion has never even twitched a hair at me, let alone raised its head. Maybe because I always have more than enough ‘stuff’ which which to deal – so I’m most of the time too exhausted to think about it.
      And the book and the blog are, as I have always maintained, cathartic.

  10. Full of admiration for your decision to live in the campo. I know I couldn’t do it, I’m too used to city comforts! Os deseo mucha suerte!

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