One of the great things about living in our rural community, where some of the properties are holiday homes, is that the arrival of their owners – for a holiday or some essential finca maintenance – provides us with an ever-changing local social scene.
We’ve enjoyed getting to know other Europeans in our valley – in particular, one very amusing German couple, who used to vacation sporadically at their finca until they realised that the property maintenance awaiting them meant it wasn’t much of a holiday after all. They sold up and bought a hassle-free second home in Germany. But when the new owners, a Swiss family, came to introduce themselves, we knew we’d like them. Well, they did come bearing Toblerone…
The Swiss Difference
Our Swiss friends do things differently to other Europeans we know. For example, they greet each other with three kisses on alternate cheeks (we always forget and withdraw after the second kiss, leading to a clumsy clash of noses) and – as we discovered one afternoon – when they invite people over for a drink, there’s often lots of delicious food to go with it!
On one occasion, they invited us for brunch at the beautiful home they’ve created. At ten in the morning, we were sitting on their terrace in glorious sunshine, enjoying authentic Swiss muesli, delicious breads, cheeses, ham and fruit, accompanied by orange juice, good coffee and a glass of Cava.
When we entertain friends, it’s usually over dinner or lunch, but brunch is certainly an appealing option for the future. Not only is there something quite civilized about it, you can get away with not doing any cooking – and, in the heat of a Mallorcan summer, that has to be a bonus.
Want to be happier? Well, some time ago I read something very interesting – and it’s stuck in my mind: researchers at University College London had found that just 20 minutes of housework a week reduces stress and lifts one’s spirits.
Now, I haven’t seen the research – and I’ve got far too much housework to do to investigate further – but it made me think.
For a start, it suggests to me that, in general, people are now doing less than 20 minutes of housework a week – otherwise the findings wouldn’t really be relevant to many people. It seems such a small amount of time compared to the hours I spend trying to keep our finca clean and tidy.
It’s not that I’m a domestic goddess, who likes nothing better than buffing her mirrors or sweeping dust bunnies out from under the bed (although I doubt a real domestic goddess would have let things get that bad down there); it’s simply that living in an old finca in the Mallorcan countryside is rather housework-intensive.
The Demon Dust
Dust is the demon here. In the winter, our woodburning stove is mainly to blame. Just bringing the log basket in usually leaves a trail of shredded bark, insects, moss, etc on the floor and then there’s the carrying out of the ashes every morning. If we’re really lucky when we open the outside door, the wind doesn’t blast the ashes out of the pan and all over the room. We’re not often that lucky.
But in spring and summer, when the stove is cold and doors and windows flung open, there’s another challenge to keeping the place tidy: the detritus blown in by the strong winds that usually whip through our valley. In July and August, when the ground is parched, clouds of dust – as well as the usual dead leaves and bits of twig – often accompany us in from the garden.
Bugged by Bugs
And don’t get me started on the terracotta ceiling tiles that grace many old fincas. Until The Boss got up there with a ladder and pot of filler, the gaps between some of them in our guest bathroom ceiling were so large that all manner of bugs – both dead and alive – regularly fell through from the space between the roof tiles and ceiling, littering the bathroom floor.
Minstral planting his hairs on a rug
Minstral, our beautiful 15-year-old Birman cat, makes his own contribution to my domestic duties, as clouds of fine white hairs waft in his wake. In the UK, his hairs didn’t show on the carpet like they do on tiled floors. And isn’t clearing up furballs fun?
I’ve just realised that I could have mopped the floor and dusted the dining room in the time I’ve taken to write this, but do I care? No. Reducing my housework to just 20 minutes a week is definitely going to lift my spirits.
Forest fires have been raging again this summer on Mallorca: So far, in 2012, there have been 74 fires across the Balearic Islands, destroying 151 hectares. The insane thing is that some of these fires are deliberately started. Do the arsonists not care about the impact of their actions? About the brutal scars of the scorched countryside? Or the people who bravely risk their lives to fight these blazes?
Smoke Signals the Worst
Fire blazes at the finca
We saw the work of these firefighters at close quarters one July, when fire spread to our land from a neighbouring property. We’d been out in the morning and, driving down the lane towards the finca, we spotted clouds of billowing grey smoke from the valley below. It appeared to be coming from our property, so I switched into rally driving mode – rarely used these days – and, moments later, the car screeched to a halt outside our gates.
About 100 metres from our terrace, on the other side of our small valley, flames were crackling and guttering wildly in the wind, as they licked their way across the bone-dry vegetation. It transpired that a neighbour – two fields away – had had a garden bonfire (outside the official bonfire season) on the previous day and had believed that he’d put it out properly.
Help arrived quickly in the form of the local bombers, along with the yellow-uniformed forest fire volunteers, who are constantly on standby in the summer. Access to the scene was complicated by the fire’s location on the steep slope, so emergency services broke open the gates of a holiday home up on the ridge to reach the blaze from above.
Next to arrive were the yellow helicopter and ‘plane – often seen in the skies above us, but never quite so close. For almost an hour, we witnessed aerial displays worthy of Farnborough Air Show. The helicopter repeatedly swooped down the valley to raid the water storage tank of a nearby farmer – scattering her terrified pigs as it did so – then flew back to drench the burning wild olive trees and scrub – as well as the firefighters on the ground.
Dousing the flames
The incredible skill of the helicopter pilot was not lost on me, having once been an airborne radio traffic and travel reporter, broadcasting from a “chopper” flying over Oxfordshire. On the many occasions when we had to hover over traffic jams, swoop down to report on an accident on the M40, or land in a difficult spot, I saw how much concentration is required to keep control of what can be an unforgiving machine.
Killing the flames was probably the easiest – if most dramatic part – of the whole operation. The painstaking part was searching for “hot spots”, smouldering areas that could be whipped back into flames by a change of wind direction. Foam was sprayed across the land, settling like snow, and the sound of chainsaws and shouting filled our usually peaceful valley.
Six hours later, there were still people working on the scene, so we wandered up to offer them food and drink. All but three smoke-blackened men had left, and it was their job to do a final check. They declined our offer, being keen to return to their families as soon as they could.
Later, we sat on our terrace looking at the charred land and smelling the occasional waft of acrid air. Our view had been blighted, but at least nobody was injured and no homes were damaged. All thanks to the incredible bravery and skill of the men – and women – who tackle forest fires.
Before we moved to Mallorca, all our food shopping was done at the local Sainsbury’s. One clean sweep through the aisles on a Saturday morning and we were sorted until the next weekend. Working long hours at the Beeb during the week, I didn’t want to spend one of my two precious days off visiting markets and individual food shops for the weekly necessities.
Market Shopping in Mallorca
Living on the island, though, we’ve discovered the pleasure of buying our fresh produce in the small shops and market in our nearest town. We regularly scour the well-stocked market stalls for the freshest fruit and vegetables (most of which are locally grown), share a bit of Spanish banter with the traders we know, and then have coffee at a favourite café in the square.
As our shopping trip progresses, The Boss begins to take on the appearance of an overburdened donkey (minus the hairy ears), with bulging straw baskets hanging from each shoulder. Being a true gentleman, he refuses to let me share the load, but always has a whinge about having to carry the stuff. But his reaction when I suggested a possible solution? No way was he going to use one of those shopping trolleys.
Granted, I wouldn’t personally have been seen with one on the streets of Oxfordshire – even if I’d been heavily disguised – but I look around any Mallorcan town or village and there are plenty of women (and some men) of all ages using them. There’s no apparent stigma attached to using them here – and why should there be when they make shopping easier and less tiring? In fact, they could almost be seen as something of a status symbol, saying far more about you than a clutch of splitting Mercadona carrier bags. And, on that note, they’re also better for the environment.
Like cars, there’s a range to suit all tastes and budgets: choice of fabrics; two or four-wheeled; some with brakes; some with optional thermal side pockets – perfect when shopping for fish or a secret stash of Magnums (the ice creams, not the guns). Perhaps the Rolls Royce of shopping trolleys is the Rolser. Say it quickly and “Mine’s a Rolser” has something of a ring about it, don’t you think? Unlike cars, you don’t need a licence, though experience suggests that some trolley-owning folks could use a few ‘driving’ lessons.
So, in the interests of becoming more like Mallorcans, I might just invest in a shopping trolley.
I was concentrating so hard on my mission to remove seven years’ worth of built-up cal from a loo we’d never actually used (Mallorcan water is notoriously hard), that I didn’t hear The Boss come into The Den’s tiny shower room behind me.
“Er . . . I thought we were supposed to be painting the persianas?” He stood with his hands on his hips, wearing a quizzical frown – and a fine head-to-toe veil of dust, resulting from his labours with the electric sander and our exterior shutters.
Dividing the chores
When it comes to decorating, The Boss is head of sanding (the dust makes me sneeze and, besides, he’d never let me play with – sorry, use – the electric sander. I’m the ‘lucky’ person who gets to wield the brush with bristle alopecia, and the treacle-like Spanish gloss paint.
Well, I’d finished painting the back door shutters and had been waiting for him to finish sanding the next set. With my brush sitting in a jar of white spirit, I’d decided to fill the time usefully and make some progress in the annexe we were trying to turn back into the third en suite bedroom it had been for the previous owners.
A word of warning if you’re thinking of living in an old finca: every job completed results in a new one (or more) for the everlasting To Do list. Not only did we discover that the door into the shower room was peppered with woodworm holes, but, on first flush of the newly gleaming loo, we also realised there was a problem with some of the twiddly bits in the cistern, and the water wouldn’t stop running. Twiddly bits were removed and the loo was once again out of commission for the foreseeable future.
A pair of newly-sanded shutters, moulting brush and can of gloopy gloss beckoned; plumbing and woodworm problems would have to wait.
A slightly different version of the above was posted on my previous blog.
Er . . . not that Harry (Webb, otherwise known as Sir Cliff Richard). This particular Harry is a cute kitten who blasted into our lives briefly last night.
The Boss and I were reading on the terrace, noses buried in novels as the light rapidly decreased. I’d noticed two of our eight outdoor cats sitting on the wall nearby, taking a great interest in something in the lane. Figuring it was probably a cicada, I ignored them until the unwelcome sound of feline aggression shattered the peace.
Jetta (the mother of all our outdoor brood) had jumped from the wall and chased something into the overgrown field across the lane. Minutes later, as we were straining to see what was going on, a tiny ginger and white kitten jumped onto the wall in front of us, wide-eyed and trembling from its encounter with the black cat. Far too young to be without its mother, we suspected that it had been dumped – something that often happens in country areas here where animal-loving Brits and Germans are known to live.
I immediately named it Harry, after a certain ginger-haired prince, and we gave it some desperately needed water, food and TLC. The little thing purred contentedly when picked up, reinforcing our suspicion that he wasn’t feral. We couldn’t leave Harry outside all night: our other outdoor cats were becoming increasingly aggressive towards the little intruder, and he was too young to realise that sitting in the lane was dangerous. We bedded the wailing kitten down for the night in our guest annexe, wondering how we would resolve the situation.
Harry Goes Home
This morning we both reluctantly admitted that keeping Harry was impossible, as he clearly wouldn’t be tolerated by our other cats. We would have to find a home or a sanctuary for him and, on an island where there are so many unwanted animals, that wouldn’t be easy.
Then, I remembered having seen some kittens outside a farmhouse, during a walk a couple of weeks ago. Although Toni and Maria’s farm is a brisk 10-minute walk away for humans, was it possible that Harry was one of those kittens, and had become lost going walkabout? Mid-morning, we drove down to see the friendly Mallorcans and, to our great delight, they claimed the kitten; it had gone missing on Monday and its mother (not much more than a kitten herself) had been searching the farm for it since. When I asked Maria what they’d named the kitten (having explained why we’d called him Harry), she gave me a bemused look and replied “Moix” – Mallorcan for ‘cat’.
So wandering Harry and mum were joyfully reunited – a very touching scene – and we came home with a thank you gift of Toni’s delicious home-grown tomatoes, peppers and aubergines.
I always thought that tiled Mediterranean rooftops were rather appealing . . . but then I’d never lived underneath one before. The tiled roof on our single-storey finca in rural Mallorca looked in decent enough condition but, when the monsoon-like rains of our first autumn arrived, we discovered there was a leak up there somewhere – in the vicinity of the chimneypot. Sooty streaks of rain ran down the lounge wall, like mascara runs on the cheeks of a stroppy supermodel.
Live With the Leaks?
We engaged a local builder to repair the roof, and two sprightly Moroccans were soon up there with a bucket of cement, assuring us that they’d solved the problem. We had no leaks for a while but no rain either. When the heavens next opened, we called the builders again.
We sought advice from Lorenzo, a Mallorcan farmer nearby. He shrugged his shoulders and told us that leaky roofs were the norm here. “Almost every finca has a leaky roof,” he sighed. “You’ll get used to it.”
To some extent, we did. At the first sign of rain, a bucket would be deployed. But over the years, new leaks have appeared in different rooms and when we have a serious storm, it’s become a bit like living under a colander. Depending on the wind direction when it rains, drips could be landing on the bed (my side, natch), the kitchen floor, dining room table, and other locations around the house. Once, in the middle of the night, I had the surreal experience of water dripping steadily onto my head as I sat in the bathroom having a pee. Where’s the umbrella when you need it . . .?
New Roof Required
Supply of buckets exhausted, this spring we decided that, despite the horrendous cost, we’d have to have the whole roof re-done. After all, it had been 20 years since it had been completely re-done by the finca‘s previous owners. All tiles would be removed, a layer of insulation added (there’s none up there now) and concrete laid, before the original tiles were replaced. Our finca is sited in an Area of Special Environmental Interest, so we were obliged to apply for planning permission – even though the refurbished roof will look pretty much the same as it does now.
That was three months ago. Then, last week, we heard some news. Having received all the necessary papers with our application, our local ayuntamiento now wanted an aerial photograph of the roof before making their decision.
August will be here soon and many local construction workers will be on holiday for the month. Looks like we’ll be buying more buckets…
Living without electricity for eight months was not part of the grand plan for our move to live in Mallorca. Although the notion of candlelit evenings had been a romantic one when we’d first bought the finca and during our subsequent holidays here, it didn’t take long for the reality check to arrive once we’d actually moved in.
How was I going to style my hair without a hairdryer? How would we manage to do our laundry and ironing? And, as someone who’d given up a good career to become a freelance writer, how was I going to do that seriously when I had no means of charging the battery on my laptop? Even the old typewriter I’d had before I bought a computer was an electric one and, if you saw my handwriting, you’d know why writing with a pen and paper wasn’t really an option.
Socket To Us
To be strictly accurate, we weren’t entirely without electricity. We had one small solar panel mounted on the roof and an old battery which, on a good sunny day, provided us with a 12-volt power system. It was just enough to give us about two hours of lighting daily – as long as we had only one light on at a time and continued to use what were probably the world’s first low-energy lightbulbs. Trust me, it was brighter by candlelight.
In preparation for the installation of solar power (which would take a lot longer than we thought), we decided to get the light switches and the few existing sockets in the house checked out for safety, and enlisted the services of Señor Gomilla – a local electrician who’d only just returned to work after open-heart surgery and whose angry-looking scar was visible through the jungle of grey hair exposed by his unbuttoned shirt.
He was not too impressed with what lurked within our walls. I think it was something to do with the electric shock he got while probing beneath the yellowing old plastic switchplates, and the tangle of rather charred wires. Luckily it was only a 12-volt system . . .
And we weren’t too impressed when we received the bill for his services. He clearly charged extra for electric shocks sustained.
Short stories, articles, and recipes, by expat authors around the world. ISBN 5 800062 294851
Living in a tranquil valley that’s at the end of a long camí – the local name for a lane – seems to make our address something of a no-go area for courier services.
Since we’ve lived here, we’ve probably had experience of them all – local, national and international companies – and, almost every time, we’ve had a phone call from the delivery driver saying that they can’t come out to the finca. Could we go into Manacor to meet them somewhere?
There’s usually a slightly heated exchange between driver and whoever here has answered his phone call, before one of us leaps into the car and heads – fuming – into town to the agreed meeting point.
If you’ve ever had to drive deep into the countryside to find a place you didn’t know, you might have some sympathy with Mr Speedy Delivery.
But our bucolic location is only ten minutes’ drive from Manacor – the second largest town on the island of Mallorca; the lane leading from the main road down to our finca gates is 2.3 kilometres of smooth tarmac surface, and you won’t find the words ‘here there be dragons’ on any map of our valley!
Excuses (translated into English) why the courier service cannot come to our finca have included:
“I don’t drive down country lanes because they’re too rough for the van.”
“I’m running late and haven’t got time to drive out to the country.”
“I haven’t been given any directions how to find you.”
Honestly, it makes you wonder why we bother supplying these companies with a map, written directions, and GPS co-ordinates.
The Courier Calls … But Not Here
A while back, I ordered a few copies of the anthology Foreign Flavours, published by Writers Abroad, which included something I’d written. I had the expected phone call from the driver of the courier service van, asking if I would meet him at the petrol station by Manacor hospital, to collect my parcel. I duly drove into town – in record time because he’d said he was in a hurry – only to find that he’d already departed, leaving my parcel with the rather bemused cashier behind the petrol station counter.
Why am I writing about this today? Well, I ordered something last Wednesday that was to have been delivered by courier within 24 hours. Have I got it yet? No. Perhaps I should pop down to the petrol station . . .
He may look as though he’s going to a fancy dress party as a lumberjack, but that man in the safety helmet, thick goggles, ear defenders, and gauntlets of the calibre usually worn by falconers, means business. Actually, it’s The Boss. And he looks pretty scary carrying his new chainsaw. I wouldn’t want to tell him that I’d scorched the collar of his favourite shirt with the iron…
Underneath all that mean-looking safety gear, he’s actually beaming, because if ever there was a tool to make a man feel super-macho, it’s a chainsaw. The noise, the speed, the power…it’s the perfect package. Unless, of course, the damned thing won’t start.
Like lawnmowers, chainsaws can be annoyingly temperamental. As The Boss found out when he first hired one to tackle a few jobs around the land. The demonstration at the local hire shop made operating the chainsaw look easy enough, but when the eager hirer arrived home, the machine refused to start. Totally. Mind you, its condition suggested that it had probably already cleared one South American rain forest and – like lots of South American people – had moved to Mallorca in the hope of an easier life.
Next step was to buy a chainsaw of his own, and the island’s answer to B&Q just happened to have a special offer on chainsaws. So special, in fact, that alarm bells should have rung. Like its hired predecessor, it refused to start when we got it home. The Boss, by now in something of a bad mood, drove all the way back to Palma (an hour’s journey), where it obligingly roared into life for one of the store assistants, terrifying two elderly Spanish women who were browsing nearby.
Back at the finca, the chainsaw had clearly decided it was probably time to stop messing around and do a bit of work. Dead branches were sliced off almond trees and, a few hours later, there was a pile of neatly cut logs left to season in the sunshine. Sadly, that was the last day the thing ever worked. The store sent us to the local approved service agent (the fault was not apparently covered by the warranty), who declared it “beyond economical repair”. A strongly worded letter was written to the manufacturer’s chief executive, who – being Italian and probably unable to read English – probably balled it up and threw it into the bin.
It would be some time before anyone mentioned chainsaws again in our house…