It was a scorchio day in early August. Walking back down through the village after putting our rubbish in to the bin, I spotted Carlos coming out of his house. He was noticeably hot and sweaty and his vast belly, fine testament to a lifetime of greasy Andalucían fare, had burst through all the buttons on his shirt. Not only that but he was trying unsuccessfully to do the belt up on his trousers. His eyes lit up when he saw me. ‘Oh Chica, don’t you find being fat in this weather unbearable? It’s so uncomfortable for us poor fat ones in this heat’ I roared with laughter, what else could I do short of punching him on the nose! But rather than be mortally offended at Carlos’s comment, I felt instead a sense of solidarity, of kinship. Not so much because of our obvious love of second helpings, but that it confirmed that I was now well and truly established in the village. To be eligible for such familiarity first one must earn one’s colours. Joking and banter, and merciless teasing are the litmus test for survival here, especially if you are a Brit. These rural Spaniards have little time for those that take themselves too seriously.
It’s now early November and already two weeks have passed since the anniversary of our arrival here in Las Pilas. It seems like yesterday that Irishman and I rocked up in the village, the objects of much fascination and speculation. The couple that, just three days before had been living in Indonesia. And here we now were, the new kids on the block, excited but clueless as to how this madcap adventure was going to turn out.
If you’ve been following this story from the start, you will remember that the early days were not all plain sailing. First off were the buckets. Irishman point blank refused to poo or pee in them and nor could he hack washing outside in a bucket of cold water. But he was wonderful at galvanizing my spirits when six weeks in to the project all I wanted to do was throw the towel in. ‘Hold your nerve, Lottieness’ he’d say to me as I lay weeping in bed, frozen cold and wondering how I could have been so dumb as to have bought a house without a kitchen, bathroom and great gaping holes in the walls and a leaking roof.
But slowly, slowly, piece, by piece, things started to come together. Hot water flowed out of shiny new taps, we had a toilet, a basic kitchen installed. Irishman did a short stint of work back in the UK and came back with enough money for a washing machine. Antonia lent me an old cooker, the oven didn’t work but the top was perfectly serviceable. The gaping holes were replaced with doors, the rubble and plaster dust diminished as the weeks passed.
The only snow of winter fell in mid-November and with temperatures plummeting to minus seven at night, it gave us our first taste of how ball achingly freezing it can get here. Migrant Moroccan workers arrived to join forces with the local farmers and soon the olive harvest was underway. The end of November was our initiation in to the real nitty-gritty of rural living, the Matanza. I helped Antonia peel and cut eighty kilos of onions and on the day of the pig slaughter, I was invited to take part with all the other ladies in the mighty morcilla-making marathon.
The only concession to Christmas here was a rather pathetic string of lights that the local council hung across the narrow main street in the village. Feliz Navidad is something of an anti-climax in these parts; it’s business as usual in the olive groves. Though our Christmas was frugal and low-key, New Year’s Eve was a definite turn up for the books. Antonia and Paco entertained us royally and put on an impressive spread of food – we dined on pig’s tail and ears, marvelous fish, dessert and cheese. At the first stroke of midnight we were introduced to the Spanish tradition of eating twelve grapes. The next excitement in the village was the Day of the Three Kings on the 6th January. At midday, after the little church had rung out its bells, sure as eggs are eggs the Three Kings appeared, regally towed on their float by a tractor. Sweets and small gifts were thrown in to the crowd and children and adults alike stuffed their pockets with the goodies. The next day the council came to take the lights down and Christmas was done and dusted for another year.
And then the rain fell. For days and days, the damp and cold seeped through every crack and window, and under every door. We’d lie in our bed and watch rain water pour in through the ceiling and try not to get disheartened. Those damp, foggy days seemed interminable without proper heating but in reality we probably only had six weeks of really dank weather. By the middle of March temperatures started to rise and by April the valley was awash with bright flowers and birdsong.
Where we live, deep in the heart of rural Andalucía away from the madding crowds of the Costa’s, life is governed by the cycle of the various harvests rather than governed by church events or seasonal tourism. That said May does have its fair share of fiestas. Fatima (not me, the saint) gets an airing at the beginning of May. Dragged out from a box in the church she’s given a quick once over with a duster then carried through the village for her annual breath of fresh air. A token short service is carried out in the church before she’s unceremoniously shoved back in her box and the party really starts to get cracking. The music doesn’t stop until 6am the following morning and then throughout May fiestas are held in the village on various weekends and also in the surrounding villages.
In May we cut our umbilical chord with the UK and sold our house. This gave us some breathing space to get on with much needed works here. It also meant that the last of our belongings would be coming over to join the few bit and bobs that we’d had shipped over from Jakarta. Now with our possessions finally in place, the house started to look like a home.
Village life is not for the faint hearted. There’s no question that in living here in such a tiny community, absolutely everyone knows your business. Nothing goes by unnoticed, not even a fart, though we mostly lay the blame on our dog, Colin Snout for those. We had an invasion of rats in the house a few weeks back, and by the time Irishman got to the end of the village, even the inhabitants of the outlying fincas knew about our hideous rodent problem.
Despite everything, I can honestly say that this has been one of the happiest and most fulfilling years of my life. Indonesia was fun; it was a different, a more exotic sort of adventure, but here, nestled amongst the olive groves of Southern Spain I truly feel at home. Together with Irishman, we started an art school for the children in the village back in March and since then it has gone from strength to strength. The kids love it and we really enjoy giving something back to the community. Next March when the olive harvest has finished we are starting classes for the adults. Irishman and I still have lots of work to do here on the house, we still have to adhere to a strict budget, but our vision of having an art school where people from all over the world can come and stay and make work is what we are working towards.