Thursday, March 31, 2016


Wednesday 23 March 2016

Cold with tang of snow in the air 8 degrees

We left a cloudy city in the early morning, when the street sweepers were just coming out of their vans and the vapour from the morning coffee bars hung low and richly scented in the alleyways of the old city.

The road climbed and climbed and then we were above the cloud line and the ridge of the Guadarrama mountain range rose in splendour before us, thickly coated with dark pines and topped with crisp white snow.  Just before 2 we stopped for lunch at an albergo which was obviously popular with lorry drivers.

The dining room was just starting to fill up.  A waiter came over and gave us a rapid verbal delivery of the menu.  We didn't really get what he was saying so just stopped him periodically and he wrote things down on a pad and then brought OH a mixed salad and me something smothered in mayonnaise.  Known as a Russian salad, it is a potato base with peppers and onions and more mayonnaise than is good for a stomach trapped in already close fitting jeans. This was followed by a very large piece of meat on a bone.  And then creme caramel and coffee.  My stomach had not been happy at the salad start but was very uncomfortable by the end and I had to go and shut myself in the loo and keep shouting occupado at people hammering on the door.

Two hours later and we arrived at the Valley of the Fallen near to San Lorenzo de El Escorial.  A monastery built by King Philip II in the 16th century and the place where Francisco Franco is buried.  Called the Valley of the Fallen because of the people killed during the 1936-1939 Civil War in Spain.  The site is entered from a large gate, guarded and ticketed entry only.  The narrow road then winds through woodland for a good 15 minutes before, soaring out of the trees, you get the first glimpse of the 150 metre high cross on its granite outcrop and arrive in the courtyard of a vast Benedictine monastery.

We parked in an area which could have accommodated a vast number of vehicles.  There was absolute silence - not a bird moved, not a breath of wind. Heaps of piled aside snow on the ground.  The cold filtered right through our clothing.  We saw some people in the middle of the columns and they vanished through a large door so we followed and came into the entrance hall where the cast iron radiators were pumping out a furious amount of heat.

A lady in a booth gave us a key and led us to a simple room consisting of two beds and a desk and a cross.  Are you going out later she enquired?  Because the gates close and you wont be able to get back in.  We decided to stay put and had a shower in the gritty stone bathroom and then a siesta.

Six o'clock and we were ready to go and explore the surroundings.  To OH great alarm, the bar had only been open between 2 and 4.30.  We drove around the woods and then parked up again, put on some thick clothing and walked down to the Basilica where Franco is buried.  It was closed and deserted.  The patio in front of the building was massive and stark and gave the most glorious views of the mountains, patterned pink and purple in the fading light.

Back at the monastery and after actually reading some of the books we had brought with us - this has to be a first - it was 9 o'clock and in theory the refectory was open.  There were seven people already there - a group of three ladies,  a middle aged lady at one table and a man at another and two couples.

My stomach was still complaining so I had bread and water and OH had the dinner which was rather miserable - supposed soup which was stock with some floating bread, followed by mini empanadas and flan.  He was relieved to find that there was some wine.

Back to the room.  It had been repainted by someone of my height, and not benefiting from a ladder.  Above the paint line was a big patch of paint which had fallen off the wall.  It was the shape of England, without the rest of the UK. There was the most wonderful feeling of peace and being far away from the stresses and demands of normal life.  Through the window, the moon shone in the carp ponds

OH read me excerpts from The Spanish Labyrinth and it was so riveting that I was asleep in no time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


22 March 2016

Sunny with light breeze

Took dog to pension for 11 am and he was delighted and almost sprang over wall to see the lady and her foule de chiens.  Back home, quick battle with the gate lock and then we were off into the bright morning.

Our first overnight was in Valladolid, pronounced Baya dolid, it is North West Spain's largest city with over 300 000 people and here is a little map, to orientate yourselves

By Al Silonov - author attribution

We stayed at the Hotel Mozart which is right in the heart of the old city and gives OH the chance to charge about and 'discover' interesting areas - read this as drink beer on his own in a variety of bars - and me a chance to charge around the shops without OH saying 'what do you need that for?'.  Piled into the hotel and arranged our stuff then out for lunch.  Mixed green salad topped with glistening asparagus, rich and glossy tuna and velvety green olives.  Followed by small deep fried fish and finished with flan - a type of crème caramel.  Tiny cup of evilly bitter coffee.  And siesta.

Suitably refreshed, OH went on his mission of discovery and I went out later and found one of my favorite shops in Spain - Tiger - full of unnecessary plastic items which you never realised that you absolutely had to have, until that it, you are standing in a Tiger shop.

Seriously Easterish

Eggcellent decorations

Fab handbag shop

Met up with OH again on the Plaza Mayor and found one of the first Easter Week gatherings at the main church.  Semana Santa or Holy Week is one which has very special celebrations throughout Spain, but the best places to watch the processions and gatherings is either Vallodalid in the North or in Seville or Malaga in Andalucia

Spain is known especially for its Holy Week traditions or Semana Santa. The celebration of Holy Week regarding popular piety relies almost exclusively on the processions of the brotherhoods or fraternities. These associations have their origins in the Middle Age, but a number of them were created during the Baroque Period, inspired by the Counterreformation and also during the 20th and 21st centuries. The membership is usually open to any Catholic person and family tradition is an important element to become a member or "brother" (hermano).
The distinctive cloaks and hoods (capirotes) of Spanish Holy Week processions.
Some major differences between Spanish regions are noticeable in this event: Holy Week sees its most glamorous celebrations in the region of Andalusia, particularly in Málaga and Seville, while those of Castile and León see the more sombre and solemn processions, typified by Semana Santa at Zamoraand Valladolid. This is a religious holiday.
A common feature in Spain is the almost general usage of the nazareno or penitential robe for some of the participants in the processions. This garment consists in a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak. The exact colors and forms of these robes depend on the particular procession. The robes were widely used in the medieval period for penitents, who could demonstrate their penance while still masking their identity. These nazarenos carry processional candles or rough-hewn wooden crosses, may walk the city streets barefoot, and, in some places may carry shackles and chains on their feet as penance. In some areas, sections of the participants wear dress freely inspired by the uniforms of the Roman Legion.[1]
The other common feature is that every brotherhood carries magnificent "Pasos" or floats with sculptures that depict different scenes from the gospels related to the Passion of Christ or the Sorrows of Virgin Mary. Many of these floats are art pieces created by Spanish artists such as Gregorio Fernandez,Juan de MesaMartínez Montañés or Mariano Benlliure. Brotherhoods have owned and preserved these "pasos" for centuries in some cases. Usually, the "pasos" are accompanied by Marching bands performing "Marchas procesionales" a specific type of compositions, devoted to the images and fraternities.

The wearing of the peaked tall hood gives the processors a sinister air and, in the glow of the tall candles and reflections of the old stone buildings, you are easily taken to previous times and can imagine the terror and cruelty meted out by these masked penitents. Religious courts, the Inquisition and auto da fés.  Spanish people may wear modern clothing and appear as contemporary Europeans but in the heart of their communities and their essential beings, this deep attachment to the past beats strongly.  Images of death and suffering, weeping virgins, bleeding crucificitions, devils, fire.  Black and red and gold.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


17 March 2016

Cold and sunny 11 degrees

Instead of staying in France for Easter and doing thousands of kms with annoying people who think that they will look at a little property whilst they are on their break from work, we are running away to Madrid (temporarily). 

Some very vexatious enquiries this week.  An influx of 'complete isolation' specialists - no roads (how the xx do they expect to be able to get to the property?) however connected to water and electricity.  No neighbours.  Really no neighbours - like not even within seeing distance.  No noise.  Have they no idea how noisy the country is?  How people get up at the crack of dawn to shoot things, saw trees, clop past on horses, till and cultivate their fields or just stand around, lean on the gate and have an animated conversation at 7.30 am on a Sunday morning?

One client wanted something which resembles Scotland.  Scotland really resembles Scotland so what does he want with rural France?  A property with a river running through the land.  Presumably, the sort of river which wont flood him out of his home in Spring when there is a full moon and a lot of snow melt.

Another one is a composer who only wants to hear bird song and live on a hill far away.  Apparently he lives in an idyllic location in Hampshire.  OH said he could sodding well stay there and he wasn't driving him around the countryside.

Two client wrote and said they wanted to view houses and wanted me to contact them immediately.  So I rang, and rang and rang and emailed and Skyped.  Did they get back to me.  No.  And one of them then deleted me from Skype, after adding me the week before.  I wanted to send them an email, saying that as they had not had the manners to reply to any of my communications, I was deleting them from the database and not to darken my virtual doors ever again. OH suggested I needed to take a break.

Bearing in mind the above, I remembered a post from last year's blog, so here it is.

Things people dont know about estate agents

1.  They are human beings.  They have a home life and need one day a week away from the day job when they can do enjoyable things like pay bills, do the laundry/repairs, brave the garden armed with machete and thick clothing, clean the oven, scrape crap off the bathroom/kitchen/toilets and spend time with their badly neglected family.  Surprisingly, they need one whole day a week to do this.

Subtext:  if you are over here on holiday and are busy all week but everything is shut on a Sunday, please don't ring your estate agent to see if you can have a little drive around the area and visit a 'few' houses.  Especially if you have no money to buy one of them.

2.  They expect you to be on time.  It is the day job for them.  They will have planned out the programme for the day and have a list of visits with times and sellers who have spent hours cleaning their houses in the uncertain expectation of a sale.  

Subtext:  please don't text your agent (especially if she has told you that her mobile doesn't work when she is at home) on the morning of the visits to say that you are going to be an hour late because you forgot that the time is different in France or your kids cant get out of bed or you having a lie in.  You can rest assured that whilst you are having your lie in, your agent will be downing a number of 'petit cafés', grinding down her worn teeth and having to rearrange everything. 

If you get to an appointment early, do not go for a coffee in a place where you are incapable of describing its location, decide to do a little shopping, or just park somewhere completely different and sit in your car.  Please try and find the correct appointment place.  It is the Mairie.  Every town has one.  It says Mairie on the front (or Hotel de Ville which is not a hotel at all but that is another story) 

Do not cancel on the day of the visit unless one of your legs has dropped off.

3.  They expect you to be serious.   There was once a man who thought he would like to buy some carrots.  He went to his local carrot seller and asked to see all of the five inch carrots of a brilliantly orange hue within a radius of about 40 kms.  He thought the carrot seller could take him in his car and stop for lunch and it could take up to three days.  He needed to sell his own carrots in order to be able to buy some other carrots but he lived in a part of the world where carrots were snapped up almost immediately.  He did mention that he was looking for carrots in a couple of other areas of the country.   The carrot seller told him to fxxk off.

Subtext:  if you have no money for carrots, don't go looking for carrots.

4.  Their earning are their business.  Do you get onto the subject of your bank manager's/dentist's/solicitor's earnings within a few hours of knowing them?  Don't ask us how much of the agency commission we get.  It really pisses us off.  The answer is that most independent agents get around 40% of the commission.  Agents on salaries get around 5-8%. Before you throw up your hands in horror and say you wish you were earning such 'easy money' (words issued from mouth of former carrot searcher), there is the following to bear in mind

  • agents are paid on the day of the Acte de Vente.  This is an event which is at the end of the obstacle race which occurs between offer and Acte.  New and fiendish obstacles always present themselves.  If it all falls through, the agent earns nothing, despite having worked on it for months.
  • we are heavily taxed.  Say the commission gross is 10000 euros.  The agent gets 4000 euros and then has to give 20% to the VAT authorities.  RSI (regime sociale des independents) then takes 45% on the balance.  So the agent ends up with 1400 which is the basic pay for one month. She thinks this is not a lot and thinks life would be a lot easier as a cashier in Leclerc.  She would get a reduction on the price of carrots.
  • there is no personal allowance in France.  You get taxed from the first centime.  The only way to avoid this is by having lots of children.  
Subtext:  it is not 'easy' money.  It is no mean feat sorting out the carrot searchers from the people with little pots of gold and hope in their hearts.  And just the two children I had were enough for me.

5.  Your agent wants to help you.  We want you to find the house of your dreams.  We want to help you to buy it and settle in and live happily ever after.  Making people happy is what makes our job worthwhile.  There is such a feeling of joy on the day of the Acte when we hand the keys over to the new owners and see how thrilled and happy they are.  And we hug the former owners and wish them all the best for the future.  And yes, we do expect to be paid for doing a job well.  And yes, we do like champagne and coming around for BBQ's.

Subtext:  we enjoy spending time with you after you have bought.  Provided you have not tortured us in the process.  If you never see us again, despite living in the same town, it is because we hide when we spot you coming.

6.  We drink coffee - lots of coffee.  If we have driven you around for hours and answered all your questions, and shown you lots of houses and not got lost (well not too lost), we do appreciate stopping for coffee.  We also appreciate you offering to pay for it.  We don't really want to keep on going whilst you pull your little bottles of water out of your bag.  Especially when we have forgotten to bring one ourselves.  We would be delighted if you offered us lunch.  It makes us feel appreciated.

Subtext:  if you say you have brought your own lunch and the agent leaves you in a park for an hour, their enthusiasm for the job will have been reduced by about 50% by the time they pick you up again.  They will assume you are tight fisted or skint.  Or both.  If you turn up in a camper van, their hearts will sink.  Or say you want to make a yurt/glamping business. How many yurt farms do you know in France?  Enough said.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Tuesday 8 March 2016

Torrential rain - 8 degrees

OH's abiding memory of French lessons at school is that of leaping through the window to go and play football.  Mine are of being thrilled at the idea of learning a new and strange language.  One with which I felt an immediate affinity and whose liquid sounds I chanted on the walk home from school.  

I left school and started work but was always drawn to the languages section of the Public Lending Libraries where I was always at the maximum of books which I could take out.  Often there would be a slim manual on French, or Italian, or Spanish. I did have a brief dip into German and did not take to its guttural sounds, bizarre grammar with separable verbs and why on earth do you use one form of 'the' when you are putting a book on the table and another one when you are taking the book off the table?  Life was too short for five forms of 'the'. Irregular verbs I can cope with.  I was horrified to discover that Polish has irregular nouns - how the ???  does that work.  And thanks to some bonkers clients, I made a brief foray into Estonian.  My advice is not to go anywhere near Estonian - it has 13 cases....  probably why so many Estonians think Russian is a piece of cake and they all speak English.  I have just had a brief dip into the Internet and come up with the following interesting article - as well as discovering that Hungarian has 26 cases....

We are now into our thirteenth year in France.  The French language which was always running in the background of my mind has flowered and developed into fluency in most areas of life.  I am still reduced to pointing and saying 'it doesn't work - that bit there' when faced with a garage technician.  Or 'its that bit which makes the noise'.  The kids picked up fluency within a year.  OH has still to pick up on what is a verb, what is a noun, what is an adjective.  He has had twice weekly lessons over a period of two years.  It is like pouring sand into a hole. Some of it didnt even stick for the rest of the day.  

As a result, he has a rag bag of half learned words and no idea how to put them together.  His rare forays into French show that he has no concept of how to construct a sentence. He speaks the language as if he has never heard it.  Words which he has learned are learned slightly wrong but once a word is learned, that is the form which stays in his memory and keeps on popping out, like the proverbial bad penny.  RJ (eldest) once brought a French girl home and OH shook her hand and said 'bizarre'.  Its Bonjour, hissed WF (youngest) at stage left.  He still says 'sivil play' and after two years, I refused to pay for any more lessons.

During our twelve years in France, OH has developed a passion for Spain and we have been far more places there than we have in our supposedly home country.  Bored with 'learning' French, he has now decided to learn Spanish and has been spending time every evening with Duolingo, whose calm voice never tells him he is a bloody idiot and slaps her forehead.  We were drinking tea in bed yesterday and he said I should test him because he was now half way through the course.  Pas de problème para mi he said, smiling over the top of the mug.

I looked around the room - what is the word for mirror.   
OH screwed up his face.   Ooooh I know that one.   I could hear his brain creaking.   
Think of the word spy I suggested.   More silence.   
El espejo? I suggested.  That's it, replied OH, I told you I knew it.  
How about bed?  Dormitorio!  That's bedroom.  
How about window?  Vento.  I had to look that one up - it meant dough.  
How would you say I am cold?
Soy frigo
That's I am a fridge.  How would you say it in French?
Tengo frigo
That's I have a fridge
Its frio.  Frio and caliente
Soy frio
That is I am frigid
Estoy frigo?
You are back in fridge mode

(if you don't know Spanish, there are two forms of to be; 'Ser' which is something you always are like an English woman.  Estar is something you are temporarily; like sad.  So you can say soy caliente which means I am hot stuff or estoy caliente which means you are feeling the heat)

I couldnt be a teacher.  I haven't the patience.  Hats off to Beatrice who has a whole group of people like my husband and is likely to have them until they shuffle off this mortal coil....   

Saturday, March 5, 2016


1 March 2016

Lots of rain

Estate agency is like fishing.  You need to have some interesting bait in order to attract the fish and, with Easter coming up fast on the rails, I have been out looking for new properties for my portfolio.

The first house was down in the mountains.  A Canadian couple who had rung up the agency and asked that I come down to look.  The day started grey but the skies cleared as OH, driving due to the distances involved, and I rolled along the country roads.  The Pyrenees appeared bright and crispy on the horizon and grew large and impressive as we entered the village.  The air was cold and we shivered and closed the windows of the car.

We had an address but it wasn't that easy to find and a big point of concern were the signs everywhere saying 'no to the quarry' 'no to lorries" 'no to noise and disturbance'.  I stopped to ask the neighbours and one of them told me that there was a proposal for a quarry at the top of the road and 300 locals had turned up at the meeting to protest.  We noticed a lot of For Sale signs.  

Alarm bells flashing, we finally found the house.  On a steep narrow road. Surely quarry lorries would not go down such a vertiginous road?  The owners, well into their 80's, seemed blissfully unaware of the possible blight on their house. I signed them up as it was a lovely house for just 250000 euros but I did have severe misgivings and needed to make more enquiries of the Mairie.

Quick refuelling stop chez McDonald's and then back to the village to find the second property.  It was extremely disappointing, in poor condition, smelled of dog and was inhabited by a single retired man who didn't like housework.  We didn't sign him up.

Coffee break.  The rain was torrential and the Pyrenees had disappeared behind a black and ominous cloak.  As we were then very early for the third house, we drove around and found a couple of For Sale signs.  Noted details and phone numbers and then off to the last house of the day.

Oh what a joy it was.  When you think of an idyllic French farmhouse, this is what you think of.  Done by an English lady.  Beautiful farmhouse living room with whitewashed woodwork, chintzy furniture and a 25 year old cat with a broken tail.  Kitchen with oak units and a large oak buffet topped with old and much cherished wood.  Bedrooms that said, come in and relax.  Bathrooms which invited you to soak away your worries.  Immaculate two bedroom gite.  I could have happily moved in and spent my time, like the owner, doing the garden and creating lovely meals for her family and guests. Very happy to have this one on the books and the lady and I got on like a house on fire.

Back home and the skies had cleared and I walked the dog and admired the cowslips and green hellebores at the road side and felt more relaxed than I have in ages.