Insane Optimism

I have recently polled some of my friends and readers to advise me which chapter of my book The Crinkle Crankle Wall they liked the most — I need to choose one for an expat newspaper — but the answers were very indecisive. It seems most of you liked very different parts of the book, which is great to see, but didn’t solve my dilemma. Still, if you have finished the book, please let me know in the comments below which was your favourite part. I’m yet to decide which chapter to reprint for the newspaper.

My friend and neighbour, Sally, wrote to me and said that she liked the first chapter, called The Italian Job, because it captured “The insane optimism we have when looking at totally unsuitable properties”. Chapter 1: The Italian Job is already available as a free sample on Amazon, but I thought to share it on my page in case you missed it.

To read more, The Crinkle Crankle Wall in available on Amazon in all marketplaces for Kindle and as a paperback:

Amazon UK:

Amazon Spain:

Amazon US:

Amazon universal link:

Chapter 1 The Italian Job

In August 2012, after several months of day-dreaming and fantasising about different Spanish cottages, farmhouses, and ruins that we’d seen online, we decided to contact some real-estate agents online and travel from Abu Dhabi to Spain to view some properties. We had the idea of buying one. We’d never been to Spain before, and neither of us could say much in Spanish. Before we arrived in Andalusia to look for our dream house, we pronounced the city name Jaén as one would say jam or Jane in English, and we had heated disputes about the meaning and the pronunciation of cortijo, a word that featured on all the adverts that we selected.

People often ask us why we chose this part of Spain to live in, and there is no good answer to this question. Since we had never been to Spain, our only guide was Google Earth images. We had some vague ideas about the region from documentaries and movies that fed into stereotypes. We chose the area between Granada, Cordoba, and Malaga because of the charming photographs of the cottages posted on the real-estate websites. With olive groves stretching as far as the eye can see, grapevines shading the patio, pink oleanders in front of white cottages and never-ending blue skies, we fell in love with Andalusia. And we were not disappointed.

As we drove from Madrid to Jaén province for the first time, the stunning Andalusian nature, its vast landscapes, and quirky white villages took our breath away. For me, Andalusia’s true beauty lies in its natural open ruggedness; in the secret narrow cobblestoned streets of tiny villages where neighbours keep their doors open most of the day to let in fresh air but also to keep tabs on village life. Its beauty is in the colourful make-shift curtains that locals hang over the front door to protect the entrance from the sun. It’s in old wooden chairs strategically positioned on the pavement outside a row of houses. It’s in recycled paint buckets that are used as flower pots to decorate a busy street. It’s the old, unattractive men sitting by sun-scorched plastic tables, playing cards and smoking cigarettes. It is a beauty that is not immediately attractive or polished since it is not self-edited or idealised. It’s honest. And that’s why I felt that it was a perfect place to start a new life.

After our lengthy search for a Spanish country house, we made a shortlist of several properties and contacted the agents in Spain. We selected houses that had a little bit of land and some olive trees. Some of the adverts claimed that future owners could support themselves by harvesting their own olives, so Robert spent endless hours researching olive farming.

Instead of reading about how to purchase a property and what pitfalls to look out for (since we were both first-time property buyers), we dove right into a number of Arcadian fantasies. We watched hours of online videos on olive farming and sun-drying tomatoes. We spent all our free time discussing the details of the bucolic life that awaited us. Were we not so preoccupied with our impractical day-dreaming, we might have considered it strange, if not ominous, that the one particular agent whose advertised houses we liked the most resided in Germany. He promised us by e-mail that this was a normal state of affairs and that his trusted associate would meet and show us the houses that we were interested in buying.

Once we arrived in Andalusia, we arranged to rendezvous with the trusted associate outside a small church on the outskirts of Illora. A 4×4 car arrived on time and we were greeted cheerfully by a group of people consisting of an older Spanish man — the associate — a slovenly seventeen-year-old English girl, and her chubby Spanish boyfriend — the son of the associate. We were soon informed by the English teen that the Spanish’ estate agent’ could not speak any English and so he had sought the assistance of his son’s girlfriend, Amy. When I asked Amy whether she often helped her boyfriend’s father with his real-estate business, she seemed unsure whether the old man was an estate agent or just a friend of the German guy who ran the real-estate website. 

Fortunately, I had printed out the information sheets for the different houses that we wanted to see and showed them to the ‘agent’. We did not question neither the strange assembly of people who had arrived to help us find a house nor the fact that the agent himself did not live in Spain. In fact, we were quite anxious to see (what we hoped) would be our future dream home. We showed José, the ‘estate agent’s’ proxy, the printouts and explained that we were looking for a country house situated away from its neighbours. We wanted some space for a woodworking workshop and a little bit of land to grow fruit and vegetables. José nodded and seemed to know where the properties that we wanted to see were located. So we all got into our cars and followed him into the campo, or the countryside.

The first house was not far from our meeting point. It was a tiny stone cottage on a steep hill. It was pretty, but it was so small that we would not have been able to fit just our clothes in one of the two teeny bedrooms. The thing about looking for a dream home is that you often start convincing yourself that this could be it. You imagine how you might fit your life and your possessions into the house you are viewing at the moment. It’s a tiring exercise and one that has never ended in a happy purchase.

Robert and I examined this miniature house that had no place for a vegetable garden and boasted one of the smallest patios ever built on top of a cliff. No matter how hard we tried to rationalise our interest in the house, we realised that we could never compress our lives to a size that would fit inside it. And so, we proceeded, onwards and upwards. The next house was much closer to our dream. It truly was a charming Spanish cottage; with giant cacti and aloes growing by its walls, surrounded by olives on flat land. Inside there was an old Andalusian-style fireplace and weathered dark wooden beams. There were even handcrafted tiles on some of the floors. The only downside was that it was a complete ruin with no water supply and no electricity. This shortcoming did not stop us from dreaming and imagining how beautiful it could be and where we could have our bedroom and the kitchen and how wonderful our life would be there.

Our entourage seemed to encourage this mad thinking. The house owner, who came to meet us, said that the electricity could be connected from his current house, which was just a mere two kilometres down the road.

Amy stopped snuggling up to her boyfriend for a minute and suggested that her dad renovate the whole thing for us.

‘You’d be better off knocking it down and starting over,’ she recommended. Even a seventeen-year-old could see that this house was a complete wreck. It was nothing like the photos that advertised it. The internet listing featured only a few interior details, which fooled us to believe that the cottage was ready to move in. The listing mentioned that some renovation may be necessary depending on the buyers’ tastes. As we were in Spain in August 2012 during the terrible financial crisis, the owner was willing to sell us the house at a very low price. His very low price was, in fact, close to our whole budget. We realised that if we bought the house and then knocked its ruined walls down, we would be left with nothing but a pile of rocks surrounded by giant cacti and aloes.

Sensing an opportunity for some caravan-based negotiations, Robert suggested that we buy a caravan and live in it on this beautiful site surrounded by the olives. I reminded him that we would have no money left even for the most derelict of caravans. As we whispered the pros and cons, keeping all our cards close to our chest, Amy kept on telling us what a wonderful job her father would do with this old ruin. We announced that we’d think about it — and no, we never thought of it again — and proceeded on to see the next dream house.

The next house was one that we really had fallen in love when we viewed it online. The estate agent called it The Italian Job — a strange name, yes, but it did capture the imagination. I couldn’t understand why it was Italian, since it was located in the heart of Spain. The name was explained in more ways than the estate agent thought possible, but as I looked at the photos online, I could not find a single fault in The Italian Job. It was such a beautiful property. A few weeks before we left for Spain, I had shown the house photos to my friends at lunch. The first photo featured a Mediterranean white gate. Through the gate, you could see a stunning house with wooden shutters and lots of large windows. The white walls shone like a white jewel surrounded by fruit trees and olives. The listing mentioned four bedrooms, two modern bathrooms, a large kitchen, and an open plan living room perfectly appointed in the pictures. I loved how rustic and enchanting it all looked in the photos. The house came with lots of land and hundreds of olive trees. The price was also reasonable. As I showed this property’s photos to my friends, they too started to fantasise about the pastoral lifestyle that I would live there. One friend suggested that, with this lovely property, we could set up an agritourism guesthouse where people from around the world would pay us to stay at the guesthouse, pick the olives, and experience the Spanish countryside. What a dream! 

Now it was time to see the dream house in reality. As Robert followed José’s car on the way to see The Italian Job, we were both excited. By then, we’ve already forgotten the other ruins that we had been shown and again set our expectations high regarding this amazing property.

We drove through wheat and barley fields for quite a long time and then we started to climb a dirt track up a rather steep and commanding mountain. One-third of the way up the mountain, José parked his car and we stopped our rental sedan next to him. Amy explained that it would be better to continue in José’s 4×4 because the road got even steeper from this point on. Amy and I squeezed into the backseat next to her chubby boyfriend and Robert took the front passenger seat. The road not only got steeper and steeper but it also became narrower and narrower.

When I peeked through the window to my right, all I could see was a massive drop. It did not seem like a road designed for a dramatic car chase and so the name of the property remained a puzzle. As we drove up and up, the road got worse and worse and I stopped thinking of cars as a means of transport and started to think of helicopters. ‘Would they be able to land a helicopter on top of this mountain in case of a medical emergency?’ I’m rarely concerned about health and safety, but this place made me think about different emergency rescue vehicles. I have driven a 4×4 in the desert in the past, but that was for leisure. I struggled to see the appeal of driving up or down this road, especially if it was raining or if parts of the road were washed away. Since Robert was sitting in front and I was stuck in the back, we could not really discuss the state of the road in front of José. It seemed rude to make negative comments since the man was clearly concentrating quite hard on staying on the road and wringing every single horsepower from his little Mitsubishi’s engine. I sat in silence, waiting for a little paradise to greet me at the end of this road of death.

The property took me by surprise. I kept straining my eyes trying to find the charming gate with fruit trees I had seen in the photos. The house was built in a small clearing on the very top of the mountain that we’d just scaled in José’s car. We parked the car at the back of the house on the dirt track. What should have served as a foreboding omen was the white plastic one thousand litre water tank abandoned in the ‘parking’ space. We should have appraised that water tank and ran back to the car screaming in horror knowing what we know now. A plastic thousand-litre cube is a clear sign that a house has no water or a very limited water supply. It means that the owners have to transport water on the back of a trailer from a communal source in the nearest village or from a shared fuente, a natural spring in the mountains. But we did not know any of that then and did not read much into the presence of the white cube. We walked past it and around the house to the main door.

While José was fiddling with the keys and doors, Robert and I paused to admire the stunning views. We were truly on top of the world. The views were so spectacular that I decided not to mention the howling wind and lack of any flat land for a vegetable garden. The listing was correct in that there was a lot of land, but it was suitable only for Pyrenean mountain goats, and not for growing tomatoes. The soil was rock hard and too dry to bear any vegetation. The hundreds of olive trees we were planning to cultivate would require a team of experienced Nepalese Sherpa to harvest them. But ever the optimists, we swiftly changed our life ambitions.

José and Amy joined us in our stroll around the steep olive groves and told us that, with so much land, we could get a hunting licence and hold hunting parties. Yes, this new image fitted well with what we were seeing in front of our eyes. Robert got sold on the idea of becoming a hunter and before I knew it, he was ironing out the details of future hunting expeditions and speculating the types of rifle and shotgun that he could get. Even though I did not like the new idea of hunting, I was still convinced that the Italian Job could be our new home. The house itself, we read in the online listing, was newly built and so, unlike the ruins that we saw earlier that day, would not require much work. With new visions starting to blossom in my mind, I turned my head away from the stunning views and went to inspect the house inside.

As Robert and I stepped over the threshold, we saw José running around the living room with a broom. At first, I thought he was doing some last-minute cleaning of the room, which appeared strange. From the speed with which Robert left the house, I realised that something was amiss. As I watched José dance with the broom around the dilapidated room, Amy explained that he was chasing away some rats.

I did not need to hear more to abandon the building at a rapid pace. We stood outside and waited for the green light from José while Amy took position at the main entrance, ready to convey the message. We looked silently into the distance. The hoard of rats may have rendered us speechless, but the general feel of the living room and the interior was more than disappointing. It reminded me of a room from a crime reconstruction show, where the detective talks the viewer through the scene of the crime and deconstructs the gruesome fight and subsequent murder step by step for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure. ‘The victim’s decaying body was found in the wardrobe by the landlady, who was concerned by the rancid smell and the flies circling the main door,’ the narrator would explain. ‘The blood splatter pattern shows that, before he died, the victim had been thrown over the coffee table and had his head smashed several times against the tiled floor. The victim was then dragged to the hall and hidden inside the wardrobe. The over-turned bookshelves, broken mirrors, and smashed chairs suggest that the perpetrator tried to stage a robbery,’ the narrator would continue.

I really did not need to spare this room another look, but seeing José’s friendly face peeking out of the door, we were too polite to say anything. So we entered Dr Lecter’s kitchen — cautious not to touch anything in case Interpol found our fingerprints there in the future. Inside the open-plan kitchen and living room space, there was nowhere to look to without offending the eye. Nothing nice could be said about it. I kept staring at the real estate advert that I had printed out, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not match the photos with what was in front of me. I scanned the detailed description of the property and saw that it mentioned a ‘modern bathroom’. To resuscitate our hopes and dreams, I asked José about the said ‘modern bathroom’. José pointed to a filthy door leading off from the kitchen and opened it for us to have a look inside. To say that the bathroom was unusable would have been an understatement. I have seen better bathrooms at petrol stations in the middle of the mountains in Oman, which were tar-black inside the toilet bowl and had layers of crispy yellow piss all over the floor and walls. The bathroom in The Italian Job was on a whole new level entirely. I closed my eyes fearing that I might vomit and retreated to the crime scene area.

‘There are three more bedrooms upstairs, but they are not completely finished,’ prompted the quick-witted Amy. The girl was clearly becoming adept at the subtle craft of selling houses. We did not inspect the downstairs bedroom, since I really did not care anymore, assuming that more horrific crimes may have been committed there. José, for some reason, did not insist that we view the downstairs bedroom at all. According to Amy’s interpretation, the upstairs was really what we were looking for. 

‘It has not been finished, and so it has a lot of potential,’ she chirped. And, as we were reminded again, Amy’s dad could renovate it for us because he’s done a lot of attics. While we waited downstairs for José to search for a ladder, there being no staircase to the second floor, Amy brought us up-to-date on the history of this house.

It transpired that the piece of land was purchased a few years back by two lovebirds; a Spanish woman and her Italian boyfriend. In a romantic haze, they settled on the top of the mountain and built this house. But then they split up from each other and were now trying to get their money back. However, because they had bought the land at the peak of the Spanish real-estate bubble, they were unlikely to break even. 

As I listened to this story, I could not help but wonder whether the house itself and its treacherous location did not contribute to the failure of their relationship. From what I had seen so far, the house and its land would have required at least several hardy Andalusian farmers to look after it. It needed the sort of farmers whose parents had spent decades in caves hiding from Franco’s persecution. They would hibernate in the winter and work like donkeys throughout the warmer months; bringing water from secret fuentes and growing habas, or broad beans, in tiny garden patches high in the mountains. In the lean years, they would devour acorns and prepare almond soup to survive.

This was not a life fit for two Mediterranean lovebirds. I imagined them meeting on the beach on Costa del Sol; getting drunk on sun, sea, and hormones, and two weeks later deciding to stay together forever. I was confident that buying this piece of unforgiving land was a rushed decision made by them on the spur of a romantic moment. While things may have looked idyllic when subject to frivolous discussion at a beach bar, I wondered how they survived their first year here. I imagine that, for the first few weeks, the couple stayed somewhere in the village and visited the site every day to walk around and make plans for the future. It must have been summer when they bought the land and started to build because I cannot fathom anyone wanting to live there in winter.  

This, of course, is my hindsight; I would have been just as naive. If you visit Andalusia between May and October, then the stark blue skies and the endless sunshine seem to suggest that this is the weather all the year-round. However, the winters in the Andalusian mountains are some of the most unforgiving and unbearable that I have ever experienced. I’ve witnessed horizontal rain that hits the front door so hard that the living room floor is covered in a creeping puddle of muddy water. I’ve watched rain soak the house’s external walls so much that the walls start to seep water down to the skirting boards causing patches of black mould to artfully decorate each damp room. I’ve observed torrential rains that wash away whole cliffs and hillsides, causing landslides; hurricanes that break roof tiles away and lift whole sheets of steel from barns; hailstorms the size of golf balls that destroy your plants and fruit trees, and even snow that can crush young olive trees under a white blanket.

I believe that the weather here may seem harsher than anywhere else because there is no shelter from the elements. In a city and at lower elevations, you are always protected by other buildings that help break the wind and rain. But in an Andalusian cottage on top of a hill, there is nothing to shield you from the wind or torrential rain. You are forced to face the full brunt of Mother Nature and all her fury. With this in mind, I imagine the two sweethearts in the middle of an Andalusian winter carrying bricks against the wind and rain, and seeking refuge from the weather in their barely finished first floor. Were they even able to get to their house through the muddy dirt track? How disappointing it must have been to see their dream slip away as every night became colder than the night before. Listening to the wind howling outside, could they even look each other in the eye?

I don’t know what caused these two to give up. Was it a particularly cold winter, or was it the summer drought? But I know for sure that the Italian Job was not built with love. I often imagine the young Italian smashing a chair against the wall and leaving the house for good, not even looking back or locking it up. This is all wide speculation prompted by my own experiences. The omens were present at the site of the Italian Job — if only I could have deciphered them at the time.

By now José had brought a ladder and we carefully clambered up to the second floor. Whilst the first floor was the setting of a crime scene, the second floor was a scene of unfulfilled ambition. The un-rendered, bare brick walls revealed poor construction techniques and amateurish electrical wiring. Even to the untrained eye, the whole setup looked particularly dangerous. The newly-built walls had giant cracks in them, and the brickwork was based more on Kandinsky’s freestyle approach than on Mondrian’s strict geometry. On closer inspection, Robert pointed out that the bricks were only five centimetres thick and resembled those you might use to build a flimsy chicken coop. It clearly was an Italian job, but more so with reference to the modern Italian economy and the country’s politics, and decidedly less so regarding its great ancient architecture.

Since there was not much further to say at this point, we left the house. I don’t like immediate confrontation with people and prefer to digest any injustice done to me in silence and then vent about it to my friends at parties. Both Robert and I were astounded by the derelict properties we had been shown and the consequent waste of time that this whole day had been. There was nothing to argue about, especially not in front of an assembly of complete strangers. Once we were taken back to our rental car, we said goodbye and that we’d be in touch, even though we knew that we wouldn’t be. As we were to learn in the weeks to come, José and his team were not exceptional or unique in their lack of professionalism. 

During that summer, we inspected our fair share of ruins that had no water supply and no electricity. It seemed that whenever we informed an estate agent that we were looking for a country house surrounded by nature and with a little bit of land, they immediately translated this specification into ‘an abandoned ruin with a lot of land’. The one thing about ruins is that they hardly ever put you right off. In fact, they draw you in and allow your imagination to run wild. A pile of misshapen stones densely covered in grass and weed transforms itself into a lovely Romanesque patio with well-established palm trees and grapevines providing plenty of shade. A jagged hole in a wall becomes a window from which you can look out every morning to gaze at blue skies and olive hills. You start to believe that decrepit wooden doors can be easily repaired and brought back to their glory; that rotting beams scattered on the floor can be restored and put back up to hold rustic cottage roof. A ruin located in the middle of the Spanish olive groves is a siren call for romantics and optimists.

It’s impossible to overlook the allure and beauty of an abandoned cortijo since it is a folly both in the figurative and literal senses. There is something in a Western mindset that is immediately attracted to a ruin. We travel to the European capitals to admire ruined buildings. We hike up mountains to see ruined monasteries, and when we have a little bit of money, we travel to Spain and fall in love with an old ruin that turns out to be a folly and a financial downfall. 

To read more, The Crinkle Crankle Wall in available on Amazon in all marketplaces for Kindle and as a paperback:

Amazon UK:

Amazon Spain:

Amazon US:

Amazon universal link:

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