Those of you who have enjoyed The Crinkle Crankle Wall: Our First Year in Andalusia will be delighted to hear that Book 2, A Hoopoe on the Nispero Tree, is now available in all Amazon marketplaces as an e-book and paperback, and free for Kindle Unlimited readers.
The Amazon Look Inside feature will be available in a day or two, but until then you can read the first chapter below. As always, don’t forget to leave your review when you finish the book and share it with your friends and family if you find it entertaining.
Chapter 1 The February from Hell
The almond blossoms saved us that winter. On those sunny winter days, our guests would drive up the small hill to our casa rural and be enchanted by the views of the olive hills. In the distance, they’d catch a glimpse of the snow-covered Parapanda and Sierra Nevada Mountains. They would park outside the crinkle crankle wall and get out of their car to be welcomed by a symphony of pink and white almond blossoms against the deep blue skies. There are eight almond trees at the top of our driveway. Since it had been an unusually warm winter, the trees’ natural cycle was confused, and they had bloomed a month or so prematurely.
Fortunately, these trees served as a misdirection. Despite parts of the property looking like a construction site, we managed to get excellent reviews that winter. The guests would often stand on the terrace and admire the views of the olive hills and the mountains. They’d take selfies with this backdrop and tell me how desconectado or relaxed they felt. It made me feel happy to see them satisfied, even though in the back of my mind, I knew much more had to be done before the summer season arrived when people would stay for longer and perhaps be more discerning. Notwithstanding this, it was a foretaste of what I hoped our place would be one day.
Welcoming guests when the weather is sunny is a pleasure and leaves you with good feelings about the whole business of renting apartments to tourists. Since winter is not the most popular time for foreign tourists to visit Spain, we did not have many bookings. The few bookings that we did get for January were a great success and gave us good practice in providing hospitality — a trade that was new to both of us. But in February, things took a turn for the worse.
Since we did not have any guests in the first two weeks of February, we used that time to build more furniture for the apartments. I was hoping to start writing a new textbook for Cambridge, which I had been contracted to do in December. But the project was getting terribly delayed, and so I began to really worry about our financial situation. As a textbook writer, you usually receive an initial payment from the publisher when you deliver fifty percent of the book. So, with the two-month delay and the starting date set for the end of February, I would be lucky to see my first payments in June. We managed to survive on Robert’s translation and editing work, but we also needed money to build kitchens for the apartments to rent them to self-catering visitors. There were also a million projects around the house that needed money to finish. We needed to install gutters, build a room around the outdoor gas hot-water heaters to protect them from the weather, pave our driveway, and find a solution to our continuous water worries. We needed every penny we could get, so we stayed open for bookings.
The next visitors were booked for the Valentine’s Day weekend. I prepared their apartment with a lot of care — and left a box of chocolates and a bottle of pink sparkling wine on the table. Since it was a cloudy day, I lit their fireplace so the apartment would be nice and cosy on their arrival. As I sat on the patio with a book, I could not help but notice that the sky above was getting darker and darker. By the time their car appeared on our driveway, a slight drizzle was falling.
I showed them to their apartment and explained what was what, but they did not seem very impressed with the décor; nothing in the apartment seemed to evoke a spontaneous ¡que chulo! or ¡que precioso! They walked past the upcycled French farm furniture, the Indian coffee table with hand-engraved rural scenes, and up the hand-crafted staircase made of upcycled wood and colourful tiles without a word. The traditional white and blue caliphate-style tiles in the bathroom, marble washbasin, wardrobe made of upcycled pallets, or hardwood chest of drawers from India — nothing seemed to prompt a comment or compliment. They handed me the forty euros for the night and ushered me out.
‘How are the guests?’ Robert asked when I returned to our quarters.
‘A bit strange.’
‘Did they say anything?’
‘Not much,’ I felt disappointed with the guests’ underwhelmed reaction, but I kept these feelings to myself. Little did I know that things were going to go downhill from there.
By the time we went to bed, it had been raining steadily for several hours. The first proper rain in many months that year. I was woken up around two a.m. by the sound of something smashing. I could not identify the sound, so I got up and went to the window to see if it was coming from outside. It was pitch black. I could hear torrential rain and a storm raging outside. Every few seconds, through the storm and howling wind, I could hear a sound ‘bang!’ and again ‘bang!’. I woke Robert up.
‘What’s that sound?’ I asked.
‘No, no. Wait.’ I lifted my finger to indicate silence, and there it was again ‘bang! bang!’.
‘It’s the window shutters. They didn’t close them, and they are banging against the window and wall.’
This explanation made sense. In my desire for a picture-perfect cottage, I had requested the carpenter in Granada to put our shutters on the outside instead of the inside of the windows, which was the local tradition. When we first installed the windows, the effect was very picturesque, and I could not understand why more people didn’t put their shutters on the outside. However, it soon became apparent that this setup was utterly impractical. To open or close the shutters, you had to open the windows and lean out quite far to fasten them to the window frame.
Another problem had also just become apparent. In heavy wind, the shutters would smash against the window frame and the wall outside. I did not know what to do. The tempest that was rolling over the olive groves outside was loud enough on its own. Add the regular banging of the shutters, and there was no way these guests could sleep.
Why don’t they close the shutters? How can they sleep with that noise? I could not understand.
I wasn’t willing to go to their apartment at two a.m. to close the shutters in their bedroom and living room. And so, I spent a heavy-hearted, sleepless night listening to the hurricane outside. As soon as the sun rose, I looked out of the window of our bedroom. The downpour and the wind had not slowed down overnight. The trees were half-bent under the strain of the heavy wind, and the rain was now horizontal. By ten a.m., the rainstorm had transformed itself into a hailstorm that covered the fields with ice. Since it seemed as if we were in the middle of the ten plagues of Egypt, I wasn’t able to go outside to check on the guests. I was sure they’d be hiding inside like everyone else.
Thank God, I don’t have to serve them breakfast, I thought.
I could not imagine how I would have been able to bring the trays of food to their living room in this wind and rain. As we sat in our tiny living room waiting for them to check out, I had a sinking feeling. I knew that they did not have a comfortable stay, and I worried about the bad review that was forthcoming. Around eleven, as the rain subsided for a few minutes, I heard them knocking on our door. They were ready to leave. Avoiding the puddles, we escorted them to their car and waved them off. I could not help but notice that our driveway had turned into a clayey mud bath in the heavy rain.
Because the soil in our area contains a lot of clay, the driveway is fine when it is sunny and dry. When dry, it is hard as stone and thus easy to drive on. However, even a little bit of rain turns it into an impossibly sticky quagmire, where the clay sticks to your shoes forever. If I walked down the driveway to the gate after heavy rain, I would gain ten centimetres in height due to the mud that would stick to the soles of my boots. I could only imagine the mess this made inside the guests’ car once they had walked across the driveway and entered their pristine city car.
But perhaps that was karma for smoking dozens of cigarettes inside the apartment, where I had posted a clearly visible ‘non-smoking’ sign. I only noticed the cigarette butts after they had left. On the stone patio outside the window of their living room, I spotted a sprawling collection of butts, clearly thrown out of the window onto the stone paving as if they were at a London pub during the World Cup. Robert joined me to inspect the damage. He was livid when he saw how the patio had been turned into an impromptu ashtray.
Inside the apartment, I was rudely confronted by the smell of cheap perfume. Since I used to be a smoker myself, I knew exactly what had happened. They had whiled away the evening smoking their lungs out in front of the fireplace and then had attempted to cover the smell by dousing the apartment with madam’s perfume. Soon my anger at them melted away when I spotted a giant puddle of water that had formed at the back of the room. It was clear to me that water had somehow penetrated the back wall of the house.
Another puddle had formed at the entrance to the apartment, where the horizontal rain must have gone under the door. It all looked somewhat dreadful and could not be described as ‘luxurious’ by any means or standards. I was feeling very dejected. All the work we’d put into this place to make it comfortable for guests seemed to be for nothing. I went upstairs to check the bedroom and bathroom.
The bedroom smelled like burnt chorizo. The odour had penetrated deep into the room. I didn’t know what it was, but I could also smell the guests’ cigarettes and cheap perfume beyond the unknown toxic smell. I opened the windows to close the noisy shutters. One of them would not close properly because the hinge had been bent out of shape during the windy night. It took several days and a lot of frankincense to get rid of the smell. I had to wash all the bedding, including the pillows and duvets, because they were saturated with cheap perfume and cigarettes. As expected, we did not get a sterling review for that short stay.
‘Seven-point-five out of ten,’ I told Robert as soon as it was posted. ‘It’s not so bad considering their apartment got slightly flooded, and the shutters banged all night.’
A few regional expletives from the Scouse dialect were used as Robert was still fuming over the smoking and throwing the butts out of the window. There was nothing to add.
The disastrous Valentine’s Day booking had revealed several problems with our guest accommodation. The shutters that were fixed to the wrong side of the windows, the leaky walls, muddy driveways, and smelly chimneys all had to be sorted out. As it rained day after day, each day colder and wetter than the next, I closed our availability on the booking website until the inclement weather passed. The first thing that we attacked were the shutters. We spent several hours moving from window to window, removing the shutters and re-fitting them on the inside. Now the guests would be able to open and close them even during a storm without getting wet. It also prevented any future middle-of-the-night banging.
The smelly chimney flue was a more serious problem. I didn’t realise that the burnt chorizo smell was coming from the chimney itself until we were visited by friends from the nearby village, Venta Valero. Keith and Delia moved to rural Andalusia in 2014, the same year we relocated from Abu Dhabi. Robert had met them the year before on a Spanish-for-beginners course that I forced him to take soon after we had arrived in Spain. Many students in his class were the stereotypical simultaneously pale-faced-and-sunburnt bargain Brits in the sun who insist on having lunch at noon, tea at five, and celebrate English bank holidays as if they hadn’t left their homeland. But Delia and Keith were a bit different, so Robert invited them for drinks and a BBQ one day.
‘Don’t be put off, but she’s a raw vegan,’ he informed me a few hours before their arrival.
‘What does it mean?’
‘She doesn’t eat cooked food.’
So why did you invite her for a barbecue? I thought to myself.
This was going to be fun. From personal experience, it is difficult enough having vegetarians around for a meal since they have a tendency to constantly interrogate the host whether any of the vegetables have touched the meat during the cooking process. And, God forbid, should the same serving utensils touch a chop and then serve roasted vegetables to a vegetarian. All hell has been known to break loose.
‘What’s she going to eat?’ I enquired of my dear husband, who dropped this bombshell on me as soon as the food was ready.
‘Can’t she have a salad?’
‘I don’t think so. I’ve sprinkled grated Parmesan all over it.’
‘Oh,’ it must have dawned on Robert that cheese was not vegan. ‘What about the pomegranate salad?’
‘It’s with couscous,’ I couldn’t believe that he could not understand what ‘raw vegan’ meant.
‘Do we have anything to feed her?’ I could see he was worried.
I looked in the fridge and spotted some lettuce and tomatoes.
‘She can have some lettuce leaves and tomatoes.’
Delia, an aspiring yogini in her late fifties, had a lot of youthful energy only accentuated by two buns on top of her head and a collection of turquoise tattoos on her arms and legs. She was a good sport and accepted the leaves and tomato wedges as her main course with grace. As that was clearly not enough food, she ate some non-raw and non-vegan salads and didn’t fuss about the Parmesan cheese. Our bumbling lack of respect for her dietary choices did not put her off, and since then, we’d often meet up and chat about our projects.
They, too, had plans to open a B&B and yoga retreat, and, like us, they were constantly renovating and making improvements to their cottage. Because we had so much in common at the time, we became instant friends. We’d spend hours discussing bricklaying, flooring, tiling, and problems with builders and material supplies. We’d also share our ideas about who our future customers would be and how we could entice people to come to rural Andalusia for their holidays. Even though Delia didn’t drink and was a raw vegan, we managed to have fun together.
We invited Delia and Keith over for wine and tapas about a week after the disastrous Valentine’s Day booking. Because our own living room was not presentable to guests, or even friends, we set up some food and drinks in one of the guest apartments. It was a treat for us to sit in a clean and spacious room. Before they arrived, I lit the fireplace and went downstairs to our quarters to finish preparing some tapas — mainly olives, local cheeses, and sundried figs. For someone who didn’t drink, Delia consumed a good number of our boozy figs. I felt happy to see her eat something with gusto and restrained myself from pointing out that the syrupy liquid in which the figs were naturally coated was most likely fermented sugar.
Once they arrived, we went upstairs to the rental. As soon as I opened the sliding glass doors, I smelt the toxic odour again. It permeated the whole living room.
‘I think you have condensation in your chimney flue,’ Keith informed us. ‘Is your flue insulated?’
Keith was a lanky man in his mid-sixties. In his previous life, he was an HR manager, but now he filled his days reading about and planning his house renovations. It transpired that he had had the same problem the year before. He had a new firebox installed in his kitchen, but once it was lit, it filled the house with a terrible smell, a mixture of soot and fat. The reason for the poisonous stench, as explained by one of his neighbours, was that his flue was exposed and was not insulated. In cold weather, condensation formed inside the vent whenever the fire was lit.
‘Why didn’t Dani tell us that we had the wrong flue? It’s not like it was the first time he was renovating a house.’
Dani was one of the builders who helped us with the reform the year before. I was miffed. We would have bought the expensive insulated flue pipes if we had known that this would happen. There were five men on our building site when we installed the fireplaces. They all had experience renovating houses, and not one said anything to us about the flue being the wrong one. Now, we would not be able to fix the problem.
To start with, the purchase of new insulated flues for both guest apartments would significantly exceed our meagre budget. The other problem was removing the flue which was attached to the chimney and cemented into the chimney stack on the roof. It looked like a big job for which we had neither the time nor the money.
Since our next guests were due to arrive on the twenty-eighth of February on el Día de Andalucía, I was hoping for sunny weather, thereby reducing the amount of condensation that might form in the chimney. I placed a chemical chimney sweep log in the burning fireplaces a few times to reduce the foul odour. While we could not do anything with the exposed flues in the living rooms, Robert built a brick encasement around the exposed flue in one of the bedrooms, which also helped reduce the toxic aroma. A few days before our next guests’ arrival, another couple booked a weekend stay with us. We would be fully booked for the first time, but the weather forecast remained ominous.
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