Cheers, chatter and chorizos – Andalucians on the hiking trail

There is one thing one can say about Andalucians – They love their food and will make almost any occasion into a celebratory feast.

Food is certainly a favoured topic when we are in the sierra with our mountain groups. We may be leaping over boulders, crossing a river or scaling a cliff side, yet our fellow hikers somehow manage to hold a running commentary. More often than not, it is not about the trail or the magnificent views, but about eatables. We have rarely ascended a peak without learning a new recipe.  The steeper the hill, the richer the ingredients, with further intensity and willingness to share roasting tips closer to the holiday season.

On the way to the mountain in the morning, the conversation may skirt around healthy-ish fare, due to the physical effort we  are about to endure. Around mid-hike, almost every conversation is about what they have brought, or would like to have brought, or wish they could have brought for lunch. By the routes’ end, usually sitting down for a post-hike cerveza, our gang is a virtual cacophony of voices, trying to top each other’s dirty jokes and stories of hedonistic eating pleasures.

But, the Andalucians’ love for food doesn’t limit itself to mere talk. As soon as we take off on a bus tour, someone will bring out a bottle of something festive. We have hardly left town before it is time to stop for a ‘quick’ bite. Likewise, after walking up the first steep hill, someone will insist that we must stop for something to eat, as they did not have time to eat breakfast before leaving. During our many walks, not an hour seems to pass without a snack break, one of multiple lunch stops or a halt for a communal cheer. In other words, Andalucians require frequent refuelling.

The lunches our fellow hikers bring are a chapter to itself, well worth a closer appreciative look. I have hiked since I was a child and was always taught to pack a hearty lunch, and I still do. Water, a fruit and a wholesome sandwich. The latter is generally squashed up in my pack by the time I devour it, admittedly without the greatest of pleasure, or much thought. Not until now…

Andalucians have given me a whole new meaning to the concept of hiking lunches. Why make a dreary sandwich before you leave home, when you can make something tasty en route? Just bring a whole, fresh, white loaf of bread and something to fill it. Take a generous block of sheep-milk cheese, a can of fish, oily sardines if you have them, plus some fresh tomatoes or a glass jar or pickles. Cut it all up with your hunting knife and you have a feast worthy of a mountain king. It may take up a bit more space in your pack, but it makes for a much better lunch. Besides, nobody is going to want to share my pre-packed, shrink-wrapped poor excuse for a sandwich!

A freshly made trail-sandwich is one option for the Andalucian hikers, though they will also bring sausages, Iberian ham or fuet by the meter. Not to mention a few links of spicy chorizo. All these make excellent high-cholesterol hiking food, while instantly giving you new friends.

Like-wise, a fresh tortilla of a dozen eggs or so, with onion and potatoes and possibly a bit of spinach will keep you going for hours and make you very popular, particularly with the expat hikers with their sad little sandwiches. Fruit? Only if you peel it right there and offer all around. Chocolate bars? Why bother? It is much more fun and certainly more social to bring a whole cake and share it with the lot.

Then there are the all-important liquids. Of course you need plenty of water on a hike, especially during the hot summer months, but cans of beer, pop and cider are also most welcome trail blazers. However, when it comes to mealtime, no Andalucian hike seems complete without at least somebody offering you a hit of wine or a slug of Manzanilla from their leather bota.

Nothing they pull out of their packs, or their hats, surprises us anymore. The key to Andalucian eating is sharing, which always makes a better meal and a jollier time. I suppose it boils down to a basic cultural difference; We Nordic types generally eat to live, which the Spanish live to eat. And, believe me, eat they do!

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our fellow hikers, guides and mountain pals for all the wonderful open-air meals and good cheers we have enjoyed together in the sierra. I promise to work on improving my lunch contribution for the next walk!


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The magical cork and why every self-respecting wine should want one

People may say what they like about the advantages of plastic corks and screw tops (lets not even talk about wine in Tetra packs…), but to me a well-made wine merits a real cork. I am not a wine snob, but probably a bit of a traditionalist. Particularly these days when everything is about convenience, it is important to keep some of the old rituals, such as the simple joy of pulling a cork out of a wine bottle. Hauling a wad of plastic out of your favourite vintage simply cannot compare. There is the earthy smell of the cork, the little squeaky sounds as one wiggles and pulls and finally the little pop as the cork emerges from the bottles’ neck. A perfect tool for the job, having served us for centuries, with still no man-made competitor when it comes to the longevity of real cork.

The cork oak, a native tree of the Mediterranean, have been around for about 150 million years. Here in southern Spain, there is evidence that people worked with cork since about 4,000 BC. The Greeks, the Phoenicians, and later the Romans used cork as a sealant, enclosing their wines and other liquids in clay containers. However, it was not until the 17th century that a French Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon replaced the wooden peg formerly used and tried a cork as a bottle stopper. And corks have been produced basically the same way ever since.

The job of a wine closure is to keep the wine in and oxygen out, as simple as that. Wine types, laws and regulations, tradition, current fashion and last but not least cost all influence the bottle closures selected by the producer. Alternative wine closures came quite recently onto the scene. Screw caps have been around since the mid-sixties and are generally used by New Zealand and Australian wine producers. Plastic and synthetic stoppers are rapidly replacing natural cork. On a global level, most wines now favour synthetic corks, though these types of bottle sealants are not suited for long-term storage. So, is this tendency all about the mighty buck?

Wine closure alternatives were developed by winemakers wanting to prevent loss due to ‘cork taint’, when a wine gets spoiled by air penetrating the cork. ‘Cork taint’ affects about 3% of wines using traditional cork, making it seem like an undependable choice to some producers. (Yet, have you ever seen a champagne bottle with a plastic cork?) Due to its natural growth and harvest, corks are 2-3 times more expensive than the synthetic alternatives. Being a natural product the quality vary and producers may choose a lower grade cork to save cost. Some of the alleged drawbacks of natural cork may be blamed on the lower grade technical agglomerated cork products, which is a bit like comparing particle-board and MDF to hardwood. And as with real wood, you have to pay for quality.

Cork advocates argue that alternatives don’t allow the alcohol to breathe naturally. Cork is the single best natural product malleable enough to hold content inside a glass bottle. A substance found in the cork cells stops the passage of air and liquid through the cork. Natural cork bottle enclosures have many advantages. They are natural, flexible and compressible, with amazing anti-slip properties. They are also biodegradable, recyclable and grows in the wild, thus promoting biodiversity. Unlike synthetic closures, a natural cork expands and contracts with a slightest temperature fluctuations, maintaining a perfectly tight seal, even as the glass of the bottle itself also minutely changes.

Cork is the prime choice for long-term wine storage, where the present alternatives cannot compete. As a testament to the amazing sealant qualities of natural cork, imagine the incredible pressure the bottles found in the Titanic wreckage had been exposed to, still with the corks intact! In 2010, a ship was found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, 50 meters blow sea level, containing 169 bottles of champagne, having survived since the mid-19th century and apparently being quite quaffable, at that. The darkness, plus constant, low temperature are perfect aging conditions for wine, which is why some producers, such as Ronda’s organic wine producer Schwartz, are experimenting with storing some of their best vintages under water.

As the worldwide demand for wine is growing and new wine markets are emerging, there isn’t enough cork grown to supply all producers. I am not saying that all wine needs the real thing, just that there is a fallacy, especially in North America, where one is told that cork is a depleting resource and that cork trees are dying out. They are not. We are just drinking more and more, and want our wine to be cheaper and cheaper. Since the majority of cork production goes towards wine production, the real threat to cork production is the decline in demand, due to the cheaper synthetic alternatives. The WWF has actually started a cork conservation campaign, encouraging consumers to buy wine with real wine corks to help the industry stay alive. Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting processes there is. Not a single tree is cut down to get the cork!

Living in inland Andalucia, we have the privilege and joy of being able to see the cork forests up close. In the mountainous, rural Western Andalucía, between the towns of Gaucin, Urbique, Ronda, and nearly all the way to Algeciras in the south, one can observe the traditional (and virtually unchanged) harvest methods of cork happening between June and August every year. The cork, which actually is a type of parasite on the bark of the trees, is carefully retrieved with special knives or hatchets, peeling away the outer cork bark, leaving the inner bark intact. The cork trees are nothing short of amazing. After the first 20 years of growth, they can produce cork for over 150 years, even though it may have been stripped at nine-year intervals. Being a cork harvester, now a special 2-year college education, is a skill handed down from generation to generation. The cork is only cut off once every nine years, allowing the trees time to regenerate. Once the ‘sheets of cork are brought to the plants, the corks are stamped out by machines with different widths for wine, champagne and cognac.

Andalucia’s Bosque de los Alcornocales, a protected Natural Park, is Spain’s biggest plantation. However, there is nothing plantation-like at all about the cork forests. The trees grow wild amongst other oaks and natural shrubbery, often in incredible inclines, where rope and donkeys have to be used to bring in the harvest as mechanical aids would not be of much help. Spain is the worlds’ second biggest producer of cork (after Portugal) with an industry worth an estimated two billion dollars a year. With its impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and fire retardant properties, cork is also used in diverse processes from car construction to aeroplane insulation.

Clearly, preference in wine and bottle enclosures is a personal thing and there is much more to be said in this debate. But next time you grab a bottle and find a REAL cork, take a deep breath to smell its earthy past and send a small thank to the tree that offered its coat for your drinking pleasure. Cheers!

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Our Annual New Years Theft – Starting the year with a very clean slate

For the past two years we have met the new-year a bit lighter. Certainly not from lack of eating and drinking during the holidays, but because somebody some place decided to pick up a few of our belongings. Though initially being victim to theft feels rather upsetting and one tends to bemoan ones losses, in retrospect it can almost feel liberating. I am not hereby advocating burglaries, nor inviting people to come and serve themselves of our dwindling earthly goods. However, at the dawn of the year, when most people have over-indulged on the material front, it is important to remember that nothing is permanent and that all things we have in our possession will at one point no longer be ours, simply a lesson in impermanence.

Last year, on the very last day of the year my wallet was picked from my bag just off Ronda’s world-famous bridge. Really, I should only blame myself for having become such a country bumpkin that I think nothing can happen in our small town. Lesson learned, cash or not, I now keep it in a double zipped pocket and hold my bag underneath my arm when walking through crowed areas. Loosing a wallet is of course very annoying. I entered the New Year not only cash less, but without a single credit card, driving license or other Ids. January first was spent on hold for hours with banks in Vancouver and Madrid and credit card call centers in Delhi or god knows where, having to answer question and disclose codes I barely could recall. Then to denounce my Spanish Ids, at the local police station, which like any Spanish office is not the ultimate in speed and efficiency. But once it was all done, I felt a strange sense of lightness. Here I was, walking about without a single piece of Id. I could be anyone. Could there be a lighter way to enter a new year?

This year, also in the first week of January we discovered that ALL our art that we had brought from Canada was gone from where we had stored it for the past year and a half. The irony was that it was kept in a local convent with cloistered nuns. Our poor nuns were beside themselves, as this had never happened in the memory of any of them, even for Mother Superior who is pushing on 90. It was unfathomable to them. Hardly anybody enters the nunnery and the few who do, are trusted by the nuns. On the other hand, doors are hardly ever locked, and treasures, be it the convents own and things stored there, can in reality be picked up and brought out along other things, should one be criminally inclined.

Initially, we were understandably upset, having lost thousands of euros worth of original art, decades in the collecting. There were priceless inherited pieces, irreplaceable old family photographs and rare and original works of art from Mexico, Canada and Norway. Many pieces where inherited or gifted to us, such as some lovely embossed limited edition bottle labels given to my husband from the Baron de Rothschild family. All gone! Friends and neighbours advised us to call the police and get fingerprints off my art portfolio that was ripped open. But sending the police and insurance agents into the nunnery was out of the question for us. It would probably give Mother Superior a heart attack. We could not do anything to hurt ‘our nuns’, who had been kind to store our boxes. We felt bad enough telling the nuns about the theft, as in the end they were more upset than us about the loss.

What to do? It was just stuff. Clearly stuff we loved and cared enough about to bring along across a large ocean. However, the art came from another chapter in our life and maybe as a new year and another page is turned, we must leave our walls bare for a while, until new art will come our way. Neither my husband nor I feel upset. We have each other, we have our health, our home and our families and friends here and abroad. What more do one need, and compared to that uncountable wealth, what is a few paintings?

If we need to experience our annual theft to be reminded of this material impermanence, I am OK with that. We cannot take it with us anyhow. And when it comes to stuff, less is almost always more, even if it sometimes hurts to realize it.

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The house saga continues – De-construction and digging for dead Moors

To demolish a house should be a rather easy affair, but not so in southern Spain. Certainly not when the house is in town where all houses are attached, so you virtually own a slice of a sidewalk with shared walls. If your house in addition is located in the historic and thus protected area, expect trouble. Our house was both; a slice with vaguely defined neighbouring walls sitting right where Ronda’s old Arab graveyard used to be located up to the late 15th century. We were at peace with our house’s friendly ghosts and felt privileged to live in such an historic area, but knew that this could cause a few delays.

Cut to two years later… Having our building permit in hand, the first thing we had to do was to apply for another permit, or to be precise, a permit extension. Not for the building, nor the demolishing, but for the archaeological dig, which they so generously had given us two weeks to complete. We’d gladly do as they said, had it not been for the rotten beams and partially caved-in roof, the treacherous stairs and shaky floors that all had to be removed, and outer walls that had to be properly checked and secured before an archaeological dig could be safely performed. But the building experts in Malaga had not foreseen this practical impossibility.

Thankfully, the extension was given without too much delay. We could in principle begin the de-construction work. There was only one more hitch. In the province of Malaga, (and no other place in Spain, as far as we know), archaeologists are only allowed to work on one project at the time. Architects and builders can juggle a handful projects to allow for technical delays, but not archaeologist. This law must exist to assure that archaeologists will starve if a work site is inevitably stalled or delayed. We contacted Ronda’s two archaeologists, who both had projects for a year or so. We started looking for archaeologists in other towns, all of whom would come with lengthy timelines and extensive projects proposals, as if we were to dig out an entire Roman village and not a 3-meter by 10-meter slice of a house at a depth of barely 40 centimeters! After a few too many ‘special price just for you’ proposals, we found an archaeologist in a nearby town who miraculously had a gap in his schedule merely two months away. We were ready to kiss his dusty sandals and signed the deal on the spot. The work could FINALLY begin.

By this time we had spoken to more constructors than we cared to remember and had found a builder whom we both felt would do a good job. He was local, second generation builder and had a family, so we knew he would not run off on us if there were any problems. Such are important things to consider when somebody is supposed to build you a house in a foreign country. His team consisted of a group of rugged men, including three very capable brothers with their specialty skills. They worked with us for almost eight months, through thick and thin as they say and we never regretted our choice. Anyhow, I am getting ahead of myself. We had not even started digging…

The thing with an old house is that one never knows what the project will entail until things are brought to the open. Walls that seem sound initially may crumble once indefinite layers of chalk paint are removed. Beams will turn to sawdust. Neighbours may have built illegal extensions and the ground may not be as solid as initially thought. There are always surprises with old houses and surprises generally cost, time and money.

Our builders ‘moved in’, putting up an official construction sign and hanging up the legally required hard hats on the wall, never to be used as far as we detected during the entire process. Their first step was to remove the old Arab style roof tiles, one by one, carefully storing them aside to be mounted again once the new roof was built underneath. Re-using the old tiles is required in Ronda’s historic area, and both my husband and I loved the look of these patina and moss covered terra cotta tiles. Working from top to bottom, the next step was to remove all inner walls and then the dividing floors. Finally, the crumbling stairs to the second floor were removed and only the skeleton framework of three old supporting beams remained. Our architect, building inspector and builders met on the site, agreeing that things had to be taken very slowly or the sidewalls could cave in.

As our house and the 2-meter wide slice of house to the right were once a single dwelling, probably split by siblings’ inheritance, we knew that this wall would need strengthening. We also shared the ridge beam with them, so the builders put up support buttresses next door before cutting the final beams. On the left side of our house is a multi-housing unit, which shot up during the building boom some 20 years ago. Once we stared thinning our meter-thick exterior wall, we discovered that the complex had not, as law requires, built their own exterior wall against ours, but merely leant their cross-walls against ours and ran all their cables and water pipes down our wall. As our house had been abandoned for a few decades, nobody was there to protest and we could not insist they build their wall now, 20 years later. We wrote to their strata council and were given permission to tear down and properly re-build the entire sidewall, of course out of our pocket, never mind them having broken the law. Ironically, during the entire construction period, the only complaint came from the one neighbour who had an illegal balcony leaning on our wall. Details, details…

We were now down to the ground level. We kept what could be saved of the psychedelic hydraulic tiles that now are back in fashion which covered main floor, later donated to our builders storage, to his wife’s great annoyance. The basement and the upper floor had old terra cotta tiles, though only a dozen could be saved after indefinite years of use and abuse. Nobody actually knows how old our house is. The city plans said that it was built in 1949, which was likely when they did the last ‘renovation’.

Judging by the enormous hand-forged nails (enough to make a Viking jealous), at least part of the house must have been there for centuries. These types of houses have been changed, added to and morphed throughout generations, as families grew or shrunk. Our seemingly solid outer walls, a meter thick in places, were built by sticking together a mixture of oversized boulders, small rocks and red earth which once may have been clay. Equally, the house had no foundation. The walls were standing straight onto the soil with the floor tiles sitting on the earth. No strange it was a bit of a humidity problem…

The facades of houses in protected areas are supposed to be left undisturbed. This proposed a problem, as no mechanical digger could fit through our narrow front door. We had to ask for permission, once again, this time to remove the door and make a hole just wide enough for a excavator to enter. How the operator managed to actually turn the digger around inside a house no wider than 3 meter is a mystery and should in itself earn him a medal.

By now it was time to call on the long-awaited archaeologist. Notebook, mini brushes and putty knives in hand, he came to observe the digging, stopping the mechanical claw every time he saw a hint of something that could resemble a dead Moor or anything else worth saving. Day after day he came, picking away at the ground like a spoilt child at breakfast, and leaving walls and floors as clean enough to eat from. At long last a week later he packed up his brushes and putty knives and offered us his findings. Nothing! Nada! A few chicken bones, some pottery shards and a rusty tool-head was all he had unearthed, and a rather hefty bill. Clearly we understood that if he only could do a job at a time, he had to make as much out of the spectacle as possible. Of course the answer was NO to our next question. We could not go on with the construction before his written report had been sent to the town hall and onto the culture department, to be read, debated, hopefully approved and sealed and signed with many signatures before being couriered back to Ronda, in triplicates.

Relatively speaking, we were lucky. He could have found human remains, grave posts from Moorish times or worse still, Roman coins, mosaics or column pieces? That could have stopped our dig for good. Such treasures have been found in many houses in our barrio, many quickly covered up or secretly displayed in inner courtyards. At least, with no dead Moors in site, we knew that the construction of our house could finally begin. It was just a matter of time.

But that is a story for another day…


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The backbreaking road to liquid gold – our first olive harvest

Walking around the Spanish countryside in winter one can often hear the clacking of sticks and the noise from what sounds like motorized saws (they are actually branch shakers). The olive trees are heavy with fruit, threatening to fall to the ground and the cooler days and low December sun makes perfect weather for picking. It is olive harvest time in Andalucía.

Actually, I should correct myself, as olives are harvested from November to March, depending on the area, types of grapes, and last but not least, whether one has enough help. Like any harvest, picking olives is a race against time, before rain, wind, hail or drought comes to ruin the entire crop. Yet, olives are tough, thriving in poor, dry or rocky soil. They need very little water. You can crop them down to the ground and they will still come back. They can handle sub-zero temperatures, as well as scalding near 50-degree-Celcius. They yield fruit year after year and are to my knowledge the only sadomasochistic tree around, accepting a thorough beating every harvest.

One day we met our neighbour, completely exhausted, telling us that the entire family had worked for days harvesting olives and they still had several hundred kilos to be picked. Always up for a new challenge and never having tried harvesting olives, we volunteered immediately for the late afternoon shift. The grandma, the husband and wife, their daughter, plus the two of us stacked into their car and drove off to the field. On the road there, they explained that olives yield on an average of 20 kilos per tree, though a good tree can give you as much as 60 kilos. They had already picked 500 kilos, which they had brought to a mill that press your olives into your own oil. This had given them almost 50 liters of organic oil, more than enough for the family for a year. The remaining olives would be brought to a local mill where all olives are mixed, thus not assuring if you get pesticide and other herbicides in your oil. Here one can choose to exchange ones’ crop for their generic oil or wait until the factory’s oil have been sold and get your olives worth in cash some time in the spring. Smaller producers can certainly not get rich by selling their olives this way, but at least the fruit is not wasted.

Arriving at their plot, their fifty or so olive trees were planted harmonious within the landscape without the militant order of commercial lots, which look like fine cross-stitching from outer space. Most were at last a century old, wonderfully crocked and yielding a mixture of black and green fruits of at least three different traditional varieties (Thankfully, Monsanto have not been here yet…). Some had grown tall and wild, while others were small and rugged, in between which their chickens would roam, the roaster would rule and their yappy little dogs would run around. The family does not put anything on their olives, other than once a year immersing the fields in water and letting nature do the rest. As far as insecticide, they use a bottle of sugar-water to catch mosquitos that otherwise would attack the fruit – a truly organic crop.

Olives have grown on the Iberian continent since time immemorial, though the Romans made it into a commercial crop here some 2000 ears ago, at which time they started importing vast quantities of Spanish olive oil. What was interesting to discover for  us ‘virgin harvesters’ , was that the methods of gathering the fruit have not changed much in the last millennia. The bigger farms may now use their noisy branch shakers and drive from tree to tree in tractors, but for the majority of producers, certainly these types of family farms, olives are still beaten down with sticks or carefully gathered by hand. (Hence, keeping the trees short and squat is an advantage.)

We had about a dozen trees to harvest before the sun would set. The crop needed to be in the open trailer to be rushed out before 7 pm, when the mill would close its doors. We would spread large nets under each tree, hit the upper branches with wooden sticks, gathering the fruit from the lower branches by hand. The olives would then fall to the nets below, which were cleared of branches before they were gathered up in buckets and wheelbarrows and emptied into the trailer. Then the process would be repeated again, and again. It may sound romantic, even kind of meditative, reaching for a branch of silvery leaves and shiny black fruit, ready for the picking. And it is sort of romantic, at least for the first few trees, until your back starts aching and your hands have splinters and have been been pelleted by too many falling olives.

Night had fallen far to quickly and our troupe was spreading thin, trying to pick clean the last handful of trees. “We got to go!”, called José. The fruit must be brought to the mill the same day or it may be spoilt. So, with wilting strength and a last great group effort, the final fruit was poured into the trailer and off we went. We reached the mill just in time, so this years’ harvest was saved. The following day we reemerged somewhat limping, yet promising our neighbours that they could count on our help next year, as well.

A few days before Christmas there was a knock on our door. Our neighbours proudly presented us with a bottle of their very own organic olive oil. After our day as pickers, I will never look upon a bottle of olive oil the same way again. It is a labour of love and, as we have experienced, a backbreaking proposition. Oil from a lovingly tended and carefully picked olive tree truly deserves the name the Andalucíans have given it – liquid gold.

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Oh to be an Iberian pig!

A couple of lifetimes ago, I was at a Quebec pig farm, probably wanting to record the sound or something equally flippant. Anyhow, this was one of those massive production houses where only size matters, the type of place where Greenpeace and David Suzuki would have a field day. I was absolutely abhorred by the enormous, sickly whitish-pink animals, injected by god only knows what to achieve the desired market bulk and weight. The sound was ghastly and the smell of the pigs was positively the foulest thing I have experienced. Is it therefore odd that people think pigs are, well, pigs?

The other day we were hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema, a UNSCO Biosphere Reserve, and came across an old stone farmhouse with a lonesome black Iberian pig. It was a moment of perfect porcine bliss, this gorgeous fellow, peacefully sniffing about for acorns with no care in the world. In contrast to the usual pink monstrosity, the Iberian pigs are bluish black and limber. They usually roam free in a fenced-in woodland, acorn being their main food source. They are good climbers and I have even seen them stand on their hind legs to eat acorn right off the branches of the black oak trees, without training or a circus contract…

I am not much of a pork lover, but living in Andalucia I have come to enjoy the occasional slice of Iberian ham. A real Jamon Iberico de Bellota has an amazing wild, bittersweet, woody taste, having consumed a diet of only acorn for the latter part of its life. The meat has little fat and is cured for about 3 years. It is also expensive. You can get a cheap Spanish ham for 40 euros, while a genuine Bellota ham can put you back 800 euros or more, depending on the producer and location where the pig was raised. It is beyond free-range or organic. It is how animals used to live, and how they should be reared.

As Christmas is coming near and many of us will indulge beyond our belt buckles digging into a dish of roasted pork, we might spend a moment to give our thanks, not only for having food on our table, but also giving thanks to the beast, who (unwilling and hopefully unknowingly) gave its life and limb for our dining pleasure.

Let the party begin!

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Permit? What permit? The eternal wait for Spanish construction papers

If there is one universally known Spanish expression, it is mañana. Foreigners use the expression when referring to things that likely wont happen. In Scandinavia, we speak of ‘mañana culture’ when referring to anyone with a lax attitude towards timing, especially when it comes to commitments and promises.

Mañana means both morning and tomorrow. Therefore, mañana por la mañana. though literally meaning tomorrow morning, practically means any time between now and Kingdom Come. The wider meaning of mañana is ‘some time in the not too distant future, though at the present moment the specific day can not be pinpointed’. Especially when dealing with Spanish bureaucrats, mañana is an open-ended term. When a contractor promises to do something mañana, do not hold your breath nor expect to see him the following day. Mañana can mean anything between a day to a fortnight. ‘Next week’ in the mouth of a bureaucrat allows for between 2-6 weeks. If  a contractor claims a job will be completed in two months, be happy if it is done in half a year, and so forth. The Latin time issue can be further explained by the Spanish word for afternoon, ‘ la tarde’. The afternoon does not start at one minute past noon as it does for us northerners, but rather some time around 5 pm, when the population leisurely emerge from their siesta. A Spanish afternoon can go until 10 or even 11 pm. Then again, the word tarde also means ‘late’, which basically sums it all up. It is all about later here.

After this long, but necessary verbal detour, I will bring you back to the saga of our little Andalucian house. Merely a couple of months after leaving for an open-ended European sabbatical, my husband and I found ourselves as legal owners of our very own Spanish house, or shall we say ruin. Though we did not know how long we would stay (I still only spoke a few sentences of Spanish…), we knew that we could not afford to buy something at home in downtown Vancouver, so why not invest in a pied-à-terre in Southern Spain? Real state prices are very reasonable and property taxes are a fraction of what we would pay in Canada. It seemed like a no-brainer. Within a few weeks, we had paid for the property, as well as taxes, back taxes, and even managed to transfer the electric and water bills to our name. All that remained was the building permit. How hard could it be?

Building permits in Andalucía are divided into major and minor works. Minor works or obra menor is internal, non-structural changes. Usually the builder applies for this and can get it within a few days, if not as quickly as mañana… Anything requiring moving, tearing and rebuilding external walls, digging into the ground or rising roofs becomes an obra major and requires more serious permits. Depending on the laws of the area and the location of the property, this may be a more or less complicated affair. Apparently, some towns on the coast pride themselves on giving an answer to a building permit application within three weeks. Not in Ronda. Our neighbours said this could take a long time, some suggesting that we just start constructing and hope for the best. They mentioned illegal house extensions and pools on our street alone. Worst-case scenario we would have to pay a fine, they said. As we tend to be law-abiding citizens and since we had heard of building projects that had been stopped due to lack of permits, we wanted to do everything by the book. After all, how long could it take? We were not applying to make a high-rise or a hyper-modern construction. All we wanted was to make the house safe and livable, which means that the roof had to be lifted so we did not have to bend over to enter upstairs. We would keep the exterior walls, not touch the façade and reuse all the lovely mossy Arab roof tiles. We had meetings with our architect and the town’s head architect, who encouraged us to raise the roof higher still. Our application went in in January, volumes and stacks of bound papers in triplicates with air photos and minute description of the pre and post building details. We had great hopes of starting the demolition once the spring rains ended and complete the construction during the summer, ready to move in before the fall. A reasonable expectation, we foolishly thought.

Many mañanas, weeks and months passed without a word. Since the house we had bought was located in the historical part of Ronda, actually where the Arab grave yard used to be 800 years ago, we were told that our application had to go to the culture department in the provincial government in Malaga, for short called ‘cultura’. People here fear having to go via ‘cultura’, as permit-times tend to expand tenfold. Yet, we were rather confident, knowing we had the blessings of the city architect. While waiting, I kept restoring furniture and my husband had about half a dozen builders make a quote for the construction.

In the early summer, we finally had a breakthrough. We received an official registered letter from Malaga and later two identical official copies from the town hall. Naively, we hoped it was the permit. Instead, it was a letter giving us a week from the date the letter was mailed to remove the interior dropped ceilings of both floors and to photograph beams, ceilings and roof to prove that we indeed needed to rebuild them. We thought this was a rather tight deadline, given that they had taken almost six months to come with this request, yet we were thrilled that we were one step closer to construction. A neighbour helped us remove the ceilings to expose the rotted, bug-infested wood beams. Our architect took photographs and the entire application went in again, revised, in triplicates. We were positive it was just a matter of time.

Summer came, July passed and then August when all take holiday and nothing happens in southern Spain, certainly not in any government offices. We pleaded with our architect to contact the person in charge of our case in ‘cultura’, whom he vaguely knew from his student years. He reluctantly did, saying that being too keen may have the reverse effect and cause our application to ‘accidentally’ be placed at the bottom of the pile. In September, we finally received a notice about yet another a registered letter from Malaga. After having gone to the post office, showed ids and signed in several places to allow them to release the precious letter, we ripped it open. Page upon page with bureaucratic language and finally on the last page the information we were looking for. Not what were hoping for, mind you. REFUSAL to ‘completely demolish and build a brand new house’ it said. As we had not applied for a total demolish and new build, we could only conclude that the person in charge of our application had not actually read it. Back to meetings with our poor architect, who diligently made the necessary adjustments and clarifications to each page of our already voluminous application. Once again the books where sent in triplicates via Ronda town hall to the dreaded ‘cultura’.

Fall and winter came without a word. We had owned our tiny slice of Andalucian paradise for soon a year. We were dying to put a sledgehammer to a wall, but without the permit we could do nothing. Another spring came and we pleaded with the architect to contact Malaga. He was told not call again if we wanted an answer at all. With Easter finally past, another registered letter arrived. This time we opened it more carefully, reading it with much trepidation. Last page, again ‘REFUSAL. This time they did not have problems with the construction as such, but did not approve the colour choice of the PVC window frames at the back of the house. We had applied to have these in an imitation wood colour, like virtually every other house on our street have. It seems like the bureaucrats in ‘cultura’ have to find something to refuse in each application simply to justify their existence. With less building in Andalucía than, the pencil pushers need to fill their desks with stacks of paper to look indispensable for their departments.

“Which colour can we use?” we asked. We were told that any colour was fine, other than the one we had chosen. As changes are not allowed to be sent by email, the application stacks were again adjusted on hard copy, with brown PVC windows towards the back (the façade had to have wood windows) and sent via the town hall to Malaga. They had approved the build; they had approved the blasted brown window frames, so how long could it be? The architect and building inspector said that the approval should come very shortly. Weeks became months and we found ourselves in our second summer of waiting. Like waiting for Godot, the building permit seemed more illusive than ever. Finally, our architect told us that the permit had been sent from Malaga. All that remained now was a few signatures from Ronda town hall. Just a breeze!

A week went by and finally we went to the building office, who already knew us from several prior visits. We inquired about our permit, which had been couriered to them from Malaga and the clerk pulled out a file box with thick client folders. She leafed through not finding what she was looking for, then bringing up another file box. Finally, she located our file, including letters back and forth between Ronda and Malaga in no apparent order. (God forbid a 21st century town hall should have digital case files….) She looked through the letters and stamped copies, while unruly pieces of paper slid from the folder off the desk to mix with other files, possibly ending in the hard copy version of lost in Cyber-space. Yes, she seemed to recall having seen a permit, but it was not there anymore. In other words, when we finally had gotten our official permit, the town hall office had managed to loose it. She assured us that she would call us back mañana, as soon as she could find the letter.

Actually, she did call us the next day, confirming that they were still looking for it, though a short Spanish week later it magically appeared on the desk of one of the people who needed to sign it. The Spanish love their signatures and stamps… All’s well that ends well. We finally had our construction permit after an endless trial of our patience and almost two year of waiting. In Spain, the squeaky wheel does not seem to work. Only family members of politicians seem to get permits overnight. With Andalucía full of abandoned houses and thousands of homes for sale, it would behoove the local, provincial and national governments to update some of their antiquated red-tape permit procedures and to give new owner a chance to inject capital and some desperate needed TLC into many Andalucian towns unwanted treasures.

Relieved and happy, we read our permit again. Coming to the very last paragraph on the very last page, we discovered a small hitch. After giving us our building approval, it stated that we had ten days to make an archeological dig beneath the house. This was not only unreasonable, but dangerous and virtually impossible. If we would be lucky enough to find an available archeologist, our rotten roof and crumbling walls would bury them. So, how to dig without digging? Seemed like we had to send in more applications.

But that is a story for another day…

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Surprise! Buying a Spanish house and discovering we have quintuplets

Had this story been by Dickens, this chapter would have been called; Chapter two. Where the narrative reverts the circumstances by which a house was purchased, introducing the curious inhabitants and contents found therein, comprising further particulars of the pleasant old gentlewoman who had forgotten how to write her name. However, since it is not, I will limit myself to one-liner headings. Alas, I digress…

In Spain one can often read of house-buyers who once taken possession of their new abodes discover that all the things that made them fall in love with the place; the chandeliers, the mantle, the doorknobs and other details are all gone. Ronda is rather the opposite, particularly if one buys a house from locals. Whether it is sold furnished or not, one can expect to be left with the former owners undesirables, and, if one is lucky, a few treasures.

Some friends bought a finca outside of town from a restaurant owner. They did not only inherit dishes for a party of 300 and food in the fridge, but also a fully stocked wine cellar. Another couple we know bought a house in the historic quarter of Ronda, including a ton of old ladies clothes. Instead of dumping the entire mothball infested wardrobe, the new owner cleaned and folded everything, bringing them by the carload to a local charity. One day she came upon a couple of brooches on a lapel. She took them to a jeweller who confirmed that they indeed were gold with diamonds and other precious stones. I love this story, as if the ghost of a former owner thanked her for respecting her things and doing a decent thing with them. (Note to ye BBC Antique Roadshow watchers – the brooches have not been sold)

Our house was another story. Upon first viewing it could look rather daunting to someone of less shall we say adventurous spirit. It was about three meter (ten feet) wide, though the house did not contain a single straight wall or remotely flat surface. It was actually the last original house on the street, having meter thick walls, tiny dark rooms, just a couple of dingy windows, odd steps leading up and down without rhyme or reason, an incredibly narrow stairs to the second floor (each step of different height), a rotted roof with ‘natural skylights’ and a wall clearance on one end of about 50 centimeters, a mouldy basement that would drip undefined substances upon your head, and finally, down and up another stairway, a small terrace, partly covered by carcinogenic concrete roofing. On the plus side, it did have lovely moss-grown Arab roof tiles and a great view with a silhouette of the old city wall against the sky. We went back again to see it with fresh eyes the next day to be sure we did not need to give our heads a shake. I think it was the tailless salamander that scuttled off into the dust when we kicked the warped metal entrance door open that made us decide. A view and a resident salamander, what else could one want? This house was perfect. Well, could be, given a bit of imagination and a tad of work.

Some time later we were meeting the owner at the notary office to sign over the house. We were led into a boardroom as various people started to enter. First, a woman with a very ample behind. The owner, we wondered? Next, another women, also with a broad reach. Then came a short and stocky man with an equally stocky but very pretty boy. Finally, yet another woman with the same familiar rear (had to be sisters) leading a very old lady by the arm. As introductions were made, we realized that we were in the presence of four generations and possibly the closest living relatives of the owners. The old lady touched my hand and started telling me all kinds of things in her Andalucian dialect. I nodded and smiled, not understanding a thing, except what I could gather from the wetness of her eyes and her soft smile. Later it became clear that she and her late husband were the owners. The notary entered with a bent back and a thick stack of papers, which were to be viewed and signed on each page by seller, buyer and legal representative. We signed, the notary signed, but the old lady, 92 and counting, could no longer remember how to sign her name. It is probably rare that woman of her age in rural Spain know how to write at all. Her niece wrote the name on a piece of paper and following what she saw the old lady wrote her name with a long slow scratch. Josepha.

There is a story that has been told to us after about Josepha’s husband Salvador. He was a hero, fighting for the resistance during the Spanish civil war. However, such people were not recognized while Franco was alive. Only after the dictator’s death in 1975 did Ronda acknowledge the town’s heroic son by renaming our street Calle Salvador Marin Carrasco.

Signed, stamped (the Spanish love their seals and signatures) and paid, the house was ours including all it’s content, amongst other a decomposed Iberian ham hanging from its hairy hoof on a ladder, several large boxes containing walnuts, what looked like a double-header home-made mouse trap and old mirrors placed vicariously or deliberately on almost every wall, possibly to appease some ghost? We were told that the last resident was blind. Judging by the many editions of free religious calendars scattered around the house, we calculated that the old lady must have passed away some time between 1986 and 1988. Was the ham from then, I wondered? It was incredible that a blind person had lived alone in this house, without a kitchen (using a hotplate in the basement?) without bath or shower, with loose steps, uneven floors and perilous electric wiring.

It was around this time that my parents announced that they were coming to visit us. Dad had cancer, but had been given a green light to travel between chemo treatments, so time was of the essence.  I immediately started a frenetic clearing out process. In the matter of days, we had hauled at least 80 black mega garbage bags to the containers up the street. Furniture and other items that we thought could be useful to somebody we left beside of the containers. Even the 1971-style potty chair on wobbly wheels was snapped up before we arrived with the next load. Somebody must have a bedridden grandparent.

Since we did not know how many decades the walnuts had been sitting in the house, we also decided to throw out the boxes. Lifting the last one, I heard scratching inside. Rodents, I thought, letting go. There was more scratching and some strange almost baby-like crying, so I peaked inside, discovering a batch of newly born kittens. One. Two. Three. Four. No. Five. We had gotten ourselves quintuplets! This presented a bit of an issue, because the house was to be gutted as soon as we had a permit. The critters had to be moved and soon, yet our rental house didn’t allow pets, even if I had not been allergic to cat hair. We had to count on maternal instinct instead. The mother must have been one of the local street cats seemingly in a perpetual state of pregnancy. We moved the box carefully beside the broken front window where she entered to feed her young. Before we went to pick up my parents at the airport we checked in on our quintuplets. The box was empty. Thank heavens, we thought!

Of course, the first thing my parents wanted was to see our new home. Even before we got to Ronda, I asked them to promise that they would not be shocked, or I would not give them the tour. My parents gave their word, mumbling that it could not be that bad… Now, it has to be added that Norwegians usually live in large houses with windows and doors that close hermetically and everything working predictably and functioning faultlessly, as one might suspect of Scandinavian design. Having our trepidations, we avoided the house visit for as long as we could. Finally on their last day, the subject could no longer be avoided. We pacified them with sangria and a hearty lunch before the site viewing. Since we had bought the house next door, it wasn’t a far walk. Once we had kicked open the door and dad had to bend head and upper back to get inside, reality started to dawn upon them. We took them from tiny room to tinier room, warning them alternately to watch their steps and their heads. Passing the bedroom, we discovered two of the kittens motionless on the stained straw mattress. Probably lacking milk for all five, the mother must have placed her departed kittens carefully there. It was a touching and sad sight, and did not aid my parents’ silent, but very clear opinion about our home. Having gotten them safely out, mom suggested that might we not have bought something a bit over our heads? Oh no, we said, this would be an easy fix (ha!) Where would our garden be, they wondered? We pointed to the fields all around. And what about when you have dining guests, they inquired, their own dining table allowing 18 guests. We said that we would get a table for four and if we were more plentiful, we would go to the restaurant up the street. Mom and dad went back to Norway, probably completely abhorred, though not saying anything more.

Alone once again, we calmly explored our 3-meter-wide slice of Andalucian paradise, unearthing treasures such as terra cotta olive jugs (decomposed olives included), a lovely old iron bed, handmade grass baskets and several farm chairs. I certainly would not lack restoration projects while we waited for our building permit. And that could not take that long, could it?

To find out what happened next, look for the next blog chapter: Permit. What permit? Waiting for papers in Spain. 

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Searching for an ideal Andalucían ‘fixer-upper’


Whenever I travel, and wherever, I always think “Imagine living here!” Be it a Mexican city of millions, a dusty market town in Rajasthan, Venice Beach, a Tibetan refugee settlement or an island off the Oregon coast, I always seem to find a dream home and want to move in. (Blame those ‘sail, raid and settle’ Viking roots of mine) As was to be expected, the same thing happened when we first visited Andalucía. Not that we were looking to buy anything, nor could we have guessed that we were to come back to live here. However, my head started churning and my keenly developed ‘fixer-upper’ gene went into overdrive. Just seeing all those tempting stone ruins and ramshackle barns in perfect state of decay.

When my husband retired and we returned to Andalucía for an open-ended sabbatical, it did not take many days before we both started dreaming about ‘our’ private little slice of Andalucían paradise. We were still Canadians (my husband a citizen, myself a permanent resident) but we felt that it would not hurt to look around. Who would not want to have a small pied-à-terre in southern Spain? With almost unlimited time on our hands and a Virgo in the family (the before-mentioned spouse), we started doing research and making lists of areas of interest. Fortuitously we wanted more or less the same thing; a charming Andalucian town, not completely overrun by expats, situated reasonably close to an international airport, with proximity to nature, an ample selection of cafes and a few shady town squares, art, culture and history and last but not least, a friendly local community.

Looking for a new hometown on the Internet is quite different for seeing it with ones own eyes. And ears. A town might seem ever so idyllic in photos, but when you get there you might realize that it is located right along a noisy highway. You might believe you have found your Nirvana, until you discover that there is a single windy road to get out of town with an hour-long drive to the next human development. Not an issue if you are looking for utter isolation or are writing a doctorate on dung beetles, but we instantly knew when we got there that these types of places were not for us. A lovely photogenic village might upon closer inspection have too many vagrant dogs to allow one to go for a peaceful afternoon stroll, it may suffer from water shortage if another golf course construction gets green-lighted, or it may be that the local residents just don’t give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. There are so many details one cannot pick up on online. Certainly not from real estate sites whose descriptions tend to omit less desirable facts.

The size of the town is something equally important to consider. We had lived in too many cosmopolitan cities and knew that we wanted a small town. But how small is small before it gets claustrophobic? How is your tolerance for village gossip? Is a single café enough to fulfill your gourmet and social needs? Or do you need a theatre, concerts and high speed Internet to be happy? Are train and bus service vital for you to get around? Does schools or other family services play a part in your decision? What about a medical specialist or a notary who speaks English? And can you live without a decent hair stylist?

We figured out that our ideal town should be less than 100 000 inhabitants, yet certainly have more than 25 000 residents, allowing for at least a couple of commercial streets and a small selection of cafés and bars. We have friends who have bought picture-perfect fincas, surrounded by unlimited vistas of rolling hills and olive groves. To be located miles from the next town may seem like heaven, until you realize that you have to jump in the car to go and buy bread. And God forbid if you should need a hospital…

The house itself is a whole other matter. Spain has literally millions of properties available so one has to narrow down ones search. Do you want a flat or a house, free standing or attached, a tiny balcony, a good-sized garden or an entire vineyard? Do you want something ready to move into or do you wish to renovate? Clearly everyone has different needs, budgets and dreams. One can find huge homes for virtually giveaway prices especially on the coast, but one may end up living in a ‘ghost community’ all the neighbouring houses are for sale or simply abandoned. You can even buy a whole village now, just be sure to bring your friends along or you will be very lonely. With so many considerations to take it behoves one to look into them before making any purchases or signing any papers.

We wanted a fairly small home. Something easy to maintain and quick to lock up when we want to go travelling, with lots of light and windows, ideally a big terrace to grow an olive tree and a nice quiet street. As we started our home search, I began taking photos of ruins and teardowns. To assure that my aging parents’ hearts were kept strong, I would send the worst photos to them saying we had found our dream home. Those half fallen down walls? No problem, I would learn stone masonry. And my husband would fix that collapsed roof in a jiffy. There was of course a secondary purpose to me sending the photos, as I hoped that once we found our dream place, it would not actually seem so daunting for my old folks.

As we started viewing properties, we realized that for our particular case we were better off buying ‘a wreck’ and building from scratch than taking on somebody else’s building project. Having spent my career designing film sets and making TV interiors, I love converting spaces. An occupational hazard so to speak. Added to this, the southern Spanish style is almost polar-opposite to my more subdued Scandinavian taste. At the risk of making gross generalizations and knowing that I am certainly not the judge of what is de mauvais gout, I have made the following observations. People in rural Andalucia (and elsewhere in small-town Spain) tend to like dark woods, ideally amply carved. They tend to fill their home to bursting with heavy furniture and drapery. They love to use a combination of multi-coloured Arab wall tiles and may top the design off with a sweeping white marble staircase if they can afford it. Just as my sparse and somewhat industrial taste seem outlandish and unfinished to many of our neighbours, the Andalucían love for brown kitchens may seem drab and depressing to me. There are of course many stunning exceptions and lovely Spanish building styles. However, at the price range we could afford and in the types of neighbourhoods we were looking, the brown on brown was the general style going. Buying a renovated place would probably mean bringing in the bulldozer. In other words, we were in the market for a teardown.

We had looked far and wide for a home to our taste and our wallet size when one day we discovered that the house right next door to our rental property was for sale. It was tiny. It was crocked. It was old. The roof was about to fall in. “Imagine living here,” I thought. We had finally found our dream casita!


To read what happened next, check out my upcoming blog ‘Our 3-meter wide slice of Andalucian paradise’.

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Steady hands! Cleaning the feet of a 350-year-old baby Jesus

Any legitimate antique restorer or person who has dabbled in furniture restoration (the latter of whom I belong) have heard about Ecce Homo, one of the most catastrophic attempts at restoration, as well as one of the most virally successful faux pas of all time.

Ecce Homo, in case anyone wonders, is a religious fresco of Christ by the century Spanish painter Elías García Martínez. It was hanging in the Santuario de Misericordia in the town of Borja in Zaragoza for almost a century without any worldly recognition. Then in 2012, an 81-year-old parishioner and self proclaimed artist decided to ‘fix’ it because she was upset by it’s peeling paint. The result may have been an artistic travesty, but it certainly was a welcome blooper for the news-hungry worldwide web. The Before and After pictures (see below) prompted international mockery. A flaked, but genuine and moving portrait turned into an altogether altered Jesus, whose facial hair looked like a pelt, with beadlike, shifty eyes and a drooping mouth smeared over by the ‘alternist’. One can assume she hadn’t gotten to fix that part yet, as she later claimed that she hadn’t finished her work on it (when she was so rudely interrupted…).

The story does not end there. The poor restoration has inadvertently provided a massive boost to Borja, making this once insignificant village a popular tourist destination. People from all over are flocking to see Ecce Homo. Legal action against the ‘artist’ was proposed, as well as trying to peel back layers of over-painting to restore Christ to his original state, but the so-far 150 000 people who has paid the entrance fee to see the ruined fresco naturally put it on the back burner. Meanwhile, the artist had a nervous breakdown due to the media hype, then proceeded to require for royalties for her ‘handiwork’ from the visitor fees, so she could give them on to her chosen charity. A celebrity of sorts, the restorer is credited with the stabilization of the local economy. Her own paintings are now growing in appeal, especially with the ones of a rather macabre taste. The latest is the NY (Off Broadway??) comic opera about the unfortunate fresco. I am sure it will be a raving success. As the director claimed, “God works in mysterious ways.”

So, what does Ecce Homo have to do with my story? Nothing really, if it had not been for the mother superior of our local convent sending a message to ask if I could help them with a restoration project. Immediately thinking of Ecce Homo, I prayed it would be a broken chair and not a 500-year-old painting of a Madonna. I went and saw ‘our’ nuns and the madre told me how grateful they were that I could have a look at their restoration piece. Sor Clara, one of the more swift-moving sisters was asked to go and show me the object, me still hoping for that three-legged chair, dreading the century old canvas of a virgin…

Sor Clara brought me up some stairs, passing several carved and painted niches. She stopped at one of these, the content of which they wanted me to fix. It was a statue of baby Jesus standing on a plinth, about 50 cm tall. The baby had curiously adult features the way one see in old religious paintings. Sor Clara and I brought the treasure carefully down the stairs and into the nun’s official visitation room. Madre, now joined by Sor Nieves (sister Snow) was waiting, anxious to hear my most sought-after opinion. I told them immediately that I am not a professional restorer, simply someone who enjoys fixing old things, primarily broken and worm-ridden farm furniture. I asked them how old they thought the statue was, and they said it was about 350 years old. Three hundred and fifty! Even if their estimation was off by a few decades, I could see the uproar. Ecce Homo was barely hundred years old and he was an adult Jesus. This was an innocent baby! Knowing the devoted Catholics of Ronda, I would be lynched, tarred and excommunicated if I as much as made a single nick on their baby. And the last thing I wanted was a Ronda sequel of the Ecce Homo affair…

I observed the statue closer. The figure and its base had obvious damages and miscolouring, in addition to having a lot of wax droppings from centuries of annual Christmas masses and Easter processions. I asked the sisters to carefully undress him, so I would not be the first one to break off his arm or unburden him of a finger. The outer robe was newer (I dare say in some synthetic fiber), but as we peeled off yet another white gown, the fabric and the embroidered edge got finer and more delicate, until finally we had him down to his century-old peach-coloured loincloth.

Curiously, baby Jesus, like other young children, had dirt in the places that most kids gets grimy; between his toes, on his hands, behind his knees, in the ears etc. In addition to the dirt, he had a big crack running along his face, and several places where he was lacking paint. I told the nuns that I would do what I could to help them, yet not promising anything. They were all content, saying that their baby Jesus would be ‘like new’ after I would be done with him. Absolutely Not!, I said. They should not wish him to become new. He is lovely as he is with his scars of time. I said that I could carefully try to clean the dirt of him, but I would not touch the paint. If they wanted somebody to repaint him, they would have to look for professional help. To me, a complete restoration would ruin the statue.

As I knew that the old baby Jesus would fare badly with an unnecessary trip across the San Fransisco plaza to our restoration workshop, I brought my restoration teacher, ironically named María Jesus, to see the statue instead. She agreed with me fully, and told the nuns that it was a real treasure. There was nobody in our town, she said, who could do this type of fragile restoration, not that she would dare to recommend anyhow. Ronda has many wood carvers and gilders who are excellent at what they do, but this statue needed a top-notch restoration painter and when it comes to that one has to look to Cordoba, Granada or Sevilla.

The next few days I went to the nunnery to perform my volunteer job as a Jesus cleaner. The nuns let me pick my work spot and found me a worktable that we placed in one of their lovely blossoming courtyards. We also went up to their stash of clothing for the poor to find some cotton T-shirts that I ripped into shreds and used as cleaning cloths. I brought a couple of liquids, recommended by my teacher, and started carefully cleansing the surface of dirt, millimeter by millimeter. The object is to do it without bringing up paint or dissolving the old varnish which protects it and gives it its lovely old gleam. With Q-Tips and Japanese toothpicks as my primary tools, I managed to unearth some of its original colour and rid the young lad of a not-insignificant amount of candle wax from his blond locks. Of course, at the time when this statue was made, it was generally believed that an angelic creature like this must be blue-eyed and golden haired, in spite of that the subject in question was Middle Eastern.

Cleaning ‘my’ baby Jesus in in the courtyard in peace and serene calm, I was almost ready to sign up for the order. At least I could see the attraction of this life. Though of course while spending hours working on a dirty fingernail, a stubborn ear canal spot or an especially grimy toe, one cannot help but also overhear the more everyday shall we say squabbling of the nuns as they patiently go on with their monastic life.

One day upon my arrival, the priest was there. He told me that they had decided to send Jesus to a professional restorer in Seville. The nuns regretted it profusely, as though I was not the one who immediately told them that this was a job for a professional. Sor Nieve told me that they wanted to also send the virgin in the hall, who seem to have mysteriously developed a maquillage-ed and rose-coloured complexion. Virgins, as we all know, are supposed to be pure white. Why not send her along for a two for one mother/son deal, I thought, but did not say out loud.

My work with Baby Jesus ended with cleaning his toes, and having read the bible many moons ago, I know I should be honoured. And I am! I am trilled to have been allowed to be part of the journey to restore baby Jesus back to health.  It is rather ironic that they would ask me to help, a nordic heathen, neither Catholic nor Christian. But I am always glad to help, and I love history, art and antiques. I would volunteer again in a heartbeat if I were asked to clean a statue of Krishna, an imprint of Buddha’s foot, a marble carving from the Koran or a Viking ship. Not that anyone will be crazy enough to ask me…

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