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.