Sunday, 21 October 2007

What Lies Beneath

A few months ago, Una chased a mouse into a neighbor´s yard. She disappeared into the gaping maw of a building whose side wall had collapsed god knows when. She wouldn´t come when I called, and no one was around to look askance, so I followed her inside.

A long time ago it was a cowshed, the far end of a long, plain, mostly uninhabited house on Calle Ontanon. There wasn´t much there but some rusty old plows, worm-eaten beams, fallen timbers, and tons of adobe bricks where the wall once was. One other thing I did notice, however, right by the entrance... several stacks of old concrete floor tiles, half-buried in the debris.

I pulled one out. It had a simple design stamped into its surface, nothing fancy. Very old-fashioned, 20s, or 30s style, obviously long forgotten. Hmmm, I thought. These would fit in our place. We had similar tiles in the hallway of our house, (here´s a pic. of Una standing on them) back before they were ripped up to make room for the underfloor heat system.

Anyway, Una caught her mouse and we left. I kinda forgot about the tiles, but I did find out the end of the building was owned by Pilar and Anastasio. I was surprised at that, because everything to do with that couple is neat as a pin. They wouldn´t let a building fall down that way, I thought. But then again, this town (and dozens like it) is full of fallen-down adobe houses. It´s all due to Spanish inheritance law, and bull-headed family members, and the impermanent nature of adobe.

For centuries, when a man died his wife and children inherited his property in equal parts. If all he owned was a house, all five of his kids automatically got a share. (the widow was allowed to stay there as long as she lived. Never mind the house may have been hers to start with...) Anyway, the Tierra del Campos region is suffering from severe depopulation. Pop may have left the place to the boys and girls, but all of them have moved off to Vittoria or Madrid or Berlin, as nobody wants to farm anymore. Some of the kids probably want to sell it. Others want to use it for a summer place, to use during the fiesta. (that´s how our place survived.) But when the gang can´t agree, the house is often neglected. After a few years parts start falling off it.

The big long building up the street is a case in point.

This week the tiles came to mind again, as our despensa floor took shape. On Thursday morning I peeked in the barn and the tiles still were there. I screwed up my courage and my Spanish verbs, and knocked on the gate at Pilar´s house. She understood what I was saying, but said she couldn´t remember any tiles being in there. She got her keys and we hiked up the street. I showed her what I meant.

"They are not nice. And they´re not mine," she said. "The piece of the house next to this is mine, the standing-up part. This fallen-down bit belongs to Edu. The whole place is divided up four ways," she explained, pointing out where one portion had been given one kind of window, another had pink paint, etc. That all happened so long ago no one knows why any more.

Edu is almost deaf. He has a huge smile, almost like he´s wearing someone else´s teeth. He lives down on the corner, across from the church, and lately supplies the village with exquisite figs from the big tree in his yard. So me and Pilar hiked down there. (She was really enjoying this.) Milagros, scenting gossip, came out of her place, heard the tale, and joined the parade. We found Edu inside his barn, doing something under his tractor. Once upright, we shouted to him what was up. He knew right away about the tiles.

"They are not nice," he said. "Not fashionable. My mother hated them, and my father was supposed to put them down in the cowshed, but he never got to it," Edu shouted back. "They are not nice. But take them. Help yourself."

"I have some money," I yelled. "I´ve gotta pay you something." I don´t think he understood me, or maybe he didn´t hear me.

"One thing though," he said. "Go get them fast, before the roof comes down."

I was over the moon, not just because of the coup, but because I´d taken on a somewhat complicated matter and I´d made myself understood! Me and Danek the Czeck went to get them in the furgoneta, and we found there weren´t just 40 or so tiles all standing in file against the wall, There were were layers of them, probably more than 100, buried in the foot-deep debris that covered the floor. They were filthy, some were scarred and pitted, but we cleared them all out of there and brought them back to The Peaceable and loaded them into the trough. I scrubbed until the sun went down and I couldn´t see them any more, and in the morning scrubbed some more. I found some that are in pristine condition, others almost beyond use. Four of them together form a simple, repeating pattern on a soft yellow background. I hope to use all of them someplace or other around here: maybe on windowsills, floors, kitchen backsplash, or stairway risers. Cool!

And I did some research on hydraulic tiles. You still see lots of them around, and in places like New York and Barcelona and Brazil, they are enjoying a vogue... especially the more complicated and fancy ones. Ours is more homey, a bit like this one, but not nearly so shiny or colorful.

The concrete floor in the despensa needs to dry out a bit before we install tiles, so we have ours all lined up on end along the front of the big house. The plastering is coming right along. The electricians are due tomorrow. I´ll let you all know how it all turns out.

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