Saturday, 21 September 2013

Full House

I thought I achieved a whole day's work on Thursday morning: a terrifying Spanish tutoring session, bright red tomatoes in the garden, seven eggs from the hens, and new alternator and timing belts for the car. I bought a six-pack of beer at the supermarket, because Daniel was coming on the 1:30 train from France, and Daniel might like a beer on a sunny day like this one.
While I was out, the long-awaited wine delivery arrived. I was feeling mighty efficient when Daniel's train pulled up at the station right as I did. It was great to see him. I'd finished up my chores, and could enjoy a nice relaxing visit.
Back at The Peaceable Paddy had lunch already made up. Two pilgrims were settling into the salon -- a couple from France. They did not want food, Paddy said. They spoke no English, but Daniel speaks French.
Daniel is a surfer dude and wilderness medicine expert from northern California. He trains hospitaleros for American Pilgrims on the Camino, and sometimes volunteers at pilgrim albergues here on the camino. We met years ago in Toronto, but he's never managed to visit us in Moratinos.
He put his things in the upstairs bedroom.
The doorbell rang. A third pilgrim, a bedraggled young man from Poland. Bruno's albergue is full, he said. He had no money, but would happily sleep in his tent out back, he would work for his keep, he said. I brought him inside, shook his hand. He had a fever.
"You're not well," I told him.
"It is true what you say," he said.
His name was Pavel. He had walked all the way from Posnan.
I put him in the third bed in the salon, the last one. The couple did not seem so happy to see him, but too bad.
I gave a beer to Pavel, to get his electrolytes back into balance. He didn't want anything to eat.
We sat down to our lunch. We had some of the new vino, which is very good indeed. We cleared up. The sun was hot and high. I went out to the patio to put some laundry on the line. The doorbell rang again.
Two young Germans, looking for a place to stay. They'd come 32 kilometers, every bed at every hostelry was full, could they sleep on our floor maybe? I told them we were at capacity, too. I could give them a ride in Sahagun, where they'd have more options. Meantime, they should come inside and take a break out of the sun. They doffed their boots at the door.
Daniel poured cold water for them. Paddy rescued their boots from the dogs. They asked if they could make some calls to the albergues on the trail ahead -- It looked like they were in for a 40-kilometer day.
I remembered the mattress stowed under Daniel's bed upstairs. The spare. One of them could sleep on the sofa, and one on that mattress. They were delighted at the idea. We hauled the mattress down the stairs and into the living room.
Daniel volunteered to make Piperade for dinner -- a Basque recipe he learned on the road last week. It would use up a lot of our tomato and egg backlog, and with some rice would stretch to feed all eight of us, even the one who couldn't do gluten.
We never had eight people in here before. This was a real stretch. I could see that wild look in Paddy's eye, even as he quietly set the table. He told dog stories to the girl from Hamburg, who set to work on chopping tomatoes.
Out back, Eduardo delivered a fragrant tractor-load of cow dung.
Dogs were fed. Blistered feet were patched up. The Polish boy was dosed with minerals and Ibuprofen and went immediately to sleep. Again the doorbell. 
A man called Jean, from Quebec. Could he stay? He was old, and had just walked all the way from Carrion de los Condes.
"Come in and sit down," Paddy told the man. (Behind his back Paddy made his best imitation of Edvard Munch's "The Scream.")
"Jesus," I said quietly.
The boy from Darmstadt switched on when he heard me say that. "That man could be Jesus, you know. If he needs a place to sleep he can have my mattress. I have a mat with me. He is an old man, and I am young. Please let him stay."
We did. He spoke French with the French, which seemed to please them. He chose very well from Paddy's records. We ate to the Modern Jazz Quartet.  
Dinner was huge and filling. Some people had three servings. The evening was soft, the company sunburned and sleepy, but good-spirited. Daniel passed round a chunk of Camembert. Jean washed the dishes. By 9:30 p.m. the mattresses and sleeping mats were sorted out, and the pilgrims folded in on themselves.
Tim, Rosie and Moe curled up with me in my office, where we would not disturb anyone. I opened the final beer, which I had selfishly hidden for myself in the back of the fridge. I sat back in my comfy chair and sighed.
Daniel stuck his head in the door. He looked exhausted, but he smiled.
"Thank you, Rebekah. What an opportunity," he said. "I'm loving this."
He went to bed. Within five minutes, through the wall I could hear him gently snoring.
The moon lit up the world outside. The owl shrieked.
From the next room, from down the hall, from the salon below came soft sounds of sleep.    

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Not My Beeswax

Paddy & Dogs in front of the Beehive House: 2011

The Beehive house stood facing onto Calle Ontanon. It wasn´t much to look at, but it was the last of its kind, old-fashioned adobe, its front door opened right onto the street. It had no foundation or electricity or plumbing. It was not built to house people, so no one bothered with extras -- it was a dry barn, meant for storing seed corn and animal feed. Pilar´s old aunt managed to live in it anyway, right up til she died. It´s stood empty for the last 25 years or so, collecting junk inside and slowly melting back to earth outside. Two sets of "for sale" signs went up and faded away in the last five years. Nobody was interested.

Nobody but me. In the spring of 2011 I had a bit of extra money, so I got a bee in my bonnet. I started looking around at empty places in the neighborhood.
I looked at the Beehive House. I walked around it, I peered in the keyholes. Pilar finally showed it to me. There were almost no windows, so it was always dark inside. The ceilings were low, the rooms long and cool, the stairs narrow and steep. The little pocket-patio out back had a well. And set into the wall of the tractor-barn, up high, was a wicker basket that hummed and dripped with a hive of honey bees. The wall beneath it was streaked dark with generations of pollen and honey and bee poo.

I love bees. I loved that little house. It spoke to me. I dreamed of what it could become, given a great dose of design and respect and labor. A little apartment, a studio, a place where friends could stay, a rental house, a long-term experiment in organic building materials. I imagined an expanse of glass out back, the great cottonwood trees roaring overhead. Skylights to bring the sun inside, pavement on the patio, the existing stone floors indoors cleaned and preserved.  Keep the timbers holding up the second floor, raise the roof a few feet, electrify, but keep it very simple, keep it consistent with what´s always faced the street, make it modern inside, but keep the rough simplicity and charm. 

A shower-stall, a woodstove for heating, a galley kitchen, tiny and efficient, with a window out over the patio. A patio with lots of flowers, maybe a greenhouse, comfy chairs, an awning in the summer, a view out over the fields to the west. Keep the naíf painting of the sun and stars on the ceiling of the main room, keep the hooks in the timbers where years ago flowers and herbs and hams were hung to dry. Keep the bees, somehow. Ask them, please, to stay. 

But then and there it was a derelict mess. A money pit.

The house I have now is too big for just two people, what would I do with two houses? I already rebuilt one semi-abandoned house in Moratinos, and know well the horrors of rehabbing an agricutural structure made of mud and straw into a functional dwelling for humans. I do not have the skills or energy to do the work myself.

New plumbing and wiring, sewer lines and roofing, windows, paving, carpentry... all the digging and shoring-up required would drive the price through the ceiling and out the roof. And the months of wrangling and waiting and running to the builders´ merchant, I have not forgotten that awfulness. I promised myself to never do that again!  

I had enough money to buy it the place, and probably enough to do a basic rehab. I could get it enclosed and "onto the grid," but I´d have to do the finishing work myself, I would have to furnish it over time. It would empty out my savings.

I do not have earned income any more. It would be foolish to use my "nest egg," my "rainy day" money, on something I don´t need.

I could have a Beehive House, or I could have Security. I chose.

Moratinos is enjoying a building boom, at least among a couple of the resident extended families. Grandchildren are now putting up holiday dwellings on the little slices of land left to them. They don´t want to live here year-round, but they want a stake in the future of their pueblo. Three new little flats went up last winter alongside the plaza mayor, hidden from view inside a former barnyard. This summer their cousins from the Canary Islands spent July erecting a prefab wooden "chalet" on the empty lot next to the albergue.

And somebody, another faraway cousin, bought the Beehive House.

Someone said the cousin planned to restore the place. But when the heavy machines arrived and the adjacent barn was pulled down, I started to wonder. It was too easy.
A day later the space where the Beehive House stood is flat and empty, pristine.

It is cheaper this way. Sensible, really. No hassle with lintels and un-plumb floors, no wires or pipes to run through crumbling adobe. No bees, no pigeons, no woodworm-raddled beams. Smash it down and start from scratch, with everything new and shiny and modern.

It was not my house, not my decision. It´s none of my business. (Or none of my bees-wax?) 

Calle Ontanon´s raggedy jaw just lost another tooth.

If I´d had the courage and the cash, I could have made it smile.