Four days in December in Cornudella de Montsant
Cold temperatures, warm blankets, a birthday and a broken water heater.
Greetings from Cornudella de Montsant—
Last time I was here working on the house (or rather demolishing lots of stuff), my Catalan neighbor popped his head over the balcony to say hi. At the moment, I was in the back terrace with some friends who spoke better Spanish than me, and so we got to talking a bit more than the usual pleasantries.
His cat came out—he roams my property, freely—he’s a hunter! my neighbor said. You don’t see any mice around, do you?
Then we talked about the noise from the demolition. He said he’s getting accustomed to it, especially after so many years of silence next door.
Then we pressed him—how many years of silence?
Oh, algunos años.
But we pushed for a specific number. After all, my friends had just been wondering how long it’d been since anyone lived here, and all I had were educated guesses on the subject. Here was the man who might have the answer. He tried to recollect. It’s been decades, he said. At least two.
So, that’s the answer I have. But it’s odd—it’s not like the house is “retro-90s,” or has details one might imagine from the 80s or 70s. The plaster and concrete are literally crumbling. The electric outlets are so old it’s a different standard. No contemporary devices fit in them. The water heater looked more like 50 years old, and the electrician who had helped me in April said the panel looked to be 70.
Whoever might have been living here 20 years ago was living in a house already decades past its prime.
The day after Christmas.
I should have known nothing would be open. Driving from Barcelona, I had naively held out hope that I would be able to stop at one of the big box stores.
I’d wanted to pick up a ladder, a sander, and some other materials, but alas. In Spain, when they go on holiday they really do go on holiday—all that’s left are a few places to have a beer or a coffee.
When I arrived in Cornudella I still had a few hours of daylight, and I started to work.
I grabbed two wooden doors from the ground floor storage and brought them into the back terrace, laid them over the broken volcanic rock I’d bought at Leroy Merlin last month. Then I went to the third level, where the piles of brick and plaster debris were still heaped on the floor from when I demolished the internal walls. I used the heavy mallet I’d bought at the Chinese Hipermarket and knocked loose the two wood doors on this level as well. Their hinges and the screws that attached them were rusted. The doors came off their frames easily. These I carried down to ground level and placed next to the others on the terrace. I now had a flat surface that would make shoveling debris out that much easier.
I took the flat shovel back up to the second floor and used it to pick up a pile of broken brick. I thrust the full shovel out the window, and let the debris drop two stories to the ground, where it hit the wood doors and made a thundering clap.
A woman a few houses over looked up from her back garden, searching for the source of the noise. She saw me up in the window with the shovel. I saw her and did my best neighborly smile.
Bon dia, I called.
Bon dia, she replied and went back to her garden.
The work went slow, then fast. After about thirty minutes, I realized that’s how it always is.
My back felt the heavy shovel loads and immediately protested, but then relented, and even started relishing the work. I put my legs into it, swooping lower to the ground with each shovel full. I switched sides back and forth and learned to throw the loads out the window and have the debris land on top of the growing pile, which broke the fall and made a softer noise than the initial few loads against the wood doors.
When the bits got small enough, I switched to a broom and dustpan. I swept and swept, the broken brick and plaster mixing with the decades of grime coating the floor, and all of it being kicked into the air.
Good to have the mask, I thought, and hoped it was secure enough around my face that I wasn’t breathing in too much of this stuff.
Around two hours later, the time was 5:30 pm and I was nearly done and the magic hour light from the sun streamed in through dust. The light marked a perfect square tunnel from the window into the room, and I stopped to snap a picture.
I had been sweating a lot from the shoveling and looked forward to a hot shower.
Only, when I went to plug in the ancient water heater one of the safety circuits on the breaker box popped, and the electricity for the entire property went out. I shut off some lights, hoping the problem was too much electricity at once, then pushed the button to reset the panel. I plugged in the heater again—pop. And then a third time—pop.
I had trouble getting the button to reset and bring the lights back on, so when I finally did I decided not to try again. The decades-old water heater was tripping a safety valve on my electric panel. My judgment had been that the water heater was marginal at best. Each time I’d showered, I’d taken care to unplug the heater before turning on the water. Now the breaker was agreeing with me. The heater was done—unsafe and unfit for use.
But there would be no hot shower tonight, and not any night until I could figure out a solution.
As the sun set, the temperature dropped until it was quite cold. I put on my hat, my warm fleece, and my poofy jacket, made some tea, and cooked pasta on the camp stove. I read some in the hammock, but when it got too cold, I retired to the bed ensconced in the warmth of the down quilt and two sleeping bags.
Eventually, only my nose was cold.
The next morning was frigid.
It’s always coldest, and darkest, just before the dawn.
My phone said 32 degrees, feels like 28. I’m surprised the down quilt kept me so warm. In my childhood, my Scandinavian grandmother would swear by them, insisting on down blankets for every child and adult in the home. On a trip to Sweden once she bought several down blankets and had them shipped to the U.S., as if neither down, nor Swedish home decor had yet made it to our homeland.
This morning, I’m thanking her for the wisdom. Down might feel similar to other types of stuffing, and be of the same thickness, but it it exceeds all rivals in its capacity to keep one warm in freezing temperatures.
My plan today is to drive back to Tarragona to sort out the water heater problem, as well as buy supplies for what I ambitiously hope to accomplish this trip: demolishing the floor on the top level, then sanding and treating the beams in preparation to lay down something that is actually flat and structurally sound.
But the shopping takes ages. First, I go to Bauhaus, the German equivalent of a Lowe’s or a Home Depot, to see if it’s better than the Leroy Merlin I’ve been going to nearby. It is. In terms of options for building materials and sheer inventory, it’s far superior.
I see the OSB board I will probably use for the floor underlayment, as well as the first decent, treated lumber I’ve yet to see in Spain.
But the water heater I want is out of stock. I snap photos of various building materials to compare prices and then drive five minutes to Leroy Merlin, the French big box store that is aimed at more casual DIYers. This suits me in some respects, but not in others. At least there’s a water heater there the size I want—just big enough for a hot shower or two at the end of the day.
In the plumbing section, I am puzzling out exactly which fittings, in which sizes, and how many, I’ll need to hook up the water heater to the existing water supply in the bathroom. I ask for help, showing the guy in the plumbing section the photo of my existing setup on my phone. He squints, looks at the photo, wrinkles his brow, and then tilts his head.
Es antigua, I say. Y vieja.
It’s old and old.
Then he gets to work pulling parts out of the aisle behind us. Soon, he has the makings of a system, although I’m not sure it’s correct. It’s a Frankenstein, he says. I laugh and thank him.
Soon I’ve got most of what I need, but there are no cordless tools here, and the ladders are all too short for what I need back at the house. I buy the water heater and the plumbing parts and drive back to Bauhaus to pick up a cordless sander and a ladder. Then I go to the Hipermarket to buy some sheets and pillowcases for the bed.
I’ve been wandering big box stores, and driving back and forth among them, for nearly four hours at this point, I’m getting tired and hungry, and I still have to drive back over the mountains.
Back in Cornudella, I make myself some food and then I unbox the water heater. It’s straightforward enough—but what I didn’t count on was where I would hang it. It’s a different size and shape than the existing heater and it fits better on the other wall, meaning I’m one hose short of being able to make all the connections I need. For a brief moment, I consider getting back in the van to go drive the 40 minutes back to Leroy Merlin, but it’s dark and I’m tired and the half-finished bottle of wine from last night is calling.
There will be no hot shower tonight, just tea, pasta, wine, and chocolate. And brand new sheets for the bed.
Forty-two years old.
I have a tradition on my birthdays: I go for a hike alone, reflect, write, and think about my goals for the coming year.
I decided to keep to it this year, so work pauses. On my phone, I search Alltrails for a hike nearby. As many times as I’ve been here at this point, I have yet to do any hiking.
After coffee, I set out with some water into the hills toward Montsant. There are towering cliffs in the distance, the same ones I climbed with friends last year, the same ones I will be able to look at once (or if ever) the rooftop deck is finished.
The trail goes through town, then up past the transfer station, past a large working farm, and into the brushland beneath the cliffs. It is still early, and the hike is just what I needed to warm up.
After some time, the trail juts left and traverses under the cliffs—the view over Cornudella and across the valley to Siurana is gorgeous.
The trail ends at a working hermitage tucked into the cliffs, the Sant Joan del Codolar. A nearby plaque explains that the Catalans and Moors who lived here have always considered this landscape, and these rocks to be a place conducive to spiritual reflection.
I had to agree.
After the hike, I made myself some food and then got to writing and goal-setting. Birthday wishes from friends and family arrived. My son texted me from the DR, where he’s vacationing with his mom.
At night, I took myself to dinner at La Fusteria, a restaurant just down the street. Everything is just down the street in Cornudella de Montsant.
I needed to get the water heater working. But in fact, not everything is just down the street—there are no plumbing supplies, for example. Cornudella has a little, surprisingly well-stocked grocery store, a bakery, two meat places, a fish place, and a wine cooperative to add to the two cafes, three restaurants (one of them Michelin-starred), and the climber bar and gear shop.
But no plumbing supplies to speak of.
For that, I had to travel back over the mountains. Only this time, I went to the little Chinese Bazar in the town 25 minutes away. If I could find what I needed there, it would save me at least 40 minutes of driving to Tarragona.
I looked at the wall packed with supplies. These stores are like a mini CVS, Home Depot, and Walmart packed into the size of a 7/11. They are open for longer and on more days, and inevitably the Chinese man or woman behind the counter is staring into their phone, barely acknowledging your presence. All business in here.
This store had what I needed—kind of. I would have to jerry-rig it a little, and anyhow I didn’t have the heart just then to spend another day in the car or walk into another big box store.
Back in Cornudella, I managed to Frankenstein the parts together and then plugged in the new water heater. It wasn’t pretty, but I could make it pretty another day. For now, I just wanted a hot shower. The green light that indicated the heater was heating ticked on, and after a few minutes, I opened the valve: sweet, sweet warmth.
After another 15 minutes, I disrobed and took my first hot shower in four days. It was bliss. But then, I turned the water off. It was 40 degrees out, feels like freezing inside. The sun hadn’t come out all day and it was much colder than the first two days.
I shivered until I could get my clothes on, and then opened a beer and tucked myself into the hammock with a book.
Later I walked down to the climber bar to have a beer and a pizza. There were holiday lights over the streets, just as there were in the neighborhoods around Barcelona.
I passed a door and noticed that the space behind it seemed empty, unlike the other buildings on my street. I moved closer, peered between the cracks in the old wood door. In the fading winter light, I could see there was nothing on the other side—just an empty lot, sandwiched between two complete townhomes on either side. There were old wood beams across the space. Whatever was there had once been two stories. But beyond that, just a blank canvas.
For a moment, I envied the property. No internal walls to demolish, no roof to replace, no crumbling concrete floors. No broken water heater. No old electric wire. No tons of construction debris to haul out. Just some old wood beams, ready to start building.
Maybe I would buy that property as well, I thought. A joke, a fleeting thought. Maybe a friend would buy it one day.
For now, I turned my focus back to what was ahead. There would be more to do. And at least the hot water was working.