First week in the Spain house
Cleaning grime, fixing leaks, and demolishing the patio roof, plus: finding a routine in small village life
I. Poco a Poco
At some point during the past three weeks that I’ve been in Spain, it dawned that I was trying to do far, far too much at once.
Study and improve my Spanish. Find an apartment in Barcelona. Buy an old car. Get all the utilities on my Cornudella property switched to my name. Evaluate quotes from builders. Get the plumbing fixed. Make friends. Climb. Work. Write. Figure out the city, figure out Catalonia, figure out Spain.
It’s like I was climbing a long, hard, exposed route, and my lizard brain wanted to hang, quit, and lower to the ground.
The fix, as it always is, was to focus on what was right in front of me—just the next hold, just the next move. Don’t look down, don’t think about how long is still left in the climb. Just take the next step, one step at a time.
As was fast becoming my mantra here in Spain: poco a poco.
Little by little.
Still, in the time I’ve been here, the thought kept creeping in: what have I done?
Why did I buy this hundreds-year-old stone house in the middle of a small village that is in need of a total gut renovation?—because it inspired my romantic imagination. How did I stick myself moving to Barcelona for a year when what I really wanted was to be in the countryside?—because I desperately wanted to break my son out of suburban Maryland and the Barcelona school was the way to do it. Why do I always try to do way too much even after resolving back in December to simplify, simplify?—because it’s a pattern of behavior and I can’t quite break out of it.
What I needed was to slow down. Gather my thoughts.
Actually, the first thing I needed to do was clean.
The property I purchased in February is a narrow, four-level townhouse that has been unoccupied for at least a few decades, how long exactly I’m not sure. I arrived from Barcelona after dark. I had with me an air mattress designed for tent camping, a sleeping bag, and a bottle of wine.
But as I could see under the light of the overhead bulb dangling from a wire in the middle of the ceiling, anything I put on the ground immediately became coated in the thick layer of grime, dust, and disintegrating white concrete that had accumulated over the past decades.
I laid down my things on top of some plastic bins I’d purchased, blew up the air mattress, drank some wine out of a plastic cup, and slept poorly.
The next day I drove 35 minutes back over the mountain to Tarragona to a Leroy Merlin I would come to know fairly well over the next week. I purchased a broom, dustpan, mop, bucket, work gloves, cleaning towels, masks, a stiff brush for scrubbing, an all-purpose spray cleaner, trash bags, and a trash can.
Back at the house, I swept, then mopped, then swept again.
I had running water—but I could see the leak my real estate agent had warned me about. Or rather, leaks, plural. One was from the water tank, another from the pipe running into the toilet, and a third, under the sink.
But the thirty-year-old (or more) electric water heater in the bathroom still worked, miraculously, and I used it to get a hot bucket of soapy water for mopping.
By the end of the day, I had one, mostly-clean floor. I could set things on the ground without them becoming coated in white dust.
Though, as I would come to see over the next few days, everywhere in the house the concrete floor and plaster on the walls were in a continual state of breaking apart. Any clean surface couldn’t stay clean for long.
III. Changing the utilities
Changing all the utilities to my name was simple, then maddening, then simple again.
Some foreigners hire a lawyer to do all this, which in retrospect, I probably would have sprung for if I’d thought of it sooner. In February, when I closed, my real estate agent had offered to do it all for me, but now in April he still hadn’t gotten to it. And now that it’s done, I don’t blame him.
The hardest was the electric. The company is Endesa, and technically they have English-speaking help desk people—if you can get through to one of them.
To change the contract from the old owners, I needed their NIF (like a tax ID number) and the CUPS, which is an individual identification number for the property itself. I had both of these from the utility bills that were stuck in the door when I arrived at the property, still addressed to the old owners.
The CUPS is a 20-digit long series of letters and numbers which I ended up having to read aloud in Spanish to someone over the phone no fewer than three times. At one point in the initial setup call, the line suddenly cut off—and I decided not to bother calling back just then.
But an hour later Endesa rang. Someone recited some officialese and asked for my agreement that the previous call had been disconnected and thus it was acceptable to resume where we left off rather than starting over. I agreed, and we continued.
After the callback, I thought the job was done. I got a welcome email in my inbox and everything—but actually, I had just finished step one. The email laid out a whole series of next steps. Endesa would have to contact the electric distributor on my behalf and request access, then the distributor would be calling me to confirm everything over again, then something else, and another thing. One day, I would have an electricity contract.
But I must be careful not to bore you with the entire sad saga—
The water and the property taxes turned out to be much easier, but only because I signed and delegated responsibility to my architect, who graciously offered to stop by the town hall and request the changes on my behalf one afternoon.
I had hired him to draft plans to replace the roof and manage permitting with the town, but his general helpfulness has gone far beyond that.
The final step was to get access to the online customer portal for Endesa. I had an electrician coming (a referral from the architect), and I needed to double-check the peak load specified in my contract. Only, the Endesa confirm codes to my phone had not been coming through, even though my Google Fi phone is usually brilliant at this.
I had already used one of those slightly-shady websites that give you a temporary number to receive texts (this one had worked pretty well). But now, sitting outside the cafe in Cornudella, I decided to try again with my U.S. phone—a minute later, a super garbled SMS came through just before the timer ran out on the Endesa confirmation page:
It wasn’t much, but I could see the code, right there at the end between all the insistent ñ’s. Finally, I had my mobile confirmed. It was the last step. My utilities were all in my name, with my correct information attached.
Without a working toilet in the house, I quickly developed a routine.
In the mornings, I walked five minutes down the hill to the cafe, where I had a coffee and a napolitana (what Catalans call a chocolate croissant). Then I would use their toilet, then order another coffee.
The cafe, La Renaixença, became my second home each morning. I used its wifi to work, its outlets to recharge. The women who worked mornings quickly learned my order, and the Spanish-born, Philadelphia-raised American guy who worked there became my first local friend.
I usually spent three or four hours there each morning, doing client work and watching the crowds come and go. In came climbers who didn’t want to make coffee and breakfast out of their vans, then came older locals who sat for an hour or more, socializing or reading the newspaper. Probably half would order a beer or a glass of wine to go with their morning sandwich.
The name La Renaixença refers to the Catalan Renaissance—“a romantic revivalist movement in Catalan language and culture through the mid-19th century.” This followed a long period of suppression of Catalan language and culture and was a precursor to modern-day Catalan nationalism.
When I bought the property, I did not at all appreciate how fraught were the region’s politics. I once asked my Catalan climber friend if he supported independence—he replied of course, as if I’d asked whether the sky was blue, or if he liked to rock climb. But at the time, it seemed kind of like how an ornery Texan might say they support independence—a kind of not-very-serious posturing.
Yet in 2019, there was rioting and violence in Barcelona over the issue. That year, a peaceful demonstration attended by 500,000 people was followed by nearly a week of rioting. People set fire to cars and threw acid at police officers, injuring more than 200 of them. Barcelona was all but paralyzed.
Considering the history, just speaking Catalan is itself a kind of political statement, especially if you do it in internationally-minded Barcelona. But here at La Renaixença, in small town Cornudella de Montsant, Catalan is just what people speak when having a beer at 8:30 in the morning.
After coffee and work, I would go back to my property, alternating between fixing things, cleaning things, or driving back to Leroy Merlin for new supplies. On my shopping excursions, I fared pretty well, considering half the labels are in Catalan, and no Spanish class I’ve ever taken covered the vocabulary for plumbing and electrical supplies.
In the evenings, I would walk to either the climber bar or one of the two restaurants in town, whichever was open. There, I check in with clients, drink a beer, and, if I still had the energy, browse apartment listings in Barcelona.
V. Repairs & demolition
It wasn’t getting dark until after 9 pm and the days felt very long.
Also, I hadn’t showered in four days.
Wednesday, I’d been chest deep in demolition. My property has an outdoor patio space in the back, but it came almost completely full of old debris. There were old chicken coops in the corner, a dozen old, wood beams, something that looked like a ceramic oven, piles of rusted metal mesh, a motley collection of very old trash, and at least one dead bird.
It was all covered by an old roof that was one lally column support away from collapsing (or rather, three lally column supports) into a heaping rubble of terra cotta tile and interlaced bamboo supports.
My goal was to remove the tile, tear down the bamboo supports, then carefully saw the log beams from their concrete encasements in the stone wall. Then, if I could find some way to cart out the debris, I’d have an actual outdoor space to relax, sit, and maybe even cook something.
Each time I removed a tile or tore out bamboo from its intertwined mesh, a cloud of concrete and dust crashed to the ground. The terra cotta tiles all had dirt and moss growing on top. I piled them in a corner as I went.
About halfway through, an old man surfaced on the terrace next door—my neighbor. We spoke in broken in Spanish, until I asked if he spoke any English (none), then we continued in Spanish. His main goal, it seemed, having discovered this new person demolishing the roof adjacent to his terrace, was to impress upon me that the stone wall on which the edge of the roof was perched was his wall.
I watched as he gestured strongly to the exact spot in the 200-year-old stone where my property supposedly ended and his began, and he kept asking if I understood. If I wanted to build a new roof over the patio, he advised me to build a new wall to support it, directly abutting his own.
Good fences make good neighbors, I thought.
Next, we came to the subject of the leak.
For this, he invited me around the front and into his garage space. He pointed at a spot on the wall, which I could see was just below my semi-functional bathroom. If I leave the water on, there’s a big wet spot, he explained. So I had to keep the water off. He kindly offered that if I ever needed water, I should knock on his door.
It didn’t seem to have occurred that the real thing to do was to fix the leak, so I assured him I was trying to do just that, maybe by the end of the week, and he looked at me skeptically.
I texted the handyman my architect had connected me with and asked if he had time to come. The next day, he showed up in the morning and worked for three hours.
There were two priorities. The first was to get working outlets. The handyman opened up my electrical panel and we saw terribly frayed wiring leading from Endesa’s meter into my box—the electric into my house was essentially hanging by a few threads. I asked how old he thought the electrical panel was. My guess had been 30 or 40 years. He said it was more like 60.
He couldn’t upgrade my panel without getting the electric company involved (or an alarm would trip), and I was done calling Endesa for at least a few months. But he did run new wire to a set of outlets which we placed by the breaker box. I could now charge devices and, one day, batteries for power tools.
Next, we moved to the bathroom. If I’d had a blank spot where a toilet could go it would have been fairly straightforward—but fixing a decades-old setup made it more complicated. I used his wrenches to take apart the flush valve, flapper, float, chain, and all the seals from inside the tank, and I’d pried off the toilet by breaking the rusty screws, which left parts of them irretrievably stuck in the tile underneath.
Still, the handyman came prepared with a smorgasbord of old replacement parts, and poco a poco, we got the new parts installed, lined up, and properly sealed.
No more leaks, and a working toilet.
It had been a trabajo entretenido, he said—an entertaining job.
After the repairs and the demolition, I showered.
Hot water, washing the concrete dust and dirt and from my hair, hot water coursing down my body, speaking to me clean, clean! Hot water, making me feel human again.
I shaved in the mirror, dried myself, put on clean clothes, and sat down in the camp chair I’d bought a few days earlier. I poured a glass of wine, ate a bit of chocolate, and scrolled my phone.
The next day, I saw my new neighbor, the old man—arreglé la fuga! I told him. I fixed the leak. He looked at me skeptically again, but I invited him into my house to see the wall below the bathroom. No wet spot. Then we walked around to his garage space—no wet spot. The water had been on since yesterday.
He smiled, and then we talked some more about my plans for the house. Yes, I was a climber; no, I didn’t think climbing was that dangerous. Yes, I planned to renovate the whole property eventually. But no, I wouldn’t be living here full-time; I’d be in Barcelona with my son.
Then, he turned to go. Somos vecinos, he said—we’re neighbors. I can help you, you can help me. Then he said he was going to go to the cafe to get some food. I thanked him and said goodbye, and went back upstairs.
There was so much more work, so much more to learn. Poco a poco.