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Purchasing a fixer-upper in Spain
When does a dream start to become more than just a dream?
So many of us dream things we want for our life and never make them happen. Inertia, expectations, money, career, kids. There’s always a reason. We hold these dreams in our minds as an imagined, alternative life, and then we put them away and continue doing what we have been doing. Real life goes on.
But then, sometimes, events conspire, and suddenly it seems like the far-off idea we had in our head could be more than just a dream.
My trip to Spain last month wasn’t just about climbing with friends, although it was mostly about that. But long before my Catalan friend announced he’d be organizing a climbing trip to his home crags, my ex and I had been looking at property in the area. When I showed him the cute, affordable fixer-upper we’d found in Cornudella de Montsant, just next to the cliffs at Siurana, he kindly let me know that Siurana was his home crag, and Cornudella was where he’d spent a good part of his childhood, and not just that—his dad was a real estate agent in the area.
So it was that early one afternoon on the climbing trip, my son and I took a brief tour of the 18th-century old stone fixer-uppers of Cornudella de Montsant, including the place my ex had found. Seven months later, it was miraculously still on the market.
The original, shared dream, had been that we buy the cute fixer-upper together, live near the climbing, and spend a year renovating it. The two of us would do the project and climb and use it as our European base to explore. That was one dream, at least.
Then the relationship ended.
But I was still interested. I wanted to climb, I was still going to Spain, and I still wanted to buy something in Europe. Except now, I didn’t know quite what to think about the dream. Was renovating a property now to be some kind of purging experience, or was it a good idea on its own? She’d been the one to find this Cornudella property; did I really want it without her?
There’s a movie version of what happens next, a story I could construct in my imagination: in the aftermath of the breakup, I buy the property anyway and do the work myself, sweat and tears dripping onto the old stones, cleansing both myself and the centuries-old grime along with it. I meet the locals and learn the history of the town. I face setbacks, but my new Spanish friends help me overcome them. The renovation is a metaphor for rebuilding my life, and ultimately I realize that happiness and satisfaction come not from having a partner to share in the experience, but from within, or at least from a hammer and a saw and chisel. After a year of toil and a good long montage of me doing carpentry, I finish the renovation. In the final scene, having polished the last of the grime, I walk to the nearby cafe down the hill. I order a coffee and sit at a small, round table in the corner, pausing for a satisfying moment of silence to think about life hurdles overcome, and the next dream to pursue. Cue music, roll credits.
But life is not a movie. Deciding which direction to head is less like walking down a path, more like wandering through a wilderness. Anyway, the real problem with the movie narrative is that I’d already worked hard to process the end of the relationship. I wrote, talked to friends, wrote some more, went on long hike after long hike, and climbed as much as I possibly could. A lot of what there is to work out has already been done so on the rock, on the page, and in the mountains.
And now? I still want the renovation project. It excited me before, and it still did. So after parking at the Cornudella town lot with a view of the cliffs toward Montsant, my son and I and my friend’s parents walked the narrow streets to go look at the property.
We turned a corner, and there it was, the tall facade I’d already looked at a dozen times in the pictures online, all cracked stucco, with a pink stone archway above the entrance. Above the large wooden front door, carved inside an ornate seal I could see the date of construction: 1782.
On the first level, I walked in to see the low-ceilinged storage for wine and food, and then down the open-air corridor, I saw the outdoor space, partially covered and littered with construction debris. This is where they used to keep the animals for the family, maybe pigs, or chickens. I wondered if I could construct an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven in the space.
We walked upstairs to the first proper floor. There was a working bathroom, with running water and electricity. Toward the back was an area intended for a kitchen, with windows overlooking the patio space. My friend’s mom suggested adding a deck off the back and extending the dining area outside. Up the stone stairs to the next level were a few more smallish rooms, plus an area for a second bathroom. On the top level was a large, cavernous space with a high ceiling. It felt perfect for the main bedroom or even a studio apartment. Toward the back, we could take part of the roof down and add a deck with a view over the entire town and the cliffs beyond.
Standing there, craning my neck out the old window toward the mountains, I imagined the large windows I could add, myself in bed in the morning, looking out the windows, then stepping through a door onto the deck with my coffee. I tried to process whether the dream could actually become a reality.
Yet there were still a lot of real-world unknowns: would the town let me do the work myself? Would permitting any of the structural changes be a problem? Would they let me create more than one living unit? Then I started to feel a kind of internal resistance, a fear of everything I could be doing wrong. Was any of this even possible? Was I in over my head? Who was I, with my limited Spanish and newish renovation skills, to think I could manage a full gut renovation of a two-and-a-half centuries-old Spanish home in a mountain village I’d only ever visited once? Was I just doing this to get over a breakup, or did I really, actually want it?
These are exactly the kinds of questions we rarely confront. We do everything we can to avoid fully facing the possibility that we could be deluding ourselves. And besides, it’s impossible to tell if you’re deluding yourself. Self-delusion is, by its very nature, not something we are quite capable of sorting out.
So I took stock of the facts: the property was easily affordable. It wasn’t too big, so the work didn’t feel overwhelming. Even if there were a lot of surprises in the renovation, the cost would be limited by the square footage. Yet it was big enough to realize a lot of what I had been dreaming about: the outdoor kitchen, the patio, the rooftop deck, maybe a separate living unit, definitely room for guests.
Then there was the location in the heart of Cornudella. It was a perfect base for accessing some of the world’s best climbing, in Siurana, Montsant, Margalef, and more. There was no lack of community—every evening climbers gathered at the same bar in town, all bright lights, fresh pizzas, and cheap Estrella beers. And, I already had a close friend living there.
Then there was Southern Europe itself. It wasn’t the Italian villa with the olive grove I’d pictured, but the olive groves were just down the road nevertheless. So were the wineries. Whatever happened in the future, would this not be a great property to own?
But there were still the unanswered permitting questions—and here, the serendipity just kept coming. Just as my friend’s dad happened to be a real estate agent, his cousin happened to be an engineering architect. He is the one you walk properties with to see if you can actually do the things you want to do. A few days after the initial visit, he and I visited the property again, and I described the vision. He could get my permitting questions answered, and he could help manage the structural renovations if I went forward with the purchase.
It was all almost too well-arranged, too easy. I was not exactly a stranger in a foreign land. I was a climber, in a climbing town, with the support of my friend’s mom, dad, and cousin, all of whom happened to be the exact professionals I needed. If I couldn’t manage to pull the trigger in this situation, when would I ever?
Two weeks after the Spain trip, I was out for a drink with a friend, sipping an expensive cocktail and talking about the future. We were at the bar in a dimly-lit, self-styled saloon near Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the conversations buzzing around us all news and politics and power and status. It was about as far from the mountains of Catalunya as you can get. I told her just how far down the road I was with the property in Spain.
Oh, she seemed surprised. I kinda thought it was just…
—what, I asked, a dream?
—Yes, exactly. She smiled.
It’s not just a dream. It’s happening. One way or another. If it’s not this one then another one. But it is happening. And if some unforeseen purging happens along the way, well then, I won’t complain.