The hidden secret of the house on the hill

vineyard teia

If I were really rich, I’d be tempted to renovate an old ruined stone house in the countryside of Spain or Italy. I’d have an art studio and a veranda on which I could sit and write.

Of course, I’m not rich.

However, there is such a house on the other side of the main street, which is known as ‘the river’ because when it rains the water is channelled along it. It’s got a gorgeous view as it’s propped up on the hill. The village where I live sits between mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. If you look towards the village, you have the church and the town hall.

The owners began restoration, but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately) the banks made some mistakes and the economy stumbled. Lack of funds brought progress to a halt. The story could end there. An abandoned house looking out over the sea from behind locked gates, suggestive of a fairy tale or a tale of horror.

But the real story doesn’t just end there. Unable to make progress with the house, the owners came to an agreement with three local men. In return for making sure the house doesn’t go the same way as Sleeping Beauty’s palace, they can use the land and ruined building.

Teia Vineyards

They planted the vines, bought the bottles and got a small machine to insert the corks into the bottles. A new village vintage was born. A local painter designed the labels. They’re now contemplating using the ground floor as an art gallery of his work.

It’s the sort of place you need to know a person who knows a person to get a private informal tour. If you only speak English, then it helps to have someone who can translate the enthusiastic explanations for you. Otherwise, you miss out on the stories. You don’t learn they initially store the white wine in a metal container; the red goes straight into the wooden barrels. You miss the joke about not tasting cheese before trying the wine because the wine speaks for itself. You can’t miss the pride.

The hard work bottled and stacked. I’ve tasted the results and they’ve the right to be proud.

Cork machine. Spain, 2016.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but…

getting old
Child’s horse. In the garden, Summer 2016.

I took the two girls I look after to their grandparents this afternoon. It’s an old house with a large garden, like somewhere you might find an unusual wardrobe. The grandparents grow their own vegetables – I’m a great fan of their peas – and have two large friendly dogs. I stood by and watched the girls compete for attention with handstands and roly-polys on the immaculate lawn, with the plastic horse and two bags of swimming kit.

The house has an old fashioned dining-room with high ceilings and paintings of the children, when they were children. Of course, I’m entranced by the artworks. It’s rare to see someone’s house with painted portraits on the wall. It echoes back to a time when people had houses with picture rails. The magic continues with a collection of holiday treasures: Kenyan wooden heads, African masks, glass dishes and a puppet witch that hangs from the lampshade and had something, although I’m not sure what, to do with chocolate. Shelves heaped with travel books line the walls in the basement.

Young and fashionable was my first gut feeling. My brain questioned if this were possible. I describe the couple as young, but what does it even mean to be young? In spite of their appearance, the numbers don’t add up. However much they might want to feel young, we can’t both be young. And yet, they certainly seemed young as they rushed around the house getting ready for their trip out to Barcelona, hopping over the Playmobil pirate ship when necessary. To my surprise, delight and envy, these grandparents have recently come back from climbing Mont Blanc. Next week they’re going on a kayaking holiday. I’m in awe. There are many people my age who could benefit from a little more such youthful zeal.

Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

open minds open doors

I live, temporarily, on the side of a mountain, just north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It’s a beautiful mountain. Although I have fallen and scraped my knees on it, it is not a rugged place. Stone markers indicate the boundaries of the villages and those villages take responsibility for the mountain. There are benches to rest on, a cabin for hikers to sleep in and water fountains to provide cool refreshment. Cacti and wild asparagus grow here. It smells of rosemary.


I’ve been away from the village for ten days and have missed the mountain. Living here, I’ve stared out at it from the balcony as I’ve munched my morning cereal, admiring the dark green of the foliage against the bright blue Spanish sky. I have glanced up at it, through the window from the sofa as lightning strikes and a thick mist blurs its edge. I have run, time and time again, up the steep paths, slowly building a courage to push myself. It’s been a safe place to practice self-belief.

My first run back in the village was a gentle one. The footpath weaves up the side of this mountain towards a statue of Jesus – his arms stretch out as if blessing, or laughing at, the village below. For me, he is a touch stone. I reach him; I’ve done a good job. At that moment he and I are equals.

Beside me ran S. We met at the local paella cooking competition and for the next three weeks she has kindly undertaken the job of feeding and providing a home for me. Her wish is to improve her English and for her young daughters to have the advantage of speaking English without thinking about it. My challenge is to instigate a desire in them to master the challenge of becoming bilingual. Being bilingual opens closed doors.

I talked as we ran, providing a conversation that was valued on multiple levels. I rambled a bit as I had to focus on not falling over, again, and try to talk in sentences that are coherent and whole. It’s amazing how difficult speaking slowly is. It’s crossed my mind that clarity of thought may be tied up with the rhythm of speech. I wonder if anyone has tested this? S asked questions, smiled, laughed and on occasion dispelled wise advice. There’s something special and free about talking to someone who is only temporarily invested in your life. Their judgement carries less weight, and they often offer fresh insight. The advice is more likely to be philosophy orientated than results orientated because they know they will never bear witness to the outcome. Our run reminded me how lucky I am to have such a strong network of these temporary advisors.

Family friends came over for dinner and asked me if I am studying.

I laughed and with a smile told them “I’m deceiving you with my face, I’m older than I look.” I explain not only do I have a degree, but also I have been a traditional employee. The question always comes though, what’s next.

open minds open doors

I think of the sugar packets my mother once brought back from Italy in a gesture of acceptance. Each had a word on the back: ‘Think’, ‘Draw’, Love’. At dinner, I explain I will write, in the sunshine and I will be happy. I used to say such things with hope, now I state them with a belief that makes people lean forward intrigued.

And then?

“Be happy.”

I’m told if I’m looking for a job, there in Spain, using my education, to say.

In my life I have been given many open doors. Right now I’m in a great place. Not only am I free from responsibilities, but I have this fantastic combination of education and experience which makes me atypical and therefore able to see in ways other people are not. I have some really great people supporting me, even though they struggle to understand me at times. What’s more, I have faith in myself and my ability to adapt. Despite whatever the future throws at me, I believe wholeheartedly I’m going to be able to smile.

The secret, perhaps, is to embrace the uncertainty of what might happen next. I have to select my doors with care. If I’m walking through, I need to believe it leads somewhere that fits with my values and life philosophy. Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

Originally, I didn’t go looking to move to this village, I was invited here. I was so unsure about it that when the first offer came up I was hesitant about committing to staying six weeks. By the time I go home I’ll have been in Catalonia for three months. It doesn’t feel long at all.

Staying so long was not planned. In this second part of my trip I’m living with a family I met at an event that I went to because a friend I’d made a few days earlier had suggested I came along to see what was happening. There I could have spoken to anyone, but I ended up briefly speaking with S. In the short conversation that we had that day, S asked my thoughts on her quest to find an au-pair. As I was leaving, I suggested we swapped numbers. The chance of everything lining up was slim. If the dates hadn’t worked out right or if I’d already had booked my flight home, I wouldn’t have ended up offering to stay for a few weeks.

Discovering doors is a beautiful thing.  Initiating and nurture the conversations by which you find them takes an open mind. Walking through is a risk. But, if you don’t have the courage to say yes, you stay between the same walls you always have.

open minds open doors

I am so grateful that I have the courage to smile and say, “Yes, thank you.”

How can you thank volunteers? (an example from travels in Spain)

volunteering at school

You may have read the blog post about how I spent an afternoon in the garden of the local school chasing ants. Well I also went back to school and taught division to a bunch of eight-year-olds. The most striking moment of this second experience happened when I told a boy that his calculation was incorrect. He replied, “What the f**k!”

This blog post however isn’t about swearing or division, it’s about the thank-you I and every other volunteer was given on Friday afternoon for the generosity of our time.

Naively, I imagined that the number of volunteers turning up at school to be thanked would be reasonably small. People after all have jobs and other things to do Monday to Friday. What’s more, I’ve been a volunteer in an English primary school (it was part of a ‘Right to Read Scheme’ and took three months to process the paperwork before I could even begin reading George’s Marvellous Medicine). There were supposedly two of us but the other guy never turned up. Therefore, even knowing that this Spanish primary school was well supported by the community I didn’t imagine there’s be that many people at this ceremony.

I was going because I’d been told I was going by one of the kids, and I have to take them back to school for afternoon lessons anyway.

I followed L through the school entrance, here, forming a corridor of bodies that we were guided through were the school pupils clapping, reaching out for high-fives and generally being excitable. The oldest children were closest to the door and as we snaked through the building and out onto the playground the kids got smaller and smaller. Those younger than six were already seated on the playground, holding hands in big class circles.

This village does things differently to anywhere else I’d been. If I were to guess, I’d say there were over a hundred volunteers, maybe even more, maybe over one hundred and fifty.

L led me up onto the stage which all us adults crowded together or in front of as photos were taken. A Catalan song boomed out of the speakers making one of the grandmas jump. The children who had made up the chain to the stage streamed onto the playground and arranged themselves in class groups. An adult, presumably a teacher, made a speech – in Catalan – and then different children came forward to read their thanks – also in Catalan – passing between them the microphone and pausing at regular intervals for applause.

L pointed me to my ant catching class and we both made our way over to them. Stepping over children on the way. It was probably 26 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Whilst most of the volunteers did the same as us and left the stage to go to those kids that they had worked with, the volunteer coordinators (15 or so people) were presented with flowers on the stage.

The children had drawn pictures of each of the volunteers and as we arrive, leapt up, let go of each other’s hands and excitedly presented us with pictures of ourselves as a thank-you gift. L talked to some of her friends and I was surprised at how many of the parents and grandparents knew me and said hello.

The chaos went on a while, but eventually a vague sense of order finally resumed and everyone except me sang You’ve got a friend, in Catalan of course.

A story about a postman


It was coming up to one o’clock in the afternoon. At such a time, even in the narrow streets that wind through the village, the sun casts little shadow.

Here, there is a rather large and expensive house with high walls. I’m told its home to the ‘Countess’, although the translation is hazy. To me, it looks like a castle. The only people I’ve seen coming in and out are the gardener and a man with numerous tattoos, whom my eight-year-old (not really mine) stared at until he’d left our sight and then told me was not a man to be trusted.

There was a drugs raid in this middle class commuter village the other week, and there is a guy who I occasionally see hunting through the bins, but the typical resident here sends their children to piano classes and hires a cleaner to do their household chores. Appearances are important. The houses whose balconies and windows look down onto the pavement are decorated with the yellow and red striped flag of Catalonia, often with the addition of a blue triangle and white star inspired by the Cuban/Puerto Rico flags. Independence is the battle being fought. I’m reminded of the streets of flags in Northern Ireland which made me feel ever so uncomfortable.

I have deviated into politics. Back to the narrow street where, at the hour of one, causing a traffic jam on a one-way street, sat a young girl. She was screaming and waving her clenched fists, in a rather unsociable fashion, without showing respect for the locals. Her face was all knotted together like a wrung out dish cloth, slightly damp.

Further along loitered the eight-year-old. Undoubtedly a contributor to the tantrum but having witness such tantrums many times before and being certain of the righteousness of his own actions, he appeared unfazed.  A car manoeuvred around us to make a parallel park. The postman zipped by on his yellow motorbike.

I frowned and sighed, wondering what it is that one is supposed to do in such a situation. A few weeks earlier I would have been highly vexed, but whilst I was frustrated, I counted my blessings that neither child was in any great danger and we had plenty of time before they needed to be back at school.

Reasoning would be my first thought, but reasoning is not plausible when two people can only communicate in simple games, like playing ‘I spy’ in colours and ‘what time is it Mr Wolf’; or with simple instructions, like ‘sit down’; or questions such as ‘Water?’, ‘Bread?’. Plus, there’s no point talking if nobody is listening and being temporarily possessed by a demon, the young girl had no intention of listening to me.

Without a common language, and nothing but a water bottle, distraction wasn’t an easy option either. I admit considering pouring the bottle of water on her to see if it would make any difference. It worked on the Wicked Witch of the West and I was running out of options. Dragging her kicking and screaming down the street was never going to work. The Spanish might be lax about health and safety and child protection compared to the UK, but I already have enough bruises on my legs.

Which is when, like a knight in shining armour, the postman intervened.

Now you might think that it’s a terribly embarrassing situation to be in, requiring the postman persuade the child you’re meant to be walking home with to go home with you. All I can say is children are children, and this one wasn’t even mine and if ever I am in such a situation again then I honestly don’t care who it is who solves the problem.

The magic was this. It started with “¿Qué pasa?”, a typical greeting meaning something along the lines of ‘what’s up’. Negotiations proceeded in Catalan and then from his motorbike his produced ten elastic bands. This amazingly stopped the crying and transformed the sprawled mess of child into something vertical. Persuading her to walk home took longer. He took the keys out of the motorbike and helped her up into the seat, whilst continuing reciting his spell. Her brother, not wanting to be left out, came and squeezed himself onto the seat with her.

Like the audience watching the magician, I didn’t understand more than a handful of words, but that didn’t matter, for after climbing off his motorbike, the children walked home without a fuss.

The village postman – my hero.

Two women enter a bar…

Two young women enter a bar.

It’s ten past nine on a Saturday night. One woman is blonde. She typically wears liquid eyeliner with a flourish and the wrong shoes for the occasion. Tonight though, her skin is bare and she’s wearing her feet relax inside an old pair of trainers. The other woman has brown hair. She rarely wears make-up, but tonight it’s her with the liquid eyeliner.

“Sorry I’m late,” says the blonde German woman.

They sit down at a table and the waiter comes over, followed a short while later by another waiter who helps them through the Spanish menu. They each order a can of Fanta and a bite size sandwich. The blonde orders a dish of fries.

On the TV screen at the back of the room Valentino Rossi is shown winning his pole position for the Mugello race the following day. It’s still too early for the bar or restaurant to be busy. As the women chat more people arrive and order food. This is the biggest place in the village you can gather for a beer or glass of wine in the village.

“I didn’t want to go to Barcelona tonight.”

“Me neither. It’s just too exhausting.”

“Yeah, my family think I’m so boring when I don’t want to make anything.”

“Mine too.”

“The last au pair went into Barcelona every night drinking and making party.”

“The last au pair at my place drank wine every night.”

It’s a quiet, steady conversation. ‘Clumby’ is corrected to ‘clumsy’ and an acknowledgement of how difficult it is to know if something is ‘stronger’ or ‘more strong’. It echoes back to an early conversation debating ‘shyer’ and ‘more shy’. Great amusement is found at the idea that ‘kitchen roll’ is practically the same word in German, ‘Küchenrolle’.

They both explain the make-up discrepancy. The blonde explains she was too tired and had been crying a lot during the day  because her friend who had been visiting had left to go home.

“I need the war paint to hide the fact I look like a zombie,” says the other woman.

They both laugh. The blonde woman orders another Fanta.

After a few hours talking, the blonde woman is blinking more frequently than normal trying desperately to get some moisture to her contact lenses whilst her companion is trying her best not to yawn. They both decide it’s time to leave and go home.

A mutual friend sends a message, “Are you at the bar yet?”