You say peseta…

When our elderly Spanish neighbour who, like many native Órgivians, lives in town but keeps land and animals in the campo (and thinks foreigners are loco for wanting to live in old stone animal barns) presented himself at the house of friends with a message for us – that a goatherd with a couple of hundred beasts had offered 12.5 million pesetas for his property, but we could have it if we paid more, we initially fell about laughing, speculating about how many pesetas could be scraped out of the ancient nooks and crannies of our old cortijo.

Spain joined the eurozone in 1999 – one of the first-wave of countries to do so – fourteen years after it joined the European Union. The euro became the official currency on 1 January 2002 and the transitional dual circulation period, when both currencies had legal tender status but the peseta only as “book money” that had to be converted to euros, ended three months later.

It’s not surprising that for our neighbour’s generation, or even the goatherd’s, the euro has never become the acceptable currency. Indeed the Spanish central bank revealed a couple of years ago that some €1.7bn worth of pesetas was still held by Spaniards. Perhaps those brought up in rural communities such as ours are, even now, using them to make black economy transactions. Though if they are they can’t exchange them for euros except with the central bank.

And of course many Spanish blame “el crisis” – Spain’s economic “great recession” – on joining the euro because of the housing bubble that followed and which burst so spectacularly. The collapse of the Spanish banks revealed irresponsible and predatory subprime mortgage lending – still a major cause of misery and suicide as people lose their homes but, unlike in the UK, continue to have to pay off the debt.

Those who still think in pesetas are also pretty canny with their mental currency converters. They know what the conversion rate was fixed at in 1999. The rest of us are grateful that online versions still exist that don’t simply declare the peseta to be obsolete. For when we considered the implications of living next door to 200 smelly cabras, along with their dogs, our neighbour’s offer suddenly became a lot less funny.

Cabras No

Our sentiment exactly


Our water-man confirmed the story. The goatherd intended to build a nave (a warehouse, in the industrial sense of the Spanish word) to house his livestock. The animals would also have the run of the land. “Muy mal” he said, holding his nose and suggesting that we might want to pay the money.

We suddenly felt as though we had woken in a gigantic pool of blood, 200 goat heads placed in our bed as we slept. Our neighbour may not look much like a mafia boss, but it increasingly looked like an offer we could not refuse.

Rapid consultation with other near residents, some of whom have goats overnighting close to them, though not as close as this would be, further convinced us to scupper the goatherd’s plans. Cute as they are, the smell of goats is a taste few people acquire, and what with the horse flies, noise and other delights that would accompany a large herd in small confinement, we might as well abandon our home.

Within hours we learn that our neighbour has rejected the goatherd’s initial offer, it’s been upped by another million pesetas and is about to be accepted. Another consultation with the currency converter reveals he’s pushing close to the official asking price (in euros), albeit a substantially reduced one since the property went on the market two years ago.

We wondered, cynically, having converted pesetas into pounds and it sounding much better, if we might try it in another long-redundant, more over-valued currency to get an even better result. You say peseta, we say Italian lira, perhaps.

And so we find ourselves about to be the owners of nearly 1500 m2 of land with two huge avocado trees, olives, oranges, nisperos (medlar fruit), three chickens, some scabby cats, a trailer (oh what luck, we were planning to buy one of them), a three-roomed casita with no bathroom or kitchen, and an out-building. But even the wise heads of Orgiva’s legal advice and translation service, who helped us in dealing with our neighbour’s determined daughters and the legal paperwork, agreed we had no option.

There are of course bright sides to this predicament. We have learned from this whirlwind process that in Spain, vendors who receive an offer for a rural property which they are inclined to accept are obliged to offer it to their immediate neighbour, especially if the land was once part of the same catastral (piece of land), as ours was. So at the very least, we know our rights have been respected.

And then there’s the strategic benefit of owning land adjacent to ours, given the options it opens up (and closes down), increased water rights at a more sensible time of day than we currently enjoy (see Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance), and finally being shot of a not so easy vecino.

Our daughter, who plays the video strategy game Civilisation, commented that it was a bit like a move where a city state is invaded for tactical reasons to stop someone else having it, and by doing so yet another piece of land is blocked off which could have value to opponents.

And judging from a call we received from the owners of a holiday home the other side of the would-be goat ranch, we might yet be considered local heroes.

Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance

After weeks of trying to de-green our small swimming pool and to stop it being a holiday haven for the neighbours’ noisy Iberian water frogs by adding municipal swimming pool levels of chlorine, defeat was admitted, the water was emptied onto a grateful garden and the pool surface cleaned and painted.

But now for the challenging bit – refilling it. Agua (water) is a more precious natural resource than gold in Las Alpujarras and the mysteries of acquiring the acequia water which flows past our cortijo at this time of year, as the mountain snow melts, without upsetting our vecinos (neighbours), are only just becoming clear.

The community-operated, Moorish system of irrigation follows strict rules. There is a rota which dictates when residents of our (and every) road can open the sluice gates and divert the water on to their land, and for how long. While it is possible to take agua at other times, it is necessary to understand the somewhat complicated circumstances in which this can be done.

We’ve always known that our turn comes at some ungodly hour of a Friday morning, which is why we’ve never attempted to find out exactly when. But after being gently chastised by our friendly water-man, he who has responsibility for managing the acequia in our road, when we thought we were safe to sneak a quick hour, we resigned ourselves to respecting, not playing the system.

And so it was that at midnight mi esposo (husband) set off in search of our water. On discovering that el vacino across the road was watering his land it was clear that a conversation was necessary. Armed with home-made cinnamon whirls, a smile and far too few appropriate Spanish verbs for the task, esposo made his approach.

Sharing sweet pastries in an orange and olive grove in the early hours of the morning with a Spanish smallholder is perhaps one of the more eccentric acts it has been necessary to perform to extract information about how things work here. But it was effective. Our friendly neighbour explained that our turn for the water was after his, at 2am, for three hours. He rattled our gates to let us know when he’d finished and even insisted on helping with the water diversion.

By 5am our garden was watered, our pool was full, we’d introduced a new type of baked product to the area, and it was time for bed.

The acequia flow is already diminished as the benefits of the heavy rains of early spring in our valley, accompanied by significant snowfall to a relatively low level on the slopes above us, begin to dry up. It won’t be long before watering the garden and filling the pool requires payment. While taking water in the small hours is part of the way of life for those who have always worked the land here, we are inclined to think that buying an hour of water to use at a civilised time of day fits better with ours.

Olives, pickers and rowers

Stuck at Granada airport before boarding a three-hour delayed British Airways flight to what was originally London City Airport, but became the somewhat less glamorous “London” Southend (as owned by Eddie Stobart), I reflected that the presence of the Great Britain men’s rowing team among the gloomy passengers provided at least better company than the drunken hen party I had endured on my previous Easyjet trip back to the UK.

Nice lads. Very tall. Very strong. They’d been training at the high altitude pre-performance centre in the Sierra Nevada. I eavesdropped on their stories about Olympic medals won and lost and exchanged brief small talk with the ones who sat around me on the plane. We arrived in the early hours in the wretched Rochford, endured a miserable coach trip back to a freezing cold London City Airport, and I thought little more of the rowers.

Until now. As I make up a pitifully small olive picking team, I so wish I’d got the GB rowers’ numbers.

The annual olive harvest has been going on for a few weeks, but we’ve worked on it with a neighbour for the last three years between Christmas and the New Year. It’s when the olives are at their best and, in theory, when there are people with a bit of time on their hands.

This year, both olives and people are thin on the proverbial ground. It’s biennial, but the additional impact of drought and higher than average Spring temperatures has resulted in a much depleted crop. A grove we worked on last year has nothing at all to offer. Our own tree, which produced 60 kilos of olives last year, struggled to give us one. The price of Spanish extra virgin olive oil has been going up year on year due to shortages, but is predicted to rocket now (how will my north London friends cope?).

Yet there are some trees still dripping with fruit. And so I stand, head, neck and arms painfully straining upwards to reach the precious purple and green treasure, watching others precariously perched on top of ladders, chain saws cutting the highest branches, and I yearn for those men of oars.

Tangerine dreams

During a recent trip back to London for work, I became trapped in a wine bar with a friend by an army of yummy mummies. It was mid afternoon and perhaps we should have anticipated that a roomy, women-friendly venue in an affluent part of Clapham would be a favourite for green tea and cake-fuelled debates about the relative merits of different brands of organic baby foods. But as increasing numbers of well-dressed young women manouvered their designer baby tanks through the double doors and assembled next to and around our comfy sofa, we began to share a mild sense of discomfort, soon to be displaced by incredulity.

Having failed to suppress our giggles over “she’s a little bit special about yogurt”, we lost it when one yummy asked another: “have you tried George with tangerines and if so, do you peel the skin off every segment for him?”. Yes, and yes.

We received benign, no, patronising smiles in response to our sniggers. Time for us to clamber over the all-terrain baby mobility systems and return to our cynical sanity.

It’s not that I’ve been away long enough to forget about the posh buggy clubs that operate in certain parts of the Capital (in our little bit of north London, baby jogging and “walkie talkie” groups on Hampstead Heath are what the new, or not so new, mothers who don’t need to work do to pass the time). But it’s so far removed, and offensively so in these straitened times, from the day-to-day reality of parenting small children here in Òrgiva, or indeed in any working class community, anywhere.

I was reminded of gorgeous George and his perfectly peeled tangerines as I sat with my daughter on our decking a few days later. Off sick from school, she had decided that sitting in the sun and attempting to relieve our loaded trees of their burden of fruit might help clear her aching head. “Vitamin C mum, vitamin C.”


I sampled one, winced at the hit of acidity and nearly choked on the pips. I don’t have the knack of spitting out the stones that my daughter acquired as a baby and has finely honed over the years. Not for her the peeled segment. Call social services.