Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Thankfully, no scary ghosts visited us over the holidays. However, we’re in the middle of a winter break, and that is giving us ample time to think.

We’re on a break from the B&B, but that doesn’t mean we’re lazying about: we’ve got plenty of winter projects going on.

Making it pretty

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Jabba’s guests Tilly and Tuppence are helping him inspecting the progress on the terrace wall (november 2016)

First and foremost, we needed to make things prettier. Although the guest rooms have been finished since May 2016, the surroundings of the house still looked like a bulldozer went through (which it actually did, it was a construction site after all). In november and december we’ve had a group of volunteers over to help us build a terrace wall in front of the house; next month, we’ll be planting plants, herbs, flowers and shrubs on the new terrace so the view from the guest rooms will be even better than before.

Making it comfortable

Since this winter, we’ve got central heating. Currently it works on a gas boiler, which is a good back-up but we don’t want to depend on fossil fuels forever; in a few weeks, we’re having a wood burner installed which will not only heat the radiator water, but provide for hot showers in winter as well. Bye bye gas bills, hello heating our house with wood from olive & almond pruning!

Making it practical

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Foggy weather & a cold sun

In the first part of the winter, we had a good group of volunteers at the farm to help us work on the terrace wall – however, it rained for most of the time – which meant they spent a lot of time inside. Worse: they spent most of that time in the “cave”, digging it out until it started resembling a normal cellar, more or less… It just needs a bit of finishing and a floor, and then we’ll be able to use it for (wine?) storage.

We still have a few things to finish this winter – building wood storage, building storage for the gas bottles, tiling a few bits that get too muddy in the winter and too dusty in the summer… Hopefully by half March, it will all be perfect.

Expanding the chicken project

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Fatima, who is faithfully laying us one egg a day. She only stopped for two days around New Year’s, it was just too cold and dark and foggy. 

I’m really full of ideas for my chicken project!

First, the chickens already had a fixed run since last spring – they will get a fixed coop now as well. That way, they’ll be completely safe from predators and still have space to run around.
I will be separating the roosters from the laying hens; the roosters will be kept inside a moveable electric fence, and move around on the land while keeping the grass short, fertilising the ground and doing some bug control. It’s an experiment (some people say it’s possible to keep several roosters peacefully if there are no hens about – others have bad experiences with it), but we really need chickens to clean up the land and I would rather keep my best layers close to the house.

I am also doubling up on the incubating efforts; I now have the first (small) batch of eggs in, but in a few weeks our friends Dan & Mellissa are kindly lending me their (bigger) incubator and I will hopefully be hatching chicks until May or so. I will incubate my own eggs (of course), but will also order fertile eggs from other places for a bit of variation. I have plans to get some Barnevelders, Araucanas (which lay eggs with blue coloured shells), Marans (dark brown eggs) and of course more Brahmas. Some of these will be up for sale; as small chicks (4-6 weeks old, if you want to see your chickens grow up), pullets (4-6 months old, if you want egg-laying chickens) or for chicken dinner, if we end up having too many. Contact me if you’re interested!

If all goes well, we hope to have eggs for sale by summertime. They will be organic and free range.

Preparing for Spring season in the garden

The most fun part at the moment, is preparing the garden for spring. Thankfully after a few foggy and rainy months, the sun is back (and it looks like it’s here to stay… at least for the next few days). Axel has built me a few raised beds (he’ll make more!) and I’ve been filling them up with compost, manure and organic material. I’ll be sowing ground cover in them first, and plant out seedlings as soon as I can… Hopefully resulting in an abundant harvest this spring.

The trees have been well taken care of too; most almonds have been pruned, and many of the trees got a protective circle around them, clearing the grass and making a small trench that will catch some extra water. A layer of mulch will be applied around them (next week!), for fertilising and protection.

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Ramon crowing his lungs out

Preparing for Spring season at the B&B

We’ve learned so much from last year’s trial season – and now we’re taking these lessons and planning for next year’s first real bed & breakfast season. Getting the paperwork done (soon! I hope), installing a small kitchen in the breakfast room, buying little things our guests missed in their rooms last season, and deciding on pricing. Unfortunately we had to slightly raise the rates for next season, to account for the share agents like booking.com or airbnb.com are getting; however we’re doing an “early bird” promotion before we go public, so people can book at lower prices if they book in time.
More on that later this week!

Splitting up the blog…

Splitting up the blog…

This little blog has taught me so many things. It has taught me that it’s ok to open up: I can write about our mistakes and our bad days, and it’s ok to share our successes and our good days with the world as well. It has taught me that although most people think we’re crazy for moving to Spain and starting a new life here, they also think it’s bold and courageous and they like following our adventures here. But most of all, it has taught me that I love to write about those adventures – and that I love to share everything I’m learning here.

The adventure started years ago, when we first started dreaming about an Earthship somewhere on grassy meadows in the south of France – and it took a leap when we bought our land in Matarraña (Spain turned out to be quite a bit sunnier and just as pretty as France). There were other milestones – the day I got my (online) Permaculture Design Certificate with Geoff Lawton, the day we moved to Spain, the day we moved to our little maset (the little donkey shed Axel rebuilt for us), and finally the day we moved into our new house.

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Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished.

I now felt like it was time for another milestone… this week, I split up my blog. I will continue to post personal updates, news on the bed & breakfast, the adventures of our volunteers and some chicken stories on this blog – but I’ve also started a new blog. I’m looking forward to using that blog as my big outlet: I can’t wait to share information about permaculture, homesteading, small scale farming and keeping animals. I will post my favourite recipes, share tips on how to go back to basics (even if it’s just a tiny bit) – and as a sociologist I would love to write about the social aspects of permaculture, gender roles on a homestead or the importance of an utopia in the modern world (fans of Jurgen Habermas, hold on to your hats). Of course there will be chickens as well, and volunteers, and everyday observations about life in Spain.

I would like to invite you all to take a look at my new blog on www.simplelivingspain.com (yes, it’s basically about Simple Living in Spain). And maybe you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, and get a weekly overview of cool things I’ve read, interesting videos I’ve watched and news from the farm? If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to read there, please go ahead and contact me – in the comments, on my (new!) Facebook page, on Twitter, Instagram or good old-fashioned e-mail. My (digital) door is always open, and I’m always looking for more inspiration – or interesting subjects to stick my nose in.

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Stuff I’m going to be writing about on my SimpleLivingSpain.com blog: chickens, living off the grid, growing our own food and cooking / baking it, gardening, living in Spain and much much more… 

Simple Living Holidays: from idea to reality

A rather short post today… I am very proud to pitch to you my next “baby”: Simple Living Holidays.
Many of our guests, visitors and Facebook-followers told us they’d like to know more or even experience our way of life. We call this lifestyle “Simple Living”: it’s all about making things less complicated and making time for what’s really important. For us, it’s a way of taking back control of our lives.

Around here, we’re meeting more and more people who set out to do the same. They come from all over the world (although most come from other places in Spain and Europe), and they all converged here, in Matarraña. All of us have slightly different ideas and priorities; some keep farm animals, others work relentlessly on the vegetable garden, others take better care of their inner self and for some, the technical aspects of off-grid living are the big challenge. Most of us do a mix of everything.

As a first step, guests at Mas del Encanto will be able to attend workshops next season – from animal husbandry to vegetable gardening, from harvesting almonds to cooking and baking with produce off the land. Our guests will be able to include some unforgettable experiences in their holiday.

 

You’ll be pampered and well taken care off: staying either at Mas Katmandu (outside of Cretas) or at Mas del Encanto (between Cretas and Lledo), food and drinks will be included. Most workshops and visits to local projects and farms are included in the price, but you can choose to attend them or not; if you want to skip a workshop (or a meal) and go out to town or stay in for a change, it’s your vacation!
Some (more specialised or intensive) workshops might be offered for an added fee.

This is a very tiny and newborn baby still – our heads are full of ideas and we’ve created a list of over 50 workshops we could offer around here… now it’s a matter of selecting the workshops people want to attend, talking with the people that can host those workshops, and put a price tag on everything. To help us in the process, I’ve set up a survey. It would help tremendously if you could take a few minutes to answer a few questions!

Edit, December 2016: there is more information now on this page. You can now help us by pre-registering (it’s quick and easy and doesn’t mean you actually have to participate in the end); this will also give you a discount if you actually decide to attend a holiday or some of the workshops. Click here for more information!

Last summer, some of our guests made marzipan with almonds from our trees

Closed for business, and ready for some real work!

Today is “la fiesta del Pilar” (Pilar festival) in Matarraña. The Virgen del Pilar is the patron saint of Zaragoza, and for some reason that is celebrated here as well… Mainly by closing all the shops and going out to hunt.
Also today, we decided to close our bed & breakfast for the winter. From 30+ degrees yesterday, the weather suddenly turned to cold, grey and gloomy. Since the central heating isn’t working yet (waiting for radiator knobs, I’ve been led to understand) and there is no wood stove yet either, it’s getting a tiny bit too frisky. We will open up again when ElTiempo predicts a sunny and warm weekend… or when the central heating works like a charm, whichever comes first.

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This morning’s sunrise… cloudy but stunning. Goes well with my favourite Turner painting…

This summer, we had the perfect guests for a trial run of the B&B. Most were friends, family, ex-classmates or ex-coworkers; everybody was happy to help us out by giving tips on how to improve. The basics were all covered: a cosy bed with fluffy covers, a clean shower with good water pressure, a balcony with a view and chairs to sit on. A few things weren’t, like outside tables to put your drinks on or nightstands (Axel still plans on making those himself). A few things improved over the course of the summer, like the shampoo bottle holder in the shower or the chairs in the bedroom.
And of course, there was breakfast: freshly baked bread (almost) every morning, cakes and toast, hard boiled eggs, home made jam, honey, cheese, cereals, yoghurt, juice, coffee, tea, fruit, almonds; you name it, we thought we had it. Until our first Catalan guests pointed out that tomatoes, olive oil and garlic are an elemental part of breakfast as well 🙂

We learned that guests don’t always do what you’d expect them to. We expected our guests to go on trips to rivers and mountain trails (check), visit castles and museums (check), eat at local restaurants and bars (check), go to fiestas and ferias (check), go look for vultures and ibex (check) – we did not expect them to go on road trips to faraway places to find foodstuffs not available here (check), help out plucking chickens and building walls (check), or to use our remote and off-grid farm as a base for daily city trips (check as well). Good to know though that those are possibilities as well!
We already suspected it, but we got confirmation that this is a great place to have a party. We hosted over 100 people in May – too bad we had to put up tents as the weather wasn’t cooperating, but the result was stunning – and the food was excellent, the music wonderful, the atmosphere better than we could have hoped for. We hope to host more parties and events in the coming years; we still have to organise an official opening party and invite all the locals…

This week's visit to Jordi's pottery workshop - he made us beautiful custom light covers.

This week’s visit to Jordi’s pottery workshop – he made us beautiful custom light covers.

We’re closing for winter now, but this doesn’t mean we’ll be sitting still and waiting for spring. We’ve got so many things planned!
First of course, there’s plenty of things inside the house to finish. The heating and the upstairs bathroom (both of which to be done by the plumber); building and buying furniture so we can finally empty all the boxes in the back room; and decorating – we’ve got most things already, it’s just a matter of finding the right place for it (and a nail to hang it with).
Then there’s things around the house: in November and December, we’ll host a group of volunteers to help us build a terrace wall around the house. Collecting stones, building the wall using drywall, filling it up with earth and then planting things to make it pretty; it will make the guest area look so much more attractive. When the terrace wall is built, we’ll also be able to build the gas bottle storage and the fixed chicken coop.
There’s paperwork as well: in order to comply with all the legislation, we have to get our water supply, the plumbing and the electricity certified, get an official visit from the town council and probably much more – things have a tendency to pop up when you think you’ve done everything on the list. We’ve started the process a while ago, there’s no telling when it will be done.
And let’s not forget the garden; after a not very successful summer, we’ve invested in decent (organic / heirloom) seeds, and we’re also investing in better infrastructure; raised beds in a fenced vegetable garden with irrigation on the spot should really make a difference in production.

The twins (currently called Tito & Tita) currently live in what someday is going to be our bathroom... they don't mind when we do a bit of work there.

The twins (currently called Tito & Tita) currently live in what someday is going to be our bathroom… they don’t mind when we do a bit of work there. 

Last but not least, there’s animals. At this moment, we’ve got 8 chickens: Fatima was born in February 2016 (from the second batch I hatched with my incubator), and is faithfully laying an egg a day, hasn’t skipped a day since she started laying. Ramon & Ramona are 5-months-old Brahmas we got from our friends Dan & Mell as company for Fatima – but after their flock was decimated by a lost hunting dog, they might go back to live with them after all. Then there’s 5 chicks; 2 (a hen and a rooster) are almost 6 weeks old and descendants of our Sanchita’s, and 3 are from eggs I got at Kurkum Farm. These are almost 3 weeks old and definitely the cuddliest and funniest chicks I’ve ever had; I’m guessing they’re 2 hens and a rooster… but time will tell. However, 3 to 5 hens are definitely not enough to feed our guests throughout the summer, so we’ll definitely add more; we’re working towards 8 to 12 laying hens (and a rooster to protect them).
We’d love to add more animals to our little farm; we’re looking for animals to graze our lands so the grass doesn’t grow too long, and to produce manure (fertiliser) at the same time. We’ve been looking at Kune Kune pigs (far away & a lot of hassle to import), goats (a lot of work to herd and constantly keep an eye on), sheep (they like to get sick and drop dead), ponies (fun but they eat a lot, probably more than our finca has to offer) and I keep coming back to alpaca’s… They’re quite the investment, but they might totally be worth it. To be continued!

They don't sit still long enough to take a decent picture, but believe me when I say they are the cutest

They don’t sit still long enough to take a decent picture, but believe me when I say those 3 are the cutest.

As you can see, we definitely won’t be sitting still while the B&B is closed. I’ve also got a few more small (paid) jobs lined up, and I’m now actively looking for writing jobs or assignments. As an exercise, I’ll be participating to NaNoWriMo in November. The aim of that month-long event is to write a book in just 30 days. Not sure yet if I’ll be trying fiction again this year, or maybe write a book about our adventures in Spain… In any case, I’ll need a lot of inspiration so fingers crossed!

2 years in Spain, and we’re not going home yet!

Today, it has been 2 years since we arrived here with our animals and things. True, in the beginning we still spent a lot of time in the North; only in the last few months have we truly been able to say that we live here. Our business (the bed & breakfast) is now up and running which means we’re paying taxes, we’re in the process of applying for residency, we’ll need a Spanish driver’s license, and then there’s the registration of the house (like everything here, it’s a process, not just a form to fill in).

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The house as it is now – still a lot of work on the front garden.

Yesterday, I re-read the blog post I wrote last year, when we had been here 1 year. That first year, we learned so many practical skills! And boy, did we love living in that tiny maset… Since then, we’ve lived in our friends’ John & Roz’ house for winter (Mas del Caballero – it’s a lovely, big and comfortable house, and available for rent all summer); after that we spent some time in the maset again, waiting for the big house to be finished. Then we moved into that big house way before it was finished… and we’ve still got a long way to go.

Yesterday, I wrote a first version of this “2 year anniversary” blog post – and I didn’t like it one bit. It read like a terribly bad review: the lack of rain, the veggie garden not producing much and the olive trees without a single olive (both due to the lack of rain), the financial circus and paperwork processes we’re going through at the moment, the chicken massacres, our craving for some alone time, and for quality time with friends at the same time – and did I mention the lack of rain?

Truth is, we’ve got so much to be thankful for.

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One of my new favourite places around here: Mas de Buñol, the vulture observatory in Valderrobres. 

We’ve got great friends around here, a few people we can really count on. And as we’re getting to know more people around here, I feel more comfortable “moving around”: when we arrive at some village fiesta we’re no longer being stared at while we awkwardly stand by ourselves until we catch some familiar face – as soon as we get somewhere there’s kisses and hugs, beer changing hands and news being relayed.

Our big-ass house was built in no time, and is almost exactly like we thought it would be – big, beautiful and not-quite-finished-yet 🙂 Although the ground floor is all ready (just lacking a few details, we’ll get those sorted this winter), so we’re able to offer guests everything they need: a comfortable bed and a cosy lounge / breakfast area; a tour of the finca and some  stories if our guests seem interested; a fresh and tasty meal (my bread-making experiments haven’t all turned out great, but thankfully there’s always some backup); and our advice on where to go for the day – sometimes we book an activity for our guests, or even go with them to translate. In short, we’re enjoying having a bed & breakfast and we’re even getting into some kind of routine. The season is now as good as over, which will give us the chance to make some changes and additions that will make the next season go even smoother. That, and of course tackling the paperwork and regulations stuff.

Somehow we managed to keep our far-away friends as well. The friendships are different; to start with, there’s no regular birthday parties and poker nights anymore, and we’re often the last ones to hear what’s going on in their lives. But then again, when we see them we get to stay over (or they come here for a holiday) and we’ve got all the time in the world to catch up. And sometimes, I get an out-of-the-blue phone call from the lowlands or a bunch of pictures from my nieces and nephews growing up, and those just make my day!

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Axels friends from Amsterdam came over for a weekend of poker, good food, lots of wine and general merriment

A friend asked me last week if we were ever homesick… no, not ever. We do miss some events and big things – my nephews Remy and Amaury being born, big (birthday) parties, weekends away with friends, people moving house, Queens day in Amsterdam – but never for a moment have we regretted making the move here. Whatever happens, I believe we’re living in one of the most beautiful places we could possible live, we’ve got each other and the future is looking bright. What more could we wish for?

Taking the leap: living off the grid

As you all probably know, we are now living completely “off the grid”: we have electricity from solar panels, water from our own well and we catch radio waves for internet. We have a garden (work in progress) for fruit and vegetables, and many other plans: a solar dehydrator, wood-fired heating (we’ve got plenty of wood after pruning and from dead trees), a stone oven for pizza and bread, solar heating for shower water,…
Living this way, we feel working for ourselves is so much more rewarding than having a 9-to-5 job we don’t really have any connection to.

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Here are a few things we learned in the past few years, that might come in handy. Some are things we got told by others (thank you for that!), most things we found out for ourselves…

  1. Don’t believe everything the internet tells you
    The internet is full of hearth-warming stories – “This amazing house was built for only $200,-“, “This kind of dwelling is the most eco-friendly known to man”, one website (of a Spanish real estate company) even states that there are “plenty of jobs available in Spain” and “you don’t need to learn Spanish as there are doctors and notaries around who speak English”. Use your brains, read the small print, talk to real people.
  2. When in doubt, just go for it
    In the past few years, the only regret we had, was that we didn’t do certain things sooner. We could have moved to Spain sooner, we could have started living in our little maset sooner. It would certainly have saved us money! However, sometimes fear just gets the best of us. So from now on, we try to live by the motto “When in doubt, just go for it” – but make sure you’ve got a backup plan…
  3. Planning and communication are key
    Our impression is that the people who succeed the quickest, are those with a plan. Those who arrive here, have a clear idea of their goal, and have a plan that matches local reality. To get that clear plan, it’s important to communicate with your fellow adventurer(s) and set common goals – and to keep communicating, especially when things aren’t going according to plan. A friend advised us to sit down and have business meetings between just the two of us; we’ve just started to do that… Although our project stays the same, we have made several adjustments to the planning already – and keep making those, every time life gets in the way.
  4. Budget = more than some land and a house
    When you’re looking for some land or even a house to buy, real estate agents will ask you for your budget. In the “civilised world”, that’s simple; it’s the amount of money you are willing to spend on that piece of land and / or house. Here, it’s different; living off the grid involves quite a few investments you probably didn’t think of right away. We bought ourselves a car that was more suitable for this environment (instead of our Passat which was great to cruise with, but would just not have survived the bad roads here in winter), several kinds of tools (almond- and olive-picking materials, garden and building tools), a generator and a solar system for electricity, a borehole and pump for water, trees and seeds, materials for making fences and sheds,… Some of our friends bought even more – like a tractor or digger, more and bigger tools, better materials,…
    We’re not the only ones who decided to get ourselves a temporary home (in our case, our little maset; in the case of some of our friends, a yurt or tent camp). That goes out of the the budget as well!
  5. Plan for delays
    If you’re planning on making a living after your move, it might be a good idea to make sure you’ve got an income (or some money stuffed away somewhere) to survive for a few months or years, until you’ve got your business up and running. Paperwork can take a lot of time; we’ve met too many people who would tell us how much time a proces
  6. Party with moderation. But don’t forget to party! 
    I think most of my family think I’m on permanent vacation here in Spain. It might just be that my Facebook profile reflects just that – there’s barbecues and parties, nice views and almond blossom, trips to the beach and to Barcelona,… Underneath all that however, there’s a lot of hard work. I still work as a personal assistant, and in between that I’m caring for my veggies and trees (and cooking, and cleaning); Axel spends most of his time building stuff (and he does a lot of cooking and cleaning as well). However weird, it is true that our social life is much busier now we live in the campo than when we used to live in Amsterdam; but it’s not a vacation…
    On the other side, we have found the social aspect of living here is very important. When we get together with neighbours and friends, we get to talk about collaborations, exchange phone numbers from people who could help us out with stuff, meet other neighbours, often also exchange produce off the land.
  7. Rent or vacation before you buy / build
    This is advice I read on a forum – and it turns out it’s golden… if you’ve got the time and the money, rent something in the region you want to move to, or find yourself a nice place (maybe a rental house or a local bed & breakfast) you can go to whenever you like. Be sure to visit throughout the year, so you can get a feel of the seasons and so you’re sure you like the area.
    If you already bought some land, it pays off to get to know it before building stuff on it; see how sun and irrigation work, where you’ve got the nicest view and the least cold wind (in winter) but a nice cool breeze in summer.
  8. Rent smart
    Most people we know around here, came here before (or while) they started building a house to live in. Most of them would start by renting a house in the village. Almost all of the people we know who were planning to rent until their house was finished, ended up staying in that rental house months (or even years) longer than they were planning to. Counting not only rent, but water and electricity as well, this is a big dent in the budget… Take this into account. It might save you a lot of money to put a caravan or yurt on your land, or restore an existing building like we did.
    The place you’ll be renting a house in, is important as well; we had a little house in the village of Lledo from October to July. Unfortunately, Lledo only has 1 shop, which is open daily for about 3 hours; if we wanted bread in the morning, go to the butchers, have a drink at the bar,… that would mean taking the car to another village.
    Distance to your finca is important to; friends of ours had a very nice apartment in a town nearby – but it would take them about 40 minutes to drive to the finca (and 40 minutes back as well). Moving to a village house only 10 minutes from their finca surely made their lives easier. And moving to your own finca makes everybody’s lives happier.
  9. Cheap, good and quick
    A carpenter once told me that if I wanted to have things done cheap, good and quick, I should pick 2 or just compromise; it’s not possible to have all 3 to perfection. I think he was right.
    When an internet article shows you how a guy built a house “for free”, they forget to mention how he spent years and years collecting the building materials. When a construction company promises you to build your house in no time, the finishing might not be to your standards. When things seem too good to be true, they probably are.
  10. Making money while living off the grid
    I’m lucky enough to have an online job – I work as a personal assistant, do some translation work from time to time and hope to be able to do more writing in the years that come. Not everybody is that lucky, and we often meet people who wonder what they’re going to do here.
    If you have some kind of income (a pension?) or some money stacked away, you might not need to find a way to make money. Living off the grid can be very cheap – you can grow your own food, barter more food for stuff you make or services you provide, and think of how much money you save by not paying for electricity, water, parties and events.
    If you do need to make an income, don’t think opening up a hotel / B&B is the only way you could do that; it seems like every newcomer around here wants to open a “casa rural”, while there are many other services much sought after that don’t require such an investment.
  11. Choose your location… and your neighbours.
    When giving you information about where to buy, most people or articles will talk about the properties of the land (size, use, soil, distance to road and villages,..), the climate, the laws of the region you’re buying in,… Not many will stress the importance of good neighbours.
    When living in a regular setting – in a city, village or suburb in the Western world -, you will probably get into contact with lots of people. There’s friends and family, colleagues at work, maybe other parents at school if you’ve got children,… You more or less get to choose with whom you spend most of your free time. When living off the grid, you’re much more dependent on your neighbours; some weeks, they will be the only ones you see. When you need some help moving a rock or need to borrow some tools, it’s good to be in a place where people are friendly and welcoming! Our neighbour Enrique taught me how to grow vegetables the traditional way, Dan helped Axel build the bathroom and the cellar – and last year when I was looking for a tool to pick my figs with, Caspe offered me his ladder. Not quite what I had in mind, but still very sweet of him! We really feel like we’re not alone in this here.
Our "maset" - the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished.

Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished. Such fond memories… 

Wherever you are, whoever your neighbours are, whatever you are doing there, the quickest way to feel at home is probably to get yourself (a little) integrated into the community. When in Rome and such; learn the language (if you moved abroad), go to events, say hello to everyone you meet (it might just be a neighbour you haven’t met yet). It helps to have young children in school or to volunteer in a local organisation. You’ll probably always be the stranger around here, but others will appreciate you making the effort.

Toros en Lledo

Every village in Matarraña has them: Fiestas Mayores, the yearly fiesta week which consists of drinking, eating, dancing, chasing bulls (or being chased by them), and more eating and drinking. And depending on the size of the village, there might be expositions, workshops for children, parades, competitions and much more.

With only 170 inhabitants, our local village Lledo (also called “Lledo d’Algars”, not to be confused with its neighbour Arens de Lledo) is one of the smallest villages around here. Still, they take their fiestas seriously, and everybody was looking forward to the “toros” (bulls) on Saturday. We’re not big fans of most things they do with animals in Spain; nothing can ruin my appetite more than having a corrida on TV at the restaurant. But since we missed last year’s fiestas alltogether (we were off to see our families in the North), we decided to give it a chance… and I’m quite glad we did!

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Every local farmer lend his trailer to a makeshift arena that was set up in front of the brand new bar. Those trailers were then provided with temporary benches (a few stones with a piece of wood on top), so everybody could sit while enjoying the entertainment: very young bulls (not quite calves anymore, but definitely no bulls yet) being encouraged to run around and “catch” one of the many boys who would make a show of not getting caught… jump over it, climb up the fence, crawl up a pile of hay bales in the middle of the arena, or just run really fast.

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The men in the arena were mostly boys looking to be between 14 and 24 years old… although there were a few “real” adults, the eldest one in the ring was 77 – and he seemed just as fast as the young ones. They had prepared for this event and for the many other bull-related games this summer; most were wearing t-shirts from their village – the orange ones for Lledo, yellow for Cretas, red for Horta de Sant Joan. Spectators were everything between between 0 and 99 years old, families and friends, from Lledo and other surrounding villages. There were a few carts loaded with young girls, cheering at the technical prowess of the studs in the arena…

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Much of the time consisted of the young bull standing or walking around, confused by the many people trying to get his attention – and trying to decide what to do next. Until he spotted the one waving the most exciting jacket, jumper or other piece of clothing – by the time he got there, most guys would have found their way to safety. There were lots of close calls though – and one guy who got a blow to the stomach (probably not serious though – the ambulance standing by didn’t go anywhere).

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Every 20 minutes or so, the bull would be led away to a shed (the people in charge had a formidable big ox with them to lure the young bull in), and a new one would be ushered into the arena.

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To be fair, we didn’t sit on a bench and look at bulls all afternoon – there was just as much activity around the ring as in it.  There was the band, the bar, people who brought their own drinks and home made food. The bigger part of the village was there, and brought their relatives from all over; we were introduced to many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews – not sure we’d recognise them all if we met them now.

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And after the bulls, the party went on; when Axel, Ruby and Mario left around 1:45 (I was fast asleep at home by then), the dancing had just begun, the orchestra was still setting up, and the upbeat Spanish Latin music would probably go until morning.