Mr. Conductor

Since Kelli has been up in Burjasott in IMED hospital, I have become a regular commuter on the train that leaves a couple of blocks from our house and drops me off a few blocks from the hospital.  Sure, I could drive but its .74€ to go one way and I don’t have to worry about parking. Its just easier.

When I commuted to work from Bellevue to downtown Seattle decades ago it was the last time I regularly took public transit on a daily basis. I got to know the drivers and other commuters. After awhile you get the timing down. And the drivers will wait for you if you’re running for the door because they see you every day and they know you.

Hopefully I won’t be commuting to the hospital for weeks because that will mean Kelli is still in the hospital. After the first two nights of me sleeping on the couch in her room we decided I would go home at night to sleep in a real bed. Kelli insisted that one of us should avoid being disturbed by all the nocturnal poking and prodding she has to endure every two hours.

Now twice a day I take the train out to see her and I’m starting to get the train thing down.

Holiday trains don’t run that often. If one comes you need to be at the station. Except after running for the train at Empalme (a station near the hospital) I learned that stop is where they clean and disinfect the compartment for the drivers on this line, every time. So if you’re walking to the station and you’re still three blocks away when you see the train coming you don’t have to run. It will sit in the station for 5 minutes. And not just to be cleaned. This is the office where drivers swap out for their breaks and to refill their coffee.

There are also massive security contingents out here now. The number 4 line is the same one we were on when we were surrounded by hooligans almost 2 years ago. Seems we weren’t the only people who might have had trouble past Burjasott. So now the Empalme station is lit up like a Christmas tree at noon. And full of security.

We hadn’t gone this way on the train in a very long time. So I forgot our train station near our house has two different trains. 4 or 6. When you’re tired, if you get on the #6 it will take you somewhere that is not Burjasott.

Going home its best to get off 3 stops before ours and walk because the train takes so much time going into a big long siding (yeah, I’m using Thomas the Tank Engine vernacular) it can take 10 minutes longer than if you just walk that bit.

It’s also inevitable that no matter when I leave our apartment I will miss the first train. I will be a half block from the station and the #4 train will go whizzing by. Its been cold here. Not optimal. You’re probably wondering why I don’t download the Metro Valencia app. Believe me, I have it. It doesn’t seem to matter though as the “real time map” isn’t exactly updated in real time. It seems to be about 3-4 minutes behind reality. Luckily, its just a short 10-15 minute wait until the next train.

Every day we think they might release Kelli, and then they don’t. A half hour ride each way isn’t a big deal. I get to bring her stuff that puts a smile on her face.  One of these days soon we will be in the car going home and my brief commuting revival will be over. That will be a good day.

Company Gift

Its been a hard year with lots of challenges.  One of the more stressful things I have dealt with this year has been getting my visa converted from a non-lucrative status to one where I can work based on the changing rules in Spain. With all the Spanish government office closures and Covid delays this has been a huge challenge.  The attorneys that handled filing the paperwork were constantly reminding me that was only about a 2% chance of this working.  It took 18 months, mountains of paperwork and more luck than a person could hope for but in September I was notified that I had been deemed a “highly qualified worker” and my new visa status had been approved. 

I work for an international company who happens to have an office in Barcelona. However, the department that I work in is in Arizona. Except for some HR related stuff, I essentially have a typical US job even though I am a little further away than a regular remote worker. But in these Covid times most office workers are remote workers, and my co-workers in the US are all working from home as well.

As you might expect, my Spanish is not particularly good.  The people I talk to each day all speak English and I rarely have the opportunity to communicate in Spanish unless its in the grocery store, getting my hair cut (even Rubin, my hair guy, speaks English), or getting something from the ferrtería. I can muddle my way through deciphering what words mean if they are written down, but my ear is simply not up to the task of understanding a conversation in real time. The exception to this is my ability to talk to delivery drivers. I have ordered more than my fair share of stuff from Amazon over the past 3 years and I have gotten pretty good at communicating with the person who calls to make sure we are home to receive a package.  Am I home? What floor? Apartment number?  These are all questions that I recognize and can answer in passable Spanish.  It helps when the inevitable call is preceded with an email reminding me that a delivery is on its way. 

This morning I got a call from a Spanish phone number that I didn’t recognize and Kelli was out at an appointment. We do not have any Amazon orders pending, and thinking that maybe something had happened to her, because, well it´s 2020, I tentatively answered.  The voice on the other end went into a familiar pattern that I have heard many times. ´Is this Jeff?´, ´Am I home?´, ´Which floor & apartment?´. Obviously, there was a delivery on its way and apparently it was addressed to me. Puzzled, because I have not ordered anything, all I could do was wait to see what showed up at the door. It was a short wait. The delivery person slid a heavy box out of the elevator and had me sign for it. 

The box had El Corte Ingles printed on the side and I saw a sticker on the end with my employer’s name on it, along with other stickers warning of liquid and glass.  What could it be?  I dragged the heavy box into the kitchen and opened it up.

We had seen these large sized boxes at El Corte Ingles in previous years. There is an entire department dedicated them this time of year when you step off the escalator. Last year I suggested to Kelli that we send one to her brother but she was pretty sure he and his family couldn´t eat that much Iberian ham leg in six months of Sundays – the booze she was sure he could tackle – but we skipped it.

This box contained an Iberian ham leg complete with hoof wrapped in black cloth, a bottle of gin, 2 bottles of wine, a bottle of champagne, aged sheep cheese from Navarra, several varieties of other cured meats, chocolates and several other types of sweets.  Not exactly sure what to do with the leg but I have seen leg holders in the supermarket so I suppose we will be purchasing one of those soon. If it was Halloween we´d be giving out sliced ham instead of candy. In any event, this is definitely the most Spanish holiday gift I could have imagined. Kelli and I have joked about getting a leg for the past couple of years but now we actually have one.  I don’t think we could possibly eat all this stuff before it went bad. Does it go bad? I don´t really know. The sticker says it was aged for 20 months `vente meses´.

In the US, company holiday parties were a thing of the past when we were both still working there. Most companies turned a blind eye if someone hosted an unsanctioned holiday party at their house. Kelli had a few of these for her teams. But no company, other than a start-up with a keg or a margarita machine onsite, would have provide alcohol as a Christmas gift. Nor would they have sent multiple bottles to your home. And a leg of pork? It would never happen because you can´t even buy them in a US grocery store.

This year we won´t have a tree as its buried in the storage unit across town. We thought we´d be in a house by now. Kelli hasn´t put up all the decorations she shipped over from the US as she normally does to make sure we know it´s the holidays. This year hasn´t felt like past Christmases. This time last year we were preparing to go the the US to see our families and friends on Christmas. It´s not possible this year. But this box got us both in the mood. We´re not big drinkers. Neither of us likes gin, and we aren´t big on the cured meats. But we´ll give some of it a go. This was so unexpected it will make Spanish holidays during the rest of the year interesting. It will be fun to see what shows up next.

Thankfully I got it in writing!

You may remember from a previous post where I mentioned that the purchase contract seemed a little light on details and remedies in case something went wrong. At the time I felt pretty good about adding in language that would protect us. Now I’m positive that future me time traveled back to July 17th to warn me of what was to come.

Let me explain. The original “standard real estate” contract that the realtor presented to us basically said that if the seller fails to sell us the property then the seller would owe us 2x our down payment. However, if we had a change of heart and backed out of the deal, for any reason, then we would forfeit our down payment. The contract was so short that it fit onto a single sheet of paper. It just felt too risky for me for such a large sum of money so I essentially rewrote a large part of the contract. The realtor was afraid (rightfully so) of losing the sale, so he reluctantly went along with what I wanted. And we all signed it.

Last week the final assessment/appraisal of the property came back. It took 2 months due to August holidays and COVID. I’m sure the house’s appraised value would have been fine but the assessor discovered that there were several additions to the house that hadn’t been recorded with the county so they weren’t included in the appraised value. In the US, when such a discovery is made, the addition must be removed and the property owner usually pays a fine as well. The unauthorized additions to our house represented about 25% of the house. Not a good start! But that’s not all. It was also discovered that about half of the upper terrace and all of the lower terrace overlooking the Atlantic was not the seller’s to sell – this included the wine cellar. (Clearly a variation of #2 in my previous post Make sure you are only selling something that you own) The official property line ended about 15 feet beyond the back of the house structure. I don’t think anyone else would have swooped in and claimed that property, but it also means that an insurance company wouldn’t be covering it as well.

The absolutely crazy part of this whole arrangement is that none of this prevents the seller from being able to sell the house to us and fulfill their end of the contract. Then it would have become our problem. Either we would have had to walk away from our down payment or go ahead with the sale and then pay to make the property match the county records – but we’ve been told it may not be possible due to how close it is to an environmentally sensitive area – aka a cliff overlooking the beach. Luckily our contract saved us from making an expensive mistake. One of the clauses I had inserted stated that if the house didn’t appraise for a certain amount then we would get our money back. I know US real estate pricing but I wanted to make sure I was covered in case I grossly overestimated the value of this house. The other real estate listings in the area indicated that the asking price was in the ball park of comparable homes so I wasn’t too concerned with this when we made our offer. Oh boy, dodged a bullet here!

The official appraisal only included the parts of the house that were recorded with the county. That meant that the appraised value was much too low to satisfy the appraised value clause in the contract. I think that if the appraisal hadn’t exposed those liabilities we would have gone forward with the purchase anyway. It is an incredible house in an incredible location.

The other clauses that I had added to the contract could also have come into play but those arguments were not as concrete as this particular clause no matter which language you translated it into. We could have argued that the property wasn’t as advertised but then that leads into a “we said/they said” type of situation. I’d prefer to avoid that messy debate. Numbers are able to transcend subtle language nuances and generally are not open to interpretation.

My takeaway from this whole experience is that I need to be extra cautious when purchasing property. We got super lucky this time and I think next time I’m going to have an attorney handle the contract part and also have them look at the county records prior to any offers we make. While living in this house for the past 2 months has been great, it also created a lot of uncertainty for us while we waited to finish processing the paperwork. Portugal is much like Spain in that the required bureaucracy is so very slow. I don’t think the sellers were trying to mislead us and I’m incredibly grateful for their generosity in letting us spend two months in their beach home.

We are heading back to El Compartimento in Valencia this weekend. I’ll miss all the extra space that a house with a yard provides. I’ll miss the feeling of security of living in a sparsely populated area. Our last visit to Valencia was a stark reminder of just how densely populated the city is. I’ll miss the friendly people of Portugal. Literally everyone we met here has been so nice.

I’m going to take a couple months off before resuming our search for the perfect forever home. October 31 is the last day that the UK can work out a trade deal with the EU. I say “last day” but I’ve been wrong before. Hopefully they don’t keep dragging this thing out. The real estate implications might end up working in our favor. I’ve already started noticing properties for sale with banners like “Urgent” or “Motivated Seller” on the their listings and property descriptions worded like a native English speaker wrote them and not just the result of a Google Translation. I think that there may be more options to choose from in the coming months.

So we shall see.

Who am I to judge?

We live in a pretty amazing place.  It is a beach community located just a little too far away from the city for a person to live here and commute to a regular office job.  The residents here are either retired or work in one of the local hotels or cafes.  A sub-set group of residents are what I call the weekenders.  These are the people who either own a condo or vacation house and spend the weekend here and the rest of their time in their primary home in or near the city.   There seems to be a general unspoken code of conduct and respect for each other that we all abide by.

I am calling this group of regulars “permies”.  We are permanently here. (Notice how I slipped us into this group even though the other permies probably don’t realize we are one of them yet?)  We know what the honking is all about at 10am (the fish guy), we get our bread delivered to the café, and we know how to queue up for a cup of coffee each morning without needing to be reminded to wear a mask or that only a single person at a time is allowed inside. We are insiders (or soon to be) and privy to the regular goings on in the neighborhood….I think…

Then there are what I am calling the “weeklies”.  These are people who have rented an Air BnB or are staying in one of the weekly vacation rental condos.  Each Saturday there is a mass exodus about 10 minutes before 10am (checkout time) and the neighborhood gets very quiet.  The stillness only lasts for a couple of hours before the new batch of weeklies comes rolling in.  Everyone arriving is excited to be starting their week at the beach (and who can blame them?).  Kids are anxious to head down to the water while adults are busy checking out the menus at the restaurants and making reservations.  Eventually everyone heads down to the beach and has to pass in front of our house.  There is a single road down to the beach. The traffic isn’t bad and most people are on foot anyway.   

Although we have not been here long, already I have noticed that each batch of weeklies has its own set of characteristics.  Our first week we were just happy to be here and I didn’t know about the weeklies yet so I can’t comment too much about that first crowd.  The group from week #2 was pleasant and generally could have passed for being permies.  Sure, there was the wedding party at the hotel a few doors down that went late into the night.  But overall, the general feeling was that everyone was considerate towards one another.

This week’s batch however are on a whole different level.  Perhaps the kindest way to put it is that this group is loud enthusiastic.  They are here on vacation and are letting everyone know that they have arrived.  The higher end BMWs, Mercedes and Audis of last week have been replaced with highly modified vehicles (some without mufflers) and loud party music.  They brought their barking dogs and loud music along for the ride too.  One of the condos near us is packed with 20-somethings who have pooled their money to afford the place for the week.   They have no problem yelling to their friends who are a block or more away.  I thought the younger generation all had their cell phones permanently attached to their bodies.  Probably just didn’t want to risk it on the beach and I have to applaud them for that.

I am hoping that this does not become a trend and maybe this is a one-time occurrence.  To help me keep track, I am developing a spreadsheet that I will use to compare this year with next.  Maybe if certain trends start to emerge, we will make our own vacation plans to avoid the rowdy weeklies’ weeks.

I might even turn this into a “Weeklies Bingo” game that I can share with the other Permies.

I realize that I am probably sounding like the old man who grumbles about the neighborhood kids.  Perhaps I am slowly turning into “that guy”.  But if I am, then it is going to be on my terms and I’ll have collected the data to back me up.  

Got it in writing

Our week long adventure searching for our forever home is complete. We started by driving to Galicia to view some homes along the Atlantic coast. Early last Saturday morning we headed out knowing that it was going to be at least an 8 hour drive. We had been really looking forward to this road trip and had everything prepared and ready to go. What I wasn’t prepared for were the differences between how each province was handling COVID-19. About an hour into the trip we were ready to stop for a coffee and a Coke but each service area we stopped only had fuel. No snacks, no coffee and most importantly (to me at least), no Coke. We had to travel another 2 hours before the service areas were allowed to sell more than just fuel. Another thing I learned is that our car gets amazing gas mileage compared to the cars we had in the US. We had only used about 1/2 a tank of fuel since we had bought it in February so I didn’t have a sense of how far we could drive on a tank. It turns out that we can go a very long way between fill-ups. So sure, fuel is more expensive in Europe, but it still costs about the same to travel the same distance in the US.

Eventually we made it to our hotel in Pontevedra. The surrounding area is stunning. The pictures I had seen of the area did not do it justice and I could easily see us living there with views of the sea and mountains. I am looking forward to a return trip in the future.

Our first house showing had cancelled on us so we had an extra day to explore and our next showing was down south in Portugal. Having never been to Portugal and only hearing stories about what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised when we crossed the border and the twisty highway turned into a wide, almost American-style, 3 lane freeway complete with a wide shoulder on each side. If it were not for the occasional road sign in Portuguese or the left most line marking the edge of the road being white instead of yellow, you could easily think you were driving down I-5 in northern California. It felt like home and I had room to breathe.

Another thing that I noticed right away was that the other cars on the road were now mostly German brands instead of French or Italian. BMW’s regularly zipped by us. Our Audi fit right in and for the first time since we purchased it, it didn’t feel like we were driving the largest car on the road.

The house we were here to see looked promising in the photographs. Maybe the realtor had read my previous blog post regarding how to take pictures that told a story? We arrived a day early, dipped our toes in the Atlantic and explored the town. It was a very hot day in town but just a couple kilometers away along the coast the temperature was a nice 75 degrees. I don’t think I mentioned that temperature was one of my requirements but it is one of the reasons we were looking to move from Valencia to a cooler climate. Summers here can be very hot and sticky.

I believe Kelli will do the big reveal once we have closed on the house so I don’t want to say too much here, but after a week of searching in both Spain and Portugal we found our perfect house. It ticked most of the boxes for me and we ended up not having to make as many tradeoffs as we thought we were going to have to. One of my requirements was a mountain chalet next to the sea, so that was not exactly going to happen, but I think we did pretty good. One requirement that I compromised on was that I think the house might be too close to sea level for clear skies at night for astronomy. But just about a 90 minute drive away there is a place that has been designated as a Dark Sky Reserve. I can’t wait to visit the site this winter when the air is especially clear.

The purchase contract was incredibly simple, and in Portuguese. After using Google translate I discovered the contract only contained 8 items that basically said that the seller agreed to sell the house, the buyer agreed to buy the house, the purchase price and when the closing date would be. It was too simple for me. I’ve bought and sold property before and my litigious American sensibilities needed more than just those 8 items. I needed remedies and contingency plans in case things go wrong. What happens if the inspector finds a major fault or a whole host of other possible conditions? After explaining this to the realtor, he and his boss went into the backroom for a conference. Ten minutes later they came back and said “OK, this is not normally how we do business but go ahead and put what you want into the contract.” They were afraid that we were going to walk away from the deal and besides, who else would be buying a house during a pandemic? The original contract was just a single page but my new version was 5 pages long. Had I known that I would need to be channeling my inner real estate/contract lawyer, I would have done a bit more research and probably could have come up with a dozen more pages of legalese. Only after adding the clauses I thought needed to be included did I realize that the sellers were sitting on the bench outside. They had witnessed the whole exchange and my last minute revisions. But after meeting everyone, I believe that all parties are interested in a fair and equitable deal. The sellers are a very nice couple and I believe they want to be sure that we will be happy in the house too. I’m chalking this one up to a difference in cultures. I think a handshake deal is definitely worth more in Portugal than the US.

Everyone we met in Portugal was friendly and seemed genuinely concerned for the well being of others. Even though it was warm, everyone was wearing masks. They had leapt into action even before Spain and Italy. The waiters in the restaurants were happy to chat with us and give impromptu language lessons. It was exactly like I have always said, “as long as you make an effort, people will try to help”.

I’m looking forward to closing on this house and starting a new chapter in our lives. We have lived in Valencia for more than 2 years and I think without that experience first, I would not have been able to appreciate some of the differences of each culture.