A Flashback

This week, we’re getting everything ready to move. The moving company will be here bright and early on Monday to pack us up. But the world keeps turning and there is a lot going on.

In Europe, we are still dealing with the aftermath of Brexit and all the consequences of what that means. But no where are they dealing with this boondoggle like they are in Northern Ireland. Rioting and protests because of Brexit are breaking out in every city. Only this time, it’s more the Unionists who are railing, rather than the Republicans. But the images look very similar to what they looked like 30 and 40 years ago.

We spent 3 weeks at Christmas of 2018 in Ireland and Northern Ireland after moving to Spain the previous March. We wanted cold weather at Christmas, and we got it. So, instead of rewriting our reflections on our experience on the island, I thought I would post links to how we saw Ireland back then. And what it felt like to be there and listen to the people, and their history. And why, while no Brexit voter seemed to consider the disastrous ramifications of Brexit to Northern Ireland and the relationship with the Republic of Ireland, it was on everyone’s minds back then. And it’s all front and centre now. And the situation today is at a boiling point with far reaching implications. I would say it’s sad. But in reality, it’s tragic.

Here you go:

Derry: Two Sides One City

Derry on the Uptick

Ireland’s Tragic History

They say Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. It seems UK Tory politicians are not well educated, or they didn’t do their homework. Or maybe, they just didn’t care. Which is worse. I pray, solutions will be found to stop this from getting worse.

Not: You’ll need to forgive me as I did all my posts on my phone during that trip. So the photos and the formatting will be wonky.

Cheers.

Cop a Squat – Okupas in Spain

Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends to say ‘Hasta la vista’. It was great to see them because it had been quite a long time. It’s Covid time. We’ve messaged, and sometimes Facetimed. But we have kept our distance. Especially since, for a while, I was the poster child for contagion. When I get together with them I always learn something new. This time, I came home and Jeff asked me how it was to see them. And now he can’t sleep.

We are excited about buying this house in a rural area. We are thrilled to embrace this new adventure. But now we know of a potential danger that is really good to have in our back pocket. It’s a danger that people with rural properties in Spain must understand. Squatters (Okupas) or ‘Adverse Possesion.’

Apparently, Spain is the squatter capital of the world. And the laws here are kind of in support of it. For those who don’t know what squatting is, it’s when people, who are not you, move into your house and bring their stuff, dog, kids, grandma, whatever – with them. Basically, they steal your house. And they change the locks.

I know my friends weren’t trying to scare us. But my one friend had to leave right after lunch and she told us why. She is staying at her sister’s house on the outskirts of Valencia City because her sister and family are in the UK and they can’t get back due to Covid. And an article in the local paper told of a police raid of many homes in that area where squatters had taken over people’s second homes. And the only reason the police were allowed to get them out is that there was ‘criminal activity – as though stealing someone’s home isn’t criminal. Apparently, you can take over someone’s home and it’s not a true crime unless you grow marijuana while you’re doing it. My friend needed to ensure that her family’s home is not a victim to this scheme, so she moved from her apartment out to the property for a while, until her sister can get back.

I was aghast when they told me this. I had no clue as to squatter’s rights in Spain. I had no idea that squatters had rights. But then they enlightened me.

It seems that the law favors the squatters in Spain. If someone squats in your house – they can’t just break in and sleep in your bed, they have to move their stuff and their family in and change the locks (this is key to keep possession) – you have just 48 hours in which to report them to the police. Within 48 hours, it’s considered a police matter. After 48 hours, it’s considered a matter for the courts. This means you must go through a lengthy, expensive process to get them out. And in the meantime, you can’t live in your own home.

Apparently, this is why Spain is considered ‘A squatter’s paradise.’ They told me it’s well known in Europe. And Portugal is the same. It boggles my mind that when you have two countries containing the most holiday homes in Europe, that the laws protect people who break in and squat in your house. You could show up with your spouse, children, and friends with pool toys to enjoy a summer break in your holiday home and discover that someone is living there. And you can do nothing about it.

I was horrified.

‘What if we go away for the weekend. Or head to the US for a couple of weeks? If we come back and someone has moved in then where do we go? That’s our house! Are you telling me we would have to rent an apartment while we go through the court process to evict them?’

There were nods around the table. And they had examples to back it up. The stories, some of which included strong arming, were terrifying.

‘But this is OUR house.’ I told them. ‘Surely the police would just pitch these people out once we proved it.’

They shook their collective heads. ‘Nope. That’s not how it works. You have 48 hours. If you don’t report it to the police, then they get to stay until you get a court order. That can take months or more than a year.’

And you must continue to pay the utilities while they are squatting, or it’s considered ‘intimidation’ and they can sue you.

There are stories of it taking FIVE YEARS! HOLY SHIT!

But they had advice. ‘Whenever you leave for more than an overnight, you have to have someone come check on the property. A housekeeper, or someone who will work on your farm. Pay them to do it. And also, have a good security system that will sound an alarm, and webcams you can check. Then you could call the police from where ever you are to start the clock within 48 hours. And never leave a window open or a door unlocked, if you leave. Then it’s considered that you invited them to move in.’

Jeff’s mouth hung open when I told him all this. He ran through every scenario. When he woke up this morning he came out into the living room and didn’t say even good morning, before launching into his greatest fear.

‘So, I woke up thinking about this. Since we technically own the house, the sellers could just refuse to move. And we couldn’t kick them out. They would still have all their stuff, and they would have our money, and we could do nothing about it.’

I suppose he is right. That is the law. One of my friends looked it up sitting at the table. The article said that the current coalition government includes Podemos. It’s the far-left party. So while the PSOE wants to do something about this injustice, they can’t because Podemos is blocking it.

Now, I recognize that there are many economic inequities. Huge ones – globally. And abandoned properties in Spain are a real problem. People inherit grandma’s flat and never rent it out or do anything with it because it’s cheaper to keep it. Property taxes here are mostly paid upfront when the property is purchased. It’s 10% of the purchase price and then you pay a few hundred each year, after that. But to take a weekend away or go on August holidays and have someone move into your house – effectively making you, yourself, homeless – is a bridge too far.

Holiday homes are much more of a target than primary residences. There is a real thing called The Squatter Mafia. They will hold your house for ransom unless you pay. And many people find that cheaper than the lengthy court process, as a foreigner. But it’s terrible. As of 2018, there were 20,000 squatter incidents moving through Spanish courts.

I’m glad we know it now. Knowledge is power. We will arm ourselves so we never have to experience this, but it’s just another reminder that we have a lot to learn about how things are done in Spain, and we need to keep our eyes and ears open. I would imagine our house will be less of a target since we will be living there full time. But it’s just one more thing.

A Relationship Forged in the Fires of Hell

We have twelve days until the movers arrive on the morning of the 26th, to pack us up, and head out. Suddenly, what seemed like an eternity feels more like we’re caught a bit short for time. Strapping on the track shoes is the only solution.

Originally, we had the move set for the 16th. But I have some tests that needed to be done and the results are still undetermined. So I wanted to give myself an extra week, in case they decided they wanted to do something before we left for good. Sure, I’ll be coming back here monthly in the near term to keep up my treatment, but eventually we will transfer everything up to Galicia. Likely, either Santiago or Lugo.

In preparation for the move, and since it’s the anniversary of our annual physicals and dental check ups, I scheduled a bunch of appointments – for el Jefe. And you know how much he likes going to a Dr? Well, as much as an actual dental appointment. He hates it. And he kind of hates me for pushing him to do it. I have reminded him, over and over, that as a man who loves data it boggles my mind that he doesn’t enjoy data about his own state of physical health.

On the morning we signed at the notaria, we had to go to a Dr appointment and we were running a bit late. He blamed it on over scheduling. I blamed it on the fact that he walks as slow as an angry toddler past naptime. We arrived at the notaria flustered and sweaty. We hadn’t eaten. It would not get better until food passed our lips. We had had words on the way. A lot of words.

Once at the office, we were ushered into the conference room. Notarias are the busiest places in Spain. Not that there are thousands of people in the offices. But that everyone is walking and talking very, very fast. The energy is a 20 on a scale from 1-10. It’s like any office I ever worked in in the US. I love it! Jeff? Yeah. Not so much. Normally, at the notaria they offer you a beverage. In COVID times the notaria sits behind a glass screen and shouts at you so he can be heard through, not one but two, N95 masks. But before we got to the shouting part, they were preparing all the paperwork. The assistant came in periodically, peppering us with seemingly random, incongruent, questions.

She barged in the first time, startling us in the cold, simmering silence that was sitting between us after my morning of dragging Jeff from one appointment to the next.

‘Where were you married?’ she asked cheerfully.

I forgot, in that moment, no one in Spain gets my sense of humor.

‘In the fires of hell.’ I told her.

I could hear Jeff exhale under his mask.

‘No, honey.’ he scolded. ‘She doesn’t mean where you were hatched.’ Then, he told her where we were married, and she literally ran off. ‘Do you think they understand where Lake Curt is?’

It’s the mythical house of a friend of ours who hosted our wedding. So, now I’m pretty sure our contract is invalid. Ugh.

But I got my licks in. Yes, Jeff’s physical check up numbers came back the best they have since I’ve known him. His cholesterol and all the other markers are amazing. No high blood pressure. That’s gone, too. He’s finally decided he’s not 15 anymore, and has given up his Software Engineer diet of Coke, Cup-o-noodles & potato chips, and embraced the full Spanish lifestyle. He eats olives like chips now. And it’s clearly working. I know he wanted to rub it in my face at the Drs office but he knows the reason for those number. My nagging. He also knows what my health has been this year, so he held off. The Dr told him ‘Whatever you are doing, keep doing it.’ So the nagging will continue, unabated.

But then he had to go to the dentist. My lovely dentist down the street. We will be flying to Valencia to see her twice a year for our check ups. A filling is €40. Sofia loves our sense of adventure. ‘Only Americans!’ she told me when I told her about the farm and our plans. She has assured us that she and her family will be our first guests when we open our Albergue something or other. But, she had to deliver bad news to Jeff. He will be having a tooth pulled before we head out the door. What is an angry bear like, with a sore tooth? Yeah. Just like that.

Every day now is filled to the brim with this and that. I’m dreaming of the new house, and all the things I’ll be doing to it. And walking in bare feet, maskless, across the grass. What is Jeff dreaming of? ‘You’ll find me out in the barn.’ Mr. Grumpy told me. And that pretty much sums up where we’re at in this pandemic. Twelve days. Just twelve days to go.

It’s Coming Together

Did I mention we are excited? Cause we’re excited! All of a sudden, the energy around us has changed, and I know why. We are out of the seemingly endless holding pattern, and have been waved in for a landing. And the weather looks fine.

Well, OK. Today it’s cloudy and rainy in Valencia, but I just take that as a sign the city is giving us a view into what our future looks like. Cooler temps and the threat of rain. We love it!

I know we showed up in Spain with just 4 duffle bags and a suitcase, but we shipped some things here from the US, too. On a ship that took 5 months to arrive. So we had to purchase some duplicate items. And we have some editing to do, after furnishing an apartment, our Espacio Creativo, and an office down the street. Not all that needs to go up north. It’s a good thing we brought all our cold weather gear from the US. We’re gonna need it.

But, while we are boxing up and trimming things down, we’re also spending time dreaming of the possibilities we are finally ready to explore. The whole reason we decided to move forward and purchase this property.

It’s actually 4 parcels of land. And these parcels are broken up into sections, from a land use planning and zoning perspective. Where the house is located, it’s considered urban. Where the barn is situated, and some of the other parcels, it’s considered rural. Did I mention it’s an unusual property? The appraisers had a hard time with it. The banks had a hard time with it. But in our last meeting with our banker she laughed at what came back from the land registry assessment.

‘It’s actually a great opportunity. I don’t know if anyone really knows what a great opportunity this property is. It is very unique. Do you understand what all this means?’

Jeff just looked at me and I could tell he was smiling under his mask.

‘Yes.’ I assured her. ‘It’s why we disputed the first appraisal. We know what we’re able to do with it and all the potential upside.’

The urban portion of the property is right on the Camino de Santiago. More than 350k people walk by our house each year from April to October. That’s decent traffic. This means there are limitations on what can be done with the land. But it also means there are baked in uses that are pre-approved. And, normally, getting approval for other uses of rural property is not easy in Spain. So, this is worth gold to us.

The first half of the biggest parcel is approved for a hotel, and/or a café. We can build free standing structures for these purposes, if we choose. My ex-husband ran hotels, and I lived in one for 3 years, so I understand back of the house hotel, and food and beverage operations, and the margins involved. And I know retail. However, this would be a very small scale operation. Nothing fancy. That’s the Camino.

Because the house is on urban land, we are allowed to increase the size of it by 50%, if it’s in service of a our businesses. Meaning I could blow out the kitchen to expand it, and I could create a large office addition on the other side from which to run the operation.

Rural depopulation is a huge problem in Spain. In the past few decades more than 40% of the populations in rural areas have fled to the cities. Especially, the young people. They actually have a name for it. It’s called Empty Spain. They have their own calendar. Not kidding. The farm country is dying. It’s resulted in farmers becoming a rare and valued commodity in Spain, and there are protests, even during Covid times, to highlight the problem.

Because any business we open will be run by me, and it’s a woman-owned business in a rural area of <5000 residents, we qualify for all kinds of government programs to help us get started.

We are planning on growing things using sustainable growing practices that can help with carbon reclamation. If you want to know more about these methods, and how important these are to the future of the planet, you can see some of it in the Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground with Woody Harrelson.

The Spanish government is starting a program to encourage young people to move from the cities, with 3 month paid internships to spend time working on farms, to learn what it is like to work the land as a potential career. And they will pay for us to take in a few of these people each year to help us with planting and harvesting.

How do I know about all these programs? The Spanish government websites and I are besties these days. And it’s easy info to get, if you’re interested in looking. In participating in the program, I think it would be really cool to do our part for climate change using sustainable farming, and help our adopted country to turn their rural depopulation problem around. Who knows? Maybe one of these kids will develop a love for getting their hands in the dirt. We will keep you posted on how it goes.

Just 100 meters from our front gate is the local farm coop. We will have to check out what that is all about, too.

The movers are coming to measure today. This is really happening. Never let anyone tell you that dreams can’t come true. They can. Sometimes, you just have to hang on a little past where you thought you could. I find, that’s usually where it all comes together.

Covid – Getting Vaccinated in Spain

More vaccines arrived today from Pfizer. 1.2 million doses added to the 8 million total we’ve already received in Spain. But its a drop in the bucket of the tidal wave needed to get this job done. In Spain, we need 80mm doses to get the entire population inoculated with the required two doses.

The focus here seems to be on the Astra Zeneca version. The one with the blood clot problem. The EU Medicine agency halted its use for a week, and then said the reward outweighs the risks of these weird blood clots in the brain that the Germans, Danes, Norwegians, and even the Brits are seeing. All of whom, now, are limiting the shots to those over the age of 60, because the blood clots show up in people under 60.

If we lived in any one of those countries, we would be happy they had made this change. I had a blood clot in November. I’m truly disinterested in having another one, this time in my brain. But in Spain, they are rolling right along with the strategy of giving it to all people under 65. You will get no choice, because those are the vaccines Spain is getting the most of. So our personal strategy – Jeff’s and mine – might change.

I have been reading more and more about expat Americans that are heading back to the US to camp out for a month and get the full course, before coming back to the EU. They are tired of waiting, don’t want the Astra Zeneca shot, and with force majeure both ways, they can go to the US, get either the Pfizer or Moderna (what we are calling The Good Vaccine in el Compartimento) and come back safely inoculated.

It’s not like we are looking to hop the line. I get we have to wait our turn. But I do not want that Astra Zeneca version, and if I am forced to get that here in Spain we will fly to the US, in double masks and plastic goggles, and make it happen at a Walmart or Walgreens in the first place we land. Surely, by June, it should be a piece of cake to come by.

I read the US will not approve the Astra Zeneca version and yet they have a stockpile of 5mm doses. So they are giving those to Canada and Mexico, who have approved it. I’m no fan of US healthcare, and big pharma has their fingers in the US drug approval process in a big way. This is why it seems pretty clear to me that if the US won’t approve the AZ vaccine, they know something that they are not sharing. But the Germans seems to know it, too.

I’m not an anti-vax person. I’m pro-vaccine, all the way. But I do feel that with all the issues I have experienced in the past year, I want to have a vaccine with the best chance of leaving me healthy after I get it. Why should I take a risk when there are other vaccine options? But, as of today, Spain will not give me that choice.

In the US, their philosophy is just to get the vaccine into arms. They have abandoned the group by group philosophy. The more shots in arms – even just one shot of the two shot series – the better. Everyone we know in the US has either gotten the shot or has an appointment on the schedule to get it in the next couple of weeks. These are people from 18-85. Pharmacies, school gyms, stadiums, convention centres, empty strip mall and airport parking lots, and on and on are operating as vaccination centres. They are leaving most health facilities free to handle other stuff. Actual illnesses – not just vaccines. But in Valencia, they are sticking with directing those who get the SMS message to get the jab, to the neighbourhood health centre. It just creates over crowding and limits the number of shots they can give per day.

The US handled the pandemic terribly. That was down to the Trump administrations terrible messaging and cold calculated disregard for the lives of their citizens. But when it’s comes to the vaccines, the government did what we do best in the US, they threw money at the problem. And they didn’t wait. They funded billions in research and bought up doses before there were even viable candidates. And they didn’t negotiate on price like the EU did. Because, that costs time and the US understood that He who exits this crisis first and opens their economy, wins. And that is exactly what is happening now.

Sure, you can provide amazing support for the population in the form of unemployment benefits. And pay businesses to be closed – as they have done, very well in Spain. But the Spanish economy is based on tourism. That’s the whole ball of wax on our economic engine. Every week tourists aren’t here. Every week that cafes and hotels are in some form of restriction or lock down. Every week that the internal population can’t travel. It’s another bullet to the gut of the economy. So the EU hesitating and signing contracts later than The Republic of Congo, because they wanted to haggle on the price, has cost billions to the economy in many many other ways. Its almost immeasurable. Penny wise and pound foolish.

The US will be back, perking right along as tourist season kicks into high gear this summer. Having only taken a brief hit to their GDP. And the EU? We will not be so lucky – as this vaccine rollout drags on through the height of the tourist season. Right when we could have turned a corner, we’ll find ourselves in a blind alley, waiting for help to arrive. Sure, the EU didn’t make the same mistakes of the austerity of the 2008 crisis. But they made other, similar ones. That of being tight fisted in the middle of an economic crisis – whether pandemic related or not – is yet another self inflicted wound.

We will not move back to the US, for a host of reasons. We own a home here, now. But it is hard to watch Europe stumble and struggle to look in the mirror, so they can swiftly pivot. But, swiftly pivoting is not a strong suit. And more and more, the ability to pivot is going to be the key to economic survival. I’m honestly not sure they have it in them.