house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Orange Revolt

World Cup Final: Spain, the country next door, is playing Holland. I like both, but there's no fun in impartiality. I want to go crazy, to soar on the wave of a demented crowd. For that, I must one: support Spain, two: go to Spain and three: Spain must win.

We cross the bridge and stop in a small town close to the border. The town square is overcrowded and buzzing. There's a vast screen at one end and everyone's watching, drinking beer, tensing up for mass-moaning or hysterical joy. National flags and pistachio shells fly about.

Nikita suffers a momentary lapse of judgement and marches into the crowd wearing an orange T-shirt. I take pathetic and pointless action: I give him small table napkins, I push him behind me, rummaging in my bag for felt pens (for disguise) or car keys (for defense)... but nothing happens. We start seeing Spanish fans in orange (a shortcut to the red-and-yellow national flag?)... and we calm down.

Early in the game, our 8-year-old nephew makes an intriguing snap decision: he wants Holland to win. Countless memorable moments ensue. When the Dutch attack and unleash acrobatic boot-to-Spanish-chest stunts, dark rumbles of booing sweep the square... festooned by squeaky whoops of delight from the little guy next to the orange T-shirt.

While Spain are in possession, the same small rebel jumps around screaming murder. Ooohhh..... ooooooccccchhh, no, no, nooooooooooo. He stops only to stick his tongue out at his cousins, or anyone who might turn to look.

He buries his head in his hands and groans as the Dutch receive one yellow card after another. The red card gets us a mini-tantrum, the tear-barrier is broken and nothing, no Spanish foul, no football sticker, not even ice-cream, can bring a smile back.

And when Spain finally score, while the entire town explodes with triumph, he wails louder than a neighbourhood of roosters.

Four minutes later, Spain are world champions and we are swept into a national fiesta. We sing and dance with everyone, join the celebratory conga and get wet in the town fountains. I love it, well aware that we will pay for it later, in the car. The sole Holland supporter is inconsolable. My camera sweeps over the delighted crowds and there, in the middle, is a whirl of red-hot fury stamping on a Spanish flag.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Driving Past

I forgot his name a long time ago and frankly I wouldn't mind forgetting the whole of him. My first driving instructor was built like a Bulgarian wrestler and had the kindness of a rabid dog. He wore dirty jeans that bulged at the knees and pockets; a fake leather jacket; shirts the colour of February mud; white trainers. He arrived unshaven and stinking of bad tobacco. He roared and shook with anger at absolutely everything.
After the first lesson I went home and asked dad to change instructors. He gave a deep sigh, I remember, and explained that I would never pass my test if I dared ask for another instructor. Think about it, we're still in the Socialist Republic of Romania, 1987, the one driving school in town, instructors and examiners all in a clique and easily offended... But, I reminded him, just-as-easily-bribed: it didn't work, he never bribed anyone for my comfort or advancement.
I know I haven't described the first lesson (and I won't describe the other eleven).... enough to say that his method consisted in shouting and insulting until you figured out a particular maneuvre. Usually deep in urban traffic, besieged by the blare of horns and the smoke from his cigarettes, you would eventually stumble upon the clutch and change from first to second. At this, he'd throw you a disgusted look and grunt. Then he would look around and bark instructions, more outrageous tasks: overtake that bus; pull into the petrol station and fill the tank; do a U-turn; park between the tree and the motorbike; put it in reverse and fly to the Moon. Already lighting another cigarette and hawking out of the window in preparation for the next wave of abuse.
What he loved most was to manufacture and collect proof that 'women shouldn't be driving'. His students were mere specimens, used to illustrate the theory. We 'couldn't drive to save ourselves'. 'You might as well go home and learn to cook'. 'Why don't you get a husband with a driving licence and save us all this waste of time?' 'Women should be parked behind a boiling pot, you know, locked to a broom. No offence, but that's all they're good for...' And when I managed to cruise more or less peacefully around town, he'd find other drivers and flare up: 'Look at that COW, what's she doing? Stupid bitch.' At such moments, I would almost cry with gratitude that some other unfortunate had gotten his attention.
I passed the test. As predicted by dad, the examiner was his friend. Before the test they chatted and shared a cigarette while we waited in the rain. The theory was a lark, maximum points. The practice area test, no problem. Town driving (my nemesis) lasted exactly 17 seconds. I had to drive from one end of an empty street to another.
I collected the license, left the Driving Academy without saying goodbye, and refused to climb in a driver's seat for twenty years.
Oh, there were attempts. When I drove the Land Rover in Croatia. One freak (but surprisingly smooth) trip from Bucharest to my grandparents' place 2 hours' away. Another driving school in Edinburgh, and another test (passed first time). Three psychotherapy (and hypnotherapy) sessions. When the therapist asked me to express my anger towards Driving Instructor 1 (using a truncheon and a phone book) I surprised both of us by showing an off-the-scale level of violence that left both truncheon and phone book scarred for life.
Then, when I turned forty, my parents gave me a car and my brother gave me three driving lessons. I was overwhelmed and deeply grateful but also wished they would take the car back when they went home. At that point I had two immaculate driver's licenses and the firm notion that a driver's seat was far worse than daily dental work. I still had to rely on a miracle to stumble upon the clutch (blood roaring in the back of my skull) every time a change of gear was needed. I still thought all the other drivers, pedestrians, trees, street curbs, stray cats were out to get me.
I am now forty one and I still have the car. To be more precise I drive it, daily. Things are looking up. I even managed to write this blog. Two decades too late, I am finally giving that raging fool the finger.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Behind the Wall

On July the 15th, my Facebook status says:
'Monica is: home alone, and what timing: immediately had to decide the exact position (width and height and building material) of a wall... how often does that happen? Oh and guess what? Changed a few little things, namely the position, width, height and building material...'

Here's the whole story.

I am home alone. Everyone's gone to the beach, and this includes the dog but not the chickens. So I go to the land to feed the chickens. Not a lot of brainpower required, so I'm feeling confident: I'm on it, even if a brief tour of the building site(s) may be required.
Eh-oh. João the stonemason is wandering mildly about, scratching his head.
- Where is Magnus?
- Away, today. Back tomorrow.
- Where's your dog?
- Ehm, away with Magnus, why?
- She warns me when you arrive. Then I can quickly get back to work and you can find me working...
- Oh...
- You must get a dog for here if he wants to take that one on trips.
- Sure João, sorry João..
- I need to talk to Magnus about the back wall. I can't start until he tells me where it goes, how thick, how high and all that.
- Talk to me. I'm here.
So talk we do, perched on the vast granite rock where the wall will be built. If you stand inside the finished house (one day, one day...) this rock base will reach your waist, so we're talking only a small wall made of stone, with a final layer of straw bales. João is in charge of the stone part. Manuel will produce a wooden frame. Paulo will continue, with the straw. Does it remind you of something? Hint: from your childhood?.. Hint: bedtime?.. Hint: huff and puff!.. Final hint: you've always wanted to be the stone one...
But, pay attention. First question today:
João: Where do I put the wall?
He means, how close to the back terrace? In other words, how wide is your house? We have drawings, and a plan, but it's clearly not set in stone. João would like the pun.
Me: As far back as possible. Grab any space available for the indoors...
Paulo: … while making sure you protect the straw bales... minimum distance to the terrace should be 1 meter..
We push it as far back as we can, which takes it close to a raised granite lip, which gives me another idea:
Me: Can you build it on top of the granite ledge?
João hums and measures, measures and hums, finally pronounces: SIM.
Change number one. We push the wall back to the granite ledge. This gives João only a ribbon of a wall to build before the straw level, and leaves room for only one course of straw before reaching roof level. One very sensitive straw bale line, that must be protected from rain and any other aspiring moisture. Rainy nights will take on a whole new meaning, I shudder to imagine.
Me: How thick is the wall going to be?
J: Sixty centimeters.
Me: But if you build against the granite lip can you not make it thinner?
More huffing and chin scratching. The ledge waves in and out, the whole length of the terrace. Eureka:
J: YES. We start thinner, then compensate and build a thicker wall where the lip goes in.
Change number two. The width of the wall has gone technicolor.
Me: How high do we make it?
The three of us point to imaginary levels in the air. Three different imaginary levels.
J: This high!
P: Need to leave room for one straw bale course below the roof level.
Me: What about splash back from the rain?
J: What about Amancio? Amancio is his assistant.
Me: What about Amancio?
J: He cries if he doesn't have a lot of hard work. A LOT.
The thought of Amancio crying is the final straw(!!).. I can't bear to hear about any more sources of moisture. Pressure mounts, creative thinking is required. There is one thing...
Me: Why don't we build the whole wall in stone? This way we don't have to worry about moisture of any kind...
P: ..and we gain space...
J: ..and we can do the drainage like this (complicated drainage discussion follows. You are spared.) The main point is prudence. We all nod gravely and spend considerable time translating wise and sensible pronouncements such as 'belt and braces' and 'prevention is better than cure'.
Changes number three and four. Stone replaces straw and thus the height of the stone wall doubles.
And everyone's happy. João rejoices because he now has an easier wall to build and more of it. Paulo – like me – doesn't have to worry about rain drops and watertight plasters, and knows that the straw ideal lives on, in the East and South walls anyhow.
And I go home glowing. An hour perched on a granite ledge and a pleasant enough discussion got us more space and less worry. The wall is more straightforward and weatherproof. It uses the features of the land and materials already available.
I walk back to the car with a swagger and a smile, having of course forgotten to feed the chickens.
… and get that dog back, will you?... how are we supposed to work like this?.. João's last word.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Back to July

I'm back and asking: how can a part-time teaching job take so much time and energy? Holidays started three weeks ago and I'm still getting up in the morning like someone recently returned from a war on the moon (yes I did say 'a war on the moon' because I couldn't decide which – a war? The moon? - would sound more crippling... and yes I know I'm just finding excuses.

Finally yes, more than any of the (half a dozen) people reading this blog, I know how much there is to write, how much I'd like to do it, and also perhaps how lucky they are that I don't...) Each of the notebooks I drag around daily contains a list of blogs 'in progress', or 'just ideas', or 'unmissable facts' and 'must write'-s. In the meantime, a lot of important stuff is happening: with the house build, our plans, schools and summer.

In short: the house build is going through a drastic stage of 'house-unbuild'. The roof was blasted, the an assortment of walls knocked down, the stairs picked by João's claw like rotten teeth from a hag's mouth.

Slowly thereafter, João and his unlikely team (teenage son and elderly nice guy) started putting it all back together, stone by stone, with 'amor e carinho' as he so likes to say. Moona takes a picture per week from the same spot. With patience, picture by picture – and I wonder, how many weeks? - one will be able to see the house grow. This week's picture shows something that looks uncannily like an excavated Roman citadel. Spectacular stone set in straight lines, in a sea of green.

Then there's the alambique. When we arrived: two walls set against a rock, around an old distilling vat. Correction: at that time, all there was inside, around, on top and between stones was a city of brambles so thick, so high and so deep I started to see the Sleeping Beauty story in a totally new light. The brambles are long gone, so are the rubble, the still and the granite enclosure in the corner that looked suspiciously like a pigsty. The floor was dug (no treasures found) and a roof is almost in place. Yesterday I drove by and there, above the battered walls, saw a sweet sloping expanse of red tiles: I cried. The alambique is a chameleon: winter shelter, general granny flat, friend holiday pad, kids' playroom, cinema, meeting room, school, my studio, Moona's studio and everything everyone else sees in it.

The garden does its own thing, despite our intervention. Some thing grow, some things don't. The carrots (I checked one yesterday) are the size of tooth fillings, but countless courgettes threaten to make the leap to marrow-dom. The small trees never cease to amaze. Two young apple trees, nothing more than sticks with a few leaves, are blushing with the crimson of their apples.

There's a lot more to say. I'll be back, with bite-size stuff, this July...