“Why are you here? Why are you in Orce?”
In 2015 I read an article about house-sitting, and I thought this would be a good way to travel, keep it affordable (important for an artist) and have a base where I could maintain work in Ottawa. I signed up for a website, set up a profile and began looking at listings for potential sits. Many revolve around the holidays, which didn’t interest me: getting away from Ottawa in the colder months did.
House-sits are all different, often requiring looking after animals. Eventually an opportunity came up to house-sit in southern Spain. I connected with the home-owners and eventually we met on Skype, and set up a house-sit for November while they are in Malaysia. In this case, my ward is the house, 2 cats inside, and at least two dozen feral cats outside. By the time we’d agreed to everything and worked out flights and details it was June 2016.
Departure & Arrival
At the end of October I left Ottawa, headed to Andalusia. After going through security in Ottawa, the first snow starts falling. It’s apparently a good time to leave. I travel for 26 hours straight (Ottawa > Toronto > Madrid, metro to the bus station, bus to Granada, bus to Orce). I’ve been awake for 32 hours straight. On the bus to Granada I sit beside an elderly Spanish lady who crosses herself as we begin to leave. My hosts, David & Simon, pick me up in Orce, it’s 19 degrees out at 8pm.
We reach their house, a farmhouse just outside a small mostly empty village called Venta Micena, about 10 minutes from Orce, a town of about 1000 people. After showering, we have beer and dinner together and chat into the evening. They are British ex-pats, and own another house beside this one, as well as a nearby cave-house, both of which they rent out. They tell me about renovating the place 14 years ago, living in the cave while doing so. When I say cave, it’s in a hillside, but really quite modern and comfortable inside with running water, electricity, internet etc. The jet lag hits me and I goto sleep for eleven hours.
My first full day in spent is spent learning the ropes. David & Simon show me around the area. First we visit their cave house which they are showing to “The Americans” (Warren & Betsy, a couple about my age who are also house-sitting nearby for friends of D & S - they are interested in staying in the cave house possibly next summer). They have been in Spain for a number of years, speak Spanish, and are responsible for the blog “An Uncluttered Life.” It’s nice to meet folks who know the area and language are nearby.
Next we tour into Orce, which is the closest place for restaurants, groceries, etc. Orce is very cute, a historic village with narrow winding streets, plazas, and filled with elderly Spanish folks just hanging out. We grab coffee at a small cafe, then up a narrow street with a few food shops. They tell me the proper supermarket is in a larger city another 15 minutes away, Huescar, where we’re headed next. On the way out of town they wave at a passing car “That’s the local policeman” David says “He knows you’re here and staying at our place.” The main reason for going to Huescar is the supermarket, and cheaper gas. The town itself is much more modern, and less appealing from an aesthetic sense. On our way home we stop at a spring fed swimming pool (18 degrees) filled with fish. I tell them I’ll only swim if the weather hits 30, which is unlikely.
Back home, Simon shows me how to use the wood stove, which is the primary method of heating the house on colder nights. The area is desert climate, and it will drop to 0 or below at night. Later, I go for a hike around the house. It’s dusty, and feels like the wild west. My black boots are quickly gray. I try to sketch but it’s very windy so I wrap it up quickly. Upon return, cerveza is poured, and we have dinner together and chat into the night, this time covering heavier topics such as Trump and Brexit. The following morning I go for another walk down a dry dirt path. I see a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. That afternoon I’m given a tour on how to take care of the cats. The two indoor cats are easy, very straightforward. In fact, the first dinner at the house, one of the cats jumped into my lap right away, which they took as a very good sign.
David & Simon also take care of the feral cats which live in the village. They have increased in number after a good summer, there are well over two dozen of them. They provide them some shelter in a shed, and twice a day they bring food and water. The cats wait outside in the morning and then follow you into the village where food is poured in the main square. Food is dropped at another location halfway back to home, and then a final feeding right at home for “Dumpy” who is a gimpy young kitten that doesn’t travel far. These cats are part of my ward, and thought they seemed more suspicious of me at the start, they now know who brings the food. It truly feels like a Pied Piper situation.
That evening we meet up with Warren & Betsy who are very eccentric and have spent the past eight years traveling and living abroad. They tell us if Trump is elected they will not be going back to America until his term is done. They’re both from the south (Texas and New Mexico) and most people they know back home are voting for him. After tea and cake at home we goto a bar in Orce for beer and dinner. We order a number of sharing plates (fried calamari, fried prawns, pork in cheese sauce, and the highlight: fried eggplant drizzled with balsamic and honey… they are thin like chips, and delicious.) The bar is noisy as is a holiday weekend and we have a good evening, heading home at midnight despite the fact David & Simon are departing for Malaysia the following day.
Early the next afternoon we drive about 40 minutes to a small city called Baza, where David & Simon are catching a bus to Granada, and onwards to Madrid. After seeing them off at the bus station, I wander around Baza, which is a nice little town, with plenty narrow pedestrian streets. I take a lot of photos of old doors and windows, then start driving to get home before sundown. Driving in Spain seems contrary to the leisurely pace of life otherwise. Seemingly when Spaniards get into a car, they are off to the races.
Alone in Andalusia
The first day on my own, after feeding the cats (they don’t follow me) - I heard to Orce to sketch. It’s 24 degrees and sunny and I spent the first hour sketching in the main plaza. It’s actually a holiday and there are people milling around all over enjoying the weather, kids, parents, adults. Spain is very family oriented - in the bar the other night there were 6 year old kids hanging out as late as we were because their parents were there. While sketching a few people say “Hola” and one boy comes up and greets me and then says something like “you paint very good.”
After, I wander some more and find a nice narrow street that rolls downhill with mountains in the background. I choose my spot and set up my sketching stool.
Within a few minutes an elderly lady sticks her head out the door and starts talking to me. I assume she says something like “What on Earth are you doing?” - “Soy un Artista” I say, and show her my sketchbook. For some reason this doesn’t make sense to her, and she disappears and emerges with a younger woman. I repeat and show her the sketchbook, then ask if it’s ok. She nods, and they disappear inside. I leave them a business card in their door when I finish.
My second night alone, the smaller cat, Grace, has a hairball on my bed at 3am. Now I understand why D+S don’t let the cats upstairs at night. They’re fine if I do, and I like the company, but it makes for a poor sleep. In the late morning I head to Huescar, as I need groceries. I wander around more than the first day, and it’s a strange place. There are some lovely old buildings and plazas, and cobblestone narrow streets, but it somehow lacks charm, it’s clear much of the city underwent a major overhaul in recent decades. It’s a place to shop, there are pharmacies and clothing stores and grocery stores. I sketch for a while in the main plaza, of a restaurant which I later eat at (it was not good).
I wander around for a while, and making another quick sketch of a narrow street, but there are storm clouds overhead and it’s windy. I do groceries and head home, it rains a small amount but is nice by the time I’m home. Until last month, it had not rained in the area for 2 years! It’s a desert climate, and I’m noticing my nose is running and throat and skin are dry. I smartly purchase moisturizer.
When I feed the outside cats in Venta Micena tonight, the “mayor” of town (aka the patriarch, and one of the few people left in the village) comes and chats with me. Our communication is limited but we agree there are at least 25 cats to feed.
The next day I head back to Orce, and begin a sketch of a few of the older buildings in the main plaza. At the ground level they contain a Tabac shop and one of the restaurant/bars in town. There often are a group of 5-10 elderly men hanging out drinking and socializing around two barrel tables out front. “Classic Andalusia” said David as we passed by the first night. I sketch for a while, it’s my longest one so far. I’m visited by a number of locals, and the conversation is again quite limited. They all understand what I’m doing but I think what confuses them is why I’m doing it here - in the middle of nowhere, Spain.
Later, Warren & Betsy drive by, and we chat for a bit before they rush off to buy food before the stores close (at 2pm). After sketching another few hours I head to the best place for food in town, and they are there imbibing. I join them, asking to sit away from the TV so it doesn’t spoil game 7 of the World Series. We eat and socialize for a while. Eating in Spain is not a fast affair. Lunch can easily take 2-3 hours. Service is good, but a server will not come to you, or by no means try to hurry you out. You need to get their attention and it’s not always easy. Warren & Betsy offer some advice about places to sketch and also places or people that might be interested in commissioning or selling some sketches. We head out and I return to finish my sketch. At this late warm afternoon hour the flies are out in droves and I want to finish up quick. An elderly man comes out of the bar nearby and starts smoking and talking to me (blowing smoke all over, disgusting) he keeps pulling out his flip phone and showing me pictures, talking about a “painter in California” I think. I can’t stand the smoke at such close range, and I’m done the sketch so I wrap up and head home to watch game 7.
Friday is the first grey day since arriving here and I’m tired and a little hungover from the epic 5 hour baseball game the night before. I drink coffee in town and make a quick small sketch, eat some food, and head back home.
Early Saturday morning I’m woken by loud noises - banging - I’m not sure what, but quickly realize it’s the wind. Very strong wind knocking trees into the house. My phone tells me there is a “costal warning” and shows a picture of high waves. I’m about an hour inland from the coast, but clearly getting some weather. The clouds clear later morning and I head to town to sketch, despite the wind. I sketch the cafe I’ve been going to first thing every day. After I finish I get some food in a restaurant that’s set in a basement. When I come up, it’s modestly raining. I head home and the wind and rain continues into the evening.
More travelogue stories and sketches to come.
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