I’ve wanted to write this story for three months now. It’s the reason I haven’t written anything on this blog since November. It blurred my thoughts and drained my creativity, so I waited – unable, or perhaps just unwilling, to write about anything else in the meantime. The story finally has a conclusion, which means it’s time to write it down and then let it go.
This is a bit of a novel (by blogging standards anyway), so settle in. Here’s what really happened during our housesit in Spain.
The woman motioned towards the cottage, which was half-concealed behind gaunt trees and decaying bits of fence. I let out a terse breath. I’d been struggling to talk to this woman and her friend for more than fifteen minutes and I was getting impatient. They’d unlocked the front gate and intrusively wandered onto the property. I had only been in Spain for a few weeks, and my Spanish skills were limited to a jumble of phrases I’d learned at the market. The women didn’t know any English words beyond “my house”. I wished they would just accept that we weren’t going to succeed in communicating with each other and let me get back to writing.
My best guess was that they wanted to rent the cottage. Bordered up and set far back from the main house, the homeowners, John and Elizabeth*, hadn’t left us any specific instructions about their empty cottage.
After another five minutes of gesturing, the women seemed to understand that they would need to come back in a few weeks if they wanted to discuss renting the cottage. I heaved the big metal gate behind them with a creaky click as they left.
“That’s weird. The cottage lights are on.”
Brent and I stood uncertainly on the long, dirt road leading to the gate. It was 8pm and we were on our way into town for dinner. The glow of the cottage lights looked particularly bright against the dark surrounding countryside. The warm light might have looked welcoming under other circumstances, but instead it made my stomach churn until I forgot I’d been hungry only a moment ago. We turned off the driveway, trudging across the field towards the cottage, long grass brushing against our ankles. I had a brief thought that maybe we shouldn’t be going to check this out alone. Isn’t this how horror movies start? Characters innocently going to investigate a mysterious noise or weird incident?
As we moved closer, I could hear the cheerful din of conversation. The cottage door was open – a strange thing because the whole building had been locked up securely last time I had checked – and sitting casually in the kitchen were the two women I had met the day before, along with another woman and a young boy. Buckets, mops, sponges, and other cleaning supplies were gathered up neatly on the floor around them. They looked tired and at ease, their faces radiating the mixture of satisfaction and weariness that follows a day of hard work. They didn’t even seem to hear us approach.
Brent and I said “Hola” and then stood uncomfortably, not knowing what else to say. I didn’t know how to begin asking them what was going on – both because of my limited Spanish skills and because I was so completely confused. I told Brent that I recognized the women from the day before. It was starting to seem like the homeowners had forgotten to tell us they had an arrangement with these people. This wasn’t a far-fetched conclusion – John and Elizabeth already rented part of their large property to a man named Claudio*, who brought his horses into the fields to graze. We were used to Claudio and his friends letting themselves through the gate each day with horses in tow.
We knew we had no hope of figuring out what was happening without contacting John and Elizabeth, so we went back to the house to call them.
“They’ve taken everything.”
The homeowners’ daughter, Ally*, had driven over to check on the cottage after we spoke to Elizabeth. No one was supposed to be in there.
The women were gone, and we could now see the bolt on the front door was bent at a strange angle. They had forced their way in. The cottage had previously been filled with books, china, beds, and other items belonging to the homeowners’ and their two adult children. Now, the cottage was almost empty except for a few bed frames.
I couldn’t believe we had misread the situation so severely. Even as I hung my head and wondered how I could even begin to apologize, I still felt like the whole thing didn’t make sense: Why had the women cleaned the cottage after robbing it? Had they really brought a child to do it? Why didn’t they act surprised when we caught them?
Ally continued to assess what was missing, frantically opening draws and running in and out of rooms until we found ourselves in front of the unused stables beside the cottage. The once-abandoned stalls now contained carefully-stacked boxes. Ally tore open the boxes and surveyed a TV placed in the corner of one stall; a pile of folded blankets stored in its neighbour.
Everything was there. There had been no robbery. The women hadn’t taken anything –only cleared the homeowners’ items out of the house and stored them safely in the old stables. It made sense now. They were getting ready to move in.
“We’re coming home in 48 hours. Don’t let anyone in the cottage.”
Brent hung up the phone after speaking to Elizabeth. It was nearly 1am. We had been loaded with a series of high-stress instructions and a crash course on Spain’s bizarre property laws. As Elizabeth explained to us, if a house sits empty in Spain, absolutely anyone has the right to move in and take up residence. You read that right – any empty house in Spain is up for grabs by the first person to take off their shoes and call it home. If these women managed to move into the cottage, it would be very difficult for John and Elizabeth to regain ownership.
The homeowners believed that Claudio, the man who rented their fields for his horses, was involved. He was familiar with the whole property; he knew there was an empty cottage available. The most likely explanation was that he had tipped off some friends and showed them how to get in.
John and Elizabeth changed the date of their flight back to Spain from Hong Kong – instead of coming back in two weeks, they would be back in two days. Until then, the responsibility of keeping the squatters out of the cottage rested heavily on Brent and me.
Was that even the Spanish word for “police”? I wasn’t sure as I yelled it at Claudio and the two women, my voice wavering despite my best effort to sound firm. It was the next morning, and they were at the gate with a car packed full of enough belongings to turn the empty cottage into their new home.
Brent and I had locked the front gate the night before, but Claudio came here every day – he knew how to slip his hand over the fence and unhinge the lock. Brent stood at the end of the dirt driveway leading to the cottage, blocking their car from driving closer.
Spanish and English clashed clumsily against one another yet again. They wanted to drive up to the cottage and we wanted to stop them. Our respective explanations, motivations, and everything else we might have liked to say to one another was completely lost in translation.
Claudio was an older man, but a strong one – one of those hardy men you meet in countryside with skin leathered from the sun and muscular arms strengthened from decades of labour. He lifted up those thick hands and tried to push Brent off the driveway. Brent gently deflected him and Claudio slipped in the mud, thrown off balance by the misdirected momentum of his own attack. It could have been funny – watching Claudio, puffed up with rage, trip over his own feet – but it wasn’t.
I called the police. That’s what you do when someone tries to break into your house, right? They’re supposedly to speed down the street, sirens wailing, and handcuff the bad guys. But they didn’t come.
I called the homeowners’ adult son, who said he would come with a Spanish-speaking friend. The heat of the stand-off fizzled as we waited. Waited for the police; waited for John and Elizabeth’s son; waited for the whole thing to be over. Late morning faded into early afternoon, and then into evening.
Eventually everyone came – the police, the son, the friend to act as translator. The police wouldn’t intervene until John and Elizabeth presented documents verifying their ownership of the cottage. Claudio and the women agreed they could wait for two days until John and Elizabeth came back. Hands were shaken and truces were made.
“Claudio has….uh….denounced you.”
A police car rolled up to the house the following day. He took Brent’s passport number and used Google translate to haltingly explain the charge. At first we thought he was just following up with the on-going situation, but when we Googled “denuncia” it began to seem much more serious than that.
“We can give you a list of English-speaking lawyers in Malaga.”
As it turned out, Claudio had shaken Brent’s hand in peace and then filed criminal assault charges against him – charges that were inexplicably being taken seriously by the local police.
I thought the homeowners’ would help: They were preoccupied with getting their cottage back.
I thought the police would explain what we needed to do: They told us to go back to Canada and not worry about it (although, yes, there would be a court date and, yes, Brent would likely be found guilty in our absence).
I thought the Canadian consulate would help: They told us to get a lawyer.
There were so many simple questions that seemed impossible to get clear answers to: What should we do? When would the court date be? How would the court contact Brent to let him know if a trial was taking place? What would the consequences be if Brent was found guilty? Were we talking about a fine, jail time, a ban from Spain?
We called Spanish friends, lawyers, courts, embassies, consulates, and police stations. Each person passed us off to someone else or asked for information that we weren’t able to access, and we found ourselves spinning in never-ending circles. For three months, we pounded our fists against walls of steely bureaucracy only to gain nothing more and understand even less.
We were in Canada when we finally learned a court date had been set in February. The homeowners told us that Claudio had agreed to drop the charges. But could we trust them? The homeowners who had washed their hands of us, and a man who had already gone back on his word once before? We rolled the dice, not because we really trusted anyone anymore but because there seemed to be no other option.
“The charges have been dropped.”
I expected to be relieved when we finally receive the email confirming it was over, but instead I only felt angrier that the whole thing had gone on for months for no reason at all – that we’d lost so much time to a problem so ludicrous it should have been resolved before it even began.
Although this incident did slow us down for a while, it ultimately gave us time to think about where we were headed and what we want the next year of our life to look like. We may have had a rough end to last year and a bumpy beginning to this one, but I think this might just be our best (and most travel-filled) year yet.
*Names have been changed