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Where I’ve Been and What Really Happened During Our Housesit

Posted By in Expat Life, Spain | 32 comments

Where I’ve Been and What Really Happened During Our Housesit

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.

***

“My house.”

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.

***

“Policia!”

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

32 Comments

  1. Betty February 26, 2015

    I'm still shocked when I read this story, even though I've heard it before! I can't believe all that happened to you guys but am thankful that it's all over and resolved. At least you will both have a wonderfully exciting stories to tell your grandkids when you get old.

    • waysofwanderers February 26, 2015

      Yeah – it was kind of strange to relive it as I was writing, but also cathartic. I feel like we can really put it behind us now :).

  2. cvail February 27, 2015

    What a story! What an experience. Wow…how horrible!

  3. Tricia February 27, 2015

    Holy shit! That’s scary and crazy.

  4. @WagonersAbroad February 27, 2015

    Wow, Wow, Wow. As an American family that lived in Andalucia for nearly 2 yrs, I find this shocking. Not about the police, but that they would do this to you. Oh no! We also house sit and I am not sure I would be so calm about it. So sorry you had to go through all of this and that it is finally resolved.

  5. Cat Sunshine Siestas February 27, 2015

    I've seen all kinds of things in Spain in the seven years I've lived here, but that does;t make it any easier to hear of even digest. Even in a country that can be so welcoming, people connive and have little shame when it comes to taking what they think they own (add this to your vocal list – sinvergüenzas, or those who have no shame!
    My recent post Photo Post: the Chirigotas of the Carnavales de Cádiz

    • waysofwanderers February 27, 2015

      The sad part is that we actually had an amazing experience up until this happened. All of the other locals we met were so warm, welcoming, and totally willing to let us practice Spanish with them. I was definitely happier before I had to see this side of life in Spain.

  6. Bethaney February 27, 2015

    what an awful awful experiences!!!

  7. @AngieAway February 27, 2015

    What a nightmare this must've been for you! Glad it's settled now, but it's understandable that you're still shaken. I'm at a loss for words!

  8. Rhonda February 27, 2015

    omg… what a terrible ordeal! I'm happy that things turned out, sort of, okay in the end but what a nightmare to have to deal with. We hope to incorporate house sitting into our travels,….and still will.. but with a sense of wariness!
    My recent post Back to the Beach….and Mexico!

    • waysofwanderers February 27, 2015

      If it helps, I still think housesitting is a great way to travel – our experience was clearly not the norm! Although it definitely taught me me to always have plans in place for worst case scenarios (including how you plan to call the police if you don't speak the language, which was a huge problem for us).

  9. Alyssa February 27, 2015

    Dear oh dear! What’s funny is that I just signed up for Mind My House and saw (what I think is) the advert this sit, and I thought it was awesome! Well…you just never know… I’m glad you all got through it!

  10. Suzanne Fluhr February 27, 2015

    ¡Dios mío! What an ordeal. Do you think you would consider house sitting in rural Spain again?

    • waysofwanderers February 27, 2015

      Probably not – not only because of this, but also because we felt a bit isolated there. We're actually housesitting now (although it's for a friend), so at least the experience hasn't deterred us from housesitting in the future.

  11. ferretingoutthefun March 1, 2015

    Holy shit! That must have been incredibly stressful. Shame on those homeowners. They ask you to protect their property and then do nothing to protect you. I'm glad it all worked out in the end!
    My recent post The Beautiful Architecture of Old Riga

    • waysofwanderers March 1, 2015

      I know, right?! I understand that the situation was difficult for them too – they had to pay to change their flights, plus deal with their own legal issues; but I definitely expected them to feel more guilty about what happened and help us navigate the Spanish legal system a little more.

  12. nomadswind March 1, 2015

    This is an horror story! I'm sorry that you found yourselves in such an awful situation! With economical situation in Europe those kind of things are becoming more common unfortunately…

  13. Smritilekha C March 1, 2015

    What a weird law!!
    Did you guys house-sit anywhere else after that?

    • waysofwanderers March 2, 2015

      We're actually housesitting now – but it's for a friend, so the situation is definitely different.

  14. Barry March 4, 2015

    What a terrifyingly bizarre and yet wonderfully told story….. and of course the fact that it actually happened makes it that much worse. I have one suggestion – if you're going to change the names of the characters then consider changing Brent's name to Lance or Spartacus or maybe even Genghis. That would add a touch of reality to an unfathomable and implausible tale such as this. Glad it all worked out.
    Hearts from Barry and Joanie

  15. That story! It’s almost too crazy to be true although it obviously is! What a nightmare. I’m glad it turned out ok in the end but I can’t imagine the stress you felt, especially with it dragging on for 3 months.

  16. Lisa May March 19, 2015

    Thank you for this insight. Before reading this, I would've followed the same lead. Now, I would just stay out of it entirely and let the owners handle this issue when they get back or by phone.

  17. Rewired and Retired in Nicaragua March 20, 2015

    A well written and very descriptive tale of your house sitting experience. How traumatic! I can't imagine what you had to go through. That is one of the reasons that when we have house sitters, we request that they speak some Spanish. We live in an all Spanish speaking community, and in case of an emergency it is very important to understand the situation and find help quickly. Glad your situation was resolved.

  18. jschneider23 March 21, 2015

    Hi Jessica,
    All's well that ends well, as they say — but I can only imagine what stress and frustration you two must have felt for months. And I totally understand how you couldn't write or function in that time. The stress sucks it all out of you, doesn't it?
    I love house sitting and try to be a champion for the cause, even though my husband and I had a very difficult assignment, too — coincidentally in southern Spain. We lived to tell about it! It taught us a few things to do, and not do.
    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Wishing you safe and happy travels,
    Josie
    My recent post Modern-Day Lewis and Clark Unconventional Guide

  19. Samantha March 22, 2015

    Being a Spaniard I feel so sorry for the situation and very confused, as you describe a completely illegal situation, squatters have no right over someone elses property, and the Guardia Civil – civil guard – is entitled to evict those people… Hope it doesn't stop you for visiting Spain again or housesitting!
    My recent post Nottingham: qué ver en la ciudad de Robin Hood

  20. jessicakorteman March 22, 2015

    Oh my gosh! This is what happened after we met in Athens?! I can't imagine how stressful that would have been. So glad it has been resolved now and you can now think about moving onwards and upwards. All the best!

  21. Ceri May 15, 2015

    Holy crap! That would be enough to put me off housesitting for life. I can't even imagine how Brent must have been feeling with those charges pending against him. So glad they were dropped and you guys are okay now.
    My recent post Thoughts From the North of South Korea

  22. Charlotte August 9, 2015

    Hello! OMG this is so weird but I’ve just randomly stumbled across your blog and we know who you are! My son and I housesat for these guys earlier this year but thankfully we didn’t have the same problems, apart from the homeowners forgetting to tell us about Claudio…
    Life is full of coincidences!! Hope life is looking up for you now x.

  23. Alan October 29, 2015

    Many weird countries in the world, not just the obviously weird ones. Spain is famous for its arrest, rot in jail while waiting for trial system. Not a place for a foreigner to retire at all unless you can hide in your villa sipping margheritas until you croak.

  24. Agness of eTramping February 16, 2017

    That was shocking. I’m so sorry for what happened to you in Spain, Jess. You didn’t do anything wrong.

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