“People hid here in the civil war,” Farmer Quilo had told me one sun-gilded autumn day the year I moved onto my land. The leaves on the ash trees were starting to shrivel and the landscape was going to seed. “All these barns and huts,” he swept his arm around the yellowing vista like a Wellington boot-wearing emcee. “People ran up here from the town to escape.”
I stared at the barns scattered over the hillsides, all in differing states of disrepair, and imagined them harbouring frightened families. None of them contained fireplaces or chimneys, so how did folk survive?
“They just lit the fire straight in the hut. Terrible smoke of course. That’s why the wall is black in this one,” he said, pointing at the soot-covered stones in what was to become my temporary kitchen. “Negro, muy negro.” He shook his head.
“Hacian queso tambien. Queso ahumado,” he said, pointing to the stone shelves at the top of the wall and explaining how they’d smoked cheeses on them.
Unlike many around here, Quilo loves talking about the history of the landscape. He was a miner for much of his life, so he has a penchant for digging below the surface. There are so many stories related to my land, I’ll save the rest for other writings. But suffice to say, the threads of human history run back a fair way with these barns, which are somewhere around 200 years old according to the locals.
I’d wanted to renovate an old building since my mud home days in Turkey. I could see it had the potential to be a nature-sensitive way to build. It’s recycle-reuse-repair on a house-size scale after all. A virgin habitat is not being destroyed to make way for yet another human property. The structure already exists. It’s simply unused. Unloved. And in need of some TLC. Right?
Yeees. That was my high-minded opinion from the sun-thrashed windows of my mud hut in hot dry southern Turkey. It was a time and place where very little of the old was being salvaged. Indeed one often felt it was deliberately buried. The old was where dark secrets, hardship, and poverty lurked. It was often deemed better to submerge it under a ton of concrete, rather than unearth Allah only knew what. In many ways this is the story of Spain’s lost villages too. Painful histories lurk in the stones and under the terracotta tiles. Though rather than sink them under a dam(n) project or a motorway, the pueblos of Spain’s interior are largely just abandoned. The past is left to rot*.
Be Careful What You Wish For:
Sooner than I could have ever imagined, my high-minded renovation idea turned into a reality. I left my mud hut in Turkey and moved to the north of Spain. A piece of land drew me to her. It held three ancient huts. The larger structure was an old barn with stone walls wavier than a winter sea. It was a rickety nobbly old thing, stuffed full of musty sheep’s wool, rotting straw, and wolf spiders. The roof was hanging on by the skin of its rotting rafters, tied into existence by a thick bit of wire round an ash tree trunk.
I will never forget sitting under one of those ash trees back in 2018, the day before I put in an offer. The moon was exactly half full and half empty, and it rose from the east like a distant ship. As the light drained out of the sky, I stared and stared at the front of the barn. There was a significant crack from top almost to bottom. The walls were splaying outwards. The thing was only surviving out of habit, and the task of repairing it looked utterly impossible.
I remember saying to the tree, “I don’t have the money or expertise to do this. It’s a massive job.”
I remember the tree replying, “It will all work out, you’ll see.”
Thus I bought the land and became the new guardian.
But trees aren’t the only ones that talk. Buildings whisper too. They hold the stories of the past just as the land does. Spirits linger in the nooks and corners, while old energies reverberate about the spaces. Did my barn even want to be renovated? Or did he prefer to crumble into the dirt in peace, taking his secrets with him?
Once I’d moved onto the land, I sat with my barn. I ran my hands over the old stones. They were choking under the yoke of some of the most poorly applied cement mortar you are likely to see. I sniffed the air and studied the wattled mezzanine where the sheep’s wool was stored. I listened to more stories, and heard more secrets. But my barn never felt creepy to me. What he felt was excited, as though he were looking forward to a bit of razzmatazz and glory.
“Ha! I’m your woman!” I said to Barn. “Razzmatazz is my middle name.”
Had Barn possessed hands, he would have punched the air.
Restoration, Conversion, or Transmutation?
It was September 2020 when the roof was ripped off. I had a dream I’d co-formed with my aging stable. He was going to retain his character and still be unabashedly barn-like, yet with majesty and…razzmatazz. But once the roof was off, it became clear Barn was neither straight nor square. At all. He was a trapezium. Some walls were bowing out. Some had no mortar at all and were just resting on the limestone rock of the land. Some still sported the earthen mortars of old.
“Is it safe?” I’d asked Brian, who was doing the roof and happened to be an engineer.
“It’s been sitting here for two hundred years,” he said. “And if the roof is on, it will no doubt sit a hundred-odd more at the very least.”
We scoured the walls and the cracks. It was all sound even if it didn’t look that way at first sight. I breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no need to take walls down and rebuild them. Barn could stay intact, just with a new hat on.
There were issues with this of course. Adding a roof to a trapezium meant that somewhere it wouldn’t sit straight. In the end we decided to tilt the roof, so that the east-facing most visible side lined up, but the other side didn’t. Naturally whenever anyone sees it, the first almost parrot-like comment is, “But it’s not straight.” I feel Barn glower. I try not to glower along. Because some things are a lot more important than a straight line. Things like personalities, characters and souls. I don’t want to live in a box. Barn doesn’t want to be a box either! Those stones have been sitting there for two hundred years. They deserve some respect.
Nonetheless I worried. Was I doing Barn justice? There were things that didn’t quite go how I wanted, and that I’ll later no doubt change. The plastic drainpipe is sacrilege, but I couldn’t source or transport metal ones, and it was simply too urgent to mess about with rainwater seeping into the interior. Despite these bungles though, when I look at my stonework and mortar work, I feel pride. It took months and months for me to dig out all the old concrete by hand, then mix tons of fresh lime mortar by hand too, and repoint adding bling and sparkle here and there.
So those hoping for a strict restoration will be disappointed. The past doesn’t want to be resurrected here, not even with a bombastic gloss over it. But it doesn’t want to be buried either. Nor forgotten and discarded like a geriatric uncle in a home. It definitely doesn’t want cement thrown all over it. The ghosts need to move on to better futures, and the energies be free to transmute. In fact I don’t think there’s such a thing as a restoration really. All history and all memory is reconstructed every time we think about it. Our pasts are in permanent flux.**
However, those hoping for some slick Grand Designs barn conversion thing with modern fads dictating, and the past all painted over, will be disappointed too. This isn’t slick. Or straight. And definitely not fashionable (thank God!). I wouldn’t call it a barn conversion. I’m not into converting anyone to anything, even if people project that onto me. I’m into empowerment and freedom and people standing on their own feet and in their own hearts and connecting with the amazing environment they live in. So you see, this is something else. It’s a barn transmutation. Because barns are beautiful, fundamental, crucial structures in our world. They are earthy and grainy animal places that underpin our very survival. This is a Barn transmutation because Barn has changed me just as much as I’ve changed him, and I see now we are both the better for it.
So here we are. I haven’t done it yet. The interior holds more work than I dare contemplate right now, and knowing me I’ll fart-arse around with the exterior plenty more once that’s done. Even so, we narrator-builders must celebrate the completion of an episode. Because that’s what these projects are: long sagas filled with chapters.
As I turn this month's page Barn is finally glowing. The non-aligned roof is testimony to the incongruity between modern standards and organic growth. The new windows framed in the old oak roof timbers depict clearly what supports what. And those ancient stone walls built to no code nowhere, without foundations or cement or drainage or damp courses, well...after two hundred years we see. It took a year of repointing by a hag on a hill, but they’re basically as good as the day they were made, supporting a new roof, a new interior floor, and so much more.
So Barn is having the last laugh here, with a brand new future ahead that no one ever expected. He isn’t a sad story that’s been run away from, or a shameful secret to be whitewashed. He’s a distinguished outbuilding that has sheltered animals and people and food in hard times, that has survived two world wars, a civil war, Franco, and now even modernity and hyper-capitalism. He has bucked the system and lived to tell the tale. For a while there it looked pretty desperate with the roof all but collapsing on him and no one taking care. But hey, it can all change in an instant in this life of wonders. True he has wonks and bulges and wrinkles and faults, as do I and you. We have lived through many adventures after all. But we are not simply the result of our pasts and definitely not just the victims or perpetrators of them. We are something far wider and broader than our histories, with the possibility to transmute at any minute.
Anything can happen. At any time. Turn the page my friends, it’s another chapter. And no, a handful of billionaires are not writing it. Or building it. We are. Every minute. Every day. With everything we do and say. And it looks like we’re neither into restoration nor renovation thank you very much. We’re into transmutation.
* This is not a criticism of the coping strategies of largely traumatised populations. None of us wants to scratch off the scab of an old wound. All nations deal with their inevitably uncomfortable pasts in different ways: whitewashing, forgetting, burying, abandoning, or rewriting with pomp and glory and exporting wholesale (like good old England, for example). And all are hyper-sensitive about that fact:)
**Oliver Sacks has made plenty of studies on the rather fluid nature of memory, as mentioned in his books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, or An Anthropologist on Mars, or as outlined in brief in the article below.
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In this Earth Whispering exploration I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, plus how I follow her nudges. This project is on a tiered funding basis, so you can choose what you pay. Just like all my courses it will be updated and added to as time goes by, so hop on now to get full benefit.
"This really assures me that I’m on the right path and not alone in this way of thinking." -Vin
“Ouch!” The carpenter bangs his head on my door.
“It’s a very low ceiling," he looks up, marginally horrified.
Here we go again. I’ve heard it all before. I roll my eyes hither and feel my diaphragm sink with weary. There are many reasons I just don’t like visitors, so many in fact I could stack them all up on top of each other and create a spiky, impenetrable rampart. But the self-appointed design consultancy has got to come close to the top. Sigh. My house is designed for me. Not you. Not him. Not them. Thus it’s perfectly adapted for anyone around the 1 metre 65 mark, which incidentally is above the average for women worldwide, and depending on which country, men too. In fact the only people it’s not very suitable for is tall Northern Europeans. Why this is considered my problem, I’ve no idea.
I suffered the same disparagement about my Mud Home in Turkey of course. I love low ceilings. They provide a wonderful womb-like feel. They are cosy and cutesy and engender happy sensations within me. Sure not everyone likes them, but they can build their own house how they want, can’t they?
As I stand and view the raised hackles of the sierra through my new windows, my old mud home rises before me like an earthen genie. I remember throwing down the last row of earthbags all those years ago, when someone had asked, “but what will you do if you get a tall boyfriend?”
Slapping the butt of the earthbag, I’d furrowed my brow before piercing them with a long sharp stare. “So I’m supposed to design my 6-metre diameter mud house for an ethereal boyfriend who may or may not be tall, and who will presumably spend the greater part of his time in this house horizontal?”
The reply sank into the earthbags and reverberated there. The house snickered to itself while the humans shook their heads at the contrary mud-chitect of round.
Of course, this is just how it is when you dare to step over the loveless ruler line gouged into the concrete foundation of modern architecture. Reams of useless opinion are rolled out over and over again like a tired old IKEA carpet. As with everything else, there’s a kind of mass brainwashing regarding architecture’s one-size-fits-all conveyor belt standard. Doors have to be 200 centimetres high. Ceilings have to be 210 centimetres. Bedrooms have to be up, and kitchens have to be down. Windows have to be this or that shape. Stairs have to have steps 18 centimetres apart. And so it goes on in tedious, magnolia monotony. I can hardly keep typing I’m so bored.
A word from the hobbit realm
The tyranny of the tall in architecture started with Le Corbusier, the French Swiss architect of the 1930s responsible for so many of the unusable urban spaces in the world today. Unusable by the majority I should say, because contrary to the prevailing world view most of us aren’t six feet tall. By a long shot. But lucky you if you happen not to be vertically (or physically) challenged in any way, because with the exception of air travel, the modern world has been designed for you. The rest of us hobbits simply have to suck it up, pull out the ladders, climb this, hang on that, strain here, and risk injury there. That top kitchen cupboard holding the blender is inaccessible. The “simple” act of changing a light bulb is an endeavour involving a rickety kitchen stool, a gymnast’s balance, and a cricked neck. Even a trip to the supermarket leaves many of us giving up on that top shelf entirely.
Door handles, sinks and taps, mirrors, windows, car seat belts, staircases, banisters, kitchen cupboards, curtain rails. The whole lot was designed for a six-footer. And most people don’t think anything of this. It’s perfectly acceptable in the World-At-Large mind that most of us have to climb many times a day to reach things. Yet, if someone has to duck just once in a house visit, it’s the end of the frigging world!
I like tall people, honest!
Please hear me out though. I’m not tall-ist. I like tall people as much as short people. Gandalf is as good as Frodo. I don’t think all houses should be designed for elves or that we must cancel Le Corbusier and ban him posthumously from Twitter. I expect the chap had a good idea or two lurking somewhere on his bookshelf, even if most of us have to stand on a beer crate to reach it. No, tall is fine. And the exceptionally tall, the basketball players and seven-footers, have their own height-ist crosses to bear. Mirrors at waist height. Sinks by their knees. Backache replaces knee ache.
My point is merely that the overriding joy of building your own house is that you make it how you darn well like. It’s the one space especially for you on this entire planet and thus can cater to your every quirk. It saddens me a little though that this doesn’t prevent many of us owner-builders from submitting to the tenets of the bog standard. Or from feeling inadequate in the face of raised eyebrows. Even a mud queen of truculence like myself will spend a night or two worrying before throwing a comment out of the window.
“It’s so much warmer at the top of my house, so I want to put my living room upstairs,” said a friend of mine who is as introvert as myself.
“Yes, I’m doing that. It makes no sense how they do it, sitting in what is essentially a cellar.”
“But the architect said no one would step in my house if I did!”
We both rolled our eyes in unison. “Oh no, that would be a shame now, wouldn’t it?” I said. We fell about laughing. Not everyone wants to entertain guests. Not everyone is a family with 2.4 kids either. Or a couple. Or mobile. In fact not one human on this planet is standard. Most people have simply learned to adapt to a world not designed for them.
So folks! Why not reclaim our world from the standardised, creatively impaired, moronically dysfunctional functionality of the 20th century? We can’t buy everything we read in House and Garden wholesale at the expense of our inner yearning, our instinct, and our inspiration. All those beautiful words start with ‘in’. This is what so much of the Western way has got wrong. The inner is as important and rich as the outer, and it holds the keys to why we even came to planet Earth in the first place.
These days I start to realise that one of the “reasons” I came to Earth was to make quirky natural living spaces hand-in-hand with the land. It’s not what I was taught to do. It’s not what anyone told me I should do. Some people even say I do it all wrong. Yet I love it. It makes my heart sing.
As I jigsaw my bed platform into strange shapes and build a split level kitchen (“What? You can’t do that!”), I feel the life force inside me rushing to my fingers. My heart flutters. My mind whirrs. It feels so good. I see mud walls and curling couches, and I can touch my ceiling by standing on tiptoe. Everyone except children would have to duck to enter my home, because I left the cow entrance in place. Good. Be present if you enter my world my friend. This is the barn of broken rules.
Le Corbusier would turn in his grave of course. My olde worlde restoration is everything he wanted to banish from the face of modern design. But I’m afraid that’s just too bad because you are below ground Le Corbusier, and I am still above. My kitchen is up. My bathroom is down. I’m doing my best to eradicate every straight line I can find. Because the idea there can be a right or wrong in home design needs to die a swift, conclusive death.
People wonder what my name means sometimes. Atulya. It was given to me by a wise swami in Tamil Nadu many moons ago. Atulya, as my Indian readers will know, is Sanskrit for "incomparable". Naturally I love it:)) But these ancient Sanskrit names aren't there for our egos. They refer to basic elements of the human being. We are all incomparable. Thus one person’s home creation can never be compared to anyone else’s. This is individutecture. I mean what’s the point of a home if it doesn’t mirror the needs and loves of its unique inhabitants? Book lovers will have reading niches, gamers will have tech basements, dog owners create whole hound-realms, while film lovers enjoy a movie cave. Some people like hot tubs. Others want a cob oven. Some like hammock swinging, others work online and need a decent chair and a table near a plug socket. Some desire big dining tables, others can’t think of anything worse. And so it goes on. And on.
The mistaken resale theory
One reason people shy from indulging in their dream design is this absurd myth they’ve picked up somewhere on the road between Homebase and the estate agent regarding resale value. Personally I can’t think of anything worse than designing my home just to “flip” it to a stranger. I’d lose the will to build. But even if that were a consideration…
I gaze out of my new windows. The fat orb of the sun moves higher and the clouds bunch hesitantly behind the hills. The skies may be Atlantic but the rays are Mediterranean this spring. My mind returns to that first mud creation back in Turkey. To a mud home on a hill that was generally met with disdain and disbelief.
“What will you do if you want to sell your house?” They had asked. “It’s so small!”
“Yeah and it’s made of mud. Who wants a mud house?”
“Urgh composting toilet. No one would buy it with that!”
Hmm. When the fateful day came that I put my mud home up for sale, it didn’t turn out how anyone had thought. The advert garnered 40,000 views in a week. I sold my house that same week to the first beautiful people to visit. And yes incidentally, they were quite small – did I mention that most of the world is? There was no bargaining or messing around. Five other people were waiting to view it that week. Someone was even coming from Germany.
You see it doesn’t work the way they’ve told us. We can't copy a lifestyle, or a house, and expect it to work like someone else's. It won't, because there’s only one right way. It's unique. It's heart-filled. And it’s ours.
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If you enjoy my stories consider joining us on Patreon. Your support pays for the running of this website, my virtual help, and my sustenance. A big thank you to all The Mud Sustainers, and everyone chipping in and keeping these posts and articles coming.
The time to hear the planet is now. Are you in the right place? Are you moving in the best direction for you? In this unusual exploration I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, plus how I follow her nudges. This project is on a tiered funding basis, so you can choose what you pay. Just like all my courses it will be updated and added to as time goes by, so hop on now to get full benefit.
"This really assures me that I’m on the right path and not alone in this way of thinking." -Vin
Every day I close the doorway to my old barn with a line of rickety posts that are supposed to act as a gate. And every frickin’ day my hens find a way in. At some indeterminate point I’ll hear one of them chattering to her feathery compatriots, or the clang of a tool they’ve dislodged, upon which I charge down, huffing and growling and yelling at them, before turfing them out. The hens then run up the hill, bottoms waggling, gossiping amongst themselves like primary school kids caught pilfering from the stock cupboard.
My birds know very well the barn is out of bounds. I’m sure of this because a) their eyes roll guiltily when I catch them, and b) I hide and watch. When they think I’m out of sight, they’ll scuttle straight back down to the doorway, study the wooden slats, peering this way and that to find a gap. Then as soon as I show up to throw them a faceload of glower and reprimand, they stop in their tracks and gulp. Grrr.
But here’s the thing. In truth while all this bugs the hell out of me, it also makes me grin. Nature is shamelessly non-compliant. It’s a total scallywag, and I love it.
The great biorascal
It’s not simply the hens that are thoroughly mischief-making. I found a nettle growing into my camper van this week, and an arm of ivy burrowing merrily through my earth plaster. The mouse in the kitchen has just eaten the gas stove warranty, a wren is building nests in my brand new roof, and the vole has gobbled up every one of my broad beans. This onslaught of biospheric anarchy should irritate me. Others would lay traps or poison. But what’s the point? This is nature. And in five minutes there’ll be another mouse or vole to replace this one, because Gaia isn’t compliant and doesn’t bend under authority. Heck, nature doesn’t even recognise authority in the first place. This is why when I pull up a half-gnawed onion, I find myself chuckling. These miscreants inspire me.
Too bad humans have lost touch with their wild side. We could do with a bit more natural non-compliance in the human world, if you ask me. Apparently a lot of people like being led, though. They like being told what to think by billionaires, and reneging responsibility for their lives.
Nature doesn’t do politeness. She is raw, and often rude. She is the great boat-rocker. Yet she is also fair and holds a deep loyalty to her own. We’re going to see that soon, as some sell out and others don’t. History shows well, social acquiescence and “common courtesy” are often the conduits of abuse and horror. Good little girls have been told to comply when sleazy old men kiss them. If they say they don’t want to be molested or have their body violated they are apparently rude or bad. Good little boys have been told to be tough and emotionless and murder the “enemy”. When they say they don’t want to, they are apparently cowardly villains.
But what is this good and bad that society is so sure it has a hold on? Following rules like Nazi officers (and good ol' general public) did back in 1940? Following the letter of the law as many environmental protectors haven’t been doing since the ’80s? Following social norms in a bid to out do our peers, or from fear of becoming outcast?
I watch the sunlight grace the thousands of wriggling hazel arms in my copse, each one stretching and winding in its own way and yet respecting all the others in the ecosystem. This wood is now brimming with birds. The tree tops twitter and squawk and sing with such exuberance, I find myself laughing. Nests have blossomed without even considering a building permit. There is no single authority in that wood. No top-down leadership. No committees making the rules. Despite this, it's a mutually supportive yet striving community, with a balance between the individual and the group. This is because each tree and bird is plugged into the planet’s intelligence, so doesn’t need government press conferences or police officers to tell it where to go.
Human rules are different. They’re neither organic nor responsive. They doubt our innate wisdom, assume we are all out for ourselves, and keep us towing a certain uncreative line. Personally I prefer nature’s pathways. I prefer the freedom to be wild and mischievous and alive. We’ve been told mayhem will ensue if there are no laws, but who’s doing the telling here? Could it be those same people who are merrily trashing forests, selling us back our drinking water, and hiding the devastating effects of their pesticides?
Thank you Turkey (again)
I haven’t been compliant for a long long while. Perhaps in some ways I never was. When a good friend of mine told my dad recently he’d lost a power battle with me, he roared with laughter and said, “oh I lost that when she was about five.” So it was apt that I moved to Turkey, a country full of non-compliants like myself, where you routinely see people heartily puffing on a Marlboro under no-smoking signs, or cars parked brazenly beneath no parking signs. I remember when the government banned ashtrays from restaurant tables in a bid to stop smoking. In the blink of an eye restaurant owners had made ashtrays on legs which stood by the side of the table instead.
Ah Turkey. I’m grateful to you for showing me with wit and humour the art of non-compliance.
Life on the edge of The System
I’ve been hanging on (and sometimes falling off) the edge of the system for years and years. Turkey was mostly unsystemised when I first arrived there back in the late eighties, with well over half the economy “black” and untaxed. I left when that began to change, and I saw it was driving down the same mindless concrete highway that I had run away from. I know where that road leads to.
According to the world at large, I’ve been doing everything “wrong” since I was 26 and abandoned my state education career in London. I was told by older colleagues I’d never be able to “catch up” if I left, though no one could really explain what or who I was catching up with, or why that was so important. Within three years, I was working four days a week in the then eyeball-achingly beautiful city of Antalya, calling the shots on my hours, living a stone’s throw from the beach, and earning about three times what I would have done back in the UK education system. Agh! Don’t listen to these fools. They know nothing.
To be free, or on the margins of the system, is a beautiful thing. I will never return to that defunct, destructive, soul-and-body-crushing machine whatever they threaten me with, because I know they have no power over me. I know the natural intelligence within me has it covered. The zombie administration is going to have to run to keep up with those of us scampering down the natural paths. I haven’t seen it do much running though since I’ve been back here in Europe. It’s about as nimble as a sauropod in quicksand. Meat Loaf could sprint faster in a wet suit and flippers.
What is non-compliance?
One thing it took me a long time to understand is that non-compliance isn’t the same as rebellion. It isn’t the same as protest, as dear Maxim in Taiwan showed me about ten years ago now. Non-compliance comes from a very different place. It’s a psychological space where you know the other has no power over you. You know you are in the driving seat, and simply don’t do what they suggest or imply you should. You just don’t comply. It’s not noisy or aggressive or demanding everyone else does the same. Why should anyone be compliant to my non-compliance? They shouldn’t, and they won’t be. I don’t need the rest of the world to be like me to experience my truth. Good job, all things considered.
So if you can’t swallow the many uninspiring narratives of the day without a touch of indigestion, and don't feel particularly enthusiastic about everything to go back to ecocidal, slavery-condoning, war-mongering normal (230 000 dead in Yemen alone for example, but may be they don't matter because they're not first world, right?) don’t waste your energy trying to convince the mainstream world to “see”. We are all creating our own realities here. Some people didn’t like that idea for some reason, so decided to let other people create their reality for them. Absolutely their call. But that doesn’t change the fundamentals. We’re Gaia’s children, literally forged from her substance and intelligence, and when we’re aligned with that very non-compliant planetary power, when we hear and act not on the fear created by those with vested interests, or the pressure of the herd, but on the intuitive hunches within our very bodies, we birth our own brand new enchanting worlds. Those two realities are like oil and water. The greasy hand of fear and obedience just can’t get a firm grip on self-belief and intuitive action. It slides straight off into the great machine to lubricate the pistons and cogs of the productivity engine. Meanwhile Gaia’s streams flow where they want to, the grass grows no matter how much it is strimmed, and my hens continue to ferret out new ways into the coveted domain of the barn.
Yes it's a beautiful moment to be alive.
***Many thanks to my dear dad for accepting me for the non-compliant creative that I am. I am lucky. Many people are cajoled and coerced by their parents to tow a certain socially acceptable line which is in direct conflict with their mental or physical well being. I was never pushed to do anything other than what I wanted to in this life, and that is a great blessing.***
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The Claws of the System
I was awoken by an ethereal chime. Blinking, I rolled over in the warm nest of my duvet. It was my phone. A few muscles in my torso lurched and yanked themselves to attention, because I knew who it was. The foreign police office.
Hesitating a moment, I let the phone ring one more time while I gathered my wits and my words. It’s bad enough dealing with a bureaucrat when you’re fully conscious, but duelling with administration in a language you’re still rather inept at, when you’ve just woken up? I didn’t rate my chances too highly.
“Hola!” I tried to sound chirpy.
“Esta la señora Bingham?”
And thus el señor Foreign Police Officer began to put me through my paces. “I’m sorry, we can’t accept this insurance policy,” he said. I repeated back to him to make sure I’d understood correctly. “No acceptan?”
“Because there is a limit in this policy for the days in the ‘ospital. And no enough coverage for expenses.”
I was caught between teeth gnashing despair at the fact that I still – after three weeks of slog – hadn’t cleared the insurance hurdle in my residency gauntlet, and glee at the realisation that I had understood everything he’d said. At the very least, these dealings were good Spanish practice.
“So what is an acceptable limit for expenses?” I pushed on, determined to eke some irrefragable information out of the call.
“Hmm, no es concreto.”
“No es concreto? So how did you decide this policy wasn’t okay if there’s no concrete rule?” I sat up in bed and fought the urge to lob my phone at the door.
“Well, it’s a bit low.”
I breathed slowly and deeply, and tried to circle my opponent. “Right, so just for the sake of argument, roughly what figure would you count as not low?”
El señor of the pencil-pushers wasn’t so easily cornered. Politely and carefully, he voiced his conclusive response. “I don’t know.”
Aghhh! I could feel something hot and bitter rising in my guts, so I dug my heels in a little deeper. Hell! At the very least I had to make a dent in the bureaucratic machine, wedge a small spanner in between its mindless whirring cogs, a toothpick even. “Right. But you must have seen insurances before and passed them. So can you tell me a company which offers health insurance that you like?”
There was a pause. El señor seemed to be scratching his head. “To be honest, I haven’t seen this before. Most of the people ‘ave official jobs or are students, so it’s different.”
I crashed back on my pillow and pulled my duvet up to my chin, before admitting defeat. I’d not even achieved the tiniest of chinks in the armour. Not so much as a scratch. When you’re an independent attempting to slip between the soul-shredding wheels of The System, you have to be nothing short of a ninja to find a gap. I hadn’t found it yet. Groaning to the very depths of my being, I hung up.
I’m no greenhorn when it comes to residency applications. This is the fourth I’m obtaining in my life, and it’s always a protracted kind of torture for an immigrant, because desk jockeys the world over live in an alternate universe in which neither reality nor humans matter. It’s a blip in the space-time continuum where the only truth is boxes on forms, ticks, stamps, and signatures.
As I flung the duvet back and huffed my way into the bathroom, I uttered a few expletives. Though I did still have my favourite weapon lurking up my dirt-filled sleeve. Stubbornness. If you can just hang on and keep pushing long enough, sometimes, just sometimes, even The System’s pistons break under the strain.
The following week I trawled every insurance broker in the vicinity, collecting policies. The company whose policy I’d already signed up for agreed to change theirs to limitless days of hospitalisation too, all while shaking their heads and muttering that they’d issued at least three hundred of these to residency seekers and never seen a demand like this before. Soon I was ready. I flexed my fingers, limbered up, and prepared myself for my fourth trip to the big city in two weeks.
Now, government offices in Spain run on interesting timetables. In fact, everything in Spain does. Opening and closing times are arbitrary and idiosyncratic, the windows for action incredibly narrow. I’m surprised they haven’t made an app for it. “Esta ‘app’ierto?” is an opportunity just waiting for a Spanish techie. For building permits, for example, the office in my locality is open between exactly 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a Tuesday or Thursday. That’s it. Turn up on Friday, and you’re stuffed until Tuesday. The Foreign Police (an hour’s drive away) grace us with their mostly grumpy presence between 9 a.m. and 12 noon. I’m telling you, hitting these official slots requires dedication of focus.
Twas just over a week ago, and after a sleep-deprived drive through the rush hour traffic of Gijon, I parked up and began the now-familiar hike to the Foreign Police Department. It was freezing, the air caking onto my cheeks in icy wads. Soon enough, I was sitting on the half-broken chairs, clutching my number, along with a cohort of other disenchanted residency seekers: The Syrian sisters who cackled loudly behind me, the pretty Chinese student who glared in silent fury at the inefficiency, the young Nigerian chap who was so agitated he kept walking up to the desk, and then would be ordered to sit and wait a bit more. I’m an old hand at this game, but even so. All the Zen in the world doesn’t detract from the psyche-mauling truth that despite not being a criminal you’re wasting days of your life being treated like one. Days. Weeks. I tried not to think about it as I waited and waited and waited for my number to be called (because the electronic number system was broken and no one knew who was supposed to go when).
Finally my moment arrived. The weary young woman who inevitably supervises the extranjero desk sighed when she saw me, and I took some pleasure in that. Was I wearing her down? I thrust the five policies under her nose, and asked her which would be acceptable. She gathered the papers and disappeared behind a door, presumably to ask el señor of the early morning wake-up call.
Minutes passed. More minutes passed. I closed my eyes and meditated. Finally she returned.
“No. No. No. No.” The policies struck the desk one by one in disappointing thuds. She shook her head gravely, and then raised a couple of hairs in her right eyebrow. “But we could accept the old policy if they add ‘no limit of ‘ospitalization’ on it.”
“What about the expenses being too low though?” I asked.
She shrugged and cocked her head in the direction of the secret inner office. “He said it’s okay, but you must come back with this new policy, and a receipt from your bank to show you’ve paid it.” I nodded. And oh how happy I was, as I danced out of the Police Department for a coffee and a tortilla. Alas! My jubilation didn’t last long.
The next day I drove to my insurance broker (in another town in the wrong direction) to collect my documents. Now, I always try to be generous about people in my writing, but I’m afraid in this case exasperation wins. Hasan the insurance broker was one of the most incompetent lumps I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with. Truly, I exaggerate not. It would take a good five WhatsApp messages to clarify exactly when he’d would be in his office, and even then I’d turn up and two out of three times he wouldn’t be there.
This time, after climbing the office stairs and pushing the 1980s shiny wooden door open, I was amazed to find the man actually in the office. He briefly flicked his head at me, and began distractedly printing off the new policy details while blabbing on the phone to his friend.
“I need a receipt,” I said, when eventually he hung up.
“You get it from the bank.”
“Yes but it was a week ago and the payment still hasn’t gone through! Can you call the company and find out why?”
“Oh it will happen, don’t worry.” Hasan waved me away.
So I waited another week. As you do. Nada. Not so much as a cent moving from my account. So I inhaled deeply, and made the journey yet again to Hasan’s office (the 7th so far), because if you don’t see people face to face, nothing happens. The rain was driving hard, and by the time I’d walked through the town, my jeans were wet through and my boots were squelching. I entered the wood clad room bedraggled and dripping. Naturally, Hasan wasn’t there. So I took a seat and explained my predicament to his colleague.
“How strange. The payment should have gone through. I wonder if there is a mistake,” the young woman said.
“I’m sure there is a mistake,” I replied, pulling off my coat and wondering if the steam billowing out of my ears was visible yet.
Hasan’s colleague scanned through the policy, soon pulling out the IBAN number of the account that had been charged. The problem was obvious even from my side of the desk.
“I don’t know where he got that number from, but it isn’t mine.”
“Not your IBAN?”
At that moment, useless Hasan entered the office. His colleague waved the paperwork at him and expounded the details of his cock-up. Meanwhile a terrible feeling stole through me, because I thought I knew where Hasan had found that mistaken IBAN number. Flicking hastily through my bank transfer receipts which he was supposed to copy my account details from, I soon found the one I was looking for. I’m afraid, this is the moment I lost it.
There is only so much patience a human possesses. Only so much. Standing up, I pulled my index finger out, feeling six weeks of frustration rising up and pouring out through my eyeballs. “Look Hasan, you’ve copied my landlady’s IBAN number onto that policy instead of mine!” I so wanted to add, “you lazy, deficient half-wit!”, although I think that point was probably conveyed telepathically.
Hasan mumbled and blathered a bit, gaped at the numbers as though they were figures in some arcane sudoku puzzle, and finally said, “yes I see. You’ll have to call her and tell her to return the payment.”
“No Hasan.” I said, still standing. “You have to call her. Right now.”
He shifted and squirmed, before pulling out his phone. I could see the sweat forming around his hairline. His colleague lowered her head, and the room turned rather quiet.
That night I drove back to the coastal town I’m holed up in for winter, still fuming. The moon was full and eclipsed, or so I heard, because the Asturian sky was thickset with clouds rendering the more distant movements in the solar system invisible. As I walked to my door, I huddled to fend off the rain, which was driving even harder than before.
It was just before midnight when I peered out of my window and saw something odd sticking out of the river. It looked like a massive metallic elbow. Opening the latch for a better look, I realised the water level had risen preposterously high, and that the river was roaring. A crowd of people had gathered at the bank too. Something was afoot.
The rain continued to hammer down throughout the night. It was a gnashing snarl of a downpour, the likes of which I’d never witnessed here before. I awoke the next morning to see that the river had burst its banks and flooded the road. In fact, every major river in Asturias overflowed that day. Towns were evacuated. Roads closed. I saw the wayward metallic elbow was in fact the canoe jetty and gang plank which had been completely ripped out, and were swaying upended in the river.
As I gazed at the sheer power present in the cascade of the river, suddenly I felt grounded in a way I hadn’t for weeks. Because there is a higher authority than The System and its desk-bound army. There is a higher authority than the ruling elite, too. As I listened to the drum of the rain, I mulled it all over. I’ve spent six weeks (about three or four days a week), have driven over 1000 kilometres, and spent about 800 euros, trying to legalise my status. And I still don’t possess the idiotic photocard that The System erroneously thinks proves my existence.
Am I coming full circle? Because I’m remembering Mud Mountain, and why I shifted off-grid in the first place. There comes a point when the risk of being non-legal becomes far easier to survive than the pain of the bureaucratic process itself, you see. Once freedom has been tasted, you don’t opt for the chicken coop again, Europe, UK, or otherwise.
The tide has pulled back now. The water level has receded. But as I watch the resident flocks of white egrets happily taking advantage of the freshly wetted meadows, and the migrant storm petrels fishing (without papers) out at sea, I wonder how we humans got ourselves into this enslaved mess. My land is waiting just up the road with her three water sources, her bounteous earth, her wood to burn, her rocks to build with. She cares not a hoot about jurisdiction and cards and obedience. Her only demand is relationship.
Ah poor, old, decrepit System. Don’t cry if we leave you behind. You are unable to evolve, unable to adapt. Your steel claws are becoming blunter, your promises of security lamer by the day. How long before you lose us completely? How long?
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Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.