Growing up in the heartland of Ireland’s peat bogs, the mechanics of keeping warm played a central role in my childhood. Our kitchen at home was dominated by a monster, solid fuel range that swallowed an endless supply of turf, allowing the house to be heated, water to be warmed and my mother to cook. The passing of each year was marked by milestones centred on the harvesting of turf that would keep us warm and fed, year-round.
At every family gathering conversation inevitably turned to the subject of ‘the turf’. It was the second most talked about topic in our house, after Kildare football. The Saturdays my father spent cutting the turf helped by whichever unfortunate male members of my extended family he could round up; the day the turf was brought home by Mick Sullivan, the Kerry man who ferried the bounty home in trailers behind his yellow tractor with an accent so thick it was impossible to decipher; the same male relatives who would descend on our back garden to throw in the turf. Those days hold brilliant childhood memories for me as, after my mother had fed everyone, the side lawn would be marked out for a game of rounders, with all the adults involved.
Obviously, I played absolutely no part in any of these labour-intensive endeavours, except for playing rounders. Once I had a home of my own, I was always fond of an open fire but had much easier options available thanks to the arrival of luxuries such as the Born na Mona fire log and copious amounts of briquettes bought from the local petrol station. (Here, I must apologise to anyone worrying about the environmental impact as they read. I know how bad this is but that's a discussion for a different forum).
The harrowing part by then was the daily taking out of the ashes and it was with much pomp and ceremony I took out the ashes for the last time before I moved out of my house, announcing to an audience of none, ‘Well, I’ll be in Spain soon. I’m never going to have to do that again.’
Little did I know.
I moved into my house in Sanlucar de Guadiana at the end of September and within days was telling anyone who would listen how great it was, the amazing views my rented house commanded of the river and surrounding countryside and the joy of sitting in the sunshine on my morning coffee break in shorts and a t-shirt. By the end of October, as they might say at home, things had taken a turn for the worse.
It never occurred to me that the hundred-year-old house which was so good at keeping me cool at the end of the Summer, would become an icebox by the end of November – no heating, no insulation, no double-glazing. I’d had the option to rent a newer house but that one didn’t have the same views or big terraces. It did have a stove and double-glazing but what was I going to do with such unnecessary luxuries?
My first concession to this new set of circumstances was to buy some electric heaters. It’s Spain, how cold is it going to get anyway? They worked well enough for a while and things were okay once I paired them with some fab, new, woolly jumpers. It was still warm enough to sit outside and have a drink or eat a meal but inside things were getting progressively worse. Eventually, I gave in and taking instruction from my sister, decided to invest in some firewood from a man in the next village.
Here’s my observation on that – he was no Mick Sullivan. We drove down on a Saturday and filled the car with a pallet of logs, each one averaging the size of a small dog, while the Spanish Mick Sullivan looked on with a grin on his face. Then we had to go and collect kindling. Collecting my own firewood was not the Spanish idyll I had imagined.
Back home, the terrier-sized logs smoked and smoked until I had no choice but to open the window so that whatever tiny amount of heat emitted from the gargantuan fireplace, quickly escaped. There must be an easier option, I thought to myself. Every expat in the village was complaining of the cold and they all seemed to be running out of logs. By this stage, when I breathed out in my kitchen, I could see my own breath.
With that in mind, I decided to get on the internet and throw some money at the situation. After much research, all I could get was three bags of wood briquettes doused in petrol that would be delivered from Malaga. (I can hear nature screaming at me but you try typing when you hands are frozen). Malaga may not be the place that first comes to mind when thinking of solid fuel strongholds but at this stage I was desperate and willing to try anything. That was November 26th and I’m still waiting for the delivery.
Next stop was Leroy Merlin, the Spanish equivalent of Woodies DIY. For the princely sum of €189 I could get a pallet of olive logs, cut small. I live in hope, I put in that order seven days ago and still nothing has arrived. The one thing that has saved me, has been the purchase of two convector heaters from a company called Neater Heater which have quite honestly saved my life and stopped me from booking a flight home. I didn’t want to be the only person ever to move from Spain to Ireland to keep warm, but it came dangerously close.
After two months of winter temperatures in the Andalusian hills, and at least two more months of winter to go, I have reached some conclusions, particularly relating to any ideas I had about buying an old Spanish house. I now know I definitely want to make Spain my permanent home but I also know I will be much more at home in a house with double-glazing and a hint of insulation - at least until I can get my hands on some turf!
(Image by Sky-hlv via CreativeCommons.org)