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Spanish Secrets: Hobson's Choice

…To a reserved Englishman, Spanish negotiations appear heated and aggressive. Voices are raised, fists clenched and fingers pointed. People wave their arms in disapproval, turn their backs and even walk away…

Craig Briggs and his wife Melanie negotiate to buy a small strip of land to gain adequate access to the ruined farmhouse which they are turning into a holiday let in Galicia.

Discovering the location of the Holy Grail was a walk in the park compared to negotiating with our neighbour Maruja. She held the key to an affordable restoration of our ruined farmhouse. Unless we could purchase from her a thin strip of land to widen the driveway, the restoration costs would double.

We were relying on Pablo’s knowledge to help with the negotiations. If they failed, restoring the house would be financially uneconomic leaving us with nothing more than a crumbling ruin in the middle of the Spanish countryside.

When we arrived in the village Pablo was relaxing in his courtyard; snoozing in the cool shade of an apple tree. A chorus of barking hounds sparked him into life. Although he knew why we were here, I thought it only prudent to explain the gravity of our situation. It was vital to achieve a positive result from our meeting with Maruja.

“Don’t worry,’’ he said confidently.

A request far easier made than it was to achieve. The future of our planned restoration rested on a successful outcome to today’s meeting.

To a reserved Englishman, Spanish negotiations appear heated and aggressive. Voices are raised, fists clenched and fingers pointed. People wave their arms in disapproval, turn their backs and even walk away. Family disagreements transcend generations. Causes become lost to history but the feud remains. This scenario had to be avoided at all costs.

Like three gunslingers in a low budget Spaghetti Western, we marched down the lane toward Maruja’s house. At the gate Pablo rang the bell and waited for a response. Maruja appeared at the first floor entrance. Pablo apologised for our interruption and asked if we could speak to her again about widening our driveway.

The midday sun was baking hot as we slowly trooped off down the lane to survey the proposed changes. Pablo and Melanie marched out in front leaving me to escort Maruja. She talked incessantly as we shuffled along. The intricacies of her conversation were way beyond my understanding. In between the flood of Spanish narrative I managed to decipher that she’d inherited the field from her parents. Because of this, it held an important sentimental value.

Pablo seemed unimpressed with Maruja’s sentimentality and opened the negotiations. He paced out a line for the proposed new boundary. In reply Maruja waved her walking stick pointing a different, narrower course. The intensity of the discussions made it impossible to fathom whether things were proceeding well or not.

In an attempt to clarify our position, Pablo hammered two sticks into the ground with a heavy stone at either end of the driveway and joined them with a cord. This sent Maruja into fits of rage. She hobbled over to the first marker, tugged it out of he ground and moved it closer to the existing wall.

What seemed like a provocative move by Pablo turned out to be a very clever one. The mere fact that Maruja was prepared to negotiate the new boundary indicated that she was still willing to sell us a small piece of land. Another half an hour of pushing and pulling ensued before an agreement was finally reached.

Having conceded this small patch of scrubland, Maruja was in no mood for further compromise. In addition to paying her 600 euros for less than five square meters of land, we would have to build the new boundary wall. Only natural stone could be used in its construction and it needed to stand at least a meter high. Not content with this, we would also have to buy two granite pillars to create a new entrance into her field. All this had to be completed before Maruja and her husband returned to Barcelona, in 20 days.

Reluctantly we agreed to everything. We had no choice. Solving one problem had created another. In the height of the Spanish building season, we now had to find a stone mason who could complete the work in less than 20 days. As we wandered back to the car I suspected that this little saga had not yet run its course.

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