The missus and I bought an old farm house in the latter part of 2003. One of the things that drew us to the property was a walled courtyard of about 15 metres by 15 metres which afforded us the opportunity to sunbathe in the nuddy.
Towards the end of the following spring it started to get really hot. By the end of May the wife got the unshakeable notion in her head that a swimming pool would be required to get us through the summer. We made enquiries and got the same answer everywhere, that a proper sunken pool starts at two million pesetas (about 12,000 euros). Spain joined the euro on the 1st January 1999 but to this day, many Spanish people evaluate large purchases such as houses and cars in terms of pesetas. Curiously in the run up to the changeover to the euro, Spanish car-dealers did a roaring trade in Mercs and Beamers as panicked savers snapped up luxury cars as a way to launder the black money under their mattresses. I was told Murcia sold more 'Berliners' than anywhere in the world that year, a fact which I've been unable to verify but it sounds highly likely!
Anyway getting back to the story, 12,000 euros was way over budget so we looked at alternatives. We hit on the idea that an above-ground pool would not only be a cheaper solution but a quicker and easier one. We could easily fit one into the courtyard and by not having to dig down (which would require re-routing sewage and water pipes) we would make life a lot easier for ourselves. At this point we enlisted the help of our Spanish neighbour Jose who went with us to the shop to choose a pool. Involving Jose turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Although he worked in fruit canning and juicing factory, like all Spanish men he seemed to have innate knowledge of the building trade. What I knew about mixing cement at that time could have been etched on the head of a pin, so I was very glad when it became apparent that we needed a concrete base for the pool, that Jose volunteered to help build it.
My wife unsurprisingly went for the largest pool we could comfortably fit in the space available. I can't remember the exact price but it was in the region of 1500 euros, a far more reasonable figure. It was roughly eight by four metres in size. There was a large steel skirt that went around the perimeter of the pool which was supported by metal buttresses, so we marked out on the ground a kind of 8x4m rectangle with legs every metre or so for the supports. Though the courtyard seemed level to the eye, it dropped by about 30 centimetres from one end to the other. This meant our base was 30 centimetres deep at one end, which required far more concrete than I had expected.
Jose led the work, turning up in his van with a cement bath, shovels, hoes and buckets etc. All this was new to me. We began by creating a mould with old bits of wood that followed the design we made on the ground, then Jose showed us how to mix the concrete. If you're not familiar with a cement bath it is a poor man's cement mixer, a metal tray about two metres long and a metre wide having the depth and appearance of a squared-off bathtub. The idea is to mix the concrete by using a hoe, pulling it backwards a forwards to bring all the ingredients together. We soon found it was back-breaking work, especially since it was already reaching 30 degrees at nine in the morning.
We all took turns mixing the bath and carrying bucket after bucket to fill the mould in the yard. It took the three of us the best part of a day but we finally had a base to be proud of. As we surveyed our work, Jose said he would return at the weekend with his family to erect the structure of the pool. It didn't sink in when he said 'the family' but because the steel skirt was so heavy it would take more than the three of us to manhandle it into place.
The Saturday came and several cars pulled up in the drive. Sons, brothers, sisters, in-laws, aunties and uncles teamed out of the vehicles, many of whom we'd never met despite having been to many social events at Jose's country house. There must have been twenty or thirty people, all cheerfully helping the foreigners build a pool. We trooped into the courtyard and unrolled the massive metal skirt. Even with Jose's skillful direction it took a good half an hour to manoeuvre the huge steel structure into place, with everyone holding their section and shuffling back and forth to get the perfect fit. Then we started to bolt on the side supports. It took a couple of hours until everyone could tentatively let go of the skirt and start the other tricky task of fitting the giant pool liner. The thing that most struck me throughout this process was how all these people, some of them complete strangers, were not only volunteering their time, but all the while they were happy, joking and generally having fun! I've since come to love this feature of the Spanish people. There should be a word for it but I can't think of one. What's a word for the joy shared in the co-operation with others? Answers on a postcard!
As soon as the job was done they all disappeared. I was frantically thanking them, offering beer and money but they were having none of it. They just smiled, waved goodbye jumped in their cars and left, completely without ceremony. It was this kind of event that often causes me to reflect on why I'm so extraordinarily fortunate to live in Spain. They are truly remarkable people!
Jose had one more gift of knowledge to impart. He said if we just turned on the tap and filled the pool it would cost a fortune. 32 cubic meters of water would take us over the limit of our monthly quota. I didn't even realise we had a monthly quota, but the way the water company prices the water is based on volume tiers, so as long as you keep consumption within the lowest tier the water is cheapest. Jump a tier and the price doubles. Jump another tier and it doubles again. His advice was that since it was near the end of the month, half fill the pool, then wait until the next month to top it up. I later checked the small print on the back of a water bill and he was correct, so we had to wait a week before the pool was finally full but then we were off to the races.
I offered to pay Jose for his help but he of course declined. I later repaid him with favours such as videoing his son's wedding and converting his old family videos of previous weddings and communions from VHS to DVD . This is the way things work in Spain, sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", though one is never made to feel obligated or be in anyone's debt. It's a great way to live!