David Bowie said it years ago, “Ch-ch-ch-changes. Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older.” He was right, and for a while, I have been thinking that I had better get cracking once again on making some changes in La Antigua. The house has two bathrooms, one upstairs as an en-suite to my bedroom, and one downstairs just off the kitchen. I had already made changes to the upstairs bath and now I wanted to do something with the one downstairs. Don’t misunderstand me, it was a nice bathroom. It had a loo, a basin, and a tub-shower, but there were a couple of things that I thought I could do to make it better.
First, the bathtub. The bathtub was, well, small. It reminded me of the bathtub I had on Angelina, and a bathtub on a 17-metre sailboat is, almost by definition, quite small. I suppose I could have taken a bath in it, but it would have meant that my body would have to have gone into a near foetal position. Not a good thing. Friends who have stayed here had told me that stepping out of the tub was a seriously risky adventure, and as I had never suffered a slipping-moment myself, I just attributed the comments to some misplaced fear of ceramics. Regardless, what I wanted to do was replace the bathtub with a large shower. So the tub had to go.
My second issue with the downstairs bath were the tiles on the walls. The entire room was tiled when I bought the house – a good thing; but the tiles on the walls were all white – a semi-good thing; and decorated with cute little flowers in the corner of each tile – not a good thing. So I had decided that the cutesy-white-floral-cornered tiles had to go.
It didn’t take me too long to come up with a plan. All I needed to do was remove the wall tiles and the tub and then re-tile the room. But when I began to really think about the part of the plan that would require removing existing tiles (now quoting from William Shakespeare) I realised that ‘there’s the rub.’ Please notice all the literary references that are in this letter, and I am only on the fourth paragraph so far. Last year, when putting the shower into the bath upstairs, I had managed to tear a tendon (which in Spanish is ‘un tendon se rompe’ for all you who might want to feel bad for me) in my shoulder and now months later, it was still plaguing me. My options were clear: A) ditch the plan and wait a few hundred years until my shoulder was completely healed; B) modify the plan by just changing the light bulbs to a depressingly low wattage so I wouldn’t see the tiles; or C) hire someone to do the serious work. It didn’t take me – the holder of an earned Ph.D. - long to realise that one option was the best, and I opted out for choice “C.”
Yesterday afternoon (afternoon here seems to begin yesterday around 1900 apparently) Big Tony came over. If you have been reading these letters for a while, you will remember Tony from the upstairs shower extravaganza of last year. I have added the ‘Big’ to his name because, well, he is big. Tony’s job was to disconnect the water supply to the existing tub/shower, as well as disconnect and remove the loo and the basin. I suppose I could have done these parts of the job, but it would have been my luck to not have the correct size plugs for the pipes and ended up with a flooded bathroom, so using Tony again made sense. Then this morning (morning began today just before 0800), Salvador and Elio came over to start the wrecking process. I was ex-pat heaven, as neither of these workmen speaks a bit of English, so I knew I would be able to increase my Spanish skills. Okay, maybe I would be forced to increase my Spanish skills or else I might end up with God-knows-what for my new bathroom.
It only took a few minutes to see what the work plan was. Salvador, el jefe (the boss), told Elio, el trabajadore (the poor bugger who the boss tells to actually do the work) what I wanted to do and which walls to lop the tiles off of (all of them actually), and then he left. Elio and I chatted a bit about Uruguay (where he is from and where I know absolutely nothing other than the capital being Montevideo) and then he proceeded to take this rather heavy hammer and metal chisel and began to whack away on the walls. It didn’t take long before there were shards of ceramic tiles flying around the room so I (again, using some of the knowledge I learnt in my doctoral programme) to get the hell out of the way. After about 30 minutes, Elio came out of the room and asked me if I had a plaster (bandage) for his bloody finger. As I gave him one, I asked why he wasn’t wearing leather gloves or safety glasses. His response was short and to the point; ‘why?’ Silly me. Apparently he has spare hands and eyes at home. I left the room again.
Shortly after noon, I decided to venture into the room of destruction. Elio seemed to be about 30% done with breaking the tiles off the walls and did stop long enough to tell me that most of the tiles are so firmly attached to the walls that the work is very difficult. Or maybe he was telling me about his sister…it is times like this when I wonder if my Spanish will ever be as good as I want it to be. Whilst I felt sorry for him, I realised that my choice of having someone else wield the hammer was one of my better decisions since moving to La Antigua. He then asked me if I had a something-or-other. I didn’t have a clue what he was asking for so I decided to use the tried-and-true process of elimination response and started tossing out terms that I assumed to have something to do with wall-tile demolition. When I mentioned ‘escalera,’ he smiled and said, ‘Si, si. Una escalera pequeno.’ I luckily was the proud owner of a small stepladder, so after getting it for him, he then began attacking the tiles that were above his reach. I did ask him why he wasn’t using an electric-hammer-chisel thing to do all this, and he said that they had one and it was a good idea. And then kept beating the tiles into submission. I thought I would observe his hammering style for a bit, but after nearly being impaled by a tile piece as it flew off the wall, I retreated once again to the land of safety (which was just about anyplace outside the bathroom) and went back to my working on a client project.
After lunch, Elio returned and again continued to make more noise than human ears were designed to absorb. Salvador stopped over to check on progress – as bosses tend to do when they aren’t making those big decisions, like which wine to have with dinner later – and told me that this afternoon (meaning about 1800 or 1900) another person would come over and help Elio clean up the pile of broken tiles that were now making it difficult to even open the door to the bathroom. Tomorrow, they (whomever ‘they’ means) will most probably install the new tiles, and on Friday someone would come to make the walls that I want to paint smooth enough to achieve the semi Venetian-plaster look that I am after. I am not sure what is taking place on Thursday of this week, but if this week is like most others on the island, there will probably be a holiday of sorts. This week’s holiday might be a celebration for St. Elio-the-Tile-Breaker for all I know. But hey, a holiday is a holiday.
It is now just after 1500 (still on the first day of fun-with-ceramic-tiles), and Elio has just returned after getting an electric jackhammer thing. Looking like something straight out of a Star Wars movie, the tool is big and powerful, and probably capable of putting out several hundred decibels whilst acting like a weapon of mass destruction. I decided to turn up the music in the living room.
Pepe just arrived. I have no idea who he is other than he seems to work for Salvador too. After the usual courtesies (I speak in Spanish and they wonder what Spanish I am speaking), he said that he was the man who would put the new baldosas (tiles) on the wall and floor of the shower. Apparently, Elio rang him to come over to figure out how to actually take the bathtub out. Tony had disconnected the water supply, but hadn’t done anything with the drain, and even I was worried about how to disconnect it. Pepe looked at the tub for about four seconds, and then took a firm grip on the exposed end and…he just pulled it out. A demonstration of either years of experience in removing tubs, or he has children who get into things they shouldn’t get into. Either way, the bathtub was out. Progress.
Elio arrived on day two and began breaking up the remaining wall tiles at 0730 today. How nice is that? There is just nothing like an electric jack-hammer pounding away so early in the morning, especially inside the house where the sound reverberates as if there were a dentist standing over you with a loud-speaker connected to his drill. I was going to say something to him about the noise, but decided that progress was more important than saving headache pills.
Suddenly, I noticed that it had gone all quiet on the bathroom front (a cheesy reference to Mr. Hemingway, to keep up the literary quality of this letter, of course). Yes, Elio was done breaking up the wall tiles. Of course this meant that now the floor was covered with broken bits of ceramic and it was time once again to get out the escoba y pala (broom and shovel). This could have been a good opportunity to fill up the carretilla (wheel-barrow) several times and make a huge pile of rubble in the courtyard as was done yesterday, but today rain is bucketing-down outside, and it appears that the plan of attack will be to fill up as many bolsas (plastic grocery bags) as I can find for to use for disposal later. I decided that I would be a good little assistant and help Elio clean up the mess, but had forgotten that the air in the bathroom was so laden with pulvo (dust) that it was almost impossible to breathe…so I went back to the living room to have a cigarette - don’t even think about asking for my logic in this.
The rest of the day went right on plan (or at least it seemed to). Just as Elio was picking up little bits of ceramic tiles that he had smashed off the walls, Tony stopped over to see what plumbing bits he would need to relocate the water supply lines and desagua (drain). I was on the phone at the time, but Elio told me that Tony said he would be back in about an hour to make all the connections. That was at 1100, and it is now 1900 and he has yet to reappear. Luckily, Pepe came in the afternoon and did the preparation work for las baldosas nuevas (the new baldosas). Tomorrow should be an interesting day.
Day three began, once again, at 0730 with the arrival of Elio and Pepe. Tony, large as he is, was nowhere to be seen. Pepe set about to begin to install the baldosas that would not conflict with Tony’s plumbing work, and Elio set about to carry cement back and forth for Pepe. Right about now, I am very thankful I hired Salvador’s merry band of workers to do all this as my back has been aching just watching these guys. I retreated to the relative safe area of my computer to attempt to get some work done, but within minutes, the lads in the bathroom beckoned me. It was question time.
Pepe wanted to clarify how far up the wall he was supposed to install the baldosas, or at least that appeared to be his question. Then he asked about the size of the gap I wanted between the baldosas – this would be the gap for mortar – and I said that I thought that it should be the same as the existing floor tiles, or at least that it what I thought I said. Neither one of us appeared to know the exact questions and answers, but we were understanding each other rather well, and after all, that is what communications are all about. I two more mega Ibuprofen pills to counteract the incessant pounding of Elio’s hammer, I went back to typing, wondering what I had actually said to Pepe.
Day three began as the others had, with Elio and Pepe arriving at La Antigua well before the sun began to lighten and warm everything. By noon, the baldosas were all on the walls and the fun job of packing mortar between the tiles, and then the always horribly messy job of wiping off the excess began. And then Pepe was done.
Saturday, the fourth day of reconstruction of the downstairs bath, and all is well. Felix came this morning, but as he had never been here before, and to make sure that he knew exactly what his task was, Pepe brought him over. This was especially nice as it was clear when I saw Pepe that this was his day off. How did I know this? Well, I came to this assumption because Pepe was dressed in his pyjamas, dressing robe, and slippers. It was beginning to look like the beginnings of the Mallorquin version of The Village People, but I knew that a cheeky comment at this point would be lost on them so I kept my observational wisdom to myself. After going over the work plan – Felix is the one who will make the non-baldosa-covered walls smooth as a baby’s bottom so I can paint them – Pepe left to undoubtedly go back to bed, and Felix began to mix up a huge tub of what best could be called a barrel of plaster slop. I resumed my role as peon apprentice and started bringing buckets of water to him and then went to clean up the water that I had so cleverly splashed on the kitchen floor. By the time the bathroom work is completed, having survived hourly episodes of feeling the need to clean up the broken ceramic tiles that keep appearing in the most obscure corners; having survived the veritable dust storm that has been floating around the entire house like the arrival of a cloud of locusts; and having survived the various leopard-like spots of new plaster all over the floors where workmen have tread; I will have the cleanest house on the island I think. Right…in my anal-retentive-home-cleanliness dreams.
Felix had told me that I would need to let the new gesso (HEY-SO, providing a dead-smooth plaster finish) walls dry before I painted them, which did make all the sense in the world to me. So I spent days five, six, seven, eight, and nine waiting for the stuff to be completely dry. Well, I didn’t just wait…I put a small heater and fan in the bathroom and then checked on the drying process about fifteen times a day. I suppose I could have followed the tried-and-true message of ‘a watched pot doesn’t boil,’ but I usually only abide by sayings like this when I am not eager to get a project completed.
At last, my new plaster walls were smooth to the point of .0003 microns. Not really – I just made that up, and don’t even know how smooth that would be - but they were smooth as glass, and finally dry. I actually was able to paint them and install some trendy profiled wood trim along the wall where it met the floor and then spent several days waiting. This ‘waiting’ period has been a real test of my acclimation to the island culture. With Easter fast approaching, I knew that things would be closed, which meant that besides not being able to shop, Tony would not be working, and as the re-installation of the loo, sink and shower plumbing being the only things that were needed now, I was anxious to be able to complete this project. But we do like our holidays here, and getting things done around holidays can be a challenge. Thursday was when everything closed, apparently to get ready for Friday’s holiday. Saturday is a day that Tony doesn’t normally work, Sunday was Easter, and Monday was, well, the day after Easter. Nice. By Tuesday morning – yes, the Tuesday after the Monday after Easter - I was beginning to think that Emerson was right when he said, ‘How much of human life is lost in waiting,’ but then Tony called.
He said that he was sorry he been able to come to complete the reconnection work of the plumbing, but the holidays and blah, blah, blah. He did say that he would be at La Antigua at 1100, more or less. And then at 1115, he rang again to say that he would be a little late and would now arrive around 1530. Well, at least he called. I ironed shirts to kill time.
Tony did actually arrive (around 1600) and the downstairs bathroom reform project is now complete and I am proud to report that the waiting siege at La Antigua has ended. Unless of course you count the fact that Movistar and Vodafone still haven’t managed to get my mobile phone issues sorted. Asi es la vida.
the mandatory courtyard photo
the downstairs bath, as it was
the eve of destruction
Elio, doing his thing
Elio and his (alleged) refreshment
Pepe, getting things straight
the new Baldosas being applied
when the weather-Gods send rain
removing broken tiles, the hard way
Felix, deep into his work
an artist at work
the new bathroom look
a view of the shower
copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, James B. Rieley