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A Home in the Country

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May 23, 2012


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Crack! Ker . . .boom! An orchestra of gunshots plays around the valley, although the first hint of daylight is only just filtering through our bedroom shutters. It’s the hunting season, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, this is Son Gener’s early morning wake-up call.

It looks too dark for shooting, but rural mallorquins live a shuttered existence – mole-like in their dark old stone fincas – and even in the gloomiest light they can spot their target. Our neighbours aren’t shooting merely for sport: they’re protecting their carefully-grown crops from voracious rabbits – and bagging them for the kitchen pot.

On an island with so many obvious signs of foreign wealth, it might seem anachronistic for locals still to shoot rabbits for the table, but it’s not necessarily poverty-driven. In fact, many rural mallorquins are discreetly wealthy and, because of the Spanish inheritance system, own several properties.

Hunting is just one way that mallorquins uphold the rural tradition of eating what nature provides: walking the lanes after a heavy downpour, we meet people carrying buckets and searching for snails (destined for a garlicky broth). At different times of the year, they forage for wild asparagus, fennel or fungi, to supplement what they grow themselves.

To live happily in rural Mallorca, you don’t have to become a ‘hunter gatherer’, but you do have to embrace other aspects of the lifestyle.

Country fincas are rarely equipped with mains electricity, water and drainage – calling for a degree of self-sufficiency. Power comes from a solar energy system and/or generator; water, from your own well or a depósito – a storage facility for water delivered by tanker; and somewhere (hopefully out of a deep breath’s range) there’ll be a cesspit or septic tank.

Perhaps everyone should try living like this for a while, because you become less profligate when generating your own electricity and handing over cash for regular water deliveries. We quickly became accustomed to switching off unnecessary lights and appliances, fixing leaky tap washers and not leaving the water running while brushing our teeth.

Property maintenance is a regular chore, calling for almost military precision. Do we have plenty of water? Check. Does the septic tank need emptying? Check. (A tanker lorry with a large hose comes to suck out the contents swiftly and without mess). How much refuse and recycling do we have to take to town? Check. (The detritus of daily life soon piles up and a smelly bin bag is an unpleasant travelling companion).

We must also regularly monitor our solar energy system and generator, and exchange empty gas cylinders in Manacor for weightier full ones. You need to be fit, to fit in with rural life.

Country properties stand in isolation, more exposed to the elements than those in built-up areas. Shutters, gates and roof tiles are particularly susceptible to extremes of weather and need regular maintenance. And all this before deciding what to do with the land.

Today, many older mallorquins with smallholdings or farms spend their days working the fields, then lock up their fincas and drive to their home in a nearby town or village, with all the urban comforts of the 21st century. How these part-time country folk must chuckle when they see people like us looking for a rural paradise in a draughty, leaky old finca without central heating and double glazing . . .

But rural life is changing. Increasingly, the children and grandchildren of those who once turned their backs on the harsh realities of farming life, are looking to the countryside for respite from today’s hectic pace of living. Having grown up in noisy towns and villages, they are fixing-up old rural family properties – previously left to deteriorate – to provide a peaceful family bolt-hole for weekends and holidays.

Then there are foreign residents like us, experiencing a different and usually simpler type of life than we’ve had in the past. We carefully restore the traditional features of our fincas, decorate them with rustic paraphernalia, lovingly create gardens (to be decimated by the rabbits) and never leave a snarling, hungry dog chained up by the gate.

With all this restoration, the properties of mallorquin full-time country residents usually stand out, because of their clutter. Masters of recycling, they’ll keep old gates, empty oil drums and worn-out tyres, in the expectation of an alternative use for them. In these ecology-conscious days, it’s an admirable trait, if aesthetically unappealing.

Property issues – and the noise of shooting and aggressive dogs – aside, life in the countryside is filled with delights: without the distractions of a busy urban environment, awareness of nature’s wonders is heightened.

We forecast weather from cloud formations, knowing when to batten down the hatches, or hang out the washing to dry. We spend time listening to songbirds and buzzing insects, noting seasonal changes, and watching the contented munching of grazing livestock. We stand outside at night for a spectacular show of stars, sprinkled across a sky with no light pollution. And we share our experiences with people of other nationalities, living the same way.

Our full-time neighbours are a mix of mallorquins, another British couple, one German couple and a recently-arrived man and wife from the Peninsula. Son Gener’s population swells only in the summer, when the British and Swiss who own holiday homes here arrive. To avoid feeling isolated, international relationships must be fostered.

In some places on Mallorca, it’s possible to survive with a fairly basic knowledge of Spanish. But speaking at least conversational castellano or, better still, mallorquin, is the key to feeling part of a rural community. We’re slowly mastering the former and it’s brought us new friendships with the locals, neighbourly help in times of need, and occasional gifts of home-grown produce.

We don’t share the Mallorcan appetite for hunting, but we do enjoy our fill of country life.

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