1. Move to Spain
Last year when we moved to Begur, a tiny town of about 4,000 people in the Costa Brava region of Spain, we thought we would stay for a year and afterwards move to Barcelona.
"We're city people," my wife and I told each other. "We're not going to stay here in this small town even though it's beautiful and charming. We're going to move to Barcelona because we like big cities, damnit."
Specifically, we planned to stay with my in-laws in their house in Begur for a few weeks until we found a house or apartment for the rest of our time in Begur.
So after we Marie Kondo'd the shit out of our belongings and packed everything else in an outrageously-priced forty foot shipping container (which ended up being way too big), we flew to Barcelona with our six checked bags and two cats and moved in with mis suegros in Begur. (Yes, I'm pretty much fluent.)
We tried to settle in. We went to the beach. We ate tapas and drank gin tonics. My son started going to the public local daycare, la guardería, which was $2,500 less expensive than our Brooklyn daycare. And we started to look for a long-term rental.
That last part did not go well.
Begur is a popular summer vacation spot for the French, German, Dutch, British, and, of course, the Spanish and Catalans. That we knew, but we didn't know how challenging the long-term rental market was.
Begur thrives on short-term rentals. People make so much money renting over the summer that they don't want the hassle of long-term rentals. At all. Or they rent over the summer but want the house or apartment for themselves for the rest of the year.
We went to agencies like Sweet Home Costa Brava and CasaBegur and Villas Begur. When we asked if they had long-term rentals, they looked at us and said, "Nada, nada." Okay they said a few more things but despite what I said above my my Spanish is not great. (I'm learning.)
One realtor called Monse did find a potential apartment for us. It was in the center of Begur (great), 3 bedrooms (fantastic), and furnished (we had our own stuff being shipped in the container but we could put in storage unit if we had to).
We thought, "Okay, this is pretty nice, it's not bad."
The main objections were that despite three bedrooms it was small, and there was no outdoor space for the cats. We've always had at least a small outdoor space for them to explore. There was a roof deck but it had low railings which were not safe for our three-year-old son or for our cats.
"This could work," we said, "but we're not sure."
We saw another house in residencial Begur as well. It was a spacious home with a pool and a big backyard. But you needed to drive to town, and we didn't have a car at that time. It would be about a twenty-five minute walk uphill to town. Not impossible but it might be a challenge in bad weather to get our son to his daycare every day.
2. Find a House to Rent
Then a woman named Sandrine came along. She was a friend of my mother-in-law and did yoga together. We knew her from our previous visits to town. She spent summers in Begur and lived in Paris the rest of the year. We could rent her house, she told us.
We were overjoyed.
It was in the town center and large enough that we could have some of our own things. Plus it had a garden in the back where the cats could explore and our son could play. I was concerned because it was an old stone house that didn't get much sunlight and only had electric heat, which is notoriously bad. But I was willing to overlook that.
How much was the rent?
"It is 600 per month," Sandrine told us one day. "We can talk tomorrow about it and you can come see the house."
The next day. "The rent is 700 a month. That is what I meant," she said.
Yes, I often confuse 600 and 700 as well, especially when it financially benefits me.
We said, "Fine."
I didn't like that she had changed the price but 700 was still a good deal, even if we had to pay hundreds of dollars to heat the house.
She gave us a tour of the house, explained that you could not to run the washer and turn on the oven at the same time. She showed us how to change the propane tank in the kitchen and how to add salt to water softener. She showed us how to reset the breakers if the power tripped. She asked us to water her plants and trees so she didn't have to pay her gardener to do it.
"Sure, that's fine," we said. We are agreeable people.
We also found out more about Sandrine. She is terrified of fleas, she told us. Absolutely horrified of even the thought of fleas. But she has a cat who goes outdoors and a big, wild garden where there are, like many outdoor spaces, fleas.
So she wanted to make sure we treated our cats for fleas. Strangely enough, we don't like fleas either and do use anti-flea and tick treatment on our cats. Crazy, but we also don't want fleas biting our son. Or us. Or our cats, they're so cute.
3. Try to Stay Warm & Away from the Mosquitos
So we moved in. We were happy to be in our own space even if the house was not perfect.
First, it was freezing. Although we are technically in a Mediterranean climate it can get cold here. The house got very little sunlight and the electric radiators barely did anything even though we were spending hundreds of dollars (up to 500 euros) on electricity per month.
Second, Sandrine didn't want to pay for the pool to be treated so the pool soon turned dark and became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. At dusk, bats would fly over the pool. Bats are cool from a biology perspective but one of our cats caught a small bat and brought it inside the house. Not fun.
But we tried to be thankful since we were in town and the rent wasn't too expensive. We also high water bills and found out there was a problem with the pool, and we were being charged hundreds of euros over the normal amount for a problem that we did not make and had nothing to do with us.
But we paid. We paid even though Sandrine knew we were overpaying and even though she knew something wasn't right with her water bills. She told us to sort it ourselves with the water company. So we did. And we fixed her pool.
We did all these things because it was a friend of the family and we wanted to keep the peace.
We also realized during this time that we were going to stay in this town for another couple years. We liked it here and since we were going to have another child in a few months so we decided to try to stay.
We looked and looked and finally found a long-term rental in Begur. We packed up our things and moved out of Sandrine's. Sandrine had hired a cleaner she knew to do a deep clean and we agreed to pay for it, however much it was.
This is where the fun started.
4. Find the Fleas
After we had left Sandrine's, as we were unpacking our boxes in our new house and having it painted and dealing with the insanity of moving, Sandrine sent us some disturbing text messages.
The house was infested with fleas, she told us. Absolutely infested. The cleaners had to do multiple flea bombs. She had to cancel her vacation to Sicily and it would be unlikely that she could rent out her house for 4000 euros a week this summer.
We were deeply confused and shocked, we told her. When we left the house there was no apparent flea infestation. We had not received a single flea bite. There were no fleas on our cats, in our clothes, on our mattresses, anywhere that we could see.
We were also guilty of the following, Sandrine told us:
- Leaving kitchen dirty. There was a small bag of trash and we didn't wipe down fridge inside (we thought the cleaners that we paid for were going to do that).
- Not leaving extra toilet paper for the additional guests that were going to stay at her house;
- Damaging sheet that was a family heirloom;
- Putting a hole in a sofa that we never used;
- Breaking light in bathroom (that wasn't working the entire time we were there);
- Leaving one dark musty room downstairs smelling like pee (okay, that was me, I sometimes pee in the corner of rooms.)
- Leaving cat hair on sofa (again, we didn't do a deep clean since we were paying for cleaners to do the deep clean).
She sent us a handwritten invoice of all the additional expenses and flea bombs and a flea collar for her cat and also included four hours of cleaning she had to do herself. She also told us that only a Dyson vacuum can get cat hair off a sofa and that's why the cleaners who were supposedly doing a deep clean couldn't get the cat hair off the sofa. They didn't have a Dyson, apparently.
I tried to speak to her on the phone but she refused.
We paid her silly invoice. Again, because we wanted to keep the peace.
When we responded to her text saying that while it's certainly possible that our cats brought fleas inside we saw no evidence of that.
When we gently suggested that we weren't responsible for many of things she accused us of (except peeing in that room, as I mentioned, I totally did that), her daughter sent me a text saying that we were "attacking" her elderly mother and "daring to victimise" ourselves and "spoiling her vacations and making her feel unsease in her own little village in which she has been vacationing for over 30 years."
Holy shit, what just happened?
6. Train the Fleas
First off, I do need to apologize to her. I did not realize it was "her own little village."
That changes everything. How dare I defend myself and my family in her own little village.
This Catalan village that has existed for over 1000 years with families stretching back generations belongs to a middle-aged woman who lives in Paris and comes to vacation here in the summer. I'm such a stupid American.
I also have a more serious confession.
Not only did I pee in her musty basement room, I also infested her house with fleas.
Here's what happened.
One day, I was lying on our bed and one of our cats was standing on my chest kneading his little paws and getting some head scratches, I saw a flea jump off of him.
I screamed. That's what I do when I see fleas. I scream in a very high-pitched way. I'm a manly man but sometimes I scream.
The flea jumped on our white bedspread. I grabbed a small jar next to the bed. I had to catch and kill it.
It jumped again on the bedspread. With dexterity and quickness that even impressed myself, I put the jar over the flea. I saw it jumping inside.
I caught it!
This is where I had a really naughty thought. Even though people think I am a loving father and husband, I am actually a terrible person, and quite possibly a psychopath. I covered the jar with my hand and raced into the kitchen to find the lid. I screwed the lid on and took it outside to the shed.
This was my terrible thought: I was going to keep this flea and since Sandrine hated fleas so much, I was going to release it in her house right before she got back.
Wouldn't that be hilarious?
That was my evil thought. What can I say, I am a psychopath.
Each day I checked in on the flea. I soon realized I needed to feed the flea so that it would survive. I Googled what fleas eat eat. They eat human and animal blood, feces, and decaying plant or animal matter. Yum.
Okay, I can whip something delicious up pretty easily, I thought. Even though apparently fleas can survive up 100 days without eating, I wanted my flea to be healthy and strong. I called him Rodney Dangerflea.
I took a needle and pricked my finger. I opened and unscrewed the lid and put a drop of blood inside. "Bon appetit, Rodney," I said.
But then I realized something else. Releasing just one flea won't be that fun. Sandrine might not even see it when she gets home. I need more fleas. At least like fifty fleas, maybe more.
I was also worried that Rodney Dangerflea was getting lonely.
I went back to my cats. Did they have more fleas? I brushed them and searched through their fur. No, no more fleas. I guess that anti-flea treatment is working. Who knew.
I went outside and began to look for more fleas on the ground. It was still winter but spring would be here soon. I got down on my hands and knees and began to look everywhere for fleas.
It's hard work looking for fleas. Fleas are tiny. They are generally 1.5mm to 4mm in size, and have super powerful legs so they can jump high. It's super freaking hard to catch fleas. I had to be quick. When I wasn't out catching fleas I was practicing my reflexes by catching flies in a small jar.
Every day, instead of bettering myself or working out or working on my novel or spending time with my wife and son, I'd be outside catching fleas. I stored them in the shed. I kept them fed with my own blood and feces. Yes, I am a psychopath.
As time went on, I came up with an even better plan for the fleas. I schemed. I would train these fleas. That's so much better than just releasing them.
Do you how to train a flea?
It's fucking hard but it's still possible.
A London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot in the late 16th century was one of the first known people to train a flea. He created a tiny gold chain that he affixed to the flea. In the 1820s in London, an Italian man Louis Bertolotto created a flea act that he called an "extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas."
So it can be done.
I thought I could have the fleas do yoga. Sandrine does yoga. That would be my present to Sandrine. When she came back I'd have a little diorama set up with fleas doing yoga. Maybe she'd realize that fleas aren't that scary.
I trained those fleas. I bought super thin wire that I could use as a kind of harness on the fleas. I was able to attach the wire to them and show them how to do downward facing dog, Mountain, Warrior, Triangle, Reverse Warrior. After each one successfully completed a yoga pose I'd give them a little treat, just a tiny bit of blood or some feces. I just wanted to keep them motivated. There was also a dead bird that i chopped up into super tiny pieces that they could snack on.
I did for this months. Did my relationships suffer? Yes, my wife didn't understand. My son asked me to play with him and I said, "No, of course not, I have to train my fleas so that I can fuck with Sandrine."
Months went by. I trained some of the fleas to do yoga and the others to just walk in straight line, march around the house.
Soon the time came for us to pack up our things and leave.
I was loath to leave my food friend Rodney Dangerflea. But he and his friends had an important job to do. He had to put on a show for Sandrine.
The cleaners came and left. I kept my key waiting for that special moment where I could sneak back in and set up the flea demonstration for Sandrine.
By now I had trained them so that if they saw me they would immediately start doing yoga poses until I gave them a treat. I knew that if they saw another human they would go to their yoga poses. I put the yoga fleas on the table and I left out a magnifying glass so she could look at them. I had also trained others to walk and jump in a straight line. I had maybe fifty fleas walk in a straight line. She told us she'd arrive at the house about 2pm. I went over at 1pm and got everything ready.
We received her texts and complaints soon after, the ones I've already detailed.
I really must be a bad judge of character because I honestly thought she'd be thrilled. I really did.
I sent her a text message: "Did you see the fleas doing yoga? I hope you gave them some of the treats I left on your table. Isn't it fabulous? Isn't it the cutest thing you ever saw? Okay, Sandrine. Thanks so much for letting us use your house. Have a great summer and enjoy your own little village!"1