April 2023

Hello readers, followers, and aficionadas of Puyuelo’s newsletters,

A changing of the guards, today: because your faithful writer of these states of affairs, P. Janssen, is on a leave of absence in Austria or Italy, the burden of writing has been laid on JS, another inhabitant of Puyuelo who prefers to be known by his initials only and further dwell in semi-anonymity. Introductions aside, I suppose you want to hear about Puyuelo.

Spring showed its first fresh feathers as early as February in our little mountain dwelling, with warm days of working shirtless and nights when the stoves did not need to be lit, and by now, mid-April, the weather has a summery feel to it: it is hot for the time of the year. And dry, worryingly so. Although the non-human inhabitants of Puyuelo do not seem to care (yet), drinking from the water stored deep in the soil. Every day another fruit tree turns from bud to blossom and fills this little hill with yet a little bit more color. And as the days lengthen, we slowly feel our energy reserves fill up and regain the capacity to work the long and varied days characteristic of springtime.

Mid-March Puyuelo awoke from its winter’s sleep with Felix’s return to the village: five heads and pairs of eyes once again reunited around the dinner table every evening. Felix’s return sparked a lot of talking and planning for this year: with three houses finished1, this is the season Aly and Moritz build their house (with a little help from their friends-neighbors-us). With only one construction site in the village, there will be more time to improve and create more common spaces and to focus on self-sustainability. A new chicken coop and area is in the making, Pablo and I plan on opening a big new vegetable garden, and we finally (finally, FINALLY) acquired donkeys for Puyuelo.

It was quite the story.

We arrived at 9:00 sharp on a farm in O Grau, 20kms from our home. Half a year earlier I had visited Carlos, the owner of the farm, to inquire about his donkeys. He then casually told me we could take home two of them, anytime, on two conditions: 1. that we never separate them, and 2. that we return them if we don’t want them anymore. My intuition was confirmed: of all the farmer’s I’ve met, Carlos must be one of the most serious in his love and care for animals. Although his farm is an absolute, unimaginably disorderly mess – 6 half-repaired cars are scattered between a handful of unfinished sheds with sagging roofs, and the donkeys ate away the straw bale walls of his stately house – all his animals enjoy high degrees of freedom.

“How do you get the chicken’s eggs when they’re running around freely?”, I ask him.

“I just observe where they make their nest and then do my round to pick up the eggs.”

A certain carelessness, an unwillingness (or incapability) to plan very characteristic of Carlos sometimes seems to be to the animals’ advantage.

Yet Carlos’s lack of planning was not to our advantage. The donkeys soon-to-be-ours had not been caught. And did not want to be caught. It took us no less than three hours only to get them off the property and onto the path, as they refused to move, broke free, dashed through flimsy fences, and ran back again. On and on… And the humans would receive some more hard lessons of humility from the donkeys. Once we relaxed a bit and thought them to be under control, they showed us who’s actually in charge. In a slight instant of inattention, they struck loose and went galloping away across the green pastures. Lucky enough for us, two able-bodied ganaderos were having their midday beer at the bar and taught us then and there how to handle big animals: slowly, and with a lot of calm. Near the end of the day, as the humans neared exhaustion, suddenly our four-hoofed companions blatantly refused to cross a (metal-plated) bridge2, forcing us to take an entirely,different route home.

As you might gather, the two-day journey proved to be a true quest of quixotic dimensions: at times we were desperate, physically drained, close to giving up, but all in all the entire adventure forged a strong connection between Pablo and me, the animals, and our region.

A funny detail about our donkey quest concerned the third man of the team. Carmen3’s father, Miguel, had gotten word of our plan and proposed to drive us over in the morning. A 60-year old early retiree who 10 years ago broke with his former life in Barcelona and moved to the mountains he had always longed for, he’s pretty fit and always up for an adventure. What started as ‘I’ll drop,you off in the morning’ turned into ‘we should take this path, we can have lunch at my house’ and before we knew it, two became three. Not a word of Flemish was spoken for the entire two days, and without his help we would not have even made it onto the path. But he who was most grateful was Miguel himself, who, in a male emotional tone (i.e. not showing any emotion) told me it was a heartfelt pleasure to have shared this adventure all together. And I think he won’t soon forget the moment he held on for dear life to the rope of a galloping donkey, only to be jolted face first into the long grass a split-second later. The bravest of the three, he went home with the most bruises, and with some jolly good laughs.

Miguel seems not the only older man who sees in Puyuelo and its daily goings about an opportunity to tread back into his own old and faded dreams of youth. And who wants to, just for a moment, set foot again in those rusty fancies and join us for a sip of the drink of youthful adventure. None less than Aly’s father enthusiastically proposed to visit us for a week this early spring, alone, to help cleaning out the ruin that she and Moritz are turning into a house. When told that there is no house or room to host him, and that he could also come by later in the year, for more relaxed work of painting or plastering, he resolutely stated that he will 1) sleep in a tent and 2) get his hands dirty in the old ruins. But, alas, in the end he was beaten to it by the honorable father of Moritz, as he and his wife visited us for the second time in half a year’s time. One morning I saw the old man, looking young as ever, fancy outdoor working shirt and dirt-black hands, moving stones and shoveling earth next to his son. When the sun was setting and he walked over to our kitchen, I saw his gray-blue eyes peer towards the mountainous horizon with a calm and satisfied joy only a father who helped his son build a house can feel.

That same father has had by now a more profound influence on life in Puyuelo than we hitherto had known. Yes, of course, he gave us Makita machines and that was a giant leap for the primitive tool users we were (and sometimes still are), but more importantly, through his sons he passed on an invented family tradition that has by now become a standard in our shared home. It is the tradition of the round birthdays: whenever somebody turns the page on another decade of their life, friends and family join forces to put on a bit of a show for them. Yes, last week it was I who turned 30, and it was Robert’s tradition that everyone carried on, performing sketches, reading discourses and making videos for me. While Moritz and Felix, dressed up as birds with binoculars, turned up to do some Sweetlovewatching – introduced by the very famous David Attenborough, I mean, Robinson – a crowd of about 40 people sat and watched and laughed together with me. And at me. It was the biggest gathering of people Puyuelo had ever seen since its rebirth, and I’d like to think the houses and trees and this little hill silently enjoyed being so peopled again.

As a last piece of news, I want to share another important milestone for our village. We did something truly revolutionary according to Puyuelan standards… For two consecutive days, we stopped all physical labor. To sit together, and to talk. About us, about the path we’ve walked together, about our future. I called it our ‘together weekend’. Moving through several workshops covering a variety of topics, a vague silhouette of a shared future in Puyuelo was conjured up in the space between the five heads present around the table. Personally, I’ve never felt more connected to all of my fellow inhabitants than after those two days; it felt like we were all in one big locomotive, slowly inching towards a shared destination.

Aly did most of the planning and organizing and throughout the weekend came up with several refreshing and new ideas to implement in our lives. It’s a big relief to have some more female energy and guidance among these four young boys, and we clearly needed it, four little egos sometimes endlessly discussing back and forth, where Aly could then sometimes with a timely intervention give us all a clear overview. In a world where FINALLY women’s voices are more often heard and respected (although still far from enough), it always felt a bit off for Puyuelo to be a project of four boys only. Luckily, that is now different, when four have clearly become five, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say that, even though she was not here in the very beginning, I can by now not imagine Puyuelo without Aly anymore.

I hope this letter reaches you all happy and in good health, and with a bit of time to look around and enjoy the unfolding of springtime in your respective surroundings.

All the best, and looking forward to hear from all of you or receive you here (again) this year!

James, Aly, Felix, Pablo, Moritz

1 ‘Finished’ according to its Puyuelan definition means ‘habitable in all seasons’ or ‘roofed, closed off and

2 The smallest amount of experience or on-our-feet thinking would have made us realize that big animals are afraid or even unable to cross over metal flooring, all of us having walked over cattle grids countless times…

3 Pablo’s girlfriend

A typical February day in the Spanish Pyrenees (1)
A typical February day in the Spanish Pyrenees (2)
The one and only M. Garbe working on his crown jewel window of Puyuelo
Snapshot of two wild natives in a very domestic environment, marvelling at the invention of the photographic camera
A brotherly breaking open of a wall
In modern times of changing gender and age dynamics, a portrait of a son directing a father
While another son explains about an old bread-kneading technique native to the Pyrenees as the oven is fired up
Moritz entangling the hard-wired core of existence right then and there
While Leonie and Felix talk about the fabric of the universe (or about how to proceed on the wiring of the chicken coop)
Plenty of surprises, the night of my 30th birthday, but never could I have dreamed of having Captain Jack Sparrow visit Puyuelo
Sun setting, beer cans spreading, conversation flowing
The two birdwatchers observe and describe the behavior of a rare specimen of the ‘Sweetlove’
The day after the party, a bunch of people tried to see if sunshine and sitting on chairs was a valid cure for a hangover.
And three days and nights after the party, at least one person was observed to be still dancing
Revolutionary talks
A snapshot taken bare moments before the two donkeys darted off on a spectacular and unexpected escape across the green pastures
Lonesome cowboys on a rarely trodden trail
Two hours away from our final destination and the donkeys’ new home
Happy grazing
Leo and Ena
And last but not least, just another dog on another boat. Civitavecchia, Italy

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