A New, Old House on Mount Vouvala
by: Ama Merakis
(an excerpt from: Second Look)
At the beginning of this trip to Greece I spent forty-nine days on Crete, sleeping in the shell of the stone house Aristotelis is building on a stunning piece of land that faces the Lybian Sea.
After we lost the land in Mytilini, Aristotelis went back to Crete, the island where we met, and stayed with some friends, an Englishman and his American wife who are still there twenty years later. He acquired a piece of land the elementary school teacher in town was selling, at a pretty hefty price. Who can blame him? Greece is a limited resource. Priceless, really.
The next year, the traditional stone builders Aristotelis discovered came to town and started building our house. You always hear tales of how hard it is to build a house. How time consuming! How over budget! How many gazillion choices have to be made! How many problems and delays!
The size of our project and limits of our budget inclined me to think we wouldn't have as much trouble. Laugh at my naivete! Although, in one respect we were spared. The biggest, costliest, most irremediable problem occurred right there on the very first day. No problem since has warranted more than a shrug.
We pretty much designed the house ourselves but we had to have an architect to submit our plans to the committee in Rethymnon that approves such things and assesses the substantial tax per square meter, including walls. Our architect did not like our builders. If we, like 99% of people, had chosen to build with concrete and brick he would have been the general contractor. You see the rub? $$
The stone builders don't even know what a contractor is. They do everything themselves. This is how they build a house: They go find the stones. They load them onto their rattletrap pick-ups; drive them to our land; pour them out, and then carry them, and the cement, and the sand, and the potash, and the wood for the framing and the quisi-scaffolding, and their coffees and drinking water and everything else there is to carry, down the mountain to the difficult spot I have chosen for aesthetic, not convenient, reasons.
They then go find the stream; 300 meters away, that they will funnel into black plastic hose, to draw water to our land, to fill the old oil barrels they have found abandoned on some concrete work site. The youngest member of the team mixes the mortar, in a patch on the ground, using a shovel to stir the cement, sand, potash and water together, then he carts it to the master builders in old olive oil denekes (17 liter square tins) that have a wooden crosspiece nailed to the top edge on one side.
They start the half-meter thick walls (70 centimeters underground for the foundation) one worker from the inside, one from the outside. Picking stones from a pile that the youngest one constantly replenishes, they turn the stones around in their hands, judge the fit, hammer a side, set them in, take the triangular trowel and slosh the mortar around where it's needed. Stone after stone. Every so often dropping broken stone in the cavity between the walls along with more mortar. They form the corners that will be door and window spaces. And drop the plumb line every hour or so to make sure the walls don't lean.
Then they pour the concrete floors. They build the walk-in fireplace in the corner. They put up the great tree trunk beams and the cedar ceiling. They set down the roof insulation and lay the orange/red ceramic tiles. They fix the conduits for the plumbing and the solar power that will be the energy source. They will tile the floors, plaster the walls (if we decide we want the stones covered) and install the sinks, shower and radiators.
The only things they don't do: carpenter the doors and windows and bulldoze the drive and the landing where the house will take root.
The #1 builder, Manolis, is also an artist, musician, an Aquarius and probably ADHD. He came on the morning of Day One and watched the bulldozer for about 20 minutes as it made it's careful way down the mountain.
“I'll be back,” he said, and in a twinkle, he was gone.
By about one in the afternoon the bulldozer – JVC with front bucket and rear claw arm, to be more exact – reached the spot I'd chosen for the site of the house. The JVC driver, who showed remarkable skill managing to make the small arm look tender as it gouged out quarter-tons of dirt and gently smoothed it flat five meters away, descended from his cab and dusted his hands off. He drank some water and talked for a few minutes with Aristotelis and the architect (who decidedly didn't have ADHD and was staying put for reasons unclear to me).
After about 20 minutes the driver looked at his JVC, which makes him about $150 an hour and contemplated going elsewhere. Aristotelis, who was supplying the $150 per hour looked at his watch and wished he were elsewhere. The architect, for reasons somewhat transparent suggested that he knew what needed bulldozing. The driver looked at Aristotelis. Aristotelis looked at the architect.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Certainly,” he replied. “I've built dozens of houses. Told Yannis here a dozen times what to level. I have the plans.”
Aristotelis looked at the plans in the architecht's hands, then at the driver. He jingled the change in his pocket and scanned across the mountain where he could see the road from town. No car coming. He rolled a cigarette, lit it, took a puff. Still no car.
“Sure,” he said, “go ahead.”
The driver climbed back up into his seat. He started the engine. The architect gave him some directions. He turned the JVC around and started to eat up the mountain.
An hour later, the number one builder returned. He parked on the edge of the road, walked to the crest of the hill, looked down and screamed:
“Ti kah-neh-te eh-dho?” (What are you doing here?)
He came flying down the hill, waving his arms, shouting,
Guess what? The architect had instructed the bulldozer driver to open up a flat platform, suitable for building a concrete and brick house. This was not what the stone builders wanted at all.
The house was designed to come to a point at the center of the lot. This was partly due to constraints based on the size of the lot but also to, hopefully, destroy less of the mountain and, on top of all, to supply two views through the doors and windows. One view was east, which looked down over the valley, the distant village and the sweeping curve of the Kolpos Messaras, the Bay of Messara.
The western view looked down over fields and olives and out to an expansive horizon of blue, the Lybian Sea, dotted to the far right by two small, uninhabited rocky islets. This design also eliminated a southern face that would have been the hottest during the summer. And it allowed for a sunny and a shady side at almost all times of day. The #1 builder had wanted the “mee-tee” nose, of the house to be leveled and then only trenches excavated going back into the mountain where the footings of the walls would be built. By the time he returned, the JVC had cut from the mountain (named Vouvala) an oval surface roughly 22 meters long by 12 meters wide. The displaced dirt and rock had formed a slide skirting the cut and spilling 10 meters down the mountain. Larger rocks had tumbled farther, a few reaching the lower road, 100 meters away.
The #1 builder, named Manolis, reached the site of the activity and the JVC driver, catching sight of his frantic arm waving, stopped the machine and cut the engine. The momentary stillness was broken by an eruption of Greek from the #1 builder. The architect took up the challenge and a heated debate, of which I only caught a few impolite words, ensued. Aristotelis rolled a cigarette and lit it. The JVC driver watched from his perch. I sat down on a rock.
Eventually the architect turned to Aristotelis and told him, in English, that the builder was a fool, didn't know what he was doing and that he, the architect, was washing his hands of the whole mess. He then handed Aristotelis the plans and headed up the mountain to his car. The JVC driver climbed down from his perch. He and the #1 builder turned to Aritotelis. Aristotelis looked at the retreating form of the architect and then turned to me. I looked at the three of them and cleared my throat.
“I'm not quite sure what's wrong,” I ventured.
“He's a fool! An idiot! A stupid lout! He knows nothing,” started the #1 builder in blustery English. After a few minutes of this I asked him if he could show me what was wrong.
“Everything! Everything!” he said, throwing up his arms.
I tried again. “Can you show me what he (I pointed to the JVC driver) was supposed to do?”
“Come!” said the #1 builder and he walked me to the center of the flat oval that used to be mountain. He turned around in a circle and paced a few steps out.
“Somewhere here,” he said stomping his foot, “was the edge of the mountain.”
Behind him was another two meters of leveled earth and rock, the top of the spill.
“Here, HE,” and the #1 builder pointed to the JVC driver, “was to cut.” And he began to pace, “….SO.”
He marked out a small triangle.
This was the beginning of a frustrating, confusing hour where each of us (The #2 builder had come also. He was less hot-headed and very helpful.) pulled the meter tape this way and that and tried to figure out exactly where the house was supposed to sit, and what we could do about it now. The one thing we couldn't do, of course, was put the mountain back.
In the end, the solution; more $$. And more digging. Now we would have to build a basement; not in the plans, but we'll have to worry about that hassle when we come to it; a small triangular room that will rise up on the platform, it's hypotenuse against the wall of the mountain. Up above, the JVC would cut trenches and partially level the mountain for the living-dining-kitchen wing, which was flipped to the east side (an improvement actually) and the bedroom, now to the west.
Truthfully, the basement will also be useful. The authorities haven't come yet, because the house isn't finished, so we don't know how much we'll be fined for this 'Permit Violation'. I hope not to be there when the inspectors show up. We plan to stone up the doorway and pretend it's all foundation. It would be nice if we get away with it. We didn't INTEND to build a basement. Oh, well.
This summer I leveled out and de-rocked the rest of the platform space. It makes a beautiful terrace. And most surprisingly, I found the spill area, when I arrived in May, all covered with plants they call the Cretan Poppy. They are odd, slightly succulent looking bushes that produce dozens of yellow, five-petaled flowers a day. I tried waking up to catch them opening. I never did. It happens sometime just before or just after sunrise.
All morning the 'bushes' are covered with sunshine yellow blooms. By mid-day the petals start to fall and by the next day, when the dozens of new yellow flowers have opened, the old flower head has turned into a 25cm curving green tendril. If you break it open it's lined with a row of little seeds. These charming friends bloomed everyday till the beginning of July. Several villagers commented to me about them, as they are visible from quite a distance. There aren't any others in the area. I like to think the mountain has forgiven us for our error.