Janet Willen


Author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery and Five Thousand Years of Slavery

7/7/2017 — A Morsel for the Armchair Traveler

Planes are crowded, hotels are booked, and families are streaming to their vacation destinations. Those of us staying put in these sultry summer days can do worse than read the adventures of people lucky enough to travel abroad.

Victoria Twead’s hilarious memoir, Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, more than fits the requirement of an armchair getaway. Twead takes readers from her Sussex home, on England’s southern coast, to a tiny mountain village in Andalucia, on Spain’s southern coast.

Victoria and Joe Twead are nearing early retirement, she from teaching and he from the military, when, one rainy summer day, she surprises him with the suggestion that they sell their house and move to Spain. He’d been looking forward to lazy days at home, lounging in his robe, writing, and solving math problems. Joe turns to Victoria, a habitual list maker, and asks her to enumerate her reasons. She writes:

  • Sunny weather
  • Cheap houses
  • Live in the country
  • Miniscule council tax
  • Friendly people
  • Less crime
  • No heating bills
  • Cheap petrol
  • Wonderful Spanish food
  • Cheap wine and beer
  • Could get satellite TV so you won’t miss English football
  • Much more laid-back life style
  • Could afford house big enough for family and visitors to stay
  • No TV license
  • Only short flight to UK
  • Might live longer because Mediterranean diet is healthiest in the world

He replies with a shorter list:


Their move is inevitable, but they reach a compromise. They’ll relocate for five years, renting out their house rather than selling, and then decide whether they want to remain in Spain. Without the income from a house sale, they have to buy a fixer-upper and do the fixing-upping themselves.

The place they find is a warren of rooms, though it lacks two most of us would consider essential: a kitchen and a working bathroom. The previous owner used the open fireplace as the oven.

The realtor is enthusiastic, but Victoria considers the house dark, moldy, and horrible. “I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole,” she says. Victoria and Joe explore upstairs and down, but the tour isn’t finished.

“Alonso showed us more rooms that we hadn’t noticed before. Another door opened onto an overgrown walled garden. He showed us two workshops and a fairly decent garage. Still there was more; a ruined building and a plot of land planted with fruit trees — bizarrely on the other side of the street. Everything was run down and neglected, but in spite of myself, I was beginning to be charmed.”

And so is Joe. “We love it! We’ll take it,” he says, without asking Victoria.

Having bought some derelict houses in the past and renovated them for selling, they’re not afraid of getting their hands, knees, and noses dirty as they clean, scrape, hammer, sand, and tile to make their house livable.

Joe and Vicky are the two old fools of the title. As their lives continue in Spain, you meet the many chickens they come to own — Attila the Hen, Little Grey, Ginger, ‘Ello Vera, and others — and the mule that accompanies Uncle Felix, a neighbor, everywhere.

You meet other neighbors, like Judith, the British expat who dresses in country tweeds and lives with Mother, an-eighty-five-year-old. Judith owns nine dogs as well as Half; having sworn she’d never own ten, she has nine and a Half. The village empties in the winter, leaving only a handful of year-round residents. You meet them all as well as Joe and Vicky’s visitors from England, like the Juliet and Susan, the Gin Twins, so named because of their taste in beverages.

And you discover Spanish holidays and foods. The book is peppered with recipes for Spanish dishes. (Inspired by the book, tonight I’ll be preparing Grumpy’s Garlic Mushrooms Tapas , a dish Grumpy the bartender served Victoria and Joe at the bar at which they met Judith.)  There are a couple of British recipes, too, including rice pudding and sticky toffee pudding, two winners of fiesta dessert contests. (I’ll try them another night.)

Perhaps this description is reminding you of Peter Mayles’ Year in Provence. Consider this a version for the less well-heeled, a do-it-yourselfer’s relocation story, and still a book for the armchair traveler.  And for any cooks you know.


About Janet Willen

Janet Willen


Janet Willen is author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery (2015) and Five Thousand Years of Slavery (2011), written with Marjorie Gann and published by Tundra Books. Publishers Weekly called Speak a Word for Freedom an “engrossing study of female abolitionists from the 18th century to the present day” and gave the book a starred review. Five Thousand Years of Slavery was named a 2012 Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association and a Silver Winner in young adult nonfiction of ForeWord Reviews, and it received a starred review from School Library Journal. A writer and editor for more than thirty years, Janet has written many magazine articles and has edited books for elementary school children as well as academic texts and a remedial writing curriculum for postsecondary students.  Janet lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.