Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The colour green

School’s out. The kids and I finished term on Friday. Our final week was spent here all by ourselves as Von has popped over to the UK to build tipis with Ian and Merle at Glastonbury. Missing her terribly. But surviving. She is the air we breathe.

In that final week, apart from all the pining obviously, Josh and Eli got their marks from their exams. Both got A’s. National Exams are only in Portuguese and Maths for their years, but twas still an absolutely awesome achievement (note the alliteration in A’s) for the first year in Portugal. Only 1 other pupil in each of their year groups got 2 A’s, so they weren’t easy papers. How proud? Academic achievement isn’t everything in life but they love it and are flying. Both looking forward to being in new parts of their school next year. Eli in the second ciclo (Year 5) and Josh in the third (Year 7). But for now, we have begun the 3 month summer holiday til the middle of September and are busying ourselves pottering around the house and garden, beginning my Portuguese lessons from the kids and swimming as often as possible in various rivers to cool off from the 40 degree sun. Boy it’s been hot.

Today we took Moses for a dip in the River Zezere and the kids swam to the other side and back all by themselves. It’s a big full wide river at the moment and although we have swum it a few times together it took a fair bit of courage to do it on their own. Nice one kids. Anyway, while we were there today, I noticed, probably for the first time, how utterly green the surrounding landscape is. Not just one green either. A myriad of greens. The mass of emerald of the deep slow moving wind rippled river. The dark established, near silhouettes, of the pines and eucalyptus against that perfect blue Portuguese sky. The occasional olive trees with their silvery leaves sprinkled sporadically on the higher parts of the steep folding hills nearer the villages. The golden yellowy mottled foliage of the mato or bush of the forest shrubs. And where the forest stops and the river banks begin, there’s a series of clearly demarked variations aligned in stripes of pea green with vivid bright, almost lime green of young meadow like growth on the banks.

Words just don’t do justice to the spectacle I'm afraid. Nor do photos or videos. It could be painted I guess. Although the experience is one of being surrounded on all sides, above you and below. Yet the most surprising thing for me is that I discerned the greenness of it all in the first place. Remarkable actually. Seeing as I’m colour blind. Mainly in the spectrum of greens oddly enough. So for those of you with non dysfunctional sight, it must be an even more impressive breath-taking display from good old mother nature. Gawd bless her.

On the way back from our afternoon splash, we stopped off at our favourite café. Laurinda’s.

Laurinda’s Café in Abitureira

As you know, many of our neighbours are getting on a bit. And as such, they carry a wealth of knowledge and insight that they are gladly passing on to us, green as we are (sorry, had to keep the topic alive somehow) when we need it. But more interesting than what they can teach us, are the people themselves. Real characters. They’ve seen a thing or two. Sometimes, in our chats over a coffee in their houses, or in a stop off for a quick chinwag in the villages, or longer ones over wine in their adegas, or even longer ones like on our fishing trip to Proenca yesterday (where by the way, Eloise caught over 30 fish, more than a kilo, single handedly – Josh would point out here that he’d have caught more but for the fact that he was at a sleep over at a mate’s house) it feels like there would be some pretty interesting books or screenplays that could be written about the drama of their lives over the years.

The variety of interconnectedness in their families, their work at home and abroad, all lived through the changing Portuguese political dictatorships, revolutions, and wider European, African and other historical conflicts, evoke a mysterious realm outside of our own inculcated cultural understanding and experience.

Our arrival here in the midst of them is just another saga to add to their own rich heritage of existence. We are a phenomenon. The English family choosing to move into their neighbourhood (or more accurately, their forest), while their own offspring have chosen to live far, often very far away. To us they are fascinating, intriguing and alluring. And nice. As I expect we might be to them. Although it is not our differences that warrant any specific mention. Our similarities seem to be the underlying force at play here. Our desire to learn from their ways, learn their language and customs. Our predisposition to converse and to help whenever we’re asked, whenever we can. Our passion (well Von’s actually) for growing vegetables and flowers and all things green (sorry couldn’t resist, won’t mention it again, carry on).

One of these cherished neighbours of ours is Laurinda. And as I just mentioned she runs one of the 2 cafés in the nearby village of Abitureira. Laurinda is 72, sprightly with pretty twinkly eyes and an elegant demeanour. Vonnie says, she would be well happy if she could develop even half the gardening skills and energy that Laurinda seems to have. Her husband, 91, is as you’d expect, quite deaf. But instead of shouting to him, she relays the nature of our conversations, when they concern him, by leaning into his vicinity and tenderly whispering into his oversized ears. “Too sweet” as the Bajans say.

Laurinda’s café probably hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years or so. And as such, is a den of quite charming disposition. We visit her weekly, sometimes more often, since she is also our nearest grocery store, where we buy emergency supplies of milk, juice, tinned food, meat or fish from her freezer, or toilet roll to go along with the obligatory coffee and more often than not, a glass of their home made sweet sloe gin beverage known here as Ginginha. But each time we go in, as those who have visited her café with us will remember, the joy of the experience is in the conversations. Each coffee / shopping trip usually lasts at least half an hour, sometimes twice as long, depending on what we find ourselves talking about. She is always so excited and enthusiastic when we take the kids, and when we take our visitors too, especially when they have babies.

There are no babies in her village now. There are no children either. In fact, the youngest resident must be in her late fifties. It’s a shame as she has recalled many fond memories of Abitureira being full of kids and family life. Even had its own school at one time not so long back. Now bereft, she lavishes her affection on our two, and on us as well. It’s an experience to be savoured and one we’ll miss tremendously when the day inevitably comes for her to no longer run it anymore. But while she is, we relish it. And her. Gawd bless her.

Loads else has happened since our last blog entry including another wonderful joint 30th birthday party for Francisco and Raquel (8 months preggers and looking fabulous) at their place down in Gafete, plus the rather posh and extravagant wedding of Pedro and Inês (they own the bar Calado and run the campsite) with 420 people, was a big one. But nothing more on the restoration work on our other houses. Portuguese builders. Gawd bless ‘em.

This week I’m doing teachers’ meetings at the school where I’m having to write reports on each child in Portuguese. It’s stretching me. And that can only be a good thing. Josh is being terrific in making corrections. Looking forward to a summer of improving the lingo with him and Eli.

Von arrives next week and I’ll be able to breathe once again.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Wild Boar and the Parents

You may think these are totally exclusive concepts, wild boar and parents, but maybe not so. My Mum and Dad came out from London last week for a quick 6 day break with us. It was fabulous to have them stay here. Last September they popped over to see what we were doing but unfortunately we didn’t have the space for them with us at the time so they had to stay in the local campsite in Oleiros. This time though, we prepared our place as much as we could for the royal visit so they could both feel safe and comfortable. They helped us too, enormously, by cutting down young mimosa trees to use as bean poles and a grass cutting compost bin. They cleared a couple more parts of the terraces and planted in onions, aubergines, beans and some more sprouting broccoli. And gave Moses lots of attention and early morning walks. Thanks guys, you can come again. Anytime and stay for as long as you want.

In between sessions of helping us about the place my parents both had time to consider what we are doing here and enjoy the pace of life and connectivity to the natural beauty of this place. It was interesting how the experience seemed to stir up their own childhood memories of living in the countryside. For my Dad that was in rural Kent living with his sister, my Aunt Sally, in an orphanage that their mother helped run during and after the second world war. His reflections were interspersed with naming the calls of the abundant bird life here and once or twice mimicking a cuckoo to entice them a little closer. “When I was a boy I once had 6 cuckoos circling around my head doing this.”

For my Mum, she reminisced about her young life in the village of Wrington, Somerset with her family. She said Vonnie regularly reminded her of her own mother. Maybe it was the fags and the early afternoon G & Ts (or the local equivalent called Ginghina made from sloe berries) or perhaps it was because Vonnie had successfully managed to populate our vegetable beds here with pretty scented geraniums that had once started their life as cuttings taken by my Granny for her own garden, from where my Mum took more cuttings for her garden in London, from where we took further cuttings for our garden in Shardeloes Road, and finally emigrated with us to Amieira in central Portugal. It’s amazing how plants can help you to recognise the interconnected nature of all things.

In the middle of their stay, Angel bought them a present one morning, of a live wild rabbit. Poor scared thing was running around under their bed. Angel regularly catches mice, lizards, snakes and birds, bringing them into the house as gifts. I have no idea why cats do that. Maybe they’re not presents at all. Maybe it’s just that cats like to play with their prey, nay torture them, in the comfort of their on home where escape is an unlikely eventuality. Whatever the motivation, we had a rabbit in the house and didn’t know quite what to do with the poor creature. I picked her up, took her outside and tried to calm her down by sitting down, stroking her and covering over her eyes, while we decided her fate. Option 1, to let her go, might result in recapture by the ever present prowling Angel, unsure why we were being so gentle with her conquest. Option 2, put her out of her misery as she was sporting what looked like an injured, possibly broken, leg. Option 3, keep her and nurture her back to health until we could let her go back to the wild with at least even chances of survival. Option 3 it was. Von ran around clearing out a wooden crate, putting in fresh bedding, food and water. When all was arranged, I carried the little rabbit to her new house cum 5 star recovery clinic. No sooner as I laid her on her new bed, did she have a heart attack and died of fright on the spot. Angel?! Please don’t catch rabbits again. But if you must, definitely don’t bring them back in the house. That was the first wild rabbit I’d ever held. And the first creature to die in my arms. Nature can be harsh. No doubt about that. Life is precious and can go at any time.

This morning, Vonnie and I were taking a stroll passed our Adega (small stone cottage used for storage and particularly pressing and making wine, an ancient and central aspect of Portuguese rural culture – “you do not truly know a man until you have fought him” is a line from The Matrix which I transpose to say …”until you have drunk with him in his adega.”) and along the little river. Suddenly the bushes on the other side of the valley began to shudder and there right in front of us, maybe only 50 yards away, passed a family of wild boar along on old overgrown path. A mum, dad, dark brown, enormous, frightening and powerful, followed dutifully in single file by their 8 smaller, but nevertheless impressive, stripy and incredibly cute youngsters. I’d like to see them again one day. Maybe invite them in for a cup of tea.

Although my parents didn’t get to see the wild boar up close and personal as we did this morning, their presence is a good indication of the wildness of our new home. A wilderness that seemed to inspire and evoke so many memories for Mum and Dad. Our 30,000 square metres here is set in the middle of thousands of hectares of unpopulated pine and eucalyptus forest, home to a vast array of wild creatures and birds, of which the wild boar have the freedom to live without fear. Until that is, the annual barbaric boar hunts, with military type men, not usually from anywhere round here (therefore serves no vested interest for protection of land and the such and is just a cruel brutal sport), their guns and their dogs. We suspect the hunts used to happen on our land in the years when no one was living here. Now we are here, we hope the hunters will now have to choose an area much further away from us. In effect we think we’ve created a little gun free reserve for the boar just by living on the land. Bless. Run free little boars. And by the same token, run free Mum and Dad. Don’t forget what you learned to do here. More time spent doing nothing. The rest is really good for you.

Teaching is still going well. Many of the 6 to 10 year olds are making really good progress with their English. Mainly it appears they are learning to have fun with a new language. There are still a few of them that seem to have written off the possibility of ever speaking English because it is too hard. But more games, more songs, more nursery stories, and very soon, I hope, they will forget they ever thought they couldn’t do it because they will be speaking it. We’ll see. But apart from the occasional shout and now and again having to eject one or two out of the class, they are all lovely. Full of energy and ever so adorable.

It’s hot too. And getting hotter. Yesterday, 40 degrees. So the kids and I took Moses for a swim in the big River Zêzere to cool off. Video below. Which means I have a new phone, but have managed to keep the original number of 00351 96 421 9028. Sorry for the confusion this month. Will try not to lose this one. Promise.

Final video is a quick tour of the work around the house. Quality of videos isn’t as good as last phone. But hope you get an idea of how things are looking now.
Taking another dip in the Zezere...
Quick tour of the grounds...

Just had a call from another stone mason. He’s coming to visit us this afternoon to see the work we need to do to our other 2 houses at the top. Let’s hope he comes. Let’s hope he likes it and wants to help us do it. And can do it soon. Here’s hoping. Although I suspect if he is any good we will have to wait a good long while til he can start. But we're getting used to that. Waiting.
Ta ta for now.