Wild flower meadows are all around now. The eye focuses on the spots of colour: blues, reds and purples in particular, while the soothing green background is lulled out. To the camera, however, the flowers recede and the green dominates. The only way to appreciate a wild flower meadow is to be right in it, so I can’t share it with you easily. We went for a walk on Sunday with friends and picnicked amid wild gladiolus and lavender. The next day, in Tavira, we saw that the bridge and the churches had been strewn with lavender in lieu of palm. Even after a day of being rained on and trodden on, the sprigs were still fragrant.
Last Friday the biggest lorry I’ve ever seen in our valley arrived and wedged itself – remarkably, without any harm done to walls – between our house and the neighbours in front. A vast arm extended itself over the carob tree – again, without damage to a leaf – and the pouring of the concrete into the framework for the pool began. I was a little horrified. I’ve begun to feel slightly uncomfortable about the pool. It seems rather indulgent. And then all the noise and mess involved in building it. Well, I decided to cross the river and visit the two houses on the other side: to explain what was going on, and to apologise for the noise in case it was amplified over there. This is not the first time ‘sorry’ has been on my lips, but I chose to go for a new phrase I found on Google translate, just in case it was better/politer/nicer. However, on the way across the river two of the consonants switched themselves around in my head. The first conversation, with a Portuguese old lady in a hat, fit as fiddle by all appearances, went something like this.
‘I agolopise for the noise.’
‘I agolopise for the noise.’
‘I’ve got no idea what you’re on about. Do you live across the river?’
‘Are you English?’
‘I’m the only Portuguese left here now. Everyone’s English. I’m only here to feed the cats.’ At this point she took a stick to an orange tree. ‘I get the oranges as my reward.’ She stooped to the floor and filled a bag with the fallen oranges, then left the house and went away up the path, reminding me – in a cheerful and only slightly disgruntled way – that she was the only Portuguese left.
The other house is indeed occupied by English, so communication was easier. The inhabitant of the first house, they told me, was very old and ill in hospital and unlikely ever to come home. The old lady I met, Silvina, looked after the house; she lived further up the lane. And along this particular lane, which goes from the right bank of the river down to the nearest village, Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, the exit of the old Portuguese population does now seem to be entire, Silvina excepted. Thankfully it’s not so on our side of the river. Portuguese still outnumber foreigners in our little community, but rural evacuation is nothing new, and the Câmara (the town/county council) wants to do something about it. I know because I’ve been reading, slowly and painfully, their policy documents ahead of a public consultation. It seems to me they seem to fail in one of the most obvious things they could do: raise the status – and value – of local food. Make it easier for people to bring their produce to market by reducing the paperwork involved, so that oranges, pomegranates, quince, cactus fruit and so on have a value in the marketplace and don’t get to fall neglected to the ground here in the serra, while supermarkets sell imported fruit in sealed plastic (including, irony of ironies, imported cactus fruit, marketed as ‘exotic’, when in a matter of weeks we’ll be knee-deep in the prickly things right here). So I’ve got to find a way of saying that in Portuguese, in writing, as my contribution to the debate.
While I try to poke about in the Câmara’s business, they’ve been poking about in ours. No sooner had the building of our pool begun than a Battleaxe from the Câmara turned up unannounced. Unannounced apart from the phone call five minutes up the lane wanting to know where on earth we were exactly. The Battleaxe, and her more pleasant sidekick, got out their measuring tapes and stomped about the building site in a rather officious way. The thing is, the pool is totally legal. We have a building licence, the pool is being built according to plan, we’re even taking up the back terrace to reduce our built area, all exactly as we’re supposed to. It’s only a little pool, for Heaven’s sake. The Battleaxe couldn’t find anything wrong but she warned us she’d be keeping a close eye on the whole process and we’d better do it right or we’d be fined. Of course, if we were Portfuel, and wanted to lay waste to the entire serra with a hydraulic fracking operation, that, apparently, would be absolutely fine.
Now, I’m being slightly unfair here. The Câmara don’t want this any more than we do. It is the imposition of the previous national government, and the current one isn’t doing anything to stop the oil companies. Now the combined mayors of the Câmaras of the Algarve are looking into a legal route to try to stop the madness. I hope they succeed.