Week 22: Valediction

Precision packing by husband

Precision packing by Husband

We said goodbye to Lincolnshire. We didn’t have to say goodbye to Mum; we had already waved her off the day before on her own journey to North Carolina to see my youngest sister. Our small car – no roof rack, no trailer – took a lot of packing. In the same way that work expands to fill the time available to it, our possessions have expanded to fill the space available to them. This is a total of three months’ worth of no-fixed-abode living, with a portable office and a portable bakery among our requirements. The car reached ‘full’ as we got the last thing in.

Ah, not quite. We realised we hadn’t packed the crutches. They are awkward, unbending, uncompromising things. So we left them behind.

Then we had three wonderful days in London as the guests of friends. We squeezed a lot into a little time. A lot of imbibing and a great many goodbyes. Or perhaps I should say, ‘Até logo.’ (Entry-level Portuguese.)

The weather was unseasonably warm in London even to our last day. This morning I got on to the tube in late summer: mild air, pleasant sunshine. I got out of the tube in autumn: wet streets, grey skies, a chill in the air. It seemed a tiny, story-book storm had broken out over the city while I’d been underground and it had changed the season. It was the outer reaches of a hurricane, according to the meteorologists, and although a few flights and ferries across the UK have been cancelled, it doesn’t seem that we will be affected. But we will know for sure tomorrow when we arrive in Portsmouth, from our current stop-off with friends in West Sussex, to catch the ferry to northern Spain.

Change-of-address cards fresh from the printer

Change-of-address cards fresh from the printer

Week 21: Leg log

Hi, Artbot. I know how you feel. Been in need of a rest myself lately

Hi, Artbot. I know how you feel. Been in need of a rest myself lately

I admit to having been weary lately. The goal, that lovely house in the Algarve, has felt further away, not closer. Here there seems to be an endless list of things to do; none of them onerous, but all of them time-filling. The weather turned dreadful: low, white skies and constant precipitation from drizzle to hailstones like marbles. And there’s been the Leg. It sometimes feels like this has become a blog about a leg. (A bleg?) Needless to say, none of this has been easy for the owner of the Leg. While you are forced to go about on crutches, you lose the use of your hands. This means you have to rely on someone else to fetch and carry. This is no fun for the owner of the Leg, and it’s not much fun for the Fetcher and Carrier either.

On top of all this comes work. But I love my work, and the three authors I’ve been editing lately have all been, in their own vastly different ways, a delight. One of them I had a meeting with this week, but the other two I haven’t yet met, in spite of being on my seventh (?) book with one of them. That’s by way of reminding myself that being in the Algarve won’t make any difference to my work, not once I’ve got the internet connection established anyway.

Then came more good news about the Leg. It is still not yet eight weeks since the operation, which was initially the period during which Husband was not to use the Leg at all. There was a reprieve – only six weeks post-op he was told he could start putting weight gently on the toes. Now, another visit to the fracture clinic, and the all-clear. Back to normal leg work, as much as he feels capable of. It will take time to build the muscle back up, but there are no medical restrictions. The crutches can be used for confidence or in case of tiredness, but should otherwise be cast aside. It’s that speed-healing vegetarian diet, must be. Not to mention all the care and consideration from Wife and Mother-in-law . . .

Next, an email from First Friends, who had been on a walk to our house, and told us that the bougainvillea is blossoming again and the pomegranate tree has fruit. The air, after light rain, was fragrant of pine and eucalyptus.

Our spirits have lifted.

By the time of next week’s blog, we will be waiting to board the ferry to Bilbao.

Cannot leave off this week without some bread

Cannot leave off this week without some bread

Week 16: Taking a break

Something of a detour: from East London to the Eastern Algarve via the East Midlands. The sale completed successfully last Wednesday. Rather than a cause of joy, it was simply the end of torment. I arrived at my mum’s in a fully laden car – everything we need for the next two to three months – with my niece at the wheel. I don’t like driving, so I was very grateful to her. The next day was the first anniversary of my father’s death. We drank the Krug we’d kept to toast him with, but we preferred the mead Dad had made from his own honey twenty-four years earlier.

When I started this blog, I expected to muse about the prospect of changing countries and trying out a different life; I expected many challenges, but for them to come from the Portuguese side. No doubt difficulties are yet to come, but so far buying a house in Portugal has been a story of pleasant cooperation and charming efficiency, while selling a flat in London has been a story of inexplicable legal inefficiency and pointless, long-drawn-out nervous tension. And then there was a motorcycle accident thrown into the mix.

Now we are spending a few weeks in rural England, with my mum. We are in an old-fashioned village beloved of 1940s re-enactors and commemorators of the second world war. The Dambusters Squadron operated from here in 1944 and 1945. Lancaster bombers occasionally fly overhead. We are near the RAF station where they are housed (one permanently, one is on a visit); they are apparently the only two airworthy Lancasters left. Their flight path is directly over my mother’s house and they come low enough to appear to skim the treetops. You can either hear them or see them. Hearing them is wonderful. Their beautiful sound enters and fills the house. Or you run out and watch them overhead, almost close enough to touch. My husband, who is German, observes the British obsession with the war with mild detachment.

My promise at the beginning of this blog was to write once a week, unless a fox takes me out. A fox has not taken me out, but has done severe damage to Husband’s knee. So I’m taking a few weeks out, while he recovers, and while I do too. We visited London on Monday for an appointment at the fracture clinic. It gave me a pang to be in London so briefly and as a non-resident. London still has a small hold over me. The news was positive: two weeks have been taken off the time in which he cannot put weight on his knee, reducing it from eight weeks to six. That means, from now, just three and a half weeks to go. He got to see, via x-ray, the extraordinarily clever scaffolding put in to hold the knee together. It was a good day.

Please see the subscription widget, which I have managed to reinstate, and do sign up for the next post (if you are not already signed up). I shall take up our story again in October when Husband is back on two legs and we are finally on our way to our house in the Algarve.

Our house in the Algarve: front terrace

Our house in the Algarve: front terrace

Our house in the Algarve: the garden

Our house in the Algarve: the garden

Week 15: Action

I’m typing this sitting on the floor of an empty flat. On Wednesday evening our solicitor phoned us to tell us contracts had been exchanged. Confirmation in writing, via email, came on Friday. On Thursday Husband made it, with my help, to his office where he delivered a leaving speech while leaning on crutches and with the additional support of a wall. He was very happy to be able to say his goodbyes. On Saturday he and I travelled by train to my mum’s house – a bungalow: what joy! – where he will convalesce, then I returned to London. I now had 32 hours before the packers arrived. I managed to work for 24 of these hours. (Thank god for years of yoga practice. Makes you strong.)

Parking restriction went up on Thursday. I used to believe - many years ago - that one shouldn't own more than could be fit into a rucksack. Now we need three parking bays for a pantechnicon

Parking restriction went up on Thursday. I used to believe – many years ago – that one shouldn’t own more than could be fit into a rucksack. Now we need three parking bays for a pantechnicon

Living room

All my hard work resulted in a flat ready for the packers: living room . . .

Top landing

top landing . . .

. . . study

. . . study, and the rest . . .

Arrival of pantechnicon on Monday morning

Arrival of pantechnicon on Monday morning

Just a few hours later

Just a few hours later and much has already been done


On my return on Tuesday: an empty flat. Hard to capture in pictures, but you get the idea

Bread can still be made by Husband on one leg, I'm happy to report

Bread can still be made by Husband on one leg, I’m happy to report; the last loaf made in our London home

Goodbye, London! Now we really are leaving.

Week 7: The joy of desk

deskThis rather unlovely beast is my desk and has been mine for more than twenty years. I reckon I’ve edited upwards of 800 books at this desk. And it’s as well for me to remember, amid all the excitement of flat-selling and house-buying and dreams of sunshine and citrus, that this is really what my life is about: many hours of labour at this particular coalface. What has been fantastic is the reaction of my publishing colleagues (I probably should call them clients, but I’d rather not) to my move, which has been entirely positive. Excitement for me at our adventure, and no concern over the greater working distance.

The desk itself is of particular importance. It might not be considered beautiful by many, but I love it and have done all my best work at it. It is a piece of ex-MOD (Ministry of Defence) furniture, picked from a warehouse sale in Lincolnshire in the early 1990s. Its being MOD furniture of a certain era means several things: it’s made of solid oak; it’s designed for transport – more on that in a moment – and it’s reminiscent of my childhood.

At the age of six or seven, I believed that the RAF uniform was the universal uniform of Fathers. I was surprised to encounter a schoolmate whose father was not in the RAF; I thought that a most odd kind of father to have. Now I know it’s more the other way round: it’s growing up in RAF quarters with oaken MOD furniture and moving every two or three years that could be considered odd. But I never minded it. I loved living in the Middle East (though barely remembered, I was so small) and Cyprus; I loved packing up and moving every so often. That’s partly why I’m so excited now. I’ve suppressed my nomadic nature for too long. The thirteen years we have spent in this flat is longer by a factor of four than I’ve ever lived at any address. And I need to go back to the sun.

wing nutLook at this! Simple wing nuts hold the desk legs firm. They are easily removed, and the legs fit into those special compartments under the top, again held in place by wing nuts. When it comes to deciding what to take with us, this is a dead cert. This desk goes with me wherever.


This is my dad in Aden in off-duty uniform, on the left. (He added the caption many decades later.) I love this photograph. The Yemeni man in his smart uniform had requested the picture, but I’m not sure by whom it was taken since my father still has his camera around his neck. Anyway, it was, and it’s in our family collection. I love it that my dad could cover that cultural gulf – where it was so natural for Arab men to hold hands but so awkward for Englishmen – and look pretty cool and comfortable with it.

Next week

We’ll be back in the Algarve, where we have meetings with the Sensibles, our agent, our lawyer and a tax adviser. We also very much hope to meet up with First Friends, the people we stayed with when we first came to Portugal, and whom we’ve seen on every visit since.


First Friends’ dog: normal chair, very small canine

Week 5: Husband

Husband and bread oven

Husband inspecting bread oven of Sensible House

I really wasn’t expecting what came next. It came via the medium of a phone call from Herr Sensible to Husband, our agent having given him the number. We are currently on holiday in Italy, celebrating our wedding anniversary. So it happened that we were emerging from the ancient painted Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia, which are so beautiful and touching that they make your heart ache, while also being in places slightly reminiscent of 1950s wallpaper, when Herr Sensible rang. Husband took shelter from the rain to take the call, while I went to buy postcards.

It turned out that the owners of the Sensible House had wanted to speak to us directly in order to let us know, unequivocally, that the additional land, some 2,600 square metres, was included in the sale, even though it was not in the estate agent’s details, and that it made no difference to the asking price.

I was incredulous at first, but Husband confirmed. They want to tell us much more about the house, too, which they would like to do face to face, and was there any chance we would be in the Algarve again soon? We don’t need much encouragement. We booked flights and accommodation straight away.

Hochzeitsturm, Darmstadt, Germany, on our wedding day

Hochzeitsturm, Darmstadt, Germany, on our wedding day

Why Portugal?

Italy is where we spent our first ever holiday together, and also our honeymoon (that’s our wedding on the right), not to mention a good many other holidays, which raises the question, why didn’t we want to move to Italy? I hope to be able to explain this one day, but for now, in answer to, ‘Why Portugal?’, I can only say:

It just is.

It feels right.

It might be that the same centrifugal force that sends me to the edge of the room at parties is also spinning me to the outer reaches of the continent.

But for no one does it feel more right than for Husband. Never have I seen him so happy and so relaxed, and so sure of what we are doing. On the day he handed in his resignation, he told me he experienced a feeling like stepping out into a void. That was short-lived. As soon as the resignation was accepted, he began to relax. He’s like something squashed that slowly regains its shape. He has not a moment of doubt, and I’m glad, because I sometimes do. For now, however, everything seems to be falling into place. We have agreed a sum with the owners of the Sensible House that is slightly below their original asking price, and leaves us with enough spare to do the things we need to do, such as putting in a satellite internet connection, and maybe turning the annexe into a bakehouse.

Week 4: Sense and Sensibleness

We made an offer on the Sensible House. The house’s location is perfect for us, and it has plenty of land and views of hills. And a little way up the hill behind it – our hill – is an old threshing circle, which I’m already thinking of as our star-gazing platform. The circle is well worn and broken up, but we could have it paved in Santa Catarina tiles, the baked-earth tiles named after our nearest village; around the village are several small tile-making factories. (The village’s full name is Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, which is a long name for small place.) In the picture you can make out, just right of dead centre, a wooden structure. That sits on the star-gazing circle.


Garden of Sensible House

All this has been enabled by the sale of our flat in the East End of London.

How to sell a flat . . .

1. Live in London.

2. That’s it.

Having said that, it is a lovely flat. We could have sold it six times over. All the offers were at or above the sale price.

The sale price was not inconsiderable. Our nest, which we’d so carefully looked after and loved, turned out to be our nest egg. As fast as London seemed to turn on us and tell us it was time to go, it also gave us the means to do so.

We have filled in pages and pages of forms for our solicitors in the UK. Portuguese bureaucracy is often much complained about, but I think we can hold our own in the UK. There’s certainly a lot more paperwork than when I was last involved in a property transaction, thirteen years ago. We have not met our buyer. Matters seem to be progressing satisfactorily, but nothing is certain before exchange.

. . . and buy a house

And we are waiting to hear from the owners of the Sensible House. All we know so far is that a complication has arisen. It seems that the owners had added a new parcel of land to the property, which wasn’t in the agent’s sales details. This suggests that it was not included in the asking price. Perhaps it would be better to do this Bitter Lemons style (see Week 3), after all. The agent and the owner could face each other across a table, fulminating and declaiming and insulting each other and each other’s families until an acceptable asking price is reached, while we sit to one side affecting not to want the house at all.

The Sunday before last, while we were still in the Algarve, I left my handbag in the Sensible House. I’d like to think it was an omen, except that I was so overexcited I managed also to leave my handbag behind in another house on the same day. When we returned to the Sensible House, it was some time since we’d left – it took me a while to realize I’d left the bag behind – and the house was clearly shut up. We walked around the back: nothing, and no one. Then we returned to the front and found this note on the door.

noteThe owners had gone out to lunch, to a restaurant we already know, and had taken the bag with them. I collected my bag from them somewhat embarrassedly; we declined their offers of wine and went on to see the other houses on our list that day. For some reason, though, that note charmed me. It might have been that it was addressed ‘Dear Married Couple’, which I find sweet, especially as it is our anniversary next week. Perhaps this will all work out well. We have to wait and see.

Week 3: How to buy a house


To get into the mood for our house-buying trip to Faro, I re-read a chapter of one of my favourite pieces of travel writing, Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell. It’s set in Cyprus, and I have a first edition, from 1957.

book3On the day of his transaction, Durrell was to act as though he did not want the house, while his agent and the house’s owner, the cobbler’s wife, faced each other across a negotiating table. On the table sat a great key. Each participant took it in turns to claim, counter-claim, declaim, expostulate and fulminate, during which the key was pushed to and fro, lifted and banged back down on the table, to the point where Durrell feared it would be beyond the opening of any door. The duel took all day, and ancestors living – clustered outside – and dead were called upon. At the end came a slow car-chase, during which the seller’s grandfather is skittled into a ditch. He is unharmed.

Agreement on price is reached, a thumbprint secures the deal, and amiability settles on all involved.

Then I got over myself. Buying a house in the Algarve in 2014 would be nothing like that. We had searched extensively online, been in touch with four multilingual, multinational, professional agents and made appointments to view ‘properties’, not ‘houses’. The chances were quite high that we would not buy from anyone Portuguese. The old quintas (farmhouses) have generally been renovated by foreigners, no doubt while the puzzled Portuguese looked on having pocketed a tidy sum (though it’s all relative) for a pile of rocks and a piece of land. We were not in the market for a ruin. We have none of the required skills, and we want to do other things with our time. We love the traditional architecture of the Algarve, but we want someone else to have done the hard work, for which we will be handing over a more than tidy sum.

We left our London bed at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, and returned to it at 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and in between these times we fell in love with two houses.


practical house

Rear terrace of Sensible House


Front terrace of Sensible House

1.) The Sensible House. The setting is perfect, the size and layout too, and it’s in a valley we particularly like. The renovation project was undertaken by a now elderly German couple, for whom the house and garden have become too much work. The house is mostly a new build on an old footprint of three adjacent cottages. We spent some very enjoyable hours with them learning about everything they had done. They did not cut any corners. Oh no – these firmly right-angled corners have strong foundations and are made good for many decades to come. The cane and eucalyptus ceilings were dispensed with in favour of insulated concrete where no insect could lurk. The outside is unadorned. It is sehr, sehr praktisch.

For: The surrounding garden is beautiful. We can make the house pretty; we can make it ours. It’s very good value. It has a bread oven.

Against: Internet access is uncertain. (The owners didn’t need it, and the setting is quite remote.) We might need a satellite connection.

No pool, so we’d need to get a licence for one and then build it.

Summary: Head winning over heart.


Mosaic housepool2) The Mad House. A beautiful, old, renovated, stone-built quinta. Where the Sensible House has eschewed decoration, this house has gone crazy for it, and not just a beautiful reworking of traditional themes, but also a crazy Gaudí meets Niki de Saint Phalle luscious over-the-topness, especially inside. No right angles; it is all curves. It is utterly uplifting. However, the original quintas were built of stone direct on earth, sucking up the moisture from below. Will there be tears in years to come as the plaster blows and the mosaic pieces tinkle to the floor?

For: Sheer delight. Also good internet access and a pool.

Against: Top of our budget. Not easy to maintain?

Summary: Heart winning over head.





Forty years since the Carnation Revolution when Portugal got rid of its dictator, Salazar.

A final note for today. We have engaged a Portuguese lawyer for our purchase. He spent two hours with us outlining the process with clarity and precision, in English. He digressed briefly to talk about culture, and about being born after the revolution but still feeling the shadow of the dictatorship. He is not expensive. Back at home our English conveyancing solicitor sent us a proforma letter that bears little relation to our sale. We spent five minutes over the phone discussing this; he apologised and blamed his secretary. He is expensive. English is his mother tongue.

Week 2: Spreading the news

From time to time chilly doubt creeps over me. The day after we arrived with my in-laws in the Odenwald was one such time. We hadn’t yet broken the news, and as I rehearsed our reasons to myself they began to sound rather weak. Why were we doing this?

Rye sourdoughWe’d arrived with a loaf of Husband’s rye sourdough bread, and that went down very well. (A German audience is demanding when it comes to bread, all family loyalty aside.) Then Husband chose his time carefully. Over a convivial lunch in the flower-filled garden on what was the first sunny afternoon they had had for a while, he briefly outlined the multiple stresses of his work, then described the plan.

‘You’re going to quit your job?’

‘I’ve already resigned.’

‘You’re going to sell the flat?’

‘It’s already sold.’*

A moment of silence.

‘Well, I’m all in favour of that.’ (Mother-in-law.)

‘It’s your life. You should enjoy it!’ (Father-in-law.)

‘I’m so happy for you. I think I knew how stressed you were becoming.’ (Mother-in-law.)

A hearty thumbs-up from fellow guests, Husband’s uncle and aunt, a slew of advice on how to choose the right home, and many questions about how to set up a baking business – since the baking plan is growing by the day. Plus recollections of holidays in Portugal: how nice the people were, how beautiful the landscape.

Of course it’s a great idea. Did I say I ever doubted it?

Now we need to find somewhere to live in the Algarve. Next stop: Faro airport. It’s becoming high season, so flights are expensive unless you travel at very unsociable hours – so that is what we will be doing.

V&T Mohn

* We sold our flat in a trice. (More on that later, unless I decide the whole London housing thing is too distasteful for words.)

Week 1: All about resignation

What a duplicitous word, ‘resignation’. Does it mean we have given ourselves up to fate, slumped back in our chairs to see what happens next? No! We are making the changes, and this week has seen the big one. My husband has handed in his resignation. (That kind of resignation.) He spent some time drafting the letter on his laptop, and I think quite a few years drafting it in his head. It was only when he felt himself finished that he showed it to me. It was two pages of A4, firm, clear, honest, passionately argued. I admit I didn’t realize how much he had been putting up with, and I was moved by it. And proud, too, of his honesty and clarity. I’d quite like to include the letter here, but I’d have to redact too much of it, and Husband probably wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Thunder clapped over London on the day he handed it in, matching the powerful beating of my heart.

There’s only one way to respond to a resignation letter like that. To accept it, graciously. And did they?

Yes, they did.

Irreversibility is setting in. That is to say, we could probably still put everything into reverse, but there’d be lots of sounding of hooters, expletives and red faces if we did.

The next two steps are:
a) selling our flat;
b) telling my in-laws what we’re up to.


Telling my lovely in-laws that their son has packed in His Brilliant Career that they are so proud of, and that we’re off to bake bread (their son) and edit books (daughter-in-law) in a country neither of us has spent more than ten days in, is our next big thing. Migration is not a theoretical topic for my in-laws. In the upheavals in Europe during and after the Second World War they migrated twice, involuntarily. Austria, their first port of call, would not make them citizens and, when the economy slowed down, stripped my father-in-law of his job to give it to a native. Germany gave them citizenship in the 1950s. The United States offered citizenship too; the Americans were generous to shattered Europe and its refugees. For my father-in-law the choice was made clear by his beautiful young bride-to-be: marry and stay, or go with his brothers to America and leave her behind. He chose to marry and stay. My parents-in-law have been happy in Germany, I’m glad to say. In a few days’ time we’re flying to Frankfurt to see them so we can tell them face to face what our plans are. It just wasn’t something we could do over the phone.


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