Yearly Archive: 2014

Week 32: Horse

Boxing Day bread

Boxing Day bread array

The mystery horse on the path down to the river from in front of our house

A mystery horse on the path down to the river from in front of our house


On 21 December, a horse moved into our spot in the valley. I’ve never had anything to do with horses and I was a little wary of him; he seemed unperturbed by me. I assumed an owner was near by.

The next day, and the day after, the horse was still there with no owner in sight. Puzzling. He didn’t look very young; perhaps he was no longer required. Had he been abandoned? I was no longer wary but concerned for him. I’d approached him and he’d come towards me. He seemed so mild and gentle for such a massive creature. I reasoned he couldn’t have been abandoned. Not only did he look well cared for, his mane nicely trimmed, but also it would be impossible to cast off a horse without anyone knowing about it. In every fold of these valleys there is a house, and the people – certainly the Portuguese, and probably the foreigners as well – know everything that goes on.

‘I see you’ve bought a horse,’ said Eleuterio.

It was Christmas Eve and he had come to give us gifts: his own olive oil in an old bourbon bottle and a loaf of Maria’s freshly made bread, still warm. I was so touched I could hardly speak. I can say little enough in Portuguese as it is. Husband explained about the horse mystery and Eleuterio began to puzzle it out.

Gifts from Eleuterio and Maria on Christmas Eve

Gifts from Eleuterio and Maria on Christmas Eve

He returned later with a bucket of beautiful deep-orange oranges, having established that we didn’t already have a glut of our own. We have plenty of grapefruit and lemons, but few oranges. Then he and Husband went to work on the pump at the well by the river: Husband provided the new materials, Eleuterio the expertise and labour. (More on pumps and water issues to come.)

Later still on Christmas Eve we heard a tinkle from one of the two tiny ceramic bells that hang from the pomegranate trees in front as our concession towards seasonal decoration. Eleuterio again, and he had worked it out: the son and daughter-in-law of the Sensibles had lived here for a while and she had had a horse. She sold it; the man who bought it couldn’t afford the upkeep so he’d brought it back and quietly dropped it off, mistaking who we were.

We went to sleep on Christmas Eve wondering what on earth you do with a horse. I woke up on Christmas Day thinking: horses like carrots. I went down the path towards the river and looked for Horse. When I found him, I called him over; he came, huge head hanging low. I was too scared at first to feed him the carrots directly, but I got braver. He took the food infinitely gingerly from my hand. I began to understand how people can love horses.

Horse coming to me for food for the first time

Christmas Day: Horse coming to me for food for the first time

Back in the house, we heard the sound of people coming up our road. It’s a dead end and no one comes here unless to see us (or our holidaying neighbours, when they are here; we haven’t met them yet) or because they’ve taken a wrong turn. The three English people apologised for disturbing us on Christmas Day, then:

‘Have you by any chance seen a horse?’

So we learnt on Christmas Day that a horse called – unbelievably – Jingle had, four days earlier, shed his horse collar, jumped the fence and run off. He lived two kilometres away. Judging by the timing, he had come straight here. And why not? This is such a lovely spot, with pasture to graze and water to drink. Clever Horse.

They’d been looking for him ever since and now, at last, had found him. I felt sad, but there was nothing for it.

Except that when we came back from Christmas lunch, Horse was still here. The owner had given us his number and I phoned him; they hadn’t been able to capture him.

By Boxing Day we were out of carrots and apples. I went down to the river anyway to see Horse. He heard me coming and emerged from the morning mist over the river, backlit by the rising sun.

Boxing Day morning. 'What, no carrots?'

Boxing Day morning. ‘What, no carrots?’

We were out for the day, things to do, not least getting in horse-catering supplies, and as soon as we got back I went to see him, this time with morsels to feed him.

Getting back with food for Horse on Boxing Day evening

Getting back with carrots for Horse on Boxing Day evening

And so it has been every day since then. I feed Horse morsels, and I worry about him. Is he all right? Is he hungry? Is he lonely? Has he decided to go somewhere else? One day the hunt came by and Horse shot off. I was abject. Two hours later he was back. The next day some rather aggressive dogs chased him off. An hour later he was back, unruffled. I mostly call him ‘Horse’ and he answers to that. Now, if I walk down to the river he comes to say hello even if I haven’t got a bag of carrot pieces – though I often have. I also talk to his owner, who visits him twice a day, bringing hay and horse pellets, trying to pick the right moment to get the horse collar back on and take him home.

I promised to write about the important issues of water and fuel but at the moment I am preoccupied with Horse. I hope for a happy ending, which will ultimately be Horse back where he belongs – just not quite yet, please.

Horse under an alfarroba (carob) tree. He shelters under these trees at night

Horse under an alfarroba (carob) tree. He shelters under these trees at night

Week 31: Boas festas

Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo

Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo



Flaviano's emporium

Flaviano’s emporium


We had another visit from a telecoms engineer, this time wanting to check that everything was OK with the installation; also to tell us that three telegraph posts will at some point have to be replaced because of woodpeckers. We asked him about how to pay – we hadn’t had a bill yet. ‘Oh, one day it will come,’ he said. ‘As we like to say here in Portugal, when it comes to paying and dying, the later the better.’ Since then we have had a bill, and mysteriously it is in credit.

All is well at our other centre of communications: Flaviano’s shop. We picked up a nice fat bundle of post and were treated to his singing, dancing Father Christmas model. I caught some of it on my phone. The background chuckle, which should belong to Santa, is Flaviano’s.

Father Christmas dancing

Used-car salesmen

Husband bought a second-hand four-wheel-drive car a few weeks ago, a silver Suzuki jeep. He loves it. It had one tiny problem, however: it needed a spare key, which was ordered by the salesman from the relevant supplier but never arrived. Husband chased up and the salesman, Marcelino, was full of apologies. The only way to get the new key, it seemed – because it involved a microchip in the steering column – was to take the car to the key supplier. Marcelino offered to do this for us, and so two used-car salesmen were among our visitors this week. They arrived in the dark and needed some help to find us, here no fim do mundo, at the end of the world. ‘You want to hide, don’t you?’ they said. They returned with the Suzuki the next day, and this time, seeing our valley in the daylight, they were enchanted, I could tell. They were two boys on an outing and they loved it. It must be very different here to the built-up area they live in by the coast.

Some half an hour after they’d left our place, we got in the jeep to run some errands and caught up with them. We couldn’t understand how it had taken them so long to drive up out of the valley. We saw them pull into a layby and, thinking they’d done so because we were behind them, we stopped alongside: in the road, as the custom is here. The pair of them looked up in surprise. They had handfuls of perfect, tiny, red medronho fruit and were eating them with guilty relish. That Portuguese people can find our place so special was very pleasing to me.

Medronho tree

Medronho tree


Our friend Mike, who is vastly knowledgeable about birds, emailed me after the last blog and confirmed what I wasn’t sure of, that the redstart I wrote about is a black redstart (for any bird-lovers out there). He also told me something I hadn’t known about the azure-winged magpie, so exotic in its colours and so commonplace here. (Husband counted thirty-two in one noisy, twittering flock a couple of days ago.) It seems the bird has two points of distribution, one on the Iberian Peninsula and one in China, but nothing between. Are they two outposts of a once continuous range, or were birds brought over from China by Portuguese sailors and merchants in the sixteenth or seventeenth century? Recent fossil evidence from Gibraltan caves has begun to suggest a natural distribution and an ice-age separation but isn’t conclusive.

All is calm in azure-winged land. In town (Tavira), there is no sign of pre-Christmas panic-shopping. Here at the end of the world, just in time for Christmas, we have mastered the water (filling up the cistern from the well) and gas supply: more on that next week.

Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas. Boas festas.


A levain


Week 30: Back home

View from the study. On the left, the small bowl the redstart drinks from

Midday view from the study. On the left, the small bowl the redstart drinks from

Our olives, laid down by Husband

Our olives, laid down by Husband

By ‘back home’ I mean ‘back in Portugal’. We spent the last week with family in Germany. It was lovely, though I had to spend too long in the glare of my laptop. Sometimes the portability of work feels like less of a good thing. This was my first time to leave Frankfurt airport and fly south to go ‘home’ instead of flying Londonwards. It does feel like home here, and we are happy to be back.

It’s 17.43 as I type, and we’ve been out to see our owl (Athene noctua). It arrived silently today, but after it had flown off again we distinctly heard its call and the answering call of another owl.

Another well-loved bird is the redstart. From my study I have a view over the front terrace, and I keep a small bowl filled with water there. It was empty when we got home from Germany, so I refilled it. The redstart soon came by and bobbed a couple of curtsies in my direction, as it always does, then drank. It rather cheekily made its way into the house a couple of weeks ago, forcing aside the netting on a window to get in. When I found it, it looked terrified, unable to get out again and hurling itself repeatedly against the mesh, dropping lots of poo on the windowsill in fear. I let it out; it seemed to recover quickly from its fright.

Having been away, I have little to tell this week. We had a storm last night, cold little gusts making their way into the house. We woke up today to clouds in the sky for the first time. Azure-winged magpies were fluttering their beautiful fawn and blue colours across the garden, as though the wind had torn through a fancy department store, ripped fine silk scarves and thrown them to the breezes.

Staying warm

Staying warm


Week 29: ‘Nothing but blue skies’

‘Blue skies smiling at me’

‘Blue skies smiling at me’



A levain - my favourite bread

A levain – my favourite bread

I won’t go on about this. I’ll just mention it quickly and move on. For the past week we have had blue skies all day, every day. And since there’s so little air traffic, there are no vapour trails to spoil the colour either.

The post

We collect our post from a shop up on the top road, from an old man called Flaviano. It’s not just a shop, it’s also a bar, a cement-mixing workshop, and, in a cavern in the back, a kind of neglected sorting office. Flaviano is a fairly recent widower and it might be that when his wife was alive he looked rather smarter. As it is, he wears the same baggy trousers with uneven turn-ups every day I see him. But who cares? He still has a zest for life and a taste for a joke. He is usually leaning on his bar/shop counter, chatting with his cronies. He serves cold port for about 50 pence a shot, and Husband and I like to stop for a drink from time to time to keep in with him and to relish the contents of his shop. He stocks almost everything, from bars of soap to jars of chickpeas and fly swats. Most of these items sit singly on the shelves, with space between that is much feted by spiders.

It was just after our olive-harvesting efforts that we dropped in on Flaviano and I looked with new eyes at the yellow comb-like things hanging next to the fly swats. These were combs for harvesting olives, no doubt about it. I extracted one on its rusty wire from the encompassing spiders’ webs. This led to some chatter among the old men. Did we realise what it was for? Did we also realise it was too late for the olive press, which had closed for the season, and that the olives were now virtually over anyway? We did, and I wanted it anyway. Flaviano, who has very few teeth, took off his hat – demonstrating that he has even less hair than teeth – to mime an alternative use for the comb in the meantime. He has a face that is transformed by laughter.

From the cavern at the back we have so far retrieved much post, so the system seems to be working all right, for letters and cards at least (packages are another story – we do not know where they end up). When I say we have retrieved much post, I should say that it has been ours. Although really you could help yourself to anyone’s.

The olive comb. We have since bought a long wooden handle for it, and I shall scratch down the last few olives, the ones we missed, when I get the chance

The olive comb. We have since bought a long wooden handle for it, and I shall scratch down the last few olives, the ones we missed, when I get the chance

Little owl

Every day at about 17.35 we hear the mournful lament of a little owl. We go outside to try to get a good view of it on its habitual post. Against the darkening skies, it is never possible to see its full beauty – though it is, indisputably, beautiful. It mewls its complaint for a few moments and then flies off. It is one of the many wonderful birds here.

Week 28: Connected

Estrela. She’s uncertain of herself unless she has Lordy at her side

Estrela. She’s uncertain of herself unless she has Lordy at her side

The river is back

The river is back

The point at which, one day, we decided to turn the car round and not ford the river after all

The point at which we decided to turn the car round and not ford the river that day

Telecoms engineers were to come again on Saturday. The new appointment was prefaced by several mobile phone calls and text messages, and the engineers turned up very promptly at nine in the morning. They looked like another uncle–nephew combination, but as they were less forthcoming with familial information and world-views than the previous pair, we didn’t find out. ‘The connection isn’t complete. We need more cable to be installed. We’ll come back later.’

Fair enough. We decided to go for coffee and pastry, and to check emails. The road up from our valley – the long way round, when not fording the river – is a 2-kilometre dirt track. Until this day, we’d never passed anyone coming the other way. Today, we saw a truck up ahead. We pulled aside and waited for them to bounce past. They had two telegraph poles in the back. This looked promising.

On the top road, we saw our two engineers coming back. In the Portuguese style, both vehicles stopped dead in the road to discuss the matter. We had plenty of time to go for a coffee, they said. They didn’t need to get back into our house for an hour or so.

More and more promising.

A bica, a sticky pastry and many emails later, we went home. On the way back down the dirt track we saw the truck we’d seen earlier, and a man up a telegraph pole fixing a cable. Excitedly, I took a photo, then we drove by – over part of our cable, which was lying in the track – and carried on down. The linemen were not far behind us. In no time at all, our landline and wifi were operational. This small miracle was delivered very calmly by the engineers and the linemen, who did not apparently think it was miraculous at all. Our internet connection is slow, but I’m still very happy. And in the end we didn’t have to ask our agent to work on our behalf either. It all just happened.

‘I am a lineman for the county’

‘I am a lineman for the county’

They left with the same number of telegraph poles they arrived with, so I guess we had the complete set already

They left with the same number of telegraph poles they arrived with, so I guess we had the complete set already

Olive harvest

We have one olive tree dropping fruit. The other olive trees don’t have fruit. I don’t know if they are taking a year off, or fruited earlier, or don’t fruit at all. Eleutherio isn’t interested in the olives, so we decided to harvest them ourselves. I started picking them by hand in a manner probably reminiscent of Margot Leadbetter mucking in on The Good Life. I got to about two dozen olives when Husband declared me to be too much of a townie, and came to the rescue with plastic sheeting and big sticks to knock the fruit down with.

The easier way

The easier way

The harvest

The harvest

The nicest olives picked out, ready for brining (not enough for oil-pressing)

The nicest olives picked out, ready for brining (not enough for oil-pressing)

Week 27: Excess of joy . . . and other stuff

First bread baked in our house

First bread baked in our house

Our first citrus harvest: navel oranges and grapefruit

Our first citrus harvest: navel oranges and grapefruit

Husband set about painting three rooms of our new house while I stayed on at the Chalet to work until the time came to move out completely. We said sad goodbyes to First Friends, although we’re only just up the valley from them, and moved in properly to our house. We can hardly believe how much we love it here. Our own place. My lungs, now healthy again, fill up every day with soft, scented air. We listen to birdsong all day long. The views are soothing to the soul. But life is rarely, if ever, perfect.

When we started looking at houses, the top of our priority list was good internet access. I need it for my work. The estate agents we were initially in touch with said this should be the least of our concerns, but I guess that’s because they thought we’d buy a property on a development next to the coast or a golf course or something like that. Somewhere along the line, of course, we ended up falling for a house by the river in a remote valley.

We remained positive. The telecoms company in Tavira told us, ‘No problem.’ A satellite would give us television and internet access. We’re not interested in the television, we asserted. If it comes with the package, OK, but really what we want is the internet connection. No problem, she said, it does both. Husband was speaking in somewhat faltering Portuguese; I was speaking apologetically in English. Whichever the language: No problem.

Everyone we’ve spoken to here who’s been through the same process has been too kind to mock, ‘You didn’t believe that, did you?’

Two telecoms engineers appeared quite quickly. They were an uncle and nephew. The nephew, with his pony tail and his bright, shining brown eyes, had worked around Europe as a DJ and spoke very good English. He liked to talk, too. ‘We Portuguese are good communicators. We’re not good planners, but we’re good communicators.’ They were going to install the dish. ‘This gives you good TV. Do you want one cable or two? Two, and you can watch programmes and record at the same time.’

‘What we really want is internet access.’

‘This is just TV, not internet.’


He went on to tell us that he was sick of capitalism, that he felt it had had its day. ‘When I meet someone, I don’t want to know what they have. I want to know who they are, what they can do. Not what they own. It’s time for a worldwide revolution. Governments don’t work in the people’s interests.’

Swept up in feel-good revolutionary fervour, we decided not to press the internet point. It was hardly their fault, after all.

The next day a new engineer came, this time to set up the landline. ‘Ah, there are gaps in the connection. You have missing telegraph poles. It’s the woodpeckers.’ He left, and no more has been heard.

At least all our stuff arrived. In the evening of the following day, Friday, two sturdy and cheerful East Anglians, both called Roger, showed up in the deep dark with a van. (Darkness is dark here.) I say ‘showed up’, but Husband had to meet them on the main road to help them find the way; it’s difficult enough in daylight, impossible at night. The deal with the delivery company had been that our belongings would be decanted from the pantechnicon into vans because of the inaccessibility of our setting. One pantechnicon = two vans, I’d have thought. Well, it did, but it was one van making two trips. After emptying the first van-load, the two indefatigable Rogers left, to return two hours later, unguided this time, with the second load. Just after midnight, they finished. They reassembled the bed and the wardrobe, waved an upbeat goodbye and vanished into the darkness.

Desk has arrived into my study! Legs are stowed away . . .

Desk has arrived into my study! Legs are stowed away . . .

. . . now returned to rightful position

. . . now returned to their rightful positions

Our possessions, relatively modest in the context of London, here feel like immodest wealth. Eleutherio, the neighbouring farmer, dropped by on Sunday to pick up two armchairs and some chests of drawers left by the Sensibles. Husband was midway through unpacking. Stuff was spilling out of boxes on to every surface inside our home. It was like we wanted to show off everything we owned. At least our pony-tailed revolutionary came round before the arrival of all our goods and saved us that embarrassment.

Eleutherio, I’m sure, doesn’t care. He’s a happy man. He has a big smile and shining brown eyes, but he’s probably too old for revolutionary zeal. He has a lovely wife, and two absurdly joyful dogs: Lordy and Estrela. He drove off in his loaded pickup, his two adoring dogs alongside him in the passenger seat.

We received a text message from the telecoms company telling us that the installation is now complete and we are customers on a 24-month contract. We have no landline, no internet access of any description and very patchy mobile reception. For now, needing wifi is a good excuse to visit First Friends or go out for coffee and cake. In the longer term, I think we need to recruit the help of our agent. If anyone can make the telecoms company keep their promises, she can.

Week 26: Bread and salt

Arrival at what is now really our house . . .

Arrival at what is now really our house . . .

. . . in the warm sunshine

. . . in the warm sunshine

On Thursday the escritura ceremony took place: the signing of the deeds. We gathered with the Sensibles and their lawyer, our lawyer and the agent at the offices of a notary, whose job it was to update the deeds via a computer linked to a large, wall-mounted screen for everyone to observe. Then the four of us – the Sensibles and we two – signed the printout. In the preceding days tears had been shed, mostly by Mrs Sensible, with whom I felt enough empathy to want to cry as well, but in the notary’s office we all behaved ourselves.

Our lawyer is wonderful: unassuming but well organised and guillotine-sharp. Everything went very smoothly. Almost everything. Among his tasks was to present the Sensibles and the agent with bankers’ drafts – we had lodged the necessary euros in his client account in advance, of course. A small flurry went through the room when it turned out that the agent’s draft was three euros short. In a good-natured way, our lawyer showed the email from the other lawyer with the amount specified, which revealed where the mistake had been made. He then took three euro coins out of his pocket and stacked them up on the agent’s draft, to everyone’s satisfaction.

Our agent is forceful and unconventional, as you will know from previous descriptions. It would be fair to say that she is cut from a different cloth to our lawyer, and I suspect they did not always see eye to eye in their dealings with one another, but each has served us very well. The agent took me to the electricity suppliers’ office once the signing was done. On the way she complained about someone she has to deal with who doesn’t submit to her ways. ‘Ach, donkeybrain,’ she said. ‘Making so much trouble.’ She helped me set up an account, calling up my bank to obtain a critical number that was somehow missing from my paperwork. (Actually, it was just two existing numbers put together.) While in the electricity office she got the man there to make a few photocopies of her own paperwork for her. Another triumphant smile flashed at me. Impossible not to admire her.

We met up again, the Sensibles and us and our characterful agent, at a roadside restaurant where we drank to the new state of affairs with a bottle of red wine, just within shelter of the suddenly torrential rain. Then the agent left, and eventually so did we – back to the reliable comforts of the Chalet, while the Sensibles returned to what was now our home for the next two days. An untypical arrangement, which worked for us.

Saxon welcome

Saxon welcome

We have already knocked through so that the two small houses become one

We have already knocked through so that the two small houses become one, with the help of Eleutherio, local farmer

It remained rainy until Saturday, when we drove up to our new house in beautiful sunshine. The Sensibles had gone, leaving us bread and salt – the traditional housewarming gift of the people of Saxony – and a lovely message in German and Portuguese: a warm German welcome into our new Portuguese home.

It is week 26 and therefore exactly halfway through my blog journey, and it feels like just the right time to have taken over our house in the Algarve.

Week 25: ‘We live here’


Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ bridge, a rebuilt medieval, possibly Moorish structure

Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ bridge, in fact a rebuilt medieval, possibly Moorish structure

My sole photograph in Tavira food market

My sole photograph in Tavira food market

I work with a number of authors repeatedly. We get used to one another, I suppose. The latest offering from one such regular, something of a television celebrity, is about to reach me. The first book of his I worked on, many years ago now, was the accompaniment to a TV series about France. The thing I remember most about that – it struck me at the time and I’ve never forgotten it – was the annoyance the crew expressed about the British ex-pats in France. The ‘we live heres’ they came to refer to them, disparagingly. Their constant assertion of their status was felt to be arrogant, I think. Certainly not good telly.

Now I’m one of them and I can see things differently. The assertion of ‘we live here’ comes more from a position of disbelief, shock almost, than arrogance. It is enormously different to live elsewhere, as opposed to having a holiday home or visiting a place. It is worth asserting. If only to remind yourself.

For this reason I stopped short at one photograph of the food market in Tavira. I saw the looks on the nearby stallholders’ faces and I realised that you cannot be a ‘we live here’ and take photographs while shopping. A very friendly Angolan woman whose small restaurant we like has offered to take us round the market and introduce us to people there. This would be wonderful, if it happens. She recognised our need to be accepted as ‘we live heres’ when we asked her where she got her avocados from; they’re the best.

Dry riverbed

Dry riverbed

Waiting for the river

The sun is still warm but the nights are cold and the daytime air can be chilly. A few storms recently brought a lot of rain, which means the river could be back soon. Apparently it starts as a drizzle of brown sludge, then turns into a crystal clear flow. The people who live near the river – including us, soon – celebrate its return. You need to be alert if you want to catch the point of its arrival.

Along the riverbed, which I’ve been exploring, are a number of basins that still hold a little water, somewhat green and soupy. When the river is full these become swimming holes. We have two dipping spots not far from our house that look perfect for next spring.

One day after this post goes out is our escritura ceremony, when we – at last – become the legal owners of the house.

Week 24: Fresher air

Perfected rye sourdough by Husband, under the expert tuition of Andrew Whitley

Perfected rye sourdough by Husband, under the expert tuition of Andrew Whitley

Early morning view from the Chalet

Early morning view from the Chalet

Santa Luzia, where we have a favourite fish restaurant. You can see from this picture that autumn has arrived

Santa Luzia, where we have a favourite fish restaurant. You can see from this picture that autumn has arrived

This blog started, twenty-three weeks ago, with the words ‘I craved fresher air . . .’. They appear below my portrait, as painted by my niece, Lucy Gordon. She insists it wasn’t a portrait of me at all, just one of the many animal characters she creates in between looking after three small children and working for the NHS. I took an instant, unwittingly solipsistic liking to it, and soon after was informed by everyone who saw it that it was, basically, me. According to how this displays on your device, you may or may not see Edith: she’s either on the right, or hidden way below at the bottom of the string of posts.

Anyway, the craving for fresher air than London could ever offer was one of the many impetuses for our move. So the irony of having caught bronchitis on arrival is not lost on me.

It came on the back of what seemed such an insignificant cold. I let the cough linger for a week. Husband returned from his baking course in Scotland, more enthusiastic and optimistic than ever, if that were possible, and my condition concerned him.

I followed up on the estate agent’s suggested clinic and got an appointment on the day of asking, at a cost of 55 euros. The doctor was pleasant, precise in his diagnosis and reassuring. The pharmacist was very quick with the prescription, and very nice. I am to see the doctor again in ten days’ time; he would like to ensure the lung infection is gone. ‘We don’t want it to develop into pneumonia,’ he said. Heavens, no, we don’t.

My next doctor’s appointment is therefore on the thirteenth of November, in Tavira, which, by coincidence, is also the day – and place – of final signatures for the purchase of our home. We will meet the Sensibles, the agent, our respective lawyers and a notary to complete the transfer of ownership. After that, the Sensibles will stay on for a couple of days before departing on the Saturday to drive north; in a sense, they’ll be our house guests. A somewhat unconventional arrangement.


We have spent time with the Sensibles at the house and I am pleased to report that we are all back on terms of perfect mutual understanding and, I dare say, affection. When I’m at the house, I feel a tumble of joy, disbelief and apprehension. The apprehension not least because there is an awful lot of land, both garden and scrub, and I have hitherto barely kept a house plant alive. We were there today, and I breathed in wild herbs pressed underfoot as we walked up the hill behind. (I’m glad of the antibiotics, which have restored ease of breathing and my sense of smell.) I picked a stalk of dry lavender and crushed it to release an unexpectedly rich scent. Bay in the garden had an intensity of fragrance I have never experienced before. Freshly picked lemons were heady. It sometimes feels overwhelming.

The house

The house

Week 23: First days

Leaving the ferry behind in Bilbao and driving off down south

Disembarking in Bilbao and driving off down south

The day’s crossing from Portsmouth to Bilbao was unexpectedly enjoyable. Our deluxe cabin – yes, we pushed the boat out – had plenty of space and two forward-facing windows. We arrived in Bilbao on a beautiful morning, the sun scattering silver flakes over a glossy sea.

Segovia's famous aqueduct

Segovia’s famous aqueduct

We then travelled slowly through Spain, driving four to five hours a day, staying the first night in Segovia and the second night in Mérida. Spanish main roads are wide and largely empty and make for fuel-efficient driving, though an economy of fuel must be the only good economy these roads represent. We, at least, were grateful for them. The third day we drove through the Sierra Aracena, which was beautiful and lush, then crossed the bridge over the Rio Guadiana into Portugal – we were home.

About to arrive in Portugal. In the distance you can just about make out the bridge over the Rio Guadiana, the river border between this part of Spain and Portugal

About to arrive. In the distance you can just about make out the bridge over the Guadiana, the river border between this part of Spain and Portugal

I especially liked that we arrived in the Algarve on what would have been my father’s birthday. The only tiny blot on the landscape was a niggling small cold I had, just a few sniffles and a bit of fuzzy brain. I expected to throw it off immediately.

We’re hiring First Friends’ chalet for the next four weeks while we get ready to move into our new home. As we arrived, they helped us unpack. The contents of our small car filled every surface inside the chalet and the veranda outside as well. It looked like the exploded view for a puzzle you would never attempt to complete. But then we shouldn’t have to do it again. We’re not far from our new home now. After a lovely evening, we had an early night, then the problem with my lungs began. It seemed a monster had taken up residence in my chest. It came accompanied by a full pulmonary orchestra of rattles, wheezes, whistles and clangs. For the next 24 hours, it was as much as I could do to breathe. Neither of us slept. Husband went off on his own on Sunday to see the house and greet the Sensibles; a visit we had long ago scheduled in.

This became unexpected blot number 2. Husband returned downcast. The Sensibles wanted to know if they could postpone their leaving. The estate agent, they said, had given them to believe that this might be possible, by up to two weeks.

Oh no. No, no, no. We would have nowhere to stay by then, and a pantechnicon’s worth of possessions would arrive and have nowhere to go.

Monday 27 October

Twenty-four hours after the pulmonary orchestra started up, it left. Only a desultory flautist remained. A decent night’s sleep was possible despite the occasional mournful piping. By the following day, the flautist had left too. We had a 9.30 meeting with our estate agent. Words would have to be spoken.

We met over a bica at our regular café. (Yes, we have a regular café!) After greetings had been exchanged but before we’d raised our complaint, the estate agent’s phone rang. The conversation was long, heated and in Portuguese, but Husband understood it pretty well, and I got the gist. It was Mr Sensible who’d called, and the estate agent’s side of the conversation could be summed up like this: ‘Senhor, I do not know what planet you are on but nowhere here on Earth could you sell a house, take the money and then carry on living there. It simply doesn’t happen.’ It seemed effective, if somewhat harsh.

The estate agent then took us to Tavira to organise a whole bunch of important things. I should mention that although the pulmonary flautist had departed, he had left behind a small and rather upset dog. The dog mostly whined and growled, but occasionally had a fit of barking. This did not escape the agent’s notice, who added to the tour of Tavira a clinic where I could get help.

Our agent, we discovered, has a remarkable ability to do a lot in a small amount of time. She circumvented queues by catching someone’s eye, posing a quick question and getting either the answer she needed or an appointment later on at a fixed time. We discovered the best place to park, the photocopy shop, the telecoms company, the bank, the local lawyer, and more. She achieved quite a lot of this by talking everyone to death in whatever language was required. For us, this is an English she has streamlined by abandoning articles and prepositions, and for whose word order she has scant regard. Her finest moment came when she stopped and made a phone call in the street. A window on the first floor just above her head opened and an arm came out. I identified the arm as probably belonging to the lawyer I’d glimpsed earlier in the day. The agent reached up with a sheaf of newly photocopied papers, the hand took them and withdrew, and she flashed us a grin of pure satisfaction as we went on our way. How clever was that?

Also pretty clever was the appointment she set up with Mr Vinegar at the bank – quite literally his name; he wasn’t acidic at all. Instead he was another in our line-up of pleasant, efficient, charming Portuguese professionals. There must be some rotters out there; we just haven’t met them. It was a long meeting – by this time our agent had moved on – but at the end of two hours we had opened our bank account. We already had fiscal numbers (rather like NI numbers) from our lawyer, and with two forms of ID apiece the rest was relatively easy.

One of the charming things about Mr Vinegar is that he uses the word ‘imagine’ rather like we might use ‘if’. When I’ve learnt some Portuguese, I might discover this is a faux ami; or it might turn out to be a delightful quirk of his own. Every possibility was presented in this way. ‘Imagine you want a credit card as well as a debit card.’ ‘Imagine you want a savings account to earn interest.’ ‘Imagine you want to take out more than 200 euros in a single day.’ Yes, just imagine! Not only did we have a flesh-and-blood bank manager, whom we were invited to call with any query or request, but he made banking seem almost thrilling. Imagine!

I love it here.


PS As I was typing this blog entry, the Sensibles came to visit us at the chalet. Husband has gone off to see his baking guru in Scotland, Andrew Whitley, to take a course entitled Baking for a Living. So I heard, in German this time, their side of the story. They want nothing more than to hand over the house to us and leave on Saturday 15 November, driving home with a trailer and reaching Germany on the Sunday, when there are no lorries on the roads. The completion of a property transaction, however, has to be on a weekday. So could the completion be on the nearest possible weekday beforehand, and could they and their trailer-load remain at the house until the Saturday? The ‘two weeks’ idea came from a set of crossed wires, they explained, now straightened out. I checked with Husband, just landed in a cold and wet UK. This sounds all right to us.

Husband's first loaves made in the Algarve

Husband’s first loaves made in the Algarve

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