Monthly Archive: March 2015

Week 44: Picapau

woodpecker

Lesser spotted woodpecker on our telegraph pole; the bird is about 15cm long. Not a great capture, but you get the idea

 

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, we have poor mobile phone reception here at the end of the world. The best place to get connected is by the bougainvillea on the front terrace. When the kitchen installers were here, the bougainvillea was hung with so many mobile devices hoping to pick up incoming calls that it got nicknamed the Empfangsbaum, or Signal Tree. The fixed line can be very clear, however, and we have internet access, albeit slow. But over the past ten days or so, our landline and internet connection have been dropping off as well. We’ve also had some real downpours during this time. (Rain! We love it. It’s filling our well and drawing even more spring-time fecundity from the land. Not so great for our current visitors but, since the forecast is for incessant sunshine from any moment now and for the rest of their stay, they are sanguine.)

The telephone engineers came out a couple of hours after we first called. Carlos, the older of the two, climbed the telegraph posts in heavy rain – we all worried about him – and soon got a connection back up. He left his number, and we are to call him directly if we have any other problems over the next thirty days because the issue remains his individual responsibility for that time.

A couple of days later we had to call Carlos again. No answer from him, so we went to the sea to eat fish for lunch and called him again from there, rejoicing in the five-bar connection. By the time we reached home, he was already in our garden, at the top of the telegraph pole.

Picapau,’ he declared definitively, coming into the house to check our telecoms were working again, which they were. The woodpecker takes the blame. It is beyond doubt that the beautiful, tiny woodpecker spends a lot of time rat-a-tat-tatting the posts. We can hear him and see him. The power he delivers is considerable, but the main impact is taken by his own, tiny, specially reinforced-by-mother-nature skull. I don’t quite see how it affects the line. He’s interested in the wood, not the cables and the metal. And couldn’t the rain be a factor? Well, the engineers point the finger firmly at the picapau, and they must know.

Not that the bird cares, I’m sure.

Red-rumped swallows

The birds that are confiding enough to come right on to our front terrace are the black redstart and the robin. They both drink from the bowl of water I leave there at one end of the wall, for their benefit and for mine, because it allows me to watch them from my desk. They each bob, then dip into the water and lift a silver bead to the sun, which disperses from the end of their beak. A few days ago I heard other birds on the terrace, out of sight at the far end, swooping and curving in and out of the space, squeaking and trilling. I went to take a look: red-rumped swallows were checking out the nest. Bigger than the barn swallow, with less glossy colouring and beautiful tail streamers. At last! I was very excited and happy. I had never seen these birds in my life before, and here they were on our terrace, looking for a place to raise their young.

But they haven’t nested, and they haven’t been back. I read somewhere that they only nest in abandoned houses, and perhaps their mud-beaded home dates from a time when the Sensibles were away – they never lived here full-time like we do. Unlike barn swallows, perhaps the red-rumped ones won’t nest near human beings.

This is a shame. On the other hand, their nest is just above the point where two small flights of steps converge on to the front terrace and lead you up to the front doors. (Two front doors because it used to be two houses.) Everyone coming into and out of the house would therefore be risking a journey through prime guano land. And perhaps to add to one tiny bird knocking out our phone and wifi connection another one raining shit on our heads, would be to add indignity to inconvenience. But it’s OK. We know who’s boss here, and it isn’t us. We are still hoping the swallows might come back and take over the nest.

Kitchen

Finished kitchen

Finished kitchen

The kitchen is complete, and for us it’s perfect. The next task is to work on the bread-baking studio. Husband has managed throughout the rebuild to keep us, and everyone who comes under our roof, well fed with his fantastic bread, without any let-up, partly thanks to having frozen some loaves for when we had no working oven; his bread freezes very well. Hats off to him. Then hats back on if the swallows decide to nest here after all.

Week 43: Wood and words

Gum rock rose unfurled: if all the many buds on these superabundant plants opened at once it would be a scene fit for a wedding

Gum rock rose unfurled: if all the many buds on these superabundant plants opened at once, it would be a scene fit for a wedding

Rainbow cloud

Rainbow cloud

Stork in Olhão

Stork in Olhão

A closer view of the stork

A closer view

Two storks; I love these birds

I love these birds

The longed-for red-rumped swallows have not made an appearance, but our other keenly awaited event has taken place: the new kitchen is complete except for the tiling and the final electrical connections. It’s both beautiful and practical, and even more of each of these qualities than we imagined.

Kitchen installed. The pear wood, a friend said, is like Turner paintings

The pear wood, a friend said, is like Turner paintings

Tactile wood

Tactile wood

The granite worktop arrived and slotted perfectly into place; the granite comes from Alentejo

The granite worktop arrived and slotted perfectly into place; the granite comes from Alentejo and was polished and cut by a local team of stonemasons. Just the tiling to be done now

Portuguese

When you try to learn a new language as an adult, you spend a great deal of time in the in-between stage of neither speaking the language nor not speaking it, if you follow me. This stage can last years, and of course you might never come out the other end where native speakers will talk to you quite normally. And in the vast in-between stage you need to rely on the patience and kindness of strangers. You need the people to whom speaking the language is as easy as breathing to understand the effort that it costs you, and to play along. Now, I have to say, on the whole the Portuguese are good at this, willing to understand you and to be understood by you. They don’t automatically switch to English, but they almost all will do so if asked.

English is quite widely spoken. I remember the conversation (in English) with the pony-tailed young man who came to install the satellite we didn’t want (Week 27). ‘We Portuguese are good communicators,’ he said. He put their linguistic abilities down to a number of factors, including the viewing of imported television shows that are subtitled rather than dubbed, and an outward-looking temperament. He declared the Portuguese to be very different in this to the Spanish.

I don’t know enough about Spain to have a view on that, but I certainly do observe the Portuguese to be outgoing, and helpful too. And one day, in a very nice little pizza restaurant, we had a particularly helpful young waitress, who was very encouraging with our language efforts. We liked her a lot. To make a short story even shorter, she’s now my Portuguese teacher. She drives here and gives me an at-home, one-to-one, two-hour lesson once a week, the second of which was this morning. She’s great. It’s going to help me a lot.

It is, of course, frustrating not to speak the language, but it is also interesting to listen and not understand: to hear the sounds and the cadence instead of the meaning. (For anyone who doesn’t know, written Portuguese looks like any other Romance language and you can make a reasonable guess at the meaning. The pronunciation, however, is a very different story, and the spoken language is far from guess-able.) So, in listening and not understanding, I’ve noticed the nasal quality of the language, the many ‘sh’ and ‘zh’ sounds, the cut-off endings of words, and a plosive, popping quality: bunches of repeated ‘p’ and possibly ‘d’ sounds. Best of all is the cadence, which is equally evident when Portuguese people speak English. The tone in many sentences is slightly raised, especially when something is being carefully explained, and then rises and falls at the very end. It’s charming, and I want to mimic it. Cadence is surely the first step in a language. You know you can tell the nationality of babies by the cadence of their early vocalisations? So I believe.

A few vocabulary tasters for you: puxe, pronounced ‘push’, appears on many doors, and means ‘pull’. Queque, I learned from Husband yesterday – who had the leisure to go to a cafe! – is the Portuguese rendering of the English word ‘cake’. Of course, Portuguese also have their own cakes, many of them, and delicious too, which come under the general name of bolo. And the picapau is the woodpecker – which features large in our lives and will have to be the subject of a future blog, since I’ve run out of space in this one.

 

Week 42: Nesting

Red-rumped swallow nest

Red-rumped swallow nest

 

This nest, under the ceiling of our front terrace, was built by red-rumped swallows (before we moved in), and we are hoping they will take it up again. We have no way of knowing when it was last occupied, but it looks quite invitingly spruce and well-made. Barn swallows, swifts and martins are filling the skies, but we’ve seen no sign of the red-rumped swallow. They arrive slightly later than the barn swallows, I’ve read; perhaps there’s still time. We have to wait and see.

Barn swallows, looking for all the world as though deep in conversation

Barn swallows, looking for all the world as though deep in conversation

Gum rock rose about to unfurl its papery flowers

Sticky, glossy, fragrant gum rock rose about to unfurl its papery flowers

pomegranate

Pomegranate tree putting forth leaves

Sculptural, bare fig tree coming back to life

Sculptural, bare fig tree coming back to life

New life is bursting out all over the garden. A bewildering array of flowers is filling up the terraced area and the wilder land beyond, and just trying to find out what they are could take up all my time. There are asphodels, spurreys, spurges, vetches, ericas, pimpernels and rock roses, and so much more. There is a school of opinion that says the need to name things is the desire to assert ownership or mastery over them, and we should simply enjoy them with respectful ignorance instead. But to hell with that, I want to know what they are. In particular, I want to know if I can eat them, or use them in some other way. The wild rocket we recently discovered has made a heavenly sweet and peppery addition to a number of salads, and I’d like more of that. But I need to be patient. I have to remind myself that I cannot know everything all at once, and nor should I want to.

Room for a new kitchen

Room for a new kitchen

Kitchen

Our Portuguese builders couldn’t understand why we wanted to dismantle the old kitchen. Almost everything they took from it has been rehoused somewhere or other (and I’m very pleased about that). It does seem extravagant, but the old kitchen wasn’t right: the storage space wasn’t enough, the worktop was too low, it just wasn’t to our taste.

Late yesterday evening a van rolled up and two lanky young men unfolded themselves from the cab, having driven 2,800 kilometres in two days. The new kitchen and its installers had arrived from Erfurt in Germany. It’s the first time we’ve seen the pear tree (written about in Week 39) for real – it looks as though a silken scarf in shades of brown and honey has settled and spread itself over the surface of still water. It’s incredibly beautiful.

Pear wood

Pear wood

Pear wood

For Husband’s friend Gero, creating a kitchen for a house in Portugal has its own resonance. At nineteen he went travelling, south from Germany, in the days before mobile phones and the internet, when you could set off and your family and friends would have to wait a few weeks until they got a postcard to find out where you were, by which time you’d have moved on. I remember travels like that myself. Gero wound up in southern Portugal, near Évora in the Alentejo (see Week 33), and found work helping with the olive harvest. Then a kind farmer gave him a house. Yes, gave him a house. He lived there for several months. His first earnings bought him an axe and a saw, and he built himself a sleeping platform. Its prosaic purpose was to raise him and his food from the floor, which was overrun with mice, but it also sparked what was to become his career: working with wood. When the olive harvest was over, he made bread, to live on, and to sell and live from: another nice connection. When it finally came time to go home, he passed the house on to someone else. Now, many years later, he and his business partner and colleagues in Erfurt make beautiful, bespoke pieces for interiors.

Next week: the kitchen will be ready to show you.

Week 41: Coming home

Nice to see Artbot again

England. Good to see Artbot again

I craved fresher air, scents in spring time, especially that of orange and lemon blossom, a warmer-coloured daylight and a darker shade of night. My husband craved an old rural bread oven to restore to life and to bake in. This is a blog about deciding to leave one country and trying to settle in another; about leaving the big city behind. My promise: one entry per week on a Wednesday morning for a year. (Unless a fox takes me out.)

Edith the Editor: Lucy Gordon, who painted my portrait, has a new website

 

So I’ve been in England. I was supposed to see an author, but that fell through after I’d got here. No worries. I had plenty of work to do, and I stayed with my mum and we had a high old time in spite of mostly grey skies and a cutting, cold wind that could take your breath away. Our daily routine included delivering imprecations to a hard-working mole under my mother’s front lawn. As the mounds of soil continued to pile up, a neighbour suggested stuffing the holes with pee-soaked rag. Moles, apparently, hate human smells. Mum decided this was infra dignitatem, even though there was no suggestion that they be soaked in situ. Yesterday the mole stopped digging, so it looked like the imprecations worked.

Time came for the long coach trip to London and the train to Gatwick. The coach driver turned from a placid sort to an angry cursing one as he arrived in the city. He clearly loathed the place. At one point he stopped the bus to tell a tourist taking photos that she should round up her children, who were wandering into the road, before they got run over. It seemed a fair point. I conceded it to him when I got off. ‘I ’ate London,’ he said. ‘Nobody here’s got any compassion for anyone else.’ And if all you saw of London was its road traffic and its careless pedestrians, that is probably what you would think. The Gatwick express wasn’t running when I got there (‘someone hit by a train’ the announcement said, a tragedy that clearly moved no one, further proving the coach-driver’s point). But I had plenty of time to spare, so I went into town where I squeezed in a morselette of clothes shopping and some white wine in a favourite wine bar, and reminded myself that London had been my home for a long time and in many ways I was still partial to it.

But what I really want is to get home to where I now live, the place I love and missed so much while I was away. I can hardly wait to get there (photos by Husband).

A gift from First Friends in my absence: it's a wild gladiola called, I'm told, calças-de-cuco or cuckoo's trousers

A gift from First Friends in my absence: it’s a wild gladiola called, I’m told, calças-de-cuco or cuckoo’s trousers

I missed the din and the dust of the kitchen preparation

I escaped the din and the dust of the kitchen preparation

The last breads to come out of the old oven – I could find no bread in England to compare to Husband's

The last breads to come out of the old oven – I could find no bread in England to compare to Husband’s

Lordy importuning for breakfast; I missed him too

Lordy importuning for breakfast; I missed him too

Rolie on an outing without me

Rolie on an outing without me

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