Monthly Archive: May 2015

Week 53: We really live here

Jacaranda in Tavira

Jacaranda in Tavira

Oleander in Tavira

Oleander in Tavira

Back to the beach: we saw dolphins this time

Back to the beach: we saw dolphins this time

Close-up of a gecko: we love these creatures, and most of all when they come inside the house

Close-up of a Moorish gecko on the walls outside: we love these creatures, most of all when they come inside the house

Lizard by the garage:

Lizard by the garage: Large psammodromus (reptile photography by Husband)

A house in the agave (spider version)

A House in the Agave (spider version)


It transpires that Husband was not so enchanted with the miracle of sparrow reproduction as I was. In fact, it turns out he was irritated by the whole noisy, antsy, macho procedure. And it’s true that the cessation of that particular din allowed us to tune in for the first time to the lovely song of the goldfinch. We sought to discourage a second clutch. I took down the part of the washing line that was strung below the nest. ‘Good, you’ve got rid of his advertising platform,’ said Husband, of cock sparrow. ‘He’s been shagging every female in the neighbourhood with the promise of that gaff. It’s not even his.’ A few flowers appeared at the entrance to the nest: Husband’s gentle attempt to dissuade the sparrow. The flowers were soon removed by the bird. Next a twig appeared across the entrance: Husband’s second attempt at dissuasion. This proved a little harder for the sparrow to shift, though not impossible. Husband put it back again.

Then, joy of joys, a pair of red-rumped swallows swooped elegantly into the terrace area, just as I was sitting there. The twig sticking out of the nest served as a perch, the pair of them landing together on it with ineffable grace; the twig didn’t move a millimetre. They are unruffled in the presence of humans – unlike the nervy, what-you-looking-at sparrows – and yet they entirely lack the face to deal with the feathered rivals who have ousted them from their home. If only they weren’t so fey. The tension is rising on our terrace, let me tell you. I thought it was over when the sparrows won out the first time, but it seems that was only the start.

We didn’t replace the twig when the sparrow removed it for the second time. Let nature take its course, even if it’s not the course we want it to take.


The temperature is rising too. The wild flowers are almost completely faded away. In their place on the floral stage, the more showy offerings of jacaranda and oleander. Whereas in January the almonds announced themselves among the otherwise undifferentiated trees with their offerings of pale blossom, now a jacaranda with its fabulous purple ’do stands out among the green globes on a hillside like Molly Parkin suddenly appearing among the ordinary denizens of a small town.


This is coming along, but progress has been hindered by the slowness of the electrical connections. That is to say, we trust the three-phase electricity will be fast once it is complete, but it isn’t there yet. The interior wall went up in a trice. Glass panes were made for the internal window above the door by Norwegian artist Taran Flaten. A visiting friend helped Husband get all the painting done (thanks again, Neil). But the electricity company have delayed throwing the all-important switch. The electrical work went through different stages, certificates were produced and shown, payments were instructed at the bank, and personal appeals – accompanied by passports for ID – were made at the office of the electrical company in town. It seems that the electrical company is in the process of privatising and has divested lots of its responsibilities while still holding overall control. This means that work is done piecemeal by private individuals/companies, then has to be certified by other individuals/companies, then has to pass muster by the original electrical company, and ideally not on a Friday afternoon when they never have a working computer system. But I’m happy to say that the electrical company have now given us the go-ahead. Next thing will be the buying of the oven, then Husband can make more than the half-dozen loaves he currently supplies to friends and for home consumption.

Harvest of the second apricot tree: to eat a warm apricot straight from the tree is a considerable pleasure

To eat a warm apricot straight from the tree is a pleasure

I made apricot tarte Tatin using a recipe from a new cookbook I have:

We had so many that I made apricot tarte Tatin using a recipe from a new cookbook we have: A Year’s Cooking in the Algarve by a ‘misplaced’ English chef, Joe Devine

The story so far

The bougainvillea on the terrace (photo by Fatma)

Bougainvillea on the terrace (photo by Fatma)

In May 2014 Husband and I got the process under way of selling a flat in London’s East End and moving to southern Portugal, and I began writing a weekly blog about it. The blog was for friends and family, as well as for anyone who happened upon it – in the remote chance that anybody did. I promised to keep it up for one year. On 20 May 2015 I posted the fifty-second entry, knowing by then that I couldn’t stop writing even if I tried. Now I have a new goal: to cover our first complete year in the Algarve.

Do we regret anything? No. Well, maybe the compost heap, which did turn into a fly-blown monstrosity, as I feared it might, and attracted a rat. A cute pointy-nosed rat with brown beads for eyes, but a rat none the less. The heap was declared closed for business. I only started it because Horse – a lovely white escapee Lusitano who strayed into our valley on at Christmas and stayed for ten days until his owners could get him to go back – left me many ‘gifts’ that I didn’t want to go to waste.

Some of Husband's bread

Some of Husband’s bread

Part of the original dream was for Husband to restore an old Algarvian bread oven. This quickly showed itself to be impractical. We did find an old bread oven, but it wasn’t attached to the right house. We found – eventually – the right house and it did have an outside bread oven, but it was not a romantic, old, much-used structure, nor did it make – with its uneven heat distribution – very good bread. Instead it became clear that today’s artisan bread-maker will fare best using a piece of beautiful modern design: a stone-clad, purpose-built bread oven that runs on electricity and is imported from that country of engineering excellence: Germany. As for me, I continue to work as an editor, with the distance making negligible difference.

Every other part of the dream – the air, the light, the scents, the natural world, the human culture – has come true, even exceeded expectations. The question that most people ask – Why Portugal? – I still cannot precisely answer, however. I can only say that Portugal seemed possible. It felt right. Now that we live here, it still feels right. It is not a case of London bad, Portugal good. It’s just that London was where we wanted to be then, and Portugal is where we want to be now. We are privileged to have been in a position to choose, and for this we are unendingly grateful.

Week 52: Horse, dogs and a new cycle

Male sparrow waiting in the pomegranate tree to deliver food

Male sparrow waiting in the pomegranate tree to deliver food (all animal photos this week by Fatma)

Extreme feeding - look away now

Extreme feeding – look away now

Miss Big, beautiful, boisterous animal, and friend of Horse

Miss Big, beautiful, boisterous animal, and friend of Horse

Mr Angry and  Miss Big: from this angle, the small dog looks relatively larger

Mr Angry and Miss Big: from this angle, the small dog looks relatively larger


Thank you to everyone who commented on the blog last week, and to all those who have commented in the past. I have been encouraged in many ways to continue this blog, but it’s less about the support from outside and more about this writing need I have discovered inside. The blog will write itself in some corner of my consciousness whether I want it to or not. Plus, I want to record a full year of living here, through every season. There is so much still to discover, experience and describe, from the strange hot winds of earlier this week, to whatever the outcome will be of the documents handed into Tavira town hall today – the size and heft of a fashion magazine – in pursuit of permission to build a swimming pool.


Reunited with Horse

Reunited with Horse

I met up with Horse again. I pieced together where he must be, then a friend and I went for a walk in that direction. We found him, in his stable, with his nose in the trough. He wasn’t disposed to be polite while he had food to get through, so we let him be and had a cup of tea with the owner, and also met the other four-legged inhabitants: six dogs. Well, five; a black one was missing. The dogs all demanded petting, though a little one – Mr Angry, I called him – didn’t stop the discontented rumbling in his throat even while he was being stroked.

Then we went back out to Horse, and solved the mystery of the black dog: there she was, with her friend. Horse was attentive now, especially since I had apples on me. ‘He definitely remembers you,’ said the owner. ‘They do, you know.’ Dear old Horse. I’m happy now I know where he lives.

Leaving the place, however, meant getting out of the front gate without a contingent of dogs at our heels. We failed. Little Mr Angry squeezed through the tiny gap before we could close the gate fully, and Miss Big, the lovely black one, just leapt over. They accompanied us all the way home, passing the house where some estrangeiros have a number of aggressive dogs. Miss Big was silently disdainful of their racket, and leapt up and down a few steep slopes in the vicinity to mock their captivity.

We walked along the riverbed. Surely the dogs would soon turn round and go back. After all, they didn’t know we were back at home. So while they frolicked around here and there, we quietly crept away and let ourselves into the house.

It wasn’t long before we saw the beautiful brown eyes of Miss Big at the kitchen window at the rear of the house, her paws on the sill. Meanwhile at the front, a bad move on our part – opening the door a crack just to see – let Mr Angry in, who sat down immediately and refused to budge. I had to push him back out on his furry rear end, his front legs scrabbling for purchase on the tiles. For growly Mr Angry, we were suddenly the best thing since bacon butties.

We gave them water but otherwise we had no choice but to ignore them. It was quite late in the day now. Some barking was heard in the night – Mr Angry – and by the morning they were nowhere to be seen. They’d finally gone home.

After all, they aren’t our dogs . . .


The sparrows have gone too. There was never much chance of seeing them fly the nest. With parents as attentive as theirs, so attuned to our presence or absence, the youngsters were sure to be ushered out when we weren’t around. Husband and I went to a brunch party on Sunday and when we got back, they’d gone. I miss the demanding song of the babies. I also miss the heavy whirr of wings that accompanied my every opening of the front door as the parents took sudden flight, only to venture back when it felt safe. They even seemed to know when I was looking at them. How can that be? If I watched the nest, they became anxious. If I stayed put but turned my head away, they went on with their lives, feeding the youngsters within earshot – but not eyeshot – of the human. They still haven’t given up the nest. Mr Sparrow was in there cleaning it up, bringing white chalky leavings to the tunnel entrance and dropping them on to our front terrace. He also spent a bit of time in the nest just looking out: reminiscing, or recovering his breath? I wonder if they are preparing for a second clutch.

Our apricots are ready for eating

Our apricots are ready for eating

More fantastic bread

More fantastic bread

Week 51: Penultimate

My beautiful bountiful bougainvillaea

My beautiful, bountiful bougainvillaea

Alfarroba/carob, laden with beans

Alfarroba/carob, laden with green pods

Our little jacaranda tree about to burst into flower

Little jacaranda tree about to burst into flower

Prickly pear growing like there's no tomorrow

Prickly pear growing like there’s no tomorrow

Among our fruit trees: don't know yet what it is

Among our fruit trees: don’t know yet what it is

We have registered our land at the survey office (cadastro) and have bought our marker stones

We have registered our land at the survey office (cadastro) and bought our marker stones


The sparrows continue to feed their offspring almost non-stop. The sounds coming from the mud nest are more sonorous, more mature, but no less demanding – if anything, more so. The open beaks appear right at the mouth of the tunnel; the parent birds no longer need to enter the nest as they deposit clusters of wings and legs into the gaping maws of their offspring as frequently and as fast as they can. How the soon-to-be fledglings can reach so high up from within their enclosure I don’t know. Three possibilities occur to me: 1) the bottom of the nest was largely filled in by all the finery the sparrows imported into it; 2) the babies are now strong enough to climb up the interior walls; 3) the birds are huge. Number 3 surely cannot be true. All the same, I imagine the birds now as gangly teenagers. Any day and they will emerge awkwardly and shrug, bored already, then fly off.

The red-rumped swallows have not abandoned us completely, but they are building a new nest elsewhere. I watched one collecting dust in its beak from outside our front terrace. It looked so formal standing on the ground, its shiny cloak draped over its square little shoulders, the matching cap perched so smartly on top of its head.


The Algarve is my home, this house here at the end of the world, but ‘home’ in a wider sense also means the United Kingdom; I realised that this week. I voted in the UK general election, having applied for a postal vote in London’s Tower Hamlets – the last place I was on the electoral register is where my vote counts – which arrived with its own pre-paid envelope for return. I don’t believe I can vote in a general election here. Also, I earn my income in the UK, and pay taxes on it in the UK. I now have an additional tax liability in Portugal, but it should be small. One day I hope to have a state pension from the UK. What happens in the UK matters to me in practical as well as emotional ways.

And therefore if, now that a referendum on EU membership is to go ahead, the country votes ‘out’, I shall be thoroughly fed up (but also glad in that event to be a resident outside of the UK). Then there is the matter of the Human Rights Act. I have carried this slip of paper around with me for a quarter of a century:

Speaks for itself

The thirty articles of the UDHR

It’s a sort of talisman. A reason to believe in the human race. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948 by the UN; it was then given a specific European context in 1950 in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK was among the Convention’s founders and, in 1951, one of its first ratifiers. Later, the Human Rights Act of 1998 gave the European Convention effect in British law (and meant you didn’t have to go to Strasbourg for a human-rights case). The new government say they want to abolish the HRA and replace it with a bill of rights with ‘a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged’ (words from their own strategy paper, entitled, apparently without irony, ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’). And if the Council of Europe doesn’t like it, ‘the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights’ (same source). All of this is confusing and troubling. But perhaps that strategy paper is already in the bin for the rubbish it palpably is, its author Grayling now replaced by Gove. Perhaps it all looks worse from afar. Perhaps it looks worse from a country where dictatorship – and lack of human rights – is well within living memory.

Next week, whether it be the last of this blog or no – and I really do need to decide about that – I promise to go back to writing about the natural beauty of this part of the world, and how I love it and am sustained by it. And also my pratfalls in Portuguese, such as asking the vegetable seller in the market for half a kilo of chickens while pointing at the strawberries. I was searching for the word morangos (strawberries) when I got mental interference from French (fraises) and came out with frangos (chickens). It happens. She laughed.

Week 50: Dia do Trabalhador

Very loose translation of the label on the man's shirt: This jolly pair might resemble someone but it's just a bit of fun and not meant to offend.

Bonecos dos Maios. Loose translation of the label on the man’s shirt: This jolly pair might resemble real people but it’s just a bit of fun and not meant to offend

Zé and Maria are working on the land. Zé is here to fix the marker stones - according to the new legislation, usefully pinned to his shirt as well

Zé and Maria are working on the land. Zé is here to set the marker stones – as he must according to the new legislation, which is usefully pinned to his shirt as well

This fellow managed to lose sight of donkey when he went off for a pee and now he can't find him

This fellow managed to lose sight of his donkey when he went off for a pee and now can’t find him anywhere

Love this shady character

Close-up of the negligent fellow

Maria, the river washerwoman: a disappearing way of life

Maria, the river washerwoman: a disappearing way of life

Dancing at the festa

Dancing at the festa


Just as Maria said, on May Day our valley filled with people picnicking. Not too far away was an organised festa, with vans serving food and beer, and a singer on a small stage in front of a dance floor. The place was recommended to us for our first May first, so we went, and on the way we passed various bonecos dos Maios, lauding – and sometimes making fun of – the worker. During the dictatorship, festivities on Labour Day were suppressed; the revolution forty-one years ago saw a new flowering. My Portuguese teacher enjoyed seeing these pictures. She hadn’t seen bonecos for a while. She said you used to see more a few years ago, and sometimes they were a means of making a political protest. I believe these bonecos were made by the local freguesia (parish), which makes them quite tame, but I’m still charmed by them.

May Day has gone through a lot of rebranding over the centuries from its original pagan celebration of survival and renewal. Whatever the excuse, this May Day felt special. It was hot and bright; the air shimmered, seeming to feel its own weight. Intimations of real summer to come.


I met Costa outside the local cooperativa agricola. We drove in through the gates until we got to the workshop of his mechanic friend, a stout, silent man. Inside, various tractors were being patched up and – heart-liftingly – a Renault 4 body was being resprayed, its chassis propped up against the wall behind. I left Rolie in his huge, capable hands.

I got a message a day later that the car was ready, so long as I didn’t want a complete respray of the back. If I did, I’d need to leave it longer. But Rolie was perfect. Nothing more was required. The chrome bumper was straightened out and refastened; the damage done to the bodywork patched up; the scratches spotted with matching paint. All for a few euros. I drove back home very happily.


We have hatchlings. We hear their tiny cheeps coming from the bottom of the mud enclosure. Their parents are busy feeding them. Each parent bird has a different modus operandi. The female arrives with her beakful of insect life, pauses on the mouth of the tunnel, casts a few glances around, then dives in. The cheeps rise in volume to greet her. The male arrives with his beakful of insect life, but he doesn’t dive into the nest. Oh no, far too dangerous. Instead, he lands unsteadily on the washing line below and wobbles. Then he flies off again, serpentines a bit, ducks and dives, checks all around, throws a few more diversionary moves in, and still doesn’t go in the nest. By this time the female has delivered several more beakloads. Eventually he deems the ground to be safe and goes in. The chicks get their feed, then he’s out like a shot to resume his commando role.

The swallows are leaving the sparrows alone. I wonder if they might retake the nest after the squatter fledglings have flown. I don’t know if that kind of thing happens.

Swimming pool

We put in an application for a swimming pool. Everybody we know – except our architect – advised against this. Nobody has a legal pool; the rules are vague anyway; they’ll only be on your back for ever. Go for a fibreglass pool, for which you don’t need permission. (Theoretically.) And then we went ahead anyway. We decided that if we were to have a pool at all, we’d like a proper, built one.

Our application has passed what is arguably the most difficult part of the process: approval from the Agricultural Department. Next it goes to the council. Our architect, who is managing the process, is another in the long line of pleasant, smart, intelligent Portuguese professionals we have dealt with. In her holidays, she goes to India to work on behalf of street children. What can I say? People here are nice.

Lesser spotted woodpecker taking a break from the telegraph poles and going for the dead flower 'stalk' of the century plant

Lesser spotted woodpecker taking a break from the telegraph poles and going for the dead ‘flower stalk’ of the century plant


Another view: such a tiny but loud bird

Harvest: oranges and nespera (loquat or Japanese medlar in English - though no one has ever heard of it)

Harvest: oranges and nespera (loquat or Japanese medlar in English – though no one has ever heard of it)

%d bloggers like this: