Monthly Archive: December 2015

Natal

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

Last year I didn't know what this was. It's oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, a invasive plant but a beautiful one too, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; seen on the Christmas Day walk

Last year I didn’t know what this was. It’s oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, an invasive plant but an attractive one, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; photographed on our Christmas Day walk

The rising sun after a night of heavy rain caused steam to rise from this cork tree

Cork tree steaming in the rising sun after a recent night of heavy rain

 

Christmas Day was winter-sunny and bright. Spotless starlings gathered on the telegraph wire in front of the house to whistle their high, ascending calls, like in-drawn breaths. The seasonal light favoured the azure-winged magpies in the valley, lowlighting their air-force-blue feathers to great advantage. We walked eastwards into the neighbouring valley, deeply cut with a tiny stream that feeds desultorily into our river. Within twenty minutes we had left all civilisation behind: not a single person to be seen, nor a house, though a few ruins and one well, deep with water. Several black, skeletal trees told the story of fire, no doubt the terrible one of 2012. How close it had come.

The extraordinary peace of Christmas Day was exchanged for something more lively on Boxing Day as friends arrived from Germany. Our jeep journeys henceforth have included two pre-teens, who relish fording the river and skittering over the stones of the smaller dirt tracks, something the hire car cannot do. One such stone was our undoing: as easily as though it were an axe, it ripped a tyre right open. It seemed best to abandon the jeep for the time being – it was too dark to contemplate tyre changes – while we walked the rest of the way in the gathering gloom, hoping the two fathers in the hire car, now sure to reach home before us, would not be anxious. Lucky that Husband keeps a torch in the car.

That walk home in the near dark might well turn out to be the highlight of the holiday. The air was luxurious: soft, scented with Cistus ladanifer and lavender. One pre-teen managed to stop her foot landing on a moving beast just in time. We shone the torch beam on it: a lustrous black and yellow Fire Salamander, so magical to see. Its rubber-shiny black skin was reminiscent of a brand-new tyre, as though it came out to mock our man-made ills with its god-given gifts.

Presépio de Natal

The bombeiros (firefighters) of Tavira have created a spectacular nativity scene at their station. Occupying the space of two fire engines, it tells the story of the nativity within a colourful, global background. Anachronisms, geographical implausibilities and out-of-scale figures fill the holy scene with both wonder and humour, and in some places, I suspect, are evidence of indulgence towards children whose toys had been redeployed. My particular favourites were an Alpine village on the hill and a tiny robot turning a carcass-laden spit. Love, patience and attention to detail had been poured into this grand work. The day we saw it was Christmas Eve, so the crib in the manger was still empty; we need to go back and see the new-born in place.

The carpenter's

The carpenter’s

The manger on Christmas Eve

The manger on Christmas Eve

 

Horse

Christmas would not be complete without Horse. It was this time last year that the mystery horse turned up in our valley and stayed for the best part of two weeks, occupying pretty much my every waking thought as I puzzled over whose he might be, was he all right, had he been abandoned, did we have enough carrots in, and so on. Now I know his owners, know where he lives, occasionally pass by his place and have been known to take a few carefully chopped up carrots and apples his way. At the end of November, when we were in Germany, we heard from the owner that Horse had escaped again; had we seen him? He returned within a matter of hours. (I like to think Horse came to see if we were around and, finding us away, gave up and went home.) Since then, his opportunities for escape have been firmly cut off by extra-secure fencing. Not that he suffers; this horse lives the life of Riley, making people love him and refusing to do much in return apart from supplying large amounts of s**t. Dear Horse.

Horse

Took the pre-teens to see Horse. He says, ‘Bom ano novo.’

Music and protest

The churches of Tavira at night, one: the surviving Gothic door of Santa Maria do Castelo

The churches of Tavira at night, one: the surviving Gothic doorway of Santa Maria do Castelo

The churches of Tavira at night, two: the church of Santiago, stacked up on a slope

The churches of Tavira at night, two: Santiago, stacked up on a slope (with Santa Maria do Castelo behind)

The church of Santa Catarina, in the sunlight

The church of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, in the sunlight

Two concerts this week: an organ concert in the beautiful, Baroque-tiled-interior of the Misericórdia church of Tavira (more of that in a moment), and a Christmas concert by the Banda Musical de Tavira in the church of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, our local village. Heaven-sent rain ruled out the walk we thought of doing on Sunday, and that’s how we got to go to the Christmas concert. It was billed to start at 3 p.m.

We arrived in the village at about ten to three. The church doors were firmly closed. A lonely musician stood outside a side entrance. We went to the café instead. At two minutes to three, several battered vans rolled up in the village, full of musicians. Now we understood that three o’clock had been the meeting time for the band, not the start of the concert. Something new to learn every day.

The band arrived

The band arrived

We finished our bicas and went to see what was happening. It was clearly still too early but with the wooden church doors now wide open we went in. Like many Portuguese churches it is over-decorated and under-used, full of musty air, marble-effect flourishes and gilt scallops and swags. Pews were being moved back, chairs scraped and instruments tentatively parped as the concert band got themselves ready. At around three dozen members, they were going to outnumber the audience. Most of the musicians were young.

At about 3.40 p.m., the final music stand was tightened and the last of the instruments tested. The dapper but teacher-like conductor stepped up and the first piece began. A lump came instantly to my throat; tears pricked my eyes. I knew without turning my head that it was the same with Husband. I couldn’t look at him or we’d make a spectacle of ourselves. More people were being drawn into the church by the sound. The band were good, very good. It was unexpectedly moving. At intervals the conductor and a woman who was in some way responsible for the band gave impassioned, anti-consumerist speeches about the joy of music and the inner peace that is the essential message of Christmas. This country has soul.

Sound check

Sound check

The band played

The band played beautifully

The organ for Friday’s concert in Tavira’s Misericórdia church was a tiny, eighteenth-century one. The visiting Hungarian organist had wanted to play the music of Bach, Händel and Scarlatti, all born exactly 330 years ago, but a last-minute transfer from the nearby church of Santiago, whose eighteenth-century organ had a malfunction, meant a change of programme. To keep Händel in, the only possible piece for this organ was music he wrote for a musical clock. Nevertheless, it was all enchanting. Somehow the thumping in and out of organ stops only added to the exquisite atmosphere.

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction

The organist, Gyula Szilágyi, making his introduction

 

Protest

Husband and I made a fleeting appearance on Portuguese television this week. This is quite exciting – though you would have to be very determined to spot us in the crowd – but, much more importantly, it means that the campaign against oil exploration in the Algarve is gaining in exposure.

'An Algarve free of oil industry'

‘An Algarve free of oil industry’

We were in Faro outside the offices of the association of Algarve mayors (AMAL), waving banners in a gesture of both protest and solidarity while a meeting went on inside. It is quite difficult to show solidarity and make a protest at the same time, but since our gathering was conducted in a love-and-peace way it worked out all right. We were there to support the goodies, the mayors of the Algarve, who have just found out that they’ve been sold down the river, their beautiful land handed over by central government to a bunch of oil and gas companies for exploration and exploitation, and simultaneously to register our protest against the baddies, the Entidade Nacional para o Mercado de Combustiveis, a sort of quango of dinosaur-like, fossil-fuel crazies. The baddies’ leader, Paulo Carmona, came out of the meeting saying: ‘But if we find lots of oil and gas we’ll be rich!’, showing himself to have been blind and deaf for the last few decades to anything but the sight and sound of money, and even there he’s missed the mark: which is that there’s a glut of oil on the markets right now and it’s never been cheaper nor – surely to God, in the light of the recent Paris agreement – less desirable. Perhaps he wants to turn Portugal into a pale imitation of its former colony Angola, whose capital Luanda is currently the most expensive city in the world to live in thanks to oil; whose country is despoiled and whose people, the vast vast majority of them, are ever further removed from a decent future. But, remember, Portugal has soul, and soul will win the day . . .

Bom Natal

Bom Natal

The life of the valley

We went for a walk and found Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother's Footsteps with us

On a walk we turned to find Camilla, the dog I looked after a little while ago, playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with us

Misty Sunday morning

Misty Sunday morning

The sun breaking through. I apologised to visiting family from Sweden for the overcast weather, but they were thrilled just to see daylight

The sun breaking through. I apologised to family visiting from Sweden for the cloudy weather, but they seemed thrilled just to see daylight

Our valley might look like the end of the world but it has many stories to tell. Only a couple of decades ago there was just one car here, a beaten-up one at that. Donkeys would have done the work of taking people and produce into the local village. Now there are Land Rovers and jeeps, family cars and, of course, a Renault 4 (Rolie, who is mine). We have a neighbour who keeps sheep, who has probably lived in the valley his entire life. We have tried hard to engage with him but he’s not too impressed by us. This week I saw him smile for the first time. I slowed Rolie down to a crawl so as not to alarm his sheep on the dirt road. The big beasts didn’t look too bothered either way, but two tiny, white, nervous faces looked up from just below the level of the road on the river-side of the track: lambs. My face melted and my expression was caught by the old man. That was when he smiled.

I am fascinated by other Renault 4 drivers, though usually too shy to openly demonstrate solidarity. Husband doesn’t have the same reserve. Recently we drove past a yellow R4 that we usually see parked outside an equally yellow house on the winding route into the town of São Brás de Alportel. So happy we were to see the vehicle in use that Husband – unusually, he was at the wheel of my car – beeped the horn to say hello. By chance the next day, alone in Rolie, I saw the car again. The driver’s hat was barely higher than the steering wheel. As we drew level, an old, crabbed hand was lifted in greeting.

Wheat

Not long ago, wheat was grown here in the valley. People harvested their own crop and a portable mill arrived by truck in the season to grind it for them; like all country people they understood crop rotation and knew what the land was capable of. The women made bread in wood-fired ovens and it tasted like heaven, I’m told. But cereal-growing didn’t last: two, opposing forces killed it off. A drive of Salazar’s, Portugal’s ascetic, etiolated twentieth-century dictator, to turn the Eastern Algarve into Portugal’s bread basket led to wide-scale land clearing for intensive cereal production that gave little consideration to the reality of the soil. The earth here is perfect for olive, carob, almond, medronho, fig, cork oak, and for subsistence vegetable farming. The drive failed. After only a few years of year-round production the land was exhausted; it has since reverted to more appropriate use. Somewhere along the line cheap flour imports became the model instead, and that put paid to people growing wheat for their own sustenance. Why work so hard when you could buy the stuff so cheaply, even if it didn’t taste as good or have anything like the same nutritional content?

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

This might have been a field of wheat at one time

The path to the river

The way to the river

An abandoned watermill exists at the end of our footpath to the river. I can’t imagine there was ever water enough for a millrace, so perhaps this was part of Salazar’s failed vision too, but I don’t know. It’s a puzzle. The millstone, which doesn’t look well used, lies decoratively but uselessly outside our garage and we and our visitors occasionally reverse cars into it. For us it is a reminder that not everything goes well, even in our little paradise.

I found this line in a photographic book about the Algarve by a Dr Marjay, published in 1968, in what would have been Salazar’s thirty-sixth, and last, year as Prime Minister: ‘Living in the heart of this perennial spring the people of Algarve hardly feel the bitterness of life.’ A glib sentence like that would surely have had the approval of Salazar, whose regime openly cultivated a ‘conservative, paternalist and, bless God, “backward”’ country. Salazar didn’t have time for people’s innate wisdom and need for self-determination. (I’m grateful to Becky of Hidden Delights of the Algarve for The Algarve book tip; the words of Salazar are from a letter he wrote in 1962 and are quoted in Barry Hatton’s very readable The Portuguese.)

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

The rosemary bush in our burgeoning garden; I love this herb

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

This is Christmas for us: the medronho with its fruit baubles and its flower bells

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

Lordy came to visit. He did not want to look at the camera, but he sat with his leg pressed against my shin in a companionable way. Estrela came too, and Eleuterio confirmed what was evident: she is pregnant, and we are in line for a puppy or two

 

Peace

Mornings in the valley are misty these days

Mornings in the valley are misty lately

We still have sunny days

We still have sunny days

Ancient, powerfully strong oak tree, stripped of its cork, bent over a path

Ancient, powerfully strong oak tree, stripped of its cork, bent over a path. Seen on a recent walk in new territory

The base of a stripped cork oak tree. Cork is fascinating and endlessly useful - postcards made of the stuff were to send me time-travelling this week

Remains of the cork layer at the base of a tree. Postcards made of cork were to send me time-travelling this week

 

The valley is full of quiet and peace. Passerines braid the air between the trees. The rosemary in the garden is dense with flowers and bees. The sun isn’t shining all day long every day, unlike December last year when each hour of daylight was an hour of blue skies. December last year . . . I was drawn sharply back to last year for a moment in the post office in Tavira. We spent a lot of time there when we were new, organising rental of a post box, sending important documents off. I even bought a few Christmas postcards printed on cork. Since then we’ve had little business to do in there, but yesterday I received notification in our post box of a parcel and went in to pick it up. There on the counter were Christmas postcards printed on cork. Instantly, I was dematerialised and transported back a year. I had to kick back to the surface, rushing through the events of the past year to remind me that it did happen. Fifty-two weeks condensed into a single moment. Lucky I’ve got this blog as proof that it isn’t all a dream.

Adventures in Portuguese

I continue with my forays into the Portuguese language, even without the benefit of real immersion – it’s too quiet where we are – or any systematic approach to learning, thanks to the continuing pressure of work and other demands. I was encouraged by a short conversation I had with a very nice woman, who wanted to know how long I’d lived here – a direct question which I managed to answer – and declared my Portuguese to be, after such a short time in the country, ‘espectaculo’. So encouraged, that I went off to buy something I needed, determined to do it in Portuguese. I’d already constructed a mnemonic for the name: a fruit + a museum in New York + thingummybob. (I’m not telling you what it was. A little puzzle.) So I walked in, went up to the counter and said I’d like to buy a fruit-museum-thingummybob, please. She knew exactly what I wanted. Success! I’d be out of the shop again in a moment.

Alas, I’d managed to give the impression of being a competent Portuguese speaker. She went to the shelf and took down the two versions of the fruit-museum-thingummybob they had in stock. She proceeded to unpack each one and describe in great detail what it did, the differences between the two, the variations in price, the advantages and disadvantages of each style, and so on. Unfamiliar with the thingummy anyway, I decided to nod and hope for the best until I could simply buy the version that came with the nice little zip-up case for storage, which was the basis on which I was making my choice, then leave and read the instructions in English. But the fatal moment came: a direct question. I had no idea what she was asking me. Her face soured. (Not typical Portuguese, this. These are the friendliest people ever.) ‘English?’ she said. I shook my head firmly. No way was I admitting to speaking English. Not a word. I managed to conclude the purchase, but she wasn’t pleased. I think she felt I’d cheated her. Next time I’d better admit defeat earlier on.

I made this tiny and precarious sculpture by the river a few weeks ago . . .

I made this tiny and precarious sculpture by the river a few weeks ago . . .

It's still there! Didn't take much to restore it

It’s still there! It didn’t take much to restore it

bread

Bread for other people

Olive and tomato bread with rosemary from the garden: irresistible

Bread for us: olive and tomato with rosemary from the garden

Back again

 

Dancing on the square in the sun: this was how the climate march on 29 November began in Tavira

Dancing on the square in the sun: this was how the climate march on 29 November began in Tavira

Our local version of the march was focused on the protest against the oil companies who’ve been given fracking rights in the district of Tavira

Our local version of the march was focused on the protest against oil companies who’ve been given fracking rights here

No Oil in the Algarve

No Oil in the Algarve

I’m very happy to be writing the blog again. Technical problems caused a two-week break in transmission. (No help from the site hosts, who in fact made the problem worse. Resolved in the end by a family member. Thanks, Simon!) Being forcibly offline taught me something: that I can’t relinquish this blog easily. By coincidence, the technical problem arose at exactly the time when I would have stopped writing if I had stuck to my second promise: to keep it up only for a full Algarve year. Our first anniversary of living here was on 21 November. It is not given to us individually to know when our days on earth will end, and I have realised that nor is it given to me to know when this blog will end. It has a life of its own.

Also, I’m stopping counting the weeks. I only started that because of the first promise, when I began the blog in London, which was to write once a week for a year and cover the whole process of selling up and moving and settling in to a new place. (I got to Week 52 and found I couldn’t give up then.)

So, to catch up. A couple of weeks ago we drove north into the Alentejo plains. It’s an extraordinary place of big skies and dazzling light. You feel like you are standing on a giant upturned bowl inside a blue glass dome. It was an appropriate setting for the big birds we saw there: Cranes and Great Bustards. (Around a week later we would be at the other end of the Crane migration route in eastern Germany, as part of a trip to see friends and family.) And it was home to big, fat, jazzily striped spiders like this one, which it turns out is very common hereabouts.

Argiope bruennichi

Argiope bruennichi. The abdomen is about the size of a thumbnail

Another view of Mrs Argiope and her dinner

Another Mrs Argiope, and her dinner

We visited Mértola on the way back to the Algarve. Like Tavira, our beautiful local city, and many other Portuguese towns, it dates from long before the founding of the nation of Portugal in 1143. Despite being some distance inland, Mértola was a trading port used by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Knights of the Order of Santiago and on into recent times by copper traders, thanks to the navigability of the Guadiana river. A typical Portuguese city layout is of narrow winding streets and many small squares, with commercial activities on the riverside and administration and authority (be it religious or other) on the hill: Mértola fits this model, and so does Tavira.

I’m in the process of exploring and learning everything I can about Tavira for reasons I will explain in a future blog. It was largely as a ploy to get inside one of Tavira’s many churches – the big wooden doors usually remain resolutely shut – that on Saturday 14 November I went to see a Fado singer at the Igreja de São Francisco on Zacarias Guerreiro square.

It was the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Husband didn’t feel up to the sadness of Fado, though as Portuguese writer and poet Pessoa explained in a magazine article he wrote in 1929: ‘Fado is neither happy nor sad … [it] is the weariness of the strong soul.’ And, like I said, I was mostly just keen to see inside the church. The concert was part of the Música nas Igrejas (Music in Churches) cycle of Tavira’s music academy.

What a joy it was. The fadista, Sara Gonçalves, filled the crumbling, neglected Baroque interior with her fine voice. A couple of songs even had sing-along choruses. It was a truly uplifting experience.

Fado in the church

Fado in the church

Sara G1

The music of a strong soul

 

Solar power

The solar panels were installed on the hillside a good few weeks ago, and the battery of batteries, converters and transformers arranged in the control shed soon after, and ever since I’ve been quiet on the subject. That’s because it didn’t work at first. We would run the house on solar power and as soon as one of the big electrical beasts came into operation, like the dishwasher or the oven, the whole system would trip and we’d be powerless, lightless, waterless and phoneless. Get it back on and it would trip again. It seems that to begin with, the distribution around the various circuits wasn’t set up optimally. It took another couple of visits from the two experts, a lot of head-scratching and a fair amount of cussing, but now, finally, it works. We’re on solar power! It’s a really good feeling.

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