Monthly Archive: June 2016

Swallows and ants

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

Red-rumped Swallow on the washing line with a beakful of mud

The nesting site on the wall

The nesting site on the wall


In the two weeks since I last posted, while I have had my focus exclusively on work, the weather has become hot and the river almost dry. The Red-rumped Swallows have been bringing beakfuls of mud to our front terrace, much of which has ended up on the floor. The first few random splodges on the wall served as claw-holds for more delicate constructive work. Then they spotted a hook on the ceiling. I have long had my eye on this hook. It was put in by our predecessors and is strong enough to hold a swinging chair. One day I knew that I would find such a chair, in rattan perhaps, maybe in a teardrop shape. I would occupy the future leisure days of my imagination devouring books in my suspended, pod-like nest.

The swallows got there first. They gave up on the wall and turned their ambitions to the hook. They are slowly covering it with mud, while a small mud mountain grows on the floor beneath. The Red-rumped Swallows are known for their distinctive home. It is a closed cup shape with a tunnel entrance. I cannot figure out where the hook fits into the classic design. Time will tell.

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Attention switched to the hook in the ceiling

Adding mud to the hook, and dropping plenty on the floor

Adding mud to the hook while upside down, and dropping plenty on the floor


The ant-spewing volcanoes have continued to erupt. We reconquered our kitchen, but we didn’t notice that in a rear-guard action the ants had taken over a spare bedroom. It was our luckless guests, H and D, who woke up in the night to a strange sensation of rustling and shifting pillowcase, and found a line of ants marching across it on their way to the spare bathroom, where perhaps an insect carcass had attracted their attention. Our guests knew where to find the hoover and set to vacuuming the little beasts up. We slept soundly on the other side of the house.

We have now resorted to the medieval castle-holder’s solution and are pouring boiling water on the ants’ heads, down the various holes in the garden out of which they emerge.

Currently emerging from holes across the United Kingdom are racists to whom the winning ‘Leave’ result in the referendum has given some kind of mandate. I was in London on the day of the result. I’d gone there for a meeting. My postal vote had long ago been sent off and the timing of my visit was pure chance. It was not until I heard the result over the radio in my minuscule hotel room that I realised how little I’d considered the possibility the United Kingdom might actually vote itself out of the EU. I could hardly believe it, and I still cannot. Rejoicing in the result is the biggest grinning villain of them all, one Nigel Farage, leader of a party of jokers, who failed to win a seat in Parliament. Among his many declarations since the result was announced is that people used to laugh at him but they don’t any more. How true. We are not laughing.

The two main political parties are collapsing from within. The prime minister declared his intention to resign, leaving others to sort out the mess he engendered. Conversations on the street show how little people understand the process. ‘Now that we are no longer in the EU,’ I heard. (We are still in the EU. A process of dismantling our membership has to be initiated first.) Newspapers and social media are reporting ‘go-home’ taunts shouted at ‘foreigners’. Triumphant ‘Leavers’ are not so much taking leave of Europe as of sanity, morality and intelligence.

I never heard a note of triumph on the streets of central London. I did hear notes of fear. Many of the service jobs in the city are done by people from mainland Europe. After greeting me in the friendly way that their jobs required, remarking on how much better the weather was than the day before – when flooding in South-east England had affected flights and caused my own to arrive two hours late – a look would be exchanged, an almost imperceptible widening of the eyes, and we would admit to our shared horror at this result.

The EU isn’t perfect. I suspect sound and even humane reasons can be argued for leaving, but they were not made. The campaign was a racist one. Hideous fissures have opened up in the ground of a country that once prided itself on decency. Not such a great accolade, ‘decency’, but one we are going to miss now if it’s gone.

And here I am back in Portugal, where I have known nothing but kindness, friendliness and tolerance of my poor grasp of the language. Time to apply for a new passport, perhaps.


Bougainvillea, bursting with life

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the 'ghost' nest again. We still hope they will rebuild it. Plenty of mud by the river . . .

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the ‘ghost’ nest again and, what’s more, carrying mud to it in their beaks. Spots of the mud have fallen to the ground. I guess it takes a while to get the foundations to stick

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name


We wake up to birdsong. We get up to find the kitchen covered in thrumming wires of ants. They crisscross the floor and travel up the walls. It doesn’t matter that we leave the kitchen spotless at the end of the day, it only takes a homeopathic trace of something sweet in an overlooked spot to bring them in overnight. Confident in nature’s sustainable surplus, we vacuum them up, the sound of the hoover drowning out the birdsong. This goes on for half an hour as they continue to stream in. Not only are we confident that the species will survive whatever we do to it, we are also confident that our own colony will survive whatever we do to it. Somewhere beneath the soil in the garden is an ant volcano, spewing ants.

After four days, they stopped coming in. The lava flow dried up. The message filtered back to the colony that the house was out of bounds.

Another distinctive note in the house’s soundscape this week has been a snake throwing its body against the garage door. I heard the strange bumping noise before I saw the cause. At the moment our eyes met, it stopped what it was doing and shot off to the other end of the garage wall to disappear around the side. Dark silvery grey on top, pale silver underneath, about 120cm long; I don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I did later discover what it had been trying to do. It had been trying to get back inside the hollow of the garage door.

The snake must have had a few days of calm when we weren’t using the garage. Probably thought it had made a very clever choice, this thoroughly modern dwelling, all angular and metallic. Then the solar engineers arrived and needed to use the garage space, and up and down, up and down went the door, the poor snake’s tail protruding from one side, its home turned into a hideous fairground ride. I think it’s gone somewhere else now. Human beings – we’re not easy to live with, are we?

These speak for themselves

Aljezur protest crosses

Human chain

We travelled east to west, to Aljezur on the other side of the Algarve, to take part in an anti-oil human chain. Aljezur is close to where the first offshore oil drilling is due to take place in July. The meeting time and place was three o’clock outside the town hall. It was quite a long drive but we arrived in good time at about twenty to.

Will we never learn? There was nobody there. Really, not a soul. We went away to drink coffee and came back at five past three, rather guiltily late, and now there were three or four souls there, quite a long way off the amount you’d need for a decent chain. So we hung around, and kicked our heels, and got into a conversation or two, and over the course of the next couple of hours the other links in the chain rolled up. It ended up as a very good solidarity event. Several hundred people, including the local mayor and other dignitaries, and plenty of press too. We made a good display, waving banners and singing and dancing.

It has to be said, it was not a risky chain. We were not surrounding an oil drill or heavy machinery or hostile operators. The only risky part was when two ends of the chain were instructed to move and set off in different directions, and Husband and I and our immediate neighbours somewhere in the middle got stretched out slightly more than was comfortable. The problem was resolved with the help of a loudspeaker, and the chain began moving with more singularity of purpose. We probably need to take chain lessons from ants.

The petition I mentioned last week needed at least 4000 signatures to give rise to a debate at the Assembleia about the west coast drilling plans. It has exceeded its minimum target.

No blog next week because of another kind of overstretch – workload. This means that the next time I write, the results of the UK’s referendum over its EU membership will be known. My postal vote has already been returned to Tower Hamlets in east London. I’ve voted to remain, but in two weeks’ time I might find myself out of sync with my countryfolk, and be typing through a veil of tears.

At Aljezur câmara

At Aljezur câmara

No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies

‘No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies’

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart


Renault 4

A pick-up truck bounced along our track the other day, loaded with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. You can see they are newly harvested because the trunks are still ochre in colour

A pick-up truck bounced along our track, laden with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. Their ochre trunks reveal they’ve just been harvested; they will soon blacken

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger fruit, not quite so divine as the first tree's . . .

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger, more loosely textured, not quite so heavenly as the first tree’s fruit . . .

Estrela decided that I should not be alone all day. She turned up by herself - which she has never done before, and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell

Estrela turned up by herself – which she has never done before – and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell. I think she knew Husband had gone away and felt that I should not be on my own

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming - these are in Tavira

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming – these are in Tavira

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself


Rolie gave up on me this week. I was in the petrol station in our local village and had just added 10 euros’ worth of top-grade fuel to his tank when he decided not to start up again. Not a hint. Barely a click. I pushed him to the side of the forecourt with the help of the pump lady. I phoned Costa but no luck: the answering message said the number was no longer in use. I walked to the workshop in the Cooperativa at the other end of the village where he has been rebuilding an old Mini and asked his portly friend if Costa was there. No, he wasn’t, and the friend wasn’t sure when he’d be there again, maybe the next day or the day after, maybe not.

Oh well. Time for a coffee and cake, and to check some Portuguese vocabulary using the mobile phone. The walk home from the village is only forty-five minutes, and it’s beautiful. I had done it the day before, both ways. Nightingales sang along the route, and an unidentified plant was expelling its seeds with a tiny hush followed by a tak as the empty, dry seedpod hit the ground. I had been offered a boleia (lift) on the way out but turned it down, explaining I liked to walk. I didn’t mind the prospect of the walk again, except that today I wasn’t properly clad. I was too hot in my jeans, and my new yellow shoes would take a battering in the dust. I had no towel to dry my feet with after going through the river.

In the café an English-speaker with an American accent and a laptop was on Skype to his partner, a woman with an English accent. It was impossible not to overhear so I listened in. It was a discussion about the advantages of living here, with the man trying to persuade the woman. As I got up to go I passed the Skyping man and I figured he wouldn’t mind an interruption. I caught his eye and told him they should definitely move here. He smiled and returned to his conversation: ‘Did you hear that?’

In my head I had practised the Portuguese for ‘Is it OK if I leave the car here? I’ll be back when I can.’ I didn’t know when that would be since I couldn’t get hold of Costa and Husband was away in Germany for a week. I was going to be house-bound at the end of the world, unable to go anywhere unless on foot. I’d miss a few appointments.

I reached the garage again.

‘Is it OK if I leave the car here?’

‘Of course.’

‘—’ I didn’t get any more words out because I heard my own name being called from the other side of the forecourt. I looked across.

It was Costa.

‘Hello, how are you? I saw the Renault. Have you tried to call me? The old number does not work. I have a new one. I give it to you. I’ve been in France. I saw your ’usband the other day. We passed each other on the road. What’s this sticker? [It was my Nem um Furo anti-oil protest sticker.] How is the car? Is there a problem?’

It seems that Costa, in addition to offering the best after-sales service on the planet, can now be reached by thought-wave alone. He talked me through how to restart the car when both car and weather are too hot. He coaxed Rolie back to life, attended to a few things under the bonnet, made sure he started a second time, then a third, and handed the keys back to me.

As I was driving away, I waved to Costa, who looked very pleased. Not half so pleased as I was!


What’s the future for Rolie? It might be possible to convert him to an electric car, though my hopes are not high. So one day he’ll go for scrap or become a curiosity. I’d like to think the whole of the oil industry was heading the same way and at the same speed, though I fear Rolie will be out the door first.

It sometimes feels as if the oilmen have our warming planet in a stranglehold grip. The only thing to do is to try to prise off each finger one by one. If you get one finger to let go, another tightens, so you just have to keep trying. The grip might be rigor mortis, but it is all the tighter for that.

So far Portugal has been fairly free of the deathly grip, but not for much longer. The Algarve, a place drenched in the free and exploitable – and clean and renewable – energy of the sun, to name but one alternative source, has been handed over to the oil companies to drill and frack. They took us for mugs, but the protests have been loud and strong, and the oilmen have got rattled. One industry response has been for those who hold the concessions off the west coast of the Algarve, Galp/ENI, to keep quiet about drill dates until the last possible minute, reducing the time for consultation and dissent. So it’s been only for a matter of days now that people have known they plan to start offshore drilling as early as 1 July 2016. If 4000 people sign this petition before midnight on 21 June, then the matter will be raised for discussion at the Assembleia de República. (You need a Portuguese fiscal number or a European passport ID number to sign.) Off the southern Algarve coast, the concession holders Repsol-Partex have brought their drill dates forward from October to September. They also requested authorisation to use Loulé municipal helipad as base for their drilling ship’s medevac helicopter. The town mayor, who like the other Algarve mayors has expressed his commitment to stopping the oilmen, showed what he’s made of. He said no.

This is a horned dung beetle - I think. He's an ex-beetle, in fact, and I found him by the garage. He's about 3cm long

This is a horned dung beetle. It’s an ex-beetle, in fact; I found it by the garage. It’s about 3cm long. Its position in this post so soon after the mention of oilmen is not meant to prejudice the beetle in any way

Rolie's proud sticker

Rolie’s proud sticker


The river still has water into June. This time last year it was all dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The jacaranda flowers are on full display

The jacaranda flowers are opening




The kitchen smells of fresh apricots. They are falling from the tree unless we catch them first. A nice but not especially productive afternoon would be to sit between the pool and the apricot tree catching the fruit as it drops. Life does not yet allow for such indulgences, so the other way to harvest the fruit at its ripest is to glide your hand as gently as possible under the soft warm bottoms along the length of each branch, see which ripe, speckled apricots detach themselves unresistingly into your palm, then eat them immediately. Overnight, unseen, about two dozen will fall and have to be sought out in the morning from among the bedding of Hottentot fig below the tree; these go into jam.

I turned to the cookbooks on my shelves for recipes for apricot jam and chose the one that rather pleasingly involved the use of a mallet. The tender, yielding apricots are easy to prepare: halve them with a knife and remove the seeds, which takes about 3 seconds per fruit. The seeds you wrap in an old tea towel, and this is where the mallet comes in. You bash the seeds to shatter the shells and extract the soft kernels. This is a recipe from the highly rated Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander. I found a similar recipe from equally highly rated Irish food writer Darina Allen, but she failed to specify how you get the kernels out of the shells. You cook the fruit down (I used 1.5kg for my first batch of jam) with a little lemon juice, add an almost equal amount of warmed sugar and a small handful of the kernels you have managed to extricate from the shards. Cook on a high heat until a sugar thermometer reads 104°C, which takes about 15 minutes. Pour into super-clean jars. It helps a lot if you have a funnel, and of course a thermometer, both cheap items.

The first jar of jam was opened the very next day, and is delicious. It must be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Cookbooks are generally resistant to recommending the use of thermometers – I know, since I’ve copy-edited hundreds of them – and it’s because you don’t want to make a recipe unusable to someone who doesn’t have a particular piece of kit, and because you don’t want to turn a kitchen into a lab. But actually thermometers are great and well worth having, at least until you have the experience that enables you to tell when ingredients are ready by sight and sound and smell alone.

Then I got curious about the apricot kernels and wondered whether they were added for flavour – they have an intense almondy scent – or because they aided setting. So I asked Mrs Google, and quickly found myself in a world of furious argument over whether or not apricot seeds cure cancer. It seems that some people sell/buy the seed kernels alone and eat them medicinally. I quickly turned away again, happy to rely on the sensible and practised recipes of cooks.


The swimming pool engineer came round to explain how to run the pool and how to clean it. He is Portuguese with good English, which he was kind enough to use for my benefit. I’ve become very fond of Portuguese English. (Or it might be Algarvian English, I’m not sure.) I love the use of ‘imagine’, which is part of any instruction. ‘Imagine you want to clean the pool, then you . . .’ etc. I also love the cadence, which rises and rises, then ends on a two-note rise+fall.

‘Imagine you want to use the hoover,’ he said.

I never imagined the use of a hoover in a swimming pool. Wouldn’t you have to empty it first? I looked at him blankly.

‘You hoover the dust when it falls to the bottom,’ he explained.

‘With the water still in it?’

‘Of course.’ (Imagine – imagine! – this being said with a rise then fall, opposite to the English rhythm.)

And so you do. There is a hoover attachment which sucks up the particles that settle on the bottom of the pool and miraculously doesn’t suck up all the water as well. Not for the first time I realise that I don’t have a brain for engineering.


The vox pop vote after last week’s TV debate ran for 24 hours after the show was broadcast and the vote against oil exploration in the Algarve crept up, so that in the end it was 72 per cent against and 28 per cent for. Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-minister for the environment and one of the grinning villains of the oil saga, took up (or paid for?) an opinion piece in a national newspaper on 23 May to declare himself the victim of a campaign soaked in lies. He listed his rather feeble green credentials and went on to say that the oil contracts were fine and were really only for mapping resources for the benefit of the Portuguese state – this is a lie, or at best an obfuscation. One of the contracts has been shown on television and we know it allows for subsequent exploitation of resources. He also posed a couple of rhetorical questions: should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of the Portuguese state learning about its resources? Should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of a law applied since 1994? (A law that allows the Portuguese state and environment to be ripped off for the benefit of business.) How the poor man must suffer for his beliefs! To be capable of such contorted arguments as this, you would expect him to have good debating skills. Yet he refused the invitation to appear on the television programme. The other grinning villain, Paulo Carmona, was there, and made a holy show of himself.

After hoovering, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

After hoovering, and several more days of filtration, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

Let's just have another look at those apricots

Let’s just have another look at those apricots

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