Monthly Archive: November 2016



Rosemary for remembrance. The plant is highly scented, dripping with flowers and humming with bees just now


On 21 November we celebrated (with a fine bottle of Alentejo red, ‘moon-harvested’, and a log fire) two years of living in this house in the Algarve, a move we’ve never regretted, a change that turned out even better than we thought it would.

Recently we have had plentiful rain – exactly like when we moved in – soaking the red earth and bringing dormant seeds to life. The cabbages and lettuces we planted look pert and healthy. No snails crawling over them but I’ll have to keep my eye on things. We haven’t established an adequate rainwater-collection system yet. Ideally we would have a system that funnels harvested rain straight into the cisterna under the front veranda. We’ve been making do with a water butt at the back of the house, which we dip into. The water running off the front roofs was not being captured. For now at least, we decided to buy some more butts.

‘Did you look up the Portuguese for water butt?’ asked Husband at the wheel of the car.

‘Oh, I forgot, and I forgot to bring a dictionary too.’

‘You could try your phone.’

Google Translate duly delivered bunda de água.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Me too. Notoriously unreliable means of translation, and it’s American English, which means a whole different take on ‘butt’. So I reverse-translated bunda and came up with ‘ass’, and I believe it’s not of the donkey variety. So if we’d trusted Google we’d have gone into the DIY place and asked a nice young man for some arse.

We weren’t born yesterday.

Not to say there aren’t a million things we still have to learn, and many more pitfalls to encounter. That’s just one we managed to avoid.

My list of things-to-learn gets longer all the time. Portuguese language remains top. The lessons with the new teacher, of whom I had such high hopes, have not gone well. No sooner had she bumped me up to level two than she decided I’d be better in level three, this being ‘conversation’, which is something of a stretch. I think it’s because – and I’m ashamed to admit it – I wore a rather impatient face throughout the lesson at level two. The class was largely conducted in English, with lateral conversations in French and Dutch, and I did get fed up.

Finding the right teacher and the right method of learning is surely more challenging than the language itself.

We’re waiting for the river to arrive. So too are the local junta de freguesia, who have been digging up the river bed while they still have the chance. They do this to get material to repair the parish roads – so I was told (in Portuguese) by the JCB driver when I went down to see what they were doing, and to give them a hard stare in case it was anything illegal or dodgy that was going on. He assured me it was all good, good for the riverbed and good for the roads. He was avuncular and polite and he opened the conversation with me and I appreciated that. He even said my Portuguese was good, which it is not, and might call into question the value he attaches to the word.

This is my last post for this year. I shall bring the blog back in 2017. I wish I could say ‘Happy new year’, but it would feel a bit fatuous. Such global uncertainties await us all, but Husband and I have finally opened our eyes to something close to home: our land. We’ve been treating the hillside we ‘own’ as a sort of embarrassment, describing ourselves as fleas claiming to own the dog. Well, no more fleas. We’re going to take that land on and nurture it. We’re going to create a ‘food forest’, following the principles of permaculture. It will take time to establish, and the list of things-to-learn just got impossibly long, but we have experts to learn from. Wish us luck!

PS Just before posting this blog, I drove off to see some neighbours. Rolie had a flat tyre and replacing that made me late but we’re all on Portuguese time so that was OK. Coming home, back down the track, I saw one lorry, then another, hauling away loads of the riverbed. I’d pulled over to let them by but the second truck came so slowly I wondered what was holding him up. Had he pulled aside and was waiting for me? But no. It was a hare, a beautiful, mottled-brown Iberian Hare with tall, black-fringed ears. He was zigzagging in front of the lorry and only when he came alongside me did he finally jink and run up the hillside. Little Edith’s heart was all a-flutter! This felt very special.

The neglected land . . .

The neglected land . . .

. . . and another view

. . . and another view


On the first of November 1755, on the holiday of All Saints’ Day, one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes had its epicentre in the Atlantic Ocean 200 kilometres south-west of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme south-west of Portugal. Modern seismologists estimate its magnitude to have been 8.5–9. Shockwaves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. A 3-metre-high tsunami is said to have reached Cornwall in south-west England.

The quake, widely known as the Lisbon Earthquake, opened up 5-metre-wide cracks in the centre of the Portuguese capital city and gave rise to a tsunami that engulfed the city’s harbour. Areas of the city that were not shattered or drowned were destroyed by the many fires that broke out, probably caused by the church candles lit for All Saints’ Day. Eighty-five per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people died.

Because the earthquake happened on an important church holiday and destroyed so many churches, divine judgement was read into the broken stones and broken bones. At the very least, this was surely evidence that a benevolent deity did not look after the world and its people. Philosophers across Europe were powerfully affected by the earthquake; for some, it shook the foundations of their beliefs. In Germany, in particular, Leibniz’s optimistic, sentimental world view held sway, the idea that human beings – creatures of reason, loved by a beneficent god – lived in a world that was the best it could possibly be. Voltaire’s ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ and his novel Candide are satires on this world view. (Candide regularly features in lists of the best and most influential books ever written. It’s also very short and very funny and if you haven’t read it yet you can surely find time to squeeze it in. I’m going to include a small extract at the end of this blog post.)

In the Algarve, many of the coastal towns and villages were affected by the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only Faro largely escaped, protected by the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. To commemorate the date, the town council of Tavira organised two talks around the subject this month: the first was on the geology of the area. When you see on a geological map the fault line that hugs the Algarve coast, you are caused yet again to question the sanity of anyone who wants to drill for oil or frack for gas in this area. Just how much rationality are they capable of ignoring? So of course Husband raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, and the otherwise excellent lecturer did her best to evade it. It’s a rotten job being a geologist; you have to sell your soul to the fossil fuel brigade who are almost certainly paying your salary, directly or indirectly. The second talk was about the extent of the damage as revealed by extant parish records. We learnt that in our local village – quite some kilometres inland – a single death occurred: at the door of the parish church as a stone was dislodged and came tumbling down. At the end of this talk it was the turn of another audience member to raise a provocative question about the area being earthquake-prone. At least it raised a laugh.

Fortunes can change in an instant and human rationality cannot be relied upon. We’ve just seen this in another earthquake: the political one that happened in the US this month.

As the old Greek said: ‘Wise men argue causes; fools decide them.’


A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn't get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this. It was a great demonstration: a few hundred people and much enthusiastic support from people on the street. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn’t get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this on my phone. It was a great demonstration: hundreds of people and much enthusiastic support from shoppers and workers out and about in the streets. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling – in spite of it all


I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station after our weekend in Lisbon at the time of the moon-rise and so missed the best views - which would have been in our valley

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station on Monday evening after our weekend in Lisbon and we missed what would have been the very best view – the moon-rise over the Meditation Hill in our valley


From Candide:

Chapter V

Describing tempest, shipwreck, and earthquake, and what happened to Dr Pangloss,
Candide, and James, the Anabaptist

… Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever. He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there. Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide, and the brutal sailor who had been the means of drowning the honest Anabaptist. The villain swam successfully to shore; and Pangloss and Candide, clinging to a plank, were washed up after him.

When they had recovered a little of their strength, they set off towards Lisbon, hoping they had just enough money in their pockets to avoid starvation after escaping the storm.

Scarcely had they reached the town, and were still mourning their benefactor’s death, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled on to their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.

The sailor chucked:

‘There will be something worth picking up here,’ he remarked with an oath.

‘What can be the “sufficient reason” for this phenomenon?’ said Pangloss.

‘The Day of Judgment has come,’ cried Candide.

The sailor rushed straight into the midst of the debris and risked his life searching for money. Having found some, he ran off with it to get drunk; and after sleeping off the effects of the wine, he bought the favours of the first girl of easy virtue he met amongst the ruined houses with the dead and dying all around. Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said:

‘This will never do, my friend; you are not obeying the universal rule of Reason; you have misjudged the occasion.’

‘Bloody hell,’ replied the other. ‘I am a sailor … I’m not the man for your Universal Reason!’


The bridge

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site

Strategic banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site


The international bridge over the Guadiana river links Portugal and Spain. The wind frets the cables of the bridge structure in a constant and discordant whine, which you wouldn’t notice as you drive across. For pedestrians the noise is disconcerting, but then there aren’t supposed to be any pedestrians there. It’s a vehicle-only bridge. But we were there on Sunday on foot to wave our protest banners from the bridge as a symbol of Portuguese-Spanish solidarity in the pursuit of a clean-energy future.

First we Portuguese groups gathered on our side of the river, then were waved across the bridge in vehicle convoy by traffic police. Over in Spain we joined with the Spanish groups, then, after some directing and misdirecting by the police – it looked deliberate but it turned out to be to avoid a big group of Sunday runners, for whom roads had been closed – we all parked and got out of our vehicles. We unfurled the banners and clambered up the hillside and gathered on the deck of the bridge beneath the whining cables, using what must have been a walkway for maintenance workers.

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Skyward view

Skyward view

I don’t know why I worried about the event, other than that I simply do worry about these things: would anybody show up, was the bridge a dangerous setting, was there anything no one had thought of (an unknown unknown), was it genuinely a useful thing to do? Well, some three hundred people came, from both countries. The press were there too. The timing coincided with the Paris Climate Change Agreement coming into force, which in its simplest terms has to mean no new fossil fuel projects anywhere in the world because the delicate system of the planet can no longer sustain them. The science is so overwhelming and so convincing and yet still we have to wave banners from bridges. At the very least – or should I say at the very best – it was a meeting of minds as the participating groups gathered under the bridge after the demonstration to eat and talk and share experiences.

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest picnic: fabulous paella

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest/picnic: fabulous paella. Husband took a tray of focaccia around, which went like hot cakes


Black Redstart

Our small hibiscus tree has managed never to be without a flower in the months since we got it

Our potted hibiscus tree has managed never once to be without a flower in the months since we got it

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill (‘9’ on the trunk means it was last harvested of cork in 2009)

It has been remarked that I don't show Husband's bread any more. I guess I've just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery

It has been remarked that I don’t show Husband’s bread any more. I guess I’ve just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery; here are the latest

Lemon in the early morning

Lemon in the early morning


The Little Owl and the Black Redstart were the very first birds that came into our lives when we moved into our house in the valley almost two years ago. The Little Owl has stayed around ever since. The Black Redstart left in our first spring and didn’t return for the winter; I missed it. But now it’s back, having skipped a year. It clicks and flicks and dips around the veranda and the roofs of our house and our neighbours’. It has taken a great liking to the swallows’ balcony. When the Red-rumped Swallows built their mud nest around a hook in the veranda ceiling this year, they began with a small extension facing outwards, which looked like it would be the entrance tunnel. They then turned their backs on the extension and grew the nest instead towards our front door, with the bottle-neck entrance facing just where we emerge from the house. The rear extension was perhaps a mistake, or a practice run. It stayed unused all summer – but no longer. The returning Black Redstart has found it to be the perfect perch and vantage point.

The clocks have gone forward. It’s now easier for a lie-abed like me to get up and walk up the hill before sunrise (currently around 7 a.m.). The valley in the damp morning is fragrant: woody, spicy and herbaceous, and ambery, too, from the sticky leaves of Cistus ladanifer. The earth is also greening by the day. By midday the sun is warm and the season feels more like spring than autumn. We have made a cabbage patch and a lettuce patch with small plants we bought at Santa Catarina’s monthly market: 15 seedlings for 1 euro from a friendly farmer; we bought two lots of cabbages and one of lettuce. When the spring-like day comes to an end it feels chilly and damp again, so we’ve started lighting the fire: a treat.

I’ve finally done something I should have done two years ago, and joined the Portuguese language classes held in the town of São Bras. I was told about them at the start of our time here but I was terrified of driving then. Now me and Rolie are best mates and like nothing better than an outing. So we rolled up to a class where I found a charming and expressive elderly teacher, who places great emphasis on pronunciation – very important – and, even better, at the end of the class bumped me up to a higher level. Still beginners, mind you, but a little confidence boost is a good thing. Thursday will see how I get on at level II.

Assembleia da República

I have been to England again, this time to attend my uncle’s funeral, and missed last Wednesday’s trip to Lisbon for the debates in the Assembleia, the response to the petitions delivered by anti-oil group PALP. Three buses, filled by many schoolchildren and a few dozen adults, left from the Algarve. Husband was among them. When he called me that evening he sounded annoyed, even a little shaken, by the experience the adults had undergone. The schoolchildren and a small group of petitioners with prior clearance gained relatively easy access. For the remainder to get into Portugal’s proud ‘house of national democracy’ to witness an open debate proved almost impossible. Armed uniformed men took them in groups of three, having first demanded they deposit all their belongings into plastic bags that were sealed and locked away. Once through, Husband had his sweatshirt yanked up to reveal his ‘Don’t Spoil the Algarve’ T-shirt, which he was then ordered to remove. He was made to go out, add the T-shirt to the bag – which had to be opened, sealed again and put back in the locker – and return. The treatment was peremptory and intended to be intimidating. Everyone was given a text to read, available in Portuguese, French, German and English, which threatened a prison term of three years if any expression of opinion was made in any form once they were inside. When they finally got in, the debate was under way, but the petitions had been moved on to the bottom of the queue; in the end, most of the issues relevant to us were neither debated nor voted on. It felt like a day of democratic failure.

The bridge

Our next planned action is for Sunday, a joint demonstration with the Spanish to take place on and around the Guadiana International Bridge that spans the river border between the southern Algarve and Spain. As always, I’m anxious about it, but I’ll try to do my bit.


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