Week 20: Barcelona break

A small holiday: to Barcelona, a city Husband has been to countless times but which I had never visited. We stayed with friends, who have had their own recent experience of incapacity – in their case involving a ladder and an ankle rather than a moped and a knee – and so were perfectly understanding of our mobility problems and gave practical and moral support. They borrowed a wheelchair for us for the length of our stay. We wouldn’t have been able to manage without it, for although the repaired knee is now being run in, it is far from being fully up to speed and we certainly didn’t want to risk knackering it all over again.

So many things to learn, and so few of them the things I thought I’d be learning at this stage. For example, I have so far had almost zero time to practise any Portuguese. On the other hand, I do now know how to handle a wheelchair on city streets. I learned that it’s better to approach uneven surfaces at a slight angle. If a ramp from pavement to street looks like it ends in a rut, then better go down it backwards. This I discovered after one heart-stopping moment when the front wheels caught in a small dip and Husband was about to be pitched forward face first in a way that would have been embarrassing for us both. Somehow balance was regained just in time.

I know the streets of Barcelona quite well now.

I had to adjust an expectation too. I thought that being anywhere on the Iberian peninsula would have echoes of our future life to it, but Barcelona couldn’t be further from the Algarve if it tried. It is a town that barely wants to acknowledge Spain; Portugal might as well be on the moon. I loved Barcelona, just not in the way I thought I would. But it’s a magical city I know I will want to visit again.


A Scottish inhabitant, or a Catalan demonstration of shared desires?

A Scottish inhabitant, or Catalan support of shared desires?

Miró; possible ancestor of Artbot.


Palau de la Música Catalana

Palau de la Música Catalana



Weeks 17 to 19: Rural idyll

I have really missed writing this blog. And so, although Husband is not yet back on two legs and we are not yet off to the Algarve, here I am again, taking up the story so far.

Robot made by Dad, and re-found by us. I named him Artbot, after his maker.

Robot made by Dad, and re-found by us. I named him Artbot, after his maker

I have not managed to capture the Lancaster on film yet

I have not managed to capture the Lancaster fully on film yet. It does move fast . . .

On Friday, it will be six weeks since Husband had the operation on his knee and that will be the day when he can finally begin to put weight on the right leg again, which will make getting around a lot easier. He’s keen to get back to driving, which has been my domain since the accident. The fact that I have had to get behind the wheel has been a good thing, because I had developed demons about driving and now I seem to be defeating them.

My mum appears not to have minded our moving in and turning her house into part care home, part office. She generously said the grab bars fitted in the bathroom might even be useful to her one day. I’ve edited two – getting on for three – important books in my half of the dining room. (Important to me, that is, not necessarily to the world.) Husband has taken Dad’s spot in the living room: the armchair in the corner with the footstool. And we’ve been having a grand time together, the three of us, in high good humour.

I made one trip to London. I had a lot to do in a day and ended up with both a mild asthma attack and a nose bleed, and in spite of these I still felt a tiny amount of regret that we’ve given up our stake in this fantastic city. The train journey back involved two changes, finally winding up at a tiny station in Lincolnshire – two platforms and a level crossing. The young guard asked to check my ticket just before I arrived and I struggled to find it. I apologised; said it had been a long day. I finally located it and he saw that I’d travelled from London. He widened his eyes. ‘Ooh, I bet you’re glad to be back,’ he said. And, strangely, I was. It was evening, and my car was the only one in the car park. I drove back through dark, silent roads and felt very, very calm.

Fabulous bread continues to be made by the man on one leg

Fabulous bread continues to be made by the man on one leg

Wheelchair on loan from local Red Cross agency

Wheelchair on loan from local Red Cross agency

Week 16: Taking a break

Something of a detour: from East London to the Eastern Algarve via the East Midlands. The sale completed successfully last Wednesday. Rather than a cause of joy, it was simply the end of torment. I arrived at my mum’s in a fully laden car – everything we need for the next two to three months – with my niece at the wheel. I don’t like driving, so I was very grateful to her. The next day was the first anniversary of my father’s death. We drank the Krug we’d kept to toast him with, but we preferred the mead Dad had made from his own honey twenty-four years earlier.

When I started this blog, I expected to muse about the prospect of changing countries and trying out a different life; I expected many challenges, but for them to come from the Portuguese side. No doubt difficulties are yet to come, but so far buying a house in Portugal has been a story of pleasant cooperation and charming efficiency, while selling a flat in London has been a story of inexplicable legal inefficiency and pointless, long-drawn-out nervous tension. And then there was a motorcycle accident thrown into the mix.

Now we are spending a few weeks in rural England, with my mum. We are in an old-fashioned village beloved of 1940s re-enactors and commemorators of the second world war. The Dambusters Squadron operated from here in 1944 and 1945. Lancaster bombers occasionally fly overhead. We are near the RAF station where they are housed (one permanently, one is on a visit); they are apparently the only two airworthy Lancasters left. Their flight path is directly over my mother’s house and they come low enough to appear to skim the treetops. You can either hear them or see them. Hearing them is wonderful. Their beautiful sound enters and fills the house. Or you run out and watch them overhead, almost close enough to touch. My husband, who is German, observes the British obsession with the war with mild detachment.

My promise at the beginning of this blog was to write once a week, unless a fox takes me out. A fox has not taken me out, but has done severe damage to Husband’s knee. So I’m taking a few weeks out, while he recovers, and while I do too. We visited London on Monday for an appointment at the fracture clinic. It gave me a pang to be in London so briefly and as a non-resident. London still has a small hold over me. The news was positive: two weeks have been taken off the time in which he cannot put weight on his knee, reducing it from eight weeks to six. That means, from now, just three and a half weeks to go. He got to see, via x-ray, the extraordinarily clever scaffolding put in to hold the knee together. It was a good day.

Please see the subscription widget, which I have managed to reinstate, and do sign up for the next post (if you are not already signed up). I shall take up our story again in October when Husband is back on two legs and we are finally on our way to our house in the Algarve.

Our house in the Algarve: front terrace

Our house in the Algarve: front terrace

Our house in the Algarve: the garden

Our house in the Algarve: the garden

Week 15: Action

I’m typing this sitting on the floor of an empty flat. On Wednesday evening our solicitor phoned us to tell us contracts had been exchanged. Confirmation in writing, via email, came on Friday. On Thursday Husband made it, with my help, to his office where he delivered a leaving speech while leaning on crutches and with the additional support of a wall. He was very happy to be able to say his goodbyes. On Saturday he and I travelled by train to my mum’s house – a bungalow: what joy! – where he will convalesce, then I returned to London. I now had 32 hours before the packers arrived. I managed to work for 24 of these hours. (Thank god for years of yoga practice. Makes you strong.)

Parking restriction went up on Thursday. I used to believe - many years ago - that one shouldn't own more than could be fit into a rucksack. Now we need three parking bays for a pantechnicon

Parking restriction went up on Thursday. I used to believe – many years ago – that one shouldn’t own more than could be fit into a rucksack. Now we need three parking bays for a pantechnicon

Living room

All my hard work resulted in a flat ready for the packers: living room . . .

Top landing

top landing . . .

. . . study

. . . study, and the rest . . .

Arrival of pantechnicon on Monday morning

Arrival of pantechnicon on Monday morning

Just a few hours later

Just a few hours later and much has already been done


On my return on Tuesday: an empty flat. Hard to capture in pictures, but you get the idea

Bread can still be made by Husband on one leg, I'm happy to report

Bread can still be made by Husband on one leg, I’m happy to report; the last loaf made in our London home

Goodbye, London! Now we really are leaving.

Week 14: Curve ball

Last week on his way home Husband had an accident on his moped, caused by a cyclist running a red light. Superficially it didn’t seem a bad accident. No harm done to the moped anyway. However, in attempting to avoid the collision with the cyclist and then self-correct, Husband shot out a foot, which met the tarmac, sending severe forces up to his knee and fracturing his tibial plateau.

He was taken by ambulance to UCLH. Three days later – that is, last Friday afternoon – he had an operation to insert a metal plate to hold the knee together. I had taken the number of the nurses’ station to call; this seemed better than hanging around the ward on the day of the operation. At 5pm I phoned up. The woman who answered couldn’t help, but assured me that Ron, Husband’s nurse, would call me right back. By 6.30, no return call.

I’m not an especially panicky person, but I did think that Husband might be dead. They wouldn’t want to give you that information over the phone, would they? Husband has an odd but powerful allergy – to sticking plaster – and I’d had to remind him to tell the hospital staff about it. Reassuringly, this led to his wearing red wristbands. But what if he had a similarly random but powerful allergic reaction to anaesthesia? What the hell is anaesthesia? I decided to go in. I arrived at the ward and saw the empty space where Husband and his bed had been. The first person I asked wanted to be helpful but didn’t know anything about Mr G. The second person couldn’t help either but told me to talk to Ron. Ron was busy with a patient and so I waited, stricken.

Finally, Ron had done all he had to do there and peeled away. I tried to intercept but a woman sitting by a man in the next bed got in first and called out to him, ‘We asked for tea half an hour ago.’ Ron promised to see to this.

Oh God. She thinks she’s in a café. Ron’s going to disappear to make tea. Oh God. I stepped in front of him and forced some words out of my constricted throat.

‘Excuse me, I’m looking for my husband, Mr G.’

‘I can only bring up one patient at a time,’ said Ron narkily.

This told me two things: Husband is alive! He wouldn’t have said that if he was dead. And secondly that I would have to grind Ron’s head into the dust.

I left the ward. Time to give myself a serious talking-to. I eschewed the lifts and walked down many flights of stairs to the reception which, at UCLH, is quite airy and calm. I had to dig deep to find empathy with Ron. He might have felt put upon by the woman demanding tea. Understandable. He’s not a waiter. He’s probably a good nurse. He didn’t know me; he had no idea I’d worked myself up into a state. He might have assumed I had some idea what was going on. All that is possible.

Additionally, it was most important that I do not appear at the bedside of my husband – gloriously alive but newly emerged from anaesthesia – like a fizzing firework gone off course.

Three-quarters of an hour later I was myself again. I returned to the ward and there was Husband, looking fine. A little spaced out, a little pale, but fine. In my handbag I had some slices of his latest bread, which had been in the freezer. He ate it like a hungry lion. All will be well. Just eight weeks of first-stage recovery to get through.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t worried about the surgery, but I was worried about the anaesthesia.’

‘Oh yeah, were you?’

 Goodbye, Alex


The bike (LX 125, known as Alex) was parked by the police at the Holborn Hotel after the accident. I collected it the next day. The concierge was most kind and sympathetic and wanted to know how the gentleman who’d had the accident was faring. Then I had to find someone to help me lift the bike off its stand because I couldn’t manage it; another kind person. I wheeled it off to this motorcycle parking place (in the picture) and got another kind passer-by to help me get it back on its stand so that I could chain it up. So much kindness around when you need it. But please let me never see this moped again.



Goodbye, London . . .

On Monday I brought Husband home from the hospital by taxi and he is now ensconced on the top floor, where he will mostly stay put for a few days. Living in the top two floors of a Victorian terraced house with many steps, each of which has a narrow tread and a high rise, is not fun for someone with one leg in a brace. He has read this blog piece and was shocked that I’d been unable to get information about him, but does want me to say that he found almost all the nurses very good or outstanding.

The moped is not being abandoned, in case you should think that. It is being sold. It is a very dependable vehicle.

And, no, we still haven’t exchanged contracts.

Week 13: Daily bread

We still have not exchanged contracts. The buyer has a second solicitor, at the behest of his mortgage company, and the second solicitor is raising the same enquiries as the first solicitor, and in a similarly tardy fashion. Meanwhile, we have been pressured by our moving company to place a hefty deposit to secure our desired dates, the dates we – seller, buyer, agent – have in principle long agreed to, but which come ever closer with no guarantee they will be met.

At least I have conquered the attic, that long-term beneficiary of procrastination, indecision and amnesia. It is now empty.

Stuck in this tight spot, I should like to concentrate on bread. These are some of Husband’s recent loaves, which it has been my pleasure to eat and share. I am otherwise dumbfounded, hence this week’s brevity.

Our daily bread: the rye sourdough

Our daily bread: the rye sourdough

Rye sourdough released from its baking dome

Rye sourdough released from its baking dome – requires good gloves

The weekend treat: the levain

Weekend treat: the levain

Gluten-free bread with linseeds; probably the nicest gluten-free bread ever

Gluten-free bread with linseeds; probably the nicest gluten-free bread ever


Inside a cheese and olive bread; also black rye loaf and levain

Inside a cheese and olive bread; also black rye and levain


Bubbling sourdough starter: not doughy at all. Might not look appetising but it leads to wonderful bread

Bubbling sourdough starter: not doughy at all. Might not look appetising but it leads to wonderful bread

Week 12: Documentation part 2

We still have not exchanged contracts. I would be at the point of despair, except that the buyer turned up here on Sunday. He does exist, he’s perfectly nice, he wants the flat. We were able to discuss details face to face and so get round some of the elaborate incompetencies of solicitors. We all shook our heads in astonishment and looked at the floor in resignation at just how bad conveyancing can be.

lettersI had recently emerged from the attic and so was rather grubby. In there, I had found a box labelled ‘stuff to sort’. (I might mention here that the attic is my domain, not Husband’s. I’m in charge of what goes up there.) The battered box contained a rather precious collection of old photographs and letters. Letters are an increasingly rare form of communication and all the more precious because of that, but what amazed me about this little treasure trove was that I’d entirely forgotten I had it. It could have gone up in smoke and I’d never have missed it. Now that I’ve found it again, I couldn’t throw it away. It will come to Portugal in a new box – the old one was too dusty – and be put away and then I will meet it again in another ten or fifteen years with a similar sense of why-did-I-keep-this combined with I-cannot-throw-this-stuff-away.

Everything on the Portuguese side is looking good. Best of all, my London accountant and the Doutora of Taxes in Portugal have made one another’s acquaintance over the phone and sorted out everything between them. I don’t have to worry about another thing, apart from keeping records and paying up. The mysteries of taxation and double taxation and everything related to them are theirs to keep.


Dad was the first-aider of the family

Dad was the first-aider of the family

At the start of this blog, I described the impulse for this move as ‘hardly felt’. None the less, I think I know when it was. The ‘slight inner adjustments’ (see Week 8: borrowing the words of Sebald) for me began in the final weeks of my father’s life. Like most fathers, mine liked to try to teach his children things. Like most children, at a certain age I stopped listening. In the last weeks of his life, I had my eyes and ears opened to some powerful lessons from my father: about bravery, about love, and about death. And when you feel love, and look very closely at death – a good death at the end of a long life – living is altered, even enhanced. You carry a small nugget of sadness and disbelief inside you, and a series of inner adjustments takes place. Possibilities begin to suggest themselves. The idea of change becomes appealing. Risks seem worth taking. Before long, you are making life-altering, life-enhancing decisions and hardly know how they occurred.

My father would be fully in support of this move. Or, from wherever he’s watching, is fully in support of this move. And the documenting of it in a blog: he’s somehow behind that too. Perhaps it is just a thin veil separating the living from the dead.

The view from the front terrace of our house-to-be

The view from the front terrace of our house-to-be

Week 11: Documentation

As this post goes out, we are on the verge of signing and exchanging contracts on the sale in London. It’s a few days later than my ultimatum, but good enough, I think.

Part of the hand-written inventory for the new house

Part of the hand-written inventory for the new house

The paperwork is also piling up for our purchase in the Algarve. All the documents seem to be in good order, but then we expected that from the Sensibles. Because it is, in a legal sense, three properties, we have three land registry documents, three tax title certificates and two habitation licences; one of the three properties is a ‘rustic’ property and doesn’t require a habitation licence.

We also have an inventory from the Sensibles, which includes this life-enhancing list of trees:

olive, carob, medronho (‘strawberry tree’), pomegranate, orange, lemon, peach, plum, fig, vine, apple, pear and pine.

Dad handsomeMy dad

Behind all this in ways he probably could not imagine, but I will at some point endeavour to explain, is my father. It is almost a year since he died. At the beginning of next month, on the first anniversary, we will raise a glass to him, a glass of Krug, gift of a generous author of mine in thanks for editorial work done, and which we have been keeping for this occasion.

Dad in the prime of his life, engaged in his favourite hobby: sea-fishing

Dad in the prime of his life, engaged in his favourite hobby: sea-fishing

In his final year, my father was too ill to enjoy life much, although he always managed to look rather fine: he had a head of thick, dark hair right up to the end of his life, and good skin, and so his appearance perhaps belied how he felt. Any compliments as to his good looks would be met with a characteristic wisecrack: ‘Oh, I’ll make a lovely corpse.’ (You can take the man out of Bootle, but you can’t . . . etc.) In the last few months of his life, he became so ill that he needed full-time care, which was provided by a mixture of the NHS and Social Services. This was, in so many different ways, a torment for every one of us. He developed vascular dementia. This sent his always considerable imaginative powers right off the scale, but he never lost the ability to recognise his family. Even if he thought he was under some kind of benevolent guard rather than in a hospital, and that tunnels were being dug throughout the surrounding countryside, and birds were flying in formation at the window while displaying shields, he still knew us, and in this we were enormously lucky. Every time we turned up at his bedside – which was often, as often as we could make it – he swelled with pride. ‘My children give me substance,’ he said.

My father had always been a reserved, slightly imposing, somewhat moody man. He bore the responsibilities of life heavily. He was as loyal and devoted a husband/father as anyone could be, but he rarely displayed his affection, certainly not as we grew older. He saw his role more as that of giving authority and trying to make sure we kids were toughened up a bit in preparation for a harsh world, and in this he was quite typical of his time, and it reflected his own, quite hard upbringing. What he particularly wanted for all of us was education and training and the opportunities that these could provide. His own ambitions had been thwarted at the age of fourteen when he had to start work to help the family purse. In so doing, he was turning down the scholarship he’d won to a technical school; the scholarship didn’t cover kit, which his family couldn’t afford, and anyway they needed another income. Eventually the RAF offered an opportunity and bombed-out Liverpool was left behind.

Dad at the very end of his life, in a brief respite from the exigencies of Care, enjoying a cold glass of wine on a hot day (photo by me)

Dad at the very end of his life, in a brief respite from the exigencies of Care, enjoying a cold glass of wine on a hot day (photo by me)

In the last weeks of his life, paradoxically, a burden seemed to be lifted from him. He was ready to die, and not in the least afraid. He was dignified in the face of many a bed-bound indignity, and brave in the face of much pain and discomfort. He never lost his sense of humour. On a few occasions he made me laugh so much that I corpsed and had to leave the bedside to go and recover myself. (Heaven knows what people thought! I guess you see everything in a hospital.) He drew us all closer to him, and closer to one another, and this was a joy amid all the sadness.

And quite how all this leads in my case to Portugal I see now I shall have to save for another post.


Week 10: The importance of timing

After more than eight weeks of inaction on the part of our buyer’s solicitors, we became truly nervous. I say ‘inaction’, but that’s not quite right. They received copies of the documents relating to the sale, and lost them. They received a second set of copies, and lost those too. That’s quite active, in a way.

I began to smell a rat. Husband smelt a bigger rat. The neighbours downstairs found an actual dead rat in the garden and that did smell, but that’s a macabre coincidence. Husband and I argued over the size and odoriferousness of our metaphorical rats, and it all became a bit upsetting.

We have not met the buyer. The reassurances as to his commitment that we were receiving from the agent were sounding hollow. I came to the conclusion that we would have to find a new buyer, and that to do so via a new agent would be a good idea. I would go to the flashy agent around the corner, the one with plate-glass windows and liveried cars, and challenge them to find us a buyer on a fast-track sale. We are trying to get our sale to complete just after the fulfilment of Husband’s notice period.

First, I ought to check in with our solicitor. I called at 10 a.m. No, still nothing from buyer’s solicitors. Would all our paperwork be transferable to a new buyer, I asked. Yes, theoretically. So we’re already part way there on a new sale. Yes, he said. I then suggested we give the existing buyers until 11.30 a.m., and if nothing was heard, I would initiate a new selling process. He promised to ring at 11.30 to tell me either way.

I went back to my work. It’s a crime novel, quite an unusual one, but it has a common fault. Many crime novels and thrillers have hitches in the timing. Often the action is described carefully day by day so that a week or two elapses in ‘real’ time, while in the background two whole seasons cycle by. Or one plot strand finds itself on a slightly different timeline, and doesn’t connect with another plot strand when it should. Or the days and the weeks and the clock times just don’t add up. You have to take quite a forensic approach to spot these things, but that’s what I do. I like to look for a solution to the problem, too, though ultimately it’s up to the author. Even the best-selling and most accomplished crime and thriller writers make mistakes with timing.

And so, my attention elsewhere – my attention, indeed, where it should be – I wasn’t fully conscious that I had electrified a small group of people. Our solicitor had spoken to boss solicitor, who had spoken to agent, who had spoken to buyer, who it transpires really does want the flat. The electrical current was remarkably effective. At 11.33 a.m. I received notification that the buyer’s solicitor had raised all the enquiries related to the sale.

So that’s what you have to do! You have to say you are going to withdraw from a sale to get anything to happen. I feel slightly despoiled by the whole wretched process . . .

. . . but not to the extent that I wasn’t prepared to seize my advantage and run with it. Twenty-four hours later, I got all participants to agree that to exchange contracts on the sale in a week’s time was both desirable and possible. As this week’s update gets posted, that’s just two more days away.


My mum

Mum 1

We spent the weekend with my mum. In her mid-eighties she’s every bit as lovely and as stylish as she was fifty years ago (only that she no longer makes her own clothes).

Mum with some of her brood

Mum with some of her brood

Mum and Dad

Mum and Dad

Our decision to move to Portugal hasn’t been entirely easy for her, but this weekend we looked at pictures of the house and its surrounds, and I think she could see herself there. She was also reminded of the times she lived in hotter climates herself. We looked at flights, and discovered plenty of well-timed and good-value journeys from East Midlands airport to Faro. We got rather carried away with this, and thought we might just book a flight on the spot. Then Husband said,

‘Better wait until the house is ours.’

Ah, yes. All in good time.

Week 9: Back ‘home’

The agricultural coop in Sta Catarina

The agricultural co-op in Sta Catarina

Hmm. I was caused to question the limpidity of the Doutora of Taxes’ explanation when we were with the lawyer on Wednesday. It seems I hadn’t understood an aspect of the fiscal number/residency relationship after all. No matter. The advogado knows the doutora and they will confer. I have the same issue – of non-comprehension – with my accountant in the UK. Through whatever alchemy he uses, he comes up with the amount I need to pay in tax. Occasionally I try to understand how the figure is calculated. I don’t want to question it, I just want to understand it. His latest email to me began: ‘You do not try my patience. You simply have a totally different skill set and knowledge base.’ How diplomatic. Better just accept that bureaucracy is not for the uninitiated. These people undertake years of training.

Our lawyer in Portugal has a very pleasant demeanour, with something of a poker face. Even after we’d told him that the land of our prospective property was not fenced but had some markers (we thought); that the property had been more than one address originally; that part of the water supply was on someone else’s land with a verbal agreement and no meter, he managed to look unruffled. But he did say:

‘Ah well, it is the real Algarve.’

I wonder if he knew how pleased I was to hear that.

Let us see what complications emerge, and hope for the best that those with the necessary knowledge base can sort them out.

I mostly travel with lemons in my suitcase these days. Gift from First Friends’ tree

I mostly travel with lemons in my suitcase these days. Gift from First Friends’ tree

On the way to the airport we saw the buttercup flash of an oriole – the golden bird known in Portuguese as papa-figos or ‘fig-pecker’ – passing in front of us. The journey home was comfortable. I say ‘home’ because London still is, and feels like, home. The smell of mountain herbs has been replaced by diesel fumes, the noise of cicadas with sirens, and an entire colour palette has been removed from in front of our eyes, but it still feels like coming home. Husband remains 100 per cent happy, committed and unwavering. I, while I wouldn’t change our plans for the world, and have every pair of fingers crossed that they will come to fruition, do still feel fluttery nerves about it all.

Flat sale

In London I visited our estate agent to find that the buyer’s solicitor has apparently ‘lost’ the files for a second time, and that the estate agent’s progress chaser left her job a week or so earlier, with no replacement and no word to us. We would have every reason to withdraw from this sale but, assured of the buyer’s commitment, we are hanging on in. At least the prospect of loss enables me to experience how I would feel if we couldn’t make this move: and I know that, nerves aside, I really want to try out this new life.


This will be where we get our olives pressed

This will be where we get our olives pressed

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