Week 5: Husband

Husband and bread oven

Husband inspecting bread oven of Sensible House

I really wasn’t expecting what came next. It came via the medium of a phone call from Herr Sensible to Husband, our agent having given him the number. We are currently on holiday in Italy, celebrating our wedding anniversary. So it happened that we were emerging from the ancient painted Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia, which are so beautiful and touching that they make your heart ache, while also being in places slightly reminiscent of 1950s wallpaper, when Herr Sensible rang. Husband took shelter from the rain to take the call, while I went to buy postcards.

It turned out that the owners of the Sensible House had wanted to speak to us directly in order to let us know, unequivocally, that the additional land, some 2,600 square metres, was included in the sale, even though it was not in the estate agent’s details, and that it made no difference to the asking price.

I was incredulous at first, but Husband confirmed. They want to tell us much more about the house, too, which they would like to do face to face, and was there any chance we would be in the Algarve again soon? We don’t need much encouragement. We booked flights and accommodation straight away.

Hochzeitsturm, Darmstadt, Germany, on our wedding day

Hochzeitsturm, Darmstadt, Germany, on our wedding day

Why Portugal?

Italy is where we spent our first ever holiday together, and also our honeymoon (that’s our wedding on the right), not to mention a good many other holidays, which raises the question, why didn’t we want to move to Italy? I hope to be able to explain this one day, but for now, in answer to, ‘Why Portugal?’, I can only say:

It just is.

It feels right.

It might be that the same centrifugal force that sends me to the edge of the room at parties is also spinning me to the outer reaches of the continent.

But for no one does it feel more right than for Husband. Never have I seen him so happy and so relaxed, and so sure of what we are doing. On the day he handed in his resignation, he told me he experienced a feeling like stepping out into a void. That was short-lived. As soon as the resignation was accepted, he began to relax. He’s like something squashed that slowly regains its shape. He has not a moment of doubt, and I’m glad, because I sometimes do. For now, however, everything seems to be falling into place. We have agreed a sum with the owners of the Sensible House that is slightly below their original asking price, and leaves us with enough spare to do the things we need to do, such as putting in a satellite internet connection, and maybe turning the annexe into a bakehouse.

Week 4: Sense and Sensibleness

We made an offer on the Sensible House. The house’s location is perfect for us, and it has plenty of land and views of hills. And a little way up the hill behind it – our hill – is an old threshing circle, which I’m already thinking of as our star-gazing platform. The circle is well worn and broken up, but we could have it paved in Santa Catarina tiles, the baked-earth tiles named after our nearest village; around the village are several small tile-making factories. (The village’s full name is Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, which is a long name for small place.) In the picture you can make out, just right of dead centre, a wooden structure. That sits on the star-gazing circle.


Garden of Sensible House

All this has been enabled by the sale of our flat in the East End of London.

How to sell a flat . . .

1. Live in London.

2. That’s it.

Having said that, it is a lovely flat. We could have sold it six times over. All the offers were at or above the sale price.

The sale price was not inconsiderable. Our nest, which we’d so carefully looked after and loved, turned out to be our nest egg. As fast as London seemed to turn on us and tell us it was time to go, it also gave us the means to do so.

We have filled in pages and pages of forms for our solicitors in the UK. Portuguese bureaucracy is often much complained about, but I think we can hold our own in the UK. There’s certainly a lot more paperwork than when I was last involved in a property transaction, thirteen years ago. We have not met our buyer. Matters seem to be progressing satisfactorily, but nothing is certain before exchange.

. . . and buy a house

And we are waiting to hear from the owners of the Sensible House. All we know so far is that a complication has arisen. It seems that the owners had added a new parcel of land to the property, which wasn’t in the agent’s sales details. This suggests that it was not included in the asking price. Perhaps it would be better to do this Bitter Lemons style (see Week 3), after all. The agent and the owner could face each other across a table, fulminating and declaiming and insulting each other and each other’s families until an acceptable asking price is reached, while we sit to one side affecting not to want the house at all.

The Sunday before last, while we were still in the Algarve, I left my handbag in the Sensible House. I’d like to think it was an omen, except that I was so overexcited I managed also to leave my handbag behind in another house on the same day. When we returned to the Sensible House, it was some time since we’d left – it took me a while to realize I’d left the bag behind – and the house was clearly shut up. We walked around the back: nothing, and no one. Then we returned to the front and found this note on the door.

noteThe owners had gone out to lunch, to a restaurant we already know, and had taken the bag with them. I collected my bag from them somewhat embarrassedly; we declined their offers of wine and went on to see the other houses on our list that day. For some reason, though, that note charmed me. It might have been that it was addressed ‘Dear Married Couple’, which I find sweet, especially as it is our anniversary next week. Perhaps this will all work out well. We have to wait and see.

Week 3: How to buy a house


To get into the mood for our house-buying trip to Faro, I re-read a chapter of one of my favourite pieces of travel writing, Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell. It’s set in Cyprus, and I have a first edition, from 1957.

book3On the day of his transaction, Durrell was to act as though he did not want the house, while his agent and the house’s owner, the cobbler’s wife, faced each other across a negotiating table. On the table sat a great key. Each participant took it in turns to claim, counter-claim, declaim, expostulate and fulminate, during which the key was pushed to and fro, lifted and banged back down on the table, to the point where Durrell feared it would be beyond the opening of any door. The duel took all day, and ancestors living – clustered outside – and dead were called upon. At the end came a slow car-chase, during which the seller’s grandfather is skittled into a ditch. He is unharmed.

Agreement on price is reached, a thumbprint secures the deal, and amiability settles on all involved.

Then I got over myself. Buying a house in the Algarve in 2014 would be nothing like that. We had searched extensively online, been in touch with four multilingual, multinational, professional agents and made appointments to view ‘properties’, not ‘houses’. The chances were quite high that we would not buy from anyone Portuguese. The old quintas (farmhouses) have generally been renovated by foreigners, no doubt while the puzzled Portuguese looked on having pocketed a tidy sum (though it’s all relative) for a pile of rocks and a piece of land. We were not in the market for a ruin. We have none of the required skills, and we want to do other things with our time. We love the traditional architecture of the Algarve, but we want someone else to have done the hard work, for which we will be handing over a more than tidy sum.

We left our London bed at 2 a.m. on Friday morning, and returned to it at 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and in between these times we fell in love with two houses.


practical house

Rear terrace of Sensible House


Front terrace of Sensible House

1.) The Sensible House. The setting is perfect, the size and layout too, and it’s in a valley we particularly like. The renovation project was undertaken by a now elderly German couple, for whom the house and garden have become too much work. The house is mostly a new build on an old footprint of three adjacent cottages. We spent some very enjoyable hours with them learning about everything they had done. They did not cut any corners. Oh no – these firmly right-angled corners have strong foundations and are made good for many decades to come. The cane and eucalyptus ceilings were dispensed with in favour of insulated concrete where no insect could lurk. The outside is unadorned. It is sehr, sehr praktisch.

For: The surrounding garden is beautiful. We can make the house pretty; we can make it ours. It’s very good value. It has a bread oven.

Against: Internet access is uncertain. (The owners didn’t need it, and the setting is quite remote.) We might need a satellite connection.

No pool, so we’d need to get a licence for one and then build it.

Summary: Head winning over heart.


Mosaic housepool2) The Mad House. A beautiful, old, renovated, stone-built quinta. Where the Sensible House has eschewed decoration, this house has gone crazy for it, and not just a beautiful reworking of traditional themes, but also a crazy Gaudí meets Niki de Saint Phalle luscious over-the-topness, especially inside. No right angles; it is all curves. It is utterly uplifting. However, the original quintas were built of stone direct on earth, sucking up the moisture from below. Will there be tears in years to come as the plaster blows and the mosaic pieces tinkle to the floor?

For: Sheer delight. Also good internet access and a pool.

Against: Top of our budget. Not easy to maintain?

Summary: Heart winning over head.





Forty years since the Carnation Revolution when Portugal got rid of its dictator, Salazar.

A final note for today. We have engaged a Portuguese lawyer for our purchase. He spent two hours with us outlining the process with clarity and precision, in English. He digressed briefly to talk about culture, and about being born after the revolution but still feeling the shadow of the dictatorship. He is not expensive. Back at home our English conveyancing solicitor sent us a proforma letter that bears little relation to our sale. We spent five minutes over the phone discussing this; he apologised and blamed his secretary. He is expensive. English is his mother tongue.

Week 2: Spreading the news

From time to time chilly doubt creeps over me. The day after we arrived with my in-laws in the Odenwald was one such time. We hadn’t yet broken the news, and as I rehearsed our reasons to myself they began to sound rather weak. Why were we doing this?

Rye sourdoughWe’d arrived with a loaf of Husband’s rye sourdough bread, and that went down very well. (A German audience is demanding when it comes to bread, all family loyalty aside.) Then Husband chose his time carefully. Over a convivial lunch in the flower-filled garden on what was the first sunny afternoon they had had for a while, he briefly outlined the multiple stresses of his work, then described the plan.

‘You’re going to quit your job?’

‘I’ve already resigned.’

‘You’re going to sell the flat?’

‘It’s already sold.’*

A moment of silence.

‘Well, I’m all in favour of that.’ (Mother-in-law.)

‘It’s your life. You should enjoy it!’ (Father-in-law.)

‘I’m so happy for you. I think I knew how stressed you were becoming.’ (Mother-in-law.)

A hearty thumbs-up from fellow guests, Husband’s uncle and aunt, a slew of advice on how to choose the right home, and many questions about how to set up a baking business – since the baking plan is growing by the day. Plus recollections of holidays in Portugal: how nice the people were, how beautiful the landscape.

Of course it’s a great idea. Did I say I ever doubted it?

Now we need to find somewhere to live in the Algarve. Next stop: Faro airport. It’s becoming high season, so flights are expensive unless you travel at very unsociable hours – so that is what we will be doing.

V&T Mohn

* We sold our flat in a trice. (More on that later, unless I decide the whole London housing thing is too distasteful for words.)

Week 1: All about resignation

What a duplicitous word, ‘resignation’. Does it mean we have given ourselves up to fate, slumped back in our chairs to see what happens next? No! We are making the changes, and this week has seen the big one. My husband has handed in his resignation. (That kind of resignation.) He spent some time drafting the letter on his laptop, and I think quite a few years drafting it in his head. It was only when he felt himself finished that he showed it to me. It was two pages of A4, firm, clear, honest, passionately argued. I admit I didn’t realize how much he had been putting up with, and I was moved by it. And proud, too, of his honesty and clarity. I’d quite like to include the letter here, but I’d have to redact too much of it, and Husband probably wouldn’t allow it anyway.

Thunder clapped over London on the day he handed it in, matching the powerful beating of my heart.

There’s only one way to respond to a resignation letter like that. To accept it, graciously. And did they?

Yes, they did.

Irreversibility is setting in. That is to say, we could probably still put everything into reverse, but there’d be lots of sounding of hooters, expletives and red faces if we did.

The next two steps are:
a) selling our flat;
b) telling my in-laws what we’re up to.


Telling my lovely in-laws that their son has packed in His Brilliant Career that they are so proud of, and that we’re off to bake bread (their son) and edit books (daughter-in-law) in a country neither of us has spent more than ten days in, is our next big thing. Migration is not a theoretical topic for my in-laws. In the upheavals in Europe during and after the Second World War they migrated twice, involuntarily. Austria, their first port of call, would not make them citizens and, when the economy slowed down, stripped my father-in-law of his job to give it to a native. Germany gave them citizenship in the 1950s. The United States offered citizenship too; the Americans were generous to shattered Europe and its refugees. For my father-in-law the choice was made clear by his beautiful young bride-to-be: marry and stay, or go with his brothers to America and leave her behind. He chose to marry and stay. My parents-in-law have been happy in Germany, I’m glad to say. In a few days’ time we’re flying to Frankfurt to see them so we can tell them face to face what our plans are. It just wasn’t something we could do over the phone.


Prologue: to a story that has yet to happen

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a decision is made. The impulse is hardly felt, the impetus slowly grows, things start to be done. Small and large. Large is booking the flight to go to look at properties, then back at home instructing an agent to sell our flat. Small are the acts of tidying, sorting, organising, beginning to make it all possible.
Harder still is to explain why having loved London for thirty years, why having only months earlier completed the improvements to our flat that we had waited thirteen years to be able to afford to make, and having relished them for only weeks, we suddenly wanted out, both of us. Out of London, out of jobs (my husband’s; I’m a freelance and I shall keep on doing mine).
This is the beginning, and while nothing irreversible has taken place in reality, something irreversible has taken place in our hearts. In a matter of months, all being well, we will have sold our flat and moved into a house in the eastern Algarve, in southern Portugal. My husband will have given up his stressful but quite well paid job in publishing, and will be baking bread. I will support us through my work as a freelance editor, which I hope will survive the translocation intact. As it is, I have worked with people for years in the same city whom I have not yet met, so can it make much difference if I’m further away?
This will be the story, week by week, of how it all happens.

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