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Displaying items by tag: Living in Portugal

 

Nestled between two unkempt ‘rusticas” down a narrow lane that cuts through the rock-faced hills lined with weather–beaten cottages and stray cats, she resembles a well preserved but rejected woman with low self-esteem. In passing, the public perceives her freshly painted white washed walls and yellow window frames, putting on a brave face albeit a little tired. Step over her threshold and behold one little-used and unloved ‘pequena casita’; one is immediately confronted with the ‘parede privado’ a privacy wall blocking view into the living room from the lane outside, a case of “speak to the hand – this house is tired”.


Built atop and carved out of the edges of an elevated sandstone rock, a sturdy foundation supports walls 60cm thick that keep out the heat of the sun and maintains the much-needed coolness. This room, measuring 8m² was once four tiny quartos comprising minuscule kitchen, living room and two bedrooms - the total living accommodation for a peasant farmer and his brood. In the far corner the blackened hearth of a small fireplace represents the only source of heating of times gone by. Where there was once a back door that led to the outside is now an interior archway linking the house, via a corridor to a bathroom and two double bedrooms that were once grain store and cattle shed. The narrow hall also leads off onto a sprawling terrace from which, had it not been blighted by the ugliest of timber sheds imaginable, one could take in the breathtaking views over red terracotta rooftops to vineyards, pine forests and the sparkling, still waters of the reservoir.


Shivering in the cold October breeze coming up the valley from the lagoon to the west of the village, we stood close together leaning against the rusty railings of the terrace taking in the autumnal landscape. He turned to me, his soft brown eyes penetrating mine, searching my heart for a last minute change of plan; “It’s got your name written all over it” he said, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, knowing with a love-leaden heart that he must relinquish me to a new life a thousand miles away from him.


With an anxious knot deep within my stomach, my heart racing with excitement mixed with anxiety of what this future might hold, I knew that, in buying this darling little cottage, I was cutting loose from all that was precious back in England. My son, now independent of me, had moved to London leaving the nest bare and for me a new life beckoned, where and with whom I knew not, but I felt the need to move away and start afresh. My former lover, best friend, soul mate now stood stoically encouraging me to take up this challenge. I had to take the risk of losing him altogether and at this stage in my life, with no commitment for a future together I was prepared to make that sacrifice.


I had been to and fro over the past year, having bought a holiday villa nearby, but a life-changing move was upon me, this little cottage was to be my new home. I knew very few people, did not speak the language and wondered how on earth I was going to renovate a property in a foreign country not knowing the first thing about such matters.


Within 4 months, as the sun burnt away winter clouds and fresh green leaves fluttered in the warm breeze, I inserted the key into the front door of my own sweet little cottage christened “La Casita”, the first home I had owned for nearly 20 years. With boxes and suitcases strewn across any available floor space, the entire contents of my life assembled around my simple furniture brought over from the little house I had shared with my son in Sussex. Nursing a glass of Quinta São Francisco d’Obidos, a box of tissues close at hand, I sat beside the burning embers of my little fire nestled in the corner of the sitting room and, not for the first time, through anxious tears, realized the enormity of what I had lost and the challenges that lay ahead.

Portugal

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A Dos Negros is a sprawling village spread approximately 1 ½ km along a hill top that commands outstanding countryside views towards the 4th century walled castle of Óbidos and the Atlantic Ocean which lies just 15 minutes drive to the west on this Silver Coast.

Wisteria covered cottages and barns snuggle tightly along its cobbled streets, potted geraniums, and bougainvillea line narrow paths and steps that incline towards the little Chapel at the center. Inhabitants’ lives are governed by the soil they toil, their extended families and their Catholic faith. Many of the elderly are totally illiterate, having received only the most basic elementary education; they began working the land from the age of eight or nine. The younger generation are gradually moving to the nearby town or even as far south as Lisbon to escape the tedium that is rural life.

The village has the basic amenities at its center, a Post Office/Junta, housing a couple of ancient computers placed in a back dusty room, serves as an “internet café”. The Saude (Surgery) is the very epicenter of the village in which those in need for companionship gather for their daily dose of gossip and, after a brief chat with kindly Doctor Jorge, are dispatched to the farmácia proudly clutching a paper they consider to be of immense importance – a prescription. To these poor folk it proves that they are indeed suffering a hardship greater than their neighbor, most likely some unknown fatal disease or perhaps an ancient curse placed upon their family back in the times Moors ruled this land.


And it is in the farmácia, waiting for their medication, they would compare notes, the more complex the diagnosis the greater the respect! It was here not so long ago that I heard the tale of an elderly lady who kept secret that she had taught herself to read. While her husband was working in the field she indulged in her secret pastime but a passing neighbor caught her and reported this idleness to her man!! “What need does she have for such frivolity? Does she not have a home to keep and a family to feed? Who does she think she is?” Her simple pleasure created a social void among the women who shunned her, and the men teased her husband all the more for having a wife who considered herself a cut above the rest. The only person to whom she could turn was Jorge the Doctor, the prescription for which was to carry on and enjoy every moment of every book she could read.


The Mini Mercado and café run by José Santos and his homely wife Maria, a jovial, rotund, toothless couple in their retirement years, stocks everything, Brillo pads and kindling logs, goat’s cheese and coal, housecoats and hosiery. In their little café to the side one can always find a flat-capped, weathered old widower, sipping on strong “Aquardente” (a very potent schnapps) washed down with bica (strong black coffee) his tanned, hirsute wiry arms prop up the bar his eyes glued to the flickering ancient TV mounted in the corner of the dark room.


The family run restaurant where the Mãe dictates to customers what is on the daily menu – generally a choice of broiled chicken or pork served with boiled cabbage, chips and rice – is a haven for those wishing to escape the nagging wife and find a peaceful place to sit without having an article of laundry dangling in one’s face. It is where the men folk can discuss their crops, compare notes on the new-fangled machinery that is supposed to make their toil a little easier, and reminisce about the good old days before motorways and tourists.
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The large living room needed brightening up. Two little yellow framed windows either side of the white front door winked behind half opened white shutters, the window at the kitchen sink overlooked a grey, cracked wall of the neighbor's cottage; had it been positioned just one meter to the left one would be able to appreciate the hill beyond that beheld the splendor of the seasons with orchards of apple, peach and pear trees interspersed with vines and figs.


The wooden clad ceiling of this dank room was oppressive and the kitchen ‘units’ were nothing more than packing boxes screwed to the white washed walls. The sink was a haven for millipedes and the storage cupboards below accommodated a family of house mice. The parade-privado had to go, opening up the room to welcome visitors.
“Marió is your man” Chuck enlightened me “he is local, dependable and thorough, but don’t forget, this is Portugal! Three weeks will be three months; Three thousand ‘mais o menos’ (more or less) becomes four, five thousand”. So Marió came with his nephew Alexandra – painter/decorator excellent. Keen to start work as soon as possible I dispatched myself to the relative comfort of the villa in which I had invested a year before. A large airy 4 bedroomed elegant house that stands proudly upon a hill overlooking the village below in which snuggles my little cottage, from there I could keep an eye on Mário and his clan of workers that include his brother João, his brother-in-law Pedro, Carlos the electrician, Super-Mário the carpenter and Filipe the plumber and his mate Andreas.


The living room was cleared, everything except the fridge, which remained powered up and stocked with Super Bock to quench the workers’ thirst. Mário, a swarthy chap barely 5feet 5inches short with a powerful torso on little legs and tiny feet, arrived with his brother and nephew; the kitchen was soon ripped out and, clutching a masonry drill that dwarfs him, Mário began with gusto drilling into the kitchen wall to create an opening for the larger window. ‘Super Mário’, the carpenter began in earnest building superb pine kitchen cabinets and was soon creating a warm but practical hub for the home.
There were no architectural plans drawn, no applications submitted to the Camara, rough estimates were given “mais o menos”! “First there must be light! Then one must be able to appreciate the views! Plenty of both please! The kitchen window must be changed for a larger one. Kitchen units must be made to measure in a lightwood that would conform to keeping everything simple. Oh! Chaps, whilst you are busy tearing out the window – my goodness, is that a rock in the wall? Could you please also remove that awful ceiling, save the wood it can be recycled, I am sure I will have use for it later. Oh! Chaps, look behind the wood planks a lovely high ceiling with beams…ok some are missing, can we just pop in a few more?” The demands continued!


The master bedroom was large with a small window overlooking a tired and dirty terrace. “Oh! Chaps! Faz favor, slip in a pair of French windows, how lovely to be able to meander from bed to terrace on a summer morning!” Behind an east-facing wall, out of sight, is the most beautiful view looking across the little cottages, over a stream, beyond the orchards and vineyards and up to my villa. One must be able to sit in bed with a cup of tea and admire that view every morning.
“Oh senhores! Replace this wall with as big a window as possible; 3 meters - is that too big? No? We need permission from the Camara? Surely a friendly chat with the neighbors who own that piece of empty land below. Ta bem!”
Meanwhile I attempted to tear down the ugly shed on the terrace that protected the traditional concrete BBQ and which obscured my views towards the lake. However, eager as I was to destroy it my enthusiasm rendered me in ‘outpatients’ and off work for three weeks as I slipped a disc simply moving a support beam that proved to be a little too heavy for a lightweight such as myself!! My sweet neighbor Christina, whose husband José is a house-husband (very unusual in such a macho society) who holds down two jobs to keep her family fed, took me under her wing, driving me to the hospital daily, helping me with my shopping, and taking me into her humble home to partake of the occasional meal with her family. Their kindness, upon which I became most reliant, is forever apparent.

Curtains twitched, middle-aged mothers scoffed, young men wolf- whistled at the new floozy with the flashy cabriolet and high heels! This quiet little village knew not what had hit them! “What does she want here? Where does she come from? What does she do that she is so rich she is spending so much on that cottage, didn’t Louis make it good not too long ago? 40 years ago already?


But she has no husband or son with her. She walks out in the hills from one hamlet to another with a stick and heavy boots and little else on her bony body. Does she not have anything better to do with her time? Have you seen how she speaks with Mário the builder, laughing and teasing? And have you seen recently the car of our esteemed Doctor outside her house? Where does she go with that suitcase? Does she really own that villa up on the hill? Maybe she is widowed. But she doesn’t wear black as we do. She is not one of us, she is too racy. She does not even speak our language; she speaks French with Christina and German with José, what good is that to us? See she makes fools of us, now our husbands must paint the outside walls so our homes do not look so shabby in comparison. Joaquim needs a new wife……. Perhaps……..but no, she would be too much for the poor widower.


On a sunny April morning, dressed in bikini top and shorts, the terrace gates opened wide, I set about painting the dirty brown gates a shiny black. Eight-year-old Carlos playing with his tractoro along the narrow lane kept me entertained as he endeavored to converse in English and I in Portuguese.

Laughing at our efforts we were quite relaxed sharing his favorite chocolate biscuits and a jug of fresh grape juice, there was no real need to converse.“Tractoro! Tractoro!” he cried in excitement at the prospect of the oncoming tractor, trundling up the lane parallel to mine. As it came closer I heard the engine slack, the brakes squeal and the engine stall. It rolled back until the driver could see my gate, and me. Dressed in tatty blue overalls, his dark silky hair flopping over smiling eyes and a grin from ear to ear, the farmer took a few seconds to appreciate what was before him before starting up the engine and rattled towards his mother’s dilapidated home.
The next morning, skipping down the same track en route back from the post office, I came across the same young man walking away from my house, carrying a white plastic bag. Seeing me his face lit up and he quickened his step. Proffering the bag he stuttered words I could not understand, but I understood his gesture, inside the bag were two freshly picked lettuce intended as an offering to make my acquaintance. I did not know how to explain that I was off to work the next day and I would not be around for at least a week and therefore could not accept his présent. I did not want to encourage his advances either. Somehow he understood and with a forlorn face retraced his steps to his farm.


As it happened I didn’t go to work the next day, and so I went to the early-morning market to buy fresh provisions for my evening meal. I came upon an elderly lady stooped over her tiny stall and, recognizing her from our village, selected my salad from her batch. As soon as she saw who was buying her produce she leapt up and began ranting and gesticulating in rage, her tiny thin arms flaying, the lettuce thrown to the ground. Other stallholders giggled and tittered shyly behind hands, as I stood rooted with embarrassment, not understanding what I had done to upset her so. Finally a translator came to my rescue telling me that I had declined her gift of fresh lettuce just the day before, and I come now to insult her by offering to pay for the gift she had sent with her son Jorge!

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The freshly painted gates were open, creating the curtains of the stage upon which I was most central, busy cutting the wood I had collected earlier that morning while the sun was still low and the air was cooler. The fellers had completed their task the previous year, and as oft times as possible, I would drive my car to the track that passed this land upon once stood tall eucalyptus and pine trees and where now only stumps, small logs and pine cones lay scattered across the steep land drying in the heat of the summer, perfect for my little fire. Wiping my sticky brow with a sweaty forearm and removing the hot plastic goggles I looked up from my labor and happened upon an elderly farmer standing at the open gate. Although it was at least 25º, he was dressed in a long sleeved checked shirt, shabby waistcoat, grey flannel trousers, heavy boots and grey flat cap; I felt quite indecent in my bikini top and shorts. Across his shoulder he rested a scythe and in his other hand a well-used knapsack.

His olive skin served to highlight his sea green eyes that sparkled with amusement between furrowed brow and wrinkled face mapped out of years in the fields under a blistering sun. His chuckle gave away his presence and I quickly donned my t-shirt before making his acquaintance. He rambled on in his rough dialect swallowing every other word; between his four remaining teeth spittle escaped as he spoke. I could only presume from his gesticulating that he had seen me cart the wood from the base of the steep hill to my car, transport it to my cottage and now finds me using an electric saw to cut it to size for my personal use. Like many of his neighbors he could not fathom why it was I taking up such a task, did I not have a husband or son to do such labor? Perhaps he could send his son, a handsome strong man of 40 years to help me with such heavy tasks; he could bring me to meet Dona Eleanor his good wife and share a traditional dinner with good pork and much vinho tinto de casa! Muito, ta bém! “Ah Nina you should not have to take such tasks upon yourself! Oh why you do not have a husband, I do not know!”

Later that evening chuckling with delight over dinner of caldeirão marisco (a wonderful dish of fresh seafood fish and rice served in a huge cauldron) my good friend Doctor Jorge relayed the current concerns of those in the saude of the English woman with no husband or son to cut her wood!


Early morning is the best time. The sun is gently licking off the dew from the leaves and the air is filled with pockets of exotic aromas. Rabbits, lizards and weasels scuttle away, confused by the vibration of boot on track at so early a time in the day. Eagles and hawks circle above the eucalyptus trees standing tall and straight their branches and leaves looking down upon ripening fruits in the patchwork of fields below. The plums are gone, peaches too; but between them the apples and pears, some rotting on the soil beneath their delicate foliage, send a heady reminder of autumn recipes. Vines, laden with purple grapes with promise of a good vintage, wait in turn for harvest as their leaves turn into a sunset red.

The air is still, expectant. The sun rises higher bringing the temperature with it as I continue uphill, further away from the village behind me towards the tiny farming hamlets ahead. The peace is gently disturbed by a farmer with his scythe, cutting back the tall corn sticks, the ears of which were plucked last week. Ahead a little brown puppy dog awaits my passing. He hears, and no doubt smells me before I see him. Already he has begun his little game. Sitting neatly in the middle of the track, he faces my direction front legs straight under his shoulder blades, head still, ears up. He waits. I approach, looking everywhere but ignoring him. It is my game too! He stays so still, but itching to move. Just his tail sweeps the sandy track behind his tidy little back. I arrive at his front. His is up and circling me, sniffing my boots; now gently, with claws retracted his soft paws balance upon my knee as he nuzzles his nose into my hand that dangles by my side. He is demanding my attention and, eventually I relent with affectionate patting and stroking. The game is up and he darts about like a restless kitten, I continue my walk and he continues his excited escapade, sometimes ahead of me until I persuade him to return home – difficult with the language barrier! But he understands the tone and, eventually, resumes his position in the middle of the road and watches until I disappear around the bend and out of site.


Now I am heading west, the sea air breezes through the valley from the lagoon, bringing with it the sweet smell of pine from the groves close by. The village is in sight some 2 miles away, white cottages with blue or yellow window frames, clamor for space on the hillsides, their shutters to the east open allowing the warmth of the morning sun to brighten their dark interiors. Dogs and cockerel compete for an audience that has forgotten their existence. The fishmonger’s horn is the only sound that attracts the peasants, bringing them from their breakfast to his van for a dose of gossip and fresh fish.

My walk is complete, my day begins. Portugal is beautiful.


©Jeannie Pontet

Published in interchange

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