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Bramble, Bracken and Broom (3)


There is a there there; I am cutting my way through years of neglect to a gate in the courtyard.

Every day, I see my bare feet instead of two pairs of socks. It feels normal, as though it always has been this way.

Two weeks in August, we have been here, clearing our land for a few hours in the morning and in the afternoon. We have cleared one-quarter of the courtyard of bramble and mimosa, the top terrace of bramble and five-foot-high bracken, and around two of the five wells of bramble.

Bramble, bramble, bramble.

Our neighbours have advised us that secateurs are the wrong tool, and they are right. They suggest the ubiquitous hoe and a petrol-driven bush cutter. Yesterday, Anibal, who has a vegetable plot on our land, told me where to buy a hoe --the cooperative in Oliveira do Hospital or Tabua. And in three days, our friends, Peter and Ute, with whom we stayed on previous visits, and their neighbour, Eddie, will clean our land with their bush cutters in 12 hours, they reckon, at 10 euros per hour.

We are spending this week making it safe for them. Today, I followed and pulled out several metres of wire from the midst of bramble to a grapevine along a fence. Apparently, wire is not a good thing for these machines. Also, today, Huw found and cleared two more wells, which are marked on our typological map but took us a week to discover.

Last night, Huw escorted Caladon and I to the “amphitheatre” mentioned by the previous owner to me in a telephone conversation. “What do you think of the amphitheatre?”

We had not seen any such thing. We thought that it might have been a granite boulder with an overhang and space underneath it. No, it is not this. It is a natural amphitheatre with seating for a dozen, a perfect outdoor cinema for showing our film collection to friends and family.

These first days are a special time of discovering our house and land, uncovering treasures that have been asleep for many years.

Because the house has been abandoned for at least 10 years, we were not certain whether the address would be the same as on the deed or whether we could receive post at our house which is a little way from the road through the village. The postal workers in Oliveira do Hospital told us to check with the post office in Ervedal da Beira, our village parish seat.

A few afternoons later, a village hall official at Ervedal assured us that we could receive post there. A few mornings later, the postal official at Ervedal, assured us that we could receive post there. They were the same person! The post office is only open mornings.

This first month, we are renting at Rua do Talegre, 2, three numbers and as many city blocks away. Convenient.

Our first week, we visited our more permanent rental home. Peter, the Dutch owner, was painting the inside walls white. Our only information about the house was via Internet, so we were able to walk around it. It is a lovely two-bedroom, two-bathroom wooden log house, an unusual material for the area.

So, in September, we will move in our village, Fiais da Beira, to the other side of the main road, increasing our walk by 15 minutes. Not far. We will have a telephone and Internet access; we do not have either here.

Our first week here, we also visited the architect. We met with Fernando, the son of the founder of the architectural firm, Vilargus, in Arganil. One of the three architects, he said that the drawings were finished and ready for submission to Oliveira do Hospital’s Town Hall. He needed to write the description, and he needed one document, which we offered to obtain from the Conservatorio, or Land Registry. He did not know the name of the documents but, don’t worry, he said, they will know what you want.

Well, we found our way to the government buildings. I explained to the receptionist that we needed this document to submit our project to the Town Council. We were given a number and took a seat in a room with a long counter/desk and three workers behind it. We were the next number.

We sat at the desk. I explained what we wanted and received a blank gaze. She asked her co-worker, who spoke English, for help. He also did not know what we wanted from them. He asked for Vilargus’ telephone number. “Is it the father or the son?” I don’t know what was said on the phone, but the woman who was dealing with us led us back to the reception desk, where that worker asked an employee walking up the stairs if she would take us to a particular office on the first floor. The police office, we later surmised, where the gentleman there asked us whether we wanted a police number or a postal code. He was befuddled. He looked on his computer for Vilargus’ phone number; I gave it to him. “Is it the father or the son?” No answer at the office. He tried another number to no avail.

Suddenly, I realised the source of confusion!

“Is this the Conservatorio,” I asked.

“No. The Conservatorio is the building next door,” he said, still scratching his head and so engrossed in finding a solution to our problem that he did not understand the meaning of my question.

Huw and I exchanged a look that said, “We are in the Town Hall, not the Conservatorio. Let’s get out of here as gracefully as we can.”

I thanked him for his help. He offered himself for further assistance, and we skedaddled to the correct building.

After more than one hour in the Town Hall and only 15 minutes in the Conservatorio, we left with our document!

After we delivered the document to Fernando, the drawings were submitted to the Council.

Our second week here, we visited Caladon’s new school, Escola Basico Integral Cordinha, in Ervedal da Beira. Carlos, who pre-registered Caladon in April, greeted him by name, which was comforting. We met another administrator, Nuno Ribeiro, and showed them Caladon’s progress report and samples of his work this past year. Both were impressed by his work; both were convinced that he should proceed to Year 5 because he has earned it. Neither thought that being with students one year older would be a problem; they said that the Portuguese language would be an adjustment for him in any grade. Children in Portugal begin Year 1 at age 6, as they do in the United States, Greece and Sweden. Children in Britain start Year 1 at age 5.

After talking with them, I am more in agreement with them. Redoing Year 4 work would be boring for Caladon and not an incentive to learn Portuguese.

However, no matter what we decide, we cannot proceed with registration until EBI Cordinha receives an official document from Harrowbarrow School showing that Caladon completed Year 4. The school report says only Class 3. Carlos and Nuno understand that Years 3 and 4 were in Class 3 in the small village school, but they need proof.

Last week, I emailed Harrowbarrow from the library at Oliveira. School begins on the 13th of September, so we have some time. Three weeks.

*** *** *** ***

At EBI Cordinha, Nuno asked us why we chose Portugal. We talked about the availability of land and the surfeit of water. Afterwards, I thought how our answer lacked emotion, heart and the whole truth.

When Huw and I lived in Santa Cruz County, California, we had a few months to soul-search while we looked for jobs. We arrived in Silicon Valley after the dot com bubble burst in October 2001. Huw’s application for U.S. residency, or a green card, took nine months for approval. In August, he received the visa, which had to be used in six months or become void. So, two months after receiving his visa, we flew from Heathrow to San Francisco International Airport.

Our first three months were a difficult time for us. Often, while eating supper on the kitchen steps of the Scotts Valley house we rented with savings, we asked each other how much longer we could stay without jobs before returning to the U.K. We knew that if we returned to Cornwall without a child, we probably would not have a family. To us, it seemed that adoption for parents in their 40s would be impossible in Britain.

While we e-mailed Curriculum Vitae after Curriculum Vitae to prospective employers, we began to dream of our dream retirement. This dream acted as compensation for the uncertainty in our lives. Eventually, we both realised that we were using it as a substitute for a child. Of course, retirement could not equal the joys and challenges of parenthood, but it was a tangible future goal. No matter what, we would retire from desk jobs. This fantasy kept our minds from the reality of our situation.

We wanted to live in a slower place than Silicon Valley and a warmer place than Britain. Since Huw was in his 20s, he had dreamed of becoming self-sufficient. He had read everything available at the time. He had raised goats with a friend on the friend’s farm. As a city girl, self-sufficiency was never my desire.

The Sunnyvale library was a tremendous resource for us. We focused on Europe because our European Union passports, theoretically, would allow us unconditional access to entry and services. We discounted countries we had lived in together for different reasons.

Sicily was a beautiful place with fantastic fresh food and people. We lived two years in the shadow of Mount Etna between Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, two fishing villages which were, themselves, between Taormina and the city of Catania. Huw worked in Catania, helping to train Italian graduates as electronic engineers, and designing and laying out computer chips. Then, we returned for several months and lived in a mountain village, Motta Santa Anastasia.

Sicily’s emphasis on family, however, would mean that we always would be the estrangieros. The foreigners. Anywhere we went, we would be the foreigners, but we wanted to go to a place where, eventually, we could be accepted into the community. In Sicily, we went out for meals with Sicilians; we were invited only once into someone’s house. Work colleagues did not bring their spouses to restaurants for dinners with work colleagues. Sicilians maintained a sharp demarcation between work and home, which was the polar opposite of the American way. Most of my friends are people with whom I have worked in the past.

Sweden greatly impressed us. The country seemed to take care of its people’s well-being. Immigrants were respected. I had lived in the United States and the United Kingdom, where immigration was a perennial issue for politicians who skirted the real problems. In Sweden, immigrants, after three years, could vote in local elections. Swedish language lessons were available and free of charge from the local council. We lived in Solna, near Stockholm, in an apartment block for six months while Huw worked for Ericsson, the biggest employer in Sweden, where only a dozen cars would be parked because people took buses, trains or rode bicycles to work.

The summer was bright and warm in Sweden. The winter was dark and cold. The apartment had triple-glazed windows; like the Swedes, I did not wear shoes indoors. When there was light at 9 in the morning, I went out for a walk in Haga Park before the light disappeared for the day. The darkness was intriguing for a few months, but would become depressing if we were living there permanently.

Belize was out of the question because the sub-tropical climate does not agree with Huw. Huw lived and worked in Bavaria, and loved it. However, the winter did not appeal to either of us.

We stumbled upon Portugal. We read everything the library had to do with Portugal. We read travel guides, novels and histories. Once, at the library check-out desk, the librarian asked about my interest in Portugal. I told her my plans; she said that she was Portuguese.

All of us are immigrants.

Then, in the spring, we read in the local newspaper about a Portuguese Holy Spirit festival in Pescadero between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. We drove along Pacific Coast Highway for 40 minutes, the ocean on our left and cultivated fields of strong-smelling brussel sprouts and less obtrusive crops on the right.

We arrived in time to see a procession of cars, one of which carried several teenaged girls wearing white dresses and broad smiles who waved at the crowd. Huw and I did not know the significance of the festival. Now, we know that those girls were chosen to preside over the ceremony, which took place on Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, when Christ’s disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. On the festival of the Holy Spirit, people call upon it for protection from natural disasters.

After the procession, everyone crowded into a hall, where there were cauldrons of soup and countless loaves of bread. Huw and I kept debating whether we should go inside. Some people saw us and invited us in. “Please, eat.” We asked if we could donate some money. “No,” they insisted. Again, we were ignorant of the day’s meaning.

Bread and a Holy Spirit soup of beef and vegetables are given to everyone just as Queen Isabella (1271-1336) gave bread to the poor against the wishes of her husband, King Dinis. Legend says that when her husband appeared unexpectedly, the bread turned into roses.

The food was delicious. The Portuguese Americans were kind and welcoming.

Then, a few months later in the summer, Huw and I went to a concert of Mariza at a small club in Santa Cruz. The fado singer was just then beginning to gain international renown; she was on her way to perform at a concert of divas at the Hollywood Bowl. We sat around small round tables; she sang with a few accompanists on the stage. Her singing tingled my spine. Halfway through the concert, she left the stage and brought her musicians with her. She did not like the separation from her audience. She sang a song that the wives of fishermen sing for their husbands. All the Portuguese American women sang the chorus. It was a fantastic concert!

Afterwards, everyone queued up for DVDs. Mariza sold all the DVDs that her people had brought inside; someone had to run to the car for more. She signed our DVD, even though she could not believe the spelling of Huw’s name. In Portuguese, “h” is not pronounced and “w” only exists in imported words.

Marissa was a wonderful ambassador for Portugal. The people of Pescadero were fantastic. Ten years before moving here, Portugal already had begun to make sense for us.

*** *** *** ***

“How do you spell ‘village’, Caladon asked us as he emailed a friend in Cornwall.

I was heartened. He was writing about the move to Portugal, I thought.

“How do you spell ‘bucket’," he continued.

I was elated! He must be writing about clearing the land. He must be enthusiastic about our work but playing coy with us.

I could not have been farther from the truth. He was writing about land, but not our land. He was referring to the land of Minecraft, an X-box game. He was asking his friend for tips on finding diamonds.

Virtual reality!

I ordered him to add a few sentences about real reality as Huw and I have ordered him to help on the land.

We have tried to inspire him. We have allowed him to choose his own tool. He has tagged a hoe as his own. We have earmarked specific, easier work for him such as pulling weeds along the house, or picking plums, or hoeing a small, cleared area. All of this has not made a difference.

While we sat on a veranda swing, Caladon told me that he had had enough of working on the land after his third time.

I am disappointed. I wish that he were excited about the work.

Huw and I do not expect Caladon to work as long and as hard as we do, but he must do some work. As I pulled him from the X-box once and told him to come with us, I explained that I would not let him miss this opportunity to learn. I said that, later in his life, he would resent us for not doing so. He would not understand how his parents allowed him to skirt work and responsibility.

As an adult, I know that my work now will blossom into a comfortable and beautiful land and house. And I know that I am lessening my work in the future. As a child, he does not have that foresight.

One of our chief reasons for moving to Portugal was Caladon. We wanted him to be in touch with his food and fuel. He will still live it. But doing the work on it is not pleasurable for him at this time.

I hope that as he gets older, he will enjoy it. Whether or not, he does, he will know how to do it. Skills are what we need to survive in the future.

*** *** *** ***

We drove one and a half hours to the top of the Estrellas Mountains and three hours back down.

Those squiggly lines on the map really do translate to dramatic curves and bends in the road. Huw hates to drive the same route to and from a place, but we will be doing just that there in the future.

The Estrellas were fantastic!

At 1,993 metres high, compared with 1,085 metres of Mount Snowden, the tallest mountain in Wales and England, the Estrellas are higher than we had thought.

The ski lifts were moving; no one was riding them in September. On the highest peak, there were 19 shops inside a market complex selling leather and lamb’s wool goods, sheep cheeses and prosciutto, or presunto as they call dried, salted ham here, and mugs with replica penis handles, which were, perhaps, the equivalent of saucy seaside postcards in Britain. The penis mugs, which also included two testicles, were a surprise. Being a puritanical American, I don’t know their significance because I was too embarrassed to pick one up and examine it more closely for clues.

One cheese and presunto vendor offered a taste to Caladon. Clever woman. Caladon loved them. She made a sale.

We brought a picnic lunch with us. On top of the mountain, it was so windy and comparatively cold that we ate in our Bongo camper van on the folded down-seat table.

On the way down the Estrellas, each rounding of a curve revealed granite outcrops that astounded us. Around one stood a carving of the Virgin Mary, which dwarfed us, and steps leading to it. Spectacular! We pulled over a few times to take photographs.

Five years ago, when we first visited Portugal, we had driven to the Estrellas. But it was in March, and we drove in cloud and fog, which stopped us from going to the top. Caladon does not remember it at all.

After our Sunday drive, we rested and dressed for a party at Veronika and Josh’s in Andorinha. Our second week here, Ute and Peter invited us along to a monthly garden outing, where foreigners walk you round their land and share tips and their experiences. It was there that we saw Veronika and Josh, who had shown us their land and ruin for sale when we were looking for property. At the garden outing near Nelas, they invited us to their 4 p.m. to midnight party.

Everyone brought a dish. We arrived about 6:30 p.m. and ate supper in the outdoor summer kitchen. The two long tables outside their house kitchen were already full.

Caladon met several children, including Adrian, 8, whose mother is American but was born here. Huw and I met several people we liked and exchanged contact details with them.

Caladon said they had the best swimming pool he has ever been in and had to be coerced into getting out. We left at 8:30 p.m. because he had school the next day.

His first official day of school was the previous Friday. We walked him five minutes down the road to the school bus stop, where other parents waited with their children.

He is in Class 5A of 15 students. They all change classrooms together and have a different teacher for each subject, except one teacher, who does two classes, Mathematics and Natural Science. His other classes are Portuguese, English, Religious Education, which is optional, Physical Education, Technology Education, Visual Education and Music.

Caladon says that the children are kind and helpful. One boy shared his sandwich with him. Several fellow students speak good English; one has been to Wales. At break time on his first day, he said that he “played football with my mates.”

He says that his Portuguese teacher is lovely. She speaks only Portuguese, which Caladon says will make him work harder. In her class, he read aloud Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, and she only corrected him once. The other teachers he had on the first day all spoke some English.

So far, so good.

*** *** *** ***

#livinginPortugal #Belizeculture #babyboomersredefineretire

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