Atop a granite massif stands the unique Palheiras, which are dozens of shelters that some call the old village of Fiais da Beira and others the old granary
The job of cleaning and capping our four wells was finished in mid-November. We are happy about organizing and accomplishing this task before the year ends. The abundance of water helped us decide to move to the Beiras region of Portugal.
As with most jobs, we had to have accomplished several others before we could attack this one.
First, we had to find the wells! There were meters of bramble on our land, so much so that we snaked our way around. When we first saw our land, it seemed full of secret gardens. It seemed enchanted. Now that we are living in Portugal and our property is more than just pretty pictures, I am proud of our clearing work. After we arrived in August, it took us several weeks to find our wells.
Second, we cleared bramble and other weeds from around the wells.
Third, we worked at clearing the wells themselves. Inside them, there were bear rugs of moss and vegetation clinging to the walls. We hauled out buckets.
Fourth, we pulled up bramble from around the border of the wells. However, Beto and his team of three, were so thorough in their work that this was unnecessary.
They spent four days working with a generator, ladders and cement mixer. We are more than happy with their work.
Huw and I had examined several ways of getting the wells done, including doing them ourselves. However, these other ways entailed buying or borrowing equipment, such as ladders, a bucket hoist and a generator. In the summer, we spent quite a bit of time pricing these items at shops. It just did not make sense. Finally, we asked Steve, our project manager, for help. He contacted Beto.
One concern that we had about the wells is that the finishing would be big and ugly. Many of the wells that we see have unattractive above-ground structures. Our wells are flush with the ground and covered with cement; we can access them through rectangular blocks with rings that can be lifted out by two people.
As I look around our land, I now can see it. From certain viewpoints on our hilly patch, I can see the road on one side; I can see the footpath on the other. Huw and I are still working hard at clearing. My goal is to cut all the bramble at least once before the Christmas holidays. Huw’s goal is to burn all our piles before we leave for the United Kingdom. At the beginning of November, when we revealed our personal goals, they seemed impossible. At the end of the month, depending on the weather, we may be able to accomplish it. Not bad for four months of work on land neglected for 10 years.
Huw and I are working harder than ever on our land of several acres. Yesterday, we spent the whole day there, picking up Caladon at the bus stop on his way home from school. We made two bonfires, the second of which was so feeble, it felt as though it took the last hour to burn 10 sticks of bramble. What a difference our work has made. When we arrived in August, there were thickets of bramble all over the land, so much that we could not see through them.
I do not think that we thought that summer would ever end. We would work against the sweat seeping into our eyes. Yesterday, we started at 10:30 p.m. because we woke up to a frost. The low today was 0º Celsius, or 32º Fahrenheit, and the high was 11º Celsius, or 52º Fahrenheit. But it was bright and sunny.
This week in December, I began wearing wool gloves under my work gloves and a snood.
While waiting for a bonfire to burn down and eating some of our oranges, Huw and I have asked ourselves whether we could have been done any sooner than December. We have agreed that the answer is no.
However, with hindsight, we know now that making piles where you will burn them will save you time later. Not only does it take work to move the piles, but growing grass anchors the piles, which makes it even more difficult. We have to pull and wrench to break the hold of the grass. In August, the ground was brown; there was no grass. Once the rains started in October, the landscape became green again.
If we could cut and burn everything in the month of October, life would have been easier. But we had too much to cut and too much to burn. So, in August and September, we were cutting, cutting, cutting. In October, we were cutting, burning, burning. In November, we are cutting and burning, cutting and burning.
It is so satisfying to look at our land.
As all our neighbours have said to us at some time, Beto said, “Muito trabalho (Much work).” I agreed but said that it is work that has to be done because it is our land. He said that there is a saying here, “Nossa terra. Gosta da terra.” (Our land. Like the land.)
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Caladon is so excited about returning to England and Wales for two weeks at Christmas.
He says that he cannot wait to eat Cornish pasties, bacon and sausage, and fish and chips. He plans to stock up on HP sauce, Marmite and Branston pickle. I miss none of these things. But he grew up on these foods; I did not. There are sausages and bacon here, but they are different. I like them.
His final day of school is the 14th of December, so we are flying to Heathrow from Lisbon on the 16th of December. We are spending the night midway between London and Cornwall, and then driving onto Cornwall for a few days before going to Malvern, where we once lived, and then onto Wales to see Huw’s parents and family.
In Cornwall, Caladon will be able to have Christmas dinner with his former classmates at Harrowbarrow School. Mr. Hunt, the headmaster, has been kind enough to allow him to share in the festivities. What will Caladon think of the school, his former teachers and classmates?
I have moved so many times in my life and returned to places that I loved on visits. Inevitably, I have found that I cannot go home again, mostly because I had changed, and, sometimes, because the places had changed.
Because the time here has been so short – only five months – will Caladon feel as though he does not quite belong in either country?
At the moment, our U.K. holiday is Caladon’s most talked about subject. He also is using it as something to work toward. I can see him thinking that after he studies for examinations and has taken them, there will only be a few days before he leaves for the U.K.
Caladon brought home a note in his Cadernata de Aluno, or Student Notebook, which is where teachers communicate with the Encarregado de Educacao, or parents or guardians. The message was from Dani, Caladon’s music teacher.
I find notes from school take me some time to translate because I am still learning Portuguese and because notes are not straightforward. This note talked about a Christmas show in Ervedal da Beira at the Teatro, or theatre, that we have driven past many times and wondered about its use. I signed the note. Did the show include Caladon and his schoolmates, or not? If so, what did he have to wear? I have learned that the answers to these questions arrive in their own time.
Sure enough, the following week and two days before the show, Caladon said that his class and school would be performing on recorder; he had overheard that jeans and a red top were the requested dress.
The evening began at 7:15 p.m. We sat in the front row balcony. Caladon and three friends kept running downstairs after performances to check whether it was their turn. I was impressed by the music, which included Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, jazz and Arab music. Dancing for the Baby Jesus included the tango. Dani kept the audience involved by teaching us a song that we intermittently learned and sang. It was an entertaining show!
Finally, three hours after the start, Caladon and his class played recorder, sang, and moved in synchronized way to their pieces. We left the theatre at 11 p.m., and the show was still going on. It was Thursday, a school night, and I was flagging.
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Happy New Year!
Bom Ano Novo!
We have returned from a two-week holiday in Britain that was not as cold as I had been cautioned by friends and family there. Caladon had a good time. He spent time answering questions about school and life in Portugal. Those conversations seemed to have grounded him in his new home of Portugal.
We returned to frosty mornings and sunny double-digit afternoons. From our viewpoint, it has been balmy, or what would be warm, spring days in the U.K. The grass continues to grow, and wildflowers abound in their delicate wonder.
I am pleasantly surprised. I had thought that January would mean dormancy for plants and darkness for us. I thought that we would have to brave the elements to work on the land. Instead, it is a pleasure to work outside. I am loving it.
I am so happy to be here.
The week before we left for Britain, Huw and I picked up three CDs of the technical plans from Lionel at Vilargus. The plans were submitted to Oliveira do Hospital’s Council, or Camara. As we left the office in Arganil, we telephoned Steve and arranged to meet at a café in Coja.
Steve and his partner, Diane Colby, who had shown us many properties last year, met us at the café. Finally, we could pass the technical plans to Steve, who would request quotes from three builders.
We had a great meeting over coffee and cocoa, talking about our house, Christmas and changing the world. We believed that the Mayans had been misunderstood and that they had not foretold the end of the world.
We were right; the world did not end on December 22, 2012.
Steve sent me an email that I read in Portugal on the 31st. He said that he had visited Lionel for a compatible software program as an incompatible one had been placed on the disk. Builders were asked for quotes the week of Christmas. I thought that we already were encroaching on holiday spirit by asking two weeks before.
“Do you think that you will be in your house by Christmas?”
This was the most frequently asked question from friends and family in Britain. Huw answered it wisely. He said that he has learned not to work by deadlines because they only frustrate him. Work will get done when it gets done.
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When we first visited Portugal, estate agents asked for our mobile telephone number. We did not have a mobile in Portugal or the U.K. We saw people as buying these communication tools for emergencies that never happened. Since then, we have acquired one mobile for each country.
We bought the Portuguese mobile at a kiosk at Lisboa airport. We put 15 euros on it. At that time, using a British mobile would have been prohibitively expensive. Things are not as expensive now, but it is cheaper to have a Portuguese phone.
We sure could have used a mobile on our first visit on our first day out. We arranged to meet a property developer, Andy Henderson, at the bus station in Pedragao Grande at 10:30 a.m. We had looked at the map and calculated that an hour would be more than enough time. We headed out from Andorinha, which is just outside Oliveira do Hospital, The journey would have been more than an hour, even if we had not gotten lost and ended up driving the wrong way on an incomplete motorway in Coimbra. The maps do not highlight the curves of the mountain roads. We arrived three hours late.
When we got there, Caladon and I walked around the nearly empty bus station car park. I overheard a man telling another man about people he was scheduled to meet who had not turned up or even called and they did not even have a mobile. I was embarrassed. I introduced myself.
Andy was kind enough to show us the properties. It would have been nice to have been able to call him when we lost our way.
I recommend a mobile telephone.
We find ourselves depending on it again, even though we have a land line at the log cabin. The telephone cable has been stolen about twice a month since we moved here in September. Our landlord, Peter, says that it has been happening since May. The copper is stripped from the cable and sold for as much as 1,000 euros, he says. The cable is taken from the woods, away from the road and the eyes of passers-by.
When the cable is taken, Portugues Telecom, PT, usually replaces it within several days. In September and October, however, we were without telephone and, therefore, Internet, for 10 days. A long time.
When we first moved in, the crime seemed a mild inconvenience. I would notify PT on its free telephone number from a telephone box in Oliveira do Hospital or Tabua. The company compensated us for the days that we had no service.
Four months on, it seems ridiculous that a solution has not been found for this ongoing problem. Why not install fibre optic cables, which would have no resale value?
Also, last month, Maxwell Paul King, my 14-year-old nephew died suddenly the day after he collapsed at a basketball game. He had a heart defect, unknown to his parents. My sisters, their husbands and Jazmyn, Max’s 12-year-old sister telephoned and emailed me in vain until the cable was replaced the day after Max passed. It was upsetting to them that they were not able to contact me; their frantic emails compounded the shock of Max’s death.
I recommend a mobile phone.
It has been six days since we lost service this time.
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We have planted for the first time on our land!
Rosie, Stelios and Soteris, friends in Cornwall, gave us Cornish daffodil bulbs. So, we planted them along with snowdrops and bluebells, all pleasant memories of Britain.
As with all our first endeavours, Huw and I approach them with some trepidation. We have been very busy cutting back above ground and not doing much in the ground. Again, as with all our first endeavours, once we began the task, it was not difficult.
We chose an area along a stone-walled footpath in a triangular-shaped piece of ground between a few oak trees. It was rough ground. We do not believe that it ever has been cultivated. I was surprised that we did not find more stone. We had depth enough and more to plant big bulbs in holes twice their height.
I was so happy to be planting! It is the point of having land though, in truth, I always felt intimidated by it. Bob Maynard, former publisher of the Oakland Tribune and co-founder of the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, used to say: There’s nothing to it but to do it. I remember those words when I begin to paralyze myself into not taking the first step.
In cutting back weeds, I have felt that I am caring for the land in a way that has not been done in 10 years. But in planting, I felt even more satisfied to know that I was putting in new life. New life. Our lives.
I may forget the significance of these bulbs in years to come. For one thing, snowdrops, which in Britain are the first flowers, blooming in darkest winter, will not be the first. Since October, there has been no lack of flowers. Now, in January, I am seeing yellow and purple wild flowers. Birds of paradise are standing tall, and a tree of red camellias greets me on the way to the school bus stop. Roses seem to just keep coming.
Our nespereira, or loquat, trees are in blossom now and give off a sweet fragrance. The orange trees are full of fruit; we have been eating them for a few months now. The diospireiro, or persimmon, is naked of leaves but still has lots of orange and red fruit on it.
The climate here is so mild. It does not have the heat of the Algarve or the Alentejo. It has the right temperature, rainfall and sunshine for cultivation.
We want to get our 250 grapevines and 40 olive trees pruned because they have been neglected for so long. We thought that we would wait until the spring, but this clement weather is saying otherwise. We want to get our land ploughed after the pruning. So, we have been mulling it over and asking advice from people.
Before Natal, or Christmas, there was a knock on our back door. It was Senhora Lydia Santos who owns land adjoining ours and, coincidentally, land behind our rented
accommodation. She is 83, always smiling and full of conversation. She is also supple; I have seen her bent over, collecting fallen olives from around her trees. On her visit, she said that Christmas dinner is bacalhau, or dried cod, and potatoes drizzled with olive oil. She said that her two daughters would be coming from Lisbon to spend Natal. Then, she bemoaned the fact that we had to buy all our produce. She said that she produces 90 litres of olive oil each year. She told me to wait and rushed off for her wheelbarrow. From it, she drew a bottle of olive oil and 10 kilos of potatoes. A gift, she said. Fortunately, I had made some American Christmas shortbread cookies with icing, which I gave her.
She gave us one of the most thoughtful Christmas gifts I have ever received in my life.
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We are now in the state of waiting, which is a place that both Huw and I find uncomfortable.
We are waiting for quotes from the builders, who were approached a month ago, unfortunately, during the Christmas period. Steve says that it is very important that they quote correctly because they are legally bound to it.
Coming from Britain, where builders’ work often surpasses the quote, the Portuguese way sounds great. However, if we want materials that cost more than a particular rate per metre, we pay the excess. What does that flat rate buy us? Are they materials that we would reject anyway? I do not know.
Portuguese building quotes include everything in the house, the construction and the furnishings. So, it includes the kitchen and the bathrooms; it includes the refrigerator and the toilets. It is difficult for us to understand it, which makes us feel lost. How do we work on cutting back a quote if we do not know what costs a lot and what does not?
On Monday, a week ago, we met with one of the three builders at his request at the house to answer questions. He is Beto, the builder who cleaned and covered our wells. We liked his work, and I was impressed that he wanted to visit the house and ask questions. Steve came with him and his colleague.
Huw and I headed to the house early to cut bramble on a terrace that, frankly, I had overlooked as I had grown so accustomed to it. It is almost a half-step terrace of grapevines. For me, it is important to keep working on the land because it is a true endeavour. I think that the honesty of working the terra is what most attracts me to it. It has nothing to do with quotes or bureaucracy or raised stamps and official signatures. It is genuine.
When Beto and Steve arrived, we switched gear. As we worked around the shell of our house, we looked at the plans and tried to differentiate the walls that would stay and those that would be knocked down. What about the granite pillars in the adega, our kitchen? Were they going or staying? And the wooden floor above the adega? The plans seemed to show it staying, but it is rotting, and we had agreed to concrete floors the counterbalance the terraces.
Much of what we did was interpret the plans, but there were questions for Lionel at Vilargus. At the end of the meeting, I was worried. Did we need the plans altered? How long would that take, seeing that we would need Council approval?
Steve telephoned and, then, visited Lionel last week. Lionel explained what seemed like inaccuracies. On Monday of this week, Steve sat down with Lionel at length. I felt better. However, in a mobile telephone conversation when Huw and I were driving back from Oliveira do Hospital, Steve cautioned me about the cost of the project. He asked me if I had seen Vilargus’ estimate. I said that I had but that I had forgotten. Did he remember? Yes, something like 170,000 euros.
The second team of builders, who are from Viseu and include an engineer, also visited the house last week. Steve returned with them later in the week to answer questions, some of which he directed at us. After answering them in a telephone conversation, Huw said that he would not hold Steve to it but what were the figures looking like. 170,000 euros.
Oh, dear. More than we had expected. Too much.
I dug out Vilargus’ estimate which we received before we signed them on. Files are imperative in this process of emigrating and building. There are so many elements and so many legally binding elements that it would be impossible to keep them all in your head. I have a walking file that I usually have with me when we do business. It contains my fiscal number, residency and European Union citizen documents. We also have a house folder in our file. In it, in front of the house buying papers was Vilargus’ contract and other documentation, including the building estimate.
The total was 159,445.53 euros. What is most interesting is the way in which it was broken down. It calculated the area of the ground floor (140.50 square metres) at 400 euros per square meter.
It is difficult to know how we can cut down the costs when we do not know how the cost per metre is calculated. I suppose we will learn to understand it.