On May 1st, yellow broom is hung on gates, doorways and post boxes in an ancient tradition
We have been working very hard getting part of the terrace ready for planting. One day, I turned over the soil for five hours. Looking at it, I do not feel that I made much progress. It takes time. I am using a fork with a broken tine. I press down on either side of the fork, sometimes jumping on it so that it is buried to the hilt in the ground. Then, I press down on the handle to lift several inches of heavy soil, fall to my knees to turn over chunks at a time, and break up the clods with my fingers. When I return to my feet, I keep breaking up clods. As I said, it takes time.
We have bought a motoenxada, or cultivator, for this step, but we are having technical difficulties. The machine already has eaten up time; we cannot afford more time in May, which is planting time.
In March, we bought the cultivator on offer from a chain DIY, or do-it-yourself, shop near Nelas. Did we want to pay 30 euros to have it assembled? No, no, we said, not wanting to fritter away our desconto, or discount. The workers there wheeled it out to the Bongo in a box, which fit into the campervan. Unloading it at home was a challenge. It weighed an awful amount. Huw and I managed to get it out and store it under the porch of the house. We became involved in other projects and, then, it rained torrentially for weeks. Finally, in mid-April, we turned to the cultivator. The bad news was that the box contained no assembly instructions.
We dreaded hoisting it into the campervan, but we had to do just that. We ended up taking it out of the box, which had gotten wet during the rains and lost its strength. After an hour’s drive, we were back in the shop. We dealt with a store employee who spoke English, which made it that much easier. Could they assemble the cultivator for us for 30 euros? Yes, of course. Can they do it that day? Yes, come back at 19.00, or 7 p.m. We said that we would come back tomorrow on Saturday morning.
So, already, this machine cost us two days. We returned with Caladon the next day. We bought a shed on offer while the motoenxada was being finished in the shop. We agreed that we would return the next day to pick up the shed. There was no way that we would be able to fit both the cultivator and the shed into the Bongo.
We needed a shed for the bush cutter, power saw, cultivator, wheelbarrow, which has not been useful as yet, two rakes, two hoes, two buckets, one large garden waste bag and not much else. Our storage has been the adega, or ground floor, in our house. When construction begins, the adega will begin its transformation into our kitchen. We had not been seeing sheds on display in farm or DIY shops. It does not mean that they did not have them. We thought ourselves fortunate that we could buy this shed on sale. There had been a previous offer on a larger shed at Easter, but there were none left when we went there on the last day of the offer. In this case, we bought the one remaining shed.
By the time we finished this transaction, the cultivator was nearing the end of its assembly. The English-speaking employee and the assembler pushed the machine right through the warehouse-type shop to the outside area, where Huw drove the Bongo. Push these two levers to the right when you start and then push the upper one back to the left, they said to Caladon and I. These turned out to be invaluable instructions as the instruction booklet does not give them.
One week later, Huw and I managed to wheel the wide and heavy cultivator to the waiting terrace. He added the right fuel - petrol. He started it up by pulling the cord; we waited one hour before using it as the instruction booklet advised us. Caladon, Huw and I occupied ourselves with other tasks on the land.
When we met again at the cultivator, I donned the leg padding and helmet and mask. The machine took off with force but merely skimmed the land. Not daunted as it was a new machine to us, we tried lots of different things, including turning the digger attachments around the other way. After some time, we figured that we should be starting with the plough attachment, not the turning over the soil one.
This is when we discovered that we were missing the cotter pin that would allow us to attach the plough to the machine!
Huw looked for an alternative pin and found something that nearly fit but did not. So, we are due for another trip to Viseu and the DIY store.
In the meantime, we have turned over the land with fork and shovel. Slow but sure.
We did set aside a day for Viseu, but we were called away, unexpectedly, by a telephone call from Caladon who asked us to pick him up because he was ill. We had gotten as far as the market, which is every Tuesday. We rushed to EBI Cordinha to get Caladon. When we arrived home, Caladon slept for four hours. He felt better.
We, still, had no cotter pin.
So, the cultivator is on our to-do list. Ironically, we cannot afford to lose time with this time-saving device.
*** *** *** ***
Suddenly, Caladon and I looked up and we were surrounded by houses decorated with sprigs of yellow broom on doorways and post boxes. The village looked beautiful. A woman in the village told me that it is a tradition to celebrate spring and is always done on the first of May. In Portuguese, broom is called maia, which also means May Day, or the first of May.
Caladon and I were walking to our land on the 1st of May, Dia de Trabalhadores, the Day of the Worker. It is a national holiday and, so, Caladon had the day off school.
Our neighbour, Wilfred, who is Dutch, said that the tradition is very local. He said that he had talked with someone who lived only two villages away and was unfamiliar with it.
This heart of Portugal in the Beiras region has attracted foreigners –mostly British, Dutch and German – to settle here. We have all come here to try a different way of life. This much we have in common and not, necessarily, much else. Before we moved here, I had thought that we would develop an identity as part of an expatriate group.
Mind you, living as part of an expatriate community is something that I have disdained because of its insularity. When I moved to Sicily to be with Huw and he told me about a group of Americans who met weekly at a bar in Catania, I was adamant that I did not want to be part of that group. I wanted to learn Italian and Sicilian culture. This was the right decision for me then. I had just left San Francisco for Sicily; I needed to separate myself psychologically from whence I had come so that I could find myself in a new country.
Nearly 20 years have passed since then.
Shortly after our arrival, I met an American woman at a summer party. It was easy talking with her. I met another at a house where the owner was selling everything and moving on to Holland. She downplayed her American roots, saying that she had lived so many places.
Some Americans are ashamed of their country because of its political choices. I was once like that, willing to negate the United States as my country. I would name Belize as my country of heritage, which is true. However, I was raised in New York, and there is no way of negating its stamp on me. I looked at my fellow American at the house sale as she negotiated the purchase of goods. She could be nothing but American in her assertive way of bargaining. I realise now that my shame stemmed from my belief in the philosophical ideals of the country, which it could not achieve as governments are composed of fallible people.
I came of age at a time when the United States was embroiled in political rife and struggle. Civil rights and the divisive Vietnam War shaped my views on the country. Children, today, are not fighting those fights. Therefore, the shame is not there. And with the 2001 plane tragedies at the World Trade Center and the State Department, young people are more imbued with a feeling of protection of themselves and the United States.
When I first travelled outside of the United States and Belize, it was 1974. I attended the American University in Cairo for my third and penultimate year at university. In 1976, after I graduated from Williams College, I won a Watson Fellowship, which allowed me to live in the Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania. I studied the effect of changing times on Muslim women. This was before there were guide books to many out-of-the-way places. I had my post, or mail, directed to the American Embassy in Khartoum. I visited there regularly and would meet other young Americans who would pass on advice about cheap and exciting places.
How different it is today! When I visit the American Embassy in London to have my passport renewed, it makes me sad. Because of political terrorism, I cannot simply walk into the Embassy. I have to book an appointment. When I arrive there, I have to queue, or line up, so that military personnel can search my bags. There was a simpler time.
In the heart of Portugal, markets and supermarkets are the places where expatriates will see other expats. It is not unusual. We always see different foreigners, so there must be quite a number in this area. Sometimes English and Dutch can be overheard amongst shoppers, although foreigners tend to be subdued. Occasionally, we have exchanged a few words with Brits.
On the Internet, there also are several meeting places. One website, which has its own Beiras currency as well as euros, is www.e-beira.com. Everything advertised on it –selling and buying, tae kwon do and yoga classes, markets and more – are well within driving distance. It is where I found the notice for the house sale. We bought two double beds, two night tables, a couch, ironing board and kettle for about 100 euros.
The other websites are national. I researched schools and education on www.expatsportugal.com before we moved here. Sometimes it is reassuring just to know that other people have had the same questions.
So, we are not an active part of an expatriate community. We know expats from various groups – retirees, ecology warriors and neighbours – because we are some of all those groups.
On the 1st of May at Harrowbarrow School in Cornwall, Caladon and a dozen other schoolmates danced around a flower-wreathed maypole while holding ribbons strewn from it. The Cornish village of Padstow famously commemorates fertility and spring in an all-day procession of dancing and singing led by two hobbyhorses, who sometimes whirl around and pull women under their costume. One spectator, an older gentleman, told me that his daughter had become pregnant after she was touched by a hobby horse. These traditions are ancient ones, sometimes called pagan.
In Portugal, one website source says that the tradition has Celtic roots. In my village, different people cite different reasons for the yellow broom. Senhor Antonio told me the broom protects the house from hunger throughout the year. Another said that it protects the house from the devil and evil. The first villager I asked said that it was a spring tradition in Fiais da Beira. Other villages, towns and cities inside and outside of the Beiras also hang yellow broom on houses. Just as the meaning of the tradition has been clouded over with time, some villages have forgotten and disbanded the tradition.
On the next 1st of May, I hope to hang yellow broom from our doorway.
*** *** *** ***
The owner of our rented log cabin, Peter, who is Dutch, once gave us the best piece of advice we have received here.
He told us that two tools that he has found most useful here are a chainsaw and a bush cutter.
We have used both tools at the rented house and at our house. The ¾ of an acre that I was happy to have at the rented property also has meant ¾ acre of work. I only realised it in the spring after the rains and the tremendous growth of the grass and evergreen tree hedge. One day in April, Huw and I looked out of the French doors in the back of the house, and we could not see the swimming pool. We could see nothing but grass, grass as high as my chin.
There was more.
When I began to bush cut at the rental, and Huw began to yank up grass and weeds, we found, previously unknown, gravel paths! There was a path, for example, leading from the house to the wood shed. In the winter, we had been walking a more circuitous path through the driveway. The extra steps make a difference when you are hauling a full and heavy basket of wood for a winter’s evening.
So, what began as a simple, albeit extended, grass cutting has turned into a project. Restoring the paths will be a benefit to us and the property. It is, unfortunately, more work for us.
Also, Peter has been trimming back the fir trees which act as a border for the property. So, we have been lugging them from the front to the back of the property, where we have been making fires and burning them. The lugging and the burning take a few hours. We are doing the work in the late afternoon after working on our land.
So, it is great to have land at a rental, but land means work. A small garden would be easier. An apartment would be even better. However, I quite enjoy the rental house and its land. I would not choose to have it any other way. The only drawback is time. As it gets drier, fires become a liability. The fire ban usually happens in mid-April. Because of the continuous, heavy April rains, it may be delayed this year. We are working against a deadline.
Yet, we knew that it would take at least one year for our house to be ready for us. One year can feel like a long time. Time passes more quickly if you are living somewhere that you can call home without a grimace.
Peter was kind enough to leave us a shed full of wood – logs, sticks and kindling. The wood lasted from our first fire on Halloween night until February. We brought wood from our house to the rental. There were oak staves of barrels, oak doors from bedrooms, and logs from apple trees fallen years ago.
Our wood was formidable. It was impressive. Sometimes, it seemed indomitable. The wood in our 1930s house seemed to have come from another age when wood was wood. This is where the chainsaw came into play. We bought a metal sawing horse, which was another essential.
In February, we sawed wood for a week at a time. In March, we sawed a few days at a time. In April, we sawed a night at a time. By this time, it was more wet than cold inside. The chainsaw had given up on the oak staves. We had taken it to a chainsaw/bicycle repair shop in Oliveira do Hospital because it was cutting roughly. We showed the shop owner a barrel stave. He shook his head. He said that our chainsaw was not up to the job. He would not sell us another chain.
The shop owner’s appraisal made sense. We had not bought a state-of-the-art chainsaw. We had not bought a popular brand-name make. We had bought the saw from a discount supermarket at a very good price.
So, we gave the chainsaw a rest and ordered a replacement chain online for the next season. I am impressed with the chainsaw's performance on our formidable wood. We reasoned that it will not have to cut that strength of wood again. The chainsaw will work fine.
In March and April, we used a hand bow saw. The wood was often wider than the saw. We had to saw one side halfway down and then turn the wood the opposite way and saw again. The saw cuts never met up. A swift kick would break the wood into two pieces.
I liked sawing this way. It made me feel good, accomplished and strong. Because of the rain and the season, we were not working on the land. Using the bow saw was my only form of physical work. I needed to work as people need to exercise or jog after they begin a regime.
In the winter and the spring and, sometimes, the summer, in Britain, I spent so much time sitting inside. The rain kept me in. More significantly, the upside-down bowl of a grey sky kept me in with all the lights turned on. The sky was so low and oppressive. The sun went on holiday. I sat drinking cups of tea. I sat bemoaning the weather. I sat watching television.
Now, I am standing.
*** *** *** ***
I feel so nuclear.
We are so nuclear family, Huw, Caladon and I. We are three pairs of hands. No more. Three pairs of hands. No more. Three pairs of hands. No more.
Someone has said that there are, basically, two families in Fiais da Beira. I do not know if that is true. I do know that I rarely see the same person working on the same plot of land.
I am emigrating from countries where the nuclear family is disappearing. I am so accustomed to divorce that when my sister, Dorla, told me that her two children’s classmates come from families where the parents are together, I was shocked. Was it because it was a Catholic school, and Catholics are not supposed to get divorced? I do not know. In Chepstow, Wales, Caladon attended a Catholic school, where schoolmates’ families were more eclectic.
In Britain, people are choosing partners later in life and living alone. The trend of one-person households has contributed to the dearth of housing stock. Eventual partnerships and marriages are breaking down at a faster rate than ever. In Britain, blended families, in which the partners joined children from previous relationships, were not unusual.
How would the concept of blended families work on the land? Would people have to commit themselves to working on two or more quintas, or farms? Would this increased commitment reduce the incidence of separation and divorce? Would the potential loss of land keep more people together?
Land is a social glue.
It is heartening to see so many different people of different ages, abilities and talents working their land to the good of it and everyone. There is a job for everyone on a farm. I know that I am an outsider and am not privy to families’ private lives. What I see in the public sphere are well-tended terraces with neat rows of vegetables, grapevines that are thriving in the absence of crowding weeds, and olive trees that are flowering this May. And, it seems that everyone has access to a tractor, so that not everyone has to own one.
Ana, who is our landlord, Peter’s partner, once said that her mother, who is from the city of Setubal, would not want to live here and work the land. An old person from the city would die if they moved to the country, and an old person from the country would die if they moved to the city.
I agree with her. I once felt obligated to offer help to octogenarians in our village. Once, I helped the neighbour of our land pick up olives from the ground. Months later, I think that she was being kind in allowing me to help her. Her back was more supple than mine.
I am not old. However, I am not young either. And I have led a fairly sedentary life, much of it at a desk in front of a computer. When we first arrived in August, my main tool was a set of secateurs. Because it took us six years to get to Portugal, I had more time to create fears. There was a small voice inside that questioned whether my age would prevent me from working on the land. I quietly anticipated pain in my back, which I have experienced in the past.
Surprisingly, my back was fine. Instead, the pain was in my hands. It was not a throbbing pain. It was a constant thrumming reminder that physical work was new to me. In my past lives, I never thought of doing exercises for my hands.
I simply took a day’s holiday. My hands were happy for it.
Now, nine months later, I am experiencing pains in my hands again for different reasons: my exuberance and the bush cutter. Let me explain.
It is spring, and the invasive plants that we bush cut last year are growing back. We have been intent on rooting them out when they returned this year. So, Huw and I worked on pulling up the bracken, which threatened to reclaim rougher parts of our land. When they are shorter than six inches tall, they are tender and break when pulled up. We waited until the fern grew taller. Then, Huw, Caladon and I spent 20 hours over several days on the bracken. I was overenthusiastic. When the plant did not come up on first yank, I yanked and yanked again. It became personal: me against the bracken. I was not able to get out all of the root out of all of the fern, but I worked hard to do so. Too hard.
After the successful bracken campaign, the pinkie and thumb on my right hand (I am right-handed.) did not feel right. One Friday night, as I examined my hands, I coaxed a bone, or what seemed like one, in my pinkie back into place. That weekend, I took a break from work. My hands, again, were happy for it.
The other sensation in my hands was a faint throbbing, which has not been painful. However, it was constant, making me aware of my hands. It made me feel protective of my hands; I was reluctant to shake hands with anyone, lest they squeeze too hard.
I realised that the vibrating bush cutter was causing the sensation. Again, I am learning that I need to break up my work. Just because I have four hours does not mean that I should bush cut for that long. It is difficult for me to follow my own advice. I am accustomed to taking a job and finishing it because I become lost in it and because I want to complete it as soon as possible. It means that I have been extreme in work frequently.
Now, I have to learn moderation, which does not gel with my personality or the fact that we are only three pairs of hands. No more.
*** *** *** ***
Huw, Caladon and I attended a meeting that was translated into four languages – Portuguese, Dutch, English and Flemish. There were 110 of us, mostly Dutch in their 50s and 60s, who chose to accept Oliveira do Hospital Council’s invitation for the first foreigners’ forum. Caladon, at 10, was, by far, the youngest person there. Two other children, boys of 13 and 14, were at the hotel conference table in Sao Giao with their parents.
The Camara, or Council, is serious about forging a link with the foreign community so that we may feel a part of the community and not foreign. At each seat, there were questionnaires asking for our concerns in such areas as technical help, investments and life projects. Twelve volunteers and five Council officials will read the responses and structure an action plan based on them. The next meeting will be in June or July.
There was a coffee break with drinks and cakes. Then, there was a buffet lunch of sausage, black pudding, roasted chicken, and bread and wine. It was very hospitable.
The meeting started at 10:30 a.m. with a scenic 15-minute tourism film about Oliveira, which we walked in on. We left after lunch.
Huw and I stumbled onto information about this meeting.
We were at the Camara to check on the progress of our construction license. After taking a number and speaking with someone behind the counter, we were waiting for an official to meet with us. Luis, who organized the meeting, asked whether we were foreigners. So, now, we are on his e-mailing list.
I asked Luis whether he knew the number of foreigners in Oliveira. He said that he did not know for certain but that there must be hundreds. He said that he also realised that some people want to live below the radar and not have any dealings with the government. It is true that there is quite a substantial group of people, mostly in their 20s through 40s and English, who are living alternative lifestyles.
The rest of us are either semi-retired and living here for six months or less a year, returning to jobs in Britain or Holland, or we are retired and living here all year round.
All of us are living on land in the countryside.
Huw and I were driving to Viseu recently, and we saw a middle-aged couple on their own working the land. They must be British or Dutch, we agreed.
From our viewpoint, the Sao Giao meeting was a social success.
Herman, from whom we first rented and who owns the art gallery, was there. The mayor of Oliveira apologised to him for taking so long to organise such a meeting of expatriates. There was an Australian man there whom I recognized as someone who had bought salt from our friend Ute at the Sao Martinho market at Caladon’s school, EBI Cordinha. He sat with a bubbly woman who was not shy about wresting the microphone from Luis and translating Portuguese into English. When we were eating, she told us about a market that is held twice a month, where everyone is like family, and you can bring anything to sell or exchange. Books are popular, she said. I did not catch the name of the market. I gave her my e-mail address but have not heard from her.
We also met a Dutch couple. Sylvia asked Caladon his school year. They have a boy in the 7th year. They came in December and are renting in Lourosa while looking for property. And we met Casey, an Englishwoman, who used to live in the adjoining village of Ervedal da Beira. Her two daughters are in Year 9 at EBI Cordinha. Casey told Caladon that they would be happy to help him.
The meeting was one of good intentions.
Many expatriates have been here 10, 20 years. They speak Portuguese and feel at home. That the Camara of Oliveira do Hospital has made an overture to us to feel Oliveirese is commendable. I can think of few countries that are willing to accept an immigrant as one of their own, the United States being one.
It is perfectly natural for an immigrant to live in the U.S. for a few years and, eventually, feel American. No one would dispute the national identification. This is because the U.S. is a nation of native Americans and immigrants. To be American is to accept the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution. Americans believe in liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In other countries in the Old World, for example, there is the matter of blood, of family.
Who do you belong to, Sicilians will ask. What is your village?
What is your nacionalidad, Portuguese will ask. Where were you born?
No matter how many years are spent in Portugal, an expatriate will never become Portuguese.
*** *** *** ***
We had bought the shed at a chain DIY, or do it yourself, shop near Viseu. After driving home the cultivator in the Mazda Bongo, we returned the next day for the shed.
It did not fit.
So, we paid 40 euros for it to be delivered, thereby severely reducing the discount. OK, so it was not a buy anymore. We needed to have somewhere to put our tools. We had been using our adega, but building would start soon and the adega claimed as a kitchen. It was good that we bought it. We had solved a problem.
We had thought that the wood would be protected, but we had thought wrong. So, we decided that we had to varnish it.
We loved the sound of it and the whiff of the Northwest United States. We bought one small tin of the yellowish brown wood varnish. It rang up at 67 euros at the till of a DIY shop in Oliveira do Hospital with a hefty desconto, or discount, which made it 34 euros. It was still expensive, but there was not much of a choice. So, we bought it for the shed.
How innocent we were. We thought that the shed would be finished in a week.
How long does varnish take to dry? One hour, Huw said.
Not this varnish. It took six.
There were 20 large pieces and about that many more small.
One tin was not enough. We returned to the shop for another tin. And then another.
The shed became a project, a costly and time-greedy project. It took Huw four weeks to varnish it.
During a weekend, Caladon and I helped him assemble it by holding pieces together. Because of the hundreds of screws, we also had bought a power screwdriver/drill, which is an item we have in storage in Cornwall.
What would we have done differently?
We should have found someone to build us a shed. Certainly, the material would have been better quality. However, we would not have known the alternative. We would have been worried about having a shed before building. Being in a hurry is not a good idea in Portugal. So, maybe we had to experience the pain of the shed.
*** *** *** ***
May. We will begin your house reconstruction in May, said Scoplano of Mangualde, when we signed the contract.
Patricia, the engineer, had gone to the Camara, or Council, of Oliveira do Hospital. She had filled out forms, and I had signed papers. We all waited for things to happen. For a couple of weeks in May, it went quiet. Then, we received a telephone call from Steve, our project manager, asking whether we had received a letter from the Camara.
No, we had not.
It was the third week of May. Huw and I went to the Camara. We took a number and were called almost immediately because there was only one other client in the room.
Cynthia, the Council worker asked.
She looked me up on the computer. Then, she telephoned the planning office. After her conversation, she asked us to wait for someone from the office to come out and talk with us.
Sure enough, the woman, with whom we have dealt before, came out balancing what looked like a 5-kilo dossier of our house file. The most recent document was in the front. It was a letter addressed to me with the address of our architect, Vilargus.
The letter asked for two items to be fulfilled before an alvara de construcao, or building licence, could be issued for the project. One was a set of statistics, which Vilargus had submitted in December. However, two months ago, the form changed, and they were being asked to resubmit them.
The second item asked for an engineer or architect to inspect the project several times. Patricia was the logical person to name for this task.
In a day, all of us fulfilled the two items.
In a week, Huw and I returned to the Camara.
Yes, the building licence had been issued for our house! First, we had to pay the cashier 460 euros. Then, we returned to the clerk with our receipt. I was handed a 300-page book of architectural plans on which every page had a blue “APROVADO” raised stamp.
I also was given the one-page building licence, which is effective for one year. It was tucked into the front of a notebook called “Book of Works”, which is a working notebook for the engineer.
I shook the clerk’s hand. Huw and I left and telephoned Steve. This was the last week in May.