English Country Dustbowl

English Country Dustbowl

As I may have mentioned before: it’s hot, but let that not hinder the Mad Dog and Englishman mentality and stop us from gardening. Nothing much is growing as I imagine all of the poor plants are gagging for breath and water in a climate which provides little of either. The sweat that literally drips from the end of our noses is probably the most nutrition they’ve had for weeks.

Our garden, you may recall, was a pile of rocks and earth with a few neglected but flourishing fruit trees and flowery bushes dotted about. It looked something like this when we arrived in March after a typically soggy Portuguese winter:

 

As the weather improved, the rain stopped and the strimmer did it’s stuff, slowly the garden has taken some kind of shape.

Then, the inevitable happenned in an environment as dry in the summer as this – it turned into a brown dustbowl. Most of the gardens that are owned by immigrants (that’s expats to you) are beautifully tended with large cacti with heavily mulched (bark) or bare ground in between. They are a battle with nature won by the obliteration of all natural growth. The only lawn is made of astroturf or quenched by more water than our borehole could pump. The local Portuguese garden is a more simple affair, sometimes with vegetable beds, mostly just with a few chairs in amongst the scrub. When telling our Portuguese teacher that we have been garden she said (we have a new teacher after sacking the old one for being impatient with Keith’s difficulty in speaking any language at all, including English), that ‘You English love gardening’. So, it seems we are known for it and one does hate not to live up to expectations.

The garden was upsetting me. it was big, bare and overwhelming. I’d started to outline some beds but the rest was just an unfathomable stretch of dirt. I know nothing about gardening, but I do know about order. And order was what it needed for me to be able to look at it with a sense of calm rather than a jittery feeling. So, after spending many days shifting rocks in order to create structure into our own patch and therefore be able to tackle each smaller section individually, I realised that we have turned our dusty patch into an English country garden with winding paths and strictly defined areas. Just need a gnome or two and a rosebush and the transformation will be complete – if you can see past the complete lack of greenery and Sweet Williams. I was a bit put out by this initially as I would prefer not to colonise our tiny corner of Europe with British values, but actually, sod it, this is what my eye requires and I now look out on it with peace and joy rather than stress and anxiety. It’s not much to look at I am aware, but what I see when I look out there is ‘hope’ and promise. I have plans, dreams and a vision within those neatly defined borders.

You may also recall that I had started mulching some beds for growing next year. In our 36+ degree gardening frenzy we also finished those which are now awaiting a layer of compost from our bin and a layer of manure from the stables down the road. They will get these in the autumn ready for a good soaking over the winter. This method is called Lasagna Gardening and basically means that we are creating new sub-soil rather than having to did into the rocks that dominate the ground below.

As a small experiment, I planted a load of seeds just to see if we could get anything to grow – its too late in the year to expect much to happen. So far, so good. We have a few courgettes and squashes and a row of sweetcorn on which the grasshopper in the top image has taken almost invisible residence – his camouflage only dashed by the bloody huge holes he has left in the leaves.

This gives me hope that we can get growing next year. The lack of frost here means that planting can begin in January or February. The pumpkin and sweetcorn crops in neighbouring fields are already harvested now in mid August so we could eating our own this time next year. Exciting.

For now, our landscaping work is done and we will just sit and wait to see if a courgette turns up before the winter comes, whilst resisting the temptation to erect a flag in the midst of our barren, but neat, wilderness to declare it under strict English control, just in case some far more relaxed, Portuguese grasshopper had some funny ideas about whose territory this is.

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Lemons

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Lemons

I don’t wish to start moaning already, but… it’s a bit too hot. It’s only March and it’s 31 degrees. We moved from Worthing because it was too cold to cycle (yes, we’re pathetic) and now we’re thinking that it might be too hot to cycle. It’s beginning to sound like we’re looking for reasons not to cycle.

The whole experience so far has been utterly overwhelming. It’s just so perfect and beautiful; a proper country idyll. There’ll be bad days and worse days, I’m sure, but right now it’s like a very long held dream come true; something I wasn’t sure would ever come to fruition throughout the decades (yup, that long) that this lifestyle has been on the cards (spreadsheet). I won’t get too smooshy here, but this is all a pretty big deal. If you’re reading this and thinking you’d like to live differently, but are scared to take the step: take the step. Mostly this is all wonderful because we have a lemon tree.

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Lemons - 01

The Algarve gets two crops of lemons a year because the climate is so warm for so long. These particular lemons are from the autumn batch last year and most were gathered from the ground, so are a bit old, but perfectly fine. The lemon tree is the paler green bush in the background, currently covered in blossom and green lemons. Hundreds of them, which will all be ready in the next few weeks. Lemon Armageddon. Lemageddon. Armalemon.

So, in the spirit of economy, good living and the utter joy of foraged food, we have eaten a lot of lemons in our first week here so as not to waste them. That is alongside three 200 miles round trip journeys to IKEA. That’s right, three visits to IKEA in one week. What fresh hell is this? In our defence, our doorways are both low and narrow and nothing but flatpack furniture will fit through them. We are in zero fear of burglars who will not be able to get anything out without first dismantling it, and no one in the history of the world thinks that would be worth a day of their life.

So, on the menu this week has been Lemon Chicken, lots of sparkling water drunk with, you guessed it, freshly squeezed lemon juice. I’ve also baked a Spanish Almond Torta, which is traditionally made using oranges; not this time.Served with Lemon Curd Ice Cream made from the Lemon Curd that I made with my… er… lemons. Lemon Curd Ice Cream is as good as it sounds and just requires Lemon Curd and whipped double cream chucked in the freezer, if you don’t have an ice cream maker.

As I still had around 30 odd lemons after all that lot of culinary creativity, my brother, Frank, reminded me about Preserved Lemons, which are a staple of Moroccan cuisine and have a very different lemony taste; the bitterness goes. They are pretty pricey in the UK and, as it turns out, pretty easy to make. I now have to wait four weeks before I can eat them, by which time there will be another 300 lemons ready for consumption. Ah well, no such thing as too much lemon cake. Here I am, looking proud with my jars of (free) Preserved Lemons.

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Lemons - 04

Whilst making the house habitable, Keith has been banging his head. A lot. The doorways, as I said, are low and Keith is not. They are too low for me as well, but I don’t have to bend so far down and appear to have encompassed bending down into my general way of being whilst in the house and so far, I have not hit my head once. Keith probably does it at least once a day; a right hard thwack each time which has left him with lumps on his head and tears in his eyes, poor sausage. Apart from knocking through about 12 inches of stone which make up the walls of the house – interior and exterior – there’s not much we can do about the door heights, except…

 

A Post-It note Blu-taced next to every single doorway in the house. I somehow knew whilst I was packing for this trip that taking Post-It notes, marker pens and Blu-tac would be a good idea. Never leave home without stationery, I say.

The house next door to ours is a British owned holiday home and is empty most of the year (crazy fools). For the first time since we arrived, we saw a person in shorts getting debris out of the huge, turquoise, empty for most of the year swimming pool in the garden. We decided that this must be the owner and that we must be ‘sociable’. We spent about 20 minutes whispering,stressing, arguing and deliberating as to who was going to say what in way of an introduction to our neighbour. After approaching the adjoining wall in united and somewhat formal fashion and hailing the gentleman next door, we discovered that he was not in the slightest bit interested in making our acquaintance beyond a slightly confused and heavily accented hello… because he was the Portuguese pool guy and not our neighbour. Bollocks, we’ve got to go through all that again when the real neighbour arrives. The perils of sociability. It’d be easier just to ignore everyone and avoid the stress; but that pool next door is really rather lovely…

But it’s not all rural bliss in the country, I appear to be allergic to Portugal, or sun, or something. Since being here I’ve developed a lumpy rash all over my body, mouth ulcers, cold sore, streaming eyes and incessant sneezing. I’ve never suffered from hayfever or allergies of this nature, but it has been a while since I’ve been in the midst of quite so much nature. I’ve started eating a spoon of local flower honey every day to try and desensitize to the pollen and it seems to be working. A much greater risk to our new life is that we’ve also nearly run out of Tunnocks. Strangely enough, I’m not expecting much support or sympathy in our time of need here, guys. Guys?

Algarve Adventure Starts Here (after we politely ask the lizards to leave the bedroom)

Algarve Adventure Starts Here (after we politely ask the lizards to leave the bedroom)

Time to pick up the keys to our new little house in the Algarve. It feels like I’ve been counting down the days obsessively since we had our offer on it accepted on 23rd December, and that’s because I have. No, far more obsessively than that: tally charts, crossing off multiple calendars, writing the new total days in my diary every day and Tippexing the previous day’s count out, counting over and over again just in case I got it wrong and it wasn’t REALLY that long to wait. And now it’s here and it feels weird, extremely stressful, and weird. Keith will be here for most of the next 6 months, I will be to-ing and fro-ing to the UK to work in order to keep us in fava beans and piri piri chicken. We’ll see how that goes.

Algarve Adventure Starts Here - 01

We decided to drive to Portugal so that we could take plentiful supplies of muesli, Listerine and Johnson’s talc – all things which are widely available in Portugal, but things which Keith can’t live without (see: Bold Crystal Lily Rain thing), so no risk could be taken. Had we considered that the car would do somewhere in the region of half its normal fuel consumption due to the ridiculous amount of stuff we packed into it and on to it, perhaps we would have thought again. Added to that we also had to buy a roofrack to put the bench that someone (me) took a fancy to in a second hand shop and wrongly calculated that it would fit in the boot. Expensive bowl of porridge, that. The sensible bonus of taking our car is that we don’t have to pay for car hire over the expensive summer months – you can legally take a car to Europe from UK for 183 days each year (as long as your insurance and MOT is sorted).

Algarve Adventure Starts Here - 02

We caught the Plymouth-Santander ferry which is a 19 hour voyage of joy last travelled in reverse on our way back from last summer’s Channel to Spain bike ride. The onboard musak features low budget cover versions of familiar songs sung in such a way that they sound absolutely nothing like the original. It’s as though the vocalist was given the lyrics of a song completely unknown to them and asked to make up their own tune. The result is an interesting game of Name that Tune and a wonderment that anyone can destroy a perfectly good Hall and Oates song quite so magnificently. On the subject of music, you’ll be pleased to know that Sinitta is alive and well on Spanish radio.

Once in Santander its a 600 mile drive down to the Algarve. 600 claustrophobic miles sat in an overloaded car with a picnic box and a rucksack on my lap because the boot was full of Alpen and Marmite. The weather was interesting to say that least with a snowstorm and temperature of 0 degrees. In Spain. Bloody grateful not to be on a bike this time.

Followed 20 minutes later by:

I may have said before how much I really like kilometres. There are more of them, it’s true, but they pass so much more quickly than miles and are far more satisfying in terms of progress. We did more than a thousand of the buggers.

We spent the night in a hotel in Merida and went for a wander in the evening. I had never heard of the place but it has an incredible amount of Roman architecture all over the city. We had some food in a tapas bar and ordered various random unknown things from the Spanish menu which turned out to be clams and cuttlefish. Er, yum? I am one of those people who feels the need to at least make a dent in the food that is given to me, even if I really don’t like it. It’s a stupid trait considering I’ve paid for it, but that’s the way it is. Keith doesn’t feel any social requirement to not upset the chef, so my burden is not even shared. Let’s just say that I have committed the Spanish word for cuttlefish to memory so that I never make that mistake again. Not a patch on KFC.

On our way home we passed what can only be described as 40 people carrying a giant bed with some wrapped up statues on top accompanied by a brass marching band.

The quality of the photo is poor, but there are definitely 40 people walking extremely slowing under there. Makes my picnic box on the lap car experience comfortable by comparison. Don’t their heads hurt? Are the ones in the middle freaking out? Where are they going? So many questions and no answers. Much like life, eh?

Our past experience of stumbling across random festivals (the tuna stew competition in Castro Urdiales springs to mind, the ‘Let’s-dress-up-as-pirates-and almost-drown-swimming-across-the -bay’ in San Sebastian does too) says that this is standard fare for Spain, even at 9.30pm on a Monday evening in March. I presume this was some kind of practice for an Easter do of some religious nature but it might just be what the Meridians(from Merida?) do for fun. Next morning provided another opportunity for ‘Asians at Breakfast’ (last seen in Athens), which involves watching the coachload of middle aged Asian tourists navigate a European breakfast buffet. Today’s piece de resistance combo was bacon, egg and doughnut. There are Japanese people sitting in hotels in Tokyo at this moment crying with laughter at Europeans eating the Japanese food faux pas and mixing their bento with their sashmimi.

Back on the road and eventually arriving at Casa Torta, our house; which translates as ‘crooked’ or ‘cake’, so take your pick. Both fit pretty well given the predilections of the new residents and the height of the doorways. OK, so it was all we could afford. What’s a daily dose of mild concussion in exchange for a life in the sun.

Algarve Adventure Starts Here - 06

This is the view from our house once you have ducked down far enough to leave it.

It is the same view as from the much larger, luxurious and expensive villas which surround it. Our house is the slightly drunk, dishevelled uncle at a family gathering: seen better days, wonky and with an odd smell. But you love him all the more for it.

The house has been empty for many months – or so we thought. On opening up Keith’s old French house, we were frequently greeted by scorpions. Here, it’s lizards, big ones with suckers on their feet. Our new squatters. They are far, far more welcome than a scorpion, although that opinion is subject to change the night that one falls on my face from the ceiling. When we went to Santorini, we found that the lizards there were partial to cake, so maybe these are too.

First meal at our house. Too cold to eat outside really, hence the coat, but it’s not every day you move to Portugal.

Nice bench.

Algarve Malted Milk Crisis

Algarve Malted Milk Crisis

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

So, less than 36 hours after we departed from Greece, we find ourselves in Portugal. It’s all a bit much. We have no idea where we are, life has no structure and feels pretty surreal. Not expecting sympathy here, but it would be quite nice to be at home for a bit. Sadly, that’s not to be for me, as one day after we arrive home I’ll be off on the road for work for 3 days. At some point mental status quo will have to be re-established or something will go horribly wrong. But since we are here, I suppose we’ll have to struggle on. Pastel de Nata, dear? Oh go on, then.

We hadn’t planned to be here so soon, but things escalated on the house buying front and we were required to enter the infamous and terrifying world of Portuguese bureaucracy sooner than expected. All of the expat forums abound with tales of administrative indifference, confusion and downright bonkersness, so expectations are well and truly managed. We’re mostly hanging around Tavira, in the Eastern Algarve, which is the nearest town to our new house. Pictures of new house to follow when the deal is complete; superstitious? Maybe.

We decided to make the most of our time here, not spent with the lawyer and other official people, by undergoing reconnaissance about what foods we may struggle to find in Portugal, or which are extortionately expensive; there is quite a market for ‘British’ foods here, but they come at a premium.

Things that you cannot buy in Portugal (research gathered from visiting one supermarket, so may not be entirely accurate):

  • Bread flour
  • Yeast
  • Decaffeinated teabags in boxes any larger than 10.
  • Big tubs of plain yogurt
  • Malted milk biscuits
  • Bold Crystal Rain and White Lily Washing Powder

On the biscuit front, you can buy a considerable range of both ‘British’ varieties, such as the Digestive along with the Portuguese favourite; the Maria, which is a smaller version of the soggy, undippable for more than a nanosecond, and deeply unsatisfying Rich Tea. They sell them in huge packets and there are many varieties, but Portuguese people are not natural tea drinkers, so what are they doing with them? Who eats biscuits without an accompanying cup of tea? No one, that’s who. Or weird people. I’m not sure we want to live among people with such a different culture to our own; that sort of thing starts wars, you know. Keith starts his day with a Malted Milk; I’m not sure what he’s going to use instead. Cocaine?

The final item on the list: the Bold Crystal Rain and White Lily Washing Powder is more of a deal-breaker: it’s the only washing powder ‘flavour’ that Keith will use. It was a compromise that had to be made when we moved into together, which was tough for me, but sometimes in love and washing powder, someone has to take the hit and this time it was me. To quote the oft repeated words of the lovely Portuguese woman who patiently assisted us in opening our Portuguese bank account under the onslaught of my incessant questions issued forth before she had a minute to tell me herself: ‘I shall explain’:

I buy washing powder (and most things) on the basis of value; price and quality calculated in a non-existent algorithm (whilst searching for how to spell algorithm – I swear it was a ‘y’ – I discovered that the origin of the word comes from the name of the mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was part of the royal court in Baghdad in AD750. That is cool). It physically and mentally hurts me to pay more than necessary. My chest gets tight and I feel agitated. This is because it is simply illogical to do this. Totally illogical. Why would you pay more money for something when you can get an equally good, or better, product for less? Actually, now I’m sitting here thinking about it, it actually makes me angry. Anger, as we know, is reputed to come from fear, and I think the lack of sense about this frightens me because I don’t understand it, and therefore don’t understand the motivation of a person who would behave in this way, and therefore people are scary. And mad. The other side of this is that when I do find a bargain, I get a sense of euphoria, achievement and winning at life. Properly chuffed, like I am a clever bugger who cracked it. I’m just being honest with you here; judgement is not necessary.

Algarve Malted Milk Crisis

Now, Keith makes his consumer purchasing decisions based on other factors; cost does come into it and quality is important to him, but when selecting toiletries and household products, his No.1 criteria is smell. Seriously. Keith, and he won’t mind me telling you this (well, he might but he’s asleep so we’ll just go for it), is an excessive talcum powder user. He likes to douse his underparts and feet with the stuff on a daily basis, so much that if he sits down, he is know to leave an arse-shaped shroud of talc accompanied by a little cloud as its escapes through the fabric of his jeans. He only uses one brand of talc (Johnson’s Baby Powder). A few years ago, Johnson’s altered the formula of their talcum powder, which resulted in a change in the smell. I am confident in betting one of my kidneys (worth about 27p on the black market). Hang on, that would be funny if I got drugged and had a kidney stolen like in those tales you hear of that happening to people and then when they opened me up they found out that my kidneys look like this:

Algarve Malted Milk Crisis - 05

That might a stop to their illicit kidney-stealing shenanigans. And also shit them up a bit. The cysts are not just on the outside, they are all the way through, having taken over the tissue of the kidney in a kind of genetically mutated invasion. I think this means I am an X-Men; without my tweezers, Wolverine is only a week’s worth of chin-plucking away.

Anyway, I digress; back to the Johnson’s,as it were. I bet that the vast majority of the population did not notice that the smell of their talcum powder had altered, but Keith did. Keith could tell if I’d been smoking 48 hours after I’d had a cigarette despite numerous showers, teeth cleans and efforts to conceal my shady addiction. He was right, and I couldn’t handle it. Bastard. Keith smells all his food before eating it, he smells books, phones, boxes, wallets – pretty much anything you can think of. In autistic terms, it’s just utilising a different sensory sense to process your world: most people look or touch as their primary data gathering source; Keith smells.

So… the point of this lengthy explanation, is that Bold Crystal Rain and White Lily is very important to Keith and not easily substituted and hence when we go shopping and there is a phenomenally good deal on some other flavour I have to walk past it and buy the FULL PRICE Bold Crystal Lily and White Fucking Rain or whatever it’s called, reconfigure my screaming brain (‘Does not compute, does not compute, avert, avert’ etc.), and know that I am a good person. And know that being a good person is a ‘Good Thing’. Apparently. ‘Compromise’, I think they call it, or some other shit that means you don’t get your own way. He’s worth it; every penny of the money we have wasted on FULL price washing powder which might extend our working lives and force us to live in poverty… I’l stop now.

We’ll just have to sneak individual sachets into our Easyjet hand luggage (less than 100ml, officer) to meet my beloved’s washing powder ‘habit’, or pay €20 a box, if we can find it in the Iceland store which opened last year in the Algarve to supply the expats with all things Heinz. Love conquers all.

Relationship advice, anyone?