All posts by Alan

UNWELCOME VISITOR (pt. 2)

I thought Her Outdoors would be happy to see one of her friends, or what I thought was one of her friends. Since we moved here to Portugal we haven’t seen many of them. We have so many places for them to stay now that I thought they’d both be happy. I was wrong. I was in trouble.

It came about as I was re-laying a path. The path runs from the side of the house, down past the pool, into the lower meadow.  When we have a downpour (Her Outdoors is praying for one at the moment) the water runs off the roof onto the hard landscaped area and onto the path. When I say downpour I mean POUR and DOWN. It flows at a rapid rate. It gushes. It overshoots. It washes things away, hence the need to re-lay the path.

So I was down at the bottom of the path, next to the meadow which is next to the road. I’d just lifted a flagstone when I spotted the ‘friend’. I was excited. The first such friend I’d seen in a long time. “Hello my little beauty” I said, “Her Outdoors will be so happy to see you”. With that I scooped the friend up and carried her, whooping with joy to regale Her Outdoors with her presence. That was me whooping with joy, not the friend. The friend was wriggling, but mute.

I reached Her Outdoors and presented her friend to her. She shrieked. Her Outdoors that is. The friend is mute, remember. “Take it away” she said, “I don’t want to see it!”

“Why not” I hesitatingly asked, still holding the friend that was wriggling uncomfortably by now. “I thought you’d be happy to have this visitor in your garden. Aren’t they good for the soil?”

“Worms are, but that’s a bloody snake!”

LATER…

After some research…It turns out that we were both wrong, it was an Iberian worm lizard. Although I was partially right…

Iberian Worm Lizard photo by Jorozko

If you are an internet worm (as opposed to a bookworm) you can find out more on this interesting blog – https://allyouneedisbiology.wordpress.com

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Unwelcome Visitors

Her Outdoors and myself have become racists. Well at least anti Gypsy. Well, more specifically anti the family who camped in the field next to our house! We didn’t want to become anti Gypsy and have spent a lot of our adult life challenging other people’s attitudes to different cultures. For me, my abhorrence of racism stems from being brought up in a family with an Irish Catholic background in 1950’s England and the prejudices that prevailed at that time. For ‘Her Outdoors’ it’s because she is such a lovely, accepting woman who abhors prejudice of any kind, to anyone.

Her Outdoors and myself like travelling and have occasionally enjoyed the ‘Gypsy’ lifestyle. (Our longest trip in the motorhome was for six months) We enjoyed meeting fellow ‘silver surfers’ although many of them were appalled at me describing them as ‘Travellers’. “So, you are living in your motorhome, wandering around Europe and are not working, but you wouldn’t describe yourselves as… “.

Sundance and ‘Her Outdoors’ in Albi, France.

So, we were making our way back to our home in Portugal having been back to the UK to visit our families, then on to France visiting French friends, before meandering our way back through the Pyrenees and Spain. We intended to take 3/4 days for the last leg through Spain, but got a call from a friend telling us someone had broken into our garage. “Oh dear” we thought, “at least there isn’t much in the garage”. Except our two motorbikes, four bicycles some building materials and all my DIY tools. But we were not too dismayed; at least they didn’t get into the house.

Shortly after, we got another call from our friend, saying they had also broken into the house! The burglars had apparently pulled the doors closed when they left, so it looked secure. Our “Oh dear” was replaced with “Oh b******s””. At which point we decided the leisurely drive through Spain should be curtailed by pressing a firmer foot on the accelerator.

Welcome sign after an eventful day

We managed to get home by late evening. For any Spanish or Portuguese police that may be monitoring our blogs, we assure you that no speed limits were exceeded. And anyway, our campervan isn’t capable of the120 mph motorway limit…

Strangely, by the time we got home we were quite philosophical about the situation. We’d had several hours to digest the news and so were not overly shocked or upset at the scene of devastation. (Actually there was only my office that had been ransacked but I’m trying to elicit a sympathetic audience response here.)

We started cataloguing missing items, as the GNR (local police) were expected and we thought they would be interested in what had been stolen. TV, DVD player and remote controls, two old laptops, a computer monitor, video tripod and sound recorder, video lights, a washer (for laundry, that is, not as in nuts, bolts and…) The list got longer and longer. But we noted items that had been left; microwave, kettle, and toaster. At this point ‘Her Outdoors’ got irate. “What’s wrong with our British goods?” she wailed. Actually it was more of a contemptuous statement (I’m trying to elicit sympathy again).

Image ‘illegally’ taken, as advised by GNR, so doctored to protect the ‘innocent’. Allegedly.

The GNR duly arrived as we’d arranged. “Por favor Senor, how did you manage to drive through Spain and Portugal so quickly?” wasn’t asked, but they went about their business poking around looking for fingerprints. But it seemed just a cursory poke. There was no evidence of them having honed their investigative skills by watching any of the CSI programmes. There was no brushing on of face powder or whatever they use, no taking samples for DNA analysis. No criminal profiling. (See my own CSI profiling at the end of this blog.) We were deflated, although not quite as deflated as my bike tyres that I can’t pump up until I replace the stolen pump! (Added to list!)

The immediate problem we had was the doors and how to secure them overnight. Because of the layout to our Quinta, we have three doors on our terrace that give access to various rooms. They broke through all three (as well as the garage). One room is my office, which we decided to leave unlocked overnight, partly hoping that the burglars would come back to tidy up. The office is next to our utility/larder from which they took our beers, wines and other less precious items such as bottled water and large bottles of our homegrown olives, which were curing. Fortunately they didn’t take our stash of marmite! The door to the main house was barricaded inside with heavy furniture. We were concerned they might come back for the kettle and toaster.

The next day I had to go to the GNR to make a formal report. What a horrible experience that was. It started with me apologising that I don’t speak Portuguese and asking if they spoke English. “NO, ONLY PORTUGUESE!” came the response from a rather arrogant young GNR. Eventually, a translator was summoned and a report was written with a list of stolen items and values. The arrogant one’s single finger typing took some time. I started to feel like I was the criminal, confessing my crimes.

Report writing was punctuated by quizzical looks and wry smiles between the arrogant one and the friendlier translator. The olives obviously resonated with them. The report writing was also punctuated by other officers coming through the office to say hello to the arrogant one and tell him about their previous night out. Or so I thought. Eu náo falo Portuguese, remember.

The burglary has elicited a real rollercoaster of emotions. From the initial shock of the news, to the anger of ‘how dare they’! There was the petty annoyance when finding a ball of string had gone, to the huge inconvenience of changing passwords and setting up a process to wipe my old computer, if it came online. But then we had a lovely surprise when tidying up to find 2 packets of chocolate eclairs. (My family hide them for us to find after their visits. I know that as a parent I should be the one hiding for the kids, but it’s a lovely tradition, which they should keep up!)

Life has got back to normal now. Her Outdoors is spending even more time outdoors. She’s not quite gardening with her head torch on yet, but she is finding it difficult to find her way back to the house in the dark, ever since the solar powered fairy lights disappeared. Bugger! Another one for the list! I wonder if I could type that one myself?

CRIMINOSO PERFIL/CRIMINAL PROFILE

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From Cottage Garden to Algarve Adventure


After visiting the Algarve in 2013, Sundance and I loved it so much, that after extensive research, we decided to buy a holiday home. We now treat it more as our main home, spending more and more time here. If you have visited Portugal you may have noticed that ornamental gardening isn’t prevalent in the Algarve outside of the popular tourist spots. The reason is that in a country where starvation is still a living memory, to use water on flowers is almost tantamount to a crime. Any efforts to grow flowers are seen as a luxury and they are usually grown along walls with the use of washing up water or slops in an almost clandestine fashion.

Transformations – seasonal & manual!

June, July and August are very dry months especially in the Algarve, accompanied with the threat of devastating fires. In times of drought and hot temperatures, conserving water is a major consideration and therefore I’m learning all about gardening with less water.

With water conservation in mind, our lawn was dug up, irrigation removed and rocks taken from one area to be used in another. We inherited an ornamental garden with palm and cypress trees, cobbled courtyards and countless statues along with a sizable uncultivated area. Like many property owners it wasn’t all to our taste and a great deal (of some areas) was covered with invasive overgrowth. Our first jobs were to tackle the awful vine cover, along with a lot of overgrown weeds and prune the huge trees on our border. Pruning the trees was very rewarding, as it opened up the most wonderful views from the house, down through the hills to the sea, some 10km away (apologies to UK readers for the use of km – it’s a Euro thing!).

Taking a ’xeriscape’ approach (gardening without irrigation) took a bit more of a leap of faith. In September, on our return from our UK visit, many plants seemed withered and sad beyond hope, but with the first rains it was astonishing to see most revive quickly and an almost luminous green appear overnight. Those that didn’t survive, I rationalised, weren’t meant to be. Plants need the right setting to thrive and I decided sticking to mainly indigenous plants, which tend to be drought resistant, would be a sensible way to go. One day, hopefully, the end result will be something along the lines of a Mediterranean garden which keeps beauty and colour but with low maintenance and low water usage. The main characteristic of this style of garden is the focus on hardscaping: patios, courtyards, gazebos, paths and areas covered with stones.

Goodbye lawn, hello fire pit

This has largely been Sundance’s forte and he’s slaved away in many a midday sun to get raised beds built, fire-pit finished, petanque piste perfect, steps appearing here and there, meandering paths and terraces. Colourful stones, pebbles, rocks and trellis were used along with bits from a dilapidated cart and old knarled tree trunks.

There are many “pockets” of garden with dramatic differences. Some areas have such a thin coating of soil that we’ve been able to expose rock, whereas soils under trees tend to have rich, dark, crumbly soil. Other areas have the red clay soil that dries like a brick for half the year. We’ve tried to utilize these differences along with varied conditions of light and level. The softscape comes from the choice of plants, shrubs and trees. It was great to inherit some well-established trees: almond, carob, loquat and olive where no watering is needed and fruits abound in season. An added bonus is fabulous almond blossoms in January and our three pomegranate trees have been stunning throughout the year with red flowers, lovely young red leaves in spring followed by very attractive fruits and yellowing leaves in winter. We also have citrus trees, which have the most fabulous juicy fruit and the blossom scent is exquisite. These have needed more water and care, but we’ve been well rewarded. An interesting feature is that you can find blossom, tiny green fruit and mature oranges all on the same tree at the same time. As for lemons, there is a steady supply all year round and even surplus for the occasional visitor from our home village of Barton to smuggle back into the UK to pep up their G&T’s!

ALGARVE  LEARNING POINTS

  • Oleanders – large, colourful, grow in poor soil.
  • Passion Flowers and heavily scented Jasmine can climb anything.
  • Local grasses are hardy, drought resistant and are stunning.
  • Huge variety of cacti, euphorbia and succulents which require no watering and blooms are dramatically colourful, if short lived.
  • Rosemary, lavender, thyme and artemis bushes, hibiscus and lantana flow effortlessly adding colour and scents.
  • Portuguese varieties of rose bushes need little water.
  • Bougainvillea come in many colours and are stunningly beautiful, but petals need sweeping just about every day of the year!
  • Herbs thrive too and there is nothing quite like picking fresh produce from the garden for your cooking.
  • Pots filled with evergreen plants or herbs – easy to water by hand – provide interest.
  • Have an anti-mosquito plant or two – lavender, lemon geranium near the outdoor dining area – keep pests at bay and also have heavenly scents.
  • Invasive plant species – usually non-indigenous, damaging and hard to get rid of!

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Learning the Lingo

We’ve been in Portugal for two years now and for most of that time I’ve made learning the lingo a big priority. But it’s not easy. Our first teacher was a delightful Irish church worker, who was also a trained teacher and offers classes to raise money for his church. He was good. However, many of the  twenty plus learners were not. Despite most of them having been in Portugal for over five years we got no further than the present tense of the verb ‘to be’. He had the patience of a saint but we didn’t, so after five or six weeks of squashing into a classroom smaller than our kitchen, we decided to move to fresh fields.

Our second teacher was a Portuguese woman raising money for the local community centre. We were hopeful when we found the class was less than eight and in a decent-sized room where we could clearly see the whiteboard.  However one of the group sent our teacher into despair, with his incessant need to know ‘why’ teacups are feminine and flowers are not. We stuck at it for several months feeling a great solidarity with other students suffering from her put downs, fingers drumming the table with impatience and high pitched rants (particularly directed to the male students) .

I don’t recall ever being so panicked, close to tears, migrainey and nauseaous as during her classes. We lived through dramas of dictionaries being purposefully flung in her direction, people stomping out and respected senior citizens being reduced to tears. Don’t let any of that put you off – it was enjoyable on all counts. Except those. Oh, and comments like “Alan you’re as bad as Graham” was not the way to encourage students, so we gave her the heave-ho and looked for someone with more patience (or Valium). Unfortunately at this stage Alan more-or-less dropped out, although from time to time I do find him secretly using Duolingual to brush up his Portuguese vocabulary.

I found a delightful Portuguese young lady wanting to teach Portuguese. Yolanda is bilingual, having grown up in South Africa and is full of energy and interest in our language acquisition. I can’t praise her highly enough and decided to ask Christine, a French friend, to share classes with me. Christine’s Portuguese is far better than mine on account of her native French being a lot closer to Portuguese than English, added to which she already speaks Spanish and is, in fact, a linguist. I hoped that her language abilities might somehow sweep me along with her to attain higher levels. Well I was ready for the challenge anyway.

A lack of victims to practise on is my main problem. We live in a location where there are many other expats and have little cause to speak to random strangers in public. Even brave attempts at striking up some small talk are usually shattered when the reply is in English or, on the rare occasion when it’s not, the chance of knowing what is said back is slim.

In a bid to get more exposure to listening, I’ve been watching Portuguese TV on Youtube, namely children’s animated stories. I was mightily chuffed when our 3-year-old grandson showed interest in this pastime and Garibalde o balde became our shared friend.

Chef’s Academy is another program I watch. I can’t work out why it’s called this and not something in Portuguese, but there we go. It’s a vaguely familiar format, where a celebrity chef demonstrates three dishes simultaneously whilst the contestants watch on scribbling furiously in their notebooks before having a go themselves and then getting horrendously slated by the judges. What makes it useful as a learning tool is that it is very visual and relatively limited in communication with not much of a plot to follow. What makes it useless is that all I am learning is a wide vocabulary of cooking terminology. Well, it’s a start.

In another attempt to force myself to speak Portuguese I joined Speaky.Com in order to find online language partners. This is easier said than done as 99.9% of those wanting a Portuguese/English exchange are Brazillians apparently on the look-out for a new love interest. However, I have made two friends through it; Pedro who needed IELTS to start a PHD he’d got funding for in London and my dear friend Maria from the Alentejo region. She’s enriched my life enormously, teaching me many things about P and they way people see things here. She and her husband have stayed with us and we’ve had wonderful visits to Sines, met her children, grandchildren, shared her birthday and has become my Portuguese sister.

Weirdly, I feel more comfortable speaking to strangers here than I do in the UK. It’s almost as though there is liberation in not knowing what the hell is going on, which, rather than get anxious about, makes me brave and fearless. I am undoubtedly more sociable and willing to speak to new people in Portuguese than I am in English. Poor unsuspecting buggers. Now what is the word for aubergine…

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A Travel Back in Time

View across Guadiana to Sanlucar, Spain
Church in Querenca
Free camp between Pereiro and Alcoutim

One of the first trips we took in our new (to us) camper van, was to explore the area that borders Spain. Our route took in Loule, Querenca, Cachopo, Martinlongo and Alcoutim where we discovered a zip wire that is ‘The Only Cross-Border Zip line in the World’  and crosses the Guadiana river between Spain and Portugal. It also allows you to travel back in time!

Now ‘Her Outdoors’ has many wonderful traits, quirks and enlightened world  views. But what I really love is her sense of adventure and her ‘try anything’ attitude.  So her suggestion of “can we try the zip wire” came as no surprise. Here’s the result…

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Quinta Views

It’s quite a time since we were able to post any new blogs, due to being busy building a fire pit in the garden and also having a hugely enjoyable family visit from son Glenn, daughter Sam and partner Tony and their son Garak.

Glenn and I had a lot of fun playing with his new toy, a DJI Phantom Quadcopter. We have some rough cut pieces from a test flights we managed to do around our property, when the wind and the baking sun allowed us.

Goodbye Old Friend (the video)

It is with great sadness that we have to say a fond farewell to a dear old friend. Thankfully it was a swift end…

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Goodbye Old Friend

It is with a sad heart that Her Outdoors and I have to say goodbye to a much loved friend. She has been an important part of our lives for what seems a lifetime, but is actually only seven short years. But what a seven years! We’ve travelled together, slept together, upset our neighbours, had many a scrape and had lots of adventures. She gave me my ‘Sundance’ nickname (I’d gone 60 years without one before meeting her!). She even helped us move to Portugal.

Chefchouan Campsite, Morrocco

We have travelled  much with her. She’s taken us far and wide, since our first meeting in a very cold and wintery Wales in 2010. She’s been with us from the Western Highlands of Scotland to the most southwesterly point of Europe. even to Africa. And what adventures she’s seen and caused – besieged by drug dealers, getting lost many times, encounters with the police, getting stuck in tight places and the unforgettable bomb scare outside the Ministry of Justice in Seville, Spain.

She’s taken us to many interesting places; the French Alps, Italian Lakes, Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh Festival, Moroccan Souks, Slovenia, the Alhambra in Granada, the Palaces in Sintra. We’ve been skiing and even enjoyed a couple of music festivals with her.

The French Alps
Shelagh, Sundance & Natalie’s kids

She’s also been very kind to friends and family. She’s picked them up at the airport, housed them when our house was full, been there at family picnics, gone shopping. She’s provided excitement for Shelagh (sadly departed and much missed mother of ‘Her Outdoors’) and weekend trips for language students and Australian friends. She’s transported timber for sheds and patios, furniture, motorbikes not to mention what seems like thousands of plants.

Bomb Scare, Ministry of Justice, Seville

It’s not all been fun though. She was instrumental in causing the bomb scare in Seville and she’s let us down a few times. She stranded us on a remote beach in Portugal when we had to get assistance. There was that incident on the Moroccan motorway that caused some damage… the penalty charge for the Dartford crossing… and her annual checkups and charges. There was also that expensive ‘accident’ at Sainsbury’s, not to mention the latest encounter in Portuguese  car wash which ultimately caused the fatality…

We are going to miss you Sundance, our beloved motorhome. RIP (Rust in peace.)

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Values

‘Her Outdoors’ and I decided to buy a house in Portugal for two main reasons, the weather and the lovely people. How we went about buying our house is detailed in a previous blog as is the weather.

The weather of course is changeable, (not as much as in the UK!) but what of the people? We have always found the Portuguese as gentle, hospitable and lovely, but what makes them so? Is it their family values? Their respect for older people? Is it their humbleness, or is it their undemanding nature and acceptance of less than the best? If so, perhaps they should learn to be as revolting as the French (who, I believe, have a healthy disrespect of royalty, politicians, Americans, foreign wines, etc etc …), as demanding as the Germans or as noisy as the Spanish. Or maybe not!

French ‘Royal’ treatment…

The Portuguese are certainly accepting. They accept poor service (there is a restaurant in Quarteira that seems to specialise in poor/rude service!), queuing (unless you are old or pregnant), and bureaucracy (ever been to the Camara?). They do also seem to accept inefficiency. One estate agency still had our house up for sale six months after we bought it. (We had people knocking on our door asking if they could look round.) When buying our house, the lawyer missed, or overlooked, the fact that not all of our property was legal (it is now!). They also ‘lost’ our money for a few days by putting it in a different account!

There are opposing views about the work ethic of the Portuguese, they are either ‘hard working and inventive’ or ‘lazy and lack imagination’. (The first stereotype is usually attributed to the Portuguese, the second to Brazilians!) Perhaps a factor here is that in Portugal, the family is central to the Portuguese way of life, and takes precedence over all other relationships, including business. Employing family members is seen as the normal thing to do, as it makes sense to surround yourself with the people you know and trust the most. Perhaps having family members in a business is what promotes a more relaxed climate as there isn’t the ‘competitive’ element you normally find within organisations.

I do wonder though, whether the more relaxed attitude prevalent in Portugal is because they live in a different time warp continuum? “I’ll be there this afternoon,” means I might get there some time this week”. “I’ll send it in an hour” means “I’ll send it after my siesta…maybe, … if I actually remember to”.

It has taken ten months to get plans drawn up for an extension and we now have to wait for Camara approval before we start building. The N125 so called “road of death”, which runs across the Algarve, was thought to be named due to the high number of accidents, but it’s actually because the various councils involved are killing time while they re-build it! Oh, and before I forget, the local Post Office sometimes closes ten minutes before it says it does.

What is generally agreed though, is that the Portuguese are lovely people. One thing I like about the Portuguese is how I’m addressed these days. Usually it is ‘Senor Alan’. Recently though I was called ‘Sir Alan’. Not sure whether that is because I look like the guy who’ Lords’ it over Amstrad and who was looking for an apprentice. Or maybe it’s just because I’m so sweet (it’s a pun, not a claim). At this point I was going to make a reference to the US version of “The Apprentice” but I can’t possibly Trump Lord Sugar.

Sir Alan and another geezer…

Another thing I really like is the Portuguese attitude to pedestrians and their use of zebra crossings. Here in Portugal it appears to be the custom that if drivers see pedestrians approaching then they stop to let them cross. Amazing or what! Even when the pedestrians are a few yards (or metres) from the crossing! Compare that to the UK, where the rule is that unless the pedestrian has a foot on the road, then you hit the accelerator hard; heaven forbid that they should be allowed to get that first foot on the crossing and ‘claim’ their right to cross the road. *

*Disclaimer: “The Author” cannot be held responsible for anyone who accepts any of the viewpoints expressed in that last paragraph and consequently gets knocked down by a driver that has failed to read this blog.