house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Kira's New Notebook

Kira and I went shopping last Friday. I had a list of errands, and there was a certain pencil case she had been telling me about for days. We went, we looked, we bought: science manuals for Nikita, the world's most sophisticated pencil case and a small notebook for Kira. She explained it would be used to write down words she heard at school that needed translation – an excellent sales pitch, I thought.

All this cost more than I had. A trip to the bank swiftly added itself to my list. We asked the stationer to keep some of the stuff for us – instead he put everything into my bag, smiling and waving his arms about, Oh-you-can-pay-me-later. What time do you close? - I asked. Oh, no worries, come back with the money today, tomorrow, another day... more shrugging and smiling and vague waving of the arms towards some distant horizon. I must ask before I go on with the story: when is the last time you remember this happening at WH Smith?

A while later, after bank and baker and Chinese shop, we stopped at the cafe next to the church and had orange juice in the late afternoon sun. I tried, and failed, to write emails, Kira drew in her new notebook (a little church with flowers springing through the roof and swallowing the bell).

On the way home we passed by the stationer's to pay for our books and things. By the time we got home, Kira's little notebook had vanished. It didn't help that, as she realised it had gone, I was also discovering how much it had cost (the exact equivalent of four thick A4 notebooks). To placate me, she offered the contents of her piggybank, which came to under two euros in very small coins (previously pinched from me). I took it, although it didn't do much to improve my mood.

The next day, we passed by the stationer's again. Kira dashed in and immediately found her little notebook, complete with drawing, back on the shelf. We waltzed out of the shop with great glee, cheering and chattering and hopping about. Half-way home, when we'd calmed down a bit, Kira sighed and fell silent for a minute, then chirped again:

“Can I have my money back now?”

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Between Elections

A few days ago I wrote about two elections that have been nagging and interfering with my pure peasant pursuits. Basically, here's the routine: I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is check the news on the Maldives and the US. It is downright alarming. I came here to write and to plant trees, not to read political analyses and fear for other countries' prospects.

Two countries that cannot be more different. A vast land mass versus twelve hundred minuscule islands. Populations of 300 million versus 300 thousand. Different levels of power, different takes on democracy. And the noxious breath of one country could literally sink the other...

The Maldives is a country too little known, too simply defined in postcards. But then, there is often a dark side to beauty, and the distant can be both attractive and bizarre. Take this uni-dimensional, uni-seasonal paradise of great gentleness and langour. Nothing moves very fast there, and nothing seems overtly menacing. The tsunami of 2004 did not gallop inland, the same roaring wall of water that smashed and swallowed entire coastlines. No. According to many tales, the wave advanced at a small trot up to the ankles, up to the knees, up to the waist oh-oh.... and then it started its retreat.

On most of the islands, days are hot and equal and spent in torpor under the relentless sun. Change is an new concept and an uneasy neighbour. A now elderly gentleman with a kindly smile has ruled the land for the past 30 years and would have liked to keep the job. He didn't even have to worry about it until recently, with the ascent of other political parties and a few pretenders to the throne. He didn't get a majority vote in the first round. The second round was today.

It's over now, with a phenomenal result. (Former) President Gayoom is packing his bags at his Male residence - some task, with 30 years' worth of stuff piled up in the shed. Outside the gates, people must be ecstatic - just to imagine it is a thrill – so hey, I too jump around the house for a bit and phone random people just to shout out the news and dream aloud.

One down, one to go. I don't yet know where I'll get the courage to read the news on November 5th. Despite promising polls, I remain frozen with fear. Americans managed to mess up the past two elections with such aplomb. Their choice then – and even more so now – affects everyone else in countless ways. Every world citizen of voting age should be given a vote to elect the next American president.

Cynics say it doesn't make a difference, there is no Right Guy, politicians will be the same. Having read the news for the past 8 years, I feel desperate enough to differ: it MAY make a difference, and there IS a Right Guy, this time. Barack Obama has the backbone and intellect, the better record and plan to at least TRY to avert the monumental storms ahead. The other guy doesn't stand a chance, and perhaps wouldn't even know what hit him when things began to heat up. Besides, he would be too busy fabricating smears and playing the blame game. All this has been clear for some time.

The numbers look better now, but I have spent ages going from angry to terrified and back when the two were tied in the polls or McCain was leading. Did that mean that half or more than half of Americans actually believed he was the better choice and were going to vote for him? How on earth could that be? Hadn't they seen (and paid for, and felt) the Issues? Weren't they told what the two candidates proposed for the country? Could there be any ambiguity?

Could they actually prefer to check out Sarah Palin's lipstick and wardrobe than the daily cost of Iraq, in money and lives and sheer suffering? Contemplate drilling for dwindling oil resources, all the while losing priceless habitat? Blindly stick to a careless way of life, driven by the call to Consume (and Waste) at all cost? Could they be allowed to choose to stay back while the whole world fought the bitter legacy of fossil fuels – hunger, water crisis, weather chaos, the crumbling of nature itself. Could they be still mumbling about race or recounting old POW stories instead of checking out the direction they should be taking?

This is in fact the only question: where do I want to find myself in X years? Answers proposed by the two aspiring leaders: on the road to a) Somewhere; b) Nowhere. (Note: answer B also describes the US trajectory for the past 8 years)...

It doesn't seem such a hard choice.

Still, the wait remains agonising. On the 5th of November I shall be free, but also strangely bereft. The eve of elections is when you get a glimpse of what might be possible and perhaps, perhaps you go for it too. Then another small chunk of history begins. Then I can finally shut my computer and start planting those trees.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Weekend at the Beach

The beach is 40 minutes away. Moona thinks that's way too far. He drives there and when the van grinds to a halt in the sand, he flops over the wheel with a heavy sigh. He drives back and as soon as we park in front of the house he is hit by a sudden journey-induced complaint: stomach ache; sore back; that foot is agony; the eyes sting; fatigue simply fells him. He rubs his temples and groans. The sea is too far. He needs to be closer to the sea. He goes and talks about it with estate agents in town. He does WHAT???

To write down my reaction – itself only the tip of the iceberg – would take pages and ages and might send me into a spin. The gist of it is that I love our house and he would have to sell me with it if he wanted to buy another place at the beach (who knows, he may even afford it if he throws me into the deal). It's quite a statement, I know, but so far it killed the discussion, every time. This, and perhaps the fact that every place for sale he has seen at the beach has been dry, small, ugly and overpriced.

The North Portuguese coast is neat and quiet. Large beaches with fine sand, very pretty. A cold, cold sea. Still, days are still and sunny, and summer is long. Late October, and people were still swimming at Ancora yesterday. But the little coast towns look new, ungainly and deserted. A tangle of tall cement and metal, with cafes and shops thrown in – but never quite achieving the effortless picturesque of older communities. I cannot imagine Moona wanting to live there, not even for the joy of opening his windows to check out the surf every morning...

However, to grant him that exact joy, I agree to spend the weekend at the beach, camping in the van. The weather looks great, the waves are promising and we hear there are no surfers out in the morning. Not one, ever. I think this is suspicious, Moona thinks it's great. We are off.

We make the journey in 35. This earns us all a half-smile and an amiable grumble from the skipper. But then, guess how long it took us to pack. We ran around the house all Saturday morning, after a while no longer sure what we were doing or why. We took too much stuff and left behind essential things. We were haunted by what we might have forgotten (without yet knowing what that was) the whole journey. We talked about it and got cranky. And we still needed to stop at the supermarket to stock up: a traumatic event at the best of times.

The weekend went well, I think. Well, apart from the sleeping-in-the-back-of-the-van part, and that time on Sunday morning when I saw Moona's footprints going into the sea and was convinced he was never coming back.

The sleeping saga: 'How can you say you had a bad night?', they ask with innocent, incredulous faces. 'After all, we brought the futon mattress with us!' Sure, futon mattress and three different family members kicking and elbowing you, squashing and pushing, snoring and mumbling in their sleep. I don't know how such young children can snore so loudly. And then there's the bit about having to go to the loo in the middle of the night. I don't want to talk about it.

When we finally open the door and tumble out of the van in the morning, the air is strong and salty and a fine mist wraps around us like a shawl. Moona has already gone for his morning surf, huge-waves-no-surfers-out routine. He is happy.

I take Kira to see him, but by the time she is dressed and ready he has vanished. We walk in the sand, following his footsteps, clear all the way down to the sea. He was out there and now he is not. The waves are suddenly huge and wild and roaring, rocks jutting out with glaring, murderous intent everywhere. A lot of foaming, raging sea rearing to swallow any black rubber gnat on a bouncy plank.

I panick even as I smile and chat to Kira. We walk on. Eventually we see a black dot scratching about at the other end of the beach. We run towards it, until it takes the shape of a scrawny, gasping jogger. At this point we are both deflated, and one of us dead worried. I expect to see slices of surfboard float in with the next wave. In the distance, we make out another black dot. It's unbearable: I make myself look down at the sand for a hundred steps, Kira takes off again.

When I finally look up, she is in Moona's arms.

I breathe once more. The mist clears as we walk back to camp. We are having a really good weekend at the beach.

Monday, 20 October 2008

And Now to Work

Moona pointed out the fact that this blog should be a “record of our tasks and efforts here”. Right, right! Enough of the lyric rambling and back to the house-build brief. Add pictures. I snap to attention and return to the blank page. Similar blankness descends over my head.

How do I describe all this without collapsing into mind-numbing boredom? My entire life-as-a-blogger depends on it.

A brief list, I think. Here we go.

1. Terrace clearing. When we first saw it, our Portuguese home was surrounded by quite a few terraces, all covered in brambles and brush. With every subsequent visit we saw the jungle thicken and grow. Since we got here in August, we've been yielding strimmer and machete, shears and seccateurs with a manic determination. In the process:

- we discovered more terraces than we thought were there. They had been kidnapped by the King of Brambles and hidden away. After their rescue, they remain in a serious but stable condition. Nothing is safe out there.
- we found hidden “treasures” on terraces – stone seats and steps, fruit trees, beautiful clover-shaped slabs, granite sinks and flower pots, a dainty plastic Madonna, an iron lion's paw, half-consumed by rust. With these (and more?) I'll start a “Felix museum”. Entrance may or may not be free of charge.
- the reality of “how fast brambles grow” was hammered home for good. You clear a terrace and two days later they nip at your ankles. They have roots as deep as the gates of hell, and a grim and savage hunger. It's a bit like facing (and fleeing) The Terminator. Just as you think you've lost them, they're on your heels.
- you need to be nimble to get around. There are stones to scale and ditches to jump. There are slimy bits and sharp bits and thorny bits. You cannot let your vigilance falter. I have grazes and bruises to illustrate the point.

2. Planning. There are a few buildings on the land – any or all of which can be rebuilt. We know we can't do them all in one go. In this fable, only one sister gets to go to the ball. Which to choose? Where to start?

Plan 1 – the old farmhouse, restore and extend.
Plan 2, born a while later – the “alambic” (whisky-house), now consisting of two stone walls at the top of the hill, knock down and make a studio. Live in the said studio while you restore the old farmhouse (Plan 1). Well, soon the studio grew into a straw-bale house and the straw-bale house just grew and grew. Eventually, it became so large and cozy that – in our dreams – we lived happily in the Alambic for decades, while reflecting at leasure on the fate of the farmhouse.
Plan 3 – is Plan 1 revisited. The thing is, between Plan 2 and Plan 3, we stood in the farmhouse and heard it groan and crumble. We also met the village. Everyone seemed so pleased that “a casa do Senhor Felix” had been rescued. How could we tell them that we planned to effectively abandon it for another “long while” or “until we won the Lottery” whichever came first? Besides, how could we sit in the shade and watch the old farmhouse slowly mould and fall apart, as rains won their wars with the roof. So, back to Plan 1, which now becomes The Plan.

The Plan: we are fixing the farmhouse, no extension. Perhaps some balconies and verandas, sunshine and terraces with fruit trees ask for them. Perhaps also a small cottage / music den for Nikita next to the house. Oh and an outside kitchen with a bread oven? A stone table and seats under an arch of vines or wisteria, looking west? Etc.

3. Actual building. Only the garage, so far. The garage is fixed. Not by us, by a team of local team of four who did an incredible job, fast. They also gave us a large (temporary) metal door for the new garage, and an old stove. And they knocked down the granite wall and enlarged the entrance (which means we can drive the van in. Also means the gates don't fit anymore, and we have a horrible metal mesh between the gate posts instead).

Does demolition count as “building”? Because the (male) Wolfe Murrays have also been knocking down some walls, and are frighteningly keen to destroy some more. What is it with men and sledgehammers? Whenever I see them claw and hurl themselves at those poor walls, I see red. Whenever I sensibly suggest that they check with a builder first, they flip. Very bizarre. Any suggestions, out there?

4. The garden. This is a topic I know very little, and a reality I find slightly scary. In other words, I have no idea what to do or where to start. I can just about recognize a cabbage (in a shop). Let me read up, attend some more films and lectures by Paulo (Guy-who-Knows-this-Stuff), draw a map or two of the land, get stung, scratched and stained by close contact with Plants (enough to count as “some experience”) then I'll write a separate post on the matter, with a crown of black earth glistening proudly under each of my fingernails!

(I guess this was mind-numbingly boring after all. Sorry.)

Sunday, 19 October 2008

A Gift of Water

So you go and buy a house; a few days later – thunk! - a heavy wad of paper duly drops through the letterbox. It's the inevitable (and costly) legal take on the transaction. In the unlikely event that you are brave enough to attempt a peek, you will experience the equivalent of running full speed into a granite wall. A foolish, foolish feat.

And I know: we tried it ourselves. We perused words and expressions such startling and impenetrable unfamiliarity all we could do is read them again and again, in the vague (Hollywood-fuelled) hope that some time later clues would appear and lead to a secret code; then we'd give each other an ecstatic and exhausted smile and walk hand in hand into the sunset. Not. Moona thought the fact that it was written in a foreign language might add to the problem (not much, it was revealed later, when we sold our Edinburgh flat and had to read same in English).

A Brazilian friend was summoned to tell us what we had bought. Among revelations of “patrimonial value”, “herewith” and “henceforth” and “agricultural land” or “water mill”, there lurked something even more intriguing. Our friend stopped, scratched his chin, raised an eyebrow, declared: “it seems you have a spring or a well somewhere around the house”. The heart gave a small leap, I remember. I had to hide the great gushing joy in a pathetic cackle. Hey, it was like buying an egg and being told that it came with the golden goose!

Except, we had no idea where the well was, where to look. To start with, there was very little to see: the house was besieged by brambles and weeds, a whole hungry forest of them. A battle was bravely fought with strimmer and scythe and won (for a short while). Now we could see the land, but no water well. To avoid disappointment, I tried to forget it was “in the inventory”. More practical as always, Moona chose to ask around.

So he goes out and, by chance, meets someone who knew the late Senhor Felix well. Perhaps he knew about the well as well?!? One question later, the mystery deepens. Yeees, the well... a knowing smile and some vague directions. These are rendered even more abstract by language, heavy accent and visual clues that have long fallen down, rotten or been eaten.

Undaunted, Moona dashes to the land. After some measurements starting at the eastern edge, one 180-degrees turn away from the stone wash tub, keeping the fig tree to his left, and dropping down one terrace, he finds himself on an improbable spot right in front of the house. Granite stone everywhere, a cover of leaves, rusted wire and bits of bramble.

He must have been quite deflated. So sure he would find it, and now denied. Despondent, he turns to leave and stubbs his toe against the black muzzle of a pipe protruding from between two granite slabs. A pipe? That little vein in the left temple starts to twitch. Moona picks up a small rock and drops it through the pipe, puts his ear to it, counts: one... two... three... four... splash. The vein in the temple is now drumming like mad.

Fingers claw at earth and twigs to reveal a smooth granite slab. A handle appears, he pulls hard and the heavy lid lifts. After how many years? Inside, spider webs cover the mouth of the well like an intricate veil. The shaft is round, not too narrow, made by hand from smooth river stones. Deep down, there's an eye of dark water, beginning to stir. On a stone ledge, covered in mud and moss, a perfect clay cup. Who was it who drew the last bucket of water up, then closed the granite lid? When? As they drank, were they sad or just ready to go? Did they know, could they imagine how long the well would sleep under a thick blanket of seasons and thorns?

Until today. Moona stands up and I think I know how he feels. His chest aches with the joy of so much hope, the gushing of untold possibilities. It's a bit like leaving the hospital after Nikita was born: elated, scared, so much in such a short time and such a small thing changing the whole future so fundamentally.

Like then, Moona waits for his heart to stop drumming, his vision to clear. Like then, he comes back and tells me about it. Like then, we both get a little choked up. The spring he awoke mirrors a dry crippled vine and the entire sun.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Vinho Verde

October is here. Days are still long and warm, but there's a chill in the air and a lingering sadness in the tilt of leaves and long grasses. Trees are laden with fruit, an explosion of apples, quinces, pears. Grapes hang in heavy bunches from endless vines, all around. Grapes are ripe. With this realisation, all North Portugal is astir, there are vineyards to pick, there is wine to be made.

This is the most important time of the year. In the past, schools didn't start until after the grapes had been picked: everyone, children, teachers, grandparents put their shoulder to the task.

Foreigners too, we deduced and resolved to make ourselves useful. Our acquired land is covered in vines. They are all dead. There are rusted wires and granite posts everywhere, you can imagine a vast carpet of golden grapes covering the hillside. Once glimpsed, the past beauty and bounty of the place is unbearable.

Still, there are the neighbours. Everyone seems to have vast vineyards and waiting vats in the garage for making the wine. We meet them one day and offer our help. It is accepted and arranged. Walking back to the car we feel good, selfless, like the humble heroes of the land we clearly are.

As the day approaches, things are heating up in vineyards everywhere. There seems to be a clear order for picking, each person has a scheduled day, this way everyone else can come and help. On the main road, there are long queues of tractors carrying grapes to “adegas”, local wine makers who buy produce from cooperative members.

Thursday dawns, a mild sunny day. We need to wait for our children to finish school before we set off. Not to worry, we won't miss too much: all the action is in the afternoon anyway, we were told. In old clothes and trainers, we finally march through the neighbours' gate. We are tanned, tough and ready for any amount of hard work.

The place is heaving with people, all idle, sitting under fruit trees, sipping juice, playing with a puppy, smiling. We stop, momentarily confused. Is this the right place? Sim (yes). The grape picking? Sim. Scheduled for today? Sim, sim. Y'all having a break? Nao.

There is only one question left. Is the work finished? Sim. Our neighbour, Teresa, rushes from the house full of smiles, waving a wine jug. All done, all done. We are crushed. She leads us to the garage, where the grapes are being pressed. Her portly husband supervises the process, assisted by several friends. Grape juice trickles from a grimy plastic pipe. All eyes follow this process intently.

At some point, chega, it's done. Everyone springs into action. The pressed grapes, large slabs of them still in the shape of the vat, are scooped out into plastic bags. They will be used again, one of the sidekicks explains, to make aguardente, the local spirit. No chemicals, we are repeatedly assured, just good stuff.

All great and enjoyable, but there's a small sneaky thought knocking about our puzzled heads: what are we doing here? We haven't helped and are clearly of no use now (if anything, we are in the way). We try a polite retreat. It doesn't work. Teresa sees us and springs up from the group of women on the porch to deftly block our way out.

We are guided back inside the house, where a long table is laid. For the helpers, we realise with sinking hearts. We pick at our food (except our daughter who hasn't been too torn up about this whole thing, and gulps her portion guilt-free) but hey, as we sip the vinho verde, we start to feel much better. Everyone does. People become chatty and loud, we learn lots about the village, the history of our house, other neighbours, water sources, fruit trees and wine, above all wine.

A long while later, everyone exclaims and embraces warmly and we waltz onto our land. It's not the same, distilled through all the stories. A crumbling overgrown hillside no more, but charmed and alive. The sun nestles in a deep red cloud, glowing like a perfect grape.

As we walk into the old house, elated and swaying a little, we notice something on the long vines that curl through the broken shutters into the living room: four grapes, dark and sleepy, the last surviving fruit. A signature of the season and yet another welcome gift from the land.

We finally do some picking.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

A Casa do Senhor Feliz

One year ago, we bought an old house in North Portugal. It sits on narrow terraces facing the sun, on the lip of a lush valley. The first time we saw it, hungry shoots had grown through the windows and curled onto the dusty floors. The house and terraces were surrounded by dead vines, suffocated by brambles, drunk with the juices and ardour of a thousand roots.

And yet, beyond decay and delirium, we sensed something, a lingering story, a whole way of life. We could glimpse an older order in that jungle, and in the house a clean certainty. We found a book of fables on the floor, and a wooden board on which someone had painted purple grapes, and a cross. We found a photograph so old, the face in it had vanished.

Every time we went back, we discovered more. The fist of brambles grew with the seasons and tightened its grip around the house, but couldn't hide it any more than the Indian jungle can swallow its gods.

We finally moved here two months ago and started working. Clearing the terraces we found smooth stone benches and old fruit trees. Meeting the neighbours we learned that we were in the house of Senhor Felix. This sounds like “Feliz”, the house of Mr. Happy. The name, finally – after wondering all this time what the F on the gate stood for – the name made me feel the same: happy.

I am glad to be in the house of someone who built such beautiful terraces, who kept vines and fruit trees, who sat on stone benches at sunset looked over the valley. I am delighted to have a go at rebuilding the house of Mr. Happy.

P.S. The neighbour mentioned the wife of Senhor Felix today, Dona Beatriz. I almost wept with joy. I checked my Latin dictionary – Felix, Beata, Beatrix – I wanted to be sure. They both mean “happy, fortunate, blessed, fruitful”. Yes, it is clear now: we've stumbled straight into the House of Happy.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

In Search of Time

Two months ago we left our comfortable home, our family and friends, our forest walks and favourite tea bags in exchange for a long road trip and waiting at the end, a crumbling farmhouse somewhere in Northern Portugal. Why? Any sane person would ask the question. At which all other sane persons around the table would shake their heads, speechless.

We are in Portugal now and I have had some time to ponder on the issue. Time to think... Time! - it suddenly strikes me. This is the answer. I came here in search of time. Not the good life, not the sun, not solitude or a different way of being. What I seek, most of all, is time.

I mean, what do you do when you find yourself in the grip of the trivial, when you have an increasingly persistent feeling that you are living someone else's life – someone running around all day, stressed and cranky? Someone you don't like?....

“You sort yourself out, girl!” - I can clearly hear my mother say. You organise your time better, you get a “real job” (don't ask). You read all those self-help books if you must and then turn on the confidence, discipline, assertiveness. You go and do what-you-have-always-dreamed-but-never-had-time-to-do. You cook less and dream more (OK, mum would never say that!)

In short, a small mental shift, and all else will fall into place.

Or you pack your bags and go in search of your own overgrown terraces in a remote and foreign land, your ancient farmhouse with granite walls and a broken roof. You start clearing the place; you spend days measuring, drawing maps and, on them, great sprawling houses. You bore everyone to death with frantic explanations; there, you break your pencil pointing, there is the living room, the kitchen garden, a pond.

You start chatting with neighbours and learn thirty new words each day (impressed? It's one of those things you list as a New Year resolution...) Instead of walking to Tesco, you water lettuces with manic enthusiasm. You spend whole days cutting into a jungle of brambles that immediately start growing again. You also still cook, wash, pay taxes, buy school books and mop the floors. On top of that, you buy and assemble furniture, and generally walk around carrying heavy tools, pockets bulging with different-size nails, plug adaptors and long lists of things to do. You read about building design and the best time to plant your perennials.

If anything, you are more busy. How did this glorified form of running away solve your time problem? What has changed?

Every day I find something that holds an answer. One day it was an old man with a handlebar moustache, bowing gallantly upon being introduced. Small children hugging their teachers when they arrive at school, and when they leave. Late night concerts held in leafy village squares, old couples dancing slowly and solemnly, toddlers lulled to sleep in their parents' arms. The afternoon we found out who the owner of our house had been and the initials wrought in the iron loops of the old gate suddenly became a name. Another time, as we swam in the river, a little train appeared and wound along the bank with a soft staccato, half engulfed in foliage and cloud. And each day when I sit and bathe in ruby sunsets, writing this journal is also a small joy.

Perhaps it has to do with the “lightness” of time. Most of it flows and vanishes, a string of thin rituals and unremarkable minutes. Washing up, watching ads on TV, waiting for the bus. And then there are moments brighter with colour, deeper with meaning; they march by all the time, I'm sure; we don't always notice, but when we do, they sink inside and anchor us; capture them, perfectly formed memories, and you collect a story, build a history. You are more attuned and alive. Ready for more.