house of happy

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

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Midweek Momentum

Wednesday afternoon: Kira comes back from school half-early and wearing someone else's jacket. It is yellow, like hers, but also nothing like hers. It is twice her size, has a tartan design on the inside, and no zip. She didn't notice. (Didn't notice?) We go back before the (bigger) owner of the jacket does notice.

Then on an impulse decide to cycle to the land, where Moona is working, waiting for us, or – most likely – talking to someone. I love to cycle to the land, through town and then down the ecopista, a nature trail winding along the Minho all the way to Valenca. The one part I can't say I enjoy much is being attacked by a small but loud and vicious mutt within yards of the house. It's happened every time, and now I dread it.

I am bigger, I know, and endowed with (some) reason and intelligence. Besides, I have two strong legs, potentially lethal footware, as well as two hands, two wheels and a bicycle horn. But what do I do when the dog appears charging at me from a side-lane? I scream and pedal furiously; my pulse goes through the roof; I flail my arms and wobble on the bike; I become a red-faced maniac and a huge traffic hazard. It's really silly, and sad to behold.

So now I have this thing about it – way before we get to the tricky crossroads, my stomach flips and I start sweating. Today, I appoint Nikita my champion and we set off. In Cortes, the village before ours, all the dogs seem to have assembled to bark together with annoying fixation. A little reminder to my blood pressure to start climbing.

At some point we pass a field with a few trees and a foal. Despite appearances, it is not a peaceful scene: the foal is being pestered by a massive dog that stands on the path above, growling and howling and pacing along the fence. They can't get very close to each other, but they both try. The foal arches its lovely glossy back and lifts its tail, before neighing with gusto and charging at the dog.

Lesson one: you have to stand up to bullies. Note to self: look, a foal is braver than you. Smaller note to self: can I take it with me to deal with my scary dog too? Didn't think so.

In the end, my scary mutt doesn't even turn up. Now that I'm 'armed' with a teenage boy, a small child, a foal (my new guru, there in spirit), and several pebbles in my pocket; now that I am ready and oozing murderous intent, it stands me up.

Lesson two: It knows. It will get you when you're alone.

No matter: now we're home and it smells of spring. The sun has already rolled behind the hill. It left its magnificent mane behind, a wide lane of light to coat the hillside and horizon and stir my grateful heart.

Not much hard labour left for the day then. Brief, but back-breaking and very smelly – we drag sacks of manure up two terraces to be dumped on the new vegetable beds; these sealed stink bombs weigh a ton; once opened, they unleash the olfactory definition of hell upon the weary passer by. And her disgusted children. And their bikes.

One good thing about the job (lesson three: always find the bright side): it helps, once and for all, illustrate the meaning of 'upwind' and 'downwind'.

Now I only need to figure out which is which.

The Last Feat of Senhor Felix

Senhor Felix must have been quite a character, and his farm - the pride of the entire village. Half a hectare of sunny terraces – and he must have had a good go at covering it all in vines, fruit trees and vegetable beds. Older people tell us about it in the local bar, putting on their faraway voices, letting their eyes wonder to that place whence golden times can still be glimpsed. Without fail, everyone goes on to reveal that they once worked for Senhor Felix.

A lot of hard work it must have been, and some good memories (starting with an abundance of youth, sun and strawberries) – all drowned in three decades of silence, the inexorable march of brambles and seasons. One persistent relic remains: the place is covered in granite posts and corroded wire. This rusty grid stretches between trees and terraces, climbs and claims every corner. We are walking in a graveyard of vines.

Over the past months, the old wire has been snagging our blades and ankles, throwing down sharp tentacles to attack us. We fought back, cut through and pulled yards of consumptive metal from trees, rocks and bushes. We made piles of coiled wire and stumbled into them everywhere. They had to go.

There are ways. People who go around villages and pick up scrap metal, take it to the yard and sell it for pennies, this being their income. A couple of Brazilians appeared late last year and picked up a large load. We tried to track them down again and failed.

One such 'team' passed through the village yesterday, while Moona was pruning trees. He was delighted, they set to work. “Where are you from”, he asked. “Portugal”, they replied in halting Portuguese.

They were Romanian. Moona mentioned me and their eyes popped out. One made a low gurgling sound and asked if perhaps Moona spoke a few words of Romanian. That was a bit like asking a duck if perhaps it felt like swimming in the river. Or a yearling bullock if perhaps it wanted to go and gore a crimson gringo butt in Granada. Moona opened his mouth and didn't stop for hours. When I found him later, he was still flushed and full of national gossip, muttering scraps of sentences just for the joy of them.

The two Romanians walked the land gathering old wire. This they piled into a shabby van, then stayed on to help Moona clear some wood. Their story emerged, as sad as the rusty skeleton of Senhor Felix's vineyard, now coiled in the back of the van... They lived with a relative miles away. Did whatever work they could, however hard and poorly paid. They hadn't eaten in days. Moona gave them a little money and his lunch, some clementines and tobacco and it felt better than Christmas.

They left before sunset because they had a long way to go, what with having to stop every ten minutes and douse their radiator in cold water. Might come back to help us with the building some day. But then, they might not. So many of the Romanians who sought their fortunes in Europe after the borders opened are now going back. Perhaps the uncertainty of times ahead and any amount of hardship are easier to bear at home.

I didn't meet them but it suddenly occurred to me that they too had become part of Senhor Felix's brigade: his last workers, dismantling the last of his vineyard. Beyond time, rust and neglect, Senhor Felix's garden had found a way to feed another mouth.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Eater of Time

It's eight eleven. I'm bouncing around the living room with bleary determination – the monumental mess, so early in the morning, offends the eye and clogs up the mind. Besides, Kira's left boot is missing and so is a growing number of my stuff like my favourite blue pencil and a mitten.

I must put the day on hold and sort it out. As I run about folding blankets and pijamas (still warm, fluffed with sleep and unfinished dreams, mmmh-so-tempting) – a thought buzzes and flaps through my mind. You know, like an annoying fluorescent banner on a historic building, asking the world at large: "why does Monica find housework so boring?"

SO boring that in my kindest moments I would call it “daily drudge” and avoid it like a virulent eczema attack.

Why, moreover, does this oversized house fill with dust in less time than it takes to brush it, and quicker if a mild breeze happens to blow downtown or really, anywhere in Galicia?

Why does the bathroom floor require mopping every time I walk in?

How exactly does the ash from last night's fire transport itself out of the fireplace and all over the floor and furniture?

Why do my husband and children (all-right-me-too, but only very occasionally) leave clothes littered everywhere?

And how does a drawer or a shelf progress from a very promising start (i.e. empty) to an invasion of such diverse and abundant items that even looking for an essential object (potato peeler, hair brush, passport) becomes a heroic task?

I can keep going. Scores of such questions cross my mind as I sweep ash and odd socks across the living room floor. I ponder on how I start each day with ideas and hopes and things to do only to be derailed by dust and grey bidets, washing up, laundry, endless cooking. Housework, like locusts, consumes the day.

All right, let's say I give in. I embrace it, even: I am a housewife and that's what I love to do. Nothing gives me more joy than the smell of fresh laundry. A gleaming cooker makes my heart sing. Tidy shelves, ironed clothes, bubbling broth in the pot – mmmh-huh, that's what I live for.

Let's say. But it still doesn't sort out the boredom issue. The question remains: what to do with one's mind while the hand brushes and washes and stirs and sorts? I am asking this with growing urgency, as I am fast approaching the end of the stories I had stored on my Ipod, and the library here doesn't do books on tapes. Nope, not even in Portuguese.

I could fuel my writing (like this blog, the product of my energetic pre-breakfast blitz in the living room). I could give myself pep-talks, or pray. Meditation? Mind exercises? Most likely, worrying and blowing things that are now history way out of proportion. Memory practice? Would probably result in remembering what I had forgotten, when it was too late. I could learn songs and sing them. Perhaps not. Practice Portuguese? Explore a new-found rhetoric talent?

One thing is sure: I shall never, NEVER (and I am NOT speaking in jest) run out of opportunity to practice any or all the above, and more. Housework being, of course, the world's most inexhaustible, re-re-renewable, ever-hungrier Eater of Time.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Urban Yurt

Early February. Winter stretches on, strong and stern, and I can see the point of hibernation. To sleep through the bitter cold, the grey days, the never-ending rain; to curl up in your den, in your hay, in your fur, ah the joy... to awake in mid-birdsong on a sunny-crisp-and-clear day in March.

Back in August, people told us it was going to be cold. We laughed of course. In September we passed by a wood yard – piles of logs for the winter, people buying, loading, sweating. Oh how we laughed. In October, a neighbour warned us about the cold spells, our draughty old house. We were at the river, in swimsuits, sipping ice tea. We sure laughed. November was a bit nippy, but a steady sun softened the days. We were still laughing...

By December we were spending a lot of time huddled together in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. We suspected why, but didn't admit it. We went away for Christmas and forgot all about it. It was early January when I finally said it out loud, through clenched teeth and grey-blue lips... and it was not a light and cordial “I say, jolly cold out there today...”

Still, we refuse to join the queue at the wood yard. Instead, we get wood from our land and make fires in the living room. They swell and swirl and spit and crackle. A lively genie leaps out hissing, throws us a brief glance, then charges up the chimney and out... We jostle each other for a place at the mouth of the fireplace, mesmerised by the carnival in the embers. Besides, you only get warm if you stay eyebrow-singeingly close to the flame, we know that by now. Take two steps away, and you're back in the blizzard, barefoot and on your own.

The living room has two futon sofas. One mattress was rolled out one night, Moona and the kids slept there, an indoors camping-adventure thing. I took three hot water bottles to bed that night, since I had all that space and they had each other. They woke up in a heap, happy, went to school smelling of smoke and chestnuts. I too woke up happy, in yards of rumpled sheets, flanked by sloshing tepid water.

I lasted two nights exactly. Then I unrolled the other futon and carried my duvet, pillows, books and pijamas into the living room. Just in time for the big storm – the tail of a hurricane that whipped across the continent from the Bay of Biscay. We made a big fire, pulled down all the blinds and curtains. Tied the gate, locked the doors, lit candles, made hot chocolate. We listened – with delicious shivers and deep joy - to the rattling and whistling of the wind outside, unseen objects flying and crashing about... It is a powerful, primal happiness: to have shelter in a storm.

So we are still camping-in-the-room-with-the-fire. Upstairs, the bedrooms have the feel of an arctic holocaust - desolate and still, preserving artefacts of the primitive life forms that once inhabited them... In other words, permafrost and three-weeks' worth of odd socks, pencil shavings, old drawings and discarded clothing – which I cart up and dump on the beds when the mess downstairs starts to choke me (the others don't usually notice or mind anything so trivial). Every time I climb upstairs, an icy breeze floods my eyeballs, cold cramps clench the chest, toes go numb. I don't go there too often.

I've now stopped rolling up the futons in the morning. I've even stopped dreading visitors who might notice. It must be almost a month since Kira's been in her room...It's still raining, still cold. After dinner we shuffle into our den, carrying nuts, figs, oranges, steaming tea. We play cards, sitting cross-legged on blankets and pillows, every once in a while feeding the fire.

We only need some ram's fat sizzling on the hearth, perhaps a camel poking its droopy lip in the door, to mimic a Mongolian tribe weathering another harsh winter in the steppe. In fact, just now I can't imagine going back to our bedrooms at night. There are other things I can't imagine. T-shirts, sandals, warm fingers, a swim in the river, ice cream.

But then, what do I expect? It's February after all. Winter, still stern and strong, stretches on... but not forever, not for long.