house of happy

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

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Straw House

Subtitle: A) What they tell you and B) what you find out yourself, afterwards.

A) Straw is a natural, renewable material.
B) Being natural, naturally, it wants to keep growing. Green shoots may sprout out of your straw bales, the ones in the wall and the ones stored in the back garden, for later. Some will see this as an added bonus, with a good wheat crop harvested before the first coat of plaster.
B) Being natural, and being denied further growth, straw will try alternatively to decompose. If – as in our case – a good storm starts the day after the straw wall is up, you will find portions of your home take a sharp turn towards silage.
B) Renewable also refers to you, the homeowner, having to regularly renew the purchase of straw bales. These will be used for wall repairs and also to replace the stack of spare straw bales they told you would be stored safely outside, on a raised platform and covered with a tarpaulin. After a weekend of rain, you will find these limp, grey and sprouting mushrooms. Over a mushroom omelette you will decide to use them for straw bale gardening.

A) A straw bale house is much cheaper to build. Straw bales are inexpensive and abundantly available.
B) You'll start forking out the big dosh later, on all that scooping out and replacing of the wet straw from the silage wall. Straw is not only a renewable material but a frequently renewable cost.

A) Labour costs are also low. Anyone, regardless of experience, can successfully join a straw bale project.
B) Of course, once the volunteers are gone and the straw has sprouted, you will need to hire some local builders at professional rates to replace the wet straw and do a solid plastering job.

A) The work is accessible to people otherwise excluded from the building process. It has an empowering effect on everyone.
B) Exactly. The moment they appear on the building site, they also become straw bale specialists and straw bale enthusiasts. No straw bale is safe thereafter!

A) Straw walls are so densely packed they will be highly resistant to fire.
B) But not to rodents. Despite what the book says, we've seen some happy mouse-families running along our unplastered walls.

A) Straw doesn't cause hayfever, in fact it's the material of choice for many allergy sufferers.
B) I have hayfever. I worked with strawbales. The moment I got within ten feet of one, my eyes leaked, my nose streamed and all conversation had to be done in sneezes: one sneeze for yes, two sneezes for no, complex sneeze sequences for anything else.

There are things as yet unchecked: the thermal performance (highly praised) and how much it'll shave off the heating bill. The acoustic performance – a lot will hinge on this, what with the dogs across the valley. And I hope never to test the fire resistance factor.

Then there are those things that remain undisputed: the joy of not using modern and toxic building alternatives, the incomparable feeling of well-being within a straw bale space, the breathing walls. I look forward to these.

Our straw bale walls are built. And rebuilt. And tweaked a little more. It's been fun and it's not over. Luckily, as winter settles in, the roof is on and the second coat of lime plaster is carbonating nicely. If you check carefully inside the wall, you will find some humid patches. I'm giving them until spring to dry or decompose. Then we'll probably start all over again!

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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Cursed Weekend

Of course they wanted to go to the new Harry Potter. Such is the hype that they'll watch “the boy who lived” sleeping in the woods for three hours, if that's what the film will show them.

Three things were in the way of a trip to the cinema: Kira's dance lesson (the local equivalent of Dumbledore's Army); the NATO summit in Lisbon, which has been to the police force what rain is to mushrooms: they're all out to harass random motorists, even along obscure C-roads. Long black boots, stiff caps, shiny gun holsters: will someone tell Harry P. that we muggles have our own dementors? And my patronus isn't that strong these days.

Besides, at least once in a lifetime, one is made aware of the importance of windowsills. They are underrated magical objects of great power and have lately become our raison d'etre. Nikita arranged an appointment with the stonemason to install the said windowsills on Saturday afternoon.

Thus, while Harry waves, loses, finds, breaks and superglues his wand at Hogwarts, we wander around our land - Felixwarts, let's call it - servicing the chickens (read dragons, and they require straw, food, water and occasional bottom washing with a hose). We also picked up litter (you know, troll bogies, horcruxes, socks lost by house elves, pumpkin juice bottles, old sorting hats). The Master Builder doesn't turn up. Eventually we call him ('where art thee, Dark Lord?') It turns out he forgot all about our windowsills and on the phone he sounds like someone reminded of an ingrown toenail (under the Cruciatus curse?). 'Fica para amanha!' Try again tomorrow. We loiter for a while longer in complete silence, stunned - you may say.

The next day, while Hermione gives a First Kiss to Ron (Ewww!) and the rain pounds the roofs, the stonemason arrives and we all take shelter. Harry Potter fans will instantly see a strong resemblance to Professor Gilderoy Lockhart: today our man is wearing a light leather jacket, jeans and pointy shoes. And do we detect a whiff of aftershave? It turns out that we've come for a job, and Gilderoy's come for a demonstration. Only one windowsill makes it to the window, briefly. He bosses Nikita around: 'measure this', 'lift that', 'take the level'. The sill is measured and lifted, a level is taken.

Thereupon we go one stage up with the lesson: now Nikita has to take 'the level of the level'. Huh? 'The level of the LEVEL!' the craftsman repeats in a louder voice. We stare at him with vacant eyes. Hush Gilderoy, the children are clearly under the confundus curse!

There is a trick here (that'll be the counter-curse) and we should know it! The master gets cranky, chants: 'THE LEVEL OF THE LEVEL'. It turns out that a pencil and two wood chips are needed in order to establish the new level whose level we must take. Accio horcrux!

Could it be possible that our stonemason intends for us to install the windowsills ourselves, sometime later? ('you must do it alone, Harry! It's your destiny!') Will our windows rest on our capacity to remember these random instructions: 'right, here you need to build the wall up five centimeters with stone and lime mortar', 'and rip this old windowsill here then take another level', 'oh, and put a thin layer of mortar here', 'by the way, make sure this side is up', 'you'll be FINE!' It's old magic and utterly impenetrable. Nothing ever written in books will help. Hermione weeps.

After some small talk, the Pro makes his farewells and dashes out to his black broom, while the shoes are still shiny. Another moment of staring into space. Then, with hunched shoulders, we carry the windowsill back to the pile of identical slabs in the front yard.

Had we been to Harry Potter, perhaps we'd have learned some useful spells. We could have then gone to Felixwarts and waved some chestnut sticks with cores made of factory chicken feathers. And the job would have been magically done. Not just the windowsills, the whole house. Wingardium leviosa!

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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Down the River

Two old men go for their usual Sunday afternoon walk, to the Minho and back. They take their umbrellas and, between them, three small dogs. This is what they see:

A foreign car rolls round the corner and stops at the old mill.

Doors open and out spill: a drab woman in rubber boots, talking in fast question marks; two youngsters looking like futuristic creatures in black wetsuits, helmets and vests; a red dog running round and round the aquatic creatures; two kayaks bearing the scars of former adventures; as an afterthought, two oars.

The kayaks get dragged down to the river, the little girl and the woman turn right and hop over mossy stones to wait under the bridge; the boy has taken his kayak and gone the other way.

The girl sits on a rock, looking into space. Green light shimmers around her, willow branches drip, water rushes past her feet. In this wavering tableau, she glows, still and clear, lit up by the last rays of the day and a ribbon of rainbow. The woman stands with a gaze that seems to gulp in the moment and stop breathing, for fear of losing it somehow.

Then the boy appears floating fast towards them. The kayak cuts silent zigzags into river rapids and the roar of dark water. He throws a little smile towards the shore, and inside the smile there's a whoop of joy.

The two old men are still up on the bridge, glued to the parapet, watching all this. They see:

The boy jumps out of his boat and helps the girl into her kayak. He pushes her into the river and quickly follows. In a second they're under the bridge and on the other side. Here the river roars even more furiously as it senses the embrace of the mighty Minho.

The old men run along the path to the mouth of the Minho, following the kayaks.

The little girl is spun around by a current and paddles backwards for a little while. She gives a loud scream (the old men are terrified), and the boy helps her turn. They bob and bump along. The river stretches icy fingers to comb through their hair. They look like otters playing, and the old men are happy to see this.

The river finally spits the two kayaks into the Minho and they stop still. Only four hearts keep drumming. Five – the mum just got here to see them arrive. The girl tries to keep going, overbalances and flips over. She forgets how to get herself out of the situation, so she gets herself out of the kayak. The boy is there to catch her.

Everything is carried back to the shore, back to the road, back to the car. The dog jumps in and the foreign car drives off. The old men amble home, with a story.

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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hospital Halloween

Summary: we spent Halloween weekend between health care institutions in Northern Portugal.
Epilogue: two tricked, one treated.

The longer version: Friday night. I'm beyond tired and look forward to CSI Miami and sleep, in whatever order. But before we settle down, one little thing: Nikita says his eye is sore, it certainly is red and swollen. I look , see nothing, but we're going to the Health Center because I know something you don't: Nikita will only mention, in passing, that his eye is sore when others in the same situation would be writhing on the floor in intense agony crying 'I'm blind, sweet Jesus I'm blind!' This is not a stray eyelash or a crumb of pizza. We're getting it seen to.

The Health Center is real quiet tonight. People must be too tired to find a trip to the ER (a favourite national pastime) attractive. We are shaking the doctor's hand within two minutes, having successfully negotiated the lady at the counter, her computer and the triage nurse (and witnessed a fast food delivery for the entire night shift). The doctor is slim and grey-haired but has the energy of a boy on holiday. He takes Nikita into the treatment room and is within seconds poking around The eye with a needle. Nikita is truly impressed with the steady hand and unfaltering smile-and-chatter displayed.

It's over: 'I can see IT, but I can't take it out (we still don't know what IT is). You need to go to Viana. Do you have a car?' What? Could he be suggesting a trip to a Big Hospital (the second-favoured national pastime)? Before I phrase the question, I'm out in the rain clutching a letter to the ophthalmologist. We stop at home to take the dog and a flask of coffee, then we're off to Viana. The kids are happy because this implies a stay at a hotel.

Viana, it turns out, doesn't have an ophthalmologist until Tuesday ('and your doctor should have known it'). I express a hope that the ER doctor can sort everything out... (isn't this what watching 13 series of ER taught us?...) and the receptionist shakes her head even as she says, cryptically, 'he will SEE you'.

Then we step inside and it's another world. The kind of situation – like being parachuted in the desert, or left bobbing in the ocean with sharks – where you suddenly know you'll need all your strength plus a generous pinch of luck. A short walk along these corridors will make you pray more fervently for a massive coronary, when the time comes... There are two kinds of people here: the Ashen-Faced, hunched on benches or lying on gurneys along corridors; and the White Coats, sweeping by at intervals without a glance to the others. The former wait in silence and eventually vanish under weak neon lights. Before long, we sit on a bench outside the Minor Surgery ward which appears deserted. In front of us, a young woman lies on a gurney, on her belly. I spend half of the time wondering what is wrong with her, then I figure it out and spend the rest of the time trying to forget it. Please don't make me tell, it's too awful. All I will say is that she walked home happy, after being SEEN (which is also too horrible to imagine). Every now and again people shuffle by and sit down with sighs or grimaces. A door marked Xray opens and a young White Coat shouts their names as if they were actually sat two football fields away. We all jolt upright, then they drag themselves in and we continue our wait.

A grizzled doctor appears and says, without venturing beyond Nikita's eye patch, that there's nothing he can do, we need an ophthalmologist and we can either wait until Tuesday or go to Braga in the morning. It's past midnight, Kira is asleep in my lap, Nikita sways gently in the neon haze and I want to murder the Xray guy.

Cue for the doctor to turn around and march down the corridor, stethoscope thumping in rhythm against his chest. But no, when I look up he's still there. 'Do you have anywhere to stay?' he seems to be asking. 'Oh, a hotel....' I wave vaguely towards the town that glitters between raindrops. He does march off now, but before we've gathered ourselves, he's back, followed by a tiny nurse.

'You can stay here' he announces. How touching, how terrifying. I try to decline but I seem to have forgotten how. My dry squeak is promptly drowned by the Xray guy calling another customer. Next thing we know, we're marching behind the tiny nurse to the Pediatric Ward, where beds were found for us. There we spend the night. Lights are being turned on and off constantly as new people are admitted: a crying baby; a kid with a gastric complaint; their loud relatives. When the baby doesn't wake up for another cry, the gastric complaint needs another trip to the loo, dragging a whole IV stand with him, turning lights on and asking the mother to bring his Teddy along. The TV is on the whole time, showing soap operas at midnight, horror films at 3am and not-so-soft porn at five. Kira wakes up at six and shouts: 'Where are we?' She distracts the Gastric Complaint from his porn induction. 'Shhh. At the hospital, baby. It's OK, go back to sleep.' 'I don't like it here!' she announces and immediately gets the Gastric Complaint's undivided attention. He's a sweet kid.

Two hours later it's his turn to have Kira's undivided attention; by now we're all awake and the nurse is inserting a suppository into his bum while the entire ward pretends not to watch. Kira is fascinated. There's a running commentary and lively discussion about how long he should / could wait before he goes to the loo. The discussion continues long after he's dragged his IV to the loo and breakfast's been served.

The little nurse goes off duty, but not before stopping at every bedside to offer her best wishes to patients and parents. The next nurse is just as friendly. Hey, once someone's put a brick through the TV, this place would be almost bearable. In the circumstances, I don't remember ever waking up Happier: because we're leaving, filing behind the Most-Handsome(-and-He-Knows-It) Ambulance Driver in Portugal.

I am to follow the Most Handsome in my car, along the motorway (first time ever on a motorway, yeeey) in the kind of driving rain that is known to have drowned herds of wildebeest standing. Double yeeey. He assures me he'll go slow and easy. I assure him that's how I like it.

Slow and easy, it turns out, is 120 km per hour. It's got two advantages: we get to Braga really fast. And I get the rare feeling that there's NOTHING I cannot do.

We find the ophthalmologist in about two minutes, and it takes her less that that to sort out Nikita's eye, including jokes, prescription writing and specialist-gear demonstration for Kira.

Back outside, we find out why the Most Handsome was in such a hurry: he was dying for a smoke.

We wave goodbye and go trick-or-treating for real. Niki's disguise: one red eye covered by yellow cream covered by eye patch. My disguise: two red eyes covered by bad hair (truly scary!) Kira's disguise: oops, needs one, must go shopping. Oh-oh.

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