Saturday, 27 October 2007

Hook, line and sinker

It’s been almost 2 months since we miraculously and magically were led to our piece of paradise on earth here in central Portugal. Since then, we have seriously fallen in love with this place. As they say, "hook, line and sinker". This is the one. No turning back. All bridges to burn. Here in this little village of Amieira we will raise our children, grow the most beautiful gardens imaginable, grow our own vegetables, raise our own animals, spread a few tonnes of shit in the soil, host our friends for months at a time, drink copious amounts of homemade wine, build spaces for our parents to stay for as long as they like, grow old ourselves, entertain our grandchildren, and one day, die here. This is not just a project. This is the rest of our lives laid out before us. And the very idea of what all of that could mean fills me with such excitement that on some days it feels like I simply cannot contain it.

"Tom and Jerry" flew over from Leeds via Luton airport and Michelle travelled for 48 hours from Tuscany for a wonderful weekend at the end of September to view the properties and then to buy them. As you do. Von said we’d find a village to buy one day. And we did. And they came. And fell in love with this place in an instant as we had done. We had a bit of an intense weekend grilling each other on the reasons why we all wanted to do such a crazy thing as this. By the end it became crystal clear that although we shared many similar values and aspirations about this new life, we also each had fundamentally different personalities and skill sets; the diversity necessary to become a strong team. Strong enough to build a community. One which we will begin to create when we gather back together in Amieira next March, April.

We also began to consider the principles by which we want to live together. The first of these principles, these values, seems to be self sufficiency. There is an unbelievablly useful and inspiring book written by a bloke called John Seymour that has taught us (read Von) an incredible amount already and we’ve not even begun yet. The guy talks a whole heap of sense too. What he writes in the first few pages has taken me years to work out. That millions of people just like us, in cities all across the world, are working as hard as they can in organisations, to earn money, to buy from other organisations the goods and services which we are more than capable of growing or making for ourselves. When you look at it from his perspective, our city lifestyles sound bizarrely ridiculous. Like we are all, albeit unwittingly, slaves to a tyrannical and immensely wasteful system that exists solely to support itself. Self sufficiency on the other hand seems to be such a simple, common sense alternative; it is a wonder that more people have not sought it. It might well be the enormous amount of work involved that put people off. But it is also unreservedly satisfying work. To eat what you sow. To grow roses from the poop that you produce. To harness the power of the sun and to utilise the water found in abundance beneath us. To become intimately and vitally connected to the natural systems that sustain the entire planet. To eek out a lifestyle that also requires interdependence on others, without which people aspiring to live self sufficiently apparently tend to go either go nuts or starve. We will let you know how we get on. But do buy the book if you can. Lots of practical advice also provided for people living in cities to help them transform their over reliance on our ‘developed’ evil consumption system.

Second, to make this place as beautiful as humanly possible. The land in this area of Portugal was ravaged twice by merciless fires first in 2003 and then again in 2005. Which left the vast rolling hills, forests and landscape looking, we think, much like a shorn sheep. In many places, new trees have yet to be replanted and only the tall broken black charred pine trunks remain as a stark and sad reminder of those catastrophes. Within this context we want to nourish the land. To plant gorgeous gardens on our plot. And to work with the dynamic local people we have met working here (Raquel and Antonio link to Apfam) to help restore the natural beauty of this place in a sustainable and exemplary way. This land needs caring for. It needs investment. It needs loving. And its for this reason that if and when things get tight financially as I am sure they may well do over the next few years, we do not want to skimp on the quality of what we do. Everything, from the way we restore our houses, to the gardens, to the vegetable patches, to the accommodation we create for guests, to the yoga sala, has to be utterly magnificent. There really is no point in doing it any other way. Life is just too short to waste it on mediocrity. When resources are scarce, or limited, the pressure to dumb down, to compromise on quality, to simply do the essentials, we imagine will be a real force, which right at the outset we are committed to fighting every step of the way. We are aiming high. It has to be beautiful, draw droppingly gorgeous. It’s the very least this part of the world needs after such devastation.

There are more values which I will write about in future. But for now in this blog entry I want to tell you about an angel we’ve been given in Oleiros who has helped us open more doors and introduce us to more people than we thought was possible in such a short amount of time. She is not the first angel we have met. The first in Portugal were probably John and Sam from Bosch Real estate who have gone above and beyond at every step of the way to help us purchase Moses and Quinta and begin to settle here. The second were Christian and Alice who we met the day we discovered Moses (Christian popped back from Switzerland this week to help his father in law make some wine and it was so nice to hook up with him again.) The latest angel in our adventure is Sara Nunes and we met her 2 weeks ago.

We heard about Sara one fine day, and boy have there been lots of those here this October, when Von and I went for a stroll around Oleiros early in the morning. Skipping would probably be a more accurate description. It really is so exciting to be doing this. Anyway, there we were, in awe of the gift life has been giving us recently, when we bumped into a lovely middle aged black nurse from Brazil. “Bom dia.” “Bom dia.” “What you 2 young things doing here and where are you from? Fancy a wee coffee?” (my best guestimate of her softly spoken Portuguese, probably translated nothing like this, but hey ignorance lets you interpret everything just how you want to doesn’t it?). Over coffee we found out that Marina works in the local health centre, and by chance (there’s been quite a lot of that going on recently) does yoga every Thursday night in the local sports pavilion. She gave us the number of her yoga teacher, Oleiros’ one and only yoga teacher. Sara Nunes. We called her mobile, delighted to discover she spoke excellent English and met up the next day in the town square.

(This pic shows the wine vats in the basement we'll convert into our kitchen.)

What a fabulous lady she is. Recently moved here from Lisbon with her boyfriend who works in the local pyrotechnic firework firm (one that organises firework events globally apparently, from this little remote town of Oleiros). She teaches yoga twice a week to a handful of people and works part time as a receptionist in the brand new swimming baths. She was so excited to hear that another 4 yoga teachers were coming and that we intended to do something so aspirational, that she organised a meeting for us the very next day with the President of the council for this region. Just like that. A meeting with the top man to present our plans. His name is Jose Marquis and he is the numero um. With a fantastic Portuguese moustache and a stoic, kind face, Jose listened attentively to our aspirations, ably translated by Sara for the yoga parts, and by her friend Ines for the environmental/gardening parts. At the end the man from Delmonte he said yes “you will have all the support from this council that we can give”. Nice one. Not sure whether this helped or hindered our cause, but Eloise was so overawed by the occasion of meeting the President that she dropped a wee fart in that meeting. I spun round so fast to look at Els and then back again in utter embarrassment and with hope that my offsprings contribution had not been acknowledged by the dignitaries in the room. Politely all pretended not to notice. Von and Josh did incredibly well to hold down the giggles.

(This one's a view from our courtyard)

Our angel Sara has also introduced us to Raquel and To’ from Apfam, the forestry charity that works here (Von will tell more about that delicious encounter) with whom we want to partner with to help them implement their sustainable land strategy for the region. And yesterday she arranged for us to meet the councils planning department. I don’t know whether you have had experience with dealing with planning departments in the UK. But accessible and generous are not words most people associate with dealing with them. In Oleiros though we were bold over by how they agreed to meet us so quickly, how 5 obviously busy professionals all gathered round us to listen to what we want to do here and how eager they were to make us feel welcome that they went off to find gifts for us. All we expected to achieve was say a quick hello before seeking formal planning permission later in November, but instead we left with 2 bottles of the powerful locally made vodka called Aguardente, a jar of yummy honey, an Oleiros pen and a personal and immediate introduction to an architect they recommended called Filipe Bartolo. Truly astonishing. And we are really grateful to Sara for opening all those doors for us. Muito obrigado Sara.

Finally, on the subject of hook, line and sinker, lets talk fishing. In my final year at college, I was sitting in a particularly dull accounts lecture scribbling notes down as fast as I could. A friend, Nick Marshall, sitting next to me at the time was in contrast writing absolutely nothing. What you doing, I asked. He wrote down a line that I will never ever forget. With an arrow pointing towards the pompous lecturer he wrote. “Bet he can’t catch a fish with a spear.” Since that day I have always wanted to learn how to fish. If or when the western world crashes, our so called advanced professional skills like accounting, too oft valued with ludicrously high salaries, wont count for ought. To fish, to farm, to build fires, to feed your family will be the most treasured skills. So, I bought a 10 euro fishing rod from Decathlon and for 2 months have been trying to catch something in the rivers. "Tom" came out and showed me how to do it, but we caught nothing apparently because we didn’t have the right tackle. Last weekend we popped into Coimbra and bought the appropriate hooks and bait and tried them out immediately. Again Josh and I had no luck. But along came Eloise with a “Can I try Daddy?” Course you can sweetheart. 3 minutes later she reeled in an 11inch something just big enough to eat.

Since then I have a bit more luck but only caught a few tiddlers. Lost a load of tackle to the river bed in the process. But I'm hooked. Addicted to the serenity and the significance of this new pastime. "Tom" tells me some guys are able to meditate and call the fish to them just with the power of their minds. So in years to come while Von and the others are meditating on their yoga mats, you’ll know where I will be. When the first huge catch is landed, this blog will be full of nothing else but photos of the momentous occasion. I have faith. And patience. And hope. And lots and lots of time to practice. Ate logo as they say here. Laters.

On the Road to Zion - Josh

When we first saw Moses it was like a dream come true. All we had were smiles and ideas (this is after I changed my mind) and it was the same with "Tom and Jerry" our friends who are buying Bacelo (quinta parfume) aka: the perfume estate. Michelle was more like me but she is starting to feel what it could be like. Now, after a gazillion more ideas, guess what, we still have more! Every idea brings knew ideas and new smiles and new expressions (good ones luckily) and the picture just forms in our heads. My first idea (before I changed my mind) was houses with a huge garden. Now it’s changed to a garden with houses, except the houses drowned in flowers herbs and fruit. Who would want to live in a place like this? I certainly would.

When we first found Moses It was the end of summer. I should have been packing my rucksack and heading off to school. New teacher, year 6, yeah, cool. That is probably what everyone in my class at Myatt Garden thought. Guess what? Boring. I can imagine it. The end of summer was always the worst. Everyone walking around with the heat reflecting off the concrete and the windows. People shouting and screaming at each other; arguments about people pushing in front of other people in the four square line; having to eat in silence because the dinner hall always echoes. Not being allowed to share food and having to race to get a seat with your friends while the loser goes and cowers off in a corner with all the other rejects. All of this was probably happening while we lay laughing and eating in the Portuguese sun on the greening grass waiting for the sun to go down.

Another thing, I lived in London for 10 years of my life and not once did I notice a London sunset. I never saw one view without concrete (in London at least). It fact if it wasn’t for holidays in Barbados to see my great (in both ways) granny who goes to the gym 5 days a week, walks 5 miles everyday and is just hitting 75, or trips with my Dulwich Grandparents to Kent and Cornwall, or the 250 mile walk (400km) through England with The Lifeline Expedition, I would think that cows lay eggs and bacon came from sheep (those aren’t myths. Some kids do think that and that is scary). One last thing before I move on. To all those people out there (and I’m mainly talking to my teachers here) who wonder whether I am learning anything. I am. Not just maths and literacy either. I’ve learnt to fish, kayak, and many other sports. I am learning Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Geography and History from cool CDs and books for children aged 11-14 (key stage 3).

Amieira is our village, Olieros is our town. Dad and I are already looking for cricket clubs and have had a reply so far from one club here. There is a local football club in Olieros. Portugal has a cricket team, loads of great football teams. Porto FC is my Portuguese football club, (that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on Chelsea though), I could get used to their national football team and their cheating ways (World Cup 2006 and Euro 2004 still fresh in the memory I’m afraid). The best surfing beach in Europe is 2 hours away. A great skim boarding beach is an hour away. Decathlon is in Coimbra, only two hours away. We are not too secluded but not too close to the busy city life either.

Right now if I was back at my old life – our house is already on the market - I would be finishing my lunch in silence, not being able to talk to most of my friends who eat school dinners or are sitting on a table that is full, just because I didn’t get there in time. I would just be leaving for the playground for the last 10 minutes of playtime and then be going in for literacy that I have been learning (would you call writing out 4 letter words in handwriting and being bored to death learning?) for the past year. Right now I am learning because I want to after just helping Ellie with her maths for forty five minutes and letting her ask as many questions as possible but making her answer them. I can learn for as long as I like without being told ‘it’s time to stop now’ or ‘if you haven’t finished you haven’t finished you have to do your work at playtime’. I don’t have to wait in a queue for cold pizza or vegetarian (at school the meat is unidentifiable, it might as well be from a guy who died at war) food that looks like brown porridge (I like porridge but I’m not eating that). My P.E lessons are what ever I like, hiking, cricket (if possible), football. Home education is literally like camping. You get to go orienteering, climbing, catapulting, and all just trying to get to Moses!

My mum says I have to write something I appreciate about my old school. So. I had some really cool teachers and I learnt a bit. I really liked the school trips like going to Kent and following riddles and maps to try and find your way out first. I really do miss the cricket competitions (well of course I do I was captain of ks2 which is an accomplishment for a boy in year 5), and we did win some trophies (I was given a leaving card from my class with a picture on the front of me kissing the trophy in a competition that was postponed for 5 months due to a storm that flooded the pitch in 2 feet of water). In the football cage at playtime (which was not my favourite time because when we lost it was blamed on the centre forwards) and I scored goals -which usually came 2 at a time and in long spurts. Like the last time I played 10 matches and scored 12 goals, the starting one being a header (which is not too hard for considering I was the tallest boy in year 5 and 2nd tallest out of all) that hit the under side of the cross bar (which is 1m high) then hit the post and went in the goal (I didn’t see it because I was jumped on by my team mates as soon as it hit my head but I was told by my friend Jedd, the next Petr Cech). I’m going to get all my school friends emails when we go back this December.

I’ve got to include my friends in this because they were all great. Tyrann and Luke, the 2 monkey boys who helped me get through with minimum trouble, Jedd, Jordan, Michael and Halim, the type of friends who you can completely trust, Rogan, Katie, Izzy, Alice, Anita and Melina, the girls that I enjoyed working in a group with (on the same table every year) and helped me when I needed it and I helped when they needed it. Like the musketeers, 1 for all and all for 1.

I do miss those summer Saturdays when we travelled to Dulwich (the very posh side) to see my grandparents house when our cousins Sam and Joel and Jasmine came over and Sam, Joel (sometimes), and I play cricket or golf with our grandpa from 09:00 till 12:00 when we stopped to eat my grandma’s famous chicken-nosh-up or cod or trout potato pie with butter-drowned carrots and then apple crumble with whipped cream just to go out and play cricket again. Or those weekends when we would stay at mums house (not my mum but our other grandma, Granny Arlene! With the Barbados accent) where we would eat Caribbean style chicken or lamb chops with sweet potato pie, macaroni pie and rice, and wake up at 07:00 to smell pancakes drowned in maple syrup. That’s what grandparents are for, as well as giving and receiving huge bear hugs (the hugs not our grandmas. I’m probably taller than both by now) that make your eyes pop out. But two or three days with your grandparents is not enough. We figured that the further we are from each other the more that we will see each other.

In the real world here in Portugal, Zion Retreats (the name we are thinking for what we want to do) has not yet gone under way, although in our minds it has already begun. There’s no turning back now. We are on the Road to Zion.
Hey! I’ve found a Motto!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

October in Central Portugal

Hello. New posts are coming soon we promise. There's been so much happening here in sunny Portugal (seriously sunny at 25+) this last month since we bought Moses and Quinta Perfume with "Tom and Jerry" and Michelle, that we've not had a chance to reflect for our blog. Vonny and I have been meeting as many people as possible. Builders, architects, politicans etc. We're so keen right, that even on our 13th wedding anniversary on Monday we chose to go see some (really lovely as it turned out called Freya and Evout living in Ameixeira) people about why building with lime and mortar is far better than using cement. Stacks more meetings planned next week too. So learning Portuguese as fast as we can.

Josh has just written his latest blog which he will post up shortly with new pictures. As always, he is sharp as ever. And after hours of fishing here with absolutely no result whatsoever, not even a bite, Josh and I taught Eloise how to cast last week when we popped into Coimbra for a few days. 3 minutes later she only goes and pulls out our tea. "Oh my days" I already know she will never ever tire of telling that little story. But my repost is already worked out. "Remember the time you let one rip in the office of the President of all Oleiros? " Details of that wee saga to follow.

Congrats to Joel and Zoe and Myla for making the jump out of formal school education too. Enjoy the ride folks.