Thursday, 27 December 2007

A Spanish Honeymoon

7 months after we left on our voyage of discovery, our Poop in Europe Tour is coming to an end. The Fellowship of the Poop broke 2 weeks ago when we tearfully said goodbye to our beloved cherubs Joshi and Elli at Lisbon Airport for their flight back to London (kindly chaperoned by Michelle) to stay with Papops and Grandma. Moses had said his goodbyes to the kids in the morning because he was to be spending the day (and night as it transpired, naughty thing) with Raquel. After months of travelling, exploring, wandering round France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, living cheek by jowl, sleeping, eating, washing, dressing, studying, chatting, laughing, singing, dancing and sharing every moment together in a single 5 x 2 metre room, all of a sudden, just like that, Von and I were alone.

For the whole 2 hour drive back to Oleiros from Lisbon we were quiet. Missing the kids before they had even taken off. Only our thoughts to keep us company. Reflecting on what an incredible truly life changing experience this year has been. Travelling like we have as a family has validity in itself. We are definitely stronger now than we were before we left. We know each other better. And what we know we like. Loads. It has been an experience that has dug a deep well that will last our little family for many years to come.

But the best thing is we don’t have to go back to what we were doing before. Our travels have opened the door for a chance to live in Portugal. With this view down the hills from our place. And it’s a chance we are grabbing with everything we have. We now have a future that is Portuguese. We will grow old there. See our children, grandchildren and probably great grand children actually be Portuguese. The possibilities of what that entails are so exciting that as soon as I ponder on them for just a minute, a thousand images explode through my imagination. Particularly how Von, Josh and Ellie (and not forgetting Moses and Angel) will be able to grow in ways that life in London simply does not permit. My prayer is that I will not waste the abundance of time available in this life unfolding before us.

Madrid & Barcelona
We spent a few days in Oleiros saying farewell and thank you to our truly lovely new friends. Cleaned up the house, packed up the motorhome and set off for London, with Madrid and Barcelona planned stops along the way. We knew this was the last trip we would take in the Mosiemobile. So it was a little sad too that we were also saying goodbye, maybe only for a while, to life on the open road.

We stopped for the night just over the border in a wee town called Alcantara and nipped into a couple of cafés just so we could hear the noise we knew we’d hear. We have found the Portuguese to be a very quiet people. Polite, good natured and respectful in public. The Spanish in comparison are so very different; they are unbelievably loud, brash, passionate and expressive. Even with just a few people in a bar, its sounds like there could be 100. I think I like Spanish culture, but because it seems more obvious, more immediate, it doesn’t intrigue me as much as my experience so far of Portuguese culture. As the border is just 90 minutes away from us and Madrid only 5 hours, I think Von and I will make regular forays here in future.

Spanish landscapes are just jaw dropping gorgeous in parts. Cork trees are magnificent on their own, but when they’re planted in such vast numbers, they take your breath away. We stopped at a campsite just outside Madrid for the afternoon, took Moses for a long walk through the countryside and then headed into the centre for a night out. 2 hours waiting for a bus wasn’t much fun but we reminisced on the days we were first married with no car and spent far too much time waiting for buses and trains in London. Madrid has a lovely vibe to it. Lovely old centre which doesn’t really wake up to party til 2 or 3 in the morning. We found a delicious and posh restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet and there we were, Von and I, on a date. No responsibilities. Just the 2 of us. Wonderful.

As the trip in and out of town was a little tricky we decided to leave the next day for Barcelona. And boy is it far away from Madrid. 13 hours of driving later we arrived. As the closest campsite was also a fair way out of town, about 13km, we decided to hire a little car and to stay for 3 days. This really was turning out to be like another honeymoon for us. Wandering hand in hand around Barcelona’s bohemian old quarter either side of the Rambla, popping in and out of shops and cafés, exploring the Picasso museum, marvelling at all the various Gaudi buildings and then taking evening strolls on the beach. Loved it.

Barcelona has a reputation of being one of Europe’s best cities and it’s clearly a fun place to be; the bohemian parts rival the best of Covent Garden and to be so close to the sea must be extra special in summer. But for me it didn’t live up to the hype. Apart from the rich heritage of arts and music, the dominant culture seemed to be that same old same old soulless modernist commercialism that is at the heart of so many of our cities. Maybe if we stayed there again with someone from Barcelona it would be different. We would see the city not as a tourist but from the inside out and have the chance to meet the people that have clearly made it a remarkable place for so many others. Next time I think we’ll fly though. That drive from Portugal is a beast.

Blocked by the British
The final leg of the Poop in Europe tour was upon us. A drive straight through the centre of France (stopping off regularly for Almond Croissants – how do they make them so scrumptious) to Paris and then north to Calais for the ferry to the white cliffs of Dover and for England. We had booked the early morning crossing in order to leave us plenty of time to arrive for my Dad’s 70th birthday bash. Unfortunately the border control officials said the tick treatment issued and certified by a vet we’d seen in Barcelona, was not acceptable for the British authorities. So we would have to see another vet in Calais and wait 24 hours before being allowed to board a ferry. It was gutting that we would have to miss the party and also bloody typical of the immovable systems of control that plague my country. Not once did any official even look at Moses to make a judgement on the risk. It was simply the wrong brand of tick treatment, so the right box on their forms couldn’t be ticked, and nothing would convince anyone any differently. Welcome home Andrew.

Finally we arrived in Dulwich, London, to the house of my parents where I was born. Great to see the kids again and Moses went a bit nuts with excitement at seeing my Dad. Christmas was lovely with Josh and Ellie really enjoying being with their grandparents and cousins again after so long. It’s now the day after boxing day and my family has gone to the ballet to see the Nutcracker. I’m at home in bed suffering a little from a dodgy flu. Although probably just exhaustion from all the Christmas shopping!

Anyway, that’s about it from me for 2007. Just to say a Merry Christmas and the most happiest of new years ever to you all.

Monday, 3 December 2007


Hi guys, it’s Von, or Maria if you prefer. So much has happened since my last blog that I am really not sure where to start. In order to cope with the multitude of comings and goings and decision makings I have been spending some of my time looking at trees, just staring, not moving enquiring into the possibility of giving my brain the opportunity to be quiet and still. One thought always leads to another and looking at my life now I see myself both as a small tree plant and as the gardener. The best way for me to explain where I am at now at this stage of our travels is through the metaphor of gardening. So bear with me a little and hopefully you will see where this metaphor goes.

I have been silent about being in Portugal because I have been watching, waiting, observing, is this place really the best place for us to plant ourselves as a family. When you have invested your time and effort in the growing of a small seed you want to make sure it’s the right place. Gut instinct and universal signs are wonderful indicators giving you a kick start or a nod in the right direction, but when you are responsible for the growing of something precious you want to be as certain as you can that the site is right. Whether I like it or not I have been at the centre of this move. It was me who said to Andy it’s time to go. It was me who said to the kids it is time to go. It was me who said to my dear friends Michelle and "Tom and Jerry" come and do this thing, whatever it is, with me. So after the thrill of moving, travelling and finding Moses I went into a little panic. Oh God, is this the right place, is this the right place for all these beautiful people to plant themselves?

The Greenhouse
A greenhouse is a place where little seeds are planted into a little soil. As the gardener you provide the greenhouse to give this fragile life some protection and shelter in the hope that it will grow. You provide some water and nutrients, you cover them when they are under the soil with some black plastic to encourage humidity and moisture retention, to make sure that the strong light of the sun that they will eventually need, does them no harm. As the gardener you watch over them, you wake early to see if they have awoken and as soon as that first green sprout shows itself above the surface you invite them to come into the light. You keep them warm but not too hot. You water them never letting them dry out but never drown them. You talk to them, whisper welcome to them, tell them you love them and can’t wait to see them flourish if you are a crazy loon like me you may even walk in every now and again and brush your hands lightly over them to encourage them to resist you and grow stronger. At some point you know that in order to facilitate better growth you will have to pinch out the top growth of that plant to encourage branching, the first pruning. You marvel at their rapid growth and recognise that no matter how much you do that the majority of the magic of their growth belongs to the seed and not to you.

Barbados was my greenhouse. My family did this for me. I was watched, loved, cherished, kissed, cuddled, encouraged to grow in every direction possible. When I was getting a little leggy (ie lippy) and out of hand I was pinched out, pruned to encourage better growth. And for all this I am truly grateful. To be loved and cherished as a child is the single most important thing a family can give and looking back now I can see that all that was given to me freely. But there comes a time when each little plant must leave the greenhouse go through the difficult stage of acclimatisation and enter the nursery bed.

The Nursery Bed
When I left Barbados at 17 I left with very little in my suitcase and a whole lot of love and encouragement in my heart. The nursery bed is all about that little plant beginning to spread roots and to become strong in a less protected environment. Indeed at first acclimatisation was difficult, the cold, the grey, the rain, the loneliness of not being surrounded by all the other little plants just like me. The loneliness of being without family. But England is a great gardening place and so many people in their own way facilitated that growth. My wonderful teachers at the London School of Economics. My great friend Eska who shared a pineapple with a lonely sullen Bajan girl and got me on my way to spreading roots - to finding Andy. I will never forget the magic of that first Christmas at the home of my father and mother in law, Rev Pops and Dr. Mops. In that truly beautiful English home I was welcomed and I was taught. I learnt so much about the environment I was in about the finer aspects of English culture, English life and most thankfully I learnt about English gardening. At Shardeloes Road the largest possible roots were spread with my beautiful friends. So many beautiful people have passed through that house and in their passing I grew stronger, with good root system and wide branches and with my beautiful Andy established some plantlets called Ellie and Josh. London was a great nursery, a wonderful place to grow and to be challenged. I left London a much stronger and more capable person.

One man and a chainsaw or an axe or a sickle or a knife or a stick…or basically anything that cuts a path.
I have discovered that my hubby loves a chainsaw or anything that can cut through a path. With great determination he has managed to clear so many of the old overgrown paths around Mos and during that process we have discovered that the land we have bought is even more special than we first thought. It has been wonderful to spend days cutting and hacking and chopping and shifting and getting horribly scratched up by brambles. The finest time so far is when we discovered that running along the boundary of the land are the most beautiful series of granite pools surrounded by impressive trees and rocks that look like megaliths. We have also discovered that there is a whole lot of cutting down to do so that will keep him occupied and happy for some time to come, result! So now we know that there is good solid hard work to do.

Leaving the Motorhome
Once the weather started to change and Michelle came we realised pretty sharpish that it was time to go. Off we went to our dear friend Sara just to ask if she knew of anyone who was renting a house or apartment with some space outside for Mosey. Within 24hours we had moved into a lovely house with more space than we knew what to do with after so long in the motorhome and the best thing of all… a hot bath! Yipppeeee! At this moment we Poopers are now comfortably housed, well fed, well watered and very content. Thanks Sara. So we know that we don’t have to be stinky horrible campers for the next year or so.

Sara & Antonio’s Engagement PartyWhat do you do with a new house? You fill it with as many people as possible of course… When we heard Sara’s news last week that Antonio had proposed, we asked when the party was, naturally. But here they don’t have engagement parties. They seem to have parties just because they want to, but not for this reason. So we said because we are English that we simply had to host one for them and last Friday we held our first of probably many parties to come, in the house we’re renting. We cooked traditional Bajan food, everyone ate and drank loads, and a few stayed til the early hours, singing, joking and drinking in the kitchen or in front of the huge roaring fire in the lounge. At 2.30am someone announced it was time for the traditional Portuguese final drink of the night. The last one. The one you drink and then say goodbye and go. However it seemed to kick start more singing and drinking of wine, port and aqaurdente. 2 hours later it was all over. (Pictures: the happy betrothed. Or at the time of taking these at 4.30am more like the patient Sara and Antonio the baird!) So now we know that good parties can be had in our pad, absolutely essential for long winter nights.

First days at School for Josh and Ellie
The biggest burden I have been carrying is how will my children be able to interact with other children here if we live at Mos? Once again the support of good friends came to the rescue and for this we have to give huge thanks to Annabella or Bellita or Bellina as I like to call her. Over the course of the time we have been here she has given the kids worksheets in Portuguese and then one night at the bar she came and said to the kids, “would you like to come to my class next week?” On the first day we arrived at the school gates, let’s just say we were really nervous. Standing at the gates were an entire class. Now normally in London that would have had made us very nervous. But, as we walked up we were welcomed with a chorus of “Hello!” and within minutes Joshua and Ellie had disappeared totally enveloped by the most beautiful smiley bunch of school kids. Within the week Josh and Ellie had been to three classes and by the end of the week they were talking about going to school. What an amazing breakthrough for Josh and El. Muito obrigada Bellina, I can’t tell you how much that experience meant to all of us. (Pictures: Spot Josh and Ellie amongst the kids and in the far right corner just a little taller than the children is Bellina)

So now we know that Josh and Ellie will make friends here.

Tree Huggers
A special big up has to go to our dear friend Raquel. Raquel is definitely the mover and shaker of the group. She manages to speak English so fast that I have to ask her to slow down just so this slow Bajan girl can keep up. So far Raquel has managed to give us an amazing education on the local flora and fauna around here including a terrific seminar this week on the amazing Medronheiro trees and their fruit, the Medronho (pictured here in the fruit bowl, in the cakes and in the Aguardente). The best time for me though was when she took us to the local tree nursery. So many tiny and somewhat larger trees lovingly planted in a nearby forested valley waiting to be rehomed as sadly the nursery is closing sometime soon. And all of them, no matter what their size, can be bought for 25c each. I am still hoping that we will be able to save some of them and take them to Mos with us, but not so sure. For now we have just been going for walks there and are truly grateful that our other friend Barbara (gosh I could write a whole blog entry on our time together so far) will be coming and taking as many of them as she can. (Pictures Medronheiro fruit cakes. Very good. Just about everything to eat here is very good). So now I know 2 people who are as madly in love with trees as I am.

A Permanent Hole
Ultimately the aim of every gardener (especially one who is dealing with trees) is to find a permanent home for the plant you have grown and cared for. A site where you can plant it in the hope that it will take over the care of itself and in time care for you so becoming an important part of the life cycle of your shared environment. A good tree in the right environment should limit soil erosion, soaking up excess water to make the land more usable, provide clean life giving oxygen and take away your carbon dioxide. It should give some shade on a hot day and shelter for wildlife. It may even give you beautiful foliage, scented flowers or fruit. In short it will not only care for you but it will reveal the fullness of its beauty. For all this to happen the right tree has to be planted in the right place or the effects can be devastating.

Is what I have discovered here what I need to make the decision that Oleiros is the right place for us?

After careful observation this is what I know. The place is beautiful, no doubt. But the people! They’re truly amazing. On our first meeting with the President of Oleiros two things struck me. One, he listened intently saying very little and two, the little he did say. At the end of our huge nervousness induced monologue he said, “You’ll have all the support you need.” I went away from that meeting thinking about those words and I have been thinking on them ever since. What is it that we need, what is the support that we need? The answer I think is the same as it always is: the support of people. It was the support of people who helped me to grow in Barbados and to thrive in London and it is always the support of people that we need. Without that, all hopes, dreams and potentials at best limp along and at worst die.

If I had moved to Portugal just for the beautiful place, it would have been enough and together my friends, Michelle, "Tom and Jerry" and my family Andy, Josh, Ellie, Moses and Angel would have made a life work. If I had then realised that there was a lovely community of people who we could be on the outside of and just enjoy the fact that they were here that would have been enough too. I would still have got pleasure from watching them. But, this is not how it is. We have come to Oleiros and found a community of people who have welcomed us, who have helped us each and every step of the way and have become friends. (This is the lovely Carlos whose married to the delightful Theresa.)

Almost every night we have met them at the fantastic Bar called “Calado” which translates in English as “Shut Up”. Calado is owned by the totally yummy Pedro (in the GANT top with Umberto and Ines). Here we meet everyone and laugh, watch football, play cards but mostly do the opposite of the name ie talk. It is this talking that has been the most wonderful thing. We have discovered that just like us many of our new friends have moved from the cities, have taken all their incredible skills, energy and hopes and decided to plant them, like us, right here in this little town of Olieros. They hope to plant, to grow, to nourish themselves, the people around them and the environment in which they live. This similarity is wonderful but the truly exciting thing for me is their approach.

Yes we have great bars in London too, yes we have friends but these guys in Oleiros have something that I think has been lost in London. They have the desire to move forward together and they make the time no matter how tired they are to be together and to make sure that everyone is ok. That no one is alone. That everyone has someone to share time with at the end of the day (usually at Calado) no matter how the day has gone for themselves. In London I could never do this, so caught up was I in my own personal drama that there was never enough time to share. They share time and you know what guys, it is really really good. It is perhaps the best kind of support anyone can receive; it is the basis of community. This community is ripe for growth in all directions. (Picture: Ines, another tree hugger who I hope will one day help us to grow alot of herbs at Mos.)

You see, you can move to a place and set up your own little island and not be a part of anything around you. That is not for me. I was concerned that that was what would happen; that we would move and be put in a position of setting up our own little Eden because we would not be able to be a part of a wider community. Nope not for me. It is largely because of this community of people that I know this is the right place and the right time. I now feel we can grow here. It is not just my own personal growth that is important or the growth of my family or my immediate friends, but the growth of the whole, together. I want to be a strong tree here. Not just for me but for all. It is a fragile land here in Olieros. For most of my new friends their partners live away, in either neighbouring towns or in the cities, because there is not enough work. The weather is beautifully sunny here now, and in many ways that is lovely but it should be raining and if it doesn’t rain what then? Will there be fires, will the trees survive? Will my new friends have to leave some day simply because the environment can not support their needs? Will we one day have to move on for whatever reason? Is this our permanent planting hole? The answers to these questions no one knows. And I find yet again I have to rely on instinct. My instincts tell me that there is good life to be had here, not flashy life, not showy life, not a life of constant leisure but a life of time shared and a life of community and a life of hard work and a life of open arms. So whenever you are ready come and share time with us. Our arms (just like our postbox that we finally got the key for a few days ago) are wide open.

Life, parties, markets, Oleiros. By Josh

The past few weeks have been great. We’ve been gardening, on the internet every day looking for mosaic makers and suppliers, the best type of horses to get (we think we should get the Lusitano aka: the wind and pride of Portugal, and the Peruvian Paso: bred for working the land and carrying heavy loads. Considering they are both 14-15.5 hands I would say that they should be top of the list since we have two six-foot-something guys with us and Ellie is supposed to be 6ft 4” and I’m supposed to be 6ft 6”) and have found some local suppliers. We have our tools (sickle, clippers, mini shovel and fork the only thing we need is a chainsaw to cut down the dying fig tree in our courtyard) and we are searching LOCALLY for tractor suppliers and 4x4 suppliers (quatro by quatro as they say here in Portugal). We have had our first proper conversations (Ellie and I get one word every 10 which is enough to put a sentence together and no matter how many times we say ‘mais devagar por favor’ they never slow down, it’s even harder now we have the accent and I look so Portuguese). So far we love it here and there is a new surprise every day.

My vocabulary is small but I understand the difficult words and many of the words are similar to English words (name=nom) and Italian words (Portuguese is Latin slang). 2 in 3 people speak French and I can spot it when someone switches language after spending 4 weeks in France so the sentences eventually piece together. It’s great learning the language. Mummy says that when I go to sleep my mouth is in a permanent pout because Portuguese is all ‘shushes’ and ‘ão’s’ (pronounced like ow!) it is definitely one of the romance languages. Every day I’m learning at least one new word or verb (we have tackled the hardest one ‘to be’ but frustratingly there are three verbs for ‘to be’ in Portuguese) which is difficult. I think Moses speaks the most Portuguese because the amount of people that come up to him and say ‘oh bonito!’ and speak at the speed of light must be about 50 billion a day.

We can trust everyone in Olieros like family; we leave our bikes outside the café in Amieira, we park our motor home outside the school or the gym, everyone knows us since everyone in the council are our friends. Every Tuesday there is a market which is really cool because everybody shouts out and rings bells to draw people’s attention so it gives it a feel of those old English Medieval movies. Olieros is our home. It has a fountain ten times too big for the town with a park that is 20m² that looks like it is there to soak up all the spray from the fountain. The funniest part is when all the sprinklers turn on and miss the plants completely, when they turn off though the cars are all sparkling. Olieros is like one of those villages that you see in cheesy T.V. shows. It has a butcher a baker and a candle stick maker (I’m not sure about this last one but it makes it sound good). Since it’s a farming village it has a ratio of 10:1 of bars and houses and the restaurants are full of beef, pork and chicken (I bet you that if fairytales could include bars and loads of meat they would). Olieros has everything we farmers need. It even has a good clothes shop and the market has the best jeans and jumpers I’ve ever worn. Olieros is known for its school (it’s so good the one in Amieira has gone out of business) and its children in fact we are visiting it today (the last half of this blog will be written after we go to the school). Yes, Olieros is perfect. Everyone knows us and everyone loves us and visa versa. What can you say? It’s Family.

Part II

A new adventure comes every minute it seems. An hour ago we took a 10 year old 4x4 out for a drive. Eventually we found out that Mummy was going to have to drive. Mummy had never driven a manual before so it was either the 3m (9ft) 4x4 or the 8m (26ft) 4.5 tonne motor home so she chose the mosiemobile mark II.

We bought the 4x4 from a place just out of Olieros (I said locally) and drove off. Although mummy had not driven a car (let alone a left-hand-drive manual 4x4 on the right side of the road) in 6 months I almost fell asleep if it wasn’t for the incessant panting mixed with the I-need-oil kind of squeak. My mother drove so well for a beginner (it was probably the smoothest drive I had since London!) that I actually thought dad was driving (the only way I remembered mummy was driving was the dad goes 30kmph to fast). The only bit that made her jump was when a coach was coming round the corner (in Amieira¿!?¡) so she had to reverse (well this was a tough first lesson) up the hill. I am very proud of my mother but she will give you the more detailed part of the story.

We entered yet another dinner with no camera and my friend João (there are many João’s in Portugal) gave us a tour round the school. The first thing we all noticed was that the classrooms were all spotless. The cleaners said that they’re like that all day and that they are just employed to sweep and mop. After that we ate……and ate……and ate……and ate…….and ate……and……then sat round watching castanhos (sweet chestnuts) roast.

Everyone wants an excuse to have a party (we haven’t had one yet but on Friday we’re introducing engagement parties to Olieros for Sara, our angel, and Antonio; the next pictures were added after the party), Whether it’s because somebody has been given thousands of castanhos (normally the reason) or whether it’s because some strange English people have come to a little town -which maps only show if they’ve been made there- to live. Olieros is the party town (dad nicked that from this blog) and that is something that should make it map worthy.

We’ve rented a little house on the outskirts of Olieros (Olierosers don’t believe that it has outskirts and that it just fades away) and I’m sleeping on the floor (it feels strange trying to sleep in a bed) in a really cool camping type bed. We have a huge open fire that heats the whole house up only when it’s on (we experimented and found that orange peel, banana skins and flies all burn, BURN, BURN!!!!!). The lady bought a washing machine (that’s already packed up and gone away after a week) a really nice leather sofa and a 50 year old Hoover and a brand new toaster. We have already made use of the bookshelves and are making it home.
Life is absolutely great here. Parties=Olieros, social life=Olieros and to Olierosers, Portugal=Olieros. Olieros=a good life.