I am living in a country that needs signs on the motorway dictating no cyclists, tractors, children playing, or horses and carts. And then another, much larger one, to remind you NOT to graze your cattle there. On the motorway!
A country where night falls promptly at 5.30, with a bit of a thud and it’s either raining or not raining with nothing in between – no such thing as drizzle, or a light shower, just full on rain. Or not.
A country where I’m told, that if eat enough of the strange rubbery custard mixture that fills every cake here, I’ll get used to it and even grow to like it. And that if I want a pedicure, it is suggested I go and see the chiropodist.
But I like the unfamiliarity; there are puzzles here to be worked out constantly. Why are they doing that, or what does this mean? How are they able to cook every piece of fish to perfection, and then turn any slice of meat into fossilised shoe leather? I’ve watched Masterchef – I know which one is supposed to be harder.
And I like the dottiness. We took a run out to Spain last week and this gave me the opportunity to find more Service Station Shit. Check out these utterly terrified looking squeeze-toy chickens. What child could you hate enough to buy one for?
Our campsite is small and cosy, with spectacular views. It is mostly peopled with ex-pat Brits and several French couples. They come each year to over-winter here, some in camper-vans, but more and more having bought little bungalows, chalets, or converted caravans. They have well established gardens and patios, with fairy lights, cacti and huge terracotta pots.
My favourite neighbours are called Terry and June (Terry and June! I shouldn’t enjoy that as much as I do, but I am very immature). There is also an old surfer-type dude from Holland – called Hans, naturally. He wears a necklace and shorts and very little else, and drives a beat up old camper that he’s painted beach scenes on, then glued shells and rubber octopi on top. When he heard I was an artist, he asked me to paint a cactus on the other side. I said yes, mainly because I liked the plastic penguin sticking out of his petrol cap. Apparently, he has three different girlfriends that he brings over in rotation, and is a travelling troubadour (and you think my life’s good!).
We all went for a hill walk yesterday, organised by Sylvie – an ancient Geordie lady with a steely spine and wrist supports. We saw a snake and ate strawberries from a tree, though these are usually turned into a liquor. We should have waited until they had been, because it was like eating faintly fruit-flavoured gravel.
Afterwards, we all convened at their favourite cafe for beer and cakes, while they organised new trips out for the following week. It struck me that this is what retirement is like for people who can’t quit. Sylvie has a tandem. They’ve all trekked across New Zealand. They have forced themselves to like custard made of rubber. They are indomitable, even by time.
Sylvie and crew fit in well here because the locals are no less formidable. Little old ladies in black hats and head scarves stride purposefully down the roadsides, hefting small carts of produce to sell to passers-by. The fishermen we saw hauling in the catch on the beach, at Vieira de Leiria, were not young either.
One chap – who must have been well into his seventies – was in charge of scooping the fish from the net into the plastic trays that were piled up onto the truck. I counted eighty, and he bent and scooped more than once for each tray, moving at a relentless pace. It took over an hour and he never paused for breath once.
While we were still on the coast, Steve’s brother, Simon, and his wife, Alison, flew over to see us for a few days, and they kindly offered us a boat trip out exploring the Ria Formosa lagoon. Simon likes boats. He’s always had boats. He and Steve partially grew up in Southend, and even Steve had a boat when I met him. So this seemed like a good idea all round.
The lagoon is created from the shelter of several long, thin islands, some inhabited, some little more than half-submerged mudflats littered with seabirds. The trip was supposed to circle these allowing us to see the wildlife, stop off for lunch at one of the islands, and get an informative and educational understanding of that part of Portugal.
That might have been our experience – had we not Carlos as our guide, who clearly thought of himself as a bit of a showman. Which is what the job entails, I realise that, but he may have taken this to extremes. For instance: rather than give us the information about the Islands, he told us that we would only remember it if we worked it out for ourselves, by answering a series of questions as we went along. Sounds like fun, right?
Well, not so much. The questions were all ones we couldn’t possibly know the answer to, and if we did, then we wouldn’t have needed a guided boat trip in the first place. Nor was it especially effective, because I can’t recall much of what he actually told us (other than how pissed off I was when he asked all the men their occupations then declared he wouldn’t ask the women about their work because ‘they didn’t have to‘).
This question and answer bit took up a fair whack of time. At one point he actually stopped the boat, took out the key and dangled it over the side of the boat. We were not going any further, he declared, until someone got this right – ‘on which date did the Islanders protest against the government for giving fishing rights to the Spanish?‘ I think. Maybe. Can’t even remember which island, to be honest.
He went round the boat asking each of us to guess the date. Surprisingly, out of the 365 days we could have picked, all 13 of us got it wrong. So he went round again. ‘Think,’ he barked, ‘think like a Portuguese.‘ We genuinely had no idea what this meant.
Baffled by our ignorance, he gave us a clue; ‘the Name Day,‘ he said. Er, what? ‘Every Portuguese town has its own Name Day.‘ Then he made us all try again. And do you know, that not one of us British, French, or Danish knew every single town in Portugal’s name days, and so nobody got it right (May 16th, in case you’re wondering). And so we didn’t have lunch on the island because there wasn’t time.
But we did get to putter along looking at the birds, with the sun shining down and the sea and sky a pulsing azure. We did get to sip strong, dark coffee and ice-cold beer on one island, and watch the Atlantic surf pound, on another. Despite Carlos, and because of Carlos, in equal measure, we had a great day.