Amazing grace

By SKIP BANDELE [email protected]

Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 10 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.

Imagine the shock when I realised that our paper’s new publishing schedule for this page will see me without my, by now customary, festive contribution come December – Christmas 2009 without cheer?

The truth is that Yuletide celebrations arrived early this year – no, I am not talking about premature displays of stollen at either Aldi or Lidl nor referring to President Obama’s questionable Nobel Peace Prize award – while, as always seems to be the case, those moments of joy experienced in October were tinged with healthy doses of nostalgia and sadness normally associated with an emotion and alcohol-fuelled Boxing Day hangover.

Let me turn first to the early Christmas gift, a life-changing about turn in my personal fortune, the final details of which happily coincided with the date of my father’s 81st birthday last week.

I fell in love with the Algarve during my first visit back in 1985. The ‘affair’ matured over many a subsequent break taken from my hectic working life in London and Berlin until my stay in the south of Portugal became permanent in 1997.

As many of us have experienced however, holidaying and making a living here are two entirely different sides of what at first appears to be a gilt-edged coin. The original intention of taking over my parents’ ailing restaurant in partnership with my sister evaporated the moment I stepped off the bus in Portimão as a buyer for the property had at long last made retirement for mum and dad a financially viable fact.

Determined not to reverse my decision to leave northern climes and the ‘rat race’ behind for ever, I found myself jobbing in a series of contrasting places ranging from souvenir shops to a scuba diving base before eventually gaining a degree of permanency with the position of groundsman at a local tennis club. Tennis had been a focal point of our family life for as long as I can remember and the daily demands of five clay courts soon saw the past 11 years fly past.

This summer, drastic changes in the personal circumstances of the hitherto lease holder and coach have given me the opportunity to assume that role together with one of my best friends who shares my passion for the sport. As you are reading these words, I should be sitting pretty in the warm autumnal sunshine, surrounded by palm trees and red earth, finally the master of my own destiny in this heavenly part of the world.

All of which brings me back to the aforementioned ‘mixed feelings’. My father, whom I accompanied on that first visit all those years ago, felt as I did and immediately settled in Monchique; my mother followed.

Her best friend over almost two decades spent in London, Heido, became a regular guest at least once every year from that point onwards. A youthfull and well travelled lady who numbered Ibiza, ex-Yugoslavia, Israel and Florida among her previously frequented holiday destinations and was thus in a good position to be discerning, also developed a passion for what has become our refuge, our paradise, our adopted home.

Arriving pale, drawn and tired at Faro airport year in and year out, Heido was always, and without fail, transformed within a very short space of time, literally blossoming in the Algarve air, its sweet aroma, the tranquillity and golden atmosphere.

Vitality restored, she would borrow my mother’s beaten up Renault 4 as the sun started to climb above the green and rolling hills and head for a randomly chosen secluded beach armed only with an oversized towel and a good book to indulge in her personal therapy of watching and listening to the sea.

Other days were spent sitting on the roof terrace, painting the breathtaking views to the coast in loving detail before descending to partake in a simple chicken dinner with friends as dusk set in.

Heido sought and found peace in the Algarve, a quality and blessing we sometimes take for granted, while living the dream which, for many others, remains a short if not virtual reality. Every time Heido departed, tanned, radiant, relaxed and completely renewed, she left a different person entirely and us in awe of the miraculous transformation.

The annual pilgrimages suddenly stopped a few years ago. Heido, who had embraced the Algarve much like a drowning woman would a life-preserving piece of wood in a turbulent sea, was diagnosed with the motor neuron ALS disease and given 12 months to live.

Her vivid memories of the Algarve, refreshed by my mother’s regular trips to her bedside, sustained her an incredible and ever-cheerful four years in defiance of all medical opinion.

She died on September 7 as my mother was on the way to Heathrow, enormously moved through the hot tears by the fact that she had been allowed to spend the last days and hours prior to her friend’s passing together.

To my family, Heido became, and will always remain, a symbol, an identity which prompts us to appreciate and value all which surrounds us here. Heido remained, became as one with the Algarve, our place of dwelling. We carry her around with us in our hearts every day, her love for the place eminating with every single beat.

Even as I sit here gazing at ‘my’ paradise with moist eyes and a lump in my throat, I can feel the physical presence in the chair next to mine. A warm smile touches me, not tears, and I feel deeply moved to say “heaven can wait” in a voice clear and calm, audible to all.

                                                 The Loved One

                                  When the mountain seems too high,

                                  And the path too long,

                                  Remember that souls can fly,

                                  The loved one is not gone.

                                  She lives on in your minds,

                                  Her soul did not depart,

                                  Everywhere you notice the signs,

                                  Hear her song in your hearts.

                                     Do not let the pain make you blind,

                                     Her suffering was not kind,

                                       To love her so,

                                       Almost means to let her go.

                                       Her spirit is soaring!

                                       Her thoughts for you adoring,

                                       The pain has set her free,

                                       Just because you cannot see-

                                       The loved one is still with you,

                                     To her memory be true!

Skip Bandele can be contacted by emailing [email protected]