E-mail from the green and unpleasant land

Thursday January 29

I was sitting on a bench in the gardens outside Faro airport at 10am yesterday. The sun shone warmly on my face, a gentle breeze moved the palm trees and I made steady progress through my ‘airport novel’. At 5pm, the Stansted Express chugged into Liverpool Street among a throng of hats, gloves and scarves. Red-faced commuters hustled hurriedly past as a gentle layer of snow began to settle around the static buses and taxis on Broadgate. I don’t know how one measures wind chill factors, but it chilled the blood. By 10pm, I had been back in the ‘old country’ five hours and it felt as if I had never left. Rail crisis, traffic chaos, Hutton whitewash, Arctic winds, M25 nightmare…on and on it went. We English love to make a drama out of a crisis. If one more person says, “it’s like an ice rink out there,” I shall not be responsible for my actions.

Thursday February 5

The Arctic winds have subsided, but everything else is as I remember it – a nation of bureaucratic bunglers, hell-bent on destroying any minutia of leisure time one might be hoping to enjoy. Every utility company, service industry, retailer and call centre completely misinterprets the simplest of messages and messes-up big time, leaving the poor UK citizen to spend endless hours e-mailing, phoning, faxing and explaining. All is calm for a few days until it becomes evident that the previous ‘sorting out’ exercise has also been misinterpreted leading to more confusion and the inevitable follow-up calls to try to salvage the situation.

My parents were due to visit Portugal at Christmas. Unfortunately, my father became ill, was admitted to hospital and had to cancel. It is now early February and they are still waiting for the holiday insurance and airline to reimburse them. It has been the usual story of sending doctor’s notes, only for the insurance agent to say that it’s been lost – send another, never arrived and so on. Easyjet scanned the document because they are a ‘paperless office’ then lost all their files in a computer crash. Who had to come up with a paper copy? My parents – fortunately theirs is not a paperless house! Eventually, after more wrangling and no action from the airline, my parents agreed to a quick settlement and lost £60. The only ‘success story’ in all this was the Hotel Garbe in Armação de Pêra, where my mother had intended to stay. They received my mother’s e-mail, accepted her word and refunded the money to her bank account the following day, along with a kind message.

Thursday February 12

Back on the farm, Martyn is working hard. He has been sowing more seeds and even doing a bit of weeding. The beans and peas that I planted in January are growing well and he is picking vast quantities of purple sprouting broccoli. The goat kid has become quite boisterous and spends much of his time chasing chickens. Martyn hasn’t begun milking the goat yet, but will have to start soon. The goose has finally laid an egg… we have only been feeding her for a year. Some of our own (home-hatched) chickens are now laying and Martyn stumbled upon a pile of 12 eggs in a makeshift nest they had built.

I have been living in a cupboard at my parents’ home while I’ve been visiting the UK because they moved to a small flat a few years ago. Undeterred, I arrived at the doorstep and now sleep on an inflatable airbed in a cupboard, surrounded by ironing boards, milk cartons, brooms and all the other unsightly essentials that one condemns to cupboards.

Life with the parents is proving to be engaging. After a lifetime of abstinence, my father has hit the kitchen with gusto. The aroma of Lemon Drizzle Cake, Norwegian Apple Cake and other delights permeate every corner of my cupboard, until I can resist temptation no longer. Meanwhile, my mother’s day is taken up with various clubs and organisations, partaking in stretch classes, doily making and calligraphy lessons, to name but a few. Her teacher let her bring home a lovely piece of writing today and I will clear a place on the kitchen wall for it later. In her club-free hours, she has got me hooked on scrabble, and appears to have an infinite memory for two letter words that no one else has ever heard of.

My parents’ ability with technology is almost as frightening as their willingness to accept its failings. If the TV, DVD or Satellite box does not perform in the way it should, there is no great panic. They simply hoist out the whole carousel, pull out all the plugs, push them back in and retry. This time they invariably hit a different set of buttons and when the TV bursts into life they sit back satisfied in the knowledge that they have cured the problem. This saga was re-enacted three times in my first two days – my dad actually mooted the idea of putting the carousel on castors.

Then there’s the computer. My mother, who is in her mid-60s, took to the internet and e-mailing like a duck to water. She can surf, chat and e-mail along with the best, apart from one small problem: every time she goes online, some critical piece of software goes offline. Address books disappear, fonts change size, cursors stick and screens freeze up with alarming regularity. The loud ‘bing’ reverberates into my cupboard and I wonder if next month’s article has survived the latest ‘fatal error.’ Such is life.

Monday February 16

I thought I would check out a few poultry enthusiasts while I was here. Some specialise in selling fertile eggs for older breeds of hens that we cannot get hold of in Portugal. The Essex breeders I spoke to were all very helpful to begin with, but, as soon as I asked about the ‘meat eating’ qualities of the birds, relations deteriorated somewhat. Responses ranged from a mild: “We don’t eat our birds, goodbye,” to reactions so severe one would have thought I’d suggested we eat their grandchildren. Perhaps life on the farm has made me a little more ‘savage’ than I realised.

Wednesday February 18

I have now relocated to a friend’s home in London – life out of the cupboard is certainly less claustrophobic. Regrettably, my arrival coincided with them beginning a ‘Vegetarian GI diet’, to which I am also subscribing. One can only enthuse about bulgar wheat salads and lentil soup so much, but I am doing my best. I am looking forward to a weekend break in Norfolk with carnivorous friends and have mentally prepared an abundance of meat-fest meals.

Monday February 23

My first meat-based purchase on the way to Norfolk was a reduced priced bacon sandwich from a supermarket. I then spent the whole weekend with severe food poisoning, crippling stomach cramps and an inability to eat. If anyone requires a public toilet guide to the Norfolk broads, I’m your man! As for the scenery, I was too cold, wet and distressed to notice.

Wednesday February 25

My parents, due to a multitude of near misses, are thinking of trying life without a car. To have a dry run, as it were, they have lent me the car for a couple of weeks. I visited them today to see how things were going – not well it seems. I heard tales of epic bus journeys, torrential downpours, cancellations and expensive taxis. One tale involved a dash to one bus stop, missing that, then dashing back to the original stop, only to miss the newly arrived bus. It all sounds quite harrowing, principally because the bus drivers view the whole exercise of avoiding passengers as an Olympic sport. What with that and mum’s propensity to stand on the wrong side of the road, I think my car days are numbered.

Sunday February 29

My month in Britain was not optional and, as such, has not been particularly enjoyable. Martyn’s e-mails are now beginning to have a desperate air about them. In true ‘animal farm style’, the livestock, seeing a chink in the armour, are beginning to revolt. Fences are collapsing, goats are escaping and vegetables are being trampled with tedious regularity. Working on the farm alone is not easy and quite often can seem like an endless struggle against conspiring animals, weather and circumstances. On the positive side, he now has speckled turkey eggs to add to the omelette bowl and is using our own goat’s milk on his breakfast cereal.

Despite the occasional negative slant, his e-mails are filling me with a desperate longing to get back to Portugal and to the farm, as well as to him. This break in London has made me more certain than ever that we have made the right choice in moving to Portugal and I am looking forward to returning home, more than I have ever looked forward to a holiday. At last I think I understand the true meaning of saudades.

• Paul McKay offers private home tuition for primary aged children in all National Curriculum subjects. You can contact Paul on 282 912 857 or by e-mail on [email protected]