Teacher, Paul McKay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.
Saturday September 1
In 19 days we are going on holiday. A five-day break in Madrid. The difficulty for us is not the going away, as much as what we leave behind.
Although it would be something of an exaggeration to say that the work on the farm is gruelling, it would be true to say it is relentless and never ending. The watering can be left for five days at the end of September, true, but the animals need attending to twice a day, everyday, so a farm-sitter is needed.
Dogs, cats, pregnant pigs, ducks, geese and hens all have their various demands but there is a need for something more important than mere animal husbandry skills. A farm-sitter needs to be someone with common sense. Someone who can cope in a crisis. Someone who can think for themselves and not lose their head when chickens are losing theirs to rampaging mongooses. Someone who can remain calm as pigs are escaping, cars are exploding, taps stop working, electric fences start sparking, terraces begin flooding, houses collapse, geese start revolting and every electrical device known to man malfunctions.
Previous experience has taught us that the ’botch-up-your-holiday syndrome’ generally kicks off at about the same time as the ‘how to die in a yellow life vest demo’ ends.
No sooner has the cunning little light and whistle been explicated to all, when the first catastrophe back home is in full swing. Arrival at the destination is usually accompanied by an orchestra of bleeps and sirens as text messages flood in with details, queries and fraught cries for help.
On one memorable holiday when Martyn’s mother and father took care of the homestead, the fridge, washing machine and microwave all broke down within 48 hours of our departure. On another occasion, a trusted friend was left at the helm; two turkeys dropped dead, a cat became terminally ill and a strange, dishevelled man arrived at the door gesticulating in an alarming fashion.
As you can imagine, it is with mixed feelings that we anticipate our impending break. My friend Teresa will be doing the honours and I will be forever grateful to her.
Wednesday September 12
It has just become apparent that Teresa’s flight arrives at Faro after ours has departed to Madrid! I think I need to take up yoga.
Saturday September 15
George, our cat of 14 years, dropped down dead this morning. This does not bode well for the week ahead.
Tuesday September 18
I have just received an email from a friend accompanying us to Madrid, saying he will meet us at the airport at 11am. This is somewhat worrying as I thought we had arranged to travel together in his car. Must make a note to improve my communication skills.
Wednesday September 19
The flight was perfect. Martyn took his usual concoction of mind altering drugs (all prescribed) and topped off the cocktail with a gin and tonic that came in a plastic bag. For 30 euros return, they could have sat me in a bucket and served the drink in an old Lidl bag and I would have been happy.
As the metro pulled into Gran Via, the grimy, sweet, damp smell of the city filled the air and refreshed the lungs, welcoming us to the contrasts and contradictions that make up city life. The sound of sirens, car horns, clacking heels and the clatter of Spanish enlivened the senses and announced we had arrived in a city to be reckoned with. As we emerged from the earth, the city slapped itself upon our senses.
Tall, gracious buildings stretched up to the sky, competing with each other’s beauty to gain our attention. Their height and their magnificence could not thwart the strong Spanish sun, which flashed blindingly through every gap and crevice.
The wide pavements, crowded with news stands and café tables, burst with the loud chatter and the zest for life that the Madrilènes exude. Others hurried past in all directions and we needed to re-learn how to walk in a city.
Thursday September 20
All is well back on the farm except the TV isn’t working. Here in Spain I am slowly falling in love with Madrid all over again.
Sunday September 23
Madrid has been everything I hoped for and more. The enthusiasm, the openness and the sociability of the people who choose to live and to visit Madrid has to be experienced.
On entering a café, people will say hello and immediately begin talking to you and welcoming you to their city. While jogging in the park, other joggers will acknowledge you, smile and make you feel part of the city.
If caught looking at a map, people will offer to help. The streets are crowded, yet people make time and space for each other. The city is a vibrant happy mixture of young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight.
All live alongside each other in harmony and no-one seems to feel they have a right to judge the other.
After months in the country, it is easy to forget the assault to the senses that city life can be. Every stroll opens one’s eyes to more people and more life than one experiences in a month of living in rural Portugal.
On one stroll around the city I passed two nuns, who in turn were passing two gay men holding hands affectionately. The nuns smiled at the men and the men smiled back. On another occasion, I saw a priest greet a prostitute by name and bless her as he passed by. She thanked him and wished him Adieus Padre.
While jogging in the park I passed a gardener, sweeping paths while listening to opera on his radio. Five days in Madrid has left me feeling refreshed and replenished. Moreover, it has restored my faith in the kindness and possibilities of human nature.
Saturday September 29
Back in Portugal and I am hit by its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness. The contrast with Madrid could not be more stark.
For three days, the sun has shone. A gentle breeze seems to have blown away the tourists along with the intense summer heat, making the beach more welcome than it ever is in August. We had a wonderful meal in a Brazilian restaurant and then stumbled upon a poetry evening in a Portimão café.
Back on the farm, we sat outside and relaxed to the Monchique choir of owls, crickets and frogs. Just when you think you have found paradise, Portugal reminds you that you had it all along.