‘We are still truly living’

news: ‘We are still truly living’

Monday February 14

Martyn has been off on one of his regular visits to Wales and I have been coping alone here on the farm for just over a week now. So far, things are running quite smoothly… The longer days are, waking within the animals their need to breed, the more eggs hens churn out as each day grows a little longer. The geese have begun laying for the first time this year and loud, amorous behaviour in the pond can be heard for miles around each morning.

We have four female turkeys, which have also begun laying as well as making it very obvious to the stag turkey that they too are ready for some action in the bedroom department. They do this by sitting down firmly on the ground in front of him, thrusting their rear ends into the air and waiting for him to oblige. Unfortunately, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what constitutes a male turkey, resultingin regular squatting in front of anything that moves. This could be a bantam chick one day, or Tomas, our Siamese cat, the next.

Somewhat worryingly, the most regular squat and thrust offerings occur in front of me, as I try to shoo them into the safety of their house at night. Despite arming myself with some heavy boots and a length of bamboo, one amorous little girl refuses to budge no matter what I do to persuade her. So if you happen to be driving through the Monchique hills one evening and see a harassed, overweight farmer struggling up a hill with a 15kg bird swooning in his arms, you’ll know you’ve found me!

Wednesday February 16

It has taken me a while to realise it, but spending time alone can be rather good for the soul. The solitude allows one to spend more time thinking and reflecting, something I seldom make time for. During the past few days, I have found myself sitting in the sun reflecting upon the changes that have occurred here on the farm and in our little valley…

Sometime in the late 1980s, Thatcher was at the helm in Britain, south London was dominated by yuppie culture, Diana and Charles were still an item, a taxi driver was killed in Streatham, and Martyn and I were drifting. Somehow we had begun to follow the expected pattern of work, mortgage and more work. We had allowed life to make decisions for us, instead of deciding ourselves what to do with our lives. Deep down we knew we were not happy with something, but we hadn’t discovered what.

A 10-day holiday in Burgau led to a spur of the moment decision, resulting in us purchasing our very own dream, here in Monchique. At that time, Portugal was a much slower place, with the EN125 still meandering through unspoilt villages and across dusty railway tracks. Off the main roads, donkeys competed with Ford Anglias and power cuts were an everyday event. Monchique had very few made roads, a tiny petrol pump in the main square and a rather ‘down on its luck’ feel about it – we absolutely loved it!

After a few months, we were able to take the keys to our house and our voyage of discovery really began. The house had no electricity, no running water, no kitchen, no toilet and no bathroom. Holes in the roof and gaps under the doors encouraged plenty of wildlife, both internally and externally. When we pushed open the old wooden door for the very first time, the sunlight cut through the dust and, as our eyes adjusted, the enormity of what we had done hit us. We had ‘impulse purchased’ the farm under the influence of orange blossom, warm sunshine and home-made ‘medronho’. We had absolutely no idea how we were going to live, how to repair a house, how the water arrived, no idea about anything in fact. The door creaked in the breeze, the mice scattered and Martyn pointed out that there were tiles on the floor, a good start.

After a rather restless, insect and rodent dominated first night, we awoke bright and early to begin our new life. Running behind the house, up the mountainside through terraces of orange trees, was a well-trodden footpath. As we explored it, the absolute beauty and tranquillity of our new surroundings caught our attention at every step. After a few minutes, we stumbled across a small ‘mina’ spurting out sparkling water onto the rocks below.

Buried under a bouquet of wild flowers was an old pipe intended to carry the water to the house. As Martyn lowered himself down the 8ft drop, I returned to the house to trace the other end of the pipe. I waited, nothing happened. I got involved in a little weeding, waited a little longer…nothing happened. After half an hour, I returned to the mina to find it completely deserted. New to this ‘life in the country lark’, I peered around a little and then returned to the house – the idea of disturbing the tranquillity by calling out simply did not occur to me. I can’t remember being worried, simply curious. I returned to the house and busied myself with some meaningful sweeping.

Two hours later and slurring a little, Martyn returned to the house looking a little flushed. Apparently, he had fallen into the 8ft hole (which turned out to be a 10ft hole) and been rescued by an elderly neighbour, whose house is 15 minutes uphill from us. Sr Eleutério had boomed a loud ‘boa tarde’, lifted Martyn out on the end of a spade, taken him to his house and plied him with whisky.

Sr Eleutério and his wife Felicia spent the next few months showing us how to sort out the essentials of mountain living without electricity. They lent us a gas oven, shared their tools, explained the methods of accessing and directing the river and mina water, and taught us the complex array of information and skills needed to live the simple country life. Their kindness and hospitality to complete strangers is an attribute many of us could learn from – it has had a lasting affect on me to this day.

Those early days in Portugal were both exhausting and exhilarating. For the first time in many years, we were really living. Discovering new food, learning new skills, finding time to talk and enjoying life. For the first time since who knows when, we were able to get up in the morning and say “what shall we do today?”

Tuesday February 22

Today, as I look around me, I see the farm and Portugal have changed immensely. Monchique now has chic cafés, fountains, swimming pools and tourists. Our farm has hot and cold running water, a toilet, concrete pathways and electricity. We can drive on motorways to Lisbon or Seville in the time it used to take to wash the clothes. I often wonder which I prefer, but realise that choosing between the two is not possible. They are both so very different, yet each helps us to appreciate the other. The one thing that hasn’t changed is far more important than anything that has. We are still living – truly living. What we do, we do because we want to, not because we feel we have to and not because we simply haven’t thought about it.

We are still together because we want to be together not because we just happen to be together. We are happy because we appreciate what we have and aren’t constantly seeking something perceived to be better. We are still able to get up in the morning and say “what shall we do today?”