… where we got all the last presents and had a lovely Piri piri chicken lunch; I wonder what the health inspectors would’ve had to say about it!
As I sit here it’s just started to rain outside and I’m smiling fit to bust.
No, I’m no masochist, and I know that it sounds truly funny for an English/Irishman to be smiling at the rain, (especially for those who know me well and who know I’d rather be on two wheels than two legs), but for those of us lucky enough to be living here the rain is something very special.
It last rained here three weeks ago and before that it was a clear four months, and, though having the sun every day is gorgeous, one hankers after the rain after a long dry period, so you may understand better now why I’m looking like a Cheshire Cat. The garden gets watered, the dust on the track settles down, the plants just spring into action, (especially at this time of year when the earth’s still so warm), insects hatch and emerge all over the place and every living organism takes advantage of the bonus …. in short there’s suddenly a huge increase in Life in general. There’s more food for everything right the way up the food chain and it’s all made the most of as quickly as possible, stocking up for winter.
But the Cheshireness of my appearance right now is not only to do with the rain; it runs deeper than that ….
I remember a few years ago leading a birdwatching trip out to the Plains the day after the first big rain of the year; everything was very fresh, the summer’s layer of dust had been washed from the leaves of all the trees and overnight the first new grass was sprouting through the earth, dusting the countryside with a patina of green.
It was marvelous to see the difference from the previous week and to feel Nature bursting at the seams, but the truly amazing sight was all the raptors feeding on the flying ants.
The latter emerge at the first sign of a chance to make a new nest, and that’s invariably when the rain has made the ground easier to burrow and food more plentiful, but they were so many in numbers that day, (recourse was made to the windscreen wipers more than once), that the birds were gorging themselves on them far and wide. Everywhere one looked there were Kestrels, Buzzards, Kites and Eagles, as well as the Shrikes and other insect eaters that one would expect.
I’ve never seen so many raptors in the sky at the same time – no, I lie, that accolade goes to the day last year when I lucked into a stream of Booted Eagles on their way south, (over 200 over our heads at the same time) – but that day on the Plains came a very close second and in some ways was more magnificent.
After all, everyone’s heard of The Migration, but I’ve never heard of The Frenzy of the Ants, so I reckon I’ll be taking a quick trip out there tomorrow just to see if I can catch the repeat; beats watching one on the telly, doesn’t it just?!
Nuno died this morning.
The details are unclear as yet but somehow he lost control of his car on the “Straight Mile” half way to Santa Clara, spun off the road and burst in to flames.
I found out early this morning as I drove in to the village; Susana, Nuno’s sister in law, was there with the local police from Saboia. The car was a good thirty meters from the road, a silver and black shell, (and I couldn’t understand why none of the surrounding vegetation had caught fire until I found out later that, by coincidence, an ambulance had been the first on the spot, barely seconds after the accident). Susana was in tears along with Nuno’s mother while the Police looked on sadly and hopelessly. He was universally liked, not least by myself and everyone here at the Quinta, as being always helpful and friendly, ready with assistance and local knowledge to ease our path here through the intricacies of social contacts and relationships, who was related to who and how, and why asking X would ease the granting of a request or procure some supply that the same X apparently had nothing to do with. He saw the Quinta differently and with greater understanding than some who live close by and did his best to help us, positive, jovial and respectful. He worked unloading the eucalyptus from the lorries onto the trains at the station, and the machine seemed to be a projection of his will.
I will miss him, as will all who knew him. The funeral will be large, probably the majority of Santa Clara and Cortebrique. As with most locals, Fatima’s also closely related and I had to break the news to her when I got back to the Quinta.
The funeral will be tomorrow.
It was difficult therefore to celebrate the joy of a couple who announced their engagement at breakfast. With Fatima in tears in the kitchen and Daniela and myself deeply saddened by Nuno’s news, the mood was flatter than it should have been; understandable, but very sad.
Of course in a way these two occurrences unwittingly spotlight the change taking place hereabouts, the seeming demise of the local population and the influx of outsiders. It is brought ever closer with each passing year; ten years ago two of my children were the only foreigners out of 17 in one of the three local primary schools, (whose total number of pupils reached into the 30’s), a sad enough statistic for a total local population of approx 600 souls. Now there are 6 “foreigners” in a school of only 12, while in the interim the two other local primary schools have closed through lack of pupils. So, as the demographic base has expanded, so the total numbers in primary education have crashed to unprecedented levels in the endemic population. There are fewer and fewer children and more and more people over 60. There are as many Germans moving into the area as Portuguese, and their age ranges differ startlingly, the Germans being in their 30’s and 40’s or even younger, while the Portuguese are, almost to the last individual, retirees.
What is even more worrying is that the “Suicide Season” is almost upon us and, as the economic crisis in Portugal deepens and we enter the lean months of winter, it promises this year to bring a rise in its tragic harvest. There were three in the first six months of the year in our surrounding three villages, one in each. What is worse is that even though the average age of the local population as a whole is sadly over 50, a large proportion of those who kill themselves is, more often than not, in their most productive 30’s and 40’s. Very few local youngsters stay here once their education is finished, so this loss of hope by a large number of those that do, is doubly frightening. At present there is still some fat stored from the summer, but once that fat is consumed …. Maybe it is, as Fatima fervently believes, a sickness that one can catch; if so I wish they’d find a cure!
Thinking about keys being left in front doors started me wondering about some of the other strange traditions around here, and though the following isn’t a tradition as such in that it isn’t old in any way at all, it does portray our neighbours prevailing attitude towards life in general rather tellingly. The fact that they seem oblivious to the darker side of these situations makes me wonder; is it that they are inured to them and just accept, or do they become, (below the surface of course as I’ve never really seen anyone local lose their temper), as annoyed as us foreigners?
Being a foreigner
I say “us foreigners” as, even though I’ve lived here for nearly the same amount of time as I ever lived in the UK, I will never be anything but an “estrangeiro” …. one has to remember that many of our neighbours simply don’t travel at all, (or not very fast anyway which amounts to the same thing sometimes!), and anyone originating from even a few miles away is viewed with suspicion. For instance, Fatima, (our “Dona da casa”), has only twice been to Lisbon, a couple of hours away, and I well remember Julieta, the rather dour owner of our local grocery store, saying she’d never been this side of the lake when she visited us a few years ago; the “other side of the lake” is a mere 8 miles away by road ….. and even less if one hops into a boat. No I’ll never be anything but a foreigner, (I doubt whether the children will be either, or their children after them), so I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to the bottom of what it is they actually think about situations that just wouldn’t happen anywhere else.
Braving the Post Office
Take the Post Office in Santa Clara for example …..
I had to go to there last year. I’m used to having to wait in the queue and usually take a book along with me, but it can be quite an eye opener for the uninitiated. Of course it’s not every time that there’s a queue, but I’m used to taking a book with me whenever I have to go and do anything around here, for sure as nuts is nuts there’ll be a queue somewhere! Anyway, this time around there was; it was only a small one of about five people with a French family, obviously on holiday, in line ahead of me. However, five people in a queue round here can take an awfully long time, so I was quite pleased to have brought something along with me as, sure enough, it took ages. Dona Carla’s mum who was manning the counter is quite slow, even by Alentejano standards and today she was outdoing herself and was showing all and sundry just how slow she could possibly be. Don’t get me wrong, it was all a wonderful bustle behind the counter, it always is, and she’s got all the wonderful gizmos she could ever need, with computers here and electronic scales there, but somehow it always takes an age, and of course it’s never helped if there’s any gossip going around.
Anyway, the four people in front of the French took 45 minutes; no, I’m not exaggerating, I timed it and it was spot on three quarters of an hour. Of course, half expecting it and comfortable with a good book, I was OK, but the French, oooh, they weren’t happy bunnies at all, and quite understandable too, but hey, that’s the Alentejo.
Well, they’d had plenty of time to sort out the right phrase in their tourist book, so when they finally got to the front of the queue, in a delightful french accent and trying their hardest to mask their obvious frustration, they very politely asked for two stamps.
“Stamps?” asked Dona Carla’s mum in a completely incredulous tone, “Stamps?” she repeated, “We haven’t got any stamps. No, no, no, you’ll have to go to Odemira if you want stamps”, and with that she turned straight to me with a “Yes, Frank, and how can I help you?” as if the French were no longer standing in front of her …… I felt for them, honestly I did, especially as Odemira‘s a good half an hour away, but I’ve no wish to get on the wrong side of someone so powerful and having waited my turn I could only smile weakly at them and rather sheepishly deal with my business.
After they’d huffed and puffed a bit and left I asked her why she had none. She turned to me and explained, “Well, they come in the post don’t they, and that’s so unreliable nowadays isn’t it …. and anyway, every time we have them here everyone always buys them and then we’ve got none, so what’s the point in getting them in, eh? More trouble than they’re worth if you ask me.”
And everyone in the queue behind me agreed ….
There’s a custom here in the Alentejo that’s curious. I can’t see it working many other places but it seems to fit our lifestyle rather well. It’s one of those little things that outsiders notice and remark upon without seeing the significance or practicality, and yet without it our village life would be poorer. As I say, I couldn’t see it happening in London but I’m sure that other countries used to have it, (I’m sure I can hear my mother’s voice in my ear saying, “But of course, dear!”), and that it’s just been lost, an unsung casualty of the 20th Century’s change to a more migratory population.
If one lives in a village near here it’s the custom that if one pops out, say, to the shops or the café or round to see a friend for a chat, one leaves one’s front door keys hanging in the lock on the outside of the door. This serves two purposes; firstly, of course, there’s the impossibility of forgetting where one put one’s keys and inadvertently locking oneself out of the house, (a vital consideration if one’s popping out for a glass or two of our local hooch, Medronho), but secondly it saves everyone the trouble of guessing where one’s gone. Keys hanging in the door tell any caller, “I’ve gone out; I’m not far, won’t be (too) long and if you want to find me ask around, ‘cos someone’s bound to know”.
Now, this is very useful and considerate and saves us all a lot of trouble and time, but the custom as a whole sits curiously astride the local’s fear of anyone knocking on the door after dark; if one is unwise enough to attempt this, one is met with an apprehensive demand of “Who’s there?” from behind a securely bolted door and one is left imagining the house-owner standing the other side, complete with night cap, candle and stout staff, ready to sell his life dearly in defence of the family cottage. After the first few attempts to visit neighbours after dark when I first came to live here, I’ve never tried again. It puts people’s backs up, spoils relations, seldom achieves anything worthwhile and one thing’s for sure – access is never gained, no matter how reasonable the request. No, hang on, I did once get in, but I was carrying a bottle and I made sure old José knew it was full.
Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is the curious juxta-position in attitudes to security between daylight and night. In daylight, well, the door’s open or the keys are in the lock, whereas at night, beware, we’ll shoot first and ask questions later.
The attitude towards the dark is understandable, especially when one watches any television, (and the majority of soaps here are Brazilian and reflect the gun culture of that beautiful country), but the attitude towards security during the day …… well, one gets used to it and it ceases to amaze – until it happens to be brought, smack, to one’s attention by some unusual event, and just such an event happened to us last week …..
It was Monday morning and I’d asked Daniela to pop into the village to do some shopping and deposit the weekend’s cheques. Half an hour later she was on the phone …
D “Hey, Frank, can you ring the bank please”
F “What! Aren’t you there yet?”
D “Of course I’m here; that’s the point”
F “Whadya mean, “That’s the point”?”
D “I mean, “That’s the point” I’m here in the bank and I can’t find anyone ….. just ring them up and see if anyone comes to the phone …..”
Well, I rang, but no-one appeared. So I rang Daniela back and tried to make sense of the whole thing, obviously fearing the worst. Our bank was tarted up a couple of years ago with those double doors where you have to wait for the first one to shut and the green light to appear before being able to open the second. It always seemed a bit of over-kill on their part as most of our locals simply don’t understand automatic doors at the best of times, but now it was looking as if they’d been conservative in their security measures.
“Hi Daniela,” I said, “I’ve rung but there’s no answer”
“Yes, I know,” she replied, “I heard it. Look, there’s no-one here at all; the money’s on the counter and I can see the key in the safe’s lock. What d’you think I should do?”
That put me on the spot …. what did I think she should do?
And then, just as I was starting to tell her she should wait there while I phoned the Police, the solution hit me; it was staring me right in the face, winking at me from the bottom of the computer screen ….. the time …. of course …. it was lunch hour …. it all made sense – in a peculiarly Alentejano kind of way. The bank clerks had gone to lunch and metaphorically left the front door keys in the lock.
“Don’t worry, Daniela, just sit down there for another ten minutes and someone’ll be along. Trust me, it’ll be OK, nothing’s wrong, they’ll be in Joselia’s down the road”.
So it proved, and funnily enough I’m not planning to move my account. No, the money’s safe where it is I think – especially at night!