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autumn: the ten warning signs of winter

My brother-in-law suggested that this week I wax lyrical about the sensuousness of Autumn. The crisp, clear mornings, the changing light and the beautiful colours of this season that gently segues into the hell pit horror doom and evil of winter.


Yeah, he’s European. I’m not. I detest winter. Autumn is like an air raid siren warning that a million Messerschmidts are about to drop a billion big freezing bombs of depressingly dank dark wetness and torture upon us.

Frankly put me to bed now and don’t get me up until May. Was a grizzly bear in past life. Goes without saying.

So, if you’re not feeling the cold yet, here are some tips from my house that indicate winter is definitely well on its hideous way.

1. The cat sits on your lap while you are on the toilet.

2. Cat-Dog-Cat have settled their differences with the objective of sharing front row seats at the fireplace.


3. Mao howls incessantly about when we are going back to Australia.

4. Getting the electric blanket on in advance of bedtime merits a fridge reminder note.

5.  Who left the door open turns into WW3.

6.  Suddenly soup has become an acceptable meal option.

7.  The ‘scalding’ hot water setting in the shower now feels quite nice.

8.  Pyjamas. Quel horreur. Never forsake fashion, my friend Tessa once warned. Pyjamas. Oh the shame.

9.  Pine cone collecting has reached obsessive levels.

10. Being in bed by 9pm doesn’t seem extravagant.

The real tragedy is, this is Portugal, where their only ski field is appropriate for toddlers. Well, ok, it’s a sweet little ski field but it will not challenge anyone Nordic. What I mean is, this is Europe-winter-light. Dear god, please bring me central heating and an entire wardrobe of Icebreaker. Thank you.

bemvindo house hunters!

Hey here’s a little message for HGTV House Hunter’s International viewers who have found my blog! And for any others that have stumbled in accidentally just at this moment: I have just appeared (10:30pm New York Thursday Night Time) on a cable TV show about my search for a house in Portugal. Congratulations to you all and thanks for googling.

sweden crew shot

I suppose you’re wondering if I am still alive and whether I have built a house yet? Yes and no. But there’s far more to the story than that and every gory detail can be found right here on the blog. In fact, you can start on the epic true story of before I bought the house at the beginning.

Let’s backtrack a little. Bought a house in 2007. I scrapped around for a year applying for building permission, digging holes, planting things to eat, accumulating pets and looking for a builder. Then, come around November 2008, the globalfinancialcrisis tornado hit and over the next 4 months blew away almost half of my money. There was no clicking my heels and wishing I was back in Kansas, or Oz.


The plan then was to sit tight, work hard on the writing and pray for a financial miracle.

I worked hard on the blog, and the blog grew and grew and then grew some more! People became insanely passionate: finding at last a safe place to share their pasteis de nata desires!


But, alas. So far, sharing-the-love of Portugal has not made me rich, nor therefore built me a house. I’ve extended my building licence twice, fortunately because the council people do understand that no one has any money anymore, least of all us foreigners. Portugal was hit very hard by the crisis and will take a long time to recover. But on the other hand, the Portuguese are so familiar with tough times that this is a really nice place to be poorer. A part of this story is how I’ve learned to live on less and how this translates into living a greener, friendlier and healthier life. Caring about the environment might be a by-product of having less money, or it might come from living in the countryside in a less stressed, self-obsessed existence. Whatever the reasons, the alternative life to wanting, consuming and polluting is viable growing here in Portugal, in a strong way driven by the expat community and by switched-on local authorities. Without a cent in the bank, we still feel like we will survive. Hope makes you rich.


But enough about money, love and hope, let’s talk about me. Instead of building I have been adventuring, checking out secret corners of this sunny country and digging below the surface of the big towns. If you’re planning on doing the same, it really pays to shop around for car and/or camper rental, as finding the hidden nooks and beauties of rural Portugal is really better done by private vehicle. Campervan holidays are hugely popular here. As my Portuguese has improved I’ve been able to understand more about the Portuguese psyche, and what makes this country tick. Along the way I´ve been eating, drinking and watching football (that’s soccer just between you and me).

As with any journey, it’s not all roses. Portugal is a bureaucratic country, frustrating to do business in and make an honest buck. Portuguese businesses are way behind when it comes to service, the internet and marketing. And this is the conundrum. We love this place because work does not come first. We love this place because the people aren’t mad with stress and rage. We love this place because it has creativity and originality. It has pride and passion. Like a ruined house, it has beautiful potential.

On the personal front, I’ve had health dramas which I am now almost completely recovered from. My pets, Mao and Wookie, also no strangers to bumps in the road, are also happy, fun and as cuddly as ever. I have fallen madly in love and moved house (and now luxuriate in the sound of a flushing toilet and the hot water that gushes from the kitchen sink). There are rumours of roof building, of annexe finishing and even of surprise weddings…


What more would you like to hear? What piques your curiosity? Why not start in the archive or the category section to read more? Or cruise the gorgeous gallery of photos. Would you like to contribute or get involved somehow? You might be interested in being a sponsor. You can advertise on my blog, and reach thousands of loyal Porty-philes. You can make a donation to keep the wheels oiled and the pets fed, and at the very least you can make comments and share your stories. I’d love to hear from you.

For a speed read of the blog, I recommend:

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10 things to like about Porto

Recent trip to Porto reminded me of all the things I like about it. First stop, as usual,

1. Bolos de Berlim at Leitaria Da Quinta do Paço


These are so terrifyingly good that it makes me shake like a junkie just looking at the pictures.


2. Rua Da Galeria de Paris

While in Vitória make a detour for this street full of art nouveau charm and the restaurante/bar Galeria de Paris. Also some cool shops and Made in Portugal.


3. Alvaro Siza’s Serralves Foundation Museum Contemporary Art

Great art gallery in stunning Siza building, surrounded by a sculpture studded gardens and the Casa de Serralves, another museum with a Jaques Tati air.


4. Palácio da Bolsa

A truly remarkable bit of neo-classical mish-mash architecture, take the tour so you don’t miss the Salão Arabe. I also adore the bar of the Telegrafo restaurant, with its gorgeous purple/blue velvet furniture against blue tiling. Luscious. Great for a dessert and a glass of expensive port.


5. Les Cafes Grandes

The Majestic (although ever so touristy) and the Brasileira are gems and will fix you up with a decent coffee too.


6. Abadia.

Our favourite restaurant in Porto. Classic, yum.


7. Estadio do Parque do Palácio do Cristal.

Just love the space ship. No idea if it´s still a functioning stadium. Please advise.


8. While on funky modern architecture, I love the airport.

9. São Bento train station.

Knockout tiles, suitably old fashioned layout. The way all train stations should be.


10. Espinho.

No, not in Porto, but your first stop south. The thunderous roar of the Atlantic and the restaurant BaiaSol (on the seafront) which has twice saved my life with its prawn omelete. Oh yeah.


Oh yes there’s plenty more to like about Porto. The Eiffel Bridge. Casa da Musica. Ikea. Let me know your favourites.

If you´re looking for something in Porto, check out this cool blog. Very cool. http://oportocool.wordpress.com/


Nothing says climate change more bluntly than a chat with my neighbours about the harvest. The potatoes at half a crop, rotten, the grapes at mixed maturity, acidic wine at best and no olives to speak of at all this year. Muito estranho. What exactly has been so strange about the weather? It’s just different, they say. The cold too long, the hot too hot, no rain during the summer, too much rain over the winter. “Aquecimento Global”, I offer, this larger context neither providing any comfort or perspective.


For them, the increasingly unreliable weather conditions brutally translates into harder living conditions. With already a ridiculously paltry cash income, no olives on their trees means another €15 euros a month spent at the supermarket: oil of a poorer quality, not organic and less healthy. For a community where health really is everything.


Generations of accumulated knowledge about their environment and how to prosper from it (or just simply survive), is going to ruin in this little village while bureaucrats, politicians and sceptics negotiate themselves into a bottomless intray of bullshit. And my neighbours still bring home their flour and rice in plastic bags from a supermarket which encourages them to do so, and they don’t recycle a thing. And it occurs to me that for farmers and peasants the world over it’s a similar story: the first to feel the earth’s slow but irreparable immolation, and the last to understand it or have the power to control it. Capitalist democracy, isn’t it great?


Meanwhile we of the adopted rural life can still rejoice in the treasures that the land and our hard work have brought for us this year. In my case, my fantasy of being a still sexy woman in an apron making sauce in a foreign language from my very own tomatoes has been indulged somewhat relentlessly this summer, to the extent that The One has said he doesn’t want to see another tomato on the table until Christmas. (What cold revenge! That mediocre nothing in a tomato skin impostor of mid winter – how he will mourn for the sweet fruit of my summer!). And exotic herbs we have had in wasteful quantities. There has been the odd beetroot surprise (spontaneous beetroots are a lesser known Portuguese miracle), prompting much Aussie style hamburger happiness. But everything else –  the couve, potatoes, onions, strawberries, carrots, garlic, leeks, capsicum – very little results if anything at all. The lettuce and rocket lasted about a month, a bitter disappointment to someone who must have been a rabbit in a past life.

I have brought over the mountain a few bags of grapes, (for juicing and drying rather than wine-ing this time) a box of figs and small stash of blackberries, for my favourite jam.


Over hill, over dale the results of the harvest are fortunately different, which is why our villages are joined in parishes and our parishes into councils who raise rooves over marketplaces. Other expaters to the north and south report not only splendid tomatoes but riches of onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, marrows of all manner. While strawberries are a disaster in one corner they flourish in another. And herein lies the lesson: diversify or die. Build communities and live with them in peace. Globalisation is going too far, but the League of Nations were once on the right scale. Think Participatory Economics. Communication. Cooperation. We have the technology, but the power cable is not in the right hands.


Diversify and flourish. It bothers me how my neighbours don’t trade with their neighbours to vary their diet. Following their old school academy they grow the same things year after year while the world’s weather changes around them. Thank god as usual for the Asians and Italians who brought their weird foods to Australian plates, and now thank the Anglo-Saxon migrants here who grow pak choi, Japanese tomatoes, artichokes, dill and asparagus peas. May climate change makes us change. Adapt. Accept. Harvest and feast.




the other side of the mountain

The other night I was standing outside at half past two in the morning waiting for a sick Wookie to finish tearing up the grass, stop vomiting and come inside. It was a clear, still night, cooler than usual but not yet cold. The sky was bright with the moonlight and there was complete silence except for The Wookie chewing his cud.

And there it was, from across the valley came the unmistakable call of the veado, the deer that roam the Serra da Lousã.

The One had said he’d been hearing them calling a few nights before, but I didn’t believe him – September is too early for the mating season and anyway, I had never heard them in Cú de Judas, where deer and silence were plentiful.

But sure enough, there it was again: a mooing that was not entirely sad but full of longing. A longing for deer love, I’ve no doubt.


So the following night we grabbed the cameras (The One’s new mobile phone actually, and the remaining camera of mine not destroyed by the freak wave in last week’s post) and we headed for the hills. Dusk, as all hunters know, is the best time to catch deer, and sure enough as soon as we reached the top of the Serra da Lousã the boys were braying away enough to make me sceptical once more that the sound was perhaps actually the gearing down of the wind turbines. I mean, it just couldn’t be that they could be so close, or so many of them, all calling at once.

We dropped the car and set out on foot and almost immediately I saw what could have been a Y-shaped stump of a tree. Except it was a female deer, standing very still…watching me. As I moved closer, still deerly disbelieving, I saw the male’s enormous antlers twist around and they both made a move camera left. And then they were gone. Before I’d even drawn my mju to take a shot.


certainly not a shot taken by me, no, but this is the dude I´m talking about

Well that just whet our appetites for more venison really: we spent the next hour and a half tiptoeing around the pine forest after horny mooing wildebeest, who were relentlessly just over the next ridge. Finally, in the pitch dark, without the moonlight able to penetrate the forest and the mountain’s chilling temperature dulling the spirit, I gave up. There was no way my little camera could handle the low light anyway and using the flash would be way too slow for these sprightly antelope.

Anyone who’s done a bit of wildlife pursuit will know how compelling it is. Bird watching is all very well, but there’s something very special about the presence of big animals. You feel humbled. I feel a profound respect for them. Perhaps it’s partly because I’m Australian and deer of any kind seem very exotic, but the veado of the Serra da Lousã are awesome animals. Firstly they are big, as fit and statuesque as a horse. Add two square metres of antler and you have a beast as spectacular and mesmerizing as a sighting of Pegasus.

That anyone would want to shoot the things, well, make no mistake on where I stand on hunting. In Australia, the rabbit and the fox are introduced species and destructive vermin, decimating native and engangered wildlife. Kangaroos too require culling by the million each year, and make a lovely purse or carpaccio. Hunters, and furriers of the world come on down, but leave the gratuitous slaughter of nice animals elsewhere to killer whales. Who doesn’t laugh when a hunter gets shot?


this was taken by me, and yes it is a sleeping bullwinkle in sweden

On our return home, we saw another deer crossing the road in front of us – the usual way to have a deer experience in the Serra da Lousã. They are so robust and proud an animal that, like a kangaroo, they are likely just to stand there and stare you down rather than get out the way of an oncoming vehicle. But this spotty dude, possibly a roe deer or a young red, knew we had cameras and didn’t care for posing. So he sauntered off while we mere mortals fumbled with our instruments and swore.

Still twinkling with the thrill of having just been in their presence, The One then discovered while surfing the subject that our local pub the Palácio da Lousã is running a photo competition on the very subject!!! It’s not just us who are turned on by the mating season – they are even offering tours! I doubt they’ll be giving me a sneak preview of the pictures entered so far, but maybe after the 15th November I might get access to some of the pics for the facebook page. Naturally we are now determined to win – given the prizes are accommodation and dinner at what I think is a very lovely hotel (and I already have plenty of photos to prove it).


Okay now I guess it’s time to fess up – I have moved to the other side of the mountain. Don´t panic, punters, Emma’s House in Portugal is still there, it’s not being sold or even abandoned in any permanent way. It’s just that I’ve had an offer of a flushing toilet and plumbing in the kitchen and a handsome lump in the bed… did I say lump, sorry I meant love. And who can resist a flushing toilet?

For those that remember that this is a blog about building, thank you. The absence of mortar in my hands does burn at my heart. But the Great Financial Crisis will not be told and euros have not started falling from the sky as I have wished, so therefore dramatic erections of the scaffolding kind have not materialised at Cú de Judas. Actually that’s a lie. While I’ve been waiting for sufficient funds, the neighbours have built one house, one al-fresco kitchen and dining room with views, one garage, one adega, one storage shed and some ugly furniture cut with a chainsaw from an ancient chestnut tree. While the men at my scaffolding hire place are forgetting my name, their upcoming summer holidays are being fully funded by my neighbours. Maybe I am being melodramatic about the palace next door, and maybe there is a hint of jealousy finding its way out through my ramblings. Let’s remember they have very little cash too – but these people just get on with it, really rather putting me to shame with my permissions and engineers design talk.

But don’t give up on me yet, there is a plan. I have to pick up my building licence before the end of the year or that will be the end of it. The council have been very patient but the ruin waits for no woman. One more winter of being rained upon and it will turn to soup. So a roof, at least, she will have. The dream is yet alive. Building action, albeit on a modest scale, will be resuming shortly, and I just can’t wait to get dirty again.


mao’s new step-pet

And although Wookie and Mao have integrated themselves happily and I am a ga-ga with amor, I do miss my little hell hole. I liked cooking over an open fire and shopping in the garden for a meal. I miss my weirdo neighbours and their good humour and generosity. I miss my cafés and the fish truck and my routines. I miss my solitude.

On the other hand, the grass really does look greener on this side of the mountain. I’m in a stunning little village with a new cast of crazy neighbours. There’s the concelho of Lousã to show you, castles, palacetes, outdoorsy adventure and hidden local treasures to explore. It’s a whole new angle to the adventure. Stay tuned.

We learn as we go. We learn as we grow. A woman is not an island, I’ve discovered. And there’s something very grown about allowing yourself to be loved.

My life is a house
You crawl through the window
slip across the floor and into the reception room.
You enter the place
Of endless persuasion
like a knock on the door when there’s ten or more things to do
who is that calling
you, my companion
Run to the water
On a burning beach
and it brings relief
it brings relief
– ‘Nails in my Feet’, Neil Finn, Crowded House


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