Thank you to all of you out there who have asked, yes! A job has found me.
Surprisingly I find myself not sucking the corporate carpet despite applying with gusto to some horrendous positions advertised with such phrases as “will offer your career strong penetration”, “end to end delivery outcomes” and “strategic client facing exposure with hugh opportunities”. Hugh who, huh?
I’d made a spreadsheet of my financial objectives and consulted with whom you might when you need debt advice, gone over the wireframes of the projections and the forecasted expenditure on the capital, extrapolated the time differential with the necessitudes and the fortifumegation and decided I just want to get home soon and sane.
It’s not what you know, it’s who, everybody said, and indeed, through a friend of a friend I met up with with someone I already knew who, when I explained straight up that I had no professional experience whatsoever, said “it’s just about personality actually”. Like, they were looking for someone they liked.
No bullshit necessary. Just bring your human.
And in spite of The One feeding my darkest dread with the remark “that’s not what you’re there for” I am simultaneously enjoying myself and being paid for it. It is indeed a remarkable thing to look at your modest paycheck and gloat in its riches, knowing full well that once upon a time you earned 10 times that and it never felt like enough.
Let’s look at that in a chart
Furthermore, I do not have a regrettable answer when I’m asked what I did at work today. Today I did not cajole people to eat soup from a can that looks and smells like vomit, no, today I made a spring gazpacho that will be served in a glass with a champagne chaser. Yesterday I made 150 arancini; the day before 300 goats cheese tartlets; tiny, prosciutto wrapped bocconcini each with a basil leaf feather, korma balls, prawn cocktails, chicken satays, egg finger sandwiches. I make fun food. It’s fun.
As real work is, the kitchen is thoroughly exhausting. I have instantaneously become one in the throng of the tired, the comatose commuter. The precise monotony of peak hour public transport takes on a Truman Show charm that apparently I’m alone in appreciating. It’s Groundhog Day and I can’t resist messing with the routine by waving back to the woman with the theatrical calisthenics that I pass in the park each morning at 8:06. There’s a jolly faced chinese man who makes me laugh when he gets his backpack caught in the closing doors of the 7:54 at Sydenham Station, for the second day in a row. And the guy with the perfect shoes and ipod who gets on at the university and taps his foot melodiously… to who? Is it Thelonious Monk or Se7en I’d like to know?
As I acclimatise to this other reality I’ll eventually find some time to make myself a stranger in my own city. I’m yet to see the beach again, to eat Japanese and go out for breakfast with friends. Summertime officially starts this weekend. As The One lights his first evening fire, I’ll be eating my first oysters. Oh! The sacrifice. Sigh.
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I’m shocked and appalled at the state of the house.
The One has been sending me pictures of the various goings on at home and I’m seeing the building with fresh eyes. I must have been focussing on the interior of the house before, because the exterior sure looks like hell.
The mass of things still to come with the building project messes with my head while I descend through a purple vacuum before falling asleep at night. There’s just so much more to do, and making some order of it puts me into a coma.
On The One’s while-I’m-away-to-do-list is to get cracking with the rés do chão. On the ground floor there are two rooms, one of which will be a bedroom and the other will transmogrify between wood storage, tool temple and japanese tranquility contemplation space.
Have I ever mentioned that The One, although pretending otherwise, hates renovating? He wants to get stuff done, sharing my motivation not to live in a garbage dump forever, but the man gets no joy from getting sweaty nor irradiating his consciousness with the drone of power tools. He does like playing with his man-friends though, and what better reason to call them up than ‘the wife wants me to fix up a bedroom’? I look upon his housework to-do list less as torture and more like an excuse to crack a coldie with his mates.
Anyway, master builder Ian says the bedroom will take a day to do, darling. How many times in the last 5 years have I wished my mate Ian was just down the road in Portugal, rather than in Sydney. At a barbie on Sunday a bunch of us were calculating how long we’d known each other and doesn’t the sound of 26 years make you feel old? I blame Ian for making me want to build things.
So, after the bedroom we’ve got more to do on the living room, including a new kitchen. Tragically I want to redo the walls and the floor, because the finishes on both aren’t working. The walls are too rough and the floor is too filthy. It’ll only take a day, darling.
Then, at last it will be time to don the safety boots again and launch some scaffolding because I’ll be stripping off the ancient render on the front of the house. It’s a job I’ve wanted to do since before I bought the place. De-rendering will lead to re-pointing, which is an epic job as the house has something like 300m2 of exterior wall. But I love pointing. Didn’t buy a stone house for nothing.
Somewhere before finishing the pointing the ruin’s walls need to be grown to make them level with the main house (the house is originally two house built together, one we call the main house and the other is called the ruin). I’m also really looking forward to this bit, because not only is it about building in stone, but doing it 4 metres off the ground. The Ancient Egyptians made this stuff look easy… we’re going to need some proper engineering and safety plans. Just like a real job. Be like making movies again. I should get a few grips over to help. Yay. I’m looking forward to the great arms it will give me.
Then I’ll get out of the way for a bit and let Penfold put on a new roof on the ruin. That will of course be a serious advancement especially as I’ll get an instant 50m2 dry toolshed out of it. The new roof could lead onto a new floor (although yes it would be cool to do it the other way around) but by now we are talking about winning lotto to pay for it.
But if you could just indulge my construction fantasy a little longer… the new floor gets connected with the floor we are now living on, via a doorway from one house to the other, through our living room wall. And then we’d have a big master bedroom and the room downstairs becomes an office. Then there’s the annexe, which needs a new roof, a tiny bathroom and some lime on the interior walls and that becomes a guest room. And by then, Portugal will be well into its renaissance, with an robust economy built on the back of renewable energy and an organic, free range, agricultural boom. A woman prime minister of the newly formed Green and Independent coalition will be a leader in the New Way of democratic, participatory economics, in which governments have practically extinguished defense spending in favour of improving health services and education. Power and wealth is diverted from the few into the hands of many via a radical restructure of corporations where the work of all collaborators is valued equally, filtering through society as a dilution of hierarchy and an extraordinary development in personal independence, individualism and creativity. Huge advances in science comes of this, with the eradication of many diseases and solutions for well being and happiness. Crime is therefore reduced, and freed from fear and poverty, the people become altruistic, both community conscious and world aware. And we all keep chickens.
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The charms of your local tiny town can be easily trampled underfoot while pursuing the routine errands of an ordinary Thursday. But if you do stop to look, you might be lucky enough to find a town as mildly amusing as Figueiró dos Vinhos.
Fig Tree of the Wines (adhering to the regional tradition of meaningless place names; see Chestnut Tree of the Pear) has forever been some sort of village, probably owing to the confluence of rivers, good soil and happy climate. It has had the Fig-something name since the 13th century, making it almost as old as Portugal itself. It had something of a boom during the 17th century, when it was a iron smelting centre. The remains of the smelters (check out this excellent collection of old pics) along the banks of the Foz de Alge are still there, drowned in the risen waters of dammed junction of the Rivers Zêzere and Alge.
The villages around the Foz de Alge look like they haven’t changed since then. Apart from a few specs of ugly modern development, this is still a very remote and poor place. It’s surprising that this was a hub of industry even up until the 20th century. The iron business in Portugal was introduced by the Muslims, who invented the geared and hydropowered mills that were needed to hammer the metal from one form to another. Here at the Foz de Alge and at the fishing spot of Machuca (in the north of the Concelho) there was both the flow of water and the forest of trees required to make charcoal for the iron’s furnaces. You can still see the wealth of iron ore in the earth when passing the magenta-coloured roadworks for the new IC2.
Figueiró (pronounced Figaro, of Marriage and Mozart fame) briefly became an art-world mecca in the 20th century when painter José Malhoa brought his entourage and set up a Naturalist school in town. Despite the style having already peaked in Paris just as he was getting started, Malhoa nonetheless had been famous in Portugal for about 20 years before settling in the Fig de Vin. His school sheltered a small bunch of widely known and respected artists, by Portuguese standards anyway. He left behind the fanciest house in town.
A better museum to the era in my mind anyway is a little tiled cafe-bar that’s now for sale. I went there once, on the day I bought my house. My head was reeling and I drank a couple of ports and chatted to the owners. The pastoral azulejos and timber furniture are so classic Portuguese that I hate to think what will happen to the place if it goes to the wrong people. Tea room, someone?
The Estado Novo was good to Figueiró Vinhos. It developed during the mid 20th century, probably in the wake of Castanheira de Pera, where the factories were closing and the money going elsewhere. Typically of Central Portugal, people left in droves during the 70’s, and despite the influx of foreigners here to lap up the calm, the quiet and the cheap, the population of Figueiró decreases a little every year.
But not on market days. Figueiró has the best market around. It’s huge, and properly balanced between home-grown-free-range and festa de polyester. I like the 50 metre strip devoted to older locals and their farmyard produce. And wookie likes the all the chicks and ducklings.
Probably I like Figueiró dos Vinhos because it does good cake. There’s a old factory devoted to the worship of Pão de Ló, which… I’ve never tried. Tsk. But it’s a very serious looking little side street establishment that only the locals would know and therefore their sponge cake must be out of this world. Every year Figueiró has a cake-fest held in the town’s closed-silent-poor-and-shoeless carmelite convent, the church of which is unbelievably gorgeous. The cloister is also remarkable having been sliced on the diagonal by a ginormous wall in a sell-up of half the convent’s property. Tsk. On the final matter of cake, my favourite place in Figueiró is still the paved courtyard behind the câmara and in front of an unassuming little cafe called Pingo Doce. The pastéis de nata there are the best outside of Belém.
Your local tiny town will never engraciate itself to you unless it has a couple of decent places to eat. We have three. Which is a lot when you consider how bored we are with the monoculture of Portuguese food and that this here really is, to coin the Australian term, the boonies. Restaurant number one is the restaurant at the prize pony Schist village Casal de São Simão, A Varanda. It is great. Local and seasonal, authentic but not predictable, it’s a really nice space and not overpriced. Number two is your family-run fluoro lights and TV type place which serves massive helpings fast and the bill always looks like there’s been a mistake in your favour. Except here the food is way better than you expect and their specialty is a superb prawn curry. It’s called A Tricana. The third fav is Restaurante Paris and is half way between the two, with standards done well in a nice enough environment. It’s not pretending to be fancy, just like Figueiró itself.
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I have a serious problem with missing flights. Even though The One can make me get to the airport on time, I can still manage not to get on the plane. One theory could be that because I’ve flown a lot, I’m lackadaisical. But I think it’s more serious than that. Firstly I think I might have a pathological fear of waiting at the gate, and secondly, in this case, missing the flight rather obtusely expressed the fact that I didn’t want to go.
I’m off to Sydney for work. My Portuguese neighbours see it as the sad but necessary eventuality of a peasant’s life, where one member of the family leaves the bosom to find work in the New World. I find their point of view comforting. Far better than the grim admission that something has gone terribly wrong with the status quo, with Portugal and with my whole entire life which has led to this drastic upheaval and my new identity as an economic refugee.
No, The One isn’t coming too. No, I don’t know how long I’ll be away. No, I don’t have a job lined up yet.
Lest we forget this is the plight of hundreds of thousands of people across the world today. Only most of them are prevented by immigration laws that discriminate against people leaving home to just to improve their lot. To compare mine with theirs just makes me look greedy. All I want is to be free from worry, not from hunger. Boatloads of people are drowning off the coast of Australia because of the extremes they are forced to take to feed their families. And I complain about economy class.
Indeed with one last brave flash of the credit card I made it out alive, reassured in my physical fitness as I made the 22km sprint from one end of Heathrow to the other in half the advertised time. I am now privy to the lesser known fact that gate 43a at Lisbon is actually located in the Algarve somewhere. I know that the people at the Vueling desk are helpful and the British Airways not. Sensible shoes and a backpack is my advice to anyone susceptible to flight tardiness. These simple props can stop a big problem from becoming a catastrophe. And watching a lot of action movies the day before you fly so you can channel some stunt girl energy and attitude – better to look like you are an undercover ag chasing bad guys than a teary middle-aged tragic who just fucked up final call by hanging around the MAC counter too long.
Don’t expect me to talk up Sydney like it’s a joyride. It could be raining money here (of course it’s not raining anything. It’s winter and 22 degrees and gorgeously sunny) and I’d still be miserable because where I want to be is at home, curled up with The One.
There are some amusements, I admit. The biggest of which is choking on the extraordinary cost of things, for instance. Coffee $4.50. So, a coffee, cake and loaf of bread? That’ll be $16.00. I was looking forward to eating some quality beef and lamb but at $45 a kilo I think I’ll become a vegetarian. And let’s not talk about wine, which I have most definitely given up.
Of course what I am here for are the higher wages. Minimum wage is about $21/hr and the average wage is around $1200 a week. That’s (at least) four times higher than in Portugal. So it’s no wonder then the coffee cups are lined with gold.
On other visits I’ve felt like the dark side to all this affluence was apparent in how stressed out everyone was, but this time I’m impressed by the friendliness of the place. Everyone is polite, cheery and overtly respectful of your personal space (which I’ve always thought of as a uniquely Australian character, given the vastness of this land).
I am delighted to be surrounded by noodles and bok choy. To have ten cuisines of the world clustered together on the same street corner and to hear a different language being spoken at every cafe table. Sydney is multiculturalism at its best.
Still, the noise and traffic and technology have my head spinning. I’m awkward in the unfamiliarity of urban life. I can’t work an ipad, I struggle to figure out the train ticket machines. I’m a country bumpkin, so messy and unstylish. I’m a fish out of water.
So no matter how intoxicating Sydney might become, I know I’ll always be on the lookout for nice flights to Portugal. As they say, home is where the heart is.
In the meantime, I’ll settle into being Aunty Emsy-Poo-Poo again. And a daughter, and the youngest sister. Family. And old friends. Again, I should feel blessed that this is the refuge for this refugee. Imagine being unwelcome?
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Posting about bacalhau on your Portugal blog1 is about as original a subject as beaches of the Algarve. It’s lame. It’s beginner’s guide. But I’m not going to tell you how great cod is, I’m not going to write about how we should stop eating this vulnerable fish, nor attempt to explain the Portuguese obsession with it. Except to say, in case you don’t know, bacalhau is an fundamental ingredient of the Portuguese condition.
Bacalhau is not fish, my friend Isabel says. It’s altogether another food group.
And because this dried cod beast is so in your face – stinking out the supermarket, on every single restaurant menu, huge flanks of it at the Saturday market, plain boiled, served with cabbage and put in front of you to eat at Christmas – it rather polarises people.
The One hates bacalhau.
But I don’t mind it. I like how you can use it as kitchen decoration for a month while working up an appetite for it.
So I decided to see if I could change The One‘s mind. He has a few food foibles that he carries with him from childhood, as you do, but if I ignore his claims against aubergine (for example) and do something tasty and discreet he scoffs it down like he never really knew what an aubergine was.
A riskier mission with bacalhau. It looks like a big flaky white fish. It tastes like a big salty flaky white fish.
Plan One. I’ll call it fish and chips! His favourite!
Comments? “I hate Bacalhau”.
So in the next recipe I disguised it better. Shredded, mixed in a bowl with mash potato, rice, lemon, garlic & herbs, and then rolled into balls and fried. Fish cakes, we call them. But more like arancini than patansicas.
Comments? “Salty. Have they got bacalhau in them?”
Next I went for a radical cultural departure and made a Thai style soup. A tom yam soup base, with red chillies, lemongrass, lime and coriander, then loads of garlic, shredded carrot & red pepper, onion, chunks of fish, vermicelli noodles, bean shoots and topped with sliced cabbage.
Comment? “I like the soup, as always. But the fish totally spoils it.”
Perhaps bacalhau shouldn’t be used out of context then? Maybe the Portuguese like it so much because they’ve mastered it? Fancy that?
My friend Eric spontaneously announced his latest favourite weekly staple – bacalhau a bras! I’d heard of this thing but never known what it was, and by Eric’s reckoning, it’s an easy, yummy, one pan meal that a bloke would like. A couple of days of fish soaking later and I’m onto it.
Make French fries, as thin as you can, and violently deep fry them while trying to keep them from turning into hash cakes. Drain most of the oil from the pan and throw in onion and garlic and chunks or shreds of fish – however boneless – then beat up some eggs with cream, pepper and parsley, turn down the heat and throw them in the pan, followed by half of the fries. Turn it over once or twice then dish it up with more fries, some lemon wedges and, if you have an English husband to convince, one with a dubious culinary history, a splodge of tomato sauce on the side.
Comments: “Mmmmm this is goooood!”
I wait until he has cleaned the plate before telling him about the bacalhau element.
“I liked it anyway.”
“So it’s a pass?”
“Is there any more?”
Yay… it can be done! I decide I should cement this victory with another attempt. This time I go back to the English (where I started and failed) and select a recipe from Jamie Oliver.
It’s just a simple pan fried fillet in butter, with garlic, capers, coriander, parsley and dill.
Comment? “Yum. You can do that again.”
“It was bacalhau”.
“I know. It’s ok. I like it like that.”
1 The Bacalhau Chronicles is completely exempt from these comments. This is a blog only about bacalhau. And that makes it ok
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