welcome to emmas housethought

stranded on earth


I feel like my spaceship is broken and I can’t get back to my planet.

This isn’t the first time during this go-build-a-house-in-portugal-folly that I’ve thought what a absurdly huge mistake it has been.

Perhaps the first time was when I was trying to extract a building project, a visa and a house sale from a country whose language and mentality bewildered me. Next was when the Global Financial Crisis broke in and stole a third of my life’s savings. Then there was the dog episode and the physical collapse from vertigo, that was quite a problem. The ongoing migraine thing also made me think twice.


I’ve tried to do the right thing. I persevered with the stupid embassy and the stupid builder. I worked hard to start a new way of earning a living. I trusted, I forgave and I turned the other cheek to the backward philosophies of small-town Portugal. And in solidarity with my peasant brethren I left my home to find work to save the farm and so that the children might have new shoes one day. I should be lined up for a sainthood, but no…

Now I’ve fucked up my back.

It’s ridiculous. For the last 5 years I’ve been hurling stones, shovelling sand, carting bags of cement, heaving trays of mortar, loading timber, climbing, hammering, drilling, digging, chopping and lifting.

And I’ve done my back in standing still.


The prognosis is no longer completely dismal, praise to little baby jesus, and it seems I may not have to be cut up after all. The pain has reduced somewhat and I can now walk properly. But now that I’m not preoccupied with the prospect of being paralysed, I’m seeing this latest mortal confrontation in context of The Golden Wet Dream of chucking in a sensible life to go and bottle fruits and fawn over baby goats in an economically non-viable, confused little backwater on the edge of civilisation.

Good One.

What was wrong with what I had? I’d just put in a new kitchen. The car was hot. I was earning a relative fortune, drank a lot of champagne, threw a lot of parties, had expensive haircuts and I was getting laid. WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING?


While a few of my friends and colleagues also took a left turn, those who kept on the highway have made it through the slippery pass, put the chains on the tyres and are well on their way up the mountain now. And they don’t seem too miserable, or corrupt or even jaded. Unlike me, they seem happy and healthy and very, very fit. Indeed, they generously pay for the exquisite lunch we’ve just had before taking an early weekend to drive the family down to the holiday house on the coast. And I say bravo to that. And no, they are not stupid enough to wonder about, much less envy, my idyllic rustic country lifestyle amongst the olive groves and grape vines. And the next door neighbour’s dog shit.

Yeah. So. Back to the spaceship. Here I am stuck in the antipodes, not working, not earning, not even moving really and spending a week’s groceries on 30 minutes’ worth of back treatment. In the New Year (that brave new world) I’ll be back in the job queues (oh can’t wait to do all that again) and starting this bail-out-package-plan all over again. How long will it take?  It’s an known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld would say.

I’m afraid I will never see home again.


visiting lisbon

Inspired by a rubbish article I just read on Hello! I’m going to say something about Lisbon. The main point of difference will be that I have been to Lisbon.

When I say rubbish, I don’t just mean the spelling and bad writing, or the regurgitation of suggestions made in most guidebooks with embellishments like “discover” and “savour” as though the visitor will be overcome by rapture and stupidity from the moment they set foot off the plane. It’s rubbish as in nonsense, bullshit, fantasy. Take the …“endless white sands and unspoiled beaches in Cascais”. Sorry, nope. They end. Quickly. And they are crowded and grubby. Anyway, does anyone visit Lisbon to go to the beach?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great town. It’s bad travel writing I have a problem with.

When you live here you get spoiled. It’s hard taking guests around places you’ve been to several million times before and still maintain some enthusiasm and pride.

So this is my guide:

Don’t take people anywhere you won’t enjoy yourself. This means nothing you’ve done before unless it’s really worth doing again. No “must-dos” or “quintessentially Lisbon” just for the sake of it.

Eat a lot, relax a lot and remember you’re on holiday.

Don’t try to walk everywhere.


Torre de Belém

Fortunately Lisbon does have a lot of quality stuff to see. I can keep going back to the Gulbenkian and the Berardo in Belém because they are world class museums. The Gulbenkian is not trying to represent a nation’s cultural identity, and yet it does. This originally private collection shows you what one person can do in a lifetime. If that’s too serious then there’s the ridiculously camp Museu dos Coches or for a Portugal-specific experience there’s the Museu do Azulejo. I recognise that these museums are commonly recommended, but I’m happy to put my neck out to say that it’s because they are good, relevant, interesting and/or… fun.

Architecture is my thing and Lisbon is full of really remarkable buildings, new and old. It’s one of the things that drew me here. Oriente and Rossio stations exemplify the contrasts of Lisbon but also the boldness of this seemingly shy country. I can’t drag every guest around to my favourite buildings but most will happily take in a palace. Palácio da Fronteira (more like a private house, not like Mafra) doesn’t make it onto top 10 lists, give thanks, but it is a beautiful and memorable sight and very typically Portuguese.

But I always start a tour of Lisbon with a massive scoff at Confeitaria Nacional. If there is one single thing that defines Portugal in my mind it is pastry, and Lisbon has the best cafes in the country. The Nacional and Versailles are the pinnacle in show-off grandeur but there are less audacious shrines to the art of sweetness all over town. I challenge you to find better cakes and coffee anywhere in the world.


Lalique at the Gulbenkian

Public transport can be more than simply useful if you buy tickets for everyone before they arrive. I keep a stash of old cards which I fill up for the sole purpose of a tram to Belém, a ride on one of the three funiculares and for the ferry. Either very early or late in the afternoon get down to the docks and take a ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas, if only for the views of the city from the water. Gorgeous.

Lisbon is certainly not fashion Mecca, but if you do your research you can find some excellent small boutiques of designers lesser known and more original. Custo Barcelona  is a favourite with us, but there are other stores in the Chiado-Bairro Alto-Principe Real area that are home grown and representative of the small but lively creative industry in Portugal. Fabrico Infinito sells homewares, jewellery and miscellany. Less a souvenir, more a piece of art.

While restaurants serve food and hotels are places to sleep, in Lisbon they can be worth selecting for their historic value and interior design alone. You don’t necessarily go to Galeto or Casa do Alentejo for the food, but for the decor. Both high grandeur and cool can be found in Lisbon’s hotels, from the over the top baroque Pestana Palace, to the art deco Britania, über stylish Fontana Park and the very funky Florida or grass on the walls at Living Lounge Hostel. Just go for a drink at the bar if you’re not going to stay.


Britania Hotel

Overrated Lisbon: a strictly personal list

Castelo São Jorge

The Expo site: Parque de Naçoes, The Pavilhão and all that stuff

The Oceanarium

Cascais & Estoril – there’s nothing left of the 1930’s glamour

Vasco da Gama bridge – yes, it’s very long indeed, but there’s nothing on the other side and Ponte 25 Avril looks better.

Praça do Comercio – nice arch. The end.


Things I can do again

Jerónimos, Belém Tower

Taking pictures in the crooked lanes of Alfama & Graça

Eating with the povos: Casa da India and a hundred other tasquinas

Hunting fabrico próprio pastelaria, claro.


Good resources

The Wallpaper guide



museu-do-azulejo lisboa

Museu do Azulejo


love your work

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.




building to do

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.


fig tree of the wines

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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