welcome to emmas housethought

a very aussie christmas

You can take your snow and pretty lights, your Glühwein and hot puddings and you can stick it. Really, I’ve tried your northern hemisphere christmas and I’m not convinced.

Australian Christmas rules.


After all, it is an insufferable season wherever you are. Obscene commercialism, nonsensical symbolism and forced frivolity all wrapped up in the vapid myth of a little baby jesus who apparently brings a little hope, peace and love – except that the location for his story is one of the sorriest and hateful places on the planet.

So if you’ve gotta do this Christmas thing, let it at least be sunny.

In Sydney, Christmas starts on December 1, the first day of summer, or whenever the temperature reaches 28 degrees and the sun beats down so hard that you have to wear a hat or otherwise your nose will melt off your face.

paul polly

At this early part of The Silly Season (as it is known in scientific circles) all the folk start lighting up their barbeques, rush the bottle shop for cases of beer and invite the mates around. Office Christmas parties also erupt in a frenzy of regretful boozing and wearing of embarrassing hats. Suddenly it’s ok to wear thongs (flip flops, dear, the undies are called g-strings), shorts and dirty little dresses to the office because it’s too bloody hot and too bloody busy and no one could give a stuff anyway because of the way the boss behaved at the aforementioned firm’s function.

Around this time beer and wine sales are reported as a news item. Sales go particularly ballistic sparkling wine/champagne sector. You will not attend any gathering between December and January without the frothy gear unless it’s an AA meeting.


And there’s no better cure for a hangover than blobbing on the beach and splashing in the sea. While average air temperatures are around 25, which for us is a bit average, the sea makes its way from 17 (bit chilly) to 21 or 22 (lovely). In Sydney the water never gets too warm, unlike Northern Queensland where it’s nothing more than a warm bath seething with lethal marine life. No, not here. At the right beaches in Sydney there are dolphins, a penguin or two, and whales within sight from shore, not forgetting swimming labradors and  kelpies on longboards. Get yourself a snorkel and you can visit the blue gropers and a million other smaller fish in the optimum visibility that is Sydney’s coastline.

prawns turkey

Christmas proper starts with the friends’ backyard lunch, a convivial and culinary affair where the French champagne and the freshly shucked oysters are a irrefutable sign that everything is right in the universe. Kiddlies frolic in fancy dress and someone always passes out.


Next we have the family festivities. My family is enormous and despite 40 years of experience I can never seem to stay out of the mayhem of it (unless I’m 10 thousand miles away, that is). It always takes 20 emails, a few squabbles, a bit of hassle and a day or two of cooking. And then the day itself, which can only be approached with a glass of champagne and a valium.  Anyway, this year was a bit special. It’s the first time the family have been all together for 6 years and it was a very cheerful and relaxing day. Of course, it was outside. Kids went swimming in the lake. It was hot. We had to wear hats.


If there is a traditional Australian Christmas menu (and in my experience the tradition is to be non-traditional) it goes something like this. Prawns. Tiger Prawns. More prawns. Oysters; mangoes; cold ham & turkey; salads; green, asian and italian. Avocados. Fish. Beer. Champagne. Prawns.

Oh, and in my family we always have a home-made, hand-made ice cream, of multiple flavours.


On Christmas day itself a few family leftovers came over to our place. We had oysters: sydney rock and boffin bay. Sashimi; salmon and kingfish. Garlic prawns. Turkey leftovers. Rocket, bocconcini and grape tomatoes. Pavlova, passionfruit. And there was a bolo de bolacha but we were too stuffed by then. It was raining; we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit. The sun came out; we went to the beach. Gloat. 🙂


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.


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