welcome to emmas housethought

down on the farm

For the last few months we’ve woken up to the sound of harvesters felling trees over a large tract of forest above the village. Thousands of eucalypts cut, shredded, piled up and taken away. What’s left behind is a scene of post apocalyptic devastation.


The annual timber season upset me when I first moved here. The crack and crash of huge trees echoing down the valley sounded so final and destructive. I’ve gotten over it now. We are in the heart of timber country and it’s not like eucalypts are native, carefully tended or even very old. The variety grown here, Eucalyptus globulus isn’t particularly well-suited to Portugal (it doesn’t even flower here), is left to grow inefficiently in awkward clumps, not resembling at all the majestic Triassic trees of home. Eucalypts grown anywhere but Australia will strip the soil of water and nutrients at the cost of every native plant around them, eventually causing irreversible erosion. They don’t belong here.

But I don’t begrudge the loggers and land owners from earning their living. Most of my neighbours own slices of the forest and fortunately not all of it is being replaced by the fast growing gum tree which fetches a higher price than pine. Once upon a time the pine tree’s partners in this forest were oak and chestnut – trees which continue to fertilize and enrich the soil and are indigenous to Southern Europe. There are a few varieties of oak which are specifically native to Portugal (including the cork oak, an enduring major commodity) and the Romans probably introduced chestnuts to Portugal, as they did in most places, as a food source. What depresses me is the loss of these great timbers in favour of the spindly, super-combustible paper-making eucalypt. Strange to think there is still such demand for paper, when paper was clearly the loser in the great paper/scissors/data storage contest of the late 20th century.


Just as the last tree fell from the hillside, a hundred tractors descended upon Cu de Judas to collect firewood. Now every village around here has a huge pile of stumps at its gates. The scavengers, us included, came in every evening and all day on Sunday in industrially organised teams – one truck we saw carried 7 men and about 5 tonnes of gnarly stumpage. All and sundry seemed to understand the rules – that it was ok to scavenge (even though the land is privately owned by a guy who lives nearby) and the designated times that scavenging would take place.


I’ve been a bit put off by the huge scar looming above us. So when I went up there at dawn, only a day or two after The One and I became like locals and filled the kangoo with next winter’s wood,  the sight of newly planted tree-lings was an inspiring sight. Just a pity they’re not noble, or maple… baobab… a field of sunflowers… lavender? 🙂

Just being up at dawn is inspiration enough. Watching how the weather for the day is taking shape. The cool crisp air. The silence. And the wookie possessed with fun and freedom. It’s been too long since I’ve done this.


The day before, I had a long chat with an old friend who said ultimately that she didn’t understand why I had moved to Portugal. Why Portugal? The financial crisis has had me by the throat for so long I have forgotten why. I’ve even been planning to go back to Sydney to work just so I don’t have to watch every bill that comes in. This tedious self absorption with money makes Poor in Portugal no different to Successful in Sydney.

So the clouds dancing around our little village at 7am meant something. And then my 8am superb coffee and sticky, still warm croissant, plus a loaf of bread and an extra croissant for the sleeping husband all for €3… that meant something too. Stopping for a long chin wag with Tia Maria, who’s now a little older and grateful for the help carrying buckets of feed to the ducks and chickens. Waiting to rest with her and admire her healthy, feathered, free range crew all destined for the table. All that meant something too. The time to linger.


I asked Tia Maria what she knew about the current crisis in Portugal. She wasn’t bothered by it because it’s not effecting her (graças a Deus) and she gestured towards her field of cabbage and potatoes. Does she remember at time when things were worse? Her old eyes went glassy as she talked about her post-war childhood, when all they did was work – the olives, the vines, the wood, the fields. All the time working and nothing to eat, just turnips all the time. And no flour for bread – she still hates corn bread. How one time they walked to Entroncamento. She can’t remember how long it took, maybe a month?

What a whinger am I! We eat like kings, the pets are happy, we have no major debts and we sleep in until 10. Why Portugal? Why anywhere else?


beijinhos to tessa and virginia




  1. Paul May 29, 2012 11:32 pm Reply

    Emma this world is not perfect, and perfection is a loner…

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  2. Tania May 29, 2012 11:34 pm Reply

    Wonderfully written as always! So very accurate, I was there reading your words. My parents are going for 5 months in just over a week, I hope to follow later for a quick visit. Might bump into you in Figueiró dos Vinhos- ill be the one trying to eat 5 cakes at a time! 🙂

    Thank you so much.

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    Emma   Reply: May 30th, 2012 at 12:33 am


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  3. Papgena May 29, 2012 11:46 pm Reply

    The times are bad but I’m with Tia Maria, in the past there were worse times! My parents remember how hard it was on II war to find food, and how hard life was during colonial war, and I remember my 70’s childhood not so long ago, and there wasn’t so much like there is now. So we have to learn to leave with less, doesn’t heart the planet too!
    I’m just scare of not be able to fed my family, I’m a city girl and in times of crisis is not easy to grow our own food as it would be if I live on the countryside.

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    Emma   Reply: May 30th, 2012 at 12:37 am

    anyone with 10 ducks in their yard can consider themselves rich in my opinion.

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  4. Bessa May 30, 2012 12:55 am Reply

    I love your comments. This one in particular touched me. An australian who can see Eucalyptus as harmful while most portuguese inhabitants can’t is just surprising. France, Hungary, etc also have huge timber sectors, yet they use oaks and other native trees. They don’t mind to wait for them to grow, and they cut it selectively and not like you described. They think ahead, while the portuguese always think in the short time profit.
    I study in Évora, where there are huge areas of montado (several oaks, mainly cork ones, with grassing land below), yet it only exist because it was first protected, and now is profitable. I am sure it would have been replaced by fast growing trees if it wasn’t.

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  5. Eva May 30, 2012 1:28 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    I enjoy your posts so much and you are a great writer. As I read your posts I feel at times that I am right there with you.
    I live in the usa, but my father was born in Valenca do Minho,the northern part of the main land. I was there twice and loved it, I can see why you moved to Portugal. Beautiful
    It seems everyone is going through hard times right now with the economy, but you just have to hang in there and do the best you can. Have a wonderful day and enjoy the wonderful breads and cod fish . YUM YUM Take care and God Bless

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    Emma   Reply: May 31st, 2012 at 2:00 am

    thanks eva

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  6. Rosa Maria May 30, 2012 6:24 am Reply

    Hi Emma
    Goooooooooooooooood Post !!!!!!!
    Rosa Maria

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  7. Matt May 30, 2012 8:16 am Reply

    Lovely honesty Emma. Successful Sydney is not all it is cracked up to be. Sounds like Portugal is still your home. I would swap the phrenetic life here with what you describe as peace there any day. Thanks for the great commentary of life from there.

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  8. Wendy May 30, 2012 9:05 am Reply

    I guess similar conversations are going on everywhere at the moment … we were up in the village above us last week and talking to one of the old guys there. He said in his grandfather’s time, there was a 7-year drought. No crops would grow. The people were reduced to living off soup made from brambles. You’re right. We live like kings!

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  9. Maria Silva May 30, 2012 11:38 am Reply

    Just loved your post, Emma, I always do, but this one in particular. It’s true, life has always been hard in Portugal. That’s why we came to live in Australia, under the skilled migrant program. I dream of the day I can go back and experience life in the Portuguese countryside again! I understand the words of Tia Maria, my mother tells me the same when I ask how she’s going, if the crises is affecting her. No, she says I’ve got everything that I need!! How I envy you, Emma! You’re living your dream in the most beautiful country in the World! I just hope God will allow me to go back one day!! 🙂

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  10. Lyndall May 30, 2012 3:35 pm Reply

    This got me all misty-eyed. I’m currently ‘doing my time’ back in Australia so I can get the hell out of here and back to Portugal. The only way we can do it is if we buy a place outright and never have to worry about anything but the clothes on our back and the food on our table. Self-sufficient as possible!

    We’ve come back to Australia with a time limit. Every single day feels like it’s ticking backwards. My heart hurts. It will happen, no matter what the Portuguese say… “you won’t come back, they never do”. Difference is we have a different outlook on life, we have different needs. We don’t want ‘things’. We never have. We rock-climb, we plant stuff, we eat, we hug maybe too much, our dog is people and our telly collects dust.

    I’m sick of having to justify my ‘ungratefulness’ of Australia to Australians who think going on a contiki tour is ‘gettin a bit of culture up ya’.

    I want a goat and chickens without being called a hipster. I want to go back to Gonçalo’s grandmother’s and watch her gut chooks for our blood rice, I want to burn the hairs off my face getting too close to the outdoor kitchen oven because I can’t wait a second longer for the pão com chouriço… I know it will still be a bit damp on the inside, but give it to me NOW. I want to help Tia Gena shovel cow poo on the farm, I want to be 60km out of a capital city and still be able to go for a walk to a cafe at 11pm and it still be open. I wanna hear the whistle of the castanha ‘wheelbarrow’ as I call it. And I want it forever.

    And I’m glad there’s another Aussie out there that gets it.

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    Emma   Reply: May 30th, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    @Lyndall, how can you “hug too much”?? Never let me see you writing that again. We can never hug too much.
    xx From a Serial Hugger.

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    Emma   Reply: May 31st, 2012 at 1:59 am

    right back at you sister (love the contiki tour bit especially)

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    Lyndall   Reply: May 31st, 2012 at 1:35 pm


    I shouldn’t be TOO harsh. I have quite a few friends here in Australia that definitely understand, wish me the best and are happy that I even have the opportunity to do so. But it would be unaustralian of me to not have a whinge first of course! 😉

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    Wendy   Reply: June 1st, 2012 at 2:05 am

    @Lyndall, have you let the cat out of the bag? And there was me thinking all my life it was only poms that whinged …

    (from a whinging pom that gets it too)

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  11. Emma May 30, 2012 9:18 pm Reply

    Tia Maria walked to Entroncamento?? Jesus. And not out of faith!!

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    Emma   Reply: May 31st, 2012 at 2:04 am

    That’s what she said – I had to make sure I was hearing right. I forgot to ask why…

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    Isabel   Reply: June 3rd, 2012 at 2:21 am

    @Emma, I once made a trip in the Sud Express (one of many… and I used to think that all politicians should be obliged to make one every year) with a bunch of emigrants that were telling their tales. One of them had walked to Paris when he was 11 year old to join his elder brother for work.

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  12. paula May 31, 2012 8:56 am Reply

    I was touched. Thank you for loving my country Emma.

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  13. Wendy June 1, 2012 1:59 am Reply

    Agree with everything you say about Eucalyptus globulus. Breaks my heart to see it being planted rather than felled. Only one thing … it does flower here …


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  14. Hambone June 1, 2012 5:29 pm Reply

    Man, I love this blog.

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  15. Dee Hawa June 2, 2012 8:51 pm Reply

    As usual great writing Emma, spot on! The comments have been
    excellent too.
    I recall my neighbours in rural Andalaucia telling me about walking
    to Gibraltar on the old smuggling trails for ciggies years ago, on the way back being very young and tired they held onto the mules tails and “sleepwalked” back up the hills 30 miles more or
    less! Mostly rural lifestyles are in rhythm with the seasons, and where modest poverty was, and is,the norm!
    Anyway, i’m living on the banks of the Ceira river for a month and just soaking it all up!
    After a lovely life of 16 years in Andalaucia, am now having a
    fresh adventure, and loving Portugal. Dee x

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  16. Isabel June 3, 2012 2:24 am Reply

    Very useful those eucalyptus trees can be. I’ve just put a bunch of branches over my new potatoes to protect them from the borboleta da batata that makes everybody put produto on them and make their skin unedible. Not me, no!

    I hope it works…

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  17. Paula Beekman June 11, 2012 1:50 am Reply


    I too purchase a house in Portugal this past February. Our house is in Guarita close to Carregal do Sal. It’s in the process of being renovated, as we plan to go there for summers. We live in Canada and I know why I love Portugal. I think it’s because, for a minute, you just feel closer to your creator. I love simpler, quieter, and just going back to grass roots. I am Portuguese and my husband is Dutch. I cAnt wait to go there and show him all the beauty Portugal has to offer and good pastries. I wish you all the best with your home and family.

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    Emma   Reply: June 13th, 2012 at 4:04 am

    thanks paula

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