welcome to emmas housethought

building update by golly

Houses Built: .05
Injuries: 11 bruises, one smashed husband thumb.
Bottles of scotch consumed: 2

When it was first suggested that I start a blog about building the house, I surfed the net for other blogs on the same subject to see what it was all about. It was a quagmire of tediousness. People blogging in excruciatingly boring detail about every last brick they have moved. ACTUALLY I COULDN’T GIVE A RAT’S ARSE WHICH TILES YOU ARE USING FOR THE BATHROOM MIRROR SURROUNDS, I told them.

And look, I’m about to do the same thing. Just a warning.

At least I have some building works to report which makes a change. If you remember from the last episode, the project plans had been thrown out the window and all has been simplified and the lord’s inspirational light is shining upon us once again.
There was a question about what the original kitchen and the loja downstairs would become, and they have sorted themselves out into Bathroom and Loja Downstairs respectively. There was a question about where to put the stairs: we’ve decided to have no stairs – it sounds boring but not when you remember this place has an upstairs and a downstairs 😉

To use a standard renovator-blogger’s phrase, I can’t believe it’s been six months. The first couple of months we sat on our arses. The next couple of months I emptied out the house and built a temporary roof over the first floor of the ruin to put everything into.

And then the boys got stuck in. Mate I swear it’s great having a husband. He’s as keen as mustard to get himself dirty and hit things with hammers. Even more grateful am I to have friends like Derik and Ines (see houseminding) who are willing to help. These people are basically saints in the waiting line. Must have a word with the pope. Must also enquire what kind of medal Derik gets for this kind of work. Legion d’honneur? I’m just hoping one day he’ll be calling to get us to help him with his place.
So the great chimney has gone, the interior walls have gone, the ceiling has gone, the water barrier is going up, insulation going in, new ceiling going in, The plumber/electrician has been sacked, my local supplier is back in business and a massive spreadsheet of a schedule has been printed. Onwards and upwards.

And with much relief this pokey little house does make one pretty nice lounge room/kitchen. I had been mourning the loss of a luxurious 50m2 lounge from the project plans, but actually 24m2 does just fine. Believe you me, lifting a ceiling by a metre-plus adds up to way more than 1500mm.
Meanwhile on the exterior, it’s getting hotter and that time of year when I obsess about bushfires has arrived. As with every year, I try to discuss it in a civilised manner with the neighbours and every year the ignore me. I am from the city, they are generations of forestry people. I bet my right foot they don’t have home insurance and nor have I because Portuguese insurers don’t like houses with building works. Most expats, more diligent than I, insure with a British company. And so it goes on the to-do list – the thought now of being wiped out (again) keeps me awake at night. Along with the choice of bathroom tiles, naturally.

Actually my darling horrifically expensive hand painted blue and white 19th century tiles have been sold to someone else and I’ve just located several boxes of dusty boring standard whities of indeterminate provenance in the building yard… so sorry, I know you were all dying to have your vote, but tough titties. Maybe I’ll leave the kitchen curtain print for the public to decide.

the mayor of big things: castanheira de pera


Once upon a time in the tiny town of Castanheira de Pera there lived a boy who dreamt of big things. Like many boys he wanted to build, with tools and cranes and trucks. He lived at time of great prosperity and optimism, as since the previous century Castanheira de Pera had grown fat on the profits of linen making, its factories brimming with happy workers and an unrivalled supply and demand.


The Castanheirense were a proud people, and rightfully so. The patriarchal hand of Salazar blessed them and their dues and Castanheira flourished in a devout, obedient and Sporting sort of way. The great gardens blossomed and the people built fine houses to live in. Castanheira’s streets were as grand as any in Lisbon. The Castanheirense felt special, privileged, enough to speak their own language, a cautious melée of Latin and Portuguese called Laínte de Casconha, so that outsiders would not know what they were saying.

It was in this setting that the boy who would be The Mayor of Big Things grew up. His youth was fired with ambition and confidence, but as adulthood beckoned Castanheira’s fortunes started to change. The regime was no longer there to protect them from the outside world where fabrics were made more cheaply with modern machines. Young people had different ideas and brought change and disruption. Families favoured by the old system were now spurned by the new and many fled to safety in Brazil, abandoning their stately homes.


And worst of all of the disgraces, other nearby tiny towns, those lacking any heritage or respectable family names, began to grow, modernise and be recognised.

Meanwhile Castanheira’s elegance began to fade. The people no longer spoke their secret language and the factories fell silent. It enraged Abilio Anibal Aurindo de Silva Fonseca Salazar Alves de Piedade Conceiçao Pena – or Zé, as he was known to his bosoms, to see his town dwindle into insignificance. He resolved to redeem Castanheira’s reputation and fame.


On a platform of development which embraced the modern ideas of tourism, expansion and urbanisation, The Mayor of Big Things came to power in the tiny town. The people were intoxicated by his big ideas and his even bigger personality. Riding the tsunami of a mandate, The Mayor embarked on his first Big Project: a gargantuan swimming pool, the biggest in the entire country, designed in the image of an exotic beach, replete with an island, blue palm trees and best of all, a machine that made waves.

“Build it Big and They Will Come”, the Mayor had said. And the Praia de Rocas was thus. The people came from far and wide to experience the beach of the interior, under the blazing sun of the Portuguese summer. They brought their big eskies, their big floaties and the sensible ones brought their big hats and they took their place in the big long queue that formed every morning at the gates of the megapool.


Fortified by his popularity The Mayor of Big Things carried on his campaign to drag the old dame of Castanheira kicking and screaming into the modern world. Big Art began to appear at every crossroads, every square and to dominate over every pathetic patch by the side of the road. When no more public space was available, the Mayor, in another fantastic moment of enlightenment, invented the roundabout. He set about demonstrating his new creation following the posturing style of the Romans and the Soviets. Enormity ruled. But it wasn’t traffic dispersion that was the driving his concept: The island at the centre of the triple-lane-super-rotundas was opportunity for Really Big Sculptural Statements.

His artistic sensibilities mollified, The Mayor of Big Things turned his attention to business and recreation. He built a Big Business Park called Prazilandia for want of a bigger and better name. And then he built a Big Concert space, where he gave some big speeches. When there was nothing to do he built big signs. Not last and not least (never least), and arguably his greatest legacy, he had erected the Big Fake Grass Rat.


The Mayor was, at last, almost out of big ideas. It was a long career. In his final years, he cleared some massive areas in preparation for the big future ahead. A big supermarket perhaps? A big housing project?

Who knows, because the people never came. The only space in Castanheira de Pera that serves the heaving sweaty masses is the big pool (and occasionally the nearest pastelaria). But otherwise the public squares remain empty, the roundabouts lonely for traffic, the offices vacant, the monuments untouristed. And yet, big cranes still decorate the landscape with their odour of potential, prosperity and big dreams.



This post is almost entirely fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Quite good cake can be found at the Esplanada and Antigone, but the coffee at Esplanada is better, and wookies can run around on the grass, but watch out for the moles.

portuguese artist: joana vasconcelos

This country harbours more than its fair share of interesting artists who, praise be, nurture the Portuguese identity and therefore embellish it further with their own talent and perspective.


Coração Independente Dourado, 2004. Original Image ©DMF Lisbon

Joana Vasconcelos is one such artist, and she’s arguably the most prominent of Portugal’s contemporary artists. Deservedly so. Her work is brainy and charming. It is Pop and it’s also commentary. It’s new and it’s old. Her art is like a good woman: sexy and brilliant.

Joana Vasconcelos burst upon the international art world at the Venice Biennale in 2005. I’m hardly what you’d call a follower, but I was aware of this fabulous bit of creativity, wit and craft when it appeared, as probably many of you were too.


A Noiva 2001-2005. Original image @David Luciano/Museu Colecçao Berardo/DMF Lisbon

A photo doesn’t do it justice: an enormous chandelier of great elegance, richesse and exclusivity. Made of tampons.

Joana packages the terrifying complexity, chaos and violence of feminism (ha-ha) into a pretty box with a ribbon. It’s such a clever idea in so many ways but I like particularly just how close you have to get to the work before you see what it is. There’s a subversiveness in that transforming moment that no doubt explains why the international art scene was so turned on. This gorgeous work has a dirty little secret. Or does it suggest to you a purity and delicateness, as its name, “The Bride”, implies?

And I also imagine that while the Venice Biennale is a formidable event for showcasing what the human is capable of, it would also attract a bunch of wildly wealthy pretentious halfwits who would stand ogling at this great wonder of banality. And there it is: Ordinary/ Glamour.

And here it is again:


Marilyn 2009. Original image ©DMF Lisbon

There’s tyranny in both the wide angle and the close-up. The stiletto: She is made of pots and pans… she is domestic, she is a servant, fashion’s slave.

What is so Portuguese about that? Let us speak of frogs and lace. Noting the artist’s date of birth I wonder if this thing we have for Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro is age-related. Or Joana might just be paying homage to the original Portuguese Pop Artist, or perhaps to Portuguese culture and history. But why wrap Rafael’s funky ceramic creatures with lace?


Bowie, 2009. Original image ©DMF Lisbon

This is Portugalia run amok. The lace, a humble homely product made by the hands of rural women for centuries, is an unsung craftwork of skill and finesse, of authenticity and originality. It is the essence of artistic. In Joana’s hands the ordinary is made worthy, like Rafael’s cabbages gracing the tables of the bourgeoisie. Lace, in this case commissioned from actual country women’s crocheting groups, stitching together in their pinafores and widow’s black. So very far away from the Biennale de Venezia or the galleries of Soho.

Thanks very much to Joana Vasconcelos for the use of the images.




wanted dead or alive: doce da casa

After the overwhelming response to my last post I have decided to write only about serious issues from now on. That’s why I’ve chosen the subject Doce da Casa for this week’s take-no-prisoners-alert-the-pope controversial post with a moral and a message.



Exhibit One

When I first came to Portugal I ate in restaurants for three months for breakfast lunch and tea and during this time became fully acquainted with the dessert menus of Portugal. Invariably they contain an item named Doce da Casa which as any self respecting phrase book will tell you means, in the literal sense, Sweet of the House, i.e., vis-à-vis, chef’s specialty. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant or not worked in a restaurant knows that this is also code for whatever we need to get rid of tonight because it’s going in the bin tomorrow. At least where I come from. You’ll never get a bad dessert in Portugal. I’ve certainly never had a bad Doce da Casa, whatever a Doce da Casa really is.

I was in those days, innocent. I never thought that the whole Doce da Casa name might be a cover-up for a hotly guarded secret. Like the secret Lucia had to keep after the visions at Fatima. Something worth hiding from the people for their own safety.


Exhibit One: Detail

The second time I came to Portugal I ate in restaurants for breakfast lunch and tea for five months and it was during this time that I began to suspect Doce da Casa was in fact the name of a recipe with defined ingredients, with which a cook may be creative, resulting in variations on-a-theme.

Over the last few years I have further intensified my belief that Doce das Casas, or Doces da Casa or Doces das Casas ARE BASICALLY ALL THE SAME.

The One, however, thinks otherwise. He says he’s been given chocolate things and even baked apple things when ordering Doce da Casa. I say it’s just because he’s English that the restaurant seizes the opportunity to give him the sell it now before anyone sees the maggots dessert. No one would try that on an Australian. We have dangerous spiders and snakes.

So then: we tested the question on google. Just 9 and-a-half million hits of recipes all containing the essential ingredients of Doce da Casa: condensed milk, maria biscuits, chocolate and cream. Emma: one, The One: zero.


Left, Exhibit Two. Right, Exhibit Three.


Next I email Elvira of Elvira’s Bistro. It’s obviously a subject too controversial to comment upon because I receive no response. Or maybe she’s busy running a restaurant.

So I ring Isabel, she of Encyclopaedia of Portugal fame. She said,

“Excellent question. Important, relevant, pressing. It’s something we’ve all been asking ourselves but need the leadership of someone brave and unflinching to investigate and resolve for us”.

Actually I made that up. What she really said was that traditionally, Doce da Casa would mean ‘specialty of the house’, but has in recent times has become bastardised into this thing with condensed milk and cream. Shit. Emma: one, The One: one.

Not content to leave it at that, I took the question onto the streets and into the kitchens. Nothing proves a point better than pure, creamy evidence. Let me present Exhibit One, if it pleases Your Honour.

Exhibit One is a perfect example of what I have come to expect from ordering Doce da Casa. Biscuit at the bottom, custardy condensed milk layer next, chocolate layer and then lashings of cream on top.


Exhibit Four

A closer inspection reveals a layer of intact biscuits between one of the layers. This evidence was found at our local churrasqueira and is under copyright control by the cook, Anabella who was very suspicious of my enquiry. Understandably she doesn’t want her recipe stolen, because it was I must say, a very superior Doce da Casa.

Which leads us to speak of Exhibit Two. Some fishy restaurant in Cantanhede served this up after we had demolished an enormous pile of assorted crustaceans. Very elegantly presented and while the omission of biscuit should be noted, it has nonetheless the regulation chocolate, custard and cream layers.

Exhibit Three was from a humble Lousanense establishment called Adega Vila. Biscuit, certainly, cream, absolutely and more than a whiff of condensed milk. But no chocolate and no layering. This, while delicious, fails to satisfy the requirements of a Doce da Casa. One might surmise that it is the specialty of the house. Someone clever reading this will know what its real name is, I’m sure.


Exhibit Five

Exhibit Four shows an interesting variation in that the crushed biscuit and chocolate layers have been mixed together. The condensed milk/custard layer is there and the cream is there, although the cream was not exactly of bovine origin.

With Exhibit Five, from the local pizzeria, we return to the text book style of the Doce da Casa, dessert flute and all. Let’s not quibble about the absence of chocolate. It is what it is.

And there I rest my case. Doce da Casa is mostly a recipe and more rarely a house specialty. Where have all the specialties of the house gone?

If your local restaurant is serving a true house specialty then, please, we need to know. It’s in the public service.

the state of health: the health of state

Prime Minister Socrates’ resignation yesterday further darkens Portugal’s financial predicament and almost certainly means that the IMF will put the company into receivership. Socrates was sent down because he had no real ideas. No one has any real ideas. The belt-tightening measures he proposed were no more than a blow upon a bruise to middle and working class Portuguese, sacrificing the public sector and raising taxes.


The Portuguese economy is a miserable, disabled slug and the mistakes of government so blatant that even as an outback-ratrace-refugee I experience this disgrace every day. 1. Trying to interest Portuguese businesses in a miniscule investment in the preternaturally healthy expatriot micro-economy is close to futile. 2. There is, not just widespread, but almost complete IVA tax avoidance. 3. The public sector is deep in a bog of bureaucracy, over-regulation, paperwork and delay. Sometimes I wonder if the “system” functions at all. For the expat this is a nuisance, but for the Portuguese it is a gross injustice.

The health department is what hurts me the most. Free health care is a beautiful thing and an endangered idea is this world of rationalisation. The quality of care here is above criticism. But accessing that care is nigh impossible. This is how it goes:

Ring doctor. In meeting. Ring doctor. Doctor overseas. Ring doctor and make appointment in a weeks’ time (this is going in the back door – the alternative might fill the page). Arrive at appointment a half hour early to beat the “queue”. (The first big mistake is this habit for calling everyone for an appointment at the same time: waiting rooms full of sick, humiliated sick and germ swapping sick getting angrier all the time. It costs nothing to give people specific times and to keep a schedule. Elementary. Ask the Germans.)

I wait two and a half hours to see my brilliant doctor who determines I need physiotherapy. Another hour while she works out where to send me, how to send me and to fill in the respective forms I need.

Back to those waiting times: Doctor’s appointment takes 3.5 hours for every person in the waiting room. That’s 35 hours of productive time wasted that I can see at a glance. People take whole days of work just to see a doctor. Huh?

The next day I go to the physiotherapy place and wait half an hour before excellent person explains how my form will be looked at and it will be determined whether or not I should receive services – by what is written on the form. Wait a week. Get a call for an appointment in a month. In a month go to appointment a half hour early and wait two hours before the secretary sees me and says that my form does not have the correct stamp. A fight breaks out between excellent person and new person about the stamp. It exists, but the stamp is in the wrong place on the form. This has to be rectified, but I still get to keep my appointment. Another fight between excellent and other. The form is fine. New person fills out 5 forms and does a little data entry. I am dispatched to another waiting room. I wait with the same people as before, for an hour. People discuss amongst themselves how long they have been waiting, what is the order of the queue, mobile phones ring as anxious spouses wonder when to put the stew on. Cousins, elsewhere in the queue, drop by to swap complaints and there are tears. Small kindnesses are past between us.

It’s my turn! Doctor is kind, tolerates my Portuguese, is attentive, earnest, squeezes my neck for 2 seconds and determines that I qualify for treatment. Unbelievably, we are all waiting to audition for physiotherapy, not to actually receive any. This queue was to sort out the malingerers from the crippled. I mistakenly thought that that was what our family doctor was for.

I’m assured I will be contacted briefly for an appointment time. I’m still waiting.

Did I tell you about the time I waited 18 months to determine whether a lump in my armpit was breast cancer or not? Compare the Australian free healthcare system. My sister is on her way to the post office. Between the house and destination there’s a mobile mammogram truck. She sticks her head in to ask what the drill is and they invite her to come right in and take off her shirt. In 15 minutes she’s back on the street knowing that she’s good to go for another two years.

Just how many Portuguese die while waiting for treatment? Who keeps a record of how much a patients’ illness, and the cost of treatment, escalates while they wait?

I don’t take pleasure in criticising a country in which I am a guest. But sometimes it takes a foreign perspective to see the problems in the wider context: of the damage already done at home or of battles already fought and won. No country is perfect. My point of view comes from love and respect for a Portugal which is not fullfilling its potential. Whose government is failing. Where solutions exist and no politician has the integrity to implement them.

Perhaps at the very core of the Portuguese problem is the disfunctional judicial system. There are laws, but finally, no one is held accountable. While corruption exists, democracy fails.

Anyway, there’s nothing worse than a back-seat critic. Or is there? How about an amateur economist?

1. Sell the $1 billion worth of submarines ordered by the previous Government. Sell them at a loss and still this injection of cash will serve the people in a way tax cuts will not.

2. Decrease IVA to 10% and implement a long term 100% compliance strategy which targets sector by sector starting with lawyers.

3. Halve the size of the public service but invest in state of the art technology and training to get government departments working efficiently and effectively.

4. Raise minimum wages. Raise taxes on cigarettes, imports, luxury vehicles and dare I say, fuel. Raise the tiny fee we pay to see a doctor – we voluntary foreigners – raise it by 3 euros and you won’t be hurting anyone.

5. Invest in radar speed detectors throughout the entire country to both lower the accident rate and raise revenue. This surely would pay for itself and then some. And then some more.

6. Put a Government levy on credit card spending. Stiffen the regulation of banks, limit their rights to charge fees and tax banking sector profits. Reward personal saving.

7. Devise a nationwide campaign to promote “made in Portugal”. Restore the Portuguese pride in their country and bring them back to their grass roots local economy and away from the corporatisation of the EU.

Rant over. Goodbye Socrates. Never has there been a Prime Minister so cute or with a more appropriate name. I only pray there’s a Plato to follow you.

1 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 27
Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin