welcome to emmas housethought

no end in sight

What with penfold having the mumps, every timber yard gone camping, and mother and sister landing for a visit, there was nothing else to do but take a week off.

And a fine week of touring it was, not for the Portuguese in the same train carriage as mother and two daughters wept with laughter while mother played the The One’s hand of our seminal game of tricks and trumps. An impossible-to-explain-rooted-in-family-history moment that all reunions should be made of.


the living lounge hostel, lisbon and santa clara a velha, coimbra

Nothing hurts quite like going back to work after a break. The One and I failed to turn up on Monday and then spent Tuesday and Wednesday giving ourselves a collective hernia with things that were too hard and we did not have the energy nor strength to do. By Thursday we were both practically sick and stayed away. The next week though, with one woofer back on board, I managed to get a few things done: how excellent it is to have someone around who does everything in half the time I do.


pinhal do urso, central coast

And so to the subject of amateurs and expectations. Sometime I’ll draw up a list for the first time owner-builder-Portugal and probably beside the first number they’ll be don’t get disheartened when you find you can do only half the things you thought you could/would. Or make that a tenth. I am all bravo and força, sure, and if left alone I’ll do practically anything, but send in a few more experienced persons and watch my violet shrink. Not out of lack of guts you see, more out of the intelligence that they’ll be doing a better job and a good house is not a place for amateur crapola. Hear me humbled.


osso da baleia, whale bone beach, central portugal

Humbled again am I by the scale of tasks still ahead. We were meant to be moving in yesterday and there’s more to do than I can make a list of. This week I’m chucking everything I’ve got at it: we are camping out with the woofers and hitting it hard.


moreton bay fig in quinta das lagrimas, coimbra


alfama, lisboa

Indeed, the windows… loyal readers might remember a nicely popular post about the windows I bought and was/still am restoring. The update, two or what years later is that despite the project being lost some delicious windows and doors remain in the plan. The favourite Pombaline ones haven’t found a place yet, but the French ones that have been chosen for size are coming up a treat. Did anyone suggest using an angle grinder to strip them? Yes, like using a combine harvester to trim roses, but with a delicate feminine hand it is possible to achieve a brutal but satisfactory result. Mindblowingly quickly. Another thing about having 20 year old workers around: they don’t care for petty perfectionism, they just get on with one job to make way for the next. Once my attitude to getting a short film made: Don’t Make it Perfect – Just Get it Done. As for all that double glazing palaver: timber shutters and velvet curtains.


the toys going posh at the palacio de lousã

Anyway, I have about 37 windows and doors left over – if nothing else I’ll have the best greenhouse in the country.

french drains and common render

There is so much talk on the net about French drains that I felt I simply had to have some at my place. And I’ve gone a little French drain mad. There’s been scoffing and rolling of eyes amongst the workers vis-à-vis my penchant for washing rubble-gravel… but you know how the French are;  a drain should have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi cleanliness. What’s the bloody point in digging the trench and filling it back up again with dirt???


So rest assured, dear readers, my French drains are clean. Which leads me to builder talk. There’s been a recent ban on rough talk on the site, with the exception of the standard newbie question, “Danny or Kylie?”…;) In the absence of blatant filth quite professional conversions about tight gullys, gentle inclinations and flexible tubing have us apologising for fear of giving offence where none was intended. And then try explaining why we are laughing in Portuguese…


I know my husband is quietly congratulating himself on having married a woman who can build a solid septic tank. He thought he was just marrying me for my looks, my wit and my baking abilities – but no, there’s more. Quite frankly I’m so happy with the fosse that I almost sent the photos to my mother. I know what you’re thinking: it looks small, but in fact we precisely followed the project specifications and it didn’t allow for the rather crafty although labor intensive grey water system (also council approved) I’ve built as well. So the “shit pit” is exactly and only that. Before I leave this paragraph I’ll also give credit to woofer flo for the hole, penfold for the base, eric for the first course and coaching, to woofer sam for always saying “it’s looking really good”, woofer mo for carting sand, to The One for the tea, to my parents for having me and to little baby jesus for his love, even though he doesn’t know me very well.


Wonderfully we are rendering. I love it to death. Finally my lime needs are being met and sticking to the walls in big globs just the way they should. It’s a little bit sad as a stone lover, having stripped off the old render to be covering up the stone again. Some bits were very pretty, but there’s plenty more on the outside. Adding to the long list of things The One and I agree on, we’ll have a clean interior with none of that cartoon stoneness that other people do. (Oh except for the doorway which I’m not telling him about ;))


Mate, rendering is so much fun – mud pies for grown ups – and it’s good to be having fun. The last few weeks have been downright stressful and there has been very little work to enjoy. The filth, the dust, the wet hands, the scratches and bruises and cement up the nose – and the relentless bleeding… of money, that is.

But I should be enjoying this right? It’s what I came for? I remind myself this every day – but there are a few factors that have poopered the party. Firstly working under a deadline was never what I had planned. So if you’re going a do-it-yourself – don’t set a schedule, just go with the flow. On the other hand we have done lot in 3 months and I have lost 4 kilos. Ilhamdulillah.


Secondly having to watch every last cent is, if you excuse the mixed metaphor, taxing. Barely a day passes when I don’t mourn the loss of 30 very grand grand in the great global financial fucking crisis catastrophe. Bit strange missing something you never actually loved when you had it, but a bit more money to throw at the problem would have been nice.

Anyway, cracking progress is satisfying and I am mightily looking forward to living on the other side of the mountain again. And not having to drive over it twice a day. The only problem now is August. Of course I know that everything stops in August, but now it has stopped on me, sending whole timber yards to the Algarve and plumbers to the Açores. So we’re going to take a holiday next week too – just to go to the local beaches and enjoy some VIP visitor’s company.


Building delay it will be, and now that it’s out of my hands I feel more relaxed. Which is kind of like what living in Portugal does to you. You are forced to go slower, at the pace of the don’t-give-a-shit-about-doing-business-today Portuguese, and you can either accept that or die fighting it. The bottom line with changing countries is not about geography – it’s about changing yourself.


a very plum, plum

After a day of septic tank construction there’s nothing better than fixing up a batch of jam. I’m part Lara Croft and part Betty Draper.

We have been showered with plums lately.


The first ones came from of our hard working woofer Samuel. They were blood plums and I just scoffed them straight up. Fabulous with yoghurt and a bit of muesli for breakfast.

Next a small bag of the same type arrived on the doorstep so I made those into jam, and very nice it is. My jam recipe is like this: I don’t bother removing the stones (who has the time?). Wash them, chuck them in with half (or less) the quantity of fruit of white sugar, one finely chopped apple and a third of a cup of water. Let it rage on boiling point and then cool slightly so you don’t need a trip to hospital after mashing them with a potato masher. Cool some more then pour into sterilised jars. To sterilise them I boil the kettle and fill them all up and then dry them in a low oven.


yellow plum jam on the outside and blood plum in the middle

Again, not only good on toast but mixed with yoghurt for dessert or breakfast and I even get into the Portuguese thing of fresh cheese and jam as a snack.

Then the neighbours brought a massive bag of yellow plums around. A whole shopping bag bursting at the seams, about 5 kilos. Drastic action had to taken.

I can’t seem to find Hoi Sin Sauce in the country. It’s a very handy chinese plum sauce – its primary function being to make pork less boring.

Hoi Sin (sort of… I made this up.)

Wash plums and stick them in a pan along with:
a motherload of garlic
half cup white wine vinegar (or rice wine vinegar if you are not in Cú de Judas)
few good splashes of soy
finely chopped red chilli as you like
half cup sugar – you could use a golden or white
As with jam, boil it up relentlessly (20 minutes say) and then mash with potato masher. Then I strain the mush through a colander and into a sauce bottle. By this stage it might be cool enough to taste. Think to yourself HOT SOUR SALTY SWEET as you taste it and if you think you can taste all four (and still it tastes like plums) then you’ve got it right. Keep in mind that it can be very strong, but because you use it as a marinade the flavour will be diluted somewhat.


Slap it on any type of pork cut before baking, grilling, BBQing. My mother grilled entremeadas this way in the days before cholesterol, delicious!

So that sorted out a bag or so, and if wasn’t so busy I could actually see some friends and share my jam/sauce/overflowing fridge abundance. The obvious thing of course is to give the stuff back in sauce form to the people who gave us the plums, but I did that already with the jam and the dear neighbour said  “I don’t eat sweet stuff”… and now I’m a bit shy on foisting any more wacky foreign jars her way. She appreciated the lettuce, though.

But then another bag of plums arrives. These ones are green – unripe yellows. This time I turn to my one and only cookbook, Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. It was a mighty tough choice picking just one cookbook to take to Portugal, them books being so heavy `n all… but Stephanie Alexander’s bible is like a desert island item. It’s the only cookbook you need. So go off to amazon or dymocks or wherever and buy it now (this should cover the following copyright issue).

Directly from page 551:


And would you believe, there’s still another bag of plums in the fridge…






death by rockwool

Houses built: 0.20

Injuries: Alteration to my DNA. Any child of mine would come out looking all prickly now. Some profound emotional scarring. Possible PTSD.

Alcohol consumed: Now let me see. Already a couple of bags of bottles have gone to the recyclers, but I can still see two bottles of Blackhead, one vinho verde and one big superbock. Nothing really, considering. No accounting for the diazepam though. :/


The CIA should give up on waterboarding and sleep deprivation and just submit the bad guys/mistaken-identity-innocent-citizen to a day of installing rockwool.

Pardon me while my pure idealistic environmental consciousness passes in the wind. (Mmm smells like a good compost).


OK the story starts like this. I have been researching TO DEATH the best, kindest and cheapest insulating solution since the dawn of this terrible House In Portugal idea. ROCK WOOL was the answer, and lots of it too. It insulates, it’s cheap, it’s made from recycled stuff. That’s all still true. What they don’t tell you is that rock wool and humans should not mix. Oh yeah apparently there’s no harm in breathing this stuff in… oh so how come when it gets in your eyes you feel like giving up all your friends and family to the Gestapo?

Not just the eyes – it gets in everywhere. And no we weren’t installing the stuff in the nude – we were wearing, like, deep sea diving suits circa 1910. Nonetheless, rock wool will infiltrate your shirt, goggles, mask, trousers and underpants, and it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable. Try washing your face. I voluntarily succumb to a rather harsh facial exfoliant BUT GETTING ROCK WOOL OFF YOUR FACE MAKES MICRODERMABRASION FEEL LIKE A SMOOCHING A CASHMERE BUNNY.


If you still can’t imagine it then go smash a wine glass on the kitchen floor and then get the rolling pin and ground it up some some and then get a big handful and rub it all over – in your eyes, ears, forearms especially, and then swallow some. That’s approximately what it feels like.

Furthermore the product itself was rubbish. Thermo-something was the brand and as we tried to handle it delicately it simply fell to pieces in our hands. It actually fell off the ceiling even after being tied in – oh and this was the paper backed “quality”. Are you getting the impression I bought the wrong stuff? Yeah me too. These rolls of thermoblahblah might, at a scratch, be suitable for laying on a flat ceiling or loft floor or for advanced torture techniques but it is obviously not appropriate for erecting under a cathedral ceiling. We got there in the end, with 2 fat layers of 6cm gumf (and 3 in some places) but I implore you not to try to do the same. If you really want rockwool pay the extra and buy the batts. Going by their solid appearance they are probably a better insulator too.


Nor do I suggest to do what I did next. I sold my soul to the devil and bought Dow wallmate. YES, I AM A HYPOCRITE. I have been harping on about this, in my opinion, EVIL company and its products to anyone who will listen (and others who will not) for the last 4 years. I dunno about Dow’s presence elsewhere in the construction world but they seem to be the first stop for every builder in Portugal. I was horrified when I first saw their branding everywhere and I am still sickened by it.

My Reasons Not To Use Dow.

1. In 2001 Dow purchased the Union Carbide Company who were responsible for the 1984 Bhopal Disaster, at the time the world’s worst industrial accident ever. You can read all the horrific details here on wikipedia. Dow’s denial of responsibility, delay in settlement and inadequacy of compensation leads to my conclusion that this is a corporation that does not care about human lives.

The only light moment in this very disturbing story was when The Yes Men got on the BBC and demonstrated to Dow what ethics are.

2. In 1989 all European countries signed the Montreal Protocol which banned the use of CFCs which, since the 1970’s, were known to be causing the depletion of the ozone layer and exposing certain countries, like Australia, to extremely harmful levels of UV radiation. So we all got cancer, and I am the only member of my family not to have had large chunks of my skin cut out or burnt off. Inevitably I will. Dow contined to use CFCs in their Portuguese market products until 2010, using a loophole that permitted DEVELOPING NATIONS a delay in the implementation of the ban. Dow considers Portugal to be a developing nation. Feeling insulted? And what has Dow substituted as a blowing agent in their blue boards? CO2. Yes, that’s the carbon dioxide that makes the news every day because it is responsible for climate change. Dow is a company that does not care about the planet, about Portugal or about you.


So, back to me being a hypocrite. There is an alternative product, does the same thing as the blue boards and is called Iberfibran. It is more expensive and less easily available in remote areas. Please use it if you can. If you can’t, then at least be comforted that any insulation will reduce your heating requirements, thus less electricity used, less transport to bring your gas, pellets or wood, and less trees to be cut down.

Thank you to Simon Sharp for saying the above to me.

Thank you to The One for doing the work and putting up with me on one of the Top 10 Worst Days Ever. And then laughing afterwards. You are tough.


more building

Houses built: 0.10

Injuries: (1) Major egg on head (and some on face) after scaffold collapsed upon said head. Lesson learnt – don’t adjust scaffold while standing on it. (2) Agonising rib relocation causing much grief and oddly much holding of breast in hand. (3) Wondering when the extreme fatigue and aching muscles thing will subside. And for fat to drop off and transform into jessica biel, say.

Alcohol consumed: One bottle of Dewers, two of Blackheads. Several panachés and a few bottles of vinho verde. Strictly for medicinal purposes, you understand.


I love the sound of a cement mixer in the morning. Not. Bloody neighbours. Renovating. No SEVEN-AM-IN-THE-MORNING starts on my site that’s for sure. Bloody builders. Bloody building.

Things got right dirty this week with The One cutting electrics channels and getting heavily into the zen of the angle grinder. Business electric has taken a lot of research. The Youthful Energetic Electrician with Great Hair knows what he’s doing and is making a mess of the place. Crew person number 3, Mr Youthful Energetic Talented and Unstoppable, and I, got out the cement mixer and slapped up about 6 square metres of capping for the old walls. Loved it. Swimming in the delights of lime am I.


I tell you, it feels remarkably like hard work. I mean like working on a film, work. My brain is not what is was, but planning way ahead, prioritising and arranging the crew and gear is all coming back to me. The others chortle when I compare renovating to shooting but my role is rather the same. And I am the money, I.E. the producer, as usual. I’m at the budget stage where you ignore what’s on paper and just bleed cash: it’s the same as early shooting phase. The only difference is, in this case we keep going until the money actually runs out, rather than the objective being a finished film. It’s terrifying watching what was once €100k dwindle to tens of thousands. And no, I will not get the house finished with the money I have left. Donations welcome. Button below.

Before I leave the film comparisons I’ll just pay service to the fine small crew we have.  As a production manager we have some discretion and as one of my mentors Malinda would have it – we chose crew on the basis of looks. “Very important to have a cute crew”, she would say. “Boosts moral”. Thanks to Penfold we get to work with mixed origin, interesting, and motivated people and who, coincidently, would make Malinda proud.


The One and I frequently lament the lack of spirit in young country Portuguese. No ambition, no interest, no hobbies, and no passion. which these boys (in the main, they are Portuguese themselves but with foreign parents) possess in abundance. Portuguese kids grow up to be bad in business, unmotivated and boring – you see them every day in the person the front desk who carries on a 10 minute wag on the phone while you stand there and wait like a dickhead. You see it in the crap building work on Portuguese houses. And you hear it at the neighbour’s dinner table where every night the conversation is the same: Benfica and Portuguese food being the best in the world.

I’m not suggesting Portugal should become possessed by work and wealth and lose its calm, generosity and gentleness. I pray it finds its way down the a third path between consumerism and community. Firstly, this country needs talented teachers to shake little Joâo out of his depressed catatonia. The illiteracy that Salazar wrought on this country continues to corrode it like a bad gene. Parents never read to by grandparents, parents who do not read to their children. Houses with no books nor love of learning.


So, to the bathroom appliances. I know you’re dying to know which range of dunny I have chosen but first I want the reader to appreciate how difficult this part of the building process is. Unless you’ve been down this path yourself you cannot imagine how stressful choosing a toilet can be. For years I have been fixed on The Grecia, tempted by eggshell blue and the rosy pink of The Nanna, and the mustard two-tone of The Gaudy.

The One talked sense. He talked resell and cost. And he hates pink. Hence I am now the proud owner of a perfectly generic but brand new white and shiny bog, bidet and sink and umpteen metres of PVC begging for installation. I even bought Acme tiles. Super standard 15×15 white no funny business tiles. I love them. I’m relishing the plainness of it all. I feel like it’s all come from REMO (sydney people will know what I mean).

God it’s exciting.

On a final unflinching note: I am sick to death of being asked when I am going to breed. I’m not offended, I’m just bored of the unrelenting repetition. The expectation, obligation.

I’m 41, I tell them. (Oh so you should start!).

We have pets. (It’s not the same, you need a baby!).

I am not a COW. (Blank – did she say faca ou vaca?)

I carry two genetic diseases, both potentially fatal which I do not want to give to anyone, except maybe the next person who asks about my fertility. (double blank – didn’t understand a word of that)

There are plenty of children who need better parents and I have always fancied adoption/fostering. (Bu-!)

I have no narcissistic urge to procreate or populate. (Nar-?!)

Oh do fuck off. (ooo offended estrangeira, best run away)



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