Many years ago in the days when Corona was a beer, a virus was an annoyance, and no one believed Brexit would really happen, I used to travel from Portugal to the UK in my campervan with Leo. My mother lives not far from the M25 so, inevitably, we would spend several days a year glued to the motorway. One rainy day, we went to visit some friends in Cambridge and we snailed along the M25 and then the M11. I spent many hours while accelerating and breaking redesigning the UK travel infrastructure by creating covered raised tracks above the motorways for electric bikes (just in case any road planners read this) while Leo flew aeroplanes on his iPad. It should have taken us one hour and forty-five minutes. It took us five hours and forty-five minutes. For a journey of 82 miles, we were achieving about 13 miles an hour. A bike (electric or not) would have been quicker.
But then I had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the campervan could fly! Just up and go and say goodbye to all these thousands of cars lined up bumper to bumper.
‘Hey, Leo! Imagine we could fly off?’ I said, excitedly
‘Can we?’ said Leo, crashing one of his planes.
‘No,’ I said, breaking hard.
And so began the idea of The Magic Campervan.
I decided there and then that my characters would be from non-traditional families. I had IVF and being an older mum is amazing but also, at times, difficult. I began to think about different characters, different nationalities, different genders, different cultures. I wanted a wide representation. I would write a series of maybe six books, each one an adventure, a journey, connected somehow by the campervan. I have travelled to the tips of Africa and Asia and lived in many countries from Japan to Russia and, of course, Portugal, and I wanted to include a slice from all. Then I realised I needed to be a little bit realistic and crossed out most of the map. I would stay mainly in Europe.
I like my fiction to have its toes in reality but for it to jump high. My campervan would fly but also have its wheels on the ground.
‘A helicopter, Leo, like a chinook.’
I’m intrigued by extraordinary events that happen to us. I believe that everyone is special. Little ones especially so. They are still forming themselves/being formed, busy absorbing all the good and bad we give them, intentionally or not. I wanted my books to be positive, but realistic. Many kids have a hard time at school, at home. Many adults have a hard time being parents. Some kids (and adults) have a hard time writing, reading, concentrating, communicating, drawing… Some kids (and adults) are explosive. These are all issues about growing (adults) and growing up (kids) that interest me and that I wanted to include. Of course, these days many kids (and adults) are diagnosed with ADHD, ODD or ASD and we are learning more about the differences in how our brains are wired. But on a personal note, I learned much from Edward Seymour about how we have been passed down imperfect behaviours from our parents, who, in turn, had received similar treatment and how we do the same. He helped me see things that I hadn’t seen before and understand that we can rewire our brains. That was ten years ago.
The Forbidden Slide is my first fictional work in ten years and my first attempt at younger fiction. It has taken more than five years from the M25 to publication. Of course, You-Know-What hit us in the meantime and I was busy teaching both university and primary school students. I attempted to find a publisher in the UK but no luck. I almost forgot about the manuscript but then, stuck for something to read earlier this year, I remembered it and read it to Leo, my heart thumping. He normally stops me after the first chapter of any book, but this time didn’t. ‘Read more!’ he said excitedly. Then a Portuguese publisher offered to publish it in Portuguese so I finally decided to publish the English version myself.
The English version is out and available online or through me. The ebook and the Portuguese version (printed and electronic) will be out at the beginning of 2022. Book 2, The Enteldont’s Skull, is on its way. If anyone has any feedback I would love to hear from you.
‘I’m going to get a pony,’ I announced eighteen months ago. The eucalyptus and cork-oak covered mountains of Monchique are criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of off-road tracks, just waiting to be explored on horseback. From my house, it is possible to get to Aljezur (a west coast town) without hardly touching tarmac, as well as up to Foía, the highest point of the Algarve. It had long been a dream to ride around here and I’d just inherited a few thousand pounds from my grandmother, Winnie. Rather than it evaporate on the house, or in Intermarché, I decided that I wanted something, something memorable. Leo was nearly six and settled in at his first year at school and working hard.
‘I think you should wait ten years,’ my ever-practical boyfriend, Paul, suggested. ‘At least until Leo finishes school.’
I totted up the years and, even with my bad maths, concluded that over sixty would not be a great time to start galloping around the mountains. Another donkey was a
Chipeto – and a little Leo
possibility. But no donkey could replace Chipeto. He had been put down in January 2016, almost four years ago. The vet had told me if only I could keep him on his legs I could save him. But holding up a donkey is not easy. And every time he went down I needed at least six people to get him back up – not easy to arrange in the middle of nowhere. We even made a harness attached to the stable roof and strung him up so that he would stay on his feet but, come night time, I couldn’t leave him dangling and I had a then five-year-old to look after. I had to take it off and, sure enough, in the morning, he was down again. He was old, much loved and infamous. Everyone has a story to tell about him. A neighbour came with a JCB and buried him. Leo tried to dig him up. I vowed then to get another one – or a pony – one day.
As a child, I had lived with horses galloping around me. They were in my dreams. They trotted to school with me. I rode them around the playground. I raided the library of horse stories and would hang around book stores hoping my mum would buy me one. I even had a Barbie (dark-haired and in jodhpurs, in my defence) and her horse, a bay mare. I had plastic farmyard horses. I had fuzzy felt horse scenes. I used to draw and colour in horses, cut them out and then make a little figure with red hair (me) and play with them for hours and hours. On my own. Horses were my imaginary friends. Together with Jesus in the wardrobe. But that’s another story.
‘Please can I have a pony?’ I used to ask my mum.
‘Don’t be silly.’
Then, when I was eleven, I got Lucky. My mother and grandfather paid 150 pounds for him – guilt, I think, from my parents’ divorce. But the responsibility was mine. I did everything myself. I rode out on my own, sometimes along quite busy roads. It was the late 1970s in Leicestershire. I often rode to Swithland Woods, and sometimes to Bradgate Park (which must have been about five or six miles). I have no idea how I found the way. I would take him to the blacksmith, clean the tack, worm him, bandage him, plait him, rug him up in winter, save up and buy everything I needed from a tack shop in Mountsorrel. Tack shops were like sweet shops to me. The smell of the leather, the oil, the horse feed, the shiny stirrups, the red halters and lead ropes, the glittering bridles and elegant saddles, the boots, the velvet hats.
Not long after my mother and her boyfriend moved from Leicester to Kent and Lucky came with us. My grandfather drove through central London with a borrowed horse trailer. Once settled at a riding stables in Westerham, I began to showjump. Lucky and I started to win rosettes. I got a Saturday job washing up in a café, then waitressing. I was twelve. I grew and outgrew Lucky so I sold him to a younger girl and bought the most stunning Palomino, Jupiter. He was 14.2hh. We jumped higher and higher and the box of rosettes got fuller. I started skiving from school and forging sick notes so I could spend more time with Jupiter. At school I was bullied. At the stables, Jupiter and I were stars. After being punched against a tennis court wire fence I stopped forging sick notes and simply stopped going. The school caught up with me and life turned messy. I left home and went to live with my grandfather – who drove Jupiter this time through central London back to Leicester. I was fourteen.
A friend, Tracy (or rather her parents) had a big horsebox and we would often go to shows together, travelling in the back with the horses, singing Boy George songs. Several years later when I was living in Berlin, Tracy was shot dead, aged nineteen, under that same horsebox by a jealous boyfriend. Her earrings had been ripped out. ‘She put up a fight,’ her mother said, her voice empty, when I went to visit six months later. She would have. All girls with horses are strong (they have to be) but Tracy was one of the strongest. She would take no shit from anyone. Once when I visited her (for the last time as it turned out) she asked me what I was doing in Berlin. I was doing a lot of tequila and speed. ‘Living life,’ I said. I explained that I wanted to be a writer so I needed to have things to write about. She didn’t look impressed.
‘If you wanna be a writer, why don’t you write stories about ’orses, like?’ she said. ‘Then you could ’ave an ’orse again.’
The simplicity slapped me round the face. But I ignored my burning cheeks. Great literature wasn’t about horses. Deep down I also knew I had a lot to learn. In those days I probably didn’t know the difference between a verb and an adjective. Anyway I’d had enough of horses. When I first left England at seventeen I’d worked with racehorses in Switzerland for six months. Jean-Claude had shouted at me every day: ‘Leeza, it take me eight minute to clean each stable. Why it take you fifteen? Eez not posseeble.’ The end came when a champagne-swigging jockey rode my little mare. She fell and had to be shot. I packed my bags and headed to Germany. I would not ride again for twenty-five years.
I grew up. Slowly. In many countries. I finally went to university in London. After four years I knew what verbs and adjectives were, even verbal adjectives: in fact, I could name every part of a sentence in Russian and English. I went back to Japan to teach (where I’d moved to at nineteen after extricating myself from a tequila bottle in Berlin) and two years later I did a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Then began ten years of twelve-hour days teaching and writing. Horses were a world away from me. I couldn’t even afford a bike. Yet I was haunted by Lucky and Jupiter. I had callously sold them. At night Lucky and I would gallop through the forests in my dreams.
When I set eyes on Winnie (who I named after my grandmother) I knew she was the one. I felt honoured when this beautiful bay mare came to live with me in the middle of nowhere. Together we began to explore the eucalyptus forested mountains, inhaling mint and sage, grabbing the occasional medronho from a bush. It was almost perfect. Except Winnie hated being on her own. Neither Lucky or Jupiter (both geldings) had minded, but I could hear Winnie’s foothooves in the night pacing the fence.
‘I need to get another pony,’ I announced.
‘No!’ said Paul. ‘You’ll never have any time.’
So I moved her to stay with a little Shetland, Bianca, up on Foía. A few months later the fires raged and billowed around Monchique. The ponies were saved, thanks to my friends, but the land and fencing burned. So we rode them to my house. And now I have two ponies.
Every day I feed them, I clean the stable, and Winnie and I gallop around the forests and mountains. I am my younger self again, living my dreams with my little pony. A friend from Leo’s school comes to ride Bianca to live her dreams and Leo enjoys being with the ponies (although I suspect the motorised version are more his dream). They have come part of our little family. Occasionally, Winnie jumps off a terrace or bolts from some wild boar or motorbikes and I am glad I didn’t wait until I am sixty.
Recently, several people have emailed me to see if I’m still alive. Apparently, I haven’t posted anything for two years. Ah. Paul was right. But I now have a renovated studio that sleeps two. If anyone reading this loves ponies and Portugal, I would like to invite you to stay in return for a little help. Not more than two hours a day. If you can ride, and are not too heavy, you are welcome to ride Winnie, or feel free to just come on holiday and explore the mountains of Monchique on foot or by bike.
It is over a year since the UK Referendum upset me and a few other people. I cast my last ever vote in June 2017. It clearly didn’t swing things. But life in Monchique goes merrily on. Leo turned five in the summer – old enough, I reckoned, to come with me on my mad dream to travel in the camper van to Corfu, Greece, where my father lives, returning by ferry to Albania and up that part of the map that still remained blank to me. But not on our own. Then my friend Paul, who hates camping, said he would come with us – at least most of the way – but could we stay in bungalows on campsites when possible? My protests were minimal. It was going to be mid-summer and the camper had no air conditioning. The trip was on. We planned the journey there. But not back. Neither of us knew where to start colouring in the blanks. I would research at night while Leo slept. Everywhere has internet these days. The days of lugging around Lonely Planet books are long gone.
‘How long you going for?’ asked my neighbour, who would be looking after the cats.
‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘About five or six weeks?’
Two days after Leo’s birthday at the end of July, we said goodbye to the cats and headed down the mountain, the sun blasting, a grin stretching across my face, my little camper van bulging with Lego, tractors, books, bikes, Lego.
‘Is there internet?’ Leo asked about two minutes later, deftly tapping the iPad.
‘No, Leo, there’s no internet in the camper.’ Noises of discontent.
Our first stop was a campsite near Cordova. It was forty-three degrees at 7 p.m. in the shade.
‘Is there internet?’ Leo asked, as soon as we’d parked at the bungalow.
No. We dived in the campsite pool and ate ice-cream. Back at the bungalow Leo contented himself with playdoh. I made pasta under the air con inside the wooden bungalow while our Spanish neighbours lit a barbecue. The playdoh turned to hard-baked crumbs in seconds. So did the pasta. Paul read a book about Croatia in German. I wished I’d bought some Lonely Planet books on Croatia, Albania and wherever else we were going.
At Ruidera the next afternoon, there was no bungalow. Or internet. Only several beautiful lakes – and a zip wire for kids.
‘Can I go on the zip?’ Leo asked, after we’d swum in the lake and the campsite pool.
We went but there was a queue. When we went back they were packing up.
‘Never mind,’ Paul said. ‘Maybe we go to one in Croatia.’
‘Yes, I read there’s a zip wire in the north of Croatia. It crosses a ravine. We can go there.’
I didn’t say anything. A ravine? For sure little children would not be allowed. Typical of Paul to have these ideas. We raced around the campsite, Leo honing his bike-riding skills.
‘Keep to the right, Leo.’
‘I am keeping to the right,’ he shouted, pedalling on the left. ‘Mentirosa! You told me to stay on this side before!’
I have never lied to Leo so this was slightly annoying. Particularly as he had a point. I tried to explain that the right side is different depending on which direction you are travelling but my explanation fell out of his ears and to the ground and I got called a fibber again.
The next night we stayed in a hotel in Teruel before visiting Dinopolis, a dinosaur park. The sky darkened and a crocodile stole my hat while travelling through time to the Jurassic age in a boat. Then I sat on my phone in a corkscrew metal slide and the screen crunched into a million pieces. From then on I had bits of glass in my thumb. On leaving the park, Leo dropped his iPad in the camper and the screen began to detach itself. The storm hung in the air.
‘I want sushi please,’ Leo declared the next day when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was too hot to make anything in the camper. Also, I really wanted to use the internet too. I didn’t even know where we were, let alone where we were going after Greece.
‘They don’t have sushi in Spain,’ I explained. ‘Part of the joy of travelling is trying new food.’ Legs of pigs were strung around the restaurant. Spain and vegetarianism are not two words that slide easily together.
‘Mentirosa,’ said Leo, sitting down with his broken iPad, staring up at the legs. ‘Is there internet?’
No. We ate some batata tortilla and salada russa. That night we stayed in Alcaniz, a stunning medieval town, like all Spanish towns. Added to which, there was internet. I looked up sushi and Barcelona. There were four sushi restaurants apparently so I was wrong, okay, mentirosa. Even more exciting was the ice house beneath the town with tunnels. We stayed there until we really had to go.
The boat from Barcelona to Civitavecchia didn’t depart until 10 p.m. so we had time to look for one of the sushi restaurant. We parked in the port, got the bikes down and cycled around this fantastic city. I’d just about given up and then we found one just off La Rambla – and then the other three. It was the week before a misguided person drove a van into a crowd of people, killing fourteen, injuring many more. Leo shovelled the sushi inside him.
I woke up in Italy thinking of Francesco. Thirty-one years ago I had left Berlin to stay with an Italian en route to Japan in the days when I (and most other people in Britain) didn’t even know what sushi was. I remembered Italy then as being very conservative, poor in places, hardly anyone speaking English. I had to pick ham out of the pizzas. But, as soon as I began driving along the motorway with the windows open, I could feel the energy and hear the singing language all around me. When we stopped everyone spoke English, there were more vegetarian meals in one petrol station café than I’d seen in a week in Spain. As for the fashion: Gucci sunglasses, Versace gold T-shirts and designer flip-flops flipped around dirty roads. Most people drove Fiats but, occasionally, a Lamborghini or Maserati thundered past. It was loud, vibrant, colourful – with a touch of decadence. I loved it.
I’d booked a campsite in Pompeii for two nights. There were no bungalows. The pitches were small. I took a deep breath.
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ said Paul. We moved pitch. It was still very tight. ‘Okay, but only one night.’ By two o’clock the next day, after having spent hours dragging ourselves around the ruined city under the scorching volcano in the sky, we’d all had enough. Leo refused to walk anymore. I thought Pompeii was just a few Roman buildings covered in ash but a GPS would have been very useful. And there’s no ash. It took me four hours to find the casts of bodies, which was my main aim. Pompeii was hot, squashed, expensive but historically grand and with great ice-cream and pizzas. However, ‘No more ruins,’ we agreed.
We crossed the shin of Italy, calling in at Lago Grande, near Rionero in Vulture. This was a dark gem – a volcanic lake hidden away in the mountains, full of very well dressed and non-sporty Italians. We hired contraptions and pedalled slowly around the dark lake, winding back time to about the 1870s.
From Bari we had to reverse the camper onto the boat to Corfu. They saved us to last. I had once managed to reverse into a lone olive tree so my heart sank. The sea was big, the ship was small. Fortunately Paul did it. Clambering over all the young people dossing on the decks, in the corridors and in the bar, reminded me of myself thirty-five years ago island hopping around the Greek islands, sleeping on the beaches with nothing more than a sleeping bag. Nothing had changed – except the kids had blow-up mattresses as well as sleeping bags (much more sensible). Having a cabin made me feel old but happy. Both Leo and I slept until the boat blasted its horn.
And then we were in Corfu. Easy-peasy.
We stayed at my father’s house in Pelekas for ten days. Corfu, as expected, was hot, very hot and busy; buzzing with young Italians on mopeds, Russians on lilos and Brits in the bars. I have been to Corfu five times in the last fifteen years but this time I felt that there was more integration between the Greeks and everyone else. A new generation had grown up. More foreigners spoke Greek and more Greeks spoke other languages. Or maybe I was just relieved to get there. I was certainly very content to float in the flat, warm, turquoise sea. Leo loved it. One of the highlights was snorkelling with Leo for two hours just off Agios Gordios. We also borrowed my father’s little Suzuki and drove up to the north of the island in search of somewhere without people. We found it high up in the mountain of Pantokratoras: a cave deep in a fissure in the mountain. Paul told stories of a brown bear that lived there.
I was waiting for Leo to say, ‘Mentiroso’ but he didn’t. A strange silent place. Even the cicadas were quiet.
‘Shall we go in?’ I said.
‘No, Mummy, be careful,’ Leo whispered.
‘Oh, don’t be silly. There are no bears here.’ But it looked a bit slippery. Better not.
We also found peace and quiet wild camping down in the south of Corfu to a beach called Halikunas or Chalikunas. Similar to the west coast of Aljezur with its expansive sandy beaches, sand dunes and waves.
A birthday present from my father for both myself and Leo was a flight in a Cessna. Quite an old Cessna. I’d never had a problem believing small aircraft could fly – until I saw the plane. But the pilot, a gentle French man, worked as an engineer and assured us of his abilities.
‘So when did you get your licence?’ I’d asked.
‘Two years ago,’ he replied proudly.
And Ian had told me that he didn’t fly often as he worked on projects in different countries. But we flapped our arms and slowly went up. Then the turbulence tossed us around the sky like a crisp packet blowing down the street. Below us the pristine seas around Corfu glittered. Ahead the green peaks of the hills loomed before us. I got more glass splinters in my thumb from taking photos. Leo got bored after a while and eyed my phone. I nudged him. Air traffic control could hear us. And I knew they had more important things to do than hear complaints of there being no internet. He did spot five Agualands though. I tried to explain that we were circling as we hadn’t been given permission to land because of the commercial jets flying in.
I didn’t tell him that I could see the petrol gauge on almost empty.
We found a sushi restaurant in Kanoni, the other side of the runway. Not quite the same as the all-you-can-eat for ten euros in Portimão but the view was spectacular watching the planes fly down over the sea around the velvet green hills towards the runway, the sun setting behind them. Even if we were all hungry afterwards.
The time came to leave Corfu. The camper was booked onto a ferry to Saranda that took only four cars. It took hours to get the visas and we were last on again. Backwards. Thank you, Paul. We stood on the deck and waved goodbye to Corfu as we headed towards the parched mountainous country of Albania and unchartered territory.
‘Be careful,’ we were told. ‘There is a lot of crime.’
I still knew little about Albania. My research hadn’t gone to plan. I learned that the last dictator banned moustaches and built hundreds of thousands of bunkers to protect itself from invasion. An isolated Communist country. Even Stalin wouldn’t have been able to visit. But Hoxha was long gone and Albania had had twenty-five years since the collapse of Communism to grow moustaches and dismantle bunkers. Indeed, Saranda seemed a bustling little port town. But as we zigzagged up through the town, the shiny new shopping centres and restaurants near the sea were replaced by crumbling buildings and kids playing in the streets with sticks and squashed balls. We were way out of Euroland. No more Aldi or Lidl, the petrol stations were called Kastrati and Islamaj. We were looking for an ATM but didn’t find one. The land became dry, mountainous, barren, abandoned. We detoured to a beach but were met by a guarded road and sent back. The reasons may have been innocuous but throw in a few bunkers along the way and it is very easy to smell the fear and paranoia of the past.
We finally stopped in a village with a faded monument to the workers lost in the war. A lone cow walked along the road. A café was advertising Money Exchange. I went in. The owner was Greek Albanian, as were many of the people along that part of the coastline. He even spoke Portuguese, having been a sailor in his past. There was internet so Leo joined me. The owner made some homemade chips, exchanged us some Lek, and bottles of spring water for free. Of course, he said, Albania gazed now to Europe. We continued driving, past Himare and up towards an ancient mountain pass. Apparently, Julius Caesar used it to move armies up and down to Orikum. Everywhere cars were broken down, steam coming out of the engines or with flat tyres. The camper zig-zagged up and up without even breaking into a sweat. The turquoise sea was getting further away. By the time we got to the top we were higher than in the Cessna. We stopped for a pause and nearly got blown away. A graffitied ruin stood guard.
That night we stayed in Llogora, high up the National Park, in a hotel that reminded me of an old Soviet style hotel, presumably frequented by men without moustaches and their families. It had a deep indoor pool, saunas, tame deer in the garden and grumpy staff at the reception. That night the criminals struck and stole two plastic wine glasses that I used in the camper. We had left them on a table outside our wooden chalet. They left the broken iPad and iPhone.
The next morning we played mini-golf with the deer. I won. ‘Mentirosa!’
We zig-zagged down the other side of the mountain, back into the heat, and stopped just past Orikum and bathed, presumably, where Julius Ceasar’s army would have bathed. It wasn’t quite the same as Corfu. The water was still warm but not as polished. The cafes had internet but the houses were mainly ruins or shacks. But every so often there would be a big house. Or castle. Albanians love castles. If nothing else, a castellated wall would be built around a modest shack or bunker. As in the old Soviet Union, in the towns, most people lived in crumbling pre-fabs. Many have a sign outside, ‘Shitet’ which I eventually worked out meant ‘For sale’, not shit. There was no shortage of cars, particularly Mercedes, and at least four Hamas blocked my view. Not surprisingly, car washes came next to castles in popularity. There was one approximately every two minutes.
We shopped in a supermarket (selling everything except plastic glasses) and tried to get to Berat but the road was blocked by a wild fire so we returned to Flore. We stopped in a café (with internet) and went to Booking.com and found a hotel as there were no campsites. That night Leo ate a whole chicken. My vegetarian plans had been derailed when he told me, ‘Men eat meat, Lisa.’
‘Men are vegetarians as well, Leo. Strong men.’
‘Who?’ he asked. Unfortunately I couldn’t name any.
We agreed chicken only (and anything else he could nab from Paul’s plate).
We made it to Berat, a medieval city (and World Heritage site), the next day. Mosques like sharp pencils poked the sky. I hadn’t seen much sign of religion until then. Or moustaches for that matter. A few women dressed in black niqabs floated around. Leo had thought they were ghosts which paved the way for mini talks on religion and respect.
We got the bikes off the camper and attempted to cycle up to the old castled city but we struggled on the cobbles and, defeated, asked a taxi. It reminded me of Monsaraz, a medieval walled town in the Alentejo. Although the Roman remains dated back to 200BC.
‘You said no more ruins!’ Leo said.
‘Hm. They’re not all ruins.’
We cycled round. A boy followed us. I’m not sure what he wanted but we kept smiling. I tried to have a conversation but Albanian is a tricky language. He followed us for about half an hour. We stayed the night at Castle Park up a hill on the other side of the river. They had very small bungalows but slightly bigger than the camper and presented us with jugs of flower and fruit flavoured waters. Leo and I drank about two litres. Not so far away was a canyon where they offered a type of body-rafting trip through the canyon. Leo and I wanted to go but it was quite expensive and a full day trip. Instead we headed back towards the coast. As we approached Durres the landscape turned flat, the concrete worn out.
‘This can’t be right,’ I said to Paul, as we passed crumbling villages on a potholed road. We were looking for a beautiful campsite by the sea. Kids played on rusty bikes, chickens and a tortoise crossed the road. But no sea.
Then there it was. Pa Emer. Just as they said. Complete with a pizzeria on a wooden platform in the sea. A beautiful spot even if there was a thirty minute queue for a trickling cold shower and not very discreet guards were dotted around – presumably to protect plastic glasses. That night there was a spectacular storm and, in the morning, no electricity.
We decided to move on. I stopped at one of the car washes. For 300 Lek (about 2.20 euros) the camper van sparkled and off we trundled on shiny wheels. As well as castles, bunkers and car washes, the other common sight in Albania was weddings, white weddings. And rather long queues of beeping traffic taking up both sides of the road with a bride and bridegroom at the front, either in a dressed up car or horse-drawn carriage. And the holy grail of weddings was a photograph of the happy couple in a castle. By a drone.
That night at an empty campsite near Skopje for the first time I heard a mosque’s call for prayers. The next day we visited Skoder, famous for its castle and the famous bridge in Mes, one of the longest bridges built during the Ottoman Empire. We stayed at Lake Skodra campsite which Paul hated as it was full of Germans. It was still 3461 km to Monchique. We had been travelling for almost four weeks.
We had planned to get to Dubrovnik but it took us six hours to do 150 km. We passed through beautiful Monte Negro, only stopping for lunch in the camper. It was late and I was tired when we finally crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina in a town called Trebinje. The signs were in almost Cyrillic. We were in the Republica Srpska apparently.
‘There’s a bar,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink and see if they have internet.’
I walked past the men perched on stools, smoking and drinking beer, feeling self-conscious. But I went into the bar and there was a man who looked familiar.
‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course.’ His accent was almost English.
‘Do you have Wifi?’
‘Yes, of course.’ He smiled.
I smiled back. He reminded me of someone.
I sat down. Leo and Paul came to join me and we started looking for somewhere to stay. All the time I kept looking at the man behind the bar. Dragan. Dragan was an old punk Serbian friend from Berlin, who later moved to London. His father was killed in Sarajevo by the UN during the Balkans war. Dragan was married and had a daughter by this point but, sometime later, he drilled a hole in his head. If he were still alive he would have been about fifty-five. This man was maybe thirty. As far as I knew Dragan didn’t have a son and I couldn’t imagine he had brothers that young. I was about to ask. Paul interrupted me:
‘So what about this one? It’s on the road to Dubrovnik.’
‘Hm. How about here,’ I suggested. ‘This has parking. I’d quite like to see the town. We’re here now.’
We agreed on a hotel and left. Dragan’s incarnation had disappeared. I would never know.
There are few cities in the world where I’ve thought: I’d like to live here. Berlin is one. Trebinje another. A small city (or town) with huge paved squares, decorated with plane trees and fountains, bordered by dozens of cafes. Castle walls encased an old part of the town with more cafes and restaurants. Part of the river had been filtered off to make a city swimming pool. The architecture was grand, old and full of character. Maybe it was the Cyrillic but, for some reason, I felt very at home here. Paul explained that it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – hence the grandiose squares and buildings.
It was already late when we put the bikes back on the camper but it was only thirty kilometres to Dubrovnik. It took four hours. Crossing into the EU was not easy. I could not help but imagine the queues into mainland Europe after Brexit. Just saying. My first impression of Dubrovnik in Croatia was of a bustling, capitalist and expensive country, much like the rest of the EU. We stayed just south of Dubrovnik in Mlini and the next day took the boat to Dubrovnik. It was beautiful but there were four cruise ships in and about a million tourists. Add fifty degrees to that and it was a tetchy day. I almost got into a row with a woman who was letting her child wander around with a plastic gun which he insisted on holding at Leo’s head while he was on a swing. Leo, following my lead, also began tantrumming. He did learn to swing by himself that day though.
Dubrovnik is part of a Croatian island in Bosnia and Herzegovina and because of the lengthy border crossings we decided not to take the coast road north but to head back to Bosnia through the mountains to Mostar. We found a small border crossing and were over within minutes. Back out of the EU. We saw a sign to some caves and found them. And this time there was a bear. And a white salamander. The temperature was 14 degrees in the caves, forty outside.
The campsite outside of Mostar was one of the nicest we stayed at, despite the freezing river. The owner greeted us, showed us round, gave us a free plate of fruit and a welcome drink. The next day we took a taxi into Mostar to see the famous bridge. Mostar is another Austro-Hungarian built city with its grand buildings, many of which are still pockmarked with bullets and shells, or in ruins. It became the most moving journey of the journey. I was at university studying Russian at the time of the Balkans war. My best girlfriend was Croatian. We didn’t talk about the fighting much. I would shake my head. She would inhale a Bensons and shrug. Then there was my old Serbian friend, Dragan. Thousands of young people, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics fought street by street. Now cemeteries line the roads and thousands of tourists including Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics wander the narrow streets, watching the scarred men jump off the bridge, wondering what that was all about. As the taxi driver told us, ‘It was the criminal politicians, not the people, who caused the war.’
‘Would you like Bosnia to join the EU?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We do not want another war.’
A reminder, perhaps, of the importance of an integrated Europe. There is no doubt that the process of homogenisation across Europe makes the countries slightly less interesting from a traveller’s point of view (and certainly more expensive), but that the EU provides the people with security, familiarity, and allows people to travel freely, live and learn amongst other cultures, I think, is a great achievement. Bla bla bla. Anyway, we still had other great things to achieve: it was still another 3195 km to Monchique and Paul and Leo were now set on crossing the four zip wires over a gorge in Pazin, Croatia.
‘Do you want to do it?’ Paul asked.
‘No way,’ I replied. I felt a brick land in my stomach.
I’m having problems sleeping. I never have problems sleeping. A nearly four- year-old is a perfect remedy for sleeplessness. But still I’m tossing and turning in my bed in the mountains of the Algarve, worried. I have a German friend who is an expert in electoral law in Bremen and works for Mehr Demokratie. He is a great advocator of referendums. He had almost convinced me that this was real democracy at work. I even gave him the subtitle of a book he wrote about the subject: ‘Power to the People’. Switzerland, of course, is a Direct Democracy. All citizens have to vote for decisions pertaining to the governing of their country. It is law.
The first time I’d ever heard the word ‘Referendum’ was in the early nineties when I was in the collapsing Soviet Union and suddenly referendums started sprouting out of the cracked concrete. I didn’t quite understand them then. I had always thought it was the job of MPs to represent the people. I was indignant. How dare they shift the blame of society collapsing to the people? To the Russians I knew at the time they simply couldn’t keep up. They were groaning under the weight of them.
Now, largely thanks to having a friend who can talk on the subject for hours, I am much better informed about referendums but it has never really been part of the UK’s democracy. As a result of our ‘first-past-the-post’ system many of us have never had votes that really count. If you vote Labour in a Conservative county it is unlikely that your vote will change anything. And vice versa. And with Lib Dems. If you know Lib Dems are winning over Labour chances are (if you are more left-wing) you will, most likely, vote Lib Dems to give them a chance. Tactical voting. Also, many people when they are cross with a government will vote the opposite or for a party that they know will have little chance simply as a protest vote. It sometimes works. But, mostly, our votes don’t count for much.
A referendum is very different. All votes count. Even protest votes.
I try to try to explain this to my friend without crying. He is non-plussed.
‘To me, it is clear,’ he says. ‘The people have spoken to leave the EU. There’s no more to it.’
‘But it was a campaign based on lies and racism,’ I say. ‘So many people who voted Leave are regretting their decision!’
‘The Government had months to campaign.’ His voice is cold, unemotional. ‘Both sides had equal time and opportunity to explain their positions.’
‘But people believed the lies that Farage was going to spend 350 million allocated to the EU on the NHS. Did you not see the posters of refugees queuing in to come in to Britain? It was shameful.’
‘People didn’t really understand that their vote would count,’ I continue even though I don’t know how to translate ‘first-past-the-post’. Elections in the UK are different, it’s a first past… We are not used to referendums.’
‘There was one a few years ago about the electoral system.’
It’s true. There was one in 2011 about an Alternative Voting system which was defeated. Forty-two percent voted in it. The campaign was described in retrospect by political scientist Iain McLean as a “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate.”
‘You are being an anti-democrat,’ my friend swiftly concludes.
‘And you are letting fascism rise!’ I cry.
Maybe he’s right. But.
Racism is ugly. I have lived in many different countries and I have experienced racism. It is not nice. Fortunately, I live in a tolerant society in Portugal and have never had ‘Fuck off back to England’ spayed on my wall. Yet. Racism is not genetic. It is taught. By other unhappy people, and taken advantage of by people who want power to define themselves.
Of course, if all the UK citizens did have to fuck off back to Britain imagine what would happen. Up to five million Brits coming back. The drain on the NHS (most of us are older) and many don’t work that much so we wouldn’t be paying into society (not like the Polish anyway). That’s not clever.
I am not an expert. I am only one person. But I am not an anti-democrat. I accept the result. That won’t stop me, however, from democratically reeling against it. It seems to me that we need to think very carefully about holding referendums until we, as a society, are ready. There is a lot more groundwork to be done. We need rules. We need to decide what percentage needs to vote for a result to be acted upon. What does abstention mean? We need to decide if it has any constitutional hold (it doesn’t at the moment). We need campaigns based on truth, not lies – and we need an independent body to regulate this. We could practise with something like, ‘should voting rights be extended to UK citizens living in the EU and other countries’ – people who have been excluded from voting about their future. We should make sure that everyone really understands the power of the people before risking another fiasco such as Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But I guess we know all that now. For me, my first referendum was a baptism in fire.
Time is on a black run these last few months since my mother, Leo and I got back from skiing in Borovets, Bulgaria in April. As if it has ticked to the top of the mountain and someone has given it a big push downhill on skis and it is whooshing along. But there was a moment when we got off the plane in Sofia when I slid back in time. Back to East Berlin, mid 1980s. Back to Moscow, early 1990s. I smelt it immediately.
Communism smells. It smells of damp concrete and rank cabbage, cold birch forests and watery red berry juice. With just a drop of fear and aggression. A fist. Cold eyes. Maybe that’s my memory playing tricks but my nostrils flared as we walked into the airport and queued up to a uniformed man encased in a glass box with black eyes who stamped various pieces of paper that ominously disappeared.
Alex, the taxi driver, waited for us. I had ordered a car seat for Leo but there was no car seat. An hour later we were in the suburbs of Sofia, near the old pre-fabricated blocks of apartments to borrow a child seat from a friend of his. Nothing had changed since the days I lived in one of those almost enclosed spaces with paper-thin walls that the locals used to joke about leaning on and knocking over. The city was dark, cold and the streets empty. And that smell. The only difference between now and then was graffiti. The usual names and one lone hammer and sickle. Graffiti would never have been allowed in East Berlin or Moscow. Punishment was physical and usually severe.
I found a few Russian words in my mouth as we left the city and began to climb up the mountains. Alex told me that he thought life was hard for Bulgarians but he’d never left Sofia so he had nothing to compare with. We hit a pothole. And another. He wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. Matter-of-fact. When they opened the first McDonalds in Moscow they had to spend months retraining the staff to get them to smile and be nice. They had done a good job in the hotel in Borovets. Except for several unsmiling waitresses, the staff were kind and helpful – as long as you didn’t ask for anything that wasn’t on the menu. I once took a night-time tea down to the lobby and tried to ask for some hot water but hot water wasn’t on the menu. In 1989 I was in a restaurant (a seat bribed by a Russian friend) in Moscow and asked for something without meat and a very grumpy waitress pointed to the menu and wrote something down. Ten minutes later she came back and slammed a chicken salad in front of me.
‘But it is meat,’ I cried.
‘It is not meat, it is chicken,’ she screamed at me, and started flapping her arms in case I hadn’t understood. Then she thrust the menu at me again. I ate the chicken salad. We didn’t eat at the restaurant in the hotel in Borovets. It smelled of greasy kolbasa and watery red berry juice.
But once on the pistes the smell was forgotten.
‘I don’t want to go to a lesson,’ screamed Leo, the first, second, fourth and fifth day. ‘My legs hurt!’
‘Leo, listen to me,’ I began (always a bad start). ‘Just try. George will take you on the drag lift and go down with you. I will wait here. And you will get a star! And then when we get enough stars we will buy the Playdoh cookie monster.Okay?’ I got my iPhone out and prepared to tap in a star to his Reward App.
He went. Reluctantly. I watched him, smiling. I knew I was bribing him. I was teaching him that if he did something he didn’t necessarily want to do he would receive a monetary reward – namely, a toy of some sort or a trip. Stars were a symbol of capitalism. I felt uncomfortable doing it. It was working. And surely it was better than hammers and sickles? I wondered what capitalism smelled of. Burgers, chewing gum and coca-cola in one nostril but fresh orange juice, pizzas and juicy sun-kissed tomatoes in the other, I decided. In Russia in 1990 a tomato cost more than a bottle of Soviet Champagne. The state shops were empty – except for cabbages, onions, potatoes and an occasional delivery of peppers.
Later, while Leo was making pizzas and burgers in playdoh with my mother in the hotel, I glided between the pine trees on a chair lift, my skis resting on the runners below, ski poles on my lap, the sun glistening on the melting snow, and worried again about the forces of capitalism and the power of stars. But then I remembered that stink of fear.
The chairlift swung across a valley and I found myself high above the trees. A bear had been sighted recently but not near this piste. Even so. I found my heart crawl up my throat and try to jump out. I swallowed it down. Soon I was at the top. I slid off the chair and straight down to the piste, looping my hands through the pole handles. It was colder up here and a piercing wind blew. I set off. The snow was ploughed and perfect. I relaxed onto my thighs and touched the pole into the snow and half-mooned around it, then again the other side, sometimes curving more deeply, sometimes less, leaving behind the trail of a large snake. This was it, I thought. I’d waited twenty years to do this again, but here I was, faster and faster snaking down the mountain. The failed attempt at Serra da Estela, the journey from Portugal to England, juggling work, tantrums, the cost of a second-hand cookie monster on Ebay, the smells of Communism and an almost forgotten era: it was all worth it for this one ski down a mountain. I skied down through the clouds and the sun came out and lit up a million stars in the snow. I swooshed through them. By the time I got to the bottom I could smell only pine cones and big, juicy tomatoes. We would go for a pizza tonight and Leo would get a star if he ate it all up.
The rain slashes the jeep, the wind howls, but I know that the ski station is at least another 400 metres higher than Penhas da Saude. Surely it must be snowing there. I open the door and feel the rain whip my face and hands. I tug at Leo’s door and finally the wind lets go. I shove his arms into his ski suit and arc his hood over his head. The wind slams the jeep door back onto my legs.
‘I’ll meet you in there,’ says Paul.
Gloved and hooded, we scurry into the hotel. Several people hang around outside the sliding doors, red-faced, smoking and looking grim. I bounce up to the reception of the hotel and enthusiastically ask where we can hire skis.
A woman with granite smooth hair looks at me serenely and smiles a cracked smile. I know then that things are not going to go well.
‘It’s obvious that there’s no skiing,’ Paul hisses, sidling up to us.
Leo, already bored, runs off to explore.
‘What? There’s no skiing?’ I ask.
The receptionist shakes her head.
‘But I thought there were forty snow canons?’
‘There are. But it’s too warm.’
‘But I read that the ski station opened on December 5th?’ I persist. It is now almost the second week of January.
‘No, it hasn’t opened. The temperatures have been too high. No snow.’
I can see, or rather feel, Leo disappearing into a corridor. The receptionist saved from my further claims of improved installations, ski school for children from three and a fun park, I run after Leo.
We stay in a chalet while the wolves howl all night, pounding the roof, growling and scratching at the walls.
‘Mummy, the big bad wolf is trying to get in,’ whispers Leo as I put him to bed.
‘No, darling, it’s just the wind.’
‘But it’s made of wood, Mummy,’ Leo says, ignoring me.
‘Yes, darling, but not sticks. It’s not going to blow down.’
I spend the night worrying about the fears we put into our children through the stories we tell them while listening to the racket the weather is making. Maybe Leo is right.
The black night lightens to grey but the wind and rain persist.
‘Shall we go and see the ski station?’ offers Paul.
‘Okay,’ I say.
We drive up and into the stone soup that sloshes around the mountains. On and on, up and up. At last we reach a junction and out of the grey I see a spot of orange and a little skier.
‘It’s there,’ I say, pointing. We follow the sign but we are lost again in the clouds.
We go back to Tore, the highest point, and are hurled into a cafe. We are the only clients.
I hug my coffee trying not to show my disappointment. I love skiing. I even ran away from my grandfather’s house and college at seventeen, leaving behind an eloquent note ‘I’m pissing off to Switzerland…’ I lived in servant’s quarters and worked cold and mucky twelve hour days with race horses in St. Moritz just so I could have one day off a week to ski. When, in my late twenties, I hurt my knees skiing was out of the question. I didn’t go for fifteen years. Four years ago and 6 weeks pregnant with Leo I spent an afternoon skiing in Sierra de Nevada. Everyone agreed I was crazy to risk such a much wanted pregnancy. But as soon as I pushed myself into the snow, planted a pole and glided round and, again, the other side, I knew it would be all right. I sashayed down the mountain, as happy as a snake skimming dunes in a desert, a silly smile playing on my lips and singing ‘Turn and face the strain, ch-ch-changes…’
‘So shall we go to Manteigas?’ Paul grins. ‘Or the miniature car museum?’
‘I suppose so,’ I growl.
Snow is forecast for the afternoon but the wind and grey clouds won’t let go of the mountain. They hold on tight, shaking and mauling, pissing on it. Another night holding onto the bed, ear plugs jammed in. Leo hugs me.
I know when I wake up. It is quieter. I jump out of bed and run to the window. There it is. Not much. Just a dusting, but small white flakes whirl and curl through the air.
‘Yes!’ I shout and wake up Leo and Paul. ‘It’s snowing! Sort of.’
Paul is not impressed. He’s only here because he believes it will not snow. But Leo and I put on our layers and bound out before breakfast. The wind bites our faces and the iced rain slashes us. I haven’t felt this cold for many years. I manage to scrape enough snow together to make a snowball to throw at Leo. Then feel guilty as he can’t make them with his little hands and too big gloves.
‘Let’s make a snowman,’ he says.
‘Later. First we find out if the ski station is open.’
We are the only ones there. The woman looks at me. Again that look of imperturbability.
‘Bom dia,’ I say cheerfully. ‘Any news? Is the ski station open?’
She shakes her head slowly. ‘All the roads are closed.’
‘Yes, The GNR have closed the road.’
‘Oh. And later?’
‘I don’t know but I don’t think it will be opening today. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I echo.
Later that morning the snow begins to fall. The wind still bullies us but the world outside becomes whiter instead of greyer. Leo flings himself down into the snow. I follow him around grinning happily, my lips chapping, my cheeks reddening.
‘Look! A snow plough!’ Leo is chuffed. ‘And salt lorries. They put salt on the road to melt the snow, you know.’
It amuses me when my knowledge is appropriated.
Leo, Paul and a Russian family make snowmen, film television crews come up to film the white stuff. We buy a plastic sled and Leo and I slide down a little hill. When no one is looking I sneak into the hotel to ask about the ski station. Maybe later, maybe tomorrow.
Later or tomorrow never happen. The snow turns to ice. Then to slush. Then to black water. Then to nothing.
Back home I speak to my friend and neighbour. They are going skiing in Bulgaria for Easter, she tells me. Why don’t we come?
Bulgaria? From Portugal. With Leo on a plane. It was almost impossible but then again…
‘You’d better go in today, young lady,’ my mother said, pulling in just before the school. She used both hands to crank up the handbrake. ‘I’m going to wait here until you do.’
I pushed the MG’s door open, grabbed my black satchel and crunched my loafers into the mucky slush that disguised the curbs of Jail Lane. The filthy icy water sneaked into my shoes as I unfolded myself. My white socks turned grey.
‘Thanks for the lift,’ I said sarcastically, and slammed the door.
The grey pawns were all shuffling towards the school gates. Prefects patrolled the iron bars making sure no one slipped out. This was going to be difficult. Her eyes pierced my back. I had one more chance before I was sent away – to my father’s (if he’d have me). But there was no way I was walking into that building. The days were long and life was short. I hadn’t been for six weeks. I had no friends there and I wasn’t interested in what was being drilled in. The beating against the wire of a tennis court by a girl who was twice the size of me had been the turning point of no return. I approached the gate. Her car hadn’t passed me but surely she would have turned round as Jail Lane led to nowhere. I dared a glance over my shoulder as I hitched up the satchel. The MG was backing against the slushy curb. I bent down as my heart pounded against my back. I pretended to check my books. I stood up again and turned towards the gates. She must be driving away now. A little boy bolted past and the prefect called him to her. While she interrogated the boy I lifted my head up and walked straight past the school.
I never went back.
Of course all that was a long time ago and the world has changed since then. The late seventies was still an era of corporal punishment and learning by rote. Comprehensive schools were rough places. Pink Floyd said it all. It took me many years to go back into an institution. Nowadays education is far more student orientated, teachers are encouraged to elicit both questions and answers, no doubt at least in part, as a result of our generation brought up in Jail Lane determined to change attitudes towards young people and education. In England at least.
I’d almost forgotten about those unhappy days until I took Leo to school in Monchique and saw him with his hands on the bars looking out.
I realised then that education is still an emotive subject – particularly for those of us who have had bad experiences. Like discipline, everyone has an opinion on education. Being in Portugal has made things even more complicated as Leo’s cultural references (at least for now) are British – we watch CBeebies, he’s seen the Gruffalo in the Alice Holt woods and we’ve done the Superworm trail at Bedgebury.
I know what it’s like to be different. I still remember the girl’s voice before the fist hit my face.
‘You fackin’ norvener, ain’t you.’
I know the importance of integration and of growing up in one place. And I know the importance of education.
Yet after two unhappy weeks at the pre-school, I knew I had to do something. I’d heard only good things about the school, but the regime was too much for Leo who was used to climbing the fig tree, riding the donkey and playing with his tractor and train set. The group was big and the children needed to stay in line. They spent long periods sitting at a table doing nothing. The teacher had no choice but to drag and hold. Leo wasn’t responding well to such treatment. Most people told me that I needed to cut the cord, let him cry and he would settle down. Of course. I could see that most of the children did look happy. But, in the mean time, I could tell he was deeply unhappy. After school he was aggressive in a way that I’ve never seen before. While I hesitated, he took things into his own hands and exited through the security doors on his own. He’s only three. We left.
We visited the Waldorf School in Monte Judeu, near Lagos. It is set in an old primary school so without the bars and with lots of fig trees to climb and plants. Everything is made of wood from tree houses to rocking horses. Inside there are cosy corners with wooden toys, cushions and curtains, soft and inviting. The children can play freely and every day they can (but don’t have to) embark on bigger projects – painting, sculpting, woodwork or baking. There is no encouragement to learn to read or write but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. I don’t know much about anthroposophy, the philosophy on which the Rudolf Steiner schools are based, but I like what I see. Unfortunately, it is a long way, and, currently, full. The classes are as big as in Monchique and, although subsidised, it is not free.
In the meantime, we try the state school in Marmelete, a provincial village between Aljezur and Monchique. The building is run down and there is a large fence around it. It is not a beautiful environment but the outside space is bigger than Monchique and I know that there are not so many children. We meet the teacher who immediately hugs Leo. Leo runs around, making himself at home. I find out that there are only five children, one three-year-old, two four-year-olds and two five-year-olds and there are two, sometimes three, adults looking after them. Upstairs is a primary school with twelve children. I find it hard to believe. We start the next day. I stay with him the first two days and we take in his Playdoh and play with the others. Now, two weeks later, I leave him there without screams or tears (or Playdoh) for two or three hours three times a week. He is always smiling when I collect him and there is no aggression afterwards.
We have been very lucky. Someone, somewhere seems to have forgotten about this little gem. One of the five-year-olds is also half English and as I go in I can hear Leo and the other boy teaching the children colours in English. ‘Green!’ Leo shouts. ‘Green!’ the others repeat.
Not bad for a provincial school in the mountains. Next month is Sao Martinho – a sweet chestnut festival. And maybe one day I (or hopefully someone else!) will translate the Gruffalo.
‘I found discipline the hardest thing,’ said a friend of mine in Monchique when Leo was still bobbing up and down on my back.
Discipline reminded me of Japan – regimented lines of children, armies of indistinguishable salary men, robots, trains. Of course discipline was important but I also believed in questioning, creativity and individuality. I wasn’t too worried about it. After all I’d taught in institutions for twenty years. I believed I could set a good example. I considered myself open and liberal – I’d danced on tables and shouted at people I believed to be wrong. But I could also be firm and I did not like bad behaviour in children.
Everyone had an opinion about discipline.
‘You must never smack children – it’s not right. We are being bullies.’ I agreed: I would never smack a child.
‘My father used to smack me. I deserved it.’ Really?
‘My grandson is so good. I tell him not to do something and he doesn’t.’
That got me. I had told Leo not to empty the cupboards out, not to flood the bathroom floor, not to throw things, not to spit food out, not to climb on the table, not to rummage through the rubbish, to be gentle and not break things and not to pull my hair a thousand times. I have guided him away. Sometimes, it seemed, to little avail.
One warm winter’s Sunday, when Leo was about 18 months old, we went to a restaurant in the main square in Ferragudo for lunch. They had some nylon burgundy table cloths on aluminium tables, not clipped on. The first thing Leo did was tug and watch with joy as the wine-red sail slid off. I picked it up and folded it up. The waitress came over. I explained what happened. ‘He’ll only pull it off again, it slides off really easily,’ I explained. She went away frowning, then came back with two sparkling glasses of vinho verde.
‘You must have the table cloth on,’ she said, flapping it open.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘But Leo might pull it off and the wine with it. Then they’ll be glass everywhere!’
‘That is your problem,’ she said. ‘You will pay for it.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘We will drink the drinks and go somewhere else for lunch.’
I went to pay. The owner, a very grumpy man, Dutch, I think, guarded the bar and till.
‘This my house,’ he said. ‘Would you like if I come to your house and start moving the tables? Hey? Have respect.’
‘I appreciate that,’ I said. ‘But he’s a baby. He will grab things and I don’t want to be walking around with him the whole time.’
‘You make him sit still and not touch things. You must discipline. If he won’t learn now, he end up in prison. And there he will learn.’ He was shouting at me by now.
Make a baby of eighteen months not touch anything? I would have to handcuff him. We left and went to eat in a restaurant on the beach without table cloths and a lovely waitress who gave Leo a big hug and Leo gave her a kiss.
I spent my days worrying about what is good behaviour in young children. I concluded that as long as they’re not hurting themselves or someone or something else then the rest is subjective and culturally conditioned. That said, of course I did not like ‘bad’ behaviour and wanted Leo to do as I asked – assuming I could rationally explain why – so I needed a model and to be consistent. I spent my nights looking up discipline on mumsnet and babycentre.com. Everyone seemed to recommend ‘time out’. The idea is that the child is left on his own to consider what he has done. Some see it as punishment, others as more of a time for reflection. However, when I put Leo in his cot and explained that he needed to stay there as he had painted the table and not the paper and I had asked him not to, he climbed out again and started running round the room. He didn’t get it. He was too young. One evening, exhausted after trying to get him dressed for ten minutes and failing because he was jumping all over the bed and throwing his clothes everywhere, I grabbed him and smacked him on his bottom. He cried. I got him dressed. I didn’t know what else I could have done at that moment. I explained that but I knew I needed to find another way.
Experimenting or making a mess?
I talked to a friend who trained as a paediatrician and also had a little boy. She told me to hold him on my knee as he would have the security and warmth yet lose his liberty – which he would hate. She said she counts to ten to warn against consequences of touching or whatever it is they are not supposed to do. And the advantage is that you can do it anywhere rather than having to ruin your nice day on the beach with threats of going home. I tried it with some success – as well as bruised shins. I also started a book with stickers to reward all the good things – saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, eating all dinner up, making Lego ice-creams and cars. Things began to improve.
As from two and a half years the time out begins to work. At least for me. Children are our mirrors and setting a good example is not as easy as I thought. If I’m rested and feeling good I can say, ‘Leo, that is not good behaviour. Now I am going to put you into your bed and you can think about it while I go and clean it up. Think about it, okay.’ Then I come back and I say, ‘Now what should Leo not do.’ ‘Sorry, Mummy, I won’t do it again.’ ‘You won’t do what again?’ ‘I won’t eat the foam in the helmet and spit it out.’ ‘Okay, thank you.’ I will also consider why he’s spitting. Is he full? Is he hungry? Does he have toothache? Or are there other problems of insecurity or conflict? But, if I’m tired and I’ve already cleaned the floor three times that day and every day for the last two and a half years and I’ve asked him not to spit food or foam out and he does, then I am liable to storm around the kitchen with the mop, twirling around like an angry banshee and say something to the effect of, ‘Agghhh! F****** h***, Leo, stop spitting. I’ve already asked you a thousand times…‘ Etc.
Time out is a great way of defusing. I can put Leo in his bedroom while I go and breathe deeply and re-program my reactions.
The other day, Leo looked at me while I was frowning at the mess he had created when I’d just cleared up. I was considering whether this warranted time out. Leo looked at me, gave me a hug and said,
‘Think about it, Mummy, okay.’
My friend was right. Discipline certainly is the hardest thing. But I think I’m getting better.
Leo comes rushing towards me and headbutts me in the legs. ‘Crash!’ I feel my legs buckle. ‘Oi, Leo, that hurts.’ He hasn’t yet learned the law of cause and effect other than crashing makes Mummy cross, which is, at least, a reaction. He gets his lorry instead and crashes it into the door. ‘No, Leo,’ I say. ‘ You might break the door.’ I pick him up and turn him upside down. He’s laughing. ‘Again Mummy!’ Next he holds onto my arms and climbs up my legs and somersaults over. Crashing is just part of being a two and a half year old boy, I decide. But I can’t help thinking that toddlers can be dangerous – and not only to themselves. Last year Leo gave me a black eye by thrusting a book into my face. A friend of mine had her earring pulled out by her daughter leaving two flappy bits of ear. Every day I see potential danger: a knife on the worktop, an empty glass bottle, a pair of scissors left out, a needle, a piece of string, a fire poker. I remember spotting a car sticker in a German car for the equivalent of ‘Baby on Board’ – except it said, ‘Achtung! Baby!’ It was in a yellow border so I didn’t think it was advertising U2 and there was a baby seat in the car. I read it as meaning ‘Danger! Watch out!’ rather than ‘Precious little person on board so please don’t crash into us’ (although that may well reflect my inadequate understanding of German). I’ve always disliked ‘Baby on Board’ stickers but ‘Achtung!’ I could relate to. If Leo ever got hold of the car keys… In fact, I decide, I would quite like a T-shirt for Leo. Achtung! Toddler!
A few days later I’ve arranged to meet a friend at the beach at Monte Clerico. I’m tired as Leo has decided that he doesn’t want to sleep in the afternoons any more. He’s fidgety, doesn’t want to get dressed and I can sense the first clouds of frustration gathering.
‘Come on, Leo, let’s go to the beach.’
‘No, no like beach.’
‘Rio will be there,’ I say, knowing what the next line will be. Before I let him finish (‘No, no like…’) I pick him up and carry him towards the door. He starts to wriggle. As I step into my office I lose my balance and fall down two deep tiled steps. I twist myself to try to save Leo and the side of my foot slices into the edge of the lower step. I hold onto Leo until the last minute when I have to let go as a knife sharp pain saws into my foot and we crash to the ground. Leo’s head hits an old desktop computer. He screams. I scream.
‘Sorry, Mummy, sorry.’ He sobs.
‘It’s okay, honey, it’s okay.’ I lean over and pull him towards me. He already has a lump on his head. We stay there crying for several minutes, all the time he is saying, ‘Sorry, Mummy, sorry’. I am stroking his head. At least he’s okay.
‘Shush, it doesn’t matter, it was an accident.’
I know my foot is broken. I can’t move it. And it hurts. I need to call someone.
‘Leo, could you get Mummy the phone please.’
He wipes his eyes and goes into the bedroom and comes back with my phone. I call Mario, Leo’s father, who says he will come and take me to the hospital and I call my friend Tanya.
Meanwhile, Leo has gone into the bathroom. I hear various things crash from the shelf and then he arrives with a tub of Sudocrem and a bandage. I recently downloaded Toca Pet on the iPad and Leo has learned how to bandage up animals with broken wings and lumps on their heads.
‘Thank you, Leo, but I think I have to go to hospital.’
‘No, Mummy, Leo fix it.’ He then embarks on a journey up some very treacherous open stairs to a little room that used to be my bedroom. I hear more things crash onto the floor and then he arrives at the top of the stairs carrying the huge bottle of arnica gel that I use for him when he falls over. I close my eyes and ask him to be careful as he shuffles down the stairs on his bottom cradling the bottle in both arms.
‘Here, Mummy, Leo make better.’
My foot is fractured. ‘Hm, can you come back tomorrow?’ the GP in Lagos Hospital says, looking at the X-rays. It is Sunday and there is no orthopaedic surgeon available. ‘No,’ I say firmly. It is an hour’s drive from my house to any hospital. The GP hums a bit more then makes up a cast and off I hop.
The following six weeks pass painfully and slowly. Broken bones need a lot of rest. And they also get hungry. I spend a disgraceful amount of time eating and watching Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig, Tractor Tom and various Russian tractor video clips with Leo. We have, for good and for bad, discovered YouTube on the iPad. Leo likes ‘Accidents happen’ but now I am able to explain cause and effect: crashing causes accidents and accidents hurt people – I lift my foot to prove my point. So accidents are not nice to watch.
‘Don’t fall Mummy,’ Leo says, holding onto my crutches as I hop around the house. I fall over four more times.
Last week I read about the little boy who accidentally shot his mother in Walmart in the States. He is the same age as Leo. I immediately picture the scene: the little hand rummaging through his mother’s handbag while he looks towards the Kinder eggs. ‘Want that!’ He points randomly with one hand while the other is busy. He knows he shouldn’t be in the bag. The mother, momentarily pleased her son is distracted by the chocolate, scans her memory for what she needs to buy. One or two tins of chick peas? Oh and she mustn’t forget some cream for the cheesecake. The little hand finds something cold. All attention is now on the bag. He knows it is his mother’s gun and that he is not to touch it but he’s not hurting it. He won’t break it. His mother senses that all has gone quiet and turns to him. His fingers pull something. The noise hurts his ears. He screams. He knows he’s done wrong. His mother looks at him in horror as she crashes to the floor together with dozens of cans of beans and chickpeas.
‘Sorry, Mommy, sorry,’ he sobs.
A broken foot is nothing in comparison. I think again about that T-shirt.
‘The moon had set by now, and the sky to the south was profoundly dark, though the billions of stars lay on it like diamonds on velvet. They were outshone, though by the Aurora, outshone a hundred times. Never had Lyra seen it so brilliant and dramatic; with every twitch and shiver, new miracles of light danced across the sky. And behind that ever-changing gauze of light that other world, that sunlit city, was clear and solid.’ Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, Scholastic, 1995, p 390
Image by Philippa Edwards
‘My daughter’s gone to Iceland,’ my mother told a neighbour, also with a young child in tow. They were in a queue in the village shop. ‘So I’m looking after my grandson. Leo! Don’t touch.’
‘Mine has as well,’ the neighbour said.
‘Oh, that’s a coincidence. What’s she doing there? Lisa’s gone riding and to see the northern lights.’
‘Oh. That Iceland. Jen’s gone shopping.’
It seems bizarre that a country shares its name with a supermarket. But there are lots of bizarre things about Iceland. For instance, the fact that more than half the population believe in elves, and the horses (no bigger than ponies) have an extra gait, and one in ten of the population are writers. The first time I heard of anyone going there was in 1995 when I got my first job teaching at the University of East Anglia. I remember feeling a pang of envy. It seemed so far away, at the edge of the world. My colleague came back flustered talking of glaciers, geysers, green-rocked landscapes and horses. Even before reading Philip Pullman I vowed to go one day. No one I knew shared my dream. The general response to Iceland (the country) in Portugal is that you have to be mad to go somewhere so cold.
Almost twenty years later since I felt that pang I set off in the camper van with Leo and make our way to England. It takes six days. A few rainy days later, I board the three-hour flight to Keflavik airport. Sitting next to me are two young men who have hitched from the French Pyrenees to London to get the flight. It has taken them three days. They plan to camp in a lava field and watch the northern lights from their sleeping bags. It is okay, they tell me. Their sleeping bags can cope with -15. I am pleased I am not that mad. As we fly north the seas flatten out and the clouds slowly disperse. We scribble in notebooks and look out the window as Iceland comes into view. The tips of volcanoes and mountains look like they have been dipped in icing sugar and the lowlands draped in dark velvet. The afternoon light is pink.
I am part of a group of (slightly mad) people from all over Europe who have come to Iceland on a three-day riding holiday in October. Many of us are on our own. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon and soon I am moving slowly through the hot blue lake, lost in the steam, gazing at the dark jagged lava beyond. A bar in the middle of the lake sells cocktails, wine and beer. Many of the bathers are young and beautiful. It almost feels like a film set and, indeed, a famous actress (I am told) floats by with her family. The water hugs me and I drift to a shore where the rock has become white and smooth like a ceramic bath tub. I lie there watching the baby-coloured sky and the setting sun, the turquoise water and the white steam. I’m sure I see shadows dart into the rocks. I close my eyes and think of the long journey to get here. Already it is worth it.
I shiver as I get back on the bus.
‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver says. ‘Good that we have volcanoes. Or you would need to drive more cars so we get some global warming.’ Only the glint in his eye gives away his humour.
It is cold. When the bus gets a puncture we all troop outside to have a look.
‘It’s the tyre,’ the driver says and squats down to take a closer look. I think he is waiting for some elves to come and help him. Fortunately, one of the Danish women in our group is a truck driver and she is soon under the bus undoing the bolts and bang-bang-bang the tyre is off.
‘Will you marry me?’ the bus driver asks the Danish truck driver.
She thrusts the jack at him and we get on our way again.
The road is new and empty. There are only 320,000 Icelanders (excluding elves). Pockets of apartments, warehouses and shops glimmer in the dusk – as if they’ve been miraculously built during the night. There are no people. Strange stone sculptures scatter the rocky landscape and Icelandic horses graze. It is dark when we arrive at the farm. The smell of horses and lamb stew fills the warm dining room. After dinner we go out and look up into the sky but the sky is empty and cold. The cold bites my hands and nose and I can’t help worrying about the French men in their tent.
A young woman, Philippa, is rereading Northern Lights. I was already teaching when I read it but the enchanting landscape of the arctic north, going closer to the end of one world and the beginning of another, propelled my dream to head north one day.
The morning dawns candy floss pink. We get our miniature horses, saddles and bridles and we set off at a walk crossing rivers and through a recently planted wood. The mud is covered with a thin layer of ice like a nightshirt. We crunch through it and then when we reach higher ground we sit back, heels down and legs slightly forward and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. This is the tölt, the magical fifth gear of the Icelandic horse which enables them to travel vast distances. When it clicks in the pony flies beneath you, the front legs curve like cresting waves, its seat as smooth as a sofa.
We pass a geyser, its hot steam spewing out of the ground. Tourists gather round taking photographs and gasping every time it explodes. Hot water runs down the road.
That evening we are eating dinner when another one of the Danish women (a ship’s mate) comes in and says casually, ‘You want to see the lights?’ We all rush out.
Sure enough a green band is draped across the northern sky. A spell has been cast. No one really speaks except for a few curses at cameras and iPhones that refuse to photograph the transformed sky. It is cold and yet the night envelopes and hugs. I feel as if I can almost touch the green ribbon but it is just out of reach.
I give up trying to capture the light and go for a walk on my own. The Aurora casts a hue over the land as if a magic coat has been thrown over the night. I imagine elves coming out and constructing cities and building roads. And bears in the mountains and witches flying on broomsticks. The band of light narrows and widens in places but it doesn’t dance. Tonight it is lazy like a snake slowly digesting. It fades slightly and the cold grabs me.
We walk to a pub on the edge of a lava field. The bar looks new as if it has only just been built. I have a sense of shifting landscapes. Buildings appearing and disappearing. I get lost walking back and find myself walking into the darkness. I feel like I’ve been tricked but I don’t feel scared. I’m almost waiting for someone to take my hand. By the time I get back to the farm the green light has gone.
The next day the sky is hungover and the wind is grumpy. We saddle up our horses and set off trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. We pass a river of melted glacier that thunders down the valley. To fall in would mean death within seconds. We ride alongside the canyon of Hvítá. It is cold, very cold. The wind punches my face and my toes and fingers have long lost consciousness. My ‘all weather’ riding gloves do not include Iceland. I put my frozen fingers into the shaggy fur of Tyrfill, my warm chestnut horse and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr.
The wilderness and cold is paused by the cafe at Gullfoss waterfall. Tourists watch as we unsaddle and then rush to the warm and order soup and coffee. I buy some gloves.
‘This is all new,’ Elka says, a woman from the Netherlands who has been coming to Iceland for twenty years, as we walk down walkways to the waterfall. The water crashes down the rocks and spray rises twenty metres into the air.
‘But it is still beautiful,’ she adds.
I can’t help being grateful for the warm cafe.
‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver reiterates as he drives us back to Reykjavik.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Portugal is much warmer. But we don’t have elves.’