The Northern Lights, Iceland and Elves

‘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

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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.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

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.IMG_2029

‘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.

IMG_2041The 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.

IMG_2152We 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.
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‘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.’

‘Ach!’ He tuts. ‘They just cause trouble.’


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A Journey with Edward Seymour

It is August in the Algarve but, for once, it is not so hot. The wind turbines refuse to swivel away from my house meaning that the north wind is blowing. Nonetheless, the beaches are rumpled with towels, surfboards, buckets and somersaulting umbrellas. People clutching sun hats queue outside restaurants, the camp sites look like refugee camps and hire cars, buses and camper vans with bike racks hog the roads. It is not a good time to travel. At least not in the camper van.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut I decide it is a good time to revisit a very different type of journey to the ones that involve visiting other countries, seeing different places and trying not bash up the bike rack when reversing. Three years ago in 2011 I was at a party in the Monchique mountains, a live band played and Eddie, the host, a charismatic Scot, dressed in an off-white kaftan and sandals, roasted chicken on a barbecue. People milled around outside drinking, laughing, dancing. The setting sun hovered on the horizon before slipping into the sea. Medronha Jane filled up glasses with the local fire water from her hip flask. I clutched a glass of red wine chatting to Tanya, Eddie’s partner. I was there on my own. I tell her that I’d recently split up with Paul, the man I’d been seeing, because, well, it was complicated.

‘I mean she still has seventeen pairs of shoes in his wardrobe!’ I was talking about his wife. I decided that said it all and asked her about her life.

I nodded every now and then as she told me how she’d once been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. I was surprised. Tanya was the most balanced, loving, caring and thoughtful person I knew. I couldn’t imagine her any other way. In fact, all the people who lived in the small cluster of houses at the party were loving, caring and thoughtful people – albeit all completely different. As well as Eddie, who worked as a psychiatric nurse, social worker and part-time lecturer, and Tanya, who also worked as a nurse, there was Robbie, a disarming ex-bank robber and engineer, and Simon, whose job used to be to section people for the council. I had often wondered how such a diverse group of people managed to live together so well. In all the years I had known them I had never known them to argue. They even shared money. I was surprised by Tanya’s revelations but I was even more surprised when she said, ‘You should have a chat with Eddie.’

I shoved the glass of red wine to my lips and held it there. I knew that people came to chat with Eddie. But, I assumed, they were people with problems. I knew that Eddie believed that in order to be happy we must be ourselves and like ourselves. I had used him as a model for one of my characters in a story in Beyond the Sea. But I didn’t have any problems any more. Besides, I’d once given Eddie a novel of mine to read, The Trials of Tricia Blake, a teenage novel about a young girl who does have problems at home, runs away to London, gets into all sorts of trouble and plans to murder her stepfather. Eddie’s verdict was, ‘It’s full of shite!’ and chuckled as if telling a private joke. Not the most constructive of critiques. Why would I want to talk to him?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘You just listen to him,’ Tanya explained animatedly. ‘It doesn’t cost anything. If you don’t like what he says, you don’t have to stay.’

‘But I’m fine,’ I squeaked.

It was true. I’d had my crisis. My partner of twenty years had disappeared into the night shouting, ‘I’ve got my counselling, you should get yours!’ His counselling referred to the AA. A couple of painful days later, the department at the university where I’d taught for fifteen years turned to dust. I found myself in the mountains with little money, without a job and very alone. But that was more than two years ago. At the time of the party, I was back on track. I had three new online university teaching jobs, I was also teaching local writing workshops. My books were selling. Sort of. For the first time in my life I had some money. I had even decided I wanted to try to try to have a baby. I was in my forties: it was now or never. Everything was fine. Apart from the relationship.

Simon came over.

‘I was just telling Lisa that she should see Eddie,’ Tanya yelled above Kraftwerk. Simon nodded.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

‘Um,’ I said.

‘You should,’ he said. ‘Everyone should. It’s not what you think. It’s not therapy. It’s about feeling good. I used to mess up so many relationships before I got to know Eddie. I just wasn’t prepared to …’

She’s a model and she’s looking good….

I wished I hadn’t mentioned the shoes. I shrugged and gulped my glass of Monsaraz. ‘Okay,’ I said.

 

A week later, feeling strangely nervous, I meet up with Eddie. We walk up to Robbie’s house, carved into the mountain like a little cave. To the right of us the mountains merge into hills and cascade down to the coast. In the distance the sea glimmers in the afternoon sun. We both carry cups of tea. Mine slops as I slip on some gravel.

As we get there, Eddie stops.

‘I should say that I want you to know that your writing will change as a result of doing the jonny.’

I frown. What ‘jonny’? And how could my writing change?

‘How do you mean?’ I ask.

‘It just will,’ he says. ‘You’ll be writing from a different you. People who jonny change. Are you prepared for that?’

Ah, I nod. ‘Journey’ – the non-travelling kind. But I really couldn’t see how my writing could change. After all, I know, more or less, the formula for writing fiction. I have been teaching it for twenty years. I’ve even written a book about it. I know, at least in theory, how to set scenes, create characters, structure plots. I know something about point of view, I know that without conflict there is no story. I know that the main character needs a quest – something that he or she wants, that this will lead to a crisis and that the character may or may not succeed in their objective. How could I undo all that knowledge?

‘Are you prepared for that?’

I nod again, still not convinced that it would be possible. And, if by some chance, my writing did change, maybe it would be for the better. After all, I wasn’t exactly on any bestselling lists.

We sit down opposite each other on sofas covered with blankets in the little hobbit house in the hill. The concrete roof is covered over with earth and grass so from the top there is no indication that there is a little house below. The floor is painted iron oxide, warm and inviting. A table holds up a full ashtray and bits of ash cover its surface. A radio sings in the background – Debbie Harry’s, ‘Atomic’. Paintings cover the wall, gifts from talented friends. I sip my tea.

Eddie is a dark shadow against the single pane and grubby window. His grey hair frizzes into the light of the window behind. He smiles and explains that jonny is about going back to the time when it was very confusing as a child. ‘It was for all of us.’ He tells me that a child always expects perfection and never gets it. Our parents have, mostly unwittingly, passed on all the shite from their lives. The result is confusion, chaos, uncertainty and conflict. How we deal with that is that we create blocks. And they remain with us for the rest of our lives. The aim of jonny is to take down those blocks. But also to know that it is not the parents’ fault. As they too were newborn babies and their parents filled them with shite. And so it’s gone on. Ad infinitum.

I nod slowly. I knew plenty about confusion, chaos, uncertainty and conflict. That was the stuff of life surely and, certainly the stuff of fiction. Without conflict there is no story.

‘You can record what we say,’ Eddie says. ‘This will be yours to keep and to do with it what you want. Does it make sense what I’m saying? Do you want to continue?’

Yes it made sense and yes I wanted to continue. I didn’t know it then but I was about to be gifted an extraordinary narrative: one which three years later I have finally decided to write about.

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Sunset over the west coast, Monchique

 

The World at Two, Monchique, July 2014

One afternoon at university in London in 1989 I sat with three other students drinking a pint of Stella lager and smoking Bensons in a beer-soaked, nicotine-stained SOAS student union bar. We were all slightly older than the average first-year undergraduates – early to mid-twenties as opposed to late teens. I felt at least thirty. I had been around the world several times, lived in Berlin and Tokyo. Two of my fellow students had grown up in Catholic communities (one Irish, one Croatian). We were talking about children, about having them or not. I, most probably, was screwing up my nose. I didn’t like children. I certainly didn’t want one. Children ruined your life. And they were mean. Even I was. I remember very well pinching a child younger than me behind the stage at play school. I must have been four at the time. Before that I had hardly any memories. An old gas fire with black and orange teeth. A coffee table. Sitting in a pushchair outside the Co-op. Bluebottles on the windowsill. Looking out the window at the hedge and beyond at the traffic on the by-pass. Waiting.

No more. Therefore, I reckoned, life began at four. My little Leo turned two at the weekend. He’s already been to Spain five times, including Tenerife, England and has travelled most of the Algarve and Alentejo. Last week we were camping in Evora and watched clowns perform in the main square. Yesterday we saw sea lions and dolphins at Zoomarine. ‘See more seals!’ he said, dragging me around the pools. He chose a seahorse to ride on the carousel. Leo_carousel

On a trip in the National Parque de Cabañeros he pointed out the window at a bush and said, ‘medronho’ (the medronho bush with red berries used here in the Monchique mountains to make the local white spirit). He spotted deer and a fox (having only ever seen one on an iPad).

Deer in the National Park of Cabañeros in Spain.

Deer in the National Park of Cabañeros in Spain.

The other day in Continente he grabbed his own basket and started shopping – much to my horror. He understands the notion of subject, verb and object. ‘Leo do it’, ‘Mummy fetch Leo’, ‘Leo coming’, ‘Leo shopping’. He knows what he wants and in three languages and combines them fluently. ‘Mais eier. Thank you’. He’s like an elephant with places. If we go to a beach he hasn’t been to for a while he will go to where we sat the previous time and say, ‘Mama cake’ (clearly where I’d eaten cake). Aside from (still) chucking things into the pool and spitting food out,  two is an amazing age.

‘So,’ said the Irish friend, ‘if you don’t think that children are conscious before four does that mean you’d agree with Herod and allow the killing of all babies of two and under? That’s what he did. He slaughtered all babies and young children.’

I didn’t know much about Herod but as I didn’t remember anything about being two, I shrugged and agreed. Not that it was a laudable act but that the children wouldn’t suffer as they wouldn’t remember. After all, we slaughter animals.

I still don’t know much about Herod and the biblical story or how much of it is true but I know a little more about being two years old and my answer now makes me shudder. The Irish woman shook her head, blew smoke out of her nose and looked at me in disgust. I can see myself sitting on that dark blue velvet poof defiantly sucking on a Benson’s and trying not to cough. It has become a painful memory.

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But it worries me that we remember hardly anything in our first three to four years. Of course without language we have no means of storing information. Nonetheless, I find it strange that Leo will never remember his five minute shopping spree or all those travels to different places. Of course, all these experiences are stored in our bodies and brains and inform who we become. Many of my preconceptions about children were learned but I didn’t understand that then. These days our lives are also stored in iPads, computers, cameras and videos. I don’t make videos but my iPad is full of photos and Leo loves to flick through at night or in the morning. He remembers nearly all the places and people (or, at least, he has learned through repetition). I just hope that our travels make more of an impression than the dazzling shelves of supermarkets or where Mama has eaten cake.

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A Night in Monsaraz, Alentejo, June 2014

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About three hours drive from Monchique, in the north-east Alentejo, lies a cluster of villages and small towns. Passing through them is like perusing the wine shelves of Intermarché: Reguengos, Monsaraz, Redondo, Esporão, Borba… I like the idea of staying in a village that is a good wine and Monsaraz is scenically pitched high up on a hill surrounded by castle walls and a walled bull-ring at the top end. Out of curiosity I read what Saramago has to say about Monsaraz (the village, not the wine) when he wrote Journey to Portugal.

From the main square the traveller can contemplate discreet and pretty houses, some of them uninhabited, acquired by people with money who live a long way away; he can survey their façades rather than their interiors, then lapse into regret that, after all, Monsaraz amounts to little more than a façade. But perhaps the traveller does it an injustice: some must have grown up, body and soul, within these castle walls, these steep alleys, in the fresh or freezing shade of these uncomfortable houses.  

Jose Saramago, Journey to Portugal, The Harvill Press, 2002 (first published in 1990), p399

It is twee, Saramago is right, but it certainly doesn’t feel uninhabited. Quite the opposite. It has a buzz. There are the usual shops selling tourist trinkets but there are some individual touches: a French couple own a café and confectionary shop selling local olive oils and organically grown teas, a Dutch woman runs a weaving factory that manufactures blankets, rugs and carpets and there is a heaving terraced bar looking down onto the Alentejo plains. And, despite the façade, there is a strong sense of history in the fortified village. The first time I was here I rode a horse up through the ancient road into the village. The clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles took me back centuries to what it must have been like for a traveller arriving into Monsaraz from the heat of the Alentejo.

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This time, revving into another era – albeit only four years later – Paul, Sérgio and I sput loudly into the ancient village in buggies (or kart cross as they are known as here). Sacrilegious perhaps in all the tweeness, but great fun and much kinder on my knees. Our guide, Sérgio, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Portuguese who travelled the world only to return to Monsaraz as being the place he wanted to live, is welcomed by everyone, both locals and ‘incomers’ and no one seems to mind the sput-sput-sputting of the little cars – with the exception of a few frowns from the visiting coachloads of tourists. I resist the urge to wave and walk to a viewing spot to take in the vast watery panorama below me. The great lake stretches out like a thousand octopuses, its tentacles forming peninsulas as far as the eye can see.

This is the one very big difference between when Saramago visited and now: Alqueva. Not, as it is tempting to think, a terrorist group (although maybe to the inhabitants of those sunken villages it was) but the name of the biggest dam in Europe.

 Its shores, Sérgio tells us, are longer than the entire coast of Portugal. And they are empty. Environmental laws in Portugal ensure that they remain pristine.

‘Even the cows aren’t allowed to craze there,’ he explains. He pauses. ‘But they are in Spain – the other side of the dam.’

‘Are there no boats or trip on the lake?’ I ask. ‘Or around it?’ I remember visiting Bewl Water in Kent and practically having to queue to cycle around it and then having to wait while 3000 joggers came the other way. The lake itself could have benefitted from traffic lights due to the number of canoes and boats. And, of course, nothing was free.

‘There’s not much but Tiago has a Dutch sailing boat and offers sunset boat trips down there on the lake,’ Sérgio says.

That’s a start, I think, but I can’t help worrying that Portugal is missing out. Then again I don’t know who controls what. Apparently, Beja airport doesn’t allow many tourists in which helps keep visitor numbers down.

After a coffee and a pastel de nata we fly down and out of the village and circumnavigate the hill of Monsaraz on ancient tracks. The carts scurry across the land like beetles, hardly noticing the ruts and stones, kicking up dust storms behind them. They will cross anything, climb anything. They will do almost everything that a horse will – and much quicker. But it is not a race. We pass through an olive grove. Here we see olive trees of several hundred years old and one old tree of more than a thousand years old. We stop at a menhir, a large phallic stone, one of the biggest in the Iberian peninsula and a stone circle (or square in this case) that constitute the ‘Cromeleque do Xerez’, saved from the terrorists before the flooding of the land and relocated closer to the Monsaraz skies.

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‘At night many people come here to watch the dark skies,’ our guide explains.

Where earth and sky meet, I think.

An old convent, Convento da Orada, restored and abandoned when funds ran out in 2007 is now turning to ruin. The same with an old templar church.

‘It is our patrimony,’ Sérgio says, a sense of frustration entering his voice.

But then we visit Herdade do Barrocal, a huge abandoned farm/manor house. We talk to the caretaker and, as it turns out, local ‘endireita’ or healer. He tells us that a partnership between the present day owner of the Herdade and a group called Aguapura, and a total investment of 90 million euro plans to turn the Herdade into a 5-star hotel with 70 rooms and another 85 habitation units or suites/small apartments. In two years. I can’t quite see it finished in two years but, when finished, it will be a spectacular place to stay or visit. He also offers to fix my knees. I wasn’t sure if we’d have time but maybe when I come back, I say, thanking him and climbing guiltily back into the kart cross.

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That night we eat in a restaurant Sem Fim, a converted ‘lagar’, or olive oil factory, its presses still visible. It is one of the best restaurants I have eaten in ever and certainly in Portugal (although I have only dined out three times this year so I’m probably not the best judge). I have a vegetarian dish of spinach and fresh cheese and we drink a bottle of Monsaraz Millennium on the terrace near to the dark sky.

The traveller, Saramago, did do Monsaraz an injustice but it was a different place then. Interestingly, the title of the chapter in which Saramago writes about Monsaraz is called the ‘The Night the World Began’ and there is a sense of a new world having begun around Monsaraz with the creation of the dam and a whole new micro eco system. I wonder what Saramago wrote about Monchique. I must go and look it up.

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Restaurant Sem Fim http://www.sem-fim.com/

Herdade do Barrocal http://www.cm-reguengos-monsaraz.pt/pt/conteudos/noticias/notas%20de%20imprensa/2007-10-12%20-%20Herdade%20do%20Barrocal%20apresenta%20projecto%20turistico.htm

Monte Alerta (Turismo Rural and Kart Cross) http://www.montealerta.pt/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England Revisited, April 2014

‘So, you’ve come from the Algarve,’ the immigration officer said, looking through mine and Leo’s passports. ‘The good life, huh?’ He was a middle-aged man with short spiky grey hair. A smile cracked though the official lines.

‘Yes,’ I said, slowly, suspiciously.

‘Well, I hope you haven’t brought the rain with you!’ he said.

‘So do I. Looking forward to some sun.’

He laughed and gave me the passports and waved down at Leo who was sitting in a pushchair I’d found on the way from the plane.

‘Ciao-ciao,’ said Leo, waving back.

‘Ciao-ciao,’ the immigration officer said.

This was a new experience. A friendly immigration officer and free pushchairs at Gatwick. So far, so good. All would be well. We’d survived the flight and the plane had landed (I had carried Leo away from the cockpit). We would have a good time, meet lots of old friends, get the camper van and drive back to Portugal. I was sure that Leo would love it and air passengers from Faro could relax.

It was indeed warmer and drier in the UK than it had been in the Algarve where the rain had been torrential for days. The thunder had shook the house and the lightning had replaced lighting.

We waited for the cockney Portuguese taxi driver in front of twenty rows of sweets and chocolates at W.H. Smiths. Leo grew twenty arms, more like tentacles.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ John (João) said, as I took some jelly babies from Leo’s hand for the umpteenth time. ‘Bloody M25. Accident. Had to come off and come through the villages.’

Nothing new there then.  Another inconsiderate driver crashes.

The traffic in the villages was bumper to bumper. Leo got bored of saying, ‘car!’ and ‘truck!’ and fell asleep. But everyone else was busy. Even if their cars were reduced to caterpillars they were talking into invisible microphones or phones, or browsing files. Along the pavements people walked and talked on mobiles, got in and out of cars in three swift movements, released or belted up children in car seats in seconds, carried shopping, walked dogs with a plastic glove on one hand. Even the elderly scooted along on electric scooters.

England (at least this part) was busy. And rich. No litter, no fag ends, no graffiti, no dog shit. Not even any weeds. Every fence post was nailed in and painted. Every flower planted by numbers. So it seemed to me.

It was dusk by the time we got to the daffodil-lined village. An old couple quick-stepped around the pond and three young women exercised on outdoor gym equipment on the green. There were some brand new shiny slides, swings and roundabouts. Leo will like that, I thought. But, the next day, after sliding down the baby slide and the bigger children’s slide several times Leo began to do what he really loved doing – picking up litter. After depositing an errant crisp packet into the bin he still wasn’t happy. Finally, he found what he was looking for. A momentary pang for Portugal, I suspect. He held up the fag end victoriously.

I, meanwhile, craved afternoon coffee and cake but there was no coffee shop in the village. I persuaded my mother to take us to Oxted where I found one with a children’s corner and wine so we were all happy. One small cappuccino, one small slice of carrot cake and a large white wine. £10.50! Busy, rich and expensive.

Needless to say, we had brought the rain with us. But I was too busy on my mission to buy the camper van to pay much attention. I left Leo with my mum, and an old girlfriend, who I’d hardly seen for thirty years, came with me to Cambridge on the train to see the van I’d been drooling over for six weeks. As we walked out of the station we were greeted by twenty million bicycles – many of which were parked in the air. I don’t remember Cambridge as being a cycling city. I only remember one of my Japanese students from the UEA had fallen into the river from one of those silly punts. My fault, I’m afraid. But that must have been… twenty years ago.

The trip wasn’t in vain. I bought my automatic La Strada and proudly slithered back over the QE2 to Kent.

The next day Leo started coughing, a runny nose.

‘Strange,’ I said to mum. ‘He’s never ill.’

‘It’s the plane,’ she said.

I contented myself with the fact that now that I had the camper van Leo would never get sick from being on a plane again. And no one would ever get kicked in the back or be deafened by screams. And, of course, Leo would love it.

‘Leo, shall we go and pack some things into the camper van?’

‘No.’

‘Don’t you want to come with me?’

‘Noooo!’ he said. And started crying.

It got worse. As I triumphantly made the bed and stacked up with Spaghetti hoops and a bottle of red wine, Leo got clingier and louder. This was not looking good. The day before we were due to travel I dressed him and noticed a rash.

‘Mum, look at this?’

‘What?’

‘The rash.’

‘What rash?’

His skin felt like sandpaper and the whole of his front was covered in spots.

‘We need to call the doctor.’

‘You’ll be lucky.’

 

I was lucky.

‘Aha,’ the doctor said, as soon as I took Leo’s shirt off. ‘I’m fairly sure this is Scarlatina. There’s been an outbreak. It was on the news last night. It’s not serious. Antibiotics will soon clear this up but you must make sure he takes it all. You’ll be okay to travel. Well, travelling with a sick child will not be easy but he’ll be okay.’

A disease that needed antibiotics sounded serious to me, but I was hugely relieved that we’d got the appointment and a prescription for antibiotics.

‘It’s not with sugar,’ the chemist said aggressively. ‘And it needs to be kept in the fridge.’

‘Oh?’ I said and shrugged. What did that mean? But at least I had a fridge in the camper van.

It meant Leo wouldn’t take it. I tried everything. I tried different spoons, I tried sugar, I tried those oral syringes. Every time he spat it out and cried and cried.

I looked up Scarlatina that night. It is considered either synonymous with, or a mild form of Scarlet Fever. Scarlet Fever? I didn’t even know it still existed. Antibiotics must be taken.

The next morning I tried orange juice. He took a sip and then cried and cried. I was packing up – difficult while carrying 12 kilos.

‘Leo, don’t you want to go in the camper van?’

‘Nooo!’

I mixed the antibiotics into his milk and he finally drank it and fell asleep so I was able to belt him in and get going. Relief. Fortunately no one had crashed on the M25 so traffic was moving – albeit slowly – and I got almost to Portsmouth before he woke up. Then up the ramp to the ferry. We’d made it! We watched from the deck as England receded.     Leo on the ferryThe ferry was very different from the booze cruise I remembered ten years ago. There was even a children’s play area, lots of eating areas and twenty-three and a half comfortable hours later we were in Spain.

As we chugged south to Salamanca and into the sun I exhaled stress and inhaled peace – despite the tin mugs or something rattling in the cupboards. Leo had long stopped crying, his rash was fading and he was watching out the window. I took off a jumper every two hundred kilometers. We stayed on campsites. It worked! I learned how to fill up and empty the various tanks, we heated up food on the stove, stocked up the fridge. We played on the slides, met other children, walked by the rivers. Leo loved it. Leo in the camperIt is a good way to travel with a baby/toddler (preferably not with Scarlatina). You have everything with you (I even have a changing area for Leo) and tin mugs don’t break. Sometimes it was difficult packing up (as Leo’s natural tendencies are to unpack) but I learned to put him in his chair and give him the ‘iPa’ half an hour before leaving. I drove while he slept and then for another couple of hours.

By the time we got to Portugal I wanted the trip through Spain to last longer – particularly after spending thirty minutes in the ‘Foreigners’  layby on an empty motorway trying to get a stupid machine to accept my credit card. Then as we drove through the mountains of Monchique it started raining again. I drove round bend after bend on the Eucalyptus-lined roads. For the last half an hour of the journey we saw no one – not even a dog. Only the old rusty red tractor was still there. For a moment I felt disappointed to be back. But I reckoned we had seen enough cars and trucks to last for a while. And now we have the van, one day soon we can go on another little adventure.

 

Happy Campers

Ten Years in Chilrão, Monchique, March 2014

On April 13 2014 it will be ten years since I left the UK. Ten years since I slid off the ferry into the sunrise at Santander in my new (ten-year-old) 4 x 4 Suzuki packed with plants, boxes of teaching files and my computer from Norfolk where I had lived for nine years. Mario drove ahead of me in his old white Ford van loaded with my books (no iPads or Kindles back then) and his tools. We were on an adventure, beginning a new life. I was so excited. That is until the Suzuki blew up near Salamanca and we had no breakdown recovery. We abandoned the plants but stuffed the computer and teaching files into Mario’s van and anxiously held our breath as the bulging Ford puffed up the mountains. Hundreds of Borelli eagles spiralled above.

‘It’s all your stupid books,’ Mario said, looking down at the temperature gauge. The motor groaned as he changed down to second.

‘Oh, and what about all your tools,’ I snapped.

‘We need my tools to build the house.’

‘I need my books.’ I couldn’t think what for.

Not a great start but we arrived. To the rain. Then the fires. Our land had already burned in 2003 but then in that torrid summer of 2004 the parts that hadn’t burned burst into flames before turning to black and grey dust and minimalist black sculptures, the remains of trees. The fire balls and mountain-size balloons of smoke are a sight I’ll never forget.

Two and a half years of buckets of cement, paint, plants and money.

Two and a half years and bucketfuls of cement, paint, plants and money.

LisaThen began the long haul of renovating. Two and a half years and bucketfuls of cement, paint, plants and money while still teaching online courses. In the meantime the forests pushed their way back through the black and grey earth, British and German neighbours moved in, music pulsed through the mountains at night at parties, medronho flowed from hip flasks.

‘I love it here,’ I said. It felt to me like the centre of the Western Algarve and a haven for anarchists and artists.

‘It’s too remote,’ Mario said. ‘You can’t even go out for a coffee.’

I have now lived here longer than I have lived here anywhere in my life. Mario finally left me with my books (and most of his tools). I met someone else who loved travelling – and books. Paul and I travelled to Mozambique and Cuba, all over Spain and Portugal. All was well but there was one thing missing: Leo. I had never particularly liked or wanted children so it was as much a surprise to me as to everyone else when I announced I wanted a child.

Now I am lucky enough to have Leo, Chilrão no longer feels like such a centre.

‘I can’t even go out for a coffee,’ I moaned to Paul the other day on the mobile as I pushed Leo along the empty road to the waterfall.

In ten years little has changed but little for the better. Several Portuguese neighbours have died and their houses have been abandoned, many British neighbours spend more time in the UK, others are trying to sell up. Even on the coast cinemas have closed, as have many shops and businesses.

The other day I cycled my electric bike to Moinho de Agua (with Leo in the trailer) which is about 9km away. We were looking for a car but we couldn’t see one. ‘Tra-ta!’ Leo shouted, as we past an old and rusted tractor. We saw and heard no one the whole afternoon. Not even a dog. Only the wind rustled the eucalyptus trees.

lisa_bikeTen years ago I revelled in the absolute peace of the mountains.

‘It is too remote,’ I said to Mario later.

Time to visit England I decide. It’s been a long time for me and it will be the first time for Leo. I’m sure we will find plenty of cars and cafes there. So many that, no doubt, I will soon be glad to leave again. I plan to return to Portugal on April 12 2014, almost ten years to the day. Already I can’t wait to slide off the ferry into Spain – this time with Leo and, if all goes well, in a camper van – with breakdown recovery and this time with only an iPad.

 

 

Toddlers and iPads, Monchique, February 2014

I have one of the old iPads without a camera and with not much memory (probably almost antique in technological terms) but I love it. I even chatted someone up on a flight to Gatwick because he was using one. I remember asking him what it was as I’d never seen one before. ‘It’s an iPad,’ the man, who turned out to be a writer and journalist and, subsequently, a good friend, replied, handing it over to me. ‘I want one,’ I said. I bought one almost as soon as I landed and have used it every day for almost four years.

I had thought about using it with little Leo but he didn’t seem that interested and I didn’t think of looking up toddler apps. But I finally had the bright idea before we went to Tenerife in December thinking that it may help on the plane. But Leo decided it was much more fun trying to kick the chair in front, wriggle free from the seat belt and then chat up everyone on the plane (I, at least, was more selective). However, since January I’ve slowly introduced Leo to several apps. At 19 months old ‘Ipa!’ has now become his second most used word after ‘tea’.

Leo playing with iPad, age 18 months

Leo playing with iPad, age 18 months

I began with ‘Little Town’ by Wonderkind. This is a detailed and intricately designed animation of a scene in a town in the morning with an open view into apartments. You (I mean the toddler) can tap on various scenes including people cleaning their teeth, a dog eating the toast, a bear playing the piano, a man ironing. Outside in the street you (and/or the toddler) can tap on a helicopter, a motorbike, a bus, a man walking a dog, some birds, the traffic lights. By tapping you initiate a mini scene. Within days I could ask Leo to tap on the window of the woman waving, the man walking his dog, and all the other activities. His understanding tripled daily. There are also scenes ‘In the afternoon’ (in the park) and ‘In the evening’ (in a town square) and, by the same company, ‘My Animals’. I also downloaded lots of transport apps and puzzles, interactive nursery rhymes and music apps. ‘Animals for Toddlers’ is another favourite. (Unfortunately many of the apps that speak don’t know how to say ‘zebra’ but a minor fault).

A couple of weeks ago, Paul, Leo and I went out to a local restaurant in Marmelete. All the old people were gathered round a log fire drinking medronho and watching football – Manchester versus Barcelona. Leo kneeled on the chair and I tool out the iPad and we did some car puzzles while I de-stoned olives. For the first time ever we all managed to eat at almost the same time. Leo calmly ate bread, olives and cheese and then shared my omelette while we tapped on fish in the sea and jumped at a killer whale shooting out of an icy sea.

Most of the time I sit with him, help him with some of the puzzles and games like ‘The odd one out’ and memory games finding pairs in cards (difficult). We cosy up on the bed first thing in the morning and before his afternoon sleep and at nighttime. It has become a special time for us and we iPa for twenty minutes or so.

A couple of times I have left him on the bed on his own playing while I make tea, or put the washing in the washing machine, or light the fire. These are small miracles to me. It normally takes me half an hour to put the washing in as Leo is taking it out, mixing in the cat food, or climbing on a chair and trying to reach the detergent, ‘Da, da, da’. Or simply emptying the cupboards of everything.

It was only when Leo wouldn’t go to sleep without clutching the iPad that I began to get slightly worried. I did a search online for babies-ipad-addiction and the first article I came across declared that a four-year-old needed therapy to get off the iPad.

Dr Graham said that young technology addicts experienced the same withdrawal symptoms as alcoholics or heroin addicts, when the device was taken away.’  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10008707/Toddlers-becoming-so-addicted-to-iPads-they-require-therapy.html

Oh no. My heart sank. I know alcoholism. Did that mean that I would have to cut out our quiet, shared moments? No more washing without cat food in the clothes?

But then I thought again. Rubbish. As with all technology it is how you use it that’s important. Of course it’s not good to plonk a baby or toddler in front of an iPad for five hours a day (now there’s an idea…), or, really, to sleep with it. But we spend so much time outside playing in streams (‘Tea! Tea!’) and walking in the forests and mountains it is good to have an indoor balance. And it’s fun and informative. I can even point out things that we have learned from iPa. ‘Look, Leo, there’s a woodpecker! A  frog. Well, a squashed one. A waterfall. And, today, ‘Look, Leo, there’s a wild boar eating the neighbours’ vegetables… Let’s walk back. Slowly.’ And yesterday he wanted to sleep with his new shoes during the day. Today he wanted an orange that we picked from a tree in the garden.

I check on him. He is still clutching the orange. Now where is my iPa…