‘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.
‘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.
Leo was due to start at the local crèche in Monchique at the beginning of September. I had decided that I would take him there for three afternoons per week while I went to the library and did some work. Good for him, good for me.
It didn’t go quite to plan. His age group (12-24 months) sleep from 12.30 – 2.30 (even though Leo still sleeps in the morning and afternoon) so I got there at 2.30 when the little ones were waking up. Only some of them were twice the size of Leo. With long hair and big feet. But I was assured they were less than 24 months – just, as it turned out. It took about half an hour before I managed to unclamp Leo’s fingers from my arm and put him on the floor with the others. I got some mismatching rings on a little plastic pole – similar to something he has at home and sat down with him on the floor. The room was stifling. The woman in charge opened the window but no air seemed to get in. The other children were somnolently wandering around holding pieces of plastic vegetables. One little girl with corkscrew dark curls pushed a pram with a one-armed human-like doll. The girl smiled but her eyes were tired.
Leo looked in horror at a pile of dolls with broken limbs and went instead for an aubergine. A blonde-haired boy came and snatched it from Leo so I snatched it back. That is to say, of course, I gave the other boy a potato and Leo the aubergine. No one spoke apart from the staff as they changed nappies and chatted to each other and monologued with the little ones. ‘Come here, Maria, it smells like you’ve done a poo, come on, let’s change you…’ The children didn’t answer but as soon as they were released continued pacing the room. One by one they were sat down and given a yogurt. Not one of them tried to wriggle away –unlike Leo, who tried to climb out of the window. It reminded me of a scene from ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ – except with little people.
Leo loves water, which he calls ‘tea’ and he always plays with the watering can at home – both a toy and a real one. I found him a toy one and he happily took it and went to a tap and turned it on. But the tap wasn’t real. Leo looked up at me, with saudades in his eyes, and said, ‘Tea? Tea?
Later, at home, thinking it would be fine, it was just for a few hours a week in the afternoon, my iPhone rang.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the educator, ‘but we can’t accept him only in the afternoons. He must be here before 10 am.’
‘But what about mums and dads who work in the afternoon?’ I asked.
‘They must come in the morning.’
I said I would call her back. Now I don’t know anything about crèches or child pedagogy but surely it makes sense for the parent to spend as much time as possible with their child and for the crèche to try to accommodate that?
I paced around the terrace at home wondering what to do while Leo happily played with his real watering can and real ‘tea’. I thought that maybe two days a week from 10-3 pm would be okay.
‘What do you think, Leo,’ I asked absentmindedly. ‘Would you like to go the crèche a couple of times a week?’
He ignored me and went on playing with his watering can.
I went into the kitchen to get a real cup of tea. I decided I was being silly, suffering from separation anxiety. I would call the crèche and book him in for two days a week. Just then Leo let out an ear-piercing screech. I ran outside and found him pointing to the fenced-off water tank aka swimming pool – two square metres of tea.
‘Tea, tea!’ he said. There was an unusual sense of urgency in his voice.
I looked in and there was my iPhone lying at the bottom of the pool floor. I screeched, opened the gate, jumped in fully dressed and retrieved it. It was, not surprisingly, drowned. Leo went on happily playing with his watering can while I tried to give my phone the kiss of life. Miraculously, after a few hours and some gentle massaging with a dry towel it came back to life. That is to say the internet and camera work, as does text messaging, but unfortunately the phone itself gurgles and then goes dead.
I thought I knew most of the writers in the Algarve. I once scoured both the mountains and the beaches for writers who would be prepared to write a short story for the anthology, Summer Times in the Algarve, and finally excavated eighteen – writers tend to be well hidden. Very well hidden in fact. At the Algarve writers’ lunch and general get-together at Parque das Minas organised by Nuno Campos Inácio from Arandis Editora, out of the thirty odd writers present, I knew no one – other than my German friend, fellow writer and cultural entrepreneur to the Algarve, Catrin George, and Uwe Heitkampf, editor of the new Eco 123.
Language is partly to blame. This was a Portuguese affair and I was the only English person there. I speak the language almost fluently and yet still that barrier is there. Language is another country.
The idea of the meeting was to get all the writers together, show off our wares, moan about the state of publishing and have (in true Portuguese style) a big lunch. I’m not big on lunches and certainly not big lunches as I’m a vegetarian and the Algarve – particularly Monchique – doesn’t do vegetarian. Other than omelettes and salads, the only other vaguely vegetarian food is migas. Migas is a type of bread crumbs, which sounds vegetarian except it is usually cooked in ‘banha’ – pork fat. I ate it once in the Alentejo, thinking it was vegetarian and I was sick for the next twenty-four hours. But an omelette a week is fine and Catrin and I wanted to be social and meet all the other writers. So after a couple of minutes of showing off books, moaning about the fact that Amazon has no amazon.pt and ebooks are almost unheard of (a Portuguese moan) and the difficulties of distribution and general dishonesty amongst certain English book sellers who have packed up, pleaded bankruptcy and not paid for books sold (my moan) and an hour’s tour around Parque da Mina (an old private and house that used to belong to a wealthy Monchique family), we were bused up to the restaurant Luar de Fóia, one of the many restaurants on the road up the mountain to Fóia (the highest point in the Algarve) and seated at the three long tables reserved for us. The three male writers to the left were not interested in talking so I began a conversation with a delightful woman called Fatima Peres, a presenter for Radio Fóia, who is described as ‘the highest voice in the south of Portugal’ Rádio Fóia (97.1 FM). Opposite her was the founder of Radio Fóia, Antonia Ventura, who also had an electrical shop in Monchique. It turns out that Fatima is almost a vegetarian and began telling me how to make the most delicious smoothies – using celery, ginger… A waiter interrupted to tell me that there would be a vegetarian lunch for me. Excited, I asked what it would be. ‘Vegetable migas,’ the waiter said, but assured me it would be cooked in olive oil and not ‘banha’.
Meanwhile, Fatima was still rolling out the vegetarian recipes with a passion for vegetarian food that I could only dream of. She began talking about soya milk smoothies and, at that, Antonio protested that soya could not be milk and drew a little design on a napkin that read – animal – milk, plant – vegetable. The male writers on the left were becoming more animated after guzzling the carafes of red wine. Antonio was making a joke about how if God had found the perfect woman he would only have created one (not sure where that came from). And so, the lunch went on and on. Needless to say by the time we got back on the bus I began to feel queasy and so I missed the President of Monchique’s speech and failed miserably to meet any of the writers. But I had met some enchanting people from Radio Fóia, and learned a lot about vegetarian food and I now know that there are many more writers in the Algarve – see Arandis Editora
I have steered away from blogging and facebooking and, in fact, most things to do with ‘social’ and ‘media’ – mainly because, until recently, I used to teach on a computer, write on a computer, practically eat on a computer and there were only so many hours in a day I could sit – or lie – at a computer. However, recently and very belatedly in life, I had a baby. Leo, together with the half a donkey I share with a neighbour, three cats and a whole horse means that now I only have one precious hour a day on a computer. (I remember once going to a reading by William Gibson who claimed that he wrote Neuromancer while looking after the baby – a baby what I wonder now?). But I still can’t face Facebook so Goodreads looks like a good platform. The idea that there exists a huge online reading group makes me happy. For writers like myself who do not have a big publisher beside them it seems to me that this is an important place to be. So I will try to post something vaguely interesting on a monthly basis but, not being William Gibson, I can’t promise. However, I hope to tell a little about life in the south of Portugal which is, on the whole, thanks to the EU, Troika and the torrential rain this month, not what it was.
This month saw the release of Herdeiros da Revolução, a film directed by Uwe Heitkamp, with the premier in Ochála, a tea shop in Monchique – that is a small mountain town in the Algarve near where I live (the choice of venue had nothing to do with the fact there is only one cinema left within a 100 km.) The film takes us along the Via Algarviana, a 320 km trail that crosses southern Portugal. Some of the filming is stunning with Portugal’s photogenic blue skies, ochre land, eagles, vast empty valleys and green mountains, whitewashed crumbling villages, and the interviews with the few locals on the way really do capture old Portugal. It has a political angle that juxtaposes the expectations of the 1974 Revolution with the upcoming Troika Revolution. One old shepherd says that ‘this time blood will spill’. After visiting Lisbon last week he may well be right.
I am keen to write a book about the Via Algarviana but with a more practical, less political, approach. Well, slightly more practical. I cannot walk far due to bad knees so I had planned to ride the donkey but since last month when I started riding him again to get him fit he’s started limping. I’m sure he’s pretending but it’s a long way to hobble home if he isn’t. The horse is keen and able but she’s nervous of lumps of concrete and I’m afraid she’ll imagine a lion or a Findus logo in a rock, run for her life and then all I’ll see is ochre dust. So then I thought about a bike, an electric bike, a Stealth bike actually… Or perhaps all three? Perhaps I can create my own Troika with a horse, a donkey and an electric bike? But all that to be decided. In the meantime, I recommend the film to anyone who wants to know anything about life in Portugal, walking, or how to make medronho… Of course, you would have to contact Uwe (00351 918 818 108) as the film is unlikely to make it to the one cinema left in the western and central Algarve.
For culture we tend to have to head to Lisbon and last week we went to see the super talented Rodrigo Leão. The concert was packed with a very cultured, well dressed and heeled crowd. Even more surprising, Rodrigo Leão composed music to poets’ lyrics. A packed auditorium for what seemed like an experimental performance? What about austerity? At 1 am we were stuck in traffic trying to get across the city. Lisbon, despite the rain, was in full throttle and Benfica hadn’t even played. The next day, while half the city nursed hangovers, the other half crawled out of mouldy apartments and down to Praça do Comércio with their banners, ‘Que se Lixe Troika’ and singing, Grandola, Vila Mo-re-e-na…, the song of the Revolution.
Revolutions aside, the poets reminded me that there is a new literary prize, the Goldsmiths Literary Prize for new daring experimental fiction. Unfortunately, All entries must be submitted by an established UK publishing house (‘established’ is defined as a house that publishes a list of titles by different authors, that produces titles with an ISBN and that distributes them through established retail outlets). Self-published books are not eligible for the Prize.
And neither are small publishers because in order to sell through established retail outlets the company needs to have a turnover of at least twenty grand. Surely most experimental fiction is refused by major publishing houses and so doesn’t that defeat the object? My objection is, of course, personal but I’ll go into that another day. My hour is up. The donkey is braying and baby Leo is waking…