I still miss my Portuguese mailman

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 12.07.30One of my first blog posts was about the difference between living in Portugal and Singapore. I’ve since lived in Kenya and the UK and after revisiting this post I realised that the sentiment still stands. 

No one ever asked me what the difference is between living in Singapore compared to Portugal.  I am asked all the time if I miss it (yes) or what I miss most (chouriço, coffee, the weather, and “lost Sundays” with friends), but the differences are apparent even to someone who has never visited either country.

In Portugal, we moved a lot but typically lived in a rural area surrounded by lots of land. Down the road (any road– just pick one) there was a great café or restaurant that served typical Portuguese fare. The beach was never too far, and although very windy with cold Atlantic waters, the surf was great– providing you wore a wetsuit.

In Portugal, entire villages look after children, every garden has at least one lemon tree, and the mini markets have nothing you want but everything you need.

But when I think about how life was truly different in Portugal than it is in Singapore, I think of my mailman.

Before I explain, it’s important to know that, especially in rural areas, the Portuguese make their own wine. Gardens, lawns, planters, what have you, are brimming with beautiful wine leaves and grapes, and in the autumn, entire families (sometimes even entire villages) get together to harvest, squash, and ferment the lot and stick it in barrels that are stored in the garage.

It is just as customary to share the wine with visitors, though a ‘visitor’ can be anyone who happens to be walking past the house at the right time. And such is life for the rural Portuguese mailman.

Our first house in Portugal was about an hour north of Lisbon, in a very small village at the end of a long road and then down an alley; therefore, it was at the end of the line for cables, electricity, telephone — and mail delivery.  If the electricity went out, ours was the last house to have it restored, for example.  As for the mail– some days, the mail would arrive quite early in the afternoon, just after lunch, brought by a cheery mailman who would chat and pleasantly endure my pigeon Portuguese.  Other days, however, the mail would arrive around dinner time, delivered by the same man but now transformed into a swaying belligerent who’d be complaining about an incomplete address on one of my letters, or the wrong formatting of the address. How could I not understand the burden of his mailman duties? From our perch atop a hill, he would wave his arms toward the view of the valley below and exclaim, “Sou responsável por tudo isso!” (“I am responsible for all of this!”)

To be fair, that is a lot of mail to deliver. And it’s even more so when there’s a free wine tasting at each stop.

Unsurprisingly, there were some days he wouldn’t show up at all, delivering our mail instead to the “other foreigners” who lived in the village next to ours. Not that I’m complaining– that’s actually how I met our dear friend, a Yorkshire lass who dropped off our mail one night shortly after we moved in, and from the same family who brought to our attention the art of the “lost Sunday” I mentioned earlier (drinking much of the same wine, I might add, as the mailman).

According to my friend who still lives in the same village, the mailman has recently quit drinking.  Of course this is a good thing.  Still… I can’t help but picture him wearing a silver helmet and large mail bag over his shoulder, swerving his moped around the road from one garage to the next.  It’s a little piece of Portugal that I will remember forever.

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Why we smashed the sex corner

Our first experience buying a property in a foreign country went from amusing to annoying to downright hellish.  While we don’t regret the purchase – it’s part of what got us to where we are today – the sour feeling from the deal left a bad energy in the house that we could never quite shake.

My husband and I are nomadic by nature, so a mere thirty days after selecting Portugal to play host to our new expat lives, my husband, two dogs, and I arrived without a clue as to what we were actually going to do– or where we would live.

Fortunately my husband thinks fast on his feet and sourced an apartment with a six-month lease and we immediately began to search for our new home.  The trouble was that we didn’t know what we really wanted and yet knew exactly what we had to have– that visceral essence of Portugal.  In our minds, this meant calçadas (Portuguese cobblestones), lots of land with fruit trees, and a detached, outdoor kitchen (indoor one, too) or other outdoor structures that I fully expected to be falling down with age.

CdoA_house_mapWe managed to find just such a home (more or less) and fell in love;  never having bought a property abroad, though, we had questions and so arranged a meeting with the agent.  We thought it would just be us and the agent casually discussing the buying process, but he invited an army of people, including the sellers.  We had no intention of buying or signing anything just yet, but clearly the agent had other ideas.  Young(ish) and naive, we fell prey.

At the round table were:

  1. Mr. and Mrs. German, the German-speaking sellers.
  2. Mr. Lux, the owner of the agency – a bearded, round-bellied Luxembourger who spoke only German and French.
  3. Ms. Lydia, a Portuguese lady who worked at the agency and spoke French and Portuguese.
  4. Mr. José, our slick Portuguese agent who spoke Portuguese and English.
  5. And us, Mr. and Mrs. Expat, speaking only English.

So we would ask a question like, “What is your time frame for moving out?” and Mr. José would translate the question into Portuguese to Ms. Lydia.  Ms. Lydia would then translate it from Portuguese into French to Mr. Lux and Mr. Lux would translate from French into German to the sellers.  Our question was eight words, but with each translation, it got longer and longer and with added gesticulations that seemed entirely too animated for such a simple question.

Then the sellers would state their answer in German which was then translated into French and then into Portuguese in an equally detailed and animated fashion until the English answer: “Three months.”

Thus began our negotiations.  “Can you come down on the price?” Blah blah blah translate blah blah translate blah bloody blah… “No.” Seemingly (or probably literally) hours later, we thought we had come to terms. With a cheque on the table and pen in hand, Mr. Expat double checked the asking price only to be told directly by Mr. German – IN ENGLISH – that the price we had been quoted was in Deutschmarks, not Portuguese Escudos (pre-Euro currencies) therefore making the price considerably higher than we had been led to believe.

Was he lying just to hike the price?  Oh yeah.  And after all that he could speak English!

Then the international congress of negotiations began once again.

When it came to the details of what they wanted to leave behind for us to purchase (certain pieces of furniture, a wood burning stove, etc.), we learned something:  in Germany, it’s customary to remove fixtures and fittings when selling a house, like the kitchen cabinets, sink, oven, and light fixtures (not the sconces or shades, but the actual light sockets).  Even though we weren’t in Germany, they still expected us to buy these things on top of the already inflated asking price.

We finally reached an agreement based on this one key fact: We would pay the Deutschmark asking price and they would leave the fixtures and fittings in tact– but they had to be out of the house within three months.  “Ya, ya, of course! No problems for us three months. You move in sooner than three months! No problem.”

Ya, ya my ass.  One week before they were meant to leave they hadn’t even packed.  And they actually said, “One week to move is not possible!”  Mrs. German looked like her head would explode.

Fortunately the contract we all initially signed to buy/sell the house– a ‘promessa’, the standard contract in Portugal– says that if the seller does not meet the terms, the buyer has the right to pull out of the deal and the seller must return three times the deposit.  The argument became rather heated and so, on the spot, we detached emotionally from the house and prepared ourselves to walk away. That got them packing.  Or so we thought.

A week later we arrived at the notary with a cheque, a bag of cash and a bottle of champagne.  In Portugal, it is very common to purchase a home with ‘black money’ and ‘white money’ — cash off the books and cheque on the books — to avoid taxes.  We were ok with that, although most foreigners are not.  We literally pushed the bag of money under the table so the notary wouldn’t see, and with the contract signed, we offered the bottle of champagne as both a peace offering and congratulations.  Mrs. German went bug eyed and incredulous: “You make me leave my home!  You make me move in one week!  If I drink this, I will be dead by morning!”

Man, and that’s not even the end of the story.

They hadn’t packed or moved out.

Mr. German said, “It’s ok, it’s ok, you can stay with us – two weeks from now we go.”  Gee, that’s awfully kind of you.  “You stay in the garage, we make a bed for you. Or you stay in the house and we will stay in the garage. We have nowhere to go!”  I could think of at least a few places they could go.

We of course made them leave immediately and said they must return with a moving truck the next day.  So Mr. German showed up, took one box, and then left.  “I come back tomorrow for the rest.”  The next day, same thing… for almost two weeks.

The day after we moved in, my husband and I sat silently in the kitchen trying to absorb the reality of owning this home.  Out of the window I could see a mosaic design on the patio wall that Mr. German had made. I always thought it was a generic, random mixture of broken tiles in various colours.  It wasn’t.

“I see a penis!”  I yelled to my husband.

Huh?

“I see two penises!”

I ran out and studied the wall.  It was not at all random broken tiles but rather various sexual organs and for some reason we have yet to understand, a bottle of pills.  I will dig into my archives and find a photo and post it here one day soon.  We asked Mr. German when he next returned for more of his stuff, “What’s this?”  He laughed, “Ha!  Yes!  It is the sex corner!”  I don’t even want to know.

To buy a house– no, to buy a home– you have to fall in love.  If something goes wrong, though, you have to fall out of love and walk away.  But if the pieces are picked up and the sale goes through, can you ever really fall in love again?

The bad vibe from the whole purchase process due entirely to the seller’s behaviour remained with us, even after they finally left.  I cleaned every surface in that house in an attempt to remove their negative ‘energy’ until only one item of theirs remained– the mosaic.  One year to the day after we moved in we took a sledge hammer to it.  A year after that, we sold the house.

Bonkers, weatherwise

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 09.48.27My husband moved to America and we eloped at the foothills of the Green Mountains in Vermont and then set up house in southern New Hampshire where I was able to commute into Boston for work.

New Hampshire weather is fairly extreme. There are parts of America where it’s more volatile but I give New Hampshire its extreme four-season due. Nevertheless, it’s entirely predictable. Weather patterns in America move from west to east gently swerving north or south depending on the time of the year. Often when a storm threatens it’s possible to predict with accuracy exactly when it will hit your neighbourhood.

That’s why I found it so annoying that my new husband took a jacket and umbrella with him wherever he went. It would be 20C and no clouds but he couldn’t trust the weather report.

Two years in England and I understand why. There is nothing predictable about the weather patterns here – in the past week I’ve been hot enough for A/C and longed for the beach, drowned in a torrent of near freezing cold rain and huddled by a space heater wishing it were an open fired (have expecting to see snow). It’s July by the way.

Weatherwise, this country is bonkers.

[garbled]

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 09.34.07I’m going out on a limb here and I’m going to say something about politics. It’s a limb in these days of a highly politicised and charged environment where I actually had to stop using Facebook because, instead of posting holiday memories or cute pics of my children – and commenting on same from my friends and family – I was instead losing respect for people I care about.

 

Unless you’re sure you agree with all of your connections, Facebook just isn’t the place for political discourse. I had a distant auntie send me a meme about how Muslims were, and I quote, “taking over America”. And from her own chart, right there in the very numbers she referenced as proof of this takeover, it was clear the Muslim inflow accounted for less than 1% of immigrants. I have no idea if that’s an accurate statistic but when I politely pointed it out to her she raged at me with savage brutality. This “devout” Christian woman, the primmest and ‘properest’ septuagenarian I know, swore like a trucker and condemned me to hell. My jaw is still agape at that confrontation and yeah, I unfriended her.

Sadly I unfriended a few other friends whose general rantings on the topic of immigration and other blatantly racist and bigoted nonsense hurt my head and my heart. So I just stopped.

I’m still not quite sure what happened in the 2016 elections in America. How could so many people vote to put Donald Trump into power and, in the face of utter chaos and disaster, failure after failure, still support him? Fear and bigotry are all I can imagine that would continue to drive his solid base of about 30% of American voters.

I was already an expat when George W was president and that was embarrassing enough — at times I pretended to be Canadian to avoid the inevitable conversations. What a relief it was when Obama took office. I met a few people who didn’t agree with his politics but I never met anyone who claimed to hate him as a person. Now I’d gladly return to George W which is something I never thought I’d say.  But my American accent draws comments and questions about this “president” and the Canadian camouflage doesn’t work – I tried it once when asked how I liked having a Cheeto as a president. I tried my Canadian accent ending the sentence with, “Eh?” The stranger then asked if I was worried Trump would invade Canada.

[garbled]

I did not vote for Donald Trump and I do not support any of his policies about the wall, health care, immigration or education. Whether he “colluded” with Russia or not that man must be impeached.

Vanity Guilt

I recently went to the hair dresser intending to ask for pink highlights. It’s something I’ve always wanted… and of course I chickened out.

Julianne HoughIt’s hard enough for most women to spend fleeting time or money on products and services of vanity. Somehow it feels extra frivolous if the highlights I would normally buy are to be pink. “Sorry children, I can’t read you a bed time story tonight because I have to have pink stripes painted into my hair.” Blonde stripes somehow are ok. Pink, however? I guess not. Not in this psyche anyhow.

I definitely believe it’s a person’s prerogative to invest in their own image, especially if doing so boosts their confidence. But that’s third party advice, isn’t it? I can hear myself scolding my best friend because she feels too guilty to buy that new dress; yet, more often than not, I can’t follow my own would-be advice.

Bearing in mind that I currently live a life of 7s – I leave the house at 7am, return about 7pm and do this 7 days per week – some days I see my children for less than 20mn. My guilt is somewhat justified.

But here’s where it gets weird. Ever since I backed out of the pink hair and got my standard ashy blonde and light brown highlights, I’ve been having regular 2am panic attacks. First I freak out that I’m not yet an instant overnight retail success with enough cash to retire and when I talk myself down from that ridiculous irrationality, I start panicking that my children are growing up without a mother. Once I hit that car-crash-like spectacle there is no going back to sleep — I just about doze off again when an adrenaline rush pounces my stomach and I jolt back to the darkness of the night.

People who talk about a working mother’s guilt like it’s all in their heads have never been a mother. Or worked in retail. The fear of success vs failure is sale to sale. Someone buys 3 items worth £200 and I am clearly the greatest retail business woman ever to have lived. But seconds later another customer will buy one product worth about £6 and I’m worrying about paying the electricity bill.

And I know deep down in the most logical part of myself that the measure of my success as a woman, a retailer, mother or wife has absolutely nothing to do with the *&!@*%?$ colour of my hair.

Mindlessly

I’m exhausted. On a cellular level. 

Then just to be sure I knew my place, yesterday my youngest son sprouted chicken pox and my oldest daughter sprained her wrist. Naturally my middle child had to – Quick! – think of something to grab my attention. First her “neck” hurt (throat) and then her tummy. She also hurt her leg and had to walk with a limp for a minute to prove it. Later she pinched her finger, bonked her head, received a toy car in the face from her little brother, ate too fast and “couldn’t breath”, and so on. And on.

Muffin top vs African Art

I love the outfit I’m wearing today. It’s not even all that special yet, up until a couple of weeks ago, I would not have had the courage or confidence to wear this outfit in public.

Enter Samantha Wilding, my new personal stylist.

I think it’s probably a big deal for an owner of a women’s fashion boutique to admit that she needs help dressing. Or maybe it’s not? Maybe it’s just what’s done and owning your own boutique is a great excuse to do something that any woman with an interest in fashion would practically kill to do.

Like most women (and plenty of men) I’m pretty hard on myself, my image, my confidence. While it’s not easy I’m going to go ahead and share with you part of the crazy long storey of why I have finally been able to give myself a break.

Three years ago at the ripe old age of 42 I got pregnant with my third child. For me, being an older new mum meant it took a hell of a lot longer to feel “normal” again. And I don’t always know that I’m not feeling normal until I actually do feel normal. I identify with not feeling well or unhappy or blubbery or un-energetic. But the word “normal” doesn’t enter my vocabulary until it exists.

So this, my third and final pregnancy, took a full three years to feel recovered (ergo my body image suffered even longer than usual). And I only just figured that out a couple of months ago.

Body image is spectacularly easy to push aside, though, isn’t it? 

Not only did I have a baby in my 40s but when said baby was just 6 weeks old we moved country (Africa to Europe), travelled with 3 children for 4 months in a Vauxhall Zafira around England, France, Spain and Portugal while waiting on tenterhooks for my visa to live in the UK. Frustratingly the thrill of receiving my visa was short lived — when we went back to England no one would rent us a home since our references were rather unconventional (our last landlord lived most of the year in the bush of Uganda). A lovely Sri Lankan lady with a cottage in Devon finally took pity and let us stay. But from 6 weeks to 6 months my infant son and rest of the family were essentially homeless. 

Our entire lives continued with so much uncertainty that I then spent the next 10 months homeschooling my older 2 children before we moved from Devon to Sussex and finally enrolled them in a proper school.

Fashion? Not so much. Plus you need clothes for that.

Before England we lived in Kenya and choosing what to pack and take with us was (almost) more painful than giving birth. In the end, it came to questions such as, Fabulous trousers that I couldn’t zip and gave me raging muffin top? Or hand blown drinking glasses crafted by dear friends and up-cycled from wine bottles?  I made a rash decision to prioritise all of the African art work and memorabilia over my ill-fitting clothes and donated everything but a few bits and pieces to the local women in my village who needed it all much more than I ever would. 

Fast forward to the past 9-10 months or so and I have accumulated a few more clothes but total uncertainty reigned supreme with each purchase. I lost my style, my body, and the confidence to look for either.

In reality I should have asked Samantha to help me far sooner but that’s a hard call to make. In just two meetings, though, she flipped a switch in my head that made it ok to love clothes and fashion again. She acknowledged my own style as valid. And that’s a great big gob-smacking wonderful start to feeling “normal” once again.