Before Christmas

Gosh, it’s been six weeks since I last wrote in this blog! Lots to catch up on then …. This is the first of three blogs to bring you up to speed on my bizarre/crazy/dull (delete as applicable) life.

After several weeks of rain, the sun came out and for much of the early part of December, Portugal was blessed with lovely weather. It made such a change to be able to get out of the house without needing a raincoat! I enjoyed a few afternoons sitting in the sun with a book, and walks with Pickle and Bob were much more enjoyable. It’s been a real eye-opener, the weather in Portugal in winter … it can be warm enough to be out in a t-shirt during the day, but the minute the sun disappears it’s really chilly – I have been so thankful for the woodburning stove and a goodly supply of firewood! It can also be pretty windy … one day I went up the road to walk with CatDog and encountered two large eucalyptus trees across the road. I managed – with some effort – to move them and got to the start of the logging track to find my part time neighbours the Lopezes waiting in their car, having called the bombeiros to come and clear the trees! I was able to communicate that I’d moved them and they were very happy to be able to continue their journey. Fallen trees have not always been so easy to shift though … more on that later.

After several months living here, I was delighted to be invited to my first lunch at the hotel in Pampilhosa da Serra. For such a small town, in such an un-touristy part of Portugal, it surprises me that there can be a 52-room, 4-star spa hotel. Who stays there? Anyway, lunch is a lavish buffet affair, with several starters, soup, salads, a main course, lots of puddings, and a huge selection of cold meats and cheeses. Well worth the 10 euros just to go and eat nothing but cheese!!!!! It was all very lovely – including the main course, which was the often overwhelming cozida de portugues, a meaty stew of blood sausage and all the bits of animal you’d never contemplate using, and usually looks way too hardcore for me. The one at the hotel was delicious though. Hopefully I’ll get to eat there again, and I’ve also promised myself a day at the spa (3 euros an hour, or 12 euros for a full day!) when I’ve completed one of my goals in 2020 … more on that in another post.

One low spot during the weeks before Christmas was the day when, having finally sorted out a data sim card to give me decent internet in the house using my iphone as a hotspot, my iphone packed up, leaving me totally without communication. I was quite shocked at how much that upset me – but then again, I live here in isolation, and unless Fernando or the Lopezes are here, the only way anyone would know if I fell down the steps or was attacked by a wild pig (!) would be when my mum worried about not seeing me online and contacted my friend, who’d then have to drive over. After feeling panicky and cut off from the world for a while, I drove to the nearest village with wifi to send a message to family to let them know I was alive but internet-less. Fortunately the next day, after sitting in a tub of rice overnight, my phone came back to life, hurray! Panic over. However, I have now invested in a mobile router device, which I can hook my phone, tablet and laptop up to, and I also have a spare phone for emergencies. I don’t want to be left feeling so vulnerable again.

nativityI go to weekly Portuguese language classes, and in our last one of the year we talked about Christmas customs here. As in much of Europe, the celebratory meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, when families in Portugal sit down to a dish of bacalhau (salted cod), potatoes and cabbage, followed by a range of puddings including arroz doce (rice pudding), tigelada (an egg custard “cake”), filhos (flat deep-fried sweet breads with many regional variations) and bolo rei. This last, which translates as “king cake”, is a ring- shaped spiced cake with crystallised fruit, not unlike hot cross bun in flavour. In a similar way to the traditional silver sixpence in our Christmas pudding, it has things in it – a small trinket as a prize, and a broad bean, the finder of which has to buy next year’s bolo rei. (Incidentally, I brought a couple of bolo reis back with me and neither had those things in them … I guess you have to add them yourself!) Traditionally, children in Portugal left out a shoe for “Baby Jesus” to fill with small gifts, or even a new pair of shoes if they were very lucky, and presents are often described as “my Baby Jesus”. Now, though, Pai Natal (Father Christmas) is the more common giver of gifts and a family member often dresses up to deliver gifts late on Christmas Eve, or early on Christmas morning. Many families go to Missa do Galo (midnight mass) on Christmas Eve, and a tradition dating back to the days of conscription is that young men light a bonfire and keep it going for as long as possible – if it goes out before midnight, it’s seen as bad luck. Homes and towns are decorated with presépios – Christmas nativity scenes – and often, the crib is left empty until after midnight, when Baby Jesus is added. Many families also have Christmas trees and lights on their house.

xmas treeAll this talk of Natal in our lesson made me feel quite festive, so, despite being someone who doesn’t like to put their Christmas tree up until the weekend before the big day, I went home and made my own version of a festive tree …. using an olive branch, some sparkly pompoms, tangerines and walnuts painted with nail polish! OK, it’s homemade, and it doesn’t look at all like a Christmas tree, but it made me feel happy!

And so to Christmas. The plan was to fly back to the UK on Thurs 18th December, raid my storage unit for stuff to bring back and visit a house my son was planning to move to on the Friday, visit my dad who was ill in hospital with a strange brain infection on the Saturday, and then relax and enjoy the seasonal period at my mum’s. Best laid plans and all that …. On Wednesday evening Depression Elsa hit Portugal ….. well, she wasn’t so much depressed as downright bloody furious! I lay in bed listening to the wind howl around outside, picturing trees falling down across the road impeding my exit from the village …. “The road will be clear, it’ll all be fine…” I told myself over and over, as I tossed and turned and dozed until the alarm at 5am. Up, dressed, bags in the car … I should have taken it as an omen when I couldn’t find the car charger for my phone, which I needed to keep the knackered old battery going while I used the sat nav, and I ran my phone down to 43% simply using the torch to look for the charger…. Not a good start!

Anyway, by 5.30 I’d found the charger and was on my way up the road out of the village, heading for Coimbra, where I’d catch the 8.45am train to Porto and a lunchtime flight. I was so excited about this trip until …… DISASTER! There in front of me was a tree across the road. It didn’t look too big, so I got out of the car and managed to drag it across the road … only to discover there was another MASSIVE tree blocking the road behind it. “Nooooooooo!” I screamed into the dark. “No, no no NO!!!” I tried to push it, to no avail. This wasn’t moving. I got back in the car and drove it into the tree, hoping I could use my pathetic little Peugeot 205 as a bulldozer. D’oh … all that happened was the number plate fell off. I looked up the number for the local bombeiros, and called. No answer. Local police? No answer. Local council? No answer. What the hell was I going to do?! Eventually I called 112, the emergency services number, and spent a painful 10 minutes trying to spell the name of my village to the man on the end of the phone. “Oh, Coelhosa!” he said, eventually. Aargh…… is my pronunciation that bad? He said he’d contact the local bombeiros and someone would come out to help, but he had no idea how long it would take.

fallen tree

By now it was 6am and still pitch black. I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face – there was no way I could reverse back along the road, either to a turning point or to the entrance to the village, without risking driving over the edge of the mountain (ok, slight overstatement, but …). So I sat there, vainly waiting for the bombeiros to come screaming round the corner, move the tree and let me carry on towards Coimbra and my train. (Disgusting fact …. The stress affected my bowels quite badly and I suddenly realised I needed to go, but it was too dark to go anywhere discreet … so I squatted down at the side of the road, desperately hoping that the bombeiros didn’t choose that particular moment to come screeching round the corner! In daylight I realised there was an enormous, obviously human poo by the side of the road which I had to dispose of….)

The minutes ticked away and by 7am I realised not only weren’t they coming straight away but even if they did arrive right now, by the time they’d dealt with the tree I wouldn’t make it to the station in time. I was going to miss my flight…

As soon as it was light enough to see, I drove back to the house and tearfully called my mum to let her know what had happened. I managed to find another flight the next day for a not too ridiculous amount of money, and I even sent a cheeky tweet to Easyjet explaining my predicament and asking if they could help. To my amazement they offered to refund the cost of the flight and half my luggage! That meant I could book an en suite private room at a hostel in Porto so, assuming the tree was cleared at some point during the day, I’d be able to head for Porto and stay overnight, rather than leave the next morning. To my relief, the tree was chopped up and moved by lunchtime and I was able to get going. Elsa was still stomping her feet and it was quite a hairy drive to Coimbra, and then the trains were all messed up because of flooding on the line – but I did eventually reach Porto, where I treated myself to an Indian meal out, and drank wine with some other hostel residents, before retiring for a well deserved sleep at the rather lovely Peach Hostel & Suites (highly recommended!!).

Next day I arrived at the airport in good time, only to discover that the flight was delayed! Turns out my friend Laura was booked onto the same flight so we were able to keep each other entertained during the 3.5 hour wait, but honestly, that was the last thing I needed. We made good time on the flight and I was hopeful of getting the 7.15pm bus from Gatwick to Oxford but that too was delayed, because of flooding on the M23 and M25 … seems Elsa was making her mark everywhere! Anyway, I finally arrived at my destination – Wantage, Oxfordshire – shortly after 11pm and was delighted to see my son waiting for me. It had been a very long journey but Christmas was about to begin!!!

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