From the start most experts involved in our building project agreed that it would take at least 18 months to complete, so now, a little over 9 months after construction started, it seems like a good time to reflect on what we’ve learnt, how much therapy we need and if bankruptcy might be in our near future.
Generally, in large part thanks to our architects, invaluable help from João Carlos of Gaifem Ramos, countless engineers, good workers and of course my personal superhero Tom, I don’t feel like it’s been the most painful process in the world. Actually, scrap that last part. Not because it isn’t true, but tempting fate at this point is not a great idea. (who knew that living in Russia for 5 years could make a person eternally, irreversibly superstitious and produce some alarming tendencies towards fatalism?)
The lessons about building and living in Portugal have been many – some serious, some crucial in ensuring progress and some utterly bizarre. Here are a few I can share:
7 Things I kind of knew before that have now been reaffirmed…
- Building a house in a foreign land is brave and stupid in equal measure. You realise this only when you’re 6 months into the project and fleeing is no longer the easy option you told yourself it would be.
- Builders are not part of the human race. Like estate agents and that one post office worker behind the counter in Viana do Castelo, they deserve their own classification as a very particular sub-species that can delight and frustrate in equal measure.
- When manufacturers promote the “deluxe” version of their product, this could mean 1) expensive, 2) ridiculously expensive or 3) obscenely expensive and remarkably ugly.
- So-called “African time” has a closely related cousin. It’s called “the Portuguese way”.
- This nation is generally kind, generous-spirited and at times exceptionally strange.
- There’s a reason why the Portuguese export so little of their own wine. More accurately, there are several reasons: lunch, mid-afternoon, after-work, dinner and even the occasional morning “tea”. And yet they don’t seem to drink a great deal.
- I have the good fortune of having a very smart, capable and focused spouse.
7 Things I didn’t know before and know now…
- Having extra bags of cement in your garage or backyard is not as ridiculous as it sounds (a special thanks to Paul for his particular insight into the benefits of having a few bags of cement on hand. See his comment after my post about backyards).
- Remote-controlled cranes are to new self-builders what spinning washing machines are to babies or pets. They’re surprisingly cool and can mesmerise you for much longer than you’d expect.
- To follow what goes on in a Portuguese meeting, you have to be able to parallel-process about 10 topics and 35 lines of conversation. Some believe this can actually be done. I’m not one of them.
- “No” doesn’t necessarily mean “no”. It could very well mean “later”. And “later” could mean anything.
- Walking down to the village café in pink slippers is not a peculiar activity at all. Once you’ve seen it a few times – admittedly in different shades of pink – you realise this is quite normal (are they all part of a secret club?).
- “Preservativos” are not preservatives and should not be discussed during a Portuguese language lesson about food. The only thing they preserve is a low birth rate…
- That smart, capable husband I mentioned above actually has opinions about things I never expected, including, but certainly not limited to: the desirable skill level I should develop in the operation of a hoe while destroying undesirable flora on our land; the number of horse fly bites a person (=wife) can (and should) endure, and the fascinating pros and cons of acquiring a goat/tractor/wine press.
7 Things that still mystify me and probably always will…
- Where the holes end and the walls begin, also known as the fine line between destruction and construction. This is a deeply philosophical issue and cannot be answered without extensive contact with both holes and walls.
- The point of having loud, continuous firework-like explosions in broad daylight against the background of traditional Portuguese folk music that plays non-stop day after day after day.
- How the Portuguese can so effortlessly put away so many potatoes in one sitting/week/month/year. How it hasn’t received recognition and a re-christening as “the potato capital of the world” is a gross injustuce.
- What exactly qualifies as a parking spot and what doesn’t (you’d be surprised).
- Why generally gracious Portuguese men lose all their chivalry once they get behind the wheel of a car.
- How I ever became a villager. And potato-eater. And hoe operator.
- Kindness – unsolicited, undeserved, when you least expect it and most need it.
If it’s true what American author Henry Miller said about one’s destination not being a place, but a new way of looking at things, we’re clearly permanently on our way to that destination. Life in a new country – with a building project to boot – has a way of tweaking one’s views, whether you welcome it or not. That’s all good, and a great privilege to live through such interesting times, but I can’t but hope that our destination is a place too, one that we can move into in 7 or 8 months’ time. Wonder what we’ll learn next…