A Visitor’s Perspective: Alison Gets It

This is part of a series of posts where we ask one of our visitors to say a few words. Alison is a close friend of mine and long term supporter of the Casalinho project, but sadly when she chose to visit us the weather was not on our side …

Last time I visited my friend Andrea and her family in Portugal was in August 2008. Having moved over there to live in a small derelict cottage with land in 2006, they had recently bought Casalinho, a larger Quinta (farmhouse) in need of restoration, along with 10 hectares of land. While they were making the new house habitable they were renting a property nearby and I spent a wonderful fortnight there reading, chatting and soaking up the sun – all in relative comfort. For various reasons I hadn’t been able to go back until this March and I knew things were going to be very different. Andrea and Jeroen are now living at Casalinho and have been working hard to restore the farmhouse. However, I like my home comforts and the thought of a week with no flushing loo, no running hot water, and a caravan for a bedroom made me feel slightly apprehensive…

And when I arrived on a drizzly March evening all my apprehensions came to the fore. Having shown me around the habitable part of their house Jeroen took me out to my caravan. “Where’s the compost loo?” I asked, expecting it to be close by. “Up there,” Jeroen said, pointing off into the distance. I peered into the gloom and could just about make out the green canvas covering the compost loo, looking like a hike up the side of a mountain. Given that I was due to have surgery on my foot the following week, it looked like a mile away to me. “Ok… And what about showers? I gather you’ve got a solar shower block now,” I asked, in some trepidation. Turns out there are solar showers but the water only really gets warm enough to use when the sun’s out and the air’s warm. The house has electricity but it’s run off solar and the battery bank was damaged when I visited… And I had picked the coldest, darkest, wettest week in a month to go there… Aargh! I wasn’t looking forward to this at all!

That night I slept incredibly badly. The caravan was cold and damp, it was so windy I thought I might blow away, and the rain hammered down all night long. I was wearing fleecy pyjamas and socks, had seven layers of blankets AND a woolly hat and I was still freezing! The rain continued throughout most of the following day and to be perfectly honest I was fed up. In fact I phoned my daughter and said “I’ve seen Andrea and Jeroen, we’ve had a good natter and I want to come home now!”

hat photo

But of course I didn’t go home. The next day the weather was much better – the rain stopped, the wind dropped and the sun even deigned to come out for a while. I met the family’s chickens, rabbits and goats and helped collect “brash” – leaves, grasses, heather and other ground foliage – from the mountainside for the goats to eat. I had a good wander around the smallholding and spent some time enjoying the peace and quiet down by the stream. In the afternoon we went to Casal de Lapa, a nearby village where there is a huge lake and a mountain bike trail – and I spent fifty cents and a glorious 12 minutes under a stream of hot water in the public showers. And in the evening we went over to another village, Soito where there’s a weekly community event where (mainly) ex pats gather for beer and chat. It was all rather pleasant, and I was pleased that I’d stuck it out and not decided to turn tail and head back home that first morning!

The sunshine didn’t last, and every day after that was wet, and at times so cold there was snow on the peaks of the highest mountains. Each morning I opened the caravan door to see the clouds low over the mountains, and I was kept awake at night by the howling wind and sometimes torrential rain. A combination of the bad weather and a house guest (me!) put paid to much of Andrea’s normal routine but I did learn a little about the life of a smallholder – animals to feed, dogs to walk, seeds to sow, plots to weed, plus all the usual domestic stuff like doing the washing up, made more difficult when you have no hot water and your sink is outside – it’s bloody hard work! As for me, I spent my time reading, writing, thinking and relaxing. I also got to enjoy some more unusual holiday pursuits, like goat milking (more difficult than it looks!) and cheese making.

One day we took the goats from their pen to the other side of the site to let them graze. It was great fun trying to keep them away from the crops and get them all in the enclosure, especially when one decided he wanted free rein of the land and escaped! However, not long after the heavens opened again and, goats liking the rain as much as I do, we had to take them all back home again. Being dragged along by three goats in search of shelter was an interesting experience!

I’d been worried about how I’d cope with only limited electricity – and internet – while I stayed at Casalinho. I’m a self-confessed Facebook addict at home, and I constantly check my emails, so I was worried I’d suffer withdrawal while I was away! In fact the opposite was true – I actually found the lack of internet quite liberating and when I did have the opportunity to catch up on my friends’ Facebook updates, like when we went to the local bar, I was soon bored!

The quality of the meals was another very welcome surprise at Casalinho. Andrea’s kitchen is basic to say the least, but every day she served up simple wholesome tasty meals using home grown and locally sourced ingredients, and there was always enough for seconds (and sometimes thirds!). Every meal was washed down with a mug or three of home brewed wine, and I especially looked forward to eating fresh goats cheese and bread for breakfast.

By the end of the week I’d worked out why the caravan was so cold and remedied the situation so I was sleeping better. I’d enjoyed another hot shower at Casal de Lapa (two showers in a week, go me!) and even got used to the compost loo (and the large bucket I had in the caravan to save me climbing a mountain in the rain at night!). I’d enjoyed good company, been on a tree grafting course, had a first class meal at a local restaurant, had fun with Andrea and Jeroen’s boys and numerous pets. However, I still didn’t quite understand why they were here, working so hard and living a life that to me seemed quite primitive. I just didn’t get it at all.

On my final day Jeroen took me into the upstairs part of the farmhouse and showed me everything that he’d done to restore it, and told me about his plans for the future. In my head I could visualise the amazing family home it will be one day, with its open plan living area, wood burning stove and roof terrace. Later that day the rain stopped and the sun came out, casting its rays across the valley. The golden glow accentuated the green of the pine trees, the purple of the heather, the blue of the sky; the valley around me looked beautiful. And as I sat there in the evening sunshine, feeling relaxed and refreshed, with only the birds in the pine trees and the sound of a goat bell breaking the silence, I finally got it.

0When not whinging about the weather, Alison masquerades as The Proof Fairy, and she uses her proofreading, copywriting and coaching skills to help aspiring authors to write and self-publish books. She is an author herself, and her book The Boy From Hell: Life with a Child with ADHD was published in 2013. Since publication of the book she has spoken at many events and conferences about raising a child with special needs, and she is the Parent Advisor for her local ADHD support group. When not reading, writing or talking Alison enjoys going to auctions, watching football and motorsports and attempting to be creative through art journalling and photography.






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