Driving the road we felt ourselves lean into each bend and curve, felt our ears pop as we edged higher and higher… me and my girl, journeying to find the end of the road. I needed to find the end of the road because for a change, I wanted to be somewhere. No onwards, no through, just the destination.
When we reached the silent village teetering between mountains I immediately pulled a chair outside the front of the tiny schist cottage we were renting and let the sun warm my face. I could hear nothing but the tuneful bells that rang every hour and the sound of a breeze blowing through the pine trees.
Shortly, an elderly lady strolled by in a black shift dress, jumper, wellies and a hat pulled down firmly over her sun-darkened face. A bucket of greens swung in her right hand and her mouth sang a happy “Boa tarde”.
I smiled and thought, ‘this is just what we need: Silence. Gentleness. Simplicity.’
When you live at the end of the road it seems that nothing else matters because all life is where you are, and why go backwards? As I watched daily life unfold I wondered if I could live in such a place; if I might ever find myself contented at the end of a road.
One evening by the light of the Wolf Moon we opened the door to traditional singers who sang happy words whilst thumping a paper drum, holding out a cloth bag for pennies. Neighbours leant out of top floor windows to shower down coins and we stood, mesmerised, watching and listening as they trailed through the village along the narrow cobbled streets.
The following afternoon as we walked our dogs around the surrounding hills we came across an old lady dressed all in black walking up the winding road back to the village, a two-foot pile of cabbage leaves tied to her head. We walked together for a while and with our combined Portuguese and Spanish abilities I discovered that she was 82. When I remarked on how fit she was she told me it was the mountain air that kept her strong and stopped in the middle of the road to do a sprightly little wiggle, arms and thick-fingered hard-working tanned hands outstretched, her face beaming.
As I look around I see people that are always striving for so much more: more belongings, more speed, more space, more likes, more filling-in-of-time and so many of us are always pondering as to if we – and our life – is enough.
It seemed to me during my time in a village that the map told me was the end of the road, that enough is that which keeps us sprightly, makes us smile, and it seems that perhaps it is found when the road reaches its final destination and we stop, look around and say: ‘this end of the road will do for me.’
Wandering = Movement = Freedom. It is a stretching of limbs, and of mind. It is never standing still for long and yet, standing still long enough to breathe. Mountain, moorland, coast, forest, meadow… walkways, waterways, roadways; the life of a wanderer is a perpetual anticipation of next steps and new adventures.
Perhaps the attraction is in the new? The erasement of that which you do not want to remember because you find yourself lost in the absolute freshness of possibility. It is a running away; a running to, and I have a hunger for that lightness of step – that release – that comes, both physically and mentally.
The wandering life is lived deliciously simply, out of a bag… once upon a time (for me) on foot, but as a family: in a van, cabin, boat, cottage, caravan… shared houses; shared spaces – so many places and people found, so many adventures that have grown within us like a patchwork quilt and so many experiences we are endlessly glad for and yet, like any life there are periods of unrest… the flailing about on an unknown path without destination, the night-time awakenings given over to creatively developing ways to sustain such a lifestyle and then there are the waves of uncertainty, wondering whether the wandering life still works for the whole family.
On a practical level, living from here to there brings challenges… there is water to be collected, waste to be disposed of, laundry to be done with cold red hands – either from hand-washing or dragging a bag to the laundrette in mid-winter. Food must be prepared and cooked in tiny spaces and higgledy piggledy places while crafts, projects and colouring are limited and put out or put away to accommodate. Beds are endlessly made up and down whilst stepping over dogs – and each other. Pans and kettles are boiled for washing up… and washes, for showers can be taken only when there is enough solar power. There is paperwork in foreign countries; translations, invitations, conversations… a combination of sometimes wonderful, sometimes tiring things, because the tiny little incidentals can loom large when you’re out of your comfort zone… and there is the endless packing up and unpacking; forever losing and finding.
For ten years now as a family we have wandered. Sometimes standing still, but never for too long and for any hardship this life has presented, there have been more than enough joys to balance it out. For every irritation such as living without running water for weeks on end because the canal has frozen, there has been felt a sense of accomplishment for being independent and resourceful. For every night spent uncomfortable, tired and lost on the road, there have been ten heart-stoppingly beautiful stopovers that remind you why you do what you do. For every anxiety arising from living in a different country there has been a cultivation of pioneering spirit and a warmth from locals that restores your faith in human nature… for every mean person, there have been five beautiful souls and for every frustrated word (or ten!) flying around our tiny spaces and big dreams, there has been nurtured a deeper love, admiration and respect.
However, recent months saw our path edging into a different space and it has taken a while for us to navigate this changing route, to acknowledge our collective desire to stop, root down for a while, maybe even think about belonging somewhere for a while, in our own country. We don’t know for how long we will need this, but we know that finding ourselves in a house nestled in a village between the sea and moors of North Yorkshire, feels right. We know that for a while, having some comforts and space feels as exciting as running away. We know that the connections our daughter yearns for at this stage in her life are valid and that being close to our extended family is important and we imagine (hope) that having such endless and boundless beauty on our doorstep where we can seek out plentiful micro-adventures, will allow us to weave these wandering hearts into our new chapter of standing still.
This week has flown by and it has all been about the Village Festa. The build up all week with bunting and a marquee and all that goes with a village ‘do’ finally led to 3 days of music, food, games, village activities and of course, drinking and socialising. We are exhausted!
After two nights drinking the local red wine, we were unable to get ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning to head to a car-boot market as promised, with our neighbours. They – much to our shame – then turned up bright and breezy on Sunday evening tooting the horn asking if we were going to join the party for the last evening, which, with very little persuasion, of course we duly did.
It was a great event and lovely to be part of it. We were introduced to all the locals and are feeling inspired to keep going with our Portuguese because there is nothing worse than being at the village do and not being able to converse easily. However, there are also a small handful of English-speaking people here and you simply can’t escape the pull of a few drinks and laughs in the comfort of your own language. We were glad for it and a lot of fun was had, even though on each evening we were back home and tucked up in bed before the real party even started (the music doesn’t even begin until 10/11pm!).
One thing I did that was part of the weekend’s activities was a guided walk in the surrounding mountains. It was sold to me by my neighbour as: ‘a 1½ hour leisurely stroll to a little chapel built into a rock face’. Given that I had to get up early for the walk after an evening of the aforementioned red wine, this sounded quite lovely… I did start to worry however when I arrived at the meeting point to see 20+ Portuguese clad in serious walking gear with poles, but hey, I am partial to a good walk. 2½ hours later beneath pure blue skies and an unrelenting golden sun heating up the dusty hill tracks, I was thinking ‘what am I doing here!?’ Rather embarrassingly a very portly and much-older-than-me fellow who puffed constantly on a cigar, raced past me several times! After 3 hours, which included a rather good – and much-needed – halfway refreshment of roll, lemonade and fruit (or beer, of course) being driven up to us, we made it back to the village for a well-deserved coffee at a friend’s house. It was a lot of fun, but let me tell you – Portuguese walking groups are something else…
Other happenings this week have been Scott getting his tools out to whittle a few things from the branches of some of the trees I have pruned. He has tried olive, cherry, pear, pine and eucalyptus and even Isabella has got in on the fun, whittling her own knife, which she was particularly proud of. Olive seems to be the favourite right now. It’s also been horse-chestnut time, which is divine. On another neighbour’s land there is the most beautiful chestnut tree and as he told us to go and help ourselves, so we did. We have been feasting on them, often having them as part of our dinner as an alternative to potatoes or rice. Delicious! Free! Local!
This week started with rain – RAIN! – for a whole night and day it rained and the grass, bleached and dried from a long hot summer, seemed to start turning green almost immediately.
I wander the orchard daily hoping to see a little green shoot here and there from the clay pellets I sowed back in June. Nothing yet, but I look patiently. When it rains the smell of the forest is fresh and lusciously full and so we walked in it, soaking up the smell of pine, until water was running in rivulets down our faces and necks. Pure glee. After the rain the blue skies and sunshine returned but I imagine more rains will come by October time so we have been getting busy collecting fir cones and firewood so that we have some stores.
What I have realised is that we are constantly on the move here: up and down to the shed, the land, the compost, the orchard. It’s a naturally active lifestyle and I love that we are active without any thought. Most evenings we go off walking in the surrounding forests, collecting firewood and fallen trunks. We carry them on our shoulders back to the house, looking out across the mountains, feeling alive, feeling part of something greater than ourselves. As we walk we’ll catch a view, or perhaps we’ll see our house appearing through a gap in the trees and we’ll stop, be silent and say to each other, ‘this is ours’. We stand with our necks craned as Bonelli’s eagles and Griffin Vultures fly over, so close we can almost touch them. At night the stars are incredible, the sound of owls right next to us now commonplace. We sit out on our terrace until late drinking it all in: the noise of crickets, the breeze in the trees, the shooting stars and satellites we can see as clear as anything.
Portuguese lessons continue and learning from a child’s level seems as good a place as any. Sometimes we feel buoyed with our learning and then other times someone will be jabbering on and we’ll feel utterly lost. A neighbour who visits his land (next door to us) on occasion is my favoured conversational partner as he is so patient. He talks slowly and is never phased by the fact that we clearly do not speak much Portuguese and I feel confident to practice what I do know. The other evening as we chatted over the fence Isabella gave me a ‘high five’ kind of look and said, ‘Ma, listen to your Portuguese!’ I felt pretty chuffed with myself.
When I manage to grab a few hours to myself here and there this week I have been writing avidly: children’s stories, short stories, book outlines, article pitches, working on my new resource for schools that has to be submitted in November. My fingers and brain don’t stop with ideas and when I am here I feel I have the time and headspace to actually get some ideas down on paper. It is one of the things I love most about being here - time.
The other things I love about being here is that I am still walking around in flip-flops, shorts and a vest every day. No need to think about what to wear, just get up and get dressed. I love that freedom. I also love that my ankles and wrists are permanently scratched and covered in dirt and sand; I feel such a sense of accomplishment. We are returning this land – slowly – to it’s former glory. Somebody put a lot of thought into the planning of this place and it feels good to be here, putting some life back into it.
It is so hot here that the air is totally, perfectly, still. Time feels empty. Hours stretch out with meaningless ease and I feel unable to meld into this giving up – this giving over – of energies to the heat.
Instead I simply lie here wishing I could be doing something.
For me this is a place for winter. Winter is when the land is lush, the trees green and weighted with plump leaves drunk on water. The white-washed hill towns are fresh and invigorating whilst still under the umbrella of bright blue. People are alive, not muted.
Right now the landscape here is like stepping into a painting, a photograph: the bright orange trunks of recently stripped cork trees stand still against dried golden grass and matte blue sky. Green leaves are motionless, rattling in their dryness only when a light breeze attempts to push through the wall of heat.
Everything is still. So still that sometimes even breathing feels unwelcome.
To be here in the summer, far into the interior of Portugal, where dusty tracks once led smugglers over the border into Spain, is to give yourself over to something almost unearthly. It is to close up, centre your thoughts and prepare to feel nothing.
Until, that is, the night comes.
And then suddenly you feel alive again, sitting under the olive tree, a dark shadow against a sky lit with so many stars it is impossible not to feel insignificant. The only sounds are crickets, the odd dog barking and owls, so many owls. When I adjust my eyes to the light I feel their shadows everywhere and I long to swoop through the branches and rest where they rest.
But can a person live for night alone?
In the morning I awaken dreamily and stare as the shadow of our bed frame begins to appear against the freshly white-washed wall. As my eyes adjust the room gradually fills with light, the shadow soon the only part left in darkness. I know it is just about 7am as this is the time I have noted the sun appearing above the tops of the trees that are visible from my bedroom window.
Mornings I watch the sun light up the white walls as I awaken. Evenings I bask in its orange glow from the front terrace as it sets behind the mountains.
Life here in the summer is about measuring the distance between the two, surviving the in-between locked in oppressiveness. It is a kind of meditation, an enforced slowing of the body; a rarity in this sped up world.
The sound of a greenfinch permeates my thoughts until every inch of my mind is centred on that yearning repetitive lone call. Playful long-tailed tits chatter and flutter. I wonder how long before they give up, the heat is already heavy and I have not even the energy to rise from my bed yet.
I imagine breezy walks, my dogs playful instead of stunned into submission. I long to be in a mountain river. I wonder if I will ever spend the summer here again? My heart is telling me to move North. I once described myself through words as a House Martin and now I feel it even more. My dream self feels at ease in this comparison, my physical sense happy with the spread of cold and heat.
And so, North I go.
Words on Life
Here I simply share musings on my life of wandering, writing, home-educating & dreaming with my little family. Welcome and do please say hello!