Life has been very busy and exciting for us in the last week, as we have been getting our real estate company – Goispro Mediação Imobiliária, Lda. - officially registered. Now we have only to complete a few more official procedures and we will be fully licensed and ready to start operating! In all the hectic activity of setting up the business, it is always a relief to take time out and retreat to the garden, and let the calm tranquillity of the landscape wash over us. After years of living in the most northerly climes of Britain, it is amazing to reach the autumn equinox and still be experiencing balmy temperatures, to have butterflies fluttering by and to be preparing the ground for crops to grow over the winter season, even as we are still harvesting the tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes. As we dig we are accompanied by the chiming of bells that ring out on the hour and the half hour across the valley. The tune is, I think, a verse of a hymn and seems to be common all around this region, and maybe throughout the country. Villages where there were factories or mines nearby – any places of employment that needed workers to arrive on time – gained clocks and bells to ring out the hour, and perhaps it became a bit of a status symbol for a village to have them. From our house, we hear one set ring out clearly from the other side of the valley, and on some days, if the wind is in the right direction, we can hear up to four sets going off at slightly different intervals, getting progressively fainter. It is part of the rhythm of life here, not intrusive, but uplifting and reassuring - I wish I could send it to you!
This is the time of year when the maize is ripe and ready for harvesting. This region has a long history of maize production, and it is still grown in fields and terraces around the villages, particularly in the fertile land in the lower Ceira valley, but also in whatever little pockets of flat land are available and open to receive the sun. Below our village there is one such pocket, well watered by the spring, and we have watched the corn sprout, shoot and ripen until this week, when a huge pile of cobs appeared in the little square. As I mentioned in my last blog entry, the peeling of the cobs is traditionally a whole village affair, and the members of our village, and many others, still gather to partake in this ritual, sitting in a circle together round the pile of maize cobs. In times past, the person whose crop it was would often provide food or drink, and there would be much joking and telling of stories. The maize peeling used always to be followed by a ‘festa’, with music and dancing – harvest-time is a good excuse for a party! There was also a very popular game that was played, known as ‘xi’ or ‘chi’ in the villages around Vila Nova do Ceira, involving the maize cobs. A dark cob was known as the ‘Espiga Rainha’ (Queen Cob) in some villages, or the ‘Espiga Rei’ (King Cob) or ‘Espiga Mulata’ (Dark Cob) in others. Anyone who peeled a dark cob had to go round and give a kiss or embrace to every other member of the group – hence the name ‘chi’, which is a child’s term for a kiss or cuddle. Understandably, this caused a lot of merriment, and was another reason why people were only too happy to join in with the task of maize peeling – we have seen an 80-year old woman still blush at the memory! Given the choice, I think I would rather take part in a village ‘maize party’ than more ‘sophisticated’ forms of entertainment – it sounds like extremely good fun!
Parents all over Portugal are letting out a huge communal sigh of relief this week as, after three months’ holiday, children finally get ready to go back to school. People used to the British system may find it hard to believe that here we do not actually know when our children will start back at school after the summer holidays until a few days beforehand when we receive a letter in the post, or see a poster up at the local supermarket, whichever appears first. Even then, it is not a straightforward matter of a starting date. First, there is a meeting for the parents or ‘guardians of education.’ Then, a day or so later, there may be a day or half day of school in which nothing much happens, before classes start in earnest. Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks before all the teaching posts are filled, since teachers are routinely moved around rather than having a permanent post at a particular school. Some parents remember with horror the year that school did not start back until mid-October, giving the children a summer holiday of nearly 4 months! This year there are problems with some of the standard-issue school books for the younger children, which may necessitate them using last year’s books for a few weeks. Eventually it will all sort itself out, and when work does start in the classroom it will be full-on until Christmas.
Of course, the return to school always marks the end of summer, and there is a definite hint of early autumn in the air. The mornings now are very chilly before the sun gets up, although by late morning the temperature can still climb to the mid-20’s. Down at the river-bar the leaves are gathering and the tables are emptying – soon it will all be dismantled and put away until next summer. But every season has its rewards - the maize is now being harvested, and in some villages people still gather together to strip it as they have done for generations. The grapes and figs are ripening, and we are looking forward to the chestnuts being ready for the ‘magustos’ of November as the wheel of the year keeps turning.
The day the rains came! Suddenly, and dramatically, we have been engulfed by a huge grey cloud that hurls the water down upon us. It feels as if the summer is over, as we all scuttle indoors to observe the weather from a safe, dry distance. Those who have no choice but to venture out do so under the protection of a large umbrella – at least the rain here falls reasonably vertically, and your brolly isn’t likely to get blown inside-out. The Portuguese take umbrellas very seriously – every shop and café has a wet-umbrella holder by the door on days like these. It is unusual to see the discreet telescopic variety of umbrella around these parts – the residents of Góis favour the more substantial model, preferably with a good wooden handle that can be hooked over your arm or even, if you’re a bloke who needs to keep his hands free, into the back of your jacket collar!
But we welcome the rain for one very good reason – the ground had become so dry that dust clouds have been billowing up like smoke down our driveway, and the garden was parched despite our best efforts with the hose. It is great to see the ground have a really good soaking, and to know that it is also helping to replenish the rivers and springs on which this region depends. We know the sun will be back in a day or two!