Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More on Portugal, and then we leave

A month has gone quickly, even with little to do besides walk and work and take pictures of sunsets.

Same evening, yes. Kind of a special evening, but we get lots of good light up here. We finally had the kind of sunset light that makes the ridges stand out a bit.

a foggy morning that cleared up beautifully

and the grass is growing

Mostly, it has been raining. Really raining. It rains for a few days and then we get a day of sun, then storms and rain again. Today, right now, the sun is shining, so laundry is drying on the patio and I have an urge to get into town to buy some groceries and more yarn. The storms move quickly and everything is constantly changing. Now the field below the house is all green with fresh grass, as are the fields we walk by on our way to town. Everything has brightened with fresh green. And at the same time, it is clearly fall.

We walked into the village below the house to pay the water bill in the cafe, the only establishment that is not a home. The old road is too narrow for most cars, and it is beautiful. Small vineyards, olive trees, ancient rock walls, and persimmon trees covered in fruit. There are also a lot of dogs on chains, and they do a lot of barking.

In Oliveira do Hospital, where we do the shopping, we have a favorite neighborhood to walk through. Much of the town is more modern, but there's this little area that looks like this:

At the beginning of November there was increased interest in the house from potential buyers. The owner was expecting it to be a quiet season for Portuguese real estate, but it turns out she was wrong. Very wrong. The house has been on the market for two years, and now it has sold. I guess we did an okay house sitting job. For us, that means going somewhere else before the end of the month. We did some house sitting searches and even found something that we were sad to turn down, but settled on staying with friends instead. We'll go back to western France, closer to Sarlat this time, for about 6 weeks, and then back to Zurich and our bicycles! We both seriously miss riding our bikes. It's hard to imagine that I could be fonder, but absence has made my heart grow fonder of everything about the bike and the riding.

We pack up our lives again and ship out on Dec. 1st. Meanwhile, we've both been working a lot. The workstation has finally turned highly productive. We are getting gigs online and spend a lot of time in front of the computer, with a huge view to look out at.

I've also gotten back into knitting, and the awkward photography of myself that comes with it. Thanks to those of you who have ordered custom jobs, that is more fun that experimenting with no one in mind. Some awkward photos for your enjoyment (the knitting is available here):

Some things still ship from CA, because my generous sister is hanging on to the things that didn't sell last year. Other stuff ships from Portugal, and soon from France. I'm learning a new stitch, it's called brioche stitch and it is so hard. Whoever invented brioche stitch probably didn't give it that name (doesn't look like a brioche to me), and they were a spacial reasoning genius with a fascinating understanding of what yarn does when you loop it into itself over and over again. My first few attempts didn't go past one or two rows, but then I got going and make something that looked like this:

Brioche stitch is simply a reversible vertical stripe. So awesome. This experiment was ultimately a failure because I managed to twist it and the border was screwed up. But if you like stripes, I can now knit in stripes. And it is fun, after all. Here's another awkward test project, now belongs to Joshua but he won't pose for pictures wearing it (can't blame him).

 the green stripes out

the purple stripes out

We will be sad to leave Portugal, after just mastering the basics of the language. We can now say good morning and good afternoon. I have even been to the post office a few times with successful results. Not a lot of English, so learning is obligatory. We will miss the wine, port, meats, fruit, honey, bread, and cheeses. All of it is fresh and local and delicious. Sorry, rest-of-Europe, but Portugal is producing the best cheese in Europe. Possibly in the world. How come nobody knows about it? France does make the fine, gooey soft cheeses, and British cheddars, I still miss them, Italy has hard cheeses down, the Netherlands make the aged goudas which are to die for, and Germany does a great job of importing cheese from the rest of the continent. But the range in Portugal - from fresh cheeses and ricotta to hard and soft sheep cheeses in the round, there's just something about them that is, well, better. Now you know.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Temporary Home Portugal

So here we are, and it has already been over a week. Time flies when you're on the edge of nowhere, watching the weather coming across the distant ridges. We have managed to land at another fantastic viewpoint, high up on a ridge top, looking south west. Our view is of the valley and a small settlement where we pay our water bill, and then some other ridges rising up behind it - all dotted with tall, slim pine trees. The first few days we were here the weather was hot and dry. When the owner of the home said it will get damp and cold we found ourselves doubting that that was true. But she should know, she's lived in this house for three years, and lived in Portugal for seven.

And sure enough, a big stormy wind started to blow a few days ago. First there were a couple of clouds rushing by, then billowing columns that moved across from the west to the east. And when they pass overhead, these clouds drop a fair amount of rain. It must be fall. We've been lighting the wood stove, staying cozy in our new little home.

Every day the farmer next door moves his sheep, sometimes along the road that goes right behind the house, sometimes down below on what must be some of his "grazing" land - although what they graze on is a mystery. We wave to the farmer as often as possible. One day Joshua is hoping to ask if he can help out. They are definitely milk sheep. But our Portuguese will have to improve considerably. A simple conversation with a cashier in town was a blurry jumble to us both.

So, some photos. They do not do the view justice. I cannot capture the depth of the ridges and valleys. Usually the light is too bright in the sky and the camera either bleaches out the clouds and bright blue or it loses all the land in shadow. Oh well.

part of the view

Joshua's workstation (the furniture on the terrace is in high wind formation)

sunrise, which happens after 8am due to the high ridge to the east

another attempt at capturing the view

sunset on a particularly cloud magical day

One wall of the house, the side facing the view, is glass; giant floor to ceiling sliding doors open onto a terrace. The side of the house that faces the street also faces a small pine wood where we've been walking. It feels open and empty and dry compared to the lush, wet, bright green forests we've been in lately.

We walk into town for groceries, about 2kms one way. The cheeses have been amazing, young and aged sheep cheeses that each have their own character.

Queijo fresco, which is somewhere between queso fresco (which we miss) and cottage cheese, is delightful. The stores all have beans in bulk and sell fresh cilantro, which is something we have also missed. We will be able to make proper salsa, beans, and rice. Can you tell we miss Mexican food? Tortillas are the only thing missing. And while there are so many different versions of what seem to be white rice, that is the only grain sold. No quinoa or bulgur here.

Town is north and east of where we are, and we've tried a couple of routes. Pedestrian infrastructure is sadly non-existent. And we've only seen a couple of people on bikes. We had planned to buy a couple of used bikes to use while we are here, but the routes to town aren't that friendly (and very hilly) and so far we're enjoying the walking. Our commitment here is almost exactly three months, so we have some time to learn more. There are taxis for the rainy days when we need to get anywhere, so even though we're a 30 minute walk from town, walking will be our primary mode of transportation.

Where are our bicycles? In Zurich, where they will stay until we go back. The riding will begin again next summer and plans are already forming... we didn't get quite enough touring in this past summer. Gotta buckle down and work hard this winter so we can make up for it next year.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Our Way Out of Europe and back

We took the train from Limoges, France to Poitiers, and there we finally tried Grimbergen, a beer we'd been curious about while we were in Belgium this summer. Brewing since 1128? Yes, that is a year. And it's the monks who have been brewing it that long, no doubt.

In Poitiers we caught the night train on it's way from Paris to Madrid. We got on fairly late at night, so we were shown our cabin and promptly went to sleep in our beds. The night trains to and from Spain are the Spanish Trenhotels and they are known as the nicest trains in Europe. We didn't have dinner in the dining car, as it was quite late, and we didn't even go to the bar. But we did have breakfast looking out the huge windows at the Spanish landscape. We had clearly traveled south - trees are a darker and somehow paler green, pines and cypress and ceders that can handle long days in the sun. The rocky, somewhat mountainous landscape was definitely a change from the wet and green of western France.

We arrived a little before 10am in Madrid and went straight to the Metro. The stations seemed entirely too huge, cavernous and empty - and very, very new. We stayed with a fantastic couple through the website We highly recommend using this site, and if you do, let them know that we recommended it to you - I think we get credit although we haven't figured out how yet. Air BnB is a site where you can browse listings by locals who have a couch, spare room, or whole apartment or house that they are willing to rent out, usually at much better prices than you'd pay for a hotel room. We used this in Venice also, and stayed with a really nice couple. In both places we were treated very well, allowed to show up when it was convenient for us, and given the local insight on where to go and what to see. Highly recommended.

We spent most of the day wandering around Madrid. Joshua got a shave and haircut and we bought a few things for our flight the next morning to Boston. Madrid is a fantastic city, and we are hoping we'll spend some more time in Spain in the near future. We had the obligatory sangria and tapas, and later found the most delicious restaurant where we ate dinner alone (the Spanish don't eat until at least 10pm and we hoped to be in bed by then). So if you ever find yourself in Madrid, go to Gabriel. You will not regret it - both meaty local specialties as well as delicious vegetarian options are always on the menu.

For a couple of weeks we traveled New England to visit with family and friends. First to celebrate my (Ramona's) cousin Lucy's bat mitzvah, and see some friends down in Quincy, and then to see Joshua's family in Maine and friends in Vermont and even upstate New York. We spent some time on the farm where Joshua was a shepherd and farm manager for a number of years. We got a ton of family time in with both families at large, fun gatherings and then spent some time catching up with old friends.

Thanks Bly, Judy, Christopher, and Benjamin! Thanks Sarah, Dave, Owen, and Anya! Thanks David, Yesenia, Austin, and Lana! Thanks Judy and Ike Moody! Thanks Jana, Zak, Django, and Desmond! And thanks Lucy for bat mizvah'ing, and all the Abrams and Marks family members we got to see in Boston! Lots and lots of love to every one of you.

And then suddenly we were in a rooftop room (another Airbnb find) in Lisbon, Portugal, on our way to the next house sit.

And now... more France!

We've only been on bicycles a few of times in the last couple of months. Sorry for the gap in posts. We have been doing a lot of moving about, however, and there is much to tell.

First, the really fun bike ride we went on after leaving Paris was in Basel, Switzerland, and it was a repeat of something we enjoyed last year: ride to swim in the Rhine. It is still thrilling to us both that in this city they have managed to clean the water enough to swim in it, and that people jump in whenever the weather is warm.

lock up the bikes

jump in the water!

Being the second year in a row, we are now calling it an annual tradition. Basel is where we were blown away by bicycle merging onto the freeway offramp to get into the city. It's also where the bicycle parking for the football (soccer) stadium is almost as impressive as the stadium itself. And there's a dinosaur in the park. We are lucky to have friends in Basel and look forward to going back again.

But because this post is about France, let's move on. Basel was a stop on the way to a small farm in rural western France. Somewhere between Limoges and Bordeaux are rolling hills, green and grassy or green and tree covered, and a house sitting gig awaited us.

The place is beautiful. The "town", or cluster of crumbling stone buildings, is almost impossible to find on a map. 

The services are limited to a van that comes up and sells bread to the elderly local population. We were about 10km from the nearest village where we could do any shopping and we had left our bikes in Switzerland. Fortunately, the kind owners took us for a comprehensive shop before they left - all the things that last like grains and beans and things, plus a fairly good stock of milk, cheese, and citrus fruits. The rest we'd have to get from the garden and the chickens.

That's right, a real farm. Ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese all quacking and chirping about, laying eggs every day. Twelve sheep, of a rare breed, who didn't seem to want to stay in their field. A couple of sweet black labs, one young who could have gone for miles and miles of walks all day every day and the other on his last legs. And a couple of cats, one who disappeared within the first couple of days and didn't reappear until the owners returned and the other who brought dormice into the house, sometimes dead, sometimes not so dead.

What a fun place to house sit. Letting the animals out in the mornings, collecting eggs, feeding, watering, walks in the woods, mushroom hunting, sheep chasing and jailing, harvesting vegetables to eat and to dry, and Joshua even used tractors. 

Also a nice amount of time to do some online work and plenty of lovely spots to sit and do just that.

Alfie (short for Gandalf) in the grass, Joshua at the table, 
Pippen in the foreground wondering why I haven't given him a treat yet

definitely a lucky place to be

what is this guy looking for?


We had a really lovely time. Joshua got to do all the sheepy things he hasn't done in a long time. Like put them in sheep jail when they escape, trim their hooves, and even some dagging or crutching. What is that? Well, you tell a sheep to sit on it's hip and then you trim the wool from around their nether-parts. No kidding.

I believe this ram is named Dell. Huge.

that's right, girl, you're next!

they kind of hate it

Joshua knows a bunch of moves to keep 'em from getting up
and yes, he is barefoot

the littlest guy, Norman, didn't try anything - what could he do?

and finally a rare photo of the owners, Peter and Mandy

We had a really nice time taking care of this farm. We managed to get the sheep in a field where they didn't escape, at least for a week or so. And none of the birds were eaten by pine martens. Peter and Mandy were kind enough to let us stick around until our planned trip back to the US for family events, so we did what we could to help them get things harvested, built, and the sheep happy and healthy. We really do hope to go back one day.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


At the end of July we indulged in a very awesome trip to Greece, details below, and arrived back in Zurich thinking that we should start house sitting again. With a fairly tight time frame, we snagged a 17 day house sit in Paris. A lovely apartment in the center of the Marais, less than 10 minutes walk to the Seine. We spent most of our days searching for online work and doing some of that work, and we ate every meal at home. We went for walks in the evenings and attended free classical music concerts in churches in the evenings.

Akim was shy at first. He spent most days under the bed and only came out when we were gone, scurrying back under the bed when we came home. He can open the doors and enjoys eating plastic bags, so we had to be vigilant. But by a few days in, we had come to an understanding.

our reason to be in Paris

Huge, fuzzy cat not really into cuddling, but very interested in being brushed.

And then there was Paris...

la coeur pistache

saints standing on demons

notre dame

la seine

la tour eiffel

bike polo