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Some months ago my mother asked if Ben and I would house-sit for her and take care of her pets while she spent ten days in England. We agreed without a moment’s thought, eager to sample Portuguese country living. We live in a modern apartment where we are very happy, but had always wondered what life must be like living in the countryside in the middle of nowhere. This week, we have had the chance to find out.
My mum’s house sits at the centre of an orange grove. Olives, apples, pears, plums, pomegranates, loquats, grapes and more all grow in amongst the orange trees in a sprawling and largely untamed orchard. Bay trees, which fetch such a high price in England, spring up everywhere the second you turn your back and it is a constant fight to chop them down and compost them before more appear. In the midst of the abundant vegetation, an old stone irrigation tank has been turned into a rustic swimming pool, making an idyllic setting for long summer evenings.
When we arrived with our suitcase last week, ready to begin ‘house sit 2013,’ the first thing I noticed was the intense, mingled scent of jasmine and orange blossom, so strong that the air feels like some kind of flowery, breathable soup. The next thing I registered was a hyperactive kitten leaping out of a clump of poppies to playfully attack an unsuspecting cat that was out for a stroll. And thus the animal antics began.
Now, when we agreed to house-sit I obviously knew my mum had pets. I also knew that they were all a bit bonkers in their own way. The elderly, pint-sized dog (smaller than all the cats, including the kitten) is completely deaf and a bit incontinent. She is also fond of finding neighbouring dogs ten times her size and yapping ferociously at them. The kitten – the latest addition to the ‘family’ – bolts around the house at hyper-speed, attacking the other pets, the humans and pretty much anything else that takes its fancy. There is a giant cat that seems to be half cat and half panther, both in size and temperament. There are also another three cats, plus one semi-feral cat that gets fed but not let into the house.
Some cats are allowed out of the front door, others out of the back door and some have to remain inside. They all have different amounts of weighed-out food, while the dog is on six different kinds of medication for her ailments. A full three pages of the seven page instruction manual that had been prepared for us was devoted to what and when to feed the pets.
Despite all this preparation by my devoted mother, the first feeding time was a disaster. Before I had even opened the first packet of cat food, the kitten was up on the worktop trying to prise the packet out of my hand with her claws and I earned my first scratch. When I did get the packet open and tried to squeeze the food out into the bowl, she put her head into the packet and ate the cat food as it emerged. Meanwhile a swarm of hungry animals was weaving around my legs, each intent on getting its dinner as soon as possible.
After distracting the kitten with some biscuits, I was able to get the cat food dished out and give the patient little dog her medicine. While I was doing this, the kitten took advantage of my inattention and ran from bowl to bowl, using her lightning-fast speed to wallop each cat over the head in turn and then grab a chunk of their food while they were distracted. Copious amounts of hissing and clawing ensued. When I tried to intervene and remove the kitten, the giant panther-cat bit my foot. Thankfully I was wearing trainers and survived the incident with all toes intact.
The panther-cat ended up eating the dog’s food. The dog ate the kitten’s food. The medium size cat chased the kitten around the room. Then the panther-cat was sick on the floor. Twice. It was chaos. I ended up going to bed at 2 am, exhausted and wondering if it would be acceptable to call my mother and beg her to come back early.
A new ‘divide and rule’ approach the next day helped with feeding time and by the end of our week in the country it had become a precise, military-style operation, with each animal eating its own food out of its own bowl in a separate room of the house, with an airlock style system of closed doors in between them all.
We had planned to spend our days in the countryside relaxing, reading books, barbecuing and perhaps even having a dip in the pool, weather permitting. Sadly the weather not only didn’t permit going in the pool, it pretty much ruled out going outside. When the sun did occasionally peep out from behind the clouds, it was accompanied by winds strong enough to have me chasing the washing around the property from where it had blown off the line. Instead of our anticipated mini-holiday, we spent our days sitting indoors and working.
The silence and solitude of the countryside were both peaceful and a lonely at the same time. During the day I enjoyed hearing nothing more than the bees humming as they pollinated the orange blossom in the orchard, but at night I missed the distant (and somehow reassuring) sound of traffic passing on the EN125. Being able to see the stars so clearly in the night sky was amazing, but having always been quite afraid of the dark (as you can’t see who/what may be creeping up behind you) I also found the outdoors a little spooky. It turns out that in the countryside, as in space, no one can hear you scream.
Having a fabulous array of fruit, vegetables and herbs at our disposal was something we had looked forward to. Unfortunately the rain meant that the ground in the orchard had turned into a bog, so other than grabbing a couple of oranges off the nearest tree we simply stared at the other produce across an ocean of mud before going to the local shop. Still, the herb garden was accessible and we very much enjoyed picking abundant quantities of fragrant goodies and cooking with them in the large, country-style kitchen.
With the rain, the snails also came. Going anywhere outside after dusk was a horrible, crunchy walk of death. Even when we used torches somehow the poor snails still found their way under our trainers. After the third night we tended to only go out during daylight hours.
This all sounds rather negative and I certainly don’t mean to dismiss the idea of rural living – the space, scents and solitude were all wonderful at times. I think that it is just that, for me, moving from London to a sleepy seaside village is far enough – a move to the countryside would just be one step too far. Although I’ve always had a distant romantic notion of living in a farmhouse with a brood of children around me, eating my freshly baked cakes smothered in my freshly made jam, while my husband puts his feet up by the open fire, it turns out that actually, at heart, I’m a city girl through and through.