The view from abroad, winter woes

“I can smell caps,” Andy’s nose twitches. “You know, those things we had as children.”
I join her with the rodent impersonation.
The acrid aroma doesn’t conjure memories of gunfights in the street or sturdy rockets crashing nose first onto the pavement with a satisfying ‘bang’. It prompts mental images of the start of the Towering Inferno.

It is the smell of burning plastic. A plug socket melting to be more accurate.

The depths of winter (i.e. now) in central Portugal is a yin and yang affair. Warm enough to eat lunch al fresco in the midday sunshine, as cold as my home island of Bute in Scotland at night. The house we rent on a quinta (a type of farm) between Setúbal and Palmela was designed for keeping grapes cool. Its thick walls provide relief from a searing sun in summer. But in winter…

Like many Portuguese homes there is no central heating. We have a wood-burning stove, salamander Dona Catarina (DC) calls it, which keeps the living room cosy, but is Scrooge-like with its heat, so no other room benefits. A wall heater in the bathroom has transformed taking showers from feeling like we’re stripping off beside an ice hole to being an enjoyable and warming experience. The kitchen is heated by the act of cooking. Currently it is a breath-visible 8 degrees when we start preparing dinner, working up to a balmy 12 degrees by the time a couple of gas hobs are in full flow. Our main protectors against the cold are layers of clothing and a mobile oil heater which we bought to take the chill out of the bedroom we’ve turned into an office, and also warm the actual bedroom before any disrobing or jumping out of bed in the morning takes place.

It’s the bedroom socket this oil heater is plugged into which is responsible for the burning smell. I unplug it to find the socket is so hot the plastic has melted like molten lava. Seriously worrying is the wall surrounding the socket is also radiating heat. We unplug everything in the room and tell DC immediately. It’s a Friday night so nothing can be done until the weekend is over. Both bedroom and office will be without heat until the ‘electrician’ turns up. It takes me back to growing up in a tiny rented apartment in an old stone house on Bute. It didn’t have central heating either, but it had no bathroom and an outside toilet, so at least I’ve come up in the world. We spend the weekend sleeping badly, worrying about being flame-grilled in our beds.

The electrician doesn’t turn up at 11am on Monday morning as agreed. It’s too cold for his car to start, so he has to wait until the air temps rise. Cars in Portugal are so expensive that many folk drive cars until they simply stop working due to old age. He arrives at 2.30pm, a diminutive man with an impenetrable dialect, a Sex Pistols haircut and a single gold ring earring – a punky pirate who smells of booze and tobacco. He doesn’t even have an electrician’s screwdriver, which is worrying, and has to borrow one of the only two tools I currently possess (a hammer and a screwdriver). DC asks him if he wants her to turn the electricity off. He laughs and says “no need”, before sticking my screwdriver into the socket and shorting the electricity all over the house.

Deja vu. We’ve been here before. I get a throwback memory of an ‘electrician’ on Tenerife who made things a lot worse before, after taking our advice, he managed to fix an electrical issue caused by a lightning strike to our house. ‘After taking our advice’ is a measure of just how incompetent he was; we haven’t a clue about these sort of things. But we do seem to be more savvy than some of the ‘skilled tradesmen’ we’ve encountered in both the Canaries and Portugal. It’s part of what DC ironically refers to as the charme do sul and what Andy has termed BIY – botch it yourself.

My Portuguese is just about good enough to understand when Punky the electrician tells DC the job is bigger than he originally thought. Of course it is. But in fairness, even with my limited knowledge of DIY, I can see his reasoning. Whoever installed the electrics didn’t use a tube to house the wires. Oh no, they cemented the wires into the wall. BIY.

We’re currently waiting for him to return to finish the job. It’s 11am so no doubt his car battery is still warming up. After he left yesterday we discovered that whatever ‘work’ he’d done had resulted in all of the sockets in the bedroom now being out of action. So, as well as not being able to plug in the heater, we can’t plug in bedside lamps or the clock. What little confidence I had in his abilities has been diluted further. I can’t help feeling we might be worse off after his visit. Added to this, the gas which warms our water has run out and we don’t have a replacement bottle. DC, ever trying to be helpful, doesn’t allow us to manage our own gas. She has Senhor Fernando (the farm’s handyman) replace them when they run out. But neither of them are here. Now we have no hot water as well as a bitterly cold house.

Still, it’s nearly lunchtime. Soon we can strip off our heavy jumpers, change out of the fleece-lined trousers we bought for walking on glaciers in Chile and venture outside to eat almoço in the warm sunshine.

Andy at the quinta, Palmela, Portugal
The hat’s for protection from the sun, not for heat. Not outside anyway.
About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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