Algarve: an Abecedarium

Éireann Lorsung


I can tell from the first moment, when the air smells like the drawer where my mother kept her spices. England smells like a conservatory: moss, algae, mold, ferns, moisture, chlorophyll, plants breathing. But here it just smells like flowers (orange trees, lemon trees, jasmine, bougainvillea, wisteria, rosemary). And the sea.

The breeze is cool, but dry. The dirt is red, pink, grey, yellow, white. A pair of trucks driving down a road send up clouds of dust.

So despite the lushness of this place—and it is all over rich and soft with smells—despite the orange and lemon groves, the presence of the sea on three sides of the country, the hills covered in flowers, I know this is a dry land.

From the train I see gardeners tending plants under cloches made from old five-liter water jugs. Irrigation hoses run through orchards. An aqueduct curves along the line of a rural road. The jeans of the man I follow up the hill to the Silves train station are covered in a pale yellow powder.



The church in Luz is white with yellow trim. Mostly square. Small buttresses. Stuccoed. With alcoves here and there and very little decoration. With a wide forecourt where tourists stand and take photos. Its bell is a short, muted clang we hear even across the bay, where we are staying.



My friends insist that I should bake for them. They've been here for two months and are used to the food, and although I would rather walk into town and find a pastellaria and buy a cake—light, spongy, almost foam-like, made with a combination of corn and wheat flour, with a fluted bottom and a puffy top—I decide I will make two things: a chocolate cake and a brioche.

soft chocolate cake

100g very dark chocolate
100g butter
100g sugar (any kind)
200g flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
apinch salt
2 eggs

Heat the oven to 190° C, and grease a 6" cake tin.

Melt the chocolate and butter together. While they are melting, mix the cocoa powder, flour, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl. When the chocolate and butter are melted, take them off the heat. Crack the eggs into the pot and whisk together. Add the sugar and keep whisking. The mixture should become quite thick. Keep whisking for about 4 minutes. When it is thick but frothy and well-integrated, pour into a clean bowl. Slowly mix in the dry mixture. If it is getting too thick, add a bit of milk. Beat well to combine. Pour into greased pan.

Bake for about 25 minutes. Depending on your oven and how soft you want your cake, you can reduce the time; I also find that baking the cake at 200° for the first ten minutes and 170-180° for the next 15-20 minutes gives me a crispy bottom crust and tender inside.

This is especially delicious eaten hot (while the center is still melty, if that's your preference) with cream and raspberries.



Where we are staying (a rented house overlooking the Atlantic from three streets back), the door is solid wood, with a big brass doorknob that doesn't turn. You insert your key (shaped like a cross, not flat) and turn it two full turns and a half turn, disengaging the floor lock and the bolt. Elsewhere I saw a door held shut by a padlock and chain, although through the layer of dust on the building's windows I could see it no longer had a roof.



I am about forty minutes early for my train in Silves, where I went to find my sweater. The station is 1.7 kilometers outside of the town, way up in the hills. On the way I encounter a man who's walking there. We exchange greetings (which is to say he speaks and I nod and then he figures out my Portuguese is fetal at best and keeps walking) and I follow him up the highway until it narrows and becomes a two-way street.. A woman is pruning her fruit trees. Someone somewhere has classical music, opera, on loud enough to be heard across the street. A rooster, a dog. There are three teenage boys, an older woman, and a man on the platform. Across the tracks, an old woman in a black skirt, navy shirt, and navy kerchief gesticulates. Her white hair is neat. She has two laundry airers next to her tiny trailer. Sheets of wood and tarps are stacked and draped against it. I'm sitting near the gate marked Saída. Underneath, in tiny blue letters, it says exit.



Estacão. Saída. Olá. Bom día. Obrigada. Pão. Pó. Faz favor. Vila. Largo. Camisola. Perdida. Uma bilhete. Queria. Desculpe. Chá. Viagem. Mel. Sim. Laranja. Caixa. Com licença. Protecção. Mar. Onde. Mais. Obrigada. Obrigada. Obrigada.



They sound like children, or cats fighting. Or even foxes. There are other birds here—yesterday I saw a big beautiful one with a blue and white wing like a magpie—but near the water the gulls make their presence known. When they bank and soar away, all of a sudden I can hear the smaller birds again. They are standing on rooftops and chimneys, speaking a companionable language.



What was in this place before they built these rows of trim, tidy vacation rental houses? I found shards of tiles ground into the road and pile of broken tile and brick behind a scrim of overgrowth. What was razed here? Now a piece of tile I found is sitting in my English room. I can tell someone painted it because the pressure of the line is irregular. Whose hand? Whose house?



While I am walking I pick small leaves from trees and plants I don't know, and I stop to draw their flower structures and make notes about them. I probably won't look them up, but having the notes will remind me of the place where I crouched to write, the smell of the ocean coming up from behind me, the English tourists walking by and staring, the heat on my head. I have a long silver-green one with a single rachis. A fleshy one with six large points and one small one, which stays firm even overnight. From several days ago, a stem from an orange tree with seven leaves, a flower, and the nub where, had I left it alone, an orange would have grown. Squash vines. Succulents. Cedars. The yellow one I saw in the spring in France (mimosa?). Cactuses with flat bodies. Asparagus ferns. Grapevines. Hibiscus. Wild geraniums. Bamboo. Kolza. Agave.



After I arrive, my friends ask whether I want to go straight to Luz, where they have been staying for the past two months, or take a drive. I want to drive. So we go from Faro to Silves by back roads and small highways, following water from the sea along inland aqueducts and irrigation ditches. In Silves we eat goose barnacles, fried potatoes, sliced ripe tomatoes, broiled fish, thin flat slices of pork. Ali talks to the waiter. A little boy traces the shape of the lobsters in the tank. From the plaza we watch a stork build its nest. Orange trees bloom in buckets. The brick of the courthouse is interrupted by a brass band carrying its instruments across it, light glancing from them. On the white steps, the sun is very hot.



Outside the door of the rented house is a combination-box. I learn the rhyme to open it: In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; in fourteen-hundred and ninety-four, he got the key and opened the door. The key inside is attached to a fluorescent-yellow keytag on a silver ring. The two axes of the key itself are uneven; one is shorter than the others, and I know this is supposed to correlate with how I insert it into the lock, although I never develop any logical sense of this and instead continue to fumble the key into its correct position the entire week.



A storm has been coming for the past twenty-four hours. Someone in town says it's coming from Africa, a huge storm from Morocco or even further south. It may not actually arrive on shore, but I can hear how high the waves have become from inside the house, even with the metal shutters closed. The waves are a general roar, sometimes a little quieter or louder but unending; occasionally this is punctuated by the sound of a gull yelling as it's blown off course.

Yesterday I stopped in Lagos to catch a bus to Luz, and as the train came into the city, the ocean (on the left) was full of whitecaps. I walked back along the tracks, following the sound of water, over the dunes. The waves were taller than me, cresting and recresting, rolling up the fine sand in overlapping diagonals. I pulled my tights off and stood in the water and the waves soaked me up to my knees. I dialed and you picked up and I held the phone out over the water so you could hear, and shouted that I was at the ocean, having recovered my sweater, and we hung up, and then you texted me to say it had been too loud to make out what I'd said, all the cars and trucks on your end, but that you were glad to have heard the ocean.



This is what I did for the sweater when I first bought it, second-hand, off the floor of an artists'-studio rummage sale: took mohair, lace-weight yarn and darned the fourteen holes in its back, body, and sleeves. Cut off its awkward plastic buttons (beige) and sewed on mother-of-pearl ones (all different shapes). I sewed them on with chartreuse silk thread. One of the buttons has a flower or star shape in its center. The back of another was chipped. I got the buttons from my mother when I went to live in England and I had been waiting for the right thing. Maybe you can see why I didn't want to lose this, why I had to go back for it as soon as I could, despite not speaking the language and despite what looked like a storm coming in across the Atlantic.



Nata means cream. Pasteis de nata are a tart filled with cream and egg custard. Don't confuse nata with nada, which means nothing.



The people we call Europe watched a century they thought would be beautiful and modern-convenient come and go. Saw it bring two wars, not to mention clandestine detention centers, state-sponsored torture, disappearance, mass graves, starvation, the death of small agriculture. Saw their grandparents buried in mud full of corpses. Saw the bright lights of nuclear tests just off the shore. Saw this from the small small patches of land we call countries. Since all of the big decisions had been made for them, began clawing out smaller and more personal ways to die. For instance the man with whom I walked to the station, now smoking his sixth cigarette.



Houses are mostly white in Luz, but in Silves there was one with wrought-iron balconies, covered in large, pink tiles. Walking on a dirt road some distance from town, I find pink tiles, white tiles with pink painting on them. What I take home are two pieces: one with two straight lines (probably part of a house's name tile) and one, a smaller one, with a stippled leaf on it. I love the blue tiles but the pink ones are so warm.



Lack of language means I mostly do not speak. Slip in: say the words, or mumble them, that mean I'm here. Slip out, the thank-you sounds. In between, as I walk along the ocean-road and through town, as I ride the bus and train, as I sneak photographs of gardens, rooflines, chimneys, boats, couples sitting by the water: silence. I'm nobody. I can be an English tourist, a French tourist, an Italian tourist, a seasonal worker, someone here for business, anyone. My blankness surrounds me. I walk inside of it. No one asks me who I am. I'm writing all the time in my head, with the camera lens.



What kinds of shelter do people take from the sun? I can tell you: the roofs of these houses are a pale orange tile; round, overlapping. Some houses have small solar panels. I've seen a bower of climbing plants arching to cover a whole long driveway. Over patios are wooden structures meant sometimes for growing wisteria, slatted shade that shifts with the sun. The deckchair at the rented house has its own woven straw shade you can raise or lower. Elsewhere houses have dark red roofs, vines on trellises.



At night, the North Star flickers like a piece of glass catching the light. This is the farthest south I've ever travelled.



Two houses away, they have a mosaic outside of fish swimming. Three kinds: large flat-looking ones, large ones with dorsal fins, and tiny undistinguished ones. The tiles are a very dark blue. The fish are outlined in white and their bodies are filled in roughly in orange and yellow.

Yesterday I found broken shards of tile embedded in the road (a dirt path that runs alongside the houses, down to the road that goes along the sea and into town). First broken roof tile, then plain white ceramic tiles from a bathroom. Then a few pieces of blue-and-white tile. I followed them and found the place where so many had been dumped, I climbed on the piles of rubble and dug through them with my hands.



The Japanese word パン, which means bread, comes from the Portuguese word pão, and, in its nasal final consonant, approximates the sound very well. The first language of treaties, diplomacy, European relations, and bakeries in Japan was Portuguese. I was in such a bakery once, about ten years ago now: white eyelet curtains, checkered tablecloths, counter girls in aprons, wheat bread. Eggy cakes, custard tarts, and other sweets with roots in the introduction of wheat flour by the Portuguese. Not to mention modes of preparation. A small sugar candy is called コンペイト−, from the word confeito. Minor indicator of a major history.



Tiny wild persimmons growing behind the railway fence in Luz. The smell of the market as we walk into it is thyme, bay, sweat, oranges, olives, bodies close together, heat evaporating the morning, greens, bunches of freesia, onions, calla lilies, chickens, chilies. The old town is accessed via the fishmarket. Under the words of a poem I don't know we walk through it. There is a building covered in green tiles. There is a military formation. In the café, the smell of smoke.



One of the earliest memories I have from living in England is listening to someone play the bossa nova "Wave" on his guitar. He played it over and over. I can hear the waves today, much stronger than yesterday. There is no blue sky; everything is a warm haze. A sailboat, in the distance, passes between two buildings. It feels like years since I last thought of that song.



There are two occasions to be in Silves: when you are losing something and when you are finding it. A thousand years ago the city lost its name, then almost all of its people: by the 16th century only one hundred and forty inhabitants. The streets go up to the Sé and the castle via stairs and incline. The footprint of the mosque and the footprint of the earthquake. The day I arrive, I leave my sweater on a chair in the hot sun, watching the stork and the brass band, and when I walk into the café three days later with my prepared sentence (perduto a mia camisa) the old woman behind the counter has gone to get it before I can finish and it's not a lie to say that the two other people there (a young man who's just bought a coffee and a woman who might be the daughter of the woman at the counter) smile in a way that feels about as good as I do to have it (mended, re-buttoned, just as I left it, and still warm) back.



To reckon time in ordinary affairs, to count and measure, to assign seasons, to record the passing of days, to mark such and such out as exceptions to the rule while other things pass daily unnoticed, to walk seven hundred times the path from the house to the town and to tire of it. To notice the birds coming and the flowers coming again. To understand not only weather but train schedules, bus routes, language, the custom of sitting or waiting to be seated. A deep attachment marks the period of a year.



Don't trust the translator in the computer which will tell you lemon zest is 'entusiasmo de limão'. But in Portugal it's true my zests became confused: we began with two kilos of oranges, the first ones eaten in the sun on the side of the road, dripping juice. Before we could pay we washed our hands with the dipper and bucket, we touched the thick skin of the oranges. The trees nearby hummed. I can trace my craving for oranges to childhood illness when the only things I wanted were citrus fruits. Once at a Seder I ate the remains of a dozen lemons and a dozen limes and lay on the living room floor all evening in a citrus-induced haze. The fruits are within reach here, just a little higher than my head, in the neglected gardens of part-time residents. My desire to pick the fruit was as related to its texture as to its taste: I wanted to feel the rough, warm skin. Unwaxed, unchilled: on the patio of one house, thirty oranges lay in various states of blue rot. Wasps went in and out. My fingers and throat wanted to climb the tree and carry home the rest.