Friday, November 30, 2007

Enter the arena

The annual meeting for owners of apartments in our building is just about to start.

Emotions have been running high this week, as all the issues of the year resurfaced: water, parking, noise, building work, window cleaning, and of course - gardening. (A while back, German Porn Man shouted at the gardener about the right time to prune certain shrubs. The gardener resigned, kerfluffle ensued, etc. etc.) It's been a highly charged year in some respects.

I am so very pleased to be renting.

Here's hoping for a productive meeting...

Have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Universe of Memories

I'm trying to squeeze in some of the Madeira stuff that I haven't mentioned along the way (like the fact that Ribiera Brava is apparently the place to have curried pigs' feet). In terms of museumy places, the must-see is the Universe of Memories.

Our story begins across the road, with a baroque merchant's house called Quinta das Cruzes. Rumour has it that Zarco (the sea captain who discovered Madeira) lived there. It's a museum now - with some lovely pieces, and flourishing gardens dotted with fragments of Manueline stonework. Very pretty.

Back in the day, a swanky sugar family lived in Quinta das Cruzes. The father had an illegitimate son, who grew up with a chip on his shoulder of the considerable kind. So the son went away, made his fortune, returned to the island with absurd wealth, and built a house directly opposite his father's: bigger, better, fancier. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Even if the Bastard Son's House was empty, it would be worth seeing for the immaculate restoration work alone: gorgeous wooden floors, stained glass windows, plasterwork ceilings. But the BSH is filled with the private collection of the Regional Secretary for Tourism & Culture: João Carlos Abreu. This guy has been in charge of Madeiran culture for ever - he's a poet, writer, friend of singers and artists and creative types - he's pretty beloved. And in his five or six decades of travelling around the world, Abreu has picked up a bunch of stuff - furniture, art, sculpture, jewellery, masks, hangings...

It's a truly eclectic mix, and this is what makes the Universe of Memories a special place. For example, Abreu likes horses, and so there's a room filled with horses, hundreds of them: from Chinese stone horses to Thai inlaid horses to English rocking horses. It's just whatever has caught his eye over his lifetime.

Er, he also collected ties. There's a tie room, with ties fanning out across every inch of wall and ceiling. Not my personal favourite (although the tie made out of feathers is worthwhile). The other rooms are reeeeally tasteful, I swear - and the bathroom fittings are fab!

Anyhoo, it's a place to take your time going through (an omniscient curator accompanies, with on-demand history of every piece of art and furniture and every fiddley knick-knack). Abreu still drops off pieces now and then, so the collection is still growing. And after exploring the house, you can sit in the courtyard cafe, glance across to the Legitimate House opposite, and wonder at the determination of the man who was told he wasn't good enough.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Less than two weeks to go...

I adore being in super-organised mode. I swear, when I feel it sneaking up on me I drop whatever I'm doing and just go with it. The meticulous approach to organising, cleaning, sorting; the sticky-note labelling of piles to take/leave/recycle/dump/donate; the thoughtful approach to life in Dublin and what I might need there.

It only goes so far. It shall wane, and I shall slump once more, adopt some tv show and watch five series of Something-Or-Other over the next less-than-two weeks. I'll still only pack in the hours before I leave the island (which I love doing; there's such a carefree feeling to last-minute packing). But oh, ze leeetle grey cells shall know what I'll be taking, and why - thanks to this passing phase. Love it!

In other news: at you can give a little back to favourite musicians you may have poached from over the years, and share the whys and the wherefores with the rest of us. Brilliant idea (and a smidge scary that $5 represent the artist's share if you buy three - yes, three! - of their albums on iTunes).

Also: Landlady appeared today, wondering if there was any chance of me moving on Friday. Sometimes I feel I should record the conversations where we agree things.

And last but not least, it's a pretty evening here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Blocked up and blinkered

The Nice Cafe Lady comes up to me as I'm reading over breakfast and gives me a scare. I mean, she didn't mean to - I overreacted, let me make that clear.

It's a full-concentration, blinkered-to-the-rest-of-the-world thing: I sometimes get a shock when I notice movement (or someone standing beside me, waiting for me to notice them). It's actually more disconcerting for the other person, who tends to be perfectly relaxed until I jump out of my skin ("Jesus! I just wondered if you wanted a cuppa! You know I live in this house, right?"). I'm all for people wearing tinkley bells.

There were extenuating circumstances this morning: I was submerged in James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere. It was a bit about a corpse whose eyes had been gouged out, and the eye sockets had been... treated very badly indeed.

The Nice Cafe Lady only came over to commiserate with me for having a cold. The word for head-cold here is constipacao - it's one of those words worth learning early to avoid misunderstandings.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Avoidance Work

My moving company is packing me up in two weeks.

The thought occurred to me this morning, as I was contentedly sorting through some books. Within minutes I was out the door, first for local coffee, then into Funchal for a wander and some sunshiney beers, listening to Dave Matthews Band Live at Luther College. Excellent.

There's nothing like avoiding deadlines.

Friday, November 23, 2007

There should have been a memo...

Was I was the last person on earth to know that the iconic image of Che Guevara was the work of Dubliner Jim Fitzpatrick??

When I was a kid, I used to adore tracing the intricate knotwork of his Celtic art (Jim Fitz, that is, not Che). Years later, when I got to take care of illuminated manuscripts, that same wonder was there. Give me vibrant marginalia over a showy centrepiece any day.

His style has changed considerably since the 1970s - here's Palu, The Cat Goddess, from back in the day:

The Che image was never copyrighted, and spread quickly, becoming highly controversial: copies were stolen and destroyed, and Fitzpatrick's distributor in Spain was arrested by Franco's secret police. In Dublin, one fine lady went into the swanky BTs (which had a stationery section back then), bought the whole stock of Che Guevara cards and proceeded to rip them up before the staff. Art is all down to how it makes you feel...

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Forget wickerwork, orchids, Madeira wine - apparently the best gift from the island is an Absolut disco ball.

Sigh. I shall do my best in the short time that remains.

Off to refill the ice cube trays now...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

...the Charles Atlas seal of approval

All is quiet, for now. I'm sneaking this post before broadband fizzles again - the storm has been frazzling reception & signals of all kind. A friend phoned the other night and her voice was like one of those digitized voice-concealers - you know, like they use for ransom calls? Kinda creepy.

Here's one of the many sculptures around Funchal (this one is in front of the ex-Beatles Boat). Most of the sculptures are related to exploration/sea/peace. They have a lovely chunky style, and are well weathered by these gales (often to a gorgeous verdigris), which makes even recent pieces seem well-settled in.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Storm season

Today is Day #3 of the Big November Storm. It's not at full force the whole time: it dies down to just rain for a while, then winds rise, and thunder & lightning recur randomly through the day. Nights are very loud indeed - think Dorothy in that little house being spun to Oz. Flying screechy monkeys would be no surprise at all.

I like to make the most of all weathers: in Devon, a day like today would have been perfect for snuggling down in a pub with a book and a crossword (but would have been hampered by the fact that I was working). But Madeira isn't cold enough for that - even if they did snuggly pubs (which they don't; it's all cafe-bars with pointy furniture). So instead I'm at home, shutters rattling and sea gales shoving debris under the patio door (note to self: hoover up debris).

Thank goodness for an Absolut disco ball. Bringing sparkle to darkness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Celebrate good times...

All things considered, I think I'm pretty resistant to Absolut marketing. No, wait - hear me out.

They did a limited edition gold bottle last year, and although I was tempted by the super-shiny bottle, I resisted. I don't go near vanilla or mandrin or peach (way too sweet). I stick to citron, raspberi, plain - a woman of simple tastes.

But today I saw the disco bottle spangling on a local supermarket shelf.

Get this: the outer casing unhinges, so after the vodka is long gone, you have an absolut-shaped disco ball. Who would be without one of those!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

An all-white birthday

It's a wet and windy day here, and the world has just gone all white and upside-downy. Figure I'll curl up with a glass of wine and watch some Columbo.

It's what Shona would want.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Location location

Some days I feel so local.

In the cafe this morning, the nice cafe lady brings over coffee with two sugar sachets on the saucer. "Oh I forgot, you don't take sugar," she self-corrects, and takes the sachets away again. The other nice cafe lady is putting out ashtrays on the tables: "I know you don't smoke," she says, leaving one on mine, 'but each table should have one'.

Later I wander up to the veg shop (meeting Mr Taxi Driver en route: he glances up at the sky, "Today's gonna be a hot one"). As the Veg Shop lady tots up the bill, she murmurs "You will leave Madeira. It is sad." I waffle a little about writing in Ireland, but she's not swayed. All my family are there, I say, hoping this might help. She nods, satisfied. "That is important."

In the afternoon I nip across for pizza (the place with sweet mice on the menu). The waitress is serving a table, and glances over as I come in, "A small Romano with little cheese to go?" I say I haven't decided. Up at the counter, the nicest, most eager pizza chef appears: "Romano? Amalfi?" I decide on Amalfi. "Small pizza, no mushrooms, little cheese, thin base?" he asks. Yep, that would do nicely.

When it's done the waitress boxes it up and brings it over: I get tabasco from the restaurant dresser, she grabs a pepper mill, and we move around the pizza in harmony. As she's closing over the box, I glance up: the chef is standing, expectant, at the counter, waiting to see if it's all okay.

It's great, I tell him. It's just perfect. And it was.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Just sitting thinking...

Two white kittens hang out at the end of my road. Each time I see them, it's all I can do not to bundle them up and take them home with me. They'll grow into nervous, lean, hungry-looking cats - like all the cats in this neighbourhood - but right now they're little balls of delight.

One of my big "can't-wait-fors" is getting a cat or two next year. Kittens actually, that will grow into pampered cats that might like to sit on a windowsill and contemplate a rainy day...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Farewell to Forms

Just finished that grant application. Phew.

In addition to a draft excerpt from the book, I also needed a synopsis of the whole twisted plot. I've spent the afternoon trying to set it out clearly. I'm at the point now where it soooo reads like Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett; I need to let it go before I introduce a smoking gun and a falcon of the maltese kind...

What is that little plaintive sound? Could it be coming from the cafe across the road? Might it be a beer pleading 'Drink me, drink me'. I'm on the case!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Loosening up

At the weekend one of the local hotel gyms was having an open day, so off I went with a friend.

Rather than attempt a Bodyforming class (which turned out to be a Step class - I'd have actually been okay), I asked if I could use the weights room. Sure, said the nice lady behind the desk, go on in.

No form, no waiver, no caution, no instruction.

Granted, using weights equipment isn't brain surgery, but it's useful - nay, important - for someone to show you how to do it properly. Most gyms I've been in have been really strict about it.

But not here. There were several just-in-off-the-street people in the weights room, zoinging the equipment like they were playing with yo-yos.

I talked about it with my friend afterwards, wondering what would happen if they hurt themselves. 'Would that not be their fault?' she asked.

In Madeira, maybe...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Which came first

Scribbling away at a grant application today.

It's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation, in that the grant would help me to do a bunch of research for the next book, but in order to apply for it I should include a draft from... the next book.

I've really worked hard at not sounding sarcastic.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Weather Eye

Island weather changes quickly and often - but this time of year seems particularly lively: sudden winds, enormous banks of dark cloud cascading down the mountain, which break to reveal unusual heat. It keeps you on your toes.

Yesterday morning, little cotton-wool clouds lined the entire horizon.

Down at the sea edge, the Desertas islands were lilac against the sky.

... and the thin early morning clouds streamed over them, like a waterfall in slow motion.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sheer Vagrancy

It just occurred to me that in all the time I've been blogging I never mentioned the ex-Beatles yacht: The Vagrant.

Down in Funchal harbour are a bunch of odd restaurants - you know the kind - each table is on its own miniature row-boat; just touristy and odd.

Anyhoo, among these is a permanently moored (probably in cement) yacht called the Vagrant. The Beatles bought it in 1966 and used it to get away from all the craziness of super-stardom. The story goes that after Apple sold it in the early 70s, it hung out in Morocco, and was finally squodged by a storm in the Canaries.

These days, the Vagrant has been turned into a bar/restaurant, charging an extortionate amount for a beer (by Madeiran standards). But the interior appears relatively untouched, and you get a sense of it being a normal private yacht, with like... The Beatles hanging out on it.

The Beatles.

Very cool.

Obviously, there are no lengths the bar/restaurant won't go to to herald its famed past owners: down to photoshopping in the name of the yacht on to a photo of the fab four.

If they'd just evened out the angle a smidge, it would have been less obvious.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Go with the grain

Wherever I go, people seem to be carrying 1.5m rolls of brown paper.

It turns out that everyone is starting work on their Christmas displays (sorry Shona, but it's all over the place!!). Each home has a lapinha - a three-tiered scene which is lined with painted brown paper. It's not quite a crib (although some of the same people feature); it's more symbolic than narrative. On the top layer is a Jesus - he's usually featured as a toddler. The other two layers hold other figures, fruit and miniature pots of gorgeous soft green grass (which I think is young wheat).

That's the basic structure, but it's often extended into a landscape, featuring a little village scene which can contain a mish-mash of things (Santana A-frame houses, the Three Kings, more miscellaneous fruit). And the whole display is inundated with lady slipper orchids, which are the Christmas flower here.

So there you go. It's crafty-time in Madeira.

And from sprouted wheat to rice... began one month ago today: giving you the chance to play a vocabulary game and at the same time donate rice to end world hunger. It started on 7 October, when 830 grains of rice were donated. Yesterday there were 75,201,580 grains of rice donated to the UN World Food Program. Quite a month!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Looking within

In Funchal, the Christmas decorations continue to grow: the angels are up in front of Se Cathedral, and the massive steel christmas tree is towering over the marina.

It looks like this from outside...

...but the best perspective is from within.

Reminds me of Shona, taking the same photo last year!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Ahh... the cruise ships sail by my terrace at dusk. Now, the idea of a cruise is probably the inverse of my ideal holiday: a super-lit floating hotel with a controlled atmosphere and schedule mapped out for you. Yecchk.

But at twilight, when the massive boats begin their journey and start out across the ocean, they look very pretty indeed.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Neil Hegarty's Dublin

Today's post is about another author: a friend of mine just had his second book published: Dublin: A View from the Ground.

It's been getting lots of positive reviews, including one from the fabulous John Banville, who called it "a fond, informative and entertaining evocation of Joyce's 'dear, dirty Dumpling', and a fit companion for any visitor, or, indeed, Dubliner, ambling through these rain-washed streets".

Well if that isn't worthy of an across-the-ocean toast with a vodka & tonic, I don't know what is!

Amazon listing for Neil Hegarty's Dublin: A View from the Ground.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

At the dimming of the day

When I looked up from typing my blog yesterday evening, the room was bathed in sunset. Nipped up to the roof to take a picture...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Somewhere, a goose is getting fat

At the beginning of October the Halloween trinkets and masks appeared in the shops; all the Christmas decorations went on sale at the same time.

A few weeks ago they started erecting the light displays in Funchal. Now that Halloween is past, they're working in earnest, and although the red carpets (I'm not kidding) won't line the streets until right before Christmas, already the streets are being covered with bulbs and tinsel. They'll keep adding lights right up to New Year's Eve, when the street display will be totally overwhelmed by the fireworks.

It only gets brighter from here!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Day of the Dead

Today is a public holiday here - Dia de Finados.

Each land has its own traditions of dealing with the dead, and Madeira is no different. In addition to burial or cremation, there's a third option which someone tried to explain to me: keeping the body in a 'graveyard drawer' for the first 1-3 years (depending on how quickly they're decomposing). It's normal for the family to inspect the body after a year, but the graveyard manager can check on your behalf, if you prefer. When the flesh has fallen away, the bones are then buried.

I wander around the small graveyard in Canico from time to time, perusing the gravestones. Traditional graves here are more ornate than I'm used to: most have photos in oval gilt frames, and inscriptions are more wordy. I am always struck by the upkeep of the graves - fresh flowers are everywhere, and you get stunning orchids arching from one grave to another, shading the little gifts or family photos that have been left for the dead.

And all that's in a normal week! Who knows what goes on on All Souls' Day...