Life and Death

Just when you think you’re going to take Sunday as a day of rest from the physical demands of the week… life in a vibrant Portuguese village sweeps you off your feet.

If you want to be part of the foreign culture into which you have immersed yourself then you have to be prepared for anything – the surreal and the bizarre, the unexpected and the perplexing.  And during the week of Carnaval it just gets even sillier.

Last Sunday was a special Sunday – it was Domingo Gordo (Fat Sunday).  Tuesday was Fat Tuesday and is when most of the carnival processions happen (Mardi Gras?  Yes, it took me some years to twig the connection, but then I am a bit slow on the uptake sometimes!).

Carnival is big in Portugal.

Sunday began, for me, with my first death in the chicken shed.  Henny Penny the one-eyed yellow chicken had passed away in the night.  I’d been caring for her for some weeks but her illness had baffled me and finally it took her life.  I like to think that she passed away peacefully in the night but falling off her perch doesn’t quite conjure up the same picture.

I love my chickens very much – almost as much as I love the cats and the dog and so much so that I feel my love for animals is getting in the way of my hopes of being a farmer.  I am however extremely pleased with myself that I managed to not cry when Henny Penny died.

There wasn’t time.  There was work to be done.  A dear neighbour was coming round to help with staking out the grape vines.  It’s all sticks this time of year.  Days and days of sticks.  Long ones, short ones, bendy ones, twiggy ones…  The new pointed posts were exchanged for the old and rotten and the pruned grape vines lashed to their new supports with bundles of willow ties that I’d cut earlier.

Lunch was served by his wife, which was as delicious and abundant as ever.  Then off to carnival…  via the cemetery. She wanted to check that the flowers had been removed by the council from their cousin’s grave after his funeral two weeks ago.  They hadn’t.  I’d met him only weeks ago at a family dinner in the village.  I’d liked him a lot.  He was a very engaging and funny man.  He was full of life and seemingly very popular.  He’d died suddenly.  On his grave was a mountain of offerings.  We traipsed back and forth  laden with armfuls of dried foliage in crisp, shiny plastic with lavish satin bows and ribbons and enormous wreaths of parched flowers, leaving a trail of fallen petals from his grave to the bins outside the perimeter wall.

I’d never been to the cemetery before.  She took me to see Father-in-law’s grave, whose house I live in.  As she led me round to see all the people I knew who’d died in our village it struck me how attached I had become in just four years.  Everyone was there.  So many people had died in just four years – young and old.  And her father?  No, he’s not there anymore because if you don’t buy the piece of ground they’re buried on, after seven years they put someone else in on top.

To my sheltered English upbringing all this was overwhelming.  And although I’d held it together earlier that morning at the death of my dear chicken, I’m afraid it all got a bit much at the cemetery and I did shed a few tears.  Then she clapped her hands and it was ‘OFF TO CARNIVAL!’

So there we were amid the throng and clamour of clowns and tractors and trailers and dancers and balloons and streamers.  People laughed and twirled to the sound of accordions while water bombs and flour, confetti and boiled sweets flew through the air.   Pretty girls in flowing wedding dresses danced with the grim reaper and alien beings.  It pulsed through the streets, a single vibrant entity.  A living, breathing celebration of life.

They made us walk behind our village float.

The token English in the village?  Another curiosity for the procession? I was not dressed for carnival.  There was nothing about my clothes or my demeanor on that day that spoke ‘carnival’.

I felt acutely embarrassed that I had not come in a costume but I’d thought we were going to watch the carnival, not be in it!  But as is the way here, if you want to be a part of the village then be prepared for anything.

It was an excessively long day with the zany and the bizarre and then to the big hall for the crazy band and the dance.  When we finally arrived home I saw myself in the mirror.

The tears at the cemetery had brought my mascara down my face on both cheeks and actually, I looked fine for carnival.

That night after dark five unidentifiable people were banging on the gate.

Their heads were bound in red and white cloth.  They spoke not a word.

They gesticulated that they wanted something.

I asked them if they wanted money.  They said no.  Food?  No.  Wine?  Then I remembered this tradition from last year.  Yes!!! And in they tumbled, gulped wine from the barrel (orange juice for those of questionable age), threw themselves around the courtyard in a feigned drunken stupor and left the premises.

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