The latest in the long list of surprises: the stairs to the attic were constructed on top of completely worm-eaten boards. As a bonus, there was a dead mouse.

The floors weren’t teeming with wood worm. Neither were the door frames, or the doors. The sceptic tank was a modern one of the double type from which almost clean water flowed, certainly not a plain, old tank with a mystery overflow. The wood stove was sufficient to warm the entire house, and it worked just fine, as did did the chimney (despite the 90° angle in the pipe). The toilet would flush turds, not be a turd. The sink worked and wasn’t designed to expose the odorous world of the piping system. Nothing about rain that freely entered through the windows, the doorsteps and the chimney. The roof was water-tight. Oh, and it never freezes here during the winter, so you can grow pretty much whatever you want.

Were these conscious lies—misinformation by their agent? Or was the long list of omitted and incorrect information a symptom of the former owners’ disengaged lifestyle? (All the pet piss and puke in the floor board cracks certainly was.)

Perhaps, an adventure in Portugal is supposed to begin with disappointment. Isn’t that how all such stories begin? (Isn’t that, in fact, how all good stories begin?) At least, the house really did become Annemarie’s after signing the paperwork, unlike in some of those stories were it turns out that the seller doesn’t own the house. There were even a few surprise ruins that were not part of the sales pitch. But, then there was also the big 200 m² ruined water mill that, yes, you would definitely be permitted to rebuild. Not a word about the environmental protections that are in place to discourage building directly adjacent to natural waterways. No matter that Laurelin’s and Nils’ plans with that ruin were central to the buy decision.

Carelessness taken to the extreme is recklessness.

The amount of deceit involved in the buying/selling game can be disputed, but there was definitely a minimum amount of carelessness involved. And too much of that can be dangerous, like when the only reason that you’re not driven out of your house by the smell of pet piss and puke is because you’re lighting each next cigarette with the last.

Exhibit A: who cares about electricity?

When you have trees on your property that start to overhang the utility wires, you might want to get rid of them. Or, you can just go back inside, light another one, and it leave it for the next owner to deal with.

I’m climbing the tree to attach a rope. You might notice that I’m clamping the tree a bit nervously; I was unsure about its integrity since it has been deadly charred by the massive June 2017 forest fire.
We continued the next day, with two ropes, alternatingly tightening and firmly re-attaching them, until it seemed somewhat safe to start sawing.

Annemarie, Marilisa and me spent two tense late afternoons in November 2017 to deal with the two trees with the scariest overhang. For the scariest of these trees, I first had to climb a ladder to attach two ropes to the deadly charred tree, hoping that it wouldn’t keel over, on top of the electricity wire, on top of me, on top of the street. Then, the combined strength of Marilisa, mom and me was needed to tighten one rope, anchor it, then the other rope, the first one again, ad nauseam. Then, Annemarie would saw a bit, while Marilisa and I kept the ropes tight; we would conclude that we needed to tighten the rope further, and repeat, until finally, yes the tree went into the right direction.

Marilisa and Annemarie were gracious enough to stay in this position for a while to let me snap them together with the no-longer-overhanging tree.

After this pictures took place, and Marilisa and I had already left the Portuguese fall for the dark Dutch winter, Jorrit took care of the remaining trees that threatened the electricity supply.

Exhibit B: Wim Hof in the house

Apparently, the previous habitants were students of Wim Hof (also known as the Iceman for his extreme cold adaptation). Otherwise, why would they have stated that the single wood stove in the living room was sufficient to warm the whole house? And the thing’s chimney was so crooked that you couldn’t turn it on unless your lungs were already asphalted.

Exhibit C: Speaking of the cold…

Knowing that Annemarie, Laurelin and Nils were interested in growing fruits, their chain smoking predecessors knew well to inform them that practically anything could grow in their little Ponte de Pedra valley; after all, it hardly got below zero in winter, they said. For Coimbra, the nearest bigger town, this holds true. Even Cernache do Bonjardim, the town right next to their valley, temperatures stay well enough above zero for the winter to be colored by many citrus trees. (It’s lovely to steal an orange (or two (or three)) from an overhanging branch while walking through town.) Not so in the Ponte de Pedra valley, where the frosty mists from the stream creep up along the hillside in the morning. Then, around 8AM—usually not before, according to the temperature data that Nils gathered—subzero temperatures are reached, thwarting the possibility to grow many frost-sensitive plants. (It’s interesting how much microclimates can differ. Warmer places mere kilometers away can start many vegetables months ahead of the winter-chilly Ponte de Pedra valley.)

Could it be that the sellers never get out of bed before the frost had subsided? I highly doubt it.

Exhibit D: when it rains, it seeps.

It does rain in Portugal. When the first fall rains of 2017 made their appearance, at first, Annemarie and Laurelin were relieved; finally, the long, easily-ignitable drought was over. Locally, the soil and waterways would we replenished. Nationally, the precarious drinkwater situation was over. After their relief came… Dissappointment is not a sufficiently strong term for discovering that your roof isn’t watertight and neither are your door and window stills.

Did it simply never rain before? Could the previous owners not imagine that their successors would be so squirmish about sharing their interior with the rain? Or, was this perhaps an exhibition of deceit?

Exhibit E: Don’t make my old mother fight woodworm, you British little worm!

The English pre-habitatants lived at Ponte de Pedra for three years. Would you believe that they wouldn’t have noticed an active woodworm infestation? Here’s what they must have not noticed in order to not have lied about this:

  • there was woodworm in the floors;
  • there was woodworm in the doors;
  • there was woodworm in the door frames;
  • there was woodworm in the boards;
  • there was woodworm in the tools;
  • there was woodworm in the boxes where they stored some of the rancid crap that they left behind.

Was there woodworm in their brain? Perhaps. I don’t know. Let me call a tie between malice and stupidity. Whatever it was, it had my old mother crawling around, rubbing a boron solution into the floors. O no, she couldn’t. First, she had to get rid of all the pet piss and puke between the floor boards, the fragrance of which had much solidified as the thick chain smoker’s fog subsided after the English left the building. Having taken the English trash out and rubbing away layer after layer of dirt, all the wood work was scrubbed with EM. The ceilings and walls also had to be done, to get rid of the rank smell. That was not enough. Next, the wood work had to be thoroughly sanded. Worm-digested pieces were cut out and refilled. A complete door and its frame were removed by my mother’s brother in law. A second door frame also had to be partially removed because its rot had gone too far. Did I mention that the seams between every floor board was scratched? My mother’s sister put her back into that.

Why was it my mother that had to rub the boron solution on top of the floor boards, below the floor boards, on the doors, the stairs, etc.? Why couldn’t my sister help? Boronic acid isn’t particularly dangerous (to humans), but there is some weak evidence linking boronic acid use to reduced fertility. In summary: my little sister didn’t want to risk her chances of one day building a few mini Laurelins. The boron solution they used is very watery and is applied with a brush. This wasn’t risky for Laurelin when applied at the top of the floor boards so that the watery mess was below her. Applying the boron solution to the bottom of these same boards meant that the stuff would stream into your sleeves and face. That was a bit too much for Laurelin. So, our mother had to suck it up (sometimes literally).

The floor was so worm-eaten in places, that it cracked through under light stress. Such coincidence that this never happened to the pre-habitatants! After the boron baths and the replacing of floor boards, my mother uncovered a piece of rotten floor below the stairs that been used as the base for the uprights of the stairs. The carpenter deemed it impossible to insert a still-solid plank after the fact. Annemarie wasn’t fazed and did so anyway, “but with considerable time and energy”.

Deceit? I’m still going to go for self-delusion and stick to Hanlon’s razor:

Don’t attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Exhibit F: Shit tank

O, de septic tank. Ja, dat zou een moderne dubbele zijn, dus met vrij schoon water eruit komend, maar is gewoon een oude bak en zelfs zonder overloop volgens echtgenoot van eerste verkoopster. Zodat we niet begrijpen hoe dit werkt.

What Annemarie says in English? That the original owners (family of the builders) who sold the house to the English couple who sold the house to my mom called bullshit on their claim about the fancy, modern septic tank. There is a shit tank, but it’s shit, and nobody knows how it works.

Exhibit G: How to get the shit to the tank

On our first visit, with the old plumbing still in place, you had to prod your poop with a stick to get it in the direction of that old shit tank. For your pleasure, I did not include a picture. Words suffice: the plumbing was shit. There were two 90° bends in the pipe, with a meter in between. I find it likely that the previous owners had simply gotten used to it. ⚖️: disinterest, not deceit. Portuguese toilet pipes are supposedly famous for clinging to their waste.

Exhibit H: Whose shit is that?

  1. Once you get the paperwork signed, why bother, right? That’s what the sellers must have thought when the left trailer-loads full of junk in the adega and the old boiler room.
  2. For a moment, it seemed almost nice that they left their old stove in the kitchen. If only more than two of its pits had functioned.
  3. Another thing you might as well wait to tell until after the paperwork is signed: the front door wouldn’t close. They did tell, eventually, didn’t they? Doesn’t that count as honesty? No, it doesn’t. Laurelin did find a way to get it locked eventually, before they replaced the lock.
  4. And the fact that the kitchen tap leaked into the cupboard. Slipped—I mean leaked from—their mind?
  5. There are people who clean their house when they move out. Not these people. And, surely, it must have been years since they last cleaned. 🤢

Exhibit I: Legally ruined

One of the most creativity-evoking objects on the terrain was the ruin of the lagar (olive mill) next to the stream. Laurelin’s plan was to: ⓐ turn the old pig sty below Annemarie’s house into a cozy mini home, and, from there, ⓑ start turning the 200 m² ruin into an enormous mansion. Among the attractions of Portugal are its stimulating laws regarding the rebuilding of ruins. Usually, you are allowed to rebuild a ruin (up to quite a hight) as long as you don’t overflow the original ground area. My mother’s agent had emphasized that the lagar could be rebuilt under these laws. What they didn’t mention is that there are more stringent regulations for building directly next to waterways. So, a watermill? Good luck, getting a permit for that! Even if Laurelin ever manages the unlikely feat of landing a permit, she won’t be allowed to make a well within a 100 meters of the water way. (The problem is not in rebuilding the ruin. The problematic part is acquiring a licenção de habitação for something that was previously not a residence and next to the stream.)

Here’s how Laurelin’s big—200 m²—pile of stones looked like in March 2018. (We were there then, simultaneously with my brother, to help Laurelin and my mother to clearcut all the charred trees on the hillside in the background.) Hopefully, she will, at some point, get the paperwork straight to be allowed to turn this into something … else.

I’m calling deceit because it’s the job of the real-estate agent to know (and honestly relay) these things to the buying party. If the real-estate agent honestly didn’t know this, their incompetence is so wooful that I’m refusing to acknowledge it.

Anti-exhibit J: Untold ruins

Not all surprises were unpleasant: my mother turned out to own more than her main house and the 200 m² lagar ruin; further down the river, there were more ruins belonging to their property, among which, another water mill. These complementary ruins are situated so beatifully that … the dream space in the Ponte de Pedra valley is much enlarged. I myself could imagine living there part of the year. Yes, moving the building materials there with by donkey (because the roads there aren’t); restoring the overpass channel that led the water into the mill; freeing the old fruit trees (like we did for the olive yard near my mother’s house); stacking stones and staring at the beautiful water stream.

The stream, as it is running below the later-discovered ruins, is much more waterfally than the upstream part that runns alon the olive yard. The downstream part is embedded in decidious trees, which gives it an even more fairytalesque vibe.
On a far away visit to the valley—be it for a month or a year—I imagine myself and Marilisa looking at the river through one of these windows. First, a fair bit of work has to happen. But, one can dream.

The balance

Exhibit Deceit? Disinterest?
A Overhanging trees 0 1
B 🔥 Underpowered + smoky wood stove 1 1
C ❄️ Winter temperatures « 0°C 1 0
D Leaking roof + leaking stills 1 0
E 🐛 Woodworm infestation 1 1
F 💩 Shit sceptic tank 1 0
G 🚽 Crappy piping 1 1
H₁ 🚮 Just leave your junk 1 1
H₂ 🍳 “Here’s a nice stove” 0 1
H₃ 🔑 “Did we mention that the front door doesn’t close?” 1 1
H₄ 💧 Drip, drip, says the kitchen tap 1 0
H₅ 🤢 Dirt, poop, and piss galore 0 1
I 📋 Legally ruined 1 0
10 8
Taken together, it would seem that intentional deceit, more so than disinterest, was the decisive factor in the misrepresentation of the property by the selling party.