Dec 30, 2022 • 6M

S2: Ep4 - Addicted

Cutting the grass...and the kilos (May 2022)

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Appears in this episode

Alastair Leithead
From Our Own Correspondent-style despatches from a former BBC reporter who's now battling to live off the grid in the Alentejo countryside. Selected audio recordings of his weekly blog which began in 2020.
Episode details

An addiction from trying to get healthy and lose some weight, but I had no idea when I wrote this in May 2022 just how important it was going to be for our survival…


I bear the track-marks of an addict.

Anyone catching a glimpse of my forearms at the moment may well wonder whether the drug of choice in the Valley of the Stars has switched from wine to heroin.

“Punctures, scabs and bruising...on the forearms, hands and the same area without healing time,” is how one drug awareness website describes the red flags for an intravenous heroin user.

And while the marks haven’t been made by needles, I am addicted – or perhaps obsessed – with my new workout routine based around extreme gardening.

The alarm has been going off earlier and earlier, and I’ve been hitting the fields with the strimmer from 6.30am to avoid the heat – thank goodness our recently-returned neighbour Daniel is an even earlier riser.

But I think you’ll agree, the workout’s working more ways than one.

Still a bit more to go, but I’m making progress clearing the land

It was back in February when I broke the news of a little health scare on the occasion of my half-century MOT: high cholesterol.

The doc gave me a few months to tackle it and so aside from tucking into Ana’s amazing rye, oat, flax and sunflower seed bread, I’ve been focussed on doctor’s orders: popping a red rice yeast pill a day and getting my weight down from around 108kg.

Yes, that does seem a lot...but I did use to be a rugby prop forward.

Ana’s amazing bread - designed to tackle cholesterol with oats, nuts and whole grains…and lots of other good stuff besides

I could of course lose a load of weight really fast – maybe 30kg – by either giving up wine or amputating a leg, but I’m not sure which of those is more extreme.

I was 118kg about six years ago when I did my big wheat cutting diet and got down to a hundred which demanded a new wardrobe.

And so that has been the aim over the last few weeks – to move from three figures into two and comfortably get into two particular shirts ambitiously bought on the dip and unattainable since.

Action shot: I can confirm that 9.5ha (28 acres) is a lot of land

I can honestly say...hand on heart...that I haven’t quite made it yet...but I’m close!

This week I clocked in at 100.8kg – after a three-hour strimming session and before rehydration – which isn’t representative, but it is encouraging...and it feeds my addiction.

Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
The big scare
There’s nothing like a health check-up to focus the mind, and after my half-century MOT, my mind is currently focussed on my high cholesterol levels. It appears – who would have thought it – that just living in the countryside is not enough to automatically become healthy…
Read more

It’s about €15 an hour to hire someone with a strimmer to cut back the silves brambles, whip down the long grass, mulch through some estevas rock roses and start dealing with the canas bamboo cane.

Of course it’s about aesthetics, but also a law to clear land within 50m of every building – there have been some pretty brutal wildfires in Portugal in recent years and this is a great way of trying to reduce their ferocity.

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The sensible thing – which Daniel did this week – is to get a team of three of four guys in for a day and it’s all done.

But after breaking the strimmer which came with the house, we invested in a good but expensive piece of Stihl kit and I vowed to pay for the machinery in at least that many hours every year.

Finally we’re up on our investment and starting to reap the dividends as well as the wild lavender.

That’s what I call progress - now the grapes need more attention!

The track marks on my arms come from rocks, stones and sharp shards of woody stalks flying up from the metal mulching blade or the thick spinning plastic wire.

Each tool is better suited to a different foe, but there’s a deadline as metal blades and chainsaws can’t be used once it’s too dry – the irony of starting a fire while trying to prevent a fire is not lost on the authorities.

And while the obvious thing to do would be to wear long-sleeved shirts, it’s already too late for that and my track marks have become a badge of honour: if I catch someone clocking them and judging me, I kind of want them to ask.

It’s a dangerous thing, the countryside, and doesn’t Simon know it – especially at this time of year.

One weed with a terrible propensity for spreading horizontally and covering the land with thousands of small sharp spikey balls is a true bane in the lives of Simon & Garfunkel, but particularly for the little dog.

The “spikeys” get everywhere; to mis-quote Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels we “f-ing hate spikeys.”

They get into his beard and dig themselves in his fur so deeply that it’s uncomfortable getting them out – especially when he wriggles.

Spikey-time lasts for months, so we’re pondering a close-cut, GI-Si summer trim.

But this week the poor little fella got something in his eye and it swelled up like a boxer (weird, him being a terrier and that).

We had suspicions that Garfunkel was involved, given the Mike Tyson tattoo on the side of his face, or that it was a bee sting, but as soon as we got to the vet it became clear the culprit was a large piece of evil grass.

Carlos the landscaper knew straight away about the notorious grass with tiny barbs which works its way in but is a nightmare to get out – especially without opposable thumbs.

Simon’s sore eye and the culprit…now that’s a large piece of grass

Ouchy. The moment the vet extracted it with tweezers Simon’s tail started wagging – even though he was pinned down on a vet’s examination table.

We all know that wonderful feeling of recently-cleared eye relief.

His eyeball was a little scratched, so he’s on the anti-inflammatory and antibiotic drops for a few days, but the patient is responding well to treatment.

The start of something big: materials arrive ahead of construction

As you’ll see from the photos, not only is the land looking neatly trimmed, but the building supplies also keep on coming.

Novas obras?” (new construction?) people like O Rei das Vacas (The Cow King) have been asking with a smile.

The new solar system will soon be installed, we are finalising the water supply and treatment systems and can properly dream about how amazing it’s going to look and how stunning the view will be with a glass of fabulous Alentejo wine in hand.

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Our project is happening: we will have a little tourist lodge, infinity pool and wine tasting deck.

There’s a lot more stress and pain and bureaucracy and frustration to come in the next year or two, but it is happening.

“Shit,” to quote what Ana said when we heard the news that we’d been offered the loan last year, “we’re going to have to do it now.”

With one final push to get the last of the strimming done – and to get the scales under 100kg for more than just a fleeting moment – we can embrace June, enjoy the summer and the visits of some fabulous friends.

Did I mention I’ve been working so hard I’ve worn out the strimmer block? Before and after the new addiction began