But the sun also rises.
The air grips the lungs from the inside, mountain-cold and surprisingly dry, despite the thick fog weaving tendrils down streets and throwing a blanket over the valley. There are snow-covered peaks in all directions, but I only know this through memory, they are lost in the darkening grey.
Sound is deadened, snow and mist absorbing, a crow call might come from any direction and none, the alarm of the blackbird echoing off unseen walls. The air itself smells of snow: dusty and ancient.
Here, a persimmon laden with bright baubles, there the yellow of a tenacious aspen leaf.
I cannot see them, but I imagine the ibex and chamois on their ridges, digging down through the windblown drifts, finding the food to sustain themselves through the winter. For winter, this is. It began to snow the night before I arrived, which was kind of nature, as if she wanted the mountains to look their very best — once they finally reappear, foggy curtains rolled back and stupendous reflected sun spotlighting peak, crevasse and cliff.
Time and distance are twisted and folded here, maps need expert contouring, the eye translating the lines into the three-dimensional. Nearby, wolves have again been sighted, returning to an area they left years ago. Where one wolf is seen, there are others, many others, and camera traps have shown this to be the case. Whispers of approaching brown bears, the hidden, practically-invisible lynx, the great earth-movers of wild boar, and even the spreading European jackal — all are close by, as the crow flies. As this Crow walks, however, the trails and tracks into the high slopes, cliffs and wooded valleys above, would take considerably longer, and much further.
That’s not to say these creatures do not venture down — they do and, during the confinement earlier this year, some did so in numbers. I like this. It is oddly reassuring, how quickly nature fills a void.
Snow is an incredible canvas, whether to learn to track, or to simply decorate with footprints or designs. It is wiped clean by melt, revitalised by fresh fallen crystals, ever-changing and, to me, always a wonder. Here, stories are told and retold, new ones recorded afresh, each mark is just a tiny portion of an incomprehensible whole, yet each mark is also crucial — the tale would not be complete without it.
Well. Here we are. The last month of 2020. That was quite a year, right? If you made it this far with all your mental faculties 50% intact, I’d say you’re doing well.
Below, I’m going to attempt to summarise my year to date but, as this might be a little bit long, I’ll briefly skip to the section of my newsletter where I first gently nudge you towards free books.
Free Books, Review Copies too!
For December, and the holiday season, I decided to take part in not one, but two group promotions, each on a different site.
Firstly, running until the last day of the year, I am part of Explore Sci-fi & Fantasy, over at Book Cave. There are 42 (always an auspicious number) books to choose from here, all free, all given away in exchange for an email address and signing up to a newsletter, like this one you are reading. Follow the link for more!
Also on Story Origin, you should already have received an email back in late November about the review copy group promotion I am taking part in. There are lots of books to choose from, and I can also announce there will a new review promotion in January too. I am very keen to find the right readers for my work, people who will enjoy it and, for this reason, I’d suggest you have a read of the previous newsletter, which gives a few more details. If you then think my tales will tantalise, head here to get a free copy (or sample) of Death & Taxes, and access to many other review copies from different authors.
Finally, for this section, I would like to share this graph. This shows the past year to date and details subscribers to Not A Travel Writer. Some people sign up for the free book, then unsubscribe when they receive their first message, but the vast majority of people stay. I would like to convince myself it is because you get an interesting read, at least once per month, with pretty photos included. Of course, if it is just because I end up in Spam, hey, that’s not a problem either.
Hello Again, or A Year More-Or-Less in Review
This year has not gone according to the loose plan developed back in 2019. If you are a long term reader (there are a few of you, apparently), you might remember I left Thailand last December, after packing up the little house below the mountain, and starting a new adventurous chapter. On the flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt, I sat next to a man who was clearly suffering from something. He looked feverish and kept coughing into his hand.
A week later I started to feel a bit unwell, another week and I was pretty much bedridden, barely able to make it from my hotel room to the lounge for the poor cleaning staff to air the room and deal with the sweaty sheets.
I started 2020 that way, stuck in a room in the Lake District, Cumbria, England, after a weak (on my part) Christmas in Caithness, Scotland, alternating between feeling icy cold and fiery hot. It was not fun. We joked about the developing situation in Wuhan. Now, I’m relatively sure that’s what I had. Fortunately, perhaps, this was in the stage where we were told Covid-19 was difficult to spread from person to person. I suspect sitting next to that man for the long return to Europe was long enough.
January saw a return to Scotland for a week. I was still sick, but slowly recovered. There were periods where I felt frustratingly weak, coughing and struggling to breathe (I’m not going to go into all the details because, honestly, you don’t need that). I am lucky, I know this, I heal fast, which is a useful sub-super power to possess. Yet it took me well into March before I was healthy enough to exercise properly.
After Scotland came a couple of weeks in France, before we borrowed Aurélie’s parents’ campervan and took off on a new adventure, heading first west and south, across the country visiting friends and family, before taking a turn south into Spain and, ultimately, Portugal.
We had thought long and hard about where to move next, after Chiang Mai, where we first met (itself a story I really should tell one day). Living in S.E. Asia was becoming increasingly difficult with, for example, the visa situation. We also were aware that living there meant flying back to Europe to see family, something which was racking up a lot of airmiles and, subsequently, environmental damage. Doing this also meant that our trips outside Thailand always revolved around visas, rather than solely for the purpose of travel and adventure, as we both wanted — and it was simply too far to explore other continents. A move to Europe made sense, as it solved several issues with one swoop.
Portugal came up several times in our research and, once we began to discuss this with people, we learnt we were not alone with moving from Chiang Mai to Portugal. There were friends of friends already there, clearly a community-in-waiting.
After a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the road headed south and west, to re-join the Atlantic and rediscover sunshine and warmth. The days were pleasant and the nights no longer froze. The more was learnt about the people, the food, the place, the more it seemed that the correct decision was made. On this journey, I published the first two of my novellas and their bonus tales, and also the first of the French translations. Not too bad, from a campervan.
Yet, throughout this period of exploration, the background noise was of whispers of pandemic, growing exponentially, every day. The drum beat was increasing in tempo, talk of lockdown, isolation, of quarantine and borders potentially closed. We had already been on a timer, as the campervan was due to be collected mid-March, but suddenly the rules had changed, the stakes higher and higher.
Fortunately, as often happens, the universe threw a rescue line. We managed to find a place not too far from one of the favoured spots we had discovered on our tour. At the time, we were down on the south coast, in the Algarve, close to the Spanish border, but we decided it was worth heading back to the Alentejo to have a look at this apartment. It was ideal, with the views you may have already seen from past newsletters, three bedrooms, a great kitchen, small balcony, two bathrooms, and a living room. The only thing missing was a garden, but we decided we’d grow what we could on the balcony and stay there, at least for a year, keeping an eye on other local areas for properties.
We moved in on the first of March, just a matter of days before the first lockdown. The campervan was not collected until July.
This was the story of the year, as it was for so many people, nothing really going according to plan, travel postponed, rearranged, guests unable to come and visit. Although these things could easily be viewed as negatives, some years ago I taught myself to nip my natural pessimistic cynicism in the bud, replace it with a positivity which, in turn, places my mind and mental health in a much better location.
Instead of looking at this period as one of isolation and confinement, it was better to admire the view, to discover that we enjoyed living out in the countryside, rather than a city, that our own company was not just good enough, it was strong, and a powerful bond. The apartment offered space for my workouts, which have been a source of welcome, balancing, chemical release, and which have progressed with a consistency I am proud of. I know we were lucky in these things, I know we were lucky in being able to go out for walks in the cork or eucalyptus forests, along old lanes and trails, over ancient hills and through a network of small fields.
The Alentejo is nothing like the Algarve is now, this is still Old Portugal, with tantalising examples of life as it has been for centuries. Here, there are deep mineshafts from workings stretching back millennia, there a track paved with iron slag from Roman kilns. Broken azulejos, bright blue against the red earth, a wider variety of flowers than I have ever seen in one place, and birds, butterflies, and beasts, in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes, and shades.
The people sometimes still wear old style hats and woollen cloaks — they work, after all, so why stop? Some of those who live out in the countryside come to shop in the village seated in a trap, pulled by a horse. There are still donkeys here and there. All is slow under the sun and livelier at night. The scent of barbecues and the sun-warmed forests drift through open windows as, occasionally, do birds, martins chasing insects, for example. The invertebrate life is extraordinary, the insects outrageous in numbers and names.
In short, it is a naturalist and anthropologist’s delight.
And the weather is great.
There are downsides, of course there are, the Covid-related issues mentioned above, and also the fact that the vast majority of Portuguese properties have no heating, including ours. This means that, in winter, outdoors under the sun is wonderful, indoors, however, feels cold and damp. I am writing this in France, having arrived on Saturday the 5th, and it is far warmer indoors here than at home, despite being considerably colder outside.
We have not managed to ‘find our people’ — lockdown and restrictions meant that this was simply impossible. People in our village may know who we are, but we do not know them. Immersion into a place and culture is harder when everyone is masked and wary of others. This is not to say the Portuguese people aren’t friendly, they really are, it’s just that the places to meet, the ways to find others, are currently mostly off-limits.
Our tenancy runs out at the end of February. We could have renewed it but, instead, we have decided to move for a new adventure, one which should help facilitate further things to come. Next home: France, specifically, somewhere in Isère.
How long we stay in France depends on a number of factors, not least the world, post-Covid. One thing is for sure: neither of us feel we are going to ‘settle’ — there are far too many adventures to be had, far too much planet to discover, lots of new, yet-to-be-met friends, foods to try, and nature to study.
I’ve never been to the Americas, for example, or Australasia, or the Pacific. We both want to see more of Africa and, indeed, Asia. The chances are, wherever we go after France, it will initially be somewhere tropical and by the ocean. We both love the water and shore; Aurélie is a highly-skilled diver whereas I, personally, prefer to stay onshore, or perhaps get chest-deep at most. Homes — for me — include practically any island, or anywhere windy (Aurélie is definitely onboard with the former, less the latter — blame/thank Orkney for both). These things are deep within me, and feel familiar and comforting; add an abundance of nature and fresh, excellent food, and I am very happy indeed. Islands are some of the most threatened places on earth, as development and sea level change threatens to alter or remove them from the map completely, so visiting some of them might only be possible for a short time. Which is a sad place for our species to be.
One day, I suspect we may even move to the water itself, and set sail.
Slow travel is, for me, the perfect way to move. It allows time to think, to call many places home and set down a network of roots across the globe. Theresa May was utterly wrong and, quite frankly, stupid, when she said that to be a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. That is old-fashioned thinking, outdated and stale.
Next year, I hope to return to more essay writing (technically, it will also be blogging, seeing as I will be revitalising my website and posting some of these essays there), and one thing I am looking forward to discussing is slow travel. I also have a lot of notes on what I view as the problem with travel blogging, and why I did not follow that route as a potential career, despite initially considering this. As for the future, Portugal will certainly figure once more, at some point — there is so much to still see there, and so much to learn.
France, however, offers different possibilities. The mountains and forests are home to nature I know and love, the ability to practice my bushcraft skills with more ease is also not to be missed. I also have a greater grasp of the language, and a couple of years should help this immeasurably.
The plan is to find somewhere in the country, not too high and cold, but surrounded by nature — which is perfectly achievable, relatively close to Grenoble. It shouldn’t be too hard to do, there are little villages a-plenty, and rental prices seem to be even cheaper out there than in the bigger towns or cities. There will be extra expenses in France (buy my books!) but we are well versed in living relatively cheaply. Fresh and locally-produced food is important to us, and France also offers this — perhaps not for as much of the year, seasonal vegetable- and fruit-wise, as in Portugal (where we are truly spoilt), but it could reasonably be argued that the cheese makes up for this.
If you continue to read these notes (and I hope you do), then you will, of course, find out where I am, and when.
I have high hopes that the third tale in my series will (yes, yes, FINALLY) be available at some point next month.
The final novella — which is also bordering novel-length — should follow during the first quarter of the year.
There will also be further French translations — one of these is ready to be published, so should be out very soon, another is with the French beta-reader team.
I am setting more targets and deadlines for 2021, I have far too much to do not to. I really, really, want to return to my novel of the pre-apocalypse, The Care Industry (discussed here), as soon as I can, get that polished and sent to agents. The story it weaves is urgent and, I think, needs telling, and soon. I have spoken before of how I use my writing to fight the good fight, to try and sneakily drip-feed readers with ideas and thoughts which have to be shared. Throughout history, writers have done this (and, at times, been punished for doing so). The secret, as far as I am concerned, is to wrap the ideas within a story too good to be ignored, a story with characters the reader believes in, with a plot which pulls them in, and drama most-high. In the case of The Greater Good, I do this in our world, a recognisable setting and time, with only a few details altered and, of course, a tantalising taste of magic.
I have notes on several other topics I had intended to share with you, talk of what I have watched recently, what I have read but, as is often the case, I have not so much run out of time or space, as already thrown a healthy three thousand words or more at you — and I understand your time is precious. I may share more words before the end of the year, but I might not — I have a lot of work to do, and also snow to play in. Enough of me.
I will leave this newsletter with a simple thought — it might have been an incredibly tough year, one which has tested many of us to our limits, but it has also been extraordinary. If you only see the negatives, only see the doom and gloom, you are missing the point of life. There is horror, yes, there is suffering, of course there is, but there is also wonder and marvel, there are those who go to extreme lengths to help others, those who share simple, kind words which go a long way, and, ultimately, there is the chance for us to enter the next year with all the hope in the world.
Why not? Why not choose hope? Why not try and turn the story around, alter it to one of cooperation and kindness, rather than greed and cruelty? We have that chance in each of us, and I believe we can all take it because, and I know I repeat myself here, why not? We each have a part of the tale to tell, after all, why not make it a good one?
Note: The photos are sunsets and sunrises from across the years, all linked by being witnessed by me. They stretch across continents and a decade, but they are all beautiful — and this seems a good time to break the ‘don’t post too many sunset photos’ rule.