Parenting around the world with Cat
Parenting around the world is unique. That's why we've interviewed a series of mums to find out how it looks for them.
This is Cat's story of parenting in Western Iberia, Portugal.
I grew up in a small town in the countryside and have always been fascinated by the Arts, especially photography. At 18, I went to university in the capital city, Lisbon. I studied Fine Arts for three years. It was an amazing experience in so many ways, but on the same day I graduated, I packed my bags and moved to a very rural village in the mountains. My Dad grew up on those mountains, and we used to visit my grandparents and their goats there when I was a child. I wanted to experiment with that style of living for myself. My grandparents had already passed away but everything was still there, so I moved into their old goat shed with Sam. And that’s where our daughter, J, was born.
During one university holiday, I decided to go to Belgium and participate in a skill-sharing meeting hosted by an activism group. It was a really cool two-week adventure by myself, and I hitchhiked up through France and into Belgium. When I was staying in Brussels, I met Sam. On the same night we met, we decided we would live together in Portugal and have a family. It was very quick! Sam is originally from the German part of Belgium, in the south. He is fluent in many languages, which helped him learn Portuguese very quickly when he moved here.
My grandparents lived in a very remote small village. When Sam and I moved there, the village had a population of 21 people. Everyone was over 60 or 70, so there was a big generational gap which was amazing in so many ways.
Because I came from Lisbon, and Sam from Brussels, the change was radical in the real sense of the word. It’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody. You wave to people on the road because, even if you don’t know them personally, they are your neighbours and live close by. It’s the kind of place where you can be sitting at a café and the mailman comes in to deliver to the café, but then sees you, and comes back with your parcel.
When I found out I was pregnant, Sam and I were at a village next to ours because it had a pharmacy. I bought my pregnancy test, went to a small café, and did the test in the bathroom. Sam and I didn’t tell anyone we were pregnant.
A couple of days later, a neighbour came to visit and said, “My goat has so much milk right now; I’m going to bring some of her milk by your house.” And then the next day, another neighbour pops by, offering a bag full of eggs. Sam and I were wondering, why is everyone being so generous? It turns out someone had seen us at the café and told someone else, and they told someone else, and everyone knew we were pregnant! It was really cool. Many of these women came to bring chicken stock and bananas as offerings after the birth of our daughter, J. It was very special.
Childbirth and healthcare in portugal
In Portugal, we have free public healthcare, which I think is amazing. People have a very strong relationship with their family doctor, and perhaps this is because I live in a rural community, but people here have their doctors’ phone numbers and can call them at any time.
When I was pregnant, we knew we wanted to have a home birth, but home births are not really supported in Portugal, and people think the only reason someone would birth at home is because they couldn’t get to the hospital in time. So, it’s not covered by healthcare, and you need a private midwife. Luckily, our family doctor was very supportive of our home birth.
Growing up, my Mum always made me a special Portuguese cake called Pão De Ló, which is a very yellow and fluffy cake that uses an incredible amount of eggs. She would put cream and strawberries on the top, and everyone would sing happy birthday. In Portugal, the birthday person blows out the candles and then picks a candle and hides under the table with it. Then, they nibble on the candle while making a wish. A tenth birthday is a big celebration here because it’s double-digits. The other big one is 18 because then you’re considered an adult.
Creating a home
Our time living in the mountains was our “apprenticeship” with renovating and building. The goat shed we were living in was a 4×4-metre stone building by a small creek. We built a mezzanine inside and some stairs and installed a stove. By the time our daughter was born, we were longing for community and friends who were more within our age ranges or had experienced parenthood a little more recently. So, we moved to a community about an hour-and-a-half away in the hills. This is where we now live in a home we have slowly been improving and renovating.
The house we live in now already existed but didn’t have any windows. So we added windows, extended the home, put on a new roof and made improvements inside. It took a very long time because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone to help us. But it feels very special and beautiful because of that slow process. The lady who used to live in this house still comes here every summer, which is extra special because she knows all the secrets. Her grandfather built this house by himself about 100 years ago and she has loved seeing the house come back to life.
Growing up, my Mum always knitted, but I never asked her to teach me. In fact, I had a very strong aversion to knitting and thought it was a boring Granny activity. Instead, I spent time roaming the countryside with my best friend taking photos with our analog cameras, or hanging upside down from trees and exploring.
My parents always encouraged me to pursue my interests in the Arts and attend workshops and classes. They never tried to force me into a more “profitable” career path. Perhaps this is because my parents also had ties with the Arts: my father is a small independent publisher, and my mother does translations for theatre.
J and I spend time outdoors with our notebooks and pencils, drawing or painting, and collecting materials to glue onto her pictures. She knows how to knit but doesn’t always want to, and she likes being involved with the clothing I make her by choosing the colours and design elements. Lately, she has been very interested in my spinning wheel, but it’s so easy to make a mistake and damage the work I’ve done before. I’m a little bit too protective of my spinning wheel but am learning to let go a little.
Portugese family food
The basics of Portuguese food are bread, olive oil, cheese, wine, and more and more often meat. Although, just one or two generations ago, meat was not eaten so regularly. Until the 1970s, Portugal was under a dictatorship and people lived with very little. So the elders here know how to make the most of what they have, and that’s very ingrained in the food culture. Brined olives are always on the table and, in summer, every meal has tomatoes in it. Bread is also readily available, so there are dozens of different ways to cook with bread.
In the spring, summer and autumn, when our vegetable garden is growing well, J likes to help harvest our dinner ingredients. We then decide what to cook based on what we have. J likes cutting up vegetables for our meal and has been enjoying washing the dishes lately.
My Dad always kept a garden because he grew up on the mountains, and sometimes I will be so excited to tell him about something I have got growing, and he will say, “When I tried to teach you, you weren’t interested!”
Festivals and celebrations
It seems like there is a festival every month in Portugal, especially because we live in the countryside. Here, there are many farmers, and most people still raise their own meat, make their own alcohol and harvest their own olives for olive oil. All of these things have their own celebrations, so you’ll have the festival of olive oil in one particular village and the festival of chouriço in another. Then, we also have religious processions. Our family isn’t religious but still attend for the cultural significance, to support the elders and help pass on this knowledge to a younger generation.
In our community, we also celebrate the summer and winter solstice with a pot luck dinner. Our family enjoys celebrating Easter and Christmas too.
At Easter, we use plant dyes on our chicken’s eggs and invite J’s friends over for a proper egg hunt. So there is a real mix of celebrations that are pagan, Christian and then some based on our different upbringings and ancestors’ cultures.
Interview by Nicole Lutze for Lunch Lady Magazine.