21 March, Santo Estevão, Portugal

By Philippa Harland

It is my husband’s birthday tomorrow. Obviously the lunch party with several friends that I had planned has now been cancelled, so we will just be having a modest meal together instead.

Since arriving from the UK to live in the eastern Algarve over a year ago, we never dreamed that we would ever live in a ‘State of Emergency’ which the Portuguese announced this week. There is no real news yet of many cases in our immediate area, but we are relatively close to the Spanish border so are mindful of the risks.

Suddenly, in the last week, the fish markets are closed, as are all cafes, bars and restaurants – and the few supermarkets are only allowing a dozen people in at a time making for long queues snaking around the car parks and making shopping for anything a long and protracted day’s work. Luckily my husband (a former chef and Portuguese speaker) has a fine and close friendship with our local butcher, so a large free range chicken and some pork chops were set aside for us (only 3 customers allowed in there at a time, as is the case for all the small, busy local shops on which we depend here in the countryside).

And, with unfortunate timing, yesterday the spring rains were suddenly with us – heavy downpours, leaden skies and cold winds making it impossible even to enjoy spending time gardening or sitting in the hammock in the orchard with a book.

No, our little Algarvian cottage suddenly feels cramped and dark with all the windows and doors having to be shut — and chilly. We are unused to being so restricted, and the parameters of our lives seem to be getting smaller every day – no friends can be invited over (a major pastime here) and even countryside walks aren’t possible in groups of more than four or five people.

Last week I was supposed to have been over in the UK for my regular trip to see my mother in her care home. This home is now in lock down, and since her stroke she is confused as to why she has not had the regular visits from friends or my sister.

Meanwhile that same sister regales me with tales of having to deal with distraught and tearful staff.  She has had to relay to them that her restaurant is closing today following the government directive.

That UK trip was also my opportunity to buy birthday gifts for my husband, so I now find myself in the strange situation of having to create something home made to give him tomorrow. I have found some old linen napkins and have spent the last few days embroidering one with birthday messages and some crude floral decorations.

This morning was spent secretly baking a selection of cookies from whatever was in our store cupboards – peanut butter, coffee, ginger, walnuts… These will be wrapped in said napkin as the only gift I can procure for now.

At least we still have our beautiful view of the sea (through the rain) and our almond trees which are in bud, as well as the fig trees showing their first fruits.

The hardest thing is not giving in to that helpless feeling of frustration, and the fear for friends and loved ones with whom our first instinct is to be near, and which is, for now, forbidden.