The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

The handsome Eskimo

I sat down with Katie to oversee her homework. Left to her own devices, a reading and writing assignment that should take fifteen minutes to complete might take two hours or more. But if I sat beside her and offered light encouragement, we might get through it in half an hour.

The photocopied sheet, consisted of two assignments that tested reading comprehension and cursive writing. The top half of the page contained mixed up sentences. Katie had to put the words in each sentence in the correct order and then write them out twice.

tiene Paco quimono un

Paco tiene un quimono (Paco has a kimono)

(Is Paco a transvestite? Wow, how liberal-minded you are, government of Andalucia!)

The bottom half of the page had sentences that first had to be copied, and then a picture had to be drawn, demonstrating Katie’s comprehension of each sentence.

The first sentence stops me in my tracks.

El esquimal es feo.

Come again? Surely I’m mistaken. There’s no way I could be reading that right. I reach for the dictionary to look up the meaning of esquimal, even though I already know what it is. Yep, just as I thought, esquimal = Eskimo.

El esquimal es feo. The Eskimo is ugly.

I ask Katie to read it. She doesn’t know the word esquimal. ‘It means Eskimo’, I tell her. ‘Do you know what an Eskimo is?’ I ask her. ‘Like an Inuk?’ she asks hesitantly. ‘And do we know any Inuit?’ I ask. Before Katie answers, Lily calls from the aft cabin, ‘Me. I’m Niviaq’.

You see, Lily’s more longwinded name, as it appears on her birth certificate, is Elizabeth Niviaq. Niviaq is her Inuit name, given to her by Paul and Linda, my adopted family in Arviat. Niviaq was Paul’s younger brother who tragically died in 2003. Because Lily has his name, by Inuit custom, she is related to all his family. Despite being a girl, she is ‘little brother’ to Rosie and Paul, ‘little uncle’ to all her namesake’s nieces and nephews, and she is related, through her namesake, to all the other children who have been named after Niviaq since he died. And the characteristics of his personality are passed on to Lily in her name. Ugly Eskimo indeed!

‘What should we do about this?’ I ask the girls. At first Katie doesn’t want to do anything other than complete her assignment the way it has been set out. In other words, write out ‘El esquimal es feo’ and draw a picture of an ugly Eskimo. ‘The teacher might get mad’, she says. ‘But there must be something we can do’, I say, ‘that allows you to complete your homework, but also let the teacher know that you’re not happy with the sentence. Maybe you could do something that would start a conversation’.

‘How about ‘El esquimal es guapo’?’, Lily suggests. The Eskimo is handsome. Katie and I both like this idea.

‘And what will you do when the teacher reads it?’ I ask.

‘I’ll tell her my sister’s an Inuk and she’s not ugly’, Katie says. ‘And anyone else?’, I prompt. ‘Granddad Paul and Maya and Ujarak and Frank’.

I then suggest to Lily that she can explain the origin of her name to her teacher and classmates. I’ve heard her describe it very well in English in the past. And they both can tell the class what they know about Inuit culture – about caribou and beluga whale hunting, and igloos and sled dogs; about the fun games people play at birthday parties; about clothing made from animal skins; about throat singing and drum dancing.

Katie writes ‘El esquimal es guapo’ and draws a picture of an Inuk in a fur-hooded yappa. And I send my little cultural ambassadors to school the next day hoping they’ll do their bit for cultural sensitivity and understanding.

A simple matter of choice

These days I often find myself giving new arrivals on the river directions to the local shops. Berthed along the pontoon as we are most of the time now, I’m often the first person people meet when they come ashore from their anchorages up and down the river. Many people ask about the shops, and I provide details of opening hours, of which shop is best (in my opinion) for fresh food and which is cheaper for non-perishables. I tell them the whereabouts of the bakery, which is well-disguised as a regular house, and I inform them of other shopping options – Manoli sells produce at her house that she and her husband grow on their land a little down river, Karin does likewise from the back of her van on Friday mornings. I tell them about the Saturday market in Alcoutim, of the fresh eggs from one of the Sanlúcar pubs, the honey man and the cheese man, and the various vans that come through each week, selling bread, fish, meat and vegetables. And I advise them that if what they want isn’t out on display, they should ask for it anyway, and they’ll likely be surprised by what is stored ‘out back’.

Often, I’m the last person people see as they untie their dinghies and return to their yachts. More often than not I find people are disappointed by the lack of choice. ‘They didn’t have mushrooms’, someone will say. ‘I couldn’t buy a whole chicken anywhere’, someone else will moan. ‘Did you ask?’, I ask, knowing the answer will probably be no. Which is understandable, given the language barriers, and that this is unlike the type of shopping we have grown accustomed to, where everything is under the roof of one massive multi-national supermarket.

And I remember my own thoughts about shopping options when I first came here, before I knew about Manoli and the honey man and the cheese man, and the hidden treasures in Reme’s storeroom. I wondered how and when I would manage to get to a ‘proper’ supermarket to buy the things I thought I needed and couldn’t live without.

However, the months went by and when I finally got to one of those supermarkets of my dreams, I was overwhelmed by choice – too much choice – and over time I have come to realise that with the exception of only a few foodstuffs (soy sauce, noodles, peanut butter and hot chillies), the tiny shops and other shopping options in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim provide everything my family needs to enjoy a healthy, varied and interesting diet. And everything is extremely inexpensive to boot.

We have become so used to large supermarkets with their thirty varieties of toothpaste and twenty different brands of natural yogurt, that when we are faced with only three varieties of toothpaste and two of natural yogurt (with or without sugar), we panic. ‘There’s no choice here’, we tell ourselves. ‘How can I possibly be expected to eat and live well if this is all there is on offer’. We believe that two-metre high shelves stretching to infinity offer us a much needed variety. But how much variety is there really? And how much variety do we need? How much time do we spend seeking out the same brand we buy week after week amidst multiple almost identical brands of the same product? And in all the different supermarket chains, the same products are repeated over and over again.

There’s a great freedom in not having to make those choices. I want salted butter? There’s only one brand and size available. I want orange juice? Ditto. I’ve had to make slight adaptations to my cooking and baking to accommodate a lack of certain ingredients, but that’s hardly a challenge.

And what we lack in choice is more than made up for in two ways. First, the vegetables, eggs, honey and often cheese that I buy are locally produced and often produced by the people I know – the very people who are selling them to me. 100% organic, zero food miles, zero packaging. It’s an environmentalist’s dream come true. Second, when an unexpected ingredient suddenly appears, I make hay while the sun shines and we enjoy a treat. Last Friday, for example, Helen had fresh lemon grass, bright green limes and red shallots in the back of her van. I can’t remember the last time I saw lemon grass, and I have never seen or smelled it as fresh as this. And the limes and shallots were heavenly. Yippee, I thought to myself, Thai green chicken curry tonight, and we enjoyed a meal that, back in the UK we had taken to eating so regularly it had started to become humdrum. On Friday evening it was a wonderful and unexpected delight.

Julian and I have written and published before about simple living, about striving to simplify our lives by removing unnecessary clutter and opting for a lifestyle that treads lightly on the Earth. In being supermarket free, the little villages on the Rio Guadiana have given us the gift of simplifying our shopping choices. We no longer spend time driving or taking public transport to out-of-town supermarkets, of comparing and contrasting, checking minute differences between products, standing in check-out queues with trolleys full of groceries. These days we shop little and often, and if there are no mushrooms or broccoli or minced beef to be had, then we compromise and improvise and look forward to getting them on another day.

 

Singing my fears

For as long as I can remember I have been a confident public speaker. Put me in front of a crowd to speak on a topic about which I am familiar, and I am in my element. I have been reading in church since I was seven years old. As a university lecturer I have always enjoyed the performance of standing in front of a lecture theatre of 200 or 300 students and sharing my enthusiasm for my subject. I have never been unnerved by radio or television interviews. Speaking in public has never fazed me.

But the thought of standing up alone and singing in front of a crowd turns my legs to jelly. I’ve been in choirs and in musicals, but always with my voice hidden in the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. I come from a family of singers. My mother and her brothers and singers all sing and have the same confidence with singing in public as I have with speaking in public. But, for some reason, their confidence in singing hasn’t been passed on to me.

However, I love to sing. I sing all the time – while sailing Carina, driving a car, while doing household chores. From the moment I knew I was pregnant I sang to my babies and carried on singing to them for years, singing them to sleep every night and soothing them by singing to them when they were upset. These days we sing together.

I’ve always harboured a dream of getting up on a stage some day and singing in front of an audience, but never thought I would ever have the confidence to do it. Tuesday nights at the Riverside Tavern in Alcoutim is open mike night. Many of the ex-pats who live on and along the river, and visiting yachties, bring along their guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes and harmonicas, and a session gets going. At Christmas, when Tom asked me if I could sing ‘The field of Athenry’ I bit the bullet and sang it with him. My legs were shaking but I tried to forget that I was standing at the front of the pub being stared at by lots of my fellow live-aboards on the river.

It was a few months before I sang again. Because the girls have to be up early for school, we don’t often go to Tuesday music nights, but in the past few months I have twice taken to the mike to sing. Both times I sang songs I know well and that I know I can sing well – Christy Moore’s ‘The voyage’ and ‘Missing you’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘Green fields of France’. And I sang ‘The fields of Athenry’ with Tom again. I gained in confidence each time.

So, when I was asked if I would sing a few songs at the Guadiana International Music Festival a few weeks ago, I said yes before my nerves could kick in and make me say no. My friend Jak wanted me to sing a few songs with her. We rehearsed for a week or so, and in the end we sang two Fascinating Aida songs – ‘Cheap flights’ which we sang together, and ‘The Brexit song’ sung by me with Jak doing back vocals. I finished the set by fronting a wild group consisting of Jak and a bunch of cross-dressers (all wearing my dresses) and sang The Ronette’s ‘Be my baby’.

 

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Me and my ‘beaufiful’ band!!

Was I any good? I honestly don’t know. I was nervous, but I contained it and got on with the job. I sang my heart out and was so pleased that I had overcome my fears of singing in public to get up on a stage at an, albeit small, music festival, and perform! When I came off the stage, Lily and Katie ran up to me and Lily said, ‘Mummy, you were BRILL-I-ANT’. Whatever anyone else thought, the people who mattered most thought I was great!

I may never get up on a stage and sing again. I overcame a fear and I did something I have always wanted to do. I now know what it feels like to stand on a stage, in the floodlights, singing to a crowd, performing. I left my comfort zone and made myself do something that was nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I experienced it. That’s good enough for me!

October write-off

It all started with an irritating tingle in my right nostril, during the second week of October. Two days later I woke with a severe pain across the bridge of my nose. Odd, I thought. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had bashed my nose against the boom or if I had been accidentally elbowed in the nose by Julian in the middle of the night. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember either. The next day the pain was worse and under my left eye had turned black. When I started to see stars and had shooting pains in my head, I decided it was time to see a doctor. The doctor looked in my ears, nose and mouth, took my blood pressure, asked a lot of questions, and diagnosed an allergy. He prescribed pain relief and antihistamines and sent me on my way. I’ve never had an allergy to anything before, so what was I to know.

For three days I took the medicine and got neither better nor worse. On the evening of the third day I had to excuse myself from the house I was visiting. My head was filled with cotton wool, my body ached and, despite sitting on a cool terrace, I had started to sweat. By the time I’d rowed back across the river I was simultaneously sweating and shivering and I went straight to bed. Through the night I tossed and turned, and all the next day and the next I was feverish and miserable. After school Lily and Katie put on their nurses’ uniforms and took care of me, Katie taking my temperature and administering Paracetamol to keep my temperature down, and Lily making me cups of tea and bringing cold towels to cool me down.

For the next two weeks I was up and down, feeling not too bad one day and terrible the next. I’d had the flu during Christmas 2010 and this felt exactly the same – aching joints, fever, loss of appetite, lack of energy and generally feeling awful.

As the symptoms gradually began to ease I developed a pain in my lung and a dry hacking cough. It was an infection and I went on a course of antibiotics. Nights were the worst and I dreaded going to bed. All night long I was drenched in sweat, the sheets soaking, my hair wet on the pillow and I coughed and coughed all night long, sometimes so violently that I vomited. And then the side-effects of taking antibiotics kicked in and I came down with diarrhoea and thrush. It’s mid-November now and, despite post-virus and infection fatigue, I’m starting to feel normal again.

I’ve lost a month. I’ve been too ill to read or write or watch movies. Too ill to teach my English classes or attend my Spanish classes. Too ill to more than vacantly and vaguely take care of my children. Too ill to take care of the boat and too ill to take care of myself.

It’s scary how quickly someone so generally healthy and fit can be struck down by a bug and become incapacitated and incapable of even basic day-to-day living. It’s been most of a month and I’m finally on the mend. My appetite is back – for food, for books, for life – and gradually I’m reintroducing myself to life again. Here’s hoping it’ll be at least another six years before something like this strikes me again. In the meantime, I have a month to make up for – to get out on the river, to walk the trails, and to see what changes have come about in my absence.

Limits of my tolerance

It feels like a bad dream. Eight years ago the world watched as the US elected a president who represented hope, dignity, respect, tolerance and optimism. Two days ago it elected as president a proven xenophobe, misogynist and environmental vandal. Trump’s victory matters to us all. America’s economic and cultural dominance affects us all, no matter where we live. Here, in my little corner of rural Spain and Portugal, everyone I spoke to yesterday, expressed the same feelings. Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, Dutch, Irish – all shook their heads in disbelief, all voiced their fears, all spoke of the likelihood of war and violence during this upcoming presidency. Everyone mentioned his attitude towards Mexicans, Muslims and women, his insincerity, and his disrespectful and bullying demeanour.

What depresses me most, in the same way that I was depressed by Brexit, is that Trump’s election represents an upwelling of intolerance, and suggests that tolerant are in the minority. I strive to be tolerant in everything. But right now I’m questioning the limits of my tolerance. Can I tolerate the intolerant? Can I accept the unaccepting? And if I can’t, what can I do? What should I do?

This article I read this morning is thought provoking.

New autumn beginnings

With little warning, autumn arrives. Not like the other seasons, winter gradually giving way to spring, spring to summer. Autumn arrives unannounced. I wake up one morning and my feet are cold on the wooden floor, my bare arms goose-bumpy, and I need to increase the water temperature of the shower.

I take out the weather boards at 7.30am. It’s still dark and stars glitter in the sky. Carina’s cockpit and deck are moist with fat droplets of condensation and the dinghy is flaccid from the overnight drop in temperature. There’s a chill in the air, and a distinct smell of the changing seasons. I make a school snack for the girls and drink a cup of strong hot tea. At 8am I call the girls, woolly jumpers ready to slip on over their heads as soon as they sit up in bed, so they can eat their breakfast in the dark. For the first time in six months I dress them in leggings and long-sleeved tops, socks and trainers.

We have to cross the river to get to school this week. While the girls brush their teeth and get into their life jackets I put air in the dinghy and wipe away the condensation to keep our bums dry for the journey.

It’s light now, but the sun is hidden behind the hills on the far side of Sanlúcar. I row across the river, pockets of mist clinging to the river’s surface, the river looking deceptively calm, despite the speed of the flood current. All is utterly calm and still, only the bleating of a herd of sheep punctures the silence.

Autumn has arrived, there’s no doubt about it. It is a season for new beginnings and new projects. A season for putting into action all the dreams that were dreamed during the long lazy days of summer. Maybe going back to school is engraved on my subconscious, with its memories of covering new school books in wallpaper and the possibilities and promise of pristine copybooks.

The new season, having arrived so unexpectedly, carries me along on a wave of optimism. Gone are the energy-sapping days of summer. Now is the season for action, for projects, for list-making and busyness. Welcome Autumn, it’s good to have you back!

ᖃᔭᖅ (qajaq)

Glide, slice, glide, slice. The kayakers glide gracefully along the river, sun glinting on the water dripping from their paddles in mid-air. For a year I have watched them with longing, envying their seeming effortlessness, their freedom of movement, their closeness to the surface of the river. And there are lots of kayakers here. The racers who used Carina’s stern as the starting point of their timed practice back in the spring when we were on a mooring buoy. Portuguese teenagers taking over the river each evening after school, working hard, their coach shouting encouragement to them as he races alongside in a motorised dinghy. There’s one of my English students, who puts in hours of work on the river in his kayak, up and down the river, up and down, each evening after work until the sun goes down, pushing to be better, faster, stronger. There are our friends who paddle their kayaks between their house in town and their plot of land down river, more relaxed than the racers, in less of a hurry. And then there are the tourists who hire kayaks from the beach in Sanlúcar and paddle about in the water between the two villages. Some kayaks are long and sleek and enclosed, others are broad and open, far unlike the original Inuit qajaq.

Hard to believe that my professional career was devoted to learning about the role of the sea in Inuit life, and I have never been in a kayak. Except once on a lake in Roscarbery in west Cork. But that was a long time ago.

So I’ve gazed with longing at the kayakers, wanting to feel what it’s like to paddle through the water. I never told anyone I wanted to do this. Only the other day I thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll hire one of those kayaks from the beach someday’.

Two days ago I was rowing the dinghy upriver when I saw Diana. She was effortlessly paddling her broad, open kayak, with her little dog Daisy happily sitting behind her. ‘That looks so relaxing’, I called to Diana. Ten minutes later I was back aboard Carina and Diana called to me. She had a proposition. If I would look after her kayak on the pontoon, and keep the paddle and seat aboard Carina, I could use the kayak whenever I wanted. What could I say? After I’d gleefully thanked her for her generosity and after I’d spent some time imagining myself paddling up and down the river, it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get into or out of the thing.

I looked at the kayak yesterday, trying to figure out how best to approach it. This morning I found Diana having a coffee at the cafe. ‘Can you show me how to use it?’ I asked. Twenty minutes later I was in my swimsuit and Diana was on the pontoon instructing me how to launch it, and how to get into it without overbalancing. Five minutes later I was paddling away from her, upriver. Just me and the kayak.

I wasn’t graceful or effortless. I over-paddled to one side and had to correct my course. I splashed water all over myself. I’m sure I paddle a kayak the way I ride a horse – ungainly and ungraceful. I’m not a natural at this sort of stuff.

But goodness, it was everything I hoped it would be. I paddled upriver against the ebbing current, staying close to the riverbank where the current is weakest. For half an hour I paddled, the sun streaming down on me, the water from the paddles keeping me cool. Then I turned around, and drifted back downstream on the ebb, only dipping the paddle in occasionally to correct my course.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was. I had tried it, and I had discovered I liked it.

I plan to go again tomorrow, at sunrise.

Forty two

I get up early, do what few chores I can get away with, open the hatches wide and make sure all the boat curtains are closed. I pull the bimini up over the cockpit, providing some shade and funnelling what little wind there is down into the saloon. I set up the wind scoop on the foredeck, over the fore hatch, hoping to funnel a little more wind in. But with no breeze the wind scoop hangs limp. Finally, I place one of our big plastic laundry tubs on the cockpit floor, drag the hose from the pontoon tap, and fill the tub. I am now prepared. Prepared for what this day is promising to throw at us. Bring it on!

For days the temperatures have been rising. ‘It’s supposed to be 42 degrees tomorrow’ is the sentence on everyone’s lips. ‘Hotter still on Monday and Tuesday’, says Paul. Joe says, ‘I’ve known it to hit 55 here’. Fifty-five degrees centigrade? You could fry an egg on the bonnet of a car in that. You could fry a human pretty quickly too.

The last few days have been hellishly hot, but on the day when 42 is forecast I’m ready. The bimini and wind scoop manage to pull what little air there is into the boat, and remarkably, the boat feels cool…ish. Every time the girls or I start to feel overheated we immerse our feet or faces or arms in the tub of water in the cockpit and we keep permanently wet muslin squares tied around our necks. The girls lie down with slices of cucumber over their eyes. We keep ourselves psychologically cool too, with the polar episodes of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Watching emperor penguins shuffle to keep warm in an Antarctic blizzard cools us down.

The trick, I tell the girls, is to be as inactive as possible and keep hydrated. We work our way through three litres of water from the fridge, eat fruit and yogurt for lunch, read and watch DVDs. When four o’clock rolls round we perspire madly for twenty minutes as we prepare for the beach. We don swimsuits and sunscreen and slowly walk through the treacle-like heat to the beach. It’s the weekend, so the beach is crammed with visitors from Spain and Portugal all, like us, attempting to escape the heat. I dump the bag as close to the water as I can get it, because the sand is scorching underfoot.

And then….ahhhhhhhh….the very best part of the day. Immersing ourselves in the river. Instant relief from the heat, instant comfort. We stay on the beach until dark, always the last to leave. When that unimaginable 42 degrees or more comes again tomorrow, we’ll be ready for it once again.

Tatami

I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.

I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.

On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.

Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.

I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.

I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.

Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.