Autumn in the air

There is, without doubt, an autumnal feeling in the air. I took a walk yesterday afternoon and got soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone in a sudden and heavy rain shower. My hands were like blocks of ice by the time I returned home and I contemplated hot chocolate. But I convinced myself that it’s still summer and I passed on the hot chocolate. This afternoon the girls and I went to town to meet another family of home schoolers. Again, there was a chill in the air and that palpable change that comes with the turn of the seasons. Katie and I were cold. Lily, I think, is made of sturdier stuff than us.

When we flew back to the UK, in late May, summer was upon us and the contents of our luggage reflected the season. I brought clothes that I could layer – but they were summer layers. Those clothes all seem so flimsy now. Thankfully, I’ve found some winter clothes in a drawer at my father-in-law’s house that I forgot I still had, including a jumper, a dress and a few pairs of tights and a wool coat. The girls have mostly outgrown their summer clothes and their wardrobe has been evolving over the past few weeks, as too-small, worn at the knee clothes are replaced with bigger, warmer and decidedly less threadbare ones.

And at last, an end to our separation from Carina is in sight. My surgery is scheduled for October 1st. Now that we have a definite date we can start to think about booking flights on the other side of my six-week recovery period. Mid-November doesn’t seem so far away now that it’s a definite thing. We can make plans for twelve or so weeks more weeks we will be in the UK and we can start to make plans for what we will do once we are back home aboard Carina.

I never imagined we would still be here in autumn, but here we are.

Buzzy bees

I gaze through the glass, mesmerized by the activity inside. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bees, all moving – the proverbial hive of activity. ‘What’s going on there?’ I ask the tall, grey-haired gentleman beside me, pointing to one bee laboriously carrying its comrade against the force of gravity, up through the hive. ‘It’s removing a dead one’, the man tells me. He explains that fastidious bees carry the dead from the hive and he shows me the drawer that he clears of dead bees on a regular basis.

This is an ingenious set-up giving people like me a rare glimpse into the lives of bees. The hive is encased between two panes of glass and the bees have access to the outside world through a long narrow drainpipe. But because of the pipe, the dead cannot be completely removed by other bees alone, so the bee-keeper lends a hand by collecting them in the little bee-cemetery and removing them regularly.

The woman in the Glasshouse is worried about the bees, but the bee-keeper assures her they’re looking good. There was an unfortunate die-off last year and she’s hoping the same won’t happen again. But the bee-keeper tells her if he sees any sign of trouble he will capture the queen, creating a swarm and the start of a new healthy colony.

‘How do you know which one is the queen?’ I ask, expecting him to say that she’s bigger. Turns out she’s not noticeably bigger. She has a white mark on her back. But it is the behaviour of the other bees around her that distinguishes her from everyone else. The others clear a path around her, don’t get in her way. I reminded me of the way everyone maintains a respectful space around Usain Bolt! We try to find the queen, our heads close together, our noses pressed to the glass. I think I see her, but I’m not sure.

It seems bees are everywhere these days. And they’re not. The more they disappear from the world the more they are part of the zeitgeist. One of the libraries I visit has an entire bee section, with books such as A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about one of the many crises currently faced by honey bees, and Sean Borodale’s moving book of bee-keeping poetry, Bee Journal.

There seem to be a profusion of bee-related activities in the places we’ve been visiting all summer – libraries, museums, art galleries all devoting space and energy to educating people about bees, nurturing children’s enthusiasm for bees, providing information about how to revive tired bees. There are wildlife organisations and activitists devoted to and campaigning for the protection of bees, television programmes focusing on the importance of bees and the threats they face, and artists inspired by bees. Even Sainsbury’s, the big supermarket chain, is singing the praises of bees, encouraging customers to install bee hotels in their gardens to encourage the solitary bees so necessary to the pollination of garden plants.

Wandering around rural Spain and Portugal and suburban England this summer I could have been forgiven for thinking that bees are doing just fine. On the hillsides along the Rio Guadiana the buzzing of bees fills the air, the land is awash with wild flowers, and beehives pepper the slopes. In the English Midlands, the constant buzz of bees around lavender and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover fills the air. The sight of fat round fuzzy bumblebees (there are 13 different species of bumblebee and 260 species of solitary bee in the UK alone!) flying from clover to clover always causes me to stop and smile.

But the reality is bees are in serious trouble. And because bees are in trouble, we are in trouble. One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Do you eat any of the following foods? Kiwi, onion, celery, mustard, broccoli, rapeseed, cauliflower, cabbage, anything in the pepper family, coffee, coconut, anything in the melon family, tangerine, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, fig, strawberry, sunflower, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, most beans, cherries, almonds, peaches and related fruits, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries, sesame, aubergines, cocoa (i.e. chocolate), blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, grapes. Yes, they all rely, to a medium or major extent, on pollination by bees. And do you wear clothes made from cotton or linen (flax)? They too are pollinated by bees. So, without bees, or with much reduced bee populations, many of the foods we eat and clothes we wear cannot be produced.

There has been a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. In some instances bee numbers have declined by more than 40%. Colonies are collapsing, queens are dying, foraging behaviour is changing. Mass deaths are related to stress and disease. One of the biggest problem facing bees comes from neonicotinoid pesticides, used on arable crops and, in some cases, on household gardens. A ban on their use in the UK was recently lifted despite expert scientific evidence supporting a continued ban. Bee numbers have gone into spiralling decline, linked to these pesticides. Bees are also threatened by loss of habitat as meadows and wild flowers are displaced by monoculture and as home owners decorate their gardens with non-native plant species incompatible with the feeding habits of local bees. And a warming climate has made bees more susceptible to parasites. In combination, that’s a lot of stress for such complex creatures.

All my life I’ve been interested in big animals – dogs, polar bears, whales, elephants. But this summer I’ve developed a great respect for and awe of bees. And with that comes a great concern that these magnificent animals, with their fascinating life cycles, means of communication and sensory perception are in deep deep trouble. And if being awestruck with wonder at their very existence is not enough (although it should be), then we need to remember that our survival depends on their survival.

Forty years ago we were called upon to Save the Whale. The whale zeitgeist – the books, the films, the love poetry to whales – brought about a sea change of action. Today, many whale species are recovering from the ravages of 150 years of commercial whaling, with some sub-populations being removed or down-graded on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps the current bee zeitgeist will lead to a similar upwelling of action, that our growing awareness of the importance and wonder of bees will help us to open our eyes, change our habits and give these more intriguing of creatures a chance to survive.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a useful information page, with ideas what we can all do to nurture healthy bee populations.

Working at Warwick Castle

by Julian

As Martina mentioned previously, I have taken a seasonal job at Warwick Castle as a ‘Litter Assistant’ to see us through the summer until we can return to Carina. The job doesn’t pay much but it fits in well with the time that we will be around here and I cannot see any adverts for summer geophysicists!

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I started at the beginning of July, only a couple of weeks after returning to England and my first early morning shifts were lovely. Entering the castle grounds before the public and walking to the top of ‘The Mound’, which was built by the Norman’s in the 11th century, you get a beautiful view across the Warwickshire countryside. I wore a pedometer for an 8 hour shift, to find that I had walked over 22,000 steps.

My job involves walking the grounds of an historic monument all though the summer and getting really fit doing it. I can understand why people actually volunteer to litter pick at some National Trust properties! Other lovely views are from the peacock garden, along the Capability Brown landscaped grounds, to the bend in the river and also along the river itself, looking up at the walls of the castle. I have seen areas of the castle not generally accessible to the public, including the lovely ‘Ladies walk’ that looks down on the old ruined bridge over the Avon, the Mill Street gardens and over a row of old houses.

I have also had the opportunity to learn local history as part of my job. The ‘History Team’ do some entertaining and informative tours which are at no extra cost to the visitor. Unfortunately some people dismiss the castle as an amusement park, due to it being run by ‘Merlin’ who also run the UK’s biggest theme park ‘Alton Towers’. However, even without the history team, I have the major points of the the castle’s history imprinted on my mind by the ‘Horrible Histories’ stage show ‘Wicked Warwick’. The show is primarily aimed at children, but from this show I now know the names of the first 8 earls of Warwick and an interesting fact about each of them, I know what side Warwick took in the English civil war and about all of the major construction phases the castle went through. Some people get a bit sniffy about the castle entertaining families, but it is odd for people to dislike history being brought to life for children. I think that is one of the highest aims we can have for our heritage, one which will ensure it survives and flourishes in the minds and hearts of the next generation.

I have one admission to make. Of course I am a little partisan. I learned to sail from the age of 5 on the River Avon, looking up at the majestic walls of this castle and anyone who has regularly read this blog knows where that has led to in our lives. A place like this can be with you for a lifetime. Returning to the castle and keeping it clear of litter, however briefly, has been fun and an education for me, strange as that might sound. I hope I can make the most of my remaining time here.

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

A well-structured summer

My diary is full to bursting. There’s art club and running club, art festivals, summer fêtes and swimming lessons. There are woodland volunteer days, plant a vegetable days, bat walk nights. There are brass bands on Sundays, movies on Saturdays, the home education group on Thursdays. There are days when I have to choose between conflicting events. And there are days, like today, when I decide to just stay home.

Shortly after we returned to the UK I wrote a blog about the many events keeping the girls and I busy in Coventry and Leamington Spa. This summer has provided the girls with some great opportunities for learning. A couple of weeks ago they had five mornings of swimming lessons, and I saw a huge improvement in their swimming skills as a result. Most Saturdays they run in Newbold Comyn with Kids Run Free, a fantastic charity that gets kids running. They attend art club at the Leamington Art Gallery, nature events at Jephson Gardens and a regular gathering of home educating families at All Sorts in Fargo in Coventry. Through these, they develop their art and craft skills, and have access to resources we otherwise wouldn’t have access to while we are temporarily staying with their grandparents.

All of which has got me thinking about how different our home education experience has been this summer. With the exception of when the girls were very little and we attended baby and toddler groups, our engagement with the world beyond our own door has generally been far less organised and structured. We generally don’t stay in any place long enough to get used to a pattern of activities, and because we have been in non-English speaking countries we have not always been aware of activities taking place.

So we explore the world around us according to our own rhythm. When we’re aboard Carina, we often set out on an adventure after breakfast, snacks, drinks and a picnic lunch packed, not knowing where we will end up. We find things to interest us – one day we might pick leaves, another we might spend an hour observing marching ants. We might pick flowers, or swim in the sea. We might find other kids to play with, or make a shell garden.

This summer our activities are more structured. I plan our week around my diary – a half hour of running here, an hour of art there. I don’t think one way is better than the other. I can see the pros and cons of both. One perhaps is more suited to country living, the other to city living. We have wonderful opportunities this summer to learn new things at the hands of experts, through organised classes and events.

But sometimes when I’m racing the kids here or there (we walk everywhere), I think my event-filled diary is perhaps running our lives just a little bit too much!

London Interlude

I’ve spent five of the past six days in London – two by myself and three with Lily and Katie. On Friday evening I took the train from Leamington to Marylebone, to spend a weekend visiting a friend. Upon arrival I was treated to a tour of the BBC at New Broadcasting House and I got to sit in with the production team making the News at Ten. It was an incredible experience to see the news being made and observe the interactions between the directors and producers behind the scenes and the newscaster in the studio and reporters reporting live from – on that night – Kos, Calais and Cleveland.

Over the course of the weekend my friend and I strolled along the South Bank, took the clipper to Greenwich, went to a rooftop open air cinema showing of Top Gun (woohoo!!), ate lots and walked lots. We discussed dreams and plans, the current state of the books we’re currently writing, and I returned to Leamington Spa on Sunday night feeling rejuvenated and with my enthusiasm for my writing in overdrive.

I had Monday to do laundry and repack and then the girls and I were off to London again on Tuesday morning for three days of sightseeing and visiting another London friend and her family.

The girls had never been to London before and were beside themselves with excitement – and a little nervous to boot. They each requested to see different things. Katie wanted to see Buckingham Palace and Lily Big Ben.

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We arrived in Victoria Coach Station at lunchtime and strolled down to Buckingham Palace. Katie was thrilled by the palace and by the soldiers in their tall bear skin hats. As we sat on the steps of the Victoria Monument, gazing at the Palace as we ate our lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches, Katie said ‘I can’t believe I’ve seen a real palace and real soldiers for the first time today’. Lily took a great interest in the Victoria Monument, although I think her image of Victoria is somewhat skewed from watching the movie Pirates, where Victoria is a bug-eyed psychopath bent on eating all the world’s rarest animals!

Katie's not entirely convinced!!

Katie’s not entirely convinced!!

From Buckingham Palace we walked through St. James’ Park, stopping at a great little playground, where the girls removed their sandals and played in the sand. From there it was St. Margaret’s Chapel and then the Palace of Westminster where Lily got as close as possible to Big Ben. She loved that she had to crane her neck when she was up close! At Horse Guards the girls were partly intrigued partly terrified by the soldiers in their funny uniforms and their regal horses. We were lucky enough to be there for a changing of the guard. They’ve been talking about it ever since and the spectacle is not likely something they will soon forget.

Of all the things they got to do in London, Katie’s favourite was when all three of us rode horses on an old-fashioned carousel in Jubilee Park. The last time I was on one of those was outside the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in 2000! Another highlight for the girls (and for me) was a troupe of street performers in Jubilee Park, whose acrobatics and limbo performance was jaw-dropping.

By the time we reached our friend’s house in Kingston we were all tired and hungry, but it didn’t stop the girls and my friend’s two children staying up way past their bedtime because they were all having so much fun together. My friend and I stayed up way past our bedtime too, but when you only get to see good friends every couple of years, there’s always lots of catching up to do.

The next day we all went to London together and following a picnic lunch in Hyde Park we spent the afternoon at the Natural History Museum. We saw the dinosaurs and the geology displays, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Already I’m thinking about another trip to London in the autumn, once the school term has begun, when the museum will be less busy, and we can explore even more of that amazing place.

The next morning we said farewell to our friends and I planned to take a boat out to Greenwich and take the girls to the Observatory. Alas, by the time our train arrived in Waterloo the heavens had opened. We had no raincoats, no umbrella and all three of us were wearing our sandals, so walking anywhere in Greenwich suddenly lost its appeal.

I took them to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square instead, only to discover that the staff were on strike and the queue to get in was vast. We had to get out of the rain, so we ran into the National Portrait Gallery around the corner. It turned out to be mostly lovely – apart from an overzealous security guard who didn’t want people (including us) eating their lunch while sitting on the floor outside the overcrowded cafe. There were good activities for children and I got to visit parts of the gallery I hadn’t been to before. Lily impressed me by pointing to a line-up of busts of 19th Century men and saying ‘Isn’t that one Charles Darwin?’! (Her interest in Darwin also comes from watching that same movie, Pirates!)

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We stepped out of the gallery in mid-afternoon just as the pedestrians of London were putting their umbrellas away, so I showed the girls around Trafalgar Square, pointing out the fountain where I cooled my hot tired feet during a heat wave seven years ago when I came to London with a little nine-week old Lily-embryo in my tummy!

All too soon it was time to catch the bus back to the Midlands. The girls were both fast asleep within minutes of getting on the bus, but somewhere found the energy to tell Daddy and Grandma all about their adventure when they finally got home last night.

A lesson in empathy

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and today marks the same anniversary for Nagasaki. When I visited both cities during the mid-1990s I went to each city’s peace garden and atomic bomb museum. I was deeply moved by the sight of old men and women, then fifty years removed from the bombing, crying as they moved through the museums. Their pain had endured through all that time.

On Thursday, now seventy years from those horrific events, I watched BBC news coverage of Japanese men and women now in their eighties and nineties sharing their stories. Again I was deeply moved, partly because this is a horror that could be visited on any of us, and partly because this happened in a country that is dear to my heart. The old people telling their stories reminded me of the beautiful old obaasans and ojiisans who were my neighbours and my friends’ parents and grandparents when I lived in Japan, and their younger selves who experienced these horrors could have been, in a different age, my lively and fun-filled thirteen and fourteen year old students.

I had been watching some of the BBC coverage on the Internet after the girls had gone to bed. But Lily snuck out of bed and asked me what I was watching. I gave some thought to whether I should discuss it or not. I decided to explain it to her.

So I told her that on this day seventy years ago a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, and hundreds of thousands of people had died and many more were made very sick. Of course, she wanted to know why this had happened. She knew about World War II and I explained that lots of different countries were involved, some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. I explained that the Japanese army had done bad things in other countries, but that many people – including me – didn’t think that made it right to drop these two terrible bombs on Japan.

She asked some other questions and I tried to answer them as best I could. Then she said, ‘You know when I’m naughty to Katie, you always tell me to think’.
‘Yes’, I said, not sure where her train of thought was going.
‘You tell me to think how I would feel if someone pinched me, or called me names I didn’t like’.
‘Yes, I do’, I said. ‘Think about how you would want someone to treat you’.
‘Well’, Lily said, ‘I think someone should have told those people to think before they dropped that bomb. How would they feel if someone dropped that bomb on their land? How would they feel if someone made their house go on fire and if their family was killed?’

Well, Lily, I guess you’ve just figured out empathy.

PS: Here’s a link to a child-appropriate story film about Hiroshima.

Drifting

So we drift on. Days, weeks, months of waiting, hanging around, hoping we will soon get home to Carina. It’s two and a half months since we left the Rio Guadiana and flew back to the UK. I knew it could be three months or more. There are days when I accept that and days when I am so impatient I want to book the next flight back to southern Portugal and to hell with sorting out my health. I see Carina sitting there, on her mooring, the lush green river bank still alive with birdsong, the fields and hills now turned from green to brown, baked by the hot Algarve sun. I see the river rushing past, downriver upriver downriver as the tide twenty miles downstream ebbs and flows, never stopping, racing, carrying tree trunks and branches and dead fish, upriver downriver upriver. I hope Carina is ok. I worry about infestations of insects, leaks, damage from huge trees carried on the current. For two months we have not been there to take care of her, to look after her, to fix her minor ailments.

I don’t know when we will get home. A gynaecologist’s consultation two weeks ago confirmed that I need to have a hysterectomy. He was a kind, funny and reassuring man, and he hoped I wouldn’t be on a waiting list for more than six weeks. In the appointments room I said I would be able to come in at short notice, if there’s a cancellation. Otherwise I’ll be informed of my operation date a month in advance. I woke up on Monday morning with the conviction that this is the week they will contact me with an operation date.

And after the operation there’s a six-week recovery period. It all seems like a long long time before we get home to Carina. I try to convince myself that this is a minor blip. In six months from now we will look back on this time as having been an opportunity to get my health sorted out, for the girls to spend time with their grandparents, and to get away from the brutal summer heat of southern Europe. When there’s January frost on Carina’s deck we’ll be longing for the solid walls and instant heating of a house in the Midlands.

While we wait we keep busy. Julian works 40 hours a week at Warwick Castle, and I keep the girls occupied with swimming, running club, home education groups, art club, summer festivals, visits to museums and galleries and libraries. We’re catching up with family and friends and we’re enjoying the companionship of the girls’ grandparents.

But home is where the heart is. So I wait – for the postman, for a phone call, for the next step closer to going home.

What I’ve learned from yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for sixteen years. Not consistently. I start and stop. When there’s a class nearby I go. I’ve attended classes for a few months or even years. But when I move someplace where there are no yoga classes, then my practice wanes. I lack the self-discipline to practice on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve rolled my yoga mat out on the living room floor and given it a go. But in twenty minutes I rush through a yoga practice that takes an hour in class, and I skip the bits I find tough. I never skip the tough bits in class.

I love yoga for so many reasons. Before I ever tried yoga I used to wish to be put on one of those stretching racks you see in old movies, so that I could have my limbs and back stretched. When I attended my first yoga class I was astounded to discover that yoga practice is like being put on a rack. I’m not sure what I thought yoga was before that, but I never guessed it would satisfy my desire to stretch my limbs and my back.

I love yoga because it keeps me flexible and supple, it encourages me to concentrate and work on my posture, and it has taught me relaxation techniques that I can put into practice anytime anywhere. While I’m not consistent in my practice, I have breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques that I can call upon whenever I need them.

Going to a regular class this summer has drawn my attention to the one aspect of yoga that has influenced me more than any other. It has to do with my mind far more than my body. And it is something that has come to influence the way I think about and engage with other people, the approach I take to raising my children, and the way I approach my life in general. Like my posture, it’s not something I have perfected, but it’s something I work on and try to improve all the time.

Every yoga teacher I have ever had has advised and encouraged students to focus on their own practice. Don’t worry what anyone else around you is doing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Some students have more yoga experience than others, some are more bendy than others, some can stretch backwards but not forwards, some have better balance than others. Comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Focus on your own self – how your body feels, how it responds, how are you breathing, where is your focus. Don’t judge others for good or bad – look at him, he can’t touch his toes; I wish I could twist into a pretzel like her. Work on your own body and mind – on improving your own suppleness, your own breathing, your own relaxation.

Following the advice of a teacher I had a few years ago, I now practice yoga with my eyes closed for most of the class. If I open my eyes at all it is only to look at the teacher, so I can follow her example. Only she and I are in the class. I turn inwards, blocking out external sounds and the other students all round me, concentrating on improving and perfecting myself. Not comparing myself to anyone else.

And that piece of yoga advice infuses every aspect of my life. It’s made me stop comparing myself to other people. We’re all different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different life experiences, different dreams and hopes and fears. Why waste time comparing myself to the tall slim elegant woman that I will never be, when I could be focusing on working with the raw material that my genetic and environmental heritage has given me. Why compare where I am in life with the success or lack of success of others my age. Either accept myself as I am or work to change. And if I choose to change, accept that the change is mine. I will never be anyone other than who I am.

Don’t judge people because they look different to me – short, tall, fat, skinny, symmetrical or asymmetrical features. Don’t judge people because they live different lives to me – they have more money or less money, they work or they don’t work, they come from different cultures or backgrounds. It’s all a waste of the precious short time we have on Earth to compare ourselves to others. Yoga has taught me to accept people as they are, and to concentrate either on accepting myself as I am, or striving to change who I am in a way that is mine alone. It has taught me to live in the world in a way that feels right to me, not in a way that I think society will approve of.

My approach to raising my children and home educating them is also inspired by this yoga lesson. Don’t compare. I don’t compare my children to anyone else’s. I don’t care how my girls compare to other four and six year olds. We all develop differently. I’m not interested in when someone else’s child learned to read or do long division or recite the collected works of Shakespeare while unicycling up Mt Everest. And because my kids are home schooled, I’m not interested in comparing them to National Curriculum or other formal education targets. All our children are brilliant and just like adults, they are figuring the world out for themselves, each one is his or her unique way.

I also strive to not compare my children to each other. It doesn’t help me or them to compare the age at which either one developed particular skills, or to compare their motor skills or athletic abilities. They’re different. They’re built differently, they have different personalities, they approach learning in different ways, so comparing them is futile. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this, but when I do, I catch myself and put a stop to that train of thought.

And finally, not comparing myself to others has informed my approach to life in general. I live on a boat, for goodness sake, in a tiny space with very little money. If I compared myself to others I’d realise this is foolhardy – we have no rainy day savings, no pension plan, no fancy clothes or telecommunications systems. There are sailors out there who have bulging bank accounts and boats fancier than ours, and sailors who make us look rich by comparison. But we’re all following our own paths, each with our own unique goals. So it’s better to concentrate and focus on living my life, on my family, on my goals and dreams, on working with the resources I have at my disposal, than wasting my time comparing myself to others.

Banishing comparison frees the mind up to enjoy other people much more. When someone tells me about their child’s achievement I can genuinely enjoy what that child has done and not worry that my kids haven’t achieved the same. When someone shows me around their brand new half a million pound yacht I can genuinely enjoy the experience, congratulate them on their beautiful home, admire what they have, but not wish that we lived in such splendour. Because we have Carina, and our own lives are splendid. When I see a beautiful or elegant woman I can enjoy her beauty and not worry that I don’t look like her. I can enjoy the success of others and not compare my own achievements. There’s a great freedom in all that.

The breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques I have learned through practicing yoga are immensely beneficial to my life. They calm me, centre me, give me the skills and tools to de-stress and to self-heal aches and pains. But it is focus that has informed and influenced my life more than anything else. Just like my breathing and stretching and relaxation, I haven’t yet perfected my inward focus and concentrating on my own life’s practice. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I thought it was silly that people could practice tea ceremony for decades and still never get it right. I missed the point. Perfection is unattainable. The important thing is striving for it. I may never have the perfect forward bend, but trying to perfect it feels good. I may never be able to completely banish external thoughts from my relaxation practice, but trying to feels good. And I may never be able to completely stop comparing myself to others, but trying to perfect my focus opens up a world of wondrous encounters with others, free from comparison and judgement.

Twenty years ago…

It was twenty years yesterday since I went to Japan on the JET programme. Twenty years – that’s almost half my life ago. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of five years studying at a university only twenty-five miles from home. And there I was, about to fly to the other side of the world. The farthest from home I’d been before was central France, the longest I’d been away from home before was at the end of my second year at university, when my friend Louise and I spent sixteen weeks living in a tent and working on a flower farm outside Hillegom, in Holland. I’d never had any particular interest in Japan, but a little advertisement on a notice board near the cafeteria in my university had started the ball rolling. I applied for the JET programme and was one of 33 young Irish people chosen to go work in Japan that year.

Some of my friends and family thought I might not like Japan. I guess they knew how little experience I had of the world outside Ireland. I remember one friend saying that it was alright if I didn’t like it and decided to return home after a few weeks or months. But I couldn’t wait to go, and I told myself that even if it was awful, I’d stay for the whole year. In the end I stayed for three years, the maximum number of years you could stay on the JET programme at the time. I loved it from the start.

So young...I was only a child!

So young…I was only a child!

The JET programme was well organised. I was to be an assistant English language teacher at two junior high schools in Sue-machi, a small town in Fukuoka-ken, on the island of Kyushu. A representative of Sue board of education had been in touch, telling me about the schools, sending me photos of the town and of my apartment. From JET I received instructional videos about etiquette and cultural correctness, and whoever made those videos clearly had never lived in Sue-machi!

The thirty-three Irish JETs flew business class from Dublin to Tokyo via Heathrow – the only time in my life I have ever flown anything other than economy! Oh the luxury on British Airways. With thousands of other JETs from around the world, we had a four-day orientation in Tokyo. Prior to that, London was the biggest city I had ever been to, and I’d never been there at night. Imagine my little eyes popping out of my head as I sampled the night life of Tokyo for the first time. I was awestruck!!

After those four days we were sent by plane or train to our host towns. At Fukuoka airport I was met by Sue board of education representatives, who were friendly and smiling. Only one of them spoke English and I didn’t have a word of Japanese. In those early days I made so many cultural mistakes, made an ass of myself, got things wrong. Japan was even more strange and exotic than I had imagined. I loved it. I loved learning how to negotiate this strange and wonderful culture so different to my own. And gradually it seeped into my bones, and the strange became familiar, the exotic became mundane.

For a young woman from a very modest background, in her first ever proper job (apart from the flower farm and a couple of pub jobs) this was idyllic. I had my own brand new gleaming apartment, the smell of new tatami in the heat of August overwhelming my senses. I lived in that apartment for longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I was paid more money than I knew what to do with. For the first time in my life I could buy clothes when I wanted to, buy new music and books on a whim, afford to travel where and when I wanted to.

One of my lovely classes...can you spot me?

One of my lovely classes…can you spot me?

The two schools where I worked were so different to any schools I had been to before. Forty children per class, extraordinary discipline, exceptionally good behaviour. But boy, were those kids fun. I loved the kids I taught and I look back now and wish I had been a better teacher. The first year I was a useless teacher. I’d never taught before, I had no skills or training, and I was way too self-conscious and uptight. But as the years went by I relaxed into the job. I developed friendships with my colleagues, despite having only limited language in common with those who were English teachers. I went on school outings, on drunken nights out with my colleagues, and I engaged in a lot of school activities. Looking back I could have and should have done so much more.

During those three years I travelled extensively. I travelled all over Japan, camping, hiking on volcanoes, soaking in mountain onsens. I holidayed in Australia, learned to SCUBA dive and did volunteer work on two trips to Hawai’i, got serious culture shock in Hong Kong because it was so noisy and multi-cultural compared to Fukuoka, and flew home to Ireland once a year.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I fell passionately in love with Japanese food but sadly, after three years, my culinary skills were only rudimentary. I played the taiko drum, taught by Ito-sensei, one of the most generous-spirited and light-hearted people I ever met. The mother of my friend, Tashiro-san, made me a silk kimono, and taught me how to walk and sit and wear it properly, in preparation for the kimono-modelling contest she had entered me in. I did tea ceremony, visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and visited pretty much every historical, cultural and natural site of significance across the country. I went out for dinner with The Chieftains one night and sat between Paddy Maloney and Derek Bell, and another night partied with Jamiroquai in the VIP section of a Fukuoka night club.

Hello Kitty was my hero!

Hello Kitty was my hero!

And what friends I made. My friend Takako made me feel like part of her family and twenty years on she still sends me care packages of Japanese food. Three years ago she and one of her daughters visited me, and I was so happy that Julian and the girls finally got to meet my dear friend. I had other wonderful Japanese friends who I am not in touch with so often, and some who I have sadly lost touch with. The JET programme was wonderful too because it brought together young people from many different countries. Over the years I have visited my JET friends in Australia, Canada , the US and the UK and many of them have visited me. Last weekend Sarah and our families camped together and our children have known each other since they were newborns.

A year and a half ago a few of us started to throw around the idea of a reunion in Japan to mark the 20th anniversary of when we first moved there from our various far-flung home countries. If the plan had taken shape, we would all be in Fukuoka this week. Alas, Japan is a long way away, expensive to get to, and we all have young children and other commitments. So the plan foundered. Maybe if we start saving now, our piggy banks will be full for a 30th anniversary reunion in July 2025!

I went to Japan with a Masters degree in Anthropology and virtually no experience of the world beyond my little patch. Three years in Japan opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of other ways of living, other cultures, other realities. I had opportunities to experience Japanese high culture and the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. During those three years I grew up, I discovered different aspects of my own personality, I saw myself and where I came from differently. If someone gave me the chance to do it all again, I’d leap at it. Someday I would like to bring my own children to Japan. Maybe we’ll even sail there.