Reconnecting

After my surreal media week some semblance of normality returned to our holiday in Ireland. I had a few opportunities to spend time in the company of some of my oldest friends. A big-girl sleep-over with two friends I’ve known since we were all four years old involved a lot of good food and even more good conversation.

What a dessert!

What a dessert!

And in last Saturday’s glorious sunshine three of my old (‘less of the old’ I hear them yell) university friends descended on Mammy’s house with an assortment of their children. We caught up while our kids got to know each other. There were a few family get-togethers, filled with tea and cake and ham sandwiches, and visits to other relatives and neighbours.

We celebrated a rip-roaring St. Patrick’s Day, the girls dressed (as one of my friends pointed out) like the Clancy Brothers! We went to Mass in Edenderry to hear and see Granny singing in the choir, and were also treated to the spectacle of Irish dancers dancing up the aisle of St. Mary’s Church.

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Later, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade along JKL Street. The parade is a new addition to the Edenderry social calendar. It started only three or four years ago at the height of the recession, in an attempt to lift spirits and boost the economy, when the town and a lot of the people in it were feeling pretty miserable. It was great fun, with many local clubs, societies and businesses with colourful floats. There were marching bands and I was only disappointed to not see any more Irish dancers. One of the local shops gave out free giant green, white and gold lollipops and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the green and yellow around Katie’s mouth was tinged with red. IMG_20150317_141002

The little gluttonous imp tried to stuff too much of the lollipop into her mouth at once, and split her mouth on both sides. If only she was so eager to eat her dinner!

I awoke on Friday morning filled with anticipation for the eclipse. The previous two days had been bright and sunny, so I was disappointed when I opened the curtains to a sky filled with heavy grey clouds. Still, I sat out on the patio, cup of tea warming my hands, awaiting…something. It grew noticeably darker, but that was it. Or so I thought. I went inside to warm up. Half an hour later I ventured outside to bring in turf for the fire and the clouds had thinned to reveal the sun still a little less than half eclipsed by the moon. I yelled for Lily and Katie to come out. They weren’t quite as awestruck as I was!

On Sunday, Lily had a pre-birthday party (five days early), with two little cousins, and a large gathering of my family – Mammy and some of her sisters, my sister, our Nana and, as often at gatherings of my family, the obligatory solitary man, this time in the form of my sister’s boyfriend.

Happy cousins

Happy cousins

The children played, while the adults talked and ate, ate and talked. Mammy put her considerable musical talents to use to play the mouth organ for ‘Pass the Parcel’. ‘Jingle Bells’ in March…what a treat!

All too soon our three weeks in Ireland came to an end and it was time for us to return to Spain – to Julian and to Carina. Since Daddy died and, therefore, since the girls were born, I haven’t spent more than ten days in the house where I grew up. And usually our visits home are around Christmas or for funerals. Three weeks in the middle of March was a very different experience. Everyone else was going about their usual daily business each day and the visit home was devoid of the mania and expectation always attendant on Christmas. It was a much more laid back sort of visit.

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Three weeks gave Lily and Katie opportunities to become comfortable in the house and the garden, and to spend more time with their great grandmother, Nana Kitty, and various other family members.

It was springtime, so the weather was good, the daffodils were in bloom, there were lambs in the fields – a very different place to the one we so often visit in the darkest days of winter. I have returned to Carina feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, my connections to home rekindled, and Mammy’s bookcase raided for reading material to keep me going for the next few months!

Frost, birdseed and bringing in the turf

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Little farmers

When we first came home to Ireland, all of two weeks ago, Lily and Katie weren’t terribly interested in playing in the garden. They were happy to go out when Granny or I were outside, but they had no desire to be there on their own. But then two things happened. First, we went down to Rosscarbery, in West Cork to visit my aunt and uncle, and the girls wanted to be in their garden all the time. Second, on our first morning back from Cork there was frost in Granny’s garden and the girls were desperate to get out to play in it. So, that morning, at 8am, out they went with rubber boots and jackets on over their pajamas, and they stayed out for the day. I haven’t wanted to come inside since!

Fun in the frost

Fun in the frost

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The wonders of ice

Their time is divided between playing imaginative games and helping out with the ‘fascinating’ chores of bringing in turf for the fire and feeding the birds. Granny’s dogs have an enclosed run with a little wooden shed attached. The dogs rarely use it and Granny stores her Christmas decorations in the shed. Entrance to the shed is via the pen. The girls have turned the shed into their shop, using recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic milk bottles and glass jars as their stock. I fear someone driving past will glance into the garden, see two children in the dog pen and think I’m keeping my kids in a cage!!

We discovered a deserted bird’s nest a few days ago and they have now decided to build their own nest, big enough for little girls to live in, using the windblown twigs and branches they find lying around the garden. Such behaviour should be encouraged – it results in Granny having a nice big pile of kindling for the fire!

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My wheelbarrow

There has been tree climbing and jumping; running and chasing; and attempts to engage the lazy old dogs in boisterous play. They have both taken charge of replenishing the bird feeders in the birch tree, noting when they are running low and messily refilling them.

But what brings me the most pleasure is seeing how much fun they are having with the turf. We burn turf and peat briquettes in the fires here and bringing in turf from the shed to the house is a daily activity that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Just like my Daddy did with me, I wheel the girls around in the wheelbarrow as they squeal in delight, and they earnestly help me fill the wheelbarrow. We have even found my old wheelbarrow, which I was given as a present when I was three years old – in 1976. A bit rusty, it’s still going strong, and after they gave it a thorough cleaning a few days ago, it is now ‘their’ wheelbarrow and they are no longer interested in helping me fill my barrow. They run back and forth to the shed, three or four sods of turf at a time, sometimes wheeling the barrow into the house and delivering the turf right into the fire!

I am having so much fun seeing them play in ‘my’ garden, doing the things I loved to do as a child, and creating their own good memories of childhood.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!!

My week in the media spotlight!

Back on January 17th the Irish Examiner, a nationwide newspaper, published an article I wrote about life aboard Carina in their Saturday weekend magazine. The response was phenomenal and, as well as attracting many new followers to my blog, it also attracted the attention of some Irish broadcasters. I was contacted by RTE television and by Today FM, both nationwide broadcasters, with interview requests. I arranged for the interviews to take place while I was home in March. This past week has been a whirlwind of travelling and media interviews. And it’s been incredible.

With Anton Savage on Today FM

With Anton Savage on Today FM

On Tuesday morning I went to Dublin and was interviewed by Anton Savage on Today FM. Everyone was so kind and friendly, and the man himself proved just as handsome and suave as my female friends all claimed! The interview was a lot of fun. His best question was probably ‘Your kids aren’t feral, are they?’!! You can listen to that interview here

On Thursday I was down in Cork for two interviews. The first was on 96FM, a local Cork radio station, where I was interviewed on The Opinion Line with PJ Coogan as part of a programme about people who decide to transform their lives in some crazy way. There was me, an accountant turned musician, a housewife turned milliner, and others. You can listen to that interview here.

With Daithi and Maura on RTE's Today Show

With Daithi and Maura on RTE’s Today Show

And on Thursday afternoon I was in RTE’s Cork studio, for a TV interview on the Today Show with Daithi O’Se and Maura Derrane. It was my first time on TV and I had a great time. Everyone was so generous and wonderful to us. They asked if Lily and Katie would come on the show too, and the team put the girls so much at their ease that, by the time they sat on the studio sofa, they looked like they were in Granny’s living room. Afterwards, while I was changing back into my civvies to brave the wind and rain outside the studio, Maura took the girls away and made them up plates of carrot cake and biscotti for the journey home. You can watch our TV debut here. If you don’t want to watch the whole show, skip to 57.35 minutes to watch us.

The response to all this media coverage has been phenomenal. I’ve had so many messages via the blog, Twitter and Facebook, wishing us well. Everyone has been so generous. A lot of people have taken the time to send me messages, and I promise I will respond to everyone over the next few days.

Now it’s back to earth with a bang. Lily and Katie are running around Mammy’s garden, in their pajamas and covered in turf mould! Clothes need to be washed, shopping needs to be done, and I’m getting ready for a grown-up ‘sleep over’ with my two oldest friends tonight!

The view from the window

My father planted a birch tree in the corner of the garden near the back of the house in, if I recall, the early 1990s. The tree grew rapidly and now and then branches have to lopped off as they grow too close to the house on one side or the shed on the other. I would be content to spend my entire three weeks in Ireland sitting in an armchair in Mammy’s kitchen looking out at that tree.

The bird feeders that are kept stocked with peanuts and balls of fat attract a constant fluttering of delightful little birds. There are blue tits and great tits, house sparrows and tree sparrows, chaffinches and green finches. A lone red breasted robin patrols the ground around the base of the tree and flits from branch to branch. This year a family of starlings has begun to join in the feast. Looking out towards the tree I often catch sight of a tiny wren on the ground on the other side of the tree. It is not interested in what the tree has to offer, but hops in and out through a gap under the shed door. A speckle breasted song thrush appeared this morning, hopping on the ground beneath the tree. A wagtail busies about closer to the house, pecking and drinking from a puddle of water. Wagtails have delighted me since I was a young child, with the urgency of their walk and their little heads bob-bobbing as though they are engaged in rapid and slightly mad conversation with themselves.

There are arguments at times, as one finch decides the food placed in the crook of the tree is its alone, and there are mid-air confrontations between it and the others. All are wary of the robin and keep well out of his way. And I hope the recent arrival of the large, long-beaked starlings won’t have a detrimental effect on the other little birds who feed on the tree.

But, oh, what a riot of colour and movement and life. The vibrant green of the green finches with their sudden flashes of yellow when they take to flight. The familiar green-yellow breast of the blue tits, and the bright yellow breasts of the great tits with their dinner jacket black stripe down the middle. The rusty red of the chaffinch and the deep red of the robin are in warm contrast to these greens and yellows. The sparrows may lack the colourfulness of the tits and finches, but they delight me nonetheless. The tininess of the wren with its little square upright tail fills me with joy as do the sharp black and white patterns on my little friend, the wagtail.

While they are visiting Granny, Lily and Katie are responsible for keeping the bird feeders stocked and they are taking their responsibilities very seriously. I wish my friend Anna were here to enjoy these birds and to capture their images on my behalf with her superior wildlife photography skills. Alas, I lack both the skills and the equipment to even attempt to share images of these magnificent little creatures with you.

But for the next couple of weeks, through my running around to visit friends and family, going places and doing things, I will continue to find time to gaze out the window at the birch tree, sometimes quietly and alone with a cup of tea, sometimes with Lily and Katie beside me, and take delight in the antics of the (so far) eleven species of garden birds who flit and feed close to and in the tree.

Raising women and other thoughts on International Women’s Day

Julian and I were recently engaged in a heated discussion with someone that hinged on the role of personal responsibility in the fight against that three-headed monster consumerism-global poverty-environmental degradation. Our friend took a rather defeatist attitude – people will never change, so why try to change people. We took a more proactive stance. We do not want and cannot presume to change anyone else. But we can change ourselves. Our small contribution to the eradication of social and environmental injustice is to make responsible choices in our lives and to raise our children to be responsible in their choices. We are one small family whose consumer and lifestyle choices are influenced by our social and environmental consciousness and philosophy. But we are not alone. Every day in millions of homes throughout the world individuals and families take responsibility for their consumer choices, starting from places of optimism and a belief that one person, one family, can make a difference.

So it was, as International Women’s Day approached, I thought about the power of the individual or of the family to bring into being a just and fair world for all, irrespective of gender.

I am a privileged woman. I was raised by parents for whom my gender was no barrier to anything I chose to do. I have lived a life of my choosing. I chose how much education I wanted, and what jobs I wanted; I chose who and when to marry and I chose when and how many children to have. With such great privilege comes responsibility. I cannot change the world. I cannot erase sexism or violence against women or unequal pay or lack of choice or poverty. But I can make responsible choices in how I talk about and to other people and how I interact with other people – both men and women. I can make responsible choices about what I buy and what I do. With my husband, I am striving to raise two women to know that their gender is no barrier to their aspirations, but by their choices and actions they can further contribute to the eradication of gender-based inequality and injustice.

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The girls and I have been in Ireland since Wednesday and I’ve been spending a lot of time with some of the amazing women in my life – my mother, sister, nana, cousin, aunts and friends. There’s been a lot of laughter; we’ve drunk a lot of tea. Last night I went out with two friends who I’ve known since we were all four years old. In their early 40s, one is about to have her first baby and the other is about to complete her first degree. We met other old school friends when we were out – strong, sassy, opinionated women, and I felt really proud to be part of that tribe!!

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Wishing you all a very Happy International Women’s Day – appreciate the women in your life; celebrate being a woman, or knowing a woman; and think about what small steps you can take to eradicate gender-based inequality and injustice. xx

It’s World Book Day!!

Happy happy World Book Day and hurray for public libraries!!

World Book Day – a day to celebrate books, to read, to share, and to encourage everyone to read more. I could spend the rest of my life singing the praises of my favourite books, because once I get started on that topic I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would lament the lost years – early 2009 to late 2011 – when small needy children came between me and reading, and I was lucky to get through one book every six months. My ulterior motive in cultivating my children’s love of books was that they would leave me alone to get back to my own reading. From early 2012 my reading opportunities increased and I am now back to pre-baby reading levels.

But having babies leads to a new appreciation of books and today, on this day devoted to cultivating a love of books, I want to consider some of the best children’s literature I have had the pleasure of reading to and with my children in the past few years.

First of all, it must be said, there are some truly awful children’s books out there. Some children’s authors seem to think that young equals stupid and so any old nonsensical drivel can be thrown together and flung at children and their sleep-deprived parents. That sort of stuff can turn children and parents off reading forever. Parents are the ones, after all, who have to read those same stories day after day and night after night, and there is nothing worse than reading something aloud that is (a) badly written and (b) tells a terrible story.

But, oh, the joy of reading good children’s literature. It warms the heart and nurtures the soul. No matter how many times I read Winnie the Pooh (and I’ve read it and The House At Pooh Corner aloud at least three times) the last chapter brings me to tears and I find myself sobbing through the final paragraphs with Lily and Katie asking ‘Why are you crying, Mummy?’

When Lily was only weeks old I discovered Helen Cooper’s masterpiece Pumpkin Soup. Let me tell you now, if you are ever going to have a baby and you are expecting a gift from me, you are going to get a copy of Pumpkin Soup. Cooper’s illustrations and her uplifting and hilarious story about a Cat, a Squirrel and a Duck with a weakness for pumpkin soup are about as good as it gets when it comes to literature for anyone of any age. It wasn’t long before I bought books two and three in the series – A Pipkin of Pepper and Delicious, where naughty and contrary Duck continues to cause all sorts of problems for his two friends. Next I bought Cooper’s The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go To Bed. It is such a sweet and playful book and the brilliance of her illustrations continued to make me swoon.

I’m a firm fan of Julia Donaldson WHEN she works with the illustrator Axel Scheffler. The Donaldson-Scheffler books are tales of heroism, justice and friendship, all featuring unlikely heroes, such as a witch, an earthworm or a sea snail. The Snail And The Whale is, for obvious reasons, my favourite. It’s the story of a tiny snail who dreams of exploring the world, and sets off on an adventure on the tail of a humpback whale, and eventually saves the whale’s life. With the exception of What the Ladybird Heard, I am far less a fan   of the Donaldson books illustrated by Lydia Monks. Their tone is different and they are too full of pink princess types in need of rescuing for my liking.

And were would we be without Dr. Seuss, with his humorous and eloquent morality tales that teach us about the evils of power and greed (Yertle the Turtle), racism (The Sneetches), capitalism (The Lorex), and about humanity of the most seemingly insignificant (Horton Hears A Who), sharing (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), and loyalty (Horton Hatches The Egg).

There are so many other wonderful children’s authors who have entertained Julian and I as much as they’ve entertained Lily and Katie – Lauren Childs, Robert Munsch, Mo Willems, Barbara M. Joosse.The girls think they’ve outgrown some of these books, but we know better! They will return to them again some day, I’m sure. Now, as I wrote in my last post, they are moving on to other things and I, for the first time, am discovering the wonders of C.S. Lewis. When the girls want me to read ‘just one more chapter’ I am happy to comply, because I am just as enthralled by the adventures in Narnia as they are.

And finally, on this day dedicated to books, I was once again reminded of how blessed we are to have public libraries run by thoughtful and generous-spirited librarians. The girls and I flew to Ireland yesterday to spend a few weeks with Mammy and my extended family. This afternoon we went to Edenderry library. I am no longer a member of this library, because I haven’t lived in Edenderry for many years. But I was a member throughout my childhood and early adulthood. We walked in the door this afternoon and Lily and Katie immediately descended on the books, sinking to the floor to read what they picked out.

I approached the desk. ‘Hello’, I said to the librarian. ‘I’m from Edenderry, but I don’t live here. I’m just here for three weeks. Would it be possible to get a temporary membership?’ ‘Are you Bridget’s daughter’, the librarian asked. Bridget reads more than anyone I know and it was she who took me to this library about once a week throughout my childhood. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Don’t worry about membership’, the librarian said. ‘Take out as many books as you want on your mother’s card’. Ah, the generosity of librarians.

A while later we walked out, the girls with three books each, Mammy with three books, and I had C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (the only one of The Chronicles of Narnia that we don’t have aboard Carina) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (which I was planning on buying the next time I was in a bookshop). World Book Day has been good to me!!

We read the first two chapters of The Magician’s Nephew when the girls went to bed. And now, if you will excuse me, it’s time to make a cup of tea, get into bed and start reading MaddAddam.

I hope World Book Day has treated you well too.

One year a-reading

It should come as no surprise to you that I’ve once again been thinking about reading. I’ve gushed about the joys of reading in blogs posts before here, here and here, and I’m about to do so again. But I’m also going to gush about the amazing learning capacities of young children. I’m in a state of pleasant shock most of the time, from observing how both my own children and other people’s children learn and develop so quickly.

A year ago, Lily started reading independently. Before that, Julian and I had read with her, encouraging her to sound out words and use her ‘reading finger’ to follow the story. But shortly before her fifth birthday, she discovered the joys of reading all by herself. Her first real foray into independent reading was with the Elephant and Piggie series of books by Mo Willems. My friend Angela gave us two books from this delightful, hilarious and touching series about a friendship between an elephant and a pig. The simply drawn pictures capture, with a couple of strokes of the pen, a range of emotions, as the two friends experiment, ponder, play and deal with some tough issues (What do you do when birds build a nest on your head? Or when a whale steals your ball? Or when you are invited to a party for the first time?). The language is simple – a few words on every page, word repetition, and font changes to convey changing emotional states.

epBy mid-March of last year, Lily had mastered reading these two books on her own, so I picked up four more from the series at Barnes and Noble when I was in Manhattan (it’s an American series, and not easy to find in the UK). But, in the ten days I was away in New York, Lily had graduated to more complex reading material. That’s not to say that she didn’t still love Elephant and Piggie. She continued (and continues) to read them to Katie, and Katie is now learning to read from them too.

elephantandpiggieBut with what seems to me lightning speed, in the space of only one year, Lily has gone from reading Elephant and Piggie to reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and his Boy and last night we started Prince Caspian. Sometimes I read one chapter to her and she reads the next one to me; other times I read a chapter to her and she reads the next one silently to herself. Every night she falls asleep with a book in her hands.

lionThis is not easy literature for someone who is not yet six years old, and though she can read all the words, I am not sure how much of the content she understands. It is my first time to read the Narnia books and I find they deal with issues of duty, honour, friendship and betrayal. They contain joy and beauty, but also death and torture and pain. But Lily’s level of understanding is not important. She gets such joy from reading and she brings her five-year old wisdom and life experience to bear on what she reads. If she chooses to read these books again in one, five, ten, twenty years from now, no doubt each subsequent reading will be coloured by her experience and wisdom at those different points in her life.

She is a voracious reader, oblivious to the world around her when her head is stuck in a book. She’s deep into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, has read a couple of Clarice Bean and Horrid Henry books, various Roald Dahl books (The Twits, Matilda, The BFG, etc), and numerous others.

Although I am thrilled that Lily has a passion for reading, what really amazes me is that I see in her the facility that all children have to learn new things quickly and easily. Children Lily’s age do this all the time. With Lily it’s reading. With other kids it’s maths, or art, or music, or building things, or natural history, or archaeology. Given the conditions to follow their own interests and explore the world around them, children have a natural desire and a voracious appetite for learning. We’ve all met a five-year old who knows the scientific names and characteristics of fifty dinosaurs, or who knows as much as a professional archaeologist about ancient Egypt. Nobody teaches kids this stuff. They follow what interests them, often until they’ve exhausted the possibilities or until they happen upon something else that interests them more.

What I find truly extraordinary about children is how quickly they develop proficiency in things that, if we are lucky, we adults can only learn with far greater effort and over much greater periods of time. Children aren’t scared of making mistakes in their self-directed learning, and they don’t have an end goal in sight. They learn simply because they love the thing they are doing – they love adding numbers up, or drawing tractors, or finding out every shred of information about Man Utd, or reading.

If we adults could approach our learning with such abandon and joy, and such a lack of self-consciousness or self-criticism, then maybe we too could learn more and learn better.

Family time

How pleasant to unexpectedly spend time in the company of extended family. The Sunday before last we drove east and north along the coast, past Almería and the Cabo de Gata to Mojacar Playa. Past the Cabo de Gata the landscape changed and the bare orange hills of the Costa del Sol on Spain’s south coast gave way to more lush green hills on the southeast Costa Blanca. We drove only 90km, but the change effected by turning Spain’s southeast corner, so to speak, was dramatic.

We were told to look out for some catamaran dinghies, so we drove along the road adjacent to Mojacar beach until two sets of dinghy sails appeared, bobbing in the water close to shore. We parked the car on the rough sand.

There we met Julian’s uncle Ian, Ian’s wife Cordie, two of their five children, and Cordie’s parents, Frank and Lindy, who live along this stretch of coast. Ian, Cordie and the kids were spending the UK school half-term visiting Spain in an attempt to soak up some late winter sun.

DSCI0291I last saw Ian, Cordie, Frank and Lindy when they visited Almería shortly before Christmas, but Lily and Katie had the much more recent experience of playing with their cousins only a few weeks ago at the boy’s home in the UK Midlands. The girls were delighted to see the boys again (Joe, 15, and Ollie, nearly 8). The girls quickly changed into their swimsuits and for the rest of the afternoon the children played on the beach, chasing each other, building sandcastles, and eventually constructing an elaborate ‘relaxation suite’ – a hole dug in the sand, into which they poured water. Ollie was clearly the brains behind the project; Lily and Katie the cheap labour!!

DSCI0292As soon as we arrived on the beach, Ian went in for a swim. Despite insisting earlier in the day that he had no intention of swimming, Julian was not to be outdone by his uncle, and leaped in like he was Ian Thorpe. Barry, my father-in-law, was next in. While the three Scott men swam way out from shore, the children played in the foam, Frank sailed a dinghy with his friends, and Cordie and I lay on the beach, both agreeing that try as we might, relaxing isn’t really our thing!

When hunger inevitably caught up with us we shared two picnics of tortilla, chorizo, ham rolls, more ham rolls and a few more ham rolls! Occasionally a cloud rolled across the sun, rendering us temporarily cold, but when the sun inevitably reappeared we luxuriated like cats on hot concrete.

DSCI0285Late in the afternoon we retired to Frank and Lindy’s local pub, run by an English-man and frequented by the many Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh retiree expats who live around here. It was all a rather surreal experience, watching a Six Nations rugby match on a giant TV, the men drinking beers from the UK and Ireland, and those of us not interested in the rugby playing darts and pool.

Lily and Katie continued to enjoy playing with their cousins – especially Ollie, who is closer in age to them. When the clientele at the pub all got up en masse to move on to a local restaurant, and the barman said he was closing up because he was going to the restaurant too, we contemplated saying our goodbyes and driving back home to Aguadulce. But Lily started to cry, because she wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to Ollie. That, combined with the prospect of an all-you-can-eat meat feast swayed us, and we trundled down the road with all the others. Our party took up half the restaurant. The children sat together, feeling very grown up as they decided which meat courses to accept or reject.

The food was exceptional – I think I ate half a cow! But what made it all the more wonderful was that it was a meal shared with family, at the end of a glorious day spent together. Living the life we do, we don’t often have opportunities to spend time with our extended family. I grew up surrounded by a vast number of cousins, aunts and uncles. Because of our lifestyle choices, Lily and Katie don’t see their extended family so much. So to spend a hot Sunday afternoon and evening on the beach with their cousins, aunt and uncle, granddad and extended grandparents through marriage, was a wonderful and precious thing.

La Alpujarra

We left Aguadulce in the middle of yesterday morning and drove west along the motorway to Motril. The coastal plain on our left, between the mountains and the deep blue Mediterranean, is, quite literally, covered in plastic green houses as far as the eye can see up and down the coast, where much of Europe’s supermarket fruits and vegetables are grown. From a distance the uniform white plastic agri-tunnels might be mistaken for salt pans; up close, where the green houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the motorway, one can catch glimpses of neat rows of greenery inside. Speeding past in a car, it is difficult to tell what these plants are, but given their shape I would hazard a guess that some were tomatoes and peppers.

On the edges of the towns along the motorway, huge signs advertise companies producing plastic sheeting and miracle-grow bio-fertilisers. It feels eerily like a time just before Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It was Sunday, so with the exception of a mother and small child sitting on a crate in the wasteland outside one of these greenhouses, for 50 kilometres or more I saw no signs of human life. But I have been past these tunnels on weekdays and Saturdays, and they look just as devoid of life. I know they employ great numbers of African migrants. Yet where these workers live, or what they do when they are not working, I have no idea.

To the north, out the right hand side of the car, rose the mountains. In the foothills, more greenhouses perched on terraces cut into south-facing hillsides. But beyond the foothills, the rugged mountains are mostly barren, except for the occasional arresting patch of bright yellow spring flowers, and trees bearing pink blossoms. The joy of seeing these reminders of cyclical life was palpable. Beyond those mountains rose even higher snow covered peaks, and the girls and I squealed in delight every time we caught a new glimpse of snow in the distance.

Clifftop view of Calahonda

Clifftop view of Calahonda

We stopped to stretch our legs on the cliff top above the beach town of Calahonda, the water turquoise below us, and the wind on the cliff causing us to shiver after the heat of the car.

The girls and Grandad on the cliffs above Calahonda.

The girls and Grandad on the cliffs above Calahonda.

At Motril we left the motorway and turned north, up into La Alpujarra. Our destination was Órgiva, and we followed a winding route high above the Rio Guadalfeo, getting ever higher into the mountains. The dam and large reservoir mark the south western end of the Rio Guadalfeo, and up from the reservoir the river was a thin thread flowing through a wide dry river bed.

Up here there is more greenery. Gone are the barren mountainsides and in their place more verdant mountains, in places covered in pine woods, in others extensively cultivated with olive, orange and lemon trees and more of those trees with the lovely white and pink blossoms. What could they be?

The mystery trees....

The mystery trees….

Julian and I were keen to visit Órgiva as we are both huge fans of the memoir writer, Chris Stewart. Stewart, a founding member of the band Genesis, moved to this part of the world in the early 1990s with his wife. They bought a ruin of a house and a small hill farm, and they set about farming and settling into local life. Since 1999, he has produced four hilarious memoirs about his life in La Alpujarra. Julian and I have read the first three – Driving over lemons, A parrot in the pepper tree and The almond blossom appreciation society. The fourth instalment – Last days of the bus club – was published last year, and we are keen to read it soon. (He’s also written Three ways to capsize a boat – one of the funniest sailing books we’ve ever read)

At a tourist shop farther up the mountain.

At a tourist shop farther up the mountain.

We wanted to visit this place that had inspired Stewart to write so warmly and wittily, a place that we already felt we knew so well from reading the books quietly to ourselves and aloud to each other. Órgiva and the surrounding countryside were supposed to be beautiful – and they didn’t disappoint. As we neared the town the number of these blossom-covered trees increased and, almost as one, it suddenly struck Julian and I – of course, they’re almond blossoms, just like the title of Chris Stewart’s third book! There are orange and lemon trees everywhere, heavy with fruit. Every house, every garden, every farm is surrounded and hidden by lush citrus trees. The church in the centre of town has orange trees growing right outside the door, and in the town square we sat amidst orange trees as we ate lunch. There was even one cafe/bar set amidst an orange grove, and I was disappointed to discover that it doesn’t open until 8pm on Sundays. Any other day of the week and we could have had lunch there.

The town in nestled amongst the mountains and looking in almost any direction one can see mountains rising up – the massive Sierra Nevada to the north and the Sierras Lujar and Contraviesa to the south and south-east. The place took my breath away.

Orgiva nestled amongst the mountains

Orgiva nestled amongst the mountains

There was a noticeable number of expats around – of the hemp and sandal-wearing variety, and I saw more dreadlocks that you might expect to see in Jamaica. I heard English spoken all around and the shops and bars catered to English speakers to a far greater extent than in Aguadulce or in any of the Galician towns we visited last summer. There were posters on railings and on walls advertising alternative therapies and healing, yoga and meditation, and I know from reading writing magazines and blogs that this part of the world offers expensive week- or more-long writing retreats and workshops, often with Chris Stewart as a guest speaker or tutor.

A large marquee had been erected in the town square and it was a hive of activity inside. Dreadlocked and hemp-wearing individuals of all ages were setting up a stage, putting up lighting, and laying out electrical cable. I stopped to talk to a couple of people. An English man told me it was a pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk, two showings this very night, at 7 and 9pm. He suggested we hang around for the show, but we had other things to do and places to see and, besides, we didn’t fancy negotiating those windy mountain roads after dark. An English woman I spoke to told me the pantomime was a community event, involving various youth groups and the local schools. We knew from reading Chris Stewert’s books that his daughter attended the local school, and this woman now told me that many of the local school children have parents from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, and that English is spoken almost as widely in the town as Spanish.

Orange heaven

Orange heaven

We left Órgiva to travel farther up into the mountains. We wanted to see at least one of the famed white villages nestled at high altitude. A few miles downriver from Órgiva we had started to encounter orange sellers on the sides of the roads, and shortly after leaving Órgiva we pulled in to the side of the road to buy oranges from a man selling 6kg bags from the back of his car. We bought two bags – 12kg of oranges for €4. They are the sweetest juiciest oranges and from the moment we returned to Carina last night we have been eating them and juicing them. Orange heaven!

The road up the mountain was narrow but well maintained, and it wound round and round like a corkscrew, with views back down over Órgiva and the almond and orange tree covered slopes. We parked at the village of Pampaneira, whitewashed and shining in the sun. It took my breath away. Almond trees grew in profusion and the tiny narrow streets offered tantalising glimpses of the snow covered mountains beyond. We sat in the village square, in front of the church, drinking and eating yet more of the amazing tapas we’d been feasting on during all our stops.

Snow covered mountains and village above Pampaneira

Snow covered mountains and village above Pampaneira

It seems that almost every building in Pampaneira was devoted to tourism. Every shop (and there were many, for such a tiny place) sold colourful rugs called jarapas, pottery, rustic clothing, hams and herbs. There were many cafes, bars and restaurants, including an amazing chocolatier called Abuela Ili. It was a little chocolate museum, with the entire history of chocolate on the walls, together with various tools used to make chocolate over the millennia on display. I set aside my chocolate-free New Year’s Resolution to partake in some chocolate tasting. My favourites were a dark chilli chocolate and a white chocolate with black pepper.

Typical narrow street in Pampaneira.

Typical narrow street in Pampaneira.

As beautiful as the village was, I wondered who lives here. It is clear the village relies heavily on tourism and I wondered whether local people had diversified into tourism to make a living or, as happens in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere, if the locals have been priced out and the town is now populated by in-comers from Granada, Madrid, Barcelona or elsewhere. Certainly, the sizeable population of expats down in Órgiva would suggest the presence of a large in-comer population here.

We took a scenic route back to Aguadulce, returning to Órgiva and driving east along the road that runs above the Rio Guadalfeo and Rio Cadiar. The thin soils on the mountainsides were extensively cultivated with almond and olive trees, set out in widely separated neat rows. Julian commented on the great contrast between this form of agriculture and the intensive green house agriculture just the other side of the mountain, and as we emerged from the mountains near the town of Berja, the extensive almond growing abruptly gave way to the intensive green houses. We also thought about the different migration patterns involved with each type of agriculture. Chris Stewart is just one of many northern European, eco-warrior, back-to-nature types who has taken up extensive farming in these mountains; while the green houses, producing Europe’s cheap fruits and vegetables are populated by migrants from north, west and sub-Saharan Africa.

By the time we got back on the motorway, 50 kilometres from Aguadulce, the sun was setting behind us in the west, Katie was fast asleep, Lily was hungry (again) and I was desperate for a cup of tea.

The girls and I are going back to Ireland next week for a short visit. I think all my Chris Stewart books are at Mammy’s house. I fancy reading Driving over lemons again.

Never look a gift-horse in the mouth

We live frugally and on a limited budget. Anything else and we couldn’t afford this life of sailing a lot and working a little. But there are four mouths to feed aboard Carina and so Julian and I are always on the lookout for food bargains. And with a certain alignment of stars this week, we couldn’t pass up a great opportunity to restock the food stores.

One Spanish supermarket chain, El Árbol, was recently taken over by another, Dia. Because of this take-over, all the old El Árbol own-brand stock is on sale in the stores for a pittance. Julian went out yesterday to our nearest El Árbol and came home laden with multiple bags of pasta – spaghetti, fusilli, macaroni, etc. My eyes widened when he told me that each 500g bag had cost a mere 25 cent (reduced from 67 cent). He told me the 400g tinned tomatoes were also on sale for 25 cent (reduced from 47 cent). I was beside myself with excitement. Not only was there a huge reduction on items we use a lot in our cooking, in a shop not far from the boat; we also have the use of my father-in-law’s car, so we could buy as much as we pleased, rather than having to satisfy ourselves with what we could carry on our backs and in shopping bags, as would normally be the case.

Pasta anyone?

Pasta anyone?

Within minutes I was in the car with Barry, headed for El Árbol. I filled a shopping trolley with twenty 500g bags of pasta, 36 tins of tomatoes, as well as some other items that were greatly reduced – rubber gloves in my size, and shampoos and shower gels that will easily see us through the rest of 2015. Barry drove the car around to the front of the shop and I pushed the heavy trolley out to meet him, and we loaded the boot with our booty.

We eat pasta about twice a week, and a 500g bag gets used up approximately two and a half meals. So the pasta should last to the autumn at least. We use tinned tomatoes for bolognaise sauce, chilli, lentil dahl, tomato soup, and more dishes besides, probably using three tins per week. Although those 36 tins won’t stretch as far into the future as the pasta, as they are a key ingredient to much of our cooking, they’ll get us some way there.

But buying the tomatoes at almost half their normal price, and buying the pasta at almost a third of its normal price was such a godsend that my only thought as we drove back to the marina was ‘Where am I going to store all this stuff?’

Barry drove the car right to the back of the boat, and I off-loaded the tins and bags of pasta directly from the boot of the car and into the open hatch of the aft cabin – dropping everything down onto my bed. The spring clean of the food cupboards that I had carried out while Julian and the girls were away now paid dividends. For the next 45 minutes I stowed tins and pasta in every spare stowage space I could find – in the aft heads (used exclusively as a storage room), in the quarter berth food storage boxes, and in the rather depleted long-term storage space by the removable worktop in the galley. The shampoos and shower gels were stowed with the all the other spare toiletries in one of the aft heads cupboard. And it was with some satisfaction that I finally sat down to lunch and a much needed cup of tea.

Opportunities like these don’t come along too often, but when they do, we have to take them. Between us, Julian and I spent less than €25 yesterday, buying staple non-perishable foods and toiletries that, if bought over time and at their normal price, would cost us between double and treble what we paid. Like foraging for wild fruit, vegetables and shell-fish, and occasional attempts at fishing, being frugal and smart with our money means that what little we have stretches farther. We can eat well, cooking nutritious and tasty meals at home, and we can sail towards the horizon, without having to work too many hours to do so.

Alas, all this talk about food is making me hungry. Time to make lunch, I think!