One day in the life of …

by Julian

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Sanlúcar de Guadiana, Spain

This was not a special day on the Rio Guadiana. Normal weather, no fiestas. But I had agreed to work for Manuel, an old gentleman who wants to run boat trips in a large motor boat that has seen better days. He is short and perfectly spherical. Manuel cannot see very well and needs someone to drive and do other tasks that he no longer has the dexterity or fitness to do. I have been working for him on and off for the past few weeks. Martina had decided to go shopping in Villa Real and had left just before the girls got up and I had to get them ready for school.

Normally, getting Lily and Katie ready for school is a gargantuan task, which inevitably involves repeated commands and some screaming. However, when on my own, I think the girls realise my general lack of competence and get ready without expecting an adult to assist them. So it was that the girls were ready a full 20 minutes before we had to leave the boat. This was good because I had to take them to Reme’s shop before school to buy an exercise book which Lily needed.

Less than a minute after dropping the girls to school I am standing outside Manuel’s house. He tosses me the keys to his aging Mercedes. “Donde vamos?” I ask.
“Isla Cristina.” I wrestle the heavy, four geared vehicle, along the steep spaghetti roads leading out of town. Isla Cristina is 44 km away and Manuel and I have been there several times. I take Manuel to the usual spot, near the chandleries and fishing boats. But instead of going into a shop, Manuel whips out a business card and starts asking people for directions. We drive on, periodically stopping along all manner of strange, one-way, semi-pedestrian streets, to the sound of the honking horns of frustrated drivers and the fist waving curses of Manuel as he asks anyone and everyone where the heck this place is. After driving around the whole of the town we end up back where we started. We take a turn down a side road, barely wide enough for the Mercedes. It does not look promising and ends in a dead end. It turns out to be the street mentioned on the business card but there is no sign of any business, or really anything. I leave Manuel talking to some people in a carpenter’s workshop on the next street. I return to find they have been joined by one of the most eye-catching men I have ever seen. He is nearly my height, with a tight black top which displays his enormous muscles to good effect, skin tight ripped jeans, dark skin and a well-groomed beard. I start to mentally refer to him as “The Rock.”

We walk back to the car. The Rock follows us. “Venga!” states Manuel and we get into the car. Disturbingly, The Rock climbs into the back seat. “Sanlúcar” orders Manuel. What! For what purpose are we bringing this mass of human perfection back home to our tiny village.

I drive the 44km back to Sanlúcar. We take The Rock down to the pontoon and he inspects the wooden bench we have constructed over the previous few days along the back of Manuel’s boat. The men who work at the zip wire office, with their gym crafted bodies, stare down at him, with obvious muscle envy. After 20 minutes, the three of us climb back into the Mercedes and I drive the 44km back to Isla Cristina and back to the anonymous side road, where The Rock produces a key and opens a large grey metal door. We all walk inside. My jaw drops as I stare around the workshop. Broken chairs and settees surround us. The Rock is an upholsterer! Manuel leafs through a samples book and selects an outdoor seat cover in pink. The Rock explains that this is one of the more expensive materials, but they both seem to agree that it is worth the money. Then the haggling starts. Not about the cost. Manuel wants the job done tomorrow. Not possible! The foam and the cover would have to be ordered. Friday? No there is other work to do, it would have to be the end of next week. Manuel counts the days on his fingers. No good, too long. The Rock is getting exasperated, but Manuel will simply not back down. “Where do we get the materials from?” he asks.
“Seville.” Comes the reply, with a shrug emphasising the impossibility.
“Only Seville!” Manuel is beaming “Now if you’d said Barcelona that would be different, but Seville, easy!” They both turn and look at me expectantly.
“But I can’t … I have to be in Sanlúcar at two o’clock … pick my daughters up from school … make lunch … Martina is in Portugal … I have a Skype interview for a teaching job in England at three o’clock … I can’t do anything until at least four.” The pair of them discuss this. I don’t understand a word they are saying. Manuel and I climb back into the car and drive back to Sanlúcar once again. It is a quarter to two. “I’ll meet you here at the bar at four” says Manuel “The earlier you can make it the better.” Damn! The pressure is on big time.

I phone Martina. “Hi darling, have you had a good time?”
“Yes, I’m sitting in a lovely Italian restaurant with pizza and a glass of wine. I’ve finished all the shopping.”
“So, you’ll be back on the early bus then?”
“Yes.”
“Great, that means the kids will only be on their own for half an hour. I have to go to Seville.”
“!!!”
“I’ll put them watching a movie. They’ll be fine.”

A pile of salami and salad rolls are hastily shoved in front of the children. “Daddy’s very busy … You can eat the strawberries … Any rolls you don’t want put in this bag and have them later … There’s the computer … The hard drive with the movies … Yes, you can watch anything you like … Here’s a jug of water … If you need me I’ll be in the beach bar until four … Mummy’s back at four thirty … be good … don’t hit each other.”

This might be classed as irresponsible parenting but this is a very small village. Lily and Katie know everyone and everyone knows them. Within certain boundaries they have freedom to run around the place with their friends. I will be able to see them from the bar where I will be taking my Skype call. Rosa is always available as an adult point of contact for the short period when we aren’t in the village. But really, the village is full of responsible adults, many of whom have had our children round for lunch, or even a sleep-over, and vice versa their children with us.

I quickly pull on a shirt. Skype won’t show up my paint covered work shorts and sandals. I go up to the shower block. Great, my beard isn’t too bad, no need to trim. Clean my teeth, splash some water in my face, comb my hair. I’m in the bar with ten minutes to spare. Five minutes later I still cannot get the internet connection. Shit, I’ve got no time. I run to Jeanne and David’s house and ask if I can use their internet. They have changed their internet provider, I need the new password. Jeanne warns me the internet is very slow. Just in time, three o’clock, the Skype call comes through. I answer. I am extremely anxious because this is an important interview. If I get the job it will be my first real professional level employment in years. I need to show I can be bright, enthusiastic, intelligent, can be trusted to teach adults and children. I cannot see or hear the interviewer. A text message comes through ‘Can you hear me?’
“No.” I reply.
‘I’ll try and call back then.’ The call comes through, I answer again. I can see her, but fuzzy and moving jerkily. “Hello.” She says. “Nice to meet you.”
“Hello, pleased to meet you.” I reply. We begin the interview, then it breaks up again. I cannot see her. I hold up my phone and then type ‘If you like we can do this by phone, my number is ……’ After a couple more attempts at Skype she finally calls me. It is nearly 3:30 pm. I am extremely anxious because I know Manuel will be fretting around somewhere. However, I am pleased to be able to leave the house and go somewhere private to talk. I have to tell her I am sorry, I only have half an hour. I did have an hour but because of the Skype thing I am pushed for time. Thankfully she is very sympathetic and tells me we will just have to talk quickly. The interview goes very well but the clock ticks round to four o’clock. I can see Manuel shuffling down the street to find me. I tell her this. I think she finds it amusing and tells me she will email me a job offer. Phew! Manuel tosses me the keys, we climb into the car. “Isla Cristina.” He says.

I am a little puzzled. I thought we were going to Seville. It all becomes clear when we arrive at the upholsterer’s workshop and The Rock climbs into the car. The Rock is coming with us to get the stuff! “Vamos!” I am instructed. I catch snippets of the conversation as I drive as fast as I feel safe to do. Manuel is now in full Spanish mode, talking rapidly in some ancient Andalucian dialect and I struggle to follow him. It seems we are going to some place called Pilas first to pick up the foam, then on to Tomares to get the covering. The Rock’s phone speaks in a clear female voice “Tome la calle a la derecha” (Take the street on the right).
The Rock then tells me “Tome la calle a la derecha”.
Manuel then says loudly and slowly, “la derecha.” As we near the turn he repeats this anxiously. I keep quiet and turn to the right. A little way down the street the phone speaks again in Spanish “Take the third exit at the roundabout.” The Rock says this, followed by Manuel. This is going to be a very long couple of hours.

Getting through Pilas is a piece of cake, and with the foam stuffed into the boot of the car, we head onwards toward Seville along more minor roads. I am reasonably confident we will get this done and back home before the shops close at nine. Then, all of a sudden, a policeman steps out and stops the traffic, two cars in front of us. From a side road, a tractor pulling a decorated wagon pulls out ahead of us, then another and another. “Rocio” Manuel says singing a bit of some Spanish flamenco. Of course, these are returning from the famous Romeria of Rocio, near Seville. A sort of gypsy fiesta where people dance, sing, ride horses and generally do risky, wild things somewhere in the countryside. Some of the carts are full of people. Men in tight grey boleros with wide brimmed hats, women in flamenco dresses with flowers in their hair, singing and clapping in time. After about one hundred tractors have pulled onto the road in front of us the policeman waves us through. We continue in first gear, pain just beginning to shoot up the back of my right leg from the awkward angle of my foot on the throttle. After thirty to forty minutes of crawling along and regularly stopping we manage to lose the tractors and speed down the road. The magnificent city of Seville can be seen sprawling beneath us, in a light haze of smog. How I would love to see Seville one day, but once again I find myself here for some purpose other than tourism.

Arriving in Tomares we find ourselves in an industrial estate of sorts. Every type of furniture store and workshop can be found lining the many roads. The Rock leaves us and, pointing to a couple of shops, says we can go and have a little coffee whilst we wait. Manuel and I cannot find the café. There is a large shop called Muebles Mexicanos, it looks like a taco restaurant. Manuel starts asking people where the café is. A woman points to the taco store and says “No, look it says ‘Muebles’ it sells furniture.” Eventually I look down the next street and see the café. I signal to Manuel to join me. Coming from the other direction is The Rock with a roll of pink material under his arm. We wait for Manuel to arrive and the three of us enter the building.

Now, it is difficult to describe the appearance of the three of us entering the café. Manuel is short and built like a snowman, with a round head atop a round body, he cannot see very well and has failed to shave properly. I am a tall unkempt Englishman wearing sandals and blue swimming shorts. We are accompanied by The Rock, who really would not look out of place in an American WWF wrestling match. Yes, people are staring and staring hard. It is a fine wooden lined room, built by someone who really knew about interior furnishing, with jamons hanging all around. An espresso for me, a beer for The Rock and hot milk with decaffeinated instant coffee powder for Manuel (descafeinado de sobre). As my Portuguese boss used to say “The Spanish really don’t know how to drink coffee.”

The day is nearly over. Just a two-hour drive back to Sanlúcar via Isla Cristina. We fill the tank with diesel and I say goodbye to Manuel at around 9:30 pm. “Las ocho por la mañana.” What! I have to meet Manuel again at eight o’clock in the morning to go and fetch The Rock again, so he can upholster the seat on the back of the boat. That night I recount the events to Martina and she seems very keen to get a look at The Rock tomorrow.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Coventry University Hospital, England

While I am driving in Spain, my mother is under general anaesthetic in an English hospital. The surgery team bustle around her, removing one of her kidneys and the ureter connecting it to her bladder. This contains a tumour. The surgeon also removes two enlarged lymph nodes. She now has a three week wait to find out if the enlarged lymph nodes are linked to the tumour.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. A courtroom somewhere in England

Meanwhile, in an English courtroom, a man is sentenced for murdering his wife. He gets life with a minimum of seventeen years in prison. The murdered woman’s son reads a victim statement to the court. I haven’t seen the son since he was around eleven years old. The woman was my dad’s ex-girlfriend. Only thirteen years older than me. They lived with dad for a while. Although, circumstances have meant that I haven’t seen her for eighteen years, I regarded her as a friend. She was a very loving person.

A final thought

The world is a crazy place. Anyway, I now have some work for a few weeks in England and it is near the homes of my parents. I will see them in two weeks time. I will be keen to learn if Manuel does manage to run some boat trips, but that is not going to be part of my story this summer.

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Birthday parties and European unity

In the era of Brexit, a little family event last week felt like the spirit of European unity in microcosm. Lily turned nine and for some time we had been planning the party. A girls only pizza party at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim was decided on. Invitations were sent out, Rogerio, the proprietor, was advised of times and numbers and flavours of pizza, and I made birthday cake, jelly and chocolate cornflake cakes aboard Carina. There was also the matter of lifejackets, as I rounded up the required number to ferry guests from the Spanish to the Portuguese side of the Rio Guadiana. My friend Kate, with a larger and more stable dinghy than mine, played ferrywoman, and otherwise played a blinder, helping me out at the party.

With the guests, bright giggly chatty girls aged 6 to 11, safely across the river, we walked through Alcoutim and out to the beach on the Cadavais, a tributary of the Guadiana. Rogerio had set up the party on the beach side of the bar and, while the pizzas were baking in the oven, the girls went off to play on the beach.

There were three distinct groups of children, with Lily, Katie and their friends Hannah and (another) Katie, the link between the other two groups. I had asked these girls, in advance, to make an effort to get the other two groups of girls together. Not only had they never met before, they didn’t share a common language. In one group were Lily’s Spanish school friends and in the other were two home schooled live aboard French girls, one of whom Lily has known since her family was last up the Rio Guadiana over a year ago and other whom Lily has befriended in recent weeks.

I needn’t have worried about the distinct groups making friends. After some initial shyness, the girls all played together on the sand, paddling in the water, making sand castles and, by the end of the party, Spanish and British, French and Spanish, British and French walked back to the river holding hands.

When it came time to blow out the birthday candles, we sang Happy Birthday in Spanish, English and French. Given that Lily is half-British half-Irish, and that the party was held in Portugal, I suppose we should also have made an effort to sing it in Irish and Portuguese. But by then I, for one, had had enough of singing and was hankering after strawberry jelly and lemon birthday cake.

As they sat around the table – two British girls, two half-Brits half-Irish, two French and three Spanish, the babble around the table was in a mix of languages. Three of the four English speakers also speak fluent Spanish, and the fourth is making good progress. Apart from Katie, the English speakers also speak a tiny bit of French and my girls have a decent smattering of Portuguese. The two French girls speak a little English and Spanish and the three Spanish girls are always keen to try their English out on me, their Thursday evening English teacher. So we all spoke what we could, making ourselves understood in a mix of well-spoken and poorly-spoken languages, gestures and goodwill.

And when it was time to go home the troops rebelled and insisted we stay longer, so I had to send messages to parents to say their children wouldn’t be home just yet! I sat there with Kate, enjoying a gin and tonic, while the children ate at the party table or played down at the beach. At first I thought ‘What an international group we are’. And then I revised that thought. We’re not international, we’re European, with our multiple languages and multiple cultures. For our children, hearing different languages and being exposed to different cultures is the norm (Lily and Katie’s Dutch friend missed the party, as she had gone to visit her grandparents in Holland for the Semana Santa holidays). Despite their differences, that bunch of 8 girls share far more in common than not.

I asked myself, do we share anything in common beyond a common currency (for some of us) and open borders and urban myths about regulation-shaped bananas? (I jest of course. I am a proud European). Perhaps our little party wouldn’t have softened the resolve of Theresa May and Nigel Farage and their ilk. But it made me come over all warm and fuzzy – and I’m sure that wasn’t just because of the G&T!

The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

Unusual weather

While my mother sent me photos of increasing amounts of snow in her garden, and told me about Ireland coming to a standstill, here in southern Iberia we experienced some extreme weather of our own.

It all started on Tuesday of two weeks ago, to coincide precisely with the start of the children’s five-day weekend. We were forecast heavy rain and high winds for ten days. And did we get it! The same weather system that was causing extreme warm weather in the Arctic, and extreme cold and heavy snowfall in northern Europe, was coming to us as westerly winds bringing rain in off the Atlantic.

The rivers and streams, dry for far too long for the lack of rain, were soon running with vigour. The river bed, where for almost two years we have enjoyed picnics and barbecues on the river bed, was not turned into a fast-flowing river. There were waterfalls and cataracts down previously bone dry fields, and the streets of Sanlúcar were turned into torrents of run-off.

But the rain wasn’t a problem. With virtually no rain since last April, the land has been crying out for moisture and sheep farmers have had to make harsh decisions about the lives of their animals, as the cost of feed over such a prolonged period becomes impossible to meet. No, the rain was a godsend and, after two weeks, the land is verdant and lush.

The problem was the wind. I had planned to move Carina off the Sanlúcar pontoon on the 28th of February and onto a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. But on that morning, those of us who were due to leave were advised to not go anywhere, as conditions were too nasty. I had spent the night before wide awake, as Carina was tossed and dashed against the pontoon, the noise of straining lines coming between me and sleep. With Julian away for a couple of months, the girls have been sharing my bed, and twice that night I snuck out past them, got dressed and went out in the howling wind and driving rain to check the mooring lines, check both dinghies were secure and protected by fenders, and to make sure there was nothing lying about on deck that might fly away. The next day all we could do was look out at the dire conditions.

The next morning, the 1st of March, we went by car to Ayamonte, because the girls both needed new shoes. Down at the river mouth, Ayamonte lacked the protection that Sanlúcar enjoyed, and we struggled to walk back to the car, which was parked close to the marina. The boats in the marina were being tossed around like toys as waves crashed violently over each wooden pontoon. I was glad Carina was twenty-two miles upriver.

When we returned to Sanlúcar at lunchtime the wind had whipped up into a frenzy. The west wind, an unusual wind direction for these parts, pushed the boats hard against the pontoon. When the gusts came, which they did frequently, the seven yachts on the pontoon were pushed precariously on their sides, so their decks almost touched the pontoon. The pontoon itself bucked and swayed and the gangway from the land down onto the pontoon eventually broke, the rope holding it in place shredding under the strain, and calling for a hasty repair job by Tony, our neighbour on Holy Mackerel.

I put extra mooring lines on Carina, but worried about the neighbouring unoccupied boat – if her lines didn’t hold, she might bash into Carina. I was grateful for Tony, who patrolled the pontoon, checking lines, moving dinghies and canoes that were at risk of being squished by the yachts and pontoon they were sandwiched between. Curious, I turned on our electronics, so I could keep an eye on the wind speed. I read one gust of 35mph, and Katie read one of 40mph. I believed her, because when she called ‘40’ down to me, Carina felt like she was being flattened.

I had to take Carina off the pontoon. I had paid for 25 nights, and this was now night 26 and someone else was waiting to take our space. There was no chance of me getting onto the mooring in these conditions and, besides, the mooring itself had become fouled by someone else’s anchor due to the strong wind. When a brief lull in the wind and rain descended as darkness was falling that evening, I made a dash off the pontoon and across to an empty space on the Alcoutim side of the river.

A bunch of people helped me across the river. Lily and Katie did their bit. Linda from Holy Mackerel and Ray from Tinto crewed for me, Tony followed in his dinghy to nudge Carina into the tight space if needed, and Hazel and Katie from Ros Ailither waited on the Alcoutim pontoon to take the lines. Light was fading fast as we crossed the river and, after the stress of the weather, the sudden dash across the river, and the tight space I had to squeeze into in front of two rafted boats, I was a bit of wreck. I temporarily broke my ongoing alcohol-free New Year’s Resolution and invited all my great helpers up to the bar for a beer and had a couple myself!

I hoped, in a day or two, to go on the mooring. But the wind and rain continued apace, with no sign of let-up and the mooring remained fouled with no-one willing (understandably) to untangle it for me in those conditions. On Sunday there were tornados along the coast, causing damage along the Algarve and Huelva coasts. And still the rain and wind continued. Collecting the girls from school and then returning across the river to get to my English lessons was fraught with anxiety, as the wind gusted and the rain reduced my visibility.

We’ve had a slight reprieve since then. My mooring was eventually untangled. It took six people three hours to sort it out, and I finally moved on. The mooring hasn’t all be plain sailing either, but I think it’s sorted out now. We’ve had some bad days since then, with more wind and rain. And there’s more bad weather due later on this afternoon. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in my cockpit again. I feel I deserve it!!!

Food movement

I get a message on my phone from Narciso, asking if I’d like a pumpkin. I immediately reply in the affirmative and the next day Julian and the girls set off to meet Narciso at his vegetable patch. They return home with a monster – green and orange and so massive the girls can barely get their arms around it. With some difficulty, Julian slices it open, gives a third to Clare and a third to Hazel, our nearest neighbours on the pontoon that day. He keeps a third for ourselves and makes enough pumpkin soup to last us three meals and with plenty of pumpkin to spare to roast for dinner. He roasts the seeds for snacking on.

Spike appears and asks if we’d like some oranges. Yes, please, I say, and he returns to his car and brings me down two crates of big juicy oranges from the trees on his land. I give half of them away.

At school one morning, Sawa practically begs me to come and take some lemons from the tree in her garden. The tree is getting too big and they want to cut it back once all the lemons have gone. The next morning Julian takes a bagful.

When we’re down to the last four or five of Spike’s oranges, English Diana knocks on the side of the boat. She hands me a shopping bag full of oranges from the trees on her land. The next morning there’s a message on my phone from Kate, informing me that she’s left a bag of grapefruits in our dinghy. There are far too many for our meagre needs, so I share them with Clare and with Andrew, who I happen to bump into on the pontoon.

Clare knocks on the boat to ask if we’d like some coriander. Pablo, at the market, gives it away free with every purchase, and he’s given Clare too much. We love coriander and are delighted to take it.

Spanish Diana comes down to the boat. She’s been given a glut of fruit and vegetables by Luis Jose. Can I come to her house and please relieve her of some of them. I grab two shopping bags and she can barely get in her door for the bags of produce stacked outside. She gives me two massive cauliflowers, twenty or more oranges and a giant shopping bag full of spinach. I return to the boat, giving Clare one cauliflower and a quarter of the spinach as I walk past. I send Hazel a message, asking if she’d like some spinach too. She takes another quarter.

Julian forages most days and returns with chard, asparagus and alexanders. On this day, he returns home with a large bunch of asparagus. I’ve only just shared the cauliflower and spinach with Clare, and now Julian’s knocking on her boat and giving her asparagus too. ‘We’re going to have to invite more people round to dinner’, Clare laughs.

Narciso sends me another message. Do I know who has the key to the gate into the plot of land next to his vegetable patch? I don’t. The land is untended and supposedly owned by some ex-pat who doesn’t currently live here. The oranges are falling off the trees and rotting on the ground. Someone should be going in there and getting the oranges, Narciso says. I tell him I’ll try to find out whose land it is and who has the key.

That’s all happened in the last ten days. ‘The food movement’ sort of takes on a different meaning here on the Rio Guadiana!

Nothing too serious

I’ve always been a small-town girl. A country girl. I love rural life. I love that everyone knows everyone, people stop to say hello, people remember things about you and ask after you and your family. Of course, that can make life a bit claustrophobic at times, a bit like living in a fish bowl. But I’ve never had a craving to live anywhere other than in small close-knit communities.

A minor accident recently tickled me about just how small and close-knit we are on the Rio Guadiana.

Mammy came for a five-day visit on New Year’s Day. Late in the afternoon on the 2nd of January, a misstep in the cockpit of a friend’s boat (carrying my laptop and not looking where I was going) led to a twisted ankle, the pain of which caused me to faint (I’m such a wuss). The next morning my ankle was purple, painful and had swollen up like a balloon.

As I hobbled up to the shower block to take a shower, old Manuel was sitting on his usual bench, contemplating the river. ‘What happened?’ he asked and told me to go to the doctor immediately. He said the health centre would be open for the remainder of the morning and sang the praises of our lovely GP, Umberto.

Taking Manuel’s sage advice, I hobbled, post-shower, the 200 or so metres from the shower block to the health centre (Sanlúcar really is tiny). Along the way I met, if memory serves, five people. And, because Sanlúcar is so tiny, I knew them all. Each one gave me a concerned look and asked what happened. I gave each a brief account as I hobbled on my way.

At the health centre I was first in line and had only sat down when the door to the consultation room opened, the previous patient departed and I went in. Umberto confirmed a sprain and ligament damage, but was confident my ankle wasn’t broken. He recommended not walking for up to five days and keeping my foot raised. ‘Sit back and watch lots of TV’, he advised.

Walking down the corridor to check if the nurse was free to strap up my ankle, he left me sitting in the consulting room with the door open. The health centre had suddenly grown busy. An old man, to whom I’ve spoken once or twice, poked his head round the door. ‘Happy New Year’, he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, and I described my injury, grateful that I wasn’t in for treatment for an embarrassing rash, or the morning after pill or to be tested for an STD!

Moments later a friend’s mother-in-law saw me sitting there. ‘We’ve all been ill over Christmas’, she said. Only her 90-something year old mother had not succumbed to the flu that had laid low every other generation of the family. ‘And what about you?’ she asked. And for, could it be the eighth time in ten minutes, I recounted the fall, the sprained ankle, my mother’s few days of relaxation now jeopardised by having to wait on me hand and foot as I rested my swollen ankle.

When called, I hobbled down to the nurse, who bandaged my ankle from toe to knee. The size of the bandage seemed excessive, but would certainly look the part as I lay around for the next few days watching movies while I was served cups of tea and slices of Christmas pudding!

Before I left the health centre I met one more woman, who I knew from a Spanish conversation class I used to attend last year. Once again I recounted the episode and could now add the GP’s diagnosis, the size of the bandage and the recommended recovery method.

Stepping onto the street, I heard Julian’s unmistakable voice in the shop next door, so I popped in to tell him the GP’s diagnosis, and in so doing had to once again recount the whole tale, this time to Irene, the ever cheerful and lovely octogenarian shopkeeper.

Hard as it is to believe, I met no-one on the short walk back to the boat and, indeed, saw no-one other than my immediate family for the remainder of the day.

Late the next morning there was a knock on the boat and four friends boarded with bottles of wine as they planned to help me drink my ankle back to health. We drank, ate cakes, and Roy (my sailing partner from last summer) confiscated Katie’s guitar and he and Mammy sang together.

I had planned to take Mammy out for lunch that day, but given my incapacitation, she decided to take Lily and Katie out for pizza to the beach bar on the other side of the river. The three of them took the ferry across the river, from Spain to Portugal, walked to the beach and into the bar. And what was the first thing Rogerio, the proprietor, asked when they walked in the door? ‘How’s Martina’s leg?’.

You just have to love small town life!

(P.S. My ankle remains stiff and sore. Walking makes it feel better. Not moving for extended periods makes it feel worse. Inclines and steps hurt, sitting seiza or crosslegged is painful. I’m still wearing an ankle support 24 hours a day. Lesson learned: watch where you step!!)

Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!

A reason for writing

I had an email recently from Stephen (Hi Stephen!). I don’t know Stephen, but he knows me. He started his email by telling me that he enjoys reading my blog and wondering if I would be writing any more. These few simple words from someone I’ve never met where the kick in the bum I needed to get me writing again.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of writing for some time. 2017 has been a bad year for me, with regard to writing. My blog has suffered from neglect and all those half-finished (half-started) short and long form pieces I’ve written with a view to old-style publishing, have failed to see the light of day.

It’s not as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Family life aboard Carina on the Rio Guadiana is no less interesting (for me at least!) than it was when we first arrived. My understanding of and passion for the place grows deeper, as my roots weave deeper into the soil. I continue to make observations about life here, about the lives of my children, and about the multiple cultures that clash or blend or mash or crash here. I find great amusement in my ongoing cultural and linguistic faux pas and continue to make promises that tomorrow will be the day when I start the business of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker. I continue to be in awe of the environment – the river itself, the seemingly endless hills like a great ocean rolling away in all directions from the brown ribbon of river. I rejoice at the passing of the seasons, ponder global impacts on local ecosystems and reflect on my own choices.

Despite all of this rich potential writing material, I have generally failed over the course of the past year to put pen to paper. I could claim it’s due to lack of time. Julian was working full time, six days a week for the first eight months of the year, while I worked part time and had almost full responsibility for the children and the boat. Since September, we have swapped roles once again, with Julian at home while I work close to full-time – teaching English five days a week, working two editing jobs, and occasionally taking care of a friend’s Air B&B property. It’s not only that I am busy with all that work, it’s that the jobs themselves are so varied and diverse, I require a lot of headspace to coordinate everything I do.

I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoy the work, the money is decent, and I get to spend quite a bit of time at home. I can walk the children to school every day, go for a coffee with a friend, have lunch with the children and help with their homework, and fit my work in around it all. I could find time to write too. But the first three months of this schedule robbed me of any desire to write. I thought about all the things I wanted to write about, but the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard eluded me. I finally feel ready to write again. The chaos of the first few months has started to shape itself into routine and I can find space in my days again for walking and reading – two activities without which I cannot write.

But a busy schedule has not been the only thing that’s kept me from writing. I’m not the only person feeling the way I’ve felt this past year. I follow a few writers’ blogs and in the past year I’ve been reading blogs by women writers who feel at a loss. The observations of a mother on a boat, or the verse of a poet, or the ponderings of a literary chicken farmer can seem futile in the face of American politics, the rise of the extreme right, Brexit, our oceans choked in plastic, extreme weather events, children dying of war and starvation in Syria and elsewhere, and a thousand other injustices happening on the global stage. I am not alone in feeling that my writing is pointless and futile.

But then I receive an email from someone like Stephen which reminds me that my silly musings often put a smile on peoples’ faces. And in these sometimes dark days, putting a smile on a stranger’s face is reward enough for me.

The interest people take in my writing boomerangs back to me in positive ways. Emails like Stephen’s put a smile on my face. Neeraj Bhushan’s interest in my blog lead to us recently featuring on the cover of Buland Prajatantra, a fortnightly Hindi magazine. Neeraj, a journalist, made contact with me a few months ago to ask if he could write about us for his magazine. Getting to know Neeraj by email and WhatsApp has been delightful and the ensuing magazine article (I’m assured) captured the essence of why we set sail and why we continue to live on a boat.

Martina Tyrrell

A star turn on the cover of the early December edition of Buland Prajatantra

Because of my blog I have been consulted by documentary researchers, writers, conference organisers, and my family and Carina even feature in a Hungarian secondary school English textbook!

My blog has also brought me into contact with home educators, wannabe sailors, salty old sea dog sailors, foodies, environmentalists, parents, and many more. People have contacted me with questions about buying boats, sailing boats, living aboard with children, and much more. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things, but the blog has sparked an interest in people, and made them want to get in touch with me. I even met a man the other day who said ‘I sailed to the Rio Guadiana because of your blog’. Wow.

I have a small blog following and, although it once seemed important to make the numbers grow, I no longer care how big or small my following is. What I am concerned about is continuing to write meaningfully for the people who take the time to read my blog. I want to write for family and friends, and for strangers. I want to continue to make people laugh, or think, or wonder, or question. Hopefully my writing can light a small candle in a sometimes dark world.

So, I am drawing a line under 2017, and looking ahead to 2018 where I return to doing the type of writing I enjoy most.

Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx

 

In the olive grove

Around a bend on the narrow track of the old smugglers route I came face-to-face with him. Huge and jet black, he was square-backed and sturdy. In amongst a grove of olive trees, he was at home and I was the interloper. My mind played tricks for a second that felt like eternity. His blackness was so complete I couldn’t make out what he was. A black bull? A cart horse? A burro? He stood stock still, regarding me, not giving an inch of his ground, or a clue to what he might do. The second passed and the landscape around him fell into its correct proportions, allowing me to see his height, his breadth, beneath the squat olive trees and to recognise him for what he unmistakably was: a wild boar.

I had seen evidence of boar throughout the morning: recently planted trees, in a garden where I joined the trail, dug around and uprooted; hoof prints on the muddy path following the previous day’s rain; a wide expansive field of mushrooms snuffled and dug, deep pits in the dark wet soil amidst half-eaten fungus.

We were twenty, thirty metres apart, no more. ‘Hello’ I said, as is my fashion when meeting a wild animal, whether bee or hedgehog, polar bear or duck. ‘How are you?’ He stared at me steadily. He was easily the same weight as me and likely at least twice as strong. I took a tentative step forward. He did the same. I took a second step. He did likewise. Unlike other parts of the trail where hillside rises sharply on one side and falls precipitously on the other, this was a more levelled out place, with the olive grove ahead and a less used path leading up and around the rocky hillside. ‘I’m going to go this way’, I told him. ‘I won’t bother you’. I took a step onto the path to my right, watching him out of the corner of my eye. I saw that he watched me too.

He came on, claiming the path as rightfully his own. I carefully made my way along the other path, sleeves and trousers snagged on thorny undergrowth, the path quickly losing definition. I turned around and watched him continue on his way, his back to me now, huge grey testicles the only part of him not jet black. I started to take my bag off my back, to take a photograph of him, but thought better of it. Enjoy this moment, I told myself. Enjoy the privilege of the encounter, enjoy the knowledge that this place belongs to him, enjoy the great wild stark beauty of him.

A second more, maybe two, and he was gone. I don’t know where. Maybe he watched me as I clumsily made my way back onto the main path, and carried on, now more aware, more alert, more watchful. Maybe he didn’t give me a second thought. Maybe how little I affected him was the inverse of how much he affected me.