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!

Preparing to move on

With only six weeks until our planned departure from Aguadulce and the start of our 2015 cruising season, we have been taking advantage of my father-in-law’s car to get some much needed jobs underway.

Last week Julian took the sails and the spray hood to a sail maker in Almería for repairs. The sails have some small tears and rips – on the canvas and along the seams – that will turn into big rips if not dealt with soon. The spray hood shelters the cockpit from head wind and spray. I have never been able to sail with it in position, as the plastic windows are so weather beaten they have lost all transparency. Julian is tall enough to see over the top of the spray hood when at the helm but, being a short-ass, I have to helm with the elements in my face! When we removed the spray hood for storage before Christmas, one of the window panels cracked from old age. New transparent plastic should make for more pleasant motoring and sailing for all from now on.

Another day last week Julian drove to the chandler in Almerimar to stock up on items he will need when the boat comes out of the water in March. During that week he will thoroughly clean all those parts of Carina that sit below the water line – hull, keel, propeller and rudder. He bought five litres of anti-foul – enough for two coats of paint that will protect the underwater parts from sea-critters. He will also replace the old sacrificial anode with the new 2.5kg one he bought. Gradually, the anode dissolves away into the water, thus protecting the metal parts of the propeller and the engine from corrosion.

The next big purchase – both in terms of size and cost – is new anchor chain. We currently use half chain-half warp, and the chain is old and rusting. We want to move to 100% anchor chain and this week Julian plans to look at some chain for sale in Roquetas de Mar.

All of these jobs would be much more difficult and more expensive to carry out without having access to a car. Although we find living without a car in general very easy – we don’t even think about it – there are times such as now when having a car comes in handy! So, thank you to my father-in-law for letting us use his while he’s visiting.

And where do we plan to sail in six weeks’ time? Well, we’ve narrowed it down to east, west or south!!

Moody weather

While Julian and the girls were away I spent my days in t-shirts and shorts, changing into something warmer each evening for going to work. Even during the storm force winds, it was pretty warm. Each morning as I went on my 4km walk along the seafront, I imagined how lovely it would be for my father-in-law, Barry, to bring his early morning Thermos cup of tea, and sit on a bench or walk along the beach, smoking his pipe and watching the spectacular sunrises over the sea in the direction of Cabo de Gata.

DSCI0057Julian, the girls and Barry were due to catch the Portsmouth to Santander ferry on Wednesday, February 4th. But a couple of days before, the ferry was postponed for 24 hours due to poor weather conditions. And just as well, as it turned out. Had they been on the Wednesday ferry they might have been among the 220 motorists who had to be rescued along the motorway from Santander towards Madrid, due to severe weather conditions and snowdrifts blocking the roads.

When they finally arrived in Santander on Thursday evening, the three-hour drive to their overnight accommodation turned into an almost six-hour drive, through driving snow and sleet. Julian and his dad had been worrying about snow in the UK, but had never imagined having to contend with far worse conditions in Spain.

By the time they reached Aguadulce on Saturday evening, it was freezing cold. Somehow, we avoided snowfall here, but snow fell all around. I haven’t experienced such biting cold aboard Carina since early spring 2013 in the UK. For days we have kept the weather boards in, as protection against those biting north-easterlies. Instead of strolling the promenade in the early morning, Barry, dressed in thermal underwear, flannel shirt, woolly jumper and winter coat, sits in his car for an early morning puff of his pipe.

The weather is also proving far from consistent. Following days of this piercingly cold wind, Wednesday was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts again. We basked in it, drinking in the warm sunshine. Lily and Katie even donned their wetsuits and took a dip in the sea. I hoped this might be the return of the good weather.

From Wednesday...

From Wednesday…

But the next day, Thursday, brought prolonged heavy rain and we were back to wrapping up warmly again. Thursday

…to Thursday

Oh, I’m not complaining. I just want some warm sun to shine down on my father-in-law to compensate for his winters in the UK Midlands. We’ll get warm weather aplenty in the coming months. Back in the UK, he might not.

Keeping in touch

I’m almost forty-two years old. I grew up in the little cottage that has belonged to my family for about 140 years. My father and his father were born in that house, my mother still lives there. My roots are planted deeply in the midlands of Ireland. But for the past twenty years I have been a nomad. At the age of twenty-two I moved to Japan, and from there back to Ireland, then to Nunavut in Canada, then to Scotland, back to Nunavut, back to Scotland, then to England, then onto Carina, and now here I am in southern Spain. I’ve lived all over the UK, and I’ve travelled extensively across Canada, and along the east coasts of the United States and Australia, and throughout Europe. I’m a wanderer at heart. Over those twenty years, advances in communication technology have made the world a smaller place and both my home in Ireland and my friends and family scattered all over the world no longer seem as far away as they once did.

When I was growing up we didn’t have a phone. Neither did any of my relatives, or any of my neighbours, with the exception of Jimmy and Mrs. Phelan who lived about 300 yards down the road. If an urgent phone call needed to be made we would run down to Phelan’s and Jimmy or Mrs. Phelan (Mr. Phelan was always ‘Jimmy’; Mary Phelan was always ‘Mrs.’) would show us into their sitting room and close the door to afford some privacy. Afterwards, we would hand over 10p. We didn’t make phone calls often. I remember one night, when my sister was small, she got her finger caught in the bathroom door and the doctor had to be called. Daddy wasn’t home, so Mammy sent me across the road to McGlynn’s and Mel ran down to Phelan’s to phone the doctor.

When I was 16 years old I got an opportunity to go to France for the summer to work as an au pair and improve my French. The family I was to stay with wrote me a letter and asked me to phone to finalise the arrangements. Mammy drove me into Edenderry and we queued up at the public pay phone outside the Bank of Ireland, waiting our turn to make the call to France. During those few weeks in France, I wrote home every couple of days, long rambling letters about how homesick I was!

I was 19 years old, in my second year at university, when my parents got a phone in our house. Throughout my years at university, I would queue up – in cold, wind and rain – behind a long line of other students, waiting my turn to use a pay phone to call my parents at work, or from my second year on, at home.

During the three years I lived in Japan telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and my parents and I had an arrangement. They called me once a month and I called them once a month, so we got to talk every two weeks. Those phone calls cost a fortune, so our primary means of communication was by letter. We wrote long letters to each other. My parents’ letters were regularly wrapped up in newspapers, particularly during the summer months, when Daddy sent me the Monday newspaper each week with the latest stories from the weekend’s football and hurling championships. The newspapers were wrapped in envelopes you could buy at the time especially for posting newspapers. Japan really did feel like a long long way from home.

Shortly after I moved back to Ireland in 1998 I got my first laptop and my first email account. The friends I had made in Japan – Japanese, American, Canadian, Australian, British – all got email accounts at around the same time, and suddenly we were able to keep in touch easily and cheaply. Of course, the dial up internet service we had back then was painfully slow, but compared to writing a letter, it seemed like the speed of light.

The cost of international phone calls had started to come down too, so that when I moved to Nunavut in 2000 I was able to email my parents every day and by buying cheap international calling cards, I could phone them once or twice a week. That first year in Arviat I worked at the elementary school and most evenings after school I spent an hour in the computer lab, emailing family and friends in far-flung places. Sometimes at weekends I would let myself into the school to listen to sporting events on Irish radio on the internet. Listening to Michael O’Muircheartaigh’s voice brought me closer to home.

In January 2004, in Scotland, I got my first mobile phone, and now I could keep in touch with my family in Ireland via text message. We could send messages on a whim and the distance between us was cut even shorter.

And then came Facebook and Skype. What a world these have opened up. Sure, I’m critical of Facebook. I dislike the advertising. And I dislike when people I don’t even know want to be ‘friends’. (I ignore them). But it has made the world such a small place for me. My friends from Japan are all married now with children of their own; the kids I taught in Arviat back in 2000 are now parents; my old school and university friends are all moving towards middle age as gracefully as I am!! I love that I have the opportunity to carry on these important relationships with people. I suspect that without Facebook I would not have spent Easter two years ago with my friend Meredith and her family in Haddonfield, New Jersey, or visited Sara and her family last year in Princeton. Without Facebook my friendships with Gavin, Bernard and Finbar might have fizzled away to nothing. Without Facebook ataata Paul and anaana Linda would not have given Lily her Inuit name, Niviaq, and the relationships Lily has through her name would not exist.

In the three weeks that Julian and the girls were away, Julian and I emailed almost every day and we Skyped a few times. I Skyped my friend Katie in Bristol for a good old catch up, and I’ve been able, through Facebook, to keep in touch with my adopted family in Arviat during what is, for them, a most difficult time.

Compared to most people I know, Julian and I are lightweights when it comes to communication technology. Between us we own one laptop and one old mobile phone, but we don’t own a smart phone or a tablet or any of those other things. But with the improvements in technology over the past twenty years we are able to easily and cheaply keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. It makes travelling a lot easier, knowing that the people who are important to us can be in touch any time they want; and the children can talk face-to-face with their grandmothers any day of the week. In many areas of my life I am an unashamed Luddite, but hurray for technology that allows us to stay emotionally close to our loved ones.

Burn the book

Twice this week, and for very different reasons, I’ve felt the need to cast aside the textbook from which I teach English, in order to focus on other things. At the English language academy where I work Monday to Friday, each class works from a textbook published by Cambridge University Press. In the past I’ve taken issue with some of the material in the books (igloos are made from ice; the universal use of contractions – don’t, can’t, I’m, etc –without teaching what those contractions are or mean; and the insistence on teaching such archaic phrases as ‘Whose books are those?’ and ‘Needn’t she go there?’). The boss wants us to get through those books quickly, thus demonstrating to the parents, who pay for their children to attend, that English is being learned. But ploughing through a text book doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

I teach children and adults but, both occasions this week when I decided to not use the book (don’t tell the boss) were with nine-year olds, currently on different pages of the same book.

I was horrified when I looked over the page I was supposed to teach on Thursday. How could I teach this rubbish? The top half of the page contained four photos – a teacher, a bus driver, a street cleaner and a doctor (the street cleaner was the only person whose face wasn’t shown…just a hand on a sweeping brush); and in the corner of each photo was a cartoon depicting what life would be like if these four professions didn’t exist. Without a teacher there would be anarchy in the classroom; without a bus driver, anarchy on the bus; without a street cleaner…you get my drift. The accompanying dialogue CD had children being rude to a teacher, rude to a bus driver, rude to a street cleaner….. The point of the lesson was that children should show respect, but the content of the lesson was so poorly thought out. I’m sure the teachers among you will be appalled to see that the writers of this textbook think that your primary role is not to educate and facilitate learning, but to keep people in line! Likewise, if you’re a bus driver, street cleaner or doctor. I really didn’t want to teach this.

And then my nine-year old students saved me from having to. Sergio came in first and proceeded to show me part of his gem collection that he had brought to class. When the others arrived (seven students in all) they wanted to see what Sergio had and to tell me about their minerals and stones. I show them the tiny fossil I always carry in my purse. They all wanted to know the English words for these and so an impromptu geology lesson ensued, as they explained the characteristics of various rocks and minerals and I tried to figure out what they meant before finding the word in the dictionary. In English they described iron, slate, marble, and fossils. Without any prompting from me, they all insisted on writing the words down and each one showed me the vocabulary notebooks they keep. No-one had ever told them to keep vocabulary notebooks – every one of them does it of their own accord.

‘What’s that teacher?’ Ainhoa asked, pointing to the pendant around my neck. I explained it is a caribou antler carving of an Inuit woman wearing an amauti. I took it off and passed it around the classroom, together with my walrus ivory rings – one in the shape of a beluga whale, the other a snowy owl. So we moved from geology to Arctic animals, to the difference between an antler and a horn, to the differences between toothed and baleen whales. For these little kids to do this in English, struggling to understand me and to be understood by me, was phenomenal. And I was learning too. For every new word they learned in English, I learned its Spanish equivalent. I would never have guessed that by the end of this week I would know that morsa is walrus, reno is reindeer, and lechuza is owl.

Buoyed by the fun we were having, Sergio piped up ‘I know all the planets in order’. Ok, so maybe he didn’t say it in such perfect English, but he communicated it well. As he listed the planets, Ainhoa jumped up and drew the solar system on the board. Miguel and Jose added bits and pieces and by the end there was a blooming good solar system, complete with orbits around the sun, covering the board. A debate ensued (in English) as to whether Pluto is still considered a planet or not. The seven children told me things about the planets that I didn’t know, and I told them things they didn’t know. We even talked about the possibility of travelling to and colonising Mars.

And then I did a naughty thing. At the end of every class we have to fill in a form stating what we’ve covered. The boss isn’t interested in geology and ecology and astronomy. So I wrote that we’d covered that page about the anarchy-quelling teachers and bus drivers. Who’s to know otherwise!


The second instance of throwing the book away was far less pleasant. It happened a day earlier, with another class of nine-year olds. This all-boy class has always been a little challenging for me. They are boisterous and fun-loving and, with a couple of exceptions, not at all interested in learning English. In the past I have had particular difficulties with two boys – I shall call them Juan and Luis, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with anyone whose skin colour is not white. The textbook depicts cartoon characters with various skin colours and one of the two cartoon families that appear throughout the book is Indian. (Interestingly, all of the photographs in the book are of white people – well done, Cambridge University Press). On days when we open a page to a cartoon of people who clearly look Indian or African, these two boys begin their giggles and tittering and making comments about ‘negros’ and ‘terrorists’. My Spanish language abilities are virtually non-existent, so dealing with this effectively, is proving difficult for me. I have asked the principal to speak to these two boys, but he did so without having me present, so I’m not sure if he effectively conveyed why their behaviour is inappropriate.

On Wednesday I was teaching ‘er’ endings (riveting stuff). I asked the boys to think of words that end in ‘er. They came up with teacher, driver, mother, brother, etc. Then Juan said ‘nigger’. Now, I don’t know if that word is as awful in Spanish as it is in English, but it was time to forget about teaching English for a while. A much more important lesson was necessary.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to make myself understood. But if I used clear, simple English, was repetitive, and used the dictionary when necessary, the boys would understand by the tone of my voice how using this word was such a serious matter. I’d had enough of these two boys goofing around about ‘negros’ and thinking it was all a big joke.

I began by explaining very carefully and clearly that I never wanted to hear that word used in my classroom again. I would refuse to teach the boy who used that word. If I found out that a boy had used that word on the street, or in school, or at home I would similarly refuse to teach him. Juan, who had uttered the word, had downcast eyes and twice he said ‘sorry’.

With the help of my English-Spanish dictionary and a lot of body language, I explained that this word had been used by one group of people to put another group of people down and (and here I struggled to express myself simply but effectively) that some people felt it was alright to abuse and murder people they called by that name. Juan looked at me. He had disbelief written all over his face. ‘Really?’ he asked me, genuinely in disbelief. At this point, a wonderful boy, Alejandro, chimed in and, from what I could make out from his rapid Spanish, gave Juan a potted history of slavery in the US. From the look on Juan’s face, he had never heard of this before. He looked to other students for clarification. Arturo and Adrian told Juan that what Alejandro had said was true. I was delighted that these boys knew this history and could tell it.

I felt I had cracked Juan somewhat, but Luis was not convinced. I changed tack. ‘Look around this class’, I said (I was scrambling for ideas that would hold some weight), ‘Every one of us has a different skin colour’. Ivan noticed that he was the ‘whitest’ and had a smug grin on his face. But no, you miss the point, I told him. The point I’m making is that the colour of our skin is not important. By the way they responded to me I knew they understood what I was saying. But did they believe me?

Almost every week, Luis equates ‘negro’ with ‘terrorist’ and I have tried and tried to disabuse him of his beliefs. He came up with this argument again and it was time for me to try to change his mind again.
‘Negros are terrorists’, he said.
‘Luis’, I said, ‘There are Irish terrorists, Spanish terrorists, Japanese terrorists, American terrorists, Australian terrorists, English terrorists’ (I knew I was oversimplifying the complexities and confluences of nationality and race, but I wasn’t playing to a sophisticated audience). In the past he had refused to believe that there are Spanish terrorists and got very angry with me one day for insisting they exist.
‘Terrorism has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of anyone’s skin’, I said. But he seemed unconvinced.
‘They are terrorists in Iran’, he told me.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘There are. And just like Spain and Ireland and America and Kenya and any other country in the world you wish to name, most people in Iran are not terrorists’.
He gave me a ‘You sad naive woman’ sort of look.

‘Tell me, Luis, do you eat tomatoes’, I asked, changing tack once more and hoping to encourage empathy. ‘Yes’, he replied. I asked all the boys in turn if they ate tomatoes, and I told them that I do too. I then did the same for lettuce, peaches, cucumber and a variety of other common fruits and vegetables. We all admitted to eating a lot of these a lot of the time.
‘Where do they come from?’ I asked.
They had no idea, despite the fact that most of the produce we eat (here and across much of Europe) comes from the vast corporate poly-tunnel farms that cover the coastal plains of southern Andalucia, and where the parents of some of my students work as laboratory technicians, scientists and managers.
‘Who works on those farms?’I asked.
No-one knew.
‘The vast majority of the men who work on those farms are from Senegal, Mali, Morocco and other west African countries. Those men work extremely long hours for very little pay to provide you with the food you eat every day’. (This took some explaining, with dictionary, gestures and assistance from the boys with the best English abilities). ‘Those men are not terrorists. Those men feed you. They deserve your respect and gratitude’.

I don’t know if my message got through. And if it did, well, it’s only a tiny speck of ocean foam against a fast flowing current of bigotry and ignorance. I attempted to explain why we need to think carefully about the words we choose to use; and why we need to think about the labels we stick on people. I could have let Juan’s choice of ‘er’ word go, and I could have carried on with the lesson. But I decided closing the book was more important.


I’m not a qualified school teacher, and I suspect my approach to teaching is often ham-fisted and lacking in sophistication. But I enjoy teaching. I like these kids a great deal – even Juan and Luis. Especially Luis – he’s a troubled kid with a messed up home life. And I don’t really care if they learn English or not. But I do care that they learn kindness and compassion. And sometimes ‘wasting’ time on geology, astronomy and compassion is worth one hundred pages of the book.

Batten down the hatches

We had been expecting high winds for a few days. On Thursday afternoon, one of the mariñeros told me to prepare for a windy night ahead. But the predicted high winds failed to materialise. By lunch-time Friday the wind had started to howl, rattling through the rigging of the boats in the marina, causing Carina to strain and jolt uncomfortably on her mooring lines. On the high cliff road from Aguadulce to Almería I looked out across the sea. There were white caps as far as the eye could see out across the Mediterranean, and the huge swell rolled in, crashing with spectacular white foam against the orange cliffs beneath the road. Three hours later, when I came home from work, I was battered by the wind as I made my way to the boat.

All night long the wind grew stronger, furiously shrieking through the masts and rigging of the boats all around, fenders squeaking and moaning as boats rubbed together in the swell and wind that moved them in and out of synchronicity. The noise carried below deck by a loose rope slapping against the mast led me gingerly out on deck to try to locate the offending rope and secure it away from the mast. Three times I thought I had found the right rope. Three times I was wrong.

I checked the stern fenders were secure and made sure the mooring lines were secured around the cleats fore and aft. All night long Carina jolted and lurched, throwing me wide awake with a feeling like airplane turbulence. Each time I drifted off only to be suddenly thrown awake again. At some point in the night I became aware that the sound of the wind had changed. It had become more high pitched, more pure, and it felt as though Carina had been lifted up and was falling down and down.

I woke after an uncomfortable night and discovered that the weather station 10km down the coast at Roquetas de Mar had recorded wind speeds of 72km/hour (39 knots, F8) and one gust of 119km/hour (64 knots, F12).

I didn’t leave Carina all Saturday morning. The wind continued unabated and I stumbled around like a drunk as I tried to make breakfast and get dressed. On deck I checked for damage, but there was none, only a thick layer of brown grit covering every surface. By early afternoon the wind had died down and I ventured ashore – to take a shower, do the laundry and do some grocery shopping. I went for a walk along the seafront and surveyed the damage. Palm fronds littered the beach front and, in some cases, the entire tops of palms trees had fallen down. The sea was calmer than the previous evening, but still the big swell rolled in, and waves bigger than I’d seen before at Aguadulce crashed farther up the beach than I’d seen them come before.

After dark the wind rose again and, for a second night I listened to it howl and shriek around Carina, lifting and dropping her, pushing her this way and pulling her that. Another sleepless night for me as I worried about unidentified noises and listened to the ropes straining against the force of the wind on the boat, and the fenders rubbing against the boat to port.

By early Sunday morning all was calm and there was nothing for me to do but hose down the deck and the rigging and watch streams of brown grit pour down the sides of the boat into the sea.