La Frontera

You know the confusion that reigns twice a year when the clocks go forward or back? Have you remembered to change every time piece in your house, or is it 2pm in the kitchen and 1pm in the bedroom? Do you get up too early or too late that first Sunday morning? I remember one spring Sunday many years ago, when I was still a good church-going girl (and I mean MANY years ago). I got up, got dressed and arrived at the church just as the congregation came out the door at the end of Mass. This spring, Julian and I didn’t even remember the time had changed until Monday. Neither of us had jobs to go to, so it didn’t really matter to us. Twice every year, no matter what, there’s a discussion about whether this means an hour more or an hour less in bed. Now imagine living with that time change confusion EVERY SINGLE DAY!! Because that’s life on the Rio Guadiana, the border between Spain and Portugal. Spain runs an hour ahead of Portugal. We’ve set all our clocks to Portuguese time for no reason other than we have to live by some standardised time.

Sanlucar (in the distance) from Alcoutim

Sanlucar and Alcoutim with the river in between

But every day confusion reigns. Fruit and vegetables are better in the Portuguese shop, all the other stuff is better (and cheaper) in the Spanish shop. The bakery in Spain is superior; the library in Portugal is second to none. There’s a good playground in Spain and a good beach in Portugal. So every day we move from one side of the river to the other in our dinghy. Will the shop be open now (Spanish time)? Will the library be open (Portuguese time)? The post office (Portuguese)? The bakery (Spanish?). Our Spanish friends Rafa and Pilar lived on the river when we first got here. Their three young sons went to school in Spain, so they lived by Spanish time. Each afternoon we met up at the beach on the Portuguese side of the river, so Lily and Katie could play with their little friends Rafa Jr, Juan and Jorge. Rafa usually suggested 5.30ish. I almost never remembered that his 5.30 was our 4.30. So we would laze around in our afternoon siesta, thinking we had another hour until meeting our friends. Then someone aboard Carina would look towards our neighbour’s boat and see that their dinghy had already departed. Oh no, they’re on Spanish time, we’d remember too late, and a mad scramble to pack swimwear and don lifejackets would ensue.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina at anchor on the international border

We had a rip in our genoa sail that needed to be repaired. Chris, living on his boat in the middle of the river, earns a living making leather goods – bags, purses, belts, that sort of thing, so he has a sewing machine on board. We arranged to come alongside and raft to Chris’s boat so he could repair our genoa. He said 10am. We arrived at 10am. He was expecting us an hour earlier. He lives by Spanish time! Time difference is not the only confusion when living on an international border. There are two different languages to negotiate. I speak a very minimal amount of Spanish and my Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond hello, please, thank you, excuse me, one, two, beer and wine. In Spanish I can ask basic questions (Where is the toilet? What time does the market open?), or make basic conversation (Your dog is cute. The melon is big. The sausage is hot…and other such useful stuff), and I can understand a reasonable amount of what’s spoken, if I already know the context in which it’s being said. But most days we flit between the two countries and that’s when the confusion sets in. I say ‘Bom dia’ when I mean ‘Buenos dias’; I say ‘Gracias’ when I mean ‘Obrigada’ and so on. I don’t want to offend anyone by using the language from the other country. I’m sure (I hope) they’re used to it.


Alcoutim from Carina

Of course things are much easier these days with open borders and a single currency. Back before the euro, people living on the river had to have pesetas in one pocket and escudos in the other and there were regular border and customs checks. These days we’re all one big happy European family, albeit distant cousins who speak different languages and have quite different cultures. Despite their different languages and cultures, it would appear that the two communities – Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlucar in Spain – come together to celebrate and remember. The May Day celebrations in Alcoutim featured a flamenco dancing troupe from Sanlucar, the My Fukushima event (a future blog post) took place simultaneously on both sides of the river, with both mayors (who looked uncannily alike) leading the events on both sides of the river. And in the midst of this cultural melange, in the river that separates these two villages in two countries, is a cosmopolitan community of live aboard sailors. There are Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Irish, South African, Swedish and Swiss people living here – some with their clocks set to Portuguese time, some set to Spanish. There’s the English man and South African woman whose son goes to school in Spain, and the British couple whose children go to school in Portugal. There’s the French woman and her British husband; the Swiss man and his Portuguese water dog; and of course the Irish woman and her British husband with their two British-Irish daughters. Life on the border is nothing if not interesting, and it certainly keeps us on our toes. There’s no resting on our laurels when it comes to time or language. But what fun we have. The live aboards form a community of helpful, generous, but fiercely independent people, and we’re now back in the territory of cheek-squeezing and head patting abuelas, and of helpful and (mostly) friendly shop staff. UKIP and the Conservatives should come chill out on the river for a while!


5 thoughts on “La Frontera

  1. ahgh, that would “do my head in”. I was confused enough recently when I texted my husband at work to ask him when high tide was where we were going (to check if it was safe to take the bit of the path around the cliffs on the mud flats of the Exe) and his answer came in GMT. It took me a bit of thinking to remember we were in BST, and then some more to work out if I needed to add or subrtract and hour. Then followed explaining what all these concepts were and how they worked to my inquisitive 8 year old (not sure I managed the Why bit though).

    Is there a similar abbreviation to GMT/BST (or the East Coast/Central time I read on American blogs) to signify Portugese/Spanish time?

    • We’ve run into problems over the years when we’ve forgotten our GMT/BST calculations – thinking the current will turn later than it does when we’ve been out in the dinghy with only muscle power to get us home; calculating tide heights coming into harbours. In the past months we’ve sailed between Spain, Morocco and Portugal, working off Lisbon tides and Gibraltar tides, but we’ve mostly managed to get it right!!

    • Thank you. They’re the right sort of choices to have to face every day! I’m writing to you from a hill top cafe in Portugal, overlooking the fast flowing river and Spain on the other side, the land gradually turning more yellow and brown from the scorching summer sun.

  2. Pingback: Border crossing | Carina Of Devon

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