About carinaofdevon

I'm Martina. I'm Irish. Married to Julian and mum to Lily and Katie. We live aboard our 36 foot Westerly Conway sailing boat, Carina of Devon.

That unmistakable sound

‘What’s that sound?’ Katie asked in a fearful voice.

We were walking home from the village shortly after 9pm. ‘Home’ at the moment is a tiny house and caravan on a plot of land by the river, with Carina moored about 100 metres away. We’ve been living here for over two weeks, taking care of a cat and living off the fat of the land while the owners are away. Our lives are lived mainly in the little house and out of doors, but at night we sleep in the caravan, which is about a metre away from the fence that marks the boundary between this and the neighbouring plot of land. Juan tends the vegetable patch next door, while Niño keeps a small flock of sheep there. Most of the ewes wear heavy bells around their necks and our time in the caravan is accompanied by the tinkling of bells that I always associate with my very first afternoon on the Rio Guadiana. It is a sound that I love. The ewes noisily make their way through the long golden grass throughout the morning and evening, bells ringing as they munch their way through the field. Most mornings when I wake up the first living being I see is a sheep, not much more than a metre from my window, grazing near the fence. In the past few days a couple of skinny little lambs have appeared, bleating loudly when their mothers don’t pay them enough attention.

So when Katie asked what the strange sound was as we walked home from the village, I was pretty sure I knew what it was. The sound of a mother giving birth is pretty unmistakable! ‘I think one of the sheep is giving birth’, I said. ‘Come on’. We walked quietly onto ‘our’ plot of land. The flock of sheep was divided into two groups, both standing towards the bottom of the steep slope in the neighbouring plot, looking up the hillside to where a lone ewe was lying on the ground making guttural moaning sounds.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ Katie asked. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her’, I said. ‘She’s having a baby’.
‘How do you know?’ Lily asked. ‘Well, it’s a sound mothers make when they’re in labour’.
‘Did you make that sound?’ Lily asked, wide-eyed.
‘Something like that’, I laughed, omitting the part about yelling at Julian to ‘stop playing that f***ing piano’ as he entertained the midwives in the dining room while I was wracked by contractions in the living room. Ah, such fond memories!

I told the girls to keep quiet and not make any sudden noises. Remembering the piano incident (Lily) and the ‘now’s not the f***ing time’ incident when Julian was regaling the midwives with stories of his adventures in Antarctica as I passed from the second to third stage of labour (Katie), I knew the ewe needed to be as undisturbed as possible while she was going through this. She let out a pitiful moan, stood up, and the head and shoulders of a lamb appeared from her rear end. ‘Are you crying again, Mum’, Lily asked, rolling her eyes, used as she is to her mum’s bladder being far to close to her eyeballs. ‘Maybe just a little’, I croaked.

A couple more pushes and the little lamb was born. The mother lay down, making a new sound, almost a cooing sound, that I’ve never heard a sheep make before. Mother and baby lay there for a few minutes, the lamb soon trying to lift its head off the ground. Once the head was up, it then tried to get its legs going. The ewe was up now, licking her newborn all over. She had given birth on the steep slope of a hill and with each attempt of the precocious little lamb to stand up, it slid further down the hill. The ewe continued cooing and licking. Before long, the little back legs were shakily off the ground and with a few more attempts, the little thing, less than 10 minutes old, was standing up and nosing its way to it’s mother’s udder for its first meal.

Lily and I were moved by the experience. Katie, only one thing on her mind, insisted we go into the house so I could make her supper. She’s heartless, that one.

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Fat of the land

With Julian’s help, I made the move onto Chris and Maggie’s land as soon as the girls had gone to school. The girls and I would only be at Chris and Maggie’s for a little over two weeks, but I moved all the stuff I thought we’d need for three months. A couple of days after Chris returns, we’re moving into a house in the village for about two and a half months. Chris and Maggie are off to Sweden to visit their grandchildren, leaving their cat, Aris, their home and their garden in our (I hope) capable hands. And when we move into the village in the summer it will be to look after Vinnie, the coolest and most chilled out dog in Sanlúcar.

Chris is a keen gardener, and at this time of year there’s a lot of food about. As well as providing the girls with an opportunity to look after a cat, this lovely plot of land offers them an opportunity to get to know plants, to dig up or pick fresh food and to prepare it for the table.

For our first lunch here, we had a salad of lettuce, spinach, grated courgette, onion, sugar snap peas and green peppers, all picked not 10 minutes before we ate, drizzled with our own olive oil from Julian’s olive picking endeavours in the autumn, and freshly squeezed lemon juice from one of the many citrus trees in the garden. For dessert the girls ate strawberries directly from the plants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

Late in the afternoon, I sent them out to get potatoes for dinner. I followed them, not sure if they knew where to find potatoes. ‘They’re somewhere here’, I said as we reached the garden down by the river. The girls looked around. The broccoli, courgettes, onions and red cabbage were obvious, and not to be confused with anything else. But where exactly were the potatoes? ‘Is it this?’ Lily asked, pointing to a young tomato plant. Not a bad guess, but no. I directed them to a weedy-looking plant, but they were still none the wiser. I grabbed the garden fork and started to dig and almost immediately a golden potato revealed itself.

The girls were delighted. Katie took the fork from me and Lily removed potatoes from the two plants Katie dug up. Back at the house they washed the soil from the potatoes and used the muddy water to irrigate the vines, rose bushes and baby tomato plants growing close to the house. Then I sent them back down the garden for broccoli and courgette for the supper I’d planned and then up the garden to the loquat tree, to gather fruit for dessert.

We’ve lived almost exclusively off the land since coming here and every few days a new fruit or vegetable ripens, adding variety to our diet. First it was the beetroot, then the aubergine and now the tomatoes are turning deep red. What a bounty and what a delight that our friends asked us to look after their place.

Mr Hynes

How many different teachers did any of us have throughout our childhood and adolescent years? Ten, twenty, thirty? And how many of those inspired us, moved us, helped to shape us into the adults we are today?

I received a WhatsApp message from my sister yesterday morning, who in turn had received a message from one of her old school friends. The message said that Pat Hynes had died. ‘Do you remember him?’ my sister asked. ‘He always wore sandals and socks’. And even though I hadn’t seen or even thought about Pat Hynes in years, the news of his death moved me to tears and I sat sobbing in the café where I had, up to that point, been enjoying my morning coffee.

Mr Hynes wore socks with sandals alright, and a tweed jacket. He was sandy haired, slightly built and drove to school in a little car. Unlike some of my other teachers, who were from or who lived in my home town, Mr Hynes’ life outside school was an enigma to me. He was ever so slightly exotic, a lone English accent in a sea of Bog of Allen accents and, when you asked him where he came from, he always said, ‘I was born in the South China Sea’. For all I know, he was.

Mr Hynes was my religion teacher. In a state school in Ireland, i.e. a Catholic school, religion was compulsory, though not an exam subject. Over my school career I had a number of religion teachers, each of them memorable for different reasons. But none made a bigger impression on me than Mr Hynes. When other teachers expounded on the evils of masturbation (to a co-ed class of 14 years olds), divorce and sex before marriage (all of this from an unfortunately menopausal nun whose hot flushes were all too common), or the likelihood of Nostradamus’ end of the world prophesies coming true any time soon (striking the fear of God into me), Pat Hynes had an approach to our Christian Doctrine classes that was altogether more humorous and humanist.

With a sharp wit and the skills of a storyteller, he taught us about social justice, empathy and kindness. He urged us to believe in ourselves and to be true to ourselves. For him, these were the ways we honoured God. As a 16 and 17 year old, I was trying to figure out where, if anywhere, my faith lay and I remember being able to talk openly and honestly with Mr Hynes about that. He didn’t judge me or tell me it was a sin to question my faith, or anything of the sort. And I respected and admired him all the more for it.

He teased me mercilessly about my Irish dancing skills. When he was first, briefly, my religion teacher, when I was about 13 years old, I told him the sorry tale of my inability to escape the Beginner’s Line at Olive Keogh’s School of Irish Dancing. Week after week, I watched as my classmates graduated out of the Beginner’s Line while Olive either overlooked me or told me I needed another week. Eventually I quit, and thus the fledgling career of a future Riverdancer died before it had even got started. Mr Hynes thought my Irish dancing failure hilarious and when we’d meet in the school corridor or when I’d walk into class, he would refer to me as ‘the Irish dancer’ or ask me to show him a few steps.

I recall meeting him only once more after I left school back in 1990. I remember one day, in my late 20s, bumping into him in a short-lived bookshop on JKL Street, Edenderry’s main street. He asked how I was and asked after my sister and some of my old classmates and friends, interested in how our lives had progressed since we’d left school. And then he asked me how my Irish dancing was coming along. I was touched that, despite the hundreds and hundreds of students he had taught over the years, he remembered that little joke we had shared over a decade earlier.

From my entire 13 years at school, there is probably only one other teacher the news of whose death would move me as much. Mr Hynes didn’t help me pass exams. What he taught me didn’t help me get into university. He didn’t teach me syntax or grammar, French verb conjugation or the periodic table. He didn’t teach me how to solve mathematical problems. But he taught me about empathy and justice, about having confidence in myself and being true to myself. I learned from him that a person can have a strong faith in God while not expecting the same from everyone else around them. I learned that it was ok, indeed right, to examine my own faith. And I learned that one could be professional and take life seriously with both good humour and a smile on one’s face. I always looked forward to my religion classes with Pat Hynes because he was, above all, a lovely human being.

When I, via WhatsApp, passed the news of his passing on, my old classmates were just as saddened by his passing as I was. Wherever he is now, in heaven or floating over the South China Sea, may he rest in peace.

Outboard thieves (Ladrones de motores fuerabordas)

by Julian

It finally happened. I suppose we had been riding our luck for a long time. Our Mariner 3.3 outboard motor was stolen. The tender (dinghy) was on the pontoon, tied onto the outside of a larger tender. The yachts on the outside of the pontoon were all occupied, which isn’t always the case. However, the motor was there Sunday night and not there Monday morning.

Sanlúcar de Guadiana is generally a safe place. Thefts from boats are extremely rare. It is a small village and there are eyes everywhere, making sure nobody is up to mischief. Except at around 04:00 Monday morning, and the thieves know this! They visit the pontoon once or twice a year, either by boat or by van and steal two or three outboards. This time they took two, one was ours. We are rarely on the pontoon overnight, so doubly bad luck. Our outboard was small and not chained on, which might have stopped them this time. However, previously the thieves have stolen large 60 HP outboards, cutting the chain and all the cables and generally making a real mess of the boat.

People who know more than anybody ought to, have even speculated that the thieves have a place near Villablanca and had been tipped off about the outboards. Whatever the truth, it is very frustrating. Given the multiple outboard thefts many of us would like to see something like a security camera. However, the mayor has already spoken to the police about this, and there are laws against installing CCTV in public places (the pontoon is not an enclosed marina, but an extension of the village).

Anyway, until we can sort out something permanent, Eric on the boat “Signora” has kindly lent us his outboard. It is basically a grass strimmer with a propeller. It is sold as an “air-cooled four stroke outboard”. There is very little that can go wrong with it and we have been told it is reliable, but it is a thorough nightmare to use, and Martina complains that motoring around on a grass strimmer cramps her style! Anyway when we get a replacement, we will be vigilant and keep it chained on. However, to be really secure we should chain the tender on as well, but I don’t like that idea because it can be a real pain to other pontoon users. It is a shame that seven years of not chaining our outboard has now come to an end.

outboard

Four stroke air cooled “Grass Cutter” outboard aboard our tender Freja.

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.

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!!)