Tatami

I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.

I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.

On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.

Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.

I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.

I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.

Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.

Advertisements

My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.

From familiar to strange

Around this time twenty-five years ago, in October 1990, I attended my first anthropology lecture at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. A fresh-faced 17-year old, I was immediately hooked on this new subject I had chosen to study at university. In that first lecture, Professor Eileen Kane, the glamorous Irish-American head of department, told us that by studying anthropology the strange would become familiar and the familiar strange. We would soon see the cultural logic and appropriateness of far flung habits and customs that might on the surface seem weird and bizarre to our Irish sensibilities – polyandry, witchcraft, the Kula Ring – and we would start to see the weirdness in cultural practices we took for granted – Christmas, school, organised sports.

It was a memorable first lesson in anthropology and I’ve thought about that phrase – making the strange familiar and the familiar strange – quite a lot over the years, especially when I’ve found myself returning home having lived abroad and experiencing what might be termed reverse culture shock. Japan, Nunavut and the UK became normal and ordinary to me and, when I returned to Ireland, life, customs and habits felt strange and unfamiliar.

I’ve been feeling the same way this summer, having returned to the UK, the country that has been my home for a decade. The feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity comes partly from living in a house in suburbia for the past few months and partly because as I revise the book I’m currently writing I reflect on how moving onto and living on a boat at one time seemed such a strange and exotic thing to do. But now the boat is our familiar life and life on land, in a house, has become strange.

Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates that strangeness is my altered perceptions of space, and in particular how much space an individual or family require and how that space is utilised.

By anyone’s standards, our home is tiny. Carina is 36 feet (11 metres) long and at her widest 11 feet (3 metres) wide. Four of us live in that space, including one who is 6’2” and built like the proverbial brick s**t house. But it no longer feels like such a tiny space to us. We have adapted to it and transformed it into a home. We have space to stow our belongings and space to eat, sleep, play, work, relax and even entertain. We have adapted to the space and made it work for us.

So I’ve felt like a visitor from another planet at times this summer when people have, with reference to what seem to me to be incredibly spacious homes, made comments such as ‘It’s not big enough’, ‘We need a bigger house’, ‘It’s not much’. I look around at these spaces that are huge in comparison to Carina and wonder what exactly people need more space for.

I’ve also been hyper-aware of the utilisation of space. Or, to be more correct, the under-utilisation of space. Given her size and our number, each space on Carina has a purpose or multiple purposes. Most people here in suburbia own sizable gardens. But few home owners make productive use of those gardens. One of my few regrets about living aboard a regularly moving home is that we don’t grow any food. I’ve always enjoyed growing food (with varied success) and this summer I find myself looking longingly at ample suburban gardens, transforming them in my mind into attractively productive food plots.

Other things feel alien too – the length of time and distance people commute to work; how success is measured; how often people feel the need to shower (you think I’m kidding!); how complicated and full of time-consuming activities many peoples’ lives seem to be. But the thing that has bothered me more than anything else this summer (I need to stop saying ‘summer’. I realise we are now firmly in autumn) is waste.

Sure, we produce waste aboard Carina – plastic packaging, tin cans, paper – but the quantities of waste we produce are far less than what we are currently producing in a house in suburbia. Aboard Carina we buy little and often. I realise that our consumer choices are partly dictated by geography. Living in southern Europe probably has as much to do with the amount of waste we produce as living on a boat. We buy fresh bread from the baker (unpackaged), fresh fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer (unpackaged), meat and cheese and dairy products from the general store (packaged). And in certain places on our travels we’ve been lucky enough to forage fruit, vegetables, herbs and shellfish and we’ve fished or been given fish by friends and other boat owners.

With our small living space and frugal environmentally-orientated lifestyle, we are conscious of the waste we produce. In suburbia, certainly in this particular suburbia, waste is pernicious. Food in supermarkets is far more heavily packaged than in the greengrocers, butchers and bakers. And, where we are currently living, without a car it is difficult to shop at places other than supermarkets or chain stores.

The cycle of plastic waste is disturbing – in the front door, through the house, out the back door and into the recycling bin. I think I am less disturbed by the amount of waste than by the fact that it’s taken for granted. Recycling has become normalised, but reducing is more difficult. Having lived around other frugally-minded sailors for the past year or more, I have grown used to minimal waste. The disposal of waste from the boat is annoyingly cumbersome. Certainly on smaller boats there is no room to store separated plastic, glass, metal and organic waste, and carrying it ashore by dinghy in search of bins in which to dump it is a royal pain in the ass. It’s far easier not to produce the waste in the first place. So we opt for unpackaged or minimally packaged produce. It’s easier on us and easier on the environment.

We have now set a date for returning to Carina. When we step aboard the girls and I will have been away for five and a half months. I’m sure UK suburban living will have seeped into my bones and I will find life afloat strange all over again and it will take some time to readjust. In the meantime I will continue to seek out strangeness in the once familiar and familiarity in the once strange.

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

???????????????????????????????

A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.

DSCI4467

This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.

DSCI4431

The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

Have you heard the one about the Inuit family?

There’s a joke – it probably exists in one form or another in every over-studied community in the world – that an Inuit family consists of the mum, dad, kids and the anthropologist! Well, in a community like the village on Ilha da Culatra, it was only a matter of time before I bumped into the anthropologist. There was bound to be one – this place has certainly got my anthropological juices flowing.

DSCI4591After a day on the beach we went for a beer. A woman with a dog asked if she could sit with us. She told us that she is conducting research on tourism on the island and is particularly interested in the relationship between the islanders and the yacht-owners. ‘Oh’, I said, my ears pricking up at the idea of doing research here. ‘What research methods do you use?’
‘I’m an anthropologist’, she replied.
‘No way! Me too!’ I exclaimed.
And that was the start of a conversation that was alas cut short by her having to run for the last ferry to the mainland. She’s got winter fieldwork planned and was in Culatra trying to find cheap accommodation for a few months. But she knew the island well, having been a teacher here a few years ago.

I too had wondered about the relationship between the islanders and the yachties and I’d be intrigued to read her findings. When we first arrived we were surprised by the number of boats at anchor close to the island. This was before I discovered the catamaran community around the corner. Each day we bump into the same sailors, from Britain, Ireland, Holland and elsewhere. I even met a South African who I first met in Brixham in 2012 when we did our VHF radio course together. Like many others, he is drawn back to Culatra every year, and finds it hard to leave.

DSCI4608There are a few at anchor like ourselves and our Dutch friends – people passing through on their way to someplace else. But the larger, semi-resident population at anchor spend every summer here – and summer is long – living on their boats and coming ashore late each afternoon to gather in one particular bar (the one closest to the harbour), where they sit together, conversing in English. And of course many in the catamaran community are permanently resident.

The anthropologist suggested, and we witnessed, some antagonism between the resident yachties and the locals. As happens all over the world, whether in tiny villages or large cities, there are those locals who embrace the outsiders, those who ignore them, and those who are antagonistic towards them. Similarly, there are the outsiders – the yachties in this instance – who make the effort to speak the local language and get to know the locals, and there are those who ignore the life of the village going on around them. Though all the locals we have met have been very friendly towards us (it’s like being back in Galicia again – the grandmothers grab Lily and Katie and plant big kisses on their cheeks), we felt there was some annoyance amongst the fisherman because of the little yachting dinghies clogging up the spaces in the fishing harbour. There’s also graffiti on the only public shower in town that says ‘Locals only’.

The appeals of returning to Culatra year after year are multiple. It is beautiful. There are no cars, and Lily and Katie have more freedom and independence here than ever before. In the past week they have made friends with local children. It reminds me of Arviat, or of Ireland when I was a child – doors are open, everyone knows everyone, life moves at a more relaxed pace. I like the quirkiness and uniqueness of island life; the wry jokes I’ve shared with a few locals (and how I wish I spoke Portuguese so I could talk to more people). If I was here for longer I would want to get involved in community life – I can’t help myself; it’s an occupational hazard of being an anthropologist. So while there is an appeal in returning to the same anchorage year after year, I wouldn’t want to do so to sit in the same bar, with the same other cruisers, and remain apart from the life of the community going on around me.

Revisiting Columbus

DSCI4217After twenty days we finally left the Ria de Arousa and sailed 37 miles south to Baiona. It was a misty drizzly day with poor visibility, but about ten miles out from Baiona the sky cleared and we were treated to the sight of green mountains and high majestic islands with overhanging clouds. As we sailed into Baiona over the swell rolling in off the Atlantic it was easy to imagine Martin Pinzón and the crew of La Pinta looking on exactly the same sight (minus the high rises of Vigo) 522 years ago as they returned with the first news of having discovered land to the west. It was a few more days before Columbus reached Lisbon, and by then news of the success of the voyage had been dispatched to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Replica Pinta in the harbour in Baiona

Replica Pinta in Baiona harbour

The landing of La Pinta suffuses Baiona. There are monuments, statues and street names, and a replica of La Pinta in the harbour. The first Native American to die on European soil is buried here (he died within days of La Pinta’s arrival), and monuments around town celebrate the ‘meeting of worlds’ and the importance of Columbus’ accomplishments. Indeed, it would appear that Baiona is currently seeking UNESCO world heritage status due to its link with the first Columbus voyage.

DSCI4233I find all of this celebration strangely lacking in context or reflection. I looked forward to the audio-guide that accompanied the visit to La Pinta. But while it recounted in great detail the difficulties of seafaring at the time, life aboard for the crew, and all the wonderful and exotic products they introduced to Europe (peppers, cotton, maize, tobacco, from that first voyage), there was little historical or cultural context. Why had Columbus sailed west in the first place? What impact did the discovery have on Europe? And crucially, what impact did the discovery have on the Americas? There was no mention of the forced labour, enslavement, disease and genocide that ultimately led to the deaths, according to some estimates, of 200 million original inhabitants of the ‘New World’. Nor is there mention of the African slave trade that became established a mere decade after that first voyage.

So, while enthralled by the presence of this reminder of a crucial moment in world history, we are also aware of the lack of reflection on what it meant, what it led to, and how this late medieval event reverberates down to the present day.

DSCI4236When Julian and I had exhausted our own knowledge of Columbus’ voyages, we turned to our onboard reference books and then to the Internet. We have taken advantage of this piece of history in our midst to have ‘Columbus days’ with the girls. We have explored La Pinta and have visited the various monuments, all the time talking about who these historical figures were, why they did what they did, and what the repercussions have been. I’m not sure if the girls appreciate that before the ‘discovery’, Europeans didn’t have potatoes, tomatoes, maize, cotton, tobacco, coffee, and much more besides. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine Europe without those, or to get my head around how recently my own country, Ireland, had become dependent on the potato before the Great Famine.

‘Columbus days’ have also led to conversations about trade winds, sailing directions, hurricanes, animals native to the Americas, animals introduced by Europeans, and much more besides.

The human history of contact between the Old and New Worlds is too horrific to delve too deeply into with small children. But what we can talk about are the vast and varied cultures of the Americas, the technologies unknown to Europeans, how people utilised the land and animals, spiritual and artistic culture. I guess what we’re trying to instil in them is that what Columbus ‘discovered’ was already home to millions of people.

Seamlessly fitting in….by Julian

I am in the rather strange position of having by far the best Spanish on the boat. This is nothing to boast about and is due simply to having done a year of Spanish at school. I also spent some time in my 20s travelling in Bolivia and Chile, when the phrase “Lava ropa?”* often came in handy. However, it has been 6 years since I have had to say “Hola” to anyone and the sad little bit of Spanish I once had now largely eludes me. Everyday words and phrases like “Wife”, “Too much” and “Are you sure you’re not completely fleecing me because I’m a foreigner?” have me reaching for the diccionario. I dearly look forward to the day when I can talk to people here without the cumbersome ‘Spanglish’ interspersed with grunts and hand gestures (largely mine). Here in Galicia regional Galego is widely spoken so the locals have already managed two languages before they think about English. Portugese and French are also common third languages. Everyone else on board is doing their best, learning from our recently acquired ‘Spanish for beginners’ book. The girls really try hard with “hola”, “me llamo Lily” etc. But we just have to accept that it is going to take a lot of work and time to get into this.

It is not only the language but the culture and environment to get used to. Martina and I have spent many afternoons getting slightly sun or heat stroked along with near dehydration for little practical benefit. Chores on deck and scouting the local area can always wait until it cools a bit. There is a reason nothing is open here between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, and many businesses are closed between 1:00 and 5:30. The locals have a relaxed shady lunch and then go to sleep, while we have often found ourselves wobbling about, completely exhausted and sun-frazzled at 5 or 6 o’clock simply through our inability to observe the local custom and take a siesta. The trouble is that we have mastered the staying up late, dinner at 9pm and so on, but in our true British or Irish fashion we have adjusted to this late bedtime by getting up later in the morning. Therefore we miss the morning markets, the post office, cool walks, fresh bread and finally emerge into the heat of the day baking ourselves crispy whilst everything around us remains shut until 5:30!!

Now I realise that nothing I have written is in any way original. Indeed I cringe at my lack of profound observation. Brit after Brit has noted exactly the same things. It is worth stating them again as we always fail to heed our own good advice, myself especially. The advice is simple, learn some more of the lingo and get a siesta whilst the sun fries the earth like the fires of Hades.

Tomorrow you should not be in the least surprised to find me wandering about half dazed, the colour of a freshly cooked lobster, knotted handkerchief on my head, sweat pouring down my face like Niagara, slowly shouting at some local the immortal line “DO YOU SPEAK ANY ENGLISH?” I think I deserve to be fleeced, don’t you?

*Martina: Julian tells me this means ‘clothes washing’, or something close. Given that we hand wash most of our laundry on board, the phrase isn’t getting much use!

Fiesta de Virgen del Carmen

DSCI4068

Our sailing decisions are dictated by the weather. So, when the weather outlook suggested poor southerly sailing conditions after July 15th, we considered lifting anchor and departing the Ria de Muros, and sailing farther south while we had the opportunity. But that would mean missing out on the Fiesta de Virgen del Carmen in Muros on July 16th. Not convinced that we had made the right decision, we decided to hang around for the festival and leave sailing south for another time.

On the morning of the 16th we motored from our anchorage in Ensenada de San Francisco to the marina at Muros. Spanish flags hung from the balconies along the waterfront and fishing and pleasure boats were dressed in a carnival of flags. A huge fun fair had been set up along the seafront, as well as two huge stages and stalls selling everything from candy floss to handbags.

We met my friend Katie, who was joining us from the UK for a few days, and we all settled in for a day of fiesta fun. Throughout the afternoon the town was a hive of activity. A group dressed in traditional Galician dress played Galician pipes and drums in the square in front of the town hall. Families strolled the streets, and the cafes were all doing roaring business. Children were dressed beautifully in their best clothes – cute outfits and shoes that remind me of the formal dress that our parents and grandparents wore. The police and local civilian police were out in force, directing traffic as cars squeezed into every available parking space no matter how unsuitable. Towards high water, in later afternoon, we saw one car parked on the slipway with waves washing around the wheels!

At 6.30pm the ceremony began at the Catholic Church, however we didn’t attend due to our inappropriate dress. At around the same time, brightly bedecked boats – yachts, speed boats, fishing vessels large and small, dredgers – moved out of the harbour and around to the beach on the other side of the marina, where they jostled for space. One cruising family we know even decided to join the melee in their dinghy!

Some of us were more appropriately dressed than others!

Some of us were more appropriately dressed than others!

Shortly after 7pm the procession of the Virgen del Carmen departed the church and made its way through the town to the beach, accompanied by a mournful brass band. The Virgen, resplendent in gold dress and crown, and carrying the Child, stood atop a coffin representing all the fishermen who have lost their lives at sea, and was carried on the shoulders of men dressed in crisp white shirts and walking slowly in precise step with each other. Hundreds and hundreds of people followed the procession, many dressed in their best. The procession was accompanied by a deafening cacophony of noise from fireworks and the town siren sounding continuously. The brass band struggled to be heard above it all. The siren and fireworks grew louder and more persistent the closer the procession got to the waterfront where the boats, overloaded with passengers, awaited the arrival of the Virgen.

DSCI4082

Once at the waterfront the Virgen was transferred into one large boat, the brass band climbed aboard another, and the procession continued across the water, with all the boats following the lead boat carrying the Virgen as it did a loop across the bay in front of the town before returning, more than half an hour later, to its place close to the beach. The Virgen was then returned to shore and once again, amid sirens, fireworks and the sound of the brass band, processed through the streets once more and returned to her place in the church. It was a rousing and moving experience that appealed to my anthropologist and Catholic sensibilities!

DSCI4087By 9pm the party was in full swing. We strolled along the waterfront and this time, having budgeted some money for the fun fair rides, the girls found amusement. Close to 11pm the first band appeared on stage – a fabulous ensemble of salsa dancers and singers – covering a mixture of Spanish and English songs, and we danced along. Later, after the rest of us had long gone to bed, Julian stayed out and was entertained by a Michael Jackson tribute act! At midnight we were treated to a spectacular fireworks display of a standard that I’ve rarely seen outside Japan.

Shortly after midnight all of us, except Julian, were ready for bed, partied out and senses overwhelmed! Julian came home at 3am, and the next day told us that children of Lily’s and Katie’s ages were still packing out the fun fair rides! My kids are such lightweights!!

We had missed our southerly sailing window, but it was worth it. We (and our guest, Katie) had enjoyed a most spectacular fiesta and a delightful slice of Catholic Spanish culture.

Wonderful Galicia

We have been in Galicia since the 21st of June. Prior to this, I had only spent limited time in Spain. In 2006, I went on a road trip with Julian and some of his friends in a U around the Iberian Peninsula, starting in Santiago de Compostella, south through Portugal, attending a friend’s wedding in Jerez, and then on through the Sierra Nevada to Valencia. It was a wonderful trip that gave us a great taste for all things Spanish (and I mean ‘taste’ in the most literal sense!). A year later I was back in Valencia for a conference at the aquarium, but spent more time hanging out with Inuit and other Canadians. And I’ve had a couple of resort holidays in the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

A street in Muros

A street in Muros

All told, I have precious little experience of Spain, and so it is a new and wonderful place to me. So far, we are all finding the experience rewarding! As an anthropologist, I know I shouldn’t be too hasty to make any pronouncements about a place. As I experience and learn more over the coming weeks and months I know my impressions will change or, at the very least, become more meaningful. But here are my initial impressions from the past few weeks:
1. Old people lead healthy lives! During our first few days on the beach in Ria de Viveiro I watched people walking up and down, up and down the more-than mile long beach. They were adults of all ages, but predominantly people over 70. Wearing only swimming trunks or bikinis, couples, groups of five or six men or women, mixed groups, strolled along the beach all afternoon long, exercising in the sunshine, which in itself is great. But they were also talking – couples and groups of friends, talking and laughing as they strolled along. If you’re doing that when you’re 70 or 80 years old, then you’re doing something right. Since then I’ve observed many older people enjoying life, walking, talking, sitting in the sun outside their homes and engaging with the world at it goes by.

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

2. Grow food not grass! I’ve seen a profusion of food growing in gardens big and small. Potatoes, onions, lettuces, sweet corn, and peach, pear, apple, and lemon trees. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of growing one’s own food – it’s great for the planet, it’s great for your health, and it’s great for the little mini-ecosystem of your back yard. In Japan and in the Fens of the United Kingdom (and no doubt elsewhere), people put excess produce outside their gates with an honesty box. I haven’t seen this yet in Spain, but I have seen old men and women, sitting in the shade of awnings in town squares, with small selections of produce for sale, that I can only imagine comes from their own gardens.
3. It’s cheap 1! Man, food is inexpensive here! For Julian and me, one of our favourite meals to cook is paella, but the ingredients are so expensive in the UK that it’s a rate treat. Here in Spain the mussels, fish, wine, chorizo, rice and other ingredients are dirt cheap! Even the saffron is less expensive. Of course they are all local ingredients, but even so we are astounded at how cheap the food is. The foods that we consider luxuries back in the UK are a third or a quarter of the price here. Our shopping basket overflows with olive oil, olives, chorizo, a smorgasbord of fruit and vegetables, cheeses and wine. We are in gastronomic heaven.
4. It’s cheap 2! While we spend most of our time at anchor, we occasionally spend a night in a marina, to fill our water tank, get speedy internet access and take advantage of hot showers! Marinas too, are inexpensive, working out at about 25-30% cheaper than in the UK, but with free electricity and Wifi included. And in places on our itinerary to visit over the coming weeks and months, they appear to be even less expensive.

Local fare

Local fare

5. Would you like a squid with your beer, sir?! To our Irish and British sensibilities, the foods in Spain are exotic and wonderful and sometimes highly amusing. I wanted to do some writing after the girls had gone to bed recently, so Julian popped out for a beer. He came home with a big grin on his face (possibly caused by the beer) to tell me about his experience. He ordered a beer and was given the smallest beer he’d ever seen in his life. Then the barman came around and asked him if he’d like a squid with it!! He was tickled pink by the idea of having a squid with his beer! In every bar, staff walk around with trays of tapas – bread with chorizo, tortilla, etc –to offer to the customers. In Julian’s case the other night, it was a deep-fried baby squid!
6. Small-scale fishing: I mentioned in a previous blog post how the clusters of fishermen reminded me of the west coast of Hudson Bay in summertime. Off the coast of every little town we anchor amongst small local boats, owned by local fishermen. These men go out alone or in pairs, and appear to quite often meet up with others at sea, clustering together and engaging in very small scale fishing. There are larger commercial fishing boats too, but the small scale subsistence fishermen predominate.
7. Less work, more play! The working day is very different to what we are accustomed to and it has taken some adjusting to. But we have embraced it now, and our sleeping, eating and shopping patterns have changed. Shops and businesses open for a few hours every morning and then close around noon or 1pm. They don’t re-open until 5.30 in the evening, and remain open until 9.30 or 10pm. It feels strange to us to go to the butcher or the greengrocer at 9 o’clock at night! Restaurants and cafes don’t get going until after 9.30, and people of all ages eat late into the night.
8. I was going to write about shellfish, but it deserves a blog post all of its own!

Yes, indeed, we are enjoying life in Spain. People are generous and kind, and (usually) patient with our inability to speak more than a few Spanish words. We are enjoying the endless sunshine and the golden sandy beaches at every anchorage. Life is good!

One Hundred Day Revisited

This one’s for you, Anne Walshe 🙂

Carina at anchor in Tralong Bay

Time has galloped past since I ruminated on having only one hundred days until the end of my work contract. I’m now down to thirty. It’s been a busy seventy days, that’s for sure. But during that time I’ve managed to achieve quite a few of the tasks I set myself. Some were going to happen anyway, but others took perseverence. There remain a couple of items to tick off, and some things are ongoing.

I can’t deny that I enjoy undergraduate teaching. But between January and March I gave so many lectures and ran so many tutorials that I never wanted to hear my own voice again. Indeed, I almost got my wish as, by the time I flew to New York for the undergrad field trip in late March, I had developed an infected lump in my throat, making talking (and sad to say, eating) very painful. I suppose it was my body’s way of telling me to shut up. I tried, but I can’t stay quiet for long. (The joke in my house when I was young was that I would one day join a silent order of nuns). The combination of attempting to not talk and a heady mixture of over-the-counter throat medicines seemed to work, and by midway through the week in New York I was feeling much better.

New York was incredible. Last year I was overwhelmed (in a good way) to be there. This year, I was more relaxed and, with one exception, my memories are of good food and drink. The margaritas and food at Casa Mezcal in the Lower East Side, Cannibal on East 29th, and Bis.Co.Latte in Hell’s Kitchen playing Nina Simone singing Bob Dylan were highlights. At the American Museum of Natural History I stood before the cast of the partial skeleton of Lucy, the 3.2 million year old australopithecus afarensis fossil. I have imagined Lucy since I was 15 years old, and to finally stand in front of her was about as close to a spiritual experience as I’m likely to get. I stood gazing at her and a woman, about sixty years old, came and stood beside me. ‘You feel like you want to take care of her, don’t you?’ she asked. We smiled at each other, kindred paleoanthropological geeks! Afterwards I walked over the cast of the Laetoli Footprints, and walked back over them again, and again. Such rapture.

I woke early on my first morning in New York and walked to the post office to send the manuscript of my book to the publisher. I’ve been working on it on and off for far too many years, and since autumn 2013, determined to get it done before I set sail, I’ve been working on it in every spare moment. It was with a wonderful sense of a weight lifting off me that I handed the envelope containing the manuscript over to the postal worker. I would have sung for joy, except for that damned throat of mine. The manuscript is now being reviewed and I await comments (or rejection…yikes).

My other writing projects are progressing, but the less said about those the better, before they get sent out into the world. I’ve been plugging away – fifteen minutes here, an afternoon there – whenever life gifts me some spare time. Hopefully, all that work will start to bear fruit soon.

The on-going, long-drawn-out return to Carina picked up pace throughout April, and yesterday we finally loaded up a van and moved out of the house. Julian returns to the house tomorrow to collect the last of our stuff – all of which is going onboard. We have a car boot sale planned for Sunday, and the weather looks promising. At the moment we’re spending a few days with my father-in-law, and by the middle of next week we will all be home aboard Carina!

When I had one hundred days to go I wanted to explore Exeter Quay. So I took a day off work and Julian and I took a stroll after we’d brought the girls to school. We sipped coffee in the March sunshine and looked at the boats. And I returned to the Quay last week with Mammy and the girls to have birthday pizza.

I’ve had another visit to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, as I promised myself, and I have, on more than one occasion, enjoyed beers with my friends – and I have a couple more of those nights out planned before my thirty days are up. And I’m going to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum next Tuesday with a friend.

I’ve packed a lot into those past seventy days. I’ve had friends to visit, and I’ve done some visiting. I’ve read a few excellent novels. I’ve seen some good movies.

The girls finished school at the start of April and we’re enjoying the new pace of life. They’re having a lot of fun visiting Grandad this week, but keep asking when we’ll be moving onto Carina. Very very soon, I promise!