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!!)

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Christmas at anchor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx

 

A dentist’s dream

On the night of the 5th of January, the Eve of Twelfth Night, the Three Kings arrive from the east, bearing gifts. For Spanish children, this is a far more important night than Christmas Eve. Indeed, Santa Claus has only recently begun to bring one or two small gifts to Spanish children, leaving most of the gift-giving to his Eastern colleagues, the Three Kings. Every Spanish child knows their names – Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – and their images grace everything from town centre nativity scenes to household Christmas decorations. Outside some homes one sees decorative Santa Clauses climbing up balconies and outside others are the Three Kings doing likewise. Special cakes are baked and eaten in their honour and the 6th of January, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, is a Spanish public holiday.

Julian and Lily attended the Three Kings procession in Aguadulce on the 5th of January last year and came home with great reports, and everyone who has been to the procession in Sanlúcar in previous years assured us it wasn’t to be missed.

Our departure from Carina, at anchor in the river a couple of hundred metres south of town, was delayed by a sudden heavy downpour of rain, but I hoped the rain would also delay the start of the procession. It was with slightly damp bums that we disembarked the dinghy on the Sanlúcar pontoon and made our way up and over the hill and down towards the school, following all the other townsfolk who were doing the same.

In the distance, on the road leading down from the ancient fortification on the top of the hill, we saw the first light. They were (obviously!) coming from the east and as more and more lights joined the procession some of the more impatient among us wondered aloud how long it would take them to get from all the way up there down to the village.

But they were surprisingly quick and within twenty minutes they were coming along the street towards us. First came a local teenage girl (who seems to be the star of everything this Christmas), dressed in long white flowing robes, wearing a long white wig and riding on a white horse. She was followed by each of the Three Kings in turn, each with his own entourage. The Kings – one white, one black, one ginger, all with their faces painted and long curly wigs and beards in those colours – rode horses and threw handfuls of boiled sweets into the crowd. Children and adults scrambled to pick the sweets from the street. All the children – Lily and Katie included – had brought along bags or baskets for the purpose.

As the procession passed we followed after it, picking up sweets all along the route as we walked up to the Catholic church on the top of the hill. There the Three Kings and the lady dismounted their horses and, with their entourages, entered the church one group at a time, through a guard of white clad men. They all bowed in front of the Nativity on the church altar.

This was no ordinary Nativity. It was a living crib – with a nine or ten month old baby playing Jesus, bouncing on the knee of a girl aged about 12 years old who played Mary. Joseph was there too, of course, and angels and shepherds. I was told of the presence of a real lamb in years gone by, but there was none this year. The choir sang five or six lively carols, the priest said a few words and then the Kings and their entourages departed the church backwards, bowing all the while to the baby Jesus.

Back on their horses again they made their way down to the town hall, and we all followed. More sweets were thrown and I had to duck a few times for fear my glasses would get broken by the ferocity of the raining sweets.

The Three Kings and the lady in white seated themselves in front of the town hall and as the names of all the towns children were called out over tanoy, they went up one by one to receive their presents from the Kings. I explained to Lily and Katie that they’d received their presents from Santa already, but they didn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered, so busy were they foraging boiled sweets from the streets.

Children came away carrying wrapped parcels containing dolls, football boots, cars, games. Two small boys rode away on pedal quad bikes! It was an incredible spectacle and the list of Marie-Carmens, Alejandros, Desirees and Cristobals seemed never ending.

The next day, curiosity getting the better of me, I took out the kitchen scales and weighed the two bags of sweets Lily and Katie had collected. Given that we had all munched or sucked our way through a load of them already, Katie’s bag weighed exactly 1kg and Lily’s 1.2kg. That’s some load of sugar. The dentists of Spain must rub their hands in glee at all the business racked up thanks to the Three Kings.

Downriver

On the morning of New Year’s Day, while the rest of the river slept off the festivities of the night before, we lifted the anchor and motored downriver on the ebb tide. For twenty-two miles we chugged along, the farthest Carina had gone since we came upriver in mid-April 2015. We past Laranjeiras where Carina was moored for five months while we were back in the UK, past Guerreros de Rio and Foz de Odeleite, all small hamlets on the Portuguese side of the river. On the Spanish side, there are no settlements of any size between Sanlúcar and Ayamonte, save for the occasional remote farmhouse and a huge ugly golf resort a couple of miles north of Ayamonte.

For some unfathomable reason I’d decided to do some laundry before we departed, so we motored down the river like a tribe of laundry pirates – a large white bed sheet, the girls’ Christmas jumpers, and Lily’s party dress hanging from the clothes lines strung from the rigging. But who was about to see us?

We were expecting unsettled weather and we got it. The sun that had burned away the early morning mist warmed us as we set out, but a few miles downriver I had to hastily bring in the laundry as a dark cloud rushing up the river to meet us dropped its load of rain upon us. That put an end to drying the laundry.

The farther downriver we went the stronger the wind grew. By the time we had left the hills behind and reached the broader stretches of river than run between mud flats and flood plains, Carina was bouncing over choppy short waves as the south westerly wind battled against the south flowing ebb tide.

It was close to low water when we passed under the suspension bridge linking Spain and Portugal and we began to look for a place to anchor. The wind was strong now and the west bank of the river offered the best shelter from the prevailing conditions. To give our anchoring skills a good workout, Mother Nature threw a nasty squall at us just as we decided on an anchorage. Tempers were frayed as lashing rain and howling wind prevented effective communication between Julian on the foredeck with the anchor chain and me in the cockpit on the helm. But as the storm passed overhead, so too did the little storm that had erupted in the boat. A nice cup of tea and we were back on speaking terms again!

High winds didn’t make for the most pleasant anchorage. We were anchored in mud, well out of the ferry and fishing boat channels, so Carina was unlikely to come to much harm if the anchor dragged. But noisy wind, uncomfortable rocking and rain that fell in sheets for hours on end wasn’t how any of us planned to spend our first night of 2016.

Somewhere in the early morning the wind died, the rain stopped and when we awoke the next morning all was calm and peaceful at the mouth of the Guadiana. At 9am we lifted the anchor and motored into the marina in Ayamonte. In the large, half empty Junta de Andalucia marina we found ourselves beside our friends Joss and Pascale aboard Snark and two pontoons away from Pete and Pia aboard Hannah Brown – Alcoutim/Sanlúcar live-aboards on tour!

How strange to be in a marina again, in a Spanish town. It reminded Lily of somewhere else she had been, but she couldn’t remember quite where. This was the first time we had been in a marina since April and it was like many of those we had been to before. It could have been Muros or Mazagon, Torremolinos or Vila Garcia de Arousa. Long walks along pontoons inhabited by seagulls; palm trees planted around the margins; electric gates; bureaucratic staff. My first job was to pay for a night’s berth and have a shower! Bliss!

Soon we were off the boat exploring. Next time I’m there I’ll be giving the little free zoo a miss, with its sad tiger, grizzly bears, lions and baboons. Only the ostriches seem relatively content with their lot in life. Ayamonte town centre was a busy little place, still in the throes of Christmas, preparing for Twelfth Night and the arrival of Los Tres Reyes with their gifts for all the children. An incongruous ice skating rink in the square left much to be desired, but the Christmas trees made by local school children and on display on the steps of the church were wonderful (I took note of some craft ideas for next year!).

That first evening, January 2nd, there was a procession through town of the Compañeras de los Tres Reyes – a brass band playing lively Christmas music followed by three women dressed in ‘Oriental’ clothing, riding three of the most magnificent and well-kept mules I have ever seen. The girls and I ran through the pouring rain to catch up with the procession and later on, when it grew dark all four of us returned to the town centre again where a lively flamenco choir sang carols and we soaked up the atmosphere.

We intended to spend only one night in the marina, and a couple more on anchor. And we intended to divide our time between Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. But the wind and rain put paid to those plans and we spent three nights in Ayamonte marina. The marina proved a boon. The heavy rain had penetrated some of Carina’s leakier parts and the bedding on both fore and aft cabins got quite wet. So, while I ran loads of sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases through the marina’s inexpensive washing machine and tumble drier, we kept the electric fan heater running almost non-stop, drying out the cabins and making the boat comfortable again.

We also took advantage of our proximity to a supermarket to stock up on some food, but I have to say, having got used to shopping in Alcoutim’s and Sanlúcar’s tiny shops, I found the choice in a medium-sized supermarket rather daunting! Nice though to have soy sauce, noodles and a selection of crackers on board again.

On January 4th a text message from the parents of one of Lily’s friends asked if we would make it to their daughter’s birthday party the next day. We hoped the wind would die down enough for us to get back upriver on time for the party and for the Tres Reyes procession in Sanlúcar that night.

Low water the next morning was at 5.13am and we planned to leave at 8am to get upriver on the flood tide. There was little wind, but by 8am it was still pitch dark, so we waited twenty more minutes for some light to fill the sky, before we made our way out of the marina. Carina raced up the Guadiana, carried along on the tide. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind was now coming from the north, making for a cold few hours, despite the sun that gradually rose from behind the hills to warm our backs. By the time we reached Alcoutim I looked like a pirate of a different kind – woolly hat, neck warmer pulled up over my nose and only my eyes exposed as I stood at the helm. We made it to the party, and to the Twelfth Night festivities that night.

All partied out

The New Year arrived amidst fireworks and singing and the honking of horns. An hour later it arrived again, on the other side of the river. All Christmassed out, my family slept through it all and I lay in bed listening to the fireworks, too cosy and snug to want to get out of bed to take a look from our perfect viewing position in the middle of the river.

Call me a party pooper (it wouldn’t be the first time), but by December 31st I was so overdosed on seasonal cheer that I’d had enough and couldn’t rouse myself for one final bash. Peace and good will? Peace and quiet were what I craved.

We’d had six nights of social engagements in a row before Christmas well and truly got underway. A Christmas dinner for all the children, parents and teachers at the school one night, a carol service in Sanlúcar the next night, a carol service in Alcoutim the night after that. Next came the night of the girls’ Christmas recitals, followed by a gathering in the pub of all the ex-pat live-aboards, and then an invitation for mulled wine and mince pies at someone’s house.

My days were chocolate-filled, as I made batches of tiffin and rum truffles for these events. And what was I to do but lick my fingers (and the bowl) as each batch went in the fridge to chill.

The carol services were almost the undoing of me, as carol services always are. Only the sight of Christmas reunions of long lost family at international airports has a greater effect of turning me into a blubbering emotional wreck. In Sanlúcar the ex-pat, mostly British, choir set a sombre tone with their four-part harmony renditions of many well-known Christmas hymns. They were followed by the local Sanlúcar choir raising the roof, and raising the audience to its feet, with their flamenco-sounding carols, Jose-Manuel from the bar playing flamenco guitar, the mum of one of Katie’s classmates playing tambourine and Remi, who owns the local shop, making wonderful music with a glass bottle and kitchen fork! Afterwards we all retired to the parish hall to partake of a table sagging under the weight of cakes, Spanish hot chocolate, wines and liqueurs.

The next night the Spanish and British ex-pat choirs were in action again, joined by the local Alcoutim church choir, in the de-consecrated church at the top of the hill in Alcoutim. When all three choirs had completed their sets we all sang Silent Night – a verse each in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French and English, and a final verse where everyone sang together, each in their own language. A verse in Irish probably would have been the undoing of me, but I held it together and the deep fellow-feeling carried me away to the once again heavily laden food table and the ample bottles of – what else in Portugal? – port.

Lily and Katie shone the next night as, respectively, a shepherdess and a reindeer, in their Christmas recitals. No one else’s children were cuter, more beautiful, or performed so well. Ok, so maybe they were and maybe they did, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my girls for long enough to see what any of the other kids in their classes were doing. I’m sure every other camera-wielding parent and grinning grandparent thought the same of their children.

The next evening we joined in the festivities at the Riverside, the favourite haunt of the live-aboards on the river. A Christmas party had been in full swing since 2pm, but we didn’t join it until later on. A motley gang of musicians meet here every Tuesday night to play music and they were all here on this evening with their harmonicas, violins, banjos, guitars, flutes and voices. Julian brought his recorder along and it didn’t take much persuasion for him to join in. After weeks (or a lifetime) of trying to pluck up the courage to sing in public, I finally did. And no, I wasn’t drunk. We had only arrived and I was quarter way through a bottle of weak beer. Carried away on a wave of feeling good, when someone thrust a songbook under my nose and said ‘Does anyone know how to sing this?’ I immediately replied ‘I do’, and off I went to the end of the room where the musicians had set themselves up. ‘What key will you sing it in?’ I was asked. ‘I have no idea what that means’, I replied. I tried to match their music. Too high. Lower. Lower. Lower. Too low. Ok, just right. Afterwards the musicians laughed and said that was in no key they’d ever heard before. Oops. But I sang with gusto, if perhaps not too well, ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The Fields of Athenry’, duetting with Scottish Tom. I could feel the hot redness of a blush travel from my neck up my face, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. Put me in front of a lecture theatre of 300 students and I’ll confidently rattle on without notes for an hour. But put me in front of 30 people I know in a bar to sing and I’m a nervous wreck. No-one booed. But then no-one asked me to sing any more either!

The next evening it was mulled wine and mince pies at the home of a couple I have only recently met. I had an interesting conversation with a British-Dutch academic-turned-novelist who was visiting the hosts for Christmas, and I pretended I was cool about the unlikely (but absolutely true) presence of another Christmas visitor (the son-in-law of the novelist) who spent part of the evening in the corner (the only place he could simultaneously pick up Wifi and power his laptop) in conversation with British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station. It was as surreal as the time I was at a party in Iqaluit, Nunavut and the host received a phone call from Kevin Spacey!

Six days of social engagements. So much good cheer, good food and being a social butterfly. I thought maybe I’d peaked too soon. Maybe I’d already overdosed on all that good cheer and chocolate before the main event. Julian was in our hired car early the next morning to drive to Faro airport to collect my mother and sister from the airport, while the girls and I transferred our stuff up the hill to the apartment the girls, their granny and aunt were staying in for the next four days (Julian and I slept aboard Carina).

How lovely to see my family. We went for long walks in the sunshine, went for a glass of wine BEFORE Mass on Christmas morning (and again after), ate turkey and Christmas pudding, and when Christmas evening arrived we couldn’t drag ourselves away from the comfort of the apartment to join in the beach barbecue we’d been invited to. So the six of us cuddled up under blankets and watched Terms of Endearment and The Evening Star back-to-back amidst groans and giggles and smart-alek comments about how awfully overwrought and badly acted they were. Maybe it was the wine and the overconsumption of cheese and chocolates, but I don’t remember Terms of Endearment being this bad before.

Two days after Christmas Lily and Katie had the birthday party of one of their school friends to attend, so the festivities continued, as I stood around with the other parents, drinking, eating and feeling the force of gravity much more strongly than I did ten days earlier.

My family departed after four too-short days and we stayed berthed on the Alcoutim pontoon for one more day. But we were all ready for some peace and quiet, some calming down, some return to normal life on the other side of the festivities. We anchored a little downriver from the villages and on New Year’s Eve we went for a quiet walk and picnic south along the Spanish side of the river. We were all in bed by 10.30 (Spanish time), Christmassed-out, partied out, having had one of the most sociable, fun and action-packed Christmasses we’ve had in many a year.

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous New Year xx

‘Tis the season of confusion, tra la la la la la la la la

The girls arrive home from school one day a couple of weeks ago brimming with excitement. They are going on a school outing, to the cinema. The next day they both bring notes home, which explain the outing and which have permission slips for us to sign. There is to be a trip to Happy Land and the cinema in Lepe on the 17th of December, details of departure and arrival times of the bus to follow.

A few days later Lily comes home tasked with learning by heart the first verse of a poem (or maybe song – I still don’t know), which she will recite on her own at the Christmas play. Julian and I can’t be sure we understand what the poem (or song) means, so we reach for the trusty dictionary to help us translate. In English, it goes like this:
The Limping Camel
The camel was pricked
By a thorn in the road
The mechanic Melchor
Gave him wine

When she showed us the accompanying actions a few days later I almost fell off the boat!

The notes home from the teacher come hard and fast after that.
There will be a dinner to which all pupils, teachers and parents are invited, and everyone is asked to contribute a dish. Papa Noel will be there, with gifts for the children. This will take place on Friday. Or maybe Monday. In the afternoon, or at 6pm or at 7pm.
There will be a Christmas concert on Monday, or maybe Friday, or maybe half on Friday, half on Monday.

One of the mums from the PTA gives Julian raffle tickets which we are expected to sell before Wednesday. But they are unlike any raffle tickets we’ve seen before, so we’re not sure how to do it. In the end, we buy all the tickets ourselves, because the prize is a huge hamper of food, currently on display in the foyer of the town hall.

Lily next comes home with the news that she needs a shepherdess outfit. When do you need it, I ask. Maybe tomorrow, she suggests. I ask around. The other parents think maybe Friday. Or maybe Monday.

A note from Katie’s teacher says that she needs to dress in brown clothes on Friday, as her class will perform ‘Rudolfo el reno’. On Tuesday some parents go along to help sew the Rudolph costumes that will go over the brown base layer. I can’t make it to the sewing session because it coincides with us needing to move the boat. But when I go to school later to pick the girls up, the other mums tell me Rudolfo is no longer on Friday. He’s been moved to Monday.

The days are ticking by and still no news of the departure time for the school trip to Lepe. The official note said we have to send the girls with a sandwich and drink each, but one of the other mums tells me to ignore that and send them with sweets, chocolates, cakes – things they can swap and share with their classmates. It’s the one day of the year the strict healthy eating guidelines are waivered – or ignored by the parents.

Still no-one knows when the dinner will take place for which we have all been asked to contribute a dish. The other English parents don’t know, nor the Dutch parent, nor the Japanese parent, nor the Spanish parents. We’re all in a state of confusion. Even the teachers seem confused.

On Tuesday Lily comes home with a hand-written note – in Spanish and English – informing us that the next morning she will need to bring a half kilo of rice and one white sock to school. In the back of Lily’s notebook is written, in Lily’s new loopy handwriting, ‘sok’, ‘sokc’, ‘sock’. Lily tells me the teacher asked her how to spell calcetine in English and she had to write it out to see which spelling looked correct.
‘What on earth do you need those for?’ I ask her.
She has no idea. Nor do any of the other parents. Julian searches their underwear bags and finds a relatively white sock in Katie’s bag. I weigh out 500g of rice.
When she comes home that evening I ask her what she did with the rice and the sock.
‘I gave them to the teacher’, she says.
‘And what did the teacher do with them?’ I ask.
‘She put them on a shelf’.
Well that clears everything up, then!

They both bring home identical notes with the bus arrival and departure times. 8.45am departure on the excursion and 2.15 to 2.30 return. One of the mums tells me the bus never gets back on time. All the parents hang out in the bar across the road from the school, apparently, waiting for the bus to get back.

Two more notes arrive. Katie is to arrive in school on Monday dressed as a reindeer, and Lily as a shepherdess.

Finally, the morning of the excursion arrives. Parents crowd around Lily’s teacher, trying to ascertain the details of the dinner, the Papa Noel visit, the Christmas concert. At last we seem to have confirmation. The dinner, the Papa Noel visit and half the concert will take place on Friday at 7pm. The other half of the concert will take place on Monday, time to be arranged.

I wave the girls off and head back to the boat, currently on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I stop to chat to Ellie on a neighbouring boat.

‘Have you been invited to Clare’s?’ she asks me. Clare has invited us around for mulled wine and mince pies next week.
‘Oh yes’, I tell Ellie. ‘On the 23rd’.
‘She told me the 24th’, Ellie says.
‘And what about Rogerio?’, she asks. ‘Have you heard about his Christmas dinner? I’ve heard the 24th or the 25th’.
‘Oh no’, I say, ‘I heard the 23rd’. We promise to keep each other updated on developments.

If nothing else, I’m reassured that everyone else is just as confused as me!!

Homemade Christmas

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us. A couple of weeks ago the streets of Sanlúcar were decorated with three strings of lights (!) and last week a light-tree was placed in the village square at Alcoutim, and local businesses decorated with lights. The lights of Alcoutim haven’t been lit yet, but as we took the dinghy upriver back to Carina last night (after a wonderful evening aboard the boat of newfound friends) we saw the lights of Sanlúcar for the first time, and very pretty they looked too.

The girls have been doing Christmas activities at school, learning about the Three Kings (who, in Spain, are far more important than Santa Claus. It is they who come on the night of January 5th with presents for children, which is great for Santa, because it means a little less work for him). Lily and Katie have been colouring in Nativity scenes and pictures of the Three Kings and I hope they’ll learn some Spanish Christmas songs soon.

There is an ex-pat choir in Sanlúcar which is preparing for carol singing events on both sides of the river in the coming weeks. And the local shops are now selling small selections of Christmas foods.

The girls and I made Advent calendars last weekend and are planning on making decorations for the boat this weekend, to add to those we made last year. My mother and sister are joining us in Alcoutim for Christmas, so there is great excitement as we anticipate their arrival.

On Wednesday I took the early morning bus down to Vila Real de Santo Antonio for a day of Christmas shopping. In this larger town down by the coast the shops were decorated for the season and well stocked with Christmassy things. I bought the presents I wanted to get for Lily and Katie and I stocked up on baking ingredients. I love baking for Christmas!

What I am enjoying about this Christmas season already is that it feels more understated than usual. Here on this remote river there are few opportunities for frenzied Christmas shopping. No Black Fridays here, no 8th of December shopping madness, that’s for sure.

I’ve written before here and here about my unease with the material excesses of Christmas. This year, given the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and desperate people who have come to our shores seeking refuge, families who have lost all their worldly possessions, children without even one comforting toy or memento of home, the material excesses of Christmas sit even more uneasily with me.

Santa Claus will come to my girls on Christmas Eve. He is part of the magic of Christmas. But the magic of Christmas also lies in making decorations and home-baked gifts to give to our neighbours and friends, carol singing and community events, special foods and time spent with family. I don’t want the loot under the tree on Christmas morning to be the focus of Christmas for my children.

Who needs the material excess of Christmas with its stresses of running around in overcrowded overpriced overheated stores, running down your bank account and running up debts, worrying how people will react to the presents you’ve given them? Other than the shop owners and the banks, no-one needs that sort of Christmas.

Instead Christmas can be a time for family and for reaching out beyond family. For spending time not money; for giving of yourself, not your bank account; for enjoying, not stressing; and for being grateful and thankful for the many riches in your life, rather than feeling disappointed by the unwanted presents under the tree.

My Christmas shopping, what little it was, is done now, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of making felt stars and snowmen and Santa Clauses, writing cards to far-distant friends, making the first batch of tiffin, and drinking lots of hot chocolate with my girls.

I wish you all a gentle and relaxed Christmas.

Reconnecting

After my surreal media week some semblance of normality returned to our holiday in Ireland. I had a few opportunities to spend time in the company of some of my oldest friends. A big-girl sleep-over with two friends I’ve known since we were all four years old involved a lot of good food and even more good conversation.

What a dessert!

What a dessert!

And in last Saturday’s glorious sunshine three of my old (‘less of the old’ I hear them yell) university friends descended on Mammy’s house with an assortment of their children. We caught up while our kids got to know each other. There were a few family get-togethers, filled with tea and cake and ham sandwiches, and visits to other relatives and neighbours.

We celebrated a rip-roaring St. Patrick’s Day, the girls dressed (as one of my friends pointed out) like the Clancy Brothers! We went to Mass in Edenderry to hear and see Granny singing in the choir, and were also treated to the spectacle of Irish dancers dancing up the aisle of St. Mary’s Church.

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Later, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade along JKL Street. The parade is a new addition to the Edenderry social calendar. It started only three or four years ago at the height of the recession, in an attempt to lift spirits and boost the economy, when the town and a lot of the people in it were feeling pretty miserable. It was great fun, with many local clubs, societies and businesses with colourful floats. There were marching bands and I was only disappointed to not see any more Irish dancers. One of the local shops gave out free giant green, white and gold lollipops and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the green and yellow around Katie’s mouth was tinged with red. IMG_20150317_141002

The little gluttonous imp tried to stuff too much of the lollipop into her mouth at once, and split her mouth on both sides. If only she was so eager to eat her dinner!

I awoke on Friday morning filled with anticipation for the eclipse. The previous two days had been bright and sunny, so I was disappointed when I opened the curtains to a sky filled with heavy grey clouds. Still, I sat out on the patio, cup of tea warming my hands, awaiting…something. It grew noticeably darker, but that was it. Or so I thought. I went inside to warm up. Half an hour later I ventured outside to bring in turf for the fire and the clouds had thinned to reveal the sun still a little less than half eclipsed by the moon. I yelled for Lily and Katie to come out. They weren’t quite as awestruck as I was!

On Sunday, Lily had a pre-birthday party (five days early), with two little cousins, and a large gathering of my family – Mammy and some of her sisters, my sister, our Nana and, as often at gatherings of my family, the obligatory solitary man, this time in the form of my sister’s boyfriend.

Happy cousins

Happy cousins

The children played, while the adults talked and ate, ate and talked. Mammy put her considerable musical talents to use to play the mouth organ for ‘Pass the Parcel’. ‘Jingle Bells’ in March…what a treat!

All too soon our three weeks in Ireland came to an end and it was time for us to return to Spain – to Julian and to Carina. Since Daddy died and, therefore, since the girls were born, I haven’t spent more than ten days in the house where I grew up. And usually our visits home are around Christmas or for funerals. Three weeks in the middle of March was a very different experience. Everyone else was going about their usual daily business each day and the visit home was devoid of the mania and expectation always attendant on Christmas. It was a much more laid back sort of visit.

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Three weeks gave Lily and Katie opportunities to become comfortable in the house and the garden, and to spend more time with their great grandmother, Nana Kitty, and various other family members.

It was springtime, so the weather was good, the daffodils were in bloom, there were lambs in the fields – a very different place to the one we so often visit in the darkest days of winter. I have returned to Carina feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, my connections to home rekindled, and Mammy’s bookcase raided for reading material to keep me going for the next few months!

Hooray for Christmas!

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us, although I’m finding it hard to be convinced that it’s not still August. December on the Mediterranean is all sunshine and palm trees, blue skies and sandy beaches. The daytime temperatures hover around 20˚C, so different to the cold, wet, windy Decembers I am used to in Ireland and England. But, Christmas weather in southern Spain is, I’m sure, more akin to the weather in Bethlehem on the first Christmas.

2010 - a rare snowy Christmas Day at home in Ireland

2010 – a rare snow-covered Christmas Day at home in Ireland

Spain, like many countries, has adopted the pre-Christian Northern European symbols of mid-winter – the decorated pine tree and the flying reindeer. Still walking around in short sleeves, skirt and sandals, I am amused to see shop windows decorated with snowmen and snowflakes. But these symbols of Christmas are no more alien to Spain than they are to Ireland and the UK. I have only rarely experienced snow at Christmas, and the reindeer, decorated pine tree and jolly gift-giving fat man are as much a syncretic import to my Irish Christmas as they are to the Spanish Christmas.

Perhaps because of the (for me) unseasonably warm weather, or because this is our first Christmas living aboard Carina and we are somewhat removed from the frenzy, I am less aware this year than in previous years of the manic consumerism that accompanies Christmas. But I know it’s there. I was shocked to see images of Black Friday on the Internet and in the UK newspaper we treat ourselves to each Saturday. People fighting, punching each other, pushing each other over, generally being mean and nasty, for the sake of monster wide-screen TVs and other such unnecessary junk. The only people amused by this are the CEOs and shareholders of the multinational companies that make and sell this stuff. They’re laughing all the way to the bank.

This year I feel more removed than ever from the pressures to consume at Christmas. I’m removed from the pressure to buy gifts that I can’t afford, to receive gifts that I don’t want or need, to line the bulging pockets of multinational producers, manufacturers and retailers, and to contribute to environmental degradation and social inequality. Instead, I’m free to get on with a more low-key Christmas that focuses on giving and sharing and being with family.

2010 - Lily, aged one and three-quarters, posing under Granny's tree.

2010 – Lily, aged one and three-quarters, posing under Granny’s tree.

Last week we started to decorate Carina. We made and hung up a few decorations, and more will follow over the next few days (pictures to follow, when Carina is decked out in her Christmas splendor). The girls and I have come up with lists, not of what we want to receive, but of what we want to give. We have plans to make sweet Christmassy treats to give to our neighbours in other boats and to the staff who work at the marina. And I’m planning a mini-Christmas party for each of my classes at the English school. Making Christmas treats with Lily and Katie and visiting our neighbours is something I’m very much looking forward to.

This year, gift-giving is thankfully curtailed by necessity. We live in a confined space 11 metres long and 3.4 metres wide, so big unwieldy gifts are out of the question. Mammy and my sister are flying over from Ireland and, with their limited airplane luggage allowance, they can neither give nor receive lots of gifts. Spending Christmas with them will be the best gift. We are all spending Christmas with my cousin and his wife in Almeria. With the pressure to give and receive gifts removed, we can all concentrate on enjoying each other’s company while we share some good food.

I have done all the Christmas shopping I am going to do. I spent about half an hour last week buying crafty, creative gifts for the girls on behalf of their grandparents in the UK. (I found even that half an hour immensely stressful). Now we can get back to the fun stuff – singing Christmas carols and hymns, decorating the boat, baking, reading Christmas stories and looking forward to seeing Granny and Aunty Antoinette in a couple of weeks time.

Now…let me think…where did I stow Julian’s Santa costume?

Bloody Christmas here again.
Let us raise a loving cup:
Peace on Earth, good will to men
And let them do the washing up.