The Old Post Office

Back in November, when Jeanne and David asked if we’d housesit for the summer, it didn’t take us long to make up our minds. They were in no hurry for an answer, but over Christmas, Julian and I talked about it and agreed it would be a lovely thing to do. Early in the new year we told Jeanne and David that we’d be happy to look after their house and dog for the summer.

I had spent much of the summer of 2017 alone on the Rio Guadiana. The girls were in Ireland and the UK and Julian was working long hours at the beach bar in Alcoutim, so I saw little of him. My time was divided between Carina, upriver on a mooring, and Alcoutim, where I managed an Air B&B property and spent a good deal of time in the property’s downstairs flat. But what little I saw of Sanlúcar, I enjoyed. I came across the river a couple of times during Cultural Week and had a few evenings out with friends.

Sanlúcar, usually quiet (with the exceptions of fiestas) was abuzz during the summer and the village seemed to come alive after dark, with children playing out of doors until all hours and the bars packed with families eating supper. There was an easy-going summer feel about the place. I thought it would be lovely for my family to experience this too, so Jeanne and David’s offer was perfect. Besides, the house itself, beloved of so many locals and foreigners in the village, would be a joy to live in for a few months.

El Correo Viejo is quite probably more than 300 years old. For over 240 years, prior to the late 1970s, it was the village post-office and trading post. Indeed, Juan, the lovely old man who has kept us in fresh tomatoes, onions, watermelons, cucumbers and figs all summer, was the last postman here, and lived in the house as a child when his father was the postman. Jeanne and David, an English couple, have preserved much of the old feel of the house, with exposed stone walls in places, old frescos revealed and restored with care and the old cistern still providing a water supply. Comfortable old furniture matches the house’s architecture and the walls are decorated with an eclectic mix of art old and new, British and local, created by friends or artists unknown. The Moorish architecture of thick walls and high ceilings make the house a cool haven from the extreme summer temperatures outside. The first thing most people comment on when they enter the house is the pleasant change of temperature.

House-sitters are required for two reasons for the three months Jeanne and David are away each summer. The first is Vinnie, a big old black-and-white one-eared dog, who is perhaps the most easy-going and relaxed dog I have ever met. We had been living in the house for almost a month before I heard him bark for the first time, and a pretty half-hearted bark it was at that. It would appear that only two things get Vinnie’s heart racing – food and the prospect of someone taking him for a walk. At the sight of me putting on my trainers each morning he gallops around the house, sliding into doors, toppling over himself in his excitement to go sniffing and peeing his way around the village and beyond.

The second reason for looking after the house is that its owners generously run it as a semi-open house. The first room inside the front door – the hall – houses an English book exchange and, apart from six bookcases packed with books, one can also choose from an ample collection of DVDs, magazines, and even exchange jigsaws. My job was to keep the shelves tidy and find homes for newly arrived books. I have to admit there were advantages to the job, as I took first dibs on the best books!

A small selection of olive oil, natural soaps and greetings cards made by local artisans are also displayed for sale here and there’s a handy noticeboard with some useful information for newcomers to the village. A sign near the pontoon directs newcomers to this wonderful resource and Jeanne and David have gained a reputation as helpful founts of wisdom on all things Sanlúcar.

The house also serves as a postal address to those of us who don’t have permanent addresses in the village. For yachties, owners of small-holdings and temporary visitors to the Rio Guadiana, it is comforting to know that our Amazon orders, spare parts for engines, birthday presents from grandparents to our children, and who knows what else, are in safe hands. As ‘post mistress’ this summer it was my job to sign for the occasional parcel, check the post-box or the hall table to see what the village post woman had delivered, sort through the post and occasionally contact people who had asked in advance to be contacted once their parcel had arrived.

All of this resulted in a very sociable summer, with friends dropping by regularly to check their post or restock their libraries and newcomers dropping in to browse the book exchange, or to ask for advice about the best place to shop, eat out or go for a walk. Visitors coming to use the service often ended up joining us for the terrace with its stunning view over the river for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a taste of Lily’s home baking. Parcels and packages were often excitedly ripped open in front of us as their owners shared their excitement with us. It has to be said, however, that is more often occurred for such items as harmonicas or galangal root, rather than new engine gaskets.

Being in the village all summer provided us with wonderful opportunities. For a few weeks, Lily and Katie went to summer camp in the mornings and dance practice in the evenings. We all stayed out late, eating and drinking and enjoying good company in the village bars. Our nearest bar is right outside the door, so if Lily and Katie tired of grownup conversation and there were no children around to play with, they simply went home.

We have a little over two more weeks in the old post office. It’s been a delightful, busy, hectic and, above all, sociable summer. I haven’t even told you about the fruit trees growing in the garden, the pool, the sleepovers and the stream of visitors, all of which added flavour and depth to our wonderful few months here. I am extremely grateful that my family had an opportunity to experience summer in Sanlúcar from this unique perspective.

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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!!)

Hallowe’en – It’s my holiday!!

It’s that time of year again, when I get annoyed and frustrated on behalf of my culture, my traditions and my childhood memories. ‘I can’t stand Hallowe’en’, I hear all too often from people who aren’t Irish, followed by a damning reference to it being an American invention, exported around the world like Coca-Cola and Santa in a red suit. (And, by the way, what’s so terrible about American inventions?). The irony, of course, is that, while people are perfectly content to sip Coke and sit on Santa’s fat red knee, Hallowe’en is actually a European festival, specifically a west coast, Celtic European festival, exported to America.

Hallowe’en is ours, and it has always been one of my favourite festivals (although, I have to admit, I’m pretty much equal opportunities when it comes to festivals, feasts, holy days, and all those other times when we get to behave in weird and wonderful out-of-the-ordinary ways).

Hallowe’en was a big deal when I was a child growing up in 1970s and 1980s rural Ireland. The first hint of Hallowe’en each year came in late September or early October with the first barm brack brought home from O’Brien’s supermarket in Edenderry. We’d eat the fruit brack slathered in butter, with a cup of tea and, being the only child in the family until I was five years old, I always got the cheap metal wedding ring wrapped in grease proof paper that lay hidden in the middle of the brack. By the time Hallowe’en came around I usually had four or five rings, as my family ate our way through quite a few bracks in those few short weeks.

As Hallowe’en grew ever closer the hazelnuts on the hedges down the road near Rabbitfield were ready to eat. I went alone, or with Daddy, or with my cousin Martin who lived down the road, fraught with anxiety as we gathered hazelnuts on that haunted stretch of road. It was widely known around Ballygibbon that Rabbitfield House was haunted. Indeed, Daddy and my black Labrador, Lassie, had had a frightening supernatural encounter as they walked in the field in front of the derelict house one day – Lassie’s hair standing on the back of her neck and Daddy swearing he would never go there again. (Even today, as a sensible worldly-wise 44 year old, when I drive past Rabbitfield at night, I put my foot on the accelerator and drive those lonely 200 metres at high speed, never looking in the rear view mirror for fear of what might be looking back at me!).

I digress. There was the barm brack and the hazelnuts, essential Hallowe’en food. There were monkey nuts (peanuts), almonds and brazil nuts in the shops – highly exotic and highly seasonal foods in rural Ireland back in those days. At school we made ghoulish masks and witches hats out of cornflakes boxes and toilet roll inserts and lots of glue and paint. The shops sold Hallowe’en masks – tight pinching plastic affairs that scratched your face and caused profuse facial sweating, attached to your head by elastic bands that broke your hair and hurt your ears.

I was never particularly crafty, and my attempts at witches and ghouls inspired by Mary’s Make-and-Do on Saturday morning television generally failed and, anyway, I always looked forward to the new mask I would get each year at O’Brien’s or when we went shopping in Mullingar.

By October 31st each year I was almost sick with excitement. I dressed as a púca – a witch or a ghost or a ghoul or a banshee and – together with my cousins Catherine and Sheila, and the occasional cross-dressing adult who decided to join in the fun – walked the dark road of Ballygibbon (usually in the rain), stopping at each house (most of our neighbours were cousins on Daddy’s side of the family) where, as tradition dictated, we sang, or told a joke, or played a musical instrument, or did a dance, in return for sweets, fruit, nuts or, sometimes, money. With Ballygibbon under our belts, I was driven the two miles into Edenderry (some years with my cousins in tow, some years just me and my sister), where we did the rounds of Gilroy Avenue, where my Nana Kitty lived (still lives) and Castleview Park where my aunt Lillie lived. More embarrassed singing, telling jokes, dancing (‘You start’, ‘No, you start’, ‘I won’t sing unless you sing’) in exchange for more sweets, fruit, nuts and money.

And then it was into my Nana’s house or back home to Ballygibbon, for games. We bobbed for apples, putting our faces in basins of water, hands behind our backs, trying to get an apple using only our mouths. We bobbed for nuts as well, which was a mad endeavour, especially as many sank to the bottom. But we were always willing to risk drowning for a sunken almond. Apples were tied from string from the ceiling and, again with hands behind backs, we had to try to take a bite of the swinging apple using only our mouths. For months afterwards, thumbtacks remained on my Nana’s living room ceiling, testament to our Hallowe’en madness. And my favourite and, at the same time, least favourite game was the one where we placed a grape on top of a mound of flour. The goal was to use a knife to remove the flour without the grape falling from the top of the mound. If your knife swipe caused the grape to fall, you had to stick your head into the plate of flour (yuck) and retrieve the grape with your mouth.

Over the years I have brought my Hallowe’en traditions with me and shared them with my students in Japan, and last year here in our little village in Spain. I’ve learned a lot about Hallowe’en traditions over the years and how they vary from region to region in Ireland, and in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. We share many similarities too. Apples are at the centre of many Hallowe’en traditions, as is dressing up and performing. We never had Jack-o-lanterns where I come from, so I assumed it was a new American tradition. But then I found out that the tradition arose in Ireland, with carved turnips (what my husband calls ‘swede’ (a point of contention in our marriage) and what Americans call ‘rutabega’) and was transposed to an equally, or perhaps more appropriate American vegetable, the pumpkin.

Hallowe’en has been around for a long time. It was the Celtic festival Oiche Samhain, the night when fairies and púcas from the other world crossed over into the human world. Like many pre-Christian festivals, it was syncretised by Christianity, and became the eve of the double holy days of November 1st, the Feast of All Saints and November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. And growing up in Ireland when I did, we celebrated all of those things – the fairies, the púcas, the saints and the souls.

So this year, if someone bemoans that ‘American holiday’, please remind them that it is, in fact, a holiday that has roots deep in the pre-Christian Celtic cultures of the west coast of Europe. Indeed, it would appear the earliest reference to the holiday in the US only dates back to 1911. Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has been transformed by our good neighbours on the other side of the Atlantic. But one thing culture and traditions are incapable of doing is remaining unchanged. Just as Christians of 1600 years ago changed the meaning of Hallowe’en in Ireland, so Americans have changed the practice and re-exported it. But at heart it remains a playful, liminal holiday, when norms and rules are transgressed, when the doors between worlds open up, and when, with just a little persuasion, I might risk drowning in a basin of cold water for a mouldy old monkey nut.

 

Roots or routes?

In early May, Sanlúcar de Guadiana and its neighbour El Granado held their annual Romería. It was our third Romería, and a few days after the fiesta, as I uploaded my photographs onto the laptop, I decided to take a look back at our two previous Romerías, in 2015 and 2016. Each year we have known more about the festival and have, thus, been able to participate in it more deeply.

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Spectators in 2015

In May 2015, we had been up the Rio Guadiana for less than two weeks when we came ashore one Saturday at lunchtime to watch this colourful local spectacle. We weren’t sure what it was all about or where everyone was going in tractor and mule-drawn trailers. We were hot and thirsty and, after taking a few photos and watching the procession set off, we returned home to Carina.

In May 2016, we knew more about this two-day event during which the people of Sanlúcar and the people of El Granado come together in a field mid-way between the two villages to eat, drink and party into the night. Lily and Katie dressed in their cheap tourist-shop flamenco dresses and we walked the road to the festival. But we went too early, overtaking the procession which went by a different route, and had eaten all our food and drunk all our water by the time the procession arrived. We stayed a little while, visiting the caseta of one family we knew a little bit.

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In the thick of it, 2017

In May 2017, Lily and Katie wore proper flamenco dresses, we rode in one of the trailers for the four hours it took to cover the three or so kilometres from Sanlúcar to the site of the Romería, singing and dancing, drinking and eating along the way. In advance of the festival, friends from both Sanlúcar and El Granado had invited us to eat and drink in their casettas. The girls and I set up camp with some English friends, where we had our own picnic, and then, as Saturday evening progressed, we did the rounds of the casettas to which we had been invited.

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Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

Looking back over those three sets of photographs I realised that what had once been, for us, a colourful local festival in a quirky village filled with strangers had become a part of our annual calendar in our adopted village filled with friends and neighbours. Zooming in on those photos from 2015, it dawned on me that those strangers were now Lily and Katie’s schoolmates and their parents, the friends I chat to in my favourite bar, my English language students. These strangers are now people to whose houses I have visited, who have invited us to birthday parties, First Communion celebrations and Christmas dinners. They are strangers no more.

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Dance break by the side of the road!

Yachties frequently ask each other about their sailing plans. It’s the nature of living on a boat. There are times when I am envious when I see our sailing friends set off down the river. I want to set off for destinations unknown too. Our good friends aboard Pelagic are now sailing in the Pacific, having left the Rio Guadiana in spring of 2016. I read their blog and tell Lily and Katie about the wonderful adventures of their friends Ana and Porter  in places I’ve never heard of with names I can’t pronounce and part of me wishes we were out there too aboard Carina. Maybe someday we will.

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But there is also something wonderful about staying put, about getting to know a place and its people, about getting below the surface of those colourful and strange traditions  and about strangers becoming friends.

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Maybe we will still be here for next year’s Romería. Maybe not. Getting to know a place takes time. Understanding a community and its people takes patience. If we are here next year I am sure I will look back on May 2017 and marvel at my naiveté and lack understanding and my presumption at what I thought I knew!

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The handsome Eskimo

I sat down with Katie to oversee her homework. Left to her own devices, a reading and writing assignment that should take fifteen minutes to complete might take two hours or more. But if I sat beside her and offered light encouragement, we might get through it in half an hour.

The photocopied sheet, consisted of two assignments that tested reading comprehension and cursive writing. The top half of the page contained mixed up sentences. Katie had to put the words in each sentence in the correct order and then write them out twice.

tiene Paco quimono un

Paco tiene un quimono (Paco has a kimono)

(Is Paco a transvestite? Wow, how liberal-minded you are, government of Andalucia!)

The bottom half of the page had sentences that first had to be copied, and then a picture had to be drawn, demonstrating Katie’s comprehension of each sentence.

The first sentence stops me in my tracks.

El esquimal es feo.

Come again? Surely I’m mistaken. There’s no way I could be reading that right. I reach for the dictionary to look up the meaning of esquimal, even though I already know what it is. Yep, just as I thought, esquimal = Eskimo.

El esquimal es feo. The Eskimo is ugly.

I ask Katie to read it. She doesn’t know the word esquimal. ‘It means Eskimo’, I tell her. ‘Do you know what an Eskimo is?’ I ask her. ‘Like an Inuk?’ she asks hesitantly. ‘And do we know any Inuit?’ I ask. Before Katie answers, Lily calls from the aft cabin, ‘Me. I’m Niviaq’.

You see, Lily’s more longwinded name, as it appears on her birth certificate, is Elizabeth Niviaq. Niviaq is her Inuit name, given to her by Paul and Linda, my adopted family in Arviat. Niviaq was Paul’s younger brother who tragically died in 2003. Because Lily has his name, by Inuit custom, she is related to all his family. Despite being a girl, she is ‘little brother’ to Rosie and Paul, ‘little uncle’ to all her namesake’s nieces and nephews, and she is related, through her namesake, to all the other children who have been named after Niviaq since he died. And the characteristics of his personality are passed on to Lily in her name. Ugly Eskimo indeed!

‘What should we do about this?’ I ask the girls. At first Katie doesn’t want to do anything other than complete her assignment the way it has been set out. In other words, write out ‘El esquimal es feo’ and draw a picture of an ugly Eskimo. ‘The teacher might get mad’, she says. ‘But there must be something we can do’, I say, ‘that allows you to complete your homework, but also let the teacher know that you’re not happy with the sentence. Maybe you could do something that would start a conversation’.

‘How about ‘El esquimal es guapo’?’, Lily suggests. The Eskimo is handsome. Katie and I both like this idea.

‘And what will you do when the teacher reads it?’ I ask.

‘I’ll tell her my sister’s an Inuk and she’s not ugly’, Katie says. ‘And anyone else?’, I prompt. ‘Granddad Paul and Maya and Ujarak and Frank’.

I then suggest to Lily that she can explain the origin of her name to her teacher and classmates. I’ve heard her describe it very well in English in the past. And they both can tell the class what they know about Inuit culture – about caribou and beluga whale hunting, and igloos and sled dogs; about the fun games people play at birthday parties; about clothing made from animal skins; about throat singing and drum dancing.

Katie writes ‘El esquimal es guapo’ and draws a picture of an Inuk in a fur-hooded yappa. And I send my little cultural ambassadors to school the next day hoping they’ll do their bit for cultural sensitivity and understanding.

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.

Siesta

In the blazing, blue sky, brutal heat of the early afternoon, silence reigns. There is no bird song, no quacking ducks, no bleating sheep, no barking dogs. There are no cars on the streets, no children at play, no pedestrians chatting. To walk through the streets of Sanlúcar, if one was foolish enough to do so, is akin to walking through a ghost town. Shutters down on every house and no sounds emanating from within. The river is silent too. One ferryman dozes under the ferry bimini, with no passengers at this time of day. Only the occasional recently arrived yachtie is naïve enough to motor ashore from his anchorage, hoping to find a shop or bar open, or insanely deciding to go for a walk.

It took us a while to get into the swing of siesta. Back in 2014, when we first cruised in Spain, we exhausted ourselves in the heat of the day, the sun sapping our energy as we attempted to keep our lives running to a northern European schedule. We didn’t know any better. It’s what we were accustomed to. It took some time for us to become aware of the silence, the empty streets, the shuttered windows, as Spain came to a standstill for a few hours every afternoon.

We were stupidly slow to figure out just why it was that Spanish people of all ages could manage to stay out so damned late into the night – restaurants only starting to serve dinner at 9pm, children happily eating meals with their families at one in the morning. It’s because everyone sleeps in the hottest part of the day, and the country comes to life again when the day starts to cool down.

With our own children in school this past year it’s become easier to develop a siesta habit aboard Carina. The school day ends at 2pm, the girls come home for lunch, and by 3pm we’re all in siesta mode.

Not that the girls sleep. But I don’t feel so bad about that because the parents of their Spanish classmates tell me their children don’t sleep much either. The important thing is to ensure everyone has some quiet time in a shady and, preferably, cool place, so the heat isn’t unnecessarily sapping energy.

I doze, or read, or write. Julian does the same. Katie sleeps sometimes, Lily almost never. But Lily lies quietly on her bed for a couple of hours, reading usually. Or both girls play quietly together. Or, if they are being particularly anti-siesta, I stick on a DVD to keep them quietly amused.

It’s only very recently that I’ve truly come to appreciate siesta time. Not just for the obvious reasons. Not simply because it conserves our energy and it provides a time to relax in the middle of the day. Not just because we wake up revived and not too tired to participate in the evening and night-time life of Spain.

What I like above all about siesta is the silence. There are no human or animal sounds. All is still. All is quiet. The oppressive heat weighs down, silencing all. For a few hours each afternoon the only sounds are the wind blowing and the river lapping against its banks.

Romería

It’s almost two months since the good citizens of Sanlúcar de Guadiana and El Granado walked out one Saturday around midday and met in a field midway between their two villages for two days of fun and frolics. Men came on horseback, dressed in high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats; women, some on horseback too, were dressed in voluminous layered figure hugging flamenco dresses, their lips painted red and their hair elaborately coiffed. This was the annual Romería, when neighbouring villagers get together to, ahem, expand the gene pool.

My mother and sister were visiting from Ireland and we couldn’t but join in the festivities. While proper flamenco dresses are way beyond our price range (and where on earth would we store them aboard Carina?), we were advised to dress the girls in the cheaper children’s flamenco dresses to be found in every resort town in Spain. We owned one already, and borrowed a second.

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Katie and Granny on the road to El Granado

For a week or more before the festival the people of Sanlúcar and El Granado, a village of similar size ten minutes away by car, were busy making their preparations. The same field, midway between the two villages, is used each year. Extended families build casetas – temporary structures made of wood and tarpaulin – which provide shade and shelter. In Sanlúcar carts were decorated with flowers and bunting, and cars and trucks loaded with chairs, tables, barrels and crates of beer to be transported to the site.

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On Friday evening Julian went out for a walk after supper. He was gone almost an hour when I heard the unmistakable sound of flamenco singing and someone playing a tambourine. I looked up the street to see a covered wagon slowly making its way along the street, pulled by a mule, and Julian sitting up in the middle of a bunch of women! They’d picked him up as he was walking along and plied him with local wine as they went on two circuits of the village, singing and making merry.

 

On Saturday morning we prepared a picnic, the girls dressed in their flamenco dresses, and we set out. A misjudgement on my part meant we missed the opportunity to travel in one of the covered wagons. Earlier in the day I’d met Pepe, the mayor, and he said Lily and Katie should go in a wagon. Last year the procession of men, women and children on horseback and in mule, horse and tractor-drawn covered wagons had set out from Sanlúcar at around 2pm. So, despite being told the procession would begin at midday, I assumed it would not be prompt. I was wrong. So we ended up walking. Even so, we reached the Romería site almost two hours before the procession. We took the main road and walked for half an hour. The procession took a dirt track and stopped every few minutes to drink, sing and dance!

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A well-deserved picnic after our walk in the hot sun

The Romería site was like a gypsy camp. Each extended family had its own caseta, some with bars set up, some with people playing guitars or accordions, all with vast amounts of food. We joined some other ex-pats we know in the shade of their camper van awning, and we ate and drank our fill from our picnic.

The two processions – Sanlúcar from one direction and El Granado from the other – arrived simultaneously and entered the field amidst great fanfare. It was an amazing spectacle, gorgeous men and women astride prancing horses and the tipsy passengers in the carts singing.

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Arriving in style!

Lily and Katie quickly found their friends, and we found the friends’ parents. We were invited into various casetas to partake of food and drink. Throughout the afternoon men paraded around on their horses, and the occasional teenage boy cantered past with a pretty girl sitting behind him. The joy of the day left a smile on my face.

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Lily and her friend Israel

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Lily’s friends, Isaac and Israel outside their family’s caseta.

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The girls had lots of fun with their friends

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Katie enjoying herself!

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Some of the Sanlucar men even ate on horseback!

Last year we watched the procession set out from Sanlúcar, not sure what it was all about. I’m still not quite sure what it’s all about, but we certainly had fun joining in this year.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Nuestra Señora de la Rábida

Preparation for the Fiestas in honour of Our Lady of La Rábida, Sanlúcar’s village festival, started weeks ago. The local painter and decorator, with his army of local women, went from house to house, whitewashing walls and painting wooden doors and iron window grills. Each day housewives washed and brushed the footpaths outside their houses, and large maroon banners with the golden insignia of the Virgen de la Flores were hung from balconies. This little village of less than three hundred people was sparkling, ready for its holiest and most important feast of the year.

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The procession of the Virgin

Here in Spain every town and village, and even in some cases neighbourhoods within towns, has its own feast day, celebrating its patron saint. In many cases, as here in Sanlúcar, the patron saint is the Blessed Virgen. The Feast of the Virgin of the Flowers, Our Lady of la Rábida, is celebrated each year in Sanlúcar on the first weekend after Easter Sunday.

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Dressed for the Fiesta

On Easter Sunday morning (after our Easter egg hunt and Lily’s requested birthday breakfast of crêpes), the girls and I dressed in our best dresses and made our way up the hill to the beautiful village church. Unlike Christmas Day, when only a handful of old people attended Mass and all wore their everyday clothes, on Easter Sunday there was standing room only in the church and everyone, from the oldest grandfather to little Carla, born on New Year’s Day, were dressed in their finest outfits. The mums and dads I know from the school gate were virtually unrecognisable – the men smartly dressed in suits and the women in elegant dresses, their hair newly styled and their faces made up. I was glad the girls and I had made an effort too!

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Local women dressed to kill

Behind the altar was the elaborate gold palanquin. The statue of the Virgin herself stood beside the altar. In the middle of Mass prayers were said in her honour and she was solemnly lifted onto the palanquin and her gold crown placed on her head. To the repeated cry of ‘Long live the Virgin, long live the mother of God, etc’, the congregation cried in unison ‘Viva’. Many in the church, including all the children, carried bunches of pink and white carnations which they (including Lily) brought to the altar to be placed at the feet of the Virgin.

In the days after Easter Sunday preparation in the village reached fever pitch. A large marquee was erected in the plaza with a bar, stage and seating for hundreds, and street vendors moved into the area near the dock, setting up gofre stands, shooting galleries and bouncy castles. As the streets were cleaned even more, each evening bangers were fired. We made our own preparations, dressing Carina in her complement of flags in readiness for the role we were to play in the fiesta.

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Carrying the palanquin into the church

On Friday evening, the fiesta began. At 9pm prayers were said in the church and at 11pm the marquee came to life with a band that played lively music until 4am. The 9pm prayers were accompanied by the firing of bangers and these continued to be fired at regular intervals for the next four days, a man always on duty on the slipway near the dock.

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Procession through the village

At 9am Saturday morning we (and everyone else in the village) were awoken by the loud firing of bangers and a brass band marching through the streets of the village playing lively music to get us all out of bed. The girls and I dressed in our best dresses again, and made our way to the church. Once again, there was standing room only, and if the congregation had looked good on Easter Sunday, they now looked even more spectacular and the church itself was decorated with masses of white roses and lilies.

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In the church

A male dance troop, doing what in the UK would be called Morris dancing, danced from the plaza to the church, leading the way for the town dignitaries and the twenty women who had been responsible for the preparations for this year’s fiesta. Inside the church the Bishop of Huelva said Mass and afterwards the altar was removed and the pews moved to one side to make way for the most beautiful and memorable part of the fiesta.

The dancers, accompanied by a man simultaneously playing a drum and pipe, danced through the church, up and down the aisle, while another group of men prepared to carry the palanquin on a procession through the village. With perfect timing, they lifted her, five or six men on either side, swaying under the weight of the palanquin, and the procession began. Slowly down the steps of the church they went, confetti thrown down on from the bell tower, and hundreds processed through the town, the dancing men in front, the marching band behind, and cries of ‘Viva’ rising up.

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During the Spanish Civil War, when many Catholic icons were destroyed, the Virgin was sent to Alcoutim, across the river, for safekeeping. To thank their Portuguese neighbours for protecting her during the war, each year when the procession reaches the river, the Virgin is turned towards Portugal. The brass band plays the Portuguese national anthem, bangers are fired, and the church in Alcoutim responds by ringing its church bell. It was now our time to contribute to the procession. With the other boats on the dock, Julian sounded Carina‘s fog horn long and loud, and fired one of our old flares. The procession then carried on through the village and returned to the church.

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Julian ready to sound the fog horn

At 6pm the music started again in the marquee, three different bands playing music until 5.30am! Lily and Katie ran around with their friends, spending money at the various stands, while Julian and I enjoyed the festivities in the marquee, having a few drinks, taking to the dance floor and really having a good time.

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Lily and Katie dancing with their school friends Carmen and Miriam

At 9am the next morning we were once again awoken by the marching band and the bangers and the third day of the fiesta proceeded exactly like the second. I couldn’t persuade the girls to come to Mass with me, but they dressed up in yet more fine clothes and joined me for the procession afterwards. This time the adult dancers were joined by the village’s young boys, including all but one of Lily’s male classmates. Julian once again stayed on board to perform his duties when the Virgin faced the river. Mass on Sunday morning was beautiful, with a choir from Isla Cristina making it all the more emotional and special. In the evening we once again made our way to the marquee and when the girls grew too tired to stay any longer, Julian took them home to bed and I carried on, dancing and perhaps drinking a little too much (so much for that New Year’s resolution, eh?!).

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Saturday procession

By Sunday evening most of the out of town visitors had left, as only those of us who live here could enjoy a public holiday the next day. Monday dawned wet and windy. At 9am, yet again, the bangers and marching band woke us. Still in my pajamas I made the dessert I had been planning to make for the past two days. But it had to be done now, because Monday was the day of the village feast.

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On the street that faces Portugal

Because of the rain, Monday’s after-Mass procession had to be cancelled. But what happened instead was perhaps even more intense and emotional that if we had processed through the streets. When Mass ended the altar and pews were once again cleared away. The boy dance troupe took to the floor, dancing up and down the church. The brass band played. The local flamenco choir sang hymns. And the men carried the palanquin up and down the church, standing in place, swaying her from side to side. I looked around and realised that many many people were crying. Old and young, men and women, weeping openly as the religious part of the fiesta reached its conclusion.

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Katie, Lily and their school friend Hannah in church

In the pouring rain we dashed to the marquee for the village dinner. There was barely seating room for all. We were served delicious plates of chickpea and chorizo casserole and we drank heartily. Everyone in the village contributes financially to the organisation of the fiesta. But as the extranjeros – the foreigners – cannot do so, so each year our contribution to the fiesta is the preparation of desserts for the village feast. Along with some of the other foreign women I had made desserts and after the meal we brought these in on plates and served them to our Spanish neighbours, amid loud applause. And then it was time for more music and dancing.

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The village feast on Monday afternoon

By the time Monday night rolled around we were exhausted and very glad that the girls had Tuesday off school too. We spent Tuesday recovering and reminiscing about the incredible few days we had just experienced.