A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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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.

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.

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Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.

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Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Another attempt

A year and a day ago I posted I am not superwoman, in which I stated, amongst other things, that I was giving up trying to study Spanish. I simply did not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do and some things had to go. So I left Spanish study to Julian and Lily, while I got on with things that seemed more urgent to me. I was thinking about that blog post earlier today and only this minute have I realised that it is exactly a year since I wrote it.

For almost seven months I watched Julian progressing with his Spanish language ability. Following a taster course on the BBC language site Mi Vida Loca, he devoted himself to the learning website Duolingo whenever we had access to Wifi, and he practiced his newfound skills at every opportunity. Lily followed suit, first trying her hand at Mi Vida Loca and then getting her own Duolingo account. She and the Spanish kids she met at the playground on the beach in Aguadulce and elsewhere communicated in a mixture of pidgin-English and pidgin-Spanish and I could tell that her understanding was developing. I was disappointed in myself for not making an effort to learn Spanish, but I knew enough to shop and ask directions and to make basic polite conversation.

Then a strange thing happened. The girls and I flew back to the UK towards the end of May and I suddenly had this blinding urge to learn Spanish. And I wanted the girls to learn Spanish too. In the first few days we were back I searched the bookshops in Coventry and bought two textbooks suitable for children and a box of flashcards with 200 common Spanish words.

We played with the flashcards. I sent the girls on errands around their granddad’s house to find items on the flashcards and we tried to remember the Spanish names for things. We wrote the names of things on post-it notes and stuck them around the house – la puerta, la ventana, el escritorio, el ordenador, and so on.

One day at their grandma’s house, Lily asked if she could do some of the Mi Vida Loca programme on the computer. An hour later, when she’d tired of it, Katie took over, enjoying the interactive portions of the programme where she had to pay for a taxi, buy a glass of wine, etc.

In mid-June I decided to check out Duolingo. I’ve been hooked ever since, rarely missing more than a couple of days of study. Whenever the mood takes me I make time for ten minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes of study – sitting up in bed with the laptop first thing in the morning or last thing at night, squeezing in ten minutes before dinner time, grabbing a few minutes on the Duolingo app on my phone.

I’m still way behind Julian, but I’m getting there. A couple of months ago I received an email from someone in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, written entirely in Spanish. I couldn’t believe that I understood the content of the entire email without having to resort to the dictionary or Google Translate.

These days Lily and Katie play on Mi Vida Loca; Lily practices Duolingo; Katie and I have fun with the flashcards; and we occasionally do pages of the textbooks and sing along to the songs on the accompanying CDs. Julian and I practice Spanish on each other and on the girls, often attempting simple conversations or testing our vocabulary while we eat meals or go out for walks.

Only eleven more sleeps until we fly back to Carina on the Rio Guadiana. I’m looking forward to testing out and improving my new language skills. I’ll probably never be able to seduce Benicio del Toro or Gael Garcia Bernal in their native language (or in my native language, come to think of it) or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels in their original Spanish, but I will, hopefully, be able to have conversations with the lovely people of Sanlúcar that go beyond asking for a loaf of bread or a glass of beer!

I’m glad I changed my mind about trying to learn Spanish. It’s not only provided me with a new and growing skill, but my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the girls and Julian now has someone to practice with. The whole family has benefitted from my decision to take a leap into a new skill and we all know a lot more Spanish than we did at the start of the summer.

It just goes to show it’s ok to change your mind about something and it’s never too late to learn a new skill. Just ask my mother, who has recently resumed piano lessons after a 56-year break!

Working at Warwick Castle

by Julian

As Martina mentioned previously, I have taken a seasonal job at Warwick Castle as a ‘Litter Assistant’ to see us through the summer until we can return to Carina. The job doesn’t pay much but it fits in well with the time that we will be around here and I cannot see any adverts for summer geophysicists!

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I started at the beginning of July, only a couple of weeks after returning to England and my first early morning shifts were lovely. Entering the castle grounds before the public and walking to the top of ‘The Mound’, which was built by the Norman’s in the 11th century, you get a beautiful view across the Warwickshire countryside. I wore a pedometer for an 8 hour shift, to find that I had walked over 22,000 steps.

My job involves walking the grounds of an historic monument all though the summer and getting really fit doing it. I can understand why people actually volunteer to litter pick at some National Trust properties! Other lovely views are from the peacock garden, along the Capability Brown landscaped grounds, to the bend in the river and also along the river itself, looking up at the walls of the castle. I have seen areas of the castle not generally accessible to the public, including the lovely ‘Ladies walk’ that looks down on the old ruined bridge over the Avon, the Mill Street gardens and over a row of old houses.

I have also had the opportunity to learn local history as part of my job. The ‘History Team’ do some entertaining and informative tours which are at no extra cost to the visitor. Unfortunately some people dismiss the castle as an amusement park, due to it being run by ‘Merlin’ who also run the UK’s biggest theme park ‘Alton Towers’. However, even without the history team, I have the major points of the the castle’s history imprinted on my mind by the ‘Horrible Histories’ stage show ‘Wicked Warwick’. The show is primarily aimed at children, but from this show I now know the names of the first 8 earls of Warwick and an interesting fact about each of them, I know what side Warwick took in the English civil war and about all of the major construction phases the castle went through. Some people get a bit sniffy about the castle entertaining families, but it is odd for people to dislike history being brought to life for children. I think that is one of the highest aims we can have for our heritage, one which will ensure it survives and flourishes in the minds and hearts of the next generation.

I have one admission to make. Of course I am a little partisan. I learned to sail from the age of 5 on the River Avon, looking up at the majestic walls of this castle and anyone who has regularly read this blog knows where that has led to in our lives. A place like this can be with you for a lifetime. Returning to the castle and keeping it clear of litter, however briefly, has been fun and an education for me, strange as that might sound. I hope I can make the most of my remaining time here.

Twenty years ago…

It was twenty years yesterday since I went to Japan on the JET programme. Twenty years – that’s almost half my life ago. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of five years studying at a university only twenty-five miles from home. And there I was, about to fly to the other side of the world. The farthest from home I’d been before was central France, the longest I’d been away from home before was at the end of my second year at university, when my friend Louise and I spent sixteen weeks living in a tent and working on a flower farm outside Hillegom, in Holland. I’d never had any particular interest in Japan, but a little advertisement on a notice board near the cafeteria in my university had started the ball rolling. I applied for the JET programme and was one of 33 young Irish people chosen to go work in Japan that year.

Some of my friends and family thought I might not like Japan. I guess they knew how little experience I had of the world outside Ireland. I remember one friend saying that it was alright if I didn’t like it and decided to return home after a few weeks or months. But I couldn’t wait to go, and I told myself that even if it was awful, I’d stay for the whole year. In the end I stayed for three years, the maximum number of years you could stay on the JET programme at the time. I loved it from the start.

So young...I was only a child!

So young…I was only a child!

The JET programme was well organised. I was to be an assistant English language teacher at two junior high schools in Sue-machi, a small town in Fukuoka-ken, on the island of Kyushu. A representative of Sue board of education had been in touch, telling me about the schools, sending me photos of the town and of my apartment. From JET I received instructional videos about etiquette and cultural correctness, and whoever made those videos clearly had never lived in Sue-machi!

The thirty-three Irish JETs flew business class from Dublin to Tokyo via Heathrow – the only time in my life I have ever flown anything other than economy! Oh the luxury on British Airways. With thousands of other JETs from around the world, we had a four-day orientation in Tokyo. Prior to that, London was the biggest city I had ever been to, and I’d never been there at night. Imagine my little eyes popping out of my head as I sampled the night life of Tokyo for the first time. I was awestruck!!

After those four days we were sent by plane or train to our host towns. At Fukuoka airport I was met by Sue board of education representatives, who were friendly and smiling. Only one of them spoke English and I didn’t have a word of Japanese. In those early days I made so many cultural mistakes, made an ass of myself, got things wrong. Japan was even more strange and exotic than I had imagined. I loved it. I loved learning how to negotiate this strange and wonderful culture so different to my own. And gradually it seeped into my bones, and the strange became familiar, the exotic became mundane.

For a young woman from a very modest background, in her first ever proper job (apart from the flower farm and a couple of pub jobs) this was idyllic. I had my own brand new gleaming apartment, the smell of new tatami in the heat of August overwhelming my senses. I lived in that apartment for longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I was paid more money than I knew what to do with. For the first time in my life I could buy clothes when I wanted to, buy new music and books on a whim, afford to travel where and when I wanted to.

One of my lovely classes...can you spot me?

One of my lovely classes…can you spot me?

The two schools where I worked were so different to any schools I had been to before. Forty children per class, extraordinary discipline, exceptionally good behaviour. But boy, were those kids fun. I loved the kids I taught and I look back now and wish I had been a better teacher. The first year I was a useless teacher. I’d never taught before, I had no skills or training, and I was way too self-conscious and uptight. But as the years went by I relaxed into the job. I developed friendships with my colleagues, despite having only limited language in common with those who were English teachers. I went on school outings, on drunken nights out with my colleagues, and I engaged in a lot of school activities. Looking back I could have and should have done so much more.

During those three years I travelled extensively. I travelled all over Japan, camping, hiking on volcanoes, soaking in mountain onsens. I holidayed in Australia, learned to SCUBA dive and did volunteer work on two trips to Hawai’i, got serious culture shock in Hong Kong because it was so noisy and multi-cultural compared to Fukuoka, and flew home to Ireland once a year.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I was so good at taiko, they let me play in a car park!! Lisa Barnes McClintock and I giving it some welly.

I fell passionately in love with Japanese food but sadly, after three years, my culinary skills were only rudimentary. I played the taiko drum, taught by Ito-sensei, one of the most generous-spirited and light-hearted people I ever met. The mother of my friend, Tashiro-san, made me a silk kimono, and taught me how to walk and sit and wear it properly, in preparation for the kimono-modelling contest she had entered me in. I did tea ceremony, visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and visited pretty much every historical, cultural and natural site of significance across the country. I went out for dinner with The Chieftains one night and sat between Paddy Maloney and Derek Bell, and another night partied with Jamiroquai in the VIP section of a Fukuoka night club.

Hello Kitty was my hero!

Hello Kitty was my hero!

And what friends I made. My friend Takako made me feel like part of her family and twenty years on she still sends me care packages of Japanese food. Three years ago she and one of her daughters visited me, and I was so happy that Julian and the girls finally got to meet my dear friend. I had other wonderful Japanese friends who I am not in touch with so often, and some who I have sadly lost touch with. The JET programme was wonderful too because it brought together young people from many different countries. Over the years I have visited my JET friends in Australia, Canada , the US and the UK and many of them have visited me. Last weekend Sarah and our families camped together and our children have known each other since they were newborns.

A year and a half ago a few of us started to throw around the idea of a reunion in Japan to mark the 20th anniversary of when we first moved there from our various far-flung home countries. If the plan had taken shape, we would all be in Fukuoka this week. Alas, Japan is a long way away, expensive to get to, and we all have young children and other commitments. So the plan foundered. Maybe if we start saving now, our piggy banks will be full for a 30th anniversary reunion in July 2025!

I went to Japan with a Masters degree in Anthropology and virtually no experience of the world beyond my little patch. Three years in Japan opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of other ways of living, other cultures, other realities. I had opportunities to experience Japanese high culture and the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. During those three years I grew up, I discovered different aspects of my own personality, I saw myself and where I came from differently. If someone gave me the chance to do it all again, I’d leap at it. Someday I would like to bring my own children to Japan. Maybe we’ll even sail there.

When I grow up

One day last week the WordPress blog prompt of the day posed this question: ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ I’ve never been tempted by those prompts before, but something about this, combined with people regularly asking me if I’ve always been a ‘sailor’ and Novak Djokovic admitting that since he was a little boy he’d dreamed of one day standing on Centre Court at Wimbledon holding the champion’s trophy, led me to reflect on what I had wanted to be or do when I grew up and how close – or far – I have come to that dream.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen, when I really started to think about what the future might hold, I had two very different dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut and I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had many heroes back then, but two stuck out.

The first was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. I remember when I was about twelve years old, my religion teacher at school set us a homework exercise to research and write about our hero. I chose to write about Tereshkova. I didn’t know very much about her, but this exercise prompted me to learn more. Back in those pre-Internet days (it was about 1985 or 1986) I used my Nana’s encyclopaedia and went to the local library to find books about space exploration. And I wrote – if I do say so myself – a very good biography of the astronaut, from her humble origins, to the extreme training she underwent, to her hero-worship in Russia when she came back down to Earth.

But it was all a cheap trick on the part of the religion teacher. She collected our copy books, checked them for spelling, grammar and content, and got a few students (including me) to read our homework assignment aloud. My fellow students wrote about sports and pop stars. No-one else – including the teacher – had ever heard of Valentina Tereshkova.

When we’d finished reading, the teacher asked us all what was missing from the work we had done. For the most part we looked at her blankly. A couple of students suggested structural or grammatical shortcomings. But no. The teacher, with the pained look of someone wondering why she wastes her time on such a bunch of philistines, told us how disappointed she was that not one of us had chosen Jesus as our hero. (This is the same religion teacher who, later that same year, gave me the most memorable report card of my entire educational career. She wrote this, and this only, on my report card: ‘Martina has the potential to become a good Christian’. Nuf said! Alas I never did live up to my potential)

So that was Valentina. I was obsessed by space travel. I knew the stats, the history,the Chuck Yeagers from the Jim Lovells, the Sputniks from the Saturn Vs. On my bedroom wall, amidst my posters of Boris Becker (I’ve noticed these past couple of weeks that neither Boris nor I are aging gracefully), Spandau Ballet and Bruce Springsteen (my tastes were nothing if not eclectic), and wise sayings from such environmental luminaries as Chief Seattle and Anita Roddick, I had a huge poster of the space shuttle (or a space shuttle – I can’t for the life of me now remember which one it was). One day this short, fat, un-athletic, short-sighted, mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl from the Bog of Allen would make it into space!

My other dream and my other hero were decidedly Earth-bound. When I was eleven, I was, along with another girl (Celine Dunne, was it you?) put in charge of the little library in my primary school. It was probably our superior alphabetising skills that landed us the job. We shelves, we stamped, we took care of the books. We had unsupervised access to the library and we got to skip regular classes to fulfil our librarian duties. (Ok, so I wasn’t that special. I was also chosen for toilet cleaning duty, the memories of which have left me scarred to this day). One day I discovered a book written by Jane Goodall. I remember sitting on a low book case, getting lost in that book until my teacher brought me back to the present when she walked in and asked what was taking me so long. That book transformed the way I thought about animals and about human’s relationships with animals. Here was a woman who devoted her life to studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat, quietly and slowly gaining their trust and learning about their culture, their social organisation, their loves and their fears. People could do this work for a living?

I already had an idea that I wanted to be a vet, to work with animals, care for them, make them well. And although reading Goodall didn’t at first make me consider more exotic forms of veterinary medicine, it did help me to think about more empathetic and caring ways of working with and assisting animals. That, and watching All Creatures Great and Small on television every Sunday evening with images of Yorkshire vets up to their shoulders in pregnant cows settled it for me. This mathematically- and scientifically-challenged girl could become a vet.

I gave up on the astronaut option pretty soon, but considered astronomy instead. At fifteen, I chose two science subjects for my Leaving Certificate (Irish end of school state exam) even though I was mediocre at best when it came to biology and absolutely clueless about physics. I tried higher level maths, but it was way beyond me and I only stuck at it for as long as I did because I had a crush on the teacher!

What I loved and what I was really good at was Geography. Not only did it come easily to me, but it fascinated me and in the end that was the path I followed. After all, an F in physics was neither going to get me on the International Space Station nor into veterinary college.

I have no regrets about not becoming an astronaut or a vet. These days I take a more critical view of both the military-industrial complex at the heart of manned space exploration and its environmental consequences, and my anthropology research has, by my own design, brought me around to researching cross-cultural human-animal relations. I’ve got to hang out with some pretty cool people and animals as a result.

These days, I enjoy listening to Lily’s and Katie’s plans for when they grow up. Lily plans to be a writer-fisherwoman-ballet dancer. And why not? Katie wants to be a hula-hooper and a sailor. We’ll have to buy a bigger boat if she plans to pursue these simultaneously. No-one ever told me my dreams were wrong or unrealistic. No-one ever said ‘You? An astronaut?’ (Although a priest once got annoyed with me when I confessed in the confessional that I wanted to go plant trees in the Amazon. He said I should go help people instead. In hindsight, two thoughts spring to mind: (a) I was a weird teenager and (b) that priest really didn’t get the bigger picture, did he? I hope he’s somewhere now, studiously getting to grips with Laudato si’). My dad was a little concerned about the physicality of being a big animal vet. But I was generally left alone to figure things out for myself. Never in my wildest dreams would my 14-year old self have predicted that I would become a live aboard-sailor-writer-environmental anthropologist-English teacher. And who knows where my life will lead me next?

For the past decade I’ve been getting to grips with maths and physics, thanks to my geophysics-glaciologist-maths and physics teacher husband. Lily asked me the other day if we’ll ever go to the moon (she meant ‘we’ as in our family, not ‘we’ the human race). ‘Maybe someday we will’, I told her.

I guess what I’ve learned is that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and dreaming weird. But that other paths – just as interesting, just as incredible – are always open and calling to us.

My Fukushima – Our Fukushima

On the second weekend in May Alcoutim hosts a walking festival. I pick up a brochure and read the details of short and easy walks, long and difficult walks, night time walks, and a walk that has something to do with a pig farm and the sampling of pork products at the end of the walk – although my Portuguese is limited so I may have got this one all wrong. We walk lots anyway and the walks that I am most interested in are noted to be not suitable for children and they all start very early in the morning. The problem with early morning starts is that I either have to take the dinghy ashore alone, leaving Julian and the girls without shore access until I come home, or wake the girls at an absurdly early hour so I can be ferried ashore in the dinghy. I decide to forego the walks.

But there are other events taking place during the three-day festival that catch my eye. There’s a walking stick making workshop on the quay on Saturday afternoon and a concert by a classical guitar quartet on Saturday evening. On Friday night there’s an outdoor screening of Baraka, a movie that blew me away and cemented my environmental consciousness when I first saw it as an impressionable 20-year old back in 1993. I hope I’m still as impressionable to brilliant ideas today. So we make our plans to participate in some of these elements of the festival.

The first event I want to attend is something called My Fukushima. I’m not sure what it’s all about as I can’t understand the Portuguese description, but it’s taking place at 7pm on Friday on the quay. Shortly before 5pm we take the dinghy ashore and as we walk past the quay I see a woman painting ‘Mi/Minha Fukushima’ on the concrete, surrounded by painted hearts and flowers. I stop to talk to her and she tells me this is where the event will start. She invites Lily and Katie to add to her painting, with something appropriate to the story of Fukushima. I say maybe I should explain something of Fukushima to the girls first and they can paint when we come back.

So off we walk down to the beach and along the way I attempt to explain what happened at Fukushima and the effect it had and continues to have on the lives of people there. They know Japan, of course, because I’ve told them a lot about when I used to live there, and they vaguely remember my friends Takako and Mayu who visited us in Devon a few years ago. And they love the Japanese food parcels and origami paper that Takako sends us.

But, boy, this is hard to explain. Earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively easy to talk about, even if the girls (or, indeed, I) can’t imagine the size of the wave of the scale of the devastation. But I can talk about the dynamic Earth, tectonic plates, and the shock waves of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the devastation.

Explaining what happened at the nuclear power plant is more difficult. Partly it comes from my own lack of understanding of nuclear processes, so I am unable to clearly explain how a nuclear power station works. And I realise I have to go back before that – I have to explain electricity, why we need it, why we want it, where and how it’s produced. I point to the huge wind turbines on a hill far away upriver on the Spanish side and I get the girls to think about our solar panel aboard Carina, and I try to explain how energy from the wind or sun are transformed into the electricity that powers our computers, house and street lights, and is needed to produce our clothes, toys, and pretty much everything we have. And then I talk about other ways of making electricity – at power stations that use coal or (in Ireland) peat or, in the case of Fukushima, nuclear energy.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand this stuff about electricity. I barely understand it myself. We need Julian to explain it simply and clearly. What I want them to try to get their heads around is that Fukushima is a human-made disaster. The earthquake and tsunami didn’t cause this abomination. Humans caused it, in their belief that nuclear energy can be clean and safe; in their short-sighted short cuts and budget-driven corner cutting; in their inability to see into the future by looking back into the past; and in their hubris that flimsy human-made technology can withstand the power of the Earth. Heady stuff for six and four year olds. But Richard Williams started Venus and Serena early in his quest to create tennis champions. Why shouldn’t we grow environmental warriors in the same way?

Katie painting

Katie painting

We return to the quay for the start of the My Fukushima event. The woman we have spoken to earlier has laid out tins of paint and paintbrushes and she invites everyone to add to her painting. Lily and Katie don’t need to be asked twice and soon they are covering the concrete with hearts, bunny rabbits and angels. Other children join in, adding more hearts, flowers, Portuguese flags and more besides. In a moment of inspiration I paint a Japanese flag on the ground, but replace the red sun with a red heart.

The mayors of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar (Spain) make brief speeches and a Japanese woman who lives in Sanlucar translates the inscription on the book My Fukushima by Taro Aizu, which is the inspiration for this whole project. We are then all invited to cross the river from Portugal to Spain. The small ferry makes three crossings to bring us all to Spain. From the riverbank we slowly walk through Sanlucar. The village has been transformed into an art gallery (as has Alcoutim), displaying copies of paintings by artists from around the world, inspired by Aizu’s haiku and gogyoshi poetry. The poignancy of fields bearing crops of cesium 137, of a crawling baby in a nuclear fall-out mask, of an old man on his deathbed, is palpable.

IMG_20150508_211024We proceed to the cultural centre, next to the school, where original artworks form the same collection are on display, together with a display of artefacts recovered from the devastation of the tsunami – a child’s shoe, a suitcase, photographs.

The paintings are moving, but what moves me even more are Taro Aizu’s poems. Here’s a short selection:

To protect them
I’ll never let them eat
Local vegetables

I can’t believe
They are contaminated
By the cesium winds
These green, green
Rice fields

We’ll sing a song
And dance again
Around the blossoms
In our hometown
Fukushima, Fukushima

Humid night
‘No nuclear plants!’
I shout, I shout

May my prayer
To the universe
Give me not only consolation
But the power to abolish
All atomic power stations!

The genetic heritage
Not contaminated
By cesium
Is a precious gift
In my dark cell

We slowly make our way back to the river where the ferry awaits. We are transported across to Portugal once more where the other half of the exhibition is hung in the Alcoutim cultural centre.

IMG_20150508_211651Why do the people along this river (and elsewhere, where the exhibition has toured) care so much and are so moved by something that happened four years ago in a country on the other side of the world? I can see the similarities. Elderly and middle-aged farmers, self-sufficient on their small-holdings, in lands that are beautiful and precious. Loss as a result of the tsunami is devastating, but it’s happened before and amidst the loss and the sorrow, it can be understood. But the invisible and insidious devastation wrought by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant cannot be so easily made sense of. This is a human-made monster whose repercussions will reverberate through the generations.

This is a sorrow and a horror that could be visited on any of us at any time, whether we live in Japan or Spain or Portugal or Louisiana or Ukraine. The people who live close to the land – the farmers, the fishers, the hunters – have never forgotten the power of the Earth. Those who have the audacity to build nuclear power stations, or drill for oil under our oceans, or frack for gas under our homes – have forgotten the Earth’s power. And because of their forgetfulness any one of our communities could be the next Fukushima waiting to happen.

Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.