A reason for writing

I had an email recently from Stephen (Hi Stephen!). I don’t know Stephen, but he knows me. He started his email by telling me that he enjoys reading my blog and wondering if I would be writing any more. These few simple words from someone I’ve never met where the kick in the bum I needed to get me writing again.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of writing for some time. 2017 has been a bad year for me, with regard to writing. My blog has suffered from neglect and all those half-finished (half-started) short and long form pieces I’ve written with a view to old-style publishing, have failed to see the light of day.

It’s not as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Family life aboard Carina on the Rio Guadiana is no less interesting (for me at least!) than it was when we first arrived. My understanding of and passion for the place grows deeper, as my roots weave deeper into the soil. I continue to make observations about life here, about the lives of my children, and about the multiple cultures that clash or blend or mash or crash here. I find great amusement in my ongoing cultural and linguistic faux pas and continue to make promises that tomorrow will be the day when I start the business of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker. I continue to be in awe of the environment – the river itself, the seemingly endless hills like a great ocean rolling away in all directions from the brown ribbon of river. I rejoice at the passing of the seasons, ponder global impacts on local ecosystems and reflect on my own choices.

Despite all of this rich potential writing material, I have generally failed over the course of the past year to put pen to paper. I could claim it’s due to lack of time. Julian was working full time, six days a week for the first eight months of the year, while I worked part time and had almost full responsibility for the children and the boat. Since September, we have swapped roles once again, with Julian at home while I work close to full-time – teaching English five days a week, working two editing jobs, and occasionally taking care of a friend’s Air B&B property. It’s not only that I am busy with all that work, it’s that the jobs themselves are so varied and diverse, I require a lot of headspace to coordinate everything I do.

I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoy the work, the money is decent, and I get to spend quite a bit of time at home. I can walk the children to school every day, go for a coffee with a friend, have lunch with the children and help with their homework, and fit my work in around it all. I could find time to write too. But the first three months of this schedule robbed me of any desire to write. I thought about all the things I wanted to write about, but the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard eluded me. I finally feel ready to write again. The chaos of the first few months has started to shape itself into routine and I can find space in my days again for walking and reading – two activities without which I cannot write.

But a busy schedule has not been the only thing that’s kept me from writing. I’m not the only person feeling the way I’ve felt this past year. I follow a few writers’ blogs and in the past year I’ve been reading blogs by women writers who feel at a loss. The observations of a mother on a boat, or the verse of a poet, or the ponderings of a literary chicken farmer can seem futile in the face of American politics, the rise of the extreme right, Brexit, our oceans choked in plastic, extreme weather events, children dying of war and starvation in Syria and elsewhere, and a thousand other injustices happening on the global stage. I am not alone in feeling that my writing is pointless and futile.

But then I receive an email from someone like Stephen which reminds me that my silly musings often put a smile on peoples’ faces. And in these sometimes dark days, putting a smile on a stranger’s face is reward enough for me.

The interest people take in my writing boomerangs back to me in positive ways. Emails like Stephen’s put a smile on my face. Neeraj Bhushan’s interest in my blog lead to us recently featuring on the cover of Buland Prajatantra, a fortnightly Hindi magazine. Neeraj, a journalist, made contact with me a few months ago to ask if he could write about us for his magazine. Getting to know Neeraj by email and WhatsApp has been delightful and the ensuing magazine article (I’m assured) captured the essence of why we set sail and why we continue to live on a boat.

Martina Tyrrell

A star turn on the cover of the early December edition of Buland Prajatantra

Because of my blog I have been consulted by documentary researchers, writers, conference organisers, and my family and Carina even feature in a Hungarian secondary school English textbook!

My blog has also brought me into contact with home educators, wannabe sailors, salty old sea dog sailors, foodies, environmentalists, parents, and many more. People have contacted me with questions about buying boats, sailing boats, living aboard with children, and much more. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things, but the blog has sparked an interest in people, and made them want to get in touch with me. I even met a man the other day who said ‘I sailed to the Rio Guadiana because of your blog’. Wow.

I have a small blog following and, although it once seemed important to make the numbers grow, I no longer care how big or small my following is. What I am concerned about is continuing to write meaningfully for the people who take the time to read my blog. I want to write for family and friends, and for strangers. I want to continue to make people laugh, or think, or wonder, or question. Hopefully my writing can light a small candle in a sometimes dark world.

So, I am drawing a line under 2017, and looking ahead to 2018 where I return to doing the type of writing I enjoy most.

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At the airport

My 89-year old Aunt Josie gave Lily and Katie some spending money when we visited her in Ireland last week. At Dublin airport I took the girls into the newsagent WHSmith so they could spend some of their money on magazines to read on the flight back to Faro. While they browsed the children’s magazines I wandered over to the sport and lifestyle section, to browse the yachting magazines. I picked up the September edition of Yachting Monthly, flicking through the usual features on marine safety, cruising stories, boat repairs and advertisements for everything from life jackets to sea cocks. One of the cruising stories caught my eye and I flicked back to it. Whoa, hey, wait a minute…that’s…that’s…Katie…and Lily…and me and Julian and Carina. It was an article I had written a year ago for Yachting Monthly. I’d recently received a copy edit from the editor and had returned it with a few corrections and amendments. But I hadn’t heard any more from the editor and assumed it would be published in a few months.

It was quite a thrill to find myself in a magazine, at the busy WHSmith at Dublin airport. We’d left Julian at the shop entrance looking after the bags, so I carried the magazine close to the entrance to show him (being the ultimate cheapskate, there was no way I’d actually buy the magazine!). Loud enough for everyone to hear, Julian exclaimed, aka Basil Exposition, ‘Oh, wow, Yachting Monthly has published the article you wrote about sailing our yacht in Ireland’. Public exclamations of pride are Julian’s forte.

And while I should have been feeling proud of myself, I was instead thinking of all the other half-written, semi-formed or unwritten articles, essays and books on my laptop and in my head. I spent the three hour flight from Dublin to Faro making up my mind to work smarter, be more efficient and more productive; to mould more of my writing into publishable condition, so that next time I run through an airport shop to show an article to Julian, he’ll exclaim theatrically, so that everyone within earshot can hear, ‘What? Not another article published in a major magazine? That’s the fourth you’ve had published this month. After all that hard work, you’re finally making a living as a writer!’.

April blues, May joys

April blues, May joys

April was an emotionally difficult month for me and Julian, as we tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we could afford to do. The girls have been getting on so well at school and their Spanish has been improving in leaps and bounds, we were loathe to pull them out of school after only seven or eight months. Another year of Spanish immersion would do wonders for their (and our) language skills.

While Julian at times finds life on the river a little too quiet, I love it. I’m suffering from the Guadiana Gloop – that strange condition that afflicts visitors to the river who intend to leave after a couple of days or weeks, but twenty years later find themselves still here!

Our big problem, of course, is money. Julian hasn’t worked since the end of October and, despite my best efforts, the last time I earned any money from writing was in mid-October. (A few articles have been accepted for publication, but I won’t get paid until they’re actually published). Since then we’ve been eating into our dwindling savings and, although life on the river is incredibly inexpensive, we certainly can’t live on air.

So we faced an uncertain future. It looked increasingly like we couldn’t afford to stay another year and we were strongly considering taking the girls out of school at the start of May, and sailing back to the UK where we were confident at least one of us could get a job that would allow us to accumulate enough savings to finance sailing farther afield in a few years time. We even discussed the possibility of selling Carina.

And while neither of us is against setting that particular plan in motion, we both had misgivings about doing it right now. I’m not ready to leave the Guadiana just yet, and Julian’s not ready to take the girls out of school and their Spanish immersion.

Throughout April we both felt the stress of the decision we would soon have to make. I decided to look for work teaching English, and if I hadn’t found a job by the end of April, we would set sail for the UK in mid-May.

There aren’t many jobs in these tiny villages, so I started researching and contacting language schools in towns and cities up to an hour away. I also made posters in Spanish and Portuguese, advertising my services as an English teacher, and posted them in public places in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. And I applied for an online academic editing job.

For a couple of weeks nothing much happened. On a rainy Tuesday morning I had a job interview at an English academy in a town 30 minutes away. I won’t know the outcome of that interview until July.

Then the enquiries about English classes started trickling in. I had nowhere to hold my classes, so I went to see the mayor and he generously gave me use of a small room in one of Sanlúcar’s public buildings. Right now I have six classes a week, teaching both adults and children. While the majority of my students pay me the old-fashioned way, in money, one student pays me in vegetables and fruit grown on her land, and fresh eggs from her hens!

Then I landed the online editing job and got my first assignment. Time will tell how regular this job is, but I’m hopeful and I enjoy doing work that puts my academic skills to use.

For three days Julian worked on another yacht, repairing the electrics and installing a fridge. He was paid handsomely for his work and that made us both feel very positive.

A few days later he arrived home to announce he’d been offered a job at a bar/restaurant in Alcoutim. He hadn’t even been looking for a job, but on a whim casually asked the bar owner if he was looking for staff. Two days after asking that question he started his first shift and he’s now working full-time from now until October!

What a relief. I feel 20kg lighter! From the blues of indecision and uncertainty in April, we have started May feeling the joy of knowing we are now earning enough money to stay here on the river for another school year.

I was never worried about earning money. I knew that if we had to we could return to the UK and find jobs. It was that period of not knowing whether we would stay on the Guadiana that got me down. I was sad at the prospect of going before I felt ready to leave.

And all of a sudden things have fallen into place. Julian has a temporary full-time job and I have two part-time jobs that I can fit around the children; I have my writing – some of which I know will earn me money in the coming months; and I am awaiting the outcome of that job interview.

We can now make plans for more than a week or two in advance; we can plan our summer and autumn. The girls can look forward to another year in school in Sanlúcar and we can all return to enjoying life without the stress and worries of how our short-term future will pan out.

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!

1280px-Warwickcastle_Westside
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.

The scientist and the housewife

When someone asks what you do, how do you reply? What is your occupation? Does your occupation define you? Do others define you by your occupation?

When we arrived at Marina Smir in Morocco, Julian took our documents to the border police, located in the same building as the marina office. He was asked his occupation. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied ‘scientist’. He was then asked my occupation. Again, he hesitated and in the moment’s hesitation the policeman suggested ‘housewife’. Julian said yes. So, on official documentation, Julian Scott, scientist, and Martina Tyrrell, housewife, arrived in Morocco on April 18th.

So here’s the thing. Julian hasn’t worked as a scientist for the past four years. But he’s no less a scientist now than he was when he made a living from science. He thinks like a scientist, he works through problems in a scientific methodical way. His engagement with the world around him is partly informed by his training and experience as a scientist.

But am I a housewife? Apart from the obvious fact that I don’t live in a house (!), how close does that description come to who I am? By training, I am an anthropologist and over the years I have variously described my professional self as anthropologist, human geographer, social scientist, lecturer, academic. In the past year I’ve earned a living as an English teacher and a writer.

Behind all of those paid jobs is a way of engaging with the world that is heavily influenced by my anthropological background. I can’t switch my social scientist self off any more than Julian can switch his scientist self off.

I am a ‘boat-wife’ as much as Julian is a ‘boat-husband’. We are both responsible for running our home and for raising and educating our children. We’ve both been occupational wanderers throughout our adult lives, moving from one profession to another, never seeming to settle on any one thing. But all those career moves have been linked, directly or indirectly, to the scientist and anthropologist that are central to how we define ourselves. But I guess in that moment of hesitation Julian didn’t quite know how to define me in a way that would fit neatly onto an immigration document. (I’ll generously give him the benefit of the doubt!)

I remember going to NCT antenatal classes when I was pregnant with Lily. At the first session the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves, but not to mention our professions. She didn’t want anyone forming preconceived impressions based on the occupations of our classmates. Of course we all soon became great friends and hung out together after our eight babies were born. (Hello Ladies!!) But it was interesting in those first few weeks of getting to know one another to have to define ourselves in ways other than what we did to earn money. It probably did remove a lot of preconceptions.

But how would I have answered the question if I had taken our documents to the Moroccan border police? I probably would have hesitated. And then I’d have answered in the way I have filled in official forms for the past four years: Martina Tyrrell, anthropologist; Julian Scott, house-husband!