Delightful finds

I’m a snooper by nature. Not of peoples’ drawers or cupboards, letters or bills or diaries. I’m a snooper of bookshelves and of film and music collections. You can tell a lot about what you might have in common with someone by browsing along their bookcases or through their DVDs and CDs.

Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have a bookcase here in his cabins in the woods or a neatly alphabetically-ordered collection of films and music. Instead, his entertainments are scattered here and there – in the studio, under and between a stack of glossy bullfighting magazines (the latter related to a recent art project it would seem); in the kitchen, under an egg box containing a single egg of unknown age or behind a bottle of olive oil; in the bedroom, under the bed. The CDs are woefully mixed up, some cases empty, others containing five CDs, none of which belong in that particular case, and free-roaming CDs apparently independent of any case.

So rather than that browsing I usually like to do in a friend’s house (while the friend has gone off to make a pot of tea, change a baby’s nappy, or for some other reason has left me alone in the company of their books, films or music), here in the cabins in the woods, these things reveal themselves at unexpected moments and are all the more pleasurable for it.

When I finally find a saw to cut firewood I discover Brave New World and a collection of selected poems by Pablo Neruda, delightfully presented in their original Spanish on one page with an English translation on the opposing page. I forget sawing wood for half an hour as I dip into Neruda, a pleasure for which, ironically, words fail me. I have long wanted to read Brave New World, so as soon as I come to the end of the novel I’ve brought with me to the house, I embark on reading Huxley for the first time.

I find Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, one of my all-time favourite albums, my own copy sadly lost long ago. A live Mamas and the Papas CD has Julian and me grinning like idiots one night after the kids have gone to bed as we turn the volume up to eleventy-stupid and swoon at Mama Cass singing Wild women.

Amongst the DVD collection I find the complete set of Fawlty Towers. I haven’t watched any episodes yet, but on this upcoming long weekend, I think it might be time to educate the children!! I find both 2001: A Space Odyssy and Moon, neither of which I have seen before, both of which I have wanted to see for a long time and, together with Brave New World, I am in sci-fi heaven. Michael Clayton is here too and Run Lola Run, neither of which I have seen, together with Pedro Almodovar’s (Todo Sobre mi Madre) All About My Mother (without English subtitles, which will be a challenge!).

As I sit on the bed writing this, I notice, for the first time, a stack of CDs and DVDs in amongst our friend’s shoes. A new find. I wonder what delights await me there!

And so, while living in the house of someone as apparently disorganised as our Bohemian friend can be a challenge at times, the disorganisation brings joy and rewards too. I sit by the river in the warm afternoon sunshine, reading Neruda aloud in Spanish, and I lie in bed at night reading Huxley. I decide that Keep the customers satisfied, a song I have overlooked for years, is my new favourite Simon and Garfunkel song (the horns!!) and I look forward to finally, finally, far too many years too late, watching 2001.


Singing my fears

For as long as I can remember I have been a confident public speaker. Put me in front of a crowd to speak on a topic about which I am familiar, and I am in my element. I have been reading in church since I was seven years old. As a university lecturer I have always enjoyed the performance of standing in front of a lecture theatre of 200 or 300 students and sharing my enthusiasm for my subject. I have never been unnerved by radio or television interviews. Speaking in public has never fazed me.

But the thought of standing up alone and singing in front of a crowd turns my legs to jelly. I’ve been in choirs and in musicals, but always with my voice hidden in the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. I come from a family of singers. My mother and her brothers and singers all sing and have the same confidence with singing in public as I have with speaking in public. But, for some reason, their confidence in singing hasn’t been passed on to me.

However, I love to sing. I sing all the time – while sailing Carina, driving a car, while doing household chores. From the moment I knew I was pregnant I sang to my babies and carried on singing to them for years, singing them to sleep every night and soothing them by singing to them when they were upset. These days we sing together.

I’ve always harboured a dream of getting up on a stage some day and singing in front of an audience, but never thought I would ever have the confidence to do it. Tuesday nights at the Riverside Tavern in Alcoutim is open mike night. Many of the ex-pats who live on and along the river, and visiting yachties, bring along their guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes and harmonicas, and a session gets going. At Christmas, when Tom asked me if I could sing ‘The field of Athenry’ I bit the bullet and sang it with him. My legs were shaking but I tried to forget that I was standing at the front of the pub being stared at by lots of my fellow live-aboards on the river.

It was a few months before I sang again. Because the girls have to be up early for school, we don’t often go to Tuesday music nights, but in the past few months I have twice taken to the mike to sing. Both times I sang songs I know well and that I know I can sing well – Christy Moore’s ‘The voyage’ and ‘Missing you’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘Green fields of France’. And I sang ‘The fields of Athenry’ with Tom again. I gained in confidence each time.

So, when I was asked if I would sing a few songs at the Guadiana International Music Festival a few weeks ago, I said yes before my nerves could kick in and make me say no. My friend Jak wanted me to sing a few songs with her. We rehearsed for a week or so, and in the end we sang two Fascinating Aida songs – ‘Cheap flights’ which we sang together, and ‘The Brexit song’ sung by me with Jak doing back vocals. I finished the set by fronting a wild group consisting of Jak and a bunch of cross-dressers (all wearing my dresses) and sang The Ronette’s ‘Be my baby’.



Me and my ‘beaufiful’ band!!

Was I any good? I honestly don’t know. I was nervous, but I contained it and got on with the job. I sang my heart out and was so pleased that I had overcome my fears of singing in public to get up on a stage at an, albeit small, music festival, and perform! When I came off the stage, Lily and Katie ran up to me and Lily said, ‘Mummy, you were BRILL-I-ANT’. Whatever anyone else thought, the people who mattered most thought I was great!

I may never get up on a stage and sing again. I overcame a fear and I did something I have always wanted to do. I now know what it feels like to stand on a stage, in the floodlights, singing to a crowd, performing. I left my comfort zone and made myself do something that was nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I experienced it. That’s good enough for me!

Life’s big questions

A couple of weeks ago The Pixelated Parent sent me a Liebster Award. It’s a kind of blogger chain letter which, in a fun way, allows bloggers to draw attention to the work of other bloggers they like. Having already accepted a Liebster challenge earlier this year I was about to turn down The Pixelated Parent. But something prompted me to read the questions she posed. They made me smile and I couldn’t resist answering them, together with ten facts about myself. I’m not passing this on, but I want to say thank you to The Pixelated Parent for helping to pull me out of a recent writing slump. Here goes:

What is your ‘signature dish’?
Vegetable stir fry with noodles, refined and improved over many years and now, depending on what’s in the cupboard, served in lime or satay varieties. And, though not strictly a ‘dish’, I make a mean soda bread.

What initially inspired your blog?
Alun Anderson, former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine! I met him when I was an academic through our shared interest in the Arctic, and when I told him about my plans to buy a boat, he advised me to blog about it.

If you could go into Space, would you?
When I was a child one of my heroines was Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and first woman in space. I so wanted to be an astronaut. But, given the environmental footprint of each rocket launch and the insane amounts of money spent on space exploration when there is so much poverty here on planet Earth, space travel now seems morally and ethically questionable to me.

What is the most important thing you want to pass on to your children?
Kindness. Empathy. Wonder. Enthusiasm. Comfort in their own skin.

Where is the greatest place you have ever been?
Croke Park, late summer-early autumn when the GAA championship is at its height. More specifically, Croke Park, August 2nd 1998, when Kildare became Leinster Champions for the first time in 42 years. If I could relive one day in my life again, it would be that day.

What is the last book you read?
The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. Finished it last night. Beautiful, poetic, and helping me to re-imagine the meaning of wilderness.

If you could be anyone in The World for a month, who would it be?
I’d like to inhabit the body of Ellen Macarthur, so I could absorb her sailing knowledge and skill and return to Carina and my own sailing life more confident and experienced than I currently am.

Do you have any pets?
Sadly, no. I grew up with dogs and cats and I thought it would be impossible to bring up children of my own without having dogs in the family. I know a few live aboard dogs, and maybe one day we will add one to our family.

Do you have any weird and wonderful skills?
I can skin a caribou, flense a beluga whale and gut a fish.

In a dream universe, what would you be doing ten years from now?
Sailing in the South Pacific, flitting from one idyllic anchorage to the next with my husband and teenage (yikes!) daughters, and earning a comfortable living from writing.

Ten things about me:
1. I hate marmalade.
2. ‘You’re so vain’ is my karaoke song.
3. I played the taiko drum when I lived in Japan.
4. I have a humpback whale tattoo.
5. ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to run’ are my all time favourite songs.
6. I am a devoted disciple of the Church of Wittertainment.
7. I’m scared of frogs.
8. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is my favourite book. I’ve read it four times.
9. I don’t get Star Wars.
10. I had a Sinead O’Connor-style shaved head for two years in my mid-20s.

Swan Lake

In the middle of last week a work colleague told me that a touring Russian ballet company would be performing Swan Lake at the auditorium in Roquetas de Mar at the weekend. I decided to take Lily to her first ballet. Sure, it cost far more than I could afford, but how could I pass up an opportunity such as this. I thought about bringing Katie too, but decided against it. In true Spanish style, the performance, on Friday night, wasn’t due to start until 9.30pm. While Lily might stay awake to enjoy the first act, Katie is such a lightweight that I knew it would be money wasted and she would probably be asleep before the overture.

Fridays are busy because the girls come to work with me. Katie joins a class of 4- and 5-year olds and Lily this week joined the 8-year olds. The girls provide opportunities for the Spanish children to speak English and the girls love getting to hang out with some Spanish kids. But it means that by the time we get home on Friday evenings, we’re all pretty tired.

This week, I asked Julian to have dinner on the table the minute we got home, so that Lily and I could eat and dash out again to the ballet. It was a wet evening and, as we sat at the bus stop waiting for the bus to take us to Roquetas, Lily yawned every couple of minutes. I struggled to keep her awake on the overly hot bus and eventually gave in and let her sleep. Once we got off the bus the wind, rain and a brisk walk revived her, but in the harsh light of the auditorium foyer her face was pale and drawn with tiredness.

I couldn’t believe our luck when we were shown to our seats in the fourth row, bang slap centre stage. As the theatre filled up I waited for someone to sit in front of us. But the seats in front of us in rows two and three remained empty and we had a spectacular view of the stage.

I impatiently looked at my watch every few minutes, drawing Lily’s attention to the few other children, to the glamorous women in fur coats and suede stilettos – everything I could to keep her alert and stop her falling asleep. The performance began about ten minutes behind schedule, by which time Lily was slumped in her seat. I reminded myself that I had paid for a ticket too and, if she did fall asleep, all was not lost, as I was keen to see the performance too (I had seen a Bolshoi Ballet performance of Swan Lake in Dublin when I was about 15 years old, but I was miles from the stage and my view was half obscured by a pillar!).

I shouldn’t have worried about Lily sleeping. From the moment the curtain was raised, she sat bolt upright, her eyes glued to the stage, clapping with delight at the heavenly dancing, sometimes squeezing my hand, sometimes putting her hand in front of my face to give me a thumbs up when something particularly dazzled her. A smile radiated from her face, sometimes replaced by a frown and a question whispered into my ear regarding the plot.

And it was spectacular. The Jester, resplendent in red, wowed us from the start and Odette/Odile was breathtaking in her beauty and grace and athleticism. Yeah, I’ve seen more polished ballets before and not all the dancers were as sharp as they might have been. But it didn’t matter. There was enough awesome dancing to carry it through. I often had to remind myself to look at the stage, because seeing the joy on Lily’s face was priceless.

When the lights came up for the interval, a flushed Lily croaked ‘Water’, as though she herself were the prima ballerina. We went upstairs to the cafe for water, a beer and a packet of crisps (classy, eh? Even at the ballet!). Lily slugged down the water and wolfed down the crisps and then stood up from the table. ‘Let’s go’, she said. ‘I don’t want to miss it’.

Again, through the third and fourth acts she was riveted. She got a bit annoyed with the Prince for ‘loving everyone’ – why was he dancing with the black swan now when he’d been dancing with the white swan earlier? She was enthralled by it all, and clapped long and hard when the dancers took their final bows.

In the foyer and as we stood in the rain waiting for a taxi, she twirled and pirouetted, and asked me so many questions about the plot – many of which I couldn’t answer.

I’ll never forget my first concert, when I was four years old. Daddy took me to see the American country singer Charley Pride (supported by the Bellamy Brothers) at the RDS in Dublin. I can still see the stage, still see Charley Pride, and I can still remember Daddy waking me as he lifted me out of the car when we got back home very late that winter night.

I hope Lily will have similar fond memories of her first ballet too.