Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.

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Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.

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…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.

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Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.

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…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

A catch-up blog

My friend Martha emailed me last week. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. My blog posts had dried up and Martha was concerned about our welfare. I sent her a quick and all too short response, assuring her that everything is fine with us, but I have been so busy, I simply haven’t had time to write any new blogs. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. Events have come and gone, time has passed and I’ve lost the moment and the momentum to write.

We have had some wonderful times – the school carnaval and the village carnaval; the Contraband Festival that linked the two villages with a temporary footbridge across the river; Lily’s birthday, and the birthday parties of classmates; a friend’s party downriver.

We’ve also had more trying times – a night in accident and emergency in Huelva when Lily had concussion; Carina dragging her anchor in high winds (twice) when we weren’t aboard and quick evasive action was required; Julian suddenly finding himself out of work, leaving us wondering about our short and medium future plans. Thankfully, all those problems have resolved themselves and I’m sleeping more easily again!

Looking after our friend’s house, dog and land continues to be a mostly enjoyable, if time-consuming, endeavour. Our multiple daily journeys to and from the village, on foot or by dinghy, take time and, as the days grow longer, sunnier and hotter, land maintenance increases, with fruit trees and vegetable patch needing irrigation and fast-growing canes and brambles needing to be cut back.

And on top of it all, my editing work is flooding in. It’s a great job, that I thoroughly enjoy, but at the end of a day sitting in front of the laptop editing other people’s work, the last thing I want to do is any writing of my own!

However, despite not having time to write about all we’ve been getting up to, I have kept a photo record of it all. So, here, by way of my camera and smart phone, is our last month…

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My two little owls at school Carnaval. Thank you to Rika aboard yacht Brillig for sewing the masks. Without Rika I would have had to pull an all-nighter to have the costumes ready in time!

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Lily and Katie Owl, with their Owl classmates Luisa and Miguel and Luisa’s baby Owl sister, Carla. Cuties xxxxxx

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A few days later it was the always colourful Sanlucar village Carnaval.

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This time we were pirates, princesses and…erm…a bumble bee.

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The best fancy dress was surely the family that collectively dressed as a roller coaster!

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After our night in Accident and Emergency in a Huelva hospital, Lily and I were tired, relieved and ready for breakfast, as we waited for Julian to come pick us up. Thank you to Martin for driving us to Huelva, to Sue and Robin for loaning us their car to get home again, to Emma and Paul for having Katie for the night, for packing a bag of food to keep me going, and for loaning us warm clothes for the night!

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Name that yachtie!! A much needed relaxing lunch and bottle of wine with our good friends Rosa and Phil, after rescuing Carina when she drifted downriver.

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To commemorate the smuggling culture between Spain and Portugal, the two villages held a fantastic joint festival, and were joined together by a footbridge. The construction of the bridge was a fascination for many of us!

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The official opening of the bridge, with mayors and officials from both sides meeting in the middle of the river.

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Natually, we took every opportunity to enjoy the novelty of walking across the river!

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And, after walking the river, it was supper time.

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For Lily’s 8th birthday, we hired the village hall and showed the movie ‘Big Hero 6’

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Followed, of course, by party food and cake (beetroot-chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberries). Thank you to Sawa and Rose-marie for all their help at the party! You both rock!!

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The day after Lily’s party we were downriver for a party hosted by our lovely friends Claire and Ed. It seemed like every foreigner on the river was there. Thanks for a lovely time, and apologies for the mayhem we caused!!

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And where there are extranjeros, there’s good music!

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Lily, Katie, Lola and Isla (and mum Emma) looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.

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Meanwhile, life goes on on the land…the girls walking home from school.

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Hanging out with their new friends Lupin and Buster.

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Engaging in a touch of spring cleaning.

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Making strange drink concoctions with their friend Gwendolyn.

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Dressing up Chester.

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And now and again….just now and again….I sit on the dock and soak up this wonderful place.

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.

Departures

When we returned to the Rio Guadiana in mid-November there were three other yachts here with cruising families aboard. Suddenly Lily and Katie found themselves inundated with playmates. One of the families moved on after about a week but the other two decided to stay on the river and, like us, send their children to the school in Sanlúcar.

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Lunch aboard Carina

So, Lily (6) and Katie (5) have become fast friends with Ana (5), Lola (7), Isla (3) and Ana’s older brother Porter (11). When all three boats are on the pontoon, the girls all play together on each other’s boats, on the pontoon and at Sanlúcar’s playgrounds. There have been sleepovers and movie nights, impromptu picnic lunches and an awful lot of giggling and screaming! They swap clothes and toys, and have picked up each other’s mannerisms and intonations.

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Movie afternoon aboard Carina, watching Matilda

But like all cruising families, the time inevitably comes to move on, and this week has been one of goodbyes. On Monday, Lola and Isla departed with their parents aboard Spirit of Mystery, to make their way north to Cornwall in southwest England. And on Wednesday Ana, Porter and their older brother Alexander departed with their parents aboard Pelagic to sail via Morocco and Cape Verde, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and eventually north to their home in Oregon on the west coast of the United States.

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Katie, Isla, Lola, Lily, Ana – firm friends

It’s the first time for Lily and Katie to have such close and intense friendships and, given the nature of our lives here on the Rio Guadiana, all the children have had a great amount of freedom to explore and play without having adults watching over them all the time. The past few months have been wonderful for the girls.

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Sleepover

Lily and Katie have other friends in the village – a couple of other ex-pat friends who live permanently in Sanlúcar, as well as their Spanish classmates. Lily in particular has developed good friendships with her classmates. But life over the coming weeks and months will be quite different now that we are the only live aboard family on the river.

We will follow the travels of our friends with interest and, who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day.

Home alone…again

Julian’s surgery appointment came rather suddenly and unexpectedly. When he went back to the UK in mid-January for a consultation with a specialist, he was put on a three-month waiting list for his operation. So we were both expecting a mid- to late-April date, with a few weeks advance notice. He had specifically not put himself on a short-notice or cancellation list, so he would have enough time to make the necessary plans to get back to the UK.

On Thursday morning he received a phone call. His surgery was scheduled for 7.30 on Saturday morning – less than 48 hours later. While this should have made us happy, the suddenness threw us all out of kilter. His first thought was that he would not be able to get from the Rio Guadiana, in southern Iberia, to Coventry, in the middle of England, in time for the appointment. And that would mean probably having to go to the end of the waiting list again. He’s been living with a nasty cough and blocked nose for years now and I’m almost as eager as he is that he have the operation as soon as possible.

The girls were already in school on Thursday morning when he got the call. We jumped into the dinghy to get ashore to Alcoutim. He needed internet access to see if a flight was available and affordable and if all the necessary travel connections could be made to get him to where he needed to be.

As it turned out, there was a flight for just a little more than he would have liked to pay, and all the connections were perfect, fitting together seamlessly. He could leave Carina at 7.30 the next morning and be at his Dad’s house in Coventry at 5.30 in the evening. There was no point in booking a return flight, as he had no idea how soon he would be allowed to fly, or if follow-up appointments would be necessary.

That was Julian sorted. Now we had to decide what the girls and I would do. For the past two weeks we’d been moored fore and aft, only 100 metres from the Sanlúcar pontoon. While I wouldn’t be comfortable on anchor on my own, now that I’ve grown more accustomed and comfortable with the dinghy, I was happy to stay on the mooring for the time being. There were no spaces currently available on the Sanlúcar pontoon anyway and, besides the Alcoutim pontoon being more expensive, if we went on the Portuguese, I’d still have to ferry the girls to and from school in the dinghy. So I opted to stay on the mooring buoy and if and when I decide to move onto a pontoon, there are plenty of people around who can help me with Carina’s lines. Don’t be fooled if I sound cool and blasé about this – the thought of moving Carina on my own fills me with anxiety, and when I do I will most definitely have one of my capable and very experienced sailor friends on board to help!

With Julian’s travel plans finalised, we returned to Carina so he could talk me through battery charging, running the engine, opening the sea cocks (ahem) and more besides. I promised him I would be careful, take things easy and not rush around at my usual manic pace.

When we picked the girls up from school they weren’t too happy about Daddy’s imminent departure, although Katie saw it as an opportunity to bring back her bow and arrow from Grandma’s when he returns!

Early the next morning he was gone. Rather annoyingly, his departure coincided with the arrival of northwest winds gusting to 35 knots, and occasional downpours of heavy rain. These conditions lasted for three days and came between me and my sleep, as I worried about frayed mooring lines and Carina’s proximity to the east bank of the river. Things were better in the daylight and the girls and I have been getting on fine. The high wind also brought me to the philosophical conclusion that if we can get by in those conditions, then everything else will be easy. Or easier.

Our friends on the river are wonderful, offering assistance and advice, inviting us over for dinner and offering to take the girls now and again to give me a break.

Julian’s had his operation now but, given its nature (his nose) and follow up appointments, he might not be back this side of Easter. I miss him, but looking after the three girls – Lily, Katie and Carina, is keeping me busy!

Daddy’s home

Julian went back to the UK last week, leaving the girls and me for eight days. He had a medical appointment, hanging over from when we were back in the UK in the summer/autumn. In anticipation of his departure, we came alongside the pontoon in Sanlúcar, as the thought of living at anchor and ferrying the girls to school in our leaky dinghy every day didn’t appeal to me. He repaired what leaks he could in the dinghy and made sure we were well stocked with cooking gas, and at 7am on Monday morning he was off.

I’ve been alone aboard Carina for longer before (three weeks this time last year) and I’ve been alone with the girls on occasion (most of three days back in 2014), but never had the girls and I been on the boat for so long without Julian.

Well, it all worked like clockwork. There were no size 12 shoes to trip over when I stumbled out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night; no XXL t-shirts and jeans to fill up half the laundry bag; fewer dishes to wash and half the amount of food to prepare. (Such is life lived with a giant)

Each morning I washed the breakfast dishes, made the beds and tidied the saloon BEFORE I took the girls to school and then came home to a neat and tidy work space where I could sit down and write for as long as I wanted.

While the girls were at school I flitted across the river in the dinghy to do laundry and use the library; I went for long walks along the trails that run along the river; I wrote; I studied and practiced Spanish. There were no negotiations about who needs the dinghy, who should take the girls to and from school (although they don’t actually need anyone to), whose turn it is to cook/wash dishes/do the shopping, whose turn is it to use the laptop.

I decided to put a new routine in place. Instead of dinner at 7pm, we would have dinner when the girls got home from school and a light meal in the evening, like we did when I was a kid. Katie, who normally won’t eat her dinner, devoured it every day, because she was so hungry when she got home from school. She often asked for seconds. And because the evening meal was something she loved (soft boiled egg and soldiers, for example) she devoured that too.

After dinner each afternoon I insisted the girls have a 45 minute siesta, and they did. With no adults talking, they read or slept in their cabin. And after that they went off to play with their friends, or I went out for long walks with them.

On Friday night we had a pyjama party aboard. Three of Lily’s and Katie’s friends came – two other boat kids and a little girl who lives in a house up the river. Because of our lack of space aboard Carina, this would have been difficult to do with both Julian and me at home. They all slept in our big bed in the aft cabin and I slept in Lily’s and Katie’s bed in the fore cabin. Being the only adult, I was able to give the five girls my full attention and the whole thing ran smoothly. The girls had great fun, if little sleep, and I spent the rest of the weekend recovering.

And when I had problems to solve during the week, I solved them for myself, without automatically turning to Julian for his advice. I got the outboard motor working when it failed to start one morning; I made a temporary repair on one of the rowlocks when it broke. If Julian was here I would have just handed that sort of stuff over to him.

Sure, it all ran like clockwork. I was organised, I ran the show solo, things didn’t need to be discussed or negotiated or decided upon. All that stuff was easy and I had extra time on my hands.

But without Julian, it was boring as hell. All week I had things I desperately wanted to tell him, but he wasn’t around to hear them. I had questions to ask him, opinions to seek, funny occurrences to pass on. And come Monday evening, I was pacing the cockpit like a caged lion, waiting to see him appear on the Alcoutim pontoon and hitch a dinghy ride back home.

I thought ‘I won’t ever again curse his size 12 shoes’. And I meant it. That is, until I tripped over them when I stumbled out of bed in the dark on his first night back!

Man trouble

So, there’s this guy. Blond hair, blue eyes. Very funny. Very cute. Lives on a boat. He’s from Oregon. He’s ten years old.

My girls, five and a quarter and six and three quarter years old, are besotted. They chase this poor kid around, write him love letters, write his name in chalk on the school playground. ‘Katie and P—-‘ surrounded by love hearts. Lily writes ‘P—- I love you. I want to kiss you’.
‘Play it cool’, I tell the girls. ‘Don’t go running after him, giving him love letters’.
‘I don’t want to play it cool’, Lily says.
Well, you’re succeeding there, I think to myself.

Lily and I are out walking one day. ‘All the girls in P—-‘s class have ponytails and have their ears pierced’.
Since when did you start noticing the older girls in school, I think to myself.
Since they became the competition.

If I hear his name once in the day I hear it a hundred times. P—- said this, P—- did that, P—- is sooo funny. They make up rhymes about him, sing songs about him, draw his picture and his name on every piece of paper they can find. They even have a rude nickname for him that is a play on his real name.

And you can’t blame them. He’s gorgeous and confident and cool and a genuinely lovely kid. When he zooms across the river in his dinghy, the wind in his blond hair, the girls run into our cockpit to catch a glimpse of him, the cruising kid’s equivalent of a boy with a fast car. Julian says ‘Some people try their whole lives and never manage to be that cool’.

P—‘s lapping up all the attention of course, but to give him his due, he’s gracious about it. He’s sweet with the girls (they are, after all, friends with his baby sister) and isn’t yet so embarrassed by their shenanigans that he’s avoiding them.

But his arrival on the river has given Julian and me a glimpse of the next ten years. And we’re not exactly relishing it!!

All partied out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous New Year xx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homemade Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you all a gentle and relaxed Christmas.