The Old Post Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not quite to plan

As the summer holidays rolled around towards the end of June, I had all sorts of plans. With all that time on my hands, I planned to prepare to take the B1 Spanish exam, write like a demon every day and plough through a large pile of books. I had Lily’s and Katie’s summer mapped out too. We would work together on two educational projects. The first, an Iberian geography project, would involve the construction of a 3D map of Spain and Portugal, which, over the course of the summer, would become populated with the peninsula’s rivers, mountains, regions, coastlines and major cities. We all need to improve our geographical knowledge of our adopted part of the world and this would be a fun way to do it. The second project was to be a learning-by-doing bread project. I thought of how fun and educational it would be to learn about the history and culture (no pun intended) of bread and to try making different breads together.

I’m sure you can all anticipate the big ‘but’ that I’m to drop!

Of course, we did none of these things! I haven’t opened my Spanish books since mid-June and my plan to take the B1 exam moves further and further into the future. The first half of the summer holidays was mostly writing free too (regular blog followers will have noted the absence of new posts and all other writing also failed to materialise). Since early August I’ve been writing again, and feeling all the better for it. And as for that pile of books? The pile grows higher, but I’ve read very little. Wolf Hall took up most of the summer, not because of its length (it’s long) or its complexity (it’s complicated), but because I simply didn’t have time to read. I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell and spent my days wondering what would happen next, but only managed about 20 pages a day, if I was lucky.

And the educational projects? Well, let’s say that once I got over the guilt of not getting them up and running, I realised we were better off with a more organic approach to the summer holidays!

My summer has mainly been work-filled. I didn’t intend it to be this way, but that’s how it worked out, and if you’re a freelance editor/writer/teacher, then you take the work when it comes your way. I hadn’t expected to teach any English between June and October, but instead (ironically) I’ve been preparing some local teenagers for B1 English exams (my first student received her results today…she passed!!), and having regular conversation classes with adults and children, all adding up to nine or so hours of contact time each week.

My editing work usually dries up during summer as well and, although it’s been a little slow, I’ve been sent more work than I was expecting. On top of all that, I was offered two new online jobs, one of which has been keeping me busy as I learn some new skills in a field completely new to me.

But what a summer we’ve had. We’ve been house-sitting in a very old and much-loved house in the village (subject of a future blog post, I promise), looking after an old and much-loved dog. The spacious house provided a great opportunity to invite family and friends to visit, and a full month of the summer has been taken up with visits from some of our nearest and dearest. Friends from Ireland and a friend from the UK brought their children along, and Lily and Katie had a wonderful time having week-long sleepovers with friends.

In the absence of my organised educational projects, Lily has taken to the kitchen and baked her way through the summer, following recipes, experimenting with alterations to recipes, inventing her own recipes. She’s in the kitchen as I write, making lemon sandwich biscuits of her own invention. I blame her entirely for the half stone/7lbs/3.3kg I’ve gained this summer. I can’t imagine my organised bread making would have been half as successful as her own self-taught summer in the kitchen, where she has learned how to work with ingredients, count and measure, enhance and embellish. She’s made baking her thing, and has been teaching her sister and all her guests from overseas and the village how to bake too. She’s a far more patient teacher than I am. Sure, her washing up skills still leave a little to be desired, and the pots and pans she’s ‘washed’ often need to be washed again, but at least she understands that cleaning up is all part of the process.

We’ve swum a lot this summer. My two sacred parts of the day all summer have been siesta and after-siesta. A curse be upon anyone who interrupts my siesta! Very early mornings, very late nights and the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, mean that taking a siesta has been an absolute necessity. We go swimming most days after siesta, sometimes to the beach in Alcoutim, but more often to the public outdoor swimming pool in El Granado.

My friend Rosemarie gave Lily a lesson in diving at the start of the summer and she has spent the summer perfecting her technique. Katie made up her mind at the start of the summer to learn the front crawl and has been working on that, with a little technique help from my friend Sarah when she came to visit from London. Katie is a loner in the water, preferring to be underwater, and constantly working on extending the length of time she can stay below the surface. The swimming ability of both girls has improved immensely over the summer, once again, with minimal input from me. I just take them to the water!

For three weeks both girls practiced five evenings a week with the other children from the village for a dance performance during Cultural Week. The performance was delightful (if you happened to be a parent of the performing children, that is!) and since then the girls have been choreographing their own dance moves and putting on little shows for us in the garden.

With only ten days until the start of the new school year, I could look back and think about all the things I failed to do. But instead I choose to look back at all the unexpected things the girls have done – the baking, the swimming, the dancing – and the unexpected and interesting work opportunities that have come my way. I still can’t tell you the name of the highest mountain or the longest river in Spain, but do I really care? Now, where’s Lily? I need another cupcake!

Food movement

I get a message on my phone from Narciso, asking if I’d like a pumpkin. I immediately reply in the affirmative and the next day Julian and the girls set off to meet Narciso at his vegetable patch. They return home with a monster – green and orange and so massive the girls can barely get their arms around it. With some difficulty, Julian slices it open, gives a third to Clare and a third to Hazel, our nearest neighbours on the pontoon that day. He keeps a third for ourselves and makes enough pumpkin soup to last us three meals and with plenty of pumpkin to spare to roast for dinner. He roasts the seeds for snacking on.

Spike appears and asks if we’d like some oranges. Yes, please, I say, and he returns to his car and brings me down two crates of big juicy oranges from the trees on his land. I give half of them away.

At school one morning, Sawa practically begs me to come and take some lemons from the tree in her garden. The tree is getting too big and they want to cut it back once all the lemons have gone. The next morning Julian takes a bagful.

When we’re down to the last four or five of Spike’s oranges, English Diana knocks on the side of the boat. She hands me a shopping bag full of oranges from the trees on her land. The next morning there’s a message on my phone from Kate, informing me that she’s left a bag of grapefruits in our dinghy. There are far too many for our meagre needs, so I share them with Clare and with Andrew, who I happen to bump into on the pontoon.

Clare knocks on the boat to ask if we’d like some coriander. Pablo, at the market, gives it away free with every purchase, and he’s given Clare too much. We love coriander and are delighted to take it.

Spanish Diana comes down to the boat. She’s been given a glut of fruit and vegetables by Luis Jose. Can I come to her house and please relieve her of some of them. I grab two shopping bags and she can barely get in her door for the bags of produce stacked outside. She gives me two massive cauliflowers, twenty or more oranges and a giant shopping bag full of spinach. I return to the boat, giving Clare one cauliflower and a quarter of the spinach as I walk past. I send Hazel a message, asking if she’d like some spinach too. She takes another quarter.

Julian forages most days and returns with chard, asparagus and alexanders. On this day, he returns home with a large bunch of asparagus. I’ve only just shared the cauliflower and spinach with Clare, and now Julian’s knocking on her boat and giving her asparagus too. ‘We’re going to have to invite more people round to dinner’, Clare laughs.

Narciso sends me another message. Do I know who has the key to the gate into the plot of land next to his vegetable patch? I don’t. The land is untended and supposedly owned by some ex-pat who doesn’t currently live here. The oranges are falling off the trees and rotting on the ground. Someone should be going in there and getting the oranges, Narciso says. I tell him I’ll try to find out whose land it is and who has the key.

That’s all happened in the last ten days. ‘The food movement’ sort of takes on a different meaning here on the Rio Guadiana!

Nothing too serious

I’ve always been a small-town girl. A country girl. I love rural life. I love that everyone knows everyone, people stop to say hello, people remember things about you and ask after you and your family. Of course, that can make life a bit claustrophobic at times, a bit like living in a fish bowl. But I’ve never had a craving to live anywhere other than in small close-knit communities.

A minor accident recently tickled me about just how small and close-knit we are on the Rio Guadiana.

Mammy came for a five-day visit on New Year’s Day. Late in the afternoon on the 2nd of January, a misstep in the cockpit of a friend’s boat (carrying my laptop and not looking where I was going) led to a twisted ankle, the pain of which caused me to faint (I’m such a wuss). The next morning my ankle was purple, painful and had swollen up like a balloon.

As I hobbled up to the shower block to take a shower, old Manuel was sitting on his usual bench, contemplating the river. ‘What happened?’ he asked and told me to go to the doctor immediately. He said the health centre would be open for the remainder of the morning and sang the praises of our lovely GP, Umberto.

Taking Manuel’s sage advice, I hobbled, post-shower, the 200 or so metres from the shower block to the health centre (Sanlúcar really is tiny). Along the way I met, if memory serves, five people. And, because Sanlúcar is so tiny, I knew them all. Each one gave me a concerned look and asked what happened. I gave each a brief account as I hobbled on my way.

At the health centre I was first in line and had only sat down when the door to the consultation room opened, the previous patient departed and I went in. Umberto confirmed a sprain and ligament damage, but was confident my ankle wasn’t broken. He recommended not walking for up to five days and keeping my foot raised. ‘Sit back and watch lots of TV’, he advised.

Walking down the corridor to check if the nurse was free to strap up my ankle, he left me sitting in the consulting room with the door open. The health centre had suddenly grown busy. An old man, to whom I’ve spoken once or twice, poked his head round the door. ‘Happy New Year’, he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, and I described my injury, grateful that I wasn’t in for treatment for an embarrassing rash, or the morning after pill or to be tested for an STD!

Moments later a friend’s mother-in-law saw me sitting there. ‘We’ve all been ill over Christmas’, she said. Only her 90-something year old mother had not succumbed to the flu that had laid low every other generation of the family. ‘And what about you?’ she asked. And for, could it be the eighth time in ten minutes, I recounted the fall, the sprained ankle, my mother’s few days of relaxation now jeopardised by having to wait on me hand and foot as I rested my swollen ankle.

When called, I hobbled down to the nurse, who bandaged my ankle from toe to knee. The size of the bandage seemed excessive, but would certainly look the part as I lay around for the next few days watching movies while I was served cups of tea and slices of Christmas pudding!

Before I left the health centre I met one more woman, who I knew from a Spanish conversation class I used to attend last year. Once again I recounted the episode and could now add the GP’s diagnosis, the size of the bandage and the recommended recovery method.

Stepping onto the street, I heard Julian’s unmistakable voice in the shop next door, so I popped in to tell him the GP’s diagnosis, and in so doing had to once again recount the whole tale, this time to Irene, the ever cheerful and lovely octogenarian shopkeeper.

Hard as it is to believe, I met no-one on the short walk back to the boat and, indeed, saw no-one other than my immediate family for the remainder of the day.

Late the next morning there was a knock on the boat and four friends boarded with bottles of wine as they planned to help me drink my ankle back to health. We drank, ate cakes, and Roy (my sailing partner from last summer) confiscated Katie’s guitar and he and Mammy sang together.

I had planned to take Mammy out for lunch that day, but given my incapacitation, she decided to take Lily and Katie out for pizza to the beach bar on the other side of the river. The three of them took the ferry across the river, from Spain to Portugal, walked to the beach and into the bar. And what was the first thing Rogerio, the proprietor, asked when they walked in the door? ‘How’s Martina’s leg?’.

You just have to love small town life!

(P.S. My ankle remains stiff and sore. Walking makes it feel better. Not moving for extended periods makes it feel worse. Inclines and steps hurt, sitting seiza or crosslegged is painful. I’m still wearing an ankle support 24 hours a day. Lesson learned: watch where you step!!)

Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx

 

Roots or routes?

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

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Spectators in 2015

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

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

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In the thick of it, 2017

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

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Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

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

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Dance break by the side of the road!

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

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

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

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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.

Not quite Thoreau

Some weeks ago, a rather Bohemian acquaintance of ours asked if we’d house- and dog-sit for him. Our friend had to go to the UK for medical treatment and anticipated being away for up to a month. ‘Sure’, I nonchalantly agreed, without giving too much (indeed any) thought to the logistics of the thing. I wrote the start date in my diary and thought only of what fun it would be to live for a while in such an idyllic location.

Our friend lives downriver from Sanlúcar on a picturesque piece of land, with the river in front of the property and the Guadiana Way, an old goat track turned hiking trail, behind. There is no road access to the property, so getting to and from town is either a 25-minute walk along the beautiful hiking trail or a 5 to 15 minute dinghy ride (depending on the tide) up the river.

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The old shepherd’s hut transformed into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom

Being an artist, a musician and somewhat of a free spirit, our friend’s plans for departure were loose and ever-changing. I walked down the goat track on Monday, the day before we were due to move in, so he could show me what I needed to know to take care of and live in the place – where, when and how to feed the dog, how to check and replace the battery acid in the batteries connected to the solar panels, how to use the water pump and washing machine. It was a bright sunny morning and the place was filled with possibility – the orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, the almond tress just coming into blossom, the opportunities for the girls to have a new place for adventures, and the inspiration I would soak up for the new magazine article I was about to start writing.

The dog, Chester the Chicken Molester, a little Jack Russelly type thing, wasn’t there when I visited. He’d gone to town in search of Claudia, the 19-year old bitch with whom he is in love and who falls over every time Chester, or any other dog, mounts her (she’s such a stalwart). His owner didn’t seem too concerned at Chester’s absence, and said it was a regular occurrence.

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Chester enduring the shower cap Katie dressed him up in.

By the time I was ready to leave, our friend had decided he wouldn’t now depart until Wednesday. That was fine by me, as we planned on moving Carina off her berth on the pontoon and onto anchor in the river in front of the house on Wednesday, Julian’s day off. On Tuesday night our friend postponed his departure yet again, this time until Friday. Whenever I mentioned our plans to friends, they rolled their eyes and told me how sorry they felt for me, given our friend’s free-spirited approach to life, the dog’s fondness for Claudia and the fact that heavy rain was forecast for the next four days.

On Wednesday we moved Carina downriver, and on Thursday night, as the girls and I crossed the Guadiana from Sanlúcar to Alcoutim in the dinghy after dark, to collect Julian from work, who should we meet crossing in the other direction but our friend and his dog. ‘I have to go right now’, he told me, and explained the unforeseen circumstances that meant he had to leave right this minute, in the pitch dark. I took it all in my stride, and after some convoluted manoeuvres, our friend was on the Sanlúcar side of the river, and the four of us, with Chester the Chicken Molester, our dinghy and our friend’s boat, on the Alcoutim side of the river.

By now it was 8pm and we faced the prospect of our first night in a house we had never stayed in before. Now, bear in mind, our friend is a Bohemian, an artist, a musician, so the things many of the rest of us take for granted just don’t enter our friend’s (often up in the clouds) head. He and I have, ahem, somewhat different standards of hygiene, and I am somewhat more partial to artificial lighting than he is.

We rowed downriver on the ebb, me, the girls and Chester in our friend’s boat, and Julian in our dinghy. Before going ashore we stopped off at Carina so I could quickly pick up some food for dinner and breakfast, our toothbrushes and a few other bits and pieces to see us through the night and next morning. Once ashore, we stumbled up the rickety landing stage and up the dirt path, to the part of the house where we intended to spend the night. The wood burning stove was alight in the bedroom, so at least we had a warm place to sleep.

‘What an adventure’ I tried to tell myself, as I set about making supper in a poorly provisioned and decidedly messy kitchen, my heart sinking when I realised I had forgotten to bring teabags from the boat. There was nowhere for Julian to sleep, so once he had seen us settled in, he returned to Carina for the night.

Our friend had told me of the snake that lives in the rafters in the kitchen and I imagined all the creepies and crawlies and rodents that might be lurking in this indoors/outdoors house, and was thankful to have the girls with me so I could put on fake bravery. I was also glad of Chester. Chester slept on the end of the bed for the night and when he woke me up at 7.20 next morning whining to be let out, I knew it was time to get up, despite the impenetrable darkness that made it feel as though it was still the middle of the night.

I quickly got dressed and went outside to go to the kitchen, which is situated in a different building to the bedroom. Chester was gone! I walked the girls to school along the trail and found Chester sitting outside the house of his lady love. I brought him home and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rowing over to Carina to pick up more provisions (TEA!). At some point mid-morning Chester was sitting in the sun, dozing. Five minute later, he was gone. Grrrr. Back in along the trail I walked to collect the girls from school and to once again retrieve Chester from outside the house of his girlfriend.

Just as school ended, the rain started. For the rest of the weekend it rained and rained and rained, torrentially and Biblically at times, with thunder rumbling and lightning lighting up the sky. The joys of living in the wilds were suddenly not so obvious. All weekend I struggled to keep my cool, at times losing my temper with the kids, when really I was losing my temper with this house, its owner and its love-struck dog.

On Friday afternoon I set about cleaning the bedroom and bathroom and getting the fire in the stove going again. Now, I grew up in a house with three turf fires, so lighting fires is no problem to me…usually. It’s only a problem when there are no implements, instruments or tools for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. On top of everything else, it was raining and what wood there was, was lying down on the landing stage, soaking wet. ‘I hate this. I want to go home to Carina’, I grumbled, as I fumbled around in the dark bedroom (in the middle of the day with the light on) trying to find my head torch which I had mislaid the night before. (Oh the irony of losing my head torch in the dark).

But necessity, of course, is the mother of all invention, and by Saturday evening I had improvised methods for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, and (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. I sent the girls off in their raincoats and rubber boots to find firewood and they came back with bundles of damp branches and twigs, which we dried out in front of the now-lit fires.

Julian remained on the boat on Friday night, as I still hadn’t sorted out sleeping accommodation for him. While the girls and I slept a bit squished in the bedroom, I planned to put Julian in the artist’s studio, 50 yards away on the other side of the plot of land. The studio was filthy and dusty, so Saturday was spent changing bedding on the rather comfy bed in there, sweeping and tidying, and transforming the place into a comfy living room come bedroom, where we could all relax and play and eat in front of the wood burning stove.

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The studio – Wendy house by day, Julian’s private domain by night!

On Saturday morning Chester disappeared again as soon as he was let out in the morning (despite, this time, wearing his electric dog collar – it turns out the electric fence doesn’t run all the way around the property and Chester had sniffed out the gaps). Once the studio was ship shape, and during a brief gap in the rain, the girls and I wandered up the trail and into town to once again find Chester sitting outside the house of his love, this time soaked to the skin and looking rather sorry for himself.

That’s it, I said to myself. The electric collar clearly didn’t work, so the next step was to keep Chester on a long lead all the time, unless he was inside one of the buildings on the property. His owner had told me to do so, and has a long rope for the purpose. All was going well on Sunday morning. We even had some brief moments of sunshine in between the downpours. Lily and Katie played down in the studio – which has its own outside roofed bar and barbecue area – enjoying have their own giant Wendy house to play in. At some point in late morning, Katie felt sorry for poor old Chester on his long lead, and decided to free him so he could come play in the Wendy house (Chester is not a playing sort of dog!). Five minutes later he was gone again, and five minutes after that the heavens opened and it rained torrentially until the early hours of Monday morning. I knew where Chester had gone, and I wasn’t too worried about him, so decided not to go pick him up until Monday morning when I walked the girls to school.

For the rest of Sunday we kept warm in the studio, the girls doing art while I read and wrote, and then carried a big pot of stew down from the kitchen which stayed warm on the stove. Chester didn’t know what he was missing, and all for what? A girlfriend who puts out for any and every dog who comes her way! Silly Chester!

On Monday morning Chester was, of course, where I expected he would be, feeling sorry for himself, cold and hungry. I brought him home, and he hasn’t been back into town unaccompanied since. The rain eased on Monday and the sun has been out each day since.

It’s been an interesting introduction to life on the land. In our cabin(s) in the woods I have been torn between the romance of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and being really bloody annoyed with the realities of moving into someone else’s home in the rain and cold. I loved the place and five minutes later I hated the place. I was warm and cosy by the fire, or I was wet and dirty trying to light the fire. I had all that I needed and I had nothing that I needed!

That was a week ago, and we’ve nicely settled in now and are enjoying life in our little Walden de Guadiana. We’ve had guests around for supper, we’ve picked oranges, we’ve enjoyed breath-taking star-filled night skies, and Chester and I have developed a grudging fondness for each other! Expect more positive blog posts to follow!

ᖃᔭᖅ (qajaq)

Glide, slice, glide, slice. The kayakers glide gracefully along the river, sun glinting on the water dripping from their paddles in mid-air. For a year I have watched them with longing, envying their seeming effortlessness, their freedom of movement, their closeness to the surface of the river. And there are lots of kayakers here. The racers who used Carina’s stern as the starting point of their timed practice back in the spring when we were on a mooring buoy. Portuguese teenagers taking over the river each evening after school, working hard, their coach shouting encouragement to them as he races alongside in a motorised dinghy. There’s one of my English students, who puts in hours of work on the river in his kayak, up and down the river, up and down, each evening after work until the sun goes down, pushing to be better, faster, stronger. There are our friends who paddle their kayaks between their house in town and their plot of land down river, more relaxed than the racers, in less of a hurry. And then there are the tourists who hire kayaks from the beach in Sanlúcar and paddle about in the water between the two villages. Some kayaks are long and sleek and enclosed, others are broad and open, far unlike the original Inuit qajaq.

Hard to believe that my professional career was devoted to learning about the role of the sea in Inuit life, and I have never been in a kayak. Except once on a lake in Roscarbery in west Cork. But that was a long time ago.

So I’ve gazed with longing at the kayakers, wanting to feel what it’s like to paddle through the water. I never told anyone I wanted to do this. Only the other day I thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll hire one of those kayaks from the beach someday’.

Two days ago I was rowing the dinghy upriver when I saw Diana. She was effortlessly paddling her broad, open kayak, with her little dog Daisy happily sitting behind her. ‘That looks so relaxing’, I called to Diana. Ten minutes later I was back aboard Carina and Diana called to me. She had a proposition. If I would look after her kayak on the pontoon, and keep the paddle and seat aboard Carina, I could use the kayak whenever I wanted. What could I say? After I’d gleefully thanked her for her generosity and after I’d spent some time imagining myself paddling up and down the river, it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get into or out of the thing.

I looked at the kayak yesterday, trying to figure out how best to approach it. This morning I found Diana having a coffee at the cafe. ‘Can you show me how to use it?’ I asked. Twenty minutes later I was in my swimsuit and Diana was on the pontoon instructing me how to launch it, and how to get into it without overbalancing. Five minutes later I was paddling away from her, upriver. Just me and the kayak.

I wasn’t graceful or effortless. I over-paddled to one side and had to correct my course. I splashed water all over myself. I’m sure I paddle a kayak the way I ride a horse – ungainly and ungraceful. I’m not a natural at this sort of stuff.

But goodness, it was everything I hoped it would be. I paddled upriver against the ebbing current, staying close to the riverbank where the current is weakest. For half an hour I paddled, the sun streaming down on me, the water from the paddles keeping me cool. Then I turned around, and drifted back downstream on the ebb, only dipping the paddle in occasionally to correct my course.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was. I had tried it, and I had discovered I liked it.

I plan to go again tomorrow, at sunrise.

Generosity

At the Medieval fair a Spanish woman in her 60s came up to me. She was someone I had not seen before around the village. ‘You are the mother of the two little blond girls?’ she asked. ‘You live on a boat?’ Yes, I told her, that’s me. ‘We own the house on the corner’, she told me. ‘I see your daughters playing on the pontoon’. She said she’d been hoping to see me, because she wanted to invite the girls to use her swimming pool. She said her husband had emptied and cleaned the pool earlier in the day and tomorrow, when he refilled it, he would not fill it to the top, so it wouldn’t be too deep for the girls. I thanked her for her generous offer and said we would love to. But in the way of these things, I didn’t imagine it would actually happen. We parted ways by me telling her my name and she telling me her name is Marie Jose.

I thought no more about her offer until two days later when there was a knock on the side of the boat. It was Rosa, the harbour master, with the key to Marie Jose’s house in her hand. Before leaving their weekend/holiday home in Sanlúcar to return to their permanent home in Huelva, Marie Jose had given the key to Rosa, with instructions that my girls and their friends make use of the pool. I walked up to the house with Rosa; she showed me which key to use, where the outdoor furniture was stored and where to find the toilet and shower.

I was gobsmacked. These people, who don’t know me from Adam, an extranjero living like a vagrant on a boat, had given me the key to their beautiful home and the use of their lovely roof-top swimming pool with its views over the river.

What fun the girls had, playing with a friend in the pool while I drank wine and chatted with their friend’s mum. A week later, when I finally had an opportunity to thank Marie Jose and her husband, Pepe, they insisted we use the pool any time we want. Such kindness meant so much to us – going to the pool was like a little holiday away from home, only 100 metres up the hill from our boat.

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Chris asked me to take what I wanted from this mouth watering selection

Marie Jose and Pepe are not the only ones whose generosity has touched me in recent weeks. I don’t remember the last time I bought vegetables. I wrote before about one of my English language students who pays me in vegetables and eggs instead of cold hard cash. Manoli’s potatoes, onions, lettuce, courgettes, cucumbers, green beans and eggs are enough to get us through about half the week. The other half of the week we are provided for by friends along the river, whose fecund plots are currently producing a glut of vegetables. The morning Chris came alongside in his little boat with buckets filled with green peppers, aubergines, courgettes, cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes and cucumbers. He insisted I take my pick. Chris regularly brings us lots of food from his plot of land and over recent weeks we have been spoiled with courgettes from Sue and Robin, chard from Paul and Diana and eggs from Kate and Bob.

There is other generosity too – Felipe’s ebullient insistence on always treating me to food and beer when I meet him; Candido slipping money into Katie’s hand when by back was turned so she could buy sweets; Lily and Katie’s invitation to the birthday party of a three-year old girl they didn’t know, simply because all their other friends had been invited; the mayor giving me use of a room for my English classes; Joe and Fiona giving us the use of their mooring upriver; another Joe fixing our outboard motor.

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Felipe invited the girls and I to join him and his family on a excursion upriver

We are outsiders in this village. We have no history here; we have no blood ties to anyone here. Yet, through small and not so small acts of kindness and generosity, we are made to feel welcome and part of the community, whether that’s the community of extranjero’s who live on boats and smallholdings along the river, or the community of Sanlúceños who, in embracing our children into village life, have, by extension, embraced me and Julian as well.

I have travelled a great deal in my life and have lived for extended periods of time in Japan, Nunavut, the UK and now Spain. I always feel uncomfortable when people say things such as ‘The Japanese are the most generous people in the world’ or ‘The Inuit are the most welcoming people in the world’ – or insert a nationality or culture of your choice. Because there are kind, welcoming, generous people everywhere. Everywhere I have travelled to and lived I have met people whose kindness, generosity and patience with me, a culturally and linguistically befuddled outsider, has been humbling. This little corner of Spain and Portugal is not different.