Bountiful summer

It’s been a bountiful summer. Vines sagged under their bunches of grapes, fig trees were rich with their purple and green fruits, and sweet almond trees were bedecked with clusters of the furry green-brown outer shells of nuts.

For the first time I spent the summer in southern Iberia (with the exception of two weeks in Ireland in early July). In previous years I rued all the fresh summer foods I would miss, as I packed my bags for long summers away in northern Europe – the figs still hard and small on the copious fig trees, the grapes mere buds on the vines. We’d enjoyed an abundance of ripe plums before we’d flown north and the pomegranates were ripe on our return (alas, my least favourite fruit).

But this year I indulged (indeed, overindulged) in what the Rio Guadiana had to offer. Despite the parched earth, the unforgiving sun, and the river gradually growing saltier on each flood tide, there was an explosion of wild and cultivated foods to feast on.

At first, I gathered figs from wild trees, or from cultivated trees overhanging lanes and hiking trails, stretching up on my tip-toes to reach what hadn’t already been harvested by others. Purple figs or ripe green figs burst open to reveal their rich red pulpy interiors, the green ones all the more spectacular for the contrast between their outsides and insides. In two mouthfuls, three at most, I’d ingest each fig, savouring the deep sweetness, like sweet jam eaten straight from the pot. When I moved downriver to house-sit for some friends, their smallholding was enjoying an unusual abundance of figs, which I plucked and ate as I wandered the property, or plucked before breakfast to add to my muesli, or spread out to dry, so I will have a supply of dried figs for a few months to come. I even, as instructed by my friends, lopped off the lowest lying branches of the fig trees and fed them to the sheep. Those old ladies nearly galloped towards the prize, delighting in the figs as much as I did.

My friends also had sweet almond trees (not to be confused with bitter almonds – essential in making marzipan, but poisonous and disgusting if eaten raw and unprocessed). As with the figs, I plucked almonds from the trees for morning muesli and kept the nutcracker close by so I could indulge as the mood took me. A large bowl of almonds now sits in Carina’s cockpit which, apart from their delicious flavour, keeps us all busy with the nutcracker.

If you stand still for long enough around here, a vine will grow around you. They have crept up through and around fig trees, orange trees and eucalyptus trees. Reaching the large sweet green bunches often requires feats of gymnastic dexterity, and even now I look with longing and temptation at a certain glut of grapes that remain elusively out of reach, a sharp 50metre drop and certain injury separating me from them.

Vines, as well as producing one of Earth’s most delicious fruits, are an excellent source of shade, and many people along the river encourage vines across the pergolas that cover the outdoor balconies and patios where so much of life is lived here. A friend required assistance one Saturday. She manages a holiday let property and had only a short window between the departure of one group of holiday makers and the arrival of another. She asked if I would help change the bedding, clean the bathrooms and vacuum the floors. What she didn’t tell me was that the balcony pergola was sagging under the weight of a hundred bunches of grapes. As I worked, I plucked, my mouth almost continuously full of the sweetest of Mother Nature’s grapes. When my work was done, my friend insisted I take some home. I took six massive bunches, which weren’t even missed from the bonanza overhead. I refused to take more, as those I had were being crushed under their own weight. There were far too many for me, so I shared them with friends I met on boats on my way home. Julian and I still had more than knew what to do with. There have been other occasions this summer of sitting late at night on balconies or patios, decadently plucking grapes from overhead as I wind down with friends after a night out.

I have, for some time, been tempted to experiment with carobs. These long, vanilla-like pods also grow in abundance here, and have long been used as an alternative to chocolate. Carob is sweet and healthy, the Portuguese use the powder to make crepes and pastries, and bags of powder can be found in fresh food markets across southern Portugal. For the past two years we’ve been regularly feeding carob pods to Salsa, our horse friend. He devours them, and raises his left front hoof to let us know he wants more. He whinnies now when he sees any of the four of us come walking along the lane, knowing his carob fix is coming (Salsa is also partial to vine leaves and whole oranges, turns up his nose at fig leaves, but carob is clearly his favourite).

But when I went online to learn what I could do with carobs, I discovered the process of getting from pod to powder is all rather time consuming. So, we will continue to snack on them when we go walking, and continue to keep Salsa supplied.

Autumn is in the air, the nights are getting cooler (Katie’s back under a duvet at night, and Lily has an extra blanket) and the abundance of food continues. The pomegranates are ripe now (pleasing all aboard Carina apart from me), as are the quinces. In a few months time we will be once again preserving olives and enjoying fresh oranges and lemons, as this incredibly fertile part of the world keeps our taste buds happy with what it has to offer up.

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Frost, birdseed and bringing in the turf

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Little farmers

When we first came home to Ireland, all of two weeks ago, Lily and Katie weren’t terribly interested in playing in the garden. They were happy to go out when Granny or I were outside, but they had no desire to be there on their own. But then two things happened. First, we went down to Rosscarbery, in West Cork to visit my aunt and uncle, and the girls wanted to be in their garden all the time. Second, on our first morning back from Cork there was frost in Granny’s garden and the girls were desperate to get out to play in it. So, that morning, at 8am, out they went with rubber boots and jackets on over their pajamas, and they stayed out for the day. I haven’t wanted to come inside since!

Fun in the frost

Fun in the frost

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The wonders of ice

Their time is divided between playing imaginative games and helping out with the ‘fascinating’ chores of bringing in turf for the fire and feeding the birds. Granny’s dogs have an enclosed run with a little wooden shed attached. The dogs rarely use it and Granny stores her Christmas decorations in the shed. Entrance to the shed is via the pen. The girls have turned the shed into their shop, using recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic milk bottles and glass jars as their stock. I fear someone driving past will glance into the garden, see two children in the dog pen and think I’m keeping my kids in a cage!!

We discovered a deserted bird’s nest a few days ago and they have now decided to build their own nest, big enough for little girls to live in, using the windblown twigs and branches they find lying around the garden. Such behaviour should be encouraged – it results in Granny having a nice big pile of kindling for the fire!

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My wheelbarrow

There has been tree climbing and jumping; running and chasing; and attempts to engage the lazy old dogs in boisterous play. They have both taken charge of replenishing the bird feeders in the birch tree, noting when they are running low and messily refilling them.

But what brings me the most pleasure is seeing how much fun they are having with the turf. We burn turf and peat briquettes in the fires here and bringing in turf from the shed to the house is a daily activity that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Just like my Daddy did with me, I wheel the girls around in the wheelbarrow as they squeal in delight, and they earnestly help me fill the wheelbarrow. We have even found my old wheelbarrow, which I was given as a present when I was three years old – in 1976. A bit rusty, it’s still going strong, and after they gave it a thorough cleaning a few days ago, it is now ‘their’ wheelbarrow and they are no longer interested in helping me fill my barrow. They run back and forth to the shed, three or four sods of turf at a time, sometimes wheeling the barrow into the house and delivering the turf right into the fire!

I am having so much fun seeing them play in ‘my’ garden, doing the things I loved to do as a child, and creating their own good memories of childhood.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!!

Wonderful Galicia

We have been in Galicia since the 21st of June. Prior to this, I had only spent limited time in Spain. In 2006, I went on a road trip with Julian and some of his friends in a U around the Iberian Peninsula, starting in Santiago de Compostella, south through Portugal, attending a friend’s wedding in Jerez, and then on through the Sierra Nevada to Valencia. It was a wonderful trip that gave us a great taste for all things Spanish (and I mean ‘taste’ in the most literal sense!). A year later I was back in Valencia for a conference at the aquarium, but spent more time hanging out with Inuit and other Canadians. And I’ve had a couple of resort holidays in the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

A street in Muros

A street in Muros

All told, I have precious little experience of Spain, and so it is a new and wonderful place to me. So far, we are all finding the experience rewarding! As an anthropologist, I know I shouldn’t be too hasty to make any pronouncements about a place. As I experience and learn more over the coming weeks and months I know my impressions will change or, at the very least, become more meaningful. But here are my initial impressions from the past few weeks:
1. Old people lead healthy lives! During our first few days on the beach in Ria de Viveiro I watched people walking up and down, up and down the more-than mile long beach. They were adults of all ages, but predominantly people over 70. Wearing only swimming trunks or bikinis, couples, groups of five or six men or women, mixed groups, strolled along the beach all afternoon long, exercising in the sunshine, which in itself is great. But they were also talking – couples and groups of friends, talking and laughing as they strolled along. If you’re doing that when you’re 70 or 80 years old, then you’re doing something right. Since then I’ve observed many older people enjoying life, walking, talking, sitting in the sun outside their homes and engaging with the world at it goes by.

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

2. Grow food not grass! I’ve seen a profusion of food growing in gardens big and small. Potatoes, onions, lettuces, sweet corn, and peach, pear, apple, and lemon trees. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of growing one’s own food – it’s great for the planet, it’s great for your health, and it’s great for the little mini-ecosystem of your back yard. In Japan and in the Fens of the United Kingdom (and no doubt elsewhere), people put excess produce outside their gates with an honesty box. I haven’t seen this yet in Spain, but I have seen old men and women, sitting in the shade of awnings in town squares, with small selections of produce for sale, that I can only imagine comes from their own gardens.
3. It’s cheap 1! Man, food is inexpensive here! For Julian and me, one of our favourite meals to cook is paella, but the ingredients are so expensive in the UK that it’s a rate treat. Here in Spain the mussels, fish, wine, chorizo, rice and other ingredients are dirt cheap! Even the saffron is less expensive. Of course they are all local ingredients, but even so we are astounded at how cheap the food is. The foods that we consider luxuries back in the UK are a third or a quarter of the price here. Our shopping basket overflows with olive oil, olives, chorizo, a smorgasbord of fruit and vegetables, cheeses and wine. We are in gastronomic heaven.
4. It’s cheap 2! While we spend most of our time at anchor, we occasionally spend a night in a marina, to fill our water tank, get speedy internet access and take advantage of hot showers! Marinas too, are inexpensive, working out at about 25-30% cheaper than in the UK, but with free electricity and Wifi included. And in places on our itinerary to visit over the coming weeks and months, they appear to be even less expensive.

Local fare

Local fare

5. Would you like a squid with your beer, sir?! To our Irish and British sensibilities, the foods in Spain are exotic and wonderful and sometimes highly amusing. I wanted to do some writing after the girls had gone to bed recently, so Julian popped out for a beer. He came home with a big grin on his face (possibly caused by the beer) to tell me about his experience. He ordered a beer and was given the smallest beer he’d ever seen in his life. Then the barman came around and asked him if he’d like a squid with it!! He was tickled pink by the idea of having a squid with his beer! In every bar, staff walk around with trays of tapas – bread with chorizo, tortilla, etc –to offer to the customers. In Julian’s case the other night, it was a deep-fried baby squid!
6. Small-scale fishing: I mentioned in a previous blog post how the clusters of fishermen reminded me of the west coast of Hudson Bay in summertime. Off the coast of every little town we anchor amongst small local boats, owned by local fishermen. These men go out alone or in pairs, and appear to quite often meet up with others at sea, clustering together and engaging in very small scale fishing. There are larger commercial fishing boats too, but the small scale subsistence fishermen predominate.
7. Less work, more play! The working day is very different to what we are accustomed to and it has taken some adjusting to. But we have embraced it now, and our sleeping, eating and shopping patterns have changed. Shops and businesses open for a few hours every morning and then close around noon or 1pm. They don’t re-open until 5.30 in the evening, and remain open until 9.30 or 10pm. It feels strange to us to go to the butcher or the greengrocer at 9 o’clock at night! Restaurants and cafes don’t get going until after 9.30, and people of all ages eat late into the night.
8. I was going to write about shellfish, but it deserves a blog post all of its own!

Yes, indeed, we are enjoying life in Spain. People are generous and kind, and (usually) patient with our inability to speak more than a few Spanish words. We are enjoying the endless sunshine and the golden sandy beaches at every anchorage. Life is good!

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Back in the spring of 1996 I bought a pair of khaki green shorts from Gap in Fukuoka, Japan. With the exception of 2010, when I was heavily pregnant, I’ve worn them every summer since. They’ve even seen a few days wear during brief Arctic summers in Arviat, Nunavut.

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They were dark green eighteen years ago. Now they’re faded to grey, threadbare and falling to pieces. But I can’t bear to let them go. Other items of clothing have come and gone in those eighteen years, but none have been as comfortable or carry so many memories as those faded old shorts.

They remind me of so many good times, and I know every day I put them on is going to be a good day. They remind me of hiking Mt. Aso and other volcanoes in Kyushu, southern Japan, with Linda, Fiona, Sarah, Sara, Brian, Stefan, Patricia and others; of climbing 3,333 steps to a temple in Fukuoka-ken with Lisa; of summer holidays with my great friend Takako and her wonderful family; and of summer Japanese barbecues.

These shorts remind me of a holiday in Hawai’i with Liliane, and of returning to Maui a few years later to volunteer on a humpback whale research project, with long days spent in the open ocean in a small boat, surrounded by giant humpback whales.

They remind me of arctic char fishing in Arviat with Crystal and of Honda/ATV rides out to Nuvuk to chat to other fishermen and women and see if there were any polar bears about.

They remind me of summer Sunday trips to Croke Park with Daddy and my uncle Tom for the Gaelic football, and of long summer days at home in Ballygibbon, keeping Daddy company as he went about his gardening chores.

They remind me of camping trips with Julian – in Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria; of long hikes and pub lunches; and of exploring the countryside of Cambridgeshire and Devon with Lily and Katie.

I’m wearing them as I write this.

I don’t think they’ll see another summer. They are threadbare and beyond repair. But I cherish them for their memories and I will be sad to say goodbye to them when the time comes. As Cat Stevens sang ‘And the patches make the goodbyes harder still’.

Life without a garden

When we embarked on this lifestyle change over a year ago, one of my primary concerns was raising children without a garden. I was born and raised in the countryside, with a big garden and fields all around, and for most of my adult life I’ve chosen to live in houses that at the very least have a garden, but preferably are in the countryside too. When Julian and I finally bought our own house it was an ex-farm labourer’s cottage, with a 100 foot by 45 foot garden, surrounded by fields, and half a mile from the lovely village of Boxworth, in Cambridgeshire. I equated a garden with safety and privacy, a place for children to play and grow, a place to sow vegetables and flowers, maybe have a pet. When we bought our house in Boxworth, we even entertained the idea of keeping hens and having our own fresh eggs every day.

So giving up a garden, and the idea of a garden, was a difficult one. But now that we’re living aboard, most of my concerns were unfounded. Spending winter in a first floor flat with a front door opening onto a busy road was difficult at times with two small children, but living on a boat is an entirely different situation. Without even leaving the comfort of our boat, we are immersed in nature – cormorants diving for fish right beside the boat, seagulls cracking mussels open on the pontoon, a resident swan in the marina here in Plymouth. In Torquay, the flash of a mullet swimming underwater would catch the eye to reveal ten, twenty or more fish close to the surface. The clouds, the rain, the sun, the weather in all its moods is there for us to experience, because life on a boat is less sealed off, more lived in the world that it is in a double-glazed, centrally-heated house. And that can be uncomfortable, but it’s there and it’s enlivening, and the girls are learning about the world around them all the time.

But of course much of our life as live-aboards is not actually spent on board. And I’ve discovered that raising children without a garden is fun and rewarding – for them and for me. Even during this summer, the wettest since UK records began, we have been having a lot of fun. Living by the coast means there is always a beach close at hand, and my girls can spend hours getting themselves wet and sandy, collecting shells, pouring water, investigating rock pools. They’re quite self-sufficient when it comes to playing on the beach, I like to keep an eye on them from a distance and just let them get on with exploring and playing by themselves. And there are public playgrounds, and other places to play.

We’re spending quite a bit of time these past few weeks visiting zoos and aquaria. The National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and Living Coasts in Torquay are educational and entertaining, and the Aquarium has become a home away from home for us this past year, thanks to the entry ticket that’s valid for a year for as many visits as you wish. We find endless entertainment in everything from visiting museums to strolling along the street and watching the world go by. I’ve discovered that life without a garden is different, but it’s certainly no less rich and no less rewarding. Rather than losing an enclosed garden we have gained an unbounded garden that’s as big as the world and as unlimited as the imaginations of small children.