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.

October write-off

It all started with an irritating tingle in my right nostril, during the second week of October. Two days later I woke with a severe pain across the bridge of my nose. Odd, I thought. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had bashed my nose against the boom or if I had been accidentally elbowed in the nose by Julian in the middle of the night. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember either. The next day the pain was worse and under my left eye had turned black. When I started to see stars and had shooting pains in my head, I decided it was time to see a doctor. The doctor looked in my ears, nose and mouth, took my blood pressure, asked a lot of questions, and diagnosed an allergy. He prescribed pain relief and antihistamines and sent me on my way. I’ve never had an allergy to anything before, so what was I to know.

For three days I took the medicine and got neither better nor worse. On the evening of the third day I had to excuse myself from the house I was visiting. My head was filled with cotton wool, my body ached and, despite sitting on a cool terrace, I had started to sweat. By the time I’d rowed back across the river I was simultaneously sweating and shivering and I went straight to bed. Through the night I tossed and turned, and all the next day and the next I was feverish and miserable. After school Lily and Katie put on their nurses’ uniforms and took care of me, Katie taking my temperature and administering Paracetamol to keep my temperature down, and Lily making me cups of tea and bringing cold towels to cool me down.

For the next two weeks I was up and down, feeling not too bad one day and terrible the next. I’d had the flu during Christmas 2010 and this felt exactly the same – aching joints, fever, loss of appetite, lack of energy and generally feeling awful.

As the symptoms gradually began to ease I developed a pain in my lung and a dry hacking cough. It was an infection and I went on a course of antibiotics. Nights were the worst and I dreaded going to bed. All night long I was drenched in sweat, the sheets soaking, my hair wet on the pillow and I coughed and coughed all night long, sometimes so violently that I vomited. And then the side-effects of taking antibiotics kicked in and I came down with diarrhoea and thrush. It’s mid-November now and, despite post-virus and infection fatigue, I’m starting to feel normal again.

I’ve lost a month. I’ve been too ill to read or write or watch movies. Too ill to teach my English classes or attend my Spanish classes. Too ill to more than vacantly and vaguely take care of my children. Too ill to take care of the boat and too ill to take care of myself.

It’s scary how quickly someone so generally healthy and fit can be struck down by a bug and become incapacitated and incapable of even basic day-to-day living. It’s been most of a month and I’m finally on the mend. My appetite is back – for food, for books, for life – and gradually I’m reintroducing myself to life again. Here’s hoping it’ll be at least another six years before something like this strikes me again. In the meantime, I have a month to make up for – to get out on the river, to walk the trails, and to see what changes have come about in my absence.

Big knickers and The Archers Omnibus

All going well, by the time you read this it will be 24 hours since I’ve had my surgery and I’ll be recovering in hospital. I’ve never had an operation before. I’ve never had an anaesthetic and apart from when I was ill as a little baby, I’ve only been in hospital twice – with glandular fever when I was seven, and when Lily was born, six and a half years ago. I remember the monumental boredom of being in hospital when I was seven. And giving birth in hospital was unexpected and unplanned, so I had no time to prepare. After 46 hours of labour (oh yes, folks!) I don’t remember much of the less than two days I spent in hospital after Lily was born.

This time, I’ve had time to prepare. I’ve little idea what I’m going to feel like after the surgery. I’m expecting pain and grogginess. I’ve been told I’ll be kept in for two or three nights. But one thing’s for sure, I’m not going to be twiddling my thumbs wishing I had something to do to pass the time.

I’ve starved myself of the last three Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcasts and saved them up for my hospital stay. Ditto the last three Archers Omnibuses. And I’ve downloaded the podcast of Seamus Heaney’s Desert Island Discs. I listened to it only recently but loved it so much I wanted to hear it again.

I’ve saved my two favourite radio stations onto my smart phone – BBC Radio 4 for Woman’s Hour and pretty much everything else; BBC Radio 2 for Chris Evans in the morning and Simon Mayo in the evening.

So much for listening. I’m currently reading David Guterson’s East of the Mountains and I’m unlikely to have it finished before Thursday morning. I’m also packing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’ve been saving up.

Then there’s writing. I’m on the fifth draft of my book, and chapters 16 to 30 are in need of revision (I’m not expecting to revise 15 chapters! I’ve been getting through this re-write at a rate of one chapter every two to three days). And I never go anywhere without my journal and a selection of pens, so I can write to my hearts content.

I realise I will probably indulge in few or none of these. But they will be there, if I need them, to save me from boredom.

As for the titular big knickers? When my very practical mother came to visit a few weeks ago she brought me a pack of big white knickers (size 14) which she says I will need after my operation. One of my friends suggested they could also be used as bed sheets and I thought I could fly one as a Kildare flag!! Thank you Mammy. As if having my uterus removed wasn’t unsexy enough!

Back to Blighty

My dreams of river paradise have ended – for now. The health issues I only half dealt with and then tried to ignore at the end of last year have returned, or, given that they never went away, have intensified, causing me sleepless worry-filled nights. After a couple of tear-filled days of indecision, I have decided to leave Julian and the boat on the river while the girls and I fly back to the UK. We are all hoping it will be only for a few weeks, but depending on what’s actually wrong with me, it may take longer.

The flight is booked – one way, because I don’t know when we will come back. Once I have a clearer idea of how long I need to be away, Julian will either come join us or await our imminent return.

We weighed up the alternatives. Should I try the Spanish or Portuguese health service? Should Julian come with us immediately? Should we sail Carina back to the UK? None of the options, including the one we’ve settled on, is ideal. But I had to come to some decision.

My experiences of Spanish health care last year were pretty awful. I blogged about the episodes I could laugh at afterwards, but I had another experience that I won’t blog about, because I’m still too angry and shaken. Maybe all those experiences were sheer bad luck on my part, or maybe Almería has particularly poor patient care, but I don’t want to go down that road again. The fact remains that I don’t speak Spanish and the thought of dealing not only with doctors, but with receptionists, nurses, radiologists and all the other health professionals I might encounter fills me with stress. I was greatly distressed the last time because I didn’t understand what tests I was being sent for, why those tests were taking place, or what the actual procedures would be when I showed up.

I’m the kind of patient who likes talking to the people who take care of me. I like to talk about why and how they are doing whatever it is they are doing to me, I like talking about the weather, I like sharing a joke. Stressing about what might be wrong with me is bad enough, so I’ve decided I don’t want to have the added stress of health care in a language I don’t understand.

I am very lucky and privileged to be able to return to the UK, where I can have free and top class health care, at the hands of health care workers who speak my language, and in a health care system whose workings I am familiar with.

We considered the possibility of all four of us flying back immediately, but the stress of thinking about flights and finding a secure place to keep Carina was all too much. So Julian is staying put, carrying on with his onboard maintenance work, hopefully having more time to devote to his Spanish study, and more time to go for long walks along the river and in the hills. There’s a good community of sailors here, so I’m not worried about him lacking companionship. Staying put also gives him the time to investigate the best and cheapest options for Carina, if she needs to stay here without us longer term. Julian’s staying is also psychological, reminding all of us that we won’t be away for long.

The truth is, though, that I probably will be away for some time. I will register with a GP the first morning I get back, but by the time I arrange a first GP’s appointment, get sent for tests, await the results, I am unlikely to be in the UK for less than a month.

We considered sailing Carina back to Plymouth, but that would take time and we would then be committing to spending the winter in the UK or environs and we would have to start out on our voyage all over again. We may return in a year or two to the UK to work and refill our bank account, but if we do that it will be planned well in advance, and not something done quickly so that I can see a doctor.

So as I pack our bags and prepare to spend a few weeks or longer with Julian’s parents in the UK Midlands, I am a bundle of mixed emotions. I am happy for Lily and Katie and for their grandparents that they will get to spend time together, but I am sad that the girls’ summer of swimming every day in the river, travelling everywhere by dinghy, and foraging for wild food is potentially over. I am relieved to be finally seeking an answer to the strange goings on in my abdomen, but sad to be leaving a place that I find so life-affirming and inspirational. And it goes without saying that I am sad at the thought of leaving Julian behind for an indeterminate period of time, but at least I can smile at photos of his seven-year old self on display at his mum’s house!

So goodbye Rio Guadiana. Let’s hope it won’t be too long until we are reunited.