One day in the life of …

by Julian

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Sanlúcar de Guadiana, Spain

This was not a special day on the Rio Guadiana. Normal weather, no fiestas. But I had agreed to work for Manuel, an old gentleman who wants to run boat trips in a large motor boat that has seen better days. He is short and perfectly spherical. Manuel cannot see very well and needs someone to drive and do other tasks that he no longer has the dexterity or fitness to do. I have been working for him on and off for the past few weeks. Martina had decided to go shopping in Villa Real and had left just before the girls got up and I had to get them ready for school.

Normally, getting Lily and Katie ready for school is a gargantuan task, which inevitably involves repeated commands and some screaming. However, when on my own, I think the girls realise my general lack of competence and get ready without expecting an adult to assist them. So it was that the girls were ready a full 20 minutes before we had to leave the boat. This was good because I had to take them to Reme’s shop before school to buy an exercise book which Lily needed.

Less than a minute after dropping the girls to school I am standing outside Manuel’s house. He tosses me the keys to his aging Mercedes. “Donde vamos?” I ask.
“Isla Cristina.” I wrestle the heavy, four geared vehicle, along the steep spaghetti roads leading out of town. Isla Cristina is 44 km away and Manuel and I have been there several times. I take Manuel to the usual spot, near the chandleries and fishing boats. But instead of going into a shop, Manuel whips out a business card and starts asking people for directions. We drive on, periodically stopping along all manner of strange, one-way, semi-pedestrian streets, to the sound of the honking horns of frustrated drivers and the fist waving curses of Manuel as he asks anyone and everyone where the heck this place is. After driving around the whole of the town we end up back where we started. We take a turn down a side road, barely wide enough for the Mercedes. It does not look promising and ends in a dead end. It turns out to be the street mentioned on the business card but there is no sign of any business, or really anything. I leave Manuel talking to some people in a carpenter’s workshop on the next street. I return to find they have been joined by one of the most eye-catching men I have ever seen. He is nearly my height, with a tight black top which displays his enormous muscles to good effect, skin tight ripped jeans, dark skin and a well-groomed beard. I start to mentally refer to him as “The Rock.”

We walk back to the car. The Rock follows us. “Venga!” states Manuel and we get into the car. Disturbingly, The Rock climbs into the back seat. “Sanlúcar” orders Manuel. What! For what purpose are we bringing this mass of human perfection back home to our tiny village.

I drive the 44km back to Sanlúcar. We take The Rock down to the pontoon and he inspects the wooden bench we have constructed over the previous few days along the back of Manuel’s boat. The men who work at the zip wire office, with their gym crafted bodies, stare down at him, with obvious muscle envy. After 20 minutes, the three of us climb back into the Mercedes and I drive the 44km back to Isla Cristina and back to the anonymous side road, where The Rock produces a key and opens a large grey metal door. We all walk inside. My jaw drops as I stare around the workshop. Broken chairs and settees surround us. The Rock is an upholsterer! Manuel leafs through a samples book and selects an outdoor seat cover in pink. The Rock explains that this is one of the more expensive materials, but they both seem to agree that it is worth the money. Then the haggling starts. Not about the cost. Manuel wants the job done tomorrow. Not possible! The foam and the cover would have to be ordered. Friday? No there is other work to do, it would have to be the end of next week. Manuel counts the days on his fingers. No good, too long. The Rock is getting exasperated, but Manuel will simply not back down. “Where do we get the materials from?” he asks.
“Seville.” Comes the reply, with a shrug emphasising the impossibility.
“Only Seville!” Manuel is beaming “Now if you’d said Barcelona that would be different, but Seville, easy!” They both turn and look at me expectantly.
“But I can’t … I have to be in Sanlúcar at two o’clock … pick my daughters up from school … make lunch … Martina is in Portugal … I have a Skype interview for a teaching job in England at three o’clock … I can’t do anything until at least four.” The pair of them discuss this. I don’t understand a word they are saying. Manuel and I climb back into the car and drive back to Sanlúcar once again. It is a quarter to two. “I’ll meet you here at the bar at four” says Manuel “The earlier you can make it the better.” Damn! The pressure is on big time.

I phone Martina. “Hi darling, have you had a good time?”
“Yes, I’m sitting in a lovely Italian restaurant with pizza and a glass of wine. I’ve finished all the shopping.”
“So, you’ll be back on the early bus then?”
“Yes.”
“Great, that means the kids will only be on their own for half an hour. I have to go to Seville.”
“!!!”
“I’ll put them watching a movie. They’ll be fine.”

A pile of salami and salad rolls are hastily shoved in front of the children. “Daddy’s very busy … You can eat the strawberries … Any rolls you don’t want put in this bag and have them later … There’s the computer … The hard drive with the movies … Yes, you can watch anything you like … Here’s a jug of water … If you need me I’ll be in the beach bar until four … Mummy’s back at four thirty … be good … don’t hit each other.”

This might be classed as irresponsible parenting but this is a very small village. Lily and Katie know everyone and everyone knows them. Within certain boundaries they have freedom to run around the place with their friends. I will be able to see them from the bar where I will be taking my Skype call. Rosa is always available as an adult point of contact for the short period when we aren’t in the village. But really, the village is full of responsible adults, many of whom have had our children round for lunch, or even a sleep-over, and vice versa their children with us.

I quickly pull on a shirt. Skype won’t show up my paint covered work shorts and sandals. I go up to the shower block. Great, my beard isn’t too bad, no need to trim. Clean my teeth, splash some water in my face, comb my hair. I’m in the bar with ten minutes to spare. Five minutes later I still cannot get the internet connection. Shit, I’ve got no time. I run to Jeanne and David’s house and ask if I can use their internet. They have changed their internet provider, I need the new password. Jeanne warns me the internet is very slow. Just in time, three o’clock, the Skype call comes through. I answer. I am extremely anxious because this is an important interview. If I get the job it will be my first real professional level employment in years. I need to show I can be bright, enthusiastic, intelligent, can be trusted to teach adults and children. I cannot see or hear the interviewer. A text message comes through ‘Can you hear me?’
“No.” I reply.
‘I’ll try and call back then.’ The call comes through, I answer again. I can see her, but fuzzy and moving jerkily. “Hello.” She says. “Nice to meet you.”
“Hello, pleased to meet you.” I reply. We begin the interview, then it breaks up again. I cannot see her. I hold up my phone and then type ‘If you like we can do this by phone, my number is ……’ After a couple more attempts at Skype she finally calls me. It is nearly 3:30 pm. I am extremely anxious because I know Manuel will be fretting around somewhere. However, I am pleased to be able to leave the house and go somewhere private to talk. I have to tell her I am sorry, I only have half an hour. I did have an hour but because of the Skype thing I am pushed for time. Thankfully she is very sympathetic and tells me we will just have to talk quickly. The interview goes very well but the clock ticks round to four o’clock. I can see Manuel shuffling down the street to find me. I tell her this. I think she finds it amusing and tells me she will email me a job offer. Phew! Manuel tosses me the keys, we climb into the car. “Isla Cristina.” He says.

I am a little puzzled. I thought we were going to Seville. It all becomes clear when we arrive at the upholsterer’s workshop and The Rock climbs into the car. The Rock is coming with us to get the stuff! “Vamos!” I am instructed. I catch snippets of the conversation as I drive as fast as I feel safe to do. Manuel is now in full Spanish mode, talking rapidly in some ancient Andalucian dialect and I struggle to follow him. It seems we are going to some place called Pilas first to pick up the foam, then on to Tomares to get the covering. The Rock’s phone speaks in a clear female voice “Tome la calle a la derecha” (Take the street on the right).
The Rock then tells me “Tome la calle a la derecha”.
Manuel then says loudly and slowly, “la derecha.” As we near the turn he repeats this anxiously. I keep quiet and turn to the right. A little way down the street the phone speaks again in Spanish “Take the third exit at the roundabout.” The Rock says this, followed by Manuel. This is going to be a very long couple of hours.

Getting through Pilas is a piece of cake, and with the foam stuffed into the boot of the car, we head onwards toward Seville along more minor roads. I am reasonably confident we will get this done and back home before the shops close at nine. Then, all of a sudden, a policeman steps out and stops the traffic, two cars in front of us. From a side road, a tractor pulling a decorated wagon pulls out ahead of us, then another and another. “Rocio” Manuel says singing a bit of some Spanish flamenco. Of course, these are returning from the famous Romeria of Rocio, near Seville. A sort of gypsy fiesta where people dance, sing, ride horses and generally do risky, wild things somewhere in the countryside. Some of the carts are full of people. Men in tight grey boleros with wide brimmed hats, women in flamenco dresses with flowers in their hair, singing and clapping in time. After about one hundred tractors have pulled onto the road in front of us the policeman waves us through. We continue in first gear, pain just beginning to shoot up the back of my right leg from the awkward angle of my foot on the throttle. After thirty to forty minutes of crawling along and regularly stopping we manage to lose the tractors and speed down the road. The magnificent city of Seville can be seen sprawling beneath us, in a light haze of smog. How I would love to see Seville one day, but once again I find myself here for some purpose other than tourism.

Arriving in Tomares we find ourselves in an industrial estate of sorts. Every type of furniture store and workshop can be found lining the many roads. The Rock leaves us and, pointing to a couple of shops, says we can go and have a little coffee whilst we wait. Manuel and I cannot find the café. There is a large shop called Muebles Mexicanos, it looks like a taco restaurant. Manuel starts asking people where the café is. A woman points to the taco store and says “No, look it says ‘Muebles’ it sells furniture.” Eventually I look down the next street and see the café. I signal to Manuel to join me. Coming from the other direction is The Rock with a roll of pink material under his arm. We wait for Manuel to arrive and the three of us enter the building.

Now, it is difficult to describe the appearance of the three of us entering the café. Manuel is short and built like a snowman, with a round head atop a round body, he cannot see very well and has failed to shave properly. I am a tall unkempt Englishman wearing sandals and blue swimming shorts. We are accompanied by The Rock, who really would not look out of place in an American WWF wrestling match. Yes, people are staring and staring hard. It is a fine wooden lined room, built by someone who really knew about interior furnishing, with jamons hanging all around. An espresso for me, a beer for The Rock and hot milk with decaffeinated instant coffee powder for Manuel (descafeinado de sobre). As my Portuguese boss used to say “The Spanish really don’t know how to drink coffee.”

The day is nearly over. Just a two-hour drive back to Sanlúcar via Isla Cristina. We fill the tank with diesel and I say goodbye to Manuel at around 9:30 pm. “Las ocho por la mañana.” What! I have to meet Manuel again at eight o’clock in the morning to go and fetch The Rock again, so he can upholster the seat on the back of the boat. That night I recount the events to Martina and she seems very keen to get a look at The Rock tomorrow.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. Coventry University Hospital, England

While I am driving in Spain, my mother is under general anaesthetic in an English hospital. The surgery team bustle around her, removing one of her kidneys and the ureter connecting it to her bladder. This contains a tumour. The surgeon also removes two enlarged lymph nodes. She now has a three week wait to find out if the enlarged lymph nodes are linked to the tumour.

Wednesday 23rd May 2018. A courtroom somewhere in England

Meanwhile, in an English courtroom, a man is sentenced for murdering his wife. He gets life with a minimum of seventeen years in prison. The murdered woman’s son reads a victim statement to the court. I haven’t seen the son since he was around eleven years old. The woman was my dad’s ex-girlfriend. Only thirteen years older than me. They lived with dad for a while. Although, circumstances have meant that I haven’t seen her for eighteen years, I regarded her as a friend. She was a very loving person.

A final thought

The world is a crazy place. Anyway, I now have some work for a few weeks in England and it is near the homes of my parents. I will see them in two weeks time. I will be keen to learn if Manuel does manage to run some boat trips, but that is not going to be part of my story this summer.

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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!!)

Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!

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

 

Protect your eyes!

In May, Lily’s left eye and then her right eye appeared bloodshot. At first I put it down to the use of sunscreen. The strong summer sun means the girls and I were slapping on sun protection every time we go out walking, swimming or are doing outdoor chores. But when I thought about it, I realised that the redness in Lily’s eyes was not the same as that caused by sunscreen. For one, the sunscreen causes a general redness, like you get after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Lily’s eyes had triangular redness starting at a point at her tear duct near her nose and fanning out to her iris. Lily, being at an age when she is conscious of her appearance, asked me frequently about this redness and when it would go away.

Her left eye gradually cleared of any redness, but then she developed it in her right eye. Then one day, seeing her in a different light, I noticed bumps on the edge of her iris, where the redness ended. There were two of these little bumps, and they looked liked blisters. She didn’t complain of any pain, but said her eyes often felt dry. I took her to the doctor the next day.

The doctor immediately diagnosed pterygium, also known as ‘surfer’s eye’.  The redness was the immediately recognisable first symptom of tissue growth on the surface of the eyeball. The bumps on the edge of the iris are lesions and the growth and lesions may continue to grow until they eventually cover the pupil, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism and corneal scarring. It can affect one or both eyes. Laser surgery and replacement of eye tissue with amniotic membrane are two treatments, although these treatments are only necessary if vision becomes affected.

The cause is simple – excessive exposure to sun, wind and sand. Well, living the lifestyle we do, on a boat, in countries at lower latitudes, spending lots of time on beaches, my children are prime candidates for such eye damage. The problem is most common among people who live closer to the equator and among men aged 20 to 40 (because they are the ones who spend more time out of doors).

Our mission now is to prevent Lily’s pterygium from getting worse. The doctor prescribed the use of artificial tears (eye drops) and the wearing of sunglasses and a sunhat when outside. After using the eye drops for a couple of days the redness had disappeared and the doctor advised using the eye drops whenever the redness recurs. Julian, down in Vila Real a couple of days later, bought both girls good quality polarising sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Now we insist they both wear sunglasses and sunhats when out during the day. Although Lily was quite upset by it all at first, she has grown used to wearing her sunglasses now, especially because Dad bought her such cool ones!

I wanted to share this as a word of warning. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a part of the world that gets prolonged and strong sunlight, protect your eyes and the eyes of your loved ones. Lily’s eye damage is the latest in a line of northern Europeans living here on the river dealing with the consequences of sun damage. Pre-cancerous moles and melanomas seem to be on the rise these days amongst our friends.

Also, a word of warning about the type of sunglasses you buy. Dark lenses don’t necessarily mean sun protection. Make sure your glasses and your kids’ glasses provide UVA and UVB protection. Dark lenses dilate the pupil and allow more light in, and without ultraviolet protection this leads to even greater sun damage. And, if like me, you wear glasses for short sightedness, pay that extra £10 on your new prescription for the ultraviolet filter.

We will continue to enjoy living in such a sun-kissed part of the world, but from now on we will do so with greater care, not just for our skin, but for our eyes too.

 

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.