Hallowe’en – It’s my holiday!!

It’s that time of year again, when I get annoyed and frustrated on behalf of my culture, my traditions and my childhood memories. ‘I can’t stand Hallowe’en’, I hear all too often from people who aren’t Irish, followed by a damning reference to it being an American invention, exported around the world like Coca-Cola and Santa in a red suit. (And, by the way, what’s so terrible about American inventions?). The irony, of course, is that, while people are perfectly content to sip Coke and sit on Santa’s fat red knee, Hallowe’en is actually a European festival, specifically a west coast, Celtic European festival, exported to America.

Hallowe’en is ours, and it has always been one of my favourite festivals (although, I have to admit, I’m pretty much equal opportunities when it comes to festivals, feasts, holy days, and all those other times when we get to behave in weird and wonderful out-of-the-ordinary ways).

Hallowe’en was a big deal when I was a child growing up in 1970s and 1980s rural Ireland. The first hint of Hallowe’en each year came in late September or early October with the first barm brack brought home from O’Brien’s supermarket in Edenderry. We’d eat the fruit brack slathered in butter, with a cup of tea and, being the only child in the family until I was five years old, I always got the cheap metal wedding ring wrapped in grease proof paper that lay hidden in the middle of the brack. By the time Hallowe’en came around I usually had four or five rings, as my family ate our way through quite a few bracks in those few short weeks.

As Hallowe’en grew ever closer the hazelnuts on the hedges down the road near Rabbitfield were ready to eat. I went alone, or with Daddy, or with my cousin Martin who lived down the road, fraught with anxiety as we gathered hazelnuts on that haunted stretch of road. It was widely known around Ballygibbon that Rabbitfield House was haunted. Indeed, Daddy and my black Labrador, Lassie, had had a frightening supernatural encounter as they walked in the field in front of the derelict house one day – Lassie’s hair standing on the back of her neck and Daddy swearing he would never go there again. (Even today, as a sensible worldly-wise 44 year old, when I drive past Rabbitfield at night, I put my foot on the accelerator and drive those lonely 200 metres at high speed, never looking in the rear view mirror for fear of what might be looking back at me!).

I digress. There was the barm brack and the hazelnuts, essential Hallowe’en food. There were monkey nuts (peanuts), almonds and brazil nuts in the shops – highly exotic and highly seasonal foods in rural Ireland back in those days. At school we made ghoulish masks and witches hats out of cornflakes boxes and toilet roll inserts and lots of glue and paint. The shops sold Hallowe’en masks – tight pinching plastic affairs that scratched your face and caused profuse facial sweating, attached to your head by elastic bands that broke your hair and hurt your ears.

I was never particularly crafty, and my attempts at witches and ghouls inspired by Mary’s Make-and-Do on Saturday morning television generally failed and, anyway, I always looked forward to the new mask I would get each year at O’Brien’s or when we went shopping in Mullingar.

By October 31st each year I was almost sick with excitement. I dressed as a púca – a witch or a ghost or a ghoul or a banshee and – together with my cousins Catherine and Sheila, and the occasional cross-dressing adult who decided to join in the fun – walked the dark road of Ballygibbon (usually in the rain), stopping at each house (most of our neighbours were cousins on Daddy’s side of the family) where, as tradition dictated, we sang, or told a joke, or played a musical instrument, or did a dance, in return for sweets, fruit, nuts or, sometimes, money. With Ballygibbon under our belts, I was driven the two miles into Edenderry (some years with my cousins in tow, some years just me and my sister), where we did the rounds of Gilroy Avenue, where my Nana Kitty lived (still lives) and Castleview Park where my aunt Lillie lived. More embarrassed singing, telling jokes, dancing (‘You start’, ‘No, you start’, ‘I won’t sing unless you sing’) in exchange for more sweets, fruit, nuts and money.

And then it was into my Nana’s house or back home to Ballygibbon, for games. We bobbed for apples, putting our faces in basins of water, hands behind our backs, trying to get an apple using only our mouths. We bobbed for nuts as well, which was a mad endeavour, especially as many sank to the bottom. But we were always willing to risk drowning for a sunken almond. Apples were tied from string from the ceiling and, again with hands behind backs, we had to try to take a bite of the swinging apple using only our mouths. For months afterwards, thumbtacks remained on my Nana’s living room ceiling, testament to our Hallowe’en madness. And my favourite and, at the same time, least favourite game was the one where we placed a grape on top of a mound of flour. The goal was to use a knife to remove the flour without the grape falling from the top of the mound. If your knife swipe caused the grape to fall, you had to stick your head into the plate of flour (yuck) and retrieve the grape with your mouth.

Over the years I have brought my Hallowe’en traditions with me and shared them with my students in Japan, and last year here in our little village in Spain. I’ve learned a lot about Hallowe’en traditions over the years and how they vary from region to region in Ireland, and in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. We share many similarities too. Apples are at the centre of many Hallowe’en traditions, as is dressing up and performing. We never had Jack-o-lanterns where I come from, so I assumed it was a new American tradition. But then I found out that the tradition arose in Ireland, with carved turnips (what my husband calls ‘swede’ (a point of contention in our marriage) and what Americans call ‘rutabega’) and was transposed to an equally, or perhaps more appropriate American vegetable, the pumpkin.

Hallowe’en has been around for a long time. It was the Celtic festival Oiche Samhain, the night when fairies and púcas from the other world crossed over into the human world. Like many pre-Christian festivals, it was syncretised by Christianity, and became the eve of the double holy days of November 1st, the Feast of All Saints and November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. And growing up in Ireland when I did, we celebrated all of those things – the fairies, the púcas, the saints and the souls.

So this year, if someone bemoans that ‘American holiday’, please remind them that it is, in fact, a holiday that has roots deep in the pre-Christian Celtic cultures of the west coast of Europe. Indeed, it would appear the earliest reference to the holiday in the US only dates back to 1911. Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has been transformed by our good neighbours on the other side of the Atlantic. But one thing culture and traditions are incapable of doing is remaining unchanged. Just as Christians of 1600 years ago changed the meaning of Hallowe’en in Ireland, so Americans have changed the practice and re-exported it. But at heart it remains a playful, liminal holiday, when norms and rules are transgressed, when the doors between worlds open up, and when, with just a little persuasion, I might risk drowning in a basin of cold water for a mouldy old monkey nut.

 

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Wildlife haven

At dusk on Saturday evening the first badger arrived. Confident, showing little caution, it trotted up the garden to the double patio doors. Steve had thrown a mix of apples, dry dog food and bread on the patio, and the badger started to eat. Exhibiting far more caution than the badger, the girls and I moved from the sofa where we’d been sitting, inching our way closer to the patio doors, hoping we wouldn’t scare the badger away. We were halfway across the living room when another badger arrived. The two seemed oblivious to us and we sat on the floor, our faces pressed against the glass doors, the badgers less than metre away.

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They were smaller than I thought they would be. But then, I had only ever seen one live badger before – a brief glimpse late one night about seven years ago, when I caught a foraging badger in the headlights of my car as I turned into our driveway in Cambridgeshire. Apart from that one brief encounter, I had only ever seen live badgers on television and dead ones on the side of the road or stuffed and mounted.

Lily’s and Katie’s granddad and I tried to impress on the girls what a rare and special experience this was. While I had seen one live badger in 43 years, Barry had never seen one in 68 years. ‘Remember this moment’, we told the girls. ‘You might never have this privilege again’.

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By the end of that first evening we counted four individuals, identifiable by their differences in size and markings. One, a rather scruffy looking soul, was missing both ears and had a scratch on this nose; another was bigger than all the others.

Up close the black stripes from their eyes back over the tops of their heads are in sharp contrast to their otherwise grey and white bodies. They have terrible eyesight and even when looking straight at us humans on the other side of the glass, I could tell by their eyes that they couldn’t really see us. They were quick to respond to sound though, their long heads rising frequently from the food to look around at the slightest sound. They had very long nails on their feet, which they use to dig their setts. We sat there, listening to them munching on the food, and I felt awed and privileged to be there.

This was the first night of our week long holiday in rural Pembrokeshire, in south Wales. I had booked this particular house because there was so little else available and because it boasted badgers at dusk in the garden. Little did we realise what a wildlife haven it would be.

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The next morning, as I made my first cup of tea, my father-in-law came in from the garden and urged me to come outside. He wanted to show me something. He had taken his cup of tea and his pipe to a secluded area of the garden with wooden garden furniture. Walking through the gap he’d come upon a huge pheasant standing on the table. The pheasant was unmoved by Barry’s presence, and continued standing on the table even when the two of us came close.

That evening, after Barry and Katie had gone to bed, Lily and I sat watching television. There were two badgers on the patio and I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. A fox. Over the next four nights I watched, transfixed, as the fox and badgers vied for the food on the patio. There were five badgers in all, and some evenings all five were together on the patio. The fox, far more skittish, and with better eyesight than the badgers, was more wary of movement inside the house. Sitting quietly close to the patio doors, I waited each evening for the fox to come trotting up the garden. Although the badgers came at dusk, the fox waited until darkness had fallen. If there were no badgers around, the fox came directly to the food. Sure enough, a badger or two would arrive and chase the fox away, and over the next hour or more the fox would come, the badgers would chase it away, the fox would come again. I thoroughly enjoyed this soap opera in the back garden.

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All day we enjoyed rabbits on the lawns, and each day followed the progress of a family of sparrows nesting in the eaves of the house, the parents bringing food to their noisy and large chicks. We hoped they would fledge while we were there, but they probably preferred the cosiness of their nest to the drizzly conditions of south Wales.

Steve and Serena, the owners of Swallows Rest Cottage, where we stayed for the week, have made their property a haven for wildlife. An acre and a half of their garden is a wildflower meadow, alive with butterflies and bees, crisscrossed with the tracks of the many animals that move through it each day and night. No plastic eaves for them – their wooden eaves are friendly to nesting birds, and the hedgerows all around their property are home to all sorts of wildlife. Each evening they put out a little food, thus attracting two badger setts and some young foxes. They take a neighbourly attitude towards the wildlife in their garden – welcoming it, making it feel at home, helping it out and not infringing on the way it lives its life.

Reconnecting

After my surreal media week some semblance of normality returned to our holiday in Ireland. I had a few opportunities to spend time in the company of some of my oldest friends. A big-girl sleep-over with two friends I’ve known since we were all four years old involved a lot of good food and even more good conversation.

What a dessert!

What a dessert!

And in last Saturday’s glorious sunshine three of my old (‘less of the old’ I hear them yell) university friends descended on Mammy’s house with an assortment of their children. We caught up while our kids got to know each other. There were a few family get-togethers, filled with tea and cake and ham sandwiches, and visits to other relatives and neighbours.

We celebrated a rip-roaring St. Patrick’s Day, the girls dressed (as one of my friends pointed out) like the Clancy Brothers! We went to Mass in Edenderry to hear and see Granny singing in the choir, and were also treated to the spectacle of Irish dancers dancing up the aisle of St. Mary’s Church.

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Begosh and Begorrah..looking none too pleased!

Later, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade along JKL Street. The parade is a new addition to the Edenderry social calendar. It started only three or four years ago at the height of the recession, in an attempt to lift spirits and boost the economy, when the town and a lot of the people in it were feeling pretty miserable. It was great fun, with many local clubs, societies and businesses with colourful floats. There were marching bands and I was only disappointed to not see any more Irish dancers. One of the local shops gave out free giant green, white and gold lollipops and it took me a few minutes to figure out why the green and yellow around Katie’s mouth was tinged with red. IMG_20150317_141002

The little gluttonous imp tried to stuff too much of the lollipop into her mouth at once, and split her mouth on both sides. If only she was so eager to eat her dinner!

I awoke on Friday morning filled with anticipation for the eclipse. The previous two days had been bright and sunny, so I was disappointed when I opened the curtains to a sky filled with heavy grey clouds. Still, I sat out on the patio, cup of tea warming my hands, awaiting…something. It grew noticeably darker, but that was it. Or so I thought. I went inside to warm up. Half an hour later I ventured outside to bring in turf for the fire and the clouds had thinned to reveal the sun still a little less than half eclipsed by the moon. I yelled for Lily and Katie to come out. They weren’t quite as awestruck as I was!

On Sunday, Lily had a pre-birthday party (five days early), with two little cousins, and a large gathering of my family – Mammy and some of her sisters, my sister, our Nana and, as often at gatherings of my family, the obligatory solitary man, this time in the form of my sister’s boyfriend.

Happy cousins

Happy cousins

The children played, while the adults talked and ate, ate and talked. Mammy put her considerable musical talents to use to play the mouth organ for ‘Pass the Parcel’. ‘Jingle Bells’ in March…what a treat!

All too soon our three weeks in Ireland came to an end and it was time for us to return to Spain – to Julian and to Carina. Since Daddy died and, therefore, since the girls were born, I haven’t spent more than ten days in the house where I grew up. And usually our visits home are around Christmas or for funerals. Three weeks in the middle of March was a very different experience. Everyone else was going about their usual daily business each day and the visit home was devoid of the mania and expectation always attendant on Christmas. It was a much more laid back sort of visit.

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Katie and Molly have become great friends

Three weeks gave Lily and Katie opportunities to become comfortable in the house and the garden, and to spend more time with their great grandmother, Nana Kitty, and various other family members.

It was springtime, so the weather was good, the daffodils were in bloom, there were lambs in the fields – a very different place to the one we so often visit in the darkest days of winter. I have returned to Carina feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, my connections to home rekindled, and Mammy’s bookcase raided for reading material to keep me going for the next few months!

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!!

Holidays in England

by Julian

I am back in England for a two week holiday so that Lily and Katie can see their grandparents. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Granddad is due to come back with us on the ferry in a few days time.

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“I’ve got this nice bit of slushy stuff for you Lily.”

 

The journey back to England was a bit of a pain. The bus into Almeria was late so we only just made the connection. The airport bus only goes every two hours, leaving us a 3 hour wait at the tiny airport. A 16 year old wannabe ‘computer game character designer’ had a half hour conversation with me on the way! Kids weren’t satisfied with the cereal bars I had packed so I bought a plastic packed triangular cheese sandwich for €4.50, it was stale, but they ate it whilst I looked on in hunger. In Aguadulce we can get a small beer, a glass of wine, a small hamburger, a handfull of chips, a small portion of paella and a piece of bread for less than that!

Then we were on the plane, on the runway. “We’ll be taking off soon kids!” I said, only for the pilot to taxi back to the stand, turn off the engine and start refuelling. “Sorry everyone the ground crew cannot count and we have a different number of people on the plane than in their records. You can be sure that Easy Jet will take this matter very seriously.” Then a woman decided she wasn’t going to fly anyway and got off creating a ‘security breach’. We then had to all get up row by row and identify our luggage to make sure the lady hadn’t left a bomb on board. The kids were going wild, until we finally took off 1 ½ hours late!

The highlights of the trip, apart from seeing the family, have included a trip to Hatton Country World with Grandma, where Katie managed to hold a guinea pig without dropping it (unlike last time). Also the snow, which they just loved playing out in, throwing it at each other, eating it and pretending to be characters from ‘Frozen’.

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“Let it go, can’t hold it back anymore!”

 

Meanwhile I have been getting on with my Spanish, doing an average of an hour a day. I am determined to go back to Spain with better Spanish than when I left. I mentioned doing Mi Vida Loca in a previous blog post. I redid the entire course over Christmas time, with Lily joining in, and I beat my previous test score. Some people recommended duolingo to me and I have been doing that daily for over three weeks now. It is very different to any language learning I have done before, in that it builds the structure of the language from the start, not by just giving you useful phrases. I really don’t think “The dog sleeps on the monkey” would be useful in real life, but I am enjoying it and feel that I have the tools to construct my own sentences properly now. Lily has completed duolingo ‘basics 1’ on her own!

We keep in touch with Martina on Skpe and are looking forward to coming back to Carina with granddad in a few days. The Bay of Biscay in the winter, but in a much bigger boat this time! I am hoping to see a sparklingly clean boat on our return, so no pressure Martina :).

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

New Year curmudgeon

Girl Power on New Year's Eve! Is Julian to be pitied or envied?

Girl Power on New Year’s Eve! Is Julian to be pitied or envied?

It’s New Year’s Eve. 10.15pm. I’m sitting in the saloon, wrapped in a blanket, my hot water bottle snug at my back. Julian’s snoring from the aft cabin is almost matched by Lily’s snoring from the fore cabin. Only Katie sleeps quietly. Now this is a New Year’s Eve of my dreams. The last time I ended the year with such little fanfare was in 1996 when I was on a McCafferty’s coach travelling overnight up the east coast of Australia. I can’t remember which leg of my solo trip from Sydney to Cairns fell on the night of New Year’s Eve, but I think it was somewhere in mid-Queensland. I remember waking up when the coach stopped at a road side service station. All the passengers had to alight. Bleary-eyed, I went in search of toilet facilities and then to get a bottle of water and a bag of M&Ms from the counter. Standing around in the night-time heat, waiting for the driver to let us back on the bus, a wave of relief washed over me when I realised it was 2am and, for the first December 31st in my adult life, I had avoided kissing or hugging anyone on the stroke of midnight.

My dislike for New Year’s Eve is the inverse of my love for Christmas. Partly it’s because by the time December 31st rolls around I’ve simply had enough food and alcohol and dressing up. But a bigger reason is that I despise the forced jollity and camaraderie of it all. Christmas is all about family, about being surrounded by loved ones, people with whom I have a shared history. All too often, on New Year’s Eve, I’ve found myself in a crowded noisy pub or club, standing beside someone I barely know, or worse, someone who every other day of the year wouldn’t even speak to me, and because it’s midnight I’m grabbed and hugged and kissed and wished a Happy New Year. My eyes scan the room to find my friends in similar unwanted clinches.

Since the kids have come along I’ve had an excuse not to go out on New Year’s Eve and at least my past five December 31sts have been spent either at my mother-in-law’s or my mother’s house, often with extended family. But then there’s the hassle of staying up past midnight. And when your kids wake you up at 7am every morning, staying awake past 10pm requires stamina. Conversing, wearing uncomfortable party clothes and keeping a smile on your face until midnight is an endurance trial.

Here, right now, is the perfect way to see out the year. The three people I love most in the world are safe and snug and close-by. I got my kisses and hugs before they went to bed. And, despite the Moroccan music that is blasting around the marina right now, I have time to quietly reflect on the year that has passed and prepare for the year that is to come.

Unlike 2014, when we set our sights on sailing from Plymouth to the Mediterranean, we have no definite sailing goals for 2015. Now that we are in the Mediterranean, our intention is to hang around here for the next year or so, sailing for wherever the wind and our mood take us. We have no destination beyond some vague ideas about our first port of call when we depart Aguadulce. France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Morocco – who knows. We certainly don’t, but the possibilities fill us with great excitement.

I finished writing Book #1 in 2014 and submitted it to a publisher and, hopefully before I go back to work next week the first draft of Book #2 will be complete, and I plan to spend the first three months of 2015 revising that and getting it ready to submit to a publisher. Book #3 currently exists as a very flawed first draft that has been in cold storage for about a year and a half. I’m resolving to complete it by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, I carry on with smaller writing projects, and I am resolving to pitch a certain number of publication ideas to magazines and newspapers each month. I am thrilled with my new 2015 diary, an experimental move away from the same filofax I have used religiously for the past fifteen years. And I am thrilled with the new multi-coloured pens to which I have treated myself, in order to colour-code my to-do lists. (I am, folks, a woman of very simple pleasures!)

I resolve to be more patient, kind and empathetic; to eat less chocolate and get more exercise; to care less about the messiness of four people living in a tiny space; to read more; to make a greater effort to keep in touch with loved ones; to become a better sailor; and to once again fit into my favourite skirt!

I wish you all a happy and healthy 2015 filled with love and fun!
xx