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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Carina upriver

Carina’s been moored upriver of Sanlúcar and Alcoutím since late June. Close to two and a half months now. She spent a few days back on the Alcoutím pontoon in mid-July but, for the most part, she’s been peacefully resting upriver, facing up or downriver as the tide dictates, hills and goats, quince and pomegranate trees for neighbours. She’s not alone. There are other boats moored here too – most unoccupied, but we have a few friends who come and go to their moorings anchorages close by.

I’ve spent more time aboard Carina than anyone else this summer. Lily and Katie were in the UK and Ireland for seven weeks and Julian, because of his job, spent more time in Alcoutím than aboard Carina. I went to Ireland for a couple of weeks, I house-sat for a week, and I sailed to Culatra aboard Sea Warrior. But between all those trips, I returned home to Carina. I’ve spent many days and nights aboard alone. Despite the summer heat – mid-40˚Cs some days – I got to grips with some much needed work. I repaired the floor in the forward heads, thoroughly cleaned Carina’s every nook and cranny, attempted (and mostly failed) to repair the dinghy, and attended to multiple little tasks – sewing, whipping sheets and lines, getting on top of an ant infestation!

Due to the heat, most of my work was carried out early in the morning or late at night. The middle of the day was reserved for sleeping, reading and curing my perspiration by swimming in the river. The joys of being away from the villages are multiple. The silence. The green-brown hills against the sharp blue sky. Birdsong. The night sky awash with stars. The freedom of nakedness!

Last week, with house-sitting done and the girls home from their travels abroad, we settled back into family life aboard Carina. At each low water we row the short distance to the nearest riverbank, to swim and skim stones off a rocky spit. The pleasure of immersing our overheated bodies in the warm river water is beyond words.

There’s entertainment to be had in watching fish leaping high out of the water (one day last week one narrowly avoided landing in the dinghy as we motored downriver), herons on the riverbank, egrets flying overhead at dusk.

I’m hoping to get my hands on another dinghy soon, so that once the girls are back at school Julian and I will have two tenders, allowing us to stay off the pontoon more often, so we can find solace and peace just around the bend in the river.

Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.

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Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.

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…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.

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Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.

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…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

The cold never bothered me anyway

The other side of the river wasn’t there this morning. We wondered, as we walked up to school just before 9am, if Portugal had drifted away in the night, and if so, was it by accident or design. I opted for design and guessed it was merrily floating across the Atlantic, making its way to Brazil for the winter.

Turned out it was there all along. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It was just shrouded in cold dense fog. Man alive, it’s cold here right now. Not Arctic cold or even Ireland cold, but cold nonetheless. This time last year we were still swimming in the river at the Praia Fluvial in Alcoutim. We weren’t long back from our sojourn in the UK, and we basked in balmy November sunshine.

We’re getting the sunshine alright, but I defy anyone to strip down to their swimwear and plunge into the river (my mad husband accepted…but that’s a blog post for another day). It started gradually a couple of weeks ago. The nights grew colder and we all needed an extra blanket on our beds. Then the coats came out for the walk to school in the morning. By the end of the school day, at 2pm, it was t-shirt weather, so the girls frequently forgot to bring their coats home. For the past few days they’ve been wearing their coats to and from school.

The day came when I took the electric heater out of storage, at first to warm the boat up for twenty minutes when we got up in the morning. Now it’s running in the evenings too, both to warm up the boat and in a bid to stave off the dreaded condensation that comes from four people breathing inside a closed up boat.

Two nights ago the hot water bottles came out, the blankets were no longer enough to keep us cosy in bed. And this morning I swapped our bag of summer hats for our winter bag of gloves, woolly hats, neck warmers and scarves.

I met someone earlier who commented, ‘You must be cold’. Not a chance. In my woolly hat, and three warm layers underneath my jacket, I was snug as a bug walking through town. Maybe my nose was cold, but not much else.

There’s something nice about snuggling in for winter. Cold nights under blankets, brisk crisp days, hot tea and butter melting on toast, hearty soups made from winter vegetables, roasted chestnuts straight from the oven, hot brandy with cloves. I’ve known colder winters, that’s for sure, and I know this one will be brief. I can either fight it or embrace it. I say embrace it.

Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home alone…again

Julian’s surgery appointment came rather suddenly and unexpectedly. When he went back to the UK in mid-January for a consultation with a specialist, he was put on a three-month waiting list for his operation. So we were both expecting a mid- to late-April date, with a few weeks advance notice. He had specifically not put himself on a short-notice or cancellation list, so he would have enough time to make the necessary plans to get back to the UK.

On Thursday morning he received a phone call. His surgery was scheduled for 7.30 on Saturday morning – less than 48 hours later. While this should have made us happy, the suddenness threw us all out of kilter. His first thought was that he would not be able to get from the Rio Guadiana, in southern Iberia, to Coventry, in the middle of England, in time for the appointment. And that would mean probably having to go to the end of the waiting list again. He’s been living with a nasty cough and blocked nose for years now and I’m almost as eager as he is that he have the operation as soon as possible.

The girls were already in school on Thursday morning when he got the call. We jumped into the dinghy to get ashore to Alcoutim. He needed internet access to see if a flight was available and affordable and if all the necessary travel connections could be made to get him to where he needed to be.

As it turned out, there was a flight for just a little more than he would have liked to pay, and all the connections were perfect, fitting together seamlessly. He could leave Carina at 7.30 the next morning and be at his Dad’s house in Coventry at 5.30 in the evening. There was no point in booking a return flight, as he had no idea how soon he would be allowed to fly, or if follow-up appointments would be necessary.

That was Julian sorted. Now we had to decide what the girls and I would do. For the past two weeks we’d been moored fore and aft, only 100 metres from the Sanlúcar pontoon. While I wouldn’t be comfortable on anchor on my own, now that I’ve grown more accustomed and comfortable with the dinghy, I was happy to stay on the mooring for the time being. There were no spaces currently available on the Sanlúcar pontoon anyway and, besides the Alcoutim pontoon being more expensive, if we went on the Portuguese, I’d still have to ferry the girls to and from school in the dinghy. So I opted to stay on the mooring buoy and if and when I decide to move onto a pontoon, there are plenty of people around who can help me with Carina’s lines. Don’t be fooled if I sound cool and blasé about this – the thought of moving Carina on my own fills me with anxiety, and when I do I will most definitely have one of my capable and very experienced sailor friends on board to help!

With Julian’s travel plans finalised, we returned to Carina so he could talk me through battery charging, running the engine, opening the sea cocks (ahem) and more besides. I promised him I would be careful, take things easy and not rush around at my usual manic pace.

When we picked the girls up from school they weren’t too happy about Daddy’s imminent departure, although Katie saw it as an opportunity to bring back her bow and arrow from Grandma’s when he returns!

Early the next morning he was gone. Rather annoyingly, his departure coincided with the arrival of northwest winds gusting to 35 knots, and occasional downpours of heavy rain. These conditions lasted for three days and came between me and my sleep, as I worried about frayed mooring lines and Carina’s proximity to the east bank of the river. Things were better in the daylight and the girls and I have been getting on fine. The high wind also brought me to the philosophical conclusion that if we can get by in those conditions, then everything else will be easy. Or easier.

Our friends on the river are wonderful, offering assistance and advice, inviting us over for dinner and offering to take the girls now and again to give me a break.

Julian’s had his operation now but, given its nature (his nose) and follow up appointments, he might not be back this side of Easter. I miss him, but looking after the three girls – Lily, Katie and Carina, is keeping me busy!

Daddy’s home

Julian went back to the UK last week, leaving the girls and me for eight days. He had a medical appointment, hanging over from when we were back in the UK in the summer/autumn. In anticipation of his departure, we came alongside the pontoon in Sanlúcar, as the thought of living at anchor and ferrying the girls to school in our leaky dinghy every day didn’t appeal to me. He repaired what leaks he could in the dinghy and made sure we were well stocked with cooking gas, and at 7am on Monday morning he was off.

I’ve been alone aboard Carina for longer before (three weeks this time last year) and I’ve been alone with the girls on occasion (most of three days back in 2014), but never had the girls and I been on the boat for so long without Julian.

Well, it all worked like clockwork. There were no size 12 shoes to trip over when I stumbled out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night; no XXL t-shirts and jeans to fill up half the laundry bag; fewer dishes to wash and half the amount of food to prepare. (Such is life lived with a giant)

Each morning I washed the breakfast dishes, made the beds and tidied the saloon BEFORE I took the girls to school and then came home to a neat and tidy work space where I could sit down and write for as long as I wanted.

While the girls were at school I flitted across the river in the dinghy to do laundry and use the library; I went for long walks along the trails that run along the river; I wrote; I studied and practiced Spanish. There were no negotiations about who needs the dinghy, who should take the girls to and from school (although they don’t actually need anyone to), whose turn it is to cook/wash dishes/do the shopping, whose turn is it to use the laptop.

I decided to put a new routine in place. Instead of dinner at 7pm, we would have dinner when the girls got home from school and a light meal in the evening, like we did when I was a kid. Katie, who normally won’t eat her dinner, devoured it every day, because she was so hungry when she got home from school. She often asked for seconds. And because the evening meal was something she loved (soft boiled egg and soldiers, for example) she devoured that too.

After dinner each afternoon I insisted the girls have a 45 minute siesta, and they did. With no adults talking, they read or slept in their cabin. And after that they went off to play with their friends, or I went out for long walks with them.

On Friday night we had a pyjama party aboard. Three of Lily’s and Katie’s friends came – two other boat kids and a little girl who lives in a house up the river. Because of our lack of space aboard Carina, this would have been difficult to do with both Julian and me at home. They all slept in our big bed in the aft cabin and I slept in Lily’s and Katie’s bed in the fore cabin. Being the only adult, I was able to give the five girls my full attention and the whole thing ran smoothly. The girls had great fun, if little sleep, and I spent the rest of the weekend recovering.

And when I had problems to solve during the week, I solved them for myself, without automatically turning to Julian for his advice. I got the outboard motor working when it failed to start one morning; I made a temporary repair on one of the rowlocks when it broke. If Julian was here I would have just handed that sort of stuff over to him.

Sure, it all ran like clockwork. I was organised, I ran the show solo, things didn’t need to be discussed or negotiated or decided upon. All that stuff was easy and I had extra time on my hands.

But without Julian, it was boring as hell. All week I had things I desperately wanted to tell him, but he wasn’t around to hear them. I had questions to ask him, opinions to seek, funny occurrences to pass on. And come Monday evening, I was pacing the cockpit like a caged lion, waiting to see him appear on the Alcoutim pontoon and hitch a dinghy ride back home.

I thought ‘I won’t ever again curse his size 12 shoes’. And I meant it. That is, until I tripped over them when I stumbled out of bed in the dark on his first night back!

Cooler

Winter, after a fashion, has arrived in this southwest corner of Iberia. Each day the girls wear a little more for their morning dinghy ride to school. One day it was cardigans, the next jackets, the next scarves and finally hats and gloves. The dinghy’s outboard motor doesn’t like the cold, and takes its time sputtering into life, needing the choke for longer than usual.

The heater goes on these mornings, to take the chill from the boat and dry out the condensation glistening on every hatch and port hole. We’re up at seven, in the dark. My father’s old woolly jumper and thick socks on before I boil the kettle for the first cup of tea. The cold seeping through the floor makes my feet ache and I slip into my old blue Crocs, now wearing thin at the soles, but still going strong after nine years of year-round wear.

I look forward to washing the dishes once the kids have left for school as an excuse to plunge my hands into the warm water. On laundry days I postpone the dishes. I’m out on deck as soon as Julian and the girls leave, filling buckets with cold water, dropping clothes in to soak, stirring with a wooden spoon so I don’t get my hands wet. The days are short, so the washing has to be out on the line early if it’s to dry before the heat goes out of the day. That warming cup of tea after I’ve put the laundry in to soak is like balm to my chilled bones.

By 10am the sun is doing its job, warming the land, banishing the chill that has descended overnight. The girls arrive home at 2pm with scarves, hats, coats, cardigans shoved into their schoolbags. We eat lunch in the cockpit, luxuriating in the warm sun on our bare arms and upturned faces. Warm summer days in Ireland are often cooler than this.

We make the most of those hours after lunch to visit the beach or to walk along the hiking trails. The girls still don their swimsuits for a paddle in the Praia Fluvial. But even they balk at immersing themselves fully these days. I leave them to it. I prefer to sit on the beach in the warm sun.

By 5pm the sun is well on its way to its evening descent. What little warmth remains is quickly displaced by cold. It’s time to cook dinner, close up the boat, and warm up our beds with hot water bottles before snuggling down for the night. These evenings we read and, after the girls have gone to bed, Julian and I play the occasional game of Scrabble or Chess (I’m a beginner at the latter). Tea made with mint plucked from along the hiking trails or roadside verges warms me through the evening.

Tiredness and cold come together. It’s time for bed.

Early morning

Carina is in remarkably good condition following her five months moored on the river. She has a closed up smell and needs a good airing out. The cockpit and surrounding deck are covered in bird poo and there’s a little midden of fish bones on the aft deck where gulls have feasted. But the bilges are bone dry, the cabins are dry and inside she is clean and tidy, just as Julian left her five months ago.

We’re all in bed by 8.30 on our first night back, tired after our day of travelling. It feels good to climb into my own bed again. Although it’s been a hot afternoon, I anticipate a cold night and dress in pyjamas before going to bed. By midnight I’m sweltering in the heat and have to shed them again. Carina sways almost imperceptibly and, apart from a lone dog barking somewhere in the distance, all is utterly still.

I hear whimpering at 3am and go to the fore cabin to find Katie awake, unused to the complete darkness that surrounds her. I comfort her and she goes back to sleep, but two hours later I hear her again. Come into our bed, I tell her, and she snuggles against me for what remains of the night. At six Lily comes in and we are four in the bed (five, if you count Katie’s teddy). This is bliss.

DSCI0045Early morning, the river is shrouded in mist. I stand on the foredeck, mug of tea in my hand, revelling in the sensations of the river. There is a riot of sound, none of it human. Through the mist comes the morning chatter of ten thousand birds in the reeds and trees lining the riverbanks; goats and sheep bleat loudly, their bells clanging as they move across the hillside fields; dogs bark; ducks quack. Islands of reeds drift downriver on the current. An egret stands forlornly on one of these floating islands, like a world weary ferryman, until it suddenly straightens up and flies away, landing on another reed island farther upriver and floats past again like déjà vu. A little grey bird potters about on another island, pecking at its moving feast. I hear quacking in the moments before four ducks appear out of the mist, flying towards me, upright, their wings outstretched as they brake, skidding in to land in the water next to Carina, quacking incessantly, two duck couples.

After breakfast we slip our mooring line and slowly motor five miles upriver to where the river runs between Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlúcar in Spain. The five miles of river is as rural, remote and bucolic as I remember it from April. Rain in recent weeks has turned the countryside green again after an arid summer. There is one noticeable change since we were last here. In recent weeks the authorities have placed port and starboard channel markers along the river all the way from the river mouth to Alcoutim. The red and green poles sticking out of the water every few hundred yards sadly make the river a little less wild. We’re told it’s been done to attract more cruise ships and boaters up the river.

We settle on the pontoon at Alcoutim for a few days, to refill our water tank, shop for groceries, give Carina and our dinghy a proper check over, and prepare to move out to anchor in the river. We’re planning to remain on the river for a while.

The moment before

It was the stillness of the river that struck me. I stood on the pontoon at Laranjeiras, alone, Julian and the girls already aboard Carina, 100 metres away. I stood waiting for my ride across in the tiny rubber dinghy of Scott, the man who’s been looking after Carina while we’ve been away. The tide turned as he rowed Julian across the water, Carina and the other boats lazily swinging around on their moorings until they faced upriver, into the out-going current. Scott returned alone with Lily’s and Katie’s life jackets and rowed the girls home. Alone for the first time at the end of a journey that started twelve hours earlier in windy wintry Coventry, I deeply inhaled the moment. The birdsong, the cloudless sky, the warm sun on my face. The river calm, but the current quick. The dull clanging of a bellwether on a hillside field, the occasional car along the remote country road that runs alongside the river. I stretched my arms high over my head, pulled myself up to my full height, stretched my body, inhaled deeply. I absorbed the moment. Soon I would be aboard Carina, airing the bedding, unpacking, making tea and getting settled in the couple of brief hours before darkness fell. But this was the before moment. Before I took the final steps home, before I joined my family in the middle of the river. Before I saw and heard Lily’s and Katie’s reactions to being home. Before Julian and I examined how Carina had fared in our absence. This was a moment of perfect bliss. A moment of possibility and a deep quiet joy that here on the river I was almost home. Scott rowed to shore, I lowered myself into his dinghy and we set out across the river.