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!!)


A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

A simple errand

‘Don’t forget the nappies’, Julian reminds me as I leave Carina to go shopping. Ah yes, the nappies. There was a time, a couple of years ago, after Katie had stopped wearing nappies, when we still had a supply on board. But we’re all out now and Julian needs some. Not for himself, you understand. For Carina. He’s been working on the engine and there’s oil in the bilge and nothing soaks up bilge oil quite like a few nappies. They are, after all, designed to soak up nasty stuff.

I set off up the hill, confident that I’ll pick up a pack of nappies from the shelf of one of the two little village shops. So confident, in fact, that I decide I’ll compare prices in the two shops before I make my purchase. Nappies aren’t something I’ve been in the habit of looking for in Sanlúcar, so I haven’t noticed that the shelves aren’t exactly heaving with them.

I go into the first shop to buy juice and check the price of nappies. There are none. Not to worry. Reme’s sure to have some. I carry on up over the hill and down to Sanlúcar’s other shop. There are no nappies on the shelves. But Reme often has things in stock which are not on display. Then it dawns on me that I’ve left home without checking the dictionary and with no idea how to say ‘nappy’ in Spanish.

Reme and her elderly mother are standing at the counter and when I put my other purchases on the counter I hesitantly attempt to ask for nappies. ‘Tienes…um…em…por bebé?’ I ask, simultaneously miming putting a nappy on myself. ‘Ah, pañales’, Reme and her mother say in unison. ‘Sí’, I say. But Reme’s not sure that’s what I want, because surely my girls, who she knows well, are too big for nappies. ‘Sí, sí, pañales’ I say. ‘No para las niñas. Para…um…em…el barco’. For the boat. How the hell do I say bilge? And is the word for edible oil ‘aceite’ the same as the word for motor oil? Or is it something else? I mime the bottom of the boat. ‘Ah sí, claro’, Reme says. ‘Por seco el fundo del barco’. Maybe that’s not exactly what she says, but those are the words I hear and understand. She tells me I’ll get them at the pharmacy.

I pay for my groceries and walk out the door, but have gone only a few steps when I realise I’ve forgotten the word for nappies. I go back in and mime putting a nappy on again and ask, in Spanish, ‘How do you say…?’ In unison, Reme and her mother say ‘pañales’.

I walk down the street saying the word over and over again, just in case there aren’t any nappies on display on the pharmacy shelf and I have to ask. I haven’t been in the pharmacy before and I’m unprepared for quite how small it is. There are three display shelves with only two products on display – sanitary towels and incontinence pads. Nothing else. None of the toiletries, over the counter medicines or baby products you expect to find on display on the shelves of a pharmacy.

I recognise the pharmacist as the dad of María and Cristobal, two kids in Lily’s class. While I stand there, waiting for him to finish scanning some items onto the cash register, I ponder the paucity of items on display. I wonder are the sanitary towels and incontinence pads on display merely to save him and his customers the embarrassment of having to ask for such intimate items. But if this is the reason, then why not also have condoms, haemorrhoid cream, thrush cream and other such nether-regions products on display too?

I try not to get too distracted by these thoughts and keep that word for nappies in my head. Finally, the pharmacist finishes what he’s doing and turns his attention to me. ‘Yes’ he says, in Spanish. ‘I want nappies’ I say, pleased that I’ve said it correctly. He says something, the gist of which I get to be that he doesn’t have any, but he can get me some and have them in this evening.

The door opens behind me and four people walk into the pharmacy. Four people! Where did they suddenly materialise from in this sleepy one-donkey village? Now I have an audience – the two guys who’ve been driving around the village all morning delivering bottled gas, the mother of another one of the kids in Lily’s class, and some old man I don’t recognise.
‘How old is the baby?’ the pharmacist asks.
‘No es para un bebé’ I stammer, acutely aware of the mass of people surrounding me in this little shop half the size of Carina’s saloon. Suddenly Reme’s words (or some version of them) come back to me. ‘Por seco el fundo del barco’.
‘Sí, claro’, the pharmacist says, seemingly understanding my pidgin Spanish. He writes ‘Weight: large’ on his piece of paper, and tells me he’ll have them in around six o’clock this evening.

I squeeze my way out the door past the other customers, apologising as my shopping bags bash everyone as I go past, wondering if any of them are purchasing intimate items not on the display shelves. Shortly after six, Julian walks to the pharmacy and picks up the nappies. Never before has the purchase of nappies been such an adventure.

‘Tis the season of confusion, tra la la la la la la la la

The girls arrive home from school one day a couple of weeks ago brimming with excitement. They are going on a school outing, to the cinema. The next day they both bring notes home, which explain the outing and which have permission slips for us to sign. There is to be a trip to Happy Land and the cinema in Lepe on the 17th of December, details of departure and arrival times of the bus to follow.

A few days later Lily comes home tasked with learning by heart the first verse of a poem (or maybe song – I still don’t know), which she will recite on her own at the Christmas play. Julian and I can’t be sure we understand what the poem (or song) means, so we reach for the trusty dictionary to help us translate. In English, it goes like this:
The Limping Camel
The camel was pricked
By a thorn in the road
The mechanic Melchor
Gave him wine

When she showed us the accompanying actions a few days later I almost fell off the boat!

The notes home from the teacher come hard and fast after that.
There will be a dinner to which all pupils, teachers and parents are invited, and everyone is asked to contribute a dish. Papa Noel will be there, with gifts for the children. This will take place on Friday. Or maybe Monday. In the afternoon, or at 6pm or at 7pm.
There will be a Christmas concert on Monday, or maybe Friday, or maybe half on Friday, half on Monday.

One of the mums from the PTA gives Julian raffle tickets which we are expected to sell before Wednesday. But they are unlike any raffle tickets we’ve seen before, so we’re not sure how to do it. In the end, we buy all the tickets ourselves, because the prize is a huge hamper of food, currently on display in the foyer of the town hall.

Lily next comes home with the news that she needs a shepherdess outfit. When do you need it, I ask. Maybe tomorrow, she suggests. I ask around. The other parents think maybe Friday. Or maybe Monday.

A note from Katie’s teacher says that she needs to dress in brown clothes on Friday, as her class will perform ‘Rudolfo el reno’. On Tuesday some parents go along to help sew the Rudolph costumes that will go over the brown base layer. I can’t make it to the sewing session because it coincides with us needing to move the boat. But when I go to school later to pick the girls up, the other mums tell me Rudolfo is no longer on Friday. He’s been moved to Monday.

The days are ticking by and still no news of the departure time for the school trip to Lepe. The official note said we have to send the girls with a sandwich and drink each, but one of the other mums tells me to ignore that and send them with sweets, chocolates, cakes – things they can swap and share with their classmates. It’s the one day of the year the strict healthy eating guidelines are waivered – or ignored by the parents.

Still no-one knows when the dinner will take place for which we have all been asked to contribute a dish. The other English parents don’t know, nor the Dutch parent, nor the Japanese parent, nor the Spanish parents. We’re all in a state of confusion. Even the teachers seem confused.

On Tuesday Lily comes home with a hand-written note – in Spanish and English – informing us that the next morning she will need to bring a half kilo of rice and one white sock to school. In the back of Lily’s notebook is written, in Lily’s new loopy handwriting, ‘sok’, ‘sokc’, ‘sock’. Lily tells me the teacher asked her how to spell calcetine in English and she had to write it out to see which spelling looked correct.
‘What on earth do you need those for?’ I ask her.
She has no idea. Nor do any of the other parents. Julian searches their underwear bags and finds a relatively white sock in Katie’s bag. I weigh out 500g of rice.
When she comes home that evening I ask her what she did with the rice and the sock.
‘I gave them to the teacher’, she says.
‘And what did the teacher do with them?’ I ask.
‘She put them on a shelf’.
Well that clears everything up, then!

They both bring home identical notes with the bus arrival and departure times. 8.45am departure on the excursion and 2.15 to 2.30 return. One of the mums tells me the bus never gets back on time. All the parents hang out in the bar across the road from the school, apparently, waiting for the bus to get back.

Two more notes arrive. Katie is to arrive in school on Monday dressed as a reindeer, and Lily as a shepherdess.

Finally, the morning of the excursion arrives. Parents crowd around Lily’s teacher, trying to ascertain the details of the dinner, the Papa Noel visit, the Christmas concert. At last we seem to have confirmation. The dinner, the Papa Noel visit and half the concert will take place on Friday at 7pm. The other half of the concert will take place on Monday, time to be arranged.

I wave the girls off and head back to the boat, currently on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I stop to chat to Ellie on a neighbouring boat.

‘Have you been invited to Clare’s?’ she asks me. Clare has invited us around for mulled wine and mince pies next week.
‘Oh yes’, I tell Ellie. ‘On the 23rd’.
‘She told me the 24th’, Ellie says.
‘And what about Rogerio?’, she asks. ‘Have you heard about his Christmas dinner? I’ve heard the 24th or the 25th’.
‘Oh no’, I say, ‘I heard the 23rd’. We promise to keep each other updated on developments.

If nothing else, I’m reassured that everyone else is just as confused as me!!

Another attempt

A year and a day ago I posted I am not superwoman, in which I stated, amongst other things, that I was giving up trying to study Spanish. I simply did not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do and some things had to go. So I left Spanish study to Julian and Lily, while I got on with things that seemed more urgent to me. I was thinking about that blog post earlier today and only this minute have I realised that it is exactly a year since I wrote it.

For almost seven months I watched Julian progressing with his Spanish language ability. Following a taster course on the BBC language site Mi Vida Loca, he devoted himself to the learning website Duolingo whenever we had access to Wifi, and he practiced his newfound skills at every opportunity. Lily followed suit, first trying her hand at Mi Vida Loca and then getting her own Duolingo account. She and the Spanish kids she met at the playground on the beach in Aguadulce and elsewhere communicated in a mixture of pidgin-English and pidgin-Spanish and I could tell that her understanding was developing. I was disappointed in myself for not making an effort to learn Spanish, but I knew enough to shop and ask directions and to make basic polite conversation.

Then a strange thing happened. The girls and I flew back to the UK towards the end of May and I suddenly had this blinding urge to learn Spanish. And I wanted the girls to learn Spanish too. In the first few days we were back I searched the bookshops in Coventry and bought two textbooks suitable for children and a box of flashcards with 200 common Spanish words.

We played with the flashcards. I sent the girls on errands around their granddad’s house to find items on the flashcards and we tried to remember the Spanish names for things. We wrote the names of things on post-it notes and stuck them around the house – la puerta, la ventana, el escritorio, el ordenador, and so on.

One day at their grandma’s house, Lily asked if she could do some of the Mi Vida Loca programme on the computer. An hour later, when she’d tired of it, Katie took over, enjoying the interactive portions of the programme where she had to pay for a taxi, buy a glass of wine, etc.

In mid-June I decided to check out Duolingo. I’ve been hooked ever since, rarely missing more than a couple of days of study. Whenever the mood takes me I make time for ten minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes of study – sitting up in bed with the laptop first thing in the morning or last thing at night, squeezing in ten minutes before dinner time, grabbing a few minutes on the Duolingo app on my phone.

I’m still way behind Julian, but I’m getting there. A couple of months ago I received an email from someone in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, written entirely in Spanish. I couldn’t believe that I understood the content of the entire email without having to resort to the dictionary or Google Translate.

These days Lily and Katie play on Mi Vida Loca; Lily practices Duolingo; Katie and I have fun with the flashcards; and we occasionally do pages of the textbooks and sing along to the songs on the accompanying CDs. Julian and I practice Spanish on each other and on the girls, often attempting simple conversations or testing our vocabulary while we eat meals or go out for walks.

Only eleven more sleeps until we fly back to Carina on the Rio Guadiana. I’m looking forward to testing out and improving my new language skills. I’ll probably never be able to seduce Benicio del Toro or Gael Garcia Bernal in their native language (or in my native language, come to think of it) or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels in their original Spanish, but I will, hopefully, be able to have conversations with the lovely people of Sanlúcar that go beyond asking for a loaf of bread or a glass of beer!

I’m glad I changed my mind about trying to learn Spanish. It’s not only provided me with a new and growing skill, but my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the girls and Julian now has someone to practice with. The whole family has benefitted from my decision to take a leap into a new skill and we all know a lot more Spanish than we did at the start of the summer.

It just goes to show it’s ok to change your mind about something and it’s never too late to learn a new skill. Just ask my mother, who has recently resumed piano lessons after a 56-year break!

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.


A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.


This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.


The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

Mi Vida Loca

by Julian

An inevitable aspect of traveling is the ‘language barrier’. My dad said “How will spending the winter in France or Spain work? Neither of you speak the language.” He cannot string two words together in any language other than English so this is a big thing for him. I remember my somewhat flippant rapid reply down the telephone was “No problema. Quiero reserva una mesa para dos personas por favour.” Which roughly translates as “No problem. I’d like to reserve a table for two please.” I imagined that this sounded impressive to my dad, but it is a Spanish phrase I have known off by heart for 25 years, along with a few others such as “Can I have a cheese sandwich?” and “Where is the bullring?”

All was fine until we arrived in Spain. I strolled up to the supermarket checkout, confidently knowing how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” and with a basic grasp of the numbers 1-100. I could impress by deftly handing out the correct change! However, the woman stumped me by asking if I’d like a bag! I stood there blinking stupidly whilst she expressively waved a plastic bag at me. Even my Spanish numbers let me down when my 30 year old student said that she hung out at ‘501’, a bar complex. Twenty five years ago I knew Spanish numbers in the hundreds, but looking at her dumbly and saying “I’d like to reserve a table for two” was unlikely to go down well with her, or my wife. It was way past time I learned some more Spanish.

I am not a natural linguist but I’m not all that bad either. My problem has been with the learning methods. After two years of school French, with an excellent teacher, I had four years with a series of three absolutely awful teachers. I switched off entirely. Somehow I scraped a pass in my exam but I am convinced that was down to the good first teacher, because I learned nothing after that. I did one year of Spanish at school and learned more in that year than in four years of French. The classes were totally immersive, not a word of English was spoken except to ask how it was said in Spanish. “¿Como se dice ‘can I go to the toilet, Miss’ en Español?” Since school I tried once more to learn Spanish when I dated a trainee Spanish teacher. I took myself to the ‘language lab’ at Warwick University to do a Spanish starter course, I slotted the video into the VHS machine, put on the headphones and watched as my ticket to fluent Spanish began. By episode three I was seriously struggling. At the end of episode five I gave up with severe brain ache, my days of formal language learning were over. At least that was until this past week when I discovered ‘Mi Vida Loca.’

In the BBC web archives I found Mi Vida Loca. What a revelation! A 22-episode interactive video story with learning sections for vocabulary, grammar and practice after each episode. I started getting up at 6am eager to see what was going to happen next and doing three episodes a day. One of the best things was that at 7am Lily would get up and join me and we would then go through it all again, with her controlling the mouse and saying some of the phrases. A five year old with almost no Spanish was as hooked as I was. I think the chance for her to get into the virtual world as an adult was thrilling for her. To order a glass of wine and have the waiter give it to her! Then pay for it by dragging the correct change onto the screen. Lily has picked up quite a bit now and her vocabulary is expanding at a greater rate than mine. Somehow Mi Vida Loca manages to seamlessly fit ordering food and drink, shopping for clothes, getting a bus, talking about the weather and even posing as someone wanting to buy a house into a gripping thriller story. I have both learned and re-learned so much Spanish in the last few days I wouldn’t know where to start to describe it. I am feeling buoyant and enthusiastic about language learning again and I hope I can continue this and leave Spain comfortable in striking up varied conversations with local people. I hope Lily feels better able to join in with Spanish kids in the playground. This she does sometimes, but there are times when the dreaded ‘language barrier’ creeps in. If she can overcome this, and even with a very basic grasp of the language interact to the full, it will be an extremely valuable education, difficult to teach in a formal school language class.


There is a test at the end of the course, I didn’t cheat. I should have scored more but my spelling let me down! ☺

Adventures in Spanish health care

I’ve recently had to engage with the Spanish medical system. I have some health issues typical of a woman my age which are causing physical discomfort and emotional stress. I’ve had these problems before, just never all at once, and never so acute. After a couple of weeks I decided to see a doctor. You will recall in a previous blog I reported that I’d decided to give up learning Spanish. Well, that decision’s come back to bite me in the bum, let me tell you, although I’m not sure how much ‘Yo me llamo Martina’ would get me when describing a range of gynaecological symptoms.

First of all, I had no idea where to go. Jessica (pronounced Yessica) at the marina office directed me to the local health clinic, and wrote me a note in Spanish to hand in when I got there. I thought the note said I wanted to see a doctor, but perhaps not. I went through the diccionario and Google Translate, finding the words to express what I wanted to say. Every pharmacist we have encountered in Spain speaks excellent English, so I naively expected a doctor to do likewise. I appreciate that a doctor in the UK or Ireland would never be expected to speak Spanish or any other language that a patient might present with, so why should I expect English from a Spanish doctor?

The next day I trotted off to the health centre. I was already an emotional wreck (hormones or stress, or a combination of the two? Who knows?), and as I queued up at the reception desk I hoped it would be a simple process. I was called forward, but could not make myself understood to the woman on the desk. ‘English?’ she asked, and when I said ‘Si’, she directed me to her colleague sitting next to her. Great, I thought, this woman will speak English. I also fleetingly wondered what would have happened if I had said ‘No, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Swahili’. Did they have a whole army of bilingual reception staff, ready to jump to the aid of foreign idiots such as myself?

I waited while the English expert dealt with a patient and I then stepped forward. She didn’t speak any more English than her colleague, but was armed with a pink-covered Smart phone through which we communicated. For what seemed like minutes, she painstakingly typed text onto her phone. I expected an in-depth question about my medical condition, and was somewhat disappointed and surprised when, after her labours, she showed me her phone screen which read ‘How long in Aguadulce?’ She took my name, my address, asked me a variety of questions. I was aware of the long queue building up behind me, and felt embarrassed and annoyed at myself for taking up so much time. Then she asked for my passport. I didn’t have it. I had completely forgotten to bring it along, despite regularly needing it in Spain to carry out mundane tasks, sometimes even needing it to pay for groceries by debit card. As I said, I was feeling pretty emotional already, so when she told me she couldn’t make an appointment for me without my passport I burst out crying, in front of this long queue of people. What a wreck. I turned and fled the building.

As I walked down the street, sobbing like a fool, it suddenly occurred to me that the last time I was this weepy was in the early days of my pregnancies. My symptoms could easily be pregnancy signs – the cramps and discomfort, my clothes feeling too tight across my lower abdomen, my hysterical emotions. So I went to a pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test. And from buying the test until taking it – a matter of twenty minutes or so – I imagined carrying a little mini-me in a sling again, breastfeeding, nappies, a baby sister for Lily and Katie….

The test was negative.

Two days later I returned to the health centre, this time armed with my passport and with more phrases and words to use when I saw the doctor. I queued up again, steeled myself against my own emotional outbursts, and told myself to ‘man up’ (difficult at the best of times, but impossible when ones issues are gynaecological). After a long and painfully slow conversation with the receptionist, I was given a card and she ushered me away.
‘El medico?’ I asked.
She had registered me with the clinic, but hadn’t realised that I also wanted to see a doctor. So she made an appointment and sent me upstairs to a waiting room.

I didn’t have to wait long. In fact, I saw the GP ten minutes before the time on my appointment card, something unheard of in Ireland or the UK. I walked into a large dark office and sat in front of a man in his late 50s. He spoke as much English as I speak Spanish. Using the phrases I had written in my notebook and hastily flicking through the diccionario, I managed to tell him very little. He looked at me blankly.

So I asked him for a piece of paper and drew sketches of my body and my symptoms. But I don’t know if he got it. The impassivity on his face never wavered as I manically played Pictionary on his desk. Maybe he thought I was asking him out for lunch – the uterus I drew looked uncannily like a gherkin and meatball sandwich with the bread curled up at the edges (this is both a testament to my appalling drawing skills and the state of my uterus the last time I saw it on an ultrasound scan).

He focused on one particular symptom – the only one for which we had some mutual understanding. When he said the symptom, I was beside myself with excitement that we understood each other. So we went with it, even though I’m convinced it is a minor and background symptom. He made an appointment for some further tests and told me to return to the reception desk.

At the desk I was handed a different appointment time, causing me all sorts of confusion, and a clear plastic bottle and told (I’m not making this up) ‘pee-pee’.

I left feeling very confused. The GP had given me a November 27th appointment for something or other and the receptionist had given me a November 12th appointment. Were they two different appointments? Or had the reception changed the GP’s appointment? And what were these tests anyway?

Before going back to the boat I dropped in to see Jessica in the marina office. I laid my woes out for her. The appointments were mostly meaningless to her, but she asked to keep my papers and promised she would phone the health centre. She phoned me later that day and asked me to come by so she could relay the information. There were, in fact, two appointments. The first, a blood test, would take place on the 12th. I was expected to fast from the night before and bring a urine sample. She didn’t know the English translation for the November 27th test. With a straight face she told me I would have to lie down with no pants on and spread my legs. And then she made a gesture with her fingers that will be burned on my brain forever. They say laughter is the best medicine, and Jessica’s deadpan account of what I would be expected to do tickled me.

A few days later I arranged a phone consultation with my family GP back in Ireland. There is no delicate way to put this – that man has more gynaecological knowledge of my mother and my maternal aunts than any man really should. It was great to talk to him, to be able to tell him without hesitation about my symptoms, and for him to know my entire medical history and place it within the context of my maternal family history. He confirmed what I thought it might be – or rather a list of things he thought it might be. His advice? ‘Get your ass on a plane, come home and get it sorted’.

This morning I had my blood tests. There was more confusion at the reception desk at the health centre as the panicked receptionist (a different woman this time) tried to explain something or other to me. Eventually, she got up from her desk and walked me along the corridor until she found someone who could speak some English. When this woman translated what the receptionist was trying to tell me, I realised that the woman’s panic was unnecessary. Had she shown me the piece of paper she was clutching in her hand I would have quickly seen that she was trying to tell me about a follow-up appointment with the Pictionary-averse GP next week. She then directed me down a corridor and returned to her post.

I wasn’t sure what to do. There were people standing in a queue and other people sitting on waiting room seats. Should I sit and wait to be called, or should I join the queue? I decided to join the queue. It was a right decision. The queue moved quickly and soon I was inside a busy room that was a blood-taking conveyor belt. I was asked for my urine sample, which was placed beside lots of others, and then told to wait my turn. Four nurses worked at two tables, taking blood at lightning speed, from this long queue of patients. The man in front of me had his blood taken and was quickly out the door and then it was my turn. I sat down next to two squirming six year old twins, both sitting on their mother’s lap, each having their blood taken. I sat down at my station as my nurse was still dealing with the previous patient’s blood sample. None of the nurses wore gloves nor did they wash their hands between patients. Back home, I’m used to having a needle inserted and then samples of blood drawn directly into sterile vials, attached to the needle one after the other. This morning, the nurse drew only one sample of blood, and then squirted it into each of the vials. With so many people having their blood taken at once, so many vials of blood flying around, and the lack of prophylaxis, I walked home wondering about cross-contamination and about the mixing up of samples. After that experience I’m expecting the GP next week to tell me I need to have my prostate removed.

It’s been a trying few weeks, as I’ve been torn between returning to the UK or staying in Spain. But having given it a great deal of consideration, having weighed up a range of options, and having considered the consequences of either option, I have, for the time being, decided to stick with the Spanish health system. So it’s back to Google Translate and Jessica for me, and another game of Pictionary next week.