Not quite Thoreau

Some weeks ago, a rather Bohemian acquaintance of ours asked if we’d house- and dog-sit for him. Our friend had to go to the UK for medical treatment and anticipated being away for up to a month. ‘Sure’, I nonchalantly agreed, without giving too much (indeed any) thought to the logistics of the thing. I wrote the start date in my diary and thought only of what fun it would be to live for a while in such an idyllic location.

Our friend lives downriver from Sanlúcar on a picturesque piece of land, with the river in front of the property and the Guadiana Way, an old goat track turned hiking trail, behind. There is no road access to the property, so getting to and from town is either a 25-minute walk along the beautiful hiking trail or a 5 to 15 minute dinghy ride (depending on the tide) up the river.

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The old shepherd’s hut transformed into kitchen, bedroom and bathroom

Being an artist, a musician and somewhat of a free spirit, our friend’s plans for departure were loose and ever-changing. I walked down the goat track on Monday, the day before we were due to move in, so he could show me what I needed to know to take care of and live in the place – where, when and how to feed the dog, how to check and replace the battery acid in the batteries connected to the solar panels, how to use the water pump and washing machine. It was a bright sunny morning and the place was filled with possibility – the orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, the almond tress just coming into blossom, the opportunities for the girls to have a new place for adventures, and the inspiration I would soak up for the new magazine article I was about to start writing.

The dog, Chester the Chicken Molester, a little Jack Russelly type thing, wasn’t there when I visited. He’d gone to town in search of Claudia, the 19-year old bitch with whom he is in love and who falls over every time Chester, or any other dog, mounts her (she’s such a stalwart). His owner didn’t seem too concerned at Chester’s absence, and said it was a regular occurrence.

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Chester enduring the shower cap Katie dressed him up in.

By the time I was ready to leave, our friend had decided he wouldn’t now depart until Wednesday. That was fine by me, as we planned on moving Carina off her berth on the pontoon and onto anchor in the river in front of the house on Wednesday, Julian’s day off. On Tuesday night our friend postponed his departure yet again, this time until Friday. Whenever I mentioned our plans to friends, they rolled their eyes and told me how sorry they felt for me, given our friend’s free-spirited approach to life, the dog’s fondness for Claudia and the fact that heavy rain was forecast for the next four days.

On Wednesday we moved Carina downriver, and on Thursday night, as the girls and I crossed the Guadiana from Sanlúcar to Alcoutim in the dinghy after dark, to collect Julian from work, who should we meet crossing in the other direction but our friend and his dog. ‘I have to go right now’, he told me, and explained the unforeseen circumstances that meant he had to leave right this minute, in the pitch dark. I took it all in my stride, and after some convoluted manoeuvres, our friend was on the Sanlúcar side of the river, and the four of us, with Chester the Chicken Molester, our dinghy and our friend’s boat, on the Alcoutim side of the river.

By now it was 8pm and we faced the prospect of our first night in a house we had never stayed in before. Now, bear in mind, our friend is a Bohemian, an artist, a musician, so the things many of the rest of us take for granted just don’t enter our friend’s (often up in the clouds) head. He and I have, ahem, somewhat different standards of hygiene, and I am somewhat more partial to artificial lighting than he is.

We rowed downriver on the ebb, me, the girls and Chester in our friend’s boat, and Julian in our dinghy. Before going ashore we stopped off at Carina so I could quickly pick up some food for dinner and breakfast, our toothbrushes and a few other bits and pieces to see us through the night and next morning. Once ashore, we stumbled up the rickety landing stage and up the dirt path, to the part of the house where we intended to spend the night. The wood burning stove was alight in the bedroom, so at least we had a warm place to sleep.

‘What an adventure’ I tried to tell myself, as I set about making supper in a poorly provisioned and decidedly messy kitchen, my heart sinking when I realised I had forgotten to bring teabags from the boat. There was nowhere for Julian to sleep, so once he had seen us settled in, he returned to Carina for the night.

Our friend had told me of the snake that lives in the rafters in the kitchen and I imagined all the creepies and crawlies and rodents that might be lurking in this indoors/outdoors house, and was thankful to have the girls with me so I could put on fake bravery. I was also glad of Chester. Chester slept on the end of the bed for the night and when he woke me up at 7.20 next morning whining to be let out, I knew it was time to get up, despite the impenetrable darkness that made it feel as though it was still the middle of the night.

I quickly got dressed and went outside to go to the kitchen, which is situated in a different building to the bedroom. Chester was gone! I walked the girls to school along the trail and found Chester sitting outside the house of his lady love. I brought him home and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom and rowing over to Carina to pick up more provisions (TEA!). At some point mid-morning Chester was sitting in the sun, dozing. Five minute later, he was gone. Grrrr. Back in along the trail I walked to collect the girls from school and to once again retrieve Chester from outside the house of his girlfriend.

Just as school ended, the rain started. For the rest of the weekend it rained and rained and rained, torrentially and Biblically at times, with thunder rumbling and lightning lighting up the sky. The joys of living in the wilds were suddenly not so obvious. All weekend I struggled to keep my cool, at times losing my temper with the kids, when really I was losing my temper with this house, its owner and its love-struck dog.

On Friday afternoon I set about cleaning the bedroom and bathroom and getting the fire in the stove going again. Now, I grew up in a house with three turf fires, so lighting fires is no problem to me…usually. It’s only a problem when there are no implements, instruments or tools for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. On top of everything else, it was raining and what wood there was, was lying down on the landing stage, soaking wet. ‘I hate this. I want to go home to Carina’, I grumbled, as I fumbled around in the dark bedroom (in the middle of the day with the light on) trying to find my head torch which I had mislaid the night before. (Oh the irony of losing my head torch in the dark).

But necessity, of course, is the mother of all invention, and by Saturday evening I had improvised methods for (a) cutting the wood to size, (b) cleaning out the ashes, and (c) raking the ashes and moving the burning wood around in the fire. I sent the girls off in their raincoats and rubber boots to find firewood and they came back with bundles of damp branches and twigs, which we dried out in front of the now-lit fires.

Julian remained on the boat on Friday night, as I still hadn’t sorted out sleeping accommodation for him. While the girls and I slept a bit squished in the bedroom, I planned to put Julian in the artist’s studio, 50 yards away on the other side of the plot of land. The studio was filthy and dusty, so Saturday was spent changing bedding on the rather comfy bed in there, sweeping and tidying, and transforming the place into a comfy living room come bedroom, where we could all relax and play and eat in front of the wood burning stove.

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The studio – Wendy house by day, Julian’s private domain by night!

On Saturday morning Chester disappeared again as soon as he was let out in the morning (despite, this time, wearing his electric dog collar – it turns out the electric fence doesn’t run all the way around the property and Chester had sniffed out the gaps). Once the studio was ship shape, and during a brief gap in the rain, the girls and I wandered up the trail and into town to once again find Chester sitting outside the house of his love, this time soaked to the skin and looking rather sorry for himself.

That’s it, I said to myself. The electric collar clearly didn’t work, so the next step was to keep Chester on a long lead all the time, unless he was inside one of the buildings on the property. His owner had told me to do so, and has a long rope for the purpose. All was going well on Sunday morning. We even had some brief moments of sunshine in between the downpours. Lily and Katie played down in the studio – which has its own outside roofed bar and barbecue area – enjoying have their own giant Wendy house to play in. At some point in late morning, Katie felt sorry for poor old Chester on his long lead, and decided to free him so he could come play in the Wendy house (Chester is not a playing sort of dog!). Five minutes later he was gone again, and five minutes after that the heavens opened and it rained torrentially until the early hours of Monday morning. I knew where Chester had gone, and I wasn’t too worried about him, so decided not to go pick him up until Monday morning when I walked the girls to school.

For the rest of Sunday we kept warm in the studio, the girls doing art while I read and wrote, and then carried a big pot of stew down from the kitchen which stayed warm on the stove. Chester didn’t know what he was missing, and all for what? A girlfriend who puts out for any and every dog who comes her way! Silly Chester!

On Monday morning Chester was, of course, where I expected he would be, feeling sorry for himself, cold and hungry. I brought him home, and he hasn’t been back into town unaccompanied since. The rain eased on Monday and the sun has been out each day since.

It’s been an interesting introduction to life on the land. In our cabin(s) in the woods I have been torn between the romance of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and being really bloody annoyed with the realities of moving into someone else’s home in the rain and cold. I loved the place and five minutes later I hated the place. I was warm and cosy by the fire, or I was wet and dirty trying to light the fire. I had all that I needed and I had nothing that I needed!

That was a week ago, and we’ve nicely settled in now and are enjoying life in our little Walden de Guadiana. We’ve had guests around for supper, we’ve picked oranges, we’ve enjoyed breath-taking star-filled night skies, and Chester and I have developed a grudging fondness for each other! Expect more positive blog posts to follow!

The handsome Eskimo

I sat down with Katie to oversee her homework. Left to her own devices, a reading and writing assignment that should take fifteen minutes to complete might take two hours or more. But if I sat beside her and offered light encouragement, we might get through it in half an hour.

The photocopied sheet, consisted of two assignments that tested reading comprehension and cursive writing. The top half of the page contained mixed up sentences. Katie had to put the words in each sentence in the correct order and then write them out twice.

tiene Paco quimono un

Paco tiene un quimono (Paco has a kimono)

(Is Paco a transvestite? Wow, how liberal-minded you are, government of Andalucia!)

The bottom half of the page had sentences that first had to be copied, and then a picture had to be drawn, demonstrating Katie’s comprehension of each sentence.

The first sentence stops me in my tracks.

El esquimal es feo.

Come again? Surely I’m mistaken. There’s no way I could be reading that right. I reach for the dictionary to look up the meaning of esquimal, even though I already know what it is. Yep, just as I thought, esquimal = Eskimo.

El esquimal es feo. The Eskimo is ugly.

I ask Katie to read it. She doesn’t know the word esquimal. ‘It means Eskimo’, I tell her. ‘Do you know what an Eskimo is?’ I ask her. ‘Like an Inuk?’ she asks hesitantly. ‘And do we know any Inuit?’ I ask. Before Katie answers, Lily calls from the aft cabin, ‘Me. I’m Niviaq’.

You see, Lily’s more longwinded name, as it appears on her birth certificate, is Elizabeth Niviaq. Niviaq is her Inuit name, given to her by Paul and Linda, my adopted family in Arviat. Niviaq was Paul’s younger brother who tragically died in 2003. Because Lily has his name, by Inuit custom, she is related to all his family. Despite being a girl, she is ‘little brother’ to Rosie and Paul, ‘little uncle’ to all her namesake’s nieces and nephews, and she is related, through her namesake, to all the other children who have been named after Niviaq since he died. And the characteristics of his personality are passed on to Lily in her name. Ugly Eskimo indeed!

‘What should we do about this?’ I ask the girls. At first Katie doesn’t want to do anything other than complete her assignment the way it has been set out. In other words, write out ‘El esquimal es feo’ and draw a picture of an ugly Eskimo. ‘The teacher might get mad’, she says. ‘But there must be something we can do’, I say, ‘that allows you to complete your homework, but also let the teacher know that you’re not happy with the sentence. Maybe you could do something that would start a conversation’.

‘How about ‘El esquimal es guapo’?’, Lily suggests. The Eskimo is handsome. Katie and I both like this idea.

‘And what will you do when the teacher reads it?’ I ask.

‘I’ll tell her my sister’s an Inuk and she’s not ugly’, Katie says. ‘And anyone else?’, I prompt. ‘Granddad Paul and Maya and Ujarak and Frank’.

I then suggest to Lily that she can explain the origin of her name to her teacher and classmates. I’ve heard her describe it very well in English in the past. And they both can tell the class what they know about Inuit culture – about caribou and beluga whale hunting, and igloos and sled dogs; about the fun games people play at birthday parties; about clothing made from animal skins; about throat singing and drum dancing.

Katie writes ‘El esquimal es guapo’ and draws a picture of an Inuk in a fur-hooded yappa. And I send my little cultural ambassadors to school the next day hoping they’ll do their bit for cultural sensitivity and understanding.

Singing my fears

For as long as I can remember I have been a confident public speaker. Put me in front of a crowd to speak on a topic about which I am familiar, and I am in my element. I have been reading in church since I was seven years old. As a university lecturer I have always enjoyed the performance of standing in front of a lecture theatre of 200 or 300 students and sharing my enthusiasm for my subject. I have never been unnerved by radio or television interviews. Speaking in public has never fazed me.

But the thought of standing up alone and singing in front of a crowd turns my legs to jelly. I’ve been in choirs and in musicals, but always with my voice hidden in the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. I come from a family of singers. My mother and her brothers and singers all sing and have the same confidence with singing in public as I have with speaking in public. But, for some reason, their confidence in singing hasn’t been passed on to me.

However, I love to sing. I sing all the time – while sailing Carina, driving a car, while doing household chores. From the moment I knew I was pregnant I sang to my babies and carried on singing to them for years, singing them to sleep every night and soothing them by singing to them when they were upset. These days we sing together.

I’ve always harboured a dream of getting up on a stage some day and singing in front of an audience, but never thought I would ever have the confidence to do it. Tuesday nights at the Riverside Tavern in Alcoutim is open mike night. Many of the ex-pats who live on and along the river, and visiting yachties, bring along their guitars, banjos, fiddles, flutes and harmonicas, and a session gets going. At Christmas, when Tom asked me if I could sing ‘The field of Athenry’ I bit the bullet and sang it with him. My legs were shaking but I tried to forget that I was standing at the front of the pub being stared at by lots of my fellow live-aboards on the river.

It was a few months before I sang again. Because the girls have to be up early for school, we don’t often go to Tuesday music nights, but in the past few months I have twice taken to the mike to sing. Both times I sang songs I know well and that I know I can sing well – Christy Moore’s ‘The voyage’ and ‘Missing you’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘Green fields of France’. And I sang ‘The fields of Athenry’ with Tom again. I gained in confidence each time.

So, when I was asked if I would sing a few songs at the Guadiana International Music Festival a few weeks ago, I said yes before my nerves could kick in and make me say no. My friend Jak wanted me to sing a few songs with her. We rehearsed for a week or so, and in the end we sang two Fascinating Aida songs – ‘Cheap flights’ which we sang together, and ‘The Brexit song’ sung by me with Jak doing back vocals. I finished the set by fronting a wild group consisting of Jak and a bunch of cross-dressers (all wearing my dresses) and sang The Ronette’s ‘Be my baby’.

 

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Me and my ‘beaufiful’ band!!

Was I any good? I honestly don’t know. I was nervous, but I contained it and got on with the job. I sang my heart out and was so pleased that I had overcome my fears of singing in public to get up on a stage at an, albeit small, music festival, and perform! When I came off the stage, Lily and Katie ran up to me and Lily said, ‘Mummy, you were BRILL-I-ANT’. Whatever anyone else thought, the people who mattered most thought I was great!

I may never get up on a stage and sing again. I overcame a fear and I did something I have always wanted to do. I now know what it feels like to stand on a stage, in the floodlights, singing to a crowd, performing. I left my comfort zone and made myself do something that was nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I experienced it. That’s good enough for me!

ᖃᔭᖅ (qajaq)

Glide, slice, glide, slice. The kayakers glide gracefully along the river, sun glinting on the water dripping from their paddles in mid-air. For a year I have watched them with longing, envying their seeming effortlessness, their freedom of movement, their closeness to the surface of the river. And there are lots of kayakers here. The racers who used Carina’s stern as the starting point of their timed practice back in the spring when we were on a mooring buoy. Portuguese teenagers taking over the river each evening after school, working hard, their coach shouting encouragement to them as he races alongside in a motorised dinghy. There’s one of my English students, who puts in hours of work on the river in his kayak, up and down the river, up and down, each evening after work until the sun goes down, pushing to be better, faster, stronger. There are our friends who paddle their kayaks between their house in town and their plot of land down river, more relaxed than the racers, in less of a hurry. And then there are the tourists who hire kayaks from the beach in Sanlúcar and paddle about in the water between the two villages. Some kayaks are long and sleek and enclosed, others are broad and open, far unlike the original Inuit qajaq.

Hard to believe that my professional career was devoted to learning about the role of the sea in Inuit life, and I have never been in a kayak. Except once on a lake in Roscarbery in west Cork. But that was a long time ago.

So I’ve gazed with longing at the kayakers, wanting to feel what it’s like to paddle through the water. I never told anyone I wanted to do this. Only the other day I thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll hire one of those kayaks from the beach someday’.

Two days ago I was rowing the dinghy upriver when I saw Diana. She was effortlessly paddling her broad, open kayak, with her little dog Daisy happily sitting behind her. ‘That looks so relaxing’, I called to Diana. Ten minutes later I was back aboard Carina and Diana called to me. She had a proposition. If I would look after her kayak on the pontoon, and keep the paddle and seat aboard Carina, I could use the kayak whenever I wanted. What could I say? After I’d gleefully thanked her for her generosity and after I’d spent some time imagining myself paddling up and down the river, it dawned on me that I had no idea how to get into or out of the thing.

I looked at the kayak yesterday, trying to figure out how best to approach it. This morning I found Diana having a coffee at the cafe. ‘Can you show me how to use it?’ I asked. Twenty minutes later I was in my swimsuit and Diana was on the pontoon instructing me how to launch it, and how to get into it without overbalancing. Five minutes later I was paddling away from her, upriver. Just me and the kayak.

I wasn’t graceful or effortless. I over-paddled to one side and had to correct my course. I splashed water all over myself. I’m sure I paddle a kayak the way I ride a horse – ungainly and ungraceful. I’m not a natural at this sort of stuff.

But goodness, it was everything I hoped it would be. I paddled upriver against the ebbing current, staying close to the riverbank where the current is weakest. For half an hour I paddled, the sun streaming down on me, the water from the paddles keeping me cool. Then I turned around, and drifted back downstream on the ebb, only dipping the paddle in occasionally to correct my course.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was. I had tried it, and I had discovered I liked it.

I plan to go again tomorrow, at sunrise.

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.

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!

Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

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.

Reflecting and resolving

Like many people, the end of the year is, for me, a time for reflecting on the year that has past and looking forward to the year to come. I’m a consummate list maker. Few things in life make me happier than drawing ‘job done’ lines through the items on my to-do lists. And the list par excellence is, of course, the list of New Year’s resolutions (I know, I know! ‘Get a bloody life, Martina’, I hear you scream, ‘You control freak!’). So, as 2015 drew to a close, I reflected on last year’s list to see where I had succeeded and where I had, ahem, not succeeded quite so much, and I started to think ahead to what I hope to achieve in 2016.

So there were the ‘take care of my body’ resolutions – quit drinking, quit processed sugar, exercise more; the ‘writing’ resolutions – finish my book, write ten blog posts per month, keep a daily journal; and the ‘be a better person’ resolutions – be more patient with the children, give Julian a break.

How did I do? I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol from December 28th 2014 to November 10th 2015. A bottle of locally produced red wine, left on our saloon table by the guy who was taking care of our boat while we were away, broke me. I’ve had a beer or wine most days since then. Why did I want to quit alcohol? Since I returned to drinking post-pregnancy and post-breastfeeding, I haven’t drunk very much. I certainly haven’t been drunk for over seven years. But I don’t need it, and I didn’t miss it while I was off it.

Quit processed sugar? Those of you who have been following my Christmas baking extravaganza will know how well I got on with that one! I think I had three weeks sugar free in January, and then my will broke. That stuff is too damn addictive.

I didn’t exercise more in 2015, but neither did I exercise less. Walking and swimming, but I wanted to do more.

I didn’t finish my book, but as I write, I’m looking at an end of February completion date and then the fun of trying to find a publisher begins. I published 103 blog posts, which averages a little under nine a month, and if my computer hadn’t died mid-way through December I would have posted a couple more. The daily journal had an entry most days, probably 320 out of 365. My morning ramblings helped keep me calm, focused and de-stressed.

As for being more patient with the girls and giving Julian a break, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. But I find when I’m happy with what I’m doing – writing what I want to write, achieving my own goals, I’m more patient with my nearest and dearest.

It was a year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows, but a year that, upon reflection, I feel I grew (and not only because of the sugar addiction). In practical ways I knew more by the end of the year than I did at the start. I went from speaking almost no Spanish to some, I figured out ways to be more sustainable and frugal aboard Carina, and I learned to be a better writer. I like to think I became more patient and more slow to get my knickers in a twist (I use my cool reaction to the recent breakdown of our laptop as evidence of the new me).

So what are my hopes and resolutions for 2016? The list is long, naturally, and falls into different categories. The ‘take care of my body’ resolutions again include forsaking alcohol and exercise. I haven’t touched a drop since December 30th and I have dreams and plans for a lot of walking this year. I’m not talking short little jaunts. I want to don a backpack and walk for days on end (hint hint hint to a couple of friends who I know read this blog…you know who you are!). Reading a lot of walking and wilderness books last year has given me the bug.

There are the ‘writing’ resolutions of course. The book will be finished (and soon) and I have other short and long term projects to complete or set in motion. And I have a new daily writing project, the details of which I am keeping to myself for the moment, as I’m hoping it might evolve into something else.

And then there are the ‘learning something new’ resolutions. By the end of 2016 I want to have completed the Duolingo Spanish course; and, wait for it, I want to teach myself meteorology! I’m serious! I’ve wanted to for a long time, and this will be the year I do it! Besides, I want to improve my handling, sailing and boat maintenance skills, learning to do the things I currently leave to Julian.

There’s method to all this madness. These are not my hobbies to squeeze in around the rest of my life. This is my life. As I’ve discovered, learning Spanish makes life in Spain easier and far more interesting. Improving my boat skills and learning meteorology will make me a better sailor, make life aboard Carina safer for everyone, and take some of the burden from Julian.

Plus, those of you who know me well know that I don’t do sitting down and doing nothing very well. My sister once commented that coming to visit me was like going for a week to a ‘fat farm’. Go go go!! So, in the absence of a ‘proper job’ I have to do something to keep myself busy, active and out of harms way!

I’ll look back on this blog post in a year’s time and see how I got on with my 2016 New Year’s resolutions.

(In)experience

Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!