Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

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Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

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Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

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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!

A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.

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Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.

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Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.

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A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.

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Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.

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First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

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.

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.

At the helm

After two and a half weeks on a fore and aft mooring in the absence of Julian, I moved Carina on to the Sanlúcar pontoon. I woke on the first day of the last week of the school term feeling tired. Tired of trying to maximise every trip ashore by loading the dinghy up with rubbish and recycling bags and empty 5-litre water bottles to be refilled. Tired of returning to Carina having forgotten to refill the water bottles to top up our onboard supply. Tired of having to think of our battery usage and the limits of our solar panel to power cabin lights and recharge the laptop and smart phone. Tired of the time it took all three of us to get to shore – helping the girls into and out of their life jackets; adding a few extra minutes to wipe early morning condensation from the dinghy seat and to pump out any excess water that had accumulated overnight to soak our feet. Tired of worrying whether the outboard would start and tired of having to pump air into the dinghy on an almost daily basis. Sorry to say, I’m not hard core enough. Or I would be hard core enough if I didn’t have two kids to look after and writing jobs to do besides.

Besides all that, it was the last week that Lily’s and Katie’s other live aboard friends would be on the river and both boats happened to be berthed on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I wanted the girls to be able to make the most of their last week with their friends and being on the pontoon meant they could run around together, play on each other’s boats and have the freedom to roam the village. And it meant I could enjoy a few glasses of wine with my friends before they left, without worrying about having to get my two kids back home by dinghy! So, at €7 per night, I chose the pontoon.

I had never manoeuvred Carina on my own before. Julian and I have made sure that we swap roles aboard and I have brought Carina alongside pontoons many times before, but always with the reassurance that Julian was there, ready to give advice and instructions to help me along. I wasn’t about to do it on my own this time either. I asked Paul, one of our live aboard friends, if he would come aboard Carina and crew for me. He was only too happy to assist.

As luck would have it, the tide turned at the same time as the girls started school on Monday morning, and about an hour later Paul came aboard. I had already set all the lines and fenders and I instructed Paul how I wanted to come off the fore and aft mooring. I took the helm and Paul untied the mooring lines. I turned Carina around and slowly motored two hundred yards down river, turned again to face into the ebb tide and gradually brought her alongside. Paul said little, but just having him sitting beside me in the cockpit gave me the confidence to bring her along smoothly. Paul’s wife Emma was standing on the pontoon waiting to take the lines. Paul never moved from his seat in the cockpit, but quietly instilled confidence in me to bring Carina gently alongside so that Emma could effortlessly take the bowline from the guardrail. They helped me set the lines and then I was comfortably on the pontoon.

Ah blessed mains electricity, blessed electric water pump, blessed hot water on demand! Usually I am very happy living without these things, but it had been over a month since we’d last been on a pontoon and over two weeks of that I had been acting single parent to the girls.

Our final week without Julian turned into two weeks, as French air traffic controllers went on strike and on the morning he was due to fly back his flight from Birmingham to Faro was cancelled. As it was Easter week, there were no flights to be had for an entire week, causing him to miss the girls’ Easter holidays from school and Lily’s seventh birthday. In the end, we were without Julian for four and a half weeks. But the time flew by, as we were busy with school, friends, village Carnival, Lily’s birthday party and the birthdays of two of the girls’ school friends.

I think next time I might just have to confidence to come alongside on my own!

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!

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.