Not quite to plan

As the summer holidays rolled around towards the end of June, I had all sorts of plans. With all that time on my hands, I planned to prepare to take the B1 Spanish exam, write like a demon every day and plough through a large pile of books. I had Lily’s and Katie’s summer mapped out too. We would work together on two educational projects. The first, an Iberian geography project, would involve the construction of a 3D map of Spain and Portugal, which, over the course of the summer, would become populated with the peninsula’s rivers, mountains, regions, coastlines and major cities. We all need to improve our geographical knowledge of our adopted part of the world and this would be a fun way to do it. The second project was to be a learning-by-doing bread project. I thought of how fun and educational it would be to learn about the history and culture (no pun intended) of bread and to try making different breads together.

I’m sure you can all anticipate the big ‘but’ that I’m to drop!

Of course, we did none of these things! I haven’t opened my Spanish books since mid-June and my plan to take the B1 exam moves further and further into the future. The first half of the summer holidays was mostly writing free too (regular blog followers will have noted the absence of new posts and all other writing also failed to materialise). Since early August I’ve been writing again, and feeling all the better for it. And as for that pile of books? The pile grows higher, but I’ve read very little. Wolf Hall took up most of the summer, not because of its length (it’s long) or its complexity (it’s complicated), but because I simply didn’t have time to read. I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell and spent my days wondering what would happen next, but only managed about 20 pages a day, if I was lucky.

And the educational projects? Well, let’s say that once I got over the guilt of not getting them up and running, I realised we were better off with a more organic approach to the summer holidays!

My summer has mainly been work-filled. I didn’t intend it to be this way, but that’s how it worked out, and if you’re a freelance editor/writer/teacher, then you take the work when it comes your way. I hadn’t expected to teach any English between June and October, but instead (ironically) I’ve been preparing some local teenagers for B1 English exams (my first student received her results today…she passed!!), and having regular conversation classes with adults and children, all adding up to nine or so hours of contact time each week.

My editing work usually dries up during summer as well and, although it’s been a little slow, I’ve been sent more work than I was expecting. On top of all that, I was offered two new online jobs, one of which has been keeping me busy as I learn some new skills in a field completely new to me.

But what a summer we’ve had. We’ve been house-sitting in a very old and much-loved house in the village (subject of a future blog post, I promise), looking after an old and much-loved dog. The spacious house provided a great opportunity to invite family and friends to visit, and a full month of the summer has been taken up with visits from some of our nearest and dearest. Friends from Ireland and a friend from the UK brought their children along, and Lily and Katie had a wonderful time having week-long sleepovers with friends.

In the absence of my organised educational projects, Lily has taken to the kitchen and baked her way through the summer, following recipes, experimenting with alterations to recipes, inventing her own recipes. She’s in the kitchen as I write, making lemon sandwich biscuits of her own invention. I blame her entirely for the half stone/7lbs/3.3kg I’ve gained this summer. I can’t imagine my organised bread making would have been half as successful as her own self-taught summer in the kitchen, where she has learned how to work with ingredients, count and measure, enhance and embellish. She’s made baking her thing, and has been teaching her sister and all her guests from overseas and the village how to bake too. She’s a far more patient teacher than I am. Sure, her washing up skills still leave a little to be desired, and the pots and pans she’s ‘washed’ often need to be washed again, but at least she understands that cleaning up is all part of the process.

We’ve swum a lot this summer. My two sacred parts of the day all summer have been siesta and after-siesta. A curse be upon anyone who interrupts my siesta! Very early mornings, very late nights and the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, mean that taking a siesta has been an absolute necessity. We go swimming most days after siesta, sometimes to the beach in Alcoutim, but more often to the public outdoor swimming pool in El Granado.

My friend Rosemarie gave Lily a lesson in diving at the start of the summer and she has spent the summer perfecting her technique. Katie made up her mind at the start of the summer to learn the front crawl and has been working on that, with a little technique help from my friend Sarah when she came to visit from London. Katie is a loner in the water, preferring to be underwater, and constantly working on extending the length of time she can stay below the surface. The swimming ability of both girls has improved immensely over the summer, once again, with minimal input from me. I just take them to the water!

For three weeks both girls practiced five evenings a week with the other children from the village for a dance performance during Cultural Week. The performance was delightful (if you happened to be a parent of the performing children, that is!) and since then the girls have been choreographing their own dance moves and putting on little shows for us in the garden.

With only ten days until the start of the new school year, I could look back and think about all the things I failed to do. But instead I choose to look back at all the unexpected things the girls have done – the baking, the swimming, the dancing – and the unexpected and interesting work opportunities that have come my way. I still can’t tell you the name of the highest mountain or the longest river in Spain, but do I really care? Now, where’s Lily? I need another cupcake!

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That unmistakable sound

‘What’s that sound?’ Katie asked in a fearful voice.

We were walking home from the village shortly after 9pm. ‘Home’ at the moment is a tiny house and caravan on a plot of land by the river, with Carina moored about 100 metres away. We’ve been living here for over two weeks, taking care of a cat and living off the fat of the land while the owners are away. Our lives are lived mainly in the little house and out of doors, but at night we sleep in the caravan, which is about a metre away from the fence that marks the boundary between this and the neighbouring plot of land. Juan tends the vegetable patch next door, while Niño keeps a small flock of sheep there. Most of the ewes wear heavy bells around their necks and our time in the caravan is accompanied by the tinkling of bells that I always associate with my very first afternoon on the Rio Guadiana. It is a sound that I love. The ewes noisily make their way through the long golden grass throughout the morning and evening, bells ringing as they munch their way through the field. Most mornings when I wake up the first living being I see is a sheep, not much more than a metre from my window, grazing near the fence. In the past few days a couple of skinny little lambs have appeared, bleating loudly when their mothers don’t pay them enough attention.

So when Katie asked what the strange sound was as we walked home from the village, I was pretty sure I knew what it was. The sound of a mother giving birth is pretty unmistakable! ‘I think one of the sheep is giving birth’, I said. ‘Come on’. We walked quietly onto ‘our’ plot of land. The flock of sheep was divided into two groups, both standing towards the bottom of the steep slope in the neighbouring plot, looking up the hillside to where a lone ewe was lying on the ground making guttural moaning sounds.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ Katie asked. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her’, I said. ‘She’s having a baby’.
‘How do you know?’ Lily asked. ‘Well, it’s a sound mothers make when they’re in labour’.
‘Did you make that sound?’ Lily asked, wide-eyed.
‘Something like that’, I laughed, omitting the part about yelling at Julian to ‘stop playing that f***ing piano’ as he entertained the midwives in the dining room while I was wracked by contractions in the living room. Ah, such fond memories!

I told the girls to keep quiet and not make any sudden noises. Remembering the piano incident (Lily) and the ‘now’s not the f***ing time’ incident when Julian was regaling the midwives with stories of his adventures in Antarctica as I passed from the second to third stage of labour (Katie), I knew the ewe needed to be as undisturbed as possible while she was going through this. She let out a pitiful moan, stood up, and the head and shoulders of a lamb appeared from her rear end. ‘Are you crying again, Mum’, Lily asked, rolling her eyes, used as she is to her mum’s bladder being far to close to her eyeballs. ‘Maybe just a little’, I croaked.

A couple more pushes and the little lamb was born. The mother lay down, making a new sound, almost a cooing sound, that I’ve never heard a sheep make before. Mother and baby lay there for a few minutes, the lamb soon trying to lift its head off the ground. Once the head was up, it then tried to get its legs going. The ewe was up now, licking her newborn all over. She had given birth on the steep slope of a hill and with each attempt of the precocious little lamb to stand up, it slid further down the hill. The ewe continued cooing and licking. Before long, the little back legs were shakily off the ground and with a few more attempts, the little thing, less than 10 minutes old, was standing up and nosing its way to it’s mother’s udder for its first meal.

Lily and I were moved by the experience. Katie, only one thing on her mind, insisted we go into the house so I could make her supper. She’s heartless, that one.

Fat of the land

With Julian’s help, I made the move onto Chris and Maggie’s land as soon as the girls had gone to school. The girls and I would only be at Chris and Maggie’s for a little over two weeks, but I moved all the stuff I thought we’d need for three months. A couple of days after Chris returns, we’re moving into a house in the village for about two and a half months. Chris and Maggie are off to Sweden to visit their grandchildren, leaving their cat, Aris, their home and their garden in our (I hope) capable hands. And when we move into the village in the summer it will be to look after Vinnie, the coolest and most chilled out dog in Sanlúcar.

Chris is a keen gardener, and at this time of year there’s a lot of food about. As well as providing the girls with an opportunity to look after a cat, this lovely plot of land offers them an opportunity to get to know plants, to dig up or pick fresh food and to prepare it for the table.

For our first lunch here, we had a salad of lettuce, spinach, grated courgette, onion, sugar snap peas and green peppers, all picked not 10 minutes before we ate, drizzled with our own olive oil from Julian’s olive picking endeavours in the autumn, and freshly squeezed lemon juice from one of the many citrus trees in the garden. For dessert the girls ate strawberries directly from the plants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

Late in the afternoon, I sent them out to get potatoes for dinner. I followed them, not sure if they knew where to find potatoes. ‘They’re somewhere here’, I said as we reached the garden down by the river. The girls looked around. The broccoli, courgettes, onions and red cabbage were obvious, and not to be confused with anything else. But where exactly were the potatoes? ‘Is it this?’ Lily asked, pointing to a young tomato plant. Not a bad guess, but no. I directed them to a weedy-looking plant, but they were still none the wiser. I grabbed the garden fork and started to dig and almost immediately a golden potato revealed itself.

The girls were delighted. Katie took the fork from me and Lily removed potatoes from the two plants Katie dug up. Back at the house they washed the soil from the potatoes and used the muddy water to irrigate the vines, rose bushes and baby tomato plants growing close to the house. Then I sent them back down the garden for broccoli and courgette for the supper I’d planned and then up the garden to the loquat tree, to gather fruit for dessert.

We’ve lived almost exclusively off the land since coming here and every few days a new fruit or vegetable ripens, adding variety to our diet. First it was the beetroot, then the aubergine and now the tomatoes are turning deep red. What a bounty and what a delight that our friends asked us to look after their place.

The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

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.

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.