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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


When we returned to the Rio Guadiana in mid-November there were three other yachts here with cruising families aboard. Suddenly Lily and Katie found themselves inundated with playmates. One of the families moved on after about a week but the other two decided to stay on the river and, like us, send their children to the school in Sanlúcar.


Lunch aboard Carina

So, Lily (6) and Katie (5) have become fast friends with Ana (5), Lola (7), Isla (3) and Ana’s older brother Porter (11). When all three boats are on the pontoon, the girls all play together on each other’s boats, on the pontoon and at Sanlúcar’s playgrounds. There have been sleepovers and movie nights, impromptu picnic lunches and an awful lot of giggling and screaming! They swap clothes and toys, and have picked up each other’s mannerisms and intonations.


Movie afternoon aboard Carina, watching Matilda

But like all cruising families, the time inevitably comes to move on, and this week has been one of goodbyes. On Monday, Lola and Isla departed with their parents aboard Spirit of Mystery, to make their way north to Cornwall in southwest England. And on Wednesday Ana, Porter and their older brother Alexander departed with their parents aboard Pelagic to sail via Morocco and Cape Verde, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and eventually north to their home in Oregon on the west coast of the United States.


Katie, Isla, Lola, Lily, Ana – firm friends

It’s the first time for Lily and Katie to have such close and intense friendships and, given the nature of our lives here on the Rio Guadiana, all the children have had a great amount of freedom to explore and play without having adults watching over them all the time. The past few months have been wonderful for the girls.



Lily and Katie have other friends in the village – a couple of other ex-pat friends who live permanently in Sanlúcar, as well as their Spanish classmates. Lily in particular has developed good friendships with her classmates. But life over the coming weeks and months will be quite different now that we are the only live aboard family on the river.

We will follow the travels of our friends with interest and, who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day.


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Daddy’s home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man trouble

So, there’s this guy. Blond hair, blue eyes. Very funny. Very cute. Lives on a boat. He’s from Oregon. He’s ten years old.

My girls, five and a quarter and six and three quarter years old, are besotted. They chase this poor kid around, write him love letters, write his name in chalk on the school playground. ‘Katie and P—-‘ surrounded by love hearts. Lily writes ‘P—- I love you. I want to kiss you’.
‘Play it cool’, I tell the girls. ‘Don’t go running after him, giving him love letters’.
‘I don’t want to play it cool’, Lily says.
Well, you’re succeeding there, I think to myself.

Lily and I are out walking one day. ‘All the girls in P—-‘s class have ponytails and have their ears pierced’.
Since when did you start noticing the older girls in school, I think to myself.
Since they became the competition.

If I hear his name once in the day I hear it a hundred times. P—- said this, P—- did that, P—- is sooo funny. They make up rhymes about him, sing songs about him, draw his picture and his name on every piece of paper they can find. They even have a rude nickname for him that is a play on his real name.

And you can’t blame them. He’s gorgeous and confident and cool and a genuinely lovely kid. When he zooms across the river in his dinghy, the wind in his blond hair, the girls run into our cockpit to catch a glimpse of him, the cruising kid’s equivalent of a boy with a fast car. Julian says ‘Some people try their whole lives and never manage to be that cool’.

P—‘s lapping up all the attention of course, but to give him his due, he’s gracious about it. He’s sweet with the girls (they are, after all, friends with his baby sister) and isn’t yet so embarrassed by their shenanigans that he’s avoiding them.

But his arrival on the river has given Julian and me a glimpse of the next ten years. And we’re not exactly relishing it!!

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

Frozen: Lessons in consumer capitalism

Santa Claus was well on his way on Christmas Eve and had probably already delivered presents to New Zealand and half of Australia when Katie announced that what she really wanted him to bring her were Anna and Elsa dolls from the movie Frozen and an Elsa wig and dressing-up dress for herself. But by then it was too late to get a message to Santa and, anyway, given how many gifts he had to load on his sleigh, he was unlikely to have any spare dollies or wigs or dresses on board.

DSCI0026On Christmas morning there was great excitement, but the absence of the Frozen dolls caused a little disappointment. But among the gifts from family and friends were four envelopes – two for each of the girls – containing €20 each. Now Lily and Katie each had €40 and, as talk of the Frozen dollies carried on through Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day, Julian and I decided that they should use the money to buy the dolls.

On New Year’s Eve, Lily, Katie and I took the bus to Toys ‘r’ Us in Roquetas de Mar. Katie knew what she wanted, but I tried to explain that her €40 probably wouldn’t stretch to two dolls, a wig and a dress (I had no idea how much any of this stuff cost). Lily didn’t know what she wanted and intended to browse before making her choice.

Immediately inside the door of the shop was a huge section of Frozen merchandise. Katie instantly saw a box containing an Anna doll and an Elsa doll. It cost €46. Six euro over her budget, but how could I deny her? The wig cost €26 and the dressing-up dress €45. I was shocked by these prices. Katie took the box containing the two dolls. That was it, she wasn’t interested in even looking at anything else in the shop.

Lily saw an ice-skating Elsa that she liked but, true to her word, she decided to browse some more before making her decision. She left the doll and went browsing but, after twenty minutes or so decided she really wanted the ice-skating Elsa and went back for it. It cost €30.

We carried on with our browsing and afterwards browsed through the shops in the rest of the Centro Commercial, the girls carrying their still boxed-up dollies under their arms. (Katie was keen to get home because there was no ‘blow-hole’ in the box for her dolls to breathe through!). A woman, about my own age, came up to us, pointed to Lily’s doll and asked where we’d go it. When I told her, she turned and almost ran towards Toys ‘r’ Us. I started to notice that other parents and children had Frozen merchandise – backpacks, t-shirts, notebooks, etc.

One wouldn’t have to be the most observant person in the world to realise that Frozen merchandising is everywhere. In Toys ‘r’ Us itself, apart from the dedicated Frozen section, there was Frozen merchandise scattered throughout the shop. A bin of soft-toy Olafs here, a stack of Frozen art sets there, Frozen backpacks, Frozen balloons, Frozen party ware. Often, the same item was to be found in multiple places around the shop, so if you missed it once, or tried to walk away, there is was again around the next corner. Outside of Toys ‘r’ Us, as we wandered around the shops we found Frozen merchandise in clothes shops, pharmacies, luggage shops, stationary shops, and we even found Frozen chocolate biscuits in the supermarket.

The merchandising is ubiquitous and it’s no wonder that every little girl I know is obsessed. It’s a great movie (despite some flaws) about the love between two sisters. The songs are infectious and there are lots of memorable lines and characters. But the Frozen-bombing of merchandise is troubling.

Katie loves her two dolls, but in the days after the shopping trip, they weren’t enough. She wanted more. She wanted things she never knew she wanted until she was bombarded by them on New Year’s Eve. For a few days, the dolls were not enough. The dress and wig were quickly forgotten and in their place was a longing for variations of the dolls – ice-skating Anna and Elsa; Anna and Elsa whose hearts glow when their hands are squeezed, and so on. ‘Can we go back tomorrow and get those?’ she pleaded. I explained that she had already spent all her money and then some. Could she bring her dolls back and get those others instead? It doesn’t work like that, I tried to tell her. You’ve already played with these, we’ve thrown away the packaging, Anna’s hair is a mess. As the days go by, though, she seems more content with her dolls and her initial desire to trade them in for something else seems to be fading.

Now, I know there are some among you who will think me the meanest mum on the planet for not buying them all the dolls they want. But if you think I’m mean, you miss the point. It’s not because we can’t afford them. We can’t afford them, but even if we could, I wouldn’t buy them. It’s not because we don’t have space aboard Carina. We don’t have space , but even if we lived in a mansion (or a super yacht), I wouldn’t buy them.

This is how consumer capitalism works – playing on the consciences of parents who want to satisfy their children’s desires. Corporations – Walt Disney in this case – bombard us with so many images of stuff, with promises of a better life if we consume this stuff, that we are brainwashed into believing how much happier we will be if own that stuff. Hook ‘em young, because today’s consumers of Frozen merchandise will be tomorrow’s consumers of iPads, Xboxes, perfume, make-up, jewellery, cars, TVs, throwaway clothes, junk food, plastic surgery, one-season football kits, and on and on and on.

I rarely expose my children to such insidious marketing. Our occasional TV viewing is generally advertisement free and our visits to shopping centres and other such cathedrals of consumerism are few and far between. My children are happy with what they have – which is quite a lot (read this post about essential toys for live aboard kids). And they don’t miss what they don’t have because most of the time they don’t know it’s even out there.

I’m not a mean mum. I’m a mum struggling to protect my children from global corporations that do not have their best interests – or the best interests of any of us – at heart. I try to protect them (and prepare them) by teaching them the value of money, and the value of our material possessions. And I try to protect them by instilling in them the knowledge that their own happiness and value does not reside in the consumption of material stuff.

A woman’s work…

by Julian

Snapshot_20141030aI met a retired Englishman in the street. He asked “How is the teaching going?”
“I am loving it”, I replied, “But Martina’s finding it a bit tough. She does four and a half hours with barely a break.”
“Yes”, the man said, “She will find it tough if she hasn’t worked for 18 months.”
“Um, Martina was working full time as a university lecturer until the end of May. It’s me who hasn’t worked for three years.”
“Oh right! So you only work two hours a week, that’s more of a hobby than a job.”
“Yes it is.” I say truthfully.
“If you go back to work full-time in the UK you will find that a bit of a shock.”
My lack of expression said nothing. I didn’t think about it until later, but what sort of job did he think would shock me? What working hours and conditions would I struggle with? Would I find a job desperately dull, mentally taxing, demeaning, degrading, physically demanding or just struggle with getting up at the same time every morning?

I will outline my work experience to make what I am about to say carry some weight.
1. I have been a science teacher in a large secondary comprehensive school in Coventry. Whatever the school is like now, back then it was chronically under resourced and desperately in need of a new coat of paint. Three teachers shared a decrepit overhead projector. The other two, more experienced teachers, block booked the projector for their classes for the next decade. I was left to draw elaborate but shaky diagrams in multicoloured chalk on the blackboard, whilst 30 kids, aged 11-18, of all abilities, amused themselves with whatever kids do when the teacher’s back is turned.
2. I have worked many Sunday shifts in both a petrol station and a pub, on my own, either pinching myself awake at the appearance of a car or desperately wishing the one drunkard at the bar would go and find a ditch to crawl into, or else do something mildly amusing, rather than bore me senseless with his or her racist diatribe.
3. I have worked as a Territorial Army infantry soldier, truck driver, paper boy, industrial launderer, chambermaid, dishwasher, builder’s labourer, geophysical consultant, research scientist and scientific leader of an Antarctic field party. For this last job I spent 100 days in a tent with three other guys, and I was responsible for the production of the quality science that was expected from the vast expense of putting us there.
4. I have been given a budget of £80,000 and a four-month deadline to build a radar capable of functioning in temperatures of -40˚C. The radar and I landed on the Greenland ice cap and, despite sleeping in a tent with the temperature sometimes as low as -47˚C, when the whiskey froze solid, the radar worked like a charm.

You get the picture, I’ve done some stuff. Now for the crunch.

Four and a half years ago, when I left the house to go to work each morning, leaving behind a one year old child and a heavily pregnant wife, I would breathe a sigh of relief. The weight of the world fell from my shoulders and my time and personal space were my own again. That was until I had to go back home in the evening, which I would often delay as long as possible, something I feel guilty about now.

When Katie reached her first birthday and Lily was two and a half, we moved to a flat in Dawlish. I became a full time father and househusband, whilst Martina went to work full time as a university lecturer in Exeter. I was not ‘working’, in the sense that I was not paid directly for what I did, but nothing I have done before or since was tougher than that year. Martina left the house at 7 am, often before the kids were awake, and returned at 5:30 pm. We often had little sleep, particularly Martina. I got the kids washed and dressed and hopefully managed to do the same for myself, got them breakfast and lunch, took them to playgroup, entertained and educated them, did the laundry at the launderette, ironed Martina’s work clothes, did the shopping, tidied and cleaned the house, did the recycling, made the dinner and made lunch for Martina to take to work the next day. I also saw to any household bills and general family administration that required attention. In reality this list of things was never completed, not once, often not even close.

Some days I couldn’t leave the kids alone for a minute, even to go to the toilet. The task of trying to stop them hurting or killing each other was immense. There is no way in the world you can get a two and a half year old to understand that her little sister needs to have a nap. If she will just give you ten minutes you will have the baby asleep and both your days will be much happier. If you cannot get the baby to sleep, then everyone’s day will be miserable. Sometimes I barely managed to have dinner on the table for Martina and nothing else was done, the kids were miserable with my lack of attention to them due to my meagre attempts to provide the family with nutritious meals. Martina returned from work each Friday evening and I went to Plymouth on Saturday morning for a cold damp weekend of grinding down and greasing seacocks or painting the hull, to get the boat ready for moving onto that summer. Then the week started all over again.

Two years later the kids were easier. I could cope better with the cooking, washing, ironing, shopping, and cleaning. Martina generally came home to a more ordered house. She was often away for up to 11 hours but if there were problems with the kids she would sometimes leave a bit later in the morning, which she was able to do now that we lived in Exeter, nearer to her work. Lily started school. The only problem was that, with one child at school and another at home, my day was messed up. Each morning Martina grabs breakfast, says good morning to Lily and Katie and goes to work with the packed lunch I made for her at 6:30 am. The children always lament demonstrably at the door, making Martina feel very guilty for leaving them. The instant the door closes they forget their troubles and get back to trying to kill each other. Morning conversation goes like this: “Katie eat your breakfast. Katie eat your breakfast. KATIE EAT YOUR BREAKFAST!” “Lily get your pyjamas off and get your school clothes on, Lily, Lily, LILY CAN YOU HEAR ME?” “Come here to have your teeth cleaned, hair brushed, shoes and coat on, COME HERE, WON’T ONE OF YOU COME HERE!! COME HERE!!!!” “Lily you are still in your pyjamas!” “Katie you’ve eaten nothing!” “We are going to be late.” We eventually get out of the door.

The first half term Katie is in the backpack for the mile and a quarter up a very steep hill to Lily’s school. I return home with Katie and wring the sweat out of my t-shirt. The second half term Katie is attending pre-school two mornings a week and I insist she walks. My back cannot take carrying her anymore and I don’t want to do myself long term damage. But we have to allow considerable extra time for the trip to and from school. The joy of Katie going to the preschool is dented by the fact that I drop Lily off at 8:45 and Katie at 9:00, then collect Katie at 12:00 and Lily at 3:15, walking a total of seven and a half miles up and down steep hills, mostly with very young children. (I did 22.5 miles of hill walking every week on school runs alone). The next term Katie qualifies for pre-school government funding and I get rid of the midday pickup by adding in a small bit of top up money (£15) to cover one afternoon a week. Now Katie goes to school 9:00-3:00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I have a small measure of freedom in my life, much like going to work again!

I provide three packed lunches in the morning. Of course the school doesn’t allow nuts or chocolate, Martina doesn’t want what I make for Lily and Katie but she has a fridge and a microwave at work. Lily and Katie don’t like the same things as each other and Lily desperately wants school dinners because I give her stale bread! In my spare time, I bake my own bread. Between October 2013 and April 2014 I don’t buy bread, but make three loaves a week, all by hand and often using my own sourdough, with yeast I cultivate! I also send Martina off to work with a variety of home-made soups, quiches etc.

I had finally, successfully, turned into a professional ‘housewife’, minus the coffee mornings, which of course, being a man, I cannot go to as I am viewed as a threat to other men’s wives and a potential child molester. I find that Martina has now got herself hooked on this crazy sailing and home education idea that we came up with three years ago to get us out of the financial and general rut that we were in. Damn, I have to become a skipper again. Believe me when I say, it is not a complete walk in the park to get a novice sailor and two young children from England to Mediterranean Spain in a 36 ft yacht built in 1979. Still, there are far worse jobs, without the same sense of achievement.

Here is the immortal line I overheard Lily say to Katie once: “But daddies don’t go to work.” I have had an insight into what it is like to stay at home looking after very young children and to feel the scorn of other men, career women and sometimes older women who cannot get it into their heads that a man could take a break from paid employment or can take care of children. In Britain the government model family is a ‘working’ family. From the time maternity leave ends both parents should be at work with children in ‘quality childcare’. Many people buy into this model, imagining themselves to be socially superior for paying more taxes, and therefore doing more for society. But what is the government motivation for this model? Higher GDP, higher employment, and greater tax revenue. Is this the best model for society? The responsibility for ensuring family well-being is taken away from parents. Working partners with different employment hours rarely see each other and try to grab snippets of ‘quality time’ with their children. Children are happier with their friends and child carers because they are away from the chaos of parents madly trying to get them dressed and into the car, anxious about being late for work. Microwave dinners, jars of Uncle Ben’s and takeaways a regular feature for all but families with ‘supermums’.

To me, this appears to be far less beneficial to society and more likely to end in families collapsing. Unfortunately the government rates itself on figures that don’t really show this, or maybe they do, as the jails are fuller than ever and problem drug use and alcoholism are rife. But maybe it is better to live a happier life with less money, as long as we can keep the wolves from the door. It is no less work living this way, just different.
Going ‘back to work’ would not be a shock to my system I assure you, because few jobs are more physically and emotionally demanding than being a stay-at-home parent to young children.