The Old Post Office

Back in November, when Jeanne and David asked if we’d housesit for the summer, it didn’t take us long to make up our minds. They were in no hurry for an answer, but over Christmas, Julian and I talked about it and agreed it would be a lovely thing to do. Early in the new year we told Jeanne and David that we’d be happy to look after their house and dog for the summer.

I had spent much of the summer of 2017 alone on the Rio Guadiana. The girls were in Ireland and the UK and Julian was working long hours at the beach bar in Alcoutim, so I saw little of him. My time was divided between Carina, upriver on a mooring, and Alcoutim, where I managed an Air B&B property and spent a good deal of time in the property’s downstairs flat. But what little I saw of Sanlúcar, I enjoyed. I came across the river a couple of times during Cultural Week and had a few evenings out with friends.

Sanlúcar, usually quiet (with the exceptions of fiestas) was abuzz during the summer and the village seemed to come alive after dark, with children playing out of doors until all hours and the bars packed with families eating supper. There was an easy-going summer feel about the place. I thought it would be lovely for my family to experience this too, so Jeanne and David’s offer was perfect. Besides, the house itself, beloved of so many locals and foreigners in the village, would be a joy to live in for a few months.

El Correo Viejo is quite probably more than 300 years old. For over 240 years, prior to the late 1970s, it was the village post-office and trading post. Indeed, Juan, the lovely old man who has kept us in fresh tomatoes, onions, watermelons, cucumbers and figs all summer, was the last postman here, and lived in the house as a child when his father was the postman. Jeanne and David, an English couple, have preserved much of the old feel of the house, with exposed stone walls in places, old frescos revealed and restored with care and the old cistern still providing a water supply. Comfortable old furniture matches the house’s architecture and the walls are decorated with an eclectic mix of art old and new, British and local, created by friends or artists unknown. The Moorish architecture of thick walls and high ceilings make the house a cool haven from the extreme summer temperatures outside. The first thing most people comment on when they enter the house is the pleasant change of temperature.

House-sitters are required for two reasons for the three months Jeanne and David are away each summer. The first is Vinnie, a big old black-and-white one-eared dog, who is perhaps the most easy-going and relaxed dog I have ever met. We had been living in the house for almost a month before I heard him bark for the first time, and a pretty half-hearted bark it was at that. It would appear that only two things get Vinnie’s heart racing – food and the prospect of someone taking him for a walk. At the sight of me putting on my trainers each morning he gallops around the house, sliding into doors, toppling over himself in his excitement to go sniffing and peeing his way around the village and beyond.

The second reason for looking after the house is that its owners generously run it as a semi-open house. The first room inside the front door – the hall – houses an English book exchange and, apart from six bookcases packed with books, one can also choose from an ample collection of DVDs, magazines, and even exchange jigsaws. My job was to keep the shelves tidy and find homes for newly arrived books. I have to admit there were advantages to the job, as I took first dibs on the best books!

A small selection of olive oil, natural soaps and greetings cards made by local artisans are also displayed for sale here and there’s a handy noticeboard with some useful information for newcomers to the village. A sign near the pontoon directs newcomers to this wonderful resource and Jeanne and David have gained a reputation as helpful founts of wisdom on all things Sanlúcar.

The house also serves as a postal address to those of us who don’t have permanent addresses in the village. For yachties, owners of small-holdings and temporary visitors to the Rio Guadiana, it is comforting to know that our Amazon orders, spare parts for engines, birthday presents from grandparents to our children, and who knows what else, are in safe hands. As ‘post mistress’ this summer it was my job to sign for the occasional parcel, check the post-box or the hall table to see what the village post woman had delivered, sort through the post and occasionally contact people who had asked in advance to be contacted once their parcel had arrived.

All of this resulted in a very sociable summer, with friends dropping by regularly to check their post or restock their libraries and newcomers dropping in to browse the book exchange, or to ask for advice about the best place to shop, eat out or go for a walk. Visitors coming to use the service often ended up joining us for the terrace with its stunning view over the river for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a taste of Lily’s home baking. Parcels and packages were often excitedly ripped open in front of us as their owners shared their excitement with us. It has to be said, however, that is more often occurred for such items as harmonicas or galangal root, rather than new engine gaskets.

Being in the village all summer provided us with wonderful opportunities. For a few weeks, Lily and Katie went to summer camp in the mornings and dance practice in the evenings. We all stayed out late, eating and drinking and enjoying good company in the village bars. Our nearest bar is right outside the door, so if Lily and Katie tired of grownup conversation and there were no children around to play with, they simply went home.

We have a little over two more weeks in the old post office. It’s been a delightful, busy, hectic and, above all, sociable summer. I haven’t even told you about the fruit trees growing in the garden, the pool, the sleepovers and the stream of visitors, all of which added flavour and depth to our wonderful few months here. I am extremely grateful that my family had an opportunity to experience summer in Sanlúcar from this unique perspective.

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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.

Nothing too serious

I’ve always been a small-town girl. A country girl. I love rural life. I love that everyone knows everyone, people stop to say hello, people remember things about you and ask after you and your family. Of course, that can make life a bit claustrophobic at times, a bit like living in a fish bowl. But I’ve never had a craving to live anywhere other than in small close-knit communities.

A minor accident recently tickled me about just how small and close-knit we are on the Rio Guadiana.

Mammy came for a five-day visit on New Year’s Day. Late in the afternoon on the 2nd of January, a misstep in the cockpit of a friend’s boat (carrying my laptop and not looking where I was going) led to a twisted ankle, the pain of which caused me to faint (I’m such a wuss). The next morning my ankle was purple, painful and had swollen up like a balloon.

As I hobbled up to the shower block to take a shower, old Manuel was sitting on his usual bench, contemplating the river. ‘What happened?’ he asked and told me to go to the doctor immediately. He said the health centre would be open for the remainder of the morning and sang the praises of our lovely GP, Umberto.

Taking Manuel’s sage advice, I hobbled, post-shower, the 200 or so metres from the shower block to the health centre (Sanlúcar really is tiny). Along the way I met, if memory serves, five people. And, because Sanlúcar is so tiny, I knew them all. Each one gave me a concerned look and asked what happened. I gave each a brief account as I hobbled on my way.

At the health centre I was first in line and had only sat down when the door to the consultation room opened, the previous patient departed and I went in. Umberto confirmed a sprain and ligament damage, but was confident my ankle wasn’t broken. He recommended not walking for up to five days and keeping my foot raised. ‘Sit back and watch lots of TV’, he advised.

Walking down the corridor to check if the nurse was free to strap up my ankle, he left me sitting in the consulting room with the door open. The health centre had suddenly grown busy. An old man, to whom I’ve spoken once or twice, poked his head round the door. ‘Happy New Year’, he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, and I described my injury, grateful that I wasn’t in for treatment for an embarrassing rash, or the morning after pill or to be tested for an STD!

Moments later a friend’s mother-in-law saw me sitting there. ‘We’ve all been ill over Christmas’, she said. Only her 90-something year old mother had not succumbed to the flu that had laid low every other generation of the family. ‘And what about you?’ she asked. And for, could it be the eighth time in ten minutes, I recounted the fall, the sprained ankle, my mother’s few days of relaxation now jeopardised by having to wait on me hand and foot as I rested my swollen ankle.

When called, I hobbled down to the nurse, who bandaged my ankle from toe to knee. The size of the bandage seemed excessive, but would certainly look the part as I lay around for the next few days watching movies while I was served cups of tea and slices of Christmas pudding!

Before I left the health centre I met one more woman, who I knew from a Spanish conversation class I used to attend last year. Once again I recounted the episode and could now add the GP’s diagnosis, the size of the bandage and the recommended recovery method.

Stepping onto the street, I heard Julian’s unmistakable voice in the shop next door, so I popped in to tell him the GP’s diagnosis, and in so doing had to once again recount the whole tale, this time to Irene, the ever cheerful and lovely octogenarian shopkeeper.

Hard as it is to believe, I met no-one on the short walk back to the boat and, indeed, saw no-one other than my immediate family for the remainder of the day.

Late the next morning there was a knock on the boat and four friends boarded with bottles of wine as they planned to help me drink my ankle back to health. We drank, ate cakes, and Roy (my sailing partner from last summer) confiscated Katie’s guitar and he and Mammy sang together.

I had planned to take Mammy out for lunch that day, but given my incapacitation, she decided to take Lily and Katie out for pizza to the beach bar on the other side of the river. The three of them took the ferry across the river, from Spain to Portugal, walked to the beach and into the bar. And what was the first thing Rogerio, the proprietor, asked when they walked in the door? ‘How’s Martina’s leg?’.

You just have to love small town life!

(P.S. My ankle remains stiff and sore. Walking makes it feel better. Not moving for extended periods makes it feel worse. Inclines and steps hurt, sitting seiza or crosslegged is painful. I’m still wearing an ankle support 24 hours a day. Lesson learned: watch where you step!!)

In the olive grove

Around a bend on the narrow track of the old smugglers route I came face-to-face with him. Huge and jet black, he was square-backed and sturdy. In amongst a grove of olive trees, he was at home and I was the interloper. My mind played tricks for a second that felt like eternity. His blackness was so complete I couldn’t make out what he was. A black bull? A cart horse? A burro? He stood stock still, regarding me, not giving an inch of his ground, or a clue to what he might do. The second passed and the landscape around him fell into its correct proportions, allowing me to see his height, his breadth, beneath the squat olive trees and to recognise him for what he unmistakably was: a wild boar.

I had seen evidence of boar throughout the morning: recently planted trees, in a garden where I joined the trail, dug around and uprooted; hoof prints on the muddy path following the previous day’s rain; a wide expansive field of mushrooms snuffled and dug, deep pits in the dark wet soil amidst half-eaten fungus.

We were twenty, thirty metres apart, no more. ‘Hello’ I said, as is my fashion when meeting a wild animal, whether bee or hedgehog, polar bear or duck. ‘How are you?’ He stared at me steadily. He was easily the same weight as me and likely at least twice as strong. I took a tentative step forward. He did the same. I took a second step. He did likewise. Unlike other parts of the trail where hillside rises sharply on one side and falls precipitously on the other, this was a more levelled out place, with the olive grove ahead and a less used path leading up and around the rocky hillside. ‘I’m going to go this way’, I told him. ‘I won’t bother you’. I took a step onto the path to my right, watching him out of the corner of my eye. I saw that he watched me too.

He came on, claiming the path as rightfully his own. I carefully made my way along the other path, sleeves and trousers snagged on thorny undergrowth, the path quickly losing definition. I turned around and watched him continue on his way, his back to me now, huge grey testicles the only part of him not jet black. I started to take my bag off my back, to take a photograph of him, but thought better of it. Enjoy this moment, I told myself. Enjoy the privilege of the encounter, enjoy the knowledge that this place belongs to him, enjoy the great wild stark beauty of him.

A second more, maybe two, and he was gone. I don’t know where. Maybe he watched me as I clumsily made my way back onto the main path, and carried on, now more aware, more alert, more watchful. Maybe he didn’t give me a second thought. Maybe how little I affected him was the inverse of how much he affected me.

Seasonophilia? Can I call it that?

Some people have a favourite season. Not me. I love them all. Long hot summer days and cold dark winter nights. I could never understand some friends in Nunavut who put black-out blinds on their windows to shut out the almost endless summer sun. At Arviat’s latitude, the sun dips below the horizon for a little over four hours at the height of summer, casting the land into twilight, but never darkness. I loved the almost 24 hour daylight, because I knew it was short-lived and in a few months we would experience the opposite – short short bitterly cold days when leaving the house could take half an hour because of all the layers of clothes required and the possible shovelling of snow to get out the door.

In summer I closed my flimsy curtains before I went to bed, although they were useless against the sun that would soon appear above the horizon again. Children played on the swing outside my house at midnight. If I happened to be in bed at that time, it was only to catch a few hours sleep before a 3 or 4am start to catch low tide and check my fishing nets with my friend Crystal, or a 5am start to go early morning beluga whale hunting with my friend Frank.

Winter, on the other hand, was a time for wrapping up, drinking hot chocolate or tea after brisk walks in -20˚C temperatures, reading and long hot baths. It was a time for visiting, talking and playing board games.

In Ireland, the seasons are less extreme, but no less wonderful. Each season comes with its own unique smells, colours, bodily sensations; each with its own festivals and feasts. Each season requires a different set of clothing and footwear, and different ways of being, doing and living. Some seasons are easier than others – less hassle, less bad weather, less rain.

It’s the start of each season that I love best. You wake one morning to a subtle change in the air – a smell, a rise or fall in temperature, an almost imperceptible change in texture – and you know that the transition from winter to spring or summer to autumn is finally taking place.

It’s been a long hot summer here on the Rio Guadiana. The land is parched, the air is dusty, and it has been reported that October has been 5˚C warmer than average. I’ve been anticipating the arrival of autumn for some time. I’ve been longing to wear jeans and long-sleeved tops, tired at last of shorts, t-shirts and flimsy summer clothes. I’ve been looking forward to early evenings in, hot chocolate and buttery toast, soups and stews, a hot water bottle in the bed.

Autumn, at last, appears to be getting the upper hand. A little rain fell last week (although not anywhere near enough), there’s a chill in the air each morning and evening, and yesterday morning, as I rowed the girls over the river to school, the first wisps of inversion mist hung over the river. This morning the mist was stronger,  moisture in the air finding my face when I removed Carina’s weather boards and greeted the morning at 8am.

As autumn wears on I will expectantly anticipate the transition to winter and from there to spring. And on it goes. Each season with its own sensations, its own wonders, its own reminders of how lucky we are to be alive on this oddly tilted planet!

Roots or routes?

In early May, Sanlúcar de Guadiana and its neighbour El Granado held their annual Romería. It was our third Romería, and a few days after the fiesta, as I uploaded my photographs onto the laptop, I decided to take a look back at our two previous Romerías, in 2015 and 2016. Each year we have known more about the festival and have, thus, been able to participate in it more deeply.

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Spectators in 2015

In May 2015, we had been up the Rio Guadiana for less than two weeks when we came ashore one Saturday at lunchtime to watch this colourful local spectacle. We weren’t sure what it was all about or where everyone was going in tractor and mule-drawn trailers. We were hot and thirsty and, after taking a few photos and watching the procession set off, we returned home to Carina.

In May 2016, we knew more about this two-day event during which the people of Sanlúcar and the people of El Granado come together in a field mid-way between the two villages to eat, drink and party into the night. Lily and Katie dressed in their cheap tourist-shop flamenco dresses and we walked the road to the festival. But we went too early, overtaking the procession which went by a different route, and had eaten all our food and drunk all our water by the time the procession arrived. We stayed a little while, visiting the caseta of one family we knew a little bit.

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In the thick of it, 2017

In May 2017, Lily and Katie wore proper flamenco dresses, we rode in one of the trailers for the four hours it took to cover the three or so kilometres from Sanlúcar to the site of the Romería, singing and dancing, drinking and eating along the way. In advance of the festival, friends from both Sanlúcar and El Granado had invited us to eat and drink in their casettas. The girls and I set up camp with some English friends, where we had our own picnic, and then, as Saturday evening progressed, we did the rounds of the casettas to which we had been invited.

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Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

Looking back over those three sets of photographs I realised that what had once been, for us, a colourful local festival in a quirky village filled with strangers had become a part of our annual calendar in our adopted village filled with friends and neighbours. Zooming in on those photos from 2015, it dawned on me that those strangers were now Lily and Katie’s schoolmates and their parents, the friends I chat to in my favourite bar, my English language students. These strangers are now people to whose houses I have visited, who have invited us to birthday parties, First Communion celebrations and Christmas dinners. They are strangers no more.

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Dance break by the side of the road!

Yachties frequently ask each other about their sailing plans. It’s the nature of living on a boat. There are times when I am envious when I see our sailing friends set off down the river. I want to set off for destinations unknown too. Our good friends aboard Pelagic are now sailing in the Pacific, having left the Rio Guadiana in spring of 2016. I read their blog and tell Lily and Katie about the wonderful adventures of their friends Ana and Porter  in places I’ve never heard of with names I can’t pronounce and part of me wishes we were out there too aboard Carina. Maybe someday we will.

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But there is also something wonderful about staying put, about getting to know a place and its people, about getting below the surface of those colourful and strange traditions  and about strangers becoming friends.

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Maybe we will still be here for next year’s Romería. Maybe not. Getting to know a place takes time. Understanding a community and its people takes patience. If we are here next year I am sure I will look back on May 2017 and marvel at my naiveté and lack understanding and my presumption at what I thought I knew!

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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.

Tatami

I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.

I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.

On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.

Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.

I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.

I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.

Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.

Siesta

In the blazing, blue sky, brutal heat of the early afternoon, silence reigns. There is no bird song, no quacking ducks, no bleating sheep, no barking dogs. There are no cars on the streets, no children at play, no pedestrians chatting. To walk through the streets of Sanlúcar, if one was foolish enough to do so, is akin to walking through a ghost town. Shutters down on every house and no sounds emanating from within. The river is silent too. One ferryman dozes under the ferry bimini, with no passengers at this time of day. Only the occasional recently arrived yachtie is naïve enough to motor ashore from his anchorage, hoping to find a shop or bar open, or insanely deciding to go for a walk.

It took us a while to get into the swing of siesta. Back in 2014, when we first cruised in Spain, we exhausted ourselves in the heat of the day, the sun sapping our energy as we attempted to keep our lives running to a northern European schedule. We didn’t know any better. It’s what we were accustomed to. It took some time for us to become aware of the silence, the empty streets, the shuttered windows, as Spain came to a standstill for a few hours every afternoon.

We were stupidly slow to figure out just why it was that Spanish people of all ages could manage to stay out so damned late into the night – restaurants only starting to serve dinner at 9pm, children happily eating meals with their families at one in the morning. It’s because everyone sleeps in the hottest part of the day, and the country comes to life again when the day starts to cool down.

With our own children in school this past year it’s become easier to develop a siesta habit aboard Carina. The school day ends at 2pm, the girls come home for lunch, and by 3pm we’re all in siesta mode.

Not that the girls sleep. But I don’t feel so bad about that because the parents of their Spanish classmates tell me their children don’t sleep much either. The important thing is to ensure everyone has some quiet time in a shady and, preferably, cool place, so the heat isn’t unnecessarily sapping energy.

I doze, or read, or write. Julian does the same. Katie sleeps sometimes, Lily almost never. But Lily lies quietly on her bed for a couple of hours, reading usually. Or both girls play quietly together. Or, if they are being particularly anti-siesta, I stick on a DVD to keep them quietly amused.

It’s only very recently that I’ve truly come to appreciate siesta time. Not just for the obvious reasons. Not simply because it conserves our energy and it provides a time to relax in the middle of the day. Not just because we wake up revived and not too tired to participate in the evening and night-time life of Spain.

What I like above all about siesta is the silence. There are no human or animal sounds. All is still. All is quiet. The oppressive heat weighs down, silencing all. For a few hours each afternoon the only sounds are the wind blowing and the river lapping against its banks.

My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.