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.

April blues, May joys

April blues, May joys

April was an emotionally difficult month for me and Julian, as we tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we could afford to do. The girls have been getting on so well at school and their Spanish has been improving in leaps and bounds, we were loathe to pull them out of school after only seven or eight months. Another year of Spanish immersion would do wonders for their (and our) language skills.

While Julian at times finds life on the river a little too quiet, I love it. I’m suffering from the Guadiana Gloop – that strange condition that afflicts visitors to the river who intend to leave after a couple of days or weeks, but twenty years later find themselves still here!

Our big problem, of course, is money. Julian hasn’t worked since the end of October and, despite my best efforts, the last time I earned any money from writing was in mid-October. (A few articles have been accepted for publication, but I won’t get paid until they’re actually published). Since then we’ve been eating into our dwindling savings and, although life on the river is incredibly inexpensive, we certainly can’t live on air.

So we faced an uncertain future. It looked increasingly like we couldn’t afford to stay another year and we were strongly considering taking the girls out of school at the start of May, and sailing back to the UK where we were confident at least one of us could get a job that would allow us to accumulate enough savings to finance sailing farther afield in a few years time. We even discussed the possibility of selling Carina.

And while neither of us is against setting that particular plan in motion, we both had misgivings about doing it right now. I’m not ready to leave the Guadiana just yet, and Julian’s not ready to take the girls out of school and their Spanish immersion.

Throughout April we both felt the stress of the decision we would soon have to make. I decided to look for work teaching English, and if I hadn’t found a job by the end of April, we would set sail for the UK in mid-May.

There aren’t many jobs in these tiny villages, so I started researching and contacting language schools in towns and cities up to an hour away. I also made posters in Spanish and Portuguese, advertising my services as an English teacher, and posted them in public places in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. And I applied for an online academic editing job.

For a couple of weeks nothing much happened. On a rainy Tuesday morning I had a job interview at an English academy in a town 30 minutes away. I won’t know the outcome of that interview until July.

Then the enquiries about English classes started trickling in. I had nowhere to hold my classes, so I went to see the mayor and he generously gave me use of a small room in one of Sanlúcar’s public buildings. Right now I have six classes a week, teaching both adults and children. While the majority of my students pay me the old-fashioned way, in money, one student pays me in vegetables and fruit grown on her land, and fresh eggs from her hens!

Then I landed the online editing job and got my first assignment. Time will tell how regular this job is, but I’m hopeful and I enjoy doing work that puts my academic skills to use.

For three days Julian worked on another yacht, repairing the electrics and installing a fridge. He was paid handsomely for his work and that made us both feel very positive.

A few days later he arrived home to announce he’d been offered a job at a bar/restaurant in Alcoutim. He hadn’t even been looking for a job, but on a whim casually asked the bar owner if he was looking for staff. Two days after asking that question he started his first shift and he’s now working full-time from now until October!

What a relief. I feel 20kg lighter! From the blues of indecision and uncertainty in April, we have started May feeling the joy of knowing we are now earning enough money to stay here on the river for another school year.

I was never worried about earning money. I knew that if we had to we could return to the UK and find jobs. It was that period of not knowing whether we would stay on the Guadiana that got me down. I was sad at the prospect of going before I felt ready to leave.

And all of a sudden things have fallen into place. Julian has a temporary full-time job and I have two part-time jobs that I can fit around the children; I have my writing – some of which I know will earn me money in the coming months; and I am awaiting the outcome of that job interview.

We can now make plans for more than a week or two in advance; we can plan our summer and autumn. The girls can look forward to another year in school in Sanlúcar and we can all return to enjoying life without the stress and worries of how our short-term future will pan out.

Orange grove

On the spur of the moment we walk north on the Spanish side of the river, along the old goat track now marked for walkers. It is a walk we have both done before, alone, together, with the children, walking just for walking’s sake or walking to visit friends who live upriver.

The path is uneven, at times laid down with rough stones, meandering up and down the hills that line the river, steep rock walls on one side, the land falling sharply away to the river on the other. It is a warm morning and soon I stop to remove my fleece top and tie it around my waist. We walk fast, stretching out our legs, our heart rates quickening, uphill climbs rendering us breathless, sweat on our brows and trickling down our backs. By the time we cross the dry creek we are thirsty from our exertions.

Up the other side of the creek we climb over the sheep fence to get back on the trail. The old whitewashed well stands in front of a grove of orange trees. The trees are heavy with fruit and the ground is littered with fallen oranges. The air is heady with the rich fragrance of the white orange blossoms.

I reach for the metal bucket sitting on top of the well and lower it by its thick rope into the water, watching it fall into the dark pool below. I pull the bucket up, half full of water. We cup our hands and slake our thirst on the delicious cool clear water. Water runs down our chins, wetting our t-shirts and wrists. We laugh at the satisfaction and joy we feel from this simple and timeless act.

Julian plucks an orange from the tree, rips it open and gives me half. Despite its small size and the number of pips inside, it is unbelievably sweet and juicy. We each pluck one more, two, three, gorging on the juicy flesh of these spectacular fruits. My chin is sticky, and my hands and wrists. I eat six oranges, one straight after the other, feeling wild and alive.

We wash our hands and faces in the water from the bucket, take another draught, and carry on walking, our connection to the land somehow stronger for its having fed us and quenched our thirst.

Wildflowers

On geography field trips to New York, my colleague Henry Buller exhorted our students to look up, to raise their gaze and take in the splendour above street level. So much of what is great about Manhattan is upwards – the magnificent architecture, the iconic facades, the murals, the life of a city built upwards and upwards. Neck craned and an upward gaze, that’s the way to take in Manhattan.

If I was to have visitors to the Rio Guadiana at this time of year my advice would be the opposite. Look down. Focus on the ground. In fact, get down on the ground. Draw your attention into the minute grandeur of the riotous life at your feet.

In The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane eloquently describes the miniscule universes of floral life in the grykes in the limestone pavements of The Burren in Co. Clare in Ireland. He describes how his attention was drawn ever down, and the closer he looked, the more tiny splendour was revealed – profuse ecosystems of Arctic and Alpine flowers, each individual flower so tiny and delicate as to be easily overlooked by the casual passerby. But take the time to get low to the ground, nose to petal, and a diverse world of colour and beauty reveals itself.

Here on the banks of the Guadiana I have been getting down to ground level, knees dusty or muddy, chin on the grass, marvelling at the tiny perfection of the wildflowers that have suddenly burst into a riot of colour. Walking the old goat path south above the river, the land around is a haze of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, blues. Get a little closer, and each individual flower is tiny perfection, delicate, ethereal, some tinier than a quarter of the nail on my little finger, others big and brash and showy.

Walk upwards from Sanlúcar towards the castle to find entirely different flowers to those a half mile down river. Walk north a half mile and there are different species still, each delicate species with its own niche along the river. They are all beautiful beyond words. And that’s my problem. I lack the words to adequately describe what is around me. Oh to be Robert MacFarlane.

I’m not much of a photographer either, but I’ve captured a sample of some of these delightful flowers on an hour long walk south along the river yesterday. Enjoy.

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Carnival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home

These days Katie gets very indignant when I say seemingly innocent things such as ‘Let’s go home’, or ‘You left your coat at home’.
‘It’s not my home’, she scowls at me, hands on her hips, making a face that is endearingly comical. ‘Carina is my home’.
And she’s right. Carina is her home. Unlike the other three of us, Katie has lived more of her life aboard Carina than anywhere else. And she misses home terribly. She misses the physical space that is her home. She misses her own bed, the toys she has left behind, her dressing up bag. She has great plans for all the things she plans as soon as she gets back home. She also misses the river where Carina is currently anchored and, at every opportunity, tells anyone who will listen how great the river is. We are on a countdown now to going home – not home to a geographical location, but home to the structure in which we live – our boat.

I’ve pondered the concept of home a lot over the years. What does home mean to me? And how have my conceptualisations of home changed over time?

An aerial photo of our house, taken (I think) in the 1950s.

An aerial photo of our house, taken (judging by the TV aerial) in the 1960s.

I grew up in the middle of Ireland in the house where generations of my family were born and died. My family has been living in our little cottage outside Edenderry since the 1880s. Growing up, half of our neighbours were Daddy’s cousins and the other half had also been in the area for generations. My home extended beyond the house to the fields, hedgerows, trees and woodlands in all directions. I knew it all intimately. I knew the names of the fields, the names of some individual trees, the names and stories of the people who had once lived in houses that were now mere piles of rubble overgrown with ivy and ash trees. My personal history extended back to long before I was born, as I played and walked with my dog and picnicked in places imbued with stories passed on to me by my Nana and other elderly relatives. My Nana was born in 1900 and my grandfather (who died in 1942) was born in 1875, so I am very conscious of being only two generations away from the Ireland I learned about in history lessons at school.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin' Donkey.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin’ Donkey.

I suspect I will never know any place as well as I know my first home. I dwelled in it so deeply, it seeped into my soul, like bog water darkening the bones of Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen. I grew up and I went away, but always I returned home. I lived in Japan for three years and though I had a wonderful time there, it never felt like home. Perhaps because my closest friends were other expats, or because I lived alone, or because I lacked the language to effectively communicate, I always felt like an outsider. There were particular places I loved – a shrine, a mountain path – but I never got beyond their external beauty or peacefulness to know their history and their meaning to local people. Places lacked depth for me.

Nunavut was different. Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, became home when I lived there in the early 2000s. Unlike Japan, my closest friends were local people, long term residents, families, people of all ages. The people I lived with became my family. My research explored the relationship between the people of Arviat and the sea. I learned what the place meant to people. The landscape and seascape around Arviat became imbued with history and memory and each time I went on the land or to sea, places became more meaningful to me as my memories and experiences became entwined with the stories my companions and friends told me.

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

I left Ireland when I was 22 years old and have lived there on and off in the intervening twenty years. And in that time, my home has changed and I have changed. The physical landscape has changed – more infrastructure, more urban and rural development, and more people. I no longer know the places of my childhood as well as I once did. And where once I knew everyone I met on the road or on the streets of Edenderry, these days there are so many people I don’t know. I have also lost many close family members whose presence was implicit in my sense of home – Daddy, my uncle Tom, my aunt Lily, my uncle Gerry. Home resided in them. I still have a huge vast extended family back in Ireland, including my mother and sister. But these days, given what eager travellers they are, I’m as likely to hang out with Mammy and Antoinette in places other than Edenderry, and so my sense of family and my sense of home as place have become unglued from each other. We’re family no matter where we are.

Which I guess brings me to the most remarkable thing that happened to cause me to change my conception of home. I got married and had a family of my own. In the four and a half years Julian and I were together before Lily was born, we lived in four different places – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Littleport, Cambridge. As we uprooted from place we became rooted to each other. And when the girls were still very young, we decided to buy a boat and set sail. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we don’t stay in any place for very long.

So, where is home now? I’ve had this discussion with Lily and Katie quite a lot, especially this summer, when we’ve become uprooted from our boat and have moved temporarily back to the UK. Home, for me, is wherever the four of us are together. It’s not a physical place. Our roots are in each other. I consider Carina to be our home, but she will likely not be our home forever. No matter where we live, or what type of accommodation we live in, home for me is the comfort and stability of being together as a family. And that’s why, when I hang out with my mum and sister on the boat, or in a hotel room, in New York or in Vienna, we’re home, because we’re with each other.

Over the years the symbols of home have become less important. I’m less concerned about being Irish or being from Kildare or Edenderry than I used to be. That kind of nationalism and tribalism has lost much of its meaning for me now. My memories of place – the home of my childhood – remain strong and inform the way I live my life today. I suspect no place will ever affect me as strongly and deeply as the place where I grew up. Home used to be people-rooted-in-place. But these days, home is far less about place and far more about people. These days home is that ever moving location where I live with my family.