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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Food movement

I get a message on my phone from Narciso, asking if I’d like a pumpkin. I immediately reply in the affirmative and the next day Julian and the girls set off to meet Narciso at his vegetable patch. They return home with a monster – green and orange and so massive the girls can barely get their arms around it. With some difficulty, Julian slices it open, gives a third to Clare and a third to Hazel, our nearest neighbours on the pontoon that day. He keeps a third for ourselves and makes enough pumpkin soup to last us three meals and with plenty of pumpkin to spare to roast for dinner. He roasts the seeds for snacking on.

Spike appears and asks if we’d like some oranges. Yes, please, I say, and he returns to his car and brings me down two crates of big juicy oranges from the trees on his land. I give half of them away.

At school one morning, Sawa practically begs me to come and take some lemons from the tree in her garden. The tree is getting too big and they want to cut it back once all the lemons have gone. The next morning Julian takes a bagful.

When we’re down to the last four or five of Spike’s oranges, English Diana knocks on the side of the boat. She hands me a shopping bag full of oranges from the trees on her land. The next morning there’s a message on my phone from Kate, informing me that she’s left a bag of grapefruits in our dinghy. There are far too many for our meagre needs, so I share them with Clare and with Andrew, who I happen to bump into on the pontoon.

Clare knocks on the boat to ask if we’d like some coriander. Pablo, at the market, gives it away free with every purchase, and he’s given Clare too much. We love coriander and are delighted to take it.

Spanish Diana comes down to the boat. She’s been given a glut of fruit and vegetables by Luis Jose. Can I come to her house and please relieve her of some of them. I grab two shopping bags and she can barely get in her door for the bags of produce stacked outside. She gives me two massive cauliflowers, twenty or more oranges and a giant shopping bag full of spinach. I return to the boat, giving Clare one cauliflower and a quarter of the spinach as I walk past. I send Hazel a message, asking if she’d like some spinach too. She takes another quarter.

Julian forages most days and returns with chard, asparagus and alexanders. On this day, he returns home with a large bunch of asparagus. I’ve only just shared the cauliflower and spinach with Clare, and now Julian’s knocking on her boat and giving her asparagus too. ‘We’re going to have to invite more people round to dinner’, Clare laughs.

Narciso sends me another message. Do I know who has the key to the gate into the plot of land next to his vegetable patch? I don’t. The land is untended and supposedly owned by some ex-pat who doesn’t currently live here. The oranges are falling off the trees and rotting on the ground. Someone should be going in there and getting the oranges, Narciso says. I tell him I’ll try to find out whose land it is and who has the key.

That’s all happened in the last ten days. ‘The food movement’ sort of takes on a different meaning here on the Rio Guadiana!

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!!)

Generosity

At the Medieval fair a Spanish woman in her 60s came up to me. She was someone I had not seen before around the village. ‘You are the mother of the two little blond girls?’ she asked. ‘You live on a boat?’ Yes, I told her, that’s me. ‘We own the house on the corner’, she told me. ‘I see your daughters playing on the pontoon’. She said she’d been hoping to see me, because she wanted to invite the girls to use her swimming pool. She said her husband had emptied and cleaned the pool earlier in the day and tomorrow, when he refilled it, he would not fill it to the top, so it wouldn’t be too deep for the girls. I thanked her for her generous offer and said we would love to. But in the way of these things, I didn’t imagine it would actually happen. We parted ways by me telling her my name and she telling me her name is Marie Jose.

I thought no more about her offer until two days later when there was a knock on the side of the boat. It was Rosa, the harbour master, with the key to Marie Jose’s house in her hand. Before leaving their weekend/holiday home in Sanlúcar to return to their permanent home in Huelva, Marie Jose had given the key to Rosa, with instructions that my girls and their friends make use of the pool. I walked up to the house with Rosa; she showed me which key to use, where the outdoor furniture was stored and where to find the toilet and shower.

I was gobsmacked. These people, who don’t know me from Adam, an extranjero living like a vagrant on a boat, had given me the key to their beautiful home and the use of their lovely roof-top swimming pool with its views over the river.

What fun the girls had, playing with a friend in the pool while I drank wine and chatted with their friend’s mum. A week later, when I finally had an opportunity to thank Marie Jose and her husband, Pepe, they insisted we use the pool any time we want. Such kindness meant so much to us – going to the pool was like a little holiday away from home, only 100 metres up the hill from our boat.

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Chris asked me to take what I wanted from this mouth watering selection

Marie Jose and Pepe are not the only ones whose generosity has touched me in recent weeks. I don’t remember the last time I bought vegetables. I wrote before about one of my English language students who pays me in vegetables and eggs instead of cold hard cash. Manoli’s potatoes, onions, lettuce, courgettes, cucumbers, green beans and eggs are enough to get us through about half the week. The other half of the week we are provided for by friends along the river, whose fecund plots are currently producing a glut of vegetables. The morning Chris came alongside in his little boat with buckets filled with green peppers, aubergines, courgettes, cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes and cucumbers. He insisted I take my pick. Chris regularly brings us lots of food from his plot of land and over recent weeks we have been spoiled with courgettes from Sue and Robin, chard from Paul and Diana and eggs from Kate and Bob.

There is other generosity too – Felipe’s ebullient insistence on always treating me to food and beer when I meet him; Candido slipping money into Katie’s hand when by back was turned so she could buy sweets; Lily and Katie’s invitation to the birthday party of a three-year old girl they didn’t know, simply because all their other friends had been invited; the mayor giving me use of a room for my English classes; Joe and Fiona giving us the use of their mooring upriver; another Joe fixing our outboard motor.

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Felipe invited the girls and I to join him and his family on a excursion upriver

We are outsiders in this village. We have no history here; we have no blood ties to anyone here. Yet, through small and not so small acts of kindness and generosity, we are made to feel welcome and part of the community, whether that’s the community of extranjero’s who live on boats and smallholdings along the river, or the community of Sanlúceños who, in embracing our children into village life, have, by extension, embraced me and Julian as well.

I have travelled a great deal in my life and have lived for extended periods of time in Japan, Nunavut, the UK and now Spain. I always feel uncomfortable when people say things such as ‘The Japanese are the most generous people in the world’ or ‘The Inuit are the most welcoming people in the world’ – or insert a nationality or culture of your choice. Because there are kind, welcoming, generous people everywhere. Everywhere I have travelled to and lived I have met people whose kindness, generosity and patience with me, a culturally and linguistically befuddled outsider, has been humbling. This little corner of Spain and Portugal is not different.

One year on the Río Guadiana

Next week marks a year since we sailed Carina into the Río Guadiana. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned north from the Atlantic coast of southern Spain and into the river, but it wasn’t this. Live aboards we met on Ilha da Culatra in the autumn of 2014 sang the praises of the river and told us we had to check it out. We sailed past on our way into the Mediterranean, but sailing west back out of the Med seven months later, we thought we’d better go see what all the fuss was about.

I had heard of the strong floods that visit the river from time to time, and I knew there were two marinas not far from the river mouth – Ayamonte in Spain and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. And I knew the river was navigable some way up. Beyond that I knew nothing. I had seen no photographs or charts, read no pilot books or websites, and had only vague recollections of conversations in the bar in Ilha da Culatra months before.

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Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

In my imagination I saw a smaller river, darkened by overhanging trees. I suppose because the flooding was upmost in my mind, I saw pewter skies overhead, pregnant with rain. I imagined a river running through a rainforest, not a river in drought-prone southern Iberia.

So much for my imagination. I remember the most surprising thing upon first entering the river was its width and the flatness of the surrounding land. We spent our first night in the marina in Vila Real de Santa Antonio, on the outside pontoon, with a clear view across almost a kilometre of river to Ayamonte in Spain. We arrived just after dawn on a cloudless day. Vila Real, with its predominantly white architecture and paving, was bright and fresh. I looked across the fast flowing river to the vast expanses of sand dunes and beaches south of Ayamonte and laughed at how wildly off target my imagination had been.

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Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Our plan was to motor twenty-two miles upriver to some place that had pontoons and good anchoring. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Once again I had no idea what to expect. We departed Vila Real on the flood tide and motored for four hours through a riparian landscape that grew narrower and more hilly the farther north we went. I was agog at each new splendid and surprising sight – herds of sheep and goats on the hillsides, white washed cottages and large haciendas, orange and lemon groves, herons and egrets, cormorants and swallows, fish throwing themselves bodily out of the water.

We passed a couple of small settlements and clusters of yachts on moorings, and then twenty-two miles up we rounded a bend in the river and ahead were the splendid whitewashed villages of Alcoutim and Sanlúcar, facing each other across 200 metres of river, the latter overlooked by a massive white fortification on a nearby hill. As we slowed, a man (who we later discovered to be Ted) came up in his dinghy and advised us on a good place to anchor. We anchored south of the villages, turned off the motor and I was thrilled by the sounds I heard – sheep bleating and the heavy bells around their necks ringing, a donkey braying, and woven through it all, birdsong. Could we have found ourselves in a more delightful place?

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Sanlucar (foreground) and Alcoutim (background)

We didn’t intend to stay very long. As I recall, we had a vague plan to make our way back to Galicia. Yet the Guadiana sucked us in. After a couple of weeks we decided to register the girls in school for the start of the next school year, thus committing ourselves to the river for the medium term at least. The unexpected five months back in the UK did nothing to dim our enthusiasm for the river and we returned in November keen to fully immerse ourselves in river life again.

And here we are. Carina has not left the river in a year, the girls are in school, and we find ourselves part of three communities. We are inevitably part of the ex-pat community of yachties and small-holders, people from diverse backgrounds who have been here for days or months or decades. One of the unexpected side effects of the girls going to school is that we have become part of the community in Sanlúcar, as outsiders of course, but nonetheless welcomed and accepted by the other families in the village, as we take the girls to birthday parties, and participate in school and community activities. And in Alcoutim we have come to know a small number of local people.

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That first nerve-racking morning of school now seems so long ago!

We continue to delight in walking the many paths up and down the river or east and west away from the river. We enjoy the changes that come with each season. All four of us continue to improve our Spanish language abilities, to learn more about local history, culture and politics, and to find ways to contribute to community life.

And now it is coming close to decision time. Do we stay or do we go? Our conversations on this topic are long and frequent. We have reasons to stay and reasons to go. I guess you’ll have to watch this space and see what conclusion we reach in the next month or so!

Departures

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sleepover

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.

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!!

Rugrats

Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.

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Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.

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Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

House or boat? Part 2

Last Thursday I took the girls to Stratford-upon-Avon for a day of performance workshops at Stratford Arts House. I got talking to a woman in her 70s who was there with her six-year old granddaughter. Her granddaughter lives in the Peak District and, with her younger brother, was visiting her grandparents in Stratford during school half-term.
‘Do you have other grandchildren?’ I asked her.
She told me her grandchildren are, to use her words, ‘scattered all over the place’. As well as the two in the Peak District she has three in Herefordshire and two in Watford.
I told her she should count herself lucky and explained that, because we live on a boat, Lily and Katie’s three grandparents have greater difficulty in pinning their only grandchildren down and generally don’t get to see them very often.

I thought about that conversation as I considered the emotional and relational aspects of our chosen lifestyle. I thought too about the relationships of my childhood and about how in the past five and a half months Lily and Katie have spent more time with their grandparents than ever before.

I grew up in the same house as one of my grandmothers and, from the day I started school until my final year at school, thirteen years later, I went to my other grandmother’s house for lunch every day. My aunt Cissie lived in our house too and my uncle Tom visited almost every day. I was raised as much by my grandmothers, Cissie, Tom, and my aunt Lily and uncle Jerry, as I was by my own parents. I moved between those adults knowing I was cared for and loved and that nothing bad would ever happen to me when I had all those people (and many more besides) as well as my wonderful parents looking out for me. It probably made life a bit easier for my parents too, knowing all those other trusted family members were helping to raise me too.

Julian and I have had a taste of that in these past five months. The girls adore their Grandma and Granddad and the feelings are mutual. How different a prolonged stay has been to the short weekend or weeklong visits they’ve enjoyed in the past. The girls and their grandparents have gotten to know each other better, developed routines around each other, have learned from each other, and have really enjoyed each other’s company. My parents-in-law have been there for Julian and me too, taking care of the girls and of us, making life a lot easier for us in the past five months than it would have been if we had attempted this temporary return to the UK without them.

So all of this is a slightly long-winded rumination on the impact our lifestyle has on our relationships with family and friends. I know that even if we lived in a house we might not live close to other family members, but at least we would be more sedentary, easier to pin down and easier to make plans around. In summer 2014, when Mammy was planning to visit us in October, we advised her to fly into Malaga. We didn’t know exactly where we were going to be by the date her visit rolled around, but we knew we would be somewhere within a two hour drive east or west of that airport. We’re fine with that level of fluidity in our lives, but we appreciate that it is more difficult and stressful for family members who like to know where they’re going when they plan an overseas trip! Not everyone is as fly by the seat of your pants as Julian and me!

Living on our boat, our relationships with our parents are maintained primarily through telephone calls, Skype, emails and text messages. The girls chat to their grandmothers on Skype regularly and their grandfather telephones a couple of times a week. But because of our remote and ever-moving lifestyle, I think our relationships with other family members suffer. We’re rarely at home (in either the UK or Ireland) for family get-togethers – weddings, birthday parties, funerals, annual events such as Christmas or, in my case, annual anniversary Masses for deceased family members. And so our lifestyle has caused the loosening of ties with extended family members that might be stronger if we were more sedentary. I know our family is always there, but I regret that Lily and Katie don’t have as strong relationships with their extended family as I did.

And then there’s the matter of friendship. Living on a boat, moving around all the time, we often develop short but intensive friendships, particularly with other sailors. Live-aboards with children seek each other out, and the children develop quick friendships. Julian and I have developed true friendships with some of the parents of those children, and have yet to meet a set of parents that we didn’t enjoy hanging out with for an afternoon or a few days. We’ve also been befriended by many people without children aboard their boats – older couples, single people, and so on – who have enriched our lives. In many cases we continue to keep sporadic touch by email and those emails usually end with hopes that we will one day meet up again.

But those short friendships are quite different to the long-term year-after-year, through thick and thin friendships one can develop when living a more sedentary life. When times are tough or when times are good it is the friends I’ve had since I was four or eight or seventeen or twenty-three or thirty-nine that I turn to, because they are the ones who know me best. I remain in touch with them by Skype, email, telephone and social media. Deep true friendship takes time and that is not something we have a lot of when we are all moving off in different directions in our boats.

Just like us adults, the girls also don’t have sufficient time to develop lasting friendships with other children or adults, and that is something that both Julian and I are very conscious of and sometimes concerned about.

But I also have to remind myself that everyone’s experience of growing up and of friendship is different. Mine, though it seems idyllic to me in hindsight, is only one model for family and childhood. Many children grow up far from their extended families; many families move house regularly. No doubt uprootedness can be traumatic. But so can rootedness, if your roots are in the wrong soil or stunted by the wrong conditions.

Aboard Carina we are the model nuclear family – two parents, two children. Our first relationships are with each other. We are, by necessity and by choice, each others’ best friends. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish I had one of my other best friends around – the women who’ve know me for years – to let off some steam with, share a bottle of wine, have a good womanly chat.

Julian and I encourage the girls to keep in touch with their grandparents and, to a lesser extent, with extended family members (if you’ve got a family as big as mine you’ll understand!). We also encourage the girls to make friends along the way, no matter how short-lived those friendships are going to be. Because getting to know other human beings is surely one of the greatest joys of being a human being.

I ended the post earlier this week by saying I would choose boat over house. And after thinking about family relationships and friendship I say the same. Relationships have to be approached, negotiated and performed differently (says the anthropologist..haha) but no matter where we live, what seems important to me, as a parent, is nurturing in my children an openness to getting to know and understand other human beings, and sharing something of themselves, no matter how fleeting or enduring those encounters might be.

To My Friends by Primo Levi (my friend Michael Harkin sent me this poem in a letter in 1997)
Dear friends, and here I say friends
in the broadest sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.