Not quite to plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sailing with Roy

‘Do you have any sailing plans for this summer?’ I asked my friend Roy in early June.

‘I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I enjoy sailing more when I’ve got someone onboard to share the experience with’.

We’ve known Roy for a couple of years now, another Rio Guadiana live aboard, on Sea Warrior, his Great Barrier 48.

I walked away from Roy that day and a couple of hours later a thought struck me. Would Roy go sailing if I went along? With Julian working five days a week, Carina hasn’t been out of the river in over two years, and I’ve been itching to go sailing for ages. The next time I met Roy, I put it to him. He thought it was a great idea. In mid-July the girls would be in Ireland with their Granny and if I could rearrange some commitments I had in Alcoutím, I would be free to go sailing for a week or so. A few days later everything was sorted out, and Roy and I agreed to set sail a couple of days after I returned from Ireland on July 18th. Roy agreed to provision Sea Warrior, and I would pay for my share of the food and drink once I got aboard.

On Thursday afternoon, July 20th, I climbed aboard Sea Warrior at her anchorage upriver of Alcoutím. After a cup of tea and a walk through the boat, we were ready to set sail.


Rio The bridge linking Spain and Portugal across the Rio Guadiana

And sail we did. Before we had even reached Sanlúcar (which lies slightly upriver from its Portuguese neighbour Alcoutím) the mizzen was raised, the headsail unfurled, the engine cut and we enjoyed a delightful four-hour, 20-mile sail almost all the way to the mouth of the Guadiana. We were forced to motor only once, for the few minutes it took to round the S-bend upriver of Laranjeiras, when the wind came from the wrong direction and Sea Warrior was stopped in her tracks. Roy was keen to get sailing again before we passed Laranjeiras and Sea Warrior’s former owner, Scot. We achieved it, our shouts rousing Scot from his mid-afternoon siesta, as we sailed past and he none the wiser!

How different the river feels when sailed. With the engine running, the passage downriver is drowned in noise and one passes along rather than through the landscape. Without the engine roar we were immersed in a soundscape of birdsong, sheep bells, the wind in the sails and the sounds of the river itself. At times our attention was drawn to a fish leaping from the water; the first leap a mere flash of silver in the corner of the eye; the second a foot-long fish, moving at speed through the air, droplets of river water glistening in the sun. If we were lucky, we were treated to a third leap, but never a fourth, and had to wait patiently until another glint of silver caught the eye.

We pointed out egrets to each other, white cotton bolls on spindly legs patrolling the exposed muddy edge of the river.

For the first few miles we passed the boats, homesteads and fincas of friends and acquaintances and the farther we came downriver, the lower and sparser the hills until almost at the bridge that connects Spain and Portugal, where the riverbank gives way to a wide floodplain.


We anchored upriver of the bridge, near a small tributary on the Portuguese side, where a herd of brown and cream coloured cows (presumably, one type for producing milk chocolate and the other for white chocolate!) grazed at the river’s edge.

The next day, with a strong wind in the wrong direction, we motored under the bridge, filled up with diesel and petrol at the fuel pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and crossed the river to anchor south of Ayamonte. It was a lazy day. I did a couple of hours work (one of the joys of my editing job is that I can do it wherever and whenever so long as I bring my computer and my brain with me), and spent the rest of the day reading and chatting with Roy.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am the next morning, with a 5.30 start in mind. But by the time we’d had a cup of tea, stowed everything out of harm’s way and battened down the hatches, it was 6am when Roy weighed anchor. What luck! Within minutes we had once again thrown the sails out, turned off the engine, and were making our way out of the Rio Guadiana and sailing west towards Ilha da Culatra with a Force 7 abaft the beam. For three hours we made good ground, with wind and tide in our favour. It was exhilarating to be sailing on the ocean again, although Roy’s idea of sailing – to set the autohelm and go to sleep – is somewhat different to sailing Carina, where we don’t even have a properly functioning autohelm! I teased Roy about his ‘Ghost helmsman’ for the rest of the trip.


(I jest about Roy, of course! He’s very careful and I was on watch when I took this photo).

After three hours the wind died to nothing and there was nothing for it but to motor the rest of the way. Even so, we had a tremendously pleasant time. Not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the seawater almost peacock blue, and the white sandy Algarve beaches almost too bright to look at.


The sea really was this blue!

We rounded the mole at Culatra at 1pm and were anchored amongst the boats of friends in time for lunch. Since September 2014, when we spent nine days at Culatra aboard Carina, I have longed to come back. My only regret this time was that Lily and Katie weren’t with me. When I phoned to tell them all about what I was getting up to in Culatra neither of them could remember it, so I emailed them photos of themselves there three years ago, to try to jog their memories.

Culatra is a remarkable sand barrier island. The small village is built on the sand, with concrete and wooden walkways as streets. There are no cars, and only a few tractors and golf buggies. Much of the Rio Guadiana live aboard community decamps to Culatra in the summer, where the temperatures are cooler than upriver. Roy and I got to catch up with many of our friends  – meeting them in the local bars, or visiting them on their boats.


Culatra fishermen waiting for their skipper and a night at sea

Sea Warrior sat at anchor off Culatra for five nights, and we went ashore each day for walks along the long sandy beach, to swim in the Atlantic and to drink beer with friends. We visited Ray and Pat one day aboard Tinto, walking across the sand to the catamaran, but having to be chauffeured back ashore when the tide came in and the beach was now 100 metres away!

Back on Sea Warrior I got away with doing only two hours computer work each day, the rest of my time was devoted to reading and gazing at the beautiful seascape. I distinctly remember the last time I did so little – the spring of 2005 when I went on a week-long holiday to Lanzarote with my mother and sister. Those five days in Culatra recharged my batteries, leaving me keen and eager to throw myself headlong into some summer projects.


…and, in a desperate bid to escape my incessant talking…..

At 8am Thursday morning we weighed anchored and motored away from our mill-pond still anchorage. Given the weather forecast, we fully expected to motor all the way back to the Guadiana, but about an hour in we decided to give sailing a go. After some adventure involving a stubborn halyard and a daredevil ascent of the main mast, Roy raised the mainsail and the mizzen and unfurled the headsail and upside down sail. Although there was no hope of us ever winning a race, we pleasantly made our way east at between 3.5 and 5 knots. The sea was flat with a surface like cellulite rather than glass! What bliss. Sea Warrior smoothly made her way through the water and about ten hours after leaving Culatra we were once again at the mouth of the Guadiana. How far would Sea Warrior’s sails take us, we wondered? Past Vila Real? Past Ayamonte? Under the bridge? In fact, she took us all the way to our anchorage, once again back by the tributary and the chocolate-flavoured cows.

We didn’t have the tide in our favour until the middle of the next afternoon, so after a lazy morning and leisurely lunch, we started out up the river. For three hours we pootled along under motor, the head sail giving us an extra half knot of speed. Before long, we were passing familiar stretches of riverbank, once again pointing out the boats and plots of land belonging to our friends. As we passed Casa Amarilla, Claire waved down to us from her balcony and, as we slowly motored past Sanlúcar seeking a space on the pontoon, I heard someone shouting ‘Hola Martina’. Though I couldn’t at first see where it was coming from, I recognised the unmistakable voice of Steve. By the time I spotted him on his balcony Lynne was out too, shouting her hellos at me. Though I was sorry to be at the end of our trip, I was happy to be coming home.


One of the many delicious vegetarian meals Roy cooked for me.

Despite the Ghost helmsman, Roy proved an excellent skipper and an even better friend. I learned some new recipes from him, he restored my confidence in my own sailing abilities, and he inspired me to attempt some boat maintenance tasks aboard Carina. Alas, he broke my heart. We weren’t an hour back in Sanlúcar, enjoying a cold beer with friends, as I awaited the arrival of my hardworking husband, when Roy started hatching a plan to sail to Culatra again next week with another woman!! These fickle sailors!

Delightful finds

I’m a snooper by nature. Not of peoples’ drawers or cupboards, letters or bills or diaries. I’m a snooper of bookshelves and of film and music collections. You can tell a lot about what you might have in common with someone by browsing along their bookcases or through their DVDs and CDs.

Our Bohemian friend doesn’t have a bookcase here in his cabins in the woods or a neatly alphabetically-ordered collection of films and music. Instead, his entertainments are scattered here and there – in the studio, under and between a stack of glossy bullfighting magazines (the latter related to a recent art project it would seem); in the kitchen, under an egg box containing a single egg of unknown age or behind a bottle of olive oil; in the bedroom, under the bed. The CDs are woefully mixed up, some cases empty, others containing five CDs, none of which belong in that particular case, and free-roaming CDs apparently independent of any case.

So rather than that browsing I usually like to do in a friend’s house (while the friend has gone off to make a pot of tea, change a baby’s nappy, or for some other reason has left me alone in the company of their books, films or music), here in the cabins in the woods, these things reveal themselves at unexpected moments and are all the more pleasurable for it.

When I finally find a saw to cut firewood I discover Brave New World and a collection of selected poems by Pablo Neruda, delightfully presented in their original Spanish on one page with an English translation on the opposing page. I forget sawing wood for half an hour as I dip into Neruda, a pleasure for which, ironically, words fail me. I have long wanted to read Brave New World, so as soon as I come to the end of the novel I’ve brought with me to the house, I embark on reading Huxley for the first time.

I find Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, one of my all-time favourite albums, my own copy sadly lost long ago. A live Mamas and the Papas CD has Julian and me grinning like idiots one night after the kids have gone to bed as we turn the volume up to eleventy-stupid and swoon at Mama Cass singing Wild women.

Amongst the DVD collection I find the complete set of Fawlty Towers. I haven’t watched any episodes yet, but on this upcoming long weekend, I think it might be time to educate the children!! I find both 2001: A Space Odyssy and Moon, neither of which I have seen before, both of which I have wanted to see for a long time and, together with Brave New World, I am in sci-fi heaven. Michael Clayton is here too and Run Lola Run, neither of which I have seen, together with Pedro Almodovar’s (Todo Sobre mi Madre) All About My Mother (without English subtitles, which will be a challenge!).

As I sit on the bed writing this, I notice, for the first time, a stack of CDs and DVDs in amongst our friend’s shoes. A new find. I wonder what delights await me there!

And so, while living in the house of someone as apparently disorganised as our Bohemian friend can be a challenge at times, the disorganisation brings joy and rewards too. I sit by the river in the warm afternoon sunshine, reading Neruda aloud in Spanish, and I lie in bed at night reading Huxley. I decide that Keep the customers satisfied, a song I have overlooked for years, is my new favourite Simon and Garfunkel song (the horns!!) and I look forward to finally, finally, far too many years too late, watching 2001.


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.

At last I have my life back

Back in March, as friends on the river were preparing to sail to distant shores, a frenzy of movie and TV series swapping took place. Friends on one boat had an almost complete collection of Disney movies on hard drive. Friends on another boat had a collection of old and new movies more to my tastes as well as a collection of TV series. Other friends also had a hard drive containing five or six complete TV series. We, rather poorly equipped, had only a DVD collection of mostly children’s movies.

As we drank beer and wine while our kids played, we discussed our movie and TV preferences. One couple sang the praises of Poldark, another the joys of Deadwood, and all were in awe of Breaking Bad. Some liked Games of Thrones, others didn’t. Although I had heard of all of these, I had never seen any of them. Soon our friends were swapping hard drives and memory sticks, downloading each other’s collections of movies and series, and it wasn’t long before I got in on the game too and soon had developed an impressive collection of movies and series.

Julian was in the UK at the time, recovering from his nose operation and, rather than reading my book as usual when the girls went to bed, I started to dip into my new collection. I tried Game of Thrones, but after about ten minutes realised it wasn’t for me. The same with Poldark. Fantasies and costume dramas just aren’t my thing.

Next I tried Breaking Bad, a series about a chemistry teacher who uses his chemistry skills to produce methamphetamine. I’d heard about it and thought I might like it. I watched the pilot episode one night, but it made me feel so tense I didn’t want to watch any more. But about three days went by and I found myself wanting to know what happened next. And so began my addiction to Breaking Bad.

I found myself watching two or three episodes a night, and sometimes even squeezing one in while the girls were having their afternoon siesta. When Julian returned from the UK he quickly discovered he had become a Breaking Bad widower. I stayed up late into the night and then couldn’t sleep when I went to bed because my heart was beating so fast and I was so tense from what I had just watched on the screen of my laptop.

Knowing Julian’s tastes, I knew Breaking Bad wouldn’t appeal to him, and the only ten minutes he has ever watched is now seared on his brain.

In the space of two months I have watched every single episode of all five seasons. Disaster almost struck when, midway through season four I discovered that two of the episodes had not downloaded properly. What was I to do? I couldn’t just skip them. Like a methamphetamine junkie, I sought out people on the river who I thought might be fellow Breaking Bad addicts. There were dead ends and false hopes, until finally, after two weeks of withdrawal, a friend gave me his hard drive and I was able to download my lost episodes.

In two months I have read little, written little and household chores have been all but abandoned! Yesterday, much to Julian’s relief, I watched the final episode. Withdrawal is going to take a little while, but I can finally get my life back!!

What I’ve learned from yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for sixteen years. Not consistently. I start and stop. When there’s a class nearby I go. I’ve attended classes for a few months or even years. But when I move someplace where there are no yoga classes, then my practice wanes. I lack the self-discipline to practice on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve rolled my yoga mat out on the living room floor and given it a go. But in twenty minutes I rush through a yoga practice that takes an hour in class, and I skip the bits I find tough. I never skip the tough bits in class.

I love yoga for so many reasons. Before I ever tried yoga I used to wish to be put on one of those stretching racks you see in old movies, so that I could have my limbs and back stretched. When I attended my first yoga class I was astounded to discover that yoga practice is like being put on a rack. I’m not sure what I thought yoga was before that, but I never guessed it would satisfy my desire to stretch my limbs and my back.

I love yoga because it keeps me flexible and supple, it encourages me to concentrate and work on my posture, and it has taught me relaxation techniques that I can put into practice anytime anywhere. While I’m not consistent in my practice, I have breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques that I can call upon whenever I need them.

Going to a regular class this summer has drawn my attention to the one aspect of yoga that has influenced me more than any other. It has to do with my mind far more than my body. And it is something that has come to influence the way I think about and engage with other people, the approach I take to raising my children, and the way I approach my life in general. Like my posture, it’s not something I have perfected, but it’s something I work on and try to improve all the time.

Every yoga teacher I have ever had has advised and encouraged students to focus on their own practice. Don’t worry what anyone else around you is doing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Some students have more yoga experience than others, some are more bendy than others, some can stretch backwards but not forwards, some have better balance than others. Comparing yourself to anyone else is pointless. Focus on your own self – how your body feels, how it responds, how are you breathing, where is your focus. Don’t judge others for good or bad – look at him, he can’t touch his toes; I wish I could twist into a pretzel like her. Work on your own body and mind – on improving your own suppleness, your own breathing, your own relaxation.

Following the advice of a teacher I had a few years ago, I now practice yoga with my eyes closed for most of the class. If I open my eyes at all it is only to look at the teacher, so I can follow her example. Only she and I are in the class. I turn inwards, blocking out external sounds and the other students all round me, concentrating on improving and perfecting myself. Not comparing myself to anyone else.

And that piece of yoga advice infuses every aspect of my life. It’s made me stop comparing myself to other people. We’re all different. We have different body shapes and sizes, different life experiences, different dreams and hopes and fears. Why waste time comparing myself to the tall slim elegant woman that I will never be, when I could be focusing on working with the raw material that my genetic and environmental heritage has given me. Why compare where I am in life with the success or lack of success of others my age. Either accept myself as I am or work to change. And if I choose to change, accept that the change is mine. I will never be anyone other than who I am.

Don’t judge people because they look different to me – short, tall, fat, skinny, symmetrical or asymmetrical features. Don’t judge people because they live different lives to me – they have more money or less money, they work or they don’t work, they come from different cultures or backgrounds. It’s all a waste of the precious short time we have on Earth to compare ourselves to others. Yoga has taught me to accept people as they are, and to concentrate either on accepting myself as I am, or striving to change who I am in a way that is mine alone. It has taught me to live in the world in a way that feels right to me, not in a way that I think society will approve of.

My approach to raising my children and home educating them is also inspired by this yoga lesson. Don’t compare. I don’t compare my children to anyone else’s. I don’t care how my girls compare to other four and six year olds. We all develop differently. I’m not interested in when someone else’s child learned to read or do long division or recite the collected works of Shakespeare while unicycling up Mt Everest. And because my kids are home schooled, I’m not interested in comparing them to National Curriculum or other formal education targets. All our children are brilliant and just like adults, they are figuring the world out for themselves, each one is his or her unique way.

I also strive to not compare my children to each other. It doesn’t help me or them to compare the age at which either one developed particular skills, or to compare their motor skills or athletic abilities. They’re different. They’re built differently, they have different personalities, they approach learning in different ways, so comparing them is futile. I’m not saying I don’t ever do this, but when I do, I catch myself and put a stop to that train of thought.

And finally, not comparing myself to others has informed my approach to life in general. I live on a boat, for goodness sake, in a tiny space with very little money. If I compared myself to others I’d realise this is foolhardy – we have no rainy day savings, no pension plan, no fancy clothes or telecommunications systems. There are sailors out there who have bulging bank accounts and boats fancier than ours, and sailors who make us look rich by comparison. But we’re all following our own paths, each with our own unique goals. So it’s better to concentrate and focus on living my life, on my family, on my goals and dreams, on working with the resources I have at my disposal, than wasting my time comparing myself to others.

Banishing comparison frees the mind up to enjoy other people much more. When someone tells me about their child’s achievement I can genuinely enjoy what that child has done and not worry that my kids haven’t achieved the same. When someone shows me around their brand new half a million pound yacht I can genuinely enjoy the experience, congratulate them on their beautiful home, admire what they have, but not wish that we lived in such splendour. Because we have Carina, and our own lives are splendid. When I see a beautiful or elegant woman I can enjoy her beauty and not worry that I don’t look like her. I can enjoy the success of others and not compare my own achievements. There’s a great freedom in all that.

The breathing, stretching and relaxation techniques I have learned through practicing yoga are immensely beneficial to my life. They calm me, centre me, give me the skills and tools to de-stress and to self-heal aches and pains. But it is focus that has informed and influenced my life more than anything else. Just like my breathing and stretching and relaxation, I haven’t yet perfected my inward focus and concentrating on my own life’s practice. Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I thought it was silly that people could practice tea ceremony for decades and still never get it right. I missed the point. Perfection is unattainable. The important thing is striving for it. I may never have the perfect forward bend, but trying to perfect it feels good. I may never be able to completely banish external thoughts from my relaxation practice, but trying to feels good. And I may never be able to completely stop comparing myself to others, but trying to perfect my focus opens up a world of wondrous encounters with others, free from comparison and judgement.

Frost, birdseed and bringing in the turf


Little farmers

When we first came home to Ireland, all of two weeks ago, Lily and Katie weren’t terribly interested in playing in the garden. They were happy to go out when Granny or I were outside, but they had no desire to be there on their own. But then two things happened. First, we went down to Rosscarbery, in West Cork to visit my aunt and uncle, and the girls wanted to be in their garden all the time. Second, on our first morning back from Cork there was frost in Granny’s garden and the girls were desperate to get out to play in it. So, that morning, at 8am, out they went with rubber boots and jackets on over their pajamas, and they stayed out for the day. I haven’t wanted to come inside since!

Fun in the frost

Fun in the frost


The wonders of ice

Their time is divided between playing imaginative games and helping out with the ‘fascinating’ chores of bringing in turf for the fire and feeding the birds. Granny’s dogs have an enclosed run with a little wooden shed attached. The dogs rarely use it and Granny stores her Christmas decorations in the shed. Entrance to the shed is via the pen. The girls have turned the shed into their shop, using recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic milk bottles and glass jars as their stock. I fear someone driving past will glance into the garden, see two children in the dog pen and think I’m keeping my kids in a cage!!

We discovered a deserted bird’s nest a few days ago and they have now decided to build their own nest, big enough for little girls to live in, using the windblown twigs and branches they find lying around the garden. Such behaviour should be encouraged – it results in Granny having a nice big pile of kindling for the fire!


My wheelbarrow

There has been tree climbing and jumping; running and chasing; and attempts to engage the lazy old dogs in boisterous play. They have both taken charge of replenishing the bird feeders in the birch tree, noting when they are running low and messily refilling them.

But what brings me the most pleasure is seeing how much fun they are having with the turf. We burn turf and peat briquettes in the fires here and bringing in turf from the shed to the house is a daily activity that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Just like my Daddy did with me, I wheel the girls around in the wheelbarrow as they squeal in delight, and they earnestly help me fill the wheelbarrow. We have even found my old wheelbarrow, which I was given as a present when I was three years old – in 1976. A bit rusty, it’s still going strong, and after they gave it a thorough cleaning a few days ago, it is now ‘their’ wheelbarrow and they are no longer interested in helping me fill my barrow. They run back and forth to the shed, three or four sods of turf at a time, sometimes wheeling the barrow into the house and delivering the turf right into the fire!

I am having so much fun seeing them play in ‘my’ garden, doing the things I loved to do as a child, and creating their own good memories of childhood.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!!

Get a job!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

I am not Superwoman

I have a superhero complex. Specifically, I think I’m Superwoman. As well as believing myself to be faster, stronger, and generally more capable than I am, I believe I have the special superpower to stretch time. I believe I can make one hour stretch to three; I can make one day stretch to two. My weeks have twelve days. But it’s a complex. The reality is I can’t stretch time. I certainly cannot slow time down. I wish I could. But I can’t. And recently I’ve been giving myself a good talking to, telling myself to hang up the cape and come back down to Earth.

I’m a list maker. I live by lists. Right now, I have a long-term list of things I want to accomplish before I’m fifty. This is not a bucket list sort of thing. It’s not of the ‘visit the Taj Mahal’, ‘bungee jump’, ‘skinny dip’ variety. (Two of those I have no interest in and the other I do as often as possible). No, my list is a serious ‘work to be done’ list. And from that big list, there are yearly lists, monthly lists, and daily lists.

Here’s the long-term list: by the time I’m fifty I want to have published five books. FIVE. I’ll be fifty in eight and a half years from now. Let me review the status of these five books before you think I’m completely off my rocker.
Book 1: Written and currently being reviewed by the publisher.
Book 2: 100,000-word draft written two years ago. I’m unhappy with the ending and it needs to be overhauled on a monumental scale. To be tackled as soon as I’ve finished writing…
Book 3: Working on it at the moment, trying to write 10,000 words a week, first draft complete by the end of November, and hoping to have a manuscript ready for a publisher or agent by the end of March.
Book 4: I know exactly what it’s about, and have a written synopsis of each chapter. To be written after I’ve completed Book 2.
Book 5: A sequel to Book 3.
(Only one of these is novel. The rest are all firmly non-fiction)

So, I write like a motherfucker.

But, unless I’m Isabel Allende (who I long to be) or Bill Bryson (oh to be that funny) or Cecilia Ahern (shoot me if I write like that), I’m not going to make any money writing books. I read recently that 150,000 books get published in the English language every year. How many of them can you name? I’m not doing it to make money (although wouldn’t making money be grand?). I do it because I can’t help myself. I’m miserable and grouchy when I don’t write.

So, to my medium-term, six month list, which is divided into ‘writing’ and ‘everything else’.
I write other things in an attempt to make some money. In the past four months I’ve had seven pieces published in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. For all of this writing I’ve earned the princely sum of £140. Hardly enough to keep the wolf from the door. For every article I write, I spend at least the same amount of time researching appropriate magazines and newspapers to pitch to, pitching ideas to editors, chasing editors up when they fail to reply, pitching again, on and on. I’ve had articles accepted and fees negotiated, only to have the person I was in contact with leave the publication and set me back to square one. So, for the time being, my budding career as a freelance writer is not paying the bills either. Just like the books, I write because I can’t help myself. But it sure would be nice to get paid for doing something I’m so addicted to.

The ‘everything else’ side of the medium-term list includes, inter alia, the following items: ‘study Spanish 1 hour every day’, ‘jog 30 minutes every day’, ‘remove mould from entire boat’, ‘thorough galley clean’, ‘assess and reorganise provisions’, ‘update Lily and Katie’s clothing’. It’s a long list. Absent from any of these lists are Lily and Katie’s education or general day-to-day household chores. But of course, those activities take time and effort too.

We need to put food on the table. Because my writing is not (yet) paying its way, Julian and I are both working this winter. I’m teaching English 18 hours a week. It’s not my dream job (see above) but it does pay the bills (see above). The teaching materials I work from are pretty self-explanatory, so I only need an additional hour or two of planning each week. I leave Carina at 3.35 every afternoon, Monday to Friday, and I step back on board at 9.50 at night.

You can see where this is going. Only my Superwoman time-stretching superpower could give me the time to do all the things I want to do every day. And as each day goes by and I fail to draw a line through every item on my list I get more annoyed and grouchy.

Somehow, I find time to do much of the writing I want to do. I try to do a couple of hours every night after I get home from work, a few hours each weekend, and one morning a week at the public library. Most mornings Lily, Katie and I do a little school work on board, followed by an hour at the beach (learning to swim is as important as learning maths, as far as I’m concerned), and some activities that are ‘educational’ in one way or another – drawing, crafting, wandering around looking at and talking about trees, etc. (Julian teaches some mornings and does laundry, grocery shopping and other off-boat chores on the other mornings).

But I’ve had to give myself a serious talking to. An hour of Spanish every day? A 30 minute run? Who am I kidding? I’ve given up the Spanish. The only reason I ever wanted to learn Spanish in the first place was so I could read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish. I’m never going to learn enough Spanish to do that, and I love Garcia Marquez plenty in English. Anyway, I’m learning a little Spanish from talking to the pupils I teach and from simply living in Spain. I’m all for learning languages, but I’m starting from zero here, and life’s too short. Language acquisition is not a priority for me, and I have to remind myself that I’m not a lesser human being for only having proficiency in one language.

I cut out the running too. A 30 minute run takes an hour, by the time I got ready beforehand and recovered afterwards. I swim pretty much every day, swimming lengths parallel to the beach where the girls play when they’ve had enough of swimming. Why do I need to run for half an hour as well? I’m trying to be Isabel Allende, not Sonia O’Sullivan.

And I’ve stopped beating myself up about the state of the boat. The cleaning will get done. Just more slowly. What difference does it make if I assess the provisions this week or next month? We’re living beside a supermarket and not planning a transatlantic passage any time soon.

It’s time to focus on the priorities – my family and my writing. And also to learn to relax a little. I feel terribly guilty when I’m doing ‘nothing’. Julian enjoys long walks, and they do him the world of good. I used to like long walks, but these days I only walk with a purpose – to the shop or to work, not just a walk for its own sake. When I read I have this nagging guilty feeling that I should be doing ‘something’, and not wasting my time doing ‘nothing’. A couple of days ago I sat in the cockpit and forced myself to read a magazine that Mammy had brought to me when she visited. I made a cup of tea and read for two hours. Sure, I felt a little twinge of guilt that I wasn’t doing anything ‘productive’, but I finally managed to relax. Yesterday morning I even managed to stop myself ploughing relentlessly through the water as though I was being chased by a shark. I stopped swimming, closed my eyes, and floated in the warm sea water with the hot sun beating down on my face.

For us, moving aboard Carina was never about giving up work, but rather about approaching work in a different way, concentrating on our passions, and working damn hard to achieve the goals we set ourselves. And that’s how we live our lives. As Stephen Fry said on the Graham Norton Show recently ‘Work is more fun than fun’. I agree. (Oops…I let it slip…I watch Graham Norton on YouTube sometimes!)

But recently I have been trying to accomplish the unnecessary. So, for now, I’ve hung up my cape and superhero tights. I’m teaching myself to relax, to recharge my batteries, and to make shorter, more realistic lists. Five books by fifty remains my goal, but there’s not a chance in hell any of them will be written in Spanish!