Bed hopping

The plan, when we first moved aboard Carina in May 2012, was for Julian and me to sleep in the aft cabin and Lily’s and Katie’s ‘bedroom’ would be the smaller fore cabin. That first summer Carina sagged under the weight of the unnecessary stuff I had brought aboard. There wasn’t room to stow it all, and much of it remained piled high in the fore cabin, where I had dumped it on the wet and windy night in early May when I moved our stuff from our flat in Dawlish to the marina in Torquay.

For the six months we lived aboard that year, the girls slept with me in the aft cabin and Julian slept on the port berth in the saloon. That arrangement had both advantages and disadvantages. Lily, at three years of age, still woke up multiple times each night. Now, for the first time, she slept soundly curled up beside me, giving me, for the first time in three years, nights of unbroken sleep. Julian slept well in the saloon, but we had to make up his bed every night and tidy it away every morning, which was cumbersome and time consuming. And, let’s face it, while it was nice to snuggle up at night between my two little girls, my man was a far too distant five metres away from me.

We spent the winter on land, in a house in Exeter, and moved aboard once again in May 2013. I had learned lessons from the first year, and moved far less stuff aboard. In advance of moving aboard I prepared the fore cabin for the girls, with pretty duvet covers, fun storage boxes for their books and toys, and they had decided which cuddly toys they wanted to have around. From our first night aboard Carina in 2013, the girls slept in the fore cabin. And that is how it was been ever since. Like all bedrooms of young children, theirs is frequently a mess and I do my share of nagging and cajoling and shouting at them to ‘Tidy your room’.

Their cabin is a small space and I have thought occasionally about different sleeping arrangements that would give them both more space. But I have not been in any hurry to separate them either. Each ‘You’re on my side of the bed’ and ‘She kicked me’ is balanced by sounds wafting through to the aft cabin of their quiet morning conversations, singing songs and playing together with their toys.

Such a small space, however, is no fun in the extreme heat of the southern Iberian summer. Last year, from mid-May onwards, I made up the starboard berth in the saloon each night and they took turns sleeping there – Lily in the fore cabin and Katie in the saloon one night, and the other way around the next night. But each hot night the bed had to be prepared and each hot morning it had to be tidied away, which was even less fun than when we had to do the same with Julian’s bed in 2012.

There was another option, and one Monday morning in mid-May this year, on a whim, I decided to go for it. It wasn’t going to be easy and in the end it took almost three days before everything was organised. But it has been worth it.

The quarter berth, a wide and spacious single berth along the passageway connecting the aft cabin with the saloon, has always been used as a storage space. It’s where I keep all the boxes of food, the laundry bag, fishing rods, computer bag and various bags of work tools. Everything else gets thrown there when I can’t be bothered to put it away properly. The passageway has less than 5’ of headroom, so Julian and I have to bend down to get to our cabin, and to get to any of the items stored along the quarter berth. What if I turned this into Lily’s room and reorganised the fore cabin so that part of it was for storage and the rest Katie’s room? It was worth a try.

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Quarterberth from this……

Removing everything from the quarter berth meant finding new stowage spaces elsewhere, so virtually the entire boat had to be reorganised. Moving all the food out into the galley and saloon challenged my organisational skills, but I figured it out. I now no longer have to bend down at back-ache inducing angles multiple times a day to get the ingredients I need for all our meals. Everything is now at arm’s reach, and I have made life so much easier for myself! (Imagine, it only took me five years to figure this out!!)

I found things in the quarter berth that hadn’t been used in years (and would never be used). I found new homes for all that stuff or put it in the recycling bins. I reorganised the stowage spaces underneath the quarter berth and the saloon port berth, creating more space to stow sailing equipment that we don’t need while our lives revolve around two villages far up a river! By lunchtime that day I had cleared and cleaned the quarter berth, and transformed it into a cute bedroom for Lily, with all her books, toys and piggy bank on the shelf, a space to stow her clothes at the end of the bed, and her fairy lights strung from the ceiling.

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…..to this!

Her little face lit up when she arrived home from school and she hugged me almost to death with gratitude! She spent the afternoon rearranging her shelves and toys and making the space even more her own.

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Foreward cabin from this…..

Alas, the fore cabin was still a mess and it took some persuading to convince a disappointed Katie that, by bedtime, she too would have a ‘room’ of her own. All afternoon I worked on the fore cabin, rearranging tools, toys, books and even the bed itself. Katie now sleeps across the boat, with her head to starboard and feet to port, boxes of books forming one side of her bed. She too has her toys, clothes and books in easy reach. And she loves her new ‘room’. For me, the great advantage of Katie’s new set-up is that I can lie down beside her at night so we can read together.

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…..to this!

Still the saloon was a mess, with all the left over stuff that needed to be stowed. That took two more days. And then it struck me. The girls could have their own ‘desk’. The navigation table is at the end of Lily’s berth. It’s the perfect place to do homework, art, projects and watch movies. So I rearranged the navigation table and have transformed it into a desk which, despite being at the bottom of Lily’s bed, she must share with her sister.

A change is as good as a holiday, they say. And this change seems to suit us all. The girls are cool during these hot nights, and each has her own space for afternoon siesta. After two weeks, they continue to be ‘house proud’ of their own rooms, keeping them neat and tidy. Lily can read her novels without being disturbed by Katie, who is still at the reading aloud stage. They curl up together to watch movies or to work at the chart table, leaving the saloon table free more often. My galley is organised more efficiently and everything is close to hand. The boat seems, overall, neater and better organised.

I still occasionally go to the quarter berth to grab a box of flour or bottle of cooking oil and it takes a second for me to figure out why they’re not longer there! I’m sure it won’t be long before we all forget that the quarter berth was ever anything other than Lily’s bedroom.

It’s more than food for free

Sturdy walking shoes? Check. Long-sleeved shirt and heavy trousers? Check. Work gloves? Check. Sharp knife? Check. It’s time to go asparagus hunting!

It’s that time of year again, when tender young asparagus shoots are to be found on steep overgrown slopes up and down the river. Julian had a rare Saturday off work yesterday and once the sun had burned through the mist along the river, the four of us set off.

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Lily with the first few shoots

If you think foraging is all about putting free food on your plate, you’re sorely mistaken. Just as Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark and hunting isn’t all about the kill, foraging isn’t all about the end product – food for free. Sure, the wild spinach, alexanders, asparagus, oranges and lemons that have been gracing our table recently have been marvellous to eat. They’re delicious, free of nasty chemicals or additives (or as much as anything in the wild can be), and they cost nothing. But foraging for food is about a whole lot more than the end product.

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Taking a break by the well and orange grove

We set out early yesterday afternoon, walking north along the old goat track on the Spanish side of the river. Our senses were caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape we walked through. We stopped to bathe in the sound of bees buzzing loudly as they gathered nectar from flowering rosemary bushes (one of the few plants flowering at this time of year). Birdsong filled the air. Winter flowers dotted the sides of the trail and the occasional open glade was peppered with the white and yellow chamomile that filled my nose with sweet aroma when I bent down to identify them by scent. Poisonous but colourful mushrooms lined the path, which we stopped often to admire. We picked oranges and drank from a well, and the sun shone from a clear blue January sky and by late afternoon a gibbous moon was already high in the sky to the east.

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Julian ahead on the trail

We walked up hills and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, hearts and breaths racing at the exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks, striding out across hilltops. From the tops of hills we caught occasional glimpses of the river winding its way through the valley below, a brown ribbon through a landscape turned green and lush from December rains.

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A glimpse of the river

Some foraging is easy. Alexanders, spinach and fennel grow along the sides of the path. Gathering them is like picking flowers. Oranges, figs and plums require height and/or ingenuity (memories of gathering apples from the vantage point of Julian’s shoulders in autumn come to mind), and oranges have occasional but nasty thorns to avoid.

Asparagus don’t give themselves up so easily. Around here, the larger and more productive plants are to be found up steep rocky slopes, strewn with thorny bushes. The asparagus plant itself is thorny as hell, and it’s hard to believe that such a delicate shoot (the part we eat), if left to grow, develops into a thorny mass that could well surround Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Hence the need for long sleeves, heavy duty trousers and gloves. To get to the succulent shoots necessitates climbing the slopes, searching through masses of thorns then plunging hands into the middle to cut a single, or at most two, shoots from each plant. It’s hard work, all that scrambling and searching, with a knife in one hand and a few delicate and precious shoots in the other. But it’s fun too, not to mention good exercise. We certainly exert more energy from gathering the asparagus than we gain from eating them.

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Up the hillside he goes

We stopped and searched and gathered along slopes for an hour, gradually making our way to a patch where Julian had been successful last year, where a stream ran through the bottom of the valley. The girls removed their shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs and dipped their tired feet in the chilly water. When I tired of foraging, I sat on the bank of the stream, while Julian carried on foraging and the children ran around, feet and bottoms wet, hands covered in soil, picking chamomile flowers.

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First dip of the year

By the time we got home, three hours after setting out, we were tired and dirty, but with our spirits soaring from all we had seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape.

And then? Steamed asparagus shoots to accompany our roast chicken for supper and and then for breakfast with poached eggs on toast this morning. Food for free? That’s merely the end product.

A simple matter of choice

These days I often find myself giving new arrivals on the river directions to the local shops. Berthed along the pontoon as we are most of the time now, I’m often the first person people meet when they come ashore from their anchorages up and down the river. Many people ask about the shops, and I provide details of opening hours, of which shop is best (in my opinion) for fresh food and which is cheaper for non-perishables. I tell them the whereabouts of the bakery, which is well-disguised as a regular house, and I inform them of other shopping options – Manoli sells produce at her house that she and her husband grow on their land a little down river, Karin does likewise from the back of her van on Friday mornings. I tell them about the Saturday market in Alcoutim, of the fresh eggs from one of the Sanlúcar pubs, the honey man and the cheese man, and the various vans that come through each week, selling bread, fish, meat and vegetables. And I advise them that if what they want isn’t out on display, they should ask for it anyway, and they’ll likely be surprised by what is stored ‘out back’.

Often, I’m the last person people see as they untie their dinghies and return to their yachts. More often than not I find people are disappointed by the lack of choice. ‘They didn’t have mushrooms’, someone will say. ‘I couldn’t buy a whole chicken anywhere’, someone else will moan. ‘Did you ask?’, I ask, knowing the answer will probably be no. Which is understandable, given the language barriers, and that this is unlike the type of shopping we have grown accustomed to, where everything is under the roof of one massive multi-national supermarket.

And I remember my own thoughts about shopping options when I first came here, before I knew about Manoli and the honey man and the cheese man, and the hidden treasures in Reme’s storeroom. I wondered how and when I would manage to get to a ‘proper’ supermarket to buy the things I thought I needed and couldn’t live without.

However, the months went by and when I finally got to one of those supermarkets of my dreams, I was overwhelmed by choice – too much choice – and over time I have come to realise that with the exception of only a few foodstuffs (soy sauce, noodles, peanut butter and hot chillies), the tiny shops and other shopping options in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim provide everything my family needs to enjoy a healthy, varied and interesting diet. And everything is extremely inexpensive to boot.

We have become so used to large supermarkets with their thirty varieties of toothpaste and twenty different brands of natural yogurt, that when we are faced with only three varieties of toothpaste and two of natural yogurt (with or without sugar), we panic. ‘There’s no choice here’, we tell ourselves. ‘How can I possibly be expected to eat and live well if this is all there is on offer’. We believe that two-metre high shelves stretching to infinity offer us a much needed variety. But how much variety is there really? And how much variety do we need? How much time do we spend seeking out the same brand we buy week after week amidst multiple almost identical brands of the same product? And in all the different supermarket chains, the same products are repeated over and over again.

There’s a great freedom in not having to make those choices. I want salted butter? There’s only one brand and size available. I want orange juice? Ditto. I’ve had to make slight adaptations to my cooking and baking to accommodate a lack of certain ingredients, but that’s hardly a challenge.

And what we lack in choice is more than made up for in two ways. First, the vegetables, eggs, honey and often cheese that I buy are locally produced and often produced by the people I know – the very people who are selling them to me. 100% organic, zero food miles, zero packaging. It’s an environmentalist’s dream come true. Second, when an unexpected ingredient suddenly appears, I make hay while the sun shines and we enjoy a treat. Last Friday, for example, Helen had fresh lemon grass, bright green limes and red shallots in the back of her van. I can’t remember the last time I saw lemon grass, and I have never seen or smelled it as fresh as this. And the limes and shallots were heavenly. Yippee, I thought to myself, Thai green chicken curry tonight, and we enjoyed a meal that, back in the UK we had taken to eating so regularly it had started to become humdrum. On Friday evening it was a wonderful and unexpected delight.

Julian and I have written and published before about simple living, about striving to simplify our lives by removing unnecessary clutter and opting for a lifestyle that treads lightly on the Earth. In being supermarket free, the little villages on the Rio Guadiana have given us the gift of simplifying our shopping choices. We no longer spend time driving or taking public transport to out-of-town supermarkets, of comparing and contrasting, checking minute differences between products, standing in check-out queues with trolleys full of groceries. These days we shop little and often, and if there are no mushrooms or broccoli or minced beef to be had, then we compromise and improvise and look forward to getting them on another day.

 

Orange grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun foraging

We love foraging! It’s fun, it’s energetic and when we get home we have some good food to eat (well, usually!). I know Julian, who has written before about his foraging exploits, would agree with me when I say there is a great sense of pride and achievement when we prepare and eat food we’ve gathered ourselves. We both grew up far removed from hunting, fishing, gathering and foraging our food, so for us it’s still quite novel.

In late November, Julian tried his hand at preserving olives, with great success. The innumerable wild olive trees that grow hereabouts were heavy with olives – large green ones on some trees, small black ones on others. Seeking advice from fellow foraging live aboards, and observing the locals harvesting tons of them from their cultivated trees, Julian opted for the green ones. Some suggested it would take eleven months for the hard, bitter-tasting fruit to be transformed in brine into soft tasty edible olives. Others said the process could be sped up by regularly changing the brine and slitting the side of each olive with a sharp knife. Lacking the patience to wait eleven months, Julian opted for the latter process.

He gathered olives of different sizes and from different trees, experimenting to find those that would magically transform into succulent nibbles. The process is simple. Add salt to fresh water. The water is salty enough only when you can float an egg on top. Clean the olives and add them to the brine. Seal the jar. And that’s it. Easy peasy. Rows of jars – old jam jars, coffee jars, kilner jars, were lined up in our aft storage space (the unused aft heads!) and every couple of days it was Lily’s and Katie’s job to give the jars a shake and a turn over. Every couple of weeks Julian changed the brine, adding a couple of cloves of peeled garlic, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf along the way.

By Christmas the first batch was ready. It took some experimentation to get them to a nice level of saltiness. Now that they were soft, Julian put them in fresh water for a day or two, to draw out the excess salt.

The result? Truly delicious, garlic-flavoured juicy green olives. We devoured them, gave some away to friends, brought them as gifts when people invited us to their boats for dinner. All too soon those multiple jars of olives had dwindled to the last one and it was with some regret that I popped the last one in my mouth a couple of days ago. If we are in a position to pickle our own olives again, I am determined that Julian redouble his efforts so we have more than a mere six week supply.

At around the same time as Julian was gathering olives, someone told me about prickly pears. Those big cactus plants grow all over the place here. Land owners plant them on their borders, where they create a barrier to human and animal intruders. And they grow wild all over the countryside. On top of the cactus grow the pinky-purply fruit that I was told is prickly pear. I’d heard of this before, from reading American literature, but I’d never seen it, nor did I know it was edible.

My informant told me it’s very tasty, but very difficult to collect, given the long spiky thorns with which it protects itself. I gave it a try one day, gingerly plucking a pear from the top of a cactus, and managing to get at least ten thin thorns stuck in my fingers and thumb despite my care. The peeled-back skin revealed a pink pulp filled with seeds. It was quite delicious and I thought about picking more (on another day when I am protected by gloves and long sleeves) and pulping it into juice. I am told it is packed full of healthy vitamins. I haven’t done it yet, but every day I see more and more large pears and know I must go foraging soon.

Our latest foraging exploits have taken place over the past three weekends, when we have been a-hunting wild asparagus. Wild asparagus is identical to its cultivated counterpart, but I was surprised that such an innocuous and delicate food could be the offspring of a very nasty thorny tangled mess of an adult plant. To reach those new young green shoots of asparagus one has to thrust ones hand deep into the thorns. The adult plant doesn’t give up its babies easily.

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The fearsome wild asparagus. Don’t believe the other pictures on the internet. The best bits are often at the centre of this woody thorn bush, half way up a dangerous rocky slope!

Two weekends ago the girls and I were out walking and we met a couple gathering asparagus. They were covered almost head to toe and wearing heavy gardening gloves. The woman showed me where she was gathering the asparagus and later on our walk I saw some other people up the side of a hill doing likewise. The girls and I scrambled up the dry stony hill and with my trusty Swiss army knife I gathered a handful. It took some searching and I came away with long scratches to my arms and legs.

The next weekend Julian came with us, and while the girls played down on the edges of a dried river bed, Julian and I scrambled up hills, slithering and sliding, searching for the elusive asparagus shoots growing under the shade of olive, almond and cork oak trees. It was a fun workout, apart from anything else and I was torn between giggling and cursing as I inevitably and repeatedly lost my footing and slid down the dry, loosely packed hillside, a bunch of asparagus in one hand, my knife in the other, and nothing to break my fall except for the next thorny asparagus bush down the slope. We returned home dirty and dusty, scratched and scraped, with enough asparagus for two day’s worth of dinners. Although the season is almost at an end, Julian’s solo foraging yesterday resulted in enough asparagus for another dinner.

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Wild Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis Prostratus). Gathered and ready for the poached eggs!

Besides the seasonal olives, prickly pear and asparagus, there seems to be a seemingly endless supply of lemons around here (oranges too, although wild orange trees are as rare as hen’s teeth). We haven’t foraged for lemons in the longest time, as people keep giving them to us, wild or cultivated, all delicious.

With spring just around the corner, I wonder what will be next on the menu?

What a waste

Now, I know that by half way through this blog post my mother, mother-in-law and others besides will be horrified and mortified and will believe that I have sunk to new lows of depravity. But bear with me. There’s a serious point to what I’m about to tell you.

You see, I’ve been skip diving! Here’s how it happened. We came ashore to Alcoutim in the dinghy on Friday evening. I had a mostly empty backpack on my back and I was carrying a cloth bag of items to take to the recycling bins. The girls came with me and helped me sort the glass, paper, tin and plastic into their respective bins.

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The scene of the action

A large black bin bag next to the paper and cardboard bin caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw it was three-quarters full of the cardboard and plastic that wholesale products are packed in when delivered to shops. Obviously, one of Alcoutim’s shops or bars had recently had a delivery and this was the waste from unloading the new stock. But it was what lay on top of this cardboard and plastic that really grabbed my attention.

Bags and bags and bags of crisps. I picked one out and looked at it. The packaging was perfect – no rips or holes. It looked like I had lifted it straight from the shelf. The sell-by date was 15/11/15. Two months ago. I picked out another, different brand of crisp. Sell-by date 15/11/15. Each bag had the same sell-by date. Under the crisps were packages of long-life croissants, sell-by date 15/11/15.

Having sorted my recycling I now had an empty cloth bag and an empty backpack and after five seconds of hoping no-one was watching and then deciding I didn’t care if anyone was, I filled both bags with the crisps and pastries, until we had them all and the landfill was getting none.

As we walked up the hill I opened a bag of crisps – Ruffles Original – to see what they tasted like. Perfect. Crisp as crisps should be and not a trace of them being past their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates. But in this crazy world of food waste and consumer capitalism, for some unfathomable reason they were beyond their ‘sell by’ date.

We’re not massive crisp eaters aboard Carina, but we like to indulge now and again. They’re handy to take on a picnic or a walk, and they are always a favourite on long sailing passages. We’ve eaten some already and I’ve stowed the rest and they’ll last us for months to come. I’ve enjoyed a custard-filled croissant with my mid-morning coffee and more croissants have gone into the girls’ lunchboxes on Thursday, the day the school requests they bring a pastry snack.

So, it’s official. I’m a skip diver. But before you wash your hands of me altogether, here are some things you should know:

A restaurant in Bristol, Skipchen, only uses ingredients thrown out by supermarket and restaurant chains. A team of volunteers go out each night and trawl the bins of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S and retrieve perfectly good food that has been dumped simply because it is past its ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date. Skipchen is part of The Real Junk Food Project, a network of pay-as-you-feel cafes around the world, which make use of unused discarded foodstuffs. The aim of the project is to raise awareness of the problem of food waste.

And there is a problem. Here are two statistics:
1. One third of the food produced globally for human consumption each year is lost or wasted. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year.
2. 795 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out from those two statistics that hunger less a problem of production and more one of distribution. But hey, we’ve known this since the famines in Ireland in the 1840s, in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and everywhere else where people have gone hungry between and since.

In the autumn, cook and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, started his War on Waste, highlighting how much each of us, through our shopping and eating habits contributes to food waste each year. He also brought the public’s attention to the massive amounts of food that supermarkets and fast food chains simply throw away every day. The BBC documentaries were somewhat flawed, but they certainly got me thinking more about food waste.

Ok, so I grabbed a few bags of crisps and pastries from a recycle point in Alcoutim. I’m no Skipchen and no Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But that’s not the point. The point is, waste is abhorrent. It’s environmentally damaging and it’s morally outrageous that we waste so much food when so many people go hungry. And there are people out – although not enough of them – putting to great use the food no longer wanted by retailers.

Anyone fancy a skip dive?

Homemade Christmas

The Christmas season is well and truly upon us. A couple of weeks ago the streets of Sanlúcar were decorated with three strings of lights (!) and last week a light-tree was placed in the village square at Alcoutim, and local businesses decorated with lights. The lights of Alcoutim haven’t been lit yet, but as we took the dinghy upriver back to Carina last night (after a wonderful evening aboard the boat of newfound friends) we saw the lights of Sanlúcar for the first time, and very pretty they looked too.

The girls have been doing Christmas activities at school, learning about the Three Kings (who, in Spain, are far more important than Santa Claus. It is they who come on the night of January 5th with presents for children, which is great for Santa, because it means a little less work for him). Lily and Katie have been colouring in Nativity scenes and pictures of the Three Kings and I hope they’ll learn some Spanish Christmas songs soon.

There is an ex-pat choir in Sanlúcar which is preparing for carol singing events on both sides of the river in the coming weeks. And the local shops are now selling small selections of Christmas foods.

The girls and I made Advent calendars last weekend and are planning on making decorations for the boat this weekend, to add to those we made last year. My mother and sister are joining us in Alcoutim for Christmas, so there is great excitement as we anticipate their arrival.

On Wednesday I took the early morning bus down to Vila Real de Santo Antonio for a day of Christmas shopping. In this larger town down by the coast the shops were decorated for the season and well stocked with Christmassy things. I bought the presents I wanted to get for Lily and Katie and I stocked up on baking ingredients. I love baking for Christmas!

What I am enjoying about this Christmas season already is that it feels more understated than usual. Here on this remote river there are few opportunities for frenzied Christmas shopping. No Black Fridays here, no 8th of December shopping madness, that’s for sure.

I’ve written before here and here about my unease with the material excesses of Christmas. This year, given the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed and desperate people who have come to our shores seeking refuge, families who have lost all their worldly possessions, children without even one comforting toy or memento of home, the material excesses of Christmas sit even more uneasily with me.

Santa Claus will come to my girls on Christmas Eve. He is part of the magic of Christmas. But the magic of Christmas also lies in making decorations and home-baked gifts to give to our neighbours and friends, carol singing and community events, special foods and time spent with family. I don’t want the loot under the tree on Christmas morning to be the focus of Christmas for my children.

Who needs the material excess of Christmas with its stresses of running around in overcrowded overpriced overheated stores, running down your bank account and running up debts, worrying how people will react to the presents you’ve given them? Other than the shop owners and the banks, no-one needs that sort of Christmas.

Instead Christmas can be a time for family and for reaching out beyond family. For spending time not money; for giving of yourself, not your bank account; for enjoying, not stressing; and for being grateful and thankful for the many riches in your life, rather than feeling disappointed by the unwanted presents under the tree.

My Christmas shopping, what little it was, is done now, and I’m looking forward to a weekend of making felt stars and snowmen and Santa Clauses, writing cards to far-distant friends, making the first batch of tiffin, and drinking lots of hot chocolate with my girls.

I wish you all a gentle and relaxed Christmas.

Calling all hoarders

All going well, at this time a couple of days from now we will be back aboard Carina. The past five or six days have been a marathon of sorting and packing in preparation for our Tuesday morning flight. Five days ago, the bedroom we sleep in at my father-in-law’s house looked like a cyclone had blown through, with all our belongings strewn everywhere as I began the task of choosing what to pack.

One day last week Julian and I took four bags of unwanted clothing, books and miscellaneous other stuff to a charity shop, and I have now filled two more bags to donate to charity shops tomorrow. Our two pieces of hold luggage have been packed, unpacked, repacked, at least five times each, as I assess how much they weigh and what’s left over and what still needs to be packed. With each unpacking and repacking, stuff gets jettisoned in favour of other stuff. Clothing, books and toiletries that I thought would definitely be coming with us have been discarded in favour of other things. I have decisions to make about what I want aboard and what we need aboard.

When we flew to the UK in May the girls and I had two pieces of carry-on luggage. When Julian joined us three weeks later he had one piece of hold luggage and one carry-on. We’re going back with two hold (packed right up to the 20kg weight limit) and four carry-ons. Why are we going back with so much more stuff than we brought over?

All of this has got me thinking more generally about our accumulation of stuff; about how, once we have something, we find it hard to let it go; about our commodity addiction. We find we suddenly don’t want to live without stuff we never even knew we wanted before it was given to us. We burden ourselves with material possessions, physically and emotionally weighing ourselves down. As I jettison unnecessary stuff this week I’ve been thinking about what we really do need.

Why was I even considering a dolphin-shaped eraser that Lily got free with a magazine and that she’s never even taken out of its plastic wrapper? Why was I feeling guilty about leaving behind a book Katie was given over the summer in which she is not even remotely interested? The girls and I came over with four pairs of knickers each; four pairs of socks each; four changes of clothes each. Why am I now stressing about the excess clothing we’ve all acquired over the summer? Do I really need ten pairs of knickers and eleven pairs of socks (in addition to the five or more pairs already aboard Carina)? Does anyone need that much?

The answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t be getting my knickers in a twist about any of these things. As we get closer to our return date more and more stuff is jettisoned, mostly out of necessity, to get our luggage below the airline weight allowance, but also out of my growing realisation that we don’t need all this stuff.

Why are so many of us hoarders? Even as I embrace a lifestyle of uncluttered simplicity I find it difficult to get rid of stuff once I have it. Once something is in my possession I have this gnawing angst over getting rid of it, even if it is of completely no use or value and takes up valuable space. I can understand when it’s something I’ve paid money for, but why am I so indecisive when it comes to things given to me either by someone else or acquired free with some other purchase – things I never asked for or wanted in the first place? I’m more ruthless than a lot of people, but I still find discarding unwanted stuff tough. What is it about our material possessions that makes us want to hoard them to us, keep things that have no value, that are neither utilitarian nor bring us joy? Why do we stuff our stuff into cupboards, store it on shelves, bury it under more and more stuff?

I’m not talking here about the things we have in our homes that are without utility or monetary value but that give us joy and pleasure simply to have around. We all have things that are precious to us, that give us joy to look at or touch, that remind us of who we were or are or who we want to be. I’m talking instead about all that stuff that is hidden away, that takes up space, that is worthless to us in every sense.

I have tried very hard not to accumulate anything over the past five months. Yet accumulate stuff I have. The past week has been a tiring and often emotional de-cluttering of unwanted and unnecessary excess. I still think we’re bringing too much back to the boat. Admittedly, we’ve stocked up on teabags and factor 50 sun screen (which is more expensive in southern Europe), the rapidly-growing Lily and Katie have new clothing and foul-weather gear to replace the now too small ones aboard Carina, we’ve got some Spanish-language resources to help us with our studies, and books to keep us all going for another few months.

But here’s the thing. I bet I could halve the amount of stuff we’re bringing back to Carina and we wouldn’t miss what I’d left behind. Maybe I’ll have to jettison more in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe I’ll do it because I want to. In the past week I’ve filled six grocery-bags worth of stuff we no longer need (or never needed in the first place) to take to the charity shop, and I have recycled at least three other bags worth.

So, here’s a challenge to you. Can you find one thing in your home that you no longer want or need? Can you find ten things? Twenty? More? What can you do with that unwanted stuff? It might go straight in the bin (landfill or recycling?). But I bet the chances are you can give it away (to a friend, a charity shop, Freecycle), or you can sell it and make yourself some money (eBay, Gumtree). One person’s unwanted junk can be someone else’s treasure. Does it make you feel good to make a little space, empty a shelf, clear a little clutter? Let me know how you get on!

House or boat?

What do you miss about living in a house?
What’s it like living on a boat?
What’s the most surprising thing about living on a boat?
In the past couple of months I’ve been asked these and similar questions by newfound friends, by acquaintances, by people who’ve contacted me via this blog, and even by someone who interviewed me for a magazine article.

To my ears, these questions are all of a similar theme, and there are two distinct lines I follow when attempting to answer them. The easier approach is to think about the material realities of living on a boat; the more difficult is to think about the affect our lifestyle has on emotional and relational aspects of life. The two, of course, are bound together, but it’s easier to tease them apart and explore them separately. Today I want to write about the material realities of living on a boat and save the more difficult question of the emotional side of things for another day.

Although it’s only a little over three years since we first moved aboard Carina, and despite currently working on a memoir about our life aboard, I genuinely find it difficult to remember what I imagined life aboard would be like as we prepared for the transition. I remember thinking a lot about sailing – inclement weather, running repairs, capsizing, pirates; and I thought a lot about idyllic anchorages, warm turquoise seas, spectacular sunsets. I thought far less about mundane day-to-day life on a 36 foot boat with three other people. The reality is, however, that we sail very little relative to the amount of time we spend in situ, engaged in mundane day-to-day life. The few times I had sailed prior to buying Carina I had enjoyed the caravan-type living arrangements but I hadn’t given much consideration to living like that for months and years on end.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

But reflecting on our life aboard now and having been living in a very comfortable house for the past five months I can honestly say there are very few things I miss about living in a house. The one thing I really do miss is a bath! I like nothing more than a long hot soak in a bath on a cold winter’s night, a strong cup of tea resting on the edge of the bath and a good novel in my hand (careful not to let it fall in!). So I’m enjoying the occasional soak now that I’m back in a house, knowing that once we’re back aboard Carina next week it could well be a long time before I have a bath again!

So here’s perhaps the most surprising thing about life on a boat. I don’t miss any of the things I might be expected to miss – all those mod cons that are supposed to make life easier. I don’t miss a fridge or a washing machine or a shower. I don’t miss unlimited water and energy at the touch of a button or turn of a switch. I certainly don’t miss owning a car or a television, a vacuum cleaner or an iron. And there are things I have never owned, so can’t possibly miss – microwave, dishwasher, freezer.

Julian in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

Julian washing dishes in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

We have a fridge aboard which we use when we are on a pontoon, plugged into mains electricity. The rest of the time, when we’re at anchor or mooring, we live fridge free, because it requires more power to run than our 80 watt solar panel can provide. When we had a car and a continuously working fridge, we would shop for fresh food once a week, stocking our fridge to bursting with a week’s worth of dairy and vegetables. I’ve recently realised how much not having a fridge has become normal for Julian and me by the way we both react to the similarly packed-to-bursting fridges and freezers of my parents-in-law. ‘Surely you didn’t need that much stuff’, we gasp in disbelief, used as we are now to buying fresh food little and often and forgetting that, until recently, we used to shop in the same way.

Life without a washing machine or tumble drier is no big deal. When we have access to a launderette we do one bag of laundry a week. When there is no launderette nearby, I hand-wash small amounts of washing two or three times a week. Aboard the boat we take a different approach to our clothing. We have a lot less of it for starters. We own fewer items of clothing and we don’t own anything that’s delicate or requires special treatment. And every item of clothing is put through a sight and smell test before it goes in the laundry bag. Just because a shirt or pair of trousers has been worn doesn’t mean it’s dirty. If it’s not stained or doesn’t smell then it gets worn again the next day. Just like we used to do years ago, prior to the advent of ultra-convenient washing machines and tumble driers.

We adjusted quickly to our limited supplies of water, energy and cooking fuel aboard. We have adapted everything from the way we wash our bodies and brush our teeth, to the way we cook pasta and rice, in order to maximise our water supply. Over the past couple of years energy has become less of an issue as Julian has replaced all the old bulbs with low-energy LED bulbs, our anchor light is now powered by its own mini-solar panel, and our laptop recharger is now far more energy efficient than the one we had before. Still, energy isn’t on tap and we have grown accustomed to acting in ways that are energy efficient – making the most of daylight hours to achieve tasks that require strong light, religiously switching off cabin lights, and making decisions about whether certain uses of energy are necessary.

We’ve gotten used to this way of life relatively easily, in part because when we decided to buy a boat one of our main motivations was to live a simpler, less consumption-led life. We were both driven by a certain environmental and social consciousness and so it feels good to live that simple frugal life that we wanted.

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

With mod-cons out of the way, the other glaringly obvious aspect of living on a boat is size. Let’s face it, Carina is not big. She’s 36 foot from bow to stern and 11 foot wide at her broadest. Headroom is slightly less than Julian’s six feet two inches. The girls are growing with alarming speed and before long I’m going to be the shortest person aboard. And, with the exception of those few boxes of stuff stored with Julian’s parents, everything we own is aboard the boat.

Sometimes the lack of space isn’t a problem; other times it drives me mad. When the boat is tidy, when the sun is shining, when everyone’s in a good mood, space is no issue. When the boat is messy, when all four of us are trying to do things in the saloon at the same time – one of us cooking, one repairing, kids dressing up and playing noisily (or worse – fighting) – it can get a bit wild and uncomfortable. But, for the past five months we’ve been living in a house that would engulf Carina’s living spaces ten times over and it’s just as annoying when the place is messy, the kids are running wild, two or three of us are trying to do things at the same time. So I think space is as much in the mind as in the physical space around us.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill, mobile phone, play mobile people and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

On a practical note, the lack of space aboard is most obvious when we sit down to family meals, which we do three times a day. The table takes up the entire saloon when fully extended; and the four of us can barely fit around the wobbly unstable table in the cockpit. To get around these tables requires advanced contortionist skills and if the make-shift worktop in the saloon is in place (which it usually is) then you can expect to be stabbed in the back by its sharp outer corner as you try to squeeze between it and the edge of the saloon table. Thankfully both saloon and cockpit tables are collapsible so they’re not a burden most of the time.

Because of the lack of space, stored items aren’t always easy or convenient to reach. Over the years we’ve learned by trial and error and have moved food and other items around, depending on how regularly things are used. But if I run out of peppercorns half way through making dinner, gaining access to the spare tub is rarely easy, or if the weather suddenly changes and I need to get my cold weather gear, I have to strip my bed in the aft cabin, remove the mattress and burrow like a badger to reach those rarely worn clothes.

The longer we live aboard Carina the more used we grow to her idiosyncratic living space and the more tricks we develop to make life easier. But living aboard has never been a trial. I have never once regretted the decision to move from a substantial house with a huge garden in the countryside to a tiny self-contained boat. What our lives lack in mod-cons and living space is more than made up for in an abundance of time together as a family, opportunities to travel where and when we want, and opportunities to learn and grow each and every day.

Preparing to go home

We waited and waited and when the date was confirmed we knew we couldn’t wait any longer. My surgery was scheduled for the 1st of October, Julian’s contract at Warwick Castle was scheduled to end on the 1st of November. What was the earliest date we could realistically return to Carina? We looked at flights and read the NHS guidelines about abdominal hysterectomy recovery times. And we decided to fly to Portugal on the 10th of November. Forty days after my operation. Twenty-one days from today. A little optimistic perhaps? Not quite six weeks from the date of my surgery.

I’ve been taking good care of myself. Not pushing my body too hard, following all the guidelines and advice I’ve been given by healthy professionals, resting when I need to, not lifting heavy objects, not tiring myself out. I’ve been doing the exercises advised by the physiotherapist who came to see me the day after my operation and I’ve been going for walks – a little farther and a little faster every day. I’m in less pain every day, feeling stronger and less tired every day, and generally feeling good. In the first few days after my surgery, returning to Carina on the 10th of November seemed foolhardy. Three weeks after my surgery, it feels about right.

On the 10th of November we will have been in the UK for five and a half months. We arrived at the start of summer and we are departing at the start of winter. And the slow and methodical process of planning what to bring back to Carina, what to leave behind, what to dump and what to give to charity, begins.

The girls and I flew from Faro to Luton on the 21st of May with two pieces of hand luggage. Four changes of clothes each, including what we wore on the flight, seemed enough. I had carefully chosen clothes that could be layered – a sleeveless summer dress that could be transformed with the addition of leggings and a shirt into a cold weather dress; long and short-sleeved t-shirts that could be layered. The girls and I have expanded our wardrobes over the summer – me with clothes bought from charity shops and the girls with gifts of clothing from their doting grandmothers. The girls have outgrown or worn through many of the clothes that came with us from Carina and so their new clothes are a natural replacement. Some of the clothes I brought from Carina are now threadbare and the only dignified place for them is the bin.

Those throw-outs aside, we still have more clothing now than when we first arrived. So I’m trying to get myself back into a live aboard mentality and look at these clothes with an eye to their practicality on the boat. It’s hard to do – I know from past experience. The clothes I wear every day when living on the boat are not the same as what I wear when living in a house. Those clothing decisions have a lot less to do with comfort and warmth than with the presence or absence of a washing machine and the amount of storage space we have. So I have to think of my hand-washing, launderette-using self and Carina’s already packed storage spaces when I make decisions about what to bring back to the boat.

We have also accumulated quite a number of new books over the past few months and it pains me to part with any of them, but especially with the children’s books. But I must make some tough choices and also remind myself that books aboard Carina, having not been opened in five and a half months, will contain all the thrills and excitement as if they were new. And I have to remember the stacks of unread books that await me when I return to Carina.

Returning to the UK has given us the opportunity to restock Carina with some much desired food stuffs, but most importanly, tea. Our ongoing search for teabags caused us no end of consternation last year. Tea in Spain and Portugal is, to our tastes, insipid, over-packaged and expensive. But how many packets of 240 Tetley teabags can we pack and what else do we sacrifice in order to maximise our supply of tea? Though our tastes have adapted to virtually all southern European cuisine, large quantities of strong tea is something we can’t bear to be without!

Knowing how much preparation I want to do for our return to Carina, and knowing how quickly I tire these days, I started the job last week. A little bit every day and gradually I’m getting there. So far, summer clothes that won’t fit the girls next summer have gone into a bag for the charity shop, along with clothes I bought from charity shops at the start of summer, but now no longer need. Books have been divided into piles – boat, storage, charity.

Little by little it’s all taking shape. And little by little I’m getting in shape too, excited by the prospect of returning home soon, intrigued to see what the Rio Guadiana is like at this time of year, and wondering where the next few months will take us.