Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

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Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

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Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

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A new reader

An incredible thing happened on Monday. After a couple of years of, admittedly intermittent, attempts to teach Katie to read, she finally got it. I can’t explain what happened except that it seemed like a light bulb went on in her head. Unlike her sister, who took to reading very quickly when she was four years old, Katie has struggled, not recognising simple and repeated words from one line to the next, able to sound out letters but not able to put the sounds together to make words. Every attempt at reading ended in frustration and despair for Katie. No matter how much I tried to convince her I would help with words, our attempts more often than not ended in tears.

Her aversion to reading and the distress reading caused her was the reason why I took up the teaching baton intermittently. I didn’t want to push her if she wasn’t ready and I certainly didn’t want that anxiety and fear to lead to a longer-term aversion to books. I am a firm believer that, given the right conditions, children will learn to read when they are good and ready. They may be ready when they are three years old or when they are twelve years old. There is pedagogic research to suggest that children who learn to read later on quickly catch up with their peers who have been reading from an earlier age.

In the formal education system we are often too quick to label children as having learning disabilities because they haven’t yet learned to read to a certain level by a certain age. Dyslexia and related disabilities are very real and if not diagnosed and supported can disadvantage children, but being a late reader does not mean a child has a disability. The difficulty for education professionals (and, indeed, for parents) is figuring out whether a late reader is simply a late reader or is someone with a learning disability. Not so easy!

Katie found reading distressing, so I didn’t push it too much. But our home and our lives are filled with books. Julian, Lily and I read to Katie, and we read to ourselves and to each other. Katie loves books and loves being read to and can recite the entire text of her favourite Julia Donaldson books. She has recently learned to read Spanish which, with its simple and straightforward pronunciation rules, is a much easier language to read than English. When Lily received Diario de Greg (the Spanish language translation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for Christmas, it was Katie who wanted to read it first, and she’s been slowly making her way through it since Christmas Day.

We hadn’t read together for a few days, when on Monday afternoon I took out a level three phonics book from our Oxford Reading Tree box. She read the story surprisingly quickly (for Katie) and with virtually no help from me. She recognised common but tricky words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ (these had repeatedly stumped her before), sounded out new words correctly, and worked out other words from their context. She continued to mix up ‘b’ and ‘p’ but, instead of becoming overwrought, worked out which letter made most sense (‘boy’ not ‘poy’ and ‘pick’ not bick’, etc) in each case. She read with such unusual ease that I wondered if she’d already read this book recently with her dad or sister, and was now reading it from memory, but she assured me she had never read this book before.

Instead of the despair and anxiety that has accompanied our reading sessions in the past, she flew through this book and then asked if she could read something else. So we tried a level 3 First Stories book (the First Stories are a little more difficult than the phonics books of the same level). Once again, she sailed through the book with glee. It was time for Lily’s afternoon half hour of maths (I am a cruel and sadistic mother), so Katie took herself off to my cabin with Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man stickman2.jpgand read it by herself (aided by what she knew from memory). Then she asked Lily to help her read, and Lily chose a level 4 phonics book. (Wow! There have been times when I never thought we’d get past level 2, never mind level 4!). She read it for Lily, struggling only over the words ‘odd’ and ‘pongs’!

Since then Katie is beside herself, and is reading with gusto. In the space of only a few short days she has moved on to level 6 – the highest level in our Reading Tree set. She is picking everything up and reading it. Lily is going to have to figure out a way to protect the privacy of her journals and the notes she’s so fond of writing, because all of a sudden her sister can read them! This light bulb moment, this spark of recognition of how to read, is astonishing to me. It is something we have all experienced, when we struggle to master some new skill and suddenly, as if by magic, we get it. Of course it’s not magic. It’s practice, the creation of new neural pathways and connections, the brain and body sparking and sparkling. Katie can’t read perfectly, but she’s worked out how to read – how to put sounds together to form words, how to pick up clues from the context or the neighbouring words, how to learn by heart some common words that don’t sound anything like how they’re written (two, said, the, we). The realisation of how to do those things was her light bulb moment.

A couple of weeks ago she learned to ride a bicycle and that opened up a whole new world of freedom and independence to her. This week, suddenly discovering that she can read has opened up another world of freedom and independence. Her first question these past few mornings has been ‘Can we do more reading today?’ You bet!

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Keeping it all going

by Julian

Boat equipment goes wrong all the time, maintainance is a big part of sailing and living aboard. Think of a boat being your home, which includes electricity, plumbing, gas etc. It is also your transport so engines, sails and rigging need to be maintained. It is your security, so general seaworthiness, anchor, flares, radio comms, distress beacons, life jackets, liferaft and many more things besides. As Martina mentioned in a previous blog post several things went wrong just before I went back to England. The outboard motor on our dinghy stopped working, the main diesel engine overheating alarm went off and the foot pump started leaking badly, filling our bilges with water. These things and more needed sorting out before I returned to the UK so that Martina could have a dull uneventful week of peace without me.

First of all I attended to the leak in our fresh drinking water system. I took the foot pump out, water momentarily gushing all around me, and I shoved a couple of wooden bungs in the ends of the pipes, tightening hose clips onto them to stop the leak. This left Martina with only the electric pump, which we don’t like to use when on anchor, with only our 80 W solar panel to keep the systems going, but that was fine because Martina had no intention of being at anchor without me on board. We spotted an opportunity to go alongside the pontoon at Sanlucar a few days earlier than we needed and early in the morning we brought Carina into Spain, just in time to make the 5 minute walk to take the girls to school. Life was beginning to look easier for Martina stuck without me. On the pontoon she could do the shopping, take the girls to school and had limitless water and electricity with Carina plugged into the mains. This meant being able to use the computer and DVD player without limit, DVDs for the girls, a blender for smoothies and even a fast electric kettle, a working fridge and hot running water, pretty good hey!

The next job was the dinghy. I couldn’t leave Martina without the ability to get across the river, go to the Saturday market in Portugal, use the 3 Euro a go washing machine, which includes the powder, and go to the library where she can plug in the computer and use the internet all day long for her writing work. She might even decide to exchange books and look at the art gallery. I suspected the problem with the outboard to be dirt in the carburettor. We have a small, very simple and usually reliable outboard which I think is vital for an idiot like me, miles away from a petrol station or a professional mechanic. So I stripped down the carburettor, couldn’t see the problem but did a few of my magic blows on it and put it back together again, it worked a treat. The next mission was to teach Martina how to use it. “WHAT!” I hear you say, how could she live on the boat and not be able to use the outboard. Well it is a long story, she did use it a couple of times under supervision when we were cruising down here but we spent last winter in a marina and she hadn’t used it since. So I watched as she went off with the laundry, shouting things like “A little more choke!”, “No you’ve flooded it, try rowing straight back at the shore.” Anyway finally she seemed pretty happy and could handle the oars, so she had her complete freedom while the kids went to school.

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Our Zodiac inflatable dinghy with it’s 2 stroke Mariner 3.3 outboard.

I ordered spare rubber parts for our very good Whale Gusher Galley Mk III foot pump which hadn’t let us down or needed any maintenance in four years of very heavy use. We don’t know how long it was before we bought Carina since any work had been done on it. These parts would arrive at my dad’s house for me to bring back from the UK and I flew out from Seville to London for my appointment with the consultant. On my return I was first annoyed because Martina filled up the water system, but I waited a couple of days then emptied it and took the pump apart. Sure enough I found a small hole in one of the diaphragms. I replaced them both, saving the good one as an emergency replacement. Now I just had the engine to sort out.

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Behind the scenes on our Whale Gusher Galley Mk III footpump!!

The main engine of Carina was a little more confusing. The temperature alarm had gone off when on full pelt on our return from Ayamonte but now it was giving a faint alarm and a faint warning light after running the engine for 20 minutes or so. The system is cooled by a flow of raw water (sea or river) around an inner engine coolant water. Previously we had trouble with the flow of the raw water due to a seal not being good on the inlet filter but it was clear this was not the case, the filter itself was also clear. I remember going to sea with my cousin Martin and him replacing a degraded impellar (the rubber thing that pumps the raw water around the engine), that day the two of us sailed onto the mooring in the confined space between lines of boats and mud banks of Hayling island, near Chichester and we missed the tide that would get us to the pub. With this in mind I checked the impellar, it looked fine.

Various people came past and nodding sagely said “It will be the thermostat!” I ignored them and checked the raw water system some more, actually contacting the dealer to see what the flow should be, I then put a bucket by the exhaust and measured how much water came out in 20 second intervals, it appeared to be behaving fine. Finally I heeded the advice of my fellow sailors and took out the thermostat and put it in a pan of boiling water. It opened just fine, not that either then! I was getting pretty sure that it was just a faulty temperature sensor, but I didn’t have the confidence to risk the engine. However, the Germans had heard that I was looking for a thermometer and came on board with their engineering kit and took over for an hour or so. Rolf was an engineer and still does the odd professional job on boats at the coast. Along with Steffan, a keen amateur, they gave the engine a good testing. The verdict was that it isn’t overheating, I have a dodgy temperature sensor. I checked the price of a new one with the dealer, £49.95! Maybe I’ll take it out and blow on it before spending the money.

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Carina’s main inboard engine a Craftsman Marine 4.42. It is a 4 cylinder 42 hp diesel marinised engine based on a Mitsubishi engine.

All a little pear shaped

Sometimes it all goes pear-shaped. Like this past week. We were minutes away from anchoring at the end of our trip back upriver from Ayamonte when one of the engine alarms went off. At first it was a low whistle and I wasn’t quite sure if it was coming from Carina or from one of the other boats anchored nearby in the river. Julian was on the foredeck, getting ready to drop anchor. I put my ear to the ignition panel in the cockpit and sure enough, the alarm sound was emanating from there. Cupping my hand to block out the light shining on the bank of alarm lights confirmed it was the temperature alarm. The engine was overheating. The sound wasn’t too bad. Not the ear-piercing, heart stopping shrieking of the engine alarm that we had back in August 2013 when we limped into the marina in Brest, in Brittany, and were holed up for four days while Julian semi-solved the problem. I keep my ear to the alarm while Julian lays out the anchor chain.

We have a party to go to and then the Three Kings procession and then another party after that, so now is not the time to try to figure out what’s wrong with the engine. Then we sit at anchor for four nights and there are so many other things to do, the engine takes a back seat.

Friday is the first day of the new school term. Julian takes the girls to and from school in the dinghy. He goes to collect them at the end of the school day and I stay on board to get lunch ready. When I hear the dinghy coming back downriver I go to the stern to help them aboard. They don’t need my help to get aboard, but after a five hour separation I’m too impatient to see them to wait until they come those extra four metres into the saloon!

‘Where are your schoolbags?’ I ask, as Lily climbs aboard. In the excitement of meeting their long lost friends, they have left their schoolbags behind on the pontoon. Julian turns around and zips back upriver to get the bags. We’ve been doing a lot of zooming up and down river these past few days, what with all those parties. And we haven’t put petrol in the outboard for a few days. This latest, unplanned, trip back to Sanlúcar to collect the schoolbags takes more petrol than is currently in the fuel tank and Julian just makes it back to Carina on fumes. (This is no big deal as far as safety goes. He has oars and arms and is on an ebb tide on a calm day so rowing would be no problem). He climbs aboard for lunch and we think no more of the outboard.

We’re only a couple of days off spring tides now and with each ebb Carina is in shallower and shallower water. On Saturday morning we move her a few metres farther into the middle of the river. This manoeuvre takes only a few minutes, but Julian tells me to leave the engine running so he can begin to figure out what caused the alarm to sound when the engine was last running. He does some checks, and after twenty minutes the alarm sounds again.

Later Saturday morning Julian puts new petrol in the outboard so we can all go ashore for a walk and a picnic with some friends. The outboard sputters and splutters, judders and jiggles, and gets us to shore, but only just, with Julian playing around with the throttle and the choke likes he’s Quincy Jones at a music desk. Many hours later, when we return from our picnic, the outboard won’t start at all and I row the four of us home, greatly assisted by the ebb tide.

We’re only aboard five minutes and thinking about what we might have for supper when we hear the sound of a dinghy coming our way. It’s Phil from Naisso. Irlem has made feijoada, the national dish of his native Brazil and he’s been saying for weeks that the next time he makes it he’ll have us around for supper.

Erm, we’d love to come around, I tell Phil, but the outboard’s not working. The four of us will never get the 300 metres upriver to Naisso rowing against a spring tide in full ebb. I put a solution to Phil and he agrees to give it a try, but isn’t sure if his little outboard will be up to it. If the girls and I go with Phil in his dinghy, we can tow Julian behind in our dinghy, with Julian rowing to give what assistance he can to the labours of Phil’s outboard. We’ll still be on an ebb tide by the time we finish dinner and we can float back downriver to Carina.

The girls and I climb in with Phil and I hold the painter of our dinghy. We slowly make our way upriver against the ebb, Phil’s little outboard giving it all she’s got, Julian rowing behind. Our friends on other boats are much amused as they watch our progress. It all goes well, and we reach our destination, but I narrowly avoid falling in the river as I climb aboard Naisso. We have a thoroughly wonderful evening and a dinner so delicious that words fail me. And at 10pm, we drift downriver, Julian dipping an oar in now and again to correct our course towards Carina.

Sunday is to be our ‘day of rest’, when we don’t leave the boat. Julian plans to devote the day to investigating and hopefully solving the problems of both the outboard and inboard engines. He spends the morning working on the outboard, taking it apart, cleaning the filters and carburettor. His first test run with it fails and he has to strip it apart again, but by lunchtime the outboard is working like a dream. At least he won’t have to row against the ebb to get the girls to school in the morning. (If you think we’ve got an extraordinary amount of ebb tide, it’s because we do. Because of the fast flowing river, flood tides here are a little less than five hours in duration and ebbs a little more than seven).

He takes a break for lunch and then plans to launch into the bigger job, Carina’s engine. But when I open the cupboard under the sink where the pots and pans are stored, I discover the bottom of the cupboard is wet. This has happened before, and it’s always simply a loose water pipe to the galley taps. It just requires a little tightening and drying out of the cupboard. I remove all the pots and pans and Julian gets down on his hands and knees in the tight space between the galley and the companionway steps, to fix the problem.

But this time the problem isn’t the pipe. The pipe is as dry as a bone. There must be a leak somewhere else in the system. He removes the floor in front of the sink and cooker to reveal about 20 litres of water sloshing about. He sets about removing the water, a jug full at a time and then tries to figure out where all this water has come from. From its location and the dryness of our deep bilges we know that this water isn’t coming in from outside. We have an internal leak.

His exploration reveals the foot pump to be the source of the leak. You see, we get water into our taps by means of an electrical pump powered by our bank of domestic batteries or by means of a foot pump located near the floor under the cooker. When we are at anchor we use the foot pump, to reduce the energy drain on our batteries, and we only use the electric pump when we are on a pontoon and have mains electricity.

Cutting off the water supply to the foot pump requires some speedy movements to insert a wooden bung before the water spills everywhere. While Julian, like the Dutch boy and the dyke, keeps his finger in the pipe, I rummage around in a cupboard for an appropriately-sized bung. For some reason we are both in a good mood and we find it all pretty comical. Another day we might not have been so light hearted about it all!

With the pipe blocked, Julian takes the foot pump out and painstakingly takes it apart, inspects all the constituent bits, cleans them up and puts it all back together again. Most of the fiddly screws are back in place before he realises he has forgotten to reinsert the spring at the centre of the mechanism. So he has to undo the whole blooming thing and start all over again. He suspects that nothing he has done will have solved the problem and when he puts the pump back in place he is proven right. The pump is broken, perhaps not beyond repair, but to repair it will require the purchase of spare parts online. And the afternoon he has planned to devote to the engine has now been spent on the foot pump.

He spends Monday morning trying to solve the problem of the engine. He gets so far as figuring out that it’s got something to do with the flow of external water through the cooling system. But the exact nature of the problem or how to solve it remains a mystery. He then spends the afternoon online, ordering spare parts for the pump and trying to learn more about the engine cooling system.

At least the laptop is working now, allowing him to do this. A few days after Christmas the laptop died and it took a couple of hours of painstaking work on Julian’s part, taking it apart, cleaning all the bits, putting it back together, rebooting it, before eventually bringing it back to life again.

On Tuesday morning he returns to the engine again. He reads the owner’s manual cover to cover and thinks he may have found a solution to the problem. As I write he is on the bus going to Vila Real to purchase the necessary fluids and parts from the chandlery. We still have a leaking foot pump that can’t be used until the faulty parts arrive by post and are replaced, an engine cooling system that needs to be fixed, and one very frustrated skipper. It never rains but it pours.

(In)experience

Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!

Another attempt

A year and a day ago I posted I am not superwoman, in which I stated, amongst other things, that I was giving up trying to study Spanish. I simply did not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do and some things had to go. So I left Spanish study to Julian and Lily, while I got on with things that seemed more urgent to me. I was thinking about that blog post earlier today and only this minute have I realised that it is exactly a year since I wrote it.

For almost seven months I watched Julian progressing with his Spanish language ability. Following a taster course on the BBC language site Mi Vida Loca, he devoted himself to the learning website Duolingo whenever we had access to Wifi, and he practiced his newfound skills at every opportunity. Lily followed suit, first trying her hand at Mi Vida Loca and then getting her own Duolingo account. She and the Spanish kids she met at the playground on the beach in Aguadulce and elsewhere communicated in a mixture of pidgin-English and pidgin-Spanish and I could tell that her understanding was developing. I was disappointed in myself for not making an effort to learn Spanish, but I knew enough to shop and ask directions and to make basic polite conversation.

Then a strange thing happened. The girls and I flew back to the UK towards the end of May and I suddenly had this blinding urge to learn Spanish. And I wanted the girls to learn Spanish too. In the first few days we were back I searched the bookshops in Coventry and bought two textbooks suitable for children and a box of flashcards with 200 common Spanish words.

We played with the flashcards. I sent the girls on errands around their granddad’s house to find items on the flashcards and we tried to remember the Spanish names for things. We wrote the names of things on post-it notes and stuck them around the house – la puerta, la ventana, el escritorio, el ordenador, and so on.

One day at their grandma’s house, Lily asked if she could do some of the Mi Vida Loca programme on the computer. An hour later, when she’d tired of it, Katie took over, enjoying the interactive portions of the programme where she had to pay for a taxi, buy a glass of wine, etc.

In mid-June I decided to check out Duolingo. I’ve been hooked ever since, rarely missing more than a couple of days of study. Whenever the mood takes me I make time for ten minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes of study – sitting up in bed with the laptop first thing in the morning or last thing at night, squeezing in ten minutes before dinner time, grabbing a few minutes on the Duolingo app on my phone.

I’m still way behind Julian, but I’m getting there. A couple of months ago I received an email from someone in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, written entirely in Spanish. I couldn’t believe that I understood the content of the entire email without having to resort to the dictionary or Google Translate.

These days Lily and Katie play on Mi Vida Loca; Lily practices Duolingo; Katie and I have fun with the flashcards; and we occasionally do pages of the textbooks and sing along to the songs on the accompanying CDs. Julian and I practice Spanish on each other and on the girls, often attempting simple conversations or testing our vocabulary while we eat meals or go out for walks.

Only eleven more sleeps until we fly back to Carina on the Rio Guadiana. I’m looking forward to testing out and improving my new language skills. I’ll probably never be able to seduce Benicio del Toro or Gael Garcia Bernal in their native language (or in my native language, come to think of it) or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels in their original Spanish, but I will, hopefully, be able to have conversations with the lovely people of Sanlúcar that go beyond asking for a loaf of bread or a glass of beer!

I’m glad I changed my mind about trying to learn Spanish. It’s not only provided me with a new and growing skill, but my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the girls and Julian now has someone to practice with. The whole family has benefitted from my decision to take a leap into a new skill and we all know a lot more Spanish than we did at the start of the summer.

It just goes to show it’s ok to change your mind about something and it’s never too late to learn a new skill. Just ask my mother, who has recently resumed piano lessons after a 56-year break!