Roots or routes?

In early May, Sanlúcar de Guadiana and its neighbour El Granado held their annual Romería. It was our third Romería, and a few days after the fiesta, as I uploaded my photographs onto the laptop, I decided to take a look back at our two previous Romerías, in 2015 and 2016. Each year we have known more about the festival and have, thus, been able to participate in it more deeply.

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Spectators in 2015

In May 2015, we had been up the Rio Guadiana for less than two weeks when we came ashore one Saturday at lunchtime to watch this colourful local spectacle. We weren’t sure what it was all about or where everyone was going in tractor and mule-drawn trailers. We were hot and thirsty and, after taking a few photos and watching the procession set off, we returned home to Carina.

In May 2016, we knew more about this two-day event during which the people of Sanlúcar and the people of El Granado come together in a field mid-way between the two villages to eat, drink and party into the night. Lily and Katie dressed in their cheap tourist-shop flamenco dresses and we walked the road to the festival. But we went too early, overtaking the procession which went by a different route, and had eaten all our food and drunk all our water by the time the procession arrived. We stayed a little while, visiting the caseta of one family we knew a little bit.

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In the thick of it, 2017

In May 2017, Lily and Katie wore proper flamenco dresses, we rode in one of the trailers for the four hours it took to cover the three or so kilometres from Sanlúcar to the site of the Romería, singing and dancing, drinking and eating along the way. In advance of the festival, friends from both Sanlúcar and El Granado had invited us to eat and drink in their casettas. The girls and I set up camp with some English friends, where we had our own picnic, and then, as Saturday evening progressed, we did the rounds of the casettas to which we had been invited.

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Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

Looking back over those three sets of photographs I realised that what had once been, for us, a colourful local festival in a quirky village filled with strangers had become a part of our annual calendar in our adopted village filled with friends and neighbours. Zooming in on those photos from 2015, it dawned on me that those strangers were now Lily and Katie’s schoolmates and their parents, the friends I chat to in my favourite bar, my English language students. These strangers are now people to whose houses I have visited, who have invited us to birthday parties, First Communion celebrations and Christmas dinners. They are strangers no more.

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Dance break by the side of the road!

Yachties frequently ask each other about their sailing plans. It’s the nature of living on a boat. There are times when I am envious when I see our sailing friends set off down the river. I want to set off for destinations unknown too. Our good friends aboard Pelagic are now sailing in the Pacific, having left the Rio Guadiana in spring of 2016. I read their blog and tell Lily and Katie about the wonderful adventures of their friends Ana and Porter  in places I’ve never heard of with names I can’t pronounce and part of me wishes we were out there too aboard Carina. Maybe someday we will.

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But there is also something wonderful about staying put, about getting to know a place and its people, about getting below the surface of those colourful and strange traditions  and about strangers becoming friends.

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Maybe we will still be here for next year’s Romería. Maybe not. Getting to know a place takes time. Understanding a community and its people takes patience. If we are here next year I am sure I will look back on May 2017 and marvel at my naiveté and lack understanding and my presumption at what I thought I knew!

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The handsome Eskimo

I sat down with Katie to oversee her homework. Left to her own devices, a reading and writing assignment that should take fifteen minutes to complete might take two hours or more. But if I sat beside her and offered light encouragement, we might get through it in half an hour.

The photocopied sheet, consisted of two assignments that tested reading comprehension and cursive writing. The top half of the page contained mixed up sentences. Katie had to put the words in each sentence in the correct order and then write them out twice.

tiene Paco quimono un

Paco tiene un quimono (Paco has a kimono)

(Is Paco a transvestite? Wow, how liberal-minded you are, government of Andalucia!)

The bottom half of the page had sentences that first had to be copied, and then a picture had to be drawn, demonstrating Katie’s comprehension of each sentence.

The first sentence stops me in my tracks.

El esquimal es feo.

Come again? Surely I’m mistaken. There’s no way I could be reading that right. I reach for the dictionary to look up the meaning of esquimal, even though I already know what it is. Yep, just as I thought, esquimal = Eskimo.

El esquimal es feo. The Eskimo is ugly.

I ask Katie to read it. She doesn’t know the word esquimal. ‘It means Eskimo’, I tell her. ‘Do you know what an Eskimo is?’ I ask her. ‘Like an Inuk?’ she asks hesitantly. ‘And do we know any Inuit?’ I ask. Before Katie answers, Lily calls from the aft cabin, ‘Me. I’m Niviaq’.

You see, Lily’s more longwinded name, as it appears on her birth certificate, is Elizabeth Niviaq. Niviaq is her Inuit name, given to her by Paul and Linda, my adopted family in Arviat. Niviaq was Paul’s younger brother who tragically died in 2003. Because Lily has his name, by Inuit custom, she is related to all his family. Despite being a girl, she is ‘little brother’ to Rosie and Paul, ‘little uncle’ to all her namesake’s nieces and nephews, and she is related, through her namesake, to all the other children who have been named after Niviaq since he died. And the characteristics of his personality are passed on to Lily in her name. Ugly Eskimo indeed!

‘What should we do about this?’ I ask the girls. At first Katie doesn’t want to do anything other than complete her assignment the way it has been set out. In other words, write out ‘El esquimal es feo’ and draw a picture of an ugly Eskimo. ‘The teacher might get mad’, she says. ‘But there must be something we can do’, I say, ‘that allows you to complete your homework, but also let the teacher know that you’re not happy with the sentence. Maybe you could do something that would start a conversation’.

‘How about ‘El esquimal es guapo’?’, Lily suggests. The Eskimo is handsome. Katie and I both like this idea.

‘And what will you do when the teacher reads it?’ I ask.

‘I’ll tell her my sister’s an Inuk and she’s not ugly’, Katie says. ‘And anyone else?’, I prompt. ‘Granddad Paul and Maya and Ujarak and Frank’.

I then suggest to Lily that she can explain the origin of her name to her teacher and classmates. I’ve heard her describe it very well in English in the past. And they both can tell the class what they know about Inuit culture – about caribou and beluga whale hunting, and igloos and sled dogs; about the fun games people play at birthday parties; about clothing made from animal skins; about throat singing and drum dancing.

Katie writes ‘El esquimal es guapo’ and draws a picture of an Inuk in a fur-hooded yappa. And I send my little cultural ambassadors to school the next day hoping they’ll do their bit for cultural sensitivity and understanding.

Tatami

I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.

I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.

On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.

Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.

I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.

I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.

Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.

Siesta

In the blazing, blue sky, brutal heat of the early afternoon, silence reigns. There is no bird song, no quacking ducks, no bleating sheep, no barking dogs. There are no cars on the streets, no children at play, no pedestrians chatting. To walk through the streets of Sanlúcar, if one was foolish enough to do so, is akin to walking through a ghost town. Shutters down on every house and no sounds emanating from within. The river is silent too. One ferryman dozes under the ferry bimini, with no passengers at this time of day. Only the occasional recently arrived yachtie is naïve enough to motor ashore from his anchorage, hoping to find a shop or bar open, or insanely deciding to go for a walk.

It took us a while to get into the swing of siesta. Back in 2014, when we first cruised in Spain, we exhausted ourselves in the heat of the day, the sun sapping our energy as we attempted to keep our lives running to a northern European schedule. We didn’t know any better. It’s what we were accustomed to. It took some time for us to become aware of the silence, the empty streets, the shuttered windows, as Spain came to a standstill for a few hours every afternoon.

We were stupidly slow to figure out just why it was that Spanish people of all ages could manage to stay out so damned late into the night – restaurants only starting to serve dinner at 9pm, children happily eating meals with their families at one in the morning. It’s because everyone sleeps in the hottest part of the day, and the country comes to life again when the day starts to cool down.

With our own children in school this past year it’s become easier to develop a siesta habit aboard Carina. The school day ends at 2pm, the girls come home for lunch, and by 3pm we’re all in siesta mode.

Not that the girls sleep. But I don’t feel so bad about that because the parents of their Spanish classmates tell me their children don’t sleep much either. The important thing is to ensure everyone has some quiet time in a shady and, preferably, cool place, so the heat isn’t unnecessarily sapping energy.

I doze, or read, or write. Julian does the same. Katie sleeps sometimes, Lily almost never. But Lily lies quietly on her bed for a couple of hours, reading usually. Or both girls play quietly together. Or, if they are being particularly anti-siesta, I stick on a DVD to keep them quietly amused.

It’s only very recently that I’ve truly come to appreciate siesta time. Not just for the obvious reasons. Not simply because it conserves our energy and it provides a time to relax in the middle of the day. Not just because we wake up revived and not too tired to participate in the evening and night-time life of Spain.

What I like above all about siesta is the silence. There are no human or animal sounds. All is still. All is quiet. The oppressive heat weighs down, silencing all. For a few hours each afternoon the only sounds are the wind blowing and the river lapping against its banks.

Romería

It’s almost two months since the good citizens of Sanlúcar de Guadiana and El Granado walked out one Saturday around midday and met in a field midway between their two villages for two days of fun and frolics. Men came on horseback, dressed in high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats; women, some on horseback too, were dressed in voluminous layered figure hugging flamenco dresses, their lips painted red and their hair elaborately coiffed. This was the annual Romería, when neighbouring villagers get together to, ahem, expand the gene pool.

My mother and sister were visiting from Ireland and we couldn’t but join in the festivities. While proper flamenco dresses are way beyond our price range (and where on earth would we store them aboard Carina?), we were advised to dress the girls in the cheaper children’s flamenco dresses to be found in every resort town in Spain. We owned one already, and borrowed a second.

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Katie and Granny on the road to El Granado

For a week or more before the festival the people of Sanlúcar and El Granado, a village of similar size ten minutes away by car, were busy making their preparations. The same field, midway between the two villages, is used each year. Extended families build casetas – temporary structures made of wood and tarpaulin – which provide shade and shelter. In Sanlúcar carts were decorated with flowers and bunting, and cars and trucks loaded with chairs, tables, barrels and crates of beer to be transported to the site.

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On Friday evening Julian went out for a walk after supper. He was gone almost an hour when I heard the unmistakable sound of flamenco singing and someone playing a tambourine. I looked up the street to see a covered wagon slowly making its way along the street, pulled by a mule, and Julian sitting up in the middle of a bunch of women! They’d picked him up as he was walking along and plied him with local wine as they went on two circuits of the village, singing and making merry.

 

On Saturday morning we prepared a picnic, the girls dressed in their flamenco dresses, and we set out. A misjudgement on my part meant we missed the opportunity to travel in one of the covered wagons. Earlier in the day I’d met Pepe, the mayor, and he said Lily and Katie should go in a wagon. Last year the procession of men, women and children on horseback and in mule, horse and tractor-drawn covered wagons had set out from Sanlúcar at around 2pm. So, despite being told the procession would begin at midday, I assumed it would not be prompt. I was wrong. So we ended up walking. Even so, we reached the Romería site almost two hours before the procession. We took the main road and walked for half an hour. The procession took a dirt track and stopped every few minutes to drink, sing and dance!

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A well-deserved picnic after our walk in the hot sun

The Romería site was like a gypsy camp. Each extended family had its own caseta, some with bars set up, some with people playing guitars or accordions, all with vast amounts of food. We joined some other ex-pats we know in the shade of their camper van awning, and we ate and drank our fill from our picnic.

The two processions – Sanlúcar from one direction and El Granado from the other – arrived simultaneously and entered the field amidst great fanfare. It was an amazing spectacle, gorgeous men and women astride prancing horses and the tipsy passengers in the carts singing.

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Arriving in style!

Lily and Katie quickly found their friends, and we found the friends’ parents. We were invited into various casetas to partake of food and drink. Throughout the afternoon men paraded around on their horses, and the occasional teenage boy cantered past with a pretty girl sitting behind him. The joy of the day left a smile on my face.

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Lily and her friend Israel

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Lily’s friends, Isaac and Israel outside their family’s caseta.

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The girls had lots of fun with their friends

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Katie enjoying herself!

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Some of the Sanlucar men even ate on horseback!

Last year we watched the procession set out from Sanlúcar, not sure what it was all about. I’m still not quite sure what it’s all about, but we certainly had fun joining in this year.

Nuestra Señora de la Rábida

Preparation for the Fiestas in honour of Our Lady of La Rábida, Sanlúcar’s village festival, started weeks ago. The local painter and decorator, with his army of local women, went from house to house, whitewashing walls and painting wooden doors and iron window grills. Each day housewives washed and brushed the footpaths outside their houses, and large maroon banners with the golden insignia of the Virgen de la Flores were hung from balconies. This little village of less than three hundred people was sparkling, ready for its holiest and most important feast of the year.

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The procession of the Virgin

Here in Spain every town and village, and even in some cases neighbourhoods within towns, has its own feast day, celebrating its patron saint. In many cases, as here in Sanlúcar, the patron saint is the Blessed Virgen. The Feast of the Virgin of the Flowers, Our Lady of la Rábida, is celebrated each year in Sanlúcar on the first weekend after Easter Sunday.

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Dressed for the Fiesta

On Easter Sunday morning (after our Easter egg hunt and Lily’s requested birthday breakfast of crêpes), the girls and I dressed in our best dresses and made our way up the hill to the beautiful village church. Unlike Christmas Day, when only a handful of old people attended Mass and all wore their everyday clothes, on Easter Sunday there was standing room only in the church and everyone, from the oldest grandfather to little Carla, born on New Year’s Day, were dressed in their finest outfits. The mums and dads I know from the school gate were virtually unrecognisable – the men smartly dressed in suits and the women in elegant dresses, their hair newly styled and their faces made up. I was glad the girls and I had made an effort too!

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Local women dressed to kill

Behind the altar was the elaborate gold palanquin. The statue of the Virgin herself stood beside the altar. In the middle of Mass prayers were said in her honour and she was solemnly lifted onto the palanquin and her gold crown placed on her head. To the repeated cry of ‘Long live the Virgin, long live the mother of God, etc’, the congregation cried in unison ‘Viva’. Many in the church, including all the children, carried bunches of pink and white carnations which they (including Lily) brought to the altar to be placed at the feet of the Virgin.

In the days after Easter Sunday preparation in the village reached fever pitch. A large marquee was erected in the plaza with a bar, stage and seating for hundreds, and street vendors moved into the area near the dock, setting up gofre stands, shooting galleries and bouncy castles. As the streets were cleaned even more, each evening bangers were fired. We made our own preparations, dressing Carina in her complement of flags in readiness for the role we were to play in the fiesta.

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Carrying the palanquin into the church

On Friday evening, the fiesta began. At 9pm prayers were said in the church and at 11pm the marquee came to life with a band that played lively music until 4am. The 9pm prayers were accompanied by the firing of bangers and these continued to be fired at regular intervals for the next four days, a man always on duty on the slipway near the dock.

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Procession through the village

At 9am Saturday morning we (and everyone else in the village) were awoken by the loud firing of bangers and a brass band marching through the streets of the village playing lively music to get us all out of bed. The girls and I dressed in our best dresses again, and made our way to the church. Once again, there was standing room only, and if the congregation had looked good on Easter Sunday, they now looked even more spectacular and the church itself was decorated with masses of white roses and lilies.

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In the church

A male dance troop, doing what in the UK would be called Morris dancing, danced from the plaza to the church, leading the way for the town dignitaries and the twenty women who had been responsible for the preparations for this year’s fiesta. Inside the church the Bishop of Huelva said Mass and afterwards the altar was removed and the pews moved to one side to make way for the most beautiful and memorable part of the fiesta.

The dancers, accompanied by a man simultaneously playing a drum and pipe, danced through the church, up and down the aisle, while another group of men prepared to carry the palanquin on a procession through the village. With perfect timing, they lifted her, five or six men on either side, swaying under the weight of the palanquin, and the procession began. Slowly down the steps of the church they went, confetti thrown down on from the bell tower, and hundreds processed through the town, the dancing men in front, the marching band behind, and cries of ‘Viva’ rising up.

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During the Spanish Civil War, when many Catholic icons were destroyed, the Virgin was sent to Alcoutim, across the river, for safekeeping. To thank their Portuguese neighbours for protecting her during the war, each year when the procession reaches the river, the Virgin is turned towards Portugal. The brass band plays the Portuguese national anthem, bangers are fired, and the church in Alcoutim responds by ringing its church bell. It was now our time to contribute to the procession. With the other boats on the dock, Julian sounded Carina‘s fog horn long and loud, and fired one of our old flares. The procession then carried on through the village and returned to the church.

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Julian ready to sound the fog horn

At 6pm the music started again in the marquee, three different bands playing music until 5.30am! Lily and Katie ran around with their friends, spending money at the various stands, while Julian and I enjoyed the festivities in the marquee, having a few drinks, taking to the dance floor and really having a good time.

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Lily and Katie dancing with their school friends Carmen and Miriam

At 9am the next morning we were once again awoken by the marching band and the bangers and the third day of the fiesta proceeded exactly like the second. I couldn’t persuade the girls to come to Mass with me, but they dressed up in yet more fine clothes and joined me for the procession afterwards. This time the adult dancers were joined by the village’s young boys, including all but one of Lily’s male classmates. Julian once again stayed on board to perform his duties when the Virgin faced the river. Mass on Sunday morning was beautiful, with a choir from Isla Cristina making it all the more emotional and special. In the evening we once again made our way to the marquee and when the girls grew too tired to stay any longer, Julian took them home to bed and I carried on, dancing and perhaps drinking a little too much (so much for that New Year’s resolution, eh?!).

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Saturday procession

By Sunday evening most of the out of town visitors had left, as only those of us who live here could enjoy a public holiday the next day. Monday dawned wet and windy. At 9am, yet again, the bangers and marching band woke us. Still in my pajamas I made the dessert I had been planning to make for the past two days. But it had to be done now, because Monday was the day of the village feast.

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On the street that faces Portugal

Because of the rain, Monday’s after-Mass procession had to be cancelled. But what happened instead was perhaps even more intense and emotional that if we had processed through the streets. When Mass ended the altar and pews were once again cleared away. The boy dance troupe took to the floor, dancing up and down the church. The brass band played. The local flamenco choir sang hymns. And the men carried the palanquin up and down the church, standing in place, swaying her from side to side. I looked around and realised that many many people were crying. Old and young, men and women, weeping openly as the religious part of the fiesta reached its conclusion.

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Katie, Lily and their school friend Hannah in church

In the pouring rain we dashed to the marquee for the village dinner. There was barely seating room for all. We were served delicious plates of chickpea and chorizo casserole and we drank heartily. Everyone in the village contributes financially to the organisation of the fiesta. But as the extranjeros – the foreigners – cannot do so, so each year our contribution to the fiesta is the preparation of desserts for the village feast. Along with some of the other foreign women I had made desserts and after the meal we brought these in on plates and served them to our Spanish neighbours, amid loud applause. And then it was time for more music and dancing.

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The village feast on Monday afternoon

By the time Monday night rolled around we were exhausted and very glad that the girls had Tuesday off school too. We spent Tuesday recovering and reminiscing about the incredible few days we had just experienced.

 

 

Carnival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Christmas homebird

In forty-one years, this is only my sixth Christmas away from my home in Ballygibbon. Despite not living in Ireland for most of my adult life, I have a Christmas homing instinct that, at this time of year, generally finds me packing my bags, rooting in the drawer for my passport, and getting on a plane bound for Dublin airport. So you’ll understand that my Christmas traditions are deeply embedded.

There’s the Christmas Eve ritual of going out for a massive family lunch (it used to be that only the lunch was massive, but in recent years, participation has extended out beyond my immediate family). After that lunch, we visit my Nana and other relatives. These are people who, as a child, I saw almost every day of my life, and Mammy still sees every day. But on Christmas Eve we used to visit with the purpose of exchanging Christmas presents. One year, when I was in my late teens, and after Daddy had lost his job at the shoe factory, we made a pact with our extended family to not exchange gifts any more. But the tradition of the Christmas Eve visit continued and, as the years have gone by, the gift-giving has gradually crept back in.

Who's behind the mask?

Who’s behind the mask?

After tea on Christmas Eve, my family would stand together in our hall, light the Christmas candle and say a prayer. Until I was in my late teens we always opened our presents on Christmas Eve but, for some reason, we gave up that family tradition and now hold off until Christmas morning. Once the candle was lit, and the presents opened, it was time to make a trifle, chop up the potatoes and vegetables for the next day’s dinner and, from my early 20s on, accompany Mammy to midnight mass in Edenderry and afterwards go to Byrnes pub with my friends.

On Christmas morning when I was a child, my sister and I would sneak into the sitting room as soon as we thought it was safe (i.e. when there would be no chance of running into Santa) to see what presents were under the tree. After breakfast we would get ready for Mass, visit the Tyrrell family grave, and then home to get in Mammy’s way as she prepared the biggest dinner of the year.

More recently I’ve fallen into the tradition of popping across the road an hour or so before dinner to visit my cousins Michael and Theresa and their kids. Theresa is a terrible woman who spikes my multiple coffees with Baileys, so I walk back across the road rosy cheeked and tipsy!!

Me, aged three, with Mammy, uncle Tom and some spectacular decor.

Me, aged three, with Mammy, uncle Tom and some spectacular 1970s decor.

Oh, the Christmas dinners Mammy makes. I don’t know how we fit around the small kitchen table when I was a child – Mammy, Daddy, me, my sister, Nana, aunt Cissie, aunt Lillie and uncle Jerry and my three cousins Sean, Declan and Colette, and our uncle Tom. Over the years the cast changed, and my strongest memories of Christmas dinner involve my parents, my sister and my uncle Tom. How we stuffed ourselves on plates stacked high with turkey, ham, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, Brussel sprouts, celery and carrots, bread sauce, stuffing and gravy. It was heaven. It was served on the best plates, only brought out for this one day of the year, in portions big enough to kill a grown man. We always went back for seconds. For dessert we had Christmas pudding or sherry trifle (or both), and somehow there was always a little room for Mammy’s Christmas cake at the end.

Those who could, walked the mile to the graveyard to get some fresh air. Those who couldn’t, loosened the waistband of their trousers and sat in front of the turf fire in the sitting room, watching television. Before long the next round began. Christmas night in our house has always been a crowded noisy affair. My uncles Jimmy and Mike came to visit with their children (all much older than me), and some other relatives. It was time for making and drinking copious amounts of tea, cold turkey, ham and stuffing sandwiches, cake, biscuits and sweets, all while talking, playing cards, and telling stories.

In the small hours of the morning, when most of the guests had returned home, Sean, Declan, Colette, my sister and I would get ready for bed. The boys slept on the sofa-bed in the sitting room, and Colette hopped in with me. It took us a long time to get ready for bed, laughing and messing around, deciding that we still had room for a bag of Tayto or another biscuit from the biscuit tin, while the tired adults washed a mountain of dishes.

Over the years the cast of Christmas changed. We lost some precious family members and gained some others. In the past decade my maternal aunts have played a greater part in our Christmas Day. And through it all, our traditions have evolved gradually, and probably don’t bear much resemblance to the Christmases of my childhood. But in my mind, I like to think that my Christmases are indistinguishable from each other. And in a way they are, because the thing that binds them together is that they are about spending time with the most important people in your life, eating good food together and laughing until your sides ache.

A little reindeer found her way onto Carina!

A little reindeer found her way onto Carina!

This year it feels a little like Ballygibbon Christmas on tour. My cousins Sean and Yvonne are living in Spain now, just a few miles away from Carina, and in a few days, Mammy and Antoinette are flying over from Ireland to join us. Yvonne’s cooking the turkey and Mammy’s home-made Christmas pudding is coming with her on the flight. I think a big Christmas Eve dinner is in order, and a trip to the Almeria Christmas market.

Though we’ll be spending much of Christmas off the boat, the girls and I have spent a lot of time decorating Carina. We’ve strung stars, angels and bells around, together with some decorations I had stowed. We made a Christmas ‘tree’ and this past weekend we made a mountain of cakes and gingerbread biscuits for the little Christmas parties I’m having with my English language students all week.

Only two more days of work and then I’m on holidays. The weekend will see more baking. This is the first year in about ten that I haven’t made Christmas cake, pudding or mince pies. But attempting them on our small on-board oven just seemed to be more trouble than it’s worth. So, instead, I’m attempting tiffin and truffles for the first time, made from my mother-in-law’s recipes. Christmas would seem all wrong without a lot of baking and making.

So my traditions evolve. But at the heart of every Christmas, whether at home in Ballygibbon, in the UK with Julian’s family, in Arviat with the Mains (Hi Martha!), or here in Aguadulce, lies a heady combination of good food and good fun in the companionship of people I love.

A very very happy Christmas to you all.