A cold and frosty morning

I awoke at around 5am on Sunday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep for the cold. It wasn’t until Lily and Katie climbed into our bed shortly after 8am and I tightly packed them one either side of me, that I warmed up again. When Julian peered outside half an hour later he announced there was frost on the deck. The girls were wildly excited, thinking there was snow, and were mad to get out and play in it. Julian tried to break the news that it wasn’t snow, but Lily said, ‘Ice, frost, sleet – it’s all snow to me’, as she pulled on warm clothes to go play on the pontoon. Good Lord, it was bitter out there. 0˚C in the night and the sun rising behind Sanlúcar’s hills hadn’t yet hit our end of the pontoon.

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A frosty morning for the start of Tom’s big adventure

 

Our Scottish friend Tom came gingerly down the slippery pontoon in his rubber boots. After six years living on his boat here on the river, this morning he was ready to depart on the first leg of a voyage he hopes will ultimately take him to Brazil. ‘Give him some energy balls’, Julian said, as we pulled on sensible shoes to go help him cast off his lines. I passed him a bag of delicious date, oat and coconut balls to see him on his way. By the time he’d slipped the pontoon, his cup of tea was stone cold and he grumblingly threw it overboard. We waved him off, wondering if we’ll ever see him again.

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And he’s away!

The girls stomped through the frost on the pontoon, trying to mark it with their footprints. They dragged their fingers along the deck and scraped up tiny amounts of it. This is as close as they’re likely to get to snow this year.

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As close as they’re likely to get to snow and ice this year!

At 10.30, as I went to teach an English class at the bar by the beach, I suggested they go play on the beach, and see if they could find any traces of frost there. Despite the cold, the frost was rapidly melting now and the beach had nothing to show for it, so they joined me in the bar and ordered two hot chocolates.

The rest of this week is forecast to be just as cold at night and there are rumours uttered in hushed tones that ‘Thursday will be the worst’. Blankets, hot water bottles, hot chocolate and more energy balls at the ready then!

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.

Wildlife haven

At dusk on Saturday evening the first badger arrived. Confident, showing little caution, it trotted up the garden to the double patio doors. Steve had thrown a mix of apples, dry dog food and bread on the patio, and the badger started to eat. Exhibiting far more caution than the badger, the girls and I moved from the sofa where we’d been sitting, inching our way closer to the patio doors, hoping we wouldn’t scare the badger away. We were halfway across the living room when another badger arrived. The two seemed oblivious to us and we sat on the floor, our faces pressed against the glass doors, the badgers less than metre away.

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They were smaller than I thought they would be. But then, I had only ever seen one live badger before – a brief glimpse late one night about seven years ago, when I caught a foraging badger in the headlights of my car as I turned into our driveway in Cambridgeshire. Apart from that one brief encounter, I had only ever seen live badgers on television and dead ones on the side of the road or stuffed and mounted.

Lily’s and Katie’s granddad and I tried to impress on the girls what a rare and special experience this was. While I had seen one live badger in 43 years, Barry had never seen one in 68 years. ‘Remember this moment’, we told the girls. ‘You might never have this privilege again’.

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By the end of that first evening we counted four individuals, identifiable by their differences in size and markings. One, a rather scruffy looking soul, was missing both ears and had a scratch on this nose; another was bigger than all the others.

Up close the black stripes from their eyes back over the tops of their heads are in sharp contrast to their otherwise grey and white bodies. They have terrible eyesight and even when looking straight at us humans on the other side of the glass, I could tell by their eyes that they couldn’t really see us. They were quick to respond to sound though, their long heads rising frequently from the food to look around at the slightest sound. They had very long nails on their feet, which they use to dig their setts. We sat there, listening to them munching on the food, and I felt awed and privileged to be there.

This was the first night of our week long holiday in rural Pembrokeshire, in south Wales. I had booked this particular house because there was so little else available and because it boasted badgers at dusk in the garden. Little did we realise what a wildlife haven it would be.

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The next morning, as I made my first cup of tea, my father-in-law came in from the garden and urged me to come outside. He wanted to show me something. He had taken his cup of tea and his pipe to a secluded area of the garden with wooden garden furniture. Walking through the gap he’d come upon a huge pheasant standing on the table. The pheasant was unmoved by Barry’s presence, and continued standing on the table even when the two of us came close.

That evening, after Barry and Katie had gone to bed, Lily and I sat watching television. There were two badgers on the patio and I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. A fox. Over the next four nights I watched, transfixed, as the fox and badgers vied for the food on the patio. There were five badgers in all, and some evenings all five were together on the patio. The fox, far more skittish, and with better eyesight than the badgers, was more wary of movement inside the house. Sitting quietly close to the patio doors, I waited each evening for the fox to come trotting up the garden. Although the badgers came at dusk, the fox waited until darkness had fallen. If there were no badgers around, the fox came directly to the food. Sure enough, a badger or two would arrive and chase the fox away, and over the next hour or more the fox would come, the badgers would chase it away, the fox would come again. I thoroughly enjoyed this soap opera in the back garden.

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All day we enjoyed rabbits on the lawns, and each day followed the progress of a family of sparrows nesting in the eaves of the house, the parents bringing food to their noisy and large chicks. We hoped they would fledge while we were there, but they probably preferred the cosiness of their nest to the drizzly conditions of south Wales.

Steve and Serena, the owners of Swallows Rest Cottage, where we stayed for the week, have made their property a haven for wildlife. An acre and a half of their garden is a wildflower meadow, alive with butterflies and bees, crisscrossed with the tracks of the many animals that move through it each day and night. No plastic eaves for them – their wooden eaves are friendly to nesting birds, and the hedgerows all around their property are home to all sorts of wildlife. Each evening they put out a little food, thus attracting two badger setts and some young foxes. They take a neighbourly attitude towards the wildlife in their garden – welcoming it, making it feel at home, helping it out and not infringing on the way it lives its life.

Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuna town

The last time we were in Barbate I was in a bad mood. We’d just spent four overpriced nights stuck in the Andalucia-government owned marina in Mazagon due to poor weather conditions, followed by two nights in a similar government owned marina in Cadiz. These soulless, overpriced concrete hells were run with typical government bureaucracy and inflexibility, still charging summer prices even though they had reverted to winter service. They had no Wifi, the showers and toilets in Mazagon had limited opening hours, and there was no consideration given to the odd hours that sailors arrive and depart, dictated to by tides and weather conditions.

So when we arrived in Barbate to yet another government-run marina, I was already predisposed to dislike the place. Its first impressions didn’t help. It had the same rough un-finished concrete box buildings, and was situated far outside town. The Guardia Civil boat had taken up the reception pontoon but when we took up a temporary berth in the marina, the gate leading up to the reception was locked and Julian had to climb over it. We moved twice more around the half-empty marina before we were settled on a rickety tiny pontoon that the marina staff were happy for us to be on. The next morning when we tried to refuel before our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, the fuel station was closed and, despite it being within office opening hours, we waited almost half an hour for someone to answer our repeated phone and VHF radio calls, and send someone around to fill our tank.

Our one evening in Barbate involved walking through a desolate industrial wasteland to find the nearest supermarket. We couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.

But what a difference seven and a half months makes! Friends in Aguadulce told us they really liked Barbate and, for us, it proved a convenient stopping off point between Spanish-owned Ceuta on the northern tip of Morocco and the Rio Guadiana on the Spain-Portugal border.

DSCI0334This time we arrived from the south, sailing past long long sandy beaches, low-lying Barbate and the countryside beyond looking exceptionally beautiful, all lush green fields and extensive pine forests. We only planned to stay one night, but a broken toilet and marina fees exactly half the price of what we were expecting convinced us to stay for two nights before attempting an overnight passage to the Rio Guadiana.

After the cold showers of Marina Smir, the luxury of a huge shower room with endless hot water won me over. The all-female marina staff were exceptionally friendly when Lily, Katie and I went to sign in (via the reception pontoon this time). (In general, I find female marina staff give us better berths and better service when I bring the girls to the office. Small children seem to melt hearts). While the girls and I showered I also did a load of laundry at the very inexpensive marina launderette. Luxury unbound!

DSCI0322The next morning the girls and I vacated the boat, leaving Julian to fix the broken toilet. I decided to put our friend’s high praise of Barbate to the test. It was a Friday morning and the industrial wasteland of the Saturday evening of seven months ago was now the thriving heart of the town’s tuna fishery. Fishermen worked in groups to spread out and repair huge tuna nets; the ice-making complex was whirring away; and the processing factories were bustling. The whole area was busy with people walking, driving fork-lifts, vans and lorries, work-men repainting the walls and railings, the fisherman’s cafe lively and loud with fisherman having their morning coffee. The shop attached to one of the processing factories sold an unimaginable range of tuna products, all beyond our price range.

DSCI0324The last time we had been here we immediately turned left for the supermarket when we came out of the marina area, where a dodgy-looking shack sold cigarettes and magazines and a lone bar looked like something out of the wild west. What we hadn’t realised at the time was if we had turned right the biggest, sandiest beach imaginable is RIGHT THERE, hidden from view by the marina wall. Wow! I’ve been on some nice beaches in my time, and this one is right up there with the best. Fine-grained golden sand that is hard-packed close to the water’s edge making it perfect for long walks and sand art!

DSCI0327We had an inexpensive second breakfast of coffee, juice and tostada made from delicious bread at a seaside cafe, where we wrote postcards. The waiter gave us directions to the post office and we set off through town. And what a revelation: a thriving bustling town with people walking about, small locally-owned shops selling just about anything one could want. As well as butchers, bakers and clothes shops, there were haberdashers, dress-makers, hardware shops, sweet shops. Although the marina doesn’t offer Wifi, there is free Wifi all over town, provided by the town council! I sat in Plaza Ajuntamiento – a leafy square in front of the stately if somewhat run down town hall – while the girls played at a playground that featured a proper climbing wall!

DSCI0333Everyone was friendly, both to us and to each other. I lost count of the number of times I saw people slapping friends on the back, shaking hands, kissing cheeks. Lily and Katie got their fair share of head rubbing and cheek pinching and being called ‘Guapa’ by abuelas and abuelos we passed on the street. They haven’t had that since we were in Galicia last year. A real sense of camaraderie and community pervaded.

At a delightful sweet shop the girls each picked out their ten favourite sweets and when we went to pay, the very friendly shop keeper gave them each a freshly made bag of popcorn! We bought a picnic lunch and headed down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for running about, making huge sand drawings on the hard-packed sand, and playing in the sand dunes that have been created by the presence of that big marina wall!

On the way home we dropped into the Parque Natural La Breña y Marismas del Barbate visitor centre. This small facility provided a wealth of information about the geology and natural history of the region from Cabo de Trafalgar to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as a history and anthropology of tuna fishing in the region, which dates back at least to the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. The displays were all interactive, and Lily and Katie were able to watch videos of their choosing, read simple but informative text, and see and ‘feel’ the whole region in small scale. I particularly enjoyed watching a video of tuna fishing, showing the fishermen using a centuries-old technique of first corralling the tuna with very complex nets and then corralling them with multiple boats. When the tuna are surrounded, some fishermen actually get into the net with the wildly thrashing fish – some tuna 1.5 metres or more in length – and toss the live tuna up into the boats of their waiting colleagues.

The people of Barbate must be the healthiest in Spain. People of all ages are constantly walking around the marina, throughout the fishery complex, dressed in walking and gym gear. Men and women, from 17 to 87, all out walking. And the streets of the town were full of people walking, carrying their groceries, going about their business. It’s like the town’s been hit by a fitness epidemic. I wondered if this health-kick combined with the group organisation necessitated by the form of fishing practiced have led to such a friendly and happy community of people. Now there’s a research project!

Lily, Katie and I spent nine hours out and about in Barbate and every minute of it was a joy. It just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a place on our first, and limited, impressions!

Get a job!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

50 things I did this year

It’s that time of year when every newspaper, TV programme and blog reviews the best of the year that was. Even we’re guilty of it here on Carina’s blog. Is it just me, or have these reviews started way too early this year? In mid-November, I was disappointed to find my weekend newspaper’s book, movie and food reviews already trawling through the best of 2014, and I’m now longing for January, when normal service resumes.

But this week I read a different sort of review of the year. I follow a great writer’s blog, Live to write – Write to live. Diane MacKinnon, one of the regular contributors, this week posted a blog encouraging readers to devise a list of 50 accomplishments in 2014. Diane’s reasons are clear – we set New Year’s resolutions that all too often slide into obscurity by mid-February. Many of us experience negative feelings about failing to live up to our personal expectations, and beat ourselves up about how little we achieve (I’m guilty of both of these). But we seldom reach the end of the year and review our accomplishments. While film and book and even wine reviewers celebrate the highlights of the past year, we seldom stop to think about our own highlights. I couldn’t resist taking up Diane’s challenge.

I must say I’ve found it a difficult task. I flew through the first 25, had to do some serious head-scratching, and then got to 50 and wanted to write more. My achievements – big and small – fall into various categories – writing, sailing, parenting, wellbeing, and others that I’m not sure how to categorise. The exercise has also reminded me of what I have not achieved. I failed to win a research grant that would have seen the girls and I spend this winter in Arviat. I’ve had more rejections than successes with my attempts to publish, and I have earned far less money from writing than I hoped I would. But while I can think of 50 accomplishments, I can’t think of 50 failures. With two weeks of 2014 still to go, here are my accomplishments for the year:

1. Published an academic article on polar bear conservation and CITES in the journal Global Environmental Change, the highest rated journal in its field.
2. Completed my 80,000-word anthropological monograph about Inuit and the sea, and submitted it to a publisher.
3. Stuck to my New Year’s resolution to publish 10 blog posts per month.
4. Maintained a daily writing practice (well almost!)
5. Got paid for writing for the first time ever.
6. Published four articles – in two magazines and a newspaper.
7. Began writing a sailing memoir, and am on course to complete the first draft before the end of 2014.
8. For three months published a regular blog for an online magazine (until the magazine went bust 😦 )
9. Since June, submitted at least two publication pitches per month.
10. Increased my blog readership by 3-4 times since the start of the year.
11. Improved my knowledge and skill with using WordPress!
12. In my head, ironed out some of the major flaws in my draft novel – now I need to commit them to paper.
13. Researched the history of exhibiting humans in museums and fairs.
14. Learned about Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to wildlife conservation in the US.
15. Learned about the history of industrial whale hunting and whale conservation.
16. Learned more about Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
17. Visited New York and Princeton.
18. Fulfilled a life-long dream of seeing Lucy at the American Museum of Natural History.
19. Sailed from Plymouth to the Mediterranean.
20. Completed a three-day crossing of the Bay of Biscay.
21. Spent more nights at anchor than ever before.
22. Realised the dream of becoming a full-time live aboard cruiser.
23. Lived aboard Carina over winter for the first time (admittedly, in the Mediterranean).
24. Dramatically improved my confidence in solo night sailing.
25. Finally mastered bowlines, figures of eight, clove hitches and sheet bends.
26. Tied up to dumb-bell moorings.
27. Berthed fore-and-aft.
28. More frequently brought Carina on and off moorings and berths.
29. Learned to use the outboard on the dinghy (horray…we finally got a newer working lightweight outboard).
30. Learned to use a pressure cooker.
31. Perfected my on-board laundry technique.
32. Perfected my on-board bed-making technique.
33. Perfected my on-board bread making.
34. Made perfect pancakes.
35. Made lemon curd for the first time in my life (yesterday!).
36. Improved my university teaching skills.
37. Landed a part-time winter job.
38. Made a transition from teaching university Geography to teaching English as a second language to eight year olds!
39. Improved my English language teaching skills.
40. Won over my difficult English language classes.
41. Learned at least 150 Spanish words.
42. Achieved near pre-pregnancy flexibility and strength thanks to resuming yoga practice.
43. Committed to a sugar-free diet for long periods of the year.
44. Started un-schooling the girls.
45. Got Katie out of night-time nappies.
46. Taught Lily to read.
47. Helped both girls develop their maths and writing skills.
48. Took Lily and Katie on day-trips to A Coruña, Porto, Lisbon and Cadiz.
49. Helped Lily learn to swim unaided.
50. Met and befriended wonderful fellow cruisers.

What is obvious is that few of these have been accomplished by me alone. My sailing accomplishments have been in the company and under the guidance of Julian, and this whole adventure would not be possible without his partnership. My chosen path of educating the children would not be possible without Julian’s enthusiasm and at least equal contribution. My teaching skills have developed in the company of a community of fellow educators. My writing accomplishments have been facilitated by Julian giving me the time, space and encouragement to write, by the inspiration and encouragement of friends, and by a community of bloggers who keep me motivated.

With 2015 just around the corner, I’m now thinking about my New Year’s resolutions. There certainly won’t be 50 of them. A nice safe four or five will do. As for this blog? Normal blogging will resume in a couple of days!