A reason for writing

I had an email recently from Stephen (Hi Stephen!). I don’t know Stephen, but he knows me. He started his email by telling me that he enjoys reading my blog and wondering if I would be writing any more. These few simple words from someone I’ve never met where the kick in the bum I needed to get me writing again.

I’ve been thinking about my lack of writing for some time. 2017 has been a bad year for me, with regard to writing. My blog has suffered from neglect and all those half-finished (half-started) short and long form pieces I’ve written with a view to old-style publishing, have failed to see the light of day.

It’s not as if I’ve had nothing to write about. Family life aboard Carina on the Rio Guadiana is no less interesting (for me at least!) than it was when we first arrived. My understanding of and passion for the place grows deeper, as my roots weave deeper into the soil. I continue to make observations about life here, about the lives of my children, and about the multiple cultures that clash or blend or mash or crash here. I find great amusement in my ongoing cultural and linguistic faux pas and continue to make promises that tomorrow will be the day when I start the business of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker. I continue to be in awe of the environment – the river itself, the seemingly endless hills like a great ocean rolling away in all directions from the brown ribbon of river. I rejoice at the passing of the seasons, ponder global impacts on local ecosystems and reflect on my own choices.

Despite all of this rich potential writing material, I have generally failed over the course of the past year to put pen to paper. I could claim it’s due to lack of time. Julian was working full time, six days a week for the first eight months of the year, while I worked part time and had almost full responsibility for the children and the boat. Since September, we have swapped roles once again, with Julian at home while I work close to full-time – teaching English five days a week, working two editing jobs, and occasionally taking care of a friend’s Air B&B property. It’s not only that I am busy with all that work, it’s that the jobs themselves are so varied and diverse, I require a lot of headspace to coordinate everything I do.

I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoy the work, the money is decent, and I get to spend quite a bit of time at home. I can walk the children to school every day, go for a coffee with a friend, have lunch with the children and help with their homework, and fit my work in around it all. I could find time to write too. But the first three months of this schedule robbed me of any desire to write. I thought about all the things I wanted to write about, but the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard eluded me. I finally feel ready to write again. The chaos of the first few months has started to shape itself into routine and I can find space in my days again for walking and reading – two activities without which I cannot write.

But a busy schedule has not been the only thing that’s kept me from writing. I’m not the only person feeling the way I’ve felt this past year. I follow a few writers’ blogs and in the past year I’ve been reading blogs by women writers who feel at a loss. The observations of a mother on a boat, or the verse of a poet, or the ponderings of a literary chicken farmer can seem futile in the face of American politics, the rise of the extreme right, Brexit, our oceans choked in plastic, extreme weather events, children dying of war and starvation in Syria and elsewhere, and a thousand other injustices happening on the global stage. I am not alone in feeling that my writing is pointless and futile.

But then I receive an email from someone like Stephen which reminds me that my silly musings often put a smile on peoples’ faces. And in these sometimes dark days, putting a smile on a stranger’s face is reward enough for me.

The interest people take in my writing boomerangs back to me in positive ways. Emails like Stephen’s put a smile on my face. Neeraj Bhushan’s interest in my blog lead to us recently featuring on the cover of Buland Prajatantra, a fortnightly Hindi magazine. Neeraj, a journalist, made contact with me a few months ago to ask if he could write about us for his magazine. Getting to know Neeraj by email and WhatsApp has been delightful and the ensuing magazine article (I’m assured) captured the essence of why we set sail and why we continue to live on a boat.

Martina Tyrrell

A star turn on the cover of the early December edition of Buland Prajatantra

Because of my blog I have been consulted by documentary researchers, writers, conference organisers, and my family and Carina even feature in a Hungarian secondary school English textbook!

My blog has also brought me into contact with home educators, wannabe sailors, salty old sea dog sailors, foodies, environmentalists, parents, and many more. People have contacted me with questions about buying boats, sailing boats, living aboard with children, and much more. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these things, but the blog has sparked an interest in people, and made them want to get in touch with me. I even met a man the other day who said ‘I sailed to the Rio Guadiana because of your blog’. Wow.

I have a small blog following and, although it once seemed important to make the numbers grow, I no longer care how big or small my following is. What I am concerned about is continuing to write meaningfully for the people who take the time to read my blog. I want to write for family and friends, and for strangers. I want to continue to make people laugh, or think, or wonder, or question. Hopefully my writing can light a small candle in a sometimes dark world.

So, I am drawing a line under 2017, and looking ahead to 2018 where I return to doing the type of writing I enjoy most.

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A simple matter of choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Turned off, tuned out

Living on the river one can quickly become disconnected from the outside world. Especially if one has only limited Internet time, and lives without a radio or television. Life on the Rio Guadiana is idyllic – for us estranjeros at least. The days are sunny and warm more often than not, the land is rich and fertile, the villages are quiet and serene. Life moves at a slow pace and everyone – local or blow-in – has time for a chat. With the ringing of sheep bells and twittering of a hundred thousand birds in the bushes along the riverbank, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there. We live a privileged life here, far from the worries and cares of the world.

I’m even more estranged from the world than most due to my limited time on the Internet. I go online every day or every other day, picking up Wifi at the library or at a cafe. I’m rarely online for more than an hour and a half. That time is spent posting blogs, studying Spanish with Duolingo, checking and answering emails. Occasionally I will download a few podcasts to listen to back on the boat – invariably Woman’s Hour and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. If my computer battery hasn’t completely run down by then I might spend a few minutes on the BBC website, catching up on current affairs.

Twitter can be a great source of news for me. I mainly follow environmental, Arctic and Inuit-related stuff, and political individuals and organisations (that’s the only reason I follow Mark Ruffalo, honestly!), getting the news that interests me that way. But Twitter’s not much good if you only access it now and again. When I upload new tweets these days, I read them at home, but then don’t have the Internet access to follow the links to the stories.

My limited Internet time also means that I haven’t been keeping up with the blogs I follow, some of which I enjoy because of the political, ethical and moral questions they raise. I have a backlog of blogs in my hotmail inbox and I don’t know when I will ever have the time to read them.

And, of course, not having a radio or television at home means I am not exposed to current affairs and to the world outside my little stretch of the Rio Guadiana on an ongoing basis.

Now, all of this can be a good thing. Often, I think we have too much exposure to the world beyond our own home or community. We concern ourselves with things that don’t matter so much; or that shouldn’t affect our lives but do. And I’m not just talking about which celebrity wore what dress to an awards ceremony; or which pop star is dating which footballer. None of us needs that stuff cluttering our lives, no matter how much fun it is. Moved though I was by David Bowie’s death, it didn’t matter to my life that the news didn’t reach me for three days.

There are other news stories that, while interesting and thought provoking, only impact the lives of those immediately involved. Murders, mass shootings, transport accidents. Many people, including me, are often deeply moved, disturbed or worried by these stories, but they don’t alter our day to day lives. In a week we’ve forgotten about them.

But there are other things going on in the world that can and do affect our lives, or that we are responsible for or are part of the solution to. Here on the idyllic river, without daily access to news and current affairs, it’s easy to forget that there are refugees across the continent and the world, suffering, and that there are communities and nations (including the ones we’re living in) trying to find ways to cope with the influx of these refugees. It’s easy to forget that there are people losing their homes, livelihoods and lives across the world because of climate-change related droughts, fires, floods, pests and diseases. It’s easy to forget there are children in the world mining minerals for our mobile phones or working in sweat shops to produce the clothes and toys we so carelessly use and throw away. It’s easy to forget that fish, sea birds and other marine life are in immediate peril from the plastic pollution overwhelming our oceans. And so much more besides – food waste, toxic pollution, mass death of bees, the environmental and social implications of TTIP.

And I believe it’s important to be exposed to these stories, to know what’s happening, to be confronted with the reality of climate change; the relationship between consumerism, social injustice and environmental degradation; the boomerang of arms trade to war to refugee children. Because we – me and my husband, all of us – as consumers, voters, citizens, human beings, all contribute to these problems and we can also, crucially, contribute to their solutions. But if we do not know these things are happening, if we are not exposed to the individual personal stories that form the jigsaw that makes up the whole, then we can be lulled into a false stupor that the whole world is as idyllic this little stretch of river.

So I’m making a renewed effort to reconnect on a daily basis with the world beyond the river and to bring what I learn from the world into my way of living here. To renew the impact that environmental degradation, child labour, social injustice have on my consumer choices; to think about what I can do in my little life in this little corner of the world that will contribute to solving injustice and healing degradation. And for all it’s time sucking ability, the Internet is the best way I have right now to reconnect with the world beyond the river.

What a waste

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

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

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The scene of the action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone fancy a skip dive?

Reflecting and resolving

Like many people, the end of the year is, for me, a time for reflecting on the year that has past and looking forward to the year to come. I’m a consummate list maker. Few things in life make me happier than drawing ‘job done’ lines through the items on my to-do lists. And the list par excellence is, of course, the list of New Year’s resolutions (I know, I know! ‘Get a bloody life, Martina’, I hear you scream, ‘You control freak!’). So, as 2015 drew to a close, I reflected on last year’s list to see where I had succeeded and where I had, ahem, not succeeded quite so much, and I started to think ahead to what I hope to achieve in 2016.

So there were the ‘take care of my body’ resolutions – quit drinking, quit processed sugar, exercise more; the ‘writing’ resolutions – finish my book, write ten blog posts per month, keep a daily journal; and the ‘be a better person’ resolutions – be more patient with the children, give Julian a break.

How did I do? I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol from December 28th 2014 to November 10th 2015. A bottle of locally produced red wine, left on our saloon table by the guy who was taking care of our boat while we were away, broke me. I’ve had a beer or wine most days since then. Why did I want to quit alcohol? Since I returned to drinking post-pregnancy and post-breastfeeding, I haven’t drunk very much. I certainly haven’t been drunk for over seven years. But I don’t need it, and I didn’t miss it while I was off it.

Quit processed sugar? Those of you who have been following my Christmas baking extravaganza will know how well I got on with that one! I think I had three weeks sugar free in January, and then my will broke. That stuff is too damn addictive.

I didn’t exercise more in 2015, but neither did I exercise less. Walking and swimming, but I wanted to do more.

I didn’t finish my book, but as I write, I’m looking at an end of February completion date and then the fun of trying to find a publisher begins. I published 103 blog posts, which averages a little under nine a month, and if my computer hadn’t died mid-way through December I would have posted a couple more. The daily journal had an entry most days, probably 320 out of 365. My morning ramblings helped keep me calm, focused and de-stressed.

As for being more patient with the girls and giving Julian a break, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. But I find when I’m happy with what I’m doing – writing what I want to write, achieving my own goals, I’m more patient with my nearest and dearest.

It was a year of ups and downs, of joys and sorrows, but a year that, upon reflection, I feel I grew (and not only because of the sugar addiction). In practical ways I knew more by the end of the year than I did at the start. I went from speaking almost no Spanish to some, I figured out ways to be more sustainable and frugal aboard Carina, and I learned to be a better writer. I like to think I became more patient and more slow to get my knickers in a twist (I use my cool reaction to the recent breakdown of our laptop as evidence of the new me).

So what are my hopes and resolutions for 2016? The list is long, naturally, and falls into different categories. The ‘take care of my body’ resolutions again include forsaking alcohol and exercise. I haven’t touched a drop since December 30th and I have dreams and plans for a lot of walking this year. I’m not talking short little jaunts. I want to don a backpack and walk for days on end (hint hint hint to a couple of friends who I know read this blog…you know who you are!). Reading a lot of walking and wilderness books last year has given me the bug.

There are the ‘writing’ resolutions of course. The book will be finished (and soon) and I have other short and long term projects to complete or set in motion. And I have a new daily writing project, the details of which I am keeping to myself for the moment, as I’m hoping it might evolve into something else.

And then there are the ‘learning something new’ resolutions. By the end of 2016 I want to have completed the Duolingo Spanish course; and, wait for it, I want to teach myself meteorology! I’m serious! I’ve wanted to for a long time, and this will be the year I do it! Besides, I want to improve my handling, sailing and boat maintenance skills, learning to do the things I currently leave to Julian.

There’s method to all this madness. These are not my hobbies to squeeze in around the rest of my life. This is my life. As I’ve discovered, learning Spanish makes life in Spain easier and far more interesting. Improving my boat skills and learning meteorology will make me a better sailor, make life aboard Carina safer for everyone, and take some of the burden from Julian.

Plus, those of you who know me well know that I don’t do sitting down and doing nothing very well. My sister once commented that coming to visit me was like going for a week to a ‘fat farm’. Go go go!! So, in the absence of a ‘proper job’ I have to do something to keep myself busy, active and out of harms way!

I’ll look back on this blog post in a year’s time and see how I got on with my 2016 New Year’s resolutions.

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.

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.

Frozen: Lessons in consumer capitalism

Santa Claus was well on his way on Christmas Eve and had probably already delivered presents to New Zealand and half of Australia when Katie announced that what she really wanted him to bring her were Anna and Elsa dolls from the movie Frozen and an Elsa wig and dressing-up dress for herself. But by then it was too late to get a message to Santa and, anyway, given how many gifts he had to load on his sleigh, he was unlikely to have any spare dollies or wigs or dresses on board.

DSCI0026On Christmas morning there was great excitement, but the absence of the Frozen dolls caused a little disappointment. But among the gifts from family and friends were four envelopes – two for each of the girls – containing €20 each. Now Lily and Katie each had €40 and, as talk of the Frozen dollies carried on through Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day, Julian and I decided that they should use the money to buy the dolls.

On New Year’s Eve, Lily, Katie and I took the bus to Toys ‘r’ Us in Roquetas de Mar. Katie knew what she wanted, but I tried to explain that her €40 probably wouldn’t stretch to two dolls, a wig and a dress (I had no idea how much any of this stuff cost). Lily didn’t know what she wanted and intended to browse before making her choice.

Immediately inside the door of the shop was a huge section of Frozen merchandise. Katie instantly saw a box containing an Anna doll and an Elsa doll. It cost €46. Six euro over her budget, but how could I deny her? The wig cost €26 and the dressing-up dress €45. I was shocked by these prices. Katie took the box containing the two dolls. That was it, she wasn’t interested in even looking at anything else in the shop.

Lily saw an ice-skating Elsa that she liked but, true to her word, she decided to browse some more before making her decision. She left the doll and went browsing but, after twenty minutes or so decided she really wanted the ice-skating Elsa and went back for it. It cost €30.

We carried on with our browsing and afterwards browsed through the shops in the rest of the Centro Commercial, the girls carrying their still boxed-up dollies under their arms. (Katie was keen to get home because there was no ‘blow-hole’ in the box for her dolls to breathe through!). A woman, about my own age, came up to us, pointed to Lily’s doll and asked where we’d go it. When I told her, she turned and almost ran towards Toys ‘r’ Us. I started to notice that other parents and children had Frozen merchandise – backpacks, t-shirts, notebooks, etc.

One wouldn’t have to be the most observant person in the world to realise that Frozen merchandising is everywhere. In Toys ‘r’ Us itself, apart from the dedicated Frozen section, there was Frozen merchandise scattered throughout the shop. A bin of soft-toy Olafs here, a stack of Frozen art sets there, Frozen backpacks, Frozen balloons, Frozen party ware. Often, the same item was to be found in multiple places around the shop, so if you missed it once, or tried to walk away, there is was again around the next corner. Outside of Toys ‘r’ Us, as we wandered around the shops we found Frozen merchandise in clothes shops, pharmacies, luggage shops, stationary shops, and we even found Frozen chocolate biscuits in the supermarket.

The merchandising is ubiquitous and it’s no wonder that every little girl I know is obsessed. It’s a great movie (despite some flaws) about the love between two sisters. The songs are infectious and there are lots of memorable lines and characters. But the Frozen-bombing of merchandise is troubling.

Katie loves her two dolls, but in the days after the shopping trip, they weren’t enough. She wanted more. She wanted things she never knew she wanted until she was bombarded by them on New Year’s Eve. For a few days, the dolls were not enough. The dress and wig were quickly forgotten and in their place was a longing for variations of the dolls – ice-skating Anna and Elsa; Anna and Elsa whose hearts glow when their hands are squeezed, and so on. ‘Can we go back tomorrow and get those?’ she pleaded. I explained that she had already spent all her money and then some. Could she bring her dolls back and get those others instead? It doesn’t work like that, I tried to tell her. You’ve already played with these, we’ve thrown away the packaging, Anna’s hair is a mess. As the days go by, though, she seems more content with her dolls and her initial desire to trade them in for something else seems to be fading.

Now, I know there are some among you who will think me the meanest mum on the planet for not buying them all the dolls they want. But if you think I’m mean, you miss the point. It’s not because we can’t afford them. We can’t afford them, but even if we could, I wouldn’t buy them. It’s not because we don’t have space aboard Carina. We don’t have space , but even if we lived in a mansion (or a super yacht), I wouldn’t buy them.

This is how consumer capitalism works – playing on the consciences of parents who want to satisfy their children’s desires. Corporations – Walt Disney in this case – bombard us with so many images of stuff, with promises of a better life if we consume this stuff, that we are brainwashed into believing how much happier we will be if own that stuff. Hook ‘em young, because today’s consumers of Frozen merchandise will be tomorrow’s consumers of iPads, Xboxes, perfume, make-up, jewellery, cars, TVs, throwaway clothes, junk food, plastic surgery, one-season football kits, and on and on and on.

I rarely expose my children to such insidious marketing. Our occasional TV viewing is generally advertisement free and our visits to shopping centres and other such cathedrals of consumerism are few and far between. My children are happy with what they have – which is quite a lot (read this post about essential toys for live aboard kids). And they don’t miss what they don’t have because most of the time they don’t know it’s even out there.

I’m not a mean mum. I’m a mum struggling to protect my children from global corporations that do not have their best interests – or the best interests of any of us – at heart. I try to protect them (and prepare them) by teaching them the value of money, and the value of our material possessions. And I try to protect them by instilling in them the knowledge that their own happiness and value does not reside in the consumption of material stuff.