Not quite to plan

As the summer holidays rolled around towards the end of June, I had all sorts of plans. With all that time on my hands, I planned to prepare to take the B1 Spanish exam, write like a demon every day and plough through a large pile of books. I had Lily’s and Katie’s summer mapped out too. We would work together on two educational projects. The first, an Iberian geography project, would involve the construction of a 3D map of Spain and Portugal, which, over the course of the summer, would become populated with the peninsula’s rivers, mountains, regions, coastlines and major cities. We all need to improve our geographical knowledge of our adopted part of the world and this would be a fun way to do it. The second project was to be a learning-by-doing bread project. I thought of how fun and educational it would be to learn about the history and culture (no pun intended) of bread and to try making different breads together.

I’m sure you can all anticipate the big ‘but’ that I’m to drop!

Of course, we did none of these things! I haven’t opened my Spanish books since mid-June and my plan to take the B1 exam moves further and further into the future. The first half of the summer holidays was mostly writing free too (regular blog followers will have noted the absence of new posts and all other writing also failed to materialise). Since early August I’ve been writing again, and feeling all the better for it. And as for that pile of books? The pile grows higher, but I’ve read very little. Wolf Hall took up most of the summer, not because of its length (it’s long) or its complexity (it’s complicated), but because I simply didn’t have time to read. I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell and spent my days wondering what would happen next, but only managed about 20 pages a day, if I was lucky.

And the educational projects? Well, let’s say that once I got over the guilt of not getting them up and running, I realised we were better off with a more organic approach to the summer holidays!

My summer has mainly been work-filled. I didn’t intend it to be this way, but that’s how it worked out, and if you’re a freelance editor/writer/teacher, then you take the work when it comes your way. I hadn’t expected to teach any English between June and October, but instead (ironically) I’ve been preparing some local teenagers for B1 English exams (my first student received her results today…she passed!!), and having regular conversation classes with adults and children, all adding up to nine or so hours of contact time each week.

My editing work usually dries up during summer as well and, although it’s been a little slow, I’ve been sent more work than I was expecting. On top of all that, I was offered two new online jobs, one of which has been keeping me busy as I learn some new skills in a field completely new to me.

But what a summer we’ve had. We’ve been house-sitting in a very old and much-loved house in the village (subject of a future blog post, I promise), looking after an old and much-loved dog. The spacious house provided a great opportunity to invite family and friends to visit, and a full month of the summer has been taken up with visits from some of our nearest and dearest. Friends from Ireland and a friend from the UK brought their children along, and Lily and Katie had a wonderful time having week-long sleepovers with friends.

In the absence of my organised educational projects, Lily has taken to the kitchen and baked her way through the summer, following recipes, experimenting with alterations to recipes, inventing her own recipes. She’s in the kitchen as I write, making lemon sandwich biscuits of her own invention. I blame her entirely for the half stone/7lbs/3.3kg I’ve gained this summer. I can’t imagine my organised bread making would have been half as successful as her own self-taught summer in the kitchen, where she has learned how to work with ingredients, count and measure, enhance and embellish. She’s made baking her thing, and has been teaching her sister and all her guests from overseas and the village how to bake too. She’s a far more patient teacher than I am. Sure, her washing up skills still leave a little to be desired, and the pots and pans she’s ‘washed’ often need to be washed again, but at least she understands that cleaning up is all part of the process.

We’ve swum a lot this summer. My two sacred parts of the day all summer have been siesta and after-siesta. A curse be upon anyone who interrupts my siesta! Very early mornings, very late nights and the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, mean that taking a siesta has been an absolute necessity. We go swimming most days after siesta, sometimes to the beach in Alcoutim, but more often to the public outdoor swimming pool in El Granado.

My friend Rosemarie gave Lily a lesson in diving at the start of the summer and she has spent the summer perfecting her technique. Katie made up her mind at the start of the summer to learn the front crawl and has been working on that, with a little technique help from my friend Sarah when she came to visit from London. Katie is a loner in the water, preferring to be underwater, and constantly working on extending the length of time she can stay below the surface. The swimming ability of both girls has improved immensely over the summer, once again, with minimal input from me. I just take them to the water!

For three weeks both girls practiced five evenings a week with the other children from the village for a dance performance during Cultural Week. The performance was delightful (if you happened to be a parent of the performing children, that is!) and since then the girls have been choreographing their own dance moves and putting on little shows for us in the garden.

With only ten days until the start of the new school year, I could look back and think about all the things I failed to do. But instead I choose to look back at all the unexpected things the girls have done – the baking, the swimming, the dancing – and the unexpected and interesting work opportunities that have come my way. I still can’t tell you the name of the highest mountain or the longest river in Spain, but do I really care? Now, where’s Lily? I need another cupcake!


A catch-up blog

My friend Martha emailed me last week. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. My blog posts had dried up and Martha was concerned about our welfare. I sent her a quick and all too short response, assuring her that everything is fine with us, but I have been so busy, I simply haven’t had time to write any new blogs. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. Events have come and gone, time has passed and I’ve lost the moment and the momentum to write.

We have had some wonderful times – the school carnaval and the village carnaval; the Contraband Festival that linked the two villages with a temporary footbridge across the river; Lily’s birthday, and the birthday parties of classmates; a friend’s party downriver.

We’ve also had more trying times – a night in accident and emergency in Huelva when Lily had concussion; Carina dragging her anchor in high winds (twice) when we weren’t aboard and quick evasive action was required; Julian suddenly finding himself out of work, leaving us wondering about our short and medium future plans. Thankfully, all those problems have resolved themselves and I’m sleeping more easily again!

Looking after our friend’s house, dog and land continues to be a mostly enjoyable, if time-consuming, endeavour. Our multiple daily journeys to and from the village, on foot or by dinghy, take time and, as the days grow longer, sunnier and hotter, land maintenance increases, with fruit trees and vegetable patch needing irrigation and fast-growing canes and brambles needing to be cut back.

And on top of it all, my editing work is flooding in. It’s a great job, that I thoroughly enjoy, but at the end of a day sitting in front of the laptop editing other people’s work, the last thing I want to do is any writing of my own!

However, despite not having time to write about all we’ve been getting up to, I have kept a photo record of it all. So, here, by way of my camera and smart phone, is our last month…


My two little owls at school Carnaval. Thank you to Rika aboard yacht Brillig for sewing the masks. Without Rika I would have had to pull an all-nighter to have the costumes ready in time!


Lily and Katie Owl, with their Owl classmates Luisa and Miguel and Luisa’s baby Owl sister, Carla. Cuties xxxxxx


A few days later it was the always colourful Sanlucar village Carnaval.


This time we were pirates, princesses and…erm…a bumble bee.


The best fancy dress was surely the family that collectively dressed as a roller coaster!


After our night in Accident and Emergency in a Huelva hospital, Lily and I were tired, relieved and ready for breakfast, as we waited for Julian to come pick us up. Thank you to Martin for driving us to Huelva, to Sue and Robin for loaning us their car to get home again, to Emma and Paul for having Katie for the night, for packing a bag of food to keep me going, and for loaning us warm clothes for the night!


Name that yachtie!! A much needed relaxing lunch and bottle of wine with our good friends Rosa and Phil, after rescuing Carina when she drifted downriver.


To commemorate the smuggling culture between Spain and Portugal, the two villages held a fantastic joint festival, and were joined together by a footbridge. The construction of the bridge was a fascination for many of us!


The official opening of the bridge, with mayors and officials from both sides meeting in the middle of the river.


Natually, we took every opportunity to enjoy the novelty of walking across the river!


And, after walking the river, it was supper time.


For Lily’s 8th birthday, we hired the village hall and showed the movie ‘Big Hero 6’


Followed, of course, by party food and cake (beetroot-chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberries). Thank you to Sawa and Rose-marie for all their help at the party! You both rock!!


The day after Lily’s party we were downriver for a party hosted by our lovely friends Claire and Ed. It seemed like every foreigner on the river was there. Thanks for a lovely time, and apologies for the mayhem we caused!!


And where there are extranjeros, there’s good music!


Lily, Katie, Lola and Isla (and mum Emma) looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.


Meanwhile, life goes on on the land…the girls walking home from school.


Hanging out with their new friends Lupin and Buster.


Engaging in a touch of spring cleaning.


Making strange drink concoctions with their friend Gwendolyn.


Dressing up Chester.


And now and again….just now and again….I sit on the dock and soak up this wonderful place.

At the airport

My 89-year old Aunt Josie gave Lily and Katie some spending money when we visited her in Ireland last week. At Dublin airport I took the girls into the newsagent WHSmith so they could spend some of their money on magazines to read on the flight back to Faro. While they browsed the children’s magazines I wandered over to the sport and lifestyle section, to browse the yachting magazines. I picked up the September edition of Yachting Monthly, flicking through the usual features on marine safety, cruising stories, boat repairs and advertisements for everything from life jackets to sea cocks. One of the cruising stories caught my eye and I flicked back to it. Whoa, hey, wait a minute…that’s…that’s…Katie…and Lily…and me and Julian and Carina. It was an article I had written a year ago for Yachting Monthly. I’d recently received a copy edit from the editor and had returned it with a few corrections and amendments. But I hadn’t heard any more from the editor and assumed it would be published in a few months.

It was quite a thrill to find myself in a magazine, at the busy WHSmith at Dublin airport. We’d left Julian at the shop entrance looking after the bags, so I carried the magazine close to the entrance to show him (being the ultimate cheapskate, there was no way I’d actually buy the magazine!). Loud enough for everyone to hear, Julian exclaimed, aka Basil Exposition, ‘Oh, wow, Yachting Monthly has published the article you wrote about sailing our yacht in Ireland’. Public exclamations of pride are Julian’s forte.

And while I should have been feeling proud of myself, I was instead thinking of all the other half-written, semi-formed or unwritten articles, essays and books on my laptop and in my head. I spent the three hour flight from Dublin to Faro making up my mind to work smarter, be more efficient and more productive; to mould more of my writing into publishable condition, so that next time I run through an airport shop to show an article to Julian, he’ll exclaim theatrically, so that everyone within earshot can hear, ‘What? Not another article published in a major magazine? That’s the fourth you’ve had published this month. After all that hard work, you’re finally making a living as a writer!’.

My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.

April blues, May joys

April blues, May joys

April was an emotionally difficult month for me and Julian, as we tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we could afford to do. The girls have been getting on so well at school and their Spanish has been improving in leaps and bounds, we were loathe to pull them out of school after only seven or eight months. Another year of Spanish immersion would do wonders for their (and our) language skills.

While Julian at times finds life on the river a little too quiet, I love it. I’m suffering from the Guadiana Gloop – that strange condition that afflicts visitors to the river who intend to leave after a couple of days or weeks, but twenty years later find themselves still here!

Our big problem, of course, is money. Julian hasn’t worked since the end of October and, despite my best efforts, the last time I earned any money from writing was in mid-October. (A few articles have been accepted for publication, but I won’t get paid until they’re actually published). Since then we’ve been eating into our dwindling savings and, although life on the river is incredibly inexpensive, we certainly can’t live on air.

So we faced an uncertain future. It looked increasingly like we couldn’t afford to stay another year and we were strongly considering taking the girls out of school at the start of May, and sailing back to the UK where we were confident at least one of us could get a job that would allow us to accumulate enough savings to finance sailing farther afield in a few years time. We even discussed the possibility of selling Carina.

And while neither of us is against setting that particular plan in motion, we both had misgivings about doing it right now. I’m not ready to leave the Guadiana just yet, and Julian’s not ready to take the girls out of school and their Spanish immersion.

Throughout April we both felt the stress of the decision we would soon have to make. I decided to look for work teaching English, and if I hadn’t found a job by the end of April, we would set sail for the UK in mid-May.

There aren’t many jobs in these tiny villages, so I started researching and contacting language schools in towns and cities up to an hour away. I also made posters in Spanish and Portuguese, advertising my services as an English teacher, and posted them in public places in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim. And I applied for an online academic editing job.

For a couple of weeks nothing much happened. On a rainy Tuesday morning I had a job interview at an English academy in a town 30 minutes away. I won’t know the outcome of that interview until July.

Then the enquiries about English classes started trickling in. I had nowhere to hold my classes, so I went to see the mayor and he generously gave me use of a small room in one of Sanlúcar’s public buildings. Right now I have six classes a week, teaching both adults and children. While the majority of my students pay me the old-fashioned way, in money, one student pays me in vegetables and fruit grown on her land, and fresh eggs from her hens!

Then I landed the online editing job and got my first assignment. Time will tell how regular this job is, but I’m hopeful and I enjoy doing work that puts my academic skills to use.

For three days Julian worked on another yacht, repairing the electrics and installing a fridge. He was paid handsomely for his work and that made us both feel very positive.

A few days later he arrived home to announce he’d been offered a job at a bar/restaurant in Alcoutim. He hadn’t even been looking for a job, but on a whim casually asked the bar owner if he was looking for staff. Two days after asking that question he started his first shift and he’s now working full-time from now until October!

What a relief. I feel 20kg lighter! From the blues of indecision and uncertainty in April, we have started May feeling the joy of knowing we are now earning enough money to stay here on the river for another school year.

I was never worried about earning money. I knew that if we had to we could return to the UK and find jobs. It was that period of not knowing whether we would stay on the Guadiana that got me down. I was sad at the prospect of going before I felt ready to leave.

And all of a sudden things have fallen into place. Julian has a temporary full-time job and I have two part-time jobs that I can fit around the children; I have my writing – some of which I know will earn me money in the coming months; and I am awaiting the outcome of that job interview.

We can now make plans for more than a week or two in advance; we can plan our summer and autumn. The girls can look forward to another year in school in Sanlúcar and we can all return to enjoying life without the stress and worries of how our short-term future will pan out.

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.

Someone took my lemons

You know the saying ‘When God gives you lemons, make lemonade’? Or, in my case, lemon curd. But what happens when those lemons are taken away again before you have a chance to do anything productive with them?

We faced such a dilemma this past week when plans we had in place since early August changed suddenly and unexpectedly. Nearly five months earlier we had been asked to house and dog sit for a week at New Year so, despite our general lack of short- or medium-term planning, this week had been set in stone. We eliminated all other possibilities and honed in on making ourselves available to do this favour. And now that we had that week set in stone, we decided to plan accordingly. The girls and I would be off the boat for the whole week, leaving Julian free to get on with a huge number of jobs on his to-do list – sanding, varnishing, spring cleaning the lazarette, repairing the sails, etc. He would visit us in the apartment and spend some nights with us, but most of his week would be devoted to the boat.

Carina in a state of undress

Carina in a state of undress

I, meanwhile, planned to take advantage of being in Almeria to do lots of fun things, which are otherwise too expensive when we have to factor in the price of bus journeys from and to Aguadulce. And, of course, the girls were wildly excited about the prospect of taking care of a dog for a week, and that experience would have been amazing for them. In addition to all this fun, I planned to complete the first draft of my book before we moved back aboard Carina. With a TV in the apartment, I planned to let the girls watch one movie each evening, giving me one and a half hours of writing time, and to continue writing for two or three hours each night after the girls had gone to bed. That would surely put the first draft of the book to bed too.

Twenty-four hours before we were due to move into the apartment, unexpectedly and for reasons unrelated to us, the plans changed and we found ourselves adrift. What were we to do? The maintenance and repair jobs would now be much more difficult to accomplish with us under Julian’s feet. And, as I’ve written before, the simple tasks of cooking, cleaning, and day-to-day life take so much more time on a boat, so the time for fun activities and writing were now drastically curtailed.

First we got annoyed. And then we got practical. Rather than viewing the changes to this long-planned-for week as ruinous, we reassessed our priorities and we set about achieving what we could. Instead of thinking of it as a week, we saw in front of us eleven days until I had to return to work. Julian’s boat jobs needed daylight and my writing could be done after dark. The varnishing of weather boards and the oiling of the boat’s external teak needed to be done at a certain time of day – after the early morning dew had lifted, but early enough so they would dry before the evening dew descended.

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

Weatherboards drying in the early morning sun

I took over all the household chores that are usually shared or done by Julian – cooking, cleaning, laundry, food shopping. When Julian attempted to clean the heads one day I shooed him away – no point him wasting time doing jobs that I can do. I involved the girls in all those activities, taking their maths and English books to the launderette, so they could work while we waited. Many of the chores had us off the boat for considerable lengths of time.

The girls and I went for long walks on the beach. As well as taking our balls and bats and new origami set (I love it!), I took my pen and notebook and, while the girls played at playgrounds or played games with other kids, I squeezed in what handwriting I could, ready to transcribe to the laptop once the girls were in bed.

When we were at home, we stayed as much out of Julian’s way as possible. He sanded, varnished and oiled. He removed sails. He cleaned the decks and the cockpit. Sometimes the girls helped, but when helping turned to hindering, I took them away again.

And Julian took them away from me, late in the afternoons when the light was fading and he could no longer work effectively. Sure, I had dinner to make, but I also managed to write.

I’m going back to work tomorrow and I have to admit that neither of us has achieved what we had hoped. I’m still roughly 15,000 words from the end of the book. And Julian has accomplished only about 20% of what he would have expected to if he had had the boat to himself. This week we’ve also had to contend with having no electricity for two days due to a fault on the pontoon, and a blocked toilet that Julian’s had to take apart.


But we could look at it another way. I’m 6,000 words closer to the end of the draft than I was before December 28th. Carina’s exterior woodwork is in better condition now than at any time since we have owned her. And we’ve had experiences that we wouldn’t have had if we had been in Almeria all week. Lily and Katie have met and played with lots of children at the local playgrounds all week. Katie and I spent a morning visiting Bill and Rosemary on a neighbouring boat. Jesus, on the boat across the pontoon from us, gave us a bucketful of freshly caught red sea bream. And yesterday morning, while out for my walk, I met Katie and Kalle, a young German couple living and travelling in a VW camper van, and they spent the afternoon aboard Carina with us.

Things don’t always work out the way you’ve planned. Unexpected changes can occur, leaving you feeling stranded. And we did feel stranded at first, when our five-months-in-the-making plan was turned on its head with no warning. But if there’s one thing that sailing teaches you, it’s that you can’t rely on plans. Weather systems and unexpected boat problems can alter the best laid plans. Friends we’ve made along the way this past year have had their sailing plans curtailed by, in one instance, a split wooden mast that needed to be replaced, and, in another, the need to install a new engine. But what can you do? Go with the flow, make the most of the opportunities you have and, if your lemons are taken away, you better have some recipes for a bucket-load of bream up your sleeve!

A woman’s work…

by Julian

Snapshot_20141030aI met a retired Englishman in the street. He asked “How is the teaching going?”
“I am loving it”, I replied, “But Martina’s finding it a bit tough. She does four and a half hours with barely a break.”
“Yes”, the man said, “She will find it tough if she hasn’t worked for 18 months.”
“Um, Martina was working full time as a university lecturer until the end of May. It’s me who hasn’t worked for three years.”
“Oh right! So you only work two hours a week, that’s more of a hobby than a job.”
“Yes it is.” I say truthfully.
“If you go back to work full-time in the UK you will find that a bit of a shock.”
My lack of expression said nothing. I didn’t think about it until later, but what sort of job did he think would shock me? What working hours and conditions would I struggle with? Would I find a job desperately dull, mentally taxing, demeaning, degrading, physically demanding or just struggle with getting up at the same time every morning?

I will outline my work experience to make what I am about to say carry some weight.
1. I have been a science teacher in a large secondary comprehensive school in Coventry. Whatever the school is like now, back then it was chronically under resourced and desperately in need of a new coat of paint. Three teachers shared a decrepit overhead projector. The other two, more experienced teachers, block booked the projector for their classes for the next decade. I was left to draw elaborate but shaky diagrams in multicoloured chalk on the blackboard, whilst 30 kids, aged 11-18, of all abilities, amused themselves with whatever kids do when the teacher’s back is turned.
2. I have worked many Sunday shifts in both a petrol station and a pub, on my own, either pinching myself awake at the appearance of a car or desperately wishing the one drunkard at the bar would go and find a ditch to crawl into, or else do something mildly amusing, rather than bore me senseless with his or her racist diatribe.
3. I have worked as a Territorial Army infantry soldier, truck driver, paper boy, industrial launderer, chambermaid, dishwasher, builder’s labourer, geophysical consultant, research scientist and scientific leader of an Antarctic field party. For this last job I spent 100 days in a tent with three other guys, and I was responsible for the production of the quality science that was expected from the vast expense of putting us there.
4. I have been given a budget of £80,000 and a four-month deadline to build a radar capable of functioning in temperatures of -40˚C. The radar and I landed on the Greenland ice cap and, despite sleeping in a tent with the temperature sometimes as low as -47˚C, when the whiskey froze solid, the radar worked like a charm.

You get the picture, I’ve done some stuff. Now for the crunch.

Four and a half years ago, when I left the house to go to work each morning, leaving behind a one year old child and a heavily pregnant wife, I would breathe a sigh of relief. The weight of the world fell from my shoulders and my time and personal space were my own again. That was until I had to go back home in the evening, which I would often delay as long as possible, something I feel guilty about now.

When Katie reached her first birthday and Lily was two and a half, we moved to a flat in Dawlish. I became a full time father and househusband, whilst Martina went to work full time as a university lecturer in Exeter. I was not ‘working’, in the sense that I was not paid directly for what I did, but nothing I have done before or since was tougher than that year. Martina left the house at 7 am, often before the kids were awake, and returned at 5:30 pm. We often had little sleep, particularly Martina. I got the kids washed and dressed and hopefully managed to do the same for myself, got them breakfast and lunch, took them to playgroup, entertained and educated them, did the laundry at the launderette, ironed Martina’s work clothes, did the shopping, tidied and cleaned the house, did the recycling, made the dinner and made lunch for Martina to take to work the next day. I also saw to any household bills and general family administration that required attention. In reality this list of things was never completed, not once, often not even close.

Some days I couldn’t leave the kids alone for a minute, even to go to the toilet. The task of trying to stop them hurting or killing each other was immense. There is no way in the world you can get a two and a half year old to understand that her little sister needs to have a nap. If she will just give you ten minutes you will have the baby asleep and both your days will be much happier. If you cannot get the baby to sleep, then everyone’s day will be miserable. Sometimes I barely managed to have dinner on the table for Martina and nothing else was done, the kids were miserable with my lack of attention to them due to my meagre attempts to provide the family with nutritious meals. Martina returned from work each Friday evening and I went to Plymouth on Saturday morning for a cold damp weekend of grinding down and greasing seacocks or painting the hull, to get the boat ready for moving onto that summer. Then the week started all over again.

Two years later the kids were easier. I could cope better with the cooking, washing, ironing, shopping, and cleaning. Martina generally came home to a more ordered house. She was often away for up to 11 hours but if there were problems with the kids she would sometimes leave a bit later in the morning, which she was able to do now that we lived in Exeter, nearer to her work. Lily started school. The only problem was that, with one child at school and another at home, my day was messed up. Each morning Martina grabs breakfast, says good morning to Lily and Katie and goes to work with the packed lunch I made for her at 6:30 am. The children always lament demonstrably at the door, making Martina feel very guilty for leaving them. The instant the door closes they forget their troubles and get back to trying to kill each other. Morning conversation goes like this: “Katie eat your breakfast. Katie eat your breakfast. KATIE EAT YOUR BREAKFAST!” “Lily get your pyjamas off and get your school clothes on, Lily, Lily, LILY CAN YOU HEAR ME?” “Come here to have your teeth cleaned, hair brushed, shoes and coat on, COME HERE, WON’T ONE OF YOU COME HERE!! COME HERE!!!!” “Lily you are still in your pyjamas!” “Katie you’ve eaten nothing!” “We are going to be late.” We eventually get out of the door.

The first half term Katie is in the backpack for the mile and a quarter up a very steep hill to Lily’s school. I return home with Katie and wring the sweat out of my t-shirt. The second half term Katie is attending pre-school two mornings a week and I insist she walks. My back cannot take carrying her anymore and I don’t want to do myself long term damage. But we have to allow considerable extra time for the trip to and from school. The joy of Katie going to the preschool is dented by the fact that I drop Lily off at 8:45 and Katie at 9:00, then collect Katie at 12:00 and Lily at 3:15, walking a total of seven and a half miles up and down steep hills, mostly with very young children. (I did 22.5 miles of hill walking every week on school runs alone). The next term Katie qualifies for pre-school government funding and I get rid of the midday pickup by adding in a small bit of top up money (£15) to cover one afternoon a week. Now Katie goes to school 9:00-3:00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I have a small measure of freedom in my life, much like going to work again!

I provide three packed lunches in the morning. Of course the school doesn’t allow nuts or chocolate, Martina doesn’t want what I make for Lily and Katie but she has a fridge and a microwave at work. Lily and Katie don’t like the same things as each other and Lily desperately wants school dinners because I give her stale bread! In my spare time, I bake my own bread. Between October 2013 and April 2014 I don’t buy bread, but make three loaves a week, all by hand and often using my own sourdough, with yeast I cultivate! I also send Martina off to work with a variety of home-made soups, quiches etc.

I had finally, successfully, turned into a professional ‘housewife’, minus the coffee mornings, which of course, being a man, I cannot go to as I am viewed as a threat to other men’s wives and a potential child molester. I find that Martina has now got herself hooked on this crazy sailing and home education idea that we came up with three years ago to get us out of the financial and general rut that we were in. Damn, I have to become a skipper again. Believe me when I say, it is not a complete walk in the park to get a novice sailor and two young children from England to Mediterranean Spain in a 36 ft yacht built in 1979. Still, there are far worse jobs, without the same sense of achievement.

Here is the immortal line I overheard Lily say to Katie once: “But daddies don’t go to work.” I have had an insight into what it is like to stay at home looking after very young children and to feel the scorn of other men, career women and sometimes older women who cannot get it into their heads that a man could take a break from paid employment or can take care of children. In Britain the government model family is a ‘working’ family. From the time maternity leave ends both parents should be at work with children in ‘quality childcare’. Many people buy into this model, imagining themselves to be socially superior for paying more taxes, and therefore doing more for society. But what is the government motivation for this model? Higher GDP, higher employment, and greater tax revenue. Is this the best model for society? The responsibility for ensuring family well-being is taken away from parents. Working partners with different employment hours rarely see each other and try to grab snippets of ‘quality time’ with their children. Children are happier with their friends and child carers because they are away from the chaos of parents madly trying to get them dressed and into the car, anxious about being late for work. Microwave dinners, jars of Uncle Ben’s and takeaways a regular feature for all but families with ‘supermums’.

To me, this appears to be far less beneficial to society and more likely to end in families collapsing. Unfortunately the government rates itself on figures that don’t really show this, or maybe they do, as the jails are fuller than ever and problem drug use and alcoholism are rife. But maybe it is better to live a happier life with less money, as long as we can keep the wolves from the door. It is no less work living this way, just different.
Going ‘back to work’ would not be a shock to my system I assure you, because few jobs are more physically and emotionally demanding than being a stay-at-home parent to young children.

I am not Superwoman

I have a superhero complex. Specifically, I think I’m Superwoman. As well as believing myself to be faster, stronger, and generally more capable than I am, I believe I have the special superpower to stretch time. I believe I can make one hour stretch to three; I can make one day stretch to two. My weeks have twelve days. But it’s a complex. The reality is I can’t stretch time. I certainly cannot slow time down. I wish I could. But I can’t. And recently I’ve been giving myself a good talking to, telling myself to hang up the cape and come back down to Earth.

I’m a list maker. I live by lists. Right now, I have a long-term list of things I want to accomplish before I’m fifty. This is not a bucket list sort of thing. It’s not of the ‘visit the Taj Mahal’, ‘bungee jump’, ‘skinny dip’ variety. (Two of those I have no interest in and the other I do as often as possible). No, my list is a serious ‘work to be done’ list. And from that big list, there are yearly lists, monthly lists, and daily lists.

Here’s the long-term list: by the time I’m fifty I want to have published five books. FIVE. I’ll be fifty in eight and a half years from now. Let me review the status of these five books before you think I’m completely off my rocker.
Book 1: Written and currently being reviewed by the publisher.
Book 2: 100,000-word draft written two years ago. I’m unhappy with the ending and it needs to be overhauled on a monumental scale. To be tackled as soon as I’ve finished writing…
Book 3: Working on it at the moment, trying to write 10,000 words a week, first draft complete by the end of November, and hoping to have a manuscript ready for a publisher or agent by the end of March.
Book 4: I know exactly what it’s about, and have a written synopsis of each chapter. To be written after I’ve completed Book 2.
Book 5: A sequel to Book 3.
(Only one of these is novel. The rest are all firmly non-fiction)

So, I write like a motherfucker.

But, unless I’m Isabel Allende (who I long to be) or Bill Bryson (oh to be that funny) or Cecilia Ahern (shoot me if I write like that), I’m not going to make any money writing books. I read recently that 150,000 books get published in the English language every year. How many of them can you name? I’m not doing it to make money (although wouldn’t making money be grand?). I do it because I can’t help myself. I’m miserable and grouchy when I don’t write.

So, to my medium-term, six month list, which is divided into ‘writing’ and ‘everything else’.
I write other things in an attempt to make some money. In the past four months I’ve had seven pieces published in magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. For all of this writing I’ve earned the princely sum of £140. Hardly enough to keep the wolf from the door. For every article I write, I spend at least the same amount of time researching appropriate magazines and newspapers to pitch to, pitching ideas to editors, chasing editors up when they fail to reply, pitching again, on and on. I’ve had articles accepted and fees negotiated, only to have the person I was in contact with leave the publication and set me back to square one. So, for the time being, my budding career as a freelance writer is not paying the bills either. Just like the books, I write because I can’t help myself. But it sure would be nice to get paid for doing something I’m so addicted to.

The ‘everything else’ side of the medium-term list includes, inter alia, the following items: ‘study Spanish 1 hour every day’, ‘jog 30 minutes every day’, ‘remove mould from entire boat’, ‘thorough galley clean’, ‘assess and reorganise provisions’, ‘update Lily and Katie’s clothing’. It’s a long list. Absent from any of these lists are Lily and Katie’s education or general day-to-day household chores. But of course, those activities take time and effort too.

We need to put food on the table. Because my writing is not (yet) paying its way, Julian and I are both working this winter. I’m teaching English 18 hours a week. It’s not my dream job (see above) but it does pay the bills (see above). The teaching materials I work from are pretty self-explanatory, so I only need an additional hour or two of planning each week. I leave Carina at 3.35 every afternoon, Monday to Friday, and I step back on board at 9.50 at night.

You can see where this is going. Only my Superwoman time-stretching superpower could give me the time to do all the things I want to do every day. And as each day goes by and I fail to draw a line through every item on my list I get more annoyed and grouchy.

Somehow, I find time to do much of the writing I want to do. I try to do a couple of hours every night after I get home from work, a few hours each weekend, and one morning a week at the public library. Most mornings Lily, Katie and I do a little school work on board, followed by an hour at the beach (learning to swim is as important as learning maths, as far as I’m concerned), and some activities that are ‘educational’ in one way or another – drawing, crafting, wandering around looking at and talking about trees, etc. (Julian teaches some mornings and does laundry, grocery shopping and other off-boat chores on the other mornings).

But I’ve had to give myself a serious talking to. An hour of Spanish every day? A 30 minute run? Who am I kidding? I’ve given up the Spanish. The only reason I ever wanted to learn Spanish in the first place was so I could read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish. I’m never going to learn enough Spanish to do that, and I love Garcia Marquez plenty in English. Anyway, I’m learning a little Spanish from talking to the pupils I teach and from simply living in Spain. I’m all for learning languages, but I’m starting from zero here, and life’s too short. Language acquisition is not a priority for me, and I have to remind myself that I’m not a lesser human being for only having proficiency in one language.

I cut out the running too. A 30 minute run takes an hour, by the time I got ready beforehand and recovered afterwards. I swim pretty much every day, swimming lengths parallel to the beach where the girls play when they’ve had enough of swimming. Why do I need to run for half an hour as well? I’m trying to be Isabel Allende, not Sonia O’Sullivan.

And I’ve stopped beating myself up about the state of the boat. The cleaning will get done. Just more slowly. What difference does it make if I assess the provisions this week or next month? We’re living beside a supermarket and not planning a transatlantic passage any time soon.

It’s time to focus on the priorities – my family and my writing. And also to learn to relax a little. I feel terribly guilty when I’m doing ‘nothing’. Julian enjoys long walks, and they do him the world of good. I used to like long walks, but these days I only walk with a purpose – to the shop or to work, not just a walk for its own sake. When I read I have this nagging guilty feeling that I should be doing ‘something’, and not wasting my time doing ‘nothing’. A couple of days ago I sat in the cockpit and forced myself to read a magazine that Mammy had brought to me when she visited. I made a cup of tea and read for two hours. Sure, I felt a little twinge of guilt that I wasn’t doing anything ‘productive’, but I finally managed to relax. Yesterday morning I even managed to stop myself ploughing relentlessly through the water as though I was being chased by a shark. I stopped swimming, closed my eyes, and floated in the warm sea water with the hot sun beating down on my face.

For us, moving aboard Carina was never about giving up work, but rather about approaching work in a different way, concentrating on our passions, and working damn hard to achieve the goals we set ourselves. And that’s how we live our lives. As Stephen Fry said on the Graham Norton Show recently ‘Work is more fun than fun’. I agree. (Oops…I let it slip…I watch Graham Norton on YouTube sometimes!)

But recently I have been trying to accomplish the unnecessary. So, for now, I’ve hung up my cape and superhero tights. I’m teaching myself to relax, to recharge my batteries, and to make shorter, more realistic lists. Five books by fifty remains my goal, but there’s not a chance in hell any of them will be written in Spanish!

Fish, palm trees and…work

Rather unexpectedly, Julian and I have both found part-time jobs. Julian works a couple of mornings a week, and I work evenings. We had hoped we might find winter work, but never suspected it would happen so quickly or with so little effort on our part. It’s the sort of work we hoped to get, where our working hours are limited and our time with the girls isn’t compromised.

The new routine goes something like this: I spend my mornings with the girls. Reading, writing and maths practice for an hour after breakfast, followed by whatever educational opportunities crop up. For example, on Wednesday we took the washing to the Laundromat and went for juice/coffee and churros at a cafe around the corner while we waited. Lily asked if we could bring the drinking straws home so she could use them as flag poles. She wanted to make flags. So we had an impromptu geography and history lesson, as they made Irish and British flags and learned the symbolism of each flag’s colours and pattern. The evening before, the girls and Julian enjoyed an hour of looking at an atlas together, talking about where we had sailed from, the route we had taken, and much more besides.

Most days, either before or after lunch, the girls and I go to the beach for a quick swim. The water is crystal clear and, standing waist-deep (my waist) we are surrounded by multitudes of stripy and spotty fish. The girls and I are enthralled by these gorgeous creatures swimming so close to us and, one day, I took turns carrying Lily and Katie into water too deep for them to stand in, so they could observe the fish up close. Yesterday we found a dead sea cucumber, brown and spotty with rubbery appendages all over its body that looked like spikes. I scooped it up in a bucket for closer examination before Katie returned it to the sea.

Now I want two things – a Mediterranean fish recognition book and a book about palm trees and other trees that grow here. As with the beach, the marina is filled with a variety of beautiful fish. It’s like floating on top of an aquarium. I want to know the names of all those fish, and whether or how they are related to each other. The streets and beaches are lined with palm trees, about which I know nothing. I have quickly come to realise that there are as many different species as there are species of deciduous tree back home. Every day I look up at palm trees with different frond sizes and shapes, trees bearing all sorts of different shaped and coloured fruits, and trees with very different trunk patterns. Besides the palms, there are numerous evergreen trees, some with wispy delicate leaves, others with leaves bigger than my head. I want to know all about them. So, it’s time to get online and see if I can order some books.

On the mornings when Julian’s not working, he goes grocery shopping, or we all hang out together. Each day, in the late afternoon, I kiss everyone goodbye and head off to work for the evening, returning shortly after the girls have gone to bed. After a late dinner I try to get some writing done. I’m having to adjust to Spanish time – eating late and then working for a couple of hours before I go to bed. It’s taking some getting used to – I work best in the mornings and have never been very good at motivating myself after supper! But I’ll get used to it I’m sure.