Christmas at anchor

It was a bit of a risk. Would Santa find us at anchor on a lonely stretch of river, a couple of miles north of Sanlúcar? The girls had had three days off school during the first week of December, giving us a rare and decadent five-day weekend. I had wanted to get away from the villages for some quiet time at home aboard Carina. We found this spot upriver and, although we only stayed for two nights, it was enough to convince me I wanted to come back again for Christmas.

During those couple of days we’d met no-one, had no Internet access and not enough battery power on my old laptop to even watch a movie. We went ashore and walked the riverside trails, or stayed home and read, did jigsaw puzzles, drew pictures and coloured in. The girls had school tests the following week – Lily in Maths and French, Katie in English – so Julian spent much of his time devising ingenious and fun revision exercises. I cooked all the foods I haven’t cooked in the months since Julian’s become full-time boat husband.

The peace and silence on that stretch of river was balm to my body and soul, as I sat on deck leisurely reading a book by day or engrossed in the star-filled December sky by night. As we set off down river and back to the routine of school and work, I said to Julian, ‘I want to do this again for Christmas’.

I live an excessively sociable life. It’s the way I like it. These days I teach English five days a week, mostly to loud raucous fun-loving primary school children. I am involved in a lot of school and parent association activities, and I have many lovely friends in both villages with whom I love spending time. My online life is busy too. I have two academic editing jobs, and when I’m not working, I like keeping in touch with far-flung family and friends, observing and participating in the political world I follow through Twitter and, with increasing guilt, pondering how little time I devote to my blog. I live an intensely sociable life, because that’s what I like and that’s who I am.

But now and again a holiday from all that sociability is required to remember who I am and to recharge my batteries. The lead-up to Christmas was action packed. There were parties and carol services, school events, and gatherings throughout December with friends who celebrate different Christmas and winter traditions. And I can rarely say no to an invitation to join a friend in a bar for a coffee or a drink. So, there were impromptu glasses of wine and port, cups of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, plates of grilled chorizo, oysters and prawns. A few days before Christmas, with all my teaching and editing done, I cleaned Carina to within an inch of her life, so we could invite passing friends aboard for wine and beer, tea and hot chocolate, and Julian’s home-made tiffin.

Three different people invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them, and we considered a tour of Sanlúcar, going from house to house to sample the traditional prawns and chorizo, while we shared my Christmas pudding and Julian’s tiffin. The plan, therefore, was to leave the pontoon early on Christmas morning and return to that quiet spot upriver. After a heady build-up to Christmas, Christmas Day onwards would be quiet family time.

But the bug that’s been doing the rounds of the school finally caught up with Lily and Katie. They both woke up on Christmas Eve with headaches, stomach aches and high temperatures. It didn’t stop Julian or me from socialising a bit (separately) throughout the day, but we knew that, given the girls’ illnesses, we wouldn’t be sharing prawns and Christmas pudding with anyone that night.

So we decided to head upriver early. With only an hour of sunlight left in the sky, we slipped the pontoon on Christmas Eve, Lily and Katie feeling sorry for themselves in their respective beds. We motored upriver, Julian and I singing Fairytale of New York at the top of our lungs and calling out to friends on boats and landing stages as we went past.

Before long, we were back on that lovely lonely stretch of river, the place all to ourselves except for a heron on one riverbank and a herd of sheep on the other. We were expecting rain, so we prepared Carina for a wet night ahead and snuggled down inside, Christmas candles scenting the air. Before leaving Sanlúcar, Julian had downloaded Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and, as I made dinner, and then did a jigsaw with the girls and prepared a plate of food for Santa and his reindeer, Julian read to us.

The girls were still unwell at bedtime, so I administered paracetemol, and took over the reading from Julian as lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain fell long and hard into the night and I hoped Santa and his reindeer wouldn’t give up the search for us up the river.

The girls didn’t sleep particularly well and I was out of bed a few times ministering to their needs. But, somehow, in the middle of it all, Santa came and, when we awoke on Christmas morning, the plate was empty and the table and Christmas stockings laden with presents. The girls were both still unwell and, although they mustered the energy to open their presents, they soon returned to bed, and spent Christmas Day between their beds and wrapped up in blankets in the saloon. I read the concluding two chapters of A Christmas Carol while Julian prepared dinner. It was an overcast but mild day, and sitting in the cockpit on that peaceful stretch of river was perhaps the best Christmas present (but please don’t tell the girls. They think the three Planet of the Apes movies and box of Milk Tray they asked Santa to bring me were the best presents. They come pretty close!).

With the girls unwell, there was no chance of us going ashore for a walk, so we focused our attention on enjoying good food, good wine and each other’s company, and trying to make the girls feel comfortable and cozy. After a delicious dinner and while the Christmas pudding was boiling in the pot, I took to the dinghy and rowed downriver for half an hour, the Rio Guadiana equivalent of my post-Christmas dinner walk from Ballygibbon to Carrick graveyard when I’m back home.

For the next few days we did much the same. The girls remained under the weather, sleeping lots and eating little. They found it difficult to even muster up interest in their presents or in the mountain of chocolate we had onboard. Rather than the walking and picnics I had imagined, we indulged in quieter pastimes – reading, drawing, writing. Julian and I even became engrossed in studying Spanish. With a new battery in my laptop we could watch some movies. Outside, the wind howled for much of the time, tossing Carina about on the stormy river. When the girls and weather conditions allowed, Julian and I took turns to go out alone – walking along the smugglers path on the Portuguese side of the river or rowing up or down river.

It wasn’t quite the Christmas I had imagined. But then Christmas rarely is. It did, however, have all the elements that make for the best Christmases – being with the people you love most in the world, enjoying good food, relaxing. It was traditional in its own way, and maybe we have created some new traditions this year. And, although the girls weren’t in top form, they certainly made the most of having lots of time to snuggle with Mummy and Daddy.

Belatedly, Happy Christmas everyone xxxxx

 

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Wonderful Galicia

We have been in Galicia since the 21st of June. Prior to this, I had only spent limited time in Spain. In 2006, I went on a road trip with Julian and some of his friends in a U around the Iberian Peninsula, starting in Santiago de Compostella, south through Portugal, attending a friend’s wedding in Jerez, and then on through the Sierra Nevada to Valencia. It was a wonderful trip that gave us a great taste for all things Spanish (and I mean ‘taste’ in the most literal sense!). A year later I was back in Valencia for a conference at the aquarium, but spent more time hanging out with Inuit and other Canadians. And I’ve had a couple of resort holidays in the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

A street in Muros

A street in Muros

All told, I have precious little experience of Spain, and so it is a new and wonderful place to me. So far, we are all finding the experience rewarding! As an anthropologist, I know I shouldn’t be too hasty to make any pronouncements about a place. As I experience and learn more over the coming weeks and months I know my impressions will change or, at the very least, become more meaningful. But here are my initial impressions from the past few weeks:
1. Old people lead healthy lives! During our first few days on the beach in Ria de Viveiro I watched people walking up and down, up and down the more-than mile long beach. They were adults of all ages, but predominantly people over 70. Wearing only swimming trunks or bikinis, couples, groups of five or six men or women, mixed groups, strolled along the beach all afternoon long, exercising in the sunshine, which in itself is great. But they were also talking – couples and groups of friends, talking and laughing as they strolled along. If you’re doing that when you’re 70 or 80 years old, then you’re doing something right. Since then I’ve observed many older people enjoying life, walking, talking, sitting in the sun outside their homes and engaging with the world at it goes by.

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

2. Grow food not grass! I’ve seen a profusion of food growing in gardens big and small. Potatoes, onions, lettuces, sweet corn, and peach, pear, apple, and lemon trees. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of growing one’s own food – it’s great for the planet, it’s great for your health, and it’s great for the little mini-ecosystem of your back yard. In Japan and in the Fens of the United Kingdom (and no doubt elsewhere), people put excess produce outside their gates with an honesty box. I haven’t seen this yet in Spain, but I have seen old men and women, sitting in the shade of awnings in town squares, with small selections of produce for sale, that I can only imagine comes from their own gardens.
3. It’s cheap 1! Man, food is inexpensive here! For Julian and me, one of our favourite meals to cook is paella, but the ingredients are so expensive in the UK that it’s a rate treat. Here in Spain the mussels, fish, wine, chorizo, rice and other ingredients are dirt cheap! Even the saffron is less expensive. Of course they are all local ingredients, but even so we are astounded at how cheap the food is. The foods that we consider luxuries back in the UK are a third or a quarter of the price here. Our shopping basket overflows with olive oil, olives, chorizo, a smorgasbord of fruit and vegetables, cheeses and wine. We are in gastronomic heaven.
4. It’s cheap 2! While we spend most of our time at anchor, we occasionally spend a night in a marina, to fill our water tank, get speedy internet access and take advantage of hot showers! Marinas too, are inexpensive, working out at about 25-30% cheaper than in the UK, but with free electricity and Wifi included. And in places on our itinerary to visit over the coming weeks and months, they appear to be even less expensive.

Local fare

Local fare

5. Would you like a squid with your beer, sir?! To our Irish and British sensibilities, the foods in Spain are exotic and wonderful and sometimes highly amusing. I wanted to do some writing after the girls had gone to bed recently, so Julian popped out for a beer. He came home with a big grin on his face (possibly caused by the beer) to tell me about his experience. He ordered a beer and was given the smallest beer he’d ever seen in his life. Then the barman came around and asked him if he’d like a squid with it!! He was tickled pink by the idea of having a squid with his beer! In every bar, staff walk around with trays of tapas – bread with chorizo, tortilla, etc –to offer to the customers. In Julian’s case the other night, it was a deep-fried baby squid!
6. Small-scale fishing: I mentioned in a previous blog post how the clusters of fishermen reminded me of the west coast of Hudson Bay in summertime. Off the coast of every little town we anchor amongst small local boats, owned by local fishermen. These men go out alone or in pairs, and appear to quite often meet up with others at sea, clustering together and engaging in very small scale fishing. There are larger commercial fishing boats too, but the small scale subsistence fishermen predominate.
7. Less work, more play! The working day is very different to what we are accustomed to and it has taken some adjusting to. But we have embraced it now, and our sleeping, eating and shopping patterns have changed. Shops and businesses open for a few hours every morning and then close around noon or 1pm. They don’t re-open until 5.30 in the evening, and remain open until 9.30 or 10pm. It feels strange to us to go to the butcher or the greengrocer at 9 o’clock at night! Restaurants and cafes don’t get going until after 9.30, and people of all ages eat late into the night.
8. I was going to write about shellfish, but it deserves a blog post all of its own!

Yes, indeed, we are enjoying life in Spain. People are generous and kind, and (usually) patient with our inability to speak more than a few Spanish words. We are enjoying the endless sunshine and the golden sandy beaches at every anchorage. Life is good!