Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!


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.


Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

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.