The Old Post Office

Back in November, when Jeanne and David asked if we’d housesit for the summer, it didn’t take us long to make up our minds. They were in no hurry for an answer, but over Christmas, Julian and I talked about it and agreed it would be a lovely thing to do. Early in the new year we told Jeanne and David that we’d be happy to look after their house and dog for the summer.

I had spent much of the summer of 2017 alone on the Rio Guadiana. The girls were in Ireland and the UK and Julian was working long hours at the beach bar in Alcoutim, so I saw little of him. My time was divided between Carina, upriver on a mooring, and Alcoutim, where I managed an Air B&B property and spent a good deal of time in the property’s downstairs flat. But what little I saw of Sanlúcar, I enjoyed. I came across the river a couple of times during Cultural Week and had a few evenings out with friends.

Sanlúcar, usually quiet (with the exceptions of fiestas) was abuzz during the summer and the village seemed to come alive after dark, with children playing out of doors until all hours and the bars packed with families eating supper. There was an easy-going summer feel about the place. I thought it would be lovely for my family to experience this too, so Jeanne and David’s offer was perfect. Besides, the house itself, beloved of so many locals and foreigners in the village, would be a joy to live in for a few months.

El Correo Viejo is quite probably more than 300 years old. For over 240 years, prior to the late 1970s, it was the village post-office and trading post. Indeed, Juan, the lovely old man who has kept us in fresh tomatoes, onions, watermelons, cucumbers and figs all summer, was the last postman here, and lived in the house as a child when his father was the postman. Jeanne and David, an English couple, have preserved much of the old feel of the house, with exposed stone walls in places, old frescos revealed and restored with care and the old cistern still providing a water supply. Comfortable old furniture matches the house’s architecture and the walls are decorated with an eclectic mix of art old and new, British and local, created by friends or artists unknown. The Moorish architecture of thick walls and high ceilings make the house a cool haven from the extreme summer temperatures outside. The first thing most people comment on when they enter the house is the pleasant change of temperature.

House-sitters are required for two reasons for the three months Jeanne and David are away each summer. The first is Vinnie, a big old black-and-white one-eared dog, who is perhaps the most easy-going and relaxed dog I have ever met. We had been living in the house for almost a month before I heard him bark for the first time, and a pretty half-hearted bark it was at that. It would appear that only two things get Vinnie’s heart racing – food and the prospect of someone taking him for a walk. At the sight of me putting on my trainers each morning he gallops around the house, sliding into doors, toppling over himself in his excitement to go sniffing and peeing his way around the village and beyond.

The second reason for looking after the house is that its owners generously run it as a semi-open house. The first room inside the front door – the hall – houses an English book exchange and, apart from six bookcases packed with books, one can also choose from an ample collection of DVDs, magazines, and even exchange jigsaws. My job was to keep the shelves tidy and find homes for newly arrived books. I have to admit there were advantages to the job, as I took first dibs on the best books!

A small selection of olive oil, natural soaps and greetings cards made by local artisans are also displayed for sale here and there’s a handy noticeboard with some useful information for newcomers to the village. A sign near the pontoon directs newcomers to this wonderful resource and Jeanne and David have gained a reputation as helpful founts of wisdom on all things Sanlúcar.

The house also serves as a postal address to those of us who don’t have permanent addresses in the village. For yachties, owners of small-holdings and temporary visitors to the Rio Guadiana, it is comforting to know that our Amazon orders, spare parts for engines, birthday presents from grandparents to our children, and who knows what else, are in safe hands. As ‘post mistress’ this summer it was my job to sign for the occasional parcel, check the post-box or the hall table to see what the village post woman had delivered, sort through the post and occasionally contact people who had asked in advance to be contacted once their parcel had arrived.

All of this resulted in a very sociable summer, with friends dropping by regularly to check their post or restock their libraries and newcomers dropping in to browse the book exchange, or to ask for advice about the best place to shop, eat out or go for a walk. Visitors coming to use the service often ended up joining us for the terrace with its stunning view over the river for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a taste of Lily’s home baking. Parcels and packages were often excitedly ripped open in front of us as their owners shared their excitement with us. It has to be said, however, that is more often occurred for such items as harmonicas or galangal root, rather than new engine gaskets.

Being in the village all summer provided us with wonderful opportunities. For a few weeks, Lily and Katie went to summer camp in the mornings and dance practice in the evenings. We all stayed out late, eating and drinking and enjoying good company in the village bars. Our nearest bar is right outside the door, so if Lily and Katie tired of grownup conversation and there were no children around to play with, they simply went home.

We have a little over two more weeks in the old post office. It’s been a delightful, busy, hectic and, above all, sociable summer. I haven’t even told you about the fruit trees growing in the garden, the pool, the sleepovers and the stream of visitors, all of which added flavour and depth to our wonderful few months here. I am extremely grateful that my family had an opportunity to experience summer in Sanlúcar from this unique perspective.


La Frontera

You know the confusion that reigns twice a year when the clocks go forward or back? Have you remembered to change every time piece in your house, or is it 2pm in the kitchen and 1pm in the bedroom? Do you get up too early or too late that first Sunday morning? I remember one spring Sunday many years ago, when I was still a good church-going girl (and I mean MANY years ago). I got up, got dressed and arrived at the church just as the congregation came out the door at the end of Mass. This spring, Julian and I didn’t even remember the time had changed until Monday. Neither of us had jobs to go to, so it didn’t really matter to us. Twice every year, no matter what, there’s a discussion about whether this means an hour more or an hour less in bed. Now imagine living with that time change confusion EVERY SINGLE DAY!! Because that’s life on the Rio Guadiana, the border between Spain and Portugal. Spain runs an hour ahead of Portugal. We’ve set all our clocks to Portuguese time for no reason other than we have to live by some standardised time.

Sanlucar (in the distance) from Alcoutim

Sanlucar and Alcoutim with the river in between

But every day confusion reigns. Fruit and vegetables are better in the Portuguese shop, all the other stuff is better (and cheaper) in the Spanish shop. The bakery in Spain is superior; the library in Portugal is second to none. There’s a good playground in Spain and a good beach in Portugal. So every day we move from one side of the river to the other in our dinghy. Will the shop be open now (Spanish time)? Will the library be open (Portuguese time)? The post office (Portuguese)? The bakery (Spanish?). Our Spanish friends Rafa and Pilar lived on the river when we first got here. Their three young sons went to school in Spain, so they lived by Spanish time. Each afternoon we met up at the beach on the Portuguese side of the river, so Lily and Katie could play with their little friends Rafa Jr, Juan and Jorge. Rafa usually suggested 5.30ish. I almost never remembered that his 5.30 was our 4.30. So we would laze around in our afternoon siesta, thinking we had another hour until meeting our friends. Then someone aboard Carina would look towards our neighbour’s boat and see that their dinghy had already departed. Oh no, they’re on Spanish time, we’d remember too late, and a mad scramble to pack swimwear and don lifejackets would ensue.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina at anchor on the international border

We had a rip in our genoa sail that needed to be repaired. Chris, living on his boat in the middle of the river, earns a living making leather goods – bags, purses, belts, that sort of thing, so he has a sewing machine on board. We arranged to come alongside and raft to Chris’s boat so he could repair our genoa. He said 10am. We arrived at 10am. He was expecting us an hour earlier. He lives by Spanish time! Time difference is not the only confusion when living on an international border. There are two different languages to negotiate. I speak a very minimal amount of Spanish and my Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond hello, please, thank you, excuse me, one, two, beer and wine. In Spanish I can ask basic questions (Where is the toilet? What time does the market open?), or make basic conversation (Your dog is cute. The melon is big. The sausage is hot…and other such useful stuff), and I can understand a reasonable amount of what’s spoken, if I already know the context in which it’s being said. But most days we flit between the two countries and that’s when the confusion sets in. I say ‘Bom dia’ when I mean ‘Buenos dias’; I say ‘Gracias’ when I mean ‘Obrigada’ and so on. I don’t want to offend anyone by using the language from the other country. I’m sure (I hope) they’re used to it.


Alcoutim from Carina

Of course things are much easier these days with open borders and a single currency. Back before the euro, people living on the river had to have pesetas in one pocket and escudos in the other and there were regular border and customs checks. These days we’re all one big happy European family, albeit distant cousins who speak different languages and have quite different cultures. Despite their different languages and cultures, it would appear that the two communities – Alcoutim in Portugal and Sanlucar in Spain – come together to celebrate and remember. The May Day celebrations in Alcoutim featured a flamenco dancing troupe from Sanlucar, the My Fukushima event (a future blog post) took place simultaneously on both sides of the river, with both mayors (who looked uncannily alike) leading the events on both sides of the river. And in the midst of this cultural melange, in the river that separates these two villages in two countries, is a cosmopolitan community of live aboard sailors. There are Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Irish, South African, Swedish and Swiss people living here – some with their clocks set to Portuguese time, some set to Spanish. There’s the English man and South African woman whose son goes to school in Spain, and the British couple whose children go to school in Portugal. There’s the French woman and her British husband; the Swiss man and his Portuguese water dog; and of course the Irish woman and her British husband with their two British-Irish daughters. Life on the border is nothing if not interesting, and it certainly keeps us on our toes. There’s no resting on our laurels when it comes to time or language. But what fun we have. The live aboards form a community of helpful, generous, but fiercely independent people, and we’re now back in the territory of cheek-squeezing and head patting abuelas, and of helpful and (mostly) friendly shop staff. UKIP and the Conservatives should come chill out on the river for a while!

Have you heard the one about the Inuit family?

There’s a joke – it probably exists in one form or another in every over-studied community in the world – that an Inuit family consists of the mum, dad, kids and the anthropologist! Well, in a community like the village on Ilha da Culatra, it was only a matter of time before I bumped into the anthropologist. There was bound to be one – this place has certainly got my anthropological juices flowing.

DSCI4591After a day on the beach we went for a beer. A woman with a dog asked if she could sit with us. She told us that she is conducting research on tourism on the island and is particularly interested in the relationship between the islanders and the yacht-owners. ‘Oh’, I said, my ears pricking up at the idea of doing research here. ‘What research methods do you use?’
‘I’m an anthropologist’, she replied.
‘No way! Me too!’ I exclaimed.
And that was the start of a conversation that was alas cut short by her having to run for the last ferry to the mainland. She’s got winter fieldwork planned and was in Culatra trying to find cheap accommodation for a few months. But she knew the island well, having been a teacher here a few years ago.

I too had wondered about the relationship between the islanders and the yachties and I’d be intrigued to read her findings. When we first arrived we were surprised by the number of boats at anchor close to the island. This was before I discovered the catamaran community around the corner. Each day we bump into the same sailors, from Britain, Ireland, Holland and elsewhere. I even met a South African who I first met in Brixham in 2012 when we did our VHF radio course together. Like many others, he is drawn back to Culatra every year, and finds it hard to leave.

DSCI4608There are a few at anchor like ourselves and our Dutch friends – people passing through on their way to someplace else. But the larger, semi-resident population at anchor spend every summer here – and summer is long – living on their boats and coming ashore late each afternoon to gather in one particular bar (the one closest to the harbour), where they sit together, conversing in English. And of course many in the catamaran community are permanently resident.

The anthropologist suggested, and we witnessed, some antagonism between the resident yachties and the locals. As happens all over the world, whether in tiny villages or large cities, there are those locals who embrace the outsiders, those who ignore them, and those who are antagonistic towards them. Similarly, there are the outsiders – the yachties in this instance – who make the effort to speak the local language and get to know the locals, and there are those who ignore the life of the village going on around them. Though all the locals we have met have been very friendly towards us (it’s like being back in Galicia again – the grandmothers grab Lily and Katie and plant big kisses on their cheeks), we felt there was some annoyance amongst the fisherman because of the little yachting dinghies clogging up the spaces in the fishing harbour. There’s also graffiti on the only public shower in town that says ‘Locals only’.

The appeals of returning to Culatra year after year are multiple. It is beautiful. There are no cars, and Lily and Katie have more freedom and independence here than ever before. In the past week they have made friends with local children. It reminds me of Arviat, or of Ireland when I was a child – doors are open, everyone knows everyone, life moves at a more relaxed pace. I like the quirkiness and uniqueness of island life; the wry jokes I’ve shared with a few locals (and how I wish I spoke Portuguese so I could talk to more people). If I was here for longer I would want to get involved in community life – I can’t help myself; it’s an occupational hazard of being an anthropologist. So while there is an appeal in returning to the same anchorage year after year, I wouldn’t want to do so to sit in the same bar, with the same other cruisers, and remain apart from the life of the community going on around me.