Roots or routes?

In early May, Sanlúcar de Guadiana and its neighbour El Granado held their annual Romería. It was our third Romería, and a few days after the fiesta, as I uploaded my photographs onto the laptop, I decided to take a look back at our two previous Romerías, in 2015 and 2016. Each year we have known more about the festival and have, thus, been able to participate in it more deeply.


Spectators in 2015

In May 2015, we had been up the Rio Guadiana for less than two weeks when we came ashore one Saturday at lunchtime to watch this colourful local spectacle. We weren’t sure what it was all about or where everyone was going in tractor and mule-drawn trailers. We were hot and thirsty and, after taking a few photos and watching the procession set off, we returned home to Carina.

In May 2016, we knew more about this two-day event during which the people of Sanlúcar and the people of El Granado come together in a field mid-way between the two villages to eat, drink and party into the night. Lily and Katie dressed in their cheap tourist-shop flamenco dresses and we walked the road to the festival. But we went too early, overtaking the procession which went by a different route, and had eaten all our food and drunk all our water by the time the procession arrived. We stayed a little while, visiting the caseta of one family we knew a little bit.


In the thick of it, 2017

In May 2017, Lily and Katie wore proper flamenco dresses, we rode in one of the trailers for the four hours it took to cover the three or so kilometres from Sanlúcar to the site of the Romería, singing and dancing, drinking and eating along the way. In advance of the festival, friends from both Sanlúcar and El Granado had invited us to eat and drink in their casettas. The girls and I set up camp with some English friends, where we had our own picnic, and then, as Saturday evening progressed, we did the rounds of the casettas to which we had been invited.


Four hours of singing in the tractor-drawn trailer

Looking back over those three sets of photographs I realised that what had once been, for us, a colourful local festival in a quirky village filled with strangers had become a part of our annual calendar in our adopted village filled with friends and neighbours. Zooming in on those photos from 2015, it dawned on me that those strangers were now Lily and Katie’s schoolmates and their parents, the friends I chat to in my favourite bar, my English language students. These strangers are now people to whose houses I have visited, who have invited us to birthday parties, First Communion celebrations and Christmas dinners. They are strangers no more.


Dance break by the side of the road!

Yachties frequently ask each other about their sailing plans. It’s the nature of living on a boat. There are times when I am envious when I see our sailing friends set off down the river. I want to set off for destinations unknown too. Our good friends aboard Pelagic are now sailing in the Pacific, having left the Rio Guadiana in spring of 2016. I read their blog and tell Lily and Katie about the wonderful adventures of their friends Ana and Porter  in places I’ve never heard of with names I can’t pronounce and part of me wishes we were out there too aboard Carina. Maybe someday we will.


But there is also something wonderful about staying put, about getting to know a place and its people, about getting below the surface of those colourful and strange traditions  and about strangers becoming friends.


Maybe we will still be here for next year’s Romería. Maybe not. Getting to know a place takes time. Understanding a community and its people takes patience. If we are here next year I am sure I will look back on May 2017 and marvel at my naiveté and lack understanding and my presumption at what I thought I knew!




These days Katie gets very indignant when I say seemingly innocent things such as ‘Let’s go home’, or ‘You left your coat at home’.
‘It’s not my home’, she scowls at me, hands on her hips, making a face that is endearingly comical. ‘Carina is my home’.
And she’s right. Carina is her home. Unlike the other three of us, Katie has lived more of her life aboard Carina than anywhere else. And she misses home terribly. She misses the physical space that is her home. She misses her own bed, the toys she has left behind, her dressing up bag. She has great plans for all the things she plans as soon as she gets back home. She also misses the river where Carina is currently anchored and, at every opportunity, tells anyone who will listen how great the river is. We are on a countdown now to going home – not home to a geographical location, but home to the structure in which we live – our boat.

I’ve pondered the concept of home a lot over the years. What does home mean to me? And how have my conceptualisations of home changed over time?

An aerial photo of our house, taken (I think) in the 1950s.

An aerial photo of our house, taken (judging by the TV aerial) in the 1960s.

I grew up in the middle of Ireland in the house where generations of my family were born and died. My family has been living in our little cottage outside Edenderry since the 1880s. Growing up, half of our neighbours were Daddy’s cousins and the other half had also been in the area for generations. My home extended beyond the house to the fields, hedgerows, trees and woodlands in all directions. I knew it all intimately. I knew the names of the fields, the names of some individual trees, the names and stories of the people who had once lived in houses that were now mere piles of rubble overgrown with ivy and ash trees. My personal history extended back to long before I was born, as I played and walked with my dog and picnicked in places imbued with stories passed on to me by my Nana and other elderly relatives. My Nana was born in 1900 and my grandfather (who died in 1942) was born in 1875, so I am very conscious of being only two generations away from the Ireland I learned about in history lessons at school.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin' Donkey.

Me, aged 2-ish, with my aunt Cissie, Rowdy the dog, my wheelie dog and the Rockin’ Donkey.

I suspect I will never know any place as well as I know my first home. I dwelled in it so deeply, it seeped into my soul, like bog water darkening the bones of Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen. I grew up and I went away, but always I returned home. I lived in Japan for three years and though I had a wonderful time there, it never felt like home. Perhaps because my closest friends were other expats, or because I lived alone, or because I lacked the language to effectively communicate, I always felt like an outsider. There were particular places I loved – a shrine, a mountain path – but I never got beyond their external beauty or peacefulness to know their history and their meaning to local people. Places lacked depth for me.

Nunavut was different. Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, became home when I lived there in the early 2000s. Unlike Japan, my closest friends were local people, long term residents, families, people of all ages. The people I lived with became my family. My research explored the relationship between the people of Arviat and the sea. I learned what the place meant to people. The landscape and seascape around Arviat became imbued with history and memory and each time I went on the land or to sea, places became more meaningful to me as my memories and experiences became entwined with the stories my companions and friends told me.

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

Daddy and Tom outside our house in the 1940s

I left Ireland when I was 22 years old and have lived there on and off in the intervening twenty years. And in that time, my home has changed and I have changed. The physical landscape has changed – more infrastructure, more urban and rural development, and more people. I no longer know the places of my childhood as well as I once did. And where once I knew everyone I met on the road or on the streets of Edenderry, these days there are so many people I don’t know. I have also lost many close family members whose presence was implicit in my sense of home – Daddy, my uncle Tom, my aunt Lily, my uncle Gerry. Home resided in them. I still have a huge vast extended family back in Ireland, including my mother and sister. But these days, given what eager travellers they are, I’m as likely to hang out with Mammy and Antoinette in places other than Edenderry, and so my sense of family and my sense of home as place have become unglued from each other. We’re family no matter where we are.

Which I guess brings me to the most remarkable thing that happened to cause me to change my conception of home. I got married and had a family of my own. In the four and a half years Julian and I were together before Lily was born, we lived in four different places – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Littleport, Cambridge. As we uprooted from place we became rooted to each other. And when the girls were still very young, we decided to buy a boat and set sail. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we don’t stay in any place for very long.

So, where is home now? I’ve had this discussion with Lily and Katie quite a lot, especially this summer, when we’ve become uprooted from our boat and have moved temporarily back to the UK. Home, for me, is wherever the four of us are together. It’s not a physical place. Our roots are in each other. I consider Carina to be our home, but she will likely not be our home forever. No matter where we live, or what type of accommodation we live in, home for me is the comfort and stability of being together as a family. And that’s why, when I hang out with my mum and sister on the boat, or in a hotel room, in New York or in Vienna, we’re home, because we’re with each other.

Over the years the symbols of home have become less important. I’m less concerned about being Irish or being from Kildare or Edenderry than I used to be. That kind of nationalism and tribalism has lost much of its meaning for me now. My memories of place – the home of my childhood – remain strong and inform the way I live my life today. I suspect no place will ever affect me as strongly and deeply as the place where I grew up. Home used to be people-rooted-in-place. But these days, home is far less about place and far more about people. These days home is that ever moving location where I live with my family.