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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Romería

It’s almost two months since the good citizens of Sanlúcar de Guadiana and El Granado walked out one Saturday around midday and met in a field midway between their two villages for two days of fun and frolics. Men came on horseback, dressed in high-waisted trousers and wide-brimmed hats; women, some on horseback too, were dressed in voluminous layered figure hugging flamenco dresses, their lips painted red and their hair elaborately coiffed. This was the annual Romería, when neighbouring villagers get together to, ahem, expand the gene pool.

My mother and sister were visiting from Ireland and we couldn’t but join in the festivities. While proper flamenco dresses are way beyond our price range (and where on earth would we store them aboard Carina?), we were advised to dress the girls in the cheaper children’s flamenco dresses to be found in every resort town in Spain. We owned one already, and borrowed a second.

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Katie and Granny on the road to El Granado

For a week or more before the festival the people of Sanlúcar and El Granado, a village of similar size ten minutes away by car, were busy making their preparations. The same field, midway between the two villages, is used each year. Extended families build casetas – temporary structures made of wood and tarpaulin – which provide shade and shelter. In Sanlúcar carts were decorated with flowers and bunting, and cars and trucks loaded with chairs, tables, barrels and crates of beer to be transported to the site.

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On Friday evening Julian went out for a walk after supper. He was gone almost an hour when I heard the unmistakable sound of flamenco singing and someone playing a tambourine. I looked up the street to see a covered wagon slowly making its way along the street, pulled by a mule, and Julian sitting up in the middle of a bunch of women! They’d picked him up as he was walking along and plied him with local wine as they went on two circuits of the village, singing and making merry.

 

On Saturday morning we prepared a picnic, the girls dressed in their flamenco dresses, and we set out. A misjudgement on my part meant we missed the opportunity to travel in one of the covered wagons. Earlier in the day I’d met Pepe, the mayor, and he said Lily and Katie should go in a wagon. Last year the procession of men, women and children on horseback and in mule, horse and tractor-drawn covered wagons had set out from Sanlúcar at around 2pm. So, despite being told the procession would begin at midday, I assumed it would not be prompt. I was wrong. So we ended up walking. Even so, we reached the Romería site almost two hours before the procession. We took the main road and walked for half an hour. The procession took a dirt track and stopped every few minutes to drink, sing and dance!

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A well-deserved picnic after our walk in the hot sun

The Romería site was like a gypsy camp. Each extended family had its own caseta, some with bars set up, some with people playing guitars or accordions, all with vast amounts of food. We joined some other ex-pats we know in the shade of their camper van awning, and we ate and drank our fill from our picnic.

The two processions – Sanlúcar from one direction and El Granado from the other – arrived simultaneously and entered the field amidst great fanfare. It was an amazing spectacle, gorgeous men and women astride prancing horses and the tipsy passengers in the carts singing.

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Arriving in style!

Lily and Katie quickly found their friends, and we found the friends’ parents. We were invited into various casetas to partake of food and drink. Throughout the afternoon men paraded around on their horses, and the occasional teenage boy cantered past with a pretty girl sitting behind him. The joy of the day left a smile on my face.

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Lily and her friend Israel

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Lily’s friends, Isaac and Israel outside their family’s caseta.

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The girls had lots of fun with their friends

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Katie enjoying herself!

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Some of the Sanlucar men even ate on horseback!

Last year we watched the procession set out from Sanlúcar, not sure what it was all about. I’m still not quite sure what it’s all about, but we certainly had fun joining in this year.

Christmas homebird

In forty-one years, this is only my sixth Christmas away from my home in Ballygibbon. Despite not living in Ireland for most of my adult life, I have a Christmas homing instinct that, at this time of year, generally finds me packing my bags, rooting in the drawer for my passport, and getting on a plane bound for Dublin airport. So you’ll understand that my Christmas traditions are deeply embedded.

There’s the Christmas Eve ritual of going out for a massive family lunch (it used to be that only the lunch was massive, but in recent years, participation has extended out beyond my immediate family). After that lunch, we visit my Nana and other relatives. These are people who, as a child, I saw almost every day of my life, and Mammy still sees every day. But on Christmas Eve we used to visit with the purpose of exchanging Christmas presents. One year, when I was in my late teens, and after Daddy had lost his job at the shoe factory, we made a pact with our extended family to not exchange gifts any more. But the tradition of the Christmas Eve visit continued and, as the years have gone by, the gift-giving has gradually crept back in.

Who's behind the mask?

Who’s behind the mask?

After tea on Christmas Eve, my family would stand together in our hall, light the Christmas candle and say a prayer. Until I was in my late teens we always opened our presents on Christmas Eve but, for some reason, we gave up that family tradition and now hold off until Christmas morning. Once the candle was lit, and the presents opened, it was time to make a trifle, chop up the potatoes and vegetables for the next day’s dinner and, from my early 20s on, accompany Mammy to midnight mass in Edenderry and afterwards go to Byrnes pub with my friends.

On Christmas morning when I was a child, my sister and I would sneak into the sitting room as soon as we thought it was safe (i.e. when there would be no chance of running into Santa) to see what presents were under the tree. After breakfast we would get ready for Mass, visit the Tyrrell family grave, and then home to get in Mammy’s way as she prepared the biggest dinner of the year.

More recently I’ve fallen into the tradition of popping across the road an hour or so before dinner to visit my cousins Michael and Theresa and their kids. Theresa is a terrible woman who spikes my multiple coffees with Baileys, so I walk back across the road rosy cheeked and tipsy!!

Me, aged three, with Mammy, uncle Tom and some spectacular decor.

Me, aged three, with Mammy, uncle Tom and some spectacular 1970s decor.

Oh, the Christmas dinners Mammy makes. I don’t know how we fit around the small kitchen table when I was a child – Mammy, Daddy, me, my sister, Nana, aunt Cissie, aunt Lillie and uncle Jerry and my three cousins Sean, Declan and Colette, and our uncle Tom. Over the years the cast changed, and my strongest memories of Christmas dinner involve my parents, my sister and my uncle Tom. How we stuffed ourselves on plates stacked high with turkey, ham, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, Brussel sprouts, celery and carrots, bread sauce, stuffing and gravy. It was heaven. It was served on the best plates, only brought out for this one day of the year, in portions big enough to kill a grown man. We always went back for seconds. For dessert we had Christmas pudding or sherry trifle (or both), and somehow there was always a little room for Mammy’s Christmas cake at the end.

Those who could, walked the mile to the graveyard to get some fresh air. Those who couldn’t, loosened the waistband of their trousers and sat in front of the turf fire in the sitting room, watching television. Before long the next round began. Christmas night in our house has always been a crowded noisy affair. My uncles Jimmy and Mike came to visit with their children (all much older than me), and some other relatives. It was time for making and drinking copious amounts of tea, cold turkey, ham and stuffing sandwiches, cake, biscuits and sweets, all while talking, playing cards, and telling stories.

In the small hours of the morning, when most of the guests had returned home, Sean, Declan, Colette, my sister and I would get ready for bed. The boys slept on the sofa-bed in the sitting room, and Colette hopped in with me. It took us a long time to get ready for bed, laughing and messing around, deciding that we still had room for a bag of Tayto or another biscuit from the biscuit tin, while the tired adults washed a mountain of dishes.

Over the years the cast of Christmas changed. We lost some precious family members and gained some others. In the past decade my maternal aunts have played a greater part in our Christmas Day. And through it all, our traditions have evolved gradually, and probably don’t bear much resemblance to the Christmases of my childhood. But in my mind, I like to think that my Christmases are indistinguishable from each other. And in a way they are, because the thing that binds them together is that they are about spending time with the most important people in your life, eating good food together and laughing until your sides ache.

A little reindeer found her way onto Carina!

A little reindeer found her way onto Carina!

This year it feels a little like Ballygibbon Christmas on tour. My cousins Sean and Yvonne are living in Spain now, just a few miles away from Carina, and in a few days, Mammy and Antoinette are flying over from Ireland to join us. Yvonne’s cooking the turkey and Mammy’s home-made Christmas pudding is coming with her on the flight. I think a big Christmas Eve dinner is in order, and a trip to the Almeria Christmas market.

Though we’ll be spending much of Christmas off the boat, the girls and I have spent a lot of time decorating Carina. We’ve strung stars, angels and bells around, together with some decorations I had stowed. We made a Christmas ‘tree’ and this past weekend we made a mountain of cakes and gingerbread biscuits for the little Christmas parties I’m having with my English language students all week.

Only two more days of work and then I’m on holidays. The weekend will see more baking. This is the first year in about ten that I haven’t made Christmas cake, pudding or mince pies. But attempting them on our small on-board oven just seemed to be more trouble than it’s worth. So, instead, I’m attempting tiffin and truffles for the first time, made from my mother-in-law’s recipes. Christmas would seem all wrong without a lot of baking and making.

So my traditions evolve. But at the heart of every Christmas, whether at home in Ballygibbon, in the UK with Julian’s family, in Arviat with the Mains (Hi Martha!), or here in Aguadulce, lies a heady combination of good food and good fun in the companionship of people I love.

A very very happy Christmas to you all.