Contrasts

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Our sleek black greyhound makes a fine contrast against the snowy backdrop of San Isidro ski station. His energetic charging about belies the few white hairs that are already sprouting in his fur.

Last weekend we nipped across the mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica to León. At the top of the mountain pass, just over the border from Asturias, we stopped at San Isidro ski station to have a little play in the snow. (And to give the poor old motor-home’s engine a chance to cool down after the long slog up the windy pass.)

The ski station had long since closed for the season and the contrast between the hot, sunny Saturday in May and the deep blanket of snow that still enveloped the mountain tops provided the perfect physical illustration of the bipolar weather patterns of the last couple of months, as we have flipped back and forwards between spring and winter. Even this high in the mountains, at over 1500 metres above sea level, it is very unusual to see so much snow so late in the year.

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As we mucked about and laughed in the sunshine and snow I also couldn’t help but contrast the day with the last time I had been here. 20th December 2008, I ended the day in the first aid centre, with the ski-station’s doctor attempting, unsuccessfully, to re-place my dislocated elbow and putting a provisional cast on to protect my shattered ulna before sending me on my way to hospital. I eventually made it home on Christmas Eve, with a titanium plate and 7 screws in my forearm and a LOT of very strong painkillers in my bloodstream. It’s really no surprise that I hadn’t been back to San Isidro since.

Despite the involuntary shudder that passed through me when I saw the dreaded torture chamber first aid station and as I spied the exact point on the slope where I had been taken out by a snowboarder, it felt good to be back at the scene of the accident, whole and healthy and happy.

Indeed here I am, some 4 and a half years later, in an entirely different phase of my life but a phase that I may never have reached if it hadn’t been for that disastrous day on the slopes. With an enforced stop to all plans and activities for several months (no surfing, no climbing, no diy, no gardening, no writing, no trips) came an enforced pause for reflection and, with that, some life-changing decisions.

And that’s the thing. Even in our bleakest moments there always exists the seed of as yet unknown joys.

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Jack, born October 2009

The American Resident

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

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Monday Morning Moves

This was how Monday morning was supposed to go: arise refreshed, calmly feed, water and dispatch child to school, hit the gym at opening time (8.30, this is Spain after all), have invigorating workout, return home raring to go and race through lengthy list of tasks. Boom! Take that Monday.

Here’s how Monday morning actually went: arose reasonably refreshed, plonked child in front of his Weetabix while I prepared his mid-morning snack for school, child commented he was feeling dizzy, I dismissed his Monday morning dissembling, child vomited on breakfast table. Arse. Take that Mummy.

So, no school today. And therefore no gym and very little work for me. I am sadly not one of those multi-tasking marvel mothers that taunt my inadequacies you read about in the media. The extent of my multi-tasking this morning has been snuggling the poorly boy in bed and simultaneously fannying on on social media on the ipad. I know. Get me a medal someone.

I rationalize this lack of productivity by telling myself that the continued propagation of the ideal of feminine multi-tasking is plainly anti-feminist.  That, and the fact that I really do perform so much more effectively when I have time and undivided attention to devote to tasks.

Whatever. As I lie here at an incredibly unergonomic angle that I know my neck will pay for later, typing on my laptop, listening to my son’s snuffling sleep breathing and feeling his hand clutching my hair for that extra bit of reassurance that feeling poorly makes necessary, I know that I am privileged to be able to take this time with him. The years where snuggles in bed are demanded will pass all too quickly.

Here’s a little video of the poorly one busting some moves on a happier occasion last weekend to cheer me everyone up on this Monday morning.

Please note: this may seem like a cheap and lazy use of some cute footage of my son on which to hang a blog post. It is. Did I mention he also vomited in my shoe this morning? #heowesme

Welcome to the Jungle

This week we’re back to school after the Easter break. The whole ‘back to school’ thing is still new to us but any pangs of sadness I felt on Monday morning were considerably lessened by the sight of Jack in a big hug with his teacher and then being bundled on top of in a mass hug from his little buddies. If there is that much love, joy and hugs in the classroom then it can’t be all bad. Forget Ofsted reports, for now I’m happy with a simple Hug-o-meter.

That said, I was just thinking how if a film was ever made about our little life here (I’m expecting to hear from Hollywood any day now, obvs 😉 ) then the soundtrack would most likely be some delightful pastoral melodies (think: la-la-la, tinkly, tinkly, tinkly) right up until mid-September last year, when Jack started school. At this point there would be an almightily loud and dissonant scratch and an abrupt dive into ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ Guns and Roses style. (Melodramatic, moi?)

While I had previously expressed my reservations about Jack starting school so young (he wasn’t even 3 until the end of October for heavens’ sake!) I now realise that I actually didn’t have a clue about the impact that school would have on us and our lives. And, no, I don’t just mean the early mornings. Although those still do hurt. (Pathetic, but true.)

Of course in reality I totally suppressed the thought of failed to grasp how hard the initial wrench would be for me: the giving up of absolute control over his environment 24/7. Ok, now I sound like a scary control freak. But I’m not. I’m far too lazy to ever be a control freak, trust me. WAY too much effort. No, I’m just a mother who was used to spending all day with my baby almost every day. Being there to protect him, to feed him  to hold him, to love him. As a result, for the first week or two of school I was a highly-strung, snappy, neurotic wreck tad overwrought.

My state of mind wasn’t helped on Day 2 when, aimlessly wandering up the road seeking diversion from the constant gnawing questions in my mind (‘what will he be doing right now? is he okay? is he scared? is he happy? HAVE I DONE THE RIGHT THING?’), I bumped into my neighbour. Not unusual, nor usually a bad thing. Then she told me that her daughter-in-law had just been called down to the school to take her son to the doctors. Why? Because Jack had poked him in the eye.

FAN-flipping-tastic. Day 2 of school and my son was already a juvenile delinquent having sent someone to hospital. And not just any someone but the much beloved and cosseted son of the Arse-iest Lady in the Village, as I fondly thought of her. And I don’t mean the size of her backside but rather the size of her attitude. By now I was feeling even sicker than I had been before. You know the feeling, that nausea that comes from the constant pressure on your kidneys as adrenalin steadily courses through your system, stopping you from sleeping, eating or being in the least bit reasonable.

It wasn’t a great time for another neighbour to pick to question my refusal to send Jack in the school transport. First, let me clarify. I had always intended to drive him to school myself for the first week or so. The thought of abandoning my tiny boy at a bus stop and sending him off into the unknown on his own at 8.15 one random morning was more than my heart could bear. I also had concerns over safety as I was unhappy about sending him in a car or bus with no car seat. Like I said, he was tiny. I had visions of him, at best, sliding off the seat as the people carrier rounded one of the many tight bends on the hill down to school. Let’s not even go to the ‘at worst’ scenarios.

I didn’t think it was particularly unreasonable of me to want to personally check out the transport provision before consigning my most precious cargo to it. My friend, mother to another school child from the village, thought differently. Pooh-poohing my concerns didn’t make me feel any better about any of it. And when she made the classic statement: ‘But P’s the same age as Jack and his mother is sending him in the taxi without making a big fuss about it,’ I’ll admit I saw red. All that adrenalin coursing through my system and nowhere to go. Until now.

Turns out it’s not all that easy to think of the Spanish for ‘Well if P’s mum jumped off a cliff does that mean I should too?’ off the top of your head when the top of your head is actually blowing steam. I think I got my meaning across pretty thoroughly however, despite garbled grammar, mangled pronunciation and generalised high-pitched, squeaking.

Thankfully my adrenal glands slowed down their fierce pumping action gradually over the next few days, as it became apparent that Jack was adjusting and that the classroom environment was warm and family-like. I loved that the teacher was happy to chat to parents at the start or end of any school day and that dropping him off in the morning I got to spend 5 or ten minutes chatting with her and some other parents at the classroom door and watching the children doing their thing and finding their feet in there. This rather relaxed, informal approach is a luxury that is possible in such a tiny school; with a total of less than 20 children in two classes.

At pick up one afternoon that first week I also had a chat with the taxi driver on the school run and managed to allay my fears in that respect. While the children did normally travel with just lap belts (the top strap of the seatbelt placed behind them) it was totally fine if I wanted to send Jack with a car seat so that he could be strapped in correctly.

And even Arsey Lady managed to surprise me over the eye-poking incident. ‘Bah….war wounds,’ she shrugged….and, Good Lord!, was that the whisper of a smile I saw round the edges of her mouth? Maybe she wasn’t such a battleaxe after all.

But just as my hormonal systems lowered the alert from red to peaceful green all hell broke loose again. This time it was my friend who thought I was making such a big fuss about the car seat. Her and her husband’s beef started off over the location of the bus stop in the village and ended one morning in a stand-up row with another set of parents over which of their children got to sit in the front of the taxi. Seriously.

Turns out that one of the things they ought to warn you about when your child starts school is that any parent can turn bat-shit crazy as over-protective of their young as a jungle big cat at the least provocation. Oh, and if your child happens to be starting school in Spain, whatever you do don’t provoke a parent in the morning. Spanish parents, on the whole, do not appreciate an early start. (Even less than I do, it would appear.)

 

 

 

Straddling Centuries

Yesterday was a fairly typical Asturian Diary day, probably best described as a straddling of centuries (not as painful as it sounds). It started, as is newly customary, with an early morning walk to the bus stop where Jack boards his taxi to school.

Who knew we were on so many flight paths?!

Eager to leech some benefit out of being out and about at this god-forsaken early hour I grabbed my scythe and headed for the fields to do battle with the mattoral (undergrowth) while the cool made it bearable. All very last century but I have to say that (even with my talentless application of it) the scythe is a very effective tool and far more pleasant to use than heavy, noisy machinery.

After a couple of hours of satisfying physical work I dragged my head back to the twenty first century and went inside to do some work online. Before I knew it (certainly well before I’d been arsed to had the chance to clear the breakfast things away) it was time to go pick Jack up.

What should be a ten minute walk home invariably becomes a half hour epic that occasionally stretches into an entire evening. There are blackberries to be picked and eaten and even some grapes outside an abandoned house. There are horses to be talked to. Most of all there are conspiracies to be made. Jack and his buddy spend a large portion of the walk whispering in each other’s ear and making plans to avoid separation at all costs.

Heading off on an adventure

Yesterday his friend was heading off down the fields with his father to collect walnuts. So that was our evening planned for us then. The two boys set off down the track swinging their arms determinedly, both wearing straw hats that A’s granny gave them to protect their little heads from the unseasonably strong sun. I momentarily mused on the possibility of changing Jack’s name to Huck but then shook myself back to reality and the present.

Many fields to cross

We had many fields and orchards to cross before reaching the plantation of young walnut trees. I was conscious of both the distance and the downhill incline as I knew that (as yet) I am no redundant observer in Jack’s adventures – my part would be played later when tiredness would finally be acknowledged and Mum would get to carry the tiny adventurer all the way home for supper, bath and bed.

The shakedown

But first there were walnuts to be collected. In true Asturian tradition the tool for the job was that finest of things, a really long stick. The stick, in its various forms is ubiquitous here. You will never drive past an Asturian walking on a country road who is not in possession of at least one stick. Sights such as tiny, hunched old ladies dragging half a tree trunk behind them are not uncommon. My neighbours’ sage advice to me has been never to waste a walk – you will always pass bits of wood that can be collected for later use, either as kindling or stakes or perhaps for fending off jabali (wild boar). (I may have made that last one up.)

So naturally we had the perfect stick for this particular job already in our possession. A gentle thwacking of the branches encouraged the walnuts to the ground, where we could collect them before other critters got to them first.

With our bags filled it was time for home and, sure enough, Mum got to do a good cardio workout whilst carrying an extra 15 kilos. Who needs the gym, eh?

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Is It Really that Time Already?

The application period for admission into state schools is now open here in Asturias. It’s a snappy 10 days, 10th-20th April, so there’s no time to hang about if, like me, you’re planning to pack your little darling off to school here for the first time come September.

The Spanish government currently offers each child a place in school in the autumn of the year in which they turn 3. It is not actually compulsory to start in formal education until the age of 6 but most parents do take up the offer at the earliest opportunity. Apart from anything else, on a practical level, for working parents, it’s good, free childcare.

It’s a very generous provision, especially when you consider that children from rural areas are also provided with free transport and, in many schools, cooked lunches. Given the current economic situation here and with more cutbacks scheduled to be announced this week, one must wonder how long the Spanish government will continue to foot this particular bill. Already, cuts in nursery places have been announced.

But for now anyway, the admissions applications are being accepted and we’ve already collected our form to fill in and gathered all the requisite accompanying paperwork. All that remains to be done is some photocopying and the purchase of 2 passport sized photos of the would-be pupil. Oh, and some long, drawn-out parental soul-searching.

If Jack is to start school this year, he will be doing so two months before his third birthday. I mean, that’s clearly too young to be starting school, right? That’s practically still a baby. And good luck to anyone who thinks they can get him to sit still for hours on end. Or rather, no, bad luck to them. He is a vibrant bundle of energy that I really just don’t want to see tamed (for the sake of taming) too young.

Having said all that, while the under sixes may be starting at school they are not starting in ‘primaria’. They have their own ‘infantil’ (kindergarten/nursery) teacher and their days are much more play based and less rigidly structured. There is quite probably less ‘taming’ being practiced than I fear.

The school itself is small, with 15 pupils and 2 full time teachers (plus visiting teachers in English, music and P.E. – pretty amazing really!) and Jack already knows a lot of the children. Plus his three best buddies from the village here will all be there – Pelayo will be starting at the same time as him, while Cova and Alberto will be going into their first year of primaria – big kids already.

All of this should make the transition easier for him and, crucially, desired on his part. He is a hugely sociable little boy who just adores being with other children and really enjoys his current two days a week at nursery.

I guess the bottom line is that I still can’t help feeling a (not so) little pang at the thought of it all. Must remember, I’ve only got to hand the application over by the 20th of this month – not my child.

Mother’s Day

My mother died when I was eight years old. For many years after, Mother’s Day was just a cruel and painful reminder of what I had lost and of how I was different from my friends at school. In later years the date just failed to register at all with me. Now I have a son of my own and Mother’s Day has come back into my life – and I feel closer to my own mother than ever before.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in the UK and Ireland and the lovely Bibsey Mama has tagged me in this Mother’s Day meme. (Poor woman had no idea what a can of worms she was opening!)

Describe Motherhood in three words

Fulfilling, overwhelming, joyful.

Does your experience differ from your Mother’s – how?

Our experiences are surprisingly similar in many ways and in others almost completely opposite. We both took our time settling down, both waiting until into our thirties. My mum had her first child at 35 and me, her third, at 42. I had my son at 38.

My mother was an ex-pat too – from Ireland and living in the UK, in Gloucestershire. Raising her three daughters bi-culturally was a big deal for her. One of my earliest memories is my mum teaching me how to say dolly in Irish. After she died we moved back to Ireland and I later became captain of the school Irish debating team – she would have been proud.

Now I fully understand what a strange feeling it is to watch your children growing up with a different accent/language, culture and background from you. You wonder if they’ll somehow leave you behind and forget about you or where they came from back down the line. You wonder if in time you and your ways will seem alien to them. You wonder if they’ll somehow judge you and your differences as they become more and more absorbed into a culture, which however well you manage to integrate yourself into will always, ultimately be foreign to you.

My parents ex-pattery was different from ours, however. They were in the UK to work and raise their standard of living. My father built up a successful business and worked hard with long hours. We, by contrast, came here to downsize – to work less, earn less but have more time, to return to a simpler way of life. It’s as if I’m retracing their footsteps backwards in time.

What’s the hardest thing about being a mum?

The gnawing fear that you might just be making a terrible job of it! That and the incessant nature of it – the lack of time and breathing space can push you to the edge sometimes.

What’s the best thing?
Watching my little boy’s personality develop and shine and seeing him develop into a happy and confident boy. I am a far from perfect mother but I know that he knows he is 100% loved and I know how long and how far that simple knowledge from early childhood can sustain you.

Well, that, and cuddles and tickles together which just me smile more broadly than I ever have.

How has it changed you?

Radically. It’s softened me and opened me up. It’s made me more focussed and more motivated – I truly want to be the best I can be for the sake of my little boy. I’m not saying I’m getting anywhere close but at least I’m trying and that in itself makes me happier! But that’s the biggest change overall – I’m simply happier.

What do you hope for your children?

That he be happy and confident. With that he will be equipped to make what he wants of his life.

What do you fear for them?

The usual unspoken fears that place a cold claw around the base of your spine if you dare even contemplate them. But you know what? I don’t even want to give them space in here.

What makes it all worthwhile?
The fact that it’s simply the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I think I’m a bit late to be tagging anyone else so instead I’ll just say Happy Mother’s Day one and all – and especially to all those who have lost their mothers. They may be gone but they’ll never be forgotten.

Springtime

Richie is away for a fortnight and I’m determined that Jack and I will have an extra-lovely time together to compensate for Daddy’s absence. Of course I’m delighted to have an excuse to put all non-essential chores on hold and devote myself entirely to playing. (Not that the lack of an excuse has ever stopped me.) Even so, as time wears on, Jack’s really starting to miss his Daddy. I know this not just because of my finely attuned motherly intuition but also because he has taken to regularly yelling out ‘I want my Daddy.’ Bless.

Tantrums have also become more frequent and easily provoked and he has developed a slight Tourette’s style tic – calling out ‘Daddy’ inappropriately at intervals. Poor wee mite. I think he’s experiencing a bereavement in miniature. Being too young to grasp the concept of time and days he is starting to doubt my reassurances and to give up all hope of his father returning at all.

So it’s been all about Occupy Bubster this last little while. Luckily we are being blessed with some beautiful spring weather allowing us to play outside all day every day. Sure beats trying to occupy a boisterous toddler indoors – there’s only so many times this mama can race around the sofa before starting to feel quite literally sick and tired.

We start most days off with a spot of football in the road outside (yes, it is that quiet here). I’m keen to enjoy these precious years with him – the years when he actually thinks I have impressive ball skills. It’s a great feeling being gazed at in awe as I kick a ball against the wall. (On a side note, it says a lot about my singing that already he tells me ‘no mummy, no singing’ as soon as I open my mouth for a rendition of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.)

Another effect of the glorious spring weather is that all the neighbours are taking to their huertas (vegetable plots) to till and sow. I feel shamed into inspired to seize the moment and do the same while conditions are optimum. It will be the perfect mother-son activity, I think. I picture myself as a young Felicity Kendal in The Good Life, toiling in the soil in dreamy soft focus. Jack will be gambolling lamblike in the grass and learning at my elbow as he apes my work with his bucket and spade. By the time Richie returns I will surely have planted enough veg to put us well on our way to self-sufficiency this year. I am nothing if not optimistic.

Local gardening gear -a hoe and madrenas (Asturian clogs)left at the entrance to my neighbour's huerta

The reality is somewhat different. By the time we even reach the veg plot I am already hot, sweaty and bothered. It is 50 metres from the house, which may not sound like much but in toddler miles it can be very far indeed. It takes us nearly 20 minutes to cover the distance on the first morning. I am laden with an impressive array of gardening tools and toys and also, by the end, am balancing Jack on my shoulders as I tire of waiting for the distractable monkey to make it under his own steam.

Within seconds of our arrival Jack has found some nettles. Wails echo round the valley (the acoustics here on the hilltop are amazing.) We sit and cuddle a while in the long grass. Finally I set to weeding some of the fruit bushes, a suitably unambitious first task, and Jack gets stuck in alongside me with his mini-fork and spade. He is mainly replanting the weeds I have just removed but I comfort myself with the thought that at least the soil is getting a good turning over.

A rather lovely workspace with excellent acoustics!

I cling to this thought at various points throughout the morning – particularly as Jack follows behind me digging up all the delicate seedlings I am planting out. I used to find gardening a wonderfully zenlike escape, the pure earthy physicality of it stilling my mind into silence. Today my mind is racing, searching for ways to entertain Jack, new ‘jobs’ to give him,  ergonomic ways to detach him from his new default position of hanging from my neck as I dig and always, always, keeping an eye for the various hazards that he is invariably attracted to. Relaxing it is not. Nor is it particularly productive. I gaze with envy at the patchwork of well-tended huertas that surround us.

I think I’d better reconcile myself to the idea that another year will go past without a grand harvest of organic veg. I would dearly love to be able to feed our family on exclusively home-grown, contaminant free food. I have a real belief in the benefits of organic production – when I was living in the UK and earning good money I used to spend a small fortune on eating almost entirely organic produce. But times have changed.

Now I am a stay-at-home mum with a partner who only works part-time (all our own choice), we can’t afford to pay the exorbitant supermarket prices for ‘ecologico’ foodstuffs. Being a full time mum to a toddler who demands (and deserves) my full attention, nor can I afford the time to produce a massive harvest.

Jack may not have an entirely ‘pure’ organic diet but he is nourished with much love and attention as well as home-cooked food. The hours we have spent in the garden this week may have made little impact on the vegetable plot but they have been hours that we spent together in the fresh air, playing with mud, learning and having fun. Any vegetable harvest will be a bonus.

If there is one lesson to be learned from growing vegetables it is that you must act appropriately at the right time. There is a season to everything. Soon enough Jack will be starting in school and I will have many uninterrupted hours in the week to dedicate to other things. For now, I must be satisfied with bumbling along inefficiently but (mostly) merrily, dabbling in tasks when I can.

And at this precise moment in time, my focus is on simply making it through to Richie’s return. Roll on Saturday!