Some time has passed. During this online pause, life has been happening. Here are some of our stories…
We stayed a few months with my dad in my childhood home in Liverpool at the end of our travelling year. When I first left my home, bound for Glasgow at twenty one, I felt sure I’d never feel enthusiastic about the place again. The idea of being ‘back there’ in the place I’d grown up had felt uncomfortably retrogressive. Maybe it’s the simple fact of being older and having different values now but this time around I found that there was a satisfying circularity to having my children sleep in my old bedroom, and the sounds of my night-owl dad shuffling around after midnight fixing himself a whisky and raiding his cake cupboard were familiar and comforting. I was able to see my family often and in a casual, popping-round-for-a-cuppa sort of way, which is something I’ve rarely been able to do.
Then, in March, we packed up a load of our stuff (gathering boxes and furniture from friends’ and relations attics and cellars) and drove back to Catalonia in convoy: one new-to-us van, one battered old Honda CRV, two adults, two children and two overloaded trailers. This ‘new’ van is much smaller than the last and as the boys are bigger every day, this resulted in much frustrated shuffling about and banging of heads. Only one person can stand up at any one time so each morning we played musical beds while dressing, eating and brushing teeth. We missed the space and luxury of our old van, Colin.The journey back to Ginestar was slow and steady, it took six days but we survived.
Once back at Finca Slow we parked amongst Dan and Johanna’s olive trees, rolled out a rug and put up our ancient old table. I bought a cheap red geranium from the local supermarket and we hung paraffin lamps from the trees. In this way we made a camp; a temporary home of van, mat, table and plant. The evenings were golden and the mornings bright and sharp. The Tramuntana wind blew often and ferociously, making life outside feel challenging at times. Our evening meals were regularly eaten amidst crazy gale-force winds – dust swirling about us, hair whipping our faces -the frantic bending and shaking of olive trees drowning out our over-dinner chat.
We remained in our camp while we worked to make the casita ready for moving into. We continued cobbing the walls and Rob wheeled endless barrowloads of rocks and earth to make a floor. We put in some furniture and our hovel started to feel ready for habitation. Easter came around and brought egg hunts and coloured paper garlands hanging from the olive branches. The golden sunsets were a daily gift as we worked to get the measure of this new place and these new people. Rob and I found it hard to get out of bed in the mornings. I guess we were exhausted and maybe in shock.
In the midst of this already unsettled time and having only been in Catalonia for a couple of weeks, I left my family to go on a six day Dark Mountain retreat in the Garrotxa mountains. To get up the courage to leave the boys for longer than I ever had and hang out with a bunch of strangers up a mountain took an enormous effort of will. I really didn’t want to go. But, as I’ve been a lover of the ideas and heart behind this movement for a while now, I felt it would be foolish to let fear get in the way. I will always be grateful to myself for being brave enough to go for it; it was a magical, heart-opening, heart-breaking, roller-coaster of an adventure. I came back renewed. Perhaps another day I’ll get around to writing about some of it (but don’t hold your breath).
On my return to Finca Slow we moved into the casita. The first night was like a fairy tale. Something about its darkness and stillness felt ancient and safe. With the gentle glow of candles and paraffin lamps instead of the glare of electrically powered lights, the house seemed timeless. I thought about the three families that had hidden together in that tiny dark space during the Spanish civil war and wondered how many generations had used this simple stone shack while they tended their olives.
We found that there was no insulation against the cold. The wind in the evenings blew in through the gaps and holes in the door and ceiling but because of these various perforations, we could clearly hear the noises of the campo (the countryside) all around us. One night we were woken by an otherworldy shrieking and groggily staggered up to find an owl sitting on the tree right outside our door. So loud and urgent was its cry, I felt like we were being called upon by some spirit creature from the underworld but not understanding its message we just stared dumbly. Eventually, giving up on us, it flew off into the darkness; disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived.
Unfortunately, the noises of the campo were not content to remain outside. We soon became aware of various rodents and geckos living right alongside us in the house. Within our first week, whilst settling down one evening, poor Eli got peed on by a rat. The ‘ceiling’ was really just made up of woven rattan panels directly below the ceramic pots that make up the roof. The space between is an ideal home for all sorts of creatures and our living space was their toilet below. Many sleepless evenings passed listening to furry and scaly critters running about above our heads. In frustration, and largely in vain, we banged about each evening trying to encourage our room mates to move elsewhere. I took to wearing earplugs to get to sleep. Our cobbed walls started to shed and chunks of mud began to crumble away and fall onto our floor; earth returning to earth.
With no running water we had to draw our water from the cisterna behind the house. Hauling up buckets up from the cool dark depths of the water tank, I felt strong and rural. I washed our clothes and sheets by hand in a tin bath, resenting the faff of it all initially but gradually learning to love the time I spent sitting on that little stool rubbing fabric against fabric. I was focused and involved completely with my labour. When I finally had the laundry on the line, the sense of satisfaction – pride even – was greater than I have ever felt for any machine washed load.
July came and we readied ourselves to return to the UK for my dad’s eightieth birthday party and time with friends and family. Again, we travelled in our little van and inched our way through France over the course of a week. Despite my usual incompetence with anything organisational, along with my brother and our partners (and the support of many others!) we managed to plan and execute a suitably jolly shindig for my sprightly dad. Much whisky was drunk (mainly by him) and much dancing was done (mainly by him). We hired a fantastic rock and roll band and made enough food for half of Liverpool. We were told by some that it was the best party they’d ever been to. Then disaster struck. The rope swing that Eli was playing on snapped, and he fell and banged his head.
Initially, although he was clearly concussed, we had no idea how badly he’d been hurt. He was taken to hospital by ambulance and treated for concussion, that is, they let him sleep and ‘kept an eye on him’. Much later, after a scan, it was discovered that he’d fractured his skull and had a ‘significant’ internal bleed that was squashing his brain. There is so much that I could write about the pain and horror of those hours before he was finally taken to surgery but this doesn’t feel like the moment to write it. Miraculously, an amazing man called Chris Parks took my son, cut a hole in his skull, scooped out the blood clot and saved his life.
Again, there is so much I could write here about gratitude, perspective, joy and the piercingly painful and simultaneously wonderful sensation of realising just how precious and fragile life is, and just how much crystallised, concentrated love resides in the bond with our children; but I’m not ready yet, I don’t think, to articulate it adequately. I probably never will be.
Suffice to say, we are changed. The intensity of the experience has passed but life is altered in subtle ways. I feel beyond lucky to have our boy still with us, and I think often about all those who experience the loss of their children. I particularly think of the poorest in the world, to whom loss and grief is a regular visitor; where a decent meal is as much a fantasy as a CAT scan or a superhero neurosurgeon.
We’re back in Spain now and we’re no longer in our mud hut. Our dreams of land have magically come true thanks to Rob’s mum and stepdad deciding they like it here too and buying a finca (a piece of farmland). This finca has a cute little casita with rendered walls and even a flushing toilet. It comes also with eight acres of olive and almond farm which we have been given responsibility for tending. It’s a daunting but hugely exciting prospect and we’re up for the challenge. Just now we’re helping Pam and Colin to get their casita up to holiday home standards. When they are not living here we’ll hopefully be able to rent out the little house to those looking for a bit of rural sanctuary. Rob, the kids and I will be living in a yurt and trying to manage that land with love and care. There’ll be bits of permaculture, regenerative homesteading, holistic land management and all those fancy termed things but for now I’ll call it ‘gardening’, just on a bigger scale. I’m hoping that through this blog I can connect with all those that have an interest in such things and I’d be really grateful for any advice and help that people can give. I’m looking forward to sharing it all.
*Finca Slow is a beautiful regenerative homestead in Catalonia where Dan and Johanna are working to heal the land and live harmoniously with nature. They offer camping in luxury bell tents, online bread making courses and much more. Check out their website here
*Dark Mountain is ‘a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.’ They produce beautifully bound art and literature journals twice a year that deal with the questions raised by environmental catastrophe. They contain stories, essays, poems and visual art. You can find their website here
*The band that we hired for dad’s birthday were absolutely amazing. If you’re having a party in the north of England and want a rock and roll band that can really get people up on their feet, you can find them here
*Rob and I are really grateful to Alder Hey Hospital and have already raised a bit of money for them to carry on their incredible, life-saving work. If you would like to make a contribution, you can do that here and Rob will be doing more for them next year.
*I will hopefully be doing some fundraising for specific projects working with mothers and children in Sierra Leone, a region that has the highest child mortality rates in the world, but in the meantime these charities are generally involved in working to improve life there: Plan International, Concern, and Action Aid – you can click on the links and donate directly