Pastures New

Just a note here to let you know that ‘Things We Found Along the Way’ has moved. I am now hosting it myself on my new website so you will have to head over there to see my latest post. I haven’t figured out how to have email followers on there yet but I will. and then I will let you know how to be one (again). Here’s my new address:
See you there!


The Big Five

I always get a bit perplexed when people ask me for relationship advice. I mean, what would I know? I never really did any dating (not even quite sure I understand how that works), know nothing about casual relationships (don’t get that at all, either we’re crazy about each other or we’re not, in which case go away) and I’m not experienced enough to know much about marriage. And yet people have told me that by some miracle I have been able, on occasion, to give good advice. Maybe that’s simply because I’m interested, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it both for myself and for people I care about. I don’t make any claims to being an expert, I really don’t. The most I can say is that I have lived with someone for thirteen years and we haven’t managed to kill each other yet.

So, what is the secret to a happy, lasting relationship? I have seen a lot of strong relationships and no two are the same, so maybe there isn’t one thing that makes the difference, just as I’m pretty sure there isn’t that one soulmate out there for all of us. However, as our fifth anniversary approaches, and by way of marking the occasion, I am going to note down my musings on the subject, just so that everybody who knows about all this much better than I do can smile at my charming ignorance, and wait for the day when it all goes horribly wrong.

1. A Fine Romance
How important is romance to the success of a marriage? In my opinion, not very. Heidi Klum and Seal are proof of that. I love celebrity gossip, I’m a glutton for it. I have had OK, Heat and Hello magazine posted out to every corner of the world as regularly as possible for the last five years just so I can keep up with what’s happening (thanks Dad) and so the marriage of Heidi Klum and Seal has been on my radar for a while. We were always being shown pictures of them blissfully draped over each other, cuddling happy children and beaming on a beach having just renewed their wedding vows. They do this every year on their anniversary – they throw a big party, get all dressed up and stand up in front of everyone they know and declare undying love for each all over again. Romantic, right? Except they’re now dragging each other through the divorce court. So somewhere behind all that front, all those hearts and flowers, there were some pretty serious problems.

That’s the thing with romantic gestures, often they are just that – a gesture. And I’m not saying that romantic relationships are not lasting relationships as often, of course, they are, but all I’m saying is that it’s not a dealbreaker. In the long run it doesn’t actually make too much difference if it’s there or it’s not. But that could just be my bitterness talking – I mean, I am married to The Least Romantic Man in History. The man who doesn’t buy me cut flowers because ‘they just die’, and who chose a particular style of engagement ring based on the fact that ‘it wouldn’t snag on jumpers’. But the thing is, I do agree with his reasoning in these matters, and I can’t claim to be very good at romance myself. In any case, a lot of our story as a couple has been extremely romantic (albeit unintentionally) and, to give him his due, he has had a few little stabs at romance (piece of tanzanite for my thirtieth birthday anyone? New years’ proposal on a windswept Northumberland beach?) and on these rare occasions I have been all the more bowled over simply because it is rare and unexpected. One thing I really appreciate about his lack of romantic gestures is that, from what I’ve heard, a lot of them involve surprises, and I hate, TRULY HATE, being surprised. He knows this about me and so therefore doesn’t do it. In some ways someone having that insight about you is the most romantic thing of all.

2. Friends
Now this IS a dealbreaker. No-one should even consider marrying someone they wouldn’t be friends with. You should enjoy the simple act of hanging out together; after all, that’s what you’re going to be doing for THE REST OF YOUR LIVES. I’ve actually heard people saying on more than one occasion – “I love So-and-so, I just don’t like him very much.” There’s only one answer to this – “Tell So-and-so to get stepping, because the things that drive you nuts about him now are only going to drive you more nuts down the line.” Enjoying doing things together, good communication, honesty, having some shared interests – these are the building blocks of any friendship, and certainly should be of the uber-friendship that is a marriage.

Most of all though – laughter. Most good friends laugh together a lot, and so do most happily married couples. After all, a lot of life is silly and ridiculous and laughable, especially when you’re raising kids, and sometimes if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. Oh but laughing is so much more fun, and I love how much I laugh these days, even when I shouldn’t. A case in point being the other morning when H fell up the stairs, removing part of a banister and splitting his toenail in the process. OK, it doesn’t sound that funny now I’ve written it down, but the girls and I (and even the victim) were in creases. I guess you had to be there.

3. Walking on Sunshine?
Your relationship should be one of the best things that ever happened to you, sure, but it is unrealistic to believe that you’re going to float through life in a pink bubble of happiness. Of course you’re not, nobody does; there are tough times for everyone in this world. What is important in a marriage is that you stick together even when life isn’t the proverbial cherry bowl. And in some ways making it through something together actually strengthens your bond. When you find yourself in stormy waters, the extreme stress can threaten to tear you apart, but if you hold fast, and haul each other up out of the freezing waves, you can feel proud that you made it through together, that you were truly tested, and that you passed. After all, that’s the only way to feel sure that you can face whatever else may lie ahead.

And will you always feel as lovesick as a pair of teenagers? Probably not. There are ebbs and flows to a marriage – times when you’re more Al and Peg Bundy than Tom and Barbara Goode – but I think as long as you’re still friends, you’ll know the next episode of The Good Life is probably just about to start.

4. We’re All Part of the Masterplan
Having the same ideas about where you want to steer this ship of life is completely and utterly essential. If your dreams are completely different, how are you going to pull together to make them a reality? If one of you dreams of having a view of the Manhattan skyline and the other one wants to herd yaks on the Russian Steppe, one of two things is likely to happen: either one of you will end up having to sacrifice your dream, or you’ll end up apart.

One thing really baffles me though – how can anyone end up in a relationship with someone when one of them wants to have kids and the other doesn’t? I may reveal myself to be something of a bunny boiler here, but I have always managed to introduce this topic of conversation pretty early on in a relationship. I think everyone should have this discussion, and others about what your goals are, right away – after all, there’s really no point in getting involved with someone if you’re not headed in the same general direction.

5. Anything You Can Do, I Can’t Do Better
Any effective team utilises the strengths of its members to become greater than the sum of its parts, and this is equally true of a marriage. For example, in my marriage, I’m Head of Communications (I should add that I have a few other titles as well but this is the one I’m most proud of). My husband doesn’t believe in sending emails you see. Some of his friends wouldn’t be sure from year to year whether he was still alive if it weren’t for the sporadic photographic evidence on Facebook. Should they ever need to get in touch with him they do so through me since I, unlike him, actually reply. Unfortunately this seems to be a family trait – the only communication H and his brother have done in the last five years has been effected through me and his brother’s girlfriend, with whom I communicate every few days.

The same goes for the telephone. Should anyone call, the phone is generally hastily thrust in my direction, more often than not because the person on the other end is speaking Spanish, and translation comes under my remit. Congratulations on your wedding, new baby welcomes, condolences – look no further, this is all in my job description.

And this is totally fine, because I’ll admit this definitely suits my skill set, and there are many, many things that H handles that I would be likely to fail at (driving, anything involving money, DIY – yes, that’s right, it’s still 1957 chez Davies).

So that’s my big five, the top five ingredients for a marriage that has the potential to go the distance. But even if you have all these great building blocks going into it, it’s still unlikely to be all plain sailing. Sometimes it feels like you’re suffering with the same frustrations over and over again, and this is probably because you are. The best thing I’ve learned in the past 13 years is that the quicker you realise what you are unlikely to be able to change about your partner and learn to love (or at least live with) it the happier you will be. And one of the things I’ve had to learn to love (live with) about H is a real classic and may be a universal truth. Now listen I’m not a big exponent of the whole Men are from Mars thing – I hate the whole idea of stereotypes – but there are truly are certain differences between men and women. H, like all men, thinks the correct response to being told about a problem is to try and solve it. Most men reading this are probably thinking – yes, of course, what’s wrong with that? What most men don’t realise is that us women like to just be able to talk through our issues just so that through sharing them, through vocalising them, we are able to figure out what we feel about them. Men hate this. They hate it. They just want to get it sorted ASAP, and move on. And after ending up arguing about this more times than I can count, we finally figured this out. We’re just different. And listen, sometimes what I need is a problem solver; sometimes what I really need is to cut the crap and get it sorted. When that isn’t what I want I chat to a female friend.

We didn’t write our own wedding vows. It seemed an impossible task when we’d never been married before and therefore really had no idea what it was all about. Now, even though it’s only been five years, I think I could have a go. Maybe if one day we get round to renewing our vows, like Heidi Klum and Seal (maybe not), they could go something like this:

“I do solemnly promise to be your best friend. I will know you; I will understand things about you that no-one else does. I promise always to talk to you, to tell you the truth about you and about me. I promise to challenge you when I don’t agree with what you’re doing or thinking. I promise to push you to be the best person you can be. I promise to make plans with you, to always be excited about our future, to believe that there is nothing we cannot achieve together. I will take you on adventures. I will make you laugh. I promise to keep you guessing. I promise to enjoy life just as much as you do. I promise to be a tender, enthusiastic, loving parent; to feel as passionately about our children and our family life as you do. I promise to share the work, to work better as a team than we do alone. I will make you proud, and will be proud of you. When things go wrong, I promise to be there; we’ll get through the hard times and smile again. I won’t expect you to be perfect or to always know what to say or do. I will never let you down. I promise to remember every day how lucky and glad I am to have you in my life…

…even when you’re driving me nuts.”

That last bit is an optional codicil.

So since I’ll be eleven thousand miles away on the day, I will get in a little early and say thanks to my best friend in the world for a hilariously funny, thoroughly unromantic, sometimes tough, but always amazing first five years of marriage. Here’s to many, many more.

Make Mine Irish

Well, as I sit here writing this it’s St Patricks Day and I intend to follow my usual St Paddy’s tradition of NOT going out and NOT getting crushed in a rammed pub while failing to order a pint of Guinness from a harried barmaid. But in any case, St Patrick’s Day isn’t the subject of this post.

Neither is my inspiration for this post my own small claim to Irishness – my Meath-born late maternal grandmother Nel – whose birthday it would have been today, and who I still miss.

No, instead my subject on this most of Irish of days is the phenomenon of Irish Twins. Now, contrary to popular belief I am NOT the parent of a pair of Irish Twins, since these are officially defined as two siblings not from the same gestation but born within a calendar year. No, I fall almost two months short of having hit that particular target, but since I’m close enough, I’m going to exploit this catch-all term to my own ends. I doubt anyone is in the dark as to how the phenomenon of Irish Twins got its name (Irish immigrants with Catholic ideals in regard to contraception inspired the coining of the term in the 1800s) and I am aware that it has plenty of derogatory and negative connotations and for this reason is not generally used in polite society. But here I am using it, and let me tell you why: I am a HUGE fan of Irish Twins. So hopefully anyone who may be offended can rest assured that I’m not Paddy-bashing and will relax while I tell you why having two kids a year apart is the best thing I ever did.

“Son gemelas?” (Are they twins?). It’s a question I get asked (accompanied by a puzzled, vacillating, quizzical expression and a tentative pre-emptory shake of the head) probably in the region of 8-10 times a week by perfect strangers in the street, the supermarket or wherever else my pretty little trotting toddlers catch someone’s eye. To which I respond with a shake of the head and a self-deprecating laugh that I have now had years to perfect, and over the next few seconds the stranger and I have a funny little conversation mostly conducted through shrugs, the gist of which is that I’ve got my work cut out for me and must be a little bit nuts, and that they’re pretty glad they’re not me. I’ve got used to this now. This is the general feeling people have when they spot me grappling with a two year old while yelling at a three year old who is about to disappear through the crowd, or having a lengthy debate with them both as they break down in tears over who gets to hold my right hand when my left is right there available but inexplicably not acceptable. People think: Phew, I’m glad I’m not her. And sometimes I wish I wasn’t her too.

But I got myself into this situation, didn’t I? One other question people like to ask me is whether I let this happen on purpose. And the not so simple answer is yes and no. To be honest I hadn’t even thought about when I would have another child until I was standing there staring at a positive pregnancy test. But the one thing I had already thought about was IF I would have another child. I definitely and without a shadow of a doubt knew that I wanted more than one. So perhaps that’s the reason that when I found myself accidentally pregnant again while still a relatively new mum, I wasn’t as panicked as maybe I should have been. I was too busy being delighted.

The reason I knew I wanted more than one probably had a lot to do with my own childhood. It’s funny that the sibling setup I have presented to my children is pretty much the polar opposite of my own. I have three brothers, but they are separated from me by gaps of eight years, sixteen years and eighteen years. I definitely grew up with my big brother, but I was already an adult before my younger brothers were even born. So, even though I do adore them, and actually feel very connected to them as people, we weren’t playmates simply by virtue of the fact that we weren’t really contemporaries. Officially, I’m not even in the same generation as any of them. And, even though there were definite advantages to this situation (I was never compared to anyone, I didn’t get wound up a lot and I had the chance to develop strong one-on-one relationships with both my parents) I guess sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have a playmate my own age, to share the experience of childhood with more closely, to have someone to turn to and say: What did YOU make of that? In fact, the closest I came to having a close-in-age sibling wasn’t even a blood relative, but actually the son of my mum’s best friend who I ended up spending a lot of my childhood with and who is about two and a half years my junior (so, yeah, pretty much exactly the age my fictional little brother would be). And I valued his easy companionship, his undemanding company, the ability to have fun without the complications of my other friendships.

So I wanted the best things about my relationships with my real and fictional siblings for my own children. I wanted them to be able to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of childhood with a shipmate, a co-captain. And what’s more, once I knew Nyika’s little shipmate was on the way I realised there was something else…. I wanted her to have a sister.

I have been able to bask in the reflected warmth of a lot of great sister relationships – my mum and her sister, my two favourite cousins, two of my best friends from school (who happen to be twins) to name but a few. In all the time I’ve known these amazing sister acts I have wondered what it must be like to have such a close female contemporary to turn to, what it must be like to know they are always going to tell you the truth even when it’s not what you want to hear. The thing is I’m just guessing here, I haven’t got a sister remember, so maybe this is an idealised version of how it really is. I know that sisters can drive each other nuts too (believe me, I have now witnessed that first hand), but it always seems to me that, in the end, it’s worth it.

So here was me, excited about the lovely little sister I was about to present my child with. But once it came down to it and we took our one year old and our newborn home, reality hit. We were LOST, utterly LOST under a sea of nappies and burp cloths and sippy cups and pureed carrot for months and months, maybe even for the best part of a year. We might as well have had twelve babies at that point for all the rest or respite it was possible to get, and what’s worse, I felt guilty. Sometimes I looked at Nyika and it struck me just how young she was – barely walking, not yet talking, barely old enough to even hold a spoon – and here I had given myself a helpless newborn to sap my energy and time and concentration completely away from her. I had done a horrible, horrible thing and deprived her of my attention, just when she needed me most. But then I realised that the only person thinking these things was me. Nyika really didn’t mind at all; I’m not even sure she noticed that anything much had changed. She went along just as usual, and even learned things quicker and became more independent than she might have done had her sister not arrived when she did. This is one of the main advantages with having two so close – the whole politics of introducing a new sibling into the family just doesn’t need to be considered, a one year old just hasn’t had the time to build up the expectations and complex emotional responses that a two or three year old has, so they just accept the things that come along and work with them.

And in the end, just like everyone said it would, it got easier. You see, those same people who were busy being glad they weren’t me, would also often say things like: Even though it’s hard now, after a while it’ll be easier than having one. And it’s true. These days, in between the times when they are battling for position on my lap or inflicting lasting scars on each other with their teeth, magical things happen. Sometimes I sit and drink an undisturbed cup of tea while they play together in the garden. Sometimes we get to lie in until after six o clock while they chat and giggle together in their bedroom. And I love the way they turn every walk to and from school into a landscape of adventure – the flowers they always smell, the walls they always walk along, the driveways they like to run down, the holes they check for spiders – and I know I could never have thought of these things. It comes down to this: no-one knows what’s fun for a kid better than another kid the same age.

A while ago I seemingly told Nyika that I made her sister especially for her, as a gift. I don’t remember saying it, but she does, and she repeats it often. And the more time goes on the harder it gets to deny that she IS a gift. Nyika adores her. The other day she said: “Thanks for making me a sister with such a beautiful face, Mum, I love looking at her face,” as she traced the line of her chin with the tip of a tender finger. And aside from being beautiful, Cielo is such good fun; she makes Nyika laugh several times every day and the only way to get them to go to bed most nights (because they are having such a good time playing in the bedroom) is to separate them, at which point they will both weep bitterly. And Nyika has risen to the role of big sister better than anyone could have imagined. The way she takes her sister’s hand when she quails under the weight of expectation during her turn at the piñata, the way she slides an arm around her neck and introduces her to pals at the school gates with such pride, the way she will wrestle toys back off anyone who tries to take them from her sister, in short the way they are THERE for each other through it all, is so exactly what I had in mind when I wished this little sibling into existence for my precious girl.

Now, look I don’t know what it’s like to BE an Irish Twin, so who knows what my girls will think of it all once they’re grown. Maybe they’ll think it was awful to have a sibling right on top of them, right there in the same bedroom and in the year below at school, cramping their style and wanting the same toys (maybe even boys!) as them, always being compared to each other (though it is something we’ll make an effort to avoid). All I can tell you is how it is to be a parent to siblings like this, and it’s a joy. For all the times they are screaming and squabbling and winding each other up (Cielo sure does love to press Nyika’s buttons), it’s all worth it when I go in to check on them in the night, only to find that one has crept into the other’s bed and they are curled together like a pair of speech marks, peaceful and smiling in their sleep. I hope that if nothing else, having each other as a constant, as someone to hold onto on the shifting sands of this life of ours, will be a gift they’re always glad we gave them.

Life is a Rollercoaster

Somewhere amongst these toddlers, there's me.

Only a woman who has had a baby can truly understand the meaning of the affliction known as Baby Brain, can truly appreciate the harmful effects of years of consecutive sleepless nights, of having your entire consciousness filled with the wants and desires of a needy little person to the extent that you never finish a thought, let alone a sentence and… what was I saying again?

Anyway, now that those initial crazy days are in our past and we have a three year old and a two year old who (halleluiah) sleep through the night most nights, occasionally play nicely together in their room or in the garden, and even go to kinder a couple of mornings a week, I have begun to find my brain showing signs of life. It turns out that, after all, it can do things other than stew carrots and boil-wash nappies.

I recently did a couple of weeks of translation work, covering a friend’s maternity. It really was the first time I had used my mind in any way for years, and I was a little nervous initially as to whether I was up to the challenge. I also wondered if I really had the time in my schedule to get it done. And, while there were moments when I could feel the cold dread of failure creeping up my neck, or the girls were getting up early from their naps and I was screaming inside (or outside) because I was sure I was going to miss my deadline, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. It was almost like waking up from a dream. I was rusty, no doubt about it; at the outset I found I had to sit at the table in total silence, to concentrate so hard that I was mostly in a light sweat and jigging my legs frantically under the table. As the week wore on I regained the ability (now proving crucial) to tune out surrounding noise and focus easily on the task in hand. But the best part was learning again – learning new words and phrases in Spanish, and even learning from the content of the work itself (business news in the Central American region). I suddenly had interesting facts at my disposal, things to drop into conversation, that weren’t related to burp cloths or pooey nappies. It was exhilarating.

This is what inspired me to try and get some of my own work in the field, so I’ve started to advertise myself as a translator and am seeing what will come of it.

Meanwhile over the Christmas period and January I started to rediscover an old flame. Most people who know me will know that I like to make stuff up and write it down; it’s always seemed a ridiculous thing to be good at and have qualifications in but, either way, I do. But I found my creativity lacking during the time I have been devoted to my children. It was almost as if, having poured all my creative powers into making two new people, I was drained (or more likely I was tired, didn’t have any free time or energy, and my brain wasn’t functioning). But recently I managed to put together a collection of short stories and publish them for Kindle to sell on Amazon. And I’ve found myself so enthused on occasion that I have sat up late into the night to finish something off when I’m on a roll; pretty exciting when I’ve spent the last three years barely making it to nine o’clock without dozing off on the sofa.

It got me to thinking that in many ways I can understand the appeal of being a working mum (even if I can’t imagine how it is actually possible). There’s something great about using that whole other side to your brain, almost like a form of exercise. And at the same time it’s about having another identity as well, I imagine even more so when you actually leave the house and have a whole other sphere in which you operate, a workplace where you are yourself rather than Mum, for a little while at least. Whereas I don’t ever actually leave the house to work and am not as such employed, even having projects which I’m working on has given me a taste of this independence. The return to spending some time on my own pursuits has given me a new lease of life, and even more excitingly, has even served to renew my enthusiasm for spending time with the kids. Rather than being waist-deep in dirty washing and grumbling at my girls, taking a break from them when I can and using it to work (rather than sleep or do the washing-up or stare blankly at the ceiling in sheer exhaustion), means I come back to a game of Hungry Hippos or taking turns with the colouring book refreshed and keen.

That’s the really exciting thing about my prospects these days: I know I am already doing the best and most fulfilling job in the world – everything else is just the icing on the cake.

Shameless plug: I’m available for Spanish-English translation jobs or freelance writing/editing projects of any kind. Contact me on kdtraduccion@gmail.com. You can buy my short story collection ‘Bad Roads’ for Kindle on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or in fact on any of Amazon’s international incarnations http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bad-Roads-ebook/dp/B007690BPC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1329537454&sr=1-1 (this is a link which you may have to copy and paste if you are so inclined).

Available for Kindle on Amazon

Terrible Horses

Catching Them When They Fall

A dreadful thing happened the other day. We lost Cielo at the market. There we were walking along in the sun, showing Uncle Ken and Aunty Mag the delights of our Saturday morning market, when we noticed the pipa frias (young coconuts which you drink the juice out of) all chilled in their chest of ice and decided it would be nice to have one. In the fun of getting the tops taken off and posting in the straws, we were all distracted to the point that it was a minute or so before I looked around and felt my blood draining into my boots. I remember the words: “Where’s Cielo?” passing my lips, but then it all gets a little hazy. I have images of Hywel and I wondering up and down the immediate area and looking frantically through the crowds. My mind seemed to race right through everything from panicking about where she was, to deciding she must have been snatched, to concluding that this was it, that this would forever after be the last day I saw my daughter.

And then she was there, found by Uncle Ken three or four stalls down just on the verge of tears, and I held her, pulled her into my arms and smelled her hair because thank god, she was ok, she was here. Nonplussed she started slurping away on her pipa fria while I got hit by a post-adrenaline-rush migraine like a thunderbolt and trembled for about an hour.

I mean, I’m telling you, it was horrendous. One of the top ten most awful moments of my life. And the worst part is, I doubt this will be the last time it happens – most kids get lost a few times during their childhood. But it got me thinking about the strength of our need to protect and safeguard our children. I mean, obviously it wasn’t a surprise to me that it was a horrible feeling to not know where my child was, that’s a no-brainer, but it was how utterly terrifying it was, how dizzying, and if it had been a case of bodily picking up a car to get to her (as I’ve read of people doing before) I KNOW I could have done it.

This kind of thing was on my mind while we were in Panama too. There were a few dogs about, and for reasons best known to themselves, the girls have lately become a little frightened of dogs. It was at one point when I was scooping one of them up out of the path of a dog that I started reassuring them and then had to stop myself mid-sentence as I realised I was just about to tell them I would rip any dog that tried to hurt them into a thousand tiny pieces with my bare hands. Bit much for the delicate sensibilities of my girls, bit graphic perhaps, all a little gruesome, but it came into my head so easily, so naturally, and I knew I would do it (and I‘m an animal lover).

Amazing how we are hardwired to protect them, our little replacements. And everything about them is designed to keep us focused on the one task of making sure they are OK. They’re cute, they’re vulnerable, they’ve got sweet little voices and endearing habits such as nuzzling into your neck, taking hold of your hand or making up a funny song. In many ways our own safety pales into insignificance (Me or them? No contest.) but not entirely. In many ways, the instinct of self-preservation strengthens too – after all, you are now more important than you ever were before, in your capacity as Protector.

I know this first hand. I had a very definite moment at which I stopped being as devil-may-care with my own life as I had been wont to do in my youth, and bizarrely (and unbeknownst to me) it may have coincided very closely with the very moment at which I became a parent. The Nyika Plateau in Malawi, January 2008, our honeymoon (the clue‘s in the name). Driving along a dirt track on the very edge of the plateau and taking a run-up to make it up a muddy slope we found ourselves half way up and sliding, totally out of control, skidding and getting pretty close to toppling over the edge and falling several thousand metres into Zambia. And I was terrified. And once we had survived I went on a rant for several minutes about how I never NEVER wanted to try anything like that ever again. If something looked dodgy, if we weren’t SURE it was safe, then it was out of the question. Hywel found it all rather amusing, and dubbed this moment: the day Kate lost her bottle. He used to muse about whether if we went back to that patch of grass where we finally got the car back under control and had a look about in the underbrush we would find my bottle there. It was strange, I mean we had always been fearless, always charged headlong into any number of inadvisable situations, not exactly a death wish but I suppose a kind of blind faith. But suddenly, and ever after, blind faith just wasn’t enough.

I didn’t want to camp on the Serengeti anymore (I insisted on sleeping in the car or a lodge), I didn’t want mosquitoes to bite me (covered head to toe 24 hours of the day), I didn’t want to live in a town that didn’t have a good hospital, and then I didn‘t want to live in sub-Saharan Africa with all its associated problems anymore. All these things had seemed like acceptable risks and then suddenly they didn’t. No risk was acceptable because I was now indispensable, too important, to be risked.

I don’t even like to go on fairground rides these days.

I don’t know what conclusion one can draw from all this. In my mind, this drive isn’t something that is philosophical really, or social, but natural, instinctual. In order for this species to continue, most people on the planet will need to create replacements for themselves, and once they do they will find they are dominated by a desire to protect them. It’s obvious, basic, the most simple thing you can imagine. And I suppose some of what I’ve written here might sound strange, or disturbing even, or maybe it might lead one to wonder if I haven’t lost a sense of myself in this. But I don’t feel that way at all. I love being passionate enough about someone to know that nothing will ever stop me getting to them, that I will do everything in my power to stop them being hurt no matter what it takes. But at the same time, it’s terrifying. That’s the problem with loving something with all your heart and every fibre of your being – it means you have an awful lot to lose.

“We do our best, we mothers,
We wade through blood for our sleeping
girls. We have daggers for eyes.
Behind our lullabies,
The hooves of terrible horses
Thunder and drum.”

Indeed. Thank you Carol Ann Duffy, you sum it up so much better than I ever could.

Looking For My Bottle on the Nyika Plateau

Protecting My Interests

Dear Nyika,

One of the main aims of this blog was to keep a record of our time here in Costa Rica, almost like a jounal, partly because I thought it would be interesting for me to read it in the future when I have forgotten a lot of the little things that happened. But also, I realise that I very often have in the back of my mind the thought that you and Cielo will want to read it once you‘re older, maybe even all grown up, and it‘ll give you some kind of background to all the thousands of photographs and videos that tell the story of our life as a family. And maybe you’ll even be interested to hear my perspective on it all, on you, and find out a bit about what I was like before I got grey and dotty and senile, as I will hopefully become.

So this is a letter to you, the grown-up Nyika, to give you just a snapshot of the beautiful, complex, wonderful three year old that I could never ever hope to encapsulate in a blog post.

Anyone who knows you knows you are a one-off. There never has been, and never will be, anyone quite like you. You have a completely unique take on the world, and we love getting your perspective on whatever observations you make each day, and there are usually a lot. You miss nothing (so we have to pretty careful what we say and do!).

You are extremely articulate and have the most amazing vocabulary, including many words of your own invention. The ones in my title are just three examples, but they’re the ones I thought of first as they’re the ones that have actually caught on, by which I mean that we’ve started using them too. A clag is a plug or a lid, a nimple is a lump (as in porridge, or on the skin) or also a label on clothing, and an armbow is an armpit (much prettier name for it too). There are many more, but these are just the ones I can call to mind. Another phrase you use so much that I have thoroughly absorbed into my own speech and am no longer able to use it correctly is the term ‘to be in trouble’ which you use like this: if I am cross with you for, say, not tidying your room, you say that Mummy is ‘in trouble’ with you (as opposed to the other way round, which I believe is the traditional usage). After initially challenging this and trying to get you to say it correctly we gave up and have now come round to your way of thinking. Doesn’t it actually make a strange kind of sense that way round? The angry one, the one who is the bringer of the trouble is the one ‘in trouble’ in a way.

You’re very interested in human reproduction at the moment, and of course when I say that I don’t mean you know the details, but you’re getting pretty much as close to it as a three year old should. You know that babies grow in tummies, that they come out of a ‘special door’ (I thought I better avoid the particular details of that for the moment), and that they drink ‘boob juice’(your phrase, not mine). The only points of contention at the moment are daddies – you know you need to find yourself one before you get your baby but you’re not sure why, or indeed why you would need another man in your life at all beside the one you already have and are devoted to: your daddy (who you kindly agree to share with Cielo sometimes but certainly not with mummy). You also find it most curious that mums are able to have male babies; up until recently you were pretty sure that boys came from boys and girls from girls. It’s a pretty logical assumption actually, and indeed there is no evidence to the contrary in your immediate family. It was only when you started thinking logically and scientifically about our friends that you started drawing different conclusions. Your own baby, you’ve told me, is already in your tummy, and when I tell you that you should probably wait about twenty years or so you agree that the baby is happy to wait in there until then.

You’re strong, you’ve always been strong-willed and independent and straight-talking. You will not be swayed once you’ve made up your mind. To get your points across lately you have come up with a few choice phrases that you use to devastating effect. “Listen, the problem is…” is one way you often start your sentences; another popular one when you think we haven’t understood your intentions is: “Look, let me put this in your ear…” which is when you climb onto the chair next to me so you can whisper the conclusion of the sentence in my ear which will usually be something like “…I really want to have some chocolate.” And I love this about you, I love that you know your own mind and you are brave and forceful, but sometimes it’s hard to live with. Sometimes you don’t seem to understand at all that you are too young to have the final say on everything, that Dad and I might have good reasons for denying you some of the things you want. You have lately developed a tendency to tell us how much you “really really really REALLY want” something, as if the strength of your desire for it will be the deciding factor. I can completely imagine why that would seem just, but ours is not a just world, and sometimes it is in your best interests not to have something, no matter how much you really really REALLY want it. But you will learn this with time, as we all do. Right now you’re still very little, and we have a lot of battles ahead. I just hope that soon we can leave the tantrems behind, because it hurts my heart to see you as upset as you sometimes are at the moment, trembling with rage, screaming until you make your little throat sore, and Dad and I really really REALLY want that to pass.

You love so many things and so many people. You thoroughly enjoyed Christmas this year as you adore having any kind of a reason to celebrate with your friends and family, and you can really bring a party to life. You love dancing. You were amazing in your school show, truly a star that shone so brightly that everybody noticed, and since that time you have been making up routines to every new song you hear. Because of this, we enrolled you in dance lessons that you just started yesterday and, just like everything else you do, you dove straight in head-first and came out smiling, surrounded by new friends and full of enthusiasm.

You are the best big sister in the world. You believe Mummy made your sister especially for you and regularly thank me for her, but you don’t have to – just seeing how much your love her is thanks enough. She adores you, she thinks everything you do is amazing, and when you are apart, even for a few hours, you miss each other keenly. I love that you always know what she wants or what she’s trying to say, even when I don’t. Yesterday you took her on the mini train at the fun park, just the two of you (a fact you were very insistent about), and because you realised she was scared you sat with your arms wrapped around her and talked to her the whole time. I love that sometimes when one or other of you is upset it is not mum you want, or dad, but each other.

So that is just a tiny fraction of what makes you you at three years old. I wonder what the grown-up Nyika that I’m writing to is like. I bet you’re still a beauty, I bet you’re still clever and witty and brave. I wonder if you still love dancing. And while I bet in many ways you’ve changed, and learned to accept things that at three you hadn’t, there are some things about you that I hope haven’t changed a bit. I hope you are still walking into rooms and making friends with everyone you meet there; I hope your sister is still one of the most important people in your life; I hope you are still kissing and cuddling and holding hands with friends freely; I hope you are still telling people that you love them at the moment you feel it. But most of all, I hope you are still telling me I’m your best friend. I seriously doubt it. But I will still be honoured that you did once, in any case.

All my love as always,

When you realise you have your husband/daddy at home at your beck-and-call full-time for the next couple of months you spend the first few days simply luxuriating in the idea of all that endless family time. Then you begin to wonder what you’re going to do with it all. Here are my suggestions.

We’ve been loving our day trips to the beach. Being able to be on a beautiful beach in about an hour is one of my favourite things about living here. It’s like going on holiday but without any of the associated hassle. A large part of the reason we’ve been going down so often is that Hywel is learning to surf and it appears he actually is improving. And now he’s started to teach Nyika to surf too. She started out catching a few waves in on her little boogie board, and now she’s even had a go at standing on her dad’s board. What is most amazing about it is how utterly fearless she is. Sometimes she’s been totally out on her own, hurtling in on a pretty substantial wave, and when she finishes up, beaching on the shingles, she leaps up with sheer delight painted all over her face and wants to do it all again.

This is made even more remarkable by the fact that she doesn’t appear to have much luck with the ocean. She has been stung by a jellyfish pretty severely twice in the last few weeks alone. This would suggest that this is something that happens a lot when swimming on the coasts here but in fact it’s rare. No-one else I know has been stung the way Nyika has. The last time she was sitting on my knees at the time and I think one actually swam into her lap. She immediately had the most horrible blisters all over her ankles and a stripe down her thigh like a burn. It’s all still there now, several days later, and evidently it’s pretty sore too. In typical Nyika fashion though, after creating the most extraordinary drama about it complete with trembling, shrieking and writhing and totally scaring the life out of me, within another five or six minutes she had forgotten all about it and was insisting on being buried up to her neck in the sand.

Anyway the beach is great, heading down with various friends, stopping off for lunch or taking a picnic, messing in the sand and splashing in the waves really does take some beating. So how were we to top it to celebrate Cielo’s birthday? Volcan Arenal, that’s how.

We’ve been to Arenal three times now, but I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of its delights: a pleasant climate somewhere between the cool highland air of San Jose and the heat of the beach, the ability to marvel at the night activity of an active volcano, interesting walks and attractions, and of course abundant hot springs. This time we even treated ourselves to the flashiest and most expensive of the hot springs, Tabacon, and MAN was it worth it. A beautifully hot river twisting and turning through tropical jungle and gardens, creating countless private pools complete with their own series of waterfalls, filtering down to a more formal limestone-tiled terraced series of pools placed around a cocktail bar. There’s even a kids pool, and a restaurant in which you are obliged to eat three delicious courses. In short, it’s paradise right here on earth. We didn’t even mind that it teemed down with rain for our entire visit, nothing much seems to matter when you’re up to your neck in gorgeously hot spring water, or perched on smooth stone while a thermal waterfall pounds out any remaining tension.

Also while we were there we had the pleasure of visiting a little snake and frog zoo where they actually get a lot of the animals out for you to hold/stroke. I was really proud of my fearless girls, and also of my husband who put his deep primordial phobia of snakes behind him in order to avoid passing it on to the kids. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it when it came to the tarantulas *shudder*. They don’t have a face. You just can’t trust something that doesn’t have a face.

Anyway now here we are back in San Jose. So how to fill in the times between beach trips and hot spring soaks? Well, there’s always Fifty Festive Favourites to dance to. We downloaded an album of Christmas songs recently, and it really is all the songs you hear a million times on the radio in the UK, and therefore everything that has come to be associated with Christmas for me. The girls love it, particularly Wham’s Last Christmas, and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. They’ve got dance routines for every song, and yes I have videos, and so far I have resisted putting them online but I can’t promise this restraint will last for long. They love it when we dance with them too.

How about a relaxing massage to pass the time? The girls can help with that too. They’ve become pretty adept at giving them and equally love to receive them. We now end most days with everybody having a back and foot massage. I can’t say I enjoy the foot massage so much (too ticklish, which unfortunately makes the rest of my family even more determined to sit on my shins and inflict them on me) but I can highly recommend the rest of it as a family activity.

So those are the suggestions I have come up with so far on how to spend two months of unadulterated family time. No doubt there will be more to follow as there are still several weeks, an international road trip and a family visit to come.

So at the beginning of December there we were wondering what we were ever going to do with ourselves for two and a half months. And now we’ve filled a week or two or three, we’ve begun to realise that when it comes to hanging out together, no amount of time could ever be enough.