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Newsman finds new life in the sun

PUBLISHED: 20:36 09 January 2002 | UPDATED: 11:10 03 March 2010

MANY people dream of leaving the rat race behind to find a new life in the sun. But MARTIN KIRBY, former deputy editor of The Evening Star's sister paper The Eastern Daily Press, was brave enough to do it for real - moving to Spain with wife Maggie Whitman and their young family.

MANY people dream of leaving the rat race behind to find a new life in the sun. But MARTIN KIRBY, former deputy editor of The Evening Star's sister paper The Eastern Daily Press, was brave enough to do it for real – moving to Spain with wife Maggie Whitman and their young family.

Martin tells his own story in the week that national TV is set to screen a major documentary on the family's Spanish journey of discovery.

"WH-WH-WHAT did the doctor say, Ella?" we coaxed. "Please help Mummy and Daddy, there's a darling."

The woman doctor had her head on one side, arms folded, waiting for us to grasp what was going on. She'd tried Catalan, Spanish and even French, but we still couldn't figure out what she wanted to do to baby Joe Joe. He'd been running a temperature for two days and we'd whisked him off to the medical centre with six-year-old sister Ella in tow. We'd half joked that she could translate if things got sticky.

"Elle speaks Catalan," we explained meekly, before turning to our daughter for a translation.

"They want to put a bag on his willy and take some pee pee."

"Oh," we said, grateful for her help but with a double take at our little girl who in just seven months seemed to have an extraordinary grasp of the lingo.

Like all parents, Maggie and I know the day will dawn, probably in the teenage years, when we'll have trouble understanding what on earth our children are gabbling about, but with Ella it's happening already.

Ella was one of the key reasons why we made our move exactly a year ago from Norfolk to a Spanish farm and a wholly different way of life. She was five then, and if we dithered any longer over our plans to get off life's main highway she would find it increasingly tough to adjust and learn the older she grew. Five-year-olds, we gleaned from other families who had made the step, had a remarkable capacity to cope. They weren't kidding.

It was a tall order for her all the same, leaving her many friends in Aldborough where she'd had three terms settling into the wonderful primary school and where she was just getting her bearings. Asking Ella to tootle off to a new school where she wouldn't understand a word or know a soul was one of the toughest moments in this nutty adventure of ours, but (bless her cotton socks) she has astounded everyone.

Not only is her understanding seemingly total but all the locals tell us her pronunciation is perfect too, including those purring Rs which are a complete tongue-twister for the English speaker. While I'm proving to be a bi-lingual imbecile, she rattles away to Joe Joe in both languages and we know that unless we get our act together we're going to have a communication problem. We figure we only have a year at most to learn enough to understand what plots our offspring are hatching.

Joe Joe is 18 months old and has lived in Spain for more than half his life. The trip to the doctor proved to be nothing serious and he's going from strength to strength. Half the time he looks like a mudlark from the Victorian slums, zooming about with a saggy nappy covered in dirt and grass, but he's full of smiles and loving the space and freedom. The little chap is a big hit with Ella's school chums and the mums and will no doubt be fluent in Catalan from the outset.

Whatever lies ahead, we know that Ella and her junior school lay near the centre of it. It is a sorely impressive place, not least because it was built a couple of years ago in a village that could only muster 25 pupils, and is just two miles from a town with a large school – a rural education policy somewhat at odds with England. The school is well-equipped with Applemac computers and the like and has three full-time teachers along with language and music specialists who visit regularly. This year Ella, the school's first foreign pupil, is in a class of nine. Yes, nine.

The down side is that there are only two other six-year-olds, and while she likes hanging out with the older girls, we can see that Ella would benefit from having more peers to befriend.

We hope the Sevillana dance classes will help.

During the village fiesta in August the girls joined the parade attired in the colourful dresses that are synonymous with that vibrant Spanish dance. Ella looked a picture. Later the same day she was mesmerised by a local amateur troupe who strutted and swirled about the village square, dragging spectators from the crowd to dance.

Now, every Wednesday night, Ella attends a dance class in the nearby town, joining other children to stamp her feet, arch her back and twirl her fingers. She's having fun, making new friends and, again, showing us the way.

While our children are settled and into their stride we parents strived to integrate, and I know I'm a source of some amusement among the locals. They've been so welcoming and patient with the Inglese immigrants but it must be obvious that we are on a learning curve that's as steep as the lane from our farm to the village.

One typically hot summer's day I foolishly opted to walk up the hill at midday to meet Ella from school. I'd misjudged the time it would take and, after dawdling along pointing out butterflies to Joe Joe in his knackered pushchair (which he found seriously soporific) I'd been forced to jog the last three hundred yards. It's about a one in eight slope.

Joe was shaken awake as I tried to up the pace and I arrived at the school utterly shattered and sweating buckets, labouring the last yards with my head down, body bent over and arms stretched forward like someone pushing a hefty car stuck in snow. The assembled parents stopped talking to watch, while Joe rocked back and forwards and waved his arms in an animated appeal for more speed.

Hard as I try to blend in there is nothing I do, it seems, that doesn't bring looks of incredulity. But the locals are very liberal with the smiles and waves, and my twice-weekly Norfolk dialect classes to 15 adults who think they are learning English has also fostered friendships and useful contacts. Take pity, though, if on a visit to London you spy a gaggle of Catalan tourists loitering beside the Thames in the shadow of Big Ben and, pointing to the clock face, can be heard to exclaim "Blas me, Jordi, thas blummin hooge".

Family members and a few Norfolk friends have found their way to out patchwork of ended and derelict land, where we battle to understand and nurture old vines as well as olive, nut and fruit trees, while cultivating copious quantities of vegetables. In the middle of it all stands the mottled farmhouse, little changed from when we arrived save the swings and hammock, and the sound of children.

Our biggest farm thrills, besides the time we spend together and with Ella and Joe Joe running wild, have been the feasts of home grown food – water melons, roasted vegetables with nut topping, grapes, vast salads and Maggie's pizza cooked in our bread oven. The day local friends came to help us harvest our 600 kilos of grapes from the small vineyard beside the house and taking them to the wine producer will live long in the memory.

Most days we find new challenges, and ponder new ways to cut our costs or earn money, like shipping our 200 kilos of ecological almonds to England for Christmas rather than sell them here for little reward. Getting our organic registration is a priority.

We have still to get a handle on our financial prospects, but are looking to supplement crop income and help meet our very modes cost of living by restoring and renting out a derelict cottage which in the short term will be home to our soon-to-arrive black Catalan chickens. There's the teaching too, which brings in a few pesetas. And, you never know, a publisher may spot glimpse a glimmer of merit in my book about our Journey to Mother's Garden.

You, of course, are about to get a chance to judge for yourselves by tuning in to Channel Four tonight at 9pm. Opting to bear our souls on television and allow a camera crew to chart our lives for 15 months has been a nerve racking experience to say the least, more so now the witching hour has arrives. We feel confident, though, that it will convey faithfully the way we have changed and what the challenges and stresses have been.

While we are in no doubt the beauty of our new home will shine like the Spanish sun, we want anyone tempted to follow suit to understand that it has been the most testing and exhausting year of our lives. There have been times when the reality of making a radical mid-life break like this has been anything but the seamless gentle life and mellow fruitfulness of office daydreams.

Although the weather has been gloriously predictable Maggie and I have not always been so calm as we struggle to adjust with the new pace and different pressures far removed from the old faces and rhythms. We knew we had a great deal to learn, but never in a month of Sundays did we figure we would learn so much about ourselves and that on occasions it would be daunting. So take heed.

Enjoy the programme and have a giggle at our expense. And remember the philosophy that propelled us on this adventure. Make the most of this life and chase your dream if you know in your heart of hearts what matters to you. Our dream was to find more time as a family; to give our children the freedom Maggie enjoyed when she was growing up on a farm; to widen our horizons.

Whether we're succeeding remains in the melting pot. The day is young. But here's a certainty – we've never been so conscious of every minute of our lives and those of our children which, fundamentally, is the heart of the matter.

n Channel 4's TV documentary on Martin and his family, the first programme in the series No Going Back.

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