Archives For expat

Paris – ooh la la!

November 27, 2018 — 1 Comment

I came to a staggering stop, gasping to catch my breath as another forty or so steps glared down at me. The chill of a Parisian November afternoon felt at the bottom of the hill had given way to an unpleasant clamminess and I loosened my scarf, undid my coat, and tugged at the neckline of my woolen sweater. I even dispensed with my gloves. Gathering what small amount of fortitude I had remaining, I hauled myself ever upwards. The effort was worth it. In the 38 years since my last adventure in the French capital very little had changed and I gazed in wonder at the glistening marble dome of the Sacre Coeur. Inside the same smell of candles mingled with a thousand tourists and devotees. The priest, I’m sure the same one, intoned a passage from an aged Bible. A nun, her arms spread not in supplication but in order to conduct the choir, wore the black and white vestments of her vocation, her hair chastely hidden. The voices were still sweet as they soared in harmony to the arched domes high above. Christ continued to gaze at his followers from the ornate stain-glass windows.

A sense of continuity, of history that is all pervasive in European churches is on one hand comforting, on the other, almost anachronistic. Nothing changes. Possibly a reflection of my somewhat conflicted feelings about organised religion.

We left the murmuring worshippers to see Paris stretched below. The grey louring sky punctuated by famous landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bourse cloaked in tenting, and curling through the city like a sleek satin ribbon, the Seine. Lights began to wink through the misty evening and an image came to mind of a thousand gas lighters striding the streets before electrification in 1878.

Coming down from on high, tawdry shop fronts selling pink rubber dildos shaped like the aforementioned tower reminded me we were nearing Place Pigalle, and the famous sails of the  Moulin Rouge and ooh la la Can Can dancers in frilly knickers. I clutched my handbag closer and strode along, daring interference. Paris’s red-light district is not the place to show uncertainty. Entreaties to enter one sleazy, curtained establishment after another made me hanker for the windows of the Wallen, the rosse buurt of Amsterdam where girls and women display their wares from the windows – the older the prostitute the higher up the building she goes. Somehow the Dutch equivalent seems less vulgar.

My companion for the weekend was my sister Val, and heading in the vague direction of our gracious host’s flat on rue d’Hauteville we realised we needed sustenance. Perhaps an aperitif and hors d’oeuvre. We were in Paris after all.

The reason for the trip – as if one needs a reason to visit Paris – was research. Though the manuscript for my next historical novel, Transfer, is  firmly in the hands of OC Publishing, Val suggested that rather than research, the visit would be confirmation of various places mentioned. To that end, dinner was to be at Le Bouillon Chartier – founded in 1896, it plays a minor part in the book. Very little seemed to have changed from information gleaned from various websites – certainly not the decor, nor the uniform of its bustling but pleasant waiters. The food was unremarkable but the ambiance unbeatable, and yes, the bill was totted up on white paper tablecloth. No calculators allowed.

The next morning, flaky crumbs of fresh croissants clinging to our lips, we made our way across Pont Neuf where the Seine shimmered in the cold brilliant sunshine. Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité tempted us but we continued along Boulevard Saint-Germain to our destination, Musée de Cluny. We were not disappointed. The “Lady and the Unicorn” woolen and silk tapestries were magnificent – works of art from Flanders in the Middle Ages depicting the five senses. The sixth tapestry with the words “À mon seul désir” has a more obscure meaning, possibly representing love and understanding.Cluny

Museums are thirst inducing so we found respite and refreshments at that most famous of writer’s establishments, Les Deux Magots, where I could imagine Hemingway and Baldwin sipping cognac as they solved the problems of the world, or at least the comma. Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre chatted with them. Now it is patronised mainly by tourists, and people like me hoping some of their genius might still linger and alight on my shoulders.

Another ooh la la moment came after recrossing the Seine via the footbridge, Pont des Arts, when the ground rumbled from the throaty revving of about sixty motorbikes waiting at traffic lights. All the riders wore yellow safety vests and we learned they were part of an organized demonstration against rising fuel prices and the Macron administration. The bikes roared past us, then again as we walked north but apart from shouts and roaring engines there was little of concern.

The tear gas and police cordons of the following weekend did not thankfully impinge on our Paris sojourn, and I left the City of Light comforted that whilst German and Allied tanks might have rolled along the elegant boulevards, and discontented citizens might harangue politicians, it is still a city of culture and excitement, imbued with that wonderful air of  je ne sais quoi!

And I won’t be waiting so long time for my next visit to Paris!

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There it is. I am playing the colour card. Not something I’ve ever felt the need to do. 

For many years I was, in whichever country I happened to be living, involved with supporting women of any ethnicity on their nomadic adventures. Whether as an accompanying spouse and mother, a corporate woman, a single woman with the courage to take a leap into the unknown, or a woman native to whichever country was my home at that particular time.

I am angry because of the nonsense being written about ‘angry black women’. Why is there a need to qualify an angry woman? Does it make her anger any more potent if it is black rather than white? We can be strident or shrill, but angry is still angry, regardless of colour. Why are angry men not so defined?

And as I’m writing about an angry white woman, let me give an example of something that does really anger me. The word ‘expatriate’ used incorrectly to denote privileged white people swanning around the world on a corporate expense account. The word is believed by some to be archaic. Maughamesque, perhaps. 

Used correctly, ‘expatriate’ means to live outside one’s native country. Regardless of one’s colour. Now there’s another taboo word – native. But first ‘expatriate’. According to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, in a blog first published on SiliconAfrica.com and picked up The Guardian in Britain, ‘expatriate’ is the word which “exclusively applies to white people”. Mr Koutonin goes on to say, “In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word ‘expat’.” His diatribe continues with the suggestion that Arabs, Asians, Africans are all considered immigrants but that Europeans are always considered expatriate because, “they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” The blog ends with a call to arms, “If you see those “expats” in Africa, call them immigrants like everyone else. If that hurts their white superiority, they can jump in the air and stay there. The political deconstruction of this outdated worldview must continue.”

Perhaps if Mr Koutonin had bothered to look further than Wikipedia for a definition, he would have a greater understanding of both the word and the differing terms used, and changed, as status changes. For example, when I first relocated to America I was an expatriate from my birth country of Great Britain. Whilst still technically an expatriate because I live “outside my native country”, I am also now an immigrant, having decided to emigrate on a permanent basis. Following this reasoning, when I lived in Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, I was an expatriate on a short-term visa. I never had any intention of either emigrating or immigrating – both leading to a permanent residence outside said birth country.

A native-born, black, British citizen asked to relocate for work to an African country would be considered an expatriate by the corporation or NGO sponsoring such a move. He or she would only become an immigrant if the decision was made to change visa status and become a citizen of that country.

And so I come to ‘native’.

I am, again technically, a native of one country, England, that of my paternal Anglo-Norman heritage. I do though have a loyalty to Australia because it was my mother’s native land, though she was not of Aboriginal descent, and also the country in which I was educated. I swore an allegiance to the United States when I became a citizen. And before anyone shouts I should have foresworn all other fealties when I took the oath, might I just point out the proliferation of societies, and ethnic affiliations, to which many belong in these still great United States, despite many never having set foot in their ‘other’ so-called country of loyalty? But for those of us with a different birth country, or who may have lived in many countries, as I have, it is difficult to give up those slices of our heart that have been left in each place called home. We carry a little of their soil in our souls, forever.

Like any word in the English language, and maybe others, it rather depends on the context in which the word is used as to whether or not it is offensive. Neither ‘expatriate’ nor ‘native’ are derogatory words. Neither should ‘black’ or ‘white’ be considered such. 

Yet here I am, an angry white woman. Made angrier by the farrago that was the US Open Tennis Women’s Final. What double standards! What a shame, for both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. One a great champion, one a nascent champion. Think of John McEnroe, Nick Kyrgioss, Jimmy Connors, Ile Nastase – none of whom could be called gentlemen players on court. Did ever a chair umpire have so little respect for them? And as Ms Williams continues to be called ‘an angry black woman’, what I wonder would Ms Osaka be called, should she be the one to lose her cool in a tense match? Would a woman of Japanese Haitian ethnicity also be called an angry black woman? Why can’t we just be angry women?

My list of personal adjectives grows longer. I am an angry, English native, expatriate, immigrant woman and proud to be one! Does it matter what colour I am?

Tropical Depression

September 7, 2018 — 7 Comments

It’s that time of year. Waves are building. Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa is often where we start hearing of them forming, but really these potential storms start their trek well before they hit the Atlantic Ocean. Innocuously named ‘invests’ until they garner enough strength to become a tropical storm or a hurricane.

This time last year Hurricane Irma pummeled St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands, before continuing on to wreak havoc further along the island chain. People on St Croix, the southernmost of the Virgins, set about sending help to their sister islands. Supplies of tarpaulins, water, foods, baby products, clothes were sent 40 nautical miles north on cabin cruisers and dive boats. Then fourteen days later St Croix was slammed by Hurricane Maria before it too continued on its devastating path to Puerto Rico.

When I am not on St Croix, I am in Houston, Texas. 

Last year Houston was at the mercy of Hurricane Harvey. We were fortunate. Our property, a sturdy Downtown warehouse conversion atop a three foot slab, brushed off the winds with rising waters stopping about eight inches short of the top of said slab. Our cars and those of our neighbours floated on the waters spewing down White Oak Bayou. Rendered useless we were reimbursed promptly by our insurers.

On St Croix we were also fortunate. Our house lost some shingles. A gate was torn from its posts and palms trees denuded of most of their fronds. Power of course was lost. For us, until early November. For much of the island it was a great deal longer. 

But many, almost twelve months later, are still struggling to regain a level of equilibrium following the battering. Power is fully restored to the island and has been for some time, but blue tarps are still visible – and not just from the air. Many are still awaiting monies from insurers, some of whom have been shameful in their reluctance to pay up. Hoops have been jumped through, then jumped through again, and again. Frustration has been high. Tensions brittle.

Through all of it, a strong sense of community has been the saving element in a traumatic event. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers. There have been thefts and some vandalism from people lacking empathy, and getting through life by making the most others misery. But that kind of person is found around the world, and needs little incentive to do bad. Much has been made of the linemen who came in droves of trucks from the mainland to help restore power. They worked long hours alongside those from the island. Some lived on a cruise ship leased and moored at Frederiksted. Some lived in semi-demolished hotels. Some are still here, though the cruise ship has long gone. They worked hard, in relentless heat with no shade from trees denuded by rude winds, but were also well reimbursed. 

Physically the island is recovering though vistas have opened up because of trees torn from their roots, or houses ripped from their foundations. Schools lost their roofs. Books became sodden piles. Mould proliferated. Hospitals sustained wind damage and were flooded. Historic walls stood yet another battering though some lost their roofs.

It takes time to restore life to normal, a new normal in some cases. Teachers have been under enormous strain to present a semblance of normality to their students through dual session days. Even now all schools are not up and running, and those open face a shortage of desks and chairs. Valid questions are being asked. What has taken so long? Why are we still waiting? 

Questions have arisen also about the lack of hospital facilities. As they should. Elected officials are always ready with an answer – often trite. Money is coming from the federal government. Monies that would have come whoever was in power, which is something to be remembered in the gubernatorial election in November.

Tropical depression though is not just a weather phenomena. It is also human ailment. It has affected many who still hear, as they try to sleep, the roaring of the winds as it peeled back roofs. The slightest rainfall sends glances skyward to check a recently repaired roof is not leaking, or a home is not being lifted from shaky foundations. A sudden thud can have a man, woman, child or animal jumping in anticipation of a tree landing on the roof, or scything a wall. A sudden blackout can have those traumatized by IrMaria breaking out in a sweat at the thought of months with no power. 

Stability should never be overrated. A tropical depression never underrated. As we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, anxious eyes are turning to those waves starting in West Africa. Invest 92L, forming behind Hurricane Florence, is one such wave. With another behind it. With luck they will bear north west and dissipate in the Atlantic, nowhere near land. And as the end of November approaches we will look forward to celebrating a hurricane-free season.

Those in theses tropics are hoping for no more depressions.

Bedposts!

July 18, 2018 — Leave a comment

Bedposts, chewing gum and Singapore

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The Conch Calls

July 3, 2018 — 1 Comment

Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence. 

Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.

After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?

170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”. 

Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost. 

Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man. 

Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.

Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day! 

Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.

Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.

Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!

Cherry Picking

June 10, 2018 — 3 Comments

Prunus avium are those delicious sweet cherries that show up in our grocery stores in about July. There are many varieties of which the leader is Bing, so named over a 100 years ago by an Oregon grower for one of his Chinese workmen. Prunus cerasus, is the name given to the tart or sour cherry, the most widely known being the Montmorency.

Now this might surprise you but cherries do not grow in the US Virgin Islands. Whatever the type, they prefer the northern climes of continental USA, Turkey, Chile and the southern states of Australia.

But we do have on our lovely island of St Croix a cadre of tart and sour individuals who seem to think that human rights can be divided into different categories and that one is able to cherry pick which to support and which to denigrate.

June is Gay Pride month. Sadly homophobia is alive and kicking in many parts of the Caribbean though hope is on the horizon when places like Cuba, closed so long to modernity, is proud to have held for the last four years a Day Against Homophobia, spearheaded by Mariela Castro, the daughter of former President Raúl Castro. Puerto Rico and Curaçao are also proud to hold parades supporting Gay Pride.

Yesterday it was St Croix’s turn to be rainbow proud. A first for this island which, on the whole, tends to delight in its diversity. But the Pride Parade could easily have been soured by the vitriol emitted, anonymously of course, across social media. I am not going to give print space to the crassness of comments, though a couple were almost humorous in their stupidity. But there was one circulating on the ubiquitous FaceBook calling for violence against any and all taking part or supporting the Parade. 

It was serious enough to involve the FBI, with the St Croix Police Chief, Winsbut McFarlande being heard on various radio shows in the days leading up to the Pride Parade, assuring listeners that the organizers had the requisite permits and that, “The police department will do all within its resources to monitor and attempt to minimize the threat.”

And they did. There was a strong, polite and friendly police presence. There had been an attempt to block the parade route with debris, probably left over from the hurricanes which did their best to destroy the island last year, but all was cleared by the time the marchers made their colourful way along the seafront at Frederiksted to Dorsch Beach. Rainbow flags were vivid against the cerulean waters and all that was needed to complete the postcard was a rainbow in the sky.IMG_6286

There was a mingling of signs. Repent of your Sins and you will be Forgiven waved next to Love is Love! One has to wonder what is sinful about loving someone, anyone. There was though an upbeat and friendly mood with little actual engagement from those picketing. I wondered whether indeed they were becoming bemused at the mingling of gay and straight. Perhaps the tee-shirt proclaiming, I Can’t Even Think Straight added to their Cruzan confusion.

I am not gay but count amongst my friends from around the world, some who are. By the same token I have never had to face the dreadful dilemma about whether to proceed with an abortion. I have friends who have. I have never been racially profiled despite having spent much of my life in Africa and Asia, unless you count comments called from market vendors along the lines of “Hola, Blanca….” or a shakedown from a policeman who hasn’t been paid for months. I consider myself fortunate to have friends of all colours and creeds – not because they are all colours and creeds but because they are good company and have proven their friendship over years and continents, as I hope I have to them.

Because ‘human rights’ should be across the board. If they are not, the early work of suffragettes has been in vain. If they are not, then the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and desegregation in the United States has been in vain. Or the death of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall riots. If they are not, then the work of people like Maryan Abdulle Hassan, a 26-old-Somalian woman fighting female genital mutilation is irrelevant.

Or people like Audre Lorde – who championed the rights of gay, black women and who spent her last years on St Croix and helped found, along with Gloria I Joseph, The St Croix Women’s Coalition.

So when I read a post written by someone, without even the courage to use his or her own name, urging others to wield AK-47s and shoot those holding rainbow flags and marching peacefully, and joyfully, it really pisses me off. It makes me go out in the hot sun and proudly join the parade.

LGBTQ rights, women’s right, every variation of colour rights – they all matter because they are human rights. 100 years ago that Oregon farmer named a sweet cherry after his Chinese cherry picker. Let’s lessen the prunus cerasus variety on St Croix and remember human rights are not up for cherry picking.

There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push. 

Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country,  has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.

It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.

I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.

What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.

My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.

Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”. 

But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!

I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)

But back to huggery buggery.

Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.

“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.

“What?” The query came from five women.

“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”

Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.

Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.

And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!

Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!

Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!