Archives For expat

Life Boxed Up

May 25, 2023 — 1 Comment

I’ve done this a lot. Moving.


The practicalities of relocating my life around the world hold little fear. It’s draining, of that there is no doubt. Moving with young children is physically trying, and with teenage children mental fatigue takes over as drama supplants drama, but as the end of middle age approaches a kind of ennui has taken over.


I watched our life fold into boxes to be shipped across an ocean when the packers arrived on Tuesday. Memories from around the world embedded in every piece of furniture and painting.


Relocation has always exhilarated me. The chance to try something different, to learn new cultures, new languages and customs. I should be feeling that sense of adventure now. Experience of living in England is sparse.


So, why this sense, not of dread, but lassitude?

Sadness, along with tears, wells because we have had to say goodbye to Stan, the dog who stole our hearts as we worked to steal his after a brutal start to his life. We brought him from St Croix to Houston so he could continue on to England to learn the manners of an English country dog. The vet on island stated he might be a Lab Mix. In our hearts we knew there lurked a smattering of Pitbull – a banned breed in the United Kingdom. Every website warns of the risk of importing a ‘dangerous’ breed dog to their shores. Immediate seizure by customs control, followed by immediate euthanasia. No ifs, no buts. A DNA test proved more than a smattering of Pittie in Stan’s genetic paw print. Staffordshire Terrier, American Bull Dog and Chihuahua – I struggled with that one – all make up the dog we love. Having saved Stan’s life once, we are not prepared to risk it now.

Stan now resides with dear friends who offered him a loving home along with their Pitbull Mix, Nala. We are fortunate to have people like this in our lives but it doesn’t lessen the tears of goodbye. However, Stan will be happy, will be loved, and will be alive.

There is excitement ahead. A grandson, soon to be born, who will be living with his parents half an hour away from our chosen location. Pure joy, and a novelty as I have only ever flown in and out of our granddaughters’ lives. A reminder of my most recent visit to them in Trinidad is on my wrist. A bracelet made from beads reminding me of my name. Precious.

I don’t often go in for introspection. I am more of a get-on-with-it kind of woman, but I have been trying to understand why this move, probably our last international one, is filling me with a suitcase full of anxiety.

To understand, I let my mind wander back to a wonderful woman I met many year ago. Ruth Van Reken, co-founder of Families in Global Transition, and co-author, with David C Pollock, of a book called Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. For those unsure of the definition, a third culture kid (TCK) is, “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in the relationship to others of similar background.”

Here I am, an adult TCK, about to relocate for the umpteenth time, suffering a severe dose of dragging feetitis. It is, I have decided, because I shall henceforth be a ‘hidden immigrant’ – another definition coined by Van Reken. As I settle into English country life I shall look like an Englishwoman, sound like an Englishwoman – most of the time – but have no real knowledge of how to be an Englishwoman. I will no longer be a foreigner, a hat I wear with comfort.

I am not alone. John, too, has qualms. England now is not the England he knew when he left as a young man of 23 but, he reminds me, everywhere we’ve lived we’ve called home. This will be no different. The trick will be to retain the curiosity which has been my companion through so many countries. To remember, as Robert Louis Stevenson said in Travels with a Donkey, that “the great affair is to move, to feel the needs and hitches of life….”

Travel has been a driving factor in our decision to cross the Atlantic – the ease and opportunity to see more of Europe. So, no, we are not hanging up our nomadic boots. I feel the lassitude lessening. We will unpack our life in England, and explore a new place – even if we don’t have to learn a new language.

And I will find my tribe. I always do!

The Hunt

April 3, 2023 — 15 Comments

For me the hunt, specifically house hunting, runs to a formula – application, location, luck and compromise.

I know of what I speak. The first eleven moves, under the aegis of my parents, were handled with aplomb by my pragmatic mother. I have managed the other fifteen, although probably with less sangfroid. This current endeavor from St Croix in the US Virgin Islands back to Houston, Texas as a staging post before returning to England is probably the last – under my own steam.

Suffice to say, I’m pretty good at finding a house that will suit our needs. I have a healthy disrespect for most real estate agents (realtors in US speak) who have the sublime presumption to think they know what I want. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions – Isabel Brady on St Croix being one.

On the relocation treadmill with an oil service company I had naturally to work within a rental budget. But, honestly, I don’t care what one’s budget, I do not wish to reside in a house with a king-size oval bed beneath a mirror lit by strobe lights. That was in Singapore. That’s where the application came in. Line the places up and go for it. Tears and exhaustion from fractious children had just to be dealt with as we trundled in and out of unsuitable premises.

I learnt a lesson the first time we lived in Thailand. Listen to those who offer guidance. Live near the supermarket. Choose a place near other young mums. Don’t worry about John getting to work, he’ll be away a lot. But, no, I knew it all. Traffic in those days gridlocked the city daily. The house I claimed as ours was wonderful on a dry day although isolated from other expatriates. I had been seduced by the landlady who had attended the same secretarial college in London. A friend, I thought. Not so. Our lovely home, with lots of doors onto a verandah and pond, flooded whenever the rain came down in torrents and the klong we named Sweetwater Creek overflowed its banks. Snakes and rats swam freely in thigh-high water. Cockroaches fought for space on the blue gas cylinders and turned them into an undulating mass of quivering black bodies. On the plus side, an elephant visited many afternoons, waiting patiently for Kate to hand feed him sugarcane.

My return to Bangkok, two years later, was handled differently. I listened.

War stories are part of the relocation pattern. Mostly funny—after the event. I have learnt that location pretty much trumps everything. Get that right and most other things fall into place. So with the knowledge garnered over the past 40 odd years, I set off to England three weeks ago on a mission.

The wish list put together by John and I, tucked into a folder along with a logistics spreadsheet worthy of battle, ensured not a second of wasted time. In the myriad of moves John has been absent for a number of the house-hunting phases. Not through desire but because he was the one bringing home the bacon. Not once has he criticized my judgement.

Our house in St Croix could be deemed the pinnacle of my success. The place needed work, rather a lot work, but we felt ready for a challenge, and the location. My God, unbeatable.

But I digress. Back to England. I allowed myself two weeks, which I extended to three. I viewed 25 properties, from converted barns to relative new builds. From Grade II listed buildings to premises that should have been listed for demolition. I had my budget, and a self-imposed radius of within a 15 miles, extended to an hour-drive time, from Hitchin in Hertfordshire.

There had to be a good pub in the village – I spent most lunch times in one, for research, you understand. A good pub in the Gidley lexicon is one that serves beer John likes, and is not part of a chain. Dogs should be roaming free, and a beer garden is a bonus. On the village green is worth two bonus points. A shop trumps the latter. With both a pub and a shop a community is formed. Coming in from the tropics is going to be hard enough, without having to find a community where none exists.

Again I became seduced. By barns. I mean, who doesn’t want to live in a two-hundred year-old barn? But, and it is a huge but, most of them are listed as buildings of historical importance. Grade I – untouchable, Grade II* – almost untouchable, Grade II – maybe touchable. Those are my definitions, and of course anything can be achieved with patience and perseverance. The former is limited in my DNA, the latter, because I am after all a writer, is something of which I have plenty.

After ditching the last possible barn, I prepared to give up the hunt for now. A chance comment from the agent changed my course. Therein lies the luck.

“There’s a 20 year-old property in the village that shows well. But it’s not a character property.”

And there you have the compromise. Prepared to be disappointed, again, I wandered around the house. Is it perfect? Of course not. Does it need work? A little. The first thing to go will be the orange wall. Followed closely by the lilac bedroom. But is it workable? Absolutely.

The pub, complete with two dogs, is perfect. There is a shop and post office, and joy of joys there is a cricket team.

With a little application, a great location, a dash of luck and smidgen of compromise the hunt is over. Unless we are gazzumped!

Ten years ago this month I arrived on St Croix – I had been warned Ag Fair would mean hotel rooms would be at a premium and there would be no cars to hire. They were and there weren’t. I didn’t care. I came to view a house on a hill in Christiansted.
I fell in love that weekend—in love with a house, a town, an island.


The sea glistened aquamarine and topaz under a brilliant sun then, as trade winds blew a squall across the island, the ocean sparkled through opalescence to the colour of mercury.
Apart from knowing the island had once been part of the Danish West Indies then sold to the United States, I knew little of the history but, as with everywhere I’ve lived, I would learn, would throw myself into whys and wherefores of what would become our new home.


We bought the house on the hill.


It proved to be a project and without Barry Allaire and his Merry Men, Mingo and Easy, and the raft of tradesmen who helped, it would have been a job of epic proportions. They, with humour, sensitivity and patience turned dreams into a livable reality. And after slathering coats of paint on all the walls, I know each intimately as colour brought our new home to life.

With the help of a friend in Denmark, we found the Census for 1839 and learnt of some of the occupants of the house on the hill. My book, Crucian Fusion, has a short story called The Sempstress about the women – all seamstresses – who lived here.

And then the garden.

From a jungle of creeping coralita to a quarry of rotten rock relieved of buckets of Chaney and beer bottles, emerged coral-stone walls covered in moss. A slab of concrete with no discernible merit slid down the slope. Two coconut palms soared over a rampant ficus vine whose suckers sprouted in ankle-breaking profusion. A woody magenta bougainvillea with quarter-inch thorns clambered over a flaking white fence.

Over the years my husband, John, has turned the space into a garden of surprises. Each seating area offers glimpses of another promise through a curtain of Gardenia, Duranta, Portlandia, Hibiscus, Jasmine, Oleander and Ginger Thomas. A nod to my Australian heritage comes in the form a Bottle Brush. Honeysuckle climbs the wall of the workshop, a pygmy palm hovers near the pergola, where once coconuts threatened life. A path leads up the hillside to a bench covered with Chaney which offers a perch from which to view yachts either in Gallows Bay or Christiansted harbour. “Simon, Dec 31st 1928” was etched into another slab of concrete, which became the base for a patio. There is another name now added. “JKG, Feb 2018.”

It is a garden for the birds, the bees and the butterflies. Fish swim in the pond, until the night heron pays a call. Frog-song and cricket chorales fill our nights. It is a garden that has been enjoyed by our Crucian strays. Bonnie a week’s old kitten saved from drowning in Christiansted harbour after being kicked by a gig worker at Schupes on the Boardwalk. And Stan, left to die of starvation and suppurating sarcoptic mange at Altoona Lagoon, who followed me home from a walk. All is not always paradise on St Croix.

John has been involved with the National Park Service and has spent many hours, and much energy, helping clean beaches and trails, turtle watch and speaking to tourists. There is much talk of the beauty here and yet, too often, it is not valued. Instead people desecrate the island with dirty diapers, tires, appliances and any other detritus imaginable.

On the flip side, energy and imagination, and the St Croix Orchid Society, has created a sanctuary at the St George Village Botanical Garden. The Sugar Factory Memorial Garden will eventually house one thousand orchids to commemorate those slaves who lived and died on the estate. John, along with others, spent a year’s worth of Saturdays moving rocks and designing this sacred space – they became known as The Rock Stars.

St Croix is where I found my voice as a novelist – Fireburn and Transfer – are stories that have now travelled the world as tourists buy the books and take a little of the island’s history, wrapped in fiction, back to wherever home is. Crucian Fusion, mentioned earlier, honors a number of those who live on St Croix, both Crucians and imports, who have made a mark. One of my fondest memories when writing that book is of spending hours talking to Doc Petersen— little did either of us know he would die within a year.

I have gone on to write two more novels – Have You Eaten Rice Today? and, in the editing phase, Finding Serenissima. Neither about this island but written here, with huge support from the St Croix Writers’ Circle, who meet every Monday at ten – the eponymous name of the book we published during the pandemic.

Tomorrow I leave this house on the hill that has given us so much happiness. I leave the island that I love, the people who welcomed me, guided me, taught me. Not because I have fallen out of love but because, after ten years, it is time for a new adventure.

St Croix is not glitzy but colours shimmer like gemstones – sea-grape jam is like a handful of amethysts quivering on my morning muffin. And the people, the beaches, the towns, the architecture, the culture, the food, the ocean that laps the golden shores, epitomize America’s Caribbean.

Then why am I leaving?

Right now, as I think about packing my suitcase, as I say goodbye to another friend who has made me so welcome, I wonder.
But I’m about turn 65. If I’m to have another global adventure it has to be now.

So, goodbye and thank you St Croix. For the friendships and the fun

Caterpillar Promise

October 10, 2022 — 4 Comments

Nine years ago on October 8th, 2013, a dynamo in a petite frame named Resa O’Reilly signed ownership papers for a derelict building in Christiansted, the main town on St Croix. It became the foundation of a dream, a promise she made to herself, of instigating an holistic, long-term, after-school program for children and so, a few months later, the non-profit Project Promise became incorporated. A program dedicated to giving “at-risk youth the tools and support they need to live healthier lives.” To help youngsters improve their decision-making skills, to manage conflict, to introduce new vocational interests with the ultimate goal of inspiring “excellence and success for youth throughout the Virgin Islands community.”

Then

From those lofty goals and dreams came the Caterpillar Project, an eight-year program that would nurture at-risk children. The criteria for acceptance included students chosen from the 5th Grade with C or D averages, minimal to no behavioral issues and with involved parents. That last condition being pivotal because for the children to thrive, the message given in the program environment must be reinforced in the home.

That first tranche all taken from the Lew Muckle Elementary School have graduated and the second has started. This time students drawn from across different schools, which will create a different dynamic both for the children and those involved in the programming.

Not only are the students given opportunities to learn different life skills, and to learn about their own environment, they are encouraged to expand their outlook both nationally and globally. One program took four of the Caterpillars on a Summer of Service 4,000 mile coast-to-coast trip across mainland America. These youngsters saw iconic landmarks from each state they crossed but they also gave back to some of the communities through which they passed – service being an important component of the program. Another program involved Toys for Tanzania, and Walk for Refugees Awareness. As Ms O’Reilly states, “It’s important for the Caterpillars to know, despite their challenges, they can still make a difference in the lives of others.”

Project Promise initially run out the same school from which the children were drawn then, after the destruction of Hurricane Maria five years ago, from space given by Island Therapy Solutions, will now be housed in the building that prompted that initial dream.

“When I first went into the building,” Resa told me, “it was knee-high in trash, mattresses everywhere. The roof needed replacing, the windows, everything. ”

Now

Through the unstinting efforts of Resa O’Reilly, supported by her family and the board of Project Promise, the building began to take shape. Many local entities have been involved in helping this project come to fruition from major financial contributions, to smaller amounts and practical help. The Humanitarian Experience for Youth, for example, sent 146 volunteers to St Croix over a seven-week period in 2021. Teenage girls and boys became, in the space of a few weeks, adept at wearing a hard hat and wielding a hammer, climbing ladders, installing windows.

Now, nine long years later, the building under the guidance of local architect, William Taylor, is proof that dreams can come true. The rooms are light and airy, painted in varying shades of grey and white. Modern white desks line two of the classrooms – one which will be used to enhance computer skills. The conference / multi-purpose room is equally as spare in its decor but there is a warmth to the entire space generated by the enthusiasm that bubbles from all concerned. The kitchen and bathrooms are streamlined – floating shelves adding a sense of freedom. An enclosed courtyard, lined with just-planted crotons, ferns and small palms will become an outdoor space for snacks and games. Upstairs comfortable sofas and chairs dot the open-plan recreational room that leads to a small balcony.

The Project Promise building has, over the years, had numerous functions – a tavern, a cobbler’s shop, a mason, a wig shop and now a community centre for the young. In a story that has had various twists along the road, Resa has one more to add to the canon. The day before the Caterpillar Project started she found out that Lew Muckle, the Virgin Island native son and senator for whom the elementary school had been named and from which her Caterpillars had been chosen, had once worked in the building on the corner of Queen and King Cross Streets.

Through her determination and belief that obstacles are actually hidden opportunities, the once derelict building opened officially on Saturday, October 8th, 2022, nine years to the day since Resa O’Reilly found her life’s purpose.

As we watched attendees being guided through the building by one of the Caterpillars I asked her, “So, Resa, what’s next?”

“Oh my gosh,” the woman in an elegant crimson dress replied, “we’ve got to keep raising funds. It’s hard to keep the impetus going in the publics mind. There’s a sort of attitude amongst some that ‘well you’ve got the building what more do you want?’

“So the fundraiser treadmill continues?”

“Always,” she replied. “We can’t offer programs for these children without having financial backing.”

I am amazed at Resa’s resilience, her limitless enthusiasm, her dedication to the belief that an holistic approach is the most advantageous way to guide children to become strong, community-minded young people.

But it takes not just time but funds. Please consider donating to the future of St Croix.
http://www.projectpromisevi.com/donate

The Harmony of Life

October 3, 2022 — 7 Comments

“Mum, no more churches.” My son’s words came back to me yesterday as I waited for Jazz Vespers to start in a church perched atop a hill, open to the trade winds – when there are any. It is the St Croix Reformed Church and, because of COVID, the monthly event has not taken place for a couple of years.
I am not a regular church goer but I love churches.

When living in Scotland and after long, dark and dank winters I craved sunshine, so Italy became our chosen summer escape. And, apart from mouth-watering food and the nectar of the gods, the architecture of Italian churches, not to mention the statuary and art work, is sublime. An education in itself. But there is a limit to how many times an eight-year-old can be hauled around churches in every town or village passed through. And for his mother. The glory, the candles and rites can become overwhelming.

That same child, let’s call him Edward, went to a nursery school in Singapore affiliated with St George’s Church, originally built for the British garrison in the 1860s. The current church, completed in 1910, has the ability to transform from day to night. By day bulbuls and golden orioles flit amongst hibiscus planted outside, or swoop in to sit upon the gables of the pitched roof. The sturdy brick, barn-like structure is open to the elements on both sides of the nave, which leads to a modest altar below three stained-glass windows. By night the jungle chorale of crickets and frogs join the congregation in song, and the church becomes a beacon in the dark.

It is the simplicity I have always loved. There is no pretension.

Going back even further in my memory is the chapel at my boarding school, NEGS, in Armidale, Australia. The Florence Green Memorial Chapel, named for the founder of the school, is also a simple design – cruciform – and built of Armidale ‘blue’ brick. One transept houses the organ and choir, the other, junior members of the school under the stern eye of the incumbent headmistress.
Despite despising the regulatory uniform of ‘sacks’ (the name given our white Sunday best) and stockings, even at the tender age of ten I could appreciate the calm beauty of the silky oak interior and pews. At morning services the sun would stream through the transept stained-glass window to cast a blue haze over girls in the front pews.

The chaplain I remember best was the Reverend Alan Gordon – a man intent on engaging a chapel full of reluctant girls by any means possible. It was he who implemented a student folk group – a Kumbaya-kind of service conducted by senior students as we sang songs like Blowing in the Wind or, even more radical for rural Australia, House of the Rising Sun, accompanied by guitars.

Majesty without pretension.

Last night, in the church on the hill the sound of Eddie Russell and his jazz musicians brought back memories of other churches that sang to me. So too the realization that it is not the scriptures but the spirituality of the building and the music that speaks to me.

Eddie, invariably wearing black, is a well-known musician on St Croix and is the band leader. He plays a mean keyboard and flugelhorn, and keeps tight control of the group even if sometimes there is confusion as to what is to be played next. I closed my eyes during his solo of Simba Negro, taken to Argentina on the notes from a flugelhorn.

Ronnie, his brother and one-time lawyer and senator, loses himself as he rocks to the sounds coming from his agile fingers running up and down the frets of his red guitar. The bass guitarist, Mario Thomas strums the rhythm whilst sitting on an amp – his chords reach the depth of my soul as he plays a solo in Chromosome. He’s a cool dude whose face every now and then breaks into a broad grin. The quartet is complete when Ken ‘Afra’ Dailey settles behind the drums, testing different sticks before hitting the cymbals and controlling the beat that send talismans swaying around his neck. He is a hat-maker by trade and last night he wore a kind of paperboy cap on top of his long greying dreads.

I thought of Edward, of churches around the world, as the jazz soul of the Caribbean, accompanied by cricket song, enveloped me in a church filled, not just with the devout, but with people like me, open to the architecture, to the music, to the harmony of life.