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Melancholy Confusion

January 5, 2019 — 6 Comments

It is January 5th, Twelfth Night, the eve of epiphany, but here on St Croix, it is known as “Three Kings’ Day” and is marked by the adult carnival parade – a not particularly chaste celebration of the Magi’s first sight of the infant Jesus.

But as with most things Crucian it does have its roots in history when the enslaved were given time off to celebrate Christmas. In the 1700s the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted would be filled with costumed singing and dancing merrymakers, who would also visit other plantations to spread the holiday cheer. The modern manifestation has been in existence since the early 1950s when Three Kings’ Day marks the end of the month-long celebration with ten days of fun at the Crucian Christmas Carnival. Calypsonians compete for the title of king or queen and this year was won, for the fourth time, by Caribbean Queen aka Temisha Libert for her calypos, Promise and Karma. The first advising the incoming governor, Albert Bryan, to say true to his election campaign promises, and the second perhaps warning of what would happen if he doesn’t! Moko jumbies keep bad spirits at bay, cultural activities and fairs showcasing arts and crafts, food and drinks, keep the revellers happy, fed and lubricated. The final day, “Three Kings’ Day”, sees shimmering scantily clad men and women chasséing down the streets of Frederiksted to the steady beat of music belting out from trucks. It a noisy fun-filled spectacle that sets the crowds up for the coming year.

Twelfth Night, or the beginning of Epiphany, was always a subject of debate in my childhood home. Do the decorations come down on the night of the 5th or 6th of January? According to the Church of England it should be the 5th and so, over the years, I have come to adhere to their ruling. I can only assume the confusion came about due to one parent counting the 12 days from the day after Christmas Day, and the other from Christmas Day. Perhaps having the international date line between their two countries had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, I find the day a little melancholy. The tinsel is down, the fairy lights are stored away despite knowing a fuse needs changing, the baubles that have survived the cat’s delighted playing are packed away and my favourite tree decorations are wrapped in tissue and bubble wrap and wedged into stout boxes ready for any eventuality. The whole enterprise reminiscent of an international move, which was my initial reason for such careful storage practices. For many years we did indeed move every twelve months and I’d be damned if my Christmas decorations didn’t travel with me.

Perhaps the melancholy comes from knowing my global relocations have spluttered to an end. That is not to say I am unhappy in life or in my current location. How could I be? I am healthy and happy, as are my family. I have the Caribbean glinting in the sunlight and trade winds rustling the coconuts palms outside my study. A new book being released in March adds an element of satisfaction, and the thrill of starting another engages my mind in pages of what ifs and maybes. But the excitement of wondering what country we might call home the following year was intoxicating, and I miss it. 

Or perhaps my melancholy comes from saying goodbye to a houseful of friends who have stayed with us and shared our 12 days of Christmas – a noisy, busy, laughter-filled time of tempting smells from the kitchen and far too much rum and wine on the gallery.

Or perhaps it because this year we did not share our Christmas with our children and grandchildren who are scattered around the world. That, perhaps, a direct reflection of their upbringing in different parts of the globe. We all lead our own lives and only rarely do they truly entwine for a few precious days of shared memories, and when new ones are made to be stored away, like the decorations, and brought out occasionally for delightful reminisces. That is the price we all pay for a nomadic existence. And whilst I might think ruefully, and with a smidgeon of envy, of families who each year gather around the same Christmas tree in the same house in the same town, I know that is not our family.

We are global nomads. Each married to or with a partner from another country. We live in three different countries and as different cultural mores are navigated, with some becoming amalgamated into our own family culture, I reflect on the differences. But more importantly I reflect on the shared values. 

Because as Three Kings’ Day draws to an end, my melancholy vanishes and I have my own epiphany. It doesn’t matter where we live, or who we live with, or what language we speak. What matters is that when we do share time together, whether in reality or the virtual world of FaceTime, we are a family despite the miles between us.

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Hee-haw – Who’s the Ass?

December 19, 2018 — 7 Comments

I was meant to be wrapping presents, washing windows, winnowing waste and generally preparing for an influx of much-loved visitors over the festive season. But I decided my time would be far better spent going to the races. Not to the dogs, of course.

Music blaring across the grassy expanse guided me to the entrance where I handed over $5 and was welcomed by a gentleman in white tails and top hat. This rather natty attire was somewhat marred by the white shorts but I gave full points for his well-turned calves – wasn’t that how men were judged back in the days of doublets and hose?

It was my first time at donkey races though I consider myself a keen supporter of mutton busting – that popular event at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wherein small children straddle a sheep and cling to the surprisingly greasy wool in the hopes of staying aboard until the finish line. But I digress, and I am not in Houston.

I am on St Croix, the delightful, beautiful and verdant ‘big’ sister of the US Virgin Islands. 

Donkey racing I have learned was introduced in the 1960s, perhaps to pay homage to the simple ass who was once a common mode of transport. Like most stories from this wonderful island it is rather a convoluted one – we thrive on story telling here so, to copy a rather hideous phrase much in use at the moment, please bear with me a moment while I explain.

Donkey racing was started by a group of gentlemen whose habit it was to mass at a local shop to discuss matters of low, or high, importance of any given day. Politics and politicians are always good fodder for a gossip because we all know we could do better if only they would listen to the people they are meant to represent. Here I go again, off on a tangent – Crucian eloquence must be rubbing off on me. In any event, and I’m not sure of the date, one of aforementioned gentleman, a chap named Minard Jones, decided to open a bar at which his pals could lubricate their vocal chords. This group of snappy dressers marched in a parade – we do love parades here – sometime in the 1950s in top hats and tails, and forever after have been known as Gentlemen of Jones, no doubt in honour of their pal Minard. Over the years these gentlemen have become active in various community events on St Croix, which brings us rather neatly back to the donkey races.

We run at our own special pace on this island – Crucian Time and anyway it was Sunday afternoon, and no one hurries on a Sunday, least of all donkeys. They, the donkeys, were corralled in pens at the base of a gentle slope – surprisingly not a bray amongst them. Clustered around were various people carrying bridles though saddles were not to be seen. My interest perked up. This would be entertaining, and no doubt authentic to their beginnings as a means of getting around back in the day.

First up were the children, six of them in a range of heights with one youngster’s legs dangling almost to the ground. A donkey, unimpressed, reared up sending his rider ignominiously to the turf before the red flag had even dropped but the boy ruled the day and mounted once again. The children were led around the track by volunteer runners, or haulers, depending on the donkeys’ willingness to budge. Some of those astride grabbed the reins, others grabbed the mane, with one tiny tike in a sundress and boots who, once lifted aboard, inched her way over the withers and clung to the bridle itself. Smart move, and as they pelted past, her curls streaming behind her, I could see she was a regular on the donkey circuit. Others were not as graceful on their steeds, slipping around bare bellies until the fortunately soft grass became an inevitable and inelegant end.

Watching lightweights on the backs of animals known for their recalcitrant nature was amusing, if a little nerve-wracking for the mothers I’m sure. Next up though were the men. Six stalwarts prepared to make an ass of themselves. Men ranging in size from slim to not-so-slim provoked a different sentiment. Pity for the donkeys and a sincere hope they found the energy to buck, or at least shake their riders off. The men, being manly, were meant to race holding their own reins but some, after a number of false starts, or no starts at all, were also assisted by the hard-working volunteers. 

It is difficult, I’m sure, to stay atop a donkey uninterested in its rider’s well-being but there is nothing quite like anothers self-imposed discomfort to bring out the best in spectators. So we laughed. It was gratifying when the men slid and slithered to the ground despite iron grips and gritty determination and the crowd had no compunction in cheering the asses on, although I wasn’t entirely sure which set.

I did not stay for the remaining races – the time between each event stretching even my willingness to avoid housework – but a loud hee-haw to the Gentlemen of Jones for donkey races well run!

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!