Archives For birthdays

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!

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Cherish the Ruins

December 31, 2017 — 2 Comments

The flurry of Christmas is over, and it’s that time of year. Time to reflect, but not linger, on the past.

It is a theme that has been much on my mind lately as I have been writing an article on an exciting joint USVI / Danish proposal, known as The Legacy Project, for St Croix This Week – which, as a Caribbean quirk, is produced bi-monthly. It is on the conservation of the past, the restoration of the present and the transformation for the future.

I am referring to the old Danish army barracks which, after their final iteration in the 1960s as a high school then police substation, were abandoned to asbestos and bush. It is a project dear to my heart and not only because it is IMBY (In My Back Yard) but, and this is a direct quote from the piece which I thought quite good even if I do say so myself, “Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad.”

The history of these aged barracks is etched into the walls built from ballast bricks and coral stone. The bricks were used to stabilise empty ships arriving from Denmark ready to load up with sugar and rum for eager consumers in Europe. The coral stone was cut by slaves, hauled ashore and used not only to be aesthetically pleasing but to help cool the buildings.

But this isn’t a blog about buildings – you’ll have to read SCTW for that.

No, I’m talking about me. In May 2018 I will reach the 60 milestone or, as miles were counted in Nigeria, the 60th pole – the telegraph poles strung along the dusty roads crisscrossing the country when I was a child.

It’s a bit of a shock. In my mind I am 35 but my mirror says, “Add 25 years, ducky”. 49 stitches down my back is a good start for counting the scars. My husband did suggest I get a zip tattooed over that one. And my face is running out of room for stitches, no matter how adept the plastic surgeons. But as I reflect on the past I comfort myself that the physical flaws are part of my heritage – the good and the bad. I’m sure I have mental flaws but can’t think of any at the moment!

I have been inordinately fortunate in my life. I come from a happy, if slightly unusual and nomadic background. I met a man in Papua New Guinea 40 years ago and still adore him, and our children and grandchildren bring great joy. Of course there have been tears, disappointments, frightening times and moments of ‘what the fuck’ but those are events that have etched themselves into my psyche and made me stronger, if not more patient. There’s a flaw!

I have wiffle-waffled around in various jobs in various countries – all of which have been great fun but none could have been called a career. Perhaps it is the fault of my Zodiacal sign. Geminis are notoriously fickle. That question, so often asked of me around the world, ‘what do you do?’ has invariably caused a seconds conundrum.

However the last ten years have seen me knuckle down. Expat Life Slice by Slice (Summertime Publishing 2012) was a memoir and, much as I enjoyed writing it, did not to my mind give me the right to call myself a writer. The words did not come from rigid discipline, interviews and research as non-fiction does – they came from my memory nudged by diaries and photographs. Or as in fiction, from allowing the imagination to float freely backed up by discipline and research.

But with the publication of Fireburn (OC Publishing 2017) – an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies of the 1870s, I have a label. No longer will those little tags at conferences, cocktails or coffee mornings merely give my name – I have, at the ripe old nearly age of 60, a bona fide career. Writer.

Oh yes, another mental flaw – procrastination!

As we head into the New Year, I’m going to stop dithering and write the sequel, Transfer of the Crown. And I’m not going to linger on birthdays and scars. Instead I’m going to return to those decaying army barracks and think of the words spoken by Danish architect, Ulla Lunn, as she passionately called for their restoration – “cherish the ruins”.

May 2018 bring you health and happiness – and wonderful stories to share.