Archives For culture

Christmas Treats

December 24, 2017 — Leave a comment

For many years my treat at this time of year was The Nutcracker, either performed by whoever my daughter was dancing with, and latterly, The Houston Ballet. This Christmas, I’m on St Croix and despite living opposite a dance studio, Tchaikovsky’s ballet is not on the dance card. And so I’ve found something else to satisfy my cultural thirst – and not just one performance.

There’s something about Sundays and music that goes together – whether it’s a church organ or, as has been my pleasure a couple of times lately, an afternoon of Colombian Cumbia, Brazilian Choro (street music), jazz compositions from the greats and original pieces inspired oftentimes by this remarkable music duo’s mode of transport. Their 43’ sloop – S/V Catherine.

This treat has been on offer for the last month at the Caribbean Museum of Culture and Arts in Frederiksted on the western end of St Croix. The venue is perfect for an afternoon of sometimes fierce, sometimes haunting, sometimes lyrical music – none of which it is possible to sit through without moving, at the very least, your toes. The music adds another layer to this elegant building exuding history through the thick walls which surround an inner courtyard. Art covers the walls of the upstairs gallery – at the moment a fascinating exhibition celebrating gay pride.

Through the open windows the hulking outline of the cruise ship housing FEMA, Red Cross officials and others who have responded to the call of St Croix’s need after the devastation of Hurricanes IrMaria, sits at the end of Frederiksted pier. Palm fronds, slowly straightening and growing back, sway in time to the music it seems, with the occasional bird flitting by as if curious to hear the freely floating melodies.

The current artists-in residence at CMCA are a husband and wife team, who play the piano until the historic walls positively quake, and who make a flute sing so sweetly as to bring tears. I believe their daughters are also musically-minded but I haven’t heard them perform yet. They are sometimes joined by local musicians – this last week by Junie Bomba on the conga drums.

Jarad and Christel Astin, aka Stell & Snuggs, met at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts over twenty years ago and, until relatively recently, followed individual musical careers. Their life changed, dramatically, just as so many Virgin Islander’s lives have changed recently – due to mother nature. It was Hurricane Sandy who tore into the fabric of their existence but rather than bemoaning their misfortune, this intrepid couple turned their back on conformity and began their nomadic lives, making music wherever they happen to moor.

Their daughters are homeschooled afloat – and I’d hazard a guess, are getting an education that will stand them in wonderful stead. Resilience and adaptability being two traits that will get them through any number of adventures as they find their own feet, or maybe fins.

As I watched Jarad, so at one with the grand piano in the upstairs gallery, his fingers skimming, pounding or fluttering along the keys, I wondered whether he missed having access to such an instrument as he sails from gig to gig. And I would think traveling with an accordion has issues all of their own. Christel’s work tools would seem far more portable – a flute, a ukulele and her voice.

What did traveling minstrels do before iPads? A quick swipe and notes appeared – maybe Wayne Shorter’s Little Waltz – slow and haunting, or a lively salsa straight from Santiago de Cuba. “Music,” Jarad said when describing the Afro-Caribbean beat, “ which all came out of a trip taken on a boat that they didn’t want to take.”

The power might have fluctuated and then gone off but there was no fluctuation in the power of the music. An original composition, Love Piece, soared up then thundered down – perhaps a description of a brief but intense affair or maybe a long marriage.

Jarad’s comments between pieces continued to be thought provoking – “Jazz brings people together from all over the world, regardless of colour or race or creed” – if at times as odds with his slightly rakish look of shaggy hair cut and porkpie hat!

The final composition was another original written as he sailed across that notoriously rough stretch water along the west coast of France, without Christel. Called Sans Romance de Bay de Biscay, it brought to mind loneliness and longing, before moving into a lilting crescendo as presumably he neared home.

The Astins are not only talented musicians but actively involved in encouraging youth to express themselves through music. I truly hope they continue to moor up at St Croix both for what they can teach and for the pleasure they bring.

I might not have listened to Tchaikovsky or watched The Nutcracker this Christmas but I certainly didn’t miss out on a cultural musical tour.
Merry Christmas, and may 2018 bring magic and treats to you and yours, in all its forms!

The Demon Drink

March 7, 2017 — 3 Comments

Washington Post columnist, Esther J Cepeda wrote a piece, Teens exposed to more alcohol-related ads, decrying the preponderance of said marketing tactics particularly on less well-known sites which, as Dr David H Jernigan, lead author on a new study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted are therefore “less regulated”. The article essentially said it was difficult to monitor and control what adolescents see online, but also that a lack of parental engagement must bear some of the responsibility for hazardous drinking practices.

One of my earliest memories has to do with olfaction. The faint hint of whisky on my mother’s breath as she bent to kiss me goodnight before she prepared for bed. I rarely remember stirring, so it was the sense of smell – the oldest sense – that was awakened. I don’t like the taste of whisky, but the smell is immediately comforting.

In my childhood, alcohol was all around me. On a hot day, my parents might have a beer at lunchtime on the weekends, or maybe a gin and tonic. Malarial prophylactic of the tastiest kind, and lime is of course good for scurvy! When the sun went down their chosen tipple was whisky. I would sometimes wake to little black and white plastic Scottie dogs, or a black horse, on my bedside table – testament a new bottle had been opened.

I am quite sure there were times when alcohol was over-imbibed. Why else would my father swing from a rotating fan in the mess at Poona? A decision which greatly increased his bar bill. But alcohol never adversely impacted my childhood, though I remember being soundly chastised for drinking the dregs from a glass littering the verandah after a curry lunch party. It tasted nasty and I didn’t do it again.

Fast forward a few years to my teens. I was thirteen or fourteen, when I was occasionally allowed a Dubonnet on ice – a drink my father considered suitable for “a young lady”. If we happened to be in Europe I was offered a small glass of wine.

As a result I grew up with a sense of perspective about alcohol – it was not demonised. Did I over-indulge sometimes? Absolutely. Why else would I dance on the bar at Brahms and Liszt? Though being young and with reasonably good legs in those days, I had no additions to my bar tab. Does it still happen? On rare occasions. Though I have given up dancing on bars. Can I stop drinking when I choose? Yes.

I am currently on a period of abstention. I have set no time limit. It is merely something I do every now and then, normally for a few months, to prove to myself that I can. Do I miss it? Not particularly. But I am sure I will have a glass of wine sometime in the future.

Did my children grow up with alcohol around them? I’m sure, if you’ve read this far, you know the answer. And yes, they too were allowed a drink before their majority.

The ages of majority, of license and of consent are three different things. Often, a moving number dependent on where one is living. For example, in the US the age of license for driving is 16, as is the age of consent (except in Delaware where it’s 18, with a proviso that sex is okay for 16 and 17 year olds if their partner is under 30!). The age of majority is 18, when young men and women can vote or ship off and fight for their country. But the age of license, which is essentially granting permission, as applied to alcohol is 21. It is a law which has been around in most states for about 25 years, but which has done little to reduce the number of teens drinking – breaking the law and risking a record.

The US shares that particular law with countries like Indonesia, Mongolia and a few others. Do I think it’s a ridiculous law? Yes. I am not advocating we encourage teens to drink excessively, but to simply demand abstention in either sex or alcohol is a short-sighted, unrealistic view, and one which does little to educate. The allure of the forbidden is strong, but the success of a drip-drip process of age-appropriate education is stronger.

Research by WHO (World Health Organization) has found that whilst “drinking occasions” amongst 15 and 16 year olds in Europe are greater, the levels of dangerous intoxication are less than in America. A startling US statistic reveals that “90% of all alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed during binge drinking.” Aaron White of the Duke University psychiatry department reports, “teens who drink excessively can face long-term cognitive consequences”.

I would argue it is the word ‘excessive’ and not the word ‘alcohol’ on which we need to focus. Adolescents, and neurologically adolescence lasts until 25, are able to drink far greater amounts than their elders – one of life’s ironies. An immediate consequence of binge drinking can sadly be death – either by alcohol poisoning or drunk driving; another is blacking out which can mean advantages can be taken.

We, the parents and adults, are to blame. We are not doing our young people any favours. We send them off to university or into adult life ill equipped to deal with dangled temptations. Just Say No or banning alcohol, or sex, doesn’t work. Education does. We should be educating our teens that alcohol is a depressant which slows down the brain. That their reasoning capabilities disappear with each shot, each glass, each pint and, literally before they know it, they black out.

Whilst I don’t agree with targetting young people with advertisements for alcohol, perhaps we should use them to start the conversation. Like most things a sense of proportion, or perspective, is often only gained with age. We can though give that process a head start, through education and sensible laws.

And now it’s time for the demon drink – ginger beer!

Marching On….

January 27, 2017 — 2 Comments

Saturday, 21st January 2017 marked the first time I deliberately marched for a cause.

In my facile youth I was known to occasionally tag along behind a group of noisemakers marching – just for the hell of it! I was never in the right place for demonstrations against the bomb, or for women’s lib. I was invariably in some far flung land where concerns were of a more local, more prosaic, nature. Whether school kids had knickers, or shoes, or pencils – or were even able to get to a school, for example.

So I was excited to be involved in a march that pulled many different factions together – women, the LGBT community, racial equality, religious freedom, the disabled and so on – under the umbrella of Women’s Rights are Human Rights. Something that, in America today, is being challenged.

All three islands proudly participated – St Thomas, St John and St Croix – they are after all part of the United States. But it wasn’t just an American movement. Friends marched in Sydney. My sister marched in London. Countless unknown men, women and children marched around the world. It was an incredible global event.

I was on St Croix, the Big Island of the US Virgin Islands. The march was pulled together in two weeks, thanks to the unflagging energy of a few people. Permits were obtained. Government house engaged. A police escort promised. Banners made, posters painted, flyers distributed. Social media running. Radio spots. The press invited. It was a band of hard working women – some of whom fitted the meetings in between grown-up jobs and familial commitments. It was also fun. With banter amidst the serious concerns that prompted the march in the first place.

When I was asked to speak at the rally I had some misgivings, and voiced them. Who was I to talk? A relative newcomer to the island, not yet even full time, and white to boot. I was asked to prepare something for the first meeting I attended. Having heard what I intended to say, it was decided to include me in the program. I was indeed honoured, and humbled. This is a shortened version of what I said:

“I am a fairly new citizen – I swore allegiance to the flag in 2010. I say quite deliberately to the flag because I did not swear allegiance to whoever happened to be living in the White House. I fully accept there will be times, such as now, when I might not be entirely on board with the inhabitant of that rather grand building, and that’s okay. That’s democracy.

But let me tell you a little about how I came to be here, in St Croix. I’m never quite sure – whether it’s in or on. We have searched for many years, in many parts of the world, for somewhere we could call home – permanently. St Croix is our choice – because of her diversity and acceptance of others not bahn here, her natural beauty, and her openness of spirit.

I have been fortunate to live in many countries – 12 of them. As diverse as Papua New Guinea and Holland, or Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia. And many others. It is only natural to like some places more than others but all countries have one powerful thing in common. Us. Women. The often quiet voice.

But we women, when riled and no matter what cultural lens we are viewed through, are a force to be reckoned with. And women supporting women, no matter from which walk of life, are the mainstay of the family and therefore the community. Now don’t get me wrong. I like men. I’ve been married to a chap for nearly 40 years, and I really like him.

No, what I mean is that women are often the best advocates for women. Time and again NGOs, governments, educators have proven that educating girls and getting women involved in community affairs, by offering women low-interest payment loans, by helping them set up home-based industries, women are the ones hauling their families out of poverty.

And let’s be honest, women tend to be the ones shooing their children out the door to get to school on time, to get to church on time, encouraging growth not just through book learning but through the arts and sport, as well as preserving our oral history and handing down age-old traditional skills.

Despite stereo-types portraying us as back-stabbing bitches or strident feminists, most of us are reasonable people who just want what’s best for our families. We are only driven to marches, such as this, by the unreasonableness of people who presume to know our minds, our concerns, our rights, and who show scant regard for our particular issues – both moral and tangible.

Women’s rights are human rights. That’s what the flyers and placards say. Whether the right to make decisions about our bodies, and our children’s welfare – we should be listened to. Because without the support of women, communities will suffer. We the People, men, women and children, will suffer.

Women’s rights are human rights – that’s why we are here today, and that’s why we shall not be silenced!”

As the euphoria of the march dims, and as decisions are made about moving forward, I think it is important to remember why we marched, irrespective of colour, creed, race, ability or disability, or sexual orientation.

I marched, for the first time, because I believe in the power of women’s voices. Let’s not forget, as those from the island I have chosen as my permanent home would say, “All ah we in Solidarity!”

April 7th, 2010

November 9, 2016 — 4 Comments

I looked around the school gymnasium and was humbled. We were a polyglot of tongues and colours, from many cultures – all immigrants. I stood with all the other immigrants to swear my allegiance to the United States of America. A country which I thought stood for decency. For equality for all. A still young country to which many others in the world looked to with hope.

In 2014 the population of America was 318.9 million and it seems, in the bleary light of a dull Houston morning, as if Secretary Clinton will win the popular vote by a squeak. America, though, is a representative republic as opposed to a direct democracy, and it is this that has allowed Donald Trump to win the Electoral College. The system whereby the number of electors for a state is based upon the voting membership of that state in Congress.

The system put in place by those who wrote the Constitution. James Madison, considered the pivotal writer of the Constitution, believed “factions” of the public with a common interest could arguably harm the nascent nation as a whole. I would argue that system has just irredeemably harmed the now 241 year old nation.

This is not the first time the popular vote has been defeated by the electoral system. George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, and the same has happened on three other occasions in the 1800s. I wasn’t able to vote in the Bush v Gore contest but I cared, and was disappointed in the outcome. I was not, though, riven with a feeling of utter horror. Mr Bush might not have been my choice but I never questioned his belief in his country or his inherent decency.

The man-who-would-be-president in January 2017 fills me with such disgust and distrust that I feel truly ill. And almost worse, my anger at the millions of people in this incredible country who have turned their back on progress. Who have accepted the slogan “Make America Great Again” – when the merest glance over the border to the chaos in many countries in Central and South America, across the oceans on either side of us, would see just how great America is.

Fed on fear, much of America has shown the watching world just how ignorant we are of what is happening in the world. We are in danger of being considered an inward-looking, inbred country of misogynistic men and cowed women, uncaring and uninterested in life outside our borders. Unwilling to take a stand for the rights of people everywhere.

And everywhere includes the United States. Mr Trump has denigrated so many people here – women, African Americans, Muslims, the disabled, immigrants, those who have fought and died for this country, those who love someone of the same sex – and I suppose, as I wipe the tears away, I am shell-shocked at the gullibility of people through broad swathes of this country. People who have voted for a man who is proud of not paying taxes, a man who holds women in staggeringly low esteem, who sneers at climate change and believes coal extraction is a good way to increase jobs, a man who brags of business acumen but who is alienating many trading partners with his rhetoric of slashing international trade deals, won through diplomacy and patience.

Diplomatic and patient – two words never used to describe the man we the people have elected to the White House. To fill the rooms of that venerable mansion with crass flamboyance, and crude utterances. To replace a family who have lived there with grace, humour and courage.

And I am shell-shocked at the blatant disregard by women in this country of a man who threatens their very wellbeing, and that of their children, particularly their daughters.

The markets settled slightly after Mr Trump’s acceptance speech, more gracious than expected, but how can a country become “great” when the person leading it has such a low opinion of so many of its citizens, and the world outside its borders?

On April 7th, 2010 I proudly became a citizen of this incredible country. On November 9th, 2016 I am beyond dismay.

Tears for Thailand

October 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

Years ago and far away, in what now seems like another life time, we lived in Bangkok. Those fortunate enough to spend time, not just a vacation, but time enough to absorb some of a country’s culture, will forever have an element of that country in their souls.

As Thailand mourns the death of King Rama IX, my heart is heavy for what the country has lost and what the country now faces. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the ordained successor to King Bhumibol – the only son and a man considered by many to be a serial philanderer. He has been married three times, has numerous children, some of whom he has denounced and is not held in the same high regard as his father. Or his sister.

I had the honour of being presented to Princess Sirindhorn when Cheshire Homes opened a new centre for the physically disabled on the outskirts of Bangkok. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn or as many Thais call her, Phra Thep – Princess Angel – is another matter. Admired by all for her steadfast devotion to the Thai people, she was elevated, with a tweak to the constitution in 1974, to Princess Royal which, in theory, would allow her a claim to the throne should something happen to the Crown Prince.

Soi Attawimon, where we lived our first time in Bangkok was a narrow street over a klong littered with daily detritus and which, in the monsoon season, regularly flooded our garden and occasionally our house. There were bonuses though to living on our little lane. Late afternoons were often punctuated by delighted squeals from our daughter, Kate, when she would feed sugar cane to the elephant ambling back to his home. We also had an early warning system of any coup. Tanks and trucks filled with soldiers would rumble along from military barracks at the far end of the soi. Being essentially a dead street did have its drawbacks though. We were regularly delayed as it was closed and city traffic idled to an even slower pace than usual, in order to allow the Crown Prince clear passage.

The Glorious Twelfth is not only the start of the grouse shooting season, it is also the now Dowager Queen Sirikit’s birthday, and so a public holiday. Kate, whose birthday is also on August 12th, grew up believing the whole world stopped for her one day every year.

There were many happy occasions in Thailand. From the serene to the surreal.

Loi Krathong, which falls on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai calendar – usually the end of November – is a charming ritual. Baskets woven from banana leaves into ornate shapes are filled with flowers, trinkets, incense, candles and coins, sometimes even nail clippings or hair so character flaws are released, and are then floated down the waterways taking away misdeeds and paying obeisance to the water spirits. The Chao Phraya, the river flowing through Bangkok, is the main repository for the floating mass of twinkling baskets but, in my mind’s eye, it is our little fish pond where the spirit of loi krathong is wedged.

Inordinate skill is required to weave banana leaves into a floating receptacle. A skill I did not have despite expert guidance from Es, our maid. She fashioned a basket in the shape of a lotus blossom for Kate which was duly filled with flowers, a candle and a small doll, “For to be lucky”. The house was dark and our garden became a magical wonderland as lights from the soi sent shadows dancing. Kate, as she had been taught by Es, put her hands together in a deep wai and slid her loi krathong into the pond. Water splashed up and, as we watched her basket eddy amongst the reeds and curious gold fish, my two-year old turned to me laughing at her wet nightie and said, “Mai pen lai, Mummy!” And she was right. It didn’t matter. The world was in harmony in that darkened garden – if only for a moment.

Surreal came from the machinations of monkeys in Wang Kaew stealing our breakfast of papaya and pineapple when, as I shouted and flailed my arms at the intruders, Kate reminded me that being kind to kleptomaniac monkeys was considered good luck in Thailand. Es taught her well.

And Edward was born in Bangkok. Not on an auspicious date in the Thai calendar but a day to be forever celebrated in our family. Our children were playfully pinched and pampered by Thais wherever we went – scooped away the moment we sat at restaurant table – to be heard chortling as they devoured sticky rice and mango with their new friends.

And so, as Thailand mourns King Bhumibol, my heart is with them and my deepest hope for that gracious country is that the transition to a new monarch is peaceful. That, in the not too distant future, Thailand again becomes the Land of Smiles.