Archives For St Croix

Perfume and Politics

March 27, 2021 — 2 Comments

A quartet of women, all the wrong side of sixty, stand around a beaten-up SUV in a glow of their own making as well as light spilling from the glittering interior behind them. Their shadows cavort. They are gleeful, like teenagers discussing the cute new boy in math class, or eight-year olds released from school. The air is perfumed by an array of scents emanating from their bare arms. From musky to sweet, floral to citric, their noses crinkle in delight or dislike. The same scent smells different on each of them. Chemistry, an active ingredient that comes both from the ornate bottles spritzed onto their wrists and their friendship. 

Laughter surrounds them as they display their purchases, boxes of perfume that could last them their lifetime, on the sea-and-sun-ragged vehicle. A mascara rolls down the slope of the hood, caught before it reaches the tarmac of the parking lot. 

Lyrics from the songstress perched on a barstool, playing her guitar, mingles with the trade winds that cool them, even in the quadrangle of a low-slung strip mall. A melange of orange blossom, jasmine and cedar waft a myriad of aromas. The bonnet is also a table for loot from swag bags. Mont Blanc and Coach, Boss and Cellcosmet jostle for space as exclamations swirl amidst the mirth. Swaps are negotiated, generosity fills the night.

The quartet’s conversation quietens and turns to the master class in marketing just witnessed. Their instructor, Raymond Kattoura, Director of Purchasing for Duty Free Retail whose base is in Miami, is also the host for the opening of Rouge – St Croix’s latest high-end perfumery and luxury goods emporium, situated at Orange Grove Shopping Center. A seemingly lack-lustre choice lacking in the charm and beauty that makes up so much of St Croix. 

“The store is located,” he told them, “not in Christiansted along the Boardwalk or on King or Company Streets, because the company’s target market is people who live on island rather than tourists passing through.” The staff at Rouge, their black clothing a foil to the shimmering array of bottles, added to the ambience with not only their quiet guidance but a willingness to join in the laughter as wrists and arms were held out for another scent.

“The senses must be stimulated and comfort is a major factor. The body and brain feeling in harmony. Freedom to choose in a relaxed environment. Pleasant staff. Good lighting. And ease of parking contributes to the equation.” His goal achieved, Mr Kattoura’s last statement has added significance as the friends loiter around the car.

“Even if I’m dressed like a tramp,” says one of the women putting her new perfume back in the bag, “I want to smell good!”

Fueled by Prosecco and fed by Teddy, an event planner with flair, their evening ends and fond farewells are made.

“A luxury brand is about more than just products, it is about lifestyle and experiences too.” Raymond Kattoura’s words reverberate as one of the women, me, prepares for bed. Fun and friendship, even behind masks, help the four of us, all vaccinated, enjoy an evening out – the first in a long year. 

As my eyes close, I am glad I made a pact with myself during the turbulent year just past, when the airwaves and ether were filled with reports unconducive to sleep. I no longer listen to, watch or read any news before bedtime, and so words from a song from my long-gone youth drift in and I smile, Oh what a night!

Daylight filters through the loose-weave curtains and I come to a consciousness of dawn and Bonnie, the cat, yowling. As I wait for the kettle to boil she curls around my ankles but rejects the offer of a cuddle. I take my mug of tea to the gallery and rejoice in the glorious place I call home. An island that embraces any newcomer willing to be polite and open to idiosyncrasies unique to every individual place.

I am relaxed, happy.

I press my phone for CNN. It was my first mistake of the day.

I read of the travesty of voter suppression just signed into law in Georgia – the state not the country. I see images of Governor Brian Kemp surrounded by white, predominantly middle-aged, balding men looking over their masks and in front of a painting by Olessia Maximenko of Callaway Plantation. Now an open-air museum that tells of its inglorious former existence as a slave plantation where runaways were hunted by dogs, and in a state wherein the tyrannical Jim Crow laws, demanding segregation of public buildings and blocking the right to vote for Blacks, were embraced with complete disregard for human dignity – or, in easy language, White Supremacy.

Gone, in the swoop of the Governor’s signature, are the results of the Civil Rights era.

Gone, also, in handcuffs was State Representative Park Cannon who happens to be a Black woman, a Democrat knocking on the door of the staged signing asking to witness the travesty. She was arrested by white, uniformed men in Georgia, the state not the country, Troopers.

Heather Cox Richardson in her Letter from an American this morning wrote of South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond who, in March, 1858 rejected “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal.” He continued by warning that the ballot box was stronger than ‘an army with banners’ and that appears to be the belief of those currently in the Georgia administration.

The Military Reconstruction Act in 1867 began, Cox Richardson reminds us, to establish impartial suffrage which Maine politician, James G Blaine, wrote in 1893, “changed the political history of the United States.”

Yesterday in Georgia, the state not the country, Governor Kemp and his minions, began an attempt to change the face of the United States in 2021 back to the bad old days. 

All Americans, whatever colour, whatever political persuasion, should be incensed. 

The glee, the frivolity and joy, in the company of Black and white gone in a puff of perfume, and the stroke of a pen.

Oh what a night!

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.

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!

Two-Timing Bint!

March 29, 2018 — 1 Comment

I’ve been caught! I have been, since 2013, a two-timer. It has been fun, exciting, though at times a little fraught. Timing is often an issue. What to wear, and where to wear it? And like most relationships there have been moments of despair, moments of regret but there has been, on the whole, great enjoyment. And strangely my heart has not been torn asunder by my dual lives. My loves are so very different it has been easy to compartmentalise their existence, to take the best of the both and conveniently walk away for a spell when too much has been asked of me by either. All in all a most selfish affair.

I thought the arrangement was long term. I thought I had it sorted. I thought I could have it all. I didn’t see the end coming and so have had the proverbial stuffing knocked out of me. I am dismayed. Discombobulated.

The decision to end this two-timing life has not been made final due, as so often is the case, to situations outside my control. I am in the hands of people over whom I have no clout. I suppose in a way I am being held to ransom. And yes, I am resentful. Though arguably I have little right to be.

As I consider the consequences of my actions, and the consequences of those who hold aloft the Sword of Damocles under which I now live, I find myself withdrawing from the one I believed would be the constant. The one who has held my heart for thirteen years.

I write not of people but of places.

Downtown Houston was, when I moved here in 2005, an area of promise but little else due in large part, according the then mayor, Bill White, to the tunnel system. Meandering 20 feet below the city they were started by Ross Sterling in the 1930s. Over the years the tunnels grew to cover 95 blocks. A warren of scurrying humans protected from Houston’s heat. And as they became more and more subterranean the hobos and the ne’er-do-wells took over the surface.

But by the early 2000’s a push was being made to bring office workers back into the light, to stop developers buying up and demolishing historic buildings, to revitalise what was once a vibrant city. To bring back those who had fled to the suburbs and who only dared enter Downtown for a night at the opera, the symphony, the ballet or the theatre – all of which are first class.

Walking the streets at the weekend in 2005 meant a quiet stroll with no chance of finding a coffee shop or a wine bar. Me, my husband and my dog were the pretty much the sole occupants. Then slowly, slowly people came and Downtown Houston became once again a dynamic, pulsating, cosmopolitan city. And I fell in love.

We bought a loft apartment, one not deemed worthy to show so we bought ‘as is’ and made it our own. We share the building with 13 other urban dwellers – a conglomeration of ages, ethnicities, and animals. We are all part of what has contributed to the resurgence of the city.

And now we are being told there is a very real chance our funky brick building with black terraces and a metal star on the roof (it used to be the Star Furniture warehouse) will be purchased under eminent domain laws. To make way for what is being touted as an answer to Houston’s flooding problems. The North Canal.

So, yes, I’m furious. I have been jolted, if no jilted. The place I have loved unconditionally is in danger of being demolished to a pile of rubble and dust to make way for a giant ditch. We are in essence being considered the scapegoats for the greed and, let’s use that currently much touted word, ‘collusion’ of property developers and officials who have built homes on flood plains and what were once rice paddies. There is a reason rice grew so well out west of the city. Wetlands will flood.

And so to preserve my heart I can feel myself withdrawing from the place in which I have lived longest in my entire life. A place that as old age approached would still be a viable option and from which, quite frankly, I could be removed in a box.

But I am lucky. I have another love. A newer love that tempted me to become that two-timer. A place so utterly different to Downtown Houston that I never felt the pull-me-push-me of loyalties. I will not though go easily into the arms of American’s Caribbean on a full-time basis. Despite the powers-that-be trying to moderate my behavior, which let’s be honest adds to the spice of life, I will remain a two-timing bint!

Mustn’t Grumble!

November 24, 2017 — 4 Comments

The generator rumbles, day and night, across the street from the Department of Education – even yesterday on that most sacred of American days – Thanksgiving. I recognise how lucky I am to have the luxury of electricity, and I recognise how truly fortunate I am not to have to deal with a roofless house and all that entails – a life blown or washed away.

And so I “mustn’t grumble”.

That is arguably one of the most British of British understatements. Our world may be caving in but really there’s nothing about which to complain. A quick search brought up Chas and Dave, Eric Idle in The Life of Brian, and Terry Wogan’s autobiography. I can’t help feeling it’s a phrase that’s been around a lot longer than either Chas, Dave, Eric or Terry.

But those are the words which aptly describe many on St Croix. They have been devastated by a category five hurricane, Mad Maria, skimming the south shore two months ago and the majority of people when asked how they fared, respond with variations of “mustn’t grumble”. Dig a little deeper and you will find some living under a blue tarpaulin – signifying FEMA have stepped in and provided covering against the capricious elements. Or windows were sucked out, or blown in, in a terrifying eddy of angry winds – either from the hurricane itself or a tornado it spawned. Or “dat big ole tree, it jus’ felled down” – enquire further and you are liable to find it landed across a home, or the track leading to a home, or maybe it came to rest on a car.

But hey, Jemima or Cyril or Sarah, well they had it worse, so mustn’t grumble.

I bumped into a professor I know – we were both looking for anti-mould remedies or batteries or any of the myriad items shelved in The ‘ome De, that well known d-i-y store where employees where orange pinnies and which also took a battering, and whilst the roof might have been repaired the signage has not – anyway, she, the professor, proudly told me when I enquired about the state of the University of the Virgin Islands, that they were up and running two weeks after the storm. She added it might have been a bit chaotic – but mustn’t grumble.

A number of schools have been deemed unsafe and so the Complex, one of the high schools on the island, has juggled its timetable to accommodate not one but two other schools – an elementary and a junior high. The high schoolers are released from academic bondage at midday and the younger students stream in for the afternoon session. It must have been an educational nightmare to reorganize three schools into one, but mustn’t grumble, others have it worse.

Not only was hurricane debris strewn across roads – huge old mahogany trees rudely uprooted, galvanized tin flung from roofs, siding cartwheeling across fields and through gardens – but electricity poles tumbled too. Power lines whipped around in the wind before subsiding into tangled coils or snaked across buildings and roads, making the latter impassable for fear of a jolt. Some poles were felled to splinter in jagged abandon against a branch, or landed in a trampoline parody on a strand of cable still hanging. Adding insult to injury a sink hole appeared on the road linking Christiansted along the north shore to the East End of the island. The road on the south side was impassable in most places because of the aforementioned power lines.

A combination of no power for over two months – some lost it when that bitch Hurricane Irma sped north of St Croix the week before Maria hit – no water because, as you know, power is needed to pump water unless you have a handy ass or ox nearby to walk around and around in circles to draw it up from a well, no means of transport in some cases because a car has been damaged or because there is nowhere safe to go and, immediately after the storm, a curfew only lifted for four hours each day, not to mention a hospital badly damaged with many medi-vaced to the mainland, and I think most would agree there is a hell of a lot to grumble about.

But Crucians, and imports, are hardy folk. They focus on what can be done. They praise and celebrate the arrival of linemen (I’m sure some of them are from Wichita) who are valiantly assisting local crews with power restoration. They have elevated Tim Duncan, a local boy, and latterly of San Antonio Spurs fame (basketball for those not from the US) to near sainthood for his immeasurable help in raising funds, and then having the grace to actually come home numerous times to help distribute water, care packages, batteries and so on, rather than tossing a kitchen roll as our president was filmed doing.

There are stories of local generosity too. A local veterinarian, Kasey Canton, shipped and distributed generators from the mainland. A brother and sister duo, the Ridgeways, have raised money in a GoFundMe campaign  and dispensed needed supplies through their new organization VI-R3 (Relief, Recover, Rebuild), and there are countless other tales of magnanimous deeds.

And so as I grind my teeth at the incessant rumble of the generator I remind myself, and reflect that whilst the phrase may be British those on St Croix have earned the right to use it, I really mustn’t grumble and in the immortal words of Eric Idle, ‘always look on the bright side of life’!