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Girl Sitting on Beach

Alone On a Rock

Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog knows that I have a lot of friends here on Tortola, most of whom are a short (albeit precariously steep) walk down the hill from our apartment. But for 12 days earlier this month, I was, technically, alone—without my partner, my significant other, and my companion—while Bill was back in the States, getting his health checkups and visiting family and friends.

This was only the third time in our 19-year relationship that he’s traveled and left me at home alone, and the previous two times were only for a few nights each. Granted, for over ten years, I traveled extensively for work, mostly without him. But when you’re the one who’s doing the traveling, you’re far from alone. There are tons of people at the airports, hotels, and restaurants that become your temporary home-base. And there are meetings with colleagues, customers, or tradeshow attendees. So being the one who leaves is quite different from being the one who is left.

Sandy Cay, Belize

Some days felt like this.

During Bill’s previous two trips, I was working in an office, so between being at work all day, going to the gym, and running errands, I was barely home to notice his absence. Which made this time even more unique, since I’m now working from home, with my living room being my gym, and the only pressing errand being a trip to the grocery store. So nearly every waking hour was spent here, at the apartment, without his presence.

Soon after Bill’s departure, I discovered that even on a small island, where you literally can’t go anywhere without running into someone you know, it is possible to be very, very alone. I hadn’t watched TV since the beginning of the year, yet during those twelve days he was gone, I turned on the TV just to simulate having someone else around. But virtual company is a poor substitute for the real thing, so nearly every evening, I was compelled to visit one of our favorite hangouts, in search of people to talk to. (Confession: I talk to my cats, but they’re not very good at keeping up their side of the conversation.)

The upside of being alone was that my daytime productivity went through the roof. The downside was that I had to do everything that Bill normally does—including lug five-gallon water jugs up and down our stairs, re-light the stove pilots when they went out, haul off the trash, and wash the Jeep. This resulted in the realization that although he may have fewer domestic responsibilities than I do, they’re exactly the ones I can’t stand doing. Note to self—no more (or at least less) grumbling about the uneven split of household chores.

Thanks to FaceTime and unlimited international calling plans, we were able to talk every day, with multiple phone calls on some days.  And every time we talked, Bill would boast about the speedy internet, or what restaurants he visited, or what he went shopping for that day. He truly enjoyed his time back in the “real world.” But to me, his depictions of and enthusiasm for life in the States didn’t compare to the warm weather and breathtaking views of early spring in the Caribbean that I was enjoying. Although I would prefer not to go about it alone, I’m still quite happy here. And after almost two weeks, I’m very glad to have him back on the rock with me.

Bill and Danielle

Better together…

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Christmas in the Caribbean

Christmas in the Caribbean

Our first Christmas in the Caribbean! Or, as we call it, Thursday.

Maybe it’s because the holiday isn’t as commercialized here. Or maybe it’s because the sun is always shining and the weather is perfect. But Christmas doesn’t have the same feel here on our rock that it did in the States.

I used to envy people who spent Christmas in the Caribbean. Escaping the cold. Avoiding the hours of cooking, days of cleaning, and weeks of decorating that so many of us spend in preparation for the holidays. (Not to mention the cleanup and un-decorating that follow.) Don’t get me wrong, though. For me, Christmas is the most special holiday of the year, with its combination of family-centeredness and religious importance. But if we’re honest, most of us would admit that it’s a lot of work – physically, mentally, and sometimes, emotionally.

Now that I’m one of those who has escaped the hustle and bustle and celebrated Christmas on a tropical island, I’ll share some of the differences, oddities, and adaptations that come with spending the holidays in paradise.

Weather

The months of November thru February are the things I miss the least from back in the States. Since I recently wrote a post regarding the brutally hot months of September and October here on the rock, I should point out that the heat has, thankfully, subsided. The weather has returned to a Goldilocks state of warm, but not too hot, with the Christmas winds providing a cool breeze when you’re sunbathing on the beach. But as far as the holiday season goes, it’s a bit odd to celebrate without at least once wearing my favorite red wool blazer or fuzzy snow boots. (Not that I ever really needed to wear snow boots in North Carolina, but on the few days when the temperature dipped below freezing, I could sort of justify them.)

This Christmas, instead of traipsing around the Southeastern U.S. dressed as though I live in the Arctic Circle, I’m spending most of the holiday in climate-appropriate attire:  shorts and a tank top. Christmas Eve Day was celebrated at the beach, and Christmas afternoon was spent outdoors as well, with brunch at our favorite restaurant. And sometime between Christmas and the New Year, I plan to do SUP yoga again. While I miss a few of my favorite winter clothes, I’ll take a bathing suit and flip-flops over turtlenecks and socks any time.

Uggs Beach

If I see anyone on my rock wearing these, there will be a drowning.

Decorations

I love holiday decorations – all of them.  Green, red, gold, blue, silver, white, big bulbs, little bulbs, Santa, reindeer, trees, manger scenes, the Grinch, candy canes, gingerbread men… You get the picture. I think this appreciation for all things shiny and bright came from growing up just a few miles from Christmas Town USA. And this is the thing I miss the most about Christmas back home – decorations at every turn. Everything from the immaculate displays in department stores to lights haphazardly strung around trees.

Since Tortola doesn’t have a) shopping malls, b) neighborhoods with many houses in close proximity, or c) reasonably priced power, I barely saw any Christmas decorations this year. There were a few exceptions, though. Both of the roundabouts in town were decorated, and there was a gorgeous Christmas tree just across from the ferry docks.

Roundabout in Tortola, BVI

Road Town Roundabout – decorated by the Rotary Club

For reasons of space, cost, and practicality, the only Christmas decor that we brought with us was a table runner given to me by my best friend. My sister, however, had other ideas about our holiday decorating.  She insisted that everybody needs a Christmas tree, and sent us a small, wooden tree that I had purchased for my niece’s bedroom when she was a baby. Despite missing my own decorations and the mega-displays of lights and bows and garland, I must say that the decorations this year seemed more special.

Wooden Christmas Tree from Germany

Because everyone needs a Christmas tree!

Commercialism

According to Facebook posts from Stateside friends, some stores were displaying Christmas decor alongside Halloween decor this year! Surely this confuses the kids? “Mommy, I want to be a ninja for Christmas.”

Black Friday Cartoon

It won’t be long until this happens.

Here in the BVI, there’s no problem with Christmas burnout. Holiday activities don’t even begin until the first week in December. Which makes the holiday season seem incredibly short for those of us who take the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as the official start of Christmas.

In terms of consumerism, because shopping options are so limited on the island, there are virtually no Christmas sales to lure you into the misconceived notion that you Must. Buy. All. The. Things. A few local stores tried to capitalize on the Black Friday phenomenon (despite the fact that Thanksgiving and the day after are not holidays here, so everyone’s at work). But when you’ve memorized every store’s inventory, with virtually zero chance that they’re carrying anything you haven’t already seen, there’s not much incentive to go Black Friday shopping.

As for online shopping, I’ve discovered that if you have your name and email removed from the mailing lists of major clothing and home decor stores (I’m talking to you, Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn), there’s virtually no temptation to spend money. It’s amazing how much your desire to spend is curtailed when you actually have to cultivate the mindset of, “Hmmm, I wonder what new things are out there that I might want to buy this Christmas?” and go online and search for them. It’s just much harder to do when you have to search it out than when it’s presented to you in a sleek, glossy catalog or clickable links.

Santa

Santa is another thing (person) that’s not as ubiquitous here in the BVI as it (he) is in the States. Again, without shopping malls or big shopping centers, there are no places on the island to go visit Santa. He has to come to you. And from what I’ve seen, he’s only made a few appearances here on our rock. Unlike in the States, where parents actually make up stories about how Santa has “helpers” so he can be everywhere at the same time – to explain when the kids see him in three stores in a row. “But the Santa you had your picture made with was the REAL Santa.”

Santa 1977

The REAL Santa

Tourists

Most of the people who vacation in the BVI either charter or own a boat, as this is the sailing capital of the Caribbean. And with a relatively small number of hotels on the island (the “no franchise” law means there are no Hiltons, Marriotts, etc.) we’re spared the huge influx of tourists that places like St. Thomas and the Turks and Caicos see during the holidays. So we’ve been pleasantly surprised that the holiday season hasn’t resulted in a significant increase in tourons on our rock. (No offense to anyone who has or may in the future come to visit us. We’ve all been a touron at some point.)

Although the cruise ships do become more frequent in December, the only place where the tourists can be overwhelming is at Cane Garden Bay – the most popular beach on Tortola. They arrive like a flock of birds, descending on this beautiful beach for a few hours before banding together and migrating back to their floating hotel. If you want to people-watch, go to CGB when a cruise ship is in.

Ship in Road Harbor, Tortola

And the migration begins…

Back to the private and charter boats, which house most of the tourons tourists in the BVI… I had seen some large yachts cruising these waters over the past few months. But the size and sheer number of megayachts that are here over Christmas makes you wonder how many billionaires there actually are in Russia. I have to say, though, it’s pretty cool to watch the yachts travel back and forth across the bay. And when I spot a really big boat, I break out the binoculars to see if I can spy a celebrity sunbathing on the deck. No luck so far, but with so many boats this time of year, the odds are in my favor.

Family

This is my first Christmas ever spent away from family, and it was harder than I expected. We’re fortunate to have made good friends in our first eight months on the rock, and being around them helped tremendously over the past few weeks. Even though a lot of our fellow expats are off-island for the holidays, the ones who stayed in the BVI gathered together on Christmas Day and talked about our former traditions back home and new traditions here on the rock.

Technology also helped us through Christmas morning. With my 7-year old niece holding the iPad on their end, FaceTiming with the family was a bit like watching The Blair Witch Project, but we enjoyed seeing everyone on Christmas. And we have an unlimited plan for calls back to the States (one monthly bill that I don’t mind paying), so we got to talk to a most of Bill’s family and many of our friends. Of course, it’s not the same as being there, but technology is a godsend for those of us who live far away from home. I can’t imagine doing this ten years ago, before FaceTime, Skype, and iMessage.

In the end, Christmas in the Caribbean was just as I expected – warm, quiet, and unhurried. But to my surprise, it also made me appreciate Christmas back home.

National Lampoons Christmas Vacation

There’s nothing like celebrating Christmas with your dysfunctional family.

 

 

Home is Where?

Bill and I recently spent a long weekend in the North Carolina mountains with my family. It’s an annual trip to celebrate both of my parents’ birthdays and their anniversary, all of which occur on the same day. (It’s weird, I know.) As we were leaving, I was tracking a developing storm and said something about how we might be delayed in getting “home.” My mom stopped me dead in my tracks and sternly informed me, “That is not home. This will always be home.” At the time, I dismissed it as a just figure of speech, with home meaning different things in different circumstances. But it made me think, where do I consider home to be now?

Even though I’m a U.S. citizen, my home is definitely not Omaha, NE or Buffalo, NY or Portland, OR. And even in my “home” state, I don’t feel at home in Rocky Mount or Boone or Elizabeth City. But I know what my mom meant. To her, home could be no other place than my hometown of Kings Mountain. To me, however, it’s not that clear-cut.

For the first 18 years of my life, until I ventured off to college, I lived in the same house (which my parents bought shortly after they got married, in 1970, and still live in!).  The only time I left for more than a couple of days was for summer camps. When I went to college, it was only three hours away (still in my home state), and even then, for the first two years, I came back home for the summer.

When I graduated from college and really moved out on my own, it was to an apartment in Charlotte, less than 45 minutes away from my parents’ house. Then, when Bill and I got married, we bought a house less than two miles from my post-college apartment and lived there for 14 years. Even the rental house we stayed in after selling our home was only two blocks farther away.

Despite the fact that all of my adult life I’d lived less than an hour away from them, my family was ecstatic when Bill and I bought land in Kings Mountain and planned to build a house there. Finally, in their minds, I would be moving “home.” But it turned out that the plans for our house were too big (literally and figuratively) and the area was too rural. The banks essentially told us that we were crazy, and good luck, but they couldn’t help us build our dream house in the middle of nowhere. A few more setbacks finally put those ambitions at bay, and we regrouped and came up with a “plan B,” or in this case, “plan BVI.”

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

So instead of moving “home,” as my mom would call it, here we are, in the British Virgin Islands. Our current home is a nice apartment with vaulted, wood-beam ceilings and a view of the beach. It came fully furnished, but we brought just enough stuff with us to give the apartment a familiar feel. Even before our container of stuff arrived, I was already adopting the “this is home” mindset. And within six months, we’ve figured out how to live in a  new country (it’s more difficult than you’d think), met amazing friends, and gotten comfortable in our new apartment (minus the heat, but that’s a different story).

But my mom is right. This will never be “home” in the same way that Kings Mountain is home. Or the way Charlotte is home. Kings Mountain holds my childhood memories – lots of firsts, some lasts, and more lessons than I can remember. And Charlotte is where I grew into adulthood, having moved there at 22 and not leaving until 40 (!). In Charlotte I made all of my adult friendships, started and grew my career, and found some of my passions.

But that doesn’t mean that the BVI isn’t also home – it just has a shorter history and fewer attachments. In my mind, the place you call “home” changes with the stages in your life. And right now, wherever Bill and the cats and I are all together, carrying out the routines of daily life and still experiencing new things, that is home.

A Not-So-Small Family

There are so many people I want to say “goodbye for now” to before we move, and on Friday night, I had the chance to do that with a very special group of friends.

Not my friends from grade school, or college, or work (who are also special, of course).  The people I was with on Friday night have known me, literally, since the day I was born – they’re the friends my Mom and Dad grew up with.  But they’ve been such an influential part of my life – guiding me, shaping me, and rooting for me (even now, when I’m 40 years old!) – that I think of them as my friends first, and the fact that they came into my life by being friends with my parents is just coincidental.  Some of my first memories include not just my parents, but these guys and gals.

My parents were young when they got married and had me, and there were always people – these people – in the house, hanging out, watching a fight or a baseball game, or playing poker.  One of the staples of my parents’ get-togethers was my dad cooking a full-blown, Waffle House-style breakfast as things were winding down.  Very often, the smell of sausage and bacon would wake me up, so Mom and Dad would let me eat with everyone, and then put me back to bed.

My family, or at least the ones that I’ve been in contact with throughout my life, is small, and I’ve always envied people who have large families.  But I realized on Friday night that my family is pretty big, even if they’re not blood relatives.  These are as much my “aunts and uncles” as those who I share direct DNA with.

So, thank you, Leggs & Lisa, Ronnie & Libby, Manson & Sandy, Crazy Richard, Butch & Brenda, Wiley & Laura, Head & Wanda, and all the other friends of the “Eddie & Betty” show, for helping Mom and Dad out and for helping me get to where I am today.

7 Years Later

When Bill and I first visited the Virgin Islands in 2007, if someone had told us that less than 7 years later we would be moving there, I would have given them a list of reasons a football field long, complete with graphs and charts, as to why that was ridiculous.  It’s too expensive; our families would freak; we have big, important careers; we’re going to build our dream house; and on and on…

But here we are – about to make the biggest, and possibly craziest, move of our lives.  Despite our worries, our families didn’t disown us (seriously Mom, Dad, & Riley – thank you for not booting me out of the family), our friends still talk to us, and everyone we’ve told – from close friends to the produce guy at the local grocery store – has been amazingly supportive.

When I look back over the last few years at the seemingly devastating things that happened to us, I see now that these were just obstacles being moved out of the way.  Selling our house at the near-bottom of the housing bust.  (We did manage to do a little better than break even, so we’re lucky there, but we still feel we should have held out for more).  The crappy situation around my job loss in 2012.  The really shitty situation around Bill’s job loss last year (which makes my situation look like a day at the park).  Being financially able to build our dream house and having the market chew up our plans and spit them in our face.

But now we don’t have a house to keep us attached.  Bill doesn’t have his 18+ year career to tear himself away from.  And I’m no longer married to my job.  Sure, I like my job, but it’s just not the same as my 15-year career in automation.

So we’re selling the cars and some of the non-essential, non-sentimental stuff we’ve accumulated over the past 18 years. We’re packing up the things we’d want to come back to, if we come back.  And we recently bought a Jeep to take with us.  Now it’s time for us and the kitties (yes, all four!) to board a plane and step out on the other side as “temporary residents” of the British Virgin Islands – Tortola, Josiah’s Bay neighbourhood.

We would love to have company on our rock (seriously, otherwise we might kill each other), so drop me a line if you want to visit.

-Danielle