Tales of living among goats in paradise (and other places)
Originally Swiss, recovering Caribbean island inhabitant. Amateur zoo keeper. Probably under-caffeinated, always hungry and curious. Interested in technology, collaboration and connecting people. Resourcefulness is my super power.
Am sure the waiter at Eden Rock in St Barth (Vot? Who am I? Is this real life?) yesterday was a little confused as to why I suddenly burst into tears on such a gorgeous day in paradise. But I didn’t know the French words for “WE FINALLY HAVE A HOUSE. ONE I’VE NEVER SEEN. IN A CITY I’VE ONLY EVER VISITED A FEW TIMES!” so instead I just shouted “YOLO” and ordered another drink, ’cause my French IS good enough for that.
So for the first time in 9 years, I have an address. With an actual street name AND number! And mail delivery! Where people bring you stuff! TO YOUR HOUSE!! AAAAND THEY PROBABLY HAVE POTABLE WATER WHENEVER YOU WANT!!!
I’ll admit it was a bit of a panic move, to camp out at a local resort for the weekend but I didn’t know how else to answer the girls’ “so what are we going to do for our birthdays?” question. I was too preoccupied with having a melt-down about still not having found a house, but at least, this meant I could hyperventilate in air-conditioned comfort and style.
Then our incredible chef friends (plural) showed up with three birthday cakes so we had no choice but to invite friends to come over and eat cake with us in air-conditioned comfort and style. Plus, they brought wine, so it was a total no-brainer.
And then a friend in Greenville (/guy I barely know from Facebook) offered his assistance with house hunting so while the rest of our hotel room erupted into the happy birthday song, we did this….
Not sure how we got so lucky to be surrounded by all these smart, kind and generous people but I am beyond grateful.
And while I don’t yet have a house (nor those jetpacks we were promised), house hunting in the 21st century is pretty incredible!
You’d think that after moving to a developing country with 4 kids and 10 suitcases, every other move would seem easy, but you’d be surprised by how difficult doing the reverse has been so far.
Now that 2/5 plane tickets have been booked and almost all loop holes/excuses in my plan are patched up, I fantasize about taking a flame thrower to my house here, walking out the door and getting this part over with. Unfortunately, I own neither a flame thrower nor this house, so purging and packing is what I get to do, each day, every day.
Not just regular packing, but going through each individual item of stuff we own, holding it up into the light and asking “Is this item worthy of precious space in 1 of our 10 suitcases we’re moving with? How easily can this be replaced in the US?”
Each sock, each kid drawing, each pencil and kitchen gadget… our entire household into the equivalent of a sardine can.
It’s treacherous, exhausting and rates right below quantum physics on the complexity scale. To add insult to injury, each corner of the house I manage to empty just stares back at me blankly, rather than feel like something I’ve accomplished.
And then there is the beginning of all the “last time’s”. The bug guy who has been coming here every month for years just left…. for the last time. Friends have come to visit and are leaving…. for the last time. The girls are turning 11 this weekend, a birthday here…. for the last time.
*insert the sound of a giant band-aid being ripped off slowly*
I can’t help think that we’ll miss all the stuff that’s been inconveniencing us for the past 9 years, such as the frequent power outages and the subsequent dinners by candle light. The empty shelves in the grocery store because the weekly supply boat hasn’t arrived yet. I’ll surely miss knowing that if our car breaks down, someone will stop within minutes, taking us to the car parts store or calling their cousin who is a mechanic. And just the other day the girls asked if I think we’ll have another hurricane before we leave ’cause they’re in the mood to eat all the lobster and ice cream in the fridge.
Ultimately, I’m worried moving to a place with readily available ____ (insert anything, available 24/7) will make us forget how much fun we had coping with inconveniences and learning to be resourceful. I’m afraid the kids will forget how to play without toys and playgrounds and that they’ll no longer get the freedom to talk to strangers. And as excited as I am for them to learn about life in the “civilized” World, I’m worried they’ll no longer find joy in simple things like dancing in the rain because they’re so excited to own their 1st umbrella ever.
Last week I went on my final house hunting trip to Greenville and to my horror, less than a handful of houses were available, none of which we got. And as much as I’d like to give into this panic and call the whole thing off, I try to remind myself of all the stupid ideas in my past that had “slim-to-none” odds of working out…..
Like moving to a tiny Caribbean island with 4 kids and 10 suitcases.
After months of stalling, pouting and breathing frantically into a paper bag I finally gathered my courage and hit “purchase” on a plane ticket to Greenville, South Carolina this past February.
I had to go back to see if I could still imagine living there, to make sure that what we all felt during our road trip wasn’t some strange, one-time alignment of stars.
What if we were wrong? What if this city we spent less than a day in wasn’t anything like we thought?
I wanted to go without kids, without anyone to “sell”, just me, my gut and a girlfriend (to make sure I actually left the hotel room). I was so scared I would hate Greenville, while secretly hoping to visit and go “What the hell were we thinking, THIS PLACE SUCKS!”, storming out and returning to our little island.
Inconveniently, that didn’t happen and it all crystalized during lunch on our second day in town. Somewhere between the moment when the waiter asked “So, what brings you Ladies to town?” and when I started sobbing incoherently in reply…..that’s when I realized that I didn’t hate Greenville.
And not hating Greenville would mean that this move would have to become a reality now.
Troubled by this realization, yet encouraged by the low, low bar of “non hatred” for Greenville, I got the road trip mobile out of storage in Orlando and drove it to Greenville in March, this time to meet my teenage sons who currently live in Dallas. We visited high schools I had spent weeks researching and after gathering all my courage, we even went to looked at houses together.
Many of them had this strange white stuff on the ground. (Sigh)
It turns out that Greenville is indeed a lovely city that we can still imagine living in. And while we didn’t find a house yet, we picked a high school and an approximate moving date.
As a display of my commitment/grasp on priorities, I went and bough wine glasses and an espresso machine for our future house in the US. They’re currently sitting in the trunk of my car, parked at the airport in Greenville.
Due to popular demand (i.e. one of you asked) and my friend Shannon’s post here, I present you the contents of the famous MacGyver bag:
Several packets ofSugru, the air-drying silicone putty that can be used to fix cars, cables, handles and just about anything you can imagine. Honestly, I have no idea how MacGyver happened without this stuff.
Dental floss for both it’s intended purpose or tying something together
Regular and blister bandaids
Gum ’cause how else is MacGyver supposed to make a bomb. Duh.
Permanent marker and nail file for when you’re on a 6 week road trip and your temporary license plate blows off and you have tomake a new oneout of an envelope, pencil tops, duct tape and a permanent marker.
Moo cards for when you meet random, yet awesome people
Sewing kit, especially handy for emergency altering clothes at conferences.
Benedryl for when someone has an allergic reaction
Shout wipes for those of us blessed with a little less grace than others
Mini screw driver set, emergency cash and check in case you live on a Caribbean island where people only take cash or checks and despite how hard you try to remember that, you still continue walking around with credit cards only most of the time.
Waterproof case because nobody likes a wet emergency moustache.
I thought I was pretty well prepared for our 6 week road trip across the US. I expected the vast distances we’d drive (on the right, ideally), the constant barrage of lights and sounds and Fox news. I knew to expect the “don’t get ahead of me” urgency and mix of exciting new things and uncomfortable new things, because I lived there for 14 years. And actually, I was looking forward to being in a country where you can buy kids shoes. And Advil and produce. In the same place, at 3am, on a Sunday.
We set out on this trip without a set itinerary on purpose. I wanted the flexibility of going where we felt like and I wanted the kids to research places and determine where to go, ultimately because I wanted them to be part of how we ended up at the place, our new home.
So every night we’d discuss the three options – West, South or East – and the cities, attractions and historical things along each path, before plotting our course for the next day and booking our next hotel. In other words, if you ever want to drive across 13 States along the most inefficient route, give me a call, I got this down pat.
I knew there would be no way to take the kids – the girls particularly – from Anguilla with it’s tight knit community to Anonymoustown, USA, so we focused on going through smaller cities between 50 – 100 thousand people, hoping to find at least trace amounts of community.
I had previously spent about a year, trying to find the best place to move to according to data, overlaying maps on crime rate, diversity, education, cost of living, average age, weather and “number of hours to the nearest international airport”. (I know, don’t judge me.) This road trip was actually bornout of the realization that finding a home on paper is about as as absurd as finding a husband on paper, although I’ll admit to knowing nothing about the later. Essentially, “home” isn’t about matching a list of criteria but rather about a feeling when you get there. And if that feeling is right, the criteria list usually gets tossed out the window anyway.
The Surprise Element
Backed by a year of research, I was sure I knew what we were looking for til about 10 days into our trip, which is when the girls pointed out that basically only white people live in America, which is the moment “diversity” got put on the priority list.
We’re used to being the minority here in Anguilla and they’re totally right, as soon as you go North of.. let’s say Miami, any significant amount of racial diversity tends to fade away until you get into bigger cities again.
How people interact, especially with those that are different in some way, shape or form is very important to me as “being open to new and different things” bleeds into so many parts of life, including how kids treat each other in school. I’m convinced that living in a place where you can walk around without fear of judgement for what you look like or who you chose to be has more than a few positive benefits, although I don’t have statistics for that one and you definitely do not want me to go down that rabbit hole again.
Armed with a bucket full of statistics, I knew where to go to find diversity, but the flaw in that theory became obvious quickly as it’s not actually diversity I’m interested in, but rather how diversity is accepted, which is both something you can’t quantify and something there are no charts for. Bummer.
So how do you look for something you can’t quantify? Not sure, but spending some time on any random bench in any given city is a most excellent start. Sit still, turn off your hearing, and look for variations in facial expressions as people walk by and you can get a pretty good sense of how people react to strangers or those that aren’t like them.
That Japanese tourist, that tattooed couple with the dog, that black woman pushing a stroller, that homeless guy, that Grandma-type. Who makes eye contact with whom, who gets seen but then immediately avoided and which type of person doesn’t ever get acknowledged at all. Fascinating stuff. Sometimes sad stuff. Clearly not an exact science but as good a “diversity acceptance meter” as I was able to come up with in a pinch.
My best case scenario for the trip involved being swept off my feet by Randomtown, USA at some point along the 6 weeks. Fast and furious, maybe even causing us to scrap the rest of the road trip and just coming back to pack. Love is love. Game over.
At the very least, I figured across 22 cities we’d at least find a few we’d like, which would simplify the selection process significantly.
Either way we’d have a proper adventure at a minimum, even if things didn’t go as planned but come on, how hard can it be….
Harsh and Cold for $500, Alex
What I wasn’t prepared for, was driving 4500 miles and ending up with merely one place we all could imagine living in, which is basically a small step above finding a place we “didn’t dislike”.
What an embarrassing and arrogant thing to admit, much less feel. To have the support of the most patient employer ever, have so many generous friends open their homes to us, show us around their cities… only to drive away, somehow deeming them all unfit for us, which made it impossible to not feel like an over-privileged asshole, i.e. “incredibly disappointed” for the easily offended among you.
In the end, there was one place we liked, or rather that the girls and I liked and the boys didn’t have anything against. A place called Greenville, South Carolina where people readily made eye contact, not just with us but with those who didn’t look alike. A small city with a surprising amount of international flair, obvious diversity, a big performing arts center, music and good schools. One place we felt welcome and comfortable that had – gasp – free wifi downtown, which almost makes up for the occasional snow. Almost.
Update: Crappy video of a random concert we came across in Greenville, a reggae band singing “Down by the river”, on the river going through downtown, with granny types square dancing along. In the rain, as you do. Pure greatness!
Trying to decide when to move ended up being like pulling (rotting) teeth – everyone agrees it is needed, but nobody wants to do it. For one, sitting down for this conversation would mean the end of our road trip, which meant the end of our Summer together.
Not moving right away would mean the boys would go back to live in Texas again.
Deciding to move half way through the year would mean the the girls and I would have to spend 6 months in the US alone, while the boys finish their school year in Dallas. And if you saw how those teenage boys would sit there for hours answering questions about what it’s like to go live in America, then you’d know that moving to the US alone would be the same as moving into the deep end of the pool. Not a good option.
So in an annoyingly rational call, mostly fueled by annoyingly valid arguments the kids made, we decided to move at the end of this school year, meaning June 2014.
It’s taken me a while to digest and accept this part, still not sure I’m fully on board with this yet, mostly ’cause it’s inconvenient and leaves way too much time between now and actually acting on it. The truth is, I wanted to fall in love with a place because then all I’d have to do was react. Reacting is easy. Deliberate effort is hard. Waiting is the hardest.
Bonus Badges Unlocked
There were many occasions the kids blew me away by being way more capable and creative than I had previously thought. Saying things like “do we have to go a park? can’t we just get in the car and drive some more” after 80 hours of driving is one of those instances.
Watching the 10 year old girls correctly pick metro lines, read maps to get us to museums, asking for help when needed, figuring out which way is West (and hence North) and actually getting us to where we needed to go is another. Although I’ll take credit for dealing with all street vendors, homeless people and those 13 half used paper metro cards. (Shout-out to the DC metro system!)
Between “learning to navigate”, “making lunch for 5 in a moving car” and “getting checked out, packing 5 people’s stuff into 3 carry on’s and getting it to fit in the car in the ONLY configuration possible, in under 20 minutes”, my kids are basically really for the zombie apocalypse. You know, just in case.
The Real Lesson
In the end, we spent 44 days together in the same room and the same car, all without killing each other, which is perhaps our biggest accomplishment. We learned so much about navigating civilization, people watching and talking to strangers. We learned how to adjust when things don’t go as planned, how to deal with moods, spilled milk and bad pop music.
In our pursuit of “home” we learned about claiming the space in this World that we are given, showing up in places where you may or may not belong, and making it yours anyway. (Having the luxury of) pursuing that which makes us feel vulnerable and alive, while being grounded by the strength and safety of each other. Kind people that love and accept unconditionally, even when you screw up. Especially when you screw up.
4500 miles, 13 States and 6 weeks in civilization are behind us. We’ve met wonderful people and had fantastic adventures while living out of 3 carry on’s, hotels and a car we bought in the US.
That’s 6 weeks of being in control of the temperature in every room, including the car. 6 weeks of instant access to any kind of store you can imagine, at 1am, on a Sunday night. 6 weeks of picking directions to travel in, without notice, with the internet as our guide. 6 weeks of any kind of movies/concerts/museum/park to entertain us along with any kind of food imaginable ready for ordering/picking up/delivery, 24/7. 6 weeks of glorious drinking water available ANYWHERE, as much as you wanted.
In other words, we’ve had a fantastic time thoroughly taking advantage of everything the US has to offer and reveling in this sense of control and convenience.
Man, you should have seen the look on the girls’ faces as they got to pay the pizza delivery guy, which is something they had never before experienced and had only ever seen on TV.
And then you spend a few hours on planes and boats and just like that, it’s all gone.
The nice car with the buttons is gone. The AC is gone and you’re back to “indoor camping” with open doors and windows and a house makes a variety of noises as the West Indies breeze blows through it. No more food deliveries but instead a small grocery store the size of most American produce sections. No more shoe stores or movie theatres or museums. No more carpets, although the scorpion that greeted me last night didn’t seem to mind the tile floor.
No more control, just you and nature and whatever the supply boat happened to deliver this week.
Slow, uncontrollable and inconvenient. But somehow, this lack of instant access to choices feels more like a relief than a burden. (Although, be sure to ask me about this next time the island runs out of gasoline, or the grocery store is out of milk and eggs again.)
There is a certain liberating quality to simplicity, as the more choices we have, the more complicated things become, the more pressure there seems to be.
Kind of like when you get to go on a 6 week road trip with your 4 kids to chose any place you want to live.
It’s almost 2 weeks into our 6 week road trip and the constant barrage of noise and action of the US is slowly starting to seem normal. We have “only” covered 3 states – New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware – while staying with friends, which was an intentional slow start to the trip surrounded by familiar and friendly faces. So far we’ve covered roughly 950 miles, which isn’t that much but the reality of living out of suitcases and a car is starting to sink in, along with some “What have I done?!?!?”.
Interesting to see the kids faces as they see new places, different customs, like unlimited drinking water, which is unbelievable if you grew up in Anguilla, a country without a water system that relies on rain water being collected. One of my favorite moments of flying here was one of the girls asking who they had to ask and pay to have a drink from a water fountain at the airport. “Free? As much as you want????”
(Manhattan elevator pic with dog we were *this* close to kidnapping)
One of the many reasons I wanted to do a 6 week road trip with the kids was ‘cause I didn’t want them to not be intimidated in times of uncertainty (which is pretty much all the time) and I didn’t want them to be afraid of making decisions, right or wrong. I want them to trust their information gathering and problem solving skills to feel comfortable navigating in life, to keep that sense of adventure and not be afraid to experiment.
And mainly, I wanted them to be there as we (hopefully) find our new home, to navigate along with me on our way from New York City to Orlando. Sure, picking a place to move to on my own and informing the kids of their new home seems easier but also rather uncomfortable if you reverse the situation. How would you feel if someone told you that your new home in another country was going to be called ________ (fill in the blank place you’ve never heard of) and you had no way to know what it looks like, feels like, smells like?
But doing a road trip where each of the kids got to navigate, each getting a chance to decide which direction we’d go in – South, East or West – would mean that they each would be part of how and why we got to our eventual new home. Also, it would save me from having to sell them on our new place, which seemed like a win-win.
And even if we don’t end up finding a place, I figured spending some time together trying new things and help each other cope with problems we’ve not encountered before would be good for us, but especially the kids who have had to work through things such as how to deal with missing a flight on our way here (check). They’ve also had to do online research on things to see along our travels (check) while also considering the budget and sometimes making tough decisions because something costs too much (check). I wanted them to be in situations they don’t know how to deal with like ordering room service (check) or using online tools to find a grocery store in the middle of Manhattan (check).
I was hoping for the lengthy and sweet conversations where the girls ask the boys all about American schools and what having a locker and a cafeteria is like (check). And I wanted to let the kids know that I too constantly learn new things, which was surely evident in my sheer look of panic while driving on the right in Manhattan (check) in our new car that we bought hours after landing (check).
In the end, I consider my only job as a parent to teach my kids how to make decisions and solve problems in my absence when dealing with the colorful mix of rainbows and crap that life tends to dish out. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of life, to be too scared to make decisions and I desperately want them to feel capable of moving around this World like they belong in it.
A tidal wave of nausea and cold sweat hit me this morning, as I uttered the words “see you in September” to someone. No clue how it happened so fast, but this is going to be our last weekend in Anguilla, which means it’s officially time to panic about such things as packing, organizing pet care and not having a car in the US for our road trip – undoubtedly a rather important part of the road trip concept. But also, if this is our last weekend here, then that means it’s time to let go, which basically means I’ll be spending the weekend hyperventilating.
Yes, I know we will be back, maybe even before September, maybe just to pack, maybe to stay here for a while and strategize. But I know full well that once we leave in a few days, the island we know and have loved for 8 years won’t be here when we return. Regardless if we do or don’t find a new right place to live, Anguilla will have changed. We will have changed and this place will once again seem foreign and inconvenient, with a pretty 210 degree ocean view but so much tranquillity it’s deafening.
Anguilla has taught me so much – how to be still, how to listen, how to allow those tiny voices to bubble up, even though they don’t usually tell you anything you want to hear.
It’s here where I learned to be at peace and how to be a single parent to the four kids – sometimes even simultaneously. Turns out having nobody else to rely on (or blame) takes away all your leeway and excuses and forces you have to try harder. Or something different. Either way, it makes you try something.
Actually, Anguilla made us all try harder and it taught us how to work together as a family in order to cope with “indoor camping” and the often overwhelming inconveniences of island life. Not having stores forced us all to learn reeeeally creative problem solving, which is both a giant pain (when it happens to me) and a beautiful life skill lessons (when it happens to the kids).
Anguilla also taught us about connecting with people, to be open in ways I am not sure I know how to be in civilization. Here we learned to observe more and judge less and Anguilla has allowed the kids to find out about being a minority in the gentlest of ways possible.
This island has a way to make people feel safe and let go of layers of bullshit and defences, which usually results in people interacting in ways which are both genuine and strangely healing. And I do worry that particularly the girls will feel lost or somehow less important in the US without this, unable to understand why people don’t look them in the eye and say “good morning”.
I also worry that with all the conveniences and stuff the US has to offer, we won’t need each other the way we do here. That we’ll have to try less hard to make life work.
I worry that I don’t know how to pull off 6 weeks on the road without accidentally strangling a kid or two. And I worry I won’t hear myself think or have enough time and space to be still, while constantly moving. But I suppose all that is part of the point of this trip.
Six weeks is just enough time to be dazzled by unlimited, potable water and the opportunities of life in civilization and forget a lot about what Anguilla really is like. Six weeks is just long enough for all kinds of things to fade into the background, so that being open to something new has a chance. Something I am hoping will happen, somewhere along the road between New York and Florida.