Blame The Floors…

Over the past week I have started blog posts about:

How we had conch five ways (Conch Fritters, Buttered Conch, Conch Creole, Curried Conch, and Callalou Soup with conch) for our Christmas Eve meal at my favorite Caribbean restaurant called Cuzzin’s, in the beautiful old section of downtown Charlotte-Amalie;

Guidebooks say it is difficult to find, but it is one street in from the main shopping street, which is one street in from the harbor. And, they are short blocks...

BabyBoy during a mid-lunch walk. It was either that or put up with shrieks of having to sit still so long.

Spot the young iguana (the greener, the younger) found on our mid-lunch walk. 'Find the lizard' is another family favorite.

The Rising Stars, an absolutely amazing Steel orchestra (steel pan drums) that we saw playing in Post Office Square on Christmas Eve day. It turns out not only are they just awesome – everyone watching was smiling and dancing – but I found out later that the award-winning group was started 30 years ago as a crime prevention program for at-risk youth and is composed entirely of 10-18 year olds who have to adhere to a strict code. They have travelled the world and played for Presidents, and we happened upon them completely by accident, totally rocking out with ‘Winter Wonderland.’ What an absolutely mind-blowing gift…;

That is the Director in the yellow shirt, and the man in blue was movin' and groovin'.

Couldn't choose just one photo.

Or just two.

Favorite things we gave and received for Christmas – all local and totally cool: printed canvas bags from Isola Bella; a Danish West Indies 5 cent pendant from 1859 and jewelry made from molds of local shells by R&I Patton Goldsmithing on St. John; jams, spices, and liqueurs in tropical flavors – guava, passionfruit, hibiscus, and cactus, from Lucia Henley’s roadside stand.

All our local booty - we are very lucky, and fortunate to have a vibrant artist community (and the 'Hibiscus liqueur' is tasty).

Sea urchins are much loved (to look at and eat) in this family. Please note that it is illegal to remove shells from beaches in the USVI.

I even jotted down (on an envelope while waiting at the post office – I’ll probably find it sometime next year) one about how slightly relaxed ‘island time’ ceased to exist for me over the holidays as we tried to do everything we could with visiting family – both normal holiday things along with special island treats, added to life with two small children. The result? No sleep and no spare time.

Grown-up tree with star brushing ceiling - didn't seem so important at one in the morning.

BB on Christmas morning with children's tree.

BUT, this blog post is really going to be about my annoying white tiled floors. They look nice when they are all clean – spare and evocative of tropical holidays. Except, in our abode, they are hardly ever clean. They are covered in Cheerios, cat hair, dripped juice from sippy cups, crayon scribble, dust, sand, sand, and more sand, and Lord knows what else. With the extra traffic of visiting friends and family, and the open windows and doors to catch the Christmas winds, my floors have become my Waterloo. I swear I have spent more time vacuuming, sweeping, wiping, Swiffering, and even scraping my ridiculous white textured tiled floors in the past week than I have spent sleeping. So despite my best intentions to regale you with post after post last week about our first stunning holidays in St. Thomas paradise, I have instead been on my hands and knees trying to clean my floors – blame the floors…

One of the culprits with one of the cures. And yes, we know he's super fat.

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Santa Math

2010 Census USVI

The 2010 census puts the population of St. Thomas at 51,634. For the sake of argument, make it 51,638 (with the four of us). About a third of the entire population of the United States Virgin Islands is under the age of eighteen; assuming St. Thomas is similar, that means there are roughly 17,213 minors. As there is no exact age when children stop believing in Santa, I figure halving that number should take into account the kids ruining it on the playground as well as children of non-Santa religious persuasions. That brings us to the generous grand total of 8,606  – the population of St. Thomian children who might want to see Santa. Why do I bring up all these numbers? When you factor in his physical presence on the island throughout the month of December (excluding his actual 24th/25th appearance), I think it is possible to deduce that St. Thomas is the most Santa-accessible place in the United States (and territories, of course).

Lighted Havensight Christmas Tree (with palms)

In early December, Santa began appearing all over the island. We first saw him arrive by golf cart at the tree lighting ceremony at the outdoor Havensight Mall (next to where the cruise ships dock). The first 1,000 children to walk by him got a gift; BB and BG want nothing to do with the big man in red yet, so we checked him out from afar. (I explained to BG how all these ‘Santas’ were really his cousins, sent from the North Pole to do research and prep-work). It was a crowded and energetic evening affair with beautiful steel pan Christmas Carols (performed by kids!) and much more entertainment afterward, but babies needed bed. A skinnier Santa in boat shoes showed up several days later at the neighboring outdoor Yacht Haven Grande Mall (the one with Gucci, Vuitton, and Ferragamo, among other shops) waiting for tiny shy children to approach him on his folding chair. This was a quieter daytime affair with caroling; a rainy morning perhaps scared off more people, but a sweet family day out regardless. Subsequent Santas (which we skipped for one reason or another) seemed everywhere on all manner of conveyances: there was one at the Belgian Chocolate Factory downtown (he probably drove); another Santa arrived by dinghy at the American Yacht Harbor and sat on the terrace near the Island Lattes coffee shop; yet another came to the Rotary Club breakfast at Eudora Kean High School riding a red fire truck. Politico Santa showed up to a children’s Christmas Party hosted by Governor and First Lady deJongh in downtown Emancipation Square via coattails (sorry, couldn’t resist). The final Santa that I know about will arrive Friday at the Yacht Club – I can only wonder how he gets there. Sloop?

Chill Santa at Yacht Haven Grande

I am sure there are other Santas I have missed, but these seem to be the big ones – the ones mentioned at the Tot Lot and playgroups, at pick-up and drop-off, in the newspaper, and on flyers around town. At the beginning of the month, I thought I would try seeing all the Santas with the babies to get the full thrust of Christmas cheer. After the first two, I decided to wait for Yacht Club Santa so we could grab dinner afterwards with friends and family (convenient Santa). And then there’s the real thing, but being so stealthly, nearly all children will miss seeing him.  At any rate, with these 7 Santas on island this month, the potential ratio of Santa:children is 1:1229. I think these numbers prove my point about St. Thomas being the most Santa-happening place around – strictly conjecture of course, but Santa Math doesn’t lie…

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A Change In Seasons

Bright, hot, sun.

Everyone said it would happen eventually. As the August heat and intense humidity dragged on through September and into October, locals who have lived here over a year promised it would come. November brought no discernable change in the weather, yet they swore it was right around the corner. I was waiting, quite impatiently, for something other than ‘high summer’ tropical weather. Some like that sort of heat; I am most definitely not one of them. Maybe it’s true what the locals say – that I wouldn’t mind so much when I acclimated – but I found it incredibly unpleasant to break into a sweat every time I left the house or car. Perhaps ‘acclimation’ is code for having your sweat glands removed; it must be, because none of the other parents at drop-off seemed to be in need of a change of wardrobe at 8am. From June (when we first visited) and into November, locals did in fact constantly remark on the extreme heat: ‘highly unusual for this time of year,’ ‘this shouldn’t last long,’ ‘it’ll be much better soon.’ I kept hoping they were right as our daily existence was rapidly becoming a summer Groundhog Day in the Virgin Islands.

What we didn't have.

From the NYC satellite feed on our television, we followed the change of seasons on the east coast. We watched the west coast change seasons three hour later from the San Francisco feed. I had cravings for cashmere sweaters, fireplaces, and down comforters as I watched commuters amazed at the early snowstorm this year. Heat in the 90s with humidity not far behind was becoming so interminable that I seriously contemplated turning up the A/C full blast to have a chilly autumnal day (the certain million dollar WAPA – electricity – bill stopped me).

What we did have: a sweaty monkey and a sweatier penguin trick-or-treating in sandals.

And then, it happened. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the seasons changed. We had a perfectly lovely day: hot, but not too hot, and humid enough not to feel chilly in shade. While some days were still too much, the evenings started to feel more like what one would expect on an ‘island paradise,’ with a stiff breeze off the water bringing with it the musical clanging of riggings against masts. Coincidently, that is exactly when I started to feel more settled down here. We had a couple days of tropical rains that blew sideways (on one of those days I actually put on a long-sleeved shirt – for the first time). We had some days when half the sky bucketed down warm rain, while the other half required polarized sunglasses. Those days I was constantly pulling over to take photos of endless rainbows – many double, and once even a triple.

Double rainbow (with wires).

The best was yet to come. I had heard people allude to them in hushed and anticipatory tones, though they sounded more fable than fact; two mornings ago we woke to the most wonderful winter weather of all – the Christmas Winds. Blowing in from the east at up to 25-30 knots, they are cool and refreshing, driving the humidity and temperatures down, and becoming the main topic of conversation. They can last anywhere from a few days, to on-and-off for several months. At a marina-side restaurant last night, the sailors living on their boats happily discussed the Christmas Winds (closed eyes, outstretched arms, leaning into it). One mentioned feeling chilly while rubbing his arms, then laughed at the absurdity of 76 degrees being our winter; another ageless bearded guy pointed out the northward-facing boats in the harbor, meaning that particular wind wasn’t a Christmas one. Everyone agreed not to care – winter had arrived. Today, it was a sunny 82 degrees with 58 percent humidity. I love it and I’ll take it. Welcome winter, in whatever bizarre and new form you take.

Wind this afternoon.

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The Search For The Perfect Christmas Tree, Part 2

One of several palm trees at McDonald's decorated with Happy Meals. I went back the next day to take a proper photo (this one was from car window) but it had rained. All very sadly gone...

The first Saturday in December (82, sunny, stiff breeze – almost made me forget August), I was talking to a friend on the tennis courts (thwack) and asked about Christmas trees. When would they arrive on island and where should we get them? “Oh, we got our tree last week. But don’t worry, they usually have some left.” Thwack. What?! At our old stateside house, we were lucky if we managed to get a tree the week before Christmas (we had small babies then – that was my excuse; before children we didn’t even bother). Not only did I have to get my act together, I had to do it NOW so as not to end up with the sad twiggy-tree that once might have held needles. It’s just hard to imagine imminent holidays with this weather. Thwack. And not 5 minutes later, my phone rang with another friend saying she got the email about the other trees arriving on island…

BG checking out what Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith have to offer Kmart.

There are exactly two places to get imported fir trees on St. Thomas. Cost-U-Less – sort of like Costco crossed with BJs (without the vast selection) – sells them right inside the store’s entrance (too hot outside, I guess). They have them early and carry them, I’ve been told, right up until Christmas. They – wait for it – “cost less,” and as I heard oft-repeated, “they’re fine, they’ll do.” But I wanted more than “they’ll do,” and “should have needles left on Christmas morning.” I wanted to check out the other place, the elusive tree sale that is heralded via email: the fir tree ‘Brigadoon.’ This fleeting vendor is to be found in the parking lot of:

“…that dry cleaner, the one across and down from the big Kmart. You know, O.Henry’s. No? Um, next to where they’re going to build the Walgreens? Okay there, to the left.” (Perfect example of island directions, but that’s another story).

There is an email list, and those in the know get told in advance what day the two refrigerated trucks filled with trees will arrive (on a boat, of course). The trucks stay for several days, or until the trees disappear. The first day (a Tuesday, oddly enough) I set out mid-day to see about a tree.

Brigadoon: A 1954 musical about a mystical village that appears out of the Scottish fog once every 100 years, with a love story and dancing thrown in. Great if you like that sort of thing.

I had decided in advance that if I didn’t find what I was looking for (short yet full, and something that would fit on top of a large chest away from grabby BB hands) I would go the artificial route. At any rate, Cost-U-Less didn’t have that size when I checked. I would never have considered artificial before, but many people here like fake trees since they last, look pretty, and involve no stress; they also end up being a much more economical option in the long run (Cost-U-Less, Home Depot, and Kmart all have them, FYI). This time however, I was in luck. There were four short trees, and though I was told there might be more inside the trucks, we would have to wait until they were gradually unearthed – possibly hours or days. No time for that. The guy helping me, Australian I think, swore up and down that these Douglas Firs imported from the Appalachians of West Virginia (pedigreed!) would not drop a needle. Not. One. Needle. Good enough for me! I was now on the email list, and sold. And so sold, that I bought another (sacrificial) one for the children’s playroom. I bet that one loses needles…

Our trees in temporary beachwear bauble. And we do have some pruning to do...

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The Search For The Perfect Christmas Tree, Part 1

Century Tree in full bloom on St. John (www.flickr.com/photos/ weedmandan/)

A Century Tree sounded like a cool, island alternative to a regular imported fir tree. I had read somewhere that locals search for one in the wild, cut it down and decorate it – old school and exotic all at once. Evidently it was more of a St. Johnian tradition than a St. Thomian one, but how difficult could it be to get a tree over on a ferry? Not knowing really any more than that, I wandered into a little organic plant nursery the week after Thanksgiving. Having vaguely bonded with the owner – bizarrely we are both originally from the same tiny town – I figured if anyone could help, it would be him. “So do you know where I can find a Century Tree? And I know usually you have to chop it down yourself, but I was wondering if there was a way to get one without having to go over to St. John with a machete.”

Potted trees

The look of absolute shock on the face framed by long grey braids was immediate. “But Century Trees are endangered!” he spluttered. A short lecture followed on how they self-propagated, and why cutting down the few remaining trees would bring a speedy extinction. Whoops! Backpedal, backpedal… “Oh my, I didn’t know that!” I tried to explain how I only heard they were part of local Christmas tradition, and I truly wasn’t asking him how to circumnavigate the law and kill off a plant. He looked at me funny after that (as though if he had indeed known anything, I most certainly would have grabbed my machete and the next ferry, or made a shady parking lot transaction in the dead of night). He said regular trees were imported to the island, and he also had trees in pots if I wanted to be environmentally friendly and plant it after Christmas or re-use the tree next year. (They were very pretty, but I didn’t).

Century Tree, pre-flower (www.stjohnbeachguide.com)

Century Trees, or Agave missionum, used to be everywhere, especially on St. John with all its protected National Park Land. Then quite recently, the Mexican Snout Beetle, or perhaps it was the Agave Snout Weevil (found blame on both), pillaged the species. And, contrary to the name, it doesn’t take them 100 years to bloom. The tree, which looks like a primeval aloe, grows for 20-30 years, sends up a tall ‘flower’ with pollen pods (resembling a mammoth asparagus stalk gone to seed), and promptly dies. The ‘flower’ dries out while staying upright and this is the part that people cut down, maybe paint, and decorate year after year. Indeed very cool, but unfortunately not meant to be our Christmas tree. The search continues.

Some lucky people with their Century Christmas tree (www.stjohnbeachguide.com)

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“Don’t Stop The Carnival”: A Classic Island Read

We had been on St. Thomas for four days (extremely hot, humid August days) with: a broken A/C; two fussy children confused by the nearly complete lack of furniture and toys; and two hissing cats behind the washing machine who wanted nothing to do with us after the plane trip. The one saving grace was my mother, who out of maternal love and duty flew down with us to help move and settle in. She had headed up the anti-move camp (understandable, as who wants their grandchildren to move far away?), yet still she came – and in the middle of hurricane season, nonetheless.

She returned from the grocery store that fourth sweaty afternoon, tossed a book on our lonely rattan sofa and said, ‘you MUST read this.’ It was “Don’t Stop The Carnival” by Herman Wouk. Never heard of it. Turns out, on their Caribbean honeymoon my father gave her a copy and said, ‘you MUST read this.’ This was in 1968, three years after the book was published, and already it was being heralded as the first of the modern Escape-to-the-Islands canon. I wanted nothing really to do with the book at that point. I wanted my own form of escapist literature– think Thomas Mann and high snowy Alps, or London Chick Lit – anything but island reads. She kept asking, and a week later (after the hurricane, thank you very much), I caved, picked up “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” and didn’t put it down until I was finished.

In a nutshell: in winter 1959, a Manhattan press agent of ‘young middle age’ chucks it all and moves to ‘Amerigo’ (really St. Thomas) to become an innkeeper. It is absolutely one of the best and funniest books I have read; I carried it around for days, rereading parts and soaking it up, and every single person who saw me with it said, ‘oh, that is such a MUST read for down here.’ Wouk had lived on St. Thomas for 6 years, so he got everything right and authentic: the atmosphere, the variety of people, the island attitudes, and even descriptions of places on Amerigo/St. Thomas (disguised with different names – but one can figure it out). “Don’t Stop the Carnival” also goes beyond mere escapist literature and delves into the sometimes not-so-pretty undercurrents of island life in the Caribbean. Crazy thing is, much of his book still seems to ring true today. As I drive around the island (especially on Skyline Drive, where he evidently lived), I always wonder what it must have been like 50 years ago, when people were just beginning to think, ‘wait a minute, I can MOVE to a place like this!’ And did.

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Ants: A Love Story

Husband HATES ants with a passionate fury seldom seen in a reserved man of hard science. For his crusading pleasure, we have three wonderfully tenacious kinds of ants down here in St. Thomas (that I know of): ‘fire,’ ‘normal’ (how’s that for scientific?) and ‘sugar’ (or ‘Caribbean Crazy’). I first encountered fire ants when I stepped in a massive nest while looking at rental houses. It was startling, embarrassing, and stinging, but with no lasting effects (a bucket of water washes them right off, and the red bites faded). The second place I sometimes find them is at the toddler playground in the sand underneath the swings. When arriving at the “Tot Lot” in the mornings, one of the first questions invariably asked is “how are the fire ants today?” Fire ants are annoying, but avoidable.

Fire Ant. Ouch ouch ouch.... Especially when they wander unnoticed into BBs sandals. Poor thing! (BB, not ant)

Everyone knows ‘normal’ ants (and by normal, I mean the ones that resemble our old Maryland ants that wandered single file through our back door twice a year to escape some seasonal change); they are outside, on the pavement, in the dirt, and appallingly enough, suddenly all over your car when you least expect it. I allow the babies to eat in their car seats – snacks buying silence – but after a while, no amount of dust-busting will dissuade the ants from a buffet meal. The last straw for the car came when we turned around to find ants crawling all over BBs tan little legs. Horrifying. Second place horrifying: after buying BG a red velvet cupcake at the school bake-sale and letting her eat it on the way home (stupid, stupid Mother), I found the remains completely crumbed up and sprinkled all over her car seat when I went to unbuckle her. She told me she was feeding the ants.

Red Velvet Cupcake-Loving Normal Ant (unscientific term my own) or Black Ant

And the worst, WORST, ants by far? Sugar ants, or as I have also heard them called, Caribbean Crazy ants – I still don’t know which is right. The teeny tiny black specks appear out of nowhere and inundate a completely random place (a section of wall, a sink, a table top). When we moved in, I wasn’t so bothered by the occasional ant. I figured it was a fact of life down here, something that irritated, but shouldn’t cause undue distress. Husband felt otherwise, and kept asking me to call exterminators. I pointed out that we kept things pretty clean (as clean as you can with our son eating like Cookie Monster) and they weren’t as bad as all that. Well in short order, first the car-seat-ants-and-BBs-legs debacle happened, which made me wonder if they exterminated cars. Then, the unthinkable happened, the absolute LAST straw.

One morning I opened my underwear drawer, and there, to my horror, were dozens of sugar ants, happily speckling my rainbow of Hanky Pankies. That was IT. I called in the big guns – “Professional Killers,” possibly the best and most apt name for an exterminating company ever. They are the go-to group in Orkin outfits, dressed like a suburban commercial (although one had a massive white capful of dreads), filled with knowledge about what ants like (water – which they don’t actually drink, but take home to their nest), and what they don’t like (poison, as far as I can figure). They sprayed, the babies and I vacated (I think the cats hid – wasn’t too worried as they evidently use something organic-ish), and we returned 3 hours later to a clean place. I even had them spray my car. The head “Killer” told me not to park in front of ant nests and not under trees, if I could help it. I try not to now (kind of difficult when there are trees everywhere and I don’t know what an ant nest looks like), and we are crazy clean, cleaner than we’ve ever been, but the ants are back. I called Professional Killers again this morning. They are coming tomorrow, and perhaps Husband can rest easy for another two weeks.

Trio of Honey-Nut Cheerios on Clean Counter, 9:30am

Trio of Honey-Nut Cheerios on Clean Counter, 10:45am. Go ahead, enlarge this photo...

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And So It Begins…

Charlotte Amalie Harbor

“Suddenly St. Thomas: A Stateside Mom Gone Island” will be my space to share many of the random, crazy, wonderful, frustrating, mundane, difficult, funny, and sometimes just unbelievable experiences that my family and I have had (and continue to have!) since we moved to St. Thomas, VI, just over three months ago. It will be part personal anecdote and cocktail conversation, part travelogue and advice (especially for those with young children), and part highlighting my favorite things, events, and places in our new island life. Ever since we “went island,” there have been so many new aspects of our lives that I rave and rant about with friends, and just want to share. Boat trips around the islands and hitting the beach with the babies year-round after dinner (rave!). Teeny tiny black sugar ants that seem to get into EVERYTHING despite our great exterminators named “Professional Killers”—ants being a fact of island life (rant!). A gorgeous shop for beach clothing on St. John across from a fantastic playground for little ones (share!). Iguanas love tomatoes, a pitfall of island container gardening (bizarre!). 900-dollar electricity bills (triple-rant!). Rum is cheaper than organic milk—that is, if the store even has any full fat organic milk stocked (argh! Although, I have developed a taste for rum and cokes…). There is, of course, no end of normal fodder for stay-at-home-mom stories, but add it to a ridiculously sudden move from a Washington, DC suburb to St. Thomas—well… my stateside mom gone island fodder seems endless. Enjoy!

* “stateside”—mainland U.S.

* “gone island”—exactly how it sounds!

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