Archive | February, 2011

Seeing

26 Feb

I’ve always found beauty in water; deep lakes with secrets lying below their surface; streams gushing through rocks and reeds; ocean waves rushing up to the sand; fountains exploding beads of water that glisten in the sunlight… So it’s rather fortunate that I now live on a small island.

Recently I’ve found myself rushing from one charity meeting to the next, to the grocery store to the bus stop, to my yoga class to…absolutely nothing! At the end of last week, after I had spent a lovely hour stretching and bending, emulating a tree in the wind, a solid warrior and a er…unbalanced crow (need to work on that position a bit more) I realised with delight that I didn’t need to power walk to anywhere. So I took a stroll to the waterfront, sat on a bench and breathed in the view in front of me.

Hamilton harbour is a large expanse of beautiful blue ocean, peppered with shiny yachts and the occasional fishing boat. At this time of year there are no monstrous cruise ships churning the water, so the surface stays calm and serene, lapping ever so softly against the sides of the bobbing boats. There is a gentle jangle of clinking masts, and the occasional call of a seagull, but otherwise all is still and peaceful. On this particular day the sun was streaming through an unclouded sky and it made the small peaks of the water look like polished diamonds.

When I worked in London, our offices were right on the South Bank. The Thames and the beautiful backdrop of London’s most historic buildings were just outside. And yet in two years I probably stood at the railings and took in that view no more than two or three times. And even on those occasions, my nagging subconscious was reminding me that I “should really get back to the office as you’ve been away from your desk for at least, ooh, 4 minutes now.” What a waste of a view! If I’d spent a bit longer looking at it, I might be able to conjure it in my imagination and enjoy it now. But I didn’t and so all I have is a fuzzy outlines of a picture, spotted by age.

As I sat on my bench in the sunshine, I made a vow never to waste a view again.

Do you pass any beautiful views or sights during your week? Why not join me and make a vow to stop, shrug off the nagging voices to get on with your day, and just spend a moment seeing.

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Back

23 Feb

Last week I connected with a colleague on the career networking site LinkedIn. When I saw her profile I did a double take. She was doing my job!

Of course I knew perfectly well that she had replaced me, because I spent several days with her taking her through the role before I left. But when I moved out to Bermuda, she was still working her notice in her old job, and there was no one in my post. And so, I suppose subconsciously my job that I loved was still that; mine.

I stopped munching my cereal and stared at the laptop screen. I’d spent all this time thinking that if Bermuda didn’t play out as we wanted, we could go back home. But, hang on a minute, what we would go back to? Someone else is doing my job now. There are strangers living in our home.

There is a disparity between going through the procedures of making things happen, and actually witnessing them happen. My husband and I spent weeks meeting letting agents and completing paperwork to enable us to get tenants into our home. And yet, if I were to knock on the door to my house and find a stranger on the other side, standing in front of a backdrop of foreign furniture, I’m sure I’d find it nightmarish; like the dreams you have where you’re in your house, but it’s not your house – it’s all different and wrong.

Normally when we move onwards from something, it is because we have moved to the next rung on the ladder. We leave old jobs to start new ones; move out of our homes to bigger and better ones. We’ve taken the next progressive step so we don’t look back. But it’s different when you leave a job to become unemployed, leave a home you own to rent someone else’s.

That morning, as I sat on the sofa in my pyjamas, clutching my bowl of Raisin Bran and my laptop, I realised that this is the bravest thing I have ever done. Compared to some people I know, it is nothing, but for me leaving my job, my home, my family, and my friends – such crucial factors to defining who I am – is a huge change.

It is like a boat carving its way through the sea. As it moves forward, the boat draws a deep line that breaks the surface and the water parts and ripples around it. When you are driving the boat you are looking forward, towards the horizon, and you only see the shapes you are making in the waves. But if you are a passenger on the boat you may also look back, and see that the ripples calm, the shapes blur, and the hole where the boat was is quickly filled in again by the water, as if it was never there.

Last week was a hard one because I was a passenger. This week I’ve made a promise to myself to stay at the front of the boat, eyes on the horizon, looking forward the whole time.

Big Dogs Philosophy

18 Feb

Big barking angry dogs! (okay, maybe not so much in this picture.)

I jumped out of my skin the first time I walked down the hill from our new condo to the bus stop. On one side of the narrow road were two huge Alsatian dogs, barking and growling and salivating, their jaws pushed right up to the metal wire fence that stood between me and their stomachs. I scampered down the hill away from them, heart pounding, and, just as I began to breathe relief, barking started from the other side of the road! A huge beast of a black dog lived in the house opposite, and looked equally keen to chomp off my head. I was terrified that all three dogs would bound over their fences and take turns pulling off my limbs.

Once hubby had assured me that they were only interested in protecting their territory rather than becoming a Stephen King novel, I concluded that, over time, the dogs would get used to seeing me and bark less. Perhaps they’d even be open to a little pat on the head as I passed by!

Huge beast of a dog on the other side to the Alsatians! (I know the photo isn't great, but I took this while running away).

Over the next few weeks I tried clicking my tongue as I approached, calling them “good doggies”, shushing them like I would if I were trying to calm a baby… It didn’t work. They barked and growled and bounded up to the fence with equally aggressive excitement. Then, I tried ignoring them as I walked past – not making eye contact, treating them as if they were playground bullies waiting for a rise from me. They still barked ferociously, their eyes hard with hate.

Last week, as I was considering cuts of meat I could buy to bribe them with, I had a realisation. The dogs weren’t going to be my friends, no matter what I did. It was in their nature to bark and growl and they were going to remain that way. I couldn’t change them. I could only accept them for what they were.

The big dogs are like those situations or people you come across in life which irritate you, upset you and grind you down. You can try different tactics to make things better, but sometimes these things just can’t be changed. Now, I walk down the hill and I see the ocean in front of me, and my day ahead of me, and I don’t hear the big dogs quite so much.

We Are What We Eat

15 Feb

“What do they eat over there?” was one of the first questions Rich and I were asked when we announced we were moving to Bermuda by various friends and family members. At the time I found it interesting that we sum up a nation by its dishes; that food is the best illustration of a foreign culture. I suppose it’s because, in westernised countries at least, what we eat defines our lifestyles, shapes our social habits and is key in fomenting relationships – from business lunches to birthday celebrations.

US mailboxes seem to be island-wide. I've yet to see a front door with a letterbox

It turned out to be an astute question: typical dishes here include US- influenced foods such as pumpkin pie and macaroni cheese (as a side dish!), and Caribbean options such as jerk chicken and sweet potato fritters. Among these are a smattering of Bermudian foods – codfish cakes for breakfast, shark hash and cassava pie (a sweet pie with chicken and pork) but it’s been far easier to spot a Tex-Mex or Jamaican restaurant than one that promotes Bermudian dishes.

Bermuda’s hodgepodge cuisine is also true of its culture. Old English influences still prevail, with lots of colonial style buildings, red post boxes, and pomp and circumstance for a minor royal’s visit (Bermuda is a British overseas territory) but it is also clear that the Caribbean and North America have made their mark. Of course, almost everything on the island – from food to furniture – is imported, so it makes sense that cultural nuances are imported with them. We were surprised to see that all of the supermarkets here ran Thanksgiving offers and the shops put on Black Friday sales, but there are a lot of expats who have settled here and still maintain their homeland’s traditions.

The familiar sights of a red post box and a UK pedestrian crossing!

Despite all the foreign influences, Bermuda had created and preserved something unique to its culture – courtesy – which I’m still finding exceptional after nearly four months of living here. I’ve noticed that people always say “thank you driver” when they leave the bus and the words “sir” and “ma’am” are not just reserved for customers in nice hotels but for anyone people encounter as they go about their days. I’ve also been offered a lift by strangers when it’s been raining on numerous occasions. When I mentioned this to colleagues, I was told that this was very normal in Bermuda and, unlike England, these people weren’t actually planning to kidnap me.

There’s no doubt that Bermudian life has been shaped and moulded by the domineering forces of the Americas and the UK. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could exchange our traditions for some much-needed lessons from this small island on the value of old-fashioned courtesy? 🙂

Happy Balance

13 Feb

My vision of Bermuda as I ploughed my way through tax forms in drizzly London

Becoming an expat has been a funny thing. The process of letting our house, leaving our jobs and filling out piles of tax forms was a stressful one, but my vision of Bermuda was a constant sanctuary of beauty that would dissolve my woes and restore my zen. When I was on my eighth tax form (yes, eight) and tearing my hair out at HMRC’s consistent inability to use PLAIN ENGLISH I stopped, took a breath, and thought of myself lying on a white beach, warm sunshine on my face.

Bermuda in my mind was turquoise oceans and tropical flowers and pastel coloured houses. And, conversely, England was grey and drizzle and grumpiness and train delays. I expected there to be downsides, but I tended to dwell more on thoughts of the beach than of the bugs.

For the first few months of living abroad, everything was exciting – streets we hadn’t been down before were interesting and exploring supermarkets was a novel adventure. Then, winter came, and so did the downsides. I spent a lot of January missing the things that England could guarantee me but Bermuda couldn’t; fresh berries in the supermarket, the variety of shops on the high street, cinema multiplexes, good value Italian restaurants.

It’s like when you first buy a house. Before you move in your new house has a south-facing living room that catches the sunlight, blooming roses climbing round the front door, and a back garden with lots of potential. Then, after you’ve lived there for a little while, you also start to notice peeling paint on the bedroom door, the gap between the oven and the worktop which catches the crumbs and the dip in the floorboards on the landing. Your sunny living room is still cheerful and bright, but your relationship with your house becomes a more realistic one. There are things to tweak and fix and sometimes just put up with.

I left England thinking it was a country full of rubbish weather and stressed commuters, and imagining Bermuda as a warm, relaxing paradise. The truth is that nothing is that two dimensional – there are so many things about home that I took for granted when I was there and miss now, and Bermuda has shown me its limits too. I’ve realised that everything is a happy balance; that there are amazing days and disappointing days when finding your feet as an expat; and that to truly enjoy the experience you have to stop and take in what you have, rather than miss what you left behind.

The Johnny Barnes Way

9 Feb

There’s one main road into Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, and it’s the one that’s crammed with traffic during the morning rush hour. The pink buses chug along with a growl, cars crawl with their fans whirring, and packs of scooters buzz in and out of the lanes like lazy irritated flies. It’s no different to most people’s commute to work.

Except for one thing. Or rather one person. Mr Johnny Barnes. Every morning from 4am – 10am this man, in his eighties, stands at the side of the road and waves and blows kisses to all the commuters as they pass by. He is there every weekday, without fail, dressed in a shirt and a straw hat and a big smile. Once I came into town when the rain was pouring down in huge sheets, the sky dark, threatening a big thunderstorm. But Johnny was there, in a bright yellow mac, as cheery as ever.

Johnny Barnes greets Hamilton commuters from 4am!

He has been at the side of the road for almost 40 years – ever since he decided one morning that it might be nice to greet people as they began their workdays. People liked him, so he did it again the next day for an hour, before he started his own workday as a bus driver. When he retired around 25 years ago, he extended his “shift” to start at 4am so he could catch all of the commuters.

If Johnny were in the UK, he probably would have been jeered at, or carted off by the police, or turned into a Banksy piece of art. In Bermuda however he is (rightly) celebrated – commuters toot their horns and wave and smile and cheer as he showers them with air kisses and tells them he loves them. He even has his own statue, just a little further down the road, entitled The Spirit of Bermuda.

Johnny poses by his statue for a postcard

He emanates warmth and happiness, and it is infectious. When I chatted to a colleague about him, she said that he does it simply to make people smile. He is an extremely spiritual man, and it is his religious enthusiasm which causes him to go to bed at 6.30pm, so he can have breakfast at 2am before he begins greeting commuters. To the average commuter, it’s a happier few seconds of their day, but for Johnny it’s his life.

Bermuda may not have a Starbucks to start the day with, but if it did, Johnny would still be preferable to a Frappuccino and a blueberry muffin any day of the week. How lucky are we that we can start our day the Johnny Barnes way!

Wanted: Bermudian Mum

4 Feb

Mums know how to get grease out of your silk dress, how to get rid of the lumps in your cheese sauce, and when it is okay to tell a white lie. They even know things that Google can’t tell you. Mums, in short, are everyday superheroes.

When I first moved to university I was regularly phoning my mum to find out things such as the difference between bio and non-bio detergent and for how long the bacon in the fridge would be edible. I remember our student union running a Niteline call service to support fellow students, and thinking that clearly this would be much more effective if there were a bunch of mums on the other end of the telephone.

I’ve recently realised that I need to adopt a Bermudian mum. Not to replace my own mum – she is irreplaceable! But, I also need a local mum who can give me some sagacious advice about everyday life in this country. One of the big things I’m not sure about is how to look after the apartment with the damp winter air seeping in. I know it’s damp because we often have pesky little woodlice pottering around in our bedroom (though I’d take 10 of these any day over a cockroach) and if you read one of my previous posts, you’ll know I recently lost my heat bag of beans to a mould attack. I’ve been switching on the dehumidifier each morning for a few hours, and again in the evening, but is this enough? Google cannot tell me. This is something only a mum would know.

A potential candidate did approach us a little while ago when Rich and I were looking at DampRid products for our closets in our local hardware store (it’s a glamorous life we lead here in Bermuda). She came over and advised us to get some other contraption as we’d be buying the DampRid bags every few weeks in the winter. And she was right! It is incredible how much water there is floating around in the closet air! But unfortunately, despite Bermuda’s culture of friendliness towards strangers, I didn’t really feel that a five minute conversation on closet dampness was enough of a foundation on which to build an adoptive mum relationship so she headed off down the cleaning sprays aisle.

Well, whilst I may not have a Bermudian mum, I do have a rather fabulous English one who is still teaching me things twenty-eight years later. Here’s to my lovely mum, my lovely mum-in-law and all the other lovely mum figures in our lives that are wise about the things that really matter.