12 January 2006

Managed Care, Island Style

The lingua franca of this island is French. While the shopkeepers and restaurateurs speak English, most other locals do not. Certainly not the plumber, electrician, carpenter, pool cleaner, gardener, "Dead Moustique" guy (truck bears a picture of mosquito on his back with legs in the air-- get it?), postman, Fedex driver, and air conditioning repairman, each of whom has visited our carefree nest during the last three days.

To add to this bouillabasse, the work ethic is a combination of Island and French. That can be pretty daunting to New Yorkers.

For example, a review of the above list of helpers brings to mind that though only the electrician has been here twice, the a/c guy and the plumber should have been here twice, and neither has yet returned nor given any indication when they might do so.

Moreover, when they do get here, there is a tendency to do the job the way they think is the way it should be or looks best, or what they think is the best solution. E.G, if you want somebody to build a fence, and draw him a picture of a simple upright rectangle with horizontal boards with 6 inch spaces, you might get that, or you might get vertical boards with 3 inch spaces, along with the explanation that the fence-builder thought it looked nicer that way. That is very Island.

The French approach is best illustrated by this true story: Immediately after we took title, I ordered a DSL line. At first, they wouldn't even give me a phone because there is an island limit of one wired phone per residence, and the SBH manager of France Telcom insisted my seller had not formally surrendered his line to this house. I am not making this stuff up. We did ultimately resolve this ( it was all in French so I have no idea how). Because I was close enough to the main substation, I was DSL eligible, I ordered the service, and they handed me a France Telecom DSL modem, and off I went.

Now this is not complicated. You plug the supplied power cord into the wall socket, the supplied telephone line into the telephone socket, the supplied network cord into the network socket on your computer, and you are in business. Well, not quite. While I did have spotty local email service, I could not talk to the Paul Weiss computer at all, because the law firm, like the guy in the Kosher hot dog television commercial, asserts: "We have higher standards." The dreaded paranoid security conscious Citrix program will accept only the purest signal. So I spent hours on the phone with our tech guys in New York. When they couldn't solve the problem, we consulted the firm's outside consultants: we plugged and unplugged, pinged and paused, researched and recalibrated, all to no good result. We called France Telecom. They checked the signal at the substation, then sent a technician who came with a large box of equipment, and after an hour or so declared my house telephone wiring was excellent. The only thing left to consider was that my new IBM laptop was defective.

I played my last card, and called Jessica Sombat, a 26 year old expat who works for a local computer service business. Her entire visit cost less than one of the many telephone calls to the States. She walked into my office, took a look at my desk, and said, "That's the modem you've been using? It's defective. That entire model run is defective. We always replace them with a similar American model. France Telcom knows its modems are defective, but they have a large inventory, so they give them to their new customers anyway."
Very French.

You can see how managing the combination of Island and French requires some skill and a stern hand.How does one find Jessica Sombat, the carpenter, electrician, etc, choose the right one for the job, ride herd on them to get them back to do it right, or finish what they started, and otherwise get the attention I need? Managed Care, that's how.

Enter Dawn Drouant Gumbs, house manager extraordinaire.

Dawn is worth meeting here:

Petite, attractive, a 40 yr old NOLA native, Dawn has an interesting story. A pharmicist by training, some years back she was managing a pharmacy in NOLA when a girl friend who was an airline stewardess ( that's what they were called then, and besides I am over 70 and by law exempt from PC standards) offered a free weekend round-trip flight to St. Barts. While here, the lovelies were picked up at a bar or a beach, I am not sure which, invited to party where she met Adolphe Gumbs, local contractor. I mean real local. Not all people who live here are locals. Those born here consider themselves "locals" or "islanders", and they call the French who come here from Paris or Brittany for ten or 20 or howmany years "metropoles." Not surprisingly, the two groups sort of look down on each other. Dofie is a local. There are two full pages of Gumbs in the island telephone directory. Dofie is a contractor, builder, fisherman, and if there were deer or bears, on this island, he would be a hunter too. Dofie is 6' 2", and looks like Clark Gable, complete with mustache, dazzling smile, curly black hair, the whole nine yards. And charming to boot.

A good chunk of nearby Mt. Columbier is owned by the Gumbs clan, and Dofie, along with each of his nine siblings, had been given a piece of it by Patriarch Gumbs. Dofie's piece has a breathtaking view of the sea to the west and south, with unobstructed views of Saba, Eustachia, and St. Kitts. Dofie built a house on it, and lived the life of an SBH local bachelor, details not provided. After a reasonably brief courtship ( I need more time to get Pinks to dig out those details) Dawn moved down here, and she and Dofie were married.

Things change. I am reliably informed the following is a an accurate transcript of a conversation that occurred in the middle of year one of the happy union:

Dawn: Dofie, y'think maybe the house is a little small?

Dofie: Not really. I thought we were quite comfortable.

Dawn: Oh, I am, I am, but I thought it would be nice if we had a kitchen.

Dofie: A kitchen? Well, I never needed one before, but if you want a kitchen, I'll build you one.

I am not sure how many rooms the house has now --there are three darling children and I am highly confident Dawn's children do not sleep in the living room. I ran into Dofie on the road this morning, he pulled over, and we chatted. He said he was on his way to the construction materials depot to buy rebar. I asked what kind of project he was working on for his customer. He said, "No customer, I am building Dawn's office."

Dawn, I guess with the help of her NOLA background, speaks very good French with which she whips the electricians and plumbers into shape. But at home, she speaks ONLY ENGLISH. Her children are perfectly bilingual, tho they tend to speak French to their father when Dawn is not around.

Dawn is a bear on the subject of island kids learning English. It is a sad fact of island education that the kids do not really learn to speak English--much. While the public school gives four years of English language classes, the parochial school--big on this island--does not. They had an English teacher, but she left and was not replaced. When Dawn learned there was ZERO English being taught at her kids' school, she did what Dawn does, raised a fuss, demanded answers, spoke to the guy in charge, etc. The school said they had neither the money nor the personnel to put together an English language class. Result: In addition to being wife, mother, homemaker (which includes collecting the eggs and otherwise caring for the chickens) along with being a house manager for a number of villas on the island, Dawn teaches English at the Catholic school in Columbier.

Of course it was Dawn who found Jessica Sombat for us, Dawn who wrestled with the France Telcom manager and pinned him to mat re my telephone line, then got her cousin who works for France Telcom to come here and try to fix my internet access, then arranged with her cousin at the sous-prefecture to ease our way through the residency process, and it is Dawn who, through her cousin in the Tropical Shipping office in Miami, expedites the shipment of our packages to SBH. ( Right, she does have a lot of cousins.) And of course, when Dawn, while balancing my checkbook, discovers the bank has lost another of my euro transfers, she gets after her cousin, the assistant chief cashier there.

It's a small island and people talk. There are no secrets. At Miller Time, some form of this conversation regularly occurs at the Gumbs household:

Dofie: I understand you criticized Claude at EDF (electric company) today, and chided him in front of his employees. Don't you think you were a little hard on him?

Dawn: No I do not, and what's more I intend to go back there tomorrow and keep after him until he puts my customer's account in good order. Just because EDF has no competition is no reason for them to treat their customers carelessly.

Ah, the island's gain is the mainland's loss.

Okay, gang, there is an excellent chance Fish Faster, with this correspondent at the helm, will make her first international voyage tomorrow, from the Netherlands to France, i.e, Sint Maarten to St. Barth. There remains only 24 hours before the scheduled voyage, barely enough time to finish worrying.

A bientot.

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