16 February 2006

Islandophilia

A friend recently suggested I was a bit "over the top" in my praise of everything "island." "Surely," he said, " there must be nasty people there, and there must be confrontations and anger and hostility and all the other stuff we New Yorkers get off on, right?"

Okay, I admit I get a little goofy when it comes to this place. I am already starting to panic because April 20 seems just around the corner, and my "vacation" has barely begun. Up to now been doing lots of "settling in" re the boat, the house, etc. I am already feeling pressured I don't get enough time here. Pinks reminds me I get to return after Thanksgiving, I grump a little, then feel better.

But my objective (yeah, right) evaluation of this place, so far, is that's its simply the best.

Let me count the ways:

Climate: Unparalleled. I love it even when it rains. Sometimes you can see the sun glinting off the raindrops. Other times I enjoy sitting at the dining room table watching sheets of rain sweeping across the Corossol bowl in which we live, or the squalls marching from east to west across the bay, playing now-you-see-it, now-you-don't with Saba. I have seen more rainbows in this past month than in the last decade, and have now seen my first double rainbow (and my second, and third. Ever notice the sky is lighter to the right (the concave side) of the rainbow? Whyzat?) It is even comforting being awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of hard rain on our tin roof, thinking of all the water going into the swimming pool and the roof gutters and thence to the cistern, and ultimately, one way or another, to the garden.

I confess I do not much love the wind that blows sand in my face at the beach, and makes rowing the dinghy to Fish Faster a marathon-like challenge, but I fear if I complain, something bad will happen to me.

The visual beauty: This island, which grows rocks, cactus, and sand, is also at once remarkably green, and yellow, red, violet, and a rainbow of colors. I do not know the name of the flowers that grow here, but they are exciting, romantic, pretty, and pacific.

The people: A combination of French and Island. The French part is sophisticated, sensuous, sometimes contentious. The Island part is more gentle, kind, considerate, moody, sometimes stubborn, but more often polite, helpful, friendly, and all the things Paris is reputed to be not. The women of both derivations are, for the most part, beautiful, and wear revealing gossamer stuff that makes for close calls while driving the car. (At dinner last night, our twenty-something waitress was wearing a bustier that was breathtaking. I wondered aloud if she forgot her shirt. Pinks said she didn't forget, and I was permitted to stare, but to do so with an open mouth was impolite.)

More about island people:

A couple of years back, on our first trip to the supermarche to load our refrigerator and wine rack, I realized I lacked a one euro coin to free up a grocery cart. Here's the way that works: The carts are lined up outside, in the walkway that splits the green adjacent to the parking lot. A double row of carts, accessible from either end, is kept in line by wooden runners in the blacktop. Each cart is connected to the one nested in front of it by a six-inch chain. To release the chain, you must deposit a one euro coin in the receptacle in the handle on your cart. As you push the coin in, it pushes out the little key-shaped piece that locks the chain to your cart. When you're done shopping, return the cart, nest it with the one in front until the chain reaches the receptacle, plug the key at the end of the chain back into your cart, and voila, that pushes your coin back out. When you think of the chaos caused by carts in the parking lot at Waldbaums and Costco, you cannot help but wonder why this system is not adopted by US supermarkets. The only answer I can come up with is that American shoppers insist on leaving their carts wherever they are when finished unloading, and would regard a scheme that required them to return the cart to a specified area as an infringement on their freedom of action, and cause them to shop elsewhere. "You want to tap my phone and email, okay, but don't mess with my freedom to litter." Okay, okay, I do recognize that in US supermarkets, your car is likely parked a lot farther away from the store than here, but there could be several corrals, no?

Back to my anecdote: I knew we had too much to buy to use the hand baskets so I went to the cashier, gave her a 20 euro note, and asked for change so I could get a basket. A customer in the checkout line –a local—reached into his purse (yup, men carry coin purses, whereas we macho American guys leave the coins at home every night on the night table until they become unmanageable, and then we still add more) and he gave me a one euro coin. He would not take "no" for an answer. Can you conceive of that happening at Waldbaums in Westhampton or Westchester, or at 2d Ave and 54th Street?

One incident does not a culture make. Fair enough. Ever been to a government Clerk's office? Needed a beach permit, a driver's license, a boat or car registration, buy an index number for a lawsuit you want to start, etc? Nice people there, right? Smiling faces? Helpful? Salt of the earth? Loan you money just for the asking?

I had to register Fish Faster with the Harbormaster, get a permit for a mooring in the bay, etc. My mooring permit cost 300 euros, and must be approved by the Mayor. I went to the mooring permit lady upstairs from the Harbormaster's office (it’s the Mayor who says yes or no, the Harbormaster who says where) and she gave me the permit, official stamp, seal, and all. What about the need for prior Mayoral approval? She said, "Of course he will approve, why shouldn't he?" I told her I would have to come back and pick up the permit because I had no checkbook with me. She said I should take the permit, get the Harbormaster and the divers to install the mooring, hook up my boat, etc, and stop by with a check later in the week whenever it was convenient.

Now it is true she could always find me if I didn't pay, etc, but the contrast is striking, non?

Back to the supermarket: Match has a long cheese counter. It is at the entrance artery of the store. I would say it runs about twenty five feet along the right hand wall. Only one cheese lady behind the counter. (One year there was a young woman of such stunning beauty, the counter was jammed with males (locals and tourists alike) tasting the cheese, asking questions, whatever. It was a serious traffic block, and forget trying to buy something there. Management learns from experience. The current cheese lady causes no such problems).

We have all had an experience similar to the following: Cheese lady is serving customer A, located approximately in the center of the counter. You, customer B, walk up to the counter, and while waiting your turn, view the cheeses in the glass case to the right of A. There is no "line" and no take-a-number scheme. Not necessary really. You are customer B and when C arrives, he'll know it. Customer C arrives and peruses cheeses to the left of A. When the cheese lady finishes with A, she looks up, and C, who damn well knows he is not next, gives her his order. The question is not whether you go up to C and say "Excuse me, asshole, it's my next." The question is: "Do you think C gave his cheese order in French, or New York City accented English?" The odds are with you on this one.

The other side of the coin: I leave my dinghy on the short beach in Corrosol. There is a slanted stone seawall on the upland edge of the beach, and people put the nose of their dinghies up on the wall so rainwater will drain out the plug in the transom. When I moved my dinghy there the first time, I noticed some iron rings screwed into the cement between the stones, and secured my dinghy to one of them. I noticed a grey haired guy—clearly another retiree, just sitting around and watching. I had seen him before, a Corossol regular. He said nothing as I attached my dinghy. Several days later, I rowed out to my boat again, this time with a boat surveyor from St. Martin, because the French marine insurance company demanded a survey. (Surveyor was a sweet guy, former ship captain, got his pants wet launching and getting into my little dinghy, weighed 250 pounds, easy, and I had sore arms for days—another story there). When we returned to the beach and started to attach my dinghy to the ring, the same old guy was sitting on the wall. He came over, and in mile-a-minute French, spoke for about three uninterrupted minutes to the surveyor, and when I asked the bilingual surveyor what he said, the answer was "It's his iron ring." But he spoke a long time. What else did he say? "He said he put it there, it's his ring, for his boat. Period".

I tried my best to make nice, but the local was having none of it. I had intruded on his turf, a major island no-no. We moved the dinghy ten feet down the beach. I see the guy all the time. I smile, waive, say "Bon Jour!, and he looks at me as if I were a stone. I also gather there is some resentment that I lock up my dinghy with a steel cable. Nobody else does that. Yesterday I found cigarette butts in my dinghy. Uh oh. I am considering removing the cable.

Then there is M.Bertin, who did the original plumbing installation here. Very complicated system. Pay attention now, you are going to love this and learn something too:

1. Rain water from the roof of the living room, kitchen, and master bedroom goes into the main cistern—a 10,000 gallon concrete tank under the front deck outside the living room and kitchen.

2. Rain water from the two small tiled terraces in the back of the house flows through pipes into a 100 gallon concrete groundwater tank at the lower end of the property, from whence it is fed to the irrigation system.

3. Sanitary discharge (a/k/a sewage from toilets, showers, sink water, etc,) goes into tank #1 of the septic system, (the septic tank room is located adjacent to the groundwater tank) where it apparently cooks for a while, then the stuff goes into tank #2 where air is pumped through it, then it is pumped into tank #3 from whence it goes into the irrigation system.

With me so far? We are nowhere near finished.

4. Rainwater from the roof of the garden bedroom, (which is two levels below the living room) is gravity fed into a small auxilliary cistern, which has a pump and float valve. When the water gets high enough, the pump goes on and pushes the water uphill into the main cistern.

5. Then there is the "eau de ville", ie, city water, from the island desalinization plant, pure drinkable water that arrives at the house in a black plastic pipe attached at my end to the same pipe manifold (located in the technical room) where all other sources of water are routed and distributed.

So, with the turning of the correct valves, you can feed either city water (expensive and low pressure) or cistern water (free and high pressure) into the household water manifold, (household water is what comes out of the taps in your sink, shower, etc.) Because the city water is low pressure, if you are running low on water, rather than use city water directly, you are better off running city water into your cistern and letting the cistern pump get the water to your house taps.

And you can feed either city water or cistern water directly into the adjacent irrigation manifold.
Problem: When we are in New York, no water goes into the septic system. And in dry season, when the plants need irrigation most, there is insufficient rainwater in the groundwater tank. The gardener must be very careful. He wants to use the last of the septic and groundwater before he resorts to cistern or city water, but if he runs those pumps when the former tanks are dry, the pumps will burn out. Been there, done that. Only after the groundwater and septic tank 3 are empty, will he manipulate the valves and use either cistern or city water for the plants.

As you might imagine, the network of pipes and valves to accomplish all this is extensive. Add to that the half-dozen pumps (from the cistern to the manifold, from one septic tank to another, the aeration pump for septic #2, from septic #3 uphill to the irrigation manifold, from the groundwater tank uphill to the irrigation manifold, from the auxilliary cistern that catches water from the lower roofs and pumps it uphill to the major cistern,) plus a series of meters that tell how much of what is moving where, the filters of clean and not so clean water,-- its enough to make one crazy.

I keep asking Dawn to explain it to me, she asks Dofie, he asks the gardener, and everybody avoids asking the M. Bertin who installed this Rube Goldberg system in the first place, because…get this now,…M. Bertin regards the system as his turf, its operation is proprietary information, and he is the proprietor. Very French.

I keep telling Dawn to hire a new plumber, but new plumbers do not want to mess with somebody else's work. Only on an island. I nagged. Dawn finally persuaded Patrick, an apparently sane plumber, to come and look ( he said he would look and explain if he could, but would not touch anything because "it is not my work." He came, looked, his eyebrows shot halfway up his forehead when he saw there was a possibility that if a one-way valve failed (it hasn't yet, but…) we theoretically could pump septic system water into the cistern, (or even into the city water supply!) and agreed to make changes. He promised to come Monday at 8 AM, he was here with two helpers at 7:55 AM, worked a full day making piping and plumbing changes, and I now understand all the piping and all the pumps, and our future guests doubtless will be happy to know there is no longer any possibility of dishwater in the ice cubes.

And as a bonus, I will no longer burn out any pumps.

I have lots of other people I would like to talk about: There are the ladies at La Petite Columbe, and the owner there, and the reservations manager at Guanahani, and the owner of Pipiri Palace, and the gas station lady, and the guy at the watch counter who sold me my back-up watch with the days of the week in French, and the auto dealer who delivered the car BEFORE he got paid, and… .

More about them later. Now the sun is out and I need to sit in it and count my blessings, which are many indeed.

A bientot.

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