25 February 2006

French National Police Bar Possible Terrorist Entry To St. Barths!

A young woman's effort to gain entry to St. Barths without proper travel documents was thwarted by alert agents of the French National Police yesterday. The attractive female alien was apprehended, kept in custody for two hours, and then escorted by Gendarmes to a waiting Air Caraibe airplane and deported to St. Maarten (Netherlands), her port of embarkation. The deportation occurred despite the efforts of a so-called renowned international lawyer.

Twenty four hours later, the poorly documented alien, one Jillian London, was permitted to make a lawful entry to St. Barths after the intervention of the "Head of State" in St. Martin (France).

Here are the facts:

Once upon a time, entry to most Caribbean islands was possible for U.S. citizens presenting a valid driver's license. That is still true is some places, but not in the French West Indies. For those, a valid U.S. passport is now necessary. U.S. passports issued to children have only a five year duration instead of the ten years for adults, and prior to December 31, 2005, the French islands (St. Barths, St. Martin, Martinique, and Guadalupe) would admit a child accompanied by a properly documented parent, if the child presented an otherwise regular passport that had expired within the preceding five years.

So when Jesse and Freda prepared to come down here, they checked the kids passports, found both had expired the year before, and called Continental Airlines, their carrier, to confirm the five year grace rule. Continental so confirmed it. For reasons irrelevant to this tale, Jesse came down with Zachary on Monday. At Newark airport, the desk agent at Continental spied the expired passport, made a call, and confirmed Zach was okay for another four years. Jesse and he flew to St. Maarten, thence to St. Barths, and Zach was admitted without incident.

But when Freda and Jillian arrived on the same flight a day later, Jillian was detained in St. Barths.

Here's the scene at the St. Barths airport: The single landing strip runs east-west, and the two-story terminal building is on the south edge of the strip. Arriving passengers are guided by signs to an entrance area at the east end of the building. In the arrival area, baggage rotates on a single small carousel to the left, and the passengers are guided by a metal railing to a window on the right, where one or two Gendarmes are on duty to check in arriving passengers. The Gendarmes work in a 12 foot square room, nicely lighted, air conditioned, equipped with phones, faxes, etc. The sliding glass window at which passports are presented is on the eastern wall of their room. The northern wall is a plate glass window looking out onto the runway, and the western wall, which bears the entry door, is glassed so that the gendarmes can observe the departure lounge.

Jess had gone down to meet the plane. When he saw what was happening, he got involved in the discussion with the Gendarmes refusing entry to Jillian. He made no more progress than Freda had, and Jess came back to the house to get an overnight bag so he could accompany Jillian back to St. Maarten. He told me the story, and I joined him in the trip back to the airport, which is about six minutes from my house.

When we went into the Gendarmes' room—yes, they let me in—three people were crying: Freda, Jillian, and a woman of a certain age, with a boot cast on her recently-broken right foot, who was also being detained because of an expired U.S. passport. She had arrived two hours before Freda and had also made no progress with Moe and Curly.

The three stoical London men were grim but calm. Zach, (who, by the way, is a dead ringer for the "Flying Tomato" of Olympic snowboading fame) did no talking, just a lot of barefoot pacing dressed in his board shorts and t shirt. He was no less effective than his father and grandfather.

On our way into the Gendarmes' room, Jesse and I had been warned by sympathetic airline personnel and the yellow-shirted guys from St. Barts Services, that once these gendarmes say "No," it's "No." They do not ever change their minds, and could not reverse themselves if they wanted to. They have zero discretion.

In internal discussions, we referred to the Gendarmes as Moe and Curly. Moe is 6'2' and hits the scales at a good 240 pounds. This was not a Dunkin Donuts 240-- Moe did not have an ounce of fat that I could see. His uniform was immaculate at the end of a long day, and the gun on his hip looked very large. Curly, about 5'9' was equally spiffy, and similarly armed. Because he is considerably smaller than his partner, his gun looked considerably larger. He was the "bad guy" here and the consensus is that Moe would probably have made believe he did not see what he saw but for Curly's presence. Entirely a guess. Oh, yeah, Curly had stripes on his sleeve.

There are two armed police forces on this island. The Gendarmes are the French National Police. They are responsible for immigration and other national type issues. What those issues might be I have no idea. They drive huge dark blue Land Rovers, way too large for these roads, with the word "Gendarmes" in conspicuous white letters. I am guessing the motor transport purchasing agent in Paris must have confused this island with French Equatorial Africa. The St. Barths Municipal Police (their vehicles say "Police") deal with traffic and more local stuff. Their uniforms are also blue, but they wear shorts, baseball caps, and knit shirts, while the gendarmes look more like NY State Troopers, except for the hat. Both forces are armed. The Gendarmes have a lock-up ( I asked). I don't know if the Police have one too. I would guess so. Maybe they borrow.

Back to the story: While Moe and Curly were firm and never waivered, I must say they were never abusive. They were never physical, never touched anyone (except I did see Curly tap broken-foot lady on the elbow when she was leaving and he wanted her to stay. More on that later) and were never sarcastic or otherwise snotty. Of course, that is only an educated guess because at least in our presence they both spoke only French and effected a total lack of English, which, at least in Curly's case, was highly exaggerated.

In the end, it became crystal clear the undocumented aliens were to be deported and that is precisely what happened. After a fruitless 90 minutes of agita, at 5:45 PM, Jess flew back to back to St. Maarten with Jilly.


The Air Caraibe people were very sympathetic. Jillian's return flight was no charge. They say they never picked up Jesse's return ticket, tho he cannot find it. The immigration lady at the St. Maarten airport was very sweet, helped the kids get a nice room at a good hotel, and Jesse reports that he and Jillian had lots of Margheritas and a lovely dinner in an upscale beachside restaurant,-- music, tablecloths, the whole deal.

Jess had no working cell phone, and in a logistical error, refused the loan of mine. As a result, telephone communication with him in St. Maarten the following day was extremely difficult.

His real work started at 8:30 AM the following morning. Jess had three strings working:

First, my lawyer in St. Barths had tried to reach a contact of hers in St. Maarten who had helped with this kind of problem in the past. The contact was out of the country, but Jesse got in touch with his assistant. She made some calls on his behalf, but at 11 AM reported to Jesse that it was hopeless, and there was no way they were going to let Jillian in.

The second string Jess was working was the French sous-prefecture in St. Martin. (Not sure I can describe what that is. Best I can tell, it is sort of a district headquarters, but in a country that does not have districts with such political power as exists in our Union of States.) That too was a quick strike-out. Mind you, Jess, with no cell phone, is tied to his hotel room, one phone line, and he has such trouble making outside calls, he must use the hotel switchboard for everything. I think they were very happy to see him check out.

By 11 AM, there is one string left. The previous evening, Jesse had consulted the telephone book, and found, under "Government Services", a Dutch official (he was in the Netherlands, after all) with a title indicating he had something to do with tourists. At 10 am, after hearing the story, the Dutch guy said it was hopeless and suggested that, as a last resort, Jess should call the French Office of Tourism. But even though they share the same island, the French phone system is different from the Dutch system and Jess was unable to reach the French side by phone. At 10:30, he called the Dutch official again, pleaded his case once more, was rejected once more, and when the guy was about to hang up, Jess said "Look, I cannot seem to connect with the French Tourism Office by phone. Would you at least tell me how to call them?" Dutch guy said, "Sure. I will do better than that, I'll conference you in." and did so.

Jess then made his pitch to an English-speaking French lady by the name of Colette Duchene, who will immediately go into the London Family Hall of Fame. Mme. Duchene listened, asked intelligent questions, and the Dutch guy, who got hooked by the story upon its re-telling, did likewise, made helpful comments, and they were off. Mme. Duchene and Jess spoke on the phone two more times during the next half hour.

At 11 AM, when the second of Jesse's two other strings was broken, there was no longer any need to hang by the hotel room phone. The aliens checked out of the hotel, and set out to make the 20 minute trip across town to the French side in order to meet with Mme. Duchene before noon, when her office closed for a two-hour lunch period. It was not an uneventful journey. They lost ten minutes checking out of the hotel, another ten minutes getting a taxi, and another ten when the cab driver got lost. They arrived at 11:50 AM.

The French Office du Tourisme is located in Marigot, the largest port city on the French side. It is modern, air conditioned, nicely furnished, and staffed by well-dressed polite people. (Men wear white shirts and ties, women wear pants and nice tops, etc). Mme. Colette Duchene is the "Chef d'Accuiel" (She was the highest ranking person in attendance. There is one person above her in that office, and he was on vacation.) She is in her 30's, 5'7", attractive, dressed like the professional business woman she is, and speaks excellent French-accented English.

By the time Jess arrived at the Tourism office, Mme Duchene told them she had made some progress. She asked more questions, made another telephone call, and at noon told Jess the matter was now on the desk of the "Head of State." Jesse was thunderstuck: "The Head of State, really?" She laughed, "Well, it doesn't mean quite the same thing here as it does in the United States, but he's got the power, and he is the man. It is up to him."

The office closed at noon, Jesse and Jillian returned at two. Mme. Duchene had offered to let them stay in the closed office, she offered them coffee, water, magazines, etc., but she said nothing was going to happen for the next two hours and they might as well go out for lunch. They did, and returned at 2 PM, paced and worried until three, when Mme. Duchene came out of her office and said, "You are in. The officers at St. Barths have been notified to admit Jillian. Get back there at once."

Jesse said he really would like to have the entrance approval on a piece of paper when he faced Moe and Curly again. Mme Duchene said, "No paper, they have been informed. They know you are coming. The file has been faxed to them. Just go, and hurry."

Jesse almost surrendered when faced with the daunting task of making phone calls back to the Dutch side to see if Winair or Air Caraibe had two open seats that day. Mme. Duchene said, "Give me your credit card, I will try to get you on a 4 PM 'St. Barts Commuter' flight from a local airport here on the French side." And she did. Jess asked if she could help him call a cab. She did that too, and when she could not get one, said, "My car is right outside. We must be there at 3:30 or they will give away your seat. I'll drive you there. I hope you don't mind the mess in the back seat. I have a five year old."

Traffic at that hour was awful, and Mme. Duchene took a short-cut. They arrived at the airport at 3:27. Four cars behind them, traffic was stopped for ten minutes by two bulls who decided to meander onto the road. Mme. Duchene, known to and greeted warmly by all at the airport, accompanied Jesse and Jillian right up to the security line. Jillian hugged her, Jesse hugged her, Jillian cried. (Jilly says she saw tears in Jesse's eyes too. Jesse neither admits nor denies.) The wandering Londons made the plane back to St. Barths.

At some point in the drama, Jesse felt the need to give Mme. Duchene a gift. He had nothing but cash, which he offered and which she politely but firmly refused. "It is my job to do this. Please have a good time on the rest of your family vacation."

Needless to say, Jesse runs out of adjectives describing Mme. Duchene. "Charming, intelligent, sympathetic, kind, supportive, effective, diligent, focused, caring", etc, etc, etc. Indeed he has nice things to say about almost everyone in drama, --the immigration lady who got him a hotel room, the Dutch guy who helped with the call, and the other bit players in the drama.

At the immigration line at the St. Barths airport, Moe and Curly saw them coming. Jess says he was at the end of the line and he saw Curly looking at him. As they approached the window, Jess could see Jillian's picture atop a file on the Gendarmes' desk. The following dialogue ensued, in English, of course:

Curly: One Day. You stay for one day.
Jesse: No, till Sunday. We go home on Sunday, not before.
Curly: No, one day.
Jesse: No, till Sunday.
Curly: Okay, till Sunday. Give me your address where you are staying.
Jesse: I don't know the address. It is in Corossol.
Curly: Hotel or villa?
Jesse: Villa.
Curly: What is the name of the villa?
Jesse: I do not know.
Curly: Okay. Go.

When I asked Jesse how he could have been so confident in this conversation with Curly, Jesse said he knew that Mme. Duchene was going to be at her desk till 5:30 PM and with her on his team, Curly was toast.

All this occurs in radio silence, while I sit here at the house, cell phone in the right pocket of my shorts, cordless phone in the left. The last call I had with Jess was prior to his decision to leave the hotel. When he got the 11 AM message that only string three, i.e., Mme. Duchene at the the Tourism Office, was viable, he scrambled, and assumed we would figure out that he was working the problem and would either show up here at day's end, or call and let us know he had checked back into a hotel and would return to New York the following day. Our first signal that he had succeeded was the sound of Jillian's carry-on wheels as she rolled her suitcase up the roughened concrete driveway.

Btw, on the previous day, the broken-foot lady, who was also deported, had started to board the plane with Jess and Jillian on the Air Caraibe flight back to St. Maarten. As she moved out the departure lounge door to the plane, Curly tapped her on the elbow, and told her (via a yellow-shirted St. Barts Services employee who's client she was) that she was required to wait for a Winair flight, because that was the carrier that brought her to the island. On hearing this, she broke down again. I spoke with her briefly while she waited for a Winair flight, and offered any assistance I could give. She thanked me but there was nothing I could do for her. The yellow shirts said they would try to help her in St. Martin, but I did not get the sense they had any confidence they could accomplish anything. Jess never saw her at Mme. Duchene's office, and said he thought her case was not as hopeful as ours, because it seemed to him that the real winning argument in Jillian's case was the fact that she 12, and was just trying to join her family who were visiting her grandfather and granny who lived in St. Barths.

So this trip was a short one for Jillian. Long enough for days at Saline Beach, visiting friends at the Guanahani while Jesse, Zachary, Mark, and I went fishing, lunches at Cocoloba Beach and L'Esprite de Saline, dinners at Masaii and Do Brasil, and tonight Bertrand will cook dinner for eight at here at the villa, and we'll dine under the stars . Not so bad, huh?

A bientot.

19 February 2006

Death In The Harbor

All is not perfect in Paradise. The island is abuzz with gossip about a harbor accident last week that happened about ten minutes before we arrived at the water's edge restaurant La Marine, for traditional Thursday night moules et frites-- mussels and french fries. The mussels come in from Brittany on a boat arriving every Thursday, and La Marine, and others too, I guess, serve them Thursday and Friday night.

The harbor set-up is as follows: imagine a rectangle about the proportions of the new HDTV television picture, i.e. much wider than it is tall. That is Gustavia Harbor, with the western end of the rectangle open to the sea. Ships and boats are parked perpendicular to the three walls of the rectangle, the smaller boats are deeper into the harbor, nose in to the dock, and ships closer to the harbor entrance, stern to the dock. (The difference between a ship and a boat is immediately appreciated upon recognition that ships carry boats.) Much of the space in the center of the harbor rectangle is taken up with moored sailboats, which are tethered fore and aft to moorings affixed to the harbor floor, so they do not dance in the wind.

But this small harbor can in no way handle the hundreds of boats that visit here or call St. Barts their home port (E.G., moi). As a result, many boats anchor just outside the rectangle in what is called "the outer harbor," and are still in the lee, protected from the prevailing east wind. Others are in Public, which is the next bay to the west, (about 500 yards further out,) or in Corossol Harbor, where my boat is, which is another 750 yards further west of the main harbor and downtown Gustavia.

Most of these boats 35 feet and longer have people living on them who need to come ashore for supplies, recreation, whatever. This is done via dinghy, (a/k/a tender) which in most cases is a rubber boat powered by a small outboard engine. Some of the large ships carry a tender made of fiberglass that may be as long as 25 feet or so. So at any one time, there are dozens of tenders zipping around the harbor, and when they come all the way into the main harbor, their visibility is restricted by the sailboats moored in the center of the harbor.

Nighttime is particularly hairy. Sun sets early, at about 6:15 now. It is pitch black dark by 7:00. That, of course, is the start of dinner hour, or at least on-shore cocktail time, and surprisingly, many of the dinghies have no lights.

There is a 3 knot speed limit in the harbor. (That is approximately 3.3 mph.) You have no idea how slow three knots is until you try to go that slow in a boat. Anyway, there is no enforcement of the limit, and as a result it is completely ignored. NOBODY travels at three knots. Nobody.

All these facts came together in an ugly way last week.

A French couple, on a world tour in their sailboat, arrived late Thursday, dropped anchor in the outer harbor, and at about 7 PM got into their Zodiac to travel to the far (eastern) end of the harbor to eat at the sushi place on the waterfront there. But once inside the harbor, their rubber boat was run down by a fiberglass tender piloted by a New Zealander whose sailboat was anchored in Public. Witnesses say the fibreglass boat was traveling very fast. The fiberglass tender literally climbed over the Zodiac, instantly killing its operator, and seriously injuring his wife, who was rushed by speedboat to the hospital in St. Martin.

A judicial inquiry has been opened. The local press reports the New Zealander faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and "reckless injury" to the wife. While I think he is not in jail (reports vary on this question), he clearly is confined to this island for an indefinite period of time. I did inquire whether there was a jail here. I am told there is a "very small" lock-up at the Gendarmerie (just up the street from our house) and a "real jail" in Guadalupe, which is said to be a horror.

Meanwhile the issue of tenders speeding about the harbor is on everyone's gossip agenda.

The Mayor, who apparently has almost unlimited power on this island, spoke about the accident in his Saturday radio talk. (I did not know he had such a program. I know the President of the United States has a Saturday radio talk, and I recall Mayor LaGuardia on the radio reading the comics on Sunday morning during a newspaper strike, but... .) I am told that Mayor Magras had unkind things to say about the New Zealander, tho my information comes from Laura, our maid, whose French is poor and who heard only a fragment of the radio talk. Of course, the Harbormaster had something to say too, but even with my French-English dictionary, I could not figure out from the newspaper article I read exactly what was on his mind. Doubtless he was defensive over the lack of enforcement of speed and lighting requirements. Those appear to be the major issues.

First, there is no sign anywhere telling/reminding people of the 3 knot limit. On Long Island, there are one or more such signs in every anchorage and marina.

Moreover, the Harbormaster and his crew go home at 5 PM. There is no police presence on the water after that, and after five is a time of maximum traffic, minimum light.

I have no information whether the Zodiac had lights, or whether they were working, tho my insurance broker downplays that issue because there was a full moon in a cloudless sky that night. All vessels are required to be lighted in some form, from dusk to dawn. All vessels over 7 meters (21 feet) are required to show, from dusk to dawn, a red side light to port, a green side light to starboard, and a 360 degree white light. The colored lights tell you which direction the boat is going (You see a red light, you know the other boat is going from your right to your left. That means he has the right of way. Red means stop. Easy, huh? The system assumes every boat is going forward, not at all an unreasonable presumption.) Boats under 7 meters are required to show the white 360 degree light, and must show the red and green side lights "where practicable." I am not sure what the latter phrase means. Just when is it not practible to show those lights? The marine catalogs sell little battery operated lights that stick on to rubber dinghies for this purpose. Yet it is my observation that 90+% of the tenders are rubber boats, and less than half of them show any kind of light at all.

And then there is always the demon rum factor, more serious at night than in the day. I have zero information that alcohol was involved, but I cannot help but be suspicious (as I definitely am in the case of the Vice-President of the United States, who, after a lunch in which alcohol was served and during which he admits drinking --"one beer", yeah right-- shot a hunter WHO WAS STANDING ON THE GROUND. THIS WAS QUAIL HUNTING, NOT DEER HUNTING. SPORTSMEN DO NOT SHOOT BIRDS --OR PEOPLE-- ON THE GROUND. Sure glad the Texas constabulary immediately did a sobriety test on the Veep. Not.)

Back to my island: The speed and night-time patrol issues in this accident are the ones that have "legs", I think, and I would not be surprised to see something done about it. The lighting issue is also noteworthy. Why somebody would go out on the water at night without lights is beyond my comprehension. I always hated boating at night. Even with lights, radar, sonar, the whole deal, I hated it, crawled along, and went out only for fireworks on July 4. (Of course, that's when all the other drunks were out too!)

I will try to keep up with events. Perhaps Paul Weiss has closed the Paris office too soon: I cannot even offer the New Zealander my services. Methinks he needs me.

A bientot.

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.

13 February 2006

City-Dweller Myth Exposed: Rooster's Do Not Greet the Dawn

Everyone knows roosters crow at dawn. How many pot-boilers have we read with opening paragraphs about roosters "greeting the dawn" or "awakening at first light and starting the farmer's day," etc. Certainly I have always accepted that truth. It is in the category of knowledge that we accept without question even though we do not see or hear it for ourselves. "Cows give milk" and "Chickens lay eggs." How many of us have ever seen with our own eyes a demonstration of either? We accept those "facts" without hesitation because i) they are logical, and ii) the source is not The White House. Though not government sponsored, the rooster factoid might as well be. It's WMD all over again. I am on the scene and here to tell it like it is.

Mind you, I am not saying that roosters do not crow at dawn. But that's in the category of the stopped clock telling the accurate time twice a day because not only do the roosters crow at dawn, they crow at noon, midday, midnight, 2am, 4 am, etc. Now, I have no doubts that it is the rooster's job to greet the dawn. But on this island, these French icons (our eagle is their coq) either do not know what their job is, or they just don't give a damn. The fact: roosters are single-minded birds whose focus is to let every hen on the island know they are here, and in charge. They do that by i) adopting that ridiculous "I-am-the-Arnold-Schwartzeneger-of-this-island" strut, ii) charging and menacing anyone or anything approaching their flock of hens, (up to and including large people and small automobiles), and iii) crowing around the clock. And I mean literally around the clock. I'm not saying they don't take occasional afternoon naps. They must, given all the hens to whom they are obliged. But so far as I can see, when they are not sleeping, they are crowing. I do not know why all that crowing is necessary, but my working hypothesis is they figure the hens have very small brains and will forget the rooster is around unless reminded often.

The combination of i) my observations of rooster behavior (you live here, you move about the island, you are blessed with normal hearing, you see and hear lots of rooster behavior) together with ii) my experience litigating market-sharing conspiracy cases under the Sherman Antitrust Act, have led me to the firm conclusion that the roosters on this island have put together a simple but very effective conspiracy of their own. They are brazen in its execution. (There is no French Elliott Spitzer) The entire purpose of this conspiracy is to keep the island hens in a state perpetual second class status. Think about it: when a rooster sleeps, or is otherwise engaged, who is going to remind his hens of their subservient status? Another rooster, that's who. I am not sure how they have struck the deal, or what signals they pass to communicate to the duty rooster that he is up, but for sure somebody is always up, and so around here somebody is always crowing.

Fortunately for us, most of the duty roosters are far enough away so that while they are audible, they are not maddening.

But we have a new neighbor. Nice young couple. Friday nights they have friends over, drink wine, get loud, it's all very easy to take. They do not keep me up. (My only problem at night is trying to avoid falling asleep while walking up the steps to my bedroom.) But either my neighbors have taken on a rooster, or we have a new visitor: there's a lot of crowing these days in close proximity to Villa Stella Maris. Too close. We'll see how this goes. I can handle this. This rooster had better soon realize that I have adopted an infantryman's approach to island life.

A bientot.

10 February 2006

Cat, Rats, and Squirrels

One of the joys of living on this island paradise is the architecture that brings all the outdoors into your living room, and vice versa. You can sit and watch the Superbowl on television, and by glancing a little to the right of the tv set, see the slow back and forth movement of the anchor lights at the top of the sailboat masts, or the beautiful outlines of the light string outlining the cruise ship. And there's no dirt on the window to impair the view, cause there is neither window nor wall between your living room chair and the sea. ( Except, of course, during hurricanes when steel shutters close everything in.)

This arrangement works only in Paradise. The weather must be perfect. Because the living room (and, btw, the kitchen) is wide open, there is no airconditioning beyond the ceiling fan, and therefore the set-up works only in a locale like this one where the temperature range is from the low 70's to the high 80's.

But even here there is no free lunch. Want to enjoy the great outdoors? Good, you had better learn to share them with others. Every morning we clean cat footprints off the sofa. No big deal. We think the visitor is a large boatyard cat imported by the Davidsons across the street. Or maybe a local cat, of which there are two zillion on this island.

The cats are either fed by locals, or hunt for sustenance.. Do cats hunt lizards? I dunno. If they do, they are not doing a very good job. At least not around here. Our lizards are very territorial and totally unafraid. We have one who hangs around the porch off the master bedroom. He just sits on the railing and stares at you. No flinching. Not even the approach of Frank moves him off station. He is, I guess, letting us know he was here first, and has no intention of yielding. Okay with me. He, or a close relative, was indeed here first and I wish him well.

It will be no surprise, I am sure, for you to learn the wildlife is not limited to adorable lizards. Iguanas are harmless, but they are large, fearsome looking, and poop like geese. We see them rarely, but we know there's a pair who live in or around the back wall. Passing over the insect population, which is substantial, we play host to other warm-blooded critters. Yes, the St. Barts cats chase the St. Barts rats.

Our first trip to St. Barts was in 1990. We rented a romantic villa on the beach in Flammands. It was a dream house. Perfect. In those days, btw, the local stores carried oatmeal, my must-have breakfast. We did our grocery shopping on the day of arrival at the supermarche across from the airport, put away the groceries as we do at home, leaving the oatmeal box on the kitchen counter. (This particular house had a closed kitchen with large screened windows and doors.) The morning after arrival, I went to make my breakfast and when I lifted the oatmeal box, cereal trickled out the bottom where a hole had been gnawed. It did not take a super-sleuth to find the tell-tale droppings of the cereal thief. Now my perception of rats derived from my middle class New York City upbringing. It was totally synchronous with the occasional story in the Daily News flogging the Mayor for not controlling rats at some decrepit housing project: the presence of rats indicates the homemaker keeps a filthy house and is a disgrace to the community. Rats live in filth, bite children while they sleep, and carry bubonic plague. In other words, feh!

While I do not suggest the locals regard them as warm and fuzzy pets for their kids, St. Barthians do not read the Daily News or watch the Channel 5 six o'clock news report ("Rat bites child's nose off…film at 11") and as a result people here have made some sort of peace with rats since the first one hopped off a Swedish ship ( so why do they call them "Norway" rats?) about 400 years ago. And all the St. Barths kids have noses. Mind you, when the rats get too numerous, the humans execute the usual control measures (standard stuff; traps and poison) but people hereabouts are definitely not inclined to climb up onto the dining room table when encountering the occasional island rat. St. Barthians know this is a great place, and they do not have absolute control of the environment. They are willing to share. Go to the fanciest hotels on the island, and notice all the cats around, and look for the tin collars on the trunks of the palms—they keep the rats from climbing the trees. That is not what they tell the $1000 a day guests, but… .

Back to our 1990 romantic villa. So when I knew the nature of my oatmeal partner, I called the manager of our romantic rented villa. He came over from his house next door, nodded when I told him my tale, and the following conversation ensued:

Me: "So, M. Jeanui, how are you going to keep the rat out of my kitchen?"

M. Jeanui: (Shrugs shoulders-- they do a lot of that around here) "What can we do? I suggest you put the cereal box in the refrigerator." This said in a tone that suggested only a moron could have done otherwise. If you have ever had teenage children, you recognize that tone of voice instantly: it's the one they use when talking to you.

Me: "Okay, I will do that, but how did the rat get in here?" (Gadzooks, could he get in my bedroom too?)"

M. Jeanui: "Why, through that hole in the kitchen screen, how else?"

Me: "Could you please patch that screen right now?"

M. Jeanui: ( More shrugging) "But Messieur, why bother? The rat will just gnaw through the patch the same way he always does!"

The caretaker did humor me, patched the hole, we put the new box of cereal in the refrigerator, and continued our love affair with the island.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. We were owners of this place about two weeks, when Rob,who was down here for a weekend with Sloane while we were in New York, called and said that while they were watching tv, a rat ran across our open living room. Now that is some bold rat. I guess he was late for work or something, and couldn't wait for the kids to go to sleep. Rob also reported teeth marks in the bar of soap in his mostly outdoors bathroom and he promised that neither he nor Sloane were that hungry. We had Dawn put bait cubes about the place, and the rat and his family were gone in a week.

Last month, my neighbor dug a garden. Uh oh, we got more visitors. More cubes, problem solved in about five days.

But last night was different. We are expecting some guests from New York City, whose only exposure to country life is running in Central Park (which, btw, probably has more rats per square meter than anyplace else in the world) and just before the Super Bowl kickoff, Pinks made a last minute check of the guest room and the bathroom. Pinks is not a screamer. But when she said, "Marty, would you come here for a minute, please?" in a voice others would take to be a normal conversational tone, but that I knew instantly was not anything of the sort, I came quickly. She reported that while she was in the guest bathroom, a rat ran from behind a plant (sure we have things growing out of the bathroom floor, doesn't everybody?) to a small space under a wooden cabinet, which it happens, is bolted to the wall. Now what to do? Poison is not an option here. That surely cannot solve the problem by tomorrow, it is slow working stuff, and during the interim, the critters are attracted to the bait. Move the guests to the small bedroom when they arrive? Tell them about the rat? They will likely move instantly to a hotel, take the next plane home, and shun us forever.

Solution: kill the rat now.. Our guests do not arrive until 2PM on Monday. I can get a trap at the hardware store first thing Monday morning. But rats are nocturnal, I would have to remove the trap before 2PM and what if I don't get him between 8:15 AM and 2 PM? Solution: Get a trap set at once, call Dawn and borrow a trap. Dofie arrived a half hour later, trap and a tiny cube of hard cheese in hand. This is a no frills old-fashioned mouse trap, king size for rats—a "U" shaped bail on a coil spring, held down by a hair-trigger lever attached a pedal baited with cheese, all mounted on a 3" x 6" board. To touch the bait pedal, is to dislodge the trigger which dislodges the lever which dislodges the bail which then travels 180 degrees at the speed of light, and whap, less work for the neighbor's cat.

Just after Hasselbach completed his fifth pass to Jackson in the first quarter, I heard the snap-- through the concrete wall. We got 'im (her? I dunno, and will make no effort to find out).

Bought three traps this morning. Two for my inventory and one to return to Dofie. I am becoming an infantryman: I now get to see the results of deadly force, not like those aloof bomber pilots who, from 10,000 feet, just drop poison cubes about the place. I am getting tough about these things. Another learning experience.

Big question: Tell this story to the guests? Publish it in the blog? Will our friends and family see the earthy quality of our life, thank us for our frankness, or take it as message that we don't want them to honor their reservations? I am considering the matter.

Ah, I know. I will tell them it was a squirrel.

A bientot.

04 February 2006

So Far, The Fish Are Safe, At Least From Me.

Three years ago I traded in my 1987 model 25 foot Grady White Walk-around for a 30 foot Grady White Center Console. The former had a cabin in which one could sleep,cook, wash, etc. Pinks and I actually spent a half dozen or so nights on the boat. Not bad, except Grady White built that boat for people under 5'10", and when I lay down, my head was in the sink, which is better than it being in the head.

The Center Console is purely a fishing machine, no cabin , no stove, no sleeping (except subway style, i.e., standing up). It does have a toilet, but I forbid anyone (except MRFL) to use it. It has lots of macho stuff,--outriggers that look like aft-skyward pointing anti-aircraft weapons, rod racks known as rocket launchers ( I am not kidding), and an electronics panel that, at the touch of a button, rises out of the helm to reveal very sophisticated toys, such as radar, a GPS, which shows a chart (Please, only a landlubber would call it a map) of the local area, with a symbol for your boat, and can compute and show you graphically how to get anywhere from anywhere, and tell you how long it will take to do it, and if you screw up, it tells you so. There is also an echo-sounder, which sends sound waves to the bottom of the sea, and then computes how long they take to bounce back, all of which is illustrated on a ten-inch color screen. If some poor fish is unlucky enough to be underneath the boat, the fish too is illustrated on the screen, with information as to its depth, size, and whether it is married or single. This is all basically stuff developed for the military (they call it sonar, the civilian version is called, for obvious commercial reasons, a Fish Finder, but it is the same basic device.)

Isn't this unfair? Where is the sport? What chance does the fish have?

Well, I am a sportsman, and I give the fish all the chance in the world to survive. I do this by remaining totally ignorant as to how to work this stuff. I can do the basic things, so I can get home, but beyond that, the machines are impossibly complex to all of us born before 1990, the year the United States Congress passed a bill requiring all male children henceforth to be born with a computer gene so they could instinctively operate any electronic device without reading the 128 page manual.

I have been required to read the manual. And read it. And read it. I have worn it thin. It is incomprehensible . The echo-sounder is made in China, and distributed by a Japanese company. So the manual is written in Chinese by a semi-literate computer genius, translated into Japanese, and from Japanese into English, all by engineers. I am certain there are zero English majors involved in this process. The result is sentences like: "Fix range steps that accord with gain preference for maximum functionment." And, "Open adjustment page pressing rightful soft key." You get the idea.

Of course, all that is really irrelevant for my first SBH fishing trip, because I went with Dofie, and he has no use for this stuff anyway. He knows where to go, what bait and lures to use, and that's that. When it's time to go home, you point the boat at St. Barts, large on the horizon, and advance the throttles. Period. How simple is that?

I was to pick up Dofie at the Corossol dock at 11 AM. I rowed out to Fish Faster at 9:30, secured the dinghy, (no mean feat in the wind) climbed aboard Fish Faster ( no mean feat if you are a large klutz) turned on the switches, lowered and started the engines, tied some tackle on the fishing lines, and mentally planned my approach to the dock situated about 400 yards away. Eisenhower's planning chief and I had something in common: we both knew the whole world was watching. When Dofie appeared, I approached ever so slowly and nevertheless humiliated myself with a crunching arrival. Happily the sound of splintering wood was the dock, not my hull. "Ugly" was the only word for it.

Off we went. The spot where all fish loiter, just waiting to jump into 30 foot center consoles is where the island shelf ends, and the depths increase precipitously from 150 feet to 1250 feet. One then trolls along this depth gradient (it's on the GPS chart) and simply hauls in the eager wahoo and mahi-mahi. Up north we call the latter dolphin fish—no, not Flipper, a fish.)

The drop-off is about 8 miles offshore. Sounds ridiculously close compared to the Atlantic Coast canyons which are 50 miles offshore. But once you are out of the flat Corossol Bay ( which is virtually closed on three sides and well protected from all but west winds, and those are rare hereabouts) one encounters 8 foot seas which make progress slow. It took us 45 minutes to get to the drop-off, we worked the line for a couple of hours, and caught zilch. We spied some working birds, but they quit when we approached. I also got my first sighting of flying fish. Amazing creatures. At first I thought they were small birds. They come out of the water, fly for about 10-12 feet at an altitude of 6 inches, then slip back into the wave. Huh. We snagged some barracuda, a mean looking toothy creature, but that's like hooking sea robins or sand sharks back home—just trash fish bait stealers.

On the way home, we had a following sea on our starboard quarter, so we made decent time. We did take on a lot of spray, but the water is 79 degrees, and the only real nuisance is salt water on the glasses, which makes one effectively blind until you can manage a fresh water rinse. Wiping salt water off glasses leaves a greasy smear and is not an effective tactic.

No, during the trip I did not eat either of the two sandwiches I brought aboard, or any of the four that Dofie brought. Had I gotten sick on this trip, it would have been in the island newspaper the next day. Or at least the talk of Corossol.

Word had spread that I was coming back to complete the destruction of the concrete and wood dock upon which this fishing community relies, so there was a goodly number of loiterers making believe they weren't watching my second approach of the day. But even I learn some things. The wind was off the dock (i.e., blowing the boat away from the dock), I had fenders out, I put the nose within inches of the splinters remaining from my previous attempt, reversed the port engine, and voila, a neat docking experience. A landing like that takes a lot of the sting out of coming home with an empty fishbox. If the wind were blowing onto the dock, I would have made Dofie swim for it, rods, tackle box, and all.

But I was not done yet. Now I needed to re-attach the boat to the mooring block, which was downwind of the dock. The one inch mooring lines extend from the block on the seabed to a basketball sized yellow float, from which was extended a 30 foot half-inch line downwind to my dinghy. I went directly from the dock to the float, put the engines in neutral, snagged the half-inch line with the boat hook, and grabbed the line with my hand. Really dumb move. The wet line simply burned my hand as it slid through my fist before I could wrap it around a cleat. I had neglected to consider the force of the wind on Fish Faster. There I was, trying to arrest the forward progress of an 8,000 pound boat propelled by a 20 knot wind, by squeezing a wet half-inch line in my fist. Duh. Happily, I lost only a thin layer of skin before cleating the line. Once the boat was no longer moving forward, I was able easily to haul up thbuoyuy and attach the one inch line to the bow cleats. When the engines were shut down, raised out of the water, the switches turned off, I sat in the sun in my fishing chair and ate my jambon et fromage sandwich and drank my bottle of water. It was at that moment that I learned the last lesson of the day: Have a six-pack of beer on the boat at all times.

Wind is up today.. Rain squalls and sunshine, more of the former, and I've decided today is bill-paying day. Why do they keep sending bills? Don't they respect the fact I have no more money? Or at least will not after next week's plumber's bill—which is yet another island story for another rainy day in Paradise.

We'll have market-bought mahi-mahi for our Super Bowl dinner. Wish I cared who won.

A bientot.