Sunday, 10 June 2007
“You can live anywhere ...”
Owen Powell – 10th June
Now then. If I was to ask you to name the most romantic places on earth, you’d probably put somewhere with a personal attachment to you at the top, so it wouldn’t be a very helpful survey. But the chances are that if you looked at everyone’s top ten you’d see some of the same names appearing. One of those names, I’d hazard a guess, would be the Bahamas. We think of sun, beaches of white sand, little fish darting around in blue seas – it’s quite a relaxing, happy thought.
Then, if I was to ask you to consider the most romantic occupations in the world, you might a bit more confused, but you’d be so relaxed with the thought of all these wonderful places that you might go along with it. Romantic jobs? There can’t be many, surely. Milk Tray man. Steam engine driver, possibly. Jobs with a whiff of the nostalgic. Forester. Deep sea fisherman. But how often do these jobs and locations coincide? In my experience, just the once. Blondie, who I met in a café in Finchley, is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper in the Bahamas.
“From the very top of the lighthouse,” she says, “on a clear day, you could see Cuba.”
(Maybe I’m making too much of the lighthouse thing. When Blondie was three, the family moved from Inagua, where the lighthouse was, to a different island where her father took a job as a technician, and then on, island-hopping around the Bahamas through her childhood. Still, it sounds pretty idyllic.)
Blondie was fractionally late for our meeting. I wouldn’t normally mention things like this, given how late I usually am (see most of Alex’s entries for details), but Blondie was very apologetic and very funny about it. As we sat down in the café, she said that “the only things Bahamians are ever on time for are funerals and church. We’re a relaxed people, very Caribbean.” According to Blondie, not many people leave the Bahamas to improve the quality of their life (even though it’s not – by our standards - a “wealthy” country). It’s quite common to do as Blondie did after school, and spend some time at University in the US, but then most people return. Blondie met her husband in the States, in Atlanta, Georgia, although he had also grown up in the Bahamas. She studied Business Education for four years, then they got married in Nassau (the capital) once they had come back to live in their home country.
Three years later, and with a little nine-month old daughter, they made the big move to London. For Blondie’s husband, this too was a return home, as he was born here. He doesn’t remember it, only spending his first year in London, but he had a British passport which was to prove vital. Their daughter had been born with a heart condition, and the treatment offered at Great Ormond Street was the best available to prevent it worsening. Blondie is vehemently pro-NHS. She thinks it’s amazing. “People bash it all the time, but you’d want it back if it disappeared. The quickest way to become poor is to pay medical bills.” Thankfully, the treatment worked and her daughter, now nearly ten, is doing well. A younger brother arrived as well, born in London in 2002. Are they good kids, I ask? “They’re more joy than pain,” says Blondie.
Both Blondie and her husband have studied for Masters degrees in London. He now has a job in High Barnet, while Blondie works as a learning mentor in a nearby secondary school. She helps kids whose behaviour interferes with their learning, and it’s tough but rewarding work. Blondie’s a great believer in education’s ability to change people for the better, although the changes are often slow ones. “In the Bahamas, literacy rates are really high, and all kids want to go to college. They’re very ambitious. People often work for two or three years after school, just to save enough money to pay their way through University. We’re really striving to get our own University status, but we also help fund the University of the West Indies, and a lot of kids go there as well as to the States.”
The American influence on Bahamian life seems to be getting stronger year on year. Since independence from the UK, some aspects of British culture have survived – like drinking tea – but from music to sports, the younger generation are turning West for ideas. “The main sports now are basketball and American Football,” Blondie explains, “and even most of our athletes are based on American University campuses. We’ve won five gold medals at the Olympics – someone once told me it was the best per-capita record of any country in the world! We’ve also got a very good tennis player, Mark Knowles, who wins a lot in doubles. I won tickets to Wimbledon a few years ago and I introduced myself to him! He was playing with Venus Williams at the time, although they didn’t win.”
On a sporting theme, Blondie points out that she left Atlanta just before the Olympics arrived there, and now she might be doing the same in London. With her daughter coming up to secondary school age, the family think it might be time to move back to the Bahamas. Blondie says she’s adapted to life in London, “to not having the sea, and the weather”, but I think she’s quite excited about going home again. “For the cost of a flat here, we could live in the lap of luxury in the Bahamas. And the beaches! I’ve never been to a beach here, but I’ve seen pictures. After the beaches in the Bahamas – some are white, some have pink sand, there are corals – it would all just seem muddy. Even in Florida, it is not the same. The sand is of a different grade.”
But there are things that the family will miss. “Of course! We’ve travelled a lot around Europe, and seen so much history. When we go back, we’ll mainly have trips to American cities which are all a bit samey. And my kids, of course, have a lot of friends here. We’ll have to return here every now and then, just so they can catch up with each other. I feel that we’ve seen a lot, experienced a lot. We’ve met a lot of very helpful people. The hardest thing, if you’re living somewhere new, is not having enough knowledge. But if you meet the right people, and find out the right things, you can live anywhere.”
Even, if you’re really lucky, in a lighthouse in the Bahamas...