Ditching The Kids and The Husband because of one’s professional needs is not something any mother does easily – even when it is a necessity. Ditching The Kids and The Husband to have bare fun is something impossible to admit – even to oneself. So the fact that I have ditched them all for lots of fun and a tiny bit of work is weighing heavy on my conscience as I board a flight for Fort Lauderdale to see the offerings of Art Basel Miami. Why Fort Lauderdale? Have you ever tried to arrive into, or depart from, The Chaotic Cuban Republic of Miami International? If so you will appreciate that the extra 50 bucks taxi fare to downtown is a wee price for the ease of accessing Plastic Paradise through Fort Lauderdale’s relative provinciality.
I am traveling on Air Jamaica – a first for me and I have to admit a few negative preconceptions. Thoughts like - me nah fuh dis yuh people, but dem nah know bout run dem own lil piece ah earth, how dem ah get ah blood clat plane in de sky fuh wuk? And it is precisely these prejudices they dispel with the fast check in, comfortable cabin, nice meal, free drinks, and courteous staff. (I would have liked to return with them but alas de engine dem ah no wuk again fuh de week so me ah tek ah blood clot AA flight dat eight hours delay pon de same ****ing Miami International I did tryin’ to lef out).
Shoes off and I open my book. I have almost four hours of blissful alone time. Suddenly there is a sharp rap on my shoulder. A parent from the kids’ school. The whole family is on board and the father recognizes me. I try to be polite while he moans about the hell of traveling with kids. I keep glancing at my book hoping he understands I am without my kids and don’t give a flying fish about his. Fifteen precious, lost, minutes later the moaning daddy leaves and I curl up with my book. William Trevor is one of the best writers but even he does not stop me nodding off. Mothers of small children the world over will understand. Your brain is fried from talking to small people so you should talk to grown-ups and you should read grown-up books. Yet you are so deeply sleep deprived that, in another context, such deprivation would constitute an infringement within the meaning of Article 1, of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
A few hours later and, sleep deprivation aside, the bright lights of Art Basel Miami beckon. My friend Vinnie says that he would lose all street cred if we do not hit the hood for a couple hours. After all, it is Friday night, the town is buzzing, and we are not so aged as to qualify for free bus passes. Miraculously I seem to have packed not one but three party dresses. This is the packing of the same woman who is in Miami for her art; having arrived armed with downloaded maps of galleries sites, and circled crucial lectures on, for example, Contemporary Chinese Art (9am Saturday morning, Exhibition Centre A, enter by Door 5).
I am unsure of myself in Miami’s hip, youthful night scene and hold up two dresses for Vinnie. Do we go with the Missoni (obvious fashion savvy but no slave to it)? Or, is tonight the night for the Chloe (stealth wealth – no obvious designer tag)? Darling, he proclaims – Miami is brash, in-yuh-face Latino mafia. You simply must wear the Chloe. Now it is his turn. I tell him the stubble he has cultivated, and the new $200 haircut (for a man!), make him a miniature George Clooney – only more handsome. He simply must not wear the loud shirt and jeans combo with trainers strewn across his bed. No. No. No. My man must step out in a suit paired with a cool Etro shirt and formal shoes. We are having so much fun playing dress-up and laughing that we could easily fall back on the sofa, have a couple rum and cokes and call it a night. Instead we forget our collective tiredness and hit South Beach.
To understand what unfolded over the next twelve hours you need to consider two things. One, The Husband is a Superstar Economist and has worked for some of the best institutions. At every posh client event, The Firm (they are all merging in my mind and eventually with each other anyway) would wheel him out to predict the impossible. He would oblige, using his theories - like “liquidity black holes” (too much Star Trek if you ask me).
I have listened with the devotion only long-term spouses can muster, to lectures on e.g. managing financial liquidity, contagion, and shifting investor risk appetite. Really, I have. But the real selling point was always the enviable location. We have had castles in Prague, palaces in Turkey, and, my personal favorite, a beach hotel in Bali. I viewed the world from a pampered vantage point. The other bit worth remembering is that I am a frustrated anthropologist. Forget the job title, data collecting is what I really do - absorbing the stories that people act out or tell each other to explain their world.
So, Spoilt Spouse With Data-Collection Habit hits South Beach with Vinnie and a pal. First stop is the Raleigh Hotel. Two big bouncers have sealed the doorway. And I mean BIG brothers – over six foot and three hundred pounds apiece. But Clooney’s doppelgänger approaches and my men move aside like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses. We glide through the parting. Vinnie’s pal is a patent lawyer from Belfast and we bond instantly. We decide the Irish and West Indians belong together: both cultures characterized by a love of excessive drama and excessive booze. Indeed, we are so busy bonding that I am barely aware of the officious girl child in a dress the size of my belt, armed with pen and clipboard, who stares at us as we enter the pool area. I catch her stare and return it with my disdainful Spouse-of-the-Superstar-Economist-Wearing-Stealth-Wealth gaze. She lowers her eyes immediately.
Someone hands me what looks like a full pint of vintage champagne. Vinnie returns with mounds of fois gras, truffles and brioche. A DJ of Eastern European ilk is on the turn tables and we are soon strutting our stuff to hip hop, guzzling champagne and munching delectable morsels of cheese, fois gras and later fruit and chocolate. I do not know our hosts but they are throwing one hell of a party. I dance so much my left shoe heel is nearly destroyed. The Irish girl takes a picture of Vinnie and I dancing on a platform, my handbag dangling from a tree branch, which she emails to The Husband with the caption “Ingrid sharpening her mind at Art Basel Miami”. Lord I will have some explaining to do when my hangover wears off.
During the wild dancing two guys with TV cameras are capturing it all for posterity. They thrust this enormous bottle of Imperial Vodka at the Irish lass. She pretends to swig from it and passes it to Vinnie who does the same in an exaggerated manner that I know he will regret when aired on MTV. Vinnie calls a mini summit. We gather in a group hug and he announces in a low, grave, voice – Ladies, we are at the Imperial Vodka party. We howl with laughter and I realize with a mixture of horror and delight that I have just gate crashed a party for the first time in my life. Spoilt Spouse had never considered the possibility that she was not here as Vinnie’s guest or that her very cultured pal, from a family that includes a Nobel Laureate, had not himself been invited to break bread with these good folks.
As an uninvited interloper I cannot handle this much longer and I beg them to meet me in the lobby, where drinks I will have paid for, will be waiting. But Vinnie is having none of it. He grabs my hand and we walk back, past the clipboard kid and onto the huge terrace. The crowd is heaving. A single mass of humanity seems to be trying to get drinks from the bar. I am reminded of footage of pilgrims at Mecca circling the tomb of Mohammed trying for days to get closer.
Above the terrace is a small balcony with just two tables. At the large table, André Balaz, who owns the joint, is entertaining and surveying the scene beneath him. At the other table sit two, immaculate, French women - the noblesse kind, enjoying cocktails. Vinnie bounds over to the maître d’ who turns out to be the ex squeeze of a mate. The maître d’ then speaks to the grande dames and firmly takes their drinks away to a table inside. They are stunned and protesting loudly. I am a little way off but I see Vinnie approach the ladies, and, over the hum of the crowd, I hear his distinctive, authoritative tone. He is unsmiling - something about très désolé… important…tout de suite… au revoir. The outraged madams move on. We are ushered to the newly vacated table.
André Balaz has observed the commotion and moves his head ever so slightly to one side to get a better view of our crew. The maître d’ rushes to his side and whispers into his ear. Balaz looks over at me and gently nods. I acknowledge his nod and turn away to continue observing the heaving masses below who have no possibility of a comfy seat and at least a 30-minute wait to quench their thirst. Meanwhile champagne and strawberries dipped in honey magically appear for us. But I am in data-collection mode and thinking about the influence of the commodification of art on actual art production and the consequences for artists of the rise of this and other big art fairs such as Frieze in London.
The maître d’ brings more champagne. I lean over to Vinnie and beg, pretty please, can we leave soonest. It is past 5am and I have to be at my first lecture in less than four hours. I request the bill but the maître d’ insists that is unnecessary and did we have a lovely evening. I assure him it has been one of the best nights ever. He hopes I will visit the Raleigh again soon. I thank him and tell him it is a short, packed trip but I will try.
Vinnie offers his arm and we stroll out, past the French dames, who are still spitting blood into their cocktails. As we sashay out, Clooney pulls me close and whispers:
“Your Highness, Princess of Hyderabad, I trust you had a good time tonight?”
My last Caribbean Christmas was as a teenager in Trinidad. The memories are not good. If you are the only child of divorced parents, who use you as an emotional football, then Christmas is a particularly high scoring match. My escape to London allowed for a new sense of home and tradition. Twenty-three years later, circumstances have taken me back to the Caribbean – Barbados this time – building new traditions with our young sons.
Home is temporarily a cottage that The Husband lived in till age seven. He recalls playing cricket with his dad in the garden, picnicking on the front lawn and losing four cats, Bunty, numbers one through four, in the surrounding cane fields. The area is now developed and dubbed “the new Bridgetown” so it is not quite the same idyllic setting. Still, he teaches our boys the finer points of bating and bowling in the same garden and we often sit on the front lawn throwing balls for the newly acquired Jack Russell, called, well, Jack.
The Husband’s parents also enjoyed gardening as evidenced by the variety of fruit trees they planted. Each tree has a story. They planted a coconut tree each for their two sons but only my brother-in-law’s tree survives. This is a mystery as The Husband used to “forget” to water his brother’s sapling. My mother-in-law also planted two conifers that we commonly call “Christmas trees”. She recalls waking to find one of the young conifers gone - dug up, roots and all. If I saw a similar conifer nearby she is convinced we could identify the thief. There are three possible offenders but I am reluctant to ask the providence of their 40-some year old trees. Of course The Husband is convinced it is his 65-foot conifer that survives near our front gate and not his sibling’s.
Two weeks before Christmas and we still have no tree. I am unsure of what to do. A real tree, imported from some temperate climate, and fated to die in my hot house, does not seem to be compatible with the season’s spirit of sustainability, peace and harmony. The island’s Christmas pantomime (there is just the one) saw Scrooge as global warming personified. Besides, I don’t have the decorations collected over many years from our annual tree trimming party where friends would all bring a decoration they had made or bought specially. These, and other bits that collectively form my sense of Christmas tradition, are all dormant somewhere 4,200 miles away, on another small island. I am lost.
So I decree this Christmas we are decorating The Husband’s tree - all 65 freaking feet of it.
My pal J., a wise, kindred spirit is told of the plan, takes one look at the tree, and declares, “Call Curt. He’s yuh man”. So I do. Curt and I exchange several phone calls during which time he keeps reminding me, “Yuh know de tree real high. It go be real hard to reach de top”. A week before Christmas and there is still no tangible sign of Curt and his lights. I make one last ditched appeal: “Curt, if you want to be responsible for the trauma my sons will undoubtedly suffer if we have no Christmas tree for their first Barbados Christmas then fine. If not, I want you to haul your arse up my tree and make it glow.”
They start the next day. It takes five men, three days, and a Light and Power crane inconveniently blocking the road, to get the job finished.
My little and big boys are ecstatic. We sit at night in the front porch and admire the lights. But we are not alone. The tree, by its sheer, illuminated height, becomes something of a landmark. Cars begin slowing down as they pass our cottage and sometimes even toot their horns. Then they begin stopping briefly to get a better look or even take a photo. Then they begin parking in front our gate and admiring the tree. We are fast becoming a rest point for people on their morning walk.
But my people are not passive admirers. One night, kids finally in bed and I have sunk deep into the sofa on the porch with several books and my laptop. A small, white, Japanese car (they are always small, white and Japanese) stops in front our gate. I push myself up to get a better view. No one is getting out of the car but they are not moving on either. Two full minutes tick by. I finally break the impasse and walk over to them. I say goodnight. The lady in the passenger seat greets me and gets straight to the point.
“Why de light dem ain’t fix good round dat side? Yuh run out ah bulb?”
“Come leh meh show yuh.” She steps out the car and points to the offending bare patch.
“De tree would ah be real nice if yuh did put more light over dere.”
The man in the driver’s seat, emboldened by her comments, pipes up,
“And why yuh put up coloured bulb dem? De shop dem eh have white? Eff it wuz my tree I wod ah put up bare white bulb. Dat wod ah be tight.”
I had not realized that I was making public art to be scrutinized according to the aesthetic sensibilities of a discerning public. There was no consultation process with appropriate committees meeting for months leading up to the final installation. Valid stakeholders had not been identified and given a voice. No school workshops had been run. Briefing Documents had not been formulated and distributed. Class, race and gender sensitivities had not been fully neutralised.
Another monumental public art work, another failure… But I have learnt my lesson. Next year I am going to ‘paint with lights’ - a full-on Santa scene complete with ALL the reindeer against a backdrop of trees and bells. I can almost smell success.