TO SERVE OR NOT TO SERVE

Writing a blog is a new, exciting, interactive experience with the potential of reaching a wide audience. My previous writing experience belongs to a former life and had limited appeal. Amazon has never stocked Halsbury’s Laws on Oil and Gas. So imagine my unbridled joy on finding this humble blog has acquired a reader who is not my auntie in Trinidad or a supportive friend. Gorgeous Gio, a fellow blogger, has made the reverse move to the UK. He wants to know what I think of Bajan service. Well Gio, I am happy to report that some things are the same wherever you go. Bim has as many Business Prevention Officers (BPOs) per capita as London, Milan, New York or Sydney.

Take the experience of shopping for First Born’s new trainers. I asked the Business Prevention Officer on duty at the “Customer Service” counter where I might find sports shoes. She thrust her chin to the left and made an ambiguous, guttural sound. “Over there?” I asked. “Huh” said the BPO. So I went in the general direction of the chin thrust. Shoes were indeed there. They had a pair that First Born might just about approve of – white and blue with Velcro straps. Two BPOs were standing nearby, deep in conversation. I went over and stood politely next to them, shoe in hand. They were absorbed in a heated argument. The burning topic of debate was whether Shaunika was as stupid as she looked and if she thought buying he ah cell phone and doin’ she freak ting goin’ be nuff to keep Jeffrey from goin’ by Shontelle who have a boy chile fuh he even if she did make he sleep in de car last time he went St. John dat doh mean he eh go get ah piece next time.

I was not eavesdropping… merely waiting to be served.

After a reasonable amount of argument for both sides, I was still waiting there, shoe in hand, unacknowledged. I said excuse me and asked if they had a child’s size 3. They slowly turned toward me, clearly annoyed at this interruption. BPO No.1, and supporter of Shontelle, sneered.
“Check dem boxes pon de wall. It dere.”
“Perhaps you can check for me, size 3?” I inquired.
BPO No.1 and No.2 looked at each other in jaw-dropping amazement.

BPO No.2 was the first to recover and gestured to her colleague, “You go. I tired yuh hear.” It was 10am. The BPOs had started work at 9am. Slowly and reluctantly BPO No.1 dragged herself towards the wall. She looked at the messy piles of shoe boxes for half a nano second.
“Nehing.”
“Pardon?”
“Nehing!”
“You don’t have the size?”
“Huh.”
This Business Prevention Officer was not about to allow anyone, especially some Guyanese acting like she is ah white lady, to buy shoes from the shoe department. Not on her watch.

The next thing on my “List of Things I Will Squeeze In Somehow Between Work, Home, Mothering And Looking After The Husband” was sorting our crammed closets. So, I went to a store specializing in this very area of pressing consumer need. The young lady at the store did not know about the closet systems on sale, stock availability or prices. She did direct me to a website. And she was keeping the store open. These two points mean she is not a certified BPO. Unfortunately the fully paid-up BPO responsible for the website also did not feel it necessary to provide details about the closet systems, stock availability or prices. After some searching it was possible to find an email address (but without a link) and a telephone number for the store. I sent an email a week ago but this appears to have gone through cyberspace and straight to the inbox of… yes, another BPO. Bets on how long the BPOs need to run this company into the closet.

A few days ago, with closet sorting failure heavy on my mind, I had an opportunity to test if there were BPOs in the car industry. It all began when The Husband invited me for lunch. Before we had even ordered fresh coconut water drinks he was able to report that at 9:45am that morning his colleague had seen me. Miss T. (whom I don’t know) saw me driving southbound along the Spring Garden Highway, windows down, singing along to Dixie Chicks into my pretend microphone. (Gio, you may be reveling in the anonymity of life in Reading but I am coming to terms with community in extremis.)

I was not ready to make nice so there was only one thing for it. Window tinting. At Warrens Motors I asked at the service department to have the windows tinted – to keep out the glare of course. Mr. R. looked at me with twinkling eyes.
“Yuh want de straight tint, de medium tint, or de married man tint?”
“How dark is the married man tint?”
“Yuh married?”
“Yes.”
“Yuh cahn see nuttin’ out ah dat. But it does be trouble to see in de night when yuh driving.”
“Let’s go with the medium tint then.”
Mr. R. has no hope of qualifying as a Business Prevention Officer. The car was ready and delivered on time and he had added a little something special. The top fifteen centimeters of the windscreen has the “married man tint” – at no extra cost. He grins, “It good for de glare and if you have a bare tall sweet man pon de front, no body go see he face.” Well thanks Mr. R. - I am grateful to all 6foot 2inches of you.

The average visitor to Bim is not likely to be buying trainers, sorting closets or getting car windows tinted. They go to restaurants, buy duty free, lie on the beach and generally do what tourists do. Unlike many countries Barbados actually has a national policy on service called NISE (National Initiative on Service Excellence). I am not sure how nice NISE has made this rock. However, as a society, service is high on the agenda. And it is not easy for Bajans. The barbarism of slavery has left a strong antipathy towards servility. Service and servility get confused - a real obstacle if you want to create a sense of pride in good service.

But there are many examples where excellent service is routine. Places like Sandy Lane, The Cliff and The Restaurant at South Sea are all known for world-class service (and world-class prices). Mama Mia welcomes our boys like family, pinching their cheeks, and saying to everyone the handsome gemelli have arrived. I usually order one scoop of gelato for each child as a treat. Inevitably they return with huge bowls of chocolate heaven and report that the lady said to tell mummy it is just “one Italian scoop”. The Cove is another favorite. It is a modest restaurant where you are treated like royalty while enjoying soporific breezes and breathtaking views of Cattlewash. And if you liked the food, which you will, you can buy the chef’s international award winning cookbook.

I hope you don’t get sick on a visit to Bim but if you do Lewis Drug Mart on the south coast, run by a knowledgeable team, is always well stocked and open on Sundays. Sandy Crest provides 24/7 medical care in very modern facilities. For dental services they don't come better than Dr. Armogan’s Caribbean Smile. Everyone in his office, from the receptionist to the dental assistant, is professional and courteous. The kids like seeing him even when they are not due for a check up. Ladies, get your hair done at Zena’s and everything else next door at Lady C’s day spa. Residents of the rock all keep a list of where they have found great service and these people and places are in my little black book.

So Gio, do we rock service on the rock? Those who get it really understand how crucial it is to our economic survival and those who don’t, well, they just don’t. But there’s a real effort underway in Bim to educate people about service and encourage them to engage in best practices. In the end competition may be the force that convinces Bajans they must be ready to make nice.

PERSAUD ARRIVAL DAY

We have recently celebrated the first anniversary of Persaud Arrival Day. Over the years we have visited Bim many times. But in January 07 it was different. We had arrived with excess baggage and the express intent of making this rock our home. So one year on it seems a good time to chat with my boys to ascertain if they are happy with our move from a small island to a little rock.

First Born says Barbados is okay but he misses Freddie, Frank, Johnny and Luca. Second Born (by three minutes) is happy. He does use the opportunity of our cozy chat to gently remind me that we had promised a puppy and a pool in Barbados. They have Jack. “But mummy, we really need a very big pool. Like so big.” (He runs down the corridor and back). “It’s too hot. And, Mummy, I love you most in the whole wide world.” And he’s off. And two minutes later - he’s back. “Mummy, why don’t we go to a nice sushi place here in Barbados like we used to in London? Can we have sushi today best mummy?” I explain only a few grown up restaurants serve sushi and it is really expensive so we can’t have it as often as we did in London. But the kids and I are in agreement. I too want bento boxes for lunch; my close friends are far away, and well, a pool would be fun.

The Husband loves living here and has thrown himself into every opportunity to integrate. But he is also the one who travels back and forth the most and sees friends and family. The other day he came home with a ridiculous grin on his face. While Jack was taking him for his daily walk around the neighbourhood, a sexy young thing had propositioned The Husband. Without bothering to look up I asked if she was after Jack. Yes, he had to admit she might have mentioned how much she wanted a Jack Russell; how difficult it was to get one on the island and would he be interested in “lending” her the cute puppy. I looked him in the eye. I can live with almost anything. If he played only Abba on the ipod continuously, or lectured the plants or even, even, if he started wearing Hawaiian shirts – I would be okay. But if he ever, ever, gave away our little Jack to some brazen hussy I would have to “make ah jail” for murder. From the way he tiptoed backwards to his office I think the dog is safely ours for life.

Then he came home a few days ago with the same ridiculous grin on his face. I panicked. Phew, Jack was safely on his lead. On this walk he had overheard two old ladies chatting on the verandah of a house. One was pointing in his direction and nudging the other, “Who he? He nah Indian. He Bajan.” The Husband is finally home.

He may be home but I am not. As I go through my day, positioned somewhere between detached observer and daughter of the soil, I am forced to look beyond the beaches and tourist offerings of “authentic” local culture. It is not that we lack culture in Bim. There was the terrific Jazz Festival last week featuring the likes of Bob James and Eryka Badu. And soon there will be the Holders Season - our version of Glyndebourne - but with a variety of music and theatre. Even the late Pavarotti performed at Holders. So there are pockets of culture at certain times of the year but there are no venues offering consistently interesting theatre or art or music or dance.

Life is less hectic. It’s a small place with less queuing and waiting so things get done faster. Shops close earlier and on Sundays. Back in London going to restaurants, visiting friends, doing the shopping or going to a cultural event is more problematic. It involves coordinating diaries and making bookings, often months in advance. Then to get to the event you have to bundle up in coats for long journeys. If going by car you also need to pay and pray lots for parking. Bim has no noteworthy shopping malls to walk through chasing bargains. We make up for this by driving through the countryside chasing royal palms. Our best count was 45 of these majestic trees in one hour.

Visiting friends agree Barbados is perfect. Perfect for a holiday. Yet, inevitably someone will take me aside, hold my hand and look into my eyes. How are you doing? No, really Ingrid, how are you coping out here? After all I am bereft of a variety of museums, art galleries, theatres, orchestras and movies. There is no Gap store, no Starbucks and no Marks and Spencer food hall. There is “goin’ fuh ah sea barth” in warm, blue waters. Cool breezes keep the sun from being overbearing. Flip-flops are my main footwear. This can't be serious living.

Is this a real and meaningful life? Are we no longer serious people? The implicit suggestion of those who fly in from Europe and the States is that seriousness is what they left behind. Seriousness demands grey skies, tall buildings, high heels, suits in muted tones of blue and beeping Blackberries. I think I understand. The contrast of there and here is partly this cacophony of colour - very stark and very vivid. A Hindu bride will wear a red sari on her wedding day and be garlanded with yellow or red flowers. If the sad day comes that she must bury her husband, she will don white.

It is Sunday today. Most of the population is “hymning” (a word coined by First Born). The four of us are huddled in one big bed each with our own laptop writing, surfing or reading newspapers online. The internet radio is tuned to Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4. Second Born proudly shows off his creative efforts of the morning. It is a concise work. In six sentences we learn about a boy who repeatedly won at Monopoly until his dad hid the game in the laundry room. First Born, not to be outdone, entertains us with his fiction of a footballer called Frank Beckham, who is taken to the pinnacle of the sport by his coach, David Thompson.

In London I would have been anxious to entertain them, make play dates and ensure they got to the park for some fresh air. Barbados weekends find them half naked in our garden building obstacle courses for Jack, playing on the swings or kicking a ball and squabbling over absolutely everything. Unfortunately sibling rivalry does not decrease with exposure to average year round temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius.

Bim arguably offers the possibility of a more thoughtful existence. And we make a lot more out of the little we have. This tiny region has produced three Nobel laureates. I do read more of the books piled up on the bedside table. Maybe in London I was too easily satisfied with mediocrity because of the sheer pace of life and the quantity of activities on offer. Here I do all the routine stuff of life but I cannot substitute the doing for thinking. You are stuck with yourself and your imagination. No wonder most people find a fortnight every winter more than adequate.

Of course there are all the clich├ęd reasons to prefer island life, like the friendliness of the natives. I don’t buy that. I find Bim a very conservative, reserved, often racially divided society. Although we have been welcomed, Bajans are generally wary of newcomers. And you can be regarded as a new arrival for a long time. Admittedly in daily life people make an effort to be pleasant. Take buying the newspaper. In London this can be done in silence and without eye contact. On the rock that is impossible. Our local newspaper vendor is a gentleman in his 80s who sells from a roadside stall. His broad smile shows off his one remaining tooth to perfection. I say good morning and hand over my money. In return I get The Nation, The Advocate and “Darling, yuh lookin’ sweet sweet today. Have a blessed day yuh hear.” If I have missed a day he will ask, “Sweetness, where yuh been hiding yuhself? Yuh good? How dem lovely boys of yours?” You won’t get better bang for your bucks else where.

Maybe the kids will get that pool. I might even make use of the Japanese cooking course I took and start making sushi. And next year I hope we celebrate another anniversary of Persaud Arrival Day under an impossibly blue sky.

A THORN BY ANY OTHER NAME

If April is the cruelest month then January is a close second. It is a month that demands change. After thirteen years Owen Arthur woke up on 16 January to find he is now the former Prime Minister Owen Arthur. On that same morning, David Thompson went from loser of two elections to Prime Minister-Elect David Thompson. This week my pal J. became Dr. J. Respect. January also brings state honours. Dr. Albert X., for example, has been honoured with a knighthood. The newspapers referred to him as Sir Albert only to be forced to print a retraction a few days later, stating that the former Dr. Albert X. wished henceforth to be known as, wait for it, Sir Cyril.

Dr. Albert X’s transformation into Sir Cyril will not surprise many West Indians. Given our history of being transplanted here from so many other places, the West Indies can boast of being the Global Centre of Entrepreneurship in Personal Naming. Where else will you find men called Wavell, Curtley and Philo in the same room?

The Husband tells me the key to fostering this entrepreneurial spirit in personal naming is the presence of low barriers to entry. Sure enough, in Barbados the barriers to adopting a new name are very low. Flicking through the telephone book it would appear that all you do is call the telephone company (free) and ask to change your listing in the good book (again, free). The problem of course is that this can all get very confusing.

If you just want to be known by your first name, Madonna-style, then listing yourself, as Tony 428 8215 is fine. But how do you differentiate yourself from any other Tony because all the phone book says is “Tony”. Not Tony followed by address, like, 2 Swan Street. Just Tony. And how does a girl choose between Dick 425 6352 and Dick 433 7152 – of course with no address? Surely the point of naming is to avoid this kind of chaos. A cursory glance through the phone book has also yielded July 422 4383 (no address) or, more specifically, July Seventh 423 3311 (no address). There is currently no competition for certain dates, but perhaps this calls for a note to the PM-Elect to alert him of this potential revenue stream as people start bidding to be January 1, December 25 etc.

Some of the more ambitious among you will be aiming for the stars. Rather than the common-as-muck name of, e.g., Henrietta Imelda Yardley, you might want to be the heavenly Capricorn. Well hello there, Capricorn 228 3050 (no address). Like Tony, Dick or September you are not alone. There are 104 listings in the directory for “Capricorn” – with no address. And if Capricorn isn’t your particular astrological gig then how does Virgo grab you? It is a very popular choice this year with 107 listings. Perhaps you are one of the 103 “Aquarius” listed and you really fancy hooking up with, maybe a Taurus. Just get your phone book out and choose from the 70 Taurus (no address) listings available. I personally recommend Taurus 422 0073. Just something about that particular combination of numbers gives off a really positive cosmic vibe man.

But the most exclusive listing of all listings in the Barbados phone book must be the Unlisted Numbers that are published. In the last phone book there were 20 numbers with the name: “Unlisted” (no address of course). Apparently the “Unlisted” complained that strangers were still finding their number so this category was finally removed in the 2007 edition.

There is something both liberating and peaceful about this West Indian disregard for traditional names. In a world where we hear terrible stories of individuals, gangs and crowds killing for the “honour of their name” we know we are safe. In Barbados you can be whatever you want to be. Hope 424 4186.

So having a name that is the Guyanese equivalent of Smith may be something I can escape. While it remains my surname everyone thinks they know my relatives or me. There is the well-known Dr. Persaud, a GP with a practice on the west coast. I am constantly being asked if we are related and does he makes house calls. Andre, our handy man, is incredulous that I have not attempted to meet the good doctor. He jokes with me, “Yuh sure yuh eh know he? He’s ah proper big up. Go see he when yuh sick, and tell he, ‘yuh cah charge meh cause you and me is bare family’”.

While I may not be able to procure free medical help I think the Persaud clan may have hidden assets. Not exactly mountains of cash in the Cayman but it could be worth something. It all came to light when I was driving down the congested Baxter’s Road and saw a busy little shop had opened selling “assorted dry goods”. Persaud’s Variety Store is open for business from 7am to 6pm Mon-Fri, 8am to 1pm Sat, Closed Sun. So this is what The Husband is really up to when he says he is “going into Bridgetown”. My suspicions are not totally unfounded. On a recent visit to Guyana, I came across a huge building proudly bearing the sign Avinash Persaud’s Hardware. The history of Lazards, the famous finance house, having started life as a dry goods store in New Orleans, is clearly his inspiration. I plan to let The Husband continue this double life undisturbed. He can do high finance by day and run his dry goods and hardware shops by night. One should only lift the corporate veil if one is prepared to stack shelves.

What I am determined to do is break free of this debilitating name repression forced on me by the constraints of the Babylon that is western society. I am a West Indian damn it and I can have any listing I want in the Barbados phone book. A name is no longer just about identifying where you came from. You can be free! Free! Free to have a name based on any criteria you determine. I can be a month, a star sign, a description (Sexy 424 8006) or a quality (Sufficient 428 8260). Any suggestions, dear reader?

January 17, 2008

SUFFRAGE IN BIM

Prime Minister Owen Arthur has named 15 January as the auspicious date when the citizens of our 166 square miles of paradise will exercise their democratic right. Mr. Arthur and the Bees (Barbados Labour Party) hope to be returned for an historic fourth term. The Dems (Democratic Labour Party) and their leader, David Thompson, believe that “better days are coming”. In the rum shops, on the beaches, in the Z cars (taxis), on the Holetown to Black Rock bus, people are furiously debating the issues. Will they “smut de Bees” and be “wid Dem”? Or are they “movin’ wid Owen”? It’s too close to call.

The Husband is completely obsessed. Every manifesto pledge, speech, advert and debate is dissected and chewed over. And over. And over. It would just about be okay if he were quietly obsessive. But no – he can’t keep his fingers off the laptop. I keep opening the local papers to find he has written yet another piece commenting on economic policy. Luckily no one takes a blind bit of notice.

He would be kept in check had I not, through acquiescence over time, lost the right to complain about this crazy behaviour. I should have complained way back when, for our first date, he took me to a debate on Union Carbide’s horrific industrial accident in Bhopal. I should have complained when, for our second date, he suggested we go for a walk through the streets of London. It just happened to be with 25,000 other folks all singing “Free-eee Nelson Man-del-la”. (Yes, we are that old). And I should have absolutely ditched him when he whispered, “come spend the night with me” only to find this meant an overnight stint in an illegal occupation of the LSE over divestment from SA. I nearly landed in jail in my best black lace knickers.

So, as the Borg would drone, “resistance is futile”. And I have to admit election fever is infectious. Take last Thursday night. A constituent at our local Bees meeting claimed the panty “tariff” was currently about 84% while that for boxer shorts was only 10%. Indeed she and her daughter went into Bridgetown and $200 later had bought a couple bras but “we eh get no panty yet”. She added that, “ jus cause de PM and Clyde Mascoll [a Minister] doh wear panty, doh mean dis ain’t ah serious problem”. Not a single candidate has come forward as a panty man.

My pal J. and I are thinking of forming the “zero-rating panty” movement. J. is also threatening to cast her vote for the People’s Democratic Congress. They are fielding a team of two candidates. For thirty seats. Both Rastas have promised that the PDC will abolish all taxes, as “dey is an abomination to Jah”. I guess it would work something along the lines of, when meh say de Highway 1 ah need fixing, or the Queen Elizabeth Hospital ah need fuh overhauling, Jah go provide. These brothers give those of us who inhale really bad press.

Election fever is not just in the meetings. It is on the TV, radio and Internet. A few nights ago I sat on my front porch and listened to a whole Dem meeting that was taking place half a mile away. I heard every word as if I were in front of the speakers. The radio stations are playing party jingles 24/7. In the UK the jingle would be some boring voice over to music. On this rock, we know how to rock. Mighty Gaby (who once slept in my bed, long story) booms over the radio waves,
Owen, go beat dem again.
He goin’ lickin’ he [Thompson] tail like rain.
Owen go beat dem again.

And the Dems are not to be outdone. I can’t get the jingle “Better days are comin’, by and by” out of my head. And the candidates all have catchy little signature songs or strap lines. Take Mr. Haynesley Benn. He lets you know that “Help is around the Benn” if he unseats the PM in St. Peter.

While I have no vote I should declare an interest. Ms. M. is a good friend from undergrad days and an MP. She knows I am keen to see her in action. Last night, I was tucked up on the sofa in PJs watching Law and Order when she rang to say she was heading to a Speightstown rally. I pulled jeans over my pajama bottoms and crawled into a faded old T-Shirt and headed out. The Husband stayed with the kids. Besides, this is 2008 and even in Bim we enjoy live video feed on the party website.

The rally was not what I expected. I went with all my big city prejudices that this would be a party with lots of flag-waving supporters getting drunk on free Banks beer. Instead the stage, sound and lighting set up was as sleek and professional as any event in Hyde Park. Big screens allowed the crowd to enjoy a good view of the platform from where ever they were. Parking was adequate and orderly. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were on sale at designated points. Police were present but very discreet. Some seating was provided but most people had brought their own portable beach chairs and set up for the evening. There was a real cross-section of people. I saw old timers and I saw young women who will be voting for the first time. The car park was full of Lancers and Corollas but there were also BMWs and Land Rovers.

The crowd was attentive, well behaved and earnest. The noisiest heckler was an old fella who would periodically pipe up, “Talk de talk, man! Talk de talk!”. In neighbouring Trinidad this would never happen. At a rally there a politician could not finish a sentence without major heckling that may or may not be on point. You might be discussing education and a Trini in the crowd will yell out, “Sister, yuh lookin’ real nice tonight” or “Where de food? I only come ‘cause I hear dey sharing roti”. Or, someone in the crowd would attempt to steal the politician’s thunder by standing on a box and offering a full, alternative policy solution.

Since Ms. M. was fashionably late I caught a couple of the warm-up acts. One speaker used crowd response to say words that an upstanding Bajan gentleman would never utter. He shouted, “Owen is ah known pedigree! He is ah bare tor bred! But what is Thompson? He eh no tor bred. He’s ah.” Pause. The crowd yells, “Jackass!”. He laughs. “I cah hear yuh!” The Crowd is even louder this time. “Jackass!” This was Bajans behaving badly.

Ms. M. finally arrived an hour late. I barely recognized her in “combat” gear. She looked like Che Guevara meets Saks Fifth Avenue. Her street fighter get-up consisted of a brown hat pulled so low it would have covered her eyes were they not already covered by dark shades. At 11pm. The look is completed with brown cotton/silk combat trousers, a bright green, and a little too expensive looking, waterproof jacket, and a yellow T-Shirt with a green trim. The BLP colour is red. The DLP colour is yellow. I made a mental note to check her wardrobe before she goes out again.

But she can work a crowd. Ms. M. took the mike and walked around acknowledging people who had waited hours to hear her speak. She remembered the names of so many of her grass roots supporters. “Cyril, what you doing quite in St. Peter boy? You should be in St. James”. Later when a woman brings her a glass of water, “Cynthia, God bless yuh. Meh throat dry.” Her talk wrapped macro policy in micro language. She explained why Barbadians needed more housing stock as young people set up on their own earlier than they used to. A young man and his mother in the audience served to illustrate her point. She looked directly at them and started. “George, when yuh find a girlfriend.” The whole crowd could feel George cringe. “Don’t worry George, yuh go find one.” The crowd erupts in laughter at poor George’s expense. She continued, “And when yuh get a girlfriend you will want to move out of your mother’s house and set up on your own and start your own family.” And then she moved into what the government would do to help George and his special friend set up their love shack. She was engaging, funny and still managed to convey gravitas. My girl.

As I drove back home I could not help thinking about the contrast between this rally where politics was real and engaged as opposed to the New Hampshire primaries I had watched the previous night. In New Hampshire we had the insanity of a discussion about whether Clinton’s tears were real or not. And if that were not enough we had the further insanity that these debatable tears were not shed for some cause like the war in Iraq or the homeless. These were her tears for herself. I am reminded of the Bajan cautionary saying, Yuh know what yuh got. But yuh don’t know what yuh goin’ get. We are just a small rock but we seem to have a better grasp of what is at stake in the exercise of universal adult suffrage than our "big up" northern neighbour.


January 10, 2008

CRY THE BOURGEOISE

For our first nine months in Bim we were lucky to have the most phenomenal woman, Di, help us. (And no – I don’t know why it’s called Bim either. Everyone I ask says “it jus’ name so” or "cause it ah little England"). Di was the backbone of our household and without her we would not have had such a smooth transition from cold to hot. When her leave expired in September 2007, nothing could persuade the authorities to give her an extension. This is not unusual. Di is Guyanese, the Guyanese are generally poor, and in the Caribbean region everyone treats the Guyanese badly. If you are poor, Guyanese, and a woman, only divine intervention will stop you being screwed over. When the immigration officer looked at Di he saw only another “unskilled worker” taking jobs away from skilled citizens. With Di denied leave to remain we were forced to test the immigration officer’s theory. Did Di take away a job that the good citizens of Bim had wanted for themselves?

But first we said a very tearful goodbye to Di. Jack, the puppy she nurtured like a proper baby, came to the airport to say goodbye. It was not a pretty sight – a Jack Russell weeping. Even The Husband was sobbing quietly - although I suspect that had more to do with the prospect of eating my cooking, rather than Di’s superb Banga Mary fish curry, dhal and steamed basmati rice. But, stiff upper lip and all that, we started the search for Di’s replacement.

We are lucky because my parents live about ten minutes away and always help in spite of their own busy lives. And they find us other help too. Andre is the first gem who comes via mom’s office. He is now a fixture in our household as football coach, gardener, babysitter, window cleaner, chauffeur, general fix-it man and Sudoku consultant. He even does life coaching (“Ingrid go to your studio and do some work. Now. Please.”). Eucilda, a wonderful lady, married to “ah lazy, wutless man” (her description of the gentleman, not mine), and my parents’ helper of many years, joggles cleaning our place between her regular gigs even though this means giving up her one precious, free day.

But this piecemeal help cannot sustain working parents and energetic seven-year old lads. The next potential Di replacement never made it pass the interview. To be precise - she never made it pass our front gate. On the telephone she kept asking if I was the radio announcer who sometimes came on before the social commentator, Market Vendor. I assured her I was not but she persisted. Maybe I just have a radio kind of voice I suggested finally. She is unconvinced. But, radio career aside, we agreed to meet at the bus stop opposite Queen’s College at 9am.

It is a 2-minute drive from the bus stop to the house and she is pleasant enough. As we drove in I pointed out the side gate that is easier for pedestrian use. Naturally we also don’t want Jack to escape into the mad parish of St. James because of our open gate. She froze.
“Yuh have dog?” she asks, her eyes widening to the size of side pates.
“A tiny puppy. Don’t worry if he jumps up a bit at first. He’s just being friendly. He won’t bite I promise.”
“Madam, what is yuh name again?”
“Ingrid”
“Mrs. Ingrid I kant wuk for yuh if yuh have dog. I did turn down ah white lady last week that wanted me to works fuh she - because she have dog. I bare fraid dog. Madam, I tink I did born fraiding dog. Never mind you say it little and doh bite. It have teet? Well, if it have teet, it go bite. Dog is dog. Me eh coming out de car while it have dog in dis yard.”
And with an air of finality she folded her arms and sunk deep into the car seat. So, I drove her back to the bus stop.

The “interview” had lasted 3 minutes and 25 seconds.

I gave her some money for her wasted day. She squeezed my hand. “Yuh is a nice lady. How yuh forget to tell me yuh have dog? Next time tell people yuh have dog.” With that she opened the door. Suddenly she stopped. “Yuh sure you eh de lady on de radio?” she asks. I reassure her I am not and say a silent thank you to the universe for our mutual parting.

Our search then moved to the epicentre of Bajan society – the church. Not exactly our personal place of worship I might add. The Husband is agnostic – he can’t help taking out an option, even where the afterlife is concerned. I am an atheist, and yes, I know I am going straight to hell, and yes, of course I’ll save you a seat by the big bonfire. But these are desperate times. We forget high principle and beg every Churchgoer we know to put in a good word for us whenever they are out listening to the Good Word. And the heavens have responded - albeit in mysterious ways.

Miss. H. came via earth’s Jehovah’s Witness network. Now my maternal grandmother, a religious tourist, is currently on an extended cruise with the Trinidadian Jehovah crew. If you slip in that you are related to the J.W. brotherhood you automatically get a little vicarious holiness, as in, you can’t possibly be the total Jezebel you seem since your granny is one of us.

Miss H. is willing and competent enough. But, how do I put this in a politically acceptable way? Okay, sue me, but the woman smelt. This was no little whiff that Lady Stick might eliminate. We are talking major body odour. Her fumes had us lighting Diptyque candles, burning incense and essential oils and, on one particularly pongy day, wearing facemasks, SARS-style, even after she had vacated the premises. We tried to make it work – honest we tried. But, by day 5, we were forced to concede defeat-by-noxious-smell. The Husband gave her a month’s wages and said we were going “off island”. If sailing a catamaran for five hours, up and down the west coast qualifies, then yes, we did indeed go “off island”. Sailing provided much needed respite, and, gave Parson’s Pest Control, and Caribbean Industrial Cleaners, time to do all within their chemical power to remove Miss H.’s special presence from our lives. Despite these measures whenever the wind blows in a certain direction I swear I still get a whiff of Miss.H.

And so the search continues. Two others have turned us down on the grounds that “we have dog”. Another said we (read The Husband) “sounded white on the phone” but of course when she turned up we were a family of four, short, brown people. Even the dog is brown. She explained, no offence, but she preferred to work for white folks because, quote, “they nicer… does wuk in the Peace Corps…and pays better”. I have no Peace Corps experience but I have checked and I am offering well above the average wage that my fairer sisters are paying. It is sad but this woman’s frontal lobe damage is keeping her at minimum wage.

But things are looking up. Eucilda has suggested her younger sister, Velma, may be interested. We have met Velma and she and Jack had an instant love thing. The kids say she is “cool” but they miss Di and will not give their affection easily. But Velma knows the route to a young man’s hearts is via the stomach and has made them her special macaroni cheese and stewed chicken. The Husband likes her because, (a) she meets his exacting standards for the ironing of his shirts – hallaluyeh; and (b) she takes a strict view of gender roles and never pesters him about household issues. I like her because, (a) she meets his exacting standards for the ironing of his shirts – hallaluyeh; (b) she does her thing well, so I get to do my thing without worry or guilt; and (c) we both love Tanya Stephens’ music - respect fuh de bare poetry ah dis Jamaican gal.

Fingers and toes crossed Velma takes up our job offer and becomes a more permanent part of the Persaud household.

January 2008