Confessions of an expat – Homesick

Homesickness can be a serious problem for some people. Longing for familiar surroundings, sights and sounds can make them restless and unable to settle anywhere other than where they come from.
tea
Miss this? It’s nice, but you can arrange it almost anywhere

This is less of a problem for the expat whose career is what takes him or her to a different place than for what is termed the “trailing spouse”, the partner who goes along because it’s either that or effectively not have a significant other at all. The spouse doesn’t have new challenges to keep him or her busy and that can lead to having too much time to think, with the thoughts being negative ones.

I’ve never suffered from this affliction. Coming from an island with a population of 60,000 (nowadays, but considerably less in the past), one might be expected to miss home more than someone from a big city, but for me that just isn’t true.

My first venture away from Guernsey was to college in Portsmouth. Geographically that’s not far, but it is across the water and it is a city rather than an island. But for a student aged 19, it also represented freedom. There was more to do, more to see. There were rock bands playing on South Parade Pier; big names who would never go to Guernsey because it didn’t make economic sense.

I got lonely at first, because it took a while to make friends, and that’s not a nice feeling, but is not to be confused with homesickness. I grabbed the first people who would talk to me and made a little group with them, but being with the wrong people, with whom you feel no bond, is worse than nothing at all. I had to let them go and gradually find some kindred spirits.

From my new base on the south coast there was also the possibility of exploring the rest of Great Britain. Many of my friends were at colleges and universities from Bristol and London to Birmingham and Glasgow. In those rather safer (or certainly more innocent) times, it was a common practice to save on travel expenses by hitch-hiking: standing on the outskirts with a bored but optimistic thumb dangling in the hope that some kind soul would take me at least part of the way to my destination. It meant long days out in the elements with no guarantee of reaching shelter before nightfall, but youth doesn’t worry about that so much. You will get there in the end.

And along the way you meet people whom you otherwise wouldn’t. You see towns you didn’t intend to visit and learn about human nature.

I was once given a meal and a settee for the night in a small town in the west country by a couple who thought I was absent without leave from the nearby Army base.

In this day and age you can’t recommend young people  putting themselves at the mercy of strangers, but many of us did it regularly and came to no harm.

So that was a bit of travelling , going around the UK when I should have been studying.

beach port soif
Miss this? Sure, but there are beaches in places other than Guernsey

Later came trips around Europe, again by thumb, with pea-brained ideas about working in Gibraltar because it was British, only to be turned away at the border because we had no money. “But that’s the whole point,” we argued with the official. “We’re here to work and earn some money.”  These people, these stupid grownups with their blinkered ideas and inflexible attitudes. Hadn’t they ever heard that line from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album: “But oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” It made perfect sense to me at the time.

And the night I slept in a graveyard in a small French town, I wasn’t pining for my bedroom back home. Quite the contrary. I was the one living the life of Riley, while the rest were stuck back there with their homes and jobs. I saw nothing positive in that.

Later in life, with a career and a marriage behind me I was once more back on the road, this time with a wife from South America, so we had two homelands to consider. Fortunately she thinks as I do about where is the right place to be. Home is where we are, both of us. It helps if that is somewhere enjoyable, safe and where you can have a good lifestyle. It is hard to be homesick when you’re lying on a Caribbean beach with a decent place to live and (just about) enough money in your pocket.

We bounced around the Caribbean region and ended up in Suriname. And before the economic crisis hit the country, that was okay. No beaches, but many of the other Caribbean characteristics. Heat, humidity, mango trees, banana trees…

There’s been a lot going on in the UK recently, with Brexit and changes in leadership and even a heatwave, but the pang of homesickness that hit me last week had nothing to do with those things.

I was sitting on the balcony (which sounds more glamorous than it is) and it was a hot as hell as usual. And it wasn’t the butterflies that were doing their fluttering art installation. It wasn’t the sudden realization that bananas grow upwards, not curving down as we usually see them. It wasn’t the BBC news I was reading on my phone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
See? They curl upwards as they grow

But there was a cricket match going on in Manchester, England vs Pakistan. And reading about it was fine – I’m a cricket fan and was a pretty decent player when I was young. But I read about it all the time and it’s enjoyable but no more than that. But then I came to the part that said “Listen online abroad”. With most British broadcasts, legal restrictions mean you can’t tune in, and the satellite TV reception in this house makes it impossible.

I clicked on the three magic words and suddenly they were talking to me from the Second Test Match at Old Trafford. England were doing fine – batting well and making piles of runs. And I wanted to be there. As a kid I used to take a radio to the beach and listen to the test match between swims, so maybe it’s that. Whatever it was, I wanted to be listening to it in the UK. Not necessarily at the ground, but listening to it or watching it on TV on home soil.

root
Miss this? Absolutely. It’s England’s current star batsman, Joe Root, and I’ve never really watched him play.

Bloody homesick. At my age. Yes, maybe age has something to do with it. I wanted to get back there and follow it while Joe Root is at his peak, and before test matches cease to exist – which is a sad possibility in the not-too-distant future.

The feeling passed, but I’m about to stop writing and go and do it again.

Bloke in the Kitchen. Picking fresh crab

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

(Up to your eyeballs in) Fresh Crab

Don’t worry, this is not difficult and the instructions are quite brief. But first, I would like to tell you a story. If you just want the recipe, skip down to Ingredients.

When I was a kid, living in Guernsey, my brothers and sister and I went to the beach every day in the summer holidays, and the whole family would spend Sundays down there. Twenty minutes’ walk, seven on a bike, two in a car. When the tides were right we would pass the time shrimping and cockling.

When the tide was down (like many Guernsey people, for me the tide comes up and goes down, not in and out) we would take our shrimping nets and frisk the long seaweed in the shallow pools near the water’s edge. Shove the net in and bring it back slightly raised to catch any shrimps that were hiding in the weed. Put them in a bucket of seawater and when we had collected enough, take them up to where the family was camped.

For the cockles we would take a garden hoe or rake and again just frisk the surface of the sand, a few inches deep, and see if we could find any of the little clams.

When we had the food we would build a little fire from driftwood, sit an old saucepan on it and quickly boil the shrimps and cockles, then eat them with our hands, with some French bread and perhaps a bit of salad.

As the sun went down we would end a long, warm day huddled at the top of the beach, feeling like the Swiss Family Robinson. There might be real life to contend with next day, but for now that didn’t count. The sea was lolling around down on the sand and lapping at the stone pier, and we might get one last swim in before we went home.

crab 1
A Guernsey-style spider crab. It’s one of our ‘things’, along with ormers (abalone to you) and beanjar (sort of pork and beans)

An alternative to this was for my father, an avid skindiver right up to his seventies, to put on his mask, snorkel and flippers and go in search of spider crabs. These are pinky-orange, rounder and knobblier than the smooth, oval, dark red crabs more common in the UK and France. We called those chancres, the French word for crabs, and pronounced shankers.

crab 2
You’ll find these in many supermarkets in the UK, and something similar elsewhere. Lots of meat in those claws

You have to know where to look, because crabs don’t just crawl out of the sea looking for a human being. My Dad showed me where to find them (sorry, that’s a family secret), when (early summer) and at what stage of the tide (fairly low) and I passed the knowledge on to my sons. You pick your way along a rocky promontory, find an easy place to get in the water, swim out a few yards and just float there and look. As the low currents sweep the seaweed around, you might just catch a glimpse of a spider, so down you go, only six to ten feet, take it by the back of its neck and turn it upside down so it stops struggling and folds its legs up. Up to the surface, shove it into the plastic supermarket bag attached to your belt and continue looking until you have enough. And enough means one or two per person.

We found mainly females, which don’t have such big, meaty claws, but they might have the bonus of roe, in little soft lumps or hanging  like bunches of microscopic grapes.

So, if you have fresh crabs and you’re going to cook them, this is how. If yours are ready-cooked, you can skip down to preparation.

INGREDIENTS

Crabs

METHOD

Take a large pan and fill it with enough water to cover the crab. If you have a huge pan you can do more than one at a time, but don’t overcrowd it. They are best cooked the right way up and they  try to climb out as it is.

There are two schools of thought about water temperature: some favour placing the crabs into warm water so they ‘fall asleep’ before it boils. Others get it boiling and then do the deed. This may cause the legs to fall off, but you’re going to be taking them off afterwards anyway.

The meat in a crab is sparse and flaky, so it doesn’t need much cooking. Five minutes or so in boiling water; if it’s a bit bigger, give it a bit longer.

Then take it out using tongs, pliers etc. and leave it to drain and cool.

PREPARATION

If you thought it was strange to see pliers among the utensils, it’s not, because picking crabs can involve a tool box.  Once the crab is cool enough to handle, the first thing to do is break off the claws. They have knuckles every few inches and a joint where they meet the body, and that’s where you wrench them off.

Then with the crab on its back, break the body out of the shell. That means separating the cream-coloured underside where the meat is from the red armour. If you can get a thumb in there, do so, but you will probably need a knife. Force it in at the back or wherever you can around the edge and lever it out.

Make sure there is a roll of kitchen towel on the table and maybe a big bowl of warm water to rinse your fingers in.

You may want to keep the shell to serve the crabmeat in, if you are doing all the work and presenting it to your guests as a fait accompli.

If everybody is going to be involved in the preparation, make sure the table is covered with something disposable and absorbent, such as newspaper pages. And chopping boards or other solid flat surfaces would be good too.

You will need a hammer (with all the tools, obviously give them a good scrub first to make sure they’re clean) and ideally nut crackers. If you have none or only one of them, that’s where the pliers come in.

Clinging to the body is a skirt of pale, soft, fibrous things called dead men’s fingers, which are not edible. Tear them off and discard.

The body is divided into little chambers, each containing some meat. So break it into pieces with your hands or a knife, and get to work scooping the stuff out with a fork, a small knife or any long, narrow object you think will do the job. The prongs that people use to pick up corn on the cob would be good.

By this point in my Dad’s way of doing things there would be a bottle of dry white wine on the go: Muscadet, pinot grigio or something like that.

crab 3
This is someone else’s detritus. My table would feature bigger crabs, a hammer and a bottle of wine, but the general idea is the same

When you have got all you can from the body, move on to the legs, Break them at the knuckles and pull off what you can of the exposed strands, then crack them and carefully take off the fragments of shell and pick out the meat.

NOVICE TIP

This is a slow, painstaking process. It’s not like picking a lobster, where you crack it open and there’s a big lump of meat. Here it’s a little at a time. If you’re all doing this together, you can be eating buttered French bread and salady bits at the same time: avocado slices, olives, sticks of carrot and celery, with a mayonnaise and garlic dip – that sort of thing.

 

Confessions of an Expat – Home is where you can afford to be

An old friend from Guernsey who has lived in Florida for many years recently went back to visit her family and while she was there she came to the conclusion that Guernsey wasn’t home anymore. She has now decided she is American.

Meanwhile, as the US considers what it actually means to be American, many countries in the world at large are asking themselves similar questions.

By coincidence, the vote for a new Mayor of London came up and a Muslim was elected. That, of course, is a religion rather han a nationality, but to many people it adds up to the same thing. Somebody different. Interestingly, two of the candidates (but not him) spoke in their manifestos of building more houses in London “for Londoners”. So it seems that it’s not just countries that want to keep the rest of the world out, but cities who don’t want anybody who isn’t from there in the first place.

But what is a Londoner? How long do you have to live there before you qualify? Surely they can’t be saying if you weren’t born in the city you’re not eligible.

Little old Guernsey, which now has a population of just over 60,000, has seen immigration by various nationalities for centuries. It started out as a French-speaking island, or rather with its own version of French. As British people moved in during the 19th century, the prevailing language shifted to English, even though the French also came over in dribs and drabs, including my own family, my 19th century ancestors being potato workers who left northern France after a poor harvest, looking to better themselves.

house
This Guernsey cottage would once have been a modest family home. Now it’s out of many people’s financial reach

In much the same way, horticulture workers from the Portuguese island of Madeira came pouring into Guernsey in the 1960s to earn money working in the greenhouses and send some home to their families. They were followed by people from eastern Europe, notably Latvia, who escaped their country’s poor economic situation to do the jobs the Guernsey people didn’t want to do anymore: working in the greenhouses and shops and restaurants.

And why didn’t the locals want to do those jobs? Because the late 20th century brought a flood of British bankers and accountants, taking advantage of Guernsey’s low tax rates and, finance being a highly-paid industry, some of the people who would have been in the manual and service industries managed to get themselves aboard the gravy train with a position in an office. House prices went through the roof to the point where youngsters who didn’t happen to find a  job with a huge salary were unable to get a foot on the property ladder.

There are two housing markets in Guernsey: local and open. The open market is more expensive, but the local market is eye-watering too nowadays.

The old Guernsey families, those who had been in the island for four or five centuries, used to tease the more recent arrivals such as me (born there, as were my parents) about not really being “Guernsey”, but they probably don’t think it quite so funny anymore, as they find themselves in the minority, with BMW-driving neighbours buying, upgrading and knocking the history out of houses where their friends used to live.

This is good if you look at it from an estate agent’s point of view: high prices means high fees, but the term “affordable housing” now means a small place in an area your parents wouldn’t entertained the thought of living in.

Across the Atlantic to the Caribbean I went, and were the locals pleased to see me? They were pleased to part me from my cash. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory just south of the Bahamas, the people who were born there call themselves Belongers. By implication, then, everyone else doesn’t belong there, which is a pretty mean-spirited attitude, but it is one that has spread around the globe. With honorable exceptions such as Canada, which seems to like diversity and, perhaps, still has enough room to absorb foreigners without the natives feeling squeezed, the world doesn’t want you and your sort muscling in on its territory.

“Go back where you came from” is the message. “Sorry to hear about your trouble, but there’s no room for you here.”