We moved to Ilford 18 months ago, and I am at home with my 3 children.
I was brought up by my parents to have a love of all things French, so it wasn’t very surprising to think that I studied French at university, spent a year studying in Normandy in France and there I meet my husband Alberto, which was my first introduction to the island of Guadeloupe where he is from and lived for the first 18 years of his life.
When he first mentioned it I had no idea where it was and thought it was near Madagascar or somewhere but then I discovered it, it is a little island next to Antigua, Dominica, and Montserrat in the Caribbean. Whilst all the British islands gained independence during the course of the last century Guadeloupe was one of four French territories to decide they would be better off remaining French so they would become departments pretty similar to a London borough or an English country.
So you have the strange situation that you cross the Atlantic arrive on French soil use the euro there and all Guadeloupians are French citizens who can come and go as they please. In fact so many Guadeloupians have moved to France in search for worth that there are probably just as many in France as the 450,000 back in the West Indies.
With Alberto, I have had the opportunity to visit several times on holiday and get to know his family and the island. However we both felt strongly that it would be good to remain there for a longer period and after a lot of prayer and reflection things fell into place for us to go for a year in the summer of 2008. His parents kindly let us stay in the upstairs apartment they had added to their house.
So in July 2008 we gave up our one-bed council flat, gave most of our furniture away on recycle and set off with our three children, as many kilos of luggage as the plane allowed. For me it was an eye-opening year in many ways quite lonely as I had left behind my support network of friends and family here and whilst my French is fine Guadeloupians mostly spoke creole which I am pretty poor at. Other challenges for me was the heat, I realised how much I appreciate our cooler seasons here. The insects no matter how I try I simply can’t relax with the cockroaches around! On the other hand they were so many high points, it was wonderful getting to know Alberto’s parents and his six brothers and sister there as well as all the nephews and nieces there.
It was also fascinating seeing the island through the year, it is majority roman catholic and the life there is based very much on Catholic festivals, for example, Halloween and All Saints day are very important there. All the tombs are repainted white in the preceding days and candles are put on each one ad more or less the entire town turns out to pay their respects making it a very cheer full and social occasion.
The slow pace of life and its simplicity was another joy for me I am a city girl so I wondered how I would find “small town life” but in fact I really enjoyed it. Over I the West Indies peoples diaries are free with various activities they usually in and you will be welcomed. Here I find that we usually have to plan a month in advance to meet someone whilst there it was more of a spontaneous thing. People would turn out in a group for the main events of the year- the carnival in February (right now!). The towns particular saint day and festival, Christmas cards west Indian style ( I got a shock hearing silent night sang cheerfully and about 20 times the normal speed) and so on. This lead to a real community feel and was enhanced by walking down to the baliers and being able to say good morning to each of your neighbours standing at the gate and seating on their verandas.
The quietness of life also meant more time to seat and reflect even as a busy mom. I would get up early in the morning and seat on our balcony as the sun comes up ( the only time to do as it was far too hot later) and watch the world go back whilst reading my bible or reflecting on life. It’s hard to replicate that in out busy loves here especially on the seating on the seating on the balcony in the sun.
A very important part of our stay was a particularly exceptional event well perhaps not that exceptional as the French are quite fond of striking. In the December strikers started coming out for a day or two here or there. Then on the 20th of January a longer strike started, it lasted 6 weeks. And when I say strike, I mean nearly everything! All public offices, schools, and many shops were closed. Petrol stations were closed and roads blocked, so there was little travelling any were. The water and electricity kept going off often for a day at a time so we learnt to prepare with many huge bottles of water stored away.
Coming from our affluent, very materialistic viewpoint this time was such an eye-opener for me small thing become important. I cooked things like pasta which were quick- cakes were out of the question because all the gas they used from my rapidly decreasing gas canister. We learnt how much water flushing toilets/ showering all these basic activities really took and become much less extravagant and wasteful of it. I was also starting to see how much food sold in Guadeloupe is imported; it’s like walking into a French supermarket.
Alberto’s parents have a large plot of land and some animals that they tend daily and a lot of effort in the heat, But what a blessing to be able to provide for themselves and their family, when the shops were unable to do so. Throughout my whole stay I really appreciated learning about local food from them and Alberto’s dad was able to tell me memories of the medical properties of his plants. With so many remedies for colds among them, I wondered that anyone should suffer from them.
It was also a very challenging time for my faith and as ever the most challenging are the most rewarding! For example, Alberto taught private lessons during out stay ad as he couldn’t get to his pupils he wasn’t earning much money during that time. However, we prayed and god kindly provided all we needed! I remember praying on many occasions for seemingly small things that really mattered e.g. gas, milk, water then being amazed at them turn up just in time.
Whilst we have our cupboards and freezers strocked full here it is hard to have that same reliance on God to provide as the Israelites did in the desert when God gave them manna or to know the meaning of praying ( give us our daily bread) usually it is so easy to expect Tesco or sensibury’s to provide it for us( god provided friends!) a further aspect of the strike was the insight into Guadeloupian history that it gave me, the reason for it was probably many and complex but the major issue was low pay, high cost of living( even electricity, gas and water are imported) and the monopolisation of the main companies, in fact, most of Guadeloupian life usually white or mixed race who got their wealth through slavery. I vaguely remember black history month at school but it didn’t really convey the importance and significance of slavery and its consequences and its repercussions for me.
The many conversations I had with many people during the strike helped me understand a bit more there frustration and anger and to see that whilst it ended two centuries ago it had shaped the present in such a significant way. This gave me a new prospective visiting the island and seeing, for example, the port at petit Carnell were all the slaves would arrive from their long crossing from Africa, particularly moving as I have previously visited the island of gorec in Senegal and seen the door the slaves were sent through to the new life.
Many people saw us escaping to paradise and yes the beaches are beautiful and the beaches are beautiful bathing in the warm sea in December (when the locals won’t go in!) is delight full so was visiting the rainforest and climbing for five hours to visit there live volcano, but it was helpful to see that life their like here can also be challenging in its own particular way. As a short aftermath when we set off we were told we were being very brave leaving everything behind to go to the unknown, but I pointed out it wasn’t that unknown and we at least knew where we were going to leave. However, I said that coming back would be another matter entirely as we had no idea where would return to. There again was another wonderful answer to many prayers when a few months before we returned and as my mind started to worry were would live we were given the opportunity to live here and so had started an exciting new chapter.