You can take the girl out of the island, but maybe it’s true that you can’t take the island out of the girl. Not entirely, anyway. Something, deep down, continues to yearn, across cities and continents, for the sight of the sea.
My love affair with Prince Edward Island began five years ago. After an eternity of city living, this Trini girl found herself staring at endless stretches of sand on the easternmost reaches of Canada. I’ll cut a long story short: I bought a house. And every summer since then, I’ve packed my car to the gills – kids, dog, whatever – and driven 2,200 km from Toronto to PEI, where the locals greet newcomers with the words: “Welcome home.” Which was exactly what it felt like.
Finally, with my younger son leaving for university, I decided on an experiment: I would spend winter on the Island. Friends looked at me as if I’d gone crazy: east-coast winters are legendary. But there was a touch of envy, too, in their faces; there was something very Wuthering Heights about the prospect of me huddling in a little house that shook under the elemental gales.
It wasn’t like that at all, of course, though there were gales and gusts aplenty, and the waves crashed wildly on the beach. Far from being on an abandoned moor, I found myself folded into a small but lively community that in many ways recalled the Trinidad of my childhood. Not culturally – the two places couldn’t be more different; but on that human level which is the hallmark of an island.
For one thing, everyone knows your business (even if you don’t know theirs – yet). As they drive by, they note if my car is in the driveway; they see if my lights are on. You can be sure that if another car were in the driveway, they’d notice that too – and wonder. When my car got stuck in snow just outside my driveway, I phoned my neighbours for help. “Hello Donna,” said Starr, “I see you’re having a little problem there with your car. Mark’s on his way out to give you a hand.”
There’s a friendly curiosity that defines island living: everyone asks where you’re from, where you’re staying. My house was built, a long time ago, by a man named Wilbur. It’s changed hands several times since he died. When I describe to any local where I’m living, they squint, calculate, then exclaim, “Oh, you’re in Wilbur Jarvis’ house!” Recognising that it will always be his even if I live here till I’m 90, I’ve capitulated and named the house “Wilbur”, and had a stained-glass sign made up to that effect.
The other island habit that is so very familiar to anyone who’s lived in the Caribbean is the tendency to trace people through their relatives. “Oh yes, he’s Tom McDonald’s son,” they’ll say. “You know, Tom who works in the hardware store, grew up just west o’ here, his dad had that dairy farm down by the river. His mum used to be a Campbell.” Tom’s son only really exists if everyone can pinpoint his provenance.
It may seem old-fashioned, but these are the pumpkin-vine links that bind communities together, creating a sense of collective responsibility. If you know that Tom’s old dad was a decent fellow, you can go ahead and trust the rest of the lineage.
Welcoming as everyone is, PEI – like any island – is, well, insular. Outsiders complain that, no matter how long they may live here, they will always be considered “CFAs”, which stands for “Come From Aways”. They find it difficult to break through the surface friendliness and penetrate the inner circle.
I understand, but am fairly unsympathetic. All small societies are self-sufficient and exclusionary by instinct. If you want to be part of them, you have to make the effort. Otherwise, folks will smile pleasantly and leave you alone.
Not wanting to spend a winter in solitude, I made the necessary effort. I joined a choir. I directed a play. I taught a night course. I may not be an Islander – ever – but they know who I am. I exist. Even if they don’t know my parents.