We returned to British Virgin Islands today after just over a week in the UK. After having lived in the Caribbean for over a year, we reacted with childish glee to the availability of what to most people would be fairly quotidian items (scotch egg, anyone?). So how do two former Englishers treat themselves when back in their former home?
My brother looked at me in disbelief when I reported that on day 1 in London we had dined at…. Pret A Manger and MacDonalds. Surprisingly, there are no fast food chains at all in the British Virgin Islands. Some people actually travel to another country (the United States Virgin Islands) to get a KFC bucket. The call of a big mac after months without seeing the golden arches is strong.
That’s not to say we weren’t drawn to more cosmopolitan choices. On a cab ride through Soho I exclaimed, provincially, at pretty much every restaurant we passed: “oh look, a Malaysian restaurant!… Wow, look, Indonesian food!… hey, look there, it’s a place that sells ONLY DONUTS!…” etc. etc.
This is what we went for in the limited time available:
Home cooked roast dinner: self explanatory and not to be missed. Perhaps unusually for April, we had a full-scale Christmas Dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, because I had missed Christmas this year and my mum is a DARLING.
Negronis, Scotch whisky: when one is tired of rum punch, one is tired of life (said no one, ever).
Sushi delivery: sushi is available on Tortola but the restaurants in general do not deliver. I was very impressed by Sushi 54 delivering sushi, which I fear is equivalent to being bowled over by the fact that Thai food is now readily available in London. I am officially now small town.
Ramen: completely unavailable on Tortola.
Seafood: it might surprise you to learn that there is a limited selection of fresh fish in BVI. Generally wahoo or mahi-mahi is served in a burger, or grilled with rice and peas… there are no massive seafood platters of fresh prawns etc. as you might expect. So oysters and Dover Sole at Rick Stein’s restaurant in Barnes were a real treat. If I had had more time I would have gone to Sweetings with my old boss on Friday lunchtime for a prawn cocktail and fish lunch.
Scotch egg and a pint: there is nothing approaching a real pub in the BVI. While I love tucking into a rum cocktail on a sultry Caribbean night, one of the things I miss the most is a cold pint on a balmy English afternoon (though on this trip it was more IPA and log fire territory).
Bread: the most readily available bread here is the sugary American stuff. Being able to get decent bread was a joy.
Fish and chips: yes, we are that clichéd.
After a long spell away from London, I was taken aback by the vast array of things there are to buy. In fact the choice almost makes it harder to shop. It’s like a sensory overload. Apart from a tummy bug, a cold sore, and a depleted bank balance, here is what this island dweller brought back with her:
Perfume: a present from Mr On-An-Island, Le Labo Thé Noir 29 is advertised as featuring “permanent oscillation” between light and earthy scents, and “a dry, leafy, hay, tobacco feeling“. To me it just smells really, really cool. Like, as cool as you would expect a cool girl or gal wearing a leather jacket to smell. As cool as CK1 smelled back in year 9. Luckily it cannot be bought here as that would be ruinous for my finances. (I also have an obsession with anything that smells like a spa, which meant that on this trip I steered clear of Rituals, Neals Yard, Space NK etc. in an attempt to avoid personal insolvency.)
M&S black trousers and other conservative items: island girls are in luck if they are looking for neon, skin tight, floor sweeping or sparkly numbers. But a plain pair of black trousers… not so much. Honestly, you don’t know how lucky you are to just be able to buy a pair of black trousers whenever it takes your fancy without traveling to a different country. Ditto white shirts and plain blouses.
Foundation and moisturiser: it’s nice to have a change from the available brands (L’Oreal and Oil of Olay).
Magazines: my long-suffering other half no longer looks surprised when I gather armfuls of magazines at the first shop or service station we go to in the UK. And then proceed to check out the magazine shelf in every subsequent newsagent we enter. The only regular print publications are the weekly newspapers: the BVI Beacon and the Island Sun (well, excluding the odd advertising glossy such as ‘BVI Property and Yacht‘, not really aimed at my demographic…). No one imports magazines for sale here, so they are simply not available to buy. While we are avid readers of the local newspapers, it’s not exactly the same as relaxing in the bath with Grazia magazine, is it?
What do I wish I had bought?
Here are some things that I envy you city slickers being able to pick up on your lunch hour, but which I FOOLISHLY didn’t stock up on:
Stationery: yes, part of moving to paradise means giving up those dinky little post-it notes, beautiful coloured pens and affordable highlighters. Yes, there is some stationery here but there is not very much choice and it’s unbelievably pricy.
Knickers: Why oh why did I walk past the M&S three for two knickers stand? And I didn’t even pop into Victoria’s Secret. I am FILLED with regret.
Spices: even at the best of times you would struggle to get most of the items required in an Ottolenghi recipe here. Zero chance of za’atar, forget about fenugreek, say cheerio to chervil… well you get the idea. And post-hurricane the availability of spices has been reduced from ‘sparse’ to ‘dearth’, with the closure of the Sunny Caribbee Spice Company. I wish I had snuck a few packs of ground coriander, some mustard seeds and fenugreek leaves into my suitcase.
Greeting cards: I can’t recall the last time I received a greetings card bought on island without an accompanying apology for how terrible the card itself was. There are a few nice ones at a shop called House, but House is basically only open during office hours and its a bugger to park there. And so the ‘ironic’ giving of super tacky cards continues.
Good quality cotton buds: as Janis Joplin put it, don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. That includes a lovely Johnsons cotton bud.
And what else did we relish? Traveling on the bus (yes really), properly hot showers, fast internet speeds. But the best thing of all was seeing friends and family (with traveling on the bus a close second).
Although this post may just seem like a list of items that are hard to get on an island, the upshot of this is positive: I should try and appreciate small of things. What might seem everyday (i.e. access to post-it notes, a decent coffee) can feel like a real treat in different circumstances.