"This place is just like a tide," says the man waiting in front of me in a long line to pay our phone bills. "There's high and there's low."
Having lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the last 12 months (half year stints in St. Thomas and nearby St. John), I get his point. Sure, we're standing in a typical bureaucratic line. But we also get to see, from this vantage point, the incredible waters of St. Thomas harbor and the huge cruise ships that line the docks at Havensight.
The U.S. Virgin Islands offers an intriguing blend of the tropical exotica of the Caribbean and the more prosaic (and practical) American influences. We have gorgeous white sand beaches and a sea so blue and green that a friend once noted he'd "never seen so many shades of color." We live on island time, another zone in more ways than one. We still pause for cows and goats and boars that cross the road.
But we also live mainland style. We use American currency. Wendy's, McDonald's, Kmart, and Blockbuster have discovered St. Thomas (though not St. John). We can dine elegantly, sipping fine, imported wines. Most of the news channels on our cable system come from New York.
"Still, all in all," says Mary Bartolucci, a four-year resident who relocated from Baltimore to St. John, "living here is definitely more peaceful and simplistic." Mary's husband came for a job at a local resort, and she swears she'll never move again.
There is magic here. I love to watch the tropical rainstorms blow in, across the water. I take snorkeling trips on the spur of the moment, with companies that offer big discounts to locals. Even my daily drive to the market on St. Thomas is extraordinary, offering views of the Caribbean, St. John, and neighboring British Virgin Islands.
The U.S. Virgins attract folks from such "down island" locales as Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and Dominica. Their West Indian culture encourages many kindnesses. On the night before Hurricane Debby struck, my neighbor, Nevis-born Floretta Charles, came up to my terrace. We watched as ominous clouds obscured the stars. Floretta cracked jokes to make me laugh even as she double-checked my preparations.
And then there was the elderly gent at the Motor Vehicle Administration who dropped to his knees in the gravel parking lot to help me attach new license plates.
Yet, reality does find its way, with drugs, poverty, and crime (more on St. Thomas than St. John). A police blotter in St. John's Daily News ran: "A woman said that someone was picking coconuts from trees on her property without her permission."
"It's a different world," says Peter Briggs, owner of St. Thomas-based John Foster Real Estate. But it's the islands' eclectic atmosphere that draws and keeps people here. "People come and go from all walks of life," Peter says. "That's the key to enjoying it here: being able to open up and interact with people whether they've come from Europe, Wall Street, or another Caribbean island."
Just because you're living in vacationland doesn't mean you can lie on the beach all day sipping rum punch. Once, though, the Internet crashed island-wide, halting my research for a project. I could have spent the three days yelling and complaining, or I could have taken it as a sign and headed for the beach.
The secret to living here successfully is opting for the latter.