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Importing Love (It's Not What You Think)
By Jody Rathgeb
When you’re in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it can be hard to find the true local culture. Over the years the islands have borrowed from all their neighbors and influences: soca and steel drum from the Caribbean basin, boat design and Junkanoo from the Bahamas, Christmas pudding and a legal system from their English colonial past, and rap and gadgetry from their American tourists. Valentine’s Day is a particularly successful American import.
I first encountered the islanders’ love for this holiday about 20 years ago, when Tom and I went to Grand Turk, the islands’ capital, to complete our land registry. We traveled from North Caicos with our island neighbor, Wealthy Forbes, who would help us through the process while taking care of some of her own land. On the way from the airport to town, we stopped at the home of Wealthy’s daughter to pick up some paperwork.
We were shown into the dining room to wait while they searched for the misplaced paper. I was stunned. The tables, chairs—well, all available spaces—were covered with heart-shaped boxes and heart-printed mugs, bouquets of artificial roses and teddy bears of all sizes and cuteness. Everything was red or pink and lacy. It looked like an 18th-century fop had gotten a nosebleed.
It turned out that the daughter ran a gift shop on Grand Turk and was stocking up for her coming Valentine’s Day rush. And it wasn’t an anomaly. In subsequent years, even the quiet out island of North Caicos would catch the fever of forced romantic sentiment on Feb. 14. Today, you would have to go to unpopulated East Caicos to get away from the dinner specials, lingerie ads, chocolate and fashion fundraisers and frazzled florists.
Fueling all this spending in the name of love are the island women. “You can forget a woman’s birthday around here, but you don’t forget Valentine’s!” warns one North Caicos man. Nor is one gesture—a box of candy, say, or a dinner out—sufficient. “No, you get chocolate and a gift and flowers and take her to dinner. And you have roses sent to her at work, too, so that the other women see.”
If his words and tone sound decidedly unsentimental, consider the scoffing from another man: “Hah! Valentine’s Day, they don’t know anything about it. They just want to get things like in the U.S.”
I doubt that either man would say such things to his sweetheart. And the generalizations are unfair; some island women, like some American women, don’t think twice about the holiday. No, the importation of Valentine’s Day in the islands has been complete, including those who love love, those who love money, and those who love to stir up the pot. What a sentimental journey it has been!
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