Life on the Verandah
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Many of the homes I’ve lived in throughout my life have had porches or patios. They were, in my mind, a place to periodically gather friends and family for special events during the summer.
A holiday cookout or a birthday celebration might warrant the use of these spaces. For the most part, these patios and porches were placed on the back of the house, a retreat from the outside world.
First off, let me say that the area Americans refer to as “a porch” is called by the elegant name of “verandah” here in Jamaica. To me, the name reeks of upper crust, high class people…”Please, join me on the verandah”…and conjures up images of southern belles or Tuscan villas. I’m not certain why I think of it that way, but I do.
No matter what you call it, if kitchens are seen as the gathering spot in American homes, the verandah garners that title in Jamaica. It seems that it is THE place to meet and greet. They aren’t hidden away on the back the house but are front and center, where one can sit and watch the world go by.
Most of the time, when I’m in Jamaica, I’m sharing the house with my Jamaican-American friend, Julie. Known as “Miss Julie” by locals and “Auntie Julie” by family members, she grew up right here in town and is related to probably 80% or more of the people that live here.
If the person passing by the gate or coming to visit isn’t a relative, they are usually somebody that Julie helped to raise or put through school or helped out in some way. Pretty much EVERYONE seems to have a reason to come pay their respects and to catch up on life. If someone happens by on their own the first time, they are certain to return with children, grandchildren, husbands and wives the next time.
Making these re-commitments to their relationships periodically seems to be of extreme importance to Jamaicans and I admire that.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, on any given day, Julie might have a dozen or more people show up at the gate to ask “A wah gwaan?” (How are you?) Julie will smile and call back that she’s doing well and will ask them to come onto the verandah and “sit a bit.”
This is usually the launch pad for a very long exchange, during which, Julie is caught up on all of the latest information about who has died, gotten married, had babies or moved away. Most people mentioned in the discussion will likely invoke a series of funny stories and recollections of days gone by.
I see this storytelling as a way to pass on of the rich history of a country like Jamaica and it can be quite fascinating.
Because a large percentage of Jamaicans migrate “a foreign” (abroad to Canada, England or the USA), their visits home are a chance to reconnect with their roots. It’s seen as very rude to pass by the home of a returning relative and not stop in to chat. In a town like mine, with a hometown girl like Julie living here, I joke that I need to put in a revolving gate to accommodate the steady stream of visitors.
It’s seriously like living with the Queen of England, where all of Queen Julie’s loyal subjects must come and pay homage to her, even while she sits in her pajamas! Meals are put on hold, sleep is interrupted and all work ceases to make time for this ritual. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.
No matter how much time is spent at our house with visitors hanging out on the verandah, chatting about grandbabies, local news and such, this use of the verandah is eclipsed by the importance of playing bingo and dominoes.
Dominoes are played in Jamaica as seriously and ruthlessly as if it were a national sport. I never even knew there were actual strategies to playing dominos until I came here. You can hear the dominos being SLAPPED onto the tables all over town at pretty much any time of day, well into the evenings. The “slap, slap, slap” is usually surrounded in silence, followed by a loud outburst of laughter mixed with a few patois expletive deleted.
I had my first taste of it a few nights ago when Julie, “Scooter Man,” and I broke out the dominoes for the first time. I hadn’t played dominoes since I was a small child and had no recollection of the rules so Julie carefully explained it to me and we began to play.
Within a few “hands,” I was beating them two of out of every three games. They were teasing me that I was some sort of domino shark, just pretending to not know how to play! I will probably never live it down, as it’s a story that they’ve both told over and over again.
I often find it hard to drag Julie off of the verandah, even at dusk, when the mosquitos are trying to carry her off.
Like most Jamaicans, she simply HAS to keep an eye on who is passing by, usually calling out to those she knows and questioning whomever is sitting with her as to who any stranger passing by might be. It usually turns out to be not a stranger, but someone she helped care for as a baby but they are grown up and she doesn’t recognize them.
I marvel at her ability to recall family names, places they lived, when they died and even their jobs, yet she can hardly find the glasses that are sitting on top of her head!
I’ve often said that we most easily remember things that touch us emotionally and forget those that don’t. Listening to Julie reminisce about the life she knew here hammers that point home.
In between visitors, and sometimes, right in front of them, lest we starve, we enjoy taking our meals on the verandah. The house tends to hold the heat and, even with fans blowing, it always seems to0 hot and stuffy to eat inside. Besides, if we eat inside, we risk snooping on who is walking by with whom. We wouldn’t want THAT to happen!
Everyone loves the verandah, even our puppy, Marley. The cool tile floor, the shade and the breezes seem to bring on the sleepiness in him. Many times a day we lose track of him, only to find him blissfully snoozing under a bench or laid up against the verandah wall, rolled onto his back with his legs splayed, as if even he needs to cool his belly down.
At the end of the day, when the last visitors have left and the games are put away, Julie and I often sit on the verandah in the cool evening air and discuss the events of the day. It’s a great spot to wind down and clear your mind of clutter. I will always cherish these times on the verandah with my dear friend, Miss Julie.
If you would like to read more about transitioning into life in Jamaica as an American, check out this post!
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