The Island, Part 2: Reign of Fire

In Part 1 I provided a very basic introduction to my island, but I failed to share with you any of the true wonders. You may not have understood what the appeal for such a place is, but for me, no place could be better.

On this small, roughly kidney bean shaped island, only the inner-most curve is inhabited. This inward curve provides some element of protection from the harsh ocean, making it the best place for the harbor (which is also protected by a smaller un-inhabited island opposite it). The outer curve of the island is all tall, jagged cliffs – hardly hospitable living conditions. Along the inner curve of the island runs “Main Street”. I call it such, even though it has no name and is naught but a dirt road, because is pretty much connects everything. The part of Main Street that is closest to the harbor is “Downtown,” where all the stores are. There isn’t much by way of stores. There are a couple of souvenir shops, an art gallery (the island is, after all, an artist colony), a pizza place (non-kosher) slash mini-market (it used to only be a pizza place, but when the Island Market went out of business and became a souvenir shop, someone had to take over the food selling business), a small fresh-produce store, a fish market, a tiny post office and a couple of inns. On one edge of Downtown stands the library and the one-room schoolhouse, and on the other side of Downtown stands the Island church.

Fifteen years ago, when I first went to the island, electricity was a rarity. Places in the center of town of course had – how else would the milk in the mini-market keep? But as you moved father out towards the edges of Main Street, electricity became rarer and rarer. (I used to use the computers in the library about once a week to check my email.) Further along Main Street – past Downtown in either direction – are more residential areas. Just off the road at the southern end of Main Street is where our house stands. As such, fifteen years ago the only electrified object in the house was a land-line phone. Yes, there was plumbing (that seems to be everyone’s first concern), but we had no microwave, TV or internet, and the fridge and oven both ran on gas. Much like in the good ole’ days, it was light so long as the sun was up, and when the sun set there was darkness. Still, even back then there were ways of bringing light into the darkness. Each room in the house had at least one gas lamp hanging on the wall. At nights I would leave my bedroom window open, allowing the sounds of the ocean waves to wash over me, as well as the cool night breeze. I would then light up a gas lamp and bask in its warmth while curled up under my blanket for a good read. For those of you who have never seen a lit gas lamp, the gas tends to pulse, causing the lamp to flicker, growing dimmer and then lighter every so often. The flickers cast interesting shadows on the wooden walls of my bedroom, allowing my imagination to push its limits. Once I turned off the gas lamp for the night and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I would fall asleep while gazing out at the starry night sky. (Having no street lamps is such a blessing.)

A Kerosene Lamp

The other things we used to light up the house at night were kerosene lamps. In case you have never seen one of these in use, they generally consist of a glass bowl, which is filled with lamp oil, into which a wide cloth wick is placed, held by a contraption that allows it to be raised higher or lower into the oil. A glass chimney is then placed around the flame, sending out a healthy glow that will provide light as far as a few feet away.

During weeknights my family would gather around the dining room table with a couple of lit kerosene lamps to play any number of card or board games prior to reading and going to sleep. It’s amazing how entertaining non-TV evenings can be. (Ok, we weren’t completely TV-less. In the house we found a solar-powered mini-TV. By mini-TV I mean that the screen was roughly 1.5 inches in size after a magnifying lens was placed over it. And as it was solar-powered, on cloudy days there was no reception, and even on sunny days it was difficult for the antenna to find anything. I think with my brothers’ tampering we managed to watch maybe a couple of episodes of The Simpsons one summer, but for the most part we were TV-less.)

On Shabbat we had bigger issues. We could, in theory, leave the gas lamps on for a full 25 hours, but we would likely drain the gas tanks at that rate, and being the somewhat money-conscious people that we are, we decided not to risk that. Our only other option was to fill the kerosene lamps as full as we could, which would generally provide at least one or two lamps still burning by the time Shabbat ended. In order to have enough light to have a nice Friday night meal, however, we would have to use any and all lamps we could find. Let me tell you, having tens of lamps lit with full bowls of oil scattered all over the house made the place look more like a cathedral than the home of an observant Jewish family. As the house was made entirely of wood, I think the landlord came to dread Shabbatot as the time when any stumble on our part could mean he’d lose a house. At the end of the day, I think it was for this reason that he finally decided to electrify the house.

So there it was. One summer (maybe our eighth?) we arrived in the house to find functioning electric outlets, an electric fridge, a microwave, a toaster oven, and electric lamps in each room. In some ways it was more convenient. We could use our computers (and thanks to my Dad’s tampering with the phone lines we would occasionally have internet), and we no longer had to fear burning down the house on Shabbat. (We couldn’t be bothered to kasher the microwave or toaster oven, so we never used those.) Still, in my bedroom late at night I’d light up my gas lamp and curl up on my bed underneath it with a good book. Nothing could have been more delightfully cozy.


2 responses to “The Island, Part 2: Reign of Fire

  • Erachet

    Anna! I didn’t know you have a blog. I remember hearing about your island back in the day, and this post was so beautiful! It reminded me of the book I Capture the Castle (if you haven’t read it, you should check it out). I hope you get to go back to your island soon!

    • Anna Cohen

      Hey! Mazal tov!
      Yeah, I’ve had a blog for the past 8 months or so, but due to a new job there was a period of about 3-4 months during which I didn’t post, but I’m back now!

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