Category Archives: My Island

The Island, Part 4: The Perfect Storm

The summer has arrived, and with it the longing for My Island, which I am once again unable to visit this year.

In the last post I wrote from the “My Island” series, I wrote about the ever-changing weather that visits the island. Everything from fog and light showers to both cloudy and cloudless days. Oh, and the storms. What storms…

Storms on an island are quite different from storms inland, especially when your cottage is just above the water line. During storms, the wind blows so fiercely and the waves reach such heights that when the waves finally crash down, you can feel it in the ground. One storm, the winds were so strong that they tore the cable connecting some poor fisherman’s buoy to its lobster trap deep in the ocean, and once the storm passed, I found the buoy washed up on the rocks by our cottage. (I even took it back with me to New York, as there was no way of knowing how far away it came from, and therefore who it belonged to.) But the wind doesn’t only work wonders by sea (or ocean, as the case may be). You can see seagulls fighting against the wind, either struggling just to hover in one place, or even be pushed backward. And on land, the wind will blow away anything not tied down. In our little cottage, the glass window panes rattle so loudly during storms that it’s a wonder none of them ever broke during our time there.

It usually stinks being cooped up inside on a rainy day, but storms on My Island are an adventure I can go on without leaving the couch. They always start with dark clouds rolling in from afar. I’d try to guess how soon it would be until the storm was upon us, but I never seemed to have a knack for it. The winds would start picking up and before I knew it, the clouds were above us. And then I’d snap out of it and suddenly realize that there were things to do! I’d run out to the deck, fold up the reclining lawn chairs and rush them inside, so as to protect the fabric from getting wet (there’s little in the world as annoying as sitting down on a lawn chair just to hear a squish and know that your bottom is soaked). Then I’d rush back out and quickly turn over the plastic table and chairs against the wind so they wouldn’t be blown off the deck. By that time a light drizzle would begin to fall and I’d quickly rush back inside, missing the sudden downpour by mere seconds. Then I’d settle in for the show.

The show actually starts long before the storm clouds are above us. It begins when the storm is still a ways off and it is unclear whether or not the winds will blow it in our direction or if we’ll be spared its wrath. At that point the beautiful phenomenon of rain clouds appearing to cry into the ocean would usually be visible. (If you don’t have any clue what I’m talking about, take a look at the “Rainy Day” pictures from my last post in this series.) The rain clouds, which are so thick and heavy on top, seem to turn into nothing more than wisps of cloud dancing across the horizon. And then, if the winds do favor us with a storm, there’s the sensation of impending doom as these dark, heavy clouds come rolling in from afar at varying speeds, nothing obstructing our view, what with endless ocean for miles and miles. (Pictures of this can also be seen in the last post.)

Once the storm is upon us, the real fun begins. Lightning, the likes of which this city girl hasn’t seen anywhere else. Forks of brilliant light sizzling down from above, lighting up the heavens and the earth as if it were the middle of the day (which sometimes it was, but you wouldn’t know that with such thick clouds blocking out the sun). Sometimes nature would freeze during a flash of lightning, as if waiting for some lucky photographer to snap a picture of it. (Regretfully, I couldn’t tear my eyes away long enough to release the shutter, so I have no photo evidence of this.) And sometimes there would be simultaneous flashes of lighting viewable from different directions. I often do two things when the lightning flashes: I hold my breath for the duration of the flash (which sometimes seemed endless), and I count the seconds before the thunder rumbles. Much like in a horror movie, the suspense builds as the time between lightning and thunder lessens, knowing full well that one of these times the storm will be directly above us. To make matters more frightening, as the storm gets closer, the thunder often goes from a low, distant rumbling to a deafening crack loud enough to leave my ears ringing for minutes. But just as quickly as the storm comes on, it leaves, the only hint of it ever having happened being the light pitter-patter of rain slowly passing onward as well. Ah, such beauty.

And now for an entertaining story – the one time I was caught outside during a storm (ok, ok, maybe not the only time, but those stories will have to wait for another post), and just my luck! It was 3 storms colliding together right above My Island!

One summer when I was still a little girl, I went up to My Island to join my grandparents for a week before my parents joined. During that time, a notice was posted on the old rope shed on “Main Street,” where all sorts of island news were posted (much like a Facebook wall nowadays), that there was to be a concert in the one-room school-house one night that week. My grandmother and I decided to go. As we left the cottage, it looked as if it might start raining, so taking our umbrellas, we trekked the entire length of “Main Street” from the end with our cottage to the other end with the one-room school-house. I don’t remember much about the concert. There was a guy with a guitar. Maybe it was a girl. Maybe there were other instruments, maybe not. I found the storm brewing outside to be much more entertaining. And over the next couple of hours, the storm itself was fabulous. But the evening passed and the concert ended, leaving everyone to find their way home on the dark, lampless dirt roads.

We stepped outside, umbrellas at the ready, waiting to be battered in the face with stinging pellets of rain, but nothing happened. No rain was falling. In fact, surrounding us was an eerie calm. We were in the eye of the storm. With the lightning lighting up the clouds and the thunder rumbling deeply, we took advantage of the break from rain and tried to make our way home as quickly as possible. It was difficult making our way by flashlight on a muddy dirt-road riddled with gigantic puddles. It would have been fun for me, jumping in all those puddles, had it not been so eerily calm. No one else walked the roads, no dogs were barking. My overactive imagination was going to some very scary places when all of a sudden we heard some laughter further on up the road. The road curved a few feet ahead of us, so we couldn’t see what was going on, but just as we knew that there were people up ahead, they soon knew we were approaching as well.

“I see flashlights! Quick, hide!” one person yelled.

The others all listened, but not before we turned the curve. In the beam of our flashlight we saw a small group of teenagers jumping behind trees and into bushes. But there was something strange about these teenagers. They were all wrapped in bed sheets. It would seem as though they went out for a little daredevilish fun, skinny dipping in the ocean during the storm, grabbing the sheets off their motel beds as their only covers.

As if it wasn’t embarrassing enough, my grandmother looked out at all these young’uns wearing sheets and said with complete delight, “Oh! A toga party!”


The Island, Part 3: House of Sand and Fog

Weather men can rarely be taken seriously. How many times have we each heard that “today will be a sunny day” only to wish later on that we had taken an umbrella? And what does “There is a 50% chance of rain today” mean? It sounds like an intelligent way of saying, “We have no clue what the weather will be like today, so let’s cover out butts and sound intelligent while saying nothing significant at all.” This mindset gave birth to the popular phrase “Blame it on the weatherman” – yes, like the hit song by B*Witched.

I, too, used to blame the weatherman.

Ok, I still do.

But at least now I have a greater appreciation for how unpredictable the weather can be. (Depending on the place in question, of course. Naturally, I expect the weather man to pick up on a rainfall in Israel in the middle of August.)

The reason I can now sympathize with the weatherman: My Island.

My Island can show a mix of sunshine, clouds, light showers, thunder storms and fog all over the course of one day, any/all day(s) of the week. Here’s an example:

I’d wake up one morning to find a very thick fog outside my window. Deciding that it is not ideal weather for a day spent outside, I’d sleep in, only to wake up a few hours later to discover that it has turned into a beautiful, sunny day, perfect for all outdoor activities. I’ll quickly get dressed, daven, eat a late breakfast and head out to start a nice hike around the island. Halfway through the hike, the heavens will open and drench me. I’ll find the closest path, branching off and leading me through the woods into town for my quickest route back home. By the time I hit “Main Street,” the rain is falling so intensely that each drop on my arm stings and burns. I’ll dry off at home and curl up with a book for the rest of the afternoon, watching the storm pass over the island. By dinner time the storm has passed and all that remains of it is a scattering of clouds, causing one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. By the time I curl up in bed and turn out my gas lamp, the clouds have all dispersed and I have the most exquisite view of the stars in the sky.

Of course, there are some days of pure sunshine and others that are the classic rainy day, but for the most part each day is a mix of two or more weather patterns. Sometimes an entire week will be overcast, whereas the week leading up to it will have been the most beautiful week the island has ever seen. This creates a problem for day trippers and people who stay overnight. Should they bring hiking clothes, planning to be outdoors most of the time? Or an umbrella and rain boots so they can move freely around town and the artists’ studios in the rain? During the three weeks that my family stays on the island we like to invite family friends to stay by us for at least one of those weeks. If someone were to invite me for only one week, I’m not sure I’d accept. You could get stuck indoors the whole time. At least with three weeks you’re likely to get at least one full day of each weather type. I wouldn’t want to pass any of them up. Here’s why:

Sunny Day

The Sunny day allows you to do anything you might want to do outside. Some things are necessary to do outside, such as hanging up freshly laundered clothes to dry and food shopping. On a sunny day we’ll likely do a BBQ for dinner. And depending on your mood you can either chase the sun across the sky in a reclining lawn chair on the house’s wrap around deck, or you can venture forth into town and beyond. On some sunny days I’ll want to stay closer to home – maybe build sand sculptures on the tiny beach, watch artists on “Main Street” painting, go up to the island’s museum and lighthouse for the best view of the whole island, watch people fishing at the dock, or climb down onto the rocks in front of our house and watch the tides come and go.

Other sunny days I’ll leave the house in the morning and return in time for dinner, spending the entire day hiking in the forests and on the cliffs, taking an occasional break to eat the sandwiches I packed for lunch, read a book, photograph the beauty around me or play my recorder while surrounded by nature. If I feel the need to get farther away, I can always take the ferry tour around the island, or row a boat to the smaller island, adjacent to the harbor and trek around there for a few hours. Clear skies make for pretty average sunsets, but also the best stargazing at nights.

Cloudy Day
Cloudy days are most likely to have a short sun shower, but they are also good days for doing outdoorsy things. I might be less inclined to do activities that are meant for soaking up the sun, such as spending time on the beach or going out on the water. Cloudy days are actually great days for either sitting on the deck and reading while enjoying a great breeze, or hiking out to the cliffs for a nice place to sit and think or read or play a recorder without it being too hot. The evenings where the clouds are present but not thick make for the best sunsets.

Rainy Day
Days with light showers are probably the most annoying (and some summers can be the most frequent). Since it generally won’t be raining all day long, it’s enough to make you wary about leaving the house, and if you are already out of the house it will leave you looking for shelter elsewhere. Once, while out on a hike along the cliffs, I found shelter in a dense part of the forest inland a bit, where the humidity from the rain locked in about a million mosquitoes with me. Yeah, a bit unpleasant. But if I’m fortunate enough to still be at home when it starts raining, I’m in for some real treats. Since I’ve lived in cities all my life, rain clouds were never particularly special, but on this island they are a source of true beauty. The best way I can think to describe it is by quoting a verse from Sefer Bereishit (Genesis) about the second day of creation:

G-d said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.” G-d made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. G-d called the expanse Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. (Translation taken from the JPS Tanach)

When the rain clouds hang low enough, you can see the wisps of rain as extensions of the clouds as they touch the ocean. True beauty indeed. Additionally, unless the rain clouds are very dense, there will likely be a beautiful sunset, perhaps even an exceptional one with the rain-cloud-touching-ocean phenomenon.

Light rain at sunset

Stormy Day
Stormy days on My Island are probably the most exciting kind of day to have, although too many in one summer can be a bit bumming. On stormy days you don’t venture outside for the most part. You may, in the morning, venture out to the deck to either bring in or tie down the lawn chairs, plastic chairs and plastic table, because if you were to leave them as they are, you will most likely find that they have either been blown into your neighbor’s lawn or blown out to sea. Right now it must seem horrifying, so what makes it so exciting? Everything else. The waves during a storm can reach huge heights, and as our house is located on the ocean front, the view of the waves is superb. Another reason why storms are super-exciting is due to the view. You can see a storm coming in when it is still miles away, with no buildings or gigantic trees blocking your view. And once it hits, there’s no better place to have a front row seat to a crazy lightning show than sitting on the couch in the living room in our house on My Island, looking out of one of the two large picture windows that the living room boasts.

View of a serious storm approaching from the front deck at sunset

A slightly less severe storm approaching late afternoon

During the height of the storm, the glass window panes rattle as the wind shrieks by, and the wooden house shakes. During the eye of the storm, the world is eerily calm. Still, there are dull moments – after all, the storm generally doesn’t last all day. The rest of the day could be cloudy, rainy, windy, or even sunny (albeit less likely). So a stormy day requires indoor, rainy day activities. Since for most of our summers there we had no electricity, we didn’t have to worry about the storm short-circuiting our computers and such, but it also meant that we couldn’t spend the whole rainy day inside watching TV. So what do you do? To each their own. My mom, for one, preferred to paint and work on various crafts projects that she’d bring up with her to the island from year to year. My dad would read all day, getting up periodically to watch the storm. Me? I’m a puzzle person. Each summer I’d bring up a 1,000 piece puzzle to complete over those three weeks either during indoor days or in the evenings. (Although, like my dad, I’d also takes break to read and just gaze out the windows.)

Our dog never liked storms much. He’d whine and hide under the table or desk in whichever room had more family members in it. When the storm would get really bad, we’d all gather in the living room to watch it, and our poor, frightened dog would get a headband placed over his floppy ears to block out the sound of the thunder (it just goes to show how scared he was that he never tried to force it off his head), and be fed a spoonful of peanut butter to glue his mouth shut so he’d whimper less (peanut butter also seemed to soothe him a lot). If we happened to have guests over for a week during which time we had a storm, we’d likely spend the evening hours watching the storm with a fire in the fireplace, playing a fun party game such as Taboo or Cranium (and occasionally Scrabble). All in all, a fun, cozy, exciting and yet relaxing day.

“Fist of G-d” cloud about to pound us with stormy weather

Foggy Day
On a foggy day, my dad will never fail to mention the famous British newspaper headline from G-d knows when stating “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off,” and rightfully so. The fog on my island can be extremely odd and quite amusing at times. The first time I encountered it was my first summer on the island when I was nine years old. I went on a hike not far from the house with some assortment of family members, venturing forth into a fog so thick that you could only see a few feet ahead of you. We were hoping to see the famous shipwreck beached on one tip of the island. I’ll never forget the way the fog parted as we approached it, revealing out of nowhere this rusted over ghost ship. First thought that entered into my overactive mind: Eek, pirates! We’re all gonna die! (This was, after all, pre-Johnny-Depp-as-a-pirate era.) The ship was nothing more than a medium-sized fishing vessel, but I was tiny at the time and the ship seemed huge. I have since taken to going down there with my camera on foggy days, hoping to capture the eeriness of it all, but the fog never cooperates, acting a different way each time.

From the deck of our house, we have a perfect view of the smaller island across from us. On really clear days you can see as far as the mainland. On foggy days, however, you sometimes can’t even see past the front yard. Other times, the fog is really low hanging, so it looks as if the island opposite us is floating on a cloud of mist. And yet other times, when the fog isn’t hanging as low, only the base of the island across from us is visible. Sometimes the fog is so dense that it’s hard to breathe, and yet other times it will be so light as to wisp away at your merest breath. Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

Fog creeping in

No matter what weather the island experiences, there’s always what to enjoy about it (although it can be rather upsetting when you plan the day before to go hiking, only to wake up to mud and rain). As always, too much of anything is undesirable, but thankfully three weeks each summer is generally enough time to enjoy at least one day of each type of weather.

And in the end, who can blame the weatherman with weather as unpredictable as that?

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.

The Island, Part 1: Welcome

Ever since I began writing my blog half a year ago, I’ve been avoiding writing about my island. Some things are just so close to the heart that no matter how well you write, nothing can do these memories justice. Still, it would be a bigger crime to refrain from sharing these memories with you. I will be attempting to do this phenomenon justice by writing about different aspects of it in a series of posts.

I call it a phenomenon simply because it is more than an experience, a place, a time. It’s a state of mind, only not.

Welcome to my island.

My grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary when I was 9 years old. As lovers of world travel, they decided to celebrate their landmark by inviting the whole family to join them in their favorite of all travel spots. That summer was the first time I ever stepped foot on my island. Joined by my grandparents, aunt and uncle, parents, brothers and dog, we managed the 8 hour drive plus the hour-long ferry ride.

About now you’re probably waiting for me to mention the name of said island. Well, it won’t happen. Not now, not later. I could make something up about keeping the name of the island secret so as to create an air of mystery that will draw you further into the story, or perhaps simply to preserve some of this island’s magic for myself. The truth is much less satisfying. Back when I was 9 years old, part of the island’s allure was that is was practically unknown to the world. My family got in the habit of not mentioning the island’s name to keep it from becoming a more popular tourist location. Years later, after many publications about this island (including at least one article in National Geographic), the island is hardly a secret anymore. Still, old habits die hard.

(Side note: If you’re REALLY interested in the name, I’m sure you’ll be able to puzzle it together eventually with the help of the internet.)

The island is roughly kidney bean shaped, under two miles long and under one mile wide, sitting roughly 10 miles out to sea. It is a year-round home to under 100 individuals, growing in population to around 1,000 over the summer (tourist season). This provides the basis for the island hierarchy…

Those who reside there year-round make the top rung of society. After the island elite are those families and individuals who live there semi-annually from Memorial Day through Labor Day (the warmer months when the island isn’t covered in snow and surrounded by frozen ocean). Following them are the families that return every summer to rent for a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Lastly are the day-trippers who arrive on the first ferry in the morning and leave on the last ferry in the evening. To the native islander there is nothing more despicable than a day-tripper, and yet it’s the summer tourists who support the natives enough in the summer months to allow them to survive the rest of the year on the island.

One can easily pick out the native islanders from the tourists. Firstly, the natives don’t wear weird sun-hats, fanny packs, cameras with gigantic lenses around their necks, or carry a map of the island around with them everywhere. They also don’t wear high-heeled shoes. (Which is extremely impractical as there isn’t a single paved road on the whole island.) In fact, most island kids don’t wear shoes at all.

(On occasion you’d see a day-tripper get off the ferry with golf clubs asking for the nearest golf course. This was always a source of humor for my family. A golf course? On our rustic island?! Just goes to show, a number of years back one of the elderly islanders made a “mini-golf course” in his yard. Still, its use is more of a replacement for playing cards in the fish-house after hours, rather than brushing up on your swing.)

Anyway, my family fell into the second to lowest rung on the scale of island hierarchy. We began going up to the island around 15 summers ago (this would be the 16th), staying for roughly three weeks each time. At first we were no better than your average tourists, but over time people began to recognize us. By our seventh year or so, I no longer had to tell the grocer my last name for my family’s tab, the post office lady knew my family members, and people on the roads would nod their head at me in recognition. I tried my best to fit in as an island kid, walking barefoot on pebbles and broken glass (our gravel driveway at home helped me build up strong calluses throughout the year). I even made friends with a few of the actual island kids.

Last summer was the first summer in 15 years that I didn’t go to my island. The prices for renting have soared (thanks a lot, financial crisis), the dates for rental are less convenient, and now I have a significant other in my life, keeping me in Israel throughout the summer. I don’t mean to blame him – it’s not his fault. Last summer he simply didn’t have enough vacation days to make going up to the island a possibility. This year, now that I’m working too (and no longer a student with summer vacations), I also lack vacation days. Fortunately I was at least able to share my island with him during our first summer together. My island is such a part of who I am and where I come from that I can’t imagine not sharing it with him. Still circumstances change and it seems as if those wonderful summers from my past are in the past. But one way or another I will go back. Not this year, and probably not next, but it will happen. Of that I am confident.

In the meantime I’ll sustain myself with memories of a time when the grass was greener. With you as my guest, we’ll go back to that special place and relive the magic, not in a state of melancholy, but for the excitement and adventure of it all.

To pique your interest until the next post, here’s a digital storytelling about my time on my island that I made a number of years ago for a class project: