It’s a classic excuse: “We’ll start living our island dream when the kids are older.” But it’s no longer a viable one. Just ask Nicole Forbes. When she was only 5 months old, her parents moved her from Los Angeles to the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, where she learned early on the value of a small town and a nearby beach. We talked to Forbes, 24, to find out what emigrating to an island before preschool is like, and why it took four years of college in New Jersey (and four winters) to convince her that her parents had it right all along.
What was it like growing up as an expat on St. Croix? Probably like growing up anywhere else, except that you’re surrounded by water. We went to the beach every weekend and whenever we wanted. We toured all of the plantation ruins on the island. My sisters, who were born on the island, and I would explore the outdoors, and we learned the names of the plants and animals here. The best part then and now is that I get to live other people’s dreams. People wait their whole lives to retire to an island, and I got to grow up here.
So what then made you decide to leave the island and go off to college on the U.S. mainland? In high school, I couldn’t wait to “get off the rock.” I felt that the States had everything I wanted — shopping malls, big cities, more people, bigger salaries and cheaper things. Going away to school was going to be my big break.
But why choose a school in New Jersey of all places?I realized that if I went to school anywhere but New Jersey or New York, where my extended family is, I wouldn’t have anyone to visit during breaks. It’s a little expensive to travel home to St. Croix for the weekend!
When did you realize that mainland life wasn’t for you and you wanted to come back to the island?Does “as soon as I left” count? I knew right away that New Jersey was not the place where I wanted to put down roots. While I was there, I had to adjust to people thinking I was crazy when I said “good morning” to them. I like that when I’m on St. Croix I can start conversations with strangers in line at the bank. When I see someone at the store, I can stop to ask how their family is doing. I like that if someone needs help, the community comes together. I remember when my dog ran away last summer. I sent an e-mail asking friends and neighbors to keep an eye out for him. I got tons of e-mails from people feeling my pain and anxiety. We did find him, too, because of the community’s involvement. Sure, things can be hard sometimes, but there’s just a way of life down here that I appreciate. Also, I cannot stand a day colder than 75 degrees.
Having returned to St. Croix, what do you think are the challenges of living on an island?When we have a hurricane, we can’t leave and go to a neighboring state, and the power can take weeks or months to come back on. We don’t have Target or Super Wal-Mart or even a Starbucks. Another difficult part is dating — a little hard to do when you’ve known everyone since first grade.
Still, the good aspects of island life must have outweighed the bad ones because you came back.When I left for college in 2002, I realized that my parents moved me to St. Croix for a reason; it really is a great place to live. I know that I have a better quality of life living here than I ever would have on the mainland. On the other hand, my time in New Jersey was good because I was able to focus on my education and know that at the other end of the tunnel was graduation and the freedom to come back home. I thought that the States would be more enlightened, more modern, further ahead. In some ways they were, and in other ways, they weren’t. Instead of wishing we had a Starbucks, I found myself wishing there wasn’t one on every corner. And I wanted to go to the beach.
Was the beach the thing you missed most about St. Croix? The beach was a great part of my life on the island, but I missed my family the most. It’s really hard to grow up with two sisters and then leave one day for four years and not see them daily. I saw them on some breaks, but I missed them a lot.
What about the culture? Did you miss any of St. Croix’s traditions? When I came home to visit three years ago, I immediately went to eat at my favorite local restaurants that served conch, rice and beans, patés, stewed chicken and johnnycakes. I also missed the Crucian dialect spoken here, which I am so accustomed to. While I was gone I had to hear about St. Croix’s art shows and Jump Ups (the island’s quarterly street parties) from my friends still on the island.
What’s life like now that you’re back?I came back to St. Croix with a B.A. in English literature, and I eventually became a marketing coordinator for a great company on the island. Now I rent a home with my boyfriend in an area called Mount Pleasant East. We have two cats, one dog and one fish. We live in a neighborhood that has three goats, peacocks, wild bunnies and chickens. It’s like a little farm. Both mine and my boyfriend’s parents live close to us. But I guess everything’s close on an 84-square -mile island.
Are you there to stay this time? I want to raise my family here on St. Croix. I want my kids to grow up the way I did. I want them to know the sand and surf, to understand ecology and how we affect the world, and for them to know what it feels like to be a minority. I’m proud to be an American, but I am also proud of being from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Plus, it’s a cool thing to throw out at cocktail parties.
Facts of Life
- Climate: Tropical
- Population of island: About 60,000
- Population of Christiansted, St. Croix: About 3,000
- House starting price: $150,000 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom house in Christiansted
- Main hospital: The Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center in Christiansted
- Price of a local beer: $3 for a Blackbeard Ale at Fort Christian Brew Pub
- Languages: English, Spanish and French
- Ease of immigration: Easy
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- Website: usvitourism.vi