Generation Emigration

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One last family Christmas in the Caribbean

Our family faced bereavements, redundancy and cancer diagnosis this year. After a challenging 12 months, we’re taking our teenagers for one last family Christmas in Martinique rather than making the trek back from Brussels to Dublin, writes Des Collins

Tue, Dec 18, 2012, 09:27

   

Our family faced bereavements, redundancy and cancer diagnosis this year. After a challenging 12 months, we’re taking our teenagers for one last family Christmas in Martinique rather than making the trek back from Brussels to Dublin, writes Des Collins

Des Collins with his daughter Emily

I have been packing since the first week in December. As the temperature in Belgium falls towards zero I am pulling shorts and sun hat out of the cupboards. I have spent hours Googling the Caribbean islands that I am hoping we can reach, and my daughters are fully expecting to swim with turtles.

It’s all a far cry from the early Christmases we spent after emigrating 16 years ago. We didn’t leave Ireland out of necessity. A career opportunity arose in the Japanese multinational company that I was working for in Ireland. Our three kids were under four years old, and my wife Susan and I were somewhat adventurous. We had met a few years earlier while enjoying our shared passion of that time, sailing. We never lost our love for sailing but raising young children, and living in Brussels away from the sea meant we could only sail when on summer visits to Cork, Galway or Dublin.

Sixteen years ago there was no Ryanair service from Belgium, and the duopoly of airlines flying to Ireland at that time charged us more than four hundred pounds per person to visit home. Regardless of the cost, the draw towards spending Christmas with our extended families was strong during those early years and we made the journey either by car, or later by plane.

Kids grow up, and as their needs and desires evolved, the idea of trekking across the UK in winter conditions, or flying with no baggage allowance seemed less and less attractive. So for a few years we went South to the Alps, where they learned to ski, and experienced a very different Christmas atmosphere.

Now, with Peter our oldest being 19, we recognize that it will be difficult to have Christmases and vacations together from now on. His thoughts and those of Emily and Lucy his 16 and 15 year old sisters, are focused on activities that don’t include Susan and myself.

I was determined to have (at least) one last big family trip together, but it would need to be something that would attract the interest of the teenagers too. I had a long held dream to sail in the Caribbean. I had visited some of the islands in the past and enviously looked out from the shore at the sailing boats on the turquoise ocean. One day, I promised myself, I will be there. It didn’t take long to convince Susan, except that she rightly pointed out that we couldn’t afford it. But I had prepared my reasoning, and soon got past the financial objections.

The last two years had been very tough for us. Following illnesses, both our fathers died within four days of each other. A week later Susan got the most unwanted result from a routine breast cancer screening, and the following months were prioritized for her surgery and treatment. When Susan got the all clear, we thought the bad times were over, but then in a company restructure I lost my job. Even after 16 years living away from Ireland and our families, it really hits home when we need their support but they are too far away.

The past year has been a year of big changes. I like to consider that I had six months sabbatical leave. It was a time to take stock and re-evaluate our lives and our goals. The Irish economic situation made it almost impossible for a returning emigrant in his 50s to find a job, and we didn’t want to break the children’s education if we could avoid it. I spent the time writing a book, and in talks with a company that wanted to employ me. I started a new career on August 1st, which allowed me to stay in Brussels and we have re-settled after our tsunami.

We deserve our Christmas treat. Together with two friends from France, we are chartering a Catamaran in Martinique and will sail south to St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and if all goes to plan we will swim with turtles at Tobago Cays on Christmas day. No turkey or plum pudding, do I care? If the telephone signal works we will Skype our Mothers and siblings. For myself, I will enjoy the warmth of the Caribbean, a little local rum and Creole food. Combine that with the warmth of being together as an immediate family and several dreams come true.

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